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WWE NXT recap, reactions, video highlights (Dec. 19, 2018): Magnum opus

For a more detailed recap, check our live blog here.

Dakota Kai & Io Shirai def. Jessamyn Duke & Marina Shafir via pinfall following a top rope moonsault from Shirai on Shafir. Matt Riddle is interviewed about Kassius Ohno’s blindside attack, and he dares Ohno to meet him face-to-face in the ring.

Not bad, I want to say Jessica and Mary?! Between glowing reports from the Florida faithful and word of a train wreck at the San Jose house show where they did some taping before TakeOver: WarGames 2, it was hard to tell what to believe. But the non-title holding half of the MMA Horsewomen looked pretty darn okay in their first televised outing. Sure, it was carefully structured, probably heavily rehearsed and didn’t call on them to do much more on offense than striking & basic power spots. But they didn’t screw any of that up! Shafir sold a standard Shirai finishing sequence... not at full speed, but even 34 speed is pretty impressive just months after inking your first pro wrestling contract.

They’ve got a good look - from the “Let’s Fight”/”Let’s Play” entrance t-shirts that serve as truth in advertising for their role as the henchwomen of Ronda Rousey & Shayna Baszler’s gang through to Duke’s more standard pro wrestling ring gear & Shafir’s hybrid gym outfit. You know Jessamyn is tall, but you don’t realize how tall until you see her standing across from someone of average height while wearing a bikini. Marina is a beautiful woman, and is willing to overexaggerate pretty much everything she does in a very pro wrestling way (her partner is more stone-faced, which works as part of a Harley & Ivy act).

We’re a ways away from them working ten minute Raw matches, but this was a nice start. Unfortunately, this program will need to be readjusted due to Kai’s injury. But hopefully Kairi Sane will be back by the next taping, and can fill in for a while.

It’s early days, but they’ve got to do something to help Shirai create her NXT character’s identity. Even her entrance music is pretty generic right now. She’s got to be under consideration as someone who could end Baszler’s run, but the basicness of her presentation makes me think it’ll be months before they do much more than put her in the mix (something they did in low-key fashion by adding her to next week’s #1 contender match later on this episode).

A fine opener that was more interesting as a peak at the development process than as a match in its own right, but that’s part of NXT’s charm.

Dominik Dijakovic def. Aaron Mackey after Feast Your Eyes. William Regal announces Shirai as the final entrant in next week’s Fatal 4Way to determine Women’s champion Shayna Baszler’s next challenger. Heavy Machinery def. These Guys via pinfall after a Double Compactor. Otis Dozovic & Tucker Knight staredown Undisputed ERA while dismantling the enhancement talent. We’re reminded they’ll challenge Roderick Strong & Kyle O’Reilly for the Tag Team titles next week.

Squashes! From dudes with Slavic name suffixes!

- If the sheer volume of letters wasn’t enough for you, Mauro Ranallo was pronouncing Dijak’s WWE surname as Die-jah-koh-vitch. I mean, by the time he gets to Raw or SmackDown they’ll probably just be calling him “Big D” or something, so it doesn’t matter. But why make it so difficult?

The big man was impressive dismantling poor Mr. Mackey. This was more one-sided than recent debuts for Keith Lee & Matt Riddle, but it probably needed to be seeing as some of us remember he already dropped matches to Ricochet and Velveteen Dream (unless that was a different 6’ 7” guy who said “Feast Your Eyes” and had Dijak in his last name). The call-up of EC3 & Lars Sullivan should create openings for Lee, Riddle & Big D.

- What little suspense there was to next week’s tag title match was removed when Dozer & Tucky were included in Monday’s “coming soon” video, but who knows if Triple H & team knew that when this batch of shows was taped? Regardless, this was a textbook way to build them up for the 26th. The ERA’s usual pattern of jumping their challengers had me thinking we might not even get a match here, so I was a little surprised when their challengers slid into the ring. That might have also been because they looked like two 14 year fans who’d jumped the barricade though.

We’ve seen the “steaks and weights” duo get angry before, but this systematic punishment - hitting their tandem finisher on both men before Dozovic picked them both up while Knight splashed onto his back - as they were glaring at Adam Cole & company added a welcome mean streak. They won’t be NXT Tag champs, but maybe they can be more than comedy all-stars at the next level...

Kyle’s still not impressed.

Johnny Gargano def. Aleister Black in a steel cage match via pinfall following Meeting in the Middle, performed with Tommaso Ciampa

Between the live blog and the breakout post on the closing angle, I’ve already dropped a ton of words on this... but I love it so much I’m sure I have a bunch more.

Let’s talk about the match itself, which will probably be overshadowed in my and a lot of other people’s memories by the possible first steps toward #DIY DARK - and that’s a shame, because it was a banger. I may have enjoyed it more than their much praised bout in Los Angeles last month, because it felt leaner. Maybe they were freed up knowing the ending was the narrative “Holy $#!+” moment, or perhaps it was because this didn’t carry the weight of being the payoff to the months long parking lot attack angle, or the pressure of happening on a TakeOver card. I’m not sure, and many of you probably won’t agree that it was better, so you don’t buy any of that. But to me this felt like a more concise story, and I really appreciated that.

They started fighting before the bell - before Black could even get to the cage, and continued before Gargano could even get his entrance gear off. That’s how you escalate from a WarGames 2 match many of us thought was a feud-ender (and what a match between two guys who hate each other should look like, Seth Rollins & Dean Ambrose).

It was a great use of a stipulation which is rarely done well, or logically. Gargano, who despite his repeatedly telling us otherwise is not currently the hero of this story, was the one who tried to win by escape at several points throughout the match. Black only tried to get to the door at the end when he was so exhausted and beaten up that he couldn’t return to his feet after hitting his own finisher and knew there was no way he could catch Johnny, who had a head start. The guy who is the hero only chose the less noble path to victory when it was the only one available to him.

Of course, it was also the one which led him right into Ciampa’s clutches and set-up the finish, which is another reason it was brilliant.

They also played with tropes like the brawl at the top of the cage, or the face losing his temper and handing the heel a win by punching/kicking/throwing them out the door, but tweaked them so they didn’t result in the cliches we often point to when explaining why modern cage matches suck. They used the cage and the possibility of escape to set up cool spots like this evasion->moonsault and this BONKERS cartwheeling powerbomb.

And then there’s the ending, which thanks to pitch perfect non-verbal performances from Johnny & Tommaso works even if you’re relatively new to NXT. Gargano (whose (over)acting has irked me in this program before) clearly and effectively conveys the conflict he’s going through. His fallout interview indirectly explains what happened when he changed his demeanor in the ring - he’s already blocked out the way he sold his soul to stay on the hero’s journey that’s currently happening in his mind. Ciampa’s smile is as good as a moustache twirl, with his former(?) partner’s moral collapse proceeding past where even he hoped & planned it might.

We’re left having experienced a satisfying beat in the ongoing saga of these broken brothers, but with more questions than answers about the future. Exactly what you want from a show that never ends.

An episode that was half building blocks for the future of this show & the company as a whole, and half exquisitely told discrete story - that also builds to what’s next. It really doesn’t get much better than this, scripted fight fans.

Grade: A-

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