On Jan. 2, 2019, WWE Network will serve up a super-sized two hour edition of NXT. Don’t expect a TakeOver, though. While we will be getting what is likely the final chapter in Matt Riddle’s introductory feud, as the King of Bros looks to get revenge for Kassius Ohno blindsiding him on the ramp, which was revenge from KO for a quick knockout victory by Riddle at WarGames 2, that’s the episodes only announced match. You can also find out how that went in our spoiler report here.
What we will get sounds kind of like a TakeOver Pre-Show. No word on if the freshly inked Pat McAfee will be on hand, but a week’s worth of advertisements and WWE.com’s official preview tell us to expect a look back at the year that was and the announcement of the nominees for the 2018 Year-End Awards.
We don’t know when those will be handed out (although the Pre-Show for Jan. 26’s TakeOver: Phoenix seems like a safe bet). And we can go on years past, but we don’t know for sure what the exact categories will be. So when I asked our own panel of NXT experts - Stunning Stella Cheeks, Rev. Claire Elizabeth, the title and adjective-free Kyle Decker - to help me hand out our version, we stuck to the big five.
Male performer of the year: Tommaso Ciampa
Also receiving votes: Velveteen Dream
Returned from injury to pester, defeat (despite losing the first of a trilogy of 2018 TakeOver main event bouts) and mentally break his friend-turned-archrival Johnny Gargano. In the course of that ongoing epic, he also won the NXT title he still holds. Had one of the best Twitter accounts in the business, which helped him maintain heel heat on a brand notorious for cheering acts they like regardless of alignment. That feat was also accomplished by playing the NXT Universe as well as he plays Gargano whenever he picked up a microphone or talked to a camera. Is it any wonder he’s Tommy Sports Entertainment?
There was a lot of support for Velveteen, for many of the same reasons. He wasn’t able to maintain his rudo status once we embraced him, though, and he failed to capture a title. He did prove that, at least at this level of WWE, you can intelligently play with concepts of gender & sexuality within the traditional pro wrestling format. All while steadily improving in all aspects of his craft and never missing a chance to play provocateur. Young Patrick Clark will win lots of belts and awards in his career, but 2018 was the year of the Blackheart on the black-and-yellow brand.
Female performer of the year: Shayna Baszler
Also receiving votes: Nikki Cross, Bianca Belair
There was no perfect pick here, and a different group of fans might throw more support to the Queen of Spades chief rival (I personally really enjoyed Kairi Sane’s feisty underdog act this year, but not as much as some other things) or give top marks to one of our runner-ups. But Shayna held down the division all year as either a #1 contender or Women’s champ, and did so while consistently developing as a physical performer. Her mic work remains the weakest part of her game, but she showed improvement there, as well.
Is her time at the top almost over? The un-de-fee-ted EST is coming for her title in a few weeks. And you could argue the real Scottish Psychopath held our attention more than the champ as the key witness in the months long Aleister Black mystery. But Baszler’s big bad bully is a compelling character, and deserving of an award.
Tag Team of the year: Undisputed ERA
Fittingly, boys and girls, this pick was Undisputed. Primarily, the prize goes to Roderick Strong & Kyle O’Reilly for being two of the best wrestlers in the world (with extra credit to O’Reilly for being such an amazing d-bag). But if they want to Freebird the award with Adam Cole & Bobby Fish, we’ll allow it.
The ERA had some great dance partners, from Oney Lorcan & Danny Burch to Moustache Mountain, War Raiders to Heavy Machinery. But they were the common denominators. Whether it was heading to the ring, cowardly running away after a sneak attack or talking $#!+ from their hangout spot backstage. we were never disappointed when they hit our screens.
Match of the year: Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas, TakeOver: Philadelphia
It’s telling that in twelve months of good-to-great matches, one from almost a full year ago immediately came to mind for everyone on our panel. Johnny Wrestling at the height of his babyface powers (but already showing the signs of the strain which would break him months later, even before Ciampa attacked him with a crutch in the aftermath). Almas officially arriving as a WWE Superstar, combining a five star performance on Saturday with a run in the Royal Rumble match on Sunday for a weekend that secured him a call-up (where even though he’s currently playing jobber to the stars, his talent is shining through). An unpredictable outcome and breathtaking wrestling & terrific storytelling from all involved (we didn’t forget you, Zelina Vega) combined for a thrilling, suspenseful match that had even the most jaded fans biting on nearfalls and feeling crestfallen by the outcome.
Truly one for the ages, and definitely our NXT match of the year.
Feud of the year: Velveteen Dream vs. Ricochet
Also receiving votes: Undisputed ERA vs. British Strong Style, Kairi Sane vs. Shayna Baszler, Tommaso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano vs. Aleister Black
Most of the hastily put together committee went with Dream/Ric or the ongoing #DIY saga, but I couldn’t help but shout out my favorite tag and women’s programs, too. What can I say, I’m indecisive. And I really love NXT.
Majority rule, and the fact Ciampa/Gargano/Black isn’t over yet, swung things to the “anything you can do I can do better” sexiness of The One And Only vs. The Experience. In another year of great moments, these men gave us two unforgettable ones - the WrestleMania X-8 realness from their staredown in Chicago, and this...
... the most electrifying “challenge accepted” in the history of our sport. With this feud, Dream proved his 2017 work with Aleister Black wasn’t a fluke, and Ricochet was free to let his generational talent & the swagger he deservedly carries himself with as a result do the rest.
This thing was crazysexycool, and worth revisiting - as a feud of the year should be.
Ring in another year of NXT by letting us know what you think of our picks, and what you’d choose instead. Hand out a few prizes and superlatives of your own while you’re at it. The black-and-yellow gave us a lot of quality sports entertainment to enjoy, and the new year is young...