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NXT recap & reactions (Dec. 25, 2019): Christmas future

Last night (Dec. 25), NXT delivered a strange hybrid of pre-taped matches and pre-show panel. And it was actually a lot of fun! Not sure how much there is to talk about, but let’s find out. If you’re just looking for results, you can find those in the live blog here.

Low key debuts for high profile talents

22 year old Austin Theory was Evolve champion for almost a year, defending the belt 12 times, including once against his opponent on this episode, Roderick Strong. He’s already got John Cena’s seal of approval.

26 year old Shotzi Blackheart was a staple of the Shine title scene and a regular on Evolve PPVs. She’s worked in Impact and almost every indie you can think of. Her WWE signing was a widely covered story.

Word got out their first televised NXT matches would be on this episode, but the company never promoted them in any way. It was a somewhat curious decision considering the upside fans and WWE insiders see in Blackheart and Theory.

But you know what? I think it worked out as well as could be expected.

The show opened with Theory answering Strong’s North American title open challenge. This match was filmed at Full Sail Live (half the action on the episode was shot last Friday after SmackDown, the other half before NXT broadcasts over the last couple weeks), and the Orlando regulars were excited to see his debut. There were dueling chants for the two men throughout the contest.

If you’re gonna debut on national television, you couldn’t ask for a better opponent than Roddy. Theory was booked to get in a lot of offense, and Strong made all of it look great. There were a few rough looking spots, but they were either by design or just happened to work well within the story they were telling. This was about a youngster running on adrenaline trying to shock the world, and the veteran who may have underestimated his opponent at first, but wasn’t going to let his title reign become a footnote on someone else’s Wikipedia page. Some less-than-crisp moves and nasty looking bumps fit perfectly.

Shotzi drew Bianca Belair. Not quite as skilled an in-ring technician as Strong - but considering he’s one of the best in the business, that’s understandable.

The EST may not have been the perfect workrate partner (she was good; I’m just saying it would be interesting to see people like Io Shirai, Candice LeRae, and Dakota Kai against Blackheart). She was a great character compliment, though. This was a slightly different riff on the same song - attitude vs. intensity - and it worked without being a rehash. Belair looked like her usual powerhouse of sass. Shotzi was charismatic chaos. There were also some spots that I wasn’t sure went right. Here it was usually when the newcomer was on the receiving end, as Blackheart has a Sasha Banks-like ability to look like she’s actually hurt after half her bumps.

Both these Full Sail matches worked. There wasn’t suspense about the outcome, but part of the appeal of NXT is always to scout the new talent. Theory and Blackheart got their TV debuts out of the way with lengthy matches on a non-spotlight episode. They look like game competitors, and Roddy and Bianca look better for taking them out.

Like the episode as a whole, our first look at Austin Theory and Shotzi Blackheart in NXT sounded weird on paper, but actually worked quite well.

Dusty Classic Preview?

My colleague (and Keith Lee fan club president) Henry already broke down much of what made this one so much fun. This was the most “house show” match on the episode, and everything about it was designed to make sure the Brooklyn crowd and the USA/WWE Network audience were left with pleasant memories of NXT’s Christmas party.

There were North Pole costumes and props. Lee played the greatest hits of his remarkable past couple months. We got a big finish with Lio Rush hitting his Final Hour frog splash from his partner’s shoulders... while eating one of the cookies Keith brought to the ring. Only a total Grinch or Scrooge could hate the main event.

Damian Priest got thrown around a bit, but he didn’t take the pin and is just coming off a big win over Killian Dain. No damage done there.

What this left me thinking of is the 2020 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. We’ll learn who’s in the field on next week’s show, and outside the champs, the tag division in NXT doesn’t seem to be much better off than Raw or SmackDown’s. The tournament has a history of putting over teams of singles stars. Did we just catch our first glimpse of the next winners?

NXT seemed to have tag plans for Lee and Breakout Tournament winner Jordan “ACH” Myles. Are they going to plug Rush into the role of Keith’s partner? Is getting his name on the Dusty trophy the next step in The Limitless One’s rise?

All the rest:

- The “pre-show panel” portion of the show I mentioned at the open was Cathy Kelley, Pat McAfee & Sam Roberts from a sound stage somewhere discussing the action and hyping next week. Whether you’ll enjoy it or not will depend on your feelings on McAfee, Roberts, and/or WWE’s love of bickering announcers. Pat cracks me up, so I was okay with it. It didn’t really add much, though. They were really there to kill time and talk about stuff the teams calling the matches (Mauro Ranallo & Nigel McGuinness in Florida, Tom Phillips & Beth Phoenix in New York) didn’t have to talk about things they hadn’t seen. Next week, when they’re revealing the Dusty participants and announcing Year-End Awards, the trio of talking heads will have a bigger role.

- Like the three matches discussed above, there wasn’t much doubt about the outcome of the other three singles matches on the episode. Still, the wrestling on display and my interest in the development of the participants elevated both above the level of filler I came into the show expecting.

- Candice LeRae needs a program. I’d like to see her work with Kai for a while at least, since Dakota technically betrayed LeRae as much as she did Rhea Ripley and Mia Yim (not as much as Tegan Nox, though). Anyway, this gave her something to do. And a great signature flourish with how she put her hair up to signal it was no more Mrs. Nice Wrestling before the final third of the match.

- Her opponent, Taynara, is someone who I’ve enjoyed a lot over the past few months. Her in-ring work has leveled up quite a bit. But I still don’t know much about her character other than “judo heel”. And I don’t get a sense NXT knows what to do with her, either.

- Renewing her old alliance with Arturo Ruas seems out of the question, as the new vignette the Brazilian martial artist tonight teased “Total Destruction, Coming Soon”. Ruas gained a lot of fans while on loan to Evolve. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of impression he makes with whatever time he gets back on the black-and-gold brand.

- Because there are already a lot of folks like Dominik Dijakovic and Bronson Reed who are around but pretty direction-less. They delivered an entertaining big man brawl in Barclays, but I don’t know that Dijakovic’s win or Reed’s latest loss changes much for either man.

- Brooklyn treated Isaiah “Swerve” Scott and Jack Gallagher like a 205 Live match. The quiet reaction to the technical portion of the match made it even harder to get into. But the bigger barrier was that if you’re not watching the purple brand (or maybe even if you are?), it’s not clear where the drama was coming from in this showdown.

- We’ll have to wait until at least next week for any advancement on the new women’s champ and the Johnny Gargano/Finn Bálor rivalry. But I didn’t miss it. These two hours and eight minutes flew by on the strength of what was on display, so I didn’t have time to worry about what wasn’t.

Maybe it was because I went in with low expectations (and a resentment about having to work on Christmas night), but NXT impressed me with their Dec. 25 episode. If this is what passes for filler for Triple H and company these days, 2020 should be a great year for WWE’s third brand - and all the wrestling fans who make time for it.

Grade: B

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