Last year at NXT Takeover: Dallas, the yellow brand managed to upstage the main roster during WrestleMania weekend. Can the WWE’s developmental league make it a repeat performance, despite what many view as a depleted roster of stars?

Pre-Show Notes

  • Since it’s WrestleMania weekend, WWE runs these house show/conventions called Axxess where–among other things–they film a bunch of stuff for the coming weeks of NXT. At one of these shows, SAnitY jumped No Way Jose and crushed his ankle with the ring steps. As a result, he’s out of the 8-man intergender tag match at Takeover, and the faces will have till the start of the show to find a new partner. It’s all kayfabe (i.e. fake for those non-wrestling nerds), but sucks for the big man all the same.
  • William Regal is shown in the back being flanked by large dudes carrying these long poker-chip cases that apparently house new title belts for the winners of tonight’s three championship matches. They keep talking about this being a “new era” for NXT, so it kind of makes sense, though popular chatter online is that it’s a byproduct of the NXT Women’s title making an appearance in some of the less savory photos revealed from the recent hack of Paige.
  • The Iconic Duo of Peyton Royce and Billie Kay make an appearance to mock Charlie Caruso’s dress. That’s kind of it. It’s not a great role to play in what is ostensibly the company’s biggest weekend of the year, but given that they’re the biggest NXT stars not on the card, it’s just nice to see them get anything to do at all. Hopefully they’ll both get a chance to participate in the recently announced women’s tournament.

Main Card

Match 1: SAnitY (Eric Young, Alexander Wolf, Killian Dain and Nikki Cross) Vs. Tye Dyllinger, Roderick Strong, Ruby Riot and…

SAnitY is out first, coming out as a unit. This time around these crazy gutter punks (or whatever their gimmick technically is) are all wearing dark eye makeup–like Batman without the mask. When they’re in full gear and rocking their bandanas it looks pretty menacing, but once they take all their extra bits off it ends up looking a little silly. It works on Young, because that dude already looks like a piece of sun-scorched leather, but with Wolf and Dain it reads a lot more like post-apocalyptic raccoons that got into the trash than murderous hooligans. Worse yet is poor Nikki Cross whose kind eyes and long hair make her look a little too much like Peter Chris from KISS. Still, the rest of their presentation is on point, particularly Dain’s addition of sumo-style mawashi to his trunks. It’s a cool look.

The faces come out one by one, with Tye Dyllinger coming out to a huge pop, followed by Ruby Riot who is rocking Zack Ryder’s old “one long leg, one short leg” trunks that looks good on no one, and finally Roderick Strong to a surprisingly good reaction. After a few seconds of waiting Kassius Ohno’s music hits and we see who will be replacing No Way Jose. It’s not a bad choice to have the former Chris Hero on the card by any stretch, but if they were going to do an injury angle on Jose I would have hoped for a more exciting replacement. Anyway the faces rush the ring and brawl until Young, Dain and Wolf are knocked out of the ring and the male faces can do their crowd taunts. While all this is going on, Ruby and Nikki get in a collar and elbow tie up and…just kind of stick with it for like a full minute before they force themselves outside the ring. It’s weird timing to see all the male faces dispose of their foes and just have the two women hanging out in the ring for an extra 20 seconds or so, but they made the same awkward timing mistake(?) on NXT last week, so maybe Ruby just doesn’t know how to handle these spots yet.

Riot and Cross start the match, but it’s not long before Nikki tags in Wolf. This becomes a bit of a theme throughout the match. Both women only spend a few moments in the match at any given point but then get tagged out. I, like a lot of wrestling nerds who don’t get the El Rey network but do have a Netflix account, have been watching a lot of Lucha Underground lately. As a result, my stance on women actually mixing it up with the men has softened considerably over the past few weeks seeing wrestlers like Sexy Star and Ivelisse compete in real matches with much larger men. They actually tease that it may happen when Cross tags Wolf in, but rather than pounce on the babyface, punk rock Butters just does the berserker dance until Ohno comes in and clocks him in the face.

It’s a shame because, while I’m not terribly familiar with Riot’s work, Cross is a great wrestler and could totally be more of an equal contributor to the match, but as is the women are fairly inconsequential to the match. There are a few points where they interact with the men, but they’re always swiftly nullified by their counterpart. To her credit, Ruby does eat the biggest bump of the match when she throws a basement dropkick off the ring apron to take her and Cross out of the finish, but otherwise they don’t offer much to the match.

All three male faces, however, get great individual moments to shine. Ohno goes for a tope and sees SAnitY move out of the way, so turns it into this slick somersault to the outside where he lands on his feet and hits a super kick on Wolf, which was a pretty impressive spot for a man that size. Strong has a good run where he hits all three male opponents with backbreakers which earns a solid crowd reaction. Tye lights up all of SAnitY with his signature moves and actually hoists Dain up for the Tye Breaker before it’s broken up by The Damn Numbers Game™ and Dain hits him with his version of the One-Winged Angel for the win.

The story of this match really was individuals versus a team, and the teamwork of SAnitY was undeniable. Young and Wolf filled their roles fine and hit a couple of good saves and other moments, but the star was Killian Dane. The former Big Damo’s interactions with the faces were always treated with gravitas, and the fact that he got the win by scoring the pin on arguably NXT’s hottest home-grown babyface speaks volumes of what Triple H sees in the Beast of Belfast.

Match 2: Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas Vs. Aleister Black

I love Almas but they really need to think of something new for his entrance. Dude is money in the ring; spend money to help him move past the whole “dimestore Chippendales dancer” vibe they’ve given him to work with. Contrast that with debuting Black whose entrance, though relatively simple, is wonderfully theatrical. Dude rises from the dead like Bela Lugosi and slowly moves toward the ring to the sounds of what is the WWE’s best attempt at dark hardcore punk to date. Dude even gets his own title case for his entrance.

It should be noted that the crowd nearly ruined the viewing experience of the match. Allegedly, according to Twitter, there was a section of fans that were chanting obnoxious things throughout the entire bout and were unwilling to give it a damn rest. As a result, the finish of the match actually happens as the rest of the audience is chanting “shut the fuck up.” It’s so poorly timed that it feels like most people in the arena missed the actual finish to the match. In fake sports as in real sports, live shows are fun as hell, but there’s always the chance that some d-bags will ruin the experience.

Anyway, there’s a lot of great counter wrestling and choreographed striking spots between the two guys. Almas gets to get in a lot of his “tranquilo” taunts, but Black gets in his own little prayer taunts throughout as well. This is a great example of putting both guys over, as even though it was never in doubt who would win, both men looked great out there and got in plenty of offense, meaning both also had to sell pretty hardcore for each other. After taking a good deal of offense, Black makes the “you don’ fucked up, son” face and launches into a striking sequence culminating with Black literally lifting Almas off the mat with his foot then kicking him in the face with a spinning roundhouse (dubbed “the Fade to Black”) for the pin and the win. Nigel McGuinness accidentally claims that Black will be a star in "Ring of Honor." WHOOPS. Oh well, they edited it out of the version they put back up on the network.

A pretty good match. I’m a big fan of both guys, but I think they could’ve potentially done more. Still, if this was your first time seeing Black, the former Tommy (Tommy Tommy Fuckin’) End, it wasn’t a bad outing. Just know that he’s capable of more than he showed here, even though I thought what he did here was still pretty great.

Match 3: The Revival Vs. DIY Vs. The Authors of Pain for the NXT Tag Team Championship

Holy shit this match. The amount of praise due for DIY and Revival’s ability to put on classic tag team encounters is incomprehensible. These guys just know how to tell a compelling story and craft a perfectly timed masterpiece where everything is in constant motion, everyone’s strengths are played too and an engaging narrative built off past matches, but not beholden to them, is told via physicality and simple acting. They’re so fucking good that you just hope they end up on the same show once they’re both called up to the main roster. This shouldn’t suggest the Authors of Pain didn’t contribute to this match being fantastic–they played the role of monstrous bruisers to a T, but so much of what made their parts work came from the reactions and motions of their much smaller opponents.

So yeah, the match of the night in a walk tells the story of the two smaller teams recognizing that best path to beating these 300+ lb monsters is to work together. At times it definitely becomes a 4-on-2 match, with the Revival and DIY doing all they can to remove the tag champs from the match only to then turn on each other because–while they know what their rivals can do in those ropes, they just don’t trust them. This leads to amazing spots like all four men teaming up to powerbomb Rezar through a table, then both Dawson and Gargano locking their submission holds on Akam. Dude sits in the leg/arm bar combo for a full minute which gave Rezar enough time to get pack up and push through Ciampa and Wilder to break up the submission. It’s an unreal sequence, but it only gets better.

After all six men brawl a bit, Akam is knocked to his knees with Dawson and Gargano in the ring–and the two rivals hit DIY’s double head kick finisher on the prone Author of Pain. Seeing this, Rezar rushes the ring and gets caught by Ciampa and Wilder in a Shatter Machine and the crowd explodes. This is where it all falls apart for the fan favorites. DIY makes a move to after the Authors again, but know damn well the Revival is about to double cross them. With the jig up, the two smaller teams just brawl against each other, giving AOP the chance to refresh themselves as DIY and The Revival knock each other silly. At one point Dawson hits an INSANE superplex on Ciampa to the outside, sending both men crashing through the rest of the field in a move that you’ll almost never see on WWE TV. The crowd chants “fight forever” and I’ll be damned if I can’t agree.

Dawson rolls Ciampa back in to try and score the win, but the AOP tags themselves in, hit the already knocked out Ciampa with The Last Chapter and eliminate DIY from the match. The crowd is NOT happy, and it gives the AOP a ton of heat for the rest of the match. At points it feels almost mean. With AOP in control not only are there “bullshit” chants, the crowd starts in with “nobody likes you,” which feels petty and is untrue. I like the other teams better, sure, but I like the AOP.

Anyway, what follows is The Revival putting the larger team over huge with clever near fall sequences for both teams making everyone involved look resilient and smart. The final comes when the AOP finally overpower the Revival and get them in the Super Collider for the clean three. I’m not sure if DIY is going to the main roster soon, but man the WWE must see something in the Authors of Pain because this match made them look like a million bucks. It’s their best bout to date and leaves them with no obvious challengers on the horizon. My guess is WWE treats them like the Ascension’s time in NXT, where they just squash randos for the next several months until Heavy Machinery is ready for a run at the belts.

Still, the story of this match will be the legacy of The Revival, and to a somewhat lesser extent, DIY. These two teams are seemingly incapable of having a mediocre match, and deserve all the success in the world. That they went out by putting over some younger, greener talent is a classy move. Now bring them onto Smackdown where they can be the best thing on that show once AJ Styles gets moves to Raw.

Match 4: Ember Moon Vs. Asuka for the NXT Women’s championship

I made the note while watching this match that both competitors look like what a middle school nerd would sketch out if they were trying to draw a “cool lady ninja.” That’s not the only similarity between the two, either: both are electric in the ring (Asuka’s probably the more compelling performer, but Ember’s moveset is a little more WWE friendly) but relatively weak on the mic (admittedly it’s because Asuka’s battling a language barrier; when she’s allowed to speak Japanese in her promos she has the intensity and poise that Moon lacks), and I’d be remiss not to point out how cool it is that the two biggest stars in the women’s division are people of color. It’s these similarities that make this an intriguing matchup, and while this wasn’t the best I’ve seen from either performer, this was a great bout that may have advanced the company’s storyline direction for the summer by cementing Asuka’s heel turn and giving Ember a reason to seek revenge.

One thing about this match is that–at points–it gets pretty stiff. There are a lot of rough knee strikes and kicks from both ladies, and at no point did it look like the relatively less experienced Moon couldn’t hang with “World-Breaker” Asuka. As such, the story really hovers around Asuka’s growing ego being damaged by being pitted against a formidable opponent. The Empress of Tomorrow goes for that weird running butt smash they keep trying to claiming is a hip attack three times, absolutely nailing Ember on those first two exchanges, but on the third Ember sidesteps and scores a snap kick to Asuka’s face. It’s just another example of NXT doing something logical with their booking that I just don’t see the main roster trying enough.

With the two combatants so evenly matched, it became a race to see who could hit their finish first. Asuka kept trying to cinch in the Asuka Lock while Ember made a point to try and work the champ into the corner so she could hit the Eclipse. There were a lot of close calls here and there until Asuka caught Moon on the turnbuckle only to get shied away. As the werewolf ninja (I think that’s what they’re going for with her?) regained her footing, Asuka pushed the ref into the ropes to crotch Ember and send her tumbling to the mat, where Asuka would go on to kick her head off her shoulders and score the win.

While pushing the ref should have technically resulted in a disqualification, I rather liked the finish. Asuka gets the win to explain why she’s sticking with the “developmental brand” for another couple of months, Ember loses but looks like the wronged party rather than someone who isn’t in Asuka’s league. I’ll assume this feud will build until Ember finally wins the title at whatever Takeover special accompanies Summerslam, and hopefully over that stretch they’ll actually be able to coach Moon in the art of promos.

Match 5: Shinsuke Nakamura Vs. Bobby Roode for the NXT Championship

It’s unfortunate that, much like the last time these two met, the main event is the weakest part of a Takeover. As what is generously referred to as “a smart mark,” and less politely known as a wrestling nerd, I understand that Nakamura is on his way to bigger and better things and needs to make the current champion look strong on his way out. As a wrestling fan, however, it’s just hard to buy that Bobby Roode would win a fair fight with the King of Strong Style. No disrespect for Roode as a character, but he’s better known for his promos and theatricality than his in-ring acumen. There are ways that I can accept him beating a combat athlete like Shinsuke (who in addition to being one of the stiffest performers in Japan has a legitimate MMA background), but in a fair fight with no shenanigans is not one of them.

This time around the entrances are a little subdued, with Nakamura opting for what is pretty much his normal routine, while Roode’s Glorious Domination was preceded by two classical pianists in a very “Broken Hardys” sort of vibe. One notable thing about Shinsuke is that rather than his usual red or black ensemble, he’s rocking these striped leather numbers that look sort of like someone asked for pajamas that look like Eddie Murphy in Delirious.

The match eventually starts and it’s really slow. Like REALLY slow. It’s all rest holds and taunt spots. It’s very much a “check your phone” kind of match, which is definitely not what you want to say about your main event. It’s a solid 10 minutes into the match before Bobby gets the brilliant idea to work on Shin’s injured knee. They could have seriously had a ring girl come across the ropes with a big “Round 2” sign and it would be just as obvious. Anyway, Roode works the knee for the rest of the match and they do several spots where Shin’s own offense gets in his way. At one point, Nakamura goes for his running knees in the corner, only for Roode to duck out of the way and bang Shin’s damaged knee against the ring post.

The finish comes after a good amount of back and forth offense when he hits his second Glorious DDT, this time from the middle rope. It’s an underwhelming end to an underwhelming match in an underwhelming feud, but the loss leaves Shinsuke with nothing to do in NXT, suggesting that he may be popping up on the main roster sooner than anticipated (update: yep, Nakamura showed up on Smackdown). That’s good for him, and good for the main event scene of NXT, as no one seemed on Nak’s level and this will give other babyfaces like Kassius Ohno to occupy the top of the card. For Roode, it’s a feather in his cap that I’m like 90% certain he will have some sort of speech about in the next set of NXT Tapings.

Overall

Last year’s NXT Takeover surprised many fans by being the best part of WrestleMania weekend. This year’s offering doesn’t quite live up to that hype. Looking down the card of Takeover: Dallas, there was a great women’s match, a fantastic tag match and an amazing debut match. Takeover: Orlando has those first two going for it, but is outclassed by its predecessor on that third one. For as much as I liked the Aleister Black debut match against Andrade Cien Almas, it doesn’t even compare with the Nakamura-Zayn confrontation of last year. Add to that the fact that the Joe/Balor match ran circles around Nakamura/Roode and it’s clear to see why this year’s event won’t be as talked about. Still, it was a good show and shows that NXT, even in a depleted state, is always worth watching.

NXT Takeover: Orlando
8
Good