The yellow brand is at it again, running a TakeOver special on the weekend of one of WWE’s big 4 PPVs and (likely) trouncing its main roster competition in terms of in-ring entertainment. Yes this year may be “More Rumble than Ever!” but unless CM Punk returns at #1 and wins the whole thing, there’s almost nothing the Rumble can do to top what was an AMAZING main event between the NXT Champion Andrade “Cien” Almas and Johnny Gargano. How did the show do overall, though?
- This was the rare takeover pre-show where something actually happened, as WWE’s junior brand named its Year-End Awards. Your winners included Sanity winning tag team of the year, Cezar Bononi winning “future star of the year” and NXT TakeOver: Wargames taking home “PPV of the year.”
- The big winners were Aleister Black – who took home the breakout star, male star of the year and best feud (with Velveteen Dream) trophies in his first year on the show – and Asuka, who earned both the female Superstar and overall Superstar of the year nods.
- Our panel on the show is made up of Sam Roberts, Charly Caruso and a still-injured Samoa Joe. I’m not going to say Joe was perfect as a talking head, but dude showed some chops in the booth. I know he’s nearing 40, and if retirement isn’t far off for the Samoan Submission Machine I think he’d make a fine addition to the NXT or Raw announce booths. I mean, it’s not like he could do worse than JBL or Booker T.
- I also kinda wish they started Joe on commentary tonight, because Nigel McGuinness is out sick, which meant a lot more Percy Watson in my ears. No one’s happy about that.
- Like a small child that invites his friends over to show off his new toys, NXT couldn’t help but show off a ton of it’s newest big-name signings during the TakeOver show proper. We get the traditional ringside shots of War Machine and (King) Ricochet, and Candice LeRae is actually an integral part of the main event, but the one that will get most people talking is undeniably the return of EC3 to NXT. For those that don’t know, young Carter actually appeared in one of the first seasons of NXT’s gameshow years. After a less than stellar run on the yellow brand as Derrick Bateman, he managed the impossible and got over huge while appearing on TNA. It’s good to see him back with the WWE, as he’s a really talented performer – and it’s even better that they let him keep the name he got over with, because his original name with WWE was the dog’s dinner.
The Authors of Pain vs. The Undisputed Era (c) (NXT Tag Team Championships)
I’m sort of in a weird spot with the Undisputed Era: they’re at the top of the card but I don’t really care. Like I recognize the talent of all three dudes, and ReDragon as a unit is a pretty stellar team, but they’ve yet to have a match that really captivates me. Maybe it’s that stupid hand signal they do. It really needs to go. Whatever it is, though, they need to figure out how to right the ship because these guys keep having good matches that I just don’t give a s--t about. Here we have a fairly strong big-team-vs-smaller-team match, with the AOP looking like absolute monsters for most of the bout. That is, until they went to the WWE’s favorite trope for dominant babyfaces (are the AOP babyface? In this match they are, I guess.) – an awkward landing resulting in a tweaked knee.
You can pretty much guess how it goes from there. The Authors show resilience and grit by hitting all of their signature power spots (including the DIY Memorial “slam one dude into the other dude” spot), while the Era tries to use their striking and submission backgrounds to work the leg of a wounded animal. There were some cool moments though. O’Reilly doing a Flair flop from the ring apron to the floor was pretty great, and Rezar tossing both Fish AND O’Reilly with a fallaway slam may have been the best spot in the match. The ending then comes with the Authors once again in control, going for the Super Collider, only for O’Reilly to hit a hurricanrana that tossed Akam into Rezar and knocked him out of the ring. A quick rollup pin saw the Era go over clean to retain their titles.
Not a bad match, but maybe missing a little spark. I think all four guys are solid in the ring (in tag form at least) but the MVP of this match had to be Akam. That dude is only 23 and really has the timing of tag matches down. If he leans up a bit, he could potentially be a solo monster in a few years. Rumor has the Authors hanging around NXT for one last TakeOver cycle against a debuting War Machine before a main roster debut after WrestleMania. As for the Undisputed Era, I’m going to go ahead and guess they get in a program with the Street Profits before facing off with the returning TM61 at TakeOver: New Orleans – a feud they’ll probably win.
Kassius Ohno vs. The Velveteen Dream
Speaking of young performers who are going to be huge, let’s talk about the Velveteen Dream. What many of us (myself included) wrote off as an ill-formed Prince gimmick has emerged as NXT’s maybe third most over character and it’s entirely based on the performance of Patrick Clark. At the last TakeOver Dream stole the show in a match of the year candidate against Aleister Black, and has become something of a made man as a result. He put on another banger with Johnny Gargano during the last round of NXT tapings, and this match was clearly included JUST to get him on the bill. As such, there was virtually no storyline going into this match. In fact, they set up the central conceit of the bout via online exclusives and pre-show interview wherein Dream said that he would KO KO(hno) in under thirty seconds.
In the only real nod to the show’s Philadelphia setting (besides Paul Heyman voicing over the intro I suppose), Dream took his bout with the “knockout artist” literally and came out wearing boxing trunks festooned with his own visage on the front, and Ohno on his butt. I love that he’s become the new Rick Rude — it’s really the only way the character would work on the main roster. I also love the additions to Dream’s entrance, with the hot lady in a velvet catsuit taking a lap around the Dream and the huge, oily Isaac Hayes looking dude holding a large, feathery pillow with VD’s personalized mouthguard. Fantastic. I hope his entrance becomes more elaborate at big events, because his eccentricities are what sell the character – especially when contrasted with the rather mundane entrance Ohno pulls, Steelers-inspired gear and all.
The match itself is a little sloppy, but full of great character moments. At the bell, the crowd starts counting down only for Dream to land a vicious right 22 seconds in that drops KO. He’s so excited about what he thinks is a victory that he starts preemptively celebrating and turning right into a series of vicious strikes from Kassius – who really lays into some of these elbows too. Dream sells like a champ and uses a lot of submission moves to stay competitive. If there was one issue with the pacing of this match, it may have been – and I’m sorry to say this – Ohno’s weight. There was a spot where VD was meant to catch a diving KO in his rolling Death Valley Driver, but the weight is too much for Clark to keep him on his shoulders, turning it into an awkwardly timed powerslam. Later, when Dream does actually hit the rolling DVD (which really needs a name, btw), it takes him a few times to get the big man up and over. Still he hits it, then lands another beautiful elbow drop for the clean win to a rapturous applause.
It’s weird for a crowd as smarky as a Philadelphia NXT show to root for the WWE created heel character over an indie journeyman like Chris Hero, but Dream earned their respect. This was another great performance and I really look forward to seeing what the 22-year-old can do in the future. I just hope he doesn’t get rushed to the main roster and lose everything that makes him special. For KO this is his lot in life at the moment, putting over up-and-comers in great matches. Look for him to lose to someone like Cezar Bononi in the NXT following TakeOver: New Orleans.
Shayna Baszler vs. Ember Moon (c) (NXT Women’s Championship)
This played like less of a title match and more of a proof of concept on Shayna Baszler’s heel character. Yeah it was tightly contested, and I definitely thought the Queen of Spades had this thing won a few times over, but more than a match, it was an exposition for Baszler’s heel work, and frankly? I think she nailed it. Whether she’s the best performer in the ring or not, Shayna is an intimidating presence and she earnestly looks like she’ll absolutely wreck all of the women in the NXT locker room. She’s so no-nonsense, she looks like a more legitimately terrifying version of Michelle Rodriguez. Her little mini-reign of terror through the women’s division may not have lasted long enough to be that memorable, but it certainly sold her as a legitimate threat to Ember Moon.
The thing is, though I initially called this match for Ember (rightfully so), I think I realized that Moon isn’t the type of performer that’s made to be champion. Seeing as they refuse to embrace any of the seemingly mystical elements of her character, Ember is the typical white meat babyface. They’re meant to chase titles, not reign as champion. Baszler, on the other hand, is a bully with no gimmick other than she messes her opponents up. Case in point, she used the same arm stomp that caused a forced stoppage of her match with Dakota Kai a few weeks back. Strangely, Moon started selling the move as a shoulder injury, but it did make for a better story when, after Baszler had spent several minutes working shoulder submissions, Moon went for the Eclipse but was so injured that she couldn’t shoot the pin.
They shot an injury angle around the move, but Moon shrugged the doctors off to finally go for a pin. Only she took so long that Baszler has a chance to recover and throw the champ in a fierce armbar submission. What followed was a back and forth submission spot that seemed to go on forever, with Moon seemingly fighting her way out of it, only for Shayna to roll with her and cinch the move in once again. This must have gone on for three minutes before Moon stacked Baszler up to get a rollup pin and retain her belt. Naturally, Shayna accepted the decision as fair play and raised Ember’s hand in victory. Hah, nah I’m kidding, she beat the s--t out of her and wrenched the shoulder a bunch more before the refs and backstage officials could separate the two.
Though I would have preferred a ref stoppage or disqualification, I think this was a smartly staged title match. Having Moon gut out the submission for as long as she did showed great babyface fire and really spoke to Ember’s acting ability, as I genuinely thought she was going to tap several times over. Furthermore, it showcased the brilliant viciousness of Baszler, who looked like a pitbull gnawing on the bone as she wrenched at Moon’s injured shoulder. I expect a rematch in New Orleans, which will likely be the first true test of both women’s characters in their time as champ/with the company respectively.
Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole (Bay Bay) (Extreme Rules match)
For an Extreme Rules match in the PG era, Black and Cole managed to put on a suitably violent show for the Philadelphia crowd. At first Black seemed like he was going to go through the whole match without stooping to his opponents level, but that all changed once Cole cracked him in the chest with a Kendo stick off a lionsault attempt. From then on, both performers were all in on the gimmick of the match, tossing their opponents into chairs and driving each other through tables. It was hard to tell, but it looked like both competitors got some color the hard way during the bout. Cole was definitely bleeding from his hand, and it looked like Black may have cut his back when he fell through the two ringside tables. Either way, half of WWE’s photos from the match are in black and white, so you know things got messy at points.
Of course, the whole thing about having a no DQ match with a gang leader (seriously, they need to ditch that dumbass hand signal) is that their henchman are sure to get involved – and despite going through a pretty physical match with the AOP earlier in the night, Fish and O’Reilly made their presence known toward the end of the match. After initially fighting them off, Black ended up eating ReDragon’s finisher and being laid across the announce table for something unpleasant. Fortunately, there is a firm kinship formed between all people who wear patchy vests, meaning Sanity made their way to ringside to neutralize Kyle and Bobby, notably with Killian Dain hitting a pretty sweet looking suicide dive to everyone not actually in the match. This allowed Black and Cole some time to replenish their stamina, with Black even driving Cole through the announce table with a double knee stomp. Eventually, the Dutchman is able to hit the Black Mass (the timing of which was a little wonky, meaning he kicked Cole in the armpit) for the clean win of a pretty strong match.
Like all of Black’s TakeOver matches, this was a good outing, and the dude looked like a star. Was this as good as his bouts with Hideo Itami or (especially) the Velveteen Dream? No, but it was still well performed and Black is easily the second most over person on the brand. While this wasn’t Black’s best outing, this WAS the best I’ve seem from Adam Cole (Bay Bay) since he’s been on the WWE payroll. He looked like a clever, cunning fighter and never looked like he couldn’t keep up with Black. Cole has always been a better character than a wrestler, but given that he appears to be on a pretty short leash with what he can say and do on the yellow brand, this was about as good an outing as I can expect from this version of the former ROH champion.
Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas (c) (NXT Championship)
Last year, we saw the best match of the year in January when Kazuchika Okada fought Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 11. On Saturday January 28, we may have seen the best match of the year at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. The show that these two put on should be taught at wrestling schools around when they talk about pacing and building to an end. This match started hot and never let up and while both men put on an outstanding performance, you really have to lay this at the feet of Johnny Gargano. From working as a glorified enhancement talent to forming a resurgent tag team, to being NXT’s answer to Daniel Bryan, Johnny Wrestling has been a revelation in professional wrestling the likes of which haven’t been seen since…well, Daniel Bryan. Listen to the crowd reaction to everything the man does, he’s the most over guy on the show – and that really is saying something given how hot the crowd was all night. He was so over that he got people excited to see Almas who, despite being a brilliant performer, has really struggled to capture the audience’s attention. That man is a star.
Inside the ropes, though, both men were fantastic and worked their asses off. As two of the smaller competitors on the brand (shout out to Lio Rush looking like a lost child until he starts to move), we always knew this was going to be an athletic encounter, but holy s--t do these guys have strong cardio. There’s a sequence where both guys reverse each other’s reversals for what feels like a full minute and the crowd has no choice but give a standing ovation and chant “this is awesome” at the work these two put in. These guys reached really deep into their bag of tricks for this one too. Gargano hits a beautiful tornado flatliner from the second rope for a close two, but Almas tosses some FIERCE spinning elbows to claw back in. At one point Gargano goes to the top rope, but Almas fights him down then hits an avalanche stomp from the top rope to the outside! There’s just so much to see in this match that descriptions don’t do it justice.
Both men’s supporting cast is on point in this match too, as Zelina Vega hits a beautiful hurricanrana that drives Gargs into the steel steps and costs him a submission victory by distracting the ref. She gets so involved, in fact, that Gargano’s real life wife – and recently signed NXT superstar – Candice LeRae jumps in to even the odds. We get a great set up for a match between these two women in the future, and it only adds to the rich tapestry that was this match.
What’s also great? The match ended with a clean victory for Almas. For a guy who has been viewed as a bit of a paper champion, this was the performance he really needed to restore some credibility to the character. His running double knees into the ring post was absolutely vicious and Gargano going limp was a great sell of the move. With this win, Almas finally feels like a real threat. He showed grit and determination and some of the fire he had back when he was La Sombra – a heritage he actually paid tribute to in his entrance. For Gargano, this is yet another outstanding performance to hang his hat on. The man is an A+ player, and may be the last chance to save the 205 Live brand should this loss signify a move to the main roster.
Of course we have to talk about the aftermath of the match, where Gargano’s former tag partner turned mortal enemy, Tommaso Ciampa made his long awaited return to blast his exhausted rival in the back with a crutch. We all expected it and they definitely dragged out the anticipation, but given how good the actual match was, this felt a bit underwhelming. For one, even though it looks like he’s been hitting the weight room, Ciampa was still noticeably limping, so who knows when we’ll actually see a payoff to this feud. I’m still really looking forward to that match, but this felt pretty needless.
Another solid TakeOver event from NXT, with a decent undercard and one hell of a main event. Though the rest may be a little niche for wrestling fans, those last two bouts are things you can share with casuals and complete unknowns to prove that wrestling has value as a physical art form. Bravo, NXT!