in

NXT Takeover XXX Review

It’s a strange time for NXT. From 2015 to 2019, it was the absolute gold standard (pun intended) of professional wrestling in the United States. While the weekly hour-long television show on the WWE Network was by no means appointment viewing, until October of 2019, it was very much a developmental brand for the “main roster” of WWE. While the show would advance angles, give rookie talent a chance to be in front of a camera and generally produce at least one very good match a week, missing it wasn’t a crime against wrestling humanity. Takeovers, on the other hand, have been as vital as anything in wrestling has ever been. The Four Horsewomen; Zayn and Owens; DIY and The Revival; Shinsuke Nakamura’s arrival to the United States; Finn Balor, The Undisputed Era; and what was arguably one of the greatest rivalries of all time – Gargano vs. Ciampa. Literally, this was some of the greatest in-ring action that has ever graced the wrestling god’s great earth.

The biblical rivalry between Gargano and Ciampa also serves to illustrate NXT’s most significant faults. For years, NXT felt like an independent entity; Full Sail University housed a product that served the “true” fan, leaving the “sports entertainment” to the “main roster”. This was Professional Wrestling. However, within that ring and upon those walls, those little W’s served as a reminder of who the real boss was. The number of times a beloved NXT performer moved to Raw or SmackDown with the belief that they would become a champion, only to plod along in the mid-card, are more than one can count. While NXT felt like WWE’s beautiful little secret, it was still seen as a farm system by the multi-billion dollar corporation.

In late 2018, Monday Night Raw, WWE’s flagship television program at the time, was floundering. Vince McMahon was/is willing to do anything and everything to make his product more appealing to potential viewers. At this point, NXT was on top of its black and gold mountain. Somehow, every single Takeover seemed better than the last. The buzz that NXT was garnering at the time was absolutely palpable. While not exactly mainstream, the show had been consistently picking up more eyes with each incredible Takeover it produced. In order to bring some of those eyes to Monday Night Raw, Vince decided to bring four “NXT Superstars” to the USA Network: Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa, Ricochet and Aleister Black. While these four were essentially gods to a portion of the fan-base, your basic Raw viewer had absolutely NO idea who they were. Long story short: Vince ignored NXT storylines and inserted the NXT stars into pointless main roster feuds that served as a short term boost to potential ratings. Gargano and Ciampa were put together as a tag team, even though it made no sense in the context of their stories in NXT. This in itself would not have filled me with the amount of disdain I feel and felt; it was the ultimate result of this short-sighted call-up that left me feeling utterly defeated.

February 18, 2019: just over a month before WrestleMania 35 and NXT Takeover: New York, the four men are called up to the main roster. Takeover: New York was going to be the massive final chapter in the rivalry between Gargano and Ciampa which would mark the end of a phenomenal era for the fabled black and gold brand. Unbeknownst to us, NXT Champion Tommaso Ciampa had been nursing a neck injury for a significant amount of time prior to the call up. While he had attempted to keep himself as fresh as possible in the run up to New York, you don’t tell Vince “no” when he tells you to debut on both Raw and SmackDown simultaneously. Mere weeks before New York, the lingering injury hit the point of no return; Ciampa would be forced to go under the knife as soon as possible and would not be making it to the biggest match of his career. While Ciampa could have potentially hit his limit in any number of matches, WWE was reckless with the amount of times Ciampa was forced to work in the lead up to Wrestlemania weekend.

It is difficult to articulate just how livid I had become after a few days of stewing on the issue. As a fan I was obviously disappointed, but I was appalled for Ciampa as a human being. Ciampa’s defining moment being ripped from his arms, just as his beloved “Goldie” had been, made me actively upset. While you can’t necessarily blame the injury on Vince, you can certainly chastise both he and Triple H for their apparent lack of foresight on the matter.

Point being, NXT is not the golden super-indie so many of us wish to believe it is. It is a subsidiary of an insidious corporation whose only indicator of success is the almighty dollar. They only care about our enjoyment in as much as it pertains to just how many denominations we lay at their feet. While I am sure that philosophy isn’t true for the vast majority of the performing talent in WWE and NXT, the talent of yesteryear certainly felt that way. We were simply marks and yokels that they swindled out of a buck. Both Vince McMahon and Paul Lévesque are of that generation.

NXT July 15th

Enter All Elite Wrestling, the promotion that intends to act as the antithesis to all of WWE’s most abhorrent practices; a company for the fans that is only able to exist because of the rabid nature shown by them in the overwhelming success that was All In. AEW offers a proactive product that promises to produce diverse and novel content never before seen on American cable television. Almost immediately after their cable deal was announced, WWE announced that NXT will be moving to the USA network on the same day at the same time. This was not WWE being proactive; they were reactive. WWE counter-programmed AEW’s Fight for the Fallen with a last minute Evolve 10th anniversary show. Again, WWE was not proactive; they were reactive.

The first time those two shows went head to head on TNT and USA is something I will remember for the rest of my life. Watching AEW on my television and NXT on the laptop; Cody entering the arena to face off against Sammy Guevarra while Adam Cole defended his NXT Championship against Matt Riddle, only to see the surprise return of Finn Balor while simultaneously Cody was being bathed in adoration. That moment was magical. NXT has not quite felt the same since that beautiful Wednesday in October. NXT has a very specific style with which they book their television show; it is pragmatic in the way it builds feuds and isn’t very dynamic in the way it moves into the next chapter. While this may not be the most exciting system for creating a wrestling show, the wrestling itself has always been the redeeming factor: long-term feuds building to legitimately satisfying payoffs… and then the ratings were posted.

NXT has all but abandoned their signature style of booking in favor of reactive angles meant to garner an extra one hundred-thousand viewers per Wednesday. Pushing big angles before they may be ready isn’t a problem in itself: it’s that NXT is starting to look more haphazard than it has in the past. NXT’s Great American Bash was announced one week before it aired, and the announcement was done in post – meaning, the idea was proposed well after the taped episode within which it aired. It was blatant counter-programming of AEW’s two-night Fyter Fest event. NXT is meant to be a progressive entity, pushing the wrestling industry forward with blindingly hot matches and what is literally the greatest women’s division in the history of the sport. Instead, they won the ratings for a couple of weeks and then didn’t have any plans for the next couple of weeks… just doing… whatever… Imperium win the tag belts? Sure. This has become a pattern.

Fast forward to the go-home week for Takeover XXX, and I am legitimately excited to watch NXT live for the first time since November, 2019. Dynamite is an objectively better TELEVISION program than NXT; it is meticulously planned, includes colorful characters, surprises you on occasion, and has some of the greatest workers on the planet. Due to the wonky NBA playoff schedule, only NXT aired on this particular Wednesday. Being that NXT is generally so reactive, I expected a blow away program, considering it was running unopposed for the first time in ten months…I was so bored after an hour, I changed the channel. I very rarely turn off a wrestling show, and while I may skip a Mia Yim match or two at 10:30 on a school night, I never turn off NXT. I hadn’t even realized it happened until five minutes after doing so, and I have never felt so disheartened about a product in that moment. I learned long ago that I shouldn’t emotionally invest in Raw or SmackDown, but NXT?! To quote Don Corleone, “Look how they massacred my boy.”

What started as a review has morphed into a manifesto of sorts. The previous fifteen-hundred words are meant to vividly illustrate my lack of excitement and investment in Takeover XXX. What would normally be one of my favorite wrestling weekends of the year was now just another Saturday. This is not because “I love AEW more than NXT”. NXT did this to themselves.

That being said, there has been one truly bright spot in NXT throughout the empty arena era, a man that has worked his way through the ranks in the fashion one might see in the NXT of old: Karrion Kross. His entrance is the best in all of wrestling, his manager genuinely scares the s*** out of me, and NXT have booked him to look like an absolute monster. While everything else in NXT seems to be hanging by a thread, Kross is the single guiding light in the storm. I so dearly want to be reinvigorated by this show because this is a brand that has meant so much to me over the course of the last two years. My chest is literally tight with anxiety in the hopes that this Takeover does what the majority of Takeovers have always done: exceed all expectations.

Right off the bat, this set is giving me a feeling I haven’t felt in months. It’s jarring to realize just how much the Full Sail University crowd brings to this brand. While the aesthetics of AEW have outshined NXT from the start, there are few crowds as rabid and as full of genuine adoration. Please… make me feel again.

Finn Balor vs. Timothy Thatcher

Timothy Thatcher stretches out a screaming Finn Balor

Finn Balor is in desperate need of this win. It feels absolutely absurd to say that after thinking back to his initial return to the brand after the championship match during the USA debut. I feel as though NXT may have taken Balor for granted in thinking it was impossible for him to lose any heat after taking multiple losses. While his heat certainly isn’t gone, it has most definitely dissipated. Thatcher, on the other hand, has been well built. Thatcher is never going to rise to the heights of Balor in NXT and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Thatcher has a very specific style that is perfectly conducive to an upper mid-card banger on a regular basis.

Speaking of style, this match didn’t feel like it should have existed in the United States. Of course, Balor made his name as a Japanese junior heavyweight and Thatcher as a European catch-as-catch-can stretching machine. Those histories felt as though they were a constant vein running throughout this particular competition. The method which Balor uses to quickly pop out of submissions made this feel like an actual fight, flailing his limbs about as he was attempting to escape Thatcher’s grasp. While Balor was still an exceptional worker on the main roster as a babyface, he had nowhere near the level of in-ring charisma that he possesses now. It’s amazing what happens when you’re able to actually enjoy yourself.

Thatcher certainly looked as though he was enjoying himself when he saw that Finn’s knee was an obvious target… that man’s facial expressions rival Hulk Hogan at his most cocaine-fueled Main Event glory. At this point in the match, I began to feel a worm creep into the corner of my brain… as much as I am enjoying this in the moment, why do I find myself stressed out about the future of Timothy Thatcher’s career? These are not things to be thinking about during a really fun wrestling match between two international stars…it burrows, nonetheless.

This felt like a really wonderful television match between two exceptional workers in a clash of international styles. With Balor getting the win, there is no heat taken away from Thatcher in any way. Timothy will go out on TV next week in yet another “Thatch-as-catch-can” segment and stretch the hell out of a new, unassuming recruit. A fun match with the logical finish.

*** ¼

Cameron Grimes vs. Johnny Gargano vs. Bronson Reed vs. Damien Priest vs. Velveteen Dream – North American Championship – Ladder Match

NXT ladder matches always seem to deliver. Even on the occasion where they don’t come off as instant classics, it will be worth revisiting at one point or another. However, the North American Championship has a very specific history to live up to when considering ladders. Adam Cole’s inaugural North American Championship win will go down as one of the better multi-man ladder matches to have ever taken place. One thing the original match had in common with this one is the inclusion of fairly novel talent. Damien Priest has been in wrestling for ages, but hasn’t exactly snagged a signature win on the NXT brand. Bronson Reed doesn’t have much of a character, but what he lacks in charisma is made up for by his impressive athleticism. I do love a big beefy boy, and Reed most certainly is that. Aside from Karrion Kross, Cameron Grimes has been the absolute best thing recently in NXT. His Louisiana s***-kicker gimmick has steadily grown to be more of a caricature, and that is exactly what he should be. Cameron Grimes is a wily cartoon character and I never want him to change.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Johnny Gargano and VD (yes, I am purposefully using those initials in such a way). You just know Gargano is going to be the glue that holds this entire thing together. I have no doubt he will impress as he usually does on the day of a Takeover. He is also beginning to find his footing as a heel, which he had struggled mightily with in the past. As it is difficult to have an objective opinion about VD at the moment, I will refrain from doing so. I will settle with making the statement that I don’t trust Triple H as far as I can throw him and I find the passive aggressive abbreviation of VD’s name to be quite funny. Not to mention, VD got no reaction from the fake crowd… not even boos… illuminating.

First and foremost, Grimes is exactly who you want him to be in a situation like this: an opportunist that can deliver offencively and cackles all the while. He was easily my favorite part of this match throughout. It is so easy for any multi-man match to come off as contrived, especially when considering the history of WWE, but this was so expertly choreographed that it didn’t feel nearly as rehearsed as it should have. Gargano using the ladder Reed was holding to plant him with a DDT; VD nearly decapitating Priest; Grimes hitting Spanish Flys on the outside; Candice finding her way onto the back of Bronson Reed before splashing Gargano with the extra weight; all absolutely ridiculous spots that I can’t help but applaud for.

I don’t wish to praise VD at the moment, but as I said, attempted objectivity: his offense looked FAR more intense than it had in recent past. Since his return, he looked like he was stuck in second gear. He seems to have apparently snapped out of it. One of my favorite spots wasn’t even necessarily a spot: VD posed at the top of the ladder, accidentally hitting the belt, upon whih he realized he was in a ladder match and started going for the title. It is such a seemingly insignificant detail, but when I see a wrestler on top of the ladder only with the intent of hitting a big move as opposed to going for the title, it sticks in my craw.

I didn’t realize how much Priest needed this win until he actually won the thing. He had been in danger of becoming a guy that wasn’t able to deliver in the big matches, and yes it is professional wrestling and he isn’t ACTUALLY that guy, but perception rules all. Even within the subconscious. It is safe to say that was the best NXT ladder match since the original North American Championship Ladder match. There wasn’t a moment that felt forced, even in the most ridiculous spots such as Grimes doing the splits. The progression felt natural. While “natural progression” may not seem like the highest of praise, for a five-man ladder match, it is quite the feat.

**** ¼

Adam Cole vs. Pat McAfee

Adam Cole aims a kick at a jumping Pat McAfee

I have a deep seated hatred for Pat McAfee’s face… not in a fun, wrestling sort of way… in a very real and guttural sort of way. I am not nearly as high on this angle as some people are. That’s not to say Pat has done a poor job at what he has been asked to do. In fact, he has delivered on both accounts. The punt angle was well executed, as was the promo he cut on Adam Cole, which was more than servicable. My issues arise when considering why this match exists in the first place. Why, of all brands, is NXT relying on celebrity talent? Unless Pat is going to surprise us with a level of work most don’t think he is necessarily capable of, I couldn’t care less about this. Yes, they have a longstanding rivalry outside of the ring that has allowed them to play off the back of that friction, but it just isn’t something I care to see come to a head.

If this exists solely to turn Cole and The Undisputed Era face, I can deal with the potential ramifications of watching this match. There’s no way Pat wins, right? I appreciate that after the opening moments, Cole is immediately getting the best of Pat when he attempts to actually WRESTLE with Cole. It is only when Pat uses dastardly tactics that he is able to get the best of Cole in an exchange or two. Even when attempting to mirror Cole’s offense, Pat isn’t able to get the upper hand.  Based solely on the logical nature of the lock-ups, I was actually starting to get into this. After Pat hits the flipping senton, I’m kind of all the way into it… primarily due to the fact that Pat absolutely WENT FOR IT. McAfee getting in offense with power moves and a lack of actual wrestling is totally acceptable and he is working like a douchebag old school heel, including an attempt at explaining the rules of wrestling to the actual wrestlers… dude… they are pulling this off.

Perhaps I should have had higher hopes. I probably should have assumed that Cole wouldn’t have waltzed into a feud with someone who would have made him look terrible so soon after being the longest reigning NXT Champion of all time. I wish I had a picture of my reaction to the flip/jump/superplex spot, because that was absolutely spectacular by Pat. Even after being kicked in the dick, Cole worked honorably all the way up to the end, even when he had potential openings to work like a heel as he would have in the past. There was a degree of Fear and Loathing I had attributed to this match, I thought it may have been the personification of the death of NXT. It was a triumph.

***

Dakota Kai vs. Io Shirai – NXT Women’s Championship

I have been higher on Dakota Kai than most have in the past and have enjoyed her recent heel work for the most part. She has a style you don’t normally see in mainstream women’s wrestling, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that Tegan Nox was the woman she perpetrated her heel turn against. I had never understood why Nox received so much praise in comparison to Kai because I find Dakota to be the more interesting performer. I appreciate that they played off of that dynamic. While Kai is stylistically interesting, Io Shirai may be the greatest overall women’s competitor in the world… and that’s not even accounting for her tremendous entrance theme… ‘cause it slaps. I am not sure what to expect from this match outside of a Shirai victory.

This match feels like a reboot of a division that has not been shining quite as bright as it had in recent memory. With the departures of Shayna Baszler and Bianca Belair, along with the utter dissolution of Rhea Ripley’s aura as a killer, I would really like to see this match solidify Kai as a legitimate contender. After the first five minutes, I don’t feel that way at all. Dakota Kai kicking the hell out of people is what makes her exciting, and they spend the first half of the match in Randy Orton rest holds. It’s not until Io hits Kai with a palm strike that we get SOME level of back and forth, but once again we have Kai working submissions very soon after. At least Kai upgraded from Orton to ZSJ.

There’s a particular moment that makes Io look a bit like a doofus; the referee gets noticeably knocked out, but instead of capitalizing on the lack of officiating, Io goes for a moonsault and a pin. You knew Raquel Gonzalez, Kai’s heavy, was going to get involved at some point and this was when the match started to become tiring for me. It didn’t help that this was my fourth wrestling show of the day (BLP, GCW, AEW… yes, I have issues). Io hits a Kamigoye, a moonsault and gets the victory. The only thing making this match interesting was Rhea coming out for the save after Raquel started going after Io once again. This wasn’t necessarily a bad match, but was far less than I was hoping for.

**

Keith Lee vs. Karrion Kross – NXT Championship

Karrion Kross wrenches the arm of Keith Lee

As I said previously, Kross and Scarlett have been the best thing on NXT television for some time (with Cameron Grimes following a CLOSE second), and this is so obviously Kross’ time. The build to this match has been a bit wonky at times and VERY NXT in its patented stare downs and call-outs. The only portion of the build I found genuinely bad was the contract for the title match itself catching on fire in front of Lee’s face. Like… is Scarlett magic? Is Kross not strong enough to defeat Lee on his own accord? I understand that everything up to this point served to add moments to the promo package before this match. Juxtaposed to the build itself, the video package to this match was fabulous. Using Metallica’s “Frantic” did serve to give away the ending of the match unfortunately: “frantic tick tock” being a highlighted lyric, with “tick tock” also serving as one of Kross’ eerie tag lines. This match is almost certainly in the bag for Kross. I’m honestly fine with the predictable nature of the bout, considering Keith will be moving to Raw or SmackDown and significantly elevating his paycheck; it is win-win.

Goddamn, Karrion Kross’ entrance is so good… when the dragon wings make their way behind Scarlett, and Kross finally makes his way to the center of the ring… goosebumps. I find it rather unfortunate that I want to see Keith Lee get absolutely murdered. He has been one of my favorite wrestlers in the world for over a year at this point. His championship run hasn’t exactly been what I had wanted, but rarely do babyface champions have lengthy runs with the NXT Title. It is the time for Karrion Kross, and we should all just accept that.

This match is just two beefy boys dropping bombs on one another. It isn’t high paced, but Corey Graves puts Kross over by explaining that his submission game isn’t characterized by simple “wrestling” holds – he is a jiu jitsu master. The match consistently builds in intensity as time moves forward, and when the fake crowd begins to chant “bask in his glory”, I feel legitimately sad. Keith Lee deserved a championship win in front of thousands of fans instead of dozens of wrestlers, one of which spoiled the result of the match like an absolute GOOBER. On the other hand, NXT should be applauded for the job they have done with Karrion Kross during the empty arena era. Kross has never had a single match in front of a real crowd, and he feels like the only true contender for this title. After a Doomsday Saito from the second rope, Kross fulfills his prophecy by becoming NXT champion in only his seventh match on the brand. While it wasn’t the greatest championship match in NXT history, it served as the dawning of a new era in the men’s division of NXT.

** ¾

Final Thoughts

While this morphed into more of a therapy session than an actual review, I do feel re-energized by Takeover XXX. A solid show that served to build an entirely new list of contenders, NXT really needed to turn to the next chapter in order to feel as fresh as it had in the past. While the brand has taken the first step toward further ingenuity, it is the second and third steps that are far more important. I love NXT and I only wish to see it be itself. NXT didn’t become what it was by chasing the clout of other companies, or riding coattails. The brand set itself apart on its own accord and that is how it garnered such rabid fan support. With the closing shot of Kross and Scarlett bathed in flame and the promise of Ciampa’s return, I have extremely high hopes. I don’t want to change the channel.

Written by Andrew Stewart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Championship Wrestling logo

A Taste of the NWA in Championship Wrestling

MLW Underground logo

CONTRA Makes Its Presence Felt!