NXT Takeover: New Orleans
I love wrestling. Love it.
There’s nothing else like it – a spectacle that has more in common with a live-action comic book than anything else, wrestling features complex stories and nuanced characters acting out giant morality plays that always begin and end with a fight. Everything is over the top and Shakespearean, lending itself to tragedy and triumph in equal measure.
When it comes to wrestling in Canada and the United States, there are three big companies: the WWE, Impact Wrestling, and Lucha Underground. Lucha’s probably the best of them, but they’re given still competition from the WWE’s training league, the little promotion that can and always does, NXT.
On that note, there’s nothing bigger or grander in the world of professional wrestling than Wrestlemania, which hits its thirty-fourth show this year. Despite this, I’m much more looking forward to the big event of NXT the night before Wrestlemania, a little event called NXT Takeover: New Orleans.
NXT does a big show once every couple of months, an event where they bring stories to fruition and plant the seeds of what’s to come. They’re very good at this and it’s one of the reasons I prefer them to the main roster. I’m going to do my best to ignore the main roster for the purposes of this review and focus instead on the greatness of NXT.
Here we go…
World Championship Match: Andrade “Cien” Almas w/Zelina Vega vs. Aleister Black
Andrade Almas was kind of a joke. He was a skilled fighter from Mexico in who came to NXT on a losing streak and continued to lose, lose, lose. His girlfriend, Zelina Vega, got sick of it and took over managing him, firing his trainers and handling it all herself. She wouldn’t tolerate his shit and pushed him towards excellence, and if she pushed him into breaking the rules it didn’t matter because he was winning. Sure, he went from being sorta liked to being despised, but what did that matter? He won the world title and kept going, never looking back at what his success may have cost him.
He is also one half of the only match in about ten years to be rated five stars by wrestling’s only accredited journalist.
Aleister Black is kind of the opposite of Almas. He hails from Amsterdam and started murdering people with vicious kicks and surprising speed, carrying himself like an assassin straight out Hell. He is tiny but fierce, a strange presence that looms over everyone and legitimately looks like he’s trying to kill the people that cross him. He’s got a twisted sense of humor and a dark sort of honor and the crowd loves him, a mostly silent figure who has been, up until now, unbeatable.
Zelina worked to make Andrade a champion and continues to protect him as best she can, making it look like she’s doing most of the work. Aleister got here by murdering anyone else that had a chance of being in this match with those aforementioned vicious kicks. If Andrade is an unworthy king, a MacBeth propped up by his lady’s ambition, Aleister is a man of nightmares born, a MacDuff come straight from hell not for vengeance but as a force of nature.
Either one of them could win this, and either one winning should kick off a monstrous war between them. I’m pulling for Aleister, personally, but my favorites tend to skew dark.
Women’s Championship Match: Ember Moon vs. Shayna Baszler
To really get into this, we need to talk a little bit about women’s wrestling. NXT kickstarted a revolution in the division that was focused on a woman named Paige, who came from the UK and pushed the envelope of what women could do in the ring. She had a couple of decent feuds and became the most popular person on the NXT roster, necessitating the presence of a Women’s Title. When she got called up to the main roster, the division took off with some of the most dynamic and exciting performers on NXT’s roster, to the point where they were utterly overshadowing the men.
Most of those women – Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Asuka, Bayley, Alex Bliss, Charlotte Flair – were called up to the main roster. A new generation rose up to fill the void, including people like Nikki Cross, Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, and Ember Moon. That last one is billed as the War Goddess and lives up to the moniker, utterly destroying any opponent who isn’t named Asuka… or Shayna Baszler.
See, the WWE held a women’s wrestling tournament earlier in the year to showcase the best in women’s wrestling. The two finalists were Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler. Kairi is an adorable anime character brought to life who does crazy things in the ring (“Kairi no crazy,” quoth by fiancee, “Kairi Sane.”) won the tournament and Shayna’s hatred. Shayna is one of four fighters credited with making modern women’s MMA what it is, and she’s transitioning into wrestling by wrecking her opponents. She fought Ember and Ember barely survived. She went after Kairi and ruined her, then starting attacking other people on the roster and ruining them, too.
Her reign of destruction was mollified only when she was granted another shot at Ember for Takeover. Ember’s been coming in to try and manage the damage Shayna causes, but Shayna will only fight Ember when she’s allowed to do so. The crowd wants Ember to murder Shayna – they want her blood, and she’s the second most hated person on the roster. The thing is? No one thinks Ember can win this fight, including Ember herself.
This is a story of a champion standing against a force that cannot be stopped or reasoned with, a power that can only be survived and never truly beaten. Ember’s chances of survival are between slim and none, but she cannot back down – her soul is too noble for that, and while she may not win she is determined for Shayna to learn some humility.
And that may happen.
I just don’t think it will happen here.
Tag Team Championship Match: The Undisputed Era vs. The Authors of Pain vs. Roderick Strong & Pete Dunne
I got into wrestling through tag teams. There was a tag team called Strike Force back in the day, and I loved the way they told stories: their whole thing was confronting other people’s strengths and overcoming them. They eventually tried to outpower a team called Demolition and that was their end. It was beautiful storytelling. Tag teams in the WWE have languished over the past decade, with the notable standouts almost feeling like they have to buck the system to get the attention they deserve.
This has not been the case on NXT.
NXT has built and established tag teams that could be respected, teams with dignity and power and presence: the Wyatt Family, Graves and Neville, the Ascension, the Revival, #DIY, TM61. These are guys that would go out and bust their asses to give us fights full of heartbreak and pathos, to build characters that we care about and that the audience still remembers and adores.
The Authors of Pain are Akam and Rezar, though we tend to call them Tokka and Razar because we’re geeks and something good had to come from The Secret of the Ooze. They’re managed by Paul Ellering, the guy that also managed the Legion of Doom; he was placed with them to give them credibility as monsters, because the fact that they’re two huge guys that move like physics are afraid to tell them they can’t move like that apparently wasn’t monstrous enough. They came in and basically took the tag titles because they wanted them and held onto them until a team called Sanity (they have none, that’s the joke) cheated to beat them. They’ve lost two other times since then, bringing their grand total of losses up to three. Not bad for two guys that started in June of 2016.
Outside of the Ascension, the Authors of Pain are the biggest and best monster team NXT has ever had.
The Undisputed Era beat the guys that beat the Authors of Pain, basically by being massive dicks to everyone. They’re a trio of charismatic high-fliers who like to cheat as much as they can whenever possible and the crowd loves to hate them. Traditionally, the two that tag together are Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish, but Fish got real-life hurt and so third man Adam Cole might have to step in for him at Takeover. It doesn’t really matter, as all three are supremely talented and easy to hate and fun to watch.
It’s the last team, though, that carries it all together. Roderick Strong is basically Ryu from Street Fighter: a tough and dependable guy that can easily carry a promotion or be the face of a company. He’s talented, good at everything, and the Undisputed Era tried and failed to recruit him earlier. He joined the Authors of Pain to fight Sanity and the Undisputed Era about four months ago, and has been in contention for various titles since. The last time he fought and lost for a title was against a guy named Pete Dunne, but the two of them hit it off and became friends and now they’re fighting for tag team gold.
Once again, I love tag teams. I love all six of these guys. As much as I love the Authors of Pain as monsters I think their reign is over, but I can’t see the Undisputed Era giving up the titles here. Their arrogance and skill make for too heady a mix – they need someone that can challenge them from nowhere to show them up. Until some team comes along that can do that, the Undisputed Era should remain your Undisputed NXT Tag Team Champions.
North America Championship Match: Adam Cole vs. EC3 vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream
Oh, this weird, weird match.
So, first off: this is a brand new title. NXT is getting a secondary title for the guys to fight over, when both Bree and I would really like it if maybe the women had a tag division and the Iconic Duo would win the tag titles. I can’t complain though, because this match…
… is a ladder match. That’s the second thing. What that means is that they’re going to put the new title belt on a loop and suspend it high above the ring and six utter lunatics are going to do their best to climb a ladder and snatch it. Who are these lunatics?
Adam Cole is one of the previously mentioned members of the Undisputed Era, their nominal leader. He’s a talented and charismatic shitheel who reminds me way too much of heel Shawn Michaels, but without the drug problems and backstage issues that made Shawn such a troublemaker. He’s good verging on great.
EC3 is Ethan Carter the Third, a bonafide badass who was in the WWE before during the dark days of NXT, when it was mostly bullshit instead of the awesome that it has become. He left the company during the transition period and was picked up by Impact Wrestling, who made him their champion for a bit until Anthem bought the company and started pissing everyone off. NXT has made a pretty big deal about his return: he’s got a good luck, good skills in and out of the ring, and does everything well.
Killian Dain is what happens if you cover a thin layer of fat and hair over a thick layer of muscle. He’s big and powerful, shockingly fast and surprisingly skilled – built like a mutant samurai hamster and possessed of a weird charisma that makes him impossible not to notice. He’s a member of Sanity, who, once again, have none. Eric Young is apparently the leader of Sanity, but it’s Killian and Nikki who are probably the best parts of a disturbingly good stable.
Lars Sullivan is another big guy, but this one is nowhere near as mobile as Killian. He makes up for it with his character, a calm and polite man who flies into rages and sometimes destroys people because they’ve annoyed him, but we can move past that and be friends, right? He’s okay. He’s the one guy that I can say, with authority, who is not going to win this match and also shouldn’t. He’s pretty decent but everyone else in this match is better.
And the best two? The best two I’ve saved for last.
Ricochet was known as Prince Puma on Lucha Underground. He’s probably the best pure flier in the world right now, and his mat game and brawling are also incredible. He’s like a six demon bag all by himself – he can do things no one else can do, and he makes it look effortless. When some of the other guys on this list do a thing they make it look like they’re breaking the laws of physics, but Ricochet is so good that you get the impression that physics just kind of gets out of his way. He is a god amongst men and is one of the two guys I’d like to see win this match.
The other is the Velveteen Dream. You’ve seen Avatar: the Last Airbender, right? You know how the Avatar is reborn from one life to the next, the soul of the world contained and moving through a cycle? The Velveteen Dream is the new incarnation of Prince. He’s young and new at this, a homegrown WWE guy, and when I have friends over to watch NXT they immediately fall in love with him and start asking about him because he’s just that fucking good.
So, all six of these guys are going to try and steal a ladder, put in the middle of the ring, climb it, and grab that belt. Chaos will ensue. Ladder matches are always fun. Most of these guys are going to be looking to make a name for themselves and the stories that should come out of it should be just as good.
You Broke My Heart Forever Match: Johnny Gargano vs. Tomasso Ciampa
Every single match on this card is something that I’m looking forward to. I need to say that off the bat: NXT doesn’t waste anyone’s time, and even their comedy matches tend to be pure fucking gold. That said, there is no match I am looking forward to (with the possible exception of Daniel Bryan’s return match) than this one.
Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa came in a couple years ago after traveling the world. They had open contracts but were instantly over with the fans, wrestling as a tag team called simply #DIY. They had a goofy sense of humor and were pranksters who could just goddamn go in the ring, using a combination of high-flying, striking, submission, and technical wrestling to tear through the competition. They had a few matches with a team called the Revival that pretty much set the bar for how good tag matches could be.
They signed onto NXT full time and were given and seized one opportunity after the next, always backing one another up, always fighting together, and just generally being two of the most beloved people in the promotion. Johnny picked up the nickname Johnny Wrestling because he’s just that damn good. Tomasso picked up the nickname Psycho Killer because he’s goddamn nuts.
To prove that madness, he betrayed his best friend Johnny Wrestling and tried to kill him, leaving his carcass for dead. He then suffered an actual injury and Johnny recovered, came back, and got enmeshed in a war for the NXT Title with Andrade Almas. Remember that five-star match I mentioned? That war culminated with that match. Johnny Wrestling came within inches of winning it, but victory was snatched from him.
And as he was coming to terms with that, Tomasso returned and tried to kill him again.
Johnny got one more shot at Andrade, putting his career on the line. Tomasso interfered there, too, costing Johnny the match, the title, the career. He’s come out to explain his actions a couple times as of this writing and the crowd won’t let him speak. The boo him, hate him like they hate no one else. Traitor. Monster. Psycho Killer.
This match hasn’t been announced yet but it’s going to happen. Johnny’s going to go off to the main roster and will have awesome matches there I hope. Tomasso will probably stick around a little longer, and the promise of an Aleister Black / Tomasso Ciampa match is too good to pass up. My heart says that Johnny should win and avenge himself, but my head knows that Tomasso is going to win and go on a reign of terror the likes of which no one has ever seen before.
Whatever. This is going to be amazing.