As you probably already know, NXT has now put on its seventh TakeOver special, Respect (or R-espect, as yours truly can’t help but call it). Yes, seventh. So at this point, I’m no longer trying to sell anyone on the very concept of NXT as a wrestling “company” or an in-house alternative to main roster WWE. I’ve done that plenty (and will continue to do so elsewhere), and NXT can and does sell itself all on its own. Instead, I’d rather this be a celebration of what the people watching the special—whether it’s their first time seeing NXT or their 300th or so—have witnessed. This is a TakeOver special centered around the very concept of respect, with the opening package calling it “the ultimate prize;” and while that might feel perfectly normal for professional wrestling (Ring Of Honor was founded on that, after all), it’s something that’s sorely missing in main roster WWE. There, feuds can’t be based on respect and competition or even just a desire for championship belt or trophy and to prove oneself as the best. So when NXT makes respect the entire linchpin of one of its major shows, it’s worth mentioning and discussing. NXT TakeOver: Respect works so well for a lot of reasons, but ultimately, it’s a two-hour example of what people want but don’t get on typical WWE pay-per-views (and the main shows as a whole). What makes NXT TakeOver: Respect (and the other TakeOver specials) so, well, special is that it’s a one-of-a-kind type of wrestling show within its own company.

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That’s not just due to the fact that the main event is a 30-minute Iron Man match between two women for the highest honor in their division. There’s also the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, a tribute tournament that makes all the sense in the world being on NXT but one would think would also extend to the main roster. There are the best matches of Dana Brooke and Baron Corbin’s careers so far, which plead the case for being a homegrown talent from the Performance Center. There are lower card wrestlers actually getting over despite losing to main event players. Up is up and down is down, and it’s so amazing.

The Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic has been one of the best, most original things to happen to NXT in a while, both as a tribute to the late, great Dusty Rhodes and as a point of focus for tag team wrestling in NXT. For all of NXT’s strengths, especially in the typically underdeveloped women’s division, the tag team division has always been the weakest part of the whole operation. For whatever reason, while the rest of NXT easily navigated its way through professional wrestling evolution under the umbrella of WWE television, the tag team division remained as weak as its main roster counterpart.

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Then, even with the main roster tag team division firing up, NXT remained the same, typically only focusing on two teams at a time: the champions and the challengers. The Ascension were the longest reigning NXT Tag Team Champions, and they were never particularly good wrestlers or characters. But this tag team-specific tournament has managed to invigorate the division, has helped certain teams get over (if nothing else, this TakeOver special does wonders for Jordan/Gable and Wilder/Dawson’s credibility moving forward, especially the latter), and be fun. Remember fun? That’s the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic’s mission statement throughout, and it certainly nails it all in this TakeOver special.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: It’s certainly a bummer (for a lack of a better word) that a “real” tag team doesn’t make it to the finals of the Classic. Tag team psychology is an upsettingly lost art, and the argument that an actual, well-oiled tag team should almost always beat two singles stars is absolutely valid. In fact, based on that line of thinking alone, Corbin and Rhyno probably should have failed early on in the Classic, simply for being two lone wolves who don’t play well with others (and all of those other cliches) going up against actual teams. But it’s hard to deny the quality of either of the Semi-Final matches.

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Jason Jordan and Chad Gable are shining stars, and there is almost nothing better than the Full Sail crowd (who are very far from terrible this time around) chanting “GA-BLE” to the tune of Kurt Angle’s WWE entrance theme. Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder are a team who have been praised by every veteran who has any clue who they are, and honestly, they’re the real deal with it comes to old school, “working a limb until it falls off” wrestling. Plus, if we want to talk ring awareness, I’m fairly certain they know the secret to being everywhere at once. Finn Balor and Samoa Joe always made sense moving on to the Finals, but it ends up being a great idea because of the story it tells with Finn’s injured leg—which he only exacerbates because he can’t help but showboat and be the star.

As for Baron Corbin and Rhyno, the important half of that team is the Corbin of it all, and he definitely puts in the work during this special to make it all okay that he and Rhyno end up in the Finals over a real tag team. (But really, Jordan and Gable will be absolutely fine.) It’s obvious now that a tag team is definitely the best option right now for Corbin’s in-ring skills and general presence (which finally came across when he goes head-to-head with the broken Balor) improving, so hopefully the partnership with Rhyno doesn’t end with the Classic. Seconds-long squash matches didn’t do anything for him, and boring one-on-one matches only showed slight improvement. Corbin looks the best he has ever looked in the ring (wrestling-wise) on this TakeOver.

So one can only hope the powers that be don’t Roman Reigns him and assume that a good tag team understanding will translate into a similar single career immediately.

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As for singles careers, Tyler Breeze remains in one where he just can’t win at TakeOver specials. I’ve written plenty of words about Breeze’s unenviable position in previous TakeOver write-ups, but I will comment on the fact that the commentary team (Byron) basically give away that Crews is 100 per cent winning as soon as his winning streak (which isn’t even really important to his character) is brought up. That happens when he’s entering the ring.

Obviously, the odds were highly in Crews’ favor going in, but based on how increasingly frustrated Breeze is getting with these constant losses, it’s amazing we have yet to see him truly snap and pull off a terribly heel victory. Well, there’s always next TakeOver. (And the one after that, and the one after that…) Despite the match result, it was impossible for Breeze versus Crews to be anything other than good; and it ends up being a match full of smart wrestling from Breeze, who knows the way to potentially beat Crews is to wind him and take his back out, and Crews, who finds a way to work around that and his inability to do his standing moonsault finisher. This TakeOver is actually a pretty good showcase for both Balor and Crews in terms of their selling; they’re two guys who have been criticized plenty for their lack of selling, but while Balor’s selling is crucial to the entire tournament, Crews completely drops his as soon as he wins and it’s time to smile. It’s the little things, you know? Luckily, that’s what developmental is for.

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As for the first women’s match of the night, Asuka versus Dana Brooke is very much a (barely) veiled squash match, and it’s one of the biggest reminders of how NXT does things main roster can’t even do anymore. I’m actually not talking about giving women actual personalities, characterization, and motivations. When there’s a match on the main roster (on RAW or SmackDown, not Main Event or Superstars), and you see Heath Slater/Jack Swagger/Zack Ryder (it might just be a conspiracy against “-er” last names…) on one side of the ring, you know the result, and there’s no reason to watch the match at all. Here, you know the result—even more than in the case of Breeze versus Crews—but the last thing you’ll want to do is skip the match because of that. It’s Dana Brooke’s best match, and it’s not just because of Asuka.

Of course, NXT doesn’t always do these sorts of squash matches: Baron Corbin and The Ascension proved that. But think about all the times Tye Dillinger had an entrance and a decent lengthed match before his 10 gimmick kicked in. Dana Brooke is far more established as a character in this case than Dillinger was then, so of course there’s at least going to be an illusion of a real fight and something up her and Emma’s sleeves. Their heel tactics don’t work at all, but they easily could if Asuka weren’t going through the match as the personification of the Beyonce lyrics “You must not know ‘bout me.” The match works really well because it finally—and somewhat subtly—incorporates Dana Brooke’s gymnastic talents into her in-ring work. Brooke lets Asuka flip her around like a Brawlin Buddy, and it finally clicks that while Brooke may not being the greatest wrestler (though her selling has always been her best asset), she can be a terrific base for other wrestlers. That’s most likely why behind-the-scenes bits (like on Tough Enough) have her as the training Diva, like Jason Jordan.

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The thing about NXT still technically being a developmental show is that, if you’re not close-minded, it’s actually great to witness that moment when things finally start to click for a performer, even if you didn’t (or don’t) like them or were hard on them before. Dana Brooke may need to stay away from whoever does her make-up, but she has a delightfully strange charisma and is clearly getting better all-around as time passes. There’s really no reason to want greener people to fail on NXT, because that failure isn’t going to do anything but make the product that you’re watching less enjoyable. Except for maybe Eva Marie, but that’s a long conversation for another time. (And it’s not so much “fail” as it is “have an epiphany re: choice in career.”)

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Then there’s the last women’s match of the night, which just so happens to be the main event of the entire show. I’ll be honest: The Iron Man match is obviously a good match if you haven’t seen the match from TakeOver: Brooklyn, but it’s really a great match if you do have that context. It’s a match that doesn’t so much feel like a sequel to the original match as it does a legitimate continuation. It’s a match where proper build-up includes high school essays from both female participants about how this right here is their dream. It’s a match that reminds people that when wrestling’s bad, it’s pretty damn bad; but when wrestling’s good, it can damn well be great. The crowd at Full Sail aren’tt chanting “THIS IS AWESOME” and “THIS IS WRESTLING” and “YOU DESERVE IT” and “MATCH OF THE YEAR” just to be ironic. They mean every single chant during this match, and they should.

Earlier today, I ended up watching the WWE Rivalries episode for Trish Stratus and Lita, and if there’s not a future where the same treatment is given to Sasha Banks and Bayley, then we’ll all know WWE has failed them completely. If this match isn’t in the history books, then what is even the point of said books?

Seriously, just take a moment to absorb what this match means, to Sasha and Bayley, to WWE and wrestling as a whole, to a little girl like Izzy who sees these women as heroes. Personally speaking, as someone who latched onto Sasha Banks when she was cosplaying as AJ Lee and jobbing to Audrey Marie (remember her?) and hoped against hope that her promo training Boss character (which highly cribbed off of R&B Divas’ Keke, by the way) would succeed, I’m still in awe every time I see how far she’s come. She’s only 23, and I actually think she might be a wrestling genius. As for Bayley, it’s a scenario where I think you have to be an idiot if it ever comes to screwing up a character as good and pure as her, someone who is the babyface WWE likes to pretend John Cena is. My own mother went into watching NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn thinking Bayley (who she had no real knowledge of) was corny and came out applauding her as a brand new Bayley fan. (She also spent most of the Sasha/Bayley match in this TakeOver commenting on Bayley’s newly-formed abs, because how could anyone ignore them?) This is the Divas Revolution, full stop. It’s not hashtags or never-ending tag matches or mandated teams or whatever else the main roster gives the audience to complain about on a near daily basis.

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This match draws so much from Bayley, Sasha, and the audience’s memories of that first match, and it does so perfectly. Remember how Sasha broke Bayley over and over again in that first match? She tries to do it again, but Bayley gives it right back, because she definitely hasn’t forgotten either. This is a match that’s built on mutual respect, but it’s also a match where winning is so important that said respect is thrown out by Sasha Banks the first chance she gets. And if, for some reason, you weren’t already sold on the heel and face dynamics of Sasha and Bayley before this match, I can only hope this is the match that changes your mind. Sasha throws Bayley into an LED display, then makes a little girl cry, and puts the whole crowd firmly on Bayley’s side. Without ever betraying herself, Bayley gets revenge for the damage Sasha did to in Brooklyn. Sasha collapses in front of the entire NXT roster right after losing. Bayley gets her own moment alone in the ring to celebrate in front of the Full Sail crowd. It’s a beautiful match and a beautiful end to this storyline and this special.

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Bayley deserves it. Sasha deserves it. All that’s left to be said is: Thank you.

Stray Observations

  • RESULTS: Finn Balor/Samoa Joe defeated Dash Wilder/Scott Dawson (Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Semi-Finals); Baron Corbin/Rhyno defeated Jason Jordan/Chad Gable (Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Semi-Finals); Asuka defeated Dana Brooke; Apollo Crews defeated Tyler Breeze; Finn Balor/Samoa Joe defeated Baron Corbin/Rhyno (Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Finals); Bayley (c) defeated Sasha Banks (30-Minute Iron Man)
  • “Dash and Dawson” may be alliteration, but it doesn’t make sense for their team name and it never will. It’s DASH Wilder and Scott DAWSON. Pick a name scheme for your tag teams, NXT! (This does not mean “add ‘Team’ to their name.”)
  • I spent the majority of the latest Nia Jax promo making dumb notes about her not being like most girls because she is a natural disaster, but then “coming soon” turned into “next week,” and now I’m really excited. I don’t even know how I’ll react if she’s as terrible in the ring as she is in these “ominous” promos, but I think I might guffaw.
  • By the way, my mother has only seen a handful of Samoa Joe matches—all in NXT—but she’s made up her mind on him. “This guy’s got some skills.” That was the moment Booker T possessed my mom, I guess.
  • Baron Corbin Girl remains as irritating as ever. There were moments (during the Finals, especially) where I would find myself really appreciating the heat Corbin was building… and then that woman would shriek for him. It’s alright to boo a favorite when he’s a heel.
  • After her “hyena”/“hy-heena” bit (“That’s how she says it.”), I had been brainstorming a Britta Perry-like gimmick for Dana Brooke, but since I’m pretty sure Asuka may have actually killed her, all of my ideas may be useless.

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