After a few weeks of “filler” episodes, NXT gets back into the groove of things, in a time when it couldn’t be more welcome. WWE’s main roster just got through Money In The Bank, which makes it officially on the unofficial road to SummerSlam. The NXT Championship is going to be defended in Japan. Kevin Owens is making waves on both rosters, (mostly) subverting expectations about what him being in WWE means. To add to the chorus of everyone who talks about “this business” regularly, wrestling is having a kind of resurgence right now. It’s not as “cool” as it was in the ‘90s, and it may never be again, but things are changing—for the better, mostly—and it’s exciting to be watching all of it.* There’s more content than ever before, and as we all know, it’s all about content these days.
The main attraction of this particular show is the one-on-one match between Kevin Owens and Samoa Joe, and with something like that, there’s no need to think of weeks of terrible Jason Jordan promos and Elias Samson’s existence as a pre-crisis Damien Sandow. Those things are able to keep the show afloat, but when the big boys (and girls) are playing in NXT, the differences are glaring. There doesn’t even need to be that big of a show—this is a weekly episode, not a TakeOver special, after all. It all just happens to come together when there’s even just one thing that’s a big deal. NXT typically does well when it comes to building to matches, and that’s another thing the higher profile NXT Superstars tend to have over the Performance Center all-stars. A thrown together tag match with Jason Jordan and Marcus Louis means nothing, even with a week of “build-up.”
Case in point, just from the lower part of the card, NXT opens with the 6-person tag match (not thrown together by GM William Regal at the top of the show, mind you) between Enzo/Big Cass/Carmella and Blake/Murphy/Alexa Bliss. It’s a program that continues the former’s meteoric rise as the people who actually exemplify staying hyped in NXT and the latter’s rise as the people who… look stupid. They’re really good at looking really stupid (Blake and Murphy are—Alexa looks fine), and the fact that they even acknowledge it makes it part of the show and their characters instead of just the absurd elephant in the bland room. The pre-match promo from forgotten Star Wars characters Enzo, Cass, and Carmella is just another reminder that this trio has charisma to spare, and one can only hope that it eventually translates to the main roster. Just seeing how they have the Full Sail audience in the palm of their hands, imagining it with thousands more is simply breath-taking. It also distracts greatly from the fact that Carmella still isn’t that great in the ring (too many low kicks) and probably isn’t going to get “Bye, Felicia” over as a catchphrase.
Byron Saxton actually makes an aside on commentary about the “it” factor and how Blake and Murphy have taken to calling it the “Blake and Murphy factor,” saying the line as straight as you possibly can. This week’s NXT does well to remind the viewing audience—and embrace the fact—that there is a whole world outside of WWE, so it’s next to impossible not to see this as anything but a pointed comment about criticism of Blake and Murphy being the weirdest real life create-a-wrestlers ever. Of all the NXT roster members with significant focus, Blake and Murphy are perhaps the ones with the least “it” factor (or je ne sais quoi, if you will), with their only competition in that race being Baron Corbin or Bull Dempsey (if you count him as having “significant” focus). The NXT tag team division, for quite a time, was the Ascension, the Lucha Dragons, the Vaudevillains, and Enzo and Big Cass. Those are all larger than life tag team gimmicks, though the former two had/have their own major weaknesses. Even doing more to stick out, Blake and Murphy don’t have defined gimmick. Unless you consider “douchebros who definitely saw the Entourage movie on opening night and probably made Alexa Bliss pay” a defined gimmick, but that’s perhaps too advanced for WWE TV.
Charlotte’s match with new developmental signee Cassie is simply an enhancement match to keep the former busy while Dana Brooke is offscreen moisturizing and listening to Pink albums, but it’s not a complete dud. The match itself is more of a heel performance from Charlotte, which I’ve seen some people point out as being peculiar, but a post-BFF Charlotte has always been one of the best (if not the best) examples of a tweener in current WWE. Even when she’s helping Bayley—the best person in the world—she’s still not exactly a good person. She always goes around talking about how she’s “genetically superior” and cribs from her (kayfabe) dirtbag father all the time. She is actually extremely gifted, so it’s not like she has to resort to shifty heel tactics when she actually is one, but she’ll still mock her opponent when she’s face, because she’s a Flair. It’s an interesting dynamic for a WWE Diva to have (as to opposed to the entire main roster’s “characterization” of Divas), and it’s also one that distracts from the fact Charlotte continues to live a role as NXT’s equivalent of Wooderson from Dazed And Confused.
There appears to be a feud happening between her and Dana Brooke, but watching the two of them work on this particular episode (and every episode) is like night and day. And in Dana Brooke’s instance, night and day is the movie Knight And Day; that’s how different the playing fields they’re on are. The Dana Brooke interview ends with a patented head pat to Devin, which has become the only legitimately good part about Brooke’s whole schtick (because of how alien it is). But it also begins and continues with a real problem: If Dana Brooke isn’t reading her promo off cue cards or a teleprompter, then she’s even worse than I (or anyone) imagined at this whole sports entertaining thing. The simplest way to explain what’s wrong with Miss Brooke’s entire presentation is in pointing out that every backstage interview she has with Devin only makes it clear that Devin is a superior actor and character. And that’s not even Devin’s job on NXT TV.
But seriously, she’s definitely staring at cue cards or a teleprompter.
Then there’s the main event, Joe versus Owens. The commentary states the obvious immediately: “This is a main event anywhere on the planet.” It absolutely is. To beat the independent wrestling drum once more, this is easily a Ring Of Honor main event in an alternate timeline. This was a Pro Wrestling Guerrilla main event in 2005. And it’s different from Owens’ other matches from the jump, since as soon as Owens pulls the opening bell retreat, Joe is right there outside the ring, in his face. On paper, it’s a battle of two like wrestlers—incredibly agile big men, men who Scott Steiner has shouted or would shout “he’s fat” about. Joe is more of a technical wrestler and Owens a brawler, but in the match itself, they both just try to best the other with their agile power moves. Every time Owens gets the upper hand, his bravado comes out, in the form of “The Champ Is Here” or “This Is My House” or “I’m The Champ.” When Joe gets the upper hand, he doesn’t have to say anything, because his actions speak louder than his words. There’s never a question of if Owens will finally get Joe right where he wants him. But once he does, he finally believes in his own false underestimation of his own opponent, yells out “GET THE STRETCHER,” and allows Joe to get out of it.
The match end devolves into a No Contest, which is honestly the most natural progression of this. Part of this is simply because of Owens’ work on the main roster and not being able to mess with the narrative too much in NXT. The other part is that Owens/Joe shouldn’t just be a regular NXT episode match. That’s why there are TakeOver specials and televised trips to Japan. Joe/Angle I happened in TNA nine years ago, and it’s nice to know something was learned in the wrestling industry after that. The image of Joe and Owens having to constantly be pulled a part from each other, with Owens just wrecking Performance Center geeks is quite the fitting ending for the show anyway, much more than a decisive win would have been.
Even with that main event, which is really a taste of what’s to come, the best part of the show is surprisingly one that’s not even wrestling. It’s part one of “Who Is Finn Balor?” a mini-documentary within NXT that is treated with the gravitas of any other WWE documentary. As I mentioned above, NXT (and as a result, its successful Superstars that move up) is allowed to acknowledge its stars’ pasts. To hear the name “Fergal Devitt” on WWE programming, multiple times, is already such a bizarre experience. But then to see footage from Insane Championship Wrestling and Revolution Pro Wrestling UK—footage that includes someone who should be on WWE’s radar, Ricochet—is stunning. Much like the show’s main event, it’s simply surreal. And it’s captivating.
As I’ve said on more than one occasion, the original NXT would have taken something like this and spat on it. Michael Cole would have made weekly “jokes” about the name “Fergal Devitt” and the internet geeks who liked him. But now, WWE embraces it and stays out of its own way. To people who have followed Devitt’s/Balor’s career, it’s really the ultimate treat. To those just getting in the game, it shows that this and he are a big deal. Things are a big deal in NXT, and things like this prove that. Plus, it continues the transformation of Becky Lynch from “Becky was there too!” to someone you can’t help but feel an emotional connection to, no matter what she’s doing. Becky crying as she talks about how Balor changed and saved her life is the type of thing that just makes you want to put her on a rocket ship over the glass ceiling to a land of brass rings.
You know why? Because it’s real. Finn Balor was a kid with a good upbringing who has a demon inside of him. And it’s somehow real. It’s what gets people to latch on to certain wrestlers in an earnest fashion. Kevin Owens is real, and that’s why he’s the perfect opponent to John Cena on the main roster. Hideo Itami and Sami Zayn are real, and that’s why it’s such a blow that they’re out on injury. Enzo, Cass, and Carmella are a bunch of loudmouth cartoons, and yet, they’re legitimately the realest guys in the rooms. It’s something that’s hard to teach in the Performance Center. It may sound ridiculous to talk about reality in terms of a scripted, pre-determined sport (outside of Total Divas), but it’s true. This week’s NXT brought back the realness, and it was refreshing.
- RESULTS: Enzo Amore/Big Cass/Carmella defeated Blake/Murphy/Alexa Bliss; Charlotte defeated Cassie; Kevin Owens versus Samoa Joe went to No Contest
- *I realize the irony of me preaching the freshness of pro wrestling these days, including WWE, when I just recently decided to take a break from main roster WWE, but you know I’ve also written extensively about how emotionally abusive the relationship between WWE and a fan can be. I left a break (of about two months at that point) from WWE to start covering it for The A.V. Club in the first place, so I was really just prolonging the inevitable. Much thanks goes to Kyle Fowle for doing all he can to help me out with this and keep me sane.
- Just a reminder: If you want wrestling coverage that’s not just Monday Night RAW to continue, please share and get the word out about these reviews. If you don’t, well then I guess I misread a lot of comments on the RAW reviews.
- “Stupid Pigtails” and “Chinlock City” are the best chants to come from the Full Sail audience in a while.
- Charlotte’s spear on Cassie looked BRUTAL.