With Kevin Owens presumably going through a transitional period, one where he moves from being on both NXT and Raw every single week to just being on the main roster, NXT finds itself in a bit of a tough spot. Owens is at the top of his game right now, and having that kind of talent on NXT every week, especially when guys like Sami Zayn and Hideo Itami are sidelined with injuries, is immensely important. WWE has too much of a good thing right now in Owens; it’s a good problem to have, but one that also means the whole show is in flux.

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That’s been true ever since Owens debuted really, and maybe even a bit before that. As an audience we had gotten used to seeing much of the same talent week in and week out, and had been conditioned to seeing the same talent wrestling in the main events. Since Owens won the NXT Championship from Sami Zayn a few months ago, NXT has been working to build a feud that can rival the great Zayn-Neville feud that culminated in Owens’ debut. It looked like that feud was going to be Zayn-Owens, but that’s on the backburner now, which is a shame because they might not meet again for quite some time. (Can you imagine a feud between those two done properly on the main roster though, leading up to a huge Wrestlemania moment?).

With Zayn on the sidelines, it’s Finn Bálor stepping up to challenge the tyrannical reign of Owens. Initially, their feud felt lackluster, nowhere near as packed with history and emotion as Zayn-Owens. To WWE’s credit though it’s done a remarkable job of building up Bálor as the next big thing. With tonight’s second video package (there’s a third to come next week), NXT has built a feud without really having its two competitors go at one another.

Owens has the built in backstory of being a prizefighter, as the guy who’s put NXT talent on the injured reserve. Now Bálor has backstory and motivation too. He’s not just the guy who turns into a demon when he needs a big performance. He’s the guy who’s was treated like royalty in Japan, has a killer six-pack, plays with Lego, wears Adventure Time t-shirts, and only has WWE to check off of his list of professional wrestling accomplishments. He’s relatable now in a way that he wasn’t before, and that immediately injects stakes into the Championship match on July 4th. Meanwhile, Owens just keeps doing this thing. He’s the best at everything: he kills it on commentary during the main event between Bálor and Rhyno, and even turns a promo flub into a solid insult towards Itami during the episode’s opening segment. It’s astonishing to watch someone take an opportunity afforded them and just completely exceed expectations. That’s not to say nobody expected Owens to be great­–most of us did–but nobody could have predicted just how great he would be once he arrived in NXT and on the main roster.

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Outside of the Bálor video package and the main event finish, where Owens and Rhyno beat up on Bálor before Samoa Joe comes to his rescue, tonight’s NXT is a lot of filler. There isn’t a lot in terms of furthering or establishing feuds, but there’s still some great wrestling. Cass and Enzo are still enjoying that massive push towards the tag titles, and they’re certainly taking advantage of the opportunity. Their entrance insult promos are still hit and miss, but there’s no denying their charisma, Carmella included. On top of that, Cass is proving himself to be a legit talent. He’s got the look, the moves, and the mic skills. He doesn’t always get to do a lot in the ring, but man, he’s a beast when he does. If he manages to keep everything together, to keep the momentum going and reach that next level, WWE can start printing money with his face on it.

Less exciting is a match between Dana Brooke and Cassie. In some ways, Brooke is improving. Her in-ring work isn’t actively terrible anymore, but it’s still a long way from being compelling. Part of the problem is that she just seems incapable of telling a story in the ring. She probably has the athletic talent, but she’s lacking in just about every other aspect of being a professional wrestler. Her match with Cassie is fine, but just barely. Brooke’s offense is clunky and she doesn’t sell very well, so there’s only so much compelling drama to be wrung from that.

At least Zack Ryder and Mojo Rawley are back again to amp up the crowd. The newly christened Hype Bros fly through a match against Sawyer Fulton and Angelo Dawkins. It’s a serviceable match, just like their last one. The Hype Bros are just working on getting their stuff in, getting the crowd familiar with how they work and what their tag team dynamic looks like. Their gimmick is a little much, in my opinion, but the two mostly work well together; plus, I’m a big fan of tag team finishers that involve both partners, and that Ruff Ryder finisher looks great.

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Ultimately, this is a solid episode of NXT, one where there’s a bunch of great wrestling anchored by the furthering of the Bálor-Owens feud. Credit where credit is due: NXT has taken a potentially disastrous situation (the slew of injuries and general flux of the roster) and managed to churn out another compelling battle for the NXT Championship. A few weeks back I wasn’t too excited to see Bálor become the number one contender (poor Tyler Breeze!). Now I’m all in on him as the next champ. That is, if he can get through the man who can do no wrong right now: Kevin Owens.

Stray observations

  • Results: Cass and Enzo defeated Sylvester Lefort and Jason Jordan; Dana Brooke defeated Cassie; The Hype Bros defeated Sawyer Fulton and Angelo Dawkins; Finn Bálor defeated Rhyno.
  • LaToya abandoned you all again this week to go see Nate Ruess in concert and presumably pal around with Lena Dunham. Make sure to tell her how you feel about that when she’s back next week.
  • I know it wasn’t meant to, but that Eva Marie backstage segment with Reagal had some awkward sexual undertones to it.
  • Perfect, another Dusty Rhodes tribute to make me cry. I thought I was good until I saw tears streaming down Kevin Owens’ face. I can’t handle that!
  • Are you kidding me with Finn Bálor in an Adventure Time shirt? A man after my own heart.
  • WHY DOES GREG STAND BEHIND EVERYONE HE INTERVIEWS?!?!?!
  • Those Bull Dempsey pics were kind of repetitive, but the Breeze one was gold.
  • I mentioned it a bit above, but it’s insane how good Owens is at getting the crowd to do what he wants. That promo flub into “I sound like Hideo trying to speak English” was great. Is there anything this guy can’t handle?
  • Also, gotta love Owens getting that Fourth of July, Canadian heat. As a fellow Canuck, I appreciated that.

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