When the current version of NXT debuted in August 2012, it was fresh off the heels of a little something called NXT: Redemption, one of the most bizarre programs WWE has ever had the pleasure of letting exist (or forgetting existed, based on the circumstances). The original version of NXT was a ridiculous game show that “exposed the business” and made the fans who would watch a weekly game show within the confines of a pre-determined “sport” feel like garbage for rooting for “nerds” and “indy darlings” like Daniel Bryan or AJ Lee (who eventually became huge WWE stars) instead of blank slates like Alex Riley or Lucky Cannon (who didn’t). For a frame of reference, for the longest time, perennial WWE joke (for all of his talent) Heath Slater had the best win-loss of any rookie in the first season of NXT, and Daniel Bryan was 0 and 10 in the entire show. From the commentary to the competitions to the matches, NXT was an experiment in shooting oneself in the foot.

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By the time the fifth season of the show—Redemption, where losing rookies came back for, well, you know what—came along, the show was already on its last legs, moved from Syfy to the WWE website and really just a joke of a show. As the season continued and the quest for Redemption points became one-sided (points for cheap pops instead of skill saw Titus O’Neil “finish” the season with 45 Redemption points), things started getting weird. NXT: Redemption became like the Lost island, with everyone trying to find a way off and failing miserably. Derrick Bateman, one of the biggest balls WWE ever dropped, once did a Glee style into to an episode, as though it were totally normal. Fandango (then Johnny Curtis) was the biggest slime ball ever, with a van and chloroform on hand, and it worked. Maxine (who you may now know as Catrina on Lucha Underground) was the MVP of the entire season, and she somehow wasn’t skryocketed to top Diva tier after that. Watching all 67 episodes of NXT: Redemption was like watching WWE accidentally do some hipster comedy bit for 67 weeks that neither Vince McMahon nor anyone with any real power knew was happening. (The JBL & Renee Show on the WWE Youtube channel is also like that, but it’s not exactly a canonical WWE wrestling show.)

Upon cancellation of Redemption, the last few episodes lost the narrative thread of the show, instead acting like another version of WWE Superstars. But then came NXT as we know it today, from the developmental ashes of Florida Championship Wrestling, FCW.

It’s obviously not a game show, but at this point, especially after seeing another one of its TakeOver specials, it’s insulting to call it “developmental.” The WWE Performance Center itself is developmental. NXT house shows may also be developmental. The NXT that airs every Wednesday on the WWE Network is not developmental. For the most part, if you’re on weekly NXT shows, you’re ready for TV, and that’s the big time.

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If you’re a WWE fan who hasn’t yet joined the cult of NXT—or a person who knows nothing about WWE but knows even less about NXT—there’s a host of reasons why NXT is often touted as being the best WWE program there is and sometimes even the best wrestling show on television (though the argument of Lucha Underground usually comes up, because if there’s one thing wrestling fans love other than wrestling, it’s arguing about wrestling). It’s got some of the best wrestling and wrestlers on “TV,” doing it up big for an audience of millions, just like the main shows. To be perfectly honest, it really is better than the main shows.

That’s where the “developmental” moniker comes into play again, because it feels sacrilegious or simply glib to call what is the second tier show of WWE—it doesn’t even have a cable deal like RAW or SmackDown—better than the main shows. But the thing is, NXT exists where pro wrestling is still about pay-offs; in fact, it’s still about pro-wrestling. Turns and gimmicks aren’t held off until the last possible minute and then blown-off on the WWE app or in a pre-show or a random SmackDown match no one will see. NXT is a world where the women or Divas or whatever you want to call them could and can easily main event the shows, because they’re real people, character, and sports entertainers. NXT is where the tag team division… Well, WWE still has no idea how to handle tag team wrestling, and that’s also trickled down to NXT. When Vince McMahon talks about storytelling and brass ring grabbing on the main roster, it’s actually the NXT roster that’s doing it all. That’s because, simply put, Vince McMahon isn’t the one running NXT. He’s not micromanaging it and literally flipping the script at the last minute or during the show. Just like in the game show days. That’s Triple H’s job, and he’s doing a fine one at that.

And while the NXT of old spat in the face of fans of independent wrestling and the nerds who couldn’t make the cut, current NXT embraces them, as that is where their current stars—and decidedly, the stars of WWE’s future (and now, present)—came from. Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, Hideo Itami, Uhaa Nation, and now, Samoa Joe. They were the second rate talents who couldn’t cut it in WWE. Look at them now. What once was a hindrance to getting over in WWE—being an indy darling—is now the greatest asset one can have. To any fan of independent wrestling who has ever been mocked for thinking guys like this could hang in the big leagues, now is the time to say “I told you so” (withing reason).

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It’s not just the indy darlings though. NXT and WWE’s Performance Center are doing wonders for making something out of nothing, which has always been a developmental problem in the days of OVW and FCW. The NXT TakeOver specials are the culmination of all of that, as they’re a reminder that the future is here, and if WWE will allow it, it’s bright.

Now, to talk about that future.

First impressions are always the lasting impressions, and TakeOver clearly knows that, if the first match with Tyler Breeze and Finn Balor any indication. A previous TakeOver special saw Tyler Breeze come to the ring with a “fan” from the audience grabbing him for dear life because she was just so overcome by his beauty. This TakeOver special sees him come to the ring after an impromptu fashion show from a bunch of ladies dressed like Tyler Breeze, because why wouldn’t it? It’s a “This is awesome” moment, and it’s literally just walking.

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Then Finn Balor enters with an evolved version of his demon look, complete with wings and spikes, and Tyler Breeze gets cast aside yet again. That’s perhaps his fate while still in NXT (and the fate for a lot of wrestlers who don’t have the international resume coming into the game), as Tyler Breeze has fallen into a pattern of being great… but not great enough in comparison the independent wrestlers who jumped the line into stardom. Tyler Breeze is ready for the main WWE roster and has been for quite some time; when people talk about the “WWE Style” of wrestling, the only example you need to pick out of a line-up is Tyler Breeze. He’s a guy who “gets it” and has worked hard to do so. He’s constantly evolving, when it would be so easy to stay the same or just in a holding pattern until the call-up to the big shows happens. Everyone compares everyone to Shawn Michaels, but Tyler Breeze is one of those guys who actually deserves the comparison.

But the one problem is, the main roster may just not be ready for Tyler Breeze.

His gimmick is a male model. He has a high pitched voice, wears fur, and cares about his looks more than anything else. If you don’t think the same commentary team that thinks butt cheek kissing and the phrase “Suzy Chapstick” are hilarious or John Cena (or even Dolph Ziggler, despite the irony) is going to tear Tyler Breeze apart, I can’t say that’s optimism as much as it is naivete or even absolute blindness. Even without the obvious hyper-masculinity problems, there’s still the fact that main roster WWE can’t fight the urge to make things “funny.” Tyler Breeze, despite on paper being “Derek Zoolander the wrestler,” is one of the most serious characters on NXT. But the main roster didn’t “get” Bo Dallas or Emma gimmicks either, and now look at them. One misstep and the whole gimmick could be lost in translation, with those who saw him in NXT wondering what went wrong.

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The match itself doesn’t fully live up to expectations, partially because of the fantastic entrances and also because of the fact that it was originally a Triple Threat with Hideo Itami (who was kayfabe jumped in the parking lot before the show), but it’s still a solid wrestling match from two guys who could probably do that in their sleep. Balor’s double stomp to the back of Breeze on the outside of the ring is definitely an inspired move, but it really gets going from Tyler Breeze’s tantrum on. However, it’s all kind of clouded by the worst referee ever, who doesn’t count when Balor is out during Breeze’s tantrum—as one of the NXT crowd’s infinite chants becomes “You’re not counting”—and then counts Balor’s win with a four count.

Between then and the main events, this TakeOver special isn’t reinventing the wrestling wheel, but it does give you more bang for your (free trial) buck. Dana Brooke/Emma versus Charlotte/Bayley functions well as the eight or ninth swan song for Charlotte, as she spends a great deal of the match just trucking the competition. If nothing else, Dana Brooke looks great in the match getting demolished by Charlotte. The MVP of the match, however, is “Evil Emma” (which is an easier chant than “Disenfranchised Emma” or “We’re Here If You Need To Talk, Emma,” of course) and her facial expressions, with or without the awkward “misdemeanor” joke on commentary. And Rhyno versus Baron Corbin has the commentators immediately point out that this is going to be a brawl and “not a wrestling match,” which is typically to mediocre wrestling as “athletic” is to black wrestlers in the WWE. It’s like when Michael Cole called Daniel Bryan “the wrestler” to Roman Reigns’ “the brawler” back at the Fastlane pay-per-view.

As for the Tag Team Championship match, the last match Blake and Murphy had on a TakeOver special was an absolute mess. Since then, they haven’t developed more as characters other than in the case of the characters fans have created for them—a closeted gay couple who are afraid to just be themselves—in addition to awkward (because of the assumed backstory) lechery and weird Chris Jericho hair situations. They wear Chris Benoit tights. They come out to dubstep music with a Titantron video that has surely given people epileptic seizures. (That’s also not a joke—it really needs to change.) They make absolutely no sense.

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Their opposition is the most charismatic homegrown WWE developmental talent there is. Enzo and Cass (and even Carmella) have charisma to spare and are scarily fine-tuned as their characters. Their one flaw is their in-ring skills, but luckily, the match on this special doesn’t become a disaster because of these flaws (on both teams’ sides). In fact, this match is probably the moment it clicks inside the ring for Enzo and Cass, in the form of the scrappy underdog (and not just a punching bag) and the 7’0” tall wall (and not just a tall guy), respectively. It’s a bummer that they don’t win the titles from Benjericho, but the continued hunt also coincides the official heel turn of Alexa Bliss: A Woman Who Hates Feminism. This may sound sarcastic, but I cannot wait to see where that turn goes for Miss Bliss.

And now for the main course.

The best thing about NXT is that is finds a way to somewhat regularly bring out the real emotions that you can only get from loving wrestling. Sure, main roster WWE can do that as well, but it you’ve been paying attention to my weekly RAW reviews, lately, those emotions have come in the form of NXT wrestlers showing just how damn good they are and bringing that quality with them. A couple of months ago, as good of a wrestler as she was finally showing (and reminding) people that she was, Becky Lynch was still “just Becky Lynch.” She was always the fourth Diva in a Fatal Four-Way or the third Diva is a Triple Threat. “Becky was there too,” we would say. She was (okay, and still is) Corey Graves’ commentary punching bag. She was not Sasha Banks. Her match against Sasha Banks, however, made her a star. She arm-dragged her way into our hearts, even with the other arm being faulty and her ending up losing to The Boss. There’s no doubt about it, especially when you have her in the ring after her defeat with the entire NXT crowd singing her theme to her as a show of respect and solidarity. These are the moments of a real wrestling character.

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My recommendation should come as no surprise, but if for some reason you’re going to watch only one match from this special from entrances to exits, make it the Sasha Banks/Becky Lynch match. To any people who have said I was wrong about calling Sami Zayn the best wrestler in the world, I’ll admit you were right. Because Sasha Banks is. Blake and Murphy may wear Chris Benoit tights to the ring, but they don’t have even a fraction of the wrestling ability that would suggest. Ruthless aggression exists in WWE today, and it’s in the form of 5’5” woman who’s related to Snoop Dogg. The way she works the arm in this match against Becky is a work of art, a work of technical beauty. With the exception of the final moments of the special, the only time the “[Insert Wrestler’s Name Here]’s go to kill you” chant works during this special is when Sasha has Becky in the Straitjacket for what feels like an eternity. You want a story through wrestling? Watch this match. Watch the video package. Watch this show. This is what the people are talking about when we say “Give Divas A Chance.” This is what happens when you do—not whatever’s happening on the main roster right now.

Of course, I can’t talk storytelling and characters without talking about Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. While Sasha/Becky is a match that you can probably go into with just the video package without any real prior knowledge, Owens/Zayn is one that’s got 15 years of backstory and will never really be over. It’s now got Zayn’s lingering shoulder injury and the John Cena Open The Dragon Gate U.S. Challenge (at Elimination Chamber) involved in it too. The last time Owens and Zayn faced off, Owens practically killed his former best friend. Here, after all the talk, the tables are somewhat turned, with Zayn staying on Owens like a rabid dog, all around the arena, all while narrowly avoiding another “death” from a well-placed Pop-Up Powerbomb. Eventually, Zayn makes a mistake and the Powerbomb does come, on the apron, and that’s when Owens strikes like a shark with a taste of blood. He won’t let up on him, like the bully he is. He might as well be saying “Yeah! That’s what I thought!” while he looks at a sprawled out Zayn. He says he’ll stop, but he doesn’t. William Regal even has to get physically involved, but this isn’t like those other Regal interventions. Owens just headbutts him and goes on about his evening.

Owens and Zayn are the exact opposite of John Cena and Randy Orton. They could wrestle each other a million more times, and it would be different every time. It would be captivating every time.

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But if you’re ever confused about the case for cool down matches, look no furtther than the booking of NXT specials’ main events. The pattern is to go from the big Divas match to the big Superstars match, but honestly, by the time the former is over, it’s difficult not to be emotionally drained come main event time. As much as I could watch Owens and Zayn again for the rest of my life, I’ll admit to coming up short on what to say about them here after that NXT Women’s Championship match. Plus, the women get the Gorilla position entrances of “IMPORTANCE” this time. Hard not to get that big fight feel there, no matter how many times Corey Graves compares Sami Zayn to Manny Pacquiao.

Now who wants to talk about Samoa Joe’s introduction?

Stray Observations:

  • RESULTS: Finn Balor (winner) versus Tyler Breeze (#1 Contendership); Charlotte/Bayley (winner) versus Emma/Dana Brooke; Baron Corbin (winner) versus Rhyno; Blake/Murphy (winner) versus Enzo Amore/Colin Cassady (NXT Tag Team Championship); Sasha Banks (winner) versus Becky Lynch (NXT Women’s Championship); Kevin Owens versus Sami Zayn (NXT Championship, No Contest)
  • Say hello to NXT coverage. Much like with the RAW reviews, once we’re in the groove of the weekly shows, this will be less of a history lesson and more of an excuse to test out my theory that Dana Brooke is a time traveling Diva from the ‘90s.
  • It’s nice to see that even with all of her training in Kendrick’s school, Eva Maria still doesn’t know how to move like a real human being.
  • It’s also nice to see everyone in the Full Sail arena lose their collective minds as soon as the camera panned to Uhaa Nation among the other new signees.
  • Corey Graves (re: the new and Steampunk’d Becky Lynch): “What does she think this is, an H.G. Wells novel?!” Absolutely amazing. Now imagine him saying that on RAW and Michael Cole saying that no one knows who that is.
  • Owens wearing the Cena “The Champ Is Here” shirt? I wanted to hug him.

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