Last night’s NXT TakeOver special on the WWE Network, R.Evolution, was one for the record books. It was a textbook example of what professional wrestling should be and what the WWE refuses to give to its fans week-in and week-out on Raw and Smackdown (even on monthly PPVs). If there was ever that moment of clarity as to the disparity between how the WWE is run today and how it should be run, it was last night’s NXT special.
There have been a lot of times throughout my life where good friends of mine (as well as other people, cough) have asked why I bother watching pro wrestling. Pro wrestling is, well, kind of dumb after all. How can an educated adult who has refined tastes and is picky about everything watch something that is so goofy and ridiculous? If someone were to watch WWE programming with me, I’d probably be deathly embarrassed on most occasions, truthfully.
It’s not that it is all bad, but it is aimless and frustrating. It’s the land of last-minute rewrites, of good ideas being morphed into terrible ones because of TV time, of trying to cram as much programming and advertisements onto a three hour window every Monday night. It’s frustrating because WWE’s current roster is so talented and so willing to deliver, while we hear Vince McMahon talk about how nobody is “reaching for the brass ring” or how they are all filthy millenials.
I watch pro wrestling because I enjoy fiction over reality most of the time. Fiction can be scripted, fiction can be entertaining, fiction can be heart-and-soul-crushing. Fiction has intent. Reality has shifting reasons and goals are often lost over time. You can watch a fight in the UFC that starts off entertaining, then both guys get hurt and realize they could be pissing their careers away before they take it to the ground and work a half guard for the rest of the round.
As much as I hate to say it, WWE is usually an example of poorly-executed fiction. The storylines, the characters and everything else gets rushed, rearranged, pushed to the side or a target of political struggles. Daniel Bryan’s Wrestlemania XXX title win this year was a big deal, but felt somewhat cheapened by the fact that WWE was literally forced to make that happen due to crowd reactions over the previous six months.
The crowds were literally forcing them to do the right thing and to give them the product that they were paying to see. The WWE wasn’t taking fans on some big ride, telling some grand story, the story was reality being played out in a fictional setting and had no real support or intent from the company. It was great, but at the same time, there was no intent.
Last night was the embodiment of intent and why professional wrestling, if done with intent, can be magical. The first hour of the NXT special started off with a bang by having the debut of Kevin Owens (nee Steen). Not much in wrestling is flawless, especially when something goes “wrong,” but last night’s debut for Owens was perfect in every way. Owens came out to a great response, ran through his spots, took some bumps to not completely bury CJ Parker, took a nasty, nasty palm strike to the nose that busted Owens open and split Parker’s hand to the bone, then finished it while the crowd was going nuts.
Not everything was perfect last night, like the tag title match between the Vaudevillians and Lucha Dragons feeling a bit underwhelming, but it was still better than an average Ascension match. Baron Corbin having another squash was what it was, it is the kind of stuff that helps to make NXT a diverse show. It has stuff for everyone on it. Sure, there is really good wrestling on there, but there is also standard WWE stuff as well. Corbin continued to build up the feud with Bull, which serves a purpose and barely took up any TV time.
The only real “problem” last night was that it is very clear that they don’t know what to do with Hideo Itami (nee KENTA). KENTA’s first feud being with the Ascension was ill-advised, at best. As much as I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, he’s not the complete WWE package just yet. He’s not the friendly, happy, bubbly babyface that they are portraying him as, so it doesn’t work for him. He needs to be kicking people’s asses. He’s a guy that you bring out for a 4* match, not the guy that you use push a story like this.
The contrast, of course, is that Finn Balor (nee Prince Devitt) is the complete package right now. As much as I like Devitt, he never had the raw ability to put on great matches that KENTA/Itami had, but he gets pro wrestling better than most ever could. Last night he debuted a gimmick that he had been using in big matches in Japan for a while now, the body paint. Honestly, we never thought we’d see it, but that is also why Triple H’s NXT is so great; they are listening, they want these guys to succeed and will take their input as to what they should be doing. Balor felt like a huge, huge star because of that and the match was fine, putting both guys over, but Balor is going to be huge if handled properly, just huge.
Now we move onto the second hour. For many, many reasons I’d say that NXT TakeOver R.Evolution was the WWE show of the year, this second hour explains everything, basically. When I was talking earlier about “intent” there is no better way to embody that than Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha. They have a history together, they were a part of the BFFs with Summer Rae, they split up and my god, this has well over a year worth of build to it. Think about that. If you watch Raw and watch their “Divas” matches, there is usually no build, no purpose, no anything. It’s just “you saw these two be catty at each other on Total Divas last week, which was taped four months ago, now watch them awkwardly pull each other’s hair for two minutes before botching a finish.” It’s garbage and it’s unfair to those women who worked hard to get to where they are.
Charlotte vs. Sasha had OVER A YEAR OF STORY to build to it, then they went out there and got 15 minutes for a match and guess what? It delivered. Having talented, driven female talent with the guidance of Sara Del Rey down there in NXT has proven time and time again that they are doing something wrong on the main roster and have been for years (we point many, many fingers at Kevin Dunn now). Seriously, Charlotte could be a major player, but then again, I don’t want her called up to the main roster any time soon.
Now we get to Sami Zayn vs. Adrian Neville. The first thing that I noticed was that there were about 45 minutes left on the program and there was one match left, they couldn’t all be for that match, right? Wrong. They showed a quick, non-insulting video package (compared to Raw when they are long and insult your intelligence), show Sami backstage walking to the ring and it felt like a big match, it felt like a big deal. Then you remember just how long this story has been building for, how much intent was behind the whole thing. Sami Zayn lost a #1 contender’s match to Adrian Neville in November of 2013. Seriously.
Neville went on to become champion and Zayn had a year of tremendous matches with the likes of Cesaro, Tyler Breeze, Tyson Kidd, Neville and others where Zayn would never be able to win that match when it mattered, that he would “choke” or find himself and his morals at odds with what it took to be a winner. Neville had to cheat to win against Zayn at NXT Fatal 4 Way, then again a few weeks ago when he defended the title against Zayn. He explained himself and how he respected Zayn and felt bad, but he did what he needed to do to be the champion, which Zayn wasn’t prepared to do.
This led to Zayn saying he’d retire if he lost last night against Zayn. Once again, we have over a year of build into this match, we have intent. Yes, intent. The match itself was tremendous, something that will score high on the scale of anyone’s ratings (seriously, if we were to snowflake it, at least ****1/2 or even *****), but so much of the match felt important and mattered because of the storytelling. It was why people like myself watch wrestling; to see characters involved in an engaging story that had intent behind it, paired with amazing execution.
The ref gets bumped multiple times at the behest of Neville. Why? Because Neville has shown that when it comes to Zayn, he can’t beat him clean, that he needs to take extraordinary measures to do so, but he’s willing to do that, while Zayn is not willing to do that. When Zayn finally gets that moment where the ref is down and he has the NXT title in his hand, knowing he can hit Neville with it and win the title that way while the whole arena is chanting “NO!” at him. This could be his moment, but he continues to hesitate, he shouts out expletives (which were later edited with silence on the WWE Network) because of how conflicted he is, then we see what we saw before, Neville taking advantage of a distracted and torn Zayn with a rollup — ONLY HE KICKS OUT! Zayn hits the exploder in the corner and the Helluva Kick to finish Neville and score him the victory. Not only did he get his win, his redemption, but he did so without having to cheat or seriously incapacitate a guy he considers his friend. He did so on his own terms and it was amazing to watch.
The roster flooded out the celebrate with Zayn, including Pat Patterson, which for some reason made it feel like much more of a bigger deal, all while Adrian Neville sat slumped over in the corner staring down at his hands. It was an amazing visual and exactly what it needed to be. Kevin Owens was the first guy out to hug Zayn because they are, after all, buddies, and the promos leading into Owens debuting talked about how he was best friends with Zayn. Of course, right before they went off the air Owens slammed Zayn down on the ramp, then powerbombed him on the apron (which looked like it killed him, by the by).
It was all just so much, it was all just so perfect. While Daniel Bryan’s WMXXX title win felt important, it felt more like a relief than anything else, that they didn’t fuck up — again. I’d argue that Sami Zayn’s title win last night felt bigger, more important, than that huge, company-headlining event. Why? Because there was intent behind it, there was meaning and it was them telling a story to completion as opposed to being “bullied” into it by fans.
We all give Vince McMahon a lot of credit, a lot of it for good reason, some not, but he has never been this good of a storyteller. Even his best storylines tended to meander, get lost in ego and if they started strong, they ended with a whimper. We all remember Austin/McMahon, but does anyone remember it having an end? It never did, it just kept going until nobody cared anymore, then was revived when there was nothing else going on. This is why Triple H and Bill DeMott deserve a lot of credit for what they do with NXT. Triple H is the big picture guy and the one who handles these specials, while DeMott helps head up the weekly TV, which ranges from pretty good to great each week.
This is why if you watch wrestling it is time to stop making excuses for Raw and Smackdown being as bad as they are. It’s time to stop accepting a completely inferior, rushed and tailored for no-one product. On Steve Austin’s podcast Austin asked McMahon why they had so many writers when the show was, in the past, just written by Vince and Pat Patterson at Vince’s pool. This was from a time when WWE’s product was heads and tails above anything else and while many will credit Vince, Patterson has always been the unsung hero of the WWE’s creative, which is why him coming out to celebrate with Zayn felt important.
Last night was proof that a small team that is on the same page can be infinitely more effective than a large committee of writers trying to appease one or two men who have no clue who is even on their roster or what they are capable of. Last night we saw NXT’s team utilize their talented roster in a way that paid off, creating one of the best pro wrestling shows of the year (probably only outshined by a few NJPW G1 Climax shows in terms of raw wrestling).
I don’t want to see anyone called up to the main roster, I want to see people called DOWN from the main roster because NXT is the perfect blend of goofy WWE-style pro wrestling and solid pro wrestling. It is everything that American pro wrestling should be and isn’t right now. This was why I will always say that fiction with intent will always be better than a happy coincidence in a real sport.
NXT is not a developmental territory at this point, NXT is better than the main shows and features some of the top performers in the world and I selfishly hope that doesn’t change until Triple H somehow gains control of the main roster creative.