NXT TakeOver preview: Royal Rumble weekend begins in Philly
So much has changed since the last NXT TakeOver, with all three titles having new owners (Andrade “Cien” Almas, Ember Moon, and Bobby Fish & Kyle O’Reilly).
At first glance this card could read as a bit of a letdown, with few matches having any real build to them. The thing is, that usually doesn’t matter too much once the cameras roll and the show goes live. The in-ring product is, more often than not, good enough to make up for any lack of real story or character development.
The TakeOver experiences feel more special than a regular pay-per-view (probably because there isn’t one every three weeks) — they’re events. That’s why I’m so excited to attend this one in person. So like we always do at this time, let’s run through the card and see what could stand out, and what might fall flat.
Kassius Ohno vs. Velveteen Dream
What a treat it was when I learned they added this match to the card. After his match with Johnny Gargano this week, I was in distress, agony even, over the fact Dream wasn’t on this TakeOver card. More than my own personal trauma, I couldn’t understand how they could leave someone who has, arguably, the highest ceiling of anyone on the NXT roster off the show.
I suppose it’s a testament to the current depth of the roster, but you have to make room for a charisma machine like Dream. As much as we all get excited about the next big signing for NXT; whether its Adam Cole, Ricochet, etc. — I think the guy with the most potential has been there all along.
Now that the gushing is out of the way, I should probably talk about how I’m really enjoying Ohno’s role as “guy that has good matches with rising talent.” He can work with anyone of any size and can make them look great. Part of what makes that work is his realistic offense — no one is better at making strikes look absolutely vicious than he does. So even though this is really a stage for Dream to get more experience in front of a live audience, Ohno’s talent makes it seem like much more than a run-of-the-mill enhancement match.
This should be the perfect opener, one that will get the crowd hot without burning them out.
Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole (extreme rules match)
It seems weird that this is a match with no direct title implications, because it feels like a bigger deal than all of the other title matches on the show. That’s most likely a testament to the two performers and just how good they are.
It is a bit strange that Adam Cole has been around for two TakeOvers and both have been non-traditional matches. He came into the company very ready to work a WWE style match, yet has a War Games and an extreme rules match on his live show resume. Is there anything to this? Probably not, and it’s just a random set of circumstances that led to it, but it might be something worth keeping an eye on.
This should be the most fun match on the show. Cole will heel it up, and the crowd will be frothing for it. Black will throw some ridiculous kick or knee, and the crowd will be all about it. Most of the time stipulation matches can be more spectacle than entertainment (I’m looking in the general direction of you, Punjabi Prison), but this is one of the special cases where it being more spectacle than match doesn’t mean it won’t be good, it just means it will be different…and still good.
Cole came into NXT with a fully fleshed out character, and Black owns his as much as anyone in NXT outside of Velveteen Dream. When he called himself “a machine made for war” during the hype video that aired, I had a big goofy grin on my face. He knows what he is, and he doesn’t need to be more than that. Cole can carry the program with the longer promos, and Black can punctuate them with statements like that.
The winner of this, realistically, should have a case for the next NXT title shot, so unless Gargano wins later in the night, look for Black to take this one. That kind of puts my dream of a heel stable holding all the belts in NXT on hold for awhile, but there’s always time.
NXT Tag Team Champions The Undisputed Era (Bobby Fish & Kyle O’Reilly) defending against The Authors of Pain (Akam & Rezar)
This has to be the end of The Authors of Pain in NXT, right? Such big boys, so much talent, and they even were allowed to talk on their own recently! My babies are all grown up.
These two are more than ready to step up to either main roster show and make an impact. The Super Collider is probably the best tag team finisher in the company at the moment — my guys just crush dudes when they hit the tandem powerbomb to punctuate the move. There is nothing left for them to do in NXT, and Fish & O’Reilly certainly aren’t losing the titles so soon after winning them.
One of my favorite things about NXT is how it puts talent in the best position to succeed. As much as I love AOP, they still don’t have a ton of in-ring experience — especially compared to seasoned acts like Fish & O’Reilly — so when they pair a somewhat inexperienced team with one that has, literally, wrestled all over the world, it’s a recipe for success. It lets both teams look good, and the match just fits together.
The challenge in this match is who wrestles as face/heel. Clearly the champs are the bad guys here, so AOP wrestling as the faces in peril should be interesting. They aren’t dominating at the level of Braun Strowman or an in-his-prime Brock Lesnar, where their sheer dominance and athletic ability allows them to blur the line between heel and face, so it will be fun to watch the big boys wrestle from underneath.
There’s no real reason for a title change here, NXT rarely hot shots a title like that, so look for The Undisputed Era to retain while the Authors move up to bigger and, hopefully (maybe?), better things.
NXT Women’s Champion Ember Moon defending against Shayna Baszler
I don’t know what it is, but Ember Moon just isn’t quite connecting for me in the ways I thought she would. Her matches are very, very good but the rest is just a bit lacking, especially her promos. Even the pre-taped interview on this week’s NXT was at best…fine? It’s just not clicking all the way — something still feels forced.
Shayna Baszler, on the other hand just has an undeniable presence. Years of MMA training and fights in front of live audiences will do that, and lend believability to her character. She was miles better than Moon in the interview, and that was her first real mic time on NXT. She can get by on her aura while we wait for the wrestling to catch up. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s still not the most natural thing for her.
Moon is the perfect opponent for someone like Baszler — one who is a great hand and can get the best match possible out of her. But the best match is the one where she drops the title. You can’t book someone as strongly as they’ve booked Baszler to have her come in and lose, it just makes zero sense. The belt legitimizes her as the big bad in the women’s division.
Besides, it’s pretty easy to imagine a story where they bring in Ronda Rousey to win the title on Raw, and her friend has the NXT title, leading to a Four Horsewoman invasion. It’s there if they want it, now it’s just a matter if they do.
NXT Champion Andrade “Cien” Almas defending against Johnny Gargano
The most important aspect about this match is the fact that Johnny Gargano’s Paramore-Lite theme song is currently the best thing on NXT. It’s the most perfect and beautiful thing since The Revival were on the show. Music aside, Johnny Wrestling is quickly becoming the best babyface in the entire company.
It’s strange because it’s both surprising and completely expected at the same time. Surprising in the sense that he’s just a bit smaller than WWE likes their main eventers to be (although that standard seems to be changing more and more) but not surprising if you were familiar with any of his matches pre-WWE. Gargano has been main eventing shows for years, be it EVOLVE or Dragon Gate USA before signing with WWE. He was the standard bearer for those companies and knows how to put on a show.
I joked in a previous column that he’s Johnny Sports Entertainment now, but what I didn’t realize was that it was a compliment. The WWE has rounded out his skill set and he’s a legit main event talent.
All that doesn’t even touch on Andrade “Cien” Almas, who has gone from an afterthought to a champion in about a year and is deserving of the top spot. His transition from a smiley suspender and hat wearing weirdo to “El Idolo” was a masterclass in character rehabilitation. They leaned into his natural heel tendencies and it has paid off in spades.
He is a pure heel, and one NXT hasn’t had at the top in almost forever. Bobby Roode was never a real heel because his theme song was so over. Drew McIntyre was as babyface as it gets. But a handsome Almas with an attractive mouthpiece in Zelina Vega? That’s practically WWE’s wet dream of a heel. And its working. Almas makes it work with his in-ring skills and look, and Vega is the perfect compliment.
There’s no reason to change the title here, Gargano’s ultimate destiny is a match with Tommaso Ciampa, and that match will be hotter than hell with or without the title.