While the first stop on the Road to WrestleMania 31 was a disappointment, the WWE’s developmental territory was here to save the day last week. The last time NXT had a live special, it completely overshadowed the main roster pay-per-view that followed only a few days later.
NXT Takeover: Rival was the fifth NXT live special and it had massive expectations to live up to after the critical success that was R-Evolution. Fortunately, NXT doesn’t have to live up to this weekend’s WWE Fast Lane pay-per-view because it’s likely to be terrible. But could NXT live up to its own standards?
Hideo Itami vs. Tyler Breeze
If the match never happened and it was cancelled right before the opening bell, it would have been five stars. Breeze came out with a furry selfie stick to perfectly complement his vain male model character and he even had a groupie jump and hug him as he went down the ramp. So they gave him a 21st century gimmick that’s a crossover between Rick Martel and Rick Rude and it’s absolutely fantastic.
Since Itami joined NXT, he keeps getting handed these face-in-peril spots that he has to fight his way out of with Japanese fighting spirit. And while he was able to fight through Breeze smartly working his knee with some lovely kicks and submission holds, I’d like to see Itami just kick a guy’s head off for five minutes straight to establish himself as a dangerous player. There was nothing wrong with the match but it felt like every Itami match I’ve seen for the last six months.
The funny thing was that the match was good but good is sort of just average for NXT. This would have been the second best match on the card of the Royal Rumble but it only finds its way to 4th best at Takeover. That’s more of an indictment on the main roster because this was a good match but there were better matches. This was a fine TV match but you know that these two are capable of greatness when they get to a live special.
No Disqualification Match: Baron Corbin vs. Bull Dempsey
Can you have the piss break match of a card go on second? That’s what they tried here. There’s no better way to describe a match where the highlight is a “Botchamania” chant.
When you say that a match is no disqualification and the only thing remotely resembling that stipulation is some brawling outside the ring, why bother calling it no DQ? I guess that the finish was supposed to be the Reverse STO onto the steel chair but it wasn’t even close. The fans booed this match and it was easy to understand why.
NXT Tag Team Championship Match: Wesley Blake & Buddy Murphy vs. The Lucha Dragons
Having watched enough Botchamania, I know that the Sin Cara gimmick is cursed. Whether it’s the mask or the pressure to adapt lucha to the “WWE style,” the two men that have taken on the gimmick have been botching machines. Unfortunately, it seems to be contagious as Kalisto also had his share of botches in the match. And the Dragons’ psychology seemed completely off which wasn’t helped by the commentary pointing out every hesitation.
Now, botches and hitches in matches are to be expected. Nobody’s perfect, after all. The problem is that the underwhelming No DQ match previous combined with the botches here took the crowd right out of the match. Normally, it takes four hours of non-stop screaming at an NXT TV taping to quiet the crowd. In the span of 30 minutes, Corbin, Dempsey, Sin Cara and Kalisto managed to do the same and it hurt the next match but the fans found their voice by the end of that match.
All that being said, Blake and Murphy deserved so much better out of this match because they did great work in this match. If it wasn’t for the botches, this match wouldn’t be competing with Corbin/Dempsey for worst of the night. The Dubstep Cowboys looked perfect with their execution and their psychology but they only wrestle half of the match. The Dragons wrestled the other half and let everyone, including the Cowboys, down.
#1 Contender Match: Finn Balor vs. Adrian Neville
First thing’s first, Balor’s warpaint is epic. It’s a gimmick he used around the world before coming to the WWE and he usually did a take on a comic book character. Since WWE doesn’t like spending money to licence those sorts of things, Balor did his paint in the same style as he did in December. There was a little twist on the balor character painting from December but nothing substantially different. I didn’t have a problem with it but long time Finn Balor fans sounded disappointed.
What didn’t disappoint was the actual match. It was a tale of two halves. The first half of the match saw Nevillle trying to slow the pace and ground Balor. Finn kept looking for a big topé to the outside ramp area (which was a spot in every match at Takeover: R-Evolution but thankfully missing from the first half of the card) but was cutoff on his first two attempts. The match turned when was able to hit that topé on the third attempt.
While the match opened around that one move, it opened up from there as the two looked to hit a finishing move. Balor got in his double-stomp off the top and his reverse suplex that isn’t quite a reverse brainbuster. Neville matched with a second-rope phoenix splash but the Red Arrow was countered.
Basically, the match went from a slower, thoughtful, story-driven match to a high-flying version of a heavyweight slugfest with both men throwing bombs to keep the other one down. You don’t need to try for one particular move or work one body part to tell a story. You just have to have a purpose for the action in the ring. In this case, it wasn’t spot, spot, spot. It was big move, pin, big move, pin. Trying to win with increasingly harder shots and the other man digging down deep is a story too and these two men told that story spectacularly.
NXT Women’s Championship Match: Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Bayley vs. Becky Lynch
Normally, I absolutely hate the WWE multi-person match trope of dumping people out until you’re down to a one-on-one match and just cycle through the combinations until the finish. Of course, most multi-person matches in the WWE don’t have a logical build to why more than two people are competing in one-fall match.
In this instance, the champion, Charlotte, has a history with each of the challengers. Bayley has challenged for the title and done battle with Sasha and Becky. Sasha has been chasing the title for the last three or four months with Becky at her side. And Becky could be the key to Sasha’s success or cause of her demise. And as the combinations of one-on-one matchups cycled through, every battle had an established history and a reason why the wrestlers would want to get their hands on each other besides to win a match. It seems like such a simple thing but that setup and story is critical to making a great match.
I don’t know if this match would have worked without the build-up but it had a good story. Charlotte never really seemed like the dominant champion that she was made out to be for the last nine months. It was really Bayley who was in charge of the match for large stretches but it was either Sasha or Becky that would foil her just when it seemed like she would take home the championship. And it was always Sasha that seemed to be ready to capitalize on the fresh opportunity from a disposed Bayley.
If you recall my Royal Rumble review, I was anything but impressed with the women’s match. Takeover’s women’s match wasn’t just good for a women’s match but it was a good match period. You could put it anywhere in the top three matches on the card and I wouldn’t argue its placement. I would grant you giving it anywhere from 3rd best to the match of the night honours. Yes, it was that good of a match.
And I love the little Jesse Ventura-esque thing that Corey Graves has with Becky Lynch. Granted, Jesse was always on Hulk Hogan’s case because he hated the Hulkster. I somehow doubt that Graves’ reasons for giving Becky a hard time are the same as Ventura’s. It’s just a fun little thing when commentators have their own little personality quirks that make them more than a generic puppet.
NXT Championship Match: Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens
It’s funny that NXT seems to exist in its own little Venn diagram of wrestling. The WWE tends to exist in its own bubble where nothing really happens outside of it. NXT doesn’t outright acknowledge old gimmicks and every other indie fed in the world but it does acknowledge that these guys aren’t total rookies but people who have wrestled around the world.
And that brings us to Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. I bet most indie fans would never have dreamed that Kevin Steen and El Generico would make their way to the WWE and I doubt even fewer dreamed that the two would continue their multi-year, world-spanning feud only two months after Steen made his first appearance on WWE TV. But that’s the thing about acknowledging that the WWE doesn’t exist in a wrestling bubble. NXT acknowledged their history (without the rivalry) straight away and used half-a-decade of history to instantly create a story between the two.
What they were going for here was quite clearly NXT’s take on Lesnar vs. Cena at SummerSlam 2014. The champ got his ass handed to him by a monster of a challenger. There were a few key differences in the matches besides the fact that the crowd wouldn’t have minded if Cena died but were nearly Undertaker’s streak being broken levels of shocked at the outcome of the match.
It was a challenge for Owens to get to that point with this match. While fans wanted Cena murdered and most fans didn’t want the same fate to befall Zayn, Owens still had a fairly vocal support section. To make the match work, he had to turn the crowd and did so by ducking to the outside to kill the pace and by laying an unapologetically brutal beating on Zayn. For the most part, it worked. There were still some cheers when Owens was handed the title but it wasn’t the nearly 50/50 split from the start of the match.
In his match, Cena wasn’t given any meaningful hope spots that made you think he had a chance. Zayn got in some signature topés, a pair of suplexes that would normally setup his finisher and the blue thunder bomb. He had control at a couple of points of the match and looked like he could still tough it out.
The other difference was playing into a story inside Cena/Lesnar. Whether it would have been a story that was scripted into the match or one that Paul Heyman just made up on the fly, whether the ref would stop Cena/Lesnar was a story in that match from nearly the start. Until they did the concussion story, it was never really a part of the story. But they pulled the triggered on the ref stoppage story this time which is not something you would expect in a championship match and certainly not with someone who is able to fight through the punishment like Sami Zayn.
What I absolutely loved was the post-match celebration. Sure, announcing Owens as the winner by ref stoppage was as botched as anything Sin Cara did. However, the last Takeover ended (effectively) with Zayn being held aloft by the whole NXT locker room which cleared out to celebrate his victory. This one ended with Owens holding the title over Zayn’s nearly dead body and the doctors attending to him. The story of a match isn’t just between the bells. It’s little touches like a post-match pose that add to a match and its story.
Unfortunately for everyone involved in Rival, this event will be compared to R-Evolution and it was never likely to live up to that standard. The women’s match was definitely better and I thought some of the undercard was better here than R-Evolution but it was certainly held back by the tag and no DQ matches.
What I don’t think is up for debate is that this was miles better than Royal Rumble and seems very likely that it will end up being better than anything the main roster will put on short of WrestleMania. Of course, it’s not like we have to wait long to find out if they will be sufficiently motivated to out do NXT at Fast Lane.