Previously on the Best and Worst of NXT: American Alpha lost a 2-out-of-3 falls barn-burner to The Revival. Alexa Bliss nearly stole the show against Bayley, and Rhyno’s back, if you’re the type of person who gets excited for ECW guys in 2016 and/or are into lower-tier local Michigan politics.
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And now, the Best and Worst of WWE NXT for July 13, 2016.
Best: Samoa Joe, The Best Part Of The Show
This week’s episode is almost entirely Finn Bálor vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, but it starts with Samoa Joe showing up and throwing them both under the bus for assuming that one beating the other puts them in title contention. It’s disrespectful to the champ, he says, and cuts the kind of Hot Fire promo you would’ve thought had become an impossibility circa 2013. It’s basically the Jules Winnfield GREAT VENGEANCE AND FURIOUS ANGER speech as a cocky wrestling promo, and I couldn’t love it more. Samoa Joe is so good right now that the NXT Championship doesn’t make him the best in the company; his greatness makes the NXT Championship as important as it should be.
He’s interrupted by Rhyno, who believes slowly double-legging Wesley Blake during a tag match he wasn’t actually a part of means he deserves an NXT Championship match. That sets up Joe vs. Rhyno for Week 3 of Ultima Lucha counter-programming, alongside American Alpha vs. the Authors of Pain and Bayley vs. Nia Jax. That’s a hell of a card, even if Rhyno’s got a “Sean Maluta in round one of the Cruiserweight Classic against Kota Ibushi” chance of winning.
Let’s hope Baron Corbin returns to Full Sail next week and sits in the front row with a bouquet of flowers.
Best, With Some Unfortunate Worst: Finn Vs. Shin
First, the good.
This is (apparently) Finn Bálor’s swan song in NXT, with the WWE Draft looming and (minor spoiler alert) the next set of Full Sail tapings being Bálor-free. So it’s presumably the last time we’ll get to see this specific NXT version of Finn Bálor, for better or worse, in the context that a lot of WWE fans were introduced to him. Also, how great is it that the two biggest babyfaces in NXT history are Sami Zayn and Finn Bálor, and Nakamura kneed them both out of the company?
Also, before I heap any real analysis or criticism on it whatsoever, pro wrestling is about moments, and spectacle. WWE’s great at that, to the point that they’ll tell you a moment is important whether it is or not, and the legend becomes fact. They spent weeks hyping this up, as they should, and the crowd very clearly eats up every second of it. It’s two of the best wrestlers in the world, two guys who unless a horrible bed-sh*tting happens will be important to WWE for years to come, doing what they do best. It’s a New Japan Pro Wrestling match performed by New Japan Pro Wrestling megastars in a WWE ring, in front of a few hundred people. It’s like a snow globe.
For people who see the bigger picture and don’t miss the forest for the trees or whatever, it’s a very good match. Finn Bálor and Shinsuke Nakamura are about as cool as WWE Superstars can get right now, and they’re in here hitting each other with everything they’ve got. It’s an exploding snow globe. Jump back a few years and ask yourself if you think this developmental program with a bunch of Curtis Axel matches on it would ever feature Prince Devitt and the King of Strong Style throwing down for half an hour in a marquee match representing the identity of North American pro wrestling’s most critically acclaimed brand?
Okay, all that good stuff said, some stuff really bothered me.
If we’re ranking Nakamura’s important NXT matches to date, I’ve gotta go Zayn/Nakamura, then Aries/Nakamura, then this. I’ll do my best to explain why, even if you’ve already hit Page Down and logged into our comments section to call me stuff.
The major problem of the match is Nakamura’s knee. It’s not as simple as “he sells it sometimes, and sometimes he doesn’t.” There are a lot of matches with iffy selling that guys just kind of shake off, and it’s excused as adrenaline or fighting spirit or whatever, and contextually, that’s fine. There are entire popular genres of wrestling, like lucha libre, which aren’t built on cumulative matwork or injury prognosis or real-sports storytelling. Hell, even most WWE matches are played out like a video game, with someone taking damage, then the roles switching, and both guys storing up Specials to hit at the end of the match. However, when you make a point to raise the level of storytelling and center a match around a logical, realistic and trackable psychological plot point, you have to see it through to the end. It has to matter. If you spend 20 minutes on the story of a match and throw it away in the last five for the sake of excitement, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
The example I always use is Rob Van Dam vs. Chris Benoit from SummerSlam 2002. Van Dam was one of my favorite wrestlers at the time, and the match actually made me dislike him. It’s an animosity I still hold when I write up his matches today, because I am a fragile emotional baby who wants the wrestling to be like I like it. But also because I understand how A-to-B-to-C cause and effect storytelling is supposed to work.
Everything in Van Dam’s arsenal is reliant on the strength of his back. The frog splash, Rolling Thunder, all those tumbling pins and kicks, even the standard standing strikes need him to have a strong, healthy back for them to work. Benoit knows this, and spends like 18 minutes of a 19 minute match working Van Dam’s back. Not only does Benoit know this, the announce team knows this, and communicates it to the audience in clear language. That means it’s not a smarky talking point I’m making up because I don’t like something, it’s the plot of the match. When it’s time for Van Dam to make a comeback, what happens? Kicks, tumbling pins, Rolling Thunder, frog splash. It’s like nothing had happened. You could make a point for RVD just being really tough and powering through it, but like, really? It was like 18 minutes had been instantly erased. It was wrestling in a void. The announcers are like, “heh, well, anyway!”
That, to a much lesser degree, was Finn and Nakamura. Finn wrestles a very smart match, and at the risk of having tomatoes thrown at me over the Internet, was the best part of it. Nakamura is constantly wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t look like he had any interest in participating in the story Finn was trying to tell. Finn’s in there working Nak’s left leg for, like Benoit, like 20 minutes. We sh*t on Bálor sometimes for having the world’s smallest moveset (slingblade slingblade slingblade dropkick dropkick dropkick slingblade dropkick stomp), but he’s upping his game, wrestling with an understated heel edge, and uses a series of submissions and holds to just brutalize Nak’s leg. When Nak is taking damage, he’s the best. He sells, he screams, he makes adjustments to lessen the damage. Then, for almost no reason whatsoever, he starts striking with the left leg like nothing matters.
Like RVD/Benoit, the announce team is in on the story. They talk about Bálor working Shinsuke’s leg to lessen the impact of his strikes and finisher. When Nak ignores the leg work and throws knees — Nakamura’s entire non-forearm strike offense is LEFT LEG STRIKE here — they rationalize it. “That leg seems to be fine right now!” They try to give him story outs, like saying he’s a great striker with BOTH legs and will have to compensate, but he doesn’t. He just throws left leg left leg left leg, left leg knees to the head, left leg dropkick, pivoting on the left leg for forearms. Multiple Kinshasas with the left leg. They’re trying their best to cover it and Finn is busting his ass to tell a story, and Nakamura’s just like, “no, these are my moves.”
And again, if they hadn’t clearly made that the story of the match, it wouldn’t have mattered so much. To most people, it doesn’t matter now. It’s a good match, sure, but if Nakamura had been forced to adjust his offense accordingly, had sold on offense beyond occasionally touching his knee, and the leg work had factored into the finished in ANY WAY WHATOSEVER, it could’ve been great.
That’s why I like Nakamura’s other marquee NXT matches more. Zayn vs. Nakamura didn’t present a weakness to Nakamura’s game, it was just a passionate, in-over-his-head babyface trying to throw hands with one of the deadliest hands-throwers in the world. Aries vs. Nakamura presented Aries as a wrestler who understood Nakamura’s tendencies and tropes and perfectly deconstructed him in the ring until his hubris took over and he f*cked himself. Bálor vs. Nakamura is Bálor saying “if I take out Nakamura’s leg, he won’t be able to do all his moves,” and then Nakamura saying, “actually, I’ll be able to do them fine.” Like an improv scene where you say, “this is what’s going on,” and the other person says, “no it isn’t.”
I hope that makes sense.
To recap, I thought it was very good, and I’m disappointed in what kept it from being great. The post-match interaction was adorable, and now Nakamura becomes that guy I objectively love as a character and performer, and also want to see Samoa Joe ruthlessly maul. The times, they are a-changin’.