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This match is why you should have the WWE Network, and why you should’ve been watching it live. It’s also one of four reasons why NXT is the best wrestling promotion in North America. Cesaro vs. Zayn parts 1-3 are the other three.
Part of what made this match so exceptional (besides the fact that Cesaro and Sami Zayn have been two of the best pro wrestlers in the world for YEARS) is how it adheres to its own history, and tells the story it set out to tell starting with minute one of match one.
Cesaro doesn’t give a shit about Sami Zayn. Zayn upset him in their first encounter and Cesaro was ENRAGED, but he got his rematch and trounced Zayn, asserting his dominance. That led to a debate on which man was better, with Zayn challenging Cesaro to put it all on the line in a 2-out-of-3 falls match. That match played off the first two. The first fall was a quick victory out of nowhere, like Cesaro/Zayn I. The second fall was Cesaro taking control and being dominant, like Cesaro/Zayn II. The third fall ended when Cesaro stopped a tornado DDT mid-tornado, carried Zayn around by his hips Dirty Dancing-style and launched him into the air for a life-ending European uppercut.
It was the best match in WWE last year. Cesaro knew he was the better man, but Zayn couldn’t let it go. It stuck to his ribs. He was so close. If he’d gotten all the way around on the DDT, Cesaro would’ve been done. But like I said, Cesaro doesn’t give a shit about him. Cesaro barely pays attention to him, checks his phone during interviews and only hangs out in the ring long enough to cheapshot Zayn in his already-injured leg.
What Zayn wants is respect. He knows he can beat the “ultimate competitor” whether people take him seriously about it or not. He has stated openly that beating Cesaro and proving this to himself is the only way he can move on to the next stage of his career. If he doesn’t beat Cesaro, he’s stuck “down here” (Cesaro’s words) forever.
The match, like the 2-out-of-3 falls match before it, plays off its previous incarnations. There is so much beauty in the way Zayn and Cesaro lace together the stories … Zayn goes for the diving tornado DDT through the ropes on the outside, but Cesaro knows it exists now and counters by taking his head off with an uppercut. He knows when Zayn’s big dives are coming and can catch him, because he is an Impossible Man, and throw him down. Zayn desperately tries to avoid the giant swing, and knows how to counter it. It’s guys who know each other because of the WRESTLING, not because they’ve been employees of the same wrestling promotion forever. It’s muscle memory. The fear of getting caught, and the excitement of breaking through. Call and response. Cause and effect. Wrestling made real.
At the end of an incredible number four, Zayn is out. Out on his feet. Cesaro hits him with brutal European uppercut after brutal European uppercut and tells him to stay down. Zayn doesn’t. He can’t. This is his life, flashing before his eyes. If he doesn’t do this, he’s stuck forever. So he gets to his feet and fights back, because god dammit he has to. Cesaro shoves him into the air and uppercuts him to death, the same move that won him the 2-out-of-3 falls match … and in the greatest moment of wrestling passion you can write, Zayn kicks out. At one.
There’s such a difference between a two count and a one count. A two count is routine. One, two, kick out. One, two, kick out. It’s how pins work. You kick out at two if you aren’t done. Kicking out at one is a MESSAGE. It says NO in capital letters. A middle finger. A promise that the other man is going to have to kill you if they’re going to put you down.
Cesaro gets the message, and, as he does, kills him. A rolling European uppercut and a jumping Neutralizer later and Cesaro is the winner. The series stands at 3-1. Cesaro is the better man. The superior athlete. Zayn is stuck here forever. Cesaro does his taunts, flexes, and walks up the ramp. The end.
But then … it’s not.
Cesaro walks back to the ring and up to Zayn, who is on the verge of tears and draped across the bottom rope. He mouths “you won,” and a bunch of other things we don’t see. He’s accepting it. It happened. And then Cesaro pulls him up and embraces him, and we realize that the story went somewhere we weren’t expecting.
Zayn repeatedly said he HAD to beat Cesaro. He HAD to win, or he wouldn’t be able to move on. What he was saying wasn’t “I have to win the wrestling match,” though, it was, “I need this man’s respect.” He’s the best wrestler I’ve ever seen, and I need to know that he can see something in me. He fought with his entire heart, and in doing so earned the thing he so desperately needed in winning by losing: honor, and respect, and love.
In a week that had The Shield vs. The Wyatt Family in it I can’t say this was the best match of the year. I can’t even say for sure if it was the best match of the week. But I know for sure that I’ll never forget it.
Best: The Announce Team
Part of what made the match so beautiful was the announce team, who took every available second to explain why these men were wrestling, why the holds hurt, why they were doing them and anything else you needed to know without a second of condescension, ignorance or hate. They did what they could to contribute positively to a work of art, and it showed.
Imagine watching this match with JBL yelling at Cole about what The Authority’s gonna do later tonight, or Cole chuckling about how Sami Zayn was a nerd. How many great stories have they missed? How many times have they hurt the performances of wrestlers who are literally destroying their bodies to tell a story?
Best/Worst: The Guy Who Stays Hype Being Used As A Cooldown
And now, we get to relax a little.
If they’d run Paige vs. Emma or the NXT title match immediately following Cesaro/Zayn IV, the crowd wouldn’t have been able to respond the way they needed to. It’s just not possible. You can “stay hype” or whatever for a wrestling show, but you need a break. You need the emotional response to be a roller coaster, not a constant uphill trek. That’ll kill you, man. It’s part of why Ring of Honor is such garbage. It’s 40 kickouts and top rope finishes in the first match, followed by 40 kickouts and top rope finishes in the second, and on and on. “Good wrestling” without context or reason. There’s something to be said about taking a step back and creating a moment.
Match #2 was MOJO RAWLEY, a wrestler who is SO EXCITED TO BE HERE that he CANNOT STOP HITTING YOU WITH HIS ASSHOLE, facing CJ Parker, a hippie who is absolutely nothing like a hippie and was terrible for years until he realized he should be cutting promos about Ford Fiestas and recycling. It was kind of a waste of time, but that’s good. I’m just sad that it didn’t end with Parker introducing Mojo to weed to calm him down.
My favorite Mojo Rawley-related moment of the night was that collection of people in the front rows wearing homemade Mojo t-shirts who sat on their hands for the entirety of Zayn/Cesaro but GOT HYPE for Mojo, because I guess Mojo’s Aunt or whoever doesn’t know how wrestling works but LOVES HER ADORABLE NEPHEW.
White-us O’Neil got the win with his jumping butthole to the chest.
Best: The Ascension
A few things:
1. The new Full Sail Arena LASERS~ and video boards really enhance the Ascension’s entrance. They’ve gone from “guys in the Undertaker’s lighting” to guys who have their own thing, which, as I mentioned, involves LASERS. They are the toughest dudes at the Poison concert and they are gonna KICK YOUR ASS.
2. Their new Dethklok-sounding entrance theme also helps enhance their entrance, as do the cool pans around to catch them doin’ stuff. They’ve gone from “guys with Castlevania music” to guys who are gonna catch up on this latest issue of Fangoria and then KICK YOUR ASS.
3. The “yah! yah! yah!” crowd interaction continues to be great, especially now that Viktor is actively trolling it. He refuses to tag in Konnor for the majority of the match, they’ve taken away anything that actually CAUSES Konnor to go “yah” and during their entrance, Viktor pumps his fist along with the “yah” like he’s leading a stagecoach. It’s awesome. Control your crowd reactions! They are gonna YAH YOUR ASS.
Now, uh …
Worst: Too Cool
A few things:
1. Bad Influence is looking rough.
2. I think an Attitude Era nostalgia act is a great thing to have show up on NXT, but maybe not on the future-obsessed pay-per-view special. You’ve got every important person in the company saying LOOK AT OUR FUTURE, LOOK AT HOW GOOD IT IS, and then a tag team from the year 2000 shows up.
3. I popped pretty hard when Viktor countered the Worm by just reaching up, grabbing Scotty by the pants and yanking him into the ropes. Maybe don’t let your opponent lay there for 90 seconds before chopping him next time?
4. This should’ve been 10 seconds long. Dance to the ring, eat a Fall of Man, Ascension retains. I sorta hope they bring the Ascension up to the main roster WITH the NXT tag titles, because 4a) the NXT tag division is terrible and they don’t have anyone to face, and 4b) they could use the NXT tag straps like the old U.S. tag titles.
Best: Paige/Emma II
I saw a lot of people on Twitter responding to this with, “wow, it’s a women’s match and it’s actually good??” Welcome to the good wrestling show, everybody.
I thought Paige/Emma II was really good, especially because I’ve been around for the entirety of the story, watching them leave it all on the line in the NXT Women’s Championship tournament only to narrowly miss each other by intersecting feuds or injuries for months en route to the rematch. If you didn’t see the fist one, this was probably mind-blowing. In NXT, Emma isn’t “dumb wrestler’s dumb girlfriend,” she’s a bratty, emotionally-complex submission master who will rip off your arms and choke you to death.
That character is what gave us my two favorite parts of the match: Paige showing her superiority by defeating the submission specialist with a (baller) submission move of her own, and the post-match hug, which was a spectacular contrast to Zayn/Cesaro. Zayn/Cesaro was about a show of respect from a man who never gives it to one who desperately needs it. Paige kinda hates Emma but respects her, so when she comes out on top, she wants to show that. Emma accepts it, but she looks like she barely cares. She walks up the ramp backwards like she’s still considering kicking her ass.
This is why the women on NXT are so awesome … they defy trope. Paige looks and acts like a bad guy, but she’s a good guy at heart. Tough and confrontational on the outside, caring and respectful on the inside. Emma is the exact opposite. A bad guy who gets a good guy response. Happy go-lucky on the outside, driven by ego on the inside. Confrontational and demanding. It’s the best.
Best: Better Than Batista
At one point during the match Emma drops Paige with a nice-looking powerbomb, and the crowd launches into a “BETTER THAN BATISTA” chant. They should’ve chanted it when every single wrestler on the show was able to wrestle for two minutes without having to lie down and hold their stomach for five.
Worst: WWE Figures Out How To Make Me Hate Tyler Breeze
This is where the feed went bad for most people. Tyler Breeze makes his entrance, which should be a high-water mark for new fans. “Hey, check out this guy’s entrance, it got a THIS IS AWESOME chant once simply for existing. Breeze is like a folk hero down here, which is funny because he’s just Zoolander the wrestler and LET ME TELL YOU MORE ABOUT WHY NXT IS MAGIC.”
Instead, most of us had to watch snippets of Breeze’s entrance over and over while desperately refreshing the feed, starting over, fast forwarding to the end, fast forwarding back to the beginning or switching devices nonstop. If you missed this part, Alexander Rusev showed up and beat up Breeze and Xavier Woods and it was fine. It was also INFURIATING because GIVE ME BACK MY SHOW.
I’m really glad I’m going to be at WrestleMania XXX live, because if the problems aren’t 100% by the time it starts, Jesus take the wheel.
“Hi, I’m Shawn Michaels. Welcome to NXT, a show about my hobbies and interests! How about that nickname I keep trying to get over, am I right”
THIS is when Rusev should’ve started f*cking people up.
Best? Worst?: Being “Whelmed” By Adrian Neville
Watching the main-event in pieces probably hurt it for me, but yeah, I didn’t really love it. It was structurally fine and featured the right result — as good as Bo has been, his goodness has been received and it’s time for him to move on, and Neville really needs a hook beyond JUMPS WELL — but it was underwhelming. This was when we needed to be WHELMED, you know? It’s the flippiest flipper that ever flipped in a ladder match, WWE’s #1 match for FLIPS. I wanted everything. I wanted the full PAC experience. I wanted a Red Arrow from the top of the ladder. The year’s big finish. The topper on an amazing show.
Instead we got a normal Red Arrow, but with Bo lying on a ladder? Who cares? How is that any better than the regular Red Arrow? I mean, in kayfabe it probably hurt way more, but THAT’S your big finish? With NEVILLE? And Bo’s so hurt he rolls out of the ring? Why wouldn’t he lie where he got hurt? Did falling off the apron help him or something?
That’s basically my entire match response. “When’s it gonna start getting great?” I guess you can’t follow Zayn/Cesaro AND Emma/Paige with anything less than a ladder apocalypse, filler matches or not. Good for Neville, though. Maybe now he can develop his character, run some great title defenses NOT involving Corey Graves, and show us what we need to see to want him on the next level. Otherwise, we’re just waiting for him to be the Graves to Prince Devitt’s CM Punk.
Best: For Further Analysis, Here’s Me Talking NXT arRIVAL On Straight Shoot
If you missed it in the 1300 comment (!) live thread I made an appearance on Aubrey Sitterson’s Straight Shoot to talk NXT, so check that out if you want the 90 minute version of my thoughts (with a few of the same jokes), check it out:
Thanks, everybody. See you back here next Friday for a weekly NXT report, okay? Start reading those. This show is the best.