Previously on the Best and Worst of NXT: A lot of things that had nothing to do with TakeOver happened. Also, Wife Character™ is doing everything she can to keep Johnny Gargano from complete insanity at the right hand of his best friend turned blood rival turned cult authority. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for them.
If you missed this show (you crazy person), you can watch it here. If you’d like to read previous installments of the Best and Worst of NXT, click right here. Follow With Spandex on Twitter and Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter, where everything and everyone is terrible.
And now, the Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: Phoenix, originally aired on January 26, 2019.
Best: War Aiders
Before we talk about anything that actually happened on the show, let’s give it up for Ray Rowe’s never-ending supply of big dick white people energy. The guy has a Viking-themed wedding, then he gets a Viking-themed entrance before his title match on an NXT TakeOver, and even got his wife to be one of his entrance Vikings. That’s adorable, and committed.
The War Raiders entrance was cool, even if they looked more like Whiterun guards than Norse seafarers. The look is a definite improvement over what they were doing before, which loosely amounted to putting some sticks on their clothes in the dark. I think it’s a step in the right direction, but I’ve got to quote Elle Collins, who summed up my thoughts nicely on Twitter last night: “So many pirates and vikings in wrestling, and not nearly enough of them have done video segments where they arrive at their rivals’ houses by boat and steal their stuff. All I’m asking for is authenticity.”
This was an interesting Tag Team Championship match for me, because on the first watch, I was shaken up a little by the weird pacing. It’s hard to put my finger on, but the early going of the match and even some of the later spots feel a little awkward, like Kyle O’Reilly and Roderick Strong are so used to these quickly-paced tag sprints that they spent too much of the in-ring time visibly waiting for War Raiders to finish spots. The big handspring elbow from Hanson at the end is a big example of this, as the idea is that Hanson’s supposed to break through a double clothesline and go straight into the handspring. Instead, it ends up in two parts. Hanson breaks the double clothesline, stops almost completely, then starts running again after a readjustment to do the handspring. See also that bodyslam off the apron spot, where O’Reilly and Strong are basically Waiting For Godot while Rowe tries to make sure he’s not throwing his friend at the ground.
On a rewatch, I liked the match a lot more. It’s easily the best War Machine/War Raiders match I’ve ever seen (as I’m in the weird minority that thinks Hanson’s wrestling is super phony looking and Rowe should be a big singles star) and a fitting end to Undisputed Era’s tag title run, which has been built around them elevating a series of relatively mundane challengers into an entire division of rivals. I don’t think enough’s been said about Undisputed Era going balls to the wall to get everyone in the company over at their expense, from Ricochet and the War Raiders to helping familiarize a domestic audience with the best guys from NXT UK. Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate are obviously both stars, but they’re partially as comfortable in front of a WWE crowd as they are because four Ring of Honor workhorses showed up and were like, “okay, 20 minutes of Dragon Gate spots, let’s do this.”
The War Raiders gimmick has taken a second to find its footing, but if they move forward from here with the understanding that these are (1) two guys who are gonna kick your ass at length in marquee pay-per-view matches instead of just running through jobbers forever, and (2) they’re literally modern Vikings, which means you’re gonna have to just go along with it and enjoy how over-the-top corny they’re gonna be sometimes, I think it’s perfect. I think wrestling needs to maintain a steady level of, “this is only cool to wrestling fans in context and is actually super embarrassing when you try to explain it out loud.” I mean, the two biggest wrestling stars of all time are a gigantic orange man in banana panties who gets stronger the more you hurt him and a leathery old man in a sparkling bath robe who yells “woo.” Wrestling’s great.
Best: Pete Dunne Almost Smiles
We almost got him! Thankfully Toni Storm’s there to smile enough for both of them. Instead of Storm, they should’ve had Millie McKenzie sitting next to him with her arms full of shit from the merch table, asking Pete if she can have ten dollars to buy some free-range arena cotton candy.
Gonna guess Dunne and Storm are here because this is where they were Kenny Omega and Tessa Blanchard were gonna be sitting and waving at the crowd until plans changed. Maybe that’s too ambitious. Blanche Babish and Hijo del Vikingo? You could put him with the War Raiders as their weird son.
Relative Worst: A Match We Really Didn’t Need
I’m all for NXT containing extended, logical storytelling that suggests these are real people in a fictional world who learn from what they’ve experienced and either grow or regress over time, but sometimes it’s wholly unnecessary. Best example: Matt Riddle vs. Kassius Ohno, the Neville vs. Austin Aries of 2019.
Riddle is the hot new star of a promotion that feeds itself with “hot new stars.” Ohno, who is convinced he was once signed with a lot of “fanfare” and expected to be the next big thing even though his actual history is closer to, “worked here back when being an independent wrestling star was a hindrance instead of an advantage, got fired, came back a few years later in embarrassing basketball clothes as enhancement talent.” But part of being a good wrestling heel is believing what you believe whether it’s accurate or not, so that’s good. Ohno picked a fight with Riddle and got knocked out so fast you could fit the entire match into a GIF. Feeling that was just a fluke, they had a rematch on NXT TV … which Riddle also won pretty handily.
The feud decided to continue for some reason, with Ohno still using the same talking point as before the first match. They have another match at TakeOver, which Riddle also wins, easily. It’s not as easy as the previous two, but the match ends with Ohno tapping out because Riddle’s punching him too much, which is maybe even more embarrassing than getting knocked out in six seconds. It’s a believable MMA kind of finish, but also LOL.
I use “relative worst” here because it’s still a good wrestling match, and Riddle (like Sheamus, Reigns, Lesnar, and a number of others) has better matches when he gets his ass kicked a little bit and is forced to physically engage. Let’s hope this is the actual end of the story and that Ohno is never seen again, which should’ve happened after the first match.
Anyway, I should probably stop typing before I put my foot in my mouth.
Looks like Mad Dog has found Lump’s weak spot!
Best, Mostly: Belair Gets Thrown Into Deep Water
This is an interesting one, and probably the match I’ve seen the most dissenting opinion about online so far.
During the pre-show, the nightmare squad of poor man’s Donal Logue Pat McAfee and Ronald McDonald’s bastard Sam Roberts get into a conversation about how Bianca Belair “doesn’t deserve” to be on TakeOver. Roberts rants for way too long through WAY too much of an ear piece about how she’s just a pony tail and can’t wrestle for shit, and it’s so awkward and out of place that it starts trending with a bunch of, “wait, did Sam Roberts just try to turn heel out of nowhere,” and “dot dot dot racist?” feedback.
Regardless of how badly that bit came across, the narrative for the match through NXT’s eyes became clear: the match needed to show that Bianca Belair has certain talents that clearly show she “deserves” to be on the show, but she’s still green, and throwing her into a match with someone like Shayna Baszler’s like throwing Goldberg into a match with Lord Steven Regal. That’s no shade on Goldberg, really, he’s just not ready for it. Applying it to the current characters, Belair (the character) isn’t ready for a match like this, but Belair the performer absolutely is, and needs it. If she doesn’t prove her worth in competitive, marquee TakeOver matches, she’s never going to learn enough and be as good as she can be. To compare her to a fairly obvious analogue, it’s the difference between Sasha Banks circa Charlotte Flair’s NXT title run and Sasha a year later in Brooklyn.
I’m not sure it was the story they needed to tell, but Roberts’ weird narrative set up the idea that Belair would lose, but in losing would prove her worth, like so much Sami Zayn. That’s exactly what happens. She appears to have the match won with a K.O.D., but the referee’s down, and instead of just compensating and following it up, Belair LOSES IT. She’s like, screaming and half-crying about it. The lesser horses of the Four Horsewomen show up to do the bad WWE PPV run-in bit and get their asses kicked, and Belair manages to either overcome or nearly overcome the Kirifuda Clutch multiple times before passing out.
My only problem here is that I don’t think the match needed the visual pin and all the run-in stuff. Duke and Shafir aren’t really good enough to make a run-in like this pop, and Belair’s got a lot of positives going for her, but she doesn’t have (to bring it back around) Goldberg intensity. Her character’s more of a coddled super athlete looking to establish herself as a big fish in a medium-sized pond, whereas “monster” characters like Goldberg are just 2D killing machines. That’s why I think having her stay in Baszler’s finish forever made more sense and worked better. It was based around one of Belair’s great positives — her physicality, and Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club fear of failure that motivates her to continue even when she shouldn’t — and showed that yeah, Baszler’s better than her right now, but it’s not going to always be that way, and as soon as Bianca blossoms into a confident performer who doesn’t need to be “the best” and “undefeated” to have worth, she’s going to be unstoppable.
Worst: A Severe Lack Of Poppy
Two minor complaints here:
- I’m slightly disappointed that one of Velveteen Dream’s dates isn’t a dude but I guess Orlando Jordan ruined bisexual representation in wrestling for everyone
- pop star/cult leader/online Baphomet Poppy provided one of the themes for the event but did not appear or interact with The Dream despite them being more or less the same character
… although she did provide some hilarious commentary on social media during the show. I can only “worst” this so much, though, as it’s one of those “worked myself into a shoot” situations where nothing was actually promised, so I can’t get mad at them for not following through. Sorta like when you want Daniel Bryan in the Royal Rumble and get mad when he doesn’t show up even though they never announced him.
Regardless, I’m definitely in the Church now. Maybe I can figure out how to get Poppy to go to WrestleMania instead.
Best: Brothers Are Doing It For Themselves
Now to talk about the A-story of every NXT TakeOver event: whatever Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa did.
Part one of the story is Johnny Gargano vs. Ricochet for the North American Championship. To quickly recap what’s been going on, Johnny Gargano is a generally good-hearted dude with a loving wife and a loyal fan base who had his heart broken when his best friend and tag team partner, Tommaso Ciampa, flipped out on him and kicked his ass. Gargano, whose number one flaw is how vehemently he sees himself as the hero of his story (see also, 1997-ish Bret Hart), has spent the past year and a half struggling to understand how he could still be a “hero” of anything when he’s constantly being abused and manipulated by the worst person in the world. Whereas Sami Zayn’s best friend betrayal was just one of many instances of a toxic relationship’s self-fulfilling prophecy, Gargano’s was a total shock. Owens was motivated by a historically documented (and massive) inferiority complex, and Zayn understood that. Plus, Gargano’s upped the difficulty of “dealing with the betrayal” by having it happen to him in the middle of a run at the NXT Championship, instead of immediately following it. Zayn was given a clear moment to understand the choices in front of him, and refused to go to the dark side. Gargano’s being motivated by someone who (incorrectly) believes that doing the bad thing is fine, because everybody else is doing it, and he wants to be as loved and respected as everybody else, doesn’t he?
I could write about that forever, but all you need to know is that Ciampa has used Gargano’s belief that he’s still a babyface even though he’s committing heel acts to position him against one of his top threats — North American Champion Ricochet — thereby deflecting two potential top feuds by occupying them with one other. The reason Aleister Black’s been able to get such a jump on the normally Machiavellian Ciampa is, at least as I see it, because Ciampa’s multitasking.
Here, Gargano shows up in Dark Phoenix-themed gear, which is perfect. He’s foreshadowing the end of his story, sure, but he’s also comparing himself to a former hero who was driven to evil by the manipulations of others. It’s all about the heels corrupting the babyface by using the face’s unlimited potential against them. Gargano going from Captain America to the Punisher to Dark Phoenix is a great illustration of the story so far for dorks who are more familiar with comic book analogues than pro wrestling. Also, Phoenix, get it?
Like a lot of NXT matches, my favorite part of this is why they’re fighting, not just because they’re doing cool moves. So far, Ricochet’s TakeOver matches have been the place where he chooses to firmly establish his athletic superiority over his opponents. We’ve seen him in there against Adam Cole and Velveteen Dream, two guys who play almost nothing but mind games, and watched him adapt and learn from them. Here, he’s in the ring with Gargano, a guy who plays “mind games” by actually understanding Ricochet’s mind. He starts off trying to show him up physically, and when he realizes he can’t, he just cuts through the bullshit and attacks him with a lethal edge. Gargano’s ability to go to a place even Cole and Dream wouldn’t shows how truly broken he is, and how much Ciampa’s “just destroy the person and everything around them” style is influencing him. He goes from Johnny Gargano at the beginning of the match to Tommaso Ciampa at the end. Full transformation. Ciampa might as well be inside him, piloting him like a mech.
Gargano winning by convincing himself that having a streak of Chaotic Evil makes him Lawful Good. He tries to actually hurt Ricochet, something Good Dude Johnny Gargano wouldn’t even do to Ciampa back in New Orleans, and learns the terrible lesson that taking shortcuts and being dishonorable to your opponent helps you win. It’s a problem we’re dealing with in all kinds of culture right now, and the reason I’m still hopeful about it instead of thinking it’s happening for all the wrong reasons is because NXT’s earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to fully executing and finishing their story arcs, and this one’s definitely not over. The Gargano/Ciampa story continues to evolve and go to unexpected places, and I really hope they both stick around on the yellow brand for another year or two and tell the complete tale.
What’s next? I’ll let the main event address that.
Best: Masso Destruction
I think I might’ve been too burned out to fully enjoy the main event, which for some reason went 26 minutes. It was three minutes longer than Gargano vs. Ricochet, which it really shouldn’t have been, especially when the crux of it is that Black gets his leg injured and the injury affects the finish. I certainly don’t mind these two going nearly half an hour, I’m just not sure it was the best call on a card where the shortest match is 10 minutes long. I’m also not totally in love with the Shawn Michaels influence on NXT big match selling, especially when it comes to selling limbs, because that was never Michaels’ thing. When you have a leg injury, the idea is that the pain builds over time, so you’re gonna sell it more later in the match than at the beginning. NXT’s got guys selling hard as hell at first, then forgetting about the injury, then bringing it up again kind of awkwardly when it’s time for the finish. Like, why could Black throw 15 Black Mass kicks and not be able to finish that 16th one? And why is Black still making every move he does a kick when his kicking leg’s been targeted? Try a punch, man. Throw a clothesline. Black not adapting to Ciampa’s limb work and just trying to muscle through it made him look kinda dumb. Ciampa straight up took him apart from the inside out. Was Ciampa right about him being a one trick pony?
Small complaints aside, and contrary to the tone of that paragraph, I still thought the main event was very good. I like Black a lot as a performer, but I think I’d like him better doing matches like this in the main event scene on the main roster than in NXT. I go back and forth on it. Ciampa’s great as usual, but there’s no chance in hell that Black was going to win here, even if some of our predictions fantasy booked it. So the story is still Ciampa’s, with Black just kind of popping in and out. The NXT Championship scene has always held back a little, oddly. It’s rare when the NXT Championship match is the best match on the card, even when the best wrestlers in the company are holding it.
But yeah, back to the narrative. What I think is fun here is that while Gargano had to go full Dicky Murdoch to defeat Ricochet and brainbuster him on the concrete, Ciampa’s big “pull back the mats” moment was more of a distraction than a threat, and was used against him. Interestingly, Ciampa didn’t win until he decided to buckle down and win with science, which is what a pre-Crisis Gargano might’ve done. Plus, look at this sweet transition into the elevated DDT and tell me that’s not a Gargano play:
It’s even set up by a callback to Black/Gargano, with Ciampa resting his head on Black’s chest and Black thinking he’s got enough of an advantage to “absolve” his opponent. Black goes for another Black Mass, Ciampa commits the sin of yanking the referee in the way, then tries ADDITIONAL SINS by kicking Black in the dick. Black blocks it, tries the kick again — see what I meant early by the iffy selling? — and that’s when Ciampa takes him out with a Tech Hit. It takes a series of finishers to finally put dim Black’s candle.
And here’s the best part of the entire show. The story, at least as I’ve understood it, is Gargano and Ciampa’s friendship and partnership ending so badly that it broke both men, and is slowly turning them into the same person. Gargano was noble, but heartbroken, and now he’s winning matches with cocky, opportunistic rule-breaking. Ciampa turned evil because he was heartbroken, believing that the NXT fans just wrote him off the second he got injured and wanted someone more fun to replace him as Gargano’s tag team partner. It’s always been about us and our expectation, not about Johnny. He won some big matches with cocky, opportunistic rule-breaking, but is now relying on his technical savvy and experience to win. One is a heel with a weird undercurrent of nobility because he cares more about being champion than anything in the world and will destroy himself completely, inside and out, to keep it. One is a face with a weird undercurrent of dishonor because he cares about maintaining the integrity of himself, inside and out, and is losing everything in the process.
Mirror images. Yin and yang.
(Wrestling is pretty cool sometimes.)
Best: Top 10 Comments Of The Night
Jushin Thunder Bieber
And to think we made fun of them for calling a tag team “Do It Yourself” when it turned out to be the most shockingly prophetic name since Hodor.
Cue Candice with with a crutch
Takeover: Dark Reign
I want Black to show up with uglier and uglier vests every TakeOver, to the point where he gets to the main roster wearing a cloud of barb wire and getting a haemorrhage on the way to the ring.
Velveteen turns to his dates. “He said the Dream’s name once.”
She’s just Bel now after that choke
“I know from first hand experience how that ring post feels.”
Nigel with the understatement of the century.
The Voice of Raisin
My prediction for the ending of this match and how the victor celebrates back at the hotel is the same: Matt Riddle rolls a fatty.
Shayna lost one little fight and her friends got scared, saying “we’ll help you out with Belair.”
Johnny Gargano’s color scheme evokes a famous hero who fell from grace and became a villain when their brain broke. I’m talking, of course, of Hulk Hogan.
Putting this in the ether: Ultimate heel move would be having a power screwdriver waiting ring side so when they win the title they can immediately remove the side plates.
That’s it for NXT TakeOver: Phoenix. Here’s the bit that happened after the show went off the air, if you’d like to watch this on loop for two hours instead of the Royal Rumble pre-show.
As always, thanks for reading and sticking with us. Drop down into the comments to let us know what you thought, share the column around to spread the good will, and be here Sunday night and Monday morning for our Royal Rumble coverage. NXT characters you like might show up, and NXT season 1 rookie Daniel Bryan is in action!