Previously on the Best and Worst of NXT: Matt Riddle and Pete Dunne had an excellent adventure trying to get from Florida to Portland, and ended up stowing away in the luggage compartment of Triple H’s private plane.
You can watch this edition of TakeOver on WWE Network here. If you’d like to read previous installments of the Best and Worst of NXT, you can do that 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: Portland, originally aired on February 16, 2020. You’ve probably never heard of it.
Best: Matt Riddle Has Become Self-Aware
What do you mean the Broserweights were in my plane?!? https://t.co/wo5pPHTDbd
— Triple H (@TripleH) February 16, 2020
“How did you get our golf cart all the way to Portland?”
“Bro. Creative liberties.”
It’s official: the Matt Riddle character knows he’s a fictional character on a wrestling show, and by understanding this, is able to bend reality. 99% sure the look on Pete Dunne’s face here is saying, “wait, if you could take creative liberties to get our golf cart from Florida to Portland, why didn’t you take creative liberties to get US here? Why did I have to cuddle with you in the bowels of an airplane for four and a half hours? Why couldn’t we just show up without explanation like all the other wrestlers? Oh God, is any of this real? Are we just living in a simulation?”
Best: “You Shouldn’t Be Anything Like Me!” — WWE Main Roster, To NXT
I’ve rarely felt as seen as I did in the first 10 minutes of Portland, when they started with a melodramatic video package, followed by Poppy showing up to perform wearing Jushin Thunder Liger shoulder pads, leading into Keith Lee wrestling Dominik Dijakovic for a championship on a TakeOver. “It is not the critic who counts.” [looks around] Hey, don’t look at me, me and NXT TakeOver have been like 🤞 since day one.
I thought for sure that Poppy wearing purple was some kind of thematic choice to tell us she was finally going to bump into the recently returned Velveteen Dream, but I guess that’s never happening. Over a year later now and I still can’t believe my favorite sacrilegious pop and surrealist YouTube star contributed a song to NXT, got on the soundtrack to WWE’s video game, came back to play Io Shirai of all people to the ring, and actually physically to perform at TakeOver.
If any aspect of this bonkers prog metal with theatrics and vaguely murderous and satanic overtones does it for you, definitely check out her latest album, ‘I Disagree.’ It’s basically ten straight tracks of a former teen pop star coming into adulthood, looking to find her footing and true identity through a maze of confusing expectations, and aggressively slaughtering her old character where it stands. Think of it as Shawn Michaels throwing Marty Jannetty through the Barber Shop window, as performed by a musical Battle Angel Alita.
Now that my NXT and Poppy fandoms have merged for another couple of paragraphs, let’s watch two big motherfuckers who love to wrestle each other do it for a championship.
Best: The Match That Had Me Clapping And Happily Screaming At My Television
For the longest time I feel like I’ve been typing, “I can’t wait until Keith Lee and Dominik Dijakovic finally get to have their TakeOver match!” I don’t have to type that any longer, because it’s in the books, and it was literally everything I could’ve hoped for. Plus a few things that made me yell OH MY GOD WHAT out loud, by myself in my apartment.
If you’ve seen any match these two have ever had, you (1) know what to expect, and (2) know it’s going to be good. I think the pairing even fixes a lot of NXT’s biggest criticisms; most notably, for me at least, the “no-selling” and “too many kick-outs” talking points. We’ll revisit that in concerned tones during the main event. Keith and Dijak going bonkers on each other and somehow kicking out works really well, because the offense they’re doing to cause the pinfall attempt in the first place was unbelievable. So you could totally justify that these crazy monsters are running on 15 bonus tanks of adrenaline and pushing their bodies to the absolute breaking point to take out the other. Lee and Dijakovic works brilliantly as a rivalry that doesn’t need home invasions or “you talked about MY FAMILY” or any of the cornier parts of pro wrestling; they’re just two unique, impossible human beings who spent their lives mournfully crying for another of their own kind, and now that they’ve found each other, they’ve got to keep excitedly crashing together.
There are probably too many highlights to name — including this spot where Dijakovic puts Lee in a chair between the announce tables, then springboards off the top rope to the floor onto him with a ruthlessly small margin of error that could’ve easily driven the pointiest edge of either table into his goddamn kidneys — but this was my favorite:
THIS is how a “no-sell” works. Because it accomplishes the “oh my God, how could he DO that” of a no-sell without, you know, pretending this is all fake bullshit. Dijakovic gets Spirit Bombed and flipped (flipped for real), and somehow lands on his feet. He maintains his balance through sheer FIGHTING SPIRIT ALONE, and powers up into a standing position with his hand still on his neck. He’s got his Spartan Rage meter filled all the way up, but his life bar’s still low. To put it in less dorky terms (in this pro wrestling opinion column on the Internet), he’s pissed off and powering through the pain without pretending the pain doesn’t exist. Adrenaline can keep you moving forward, but it’s not a healing factor. You still got powerbombed on the back of your head and got your 270-pound ass turned inside out.
After Lee dominates his opponent with his BBC — look, I didn’t name the move — he helps him up and lets him pose on the second rope so he can hear how much the fans in Portland appreciated him, even in a loss. It’s really cool and fresh when two pro wrestlers are able to have a convincing grudge match based on the fact that they both want to be the best at what they do, and don’t have to personally and vindictively hate each other’s guts over it. BBC + Double D with a heart around it.
Worst: Tegan Nox Spirit Bombs Herself
“Interesting strategy from Nox there with the inverted senton. Why not just run up and kick it?” — Nigel McGuinness, singing my life with his words.
Mostly Best: Street Fighter Two
I felt really badly for Tegan Nox and Dakota Kai having to follow one of the greatest openers in NXT TakeOver (and also maybe wrestling?) history, but man, did they over-deliver. This was a street fight as a follow-up to a really underwhelming weekly TV match that ended unexpectedly fast for one reason or another, and brought what Lee and Dijak couldn’t: palpable hatred, and plunder.
From a creative standpoint, I though they did something really interesting here. I’m not totally sure if it’s what they were actually going for or not, but I got kind of a Devil’s Rejects vibe. In that film, you start off knowing that the sheriff is the “good guy” and the family of crazy murderers are the villains, but once they’re captured, the sheriff’s violent retribution under the guise of “justice” flips the alignments. You start hoping the crazy murderers break free and crazy murder him for being cruel and unusual. That’s more extreme than what happens here, of course, but I liked how Tegan Nox kept being the one to escalate the violence every time, building to her trying to jump off the top rope and put Dakota Kai through a table while Kai had a chair wrapped around her neck. The crowd’s basically booing it, even though Nox is supposed to be the hero, because damn, Tegan. Also at one point Nox does the “I’m sorry, I love you” Shawn Michaels face while Kai’s trying to recover, only to INSTANTLY shrug it off, put Kai’s head through a chair, and try to punt her in the brains. I’ve written a bit about how I felt Kai was totally justified in feeling betrayed when her best friend refused to speak up on her behalf so she could ride Rhea Ripley’s coattails to success, and this match confirmed it. Kai’s not a hero either, but I’d rather be on Team Kick Hollywood than Team Kick Wolfpac.
The match goes from “Best” to “Mostly Best” because of the finish. The former Reina Gonzalez, now “Raquel” Gonzalez for some reason, shows up and chokeslams Nox off the top rope through a table on behalf of Kai. Presumably because she feels the same way I do about Tegan’s whole vibe. And I guess I should say she chokeslammed her onto a table, not through it, because she gets some great height but only hits the table with her shoulders, causing it to flip over onto its side. I thought it made the move look more brutal, but I’m not the type who refers to every single thing that happens during a wrestling match that doesn’t go perfectly to plan as a “botch,” so your mileage may vary.
Even so, the finish was pretty flat because nobody knew who Gonzalez was. A lot of people online thought she was Sonya Deville. Beth Phoenix’s call of, “that’s … RAQUEL GONZALEZ!” was funny to me, too. I wanted Mauro and Nigel to follow it up with, “no it isn’t.” Kai didn’t seem to know who she was either, so nobody was really given context for what was happening. Gonzalez and Rhea Ripley were briefly an awesome live event tag team, though, so I hope we end up looking back on this as a great debut when she’s in the middle of her Reina terror.
Sorry, her Raquel of terror.
Best: Bianca Belair’s Cape
Worst: HEY MAYBE BIANCA BELAIR SHOULD WIN ONE OF THESE
Best: I’m Just Mad, The Match Was Good
Rhea Ripley and Bianca Belair’s NXT Women’s Championship match ended up in the toughest spot on the card, stuck between the three straight epic matches (all with dramatically different tones and styles) that came before it, and an insane Tag Team Championship match with a feel-good title change. Still, they told a great story of two powerhouse rising stars locking horns to see who’s best, with Belair having clear strength and athleticism advantages, and Ripley using her cunning edge and momentum to counter them. I like that they sort of played the finish like Ripley won with a smart counter into her finisher and sort of “escaped” Belair, rather than just dominating and pinning her.
But yeah, I’m still pretty steamed that Bianca Belair keeps losing these championship matches. She’s consistently a victim of, “it’s just not the right time.” It’s a difficult byproduct of the NXT women’s division being stacked beyond belief. When you’ve got people like Io Shirai and Candice LeRae in your lower mid-card because of all the talent on top, you’ve accomplished something. Regardless, Belair’s performance at the Royal Rumble, continued improvement in the ring, and top-shelf interaction with crowds is hard to keep denying. I hope she gets added to the match at WrestleMania.
Oh, right, that.
Charlotte Flair finally made the NXT Women’s Championship match for WrestleMania official, bringing arguably the most prestigious championship in all of WWE to the grandest stage of them all. Again, hoping it ends up Flair vs. Ripley vs. Belair, if only to further promote the special talent that goes with the promotion’s championship, and to differentiate it from Becky Lynch vs. Shayna Baszler. Hell, add Sasha Banks to it and have it be a fatal four-way pitting two classic NXT Women’s Champions against the next evolution of the division.
Anyway, it’s good to see NXT getting a chance to shine at WrestleMania. It’d be cool to see the NXT Women’s, Men’s, and Tag Team Championships defended on the show every year, even though it’d probably eventually rob us of a spring TakeOver and make WrestleMania even longer. It’d be a cool way to explain where the NXT show went if you made WrestleMania a two-night event, though. I don’t know. I just want to see the stars I like getting big entrances on big stages in front of big crowds and helping promote the “wrestle” part of WrestleMania.
Best: Bro Wrestling
How is this the highlight they chose from this match?
Peter Doon and Matthew Riddell winning the NXT Tag Team Championship was the easiest match of the night to predict, but goddamn are the Undisputed Era good at tricking you into thinking they’re about to win the mach. They’re maybe the best team I’ve ever seen at building a sequence that makes you go, “uh oh, this is the finish.” They get you right up to the edge and pull you back. Sometimes you’re completely hanging off and they pull you back up. True wizardry in the tag team division.
With American Alpha being either semi-retired or turned into a toddler basketball player, The Revival continually embarrassing themselves via corporate mandate, and DIY turning into the pro wrestling equivalent of Lord of the Rings, it’s good to see tag team wrestling continuing to thrive between the yellow ropes. It’s like the one place in WWE where wrestlers get to remember and do all the things that make tag team wrestling great. I’m glad it doesn’t “belong” to anybody. It’s not like when one team left, the division reverted back to the Ascension and the Lucha Dragons. Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish keep getting better, somehow, and Pete Dunne and Matt Riddle are on my short list of the most reliable top-level performers in the entire company, and they took advantage of [gestures wildly] all of it. The BroSerweights (or “BroserWeights,” if you’re capitalizing it like NXT does for some dumbass reason) are truly a thing now, and the exact team to carry the Great Tag Team Wrestling torch as the Undisputed Era leaves for redder or bluer pastures after WrestleMania.
Or they don’t, UE stays, and Riddle and Dunne start that blood feud we’re all expecting. I hope it’s too obvious, though, and turns into an Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross thing where WWE’s like, “well, everyone seems to like them being friends too much, let’s just keep doing that.” Dunne betraying Riddle at this point would have some real Seth Rollins Plan B energy.
WORST: The Undisputed Era’s Biggest Heel Move Ever
I’m holding these shitbags personally responsible.
Best: Johnny, Angry Johnny
It took about 26 and a half more minutes than we predicted, but NXT Finn Bálor plus Prince Devitt stat buffs defeated Johnny TakeOver in decisive fashion. Tired of watching Gargano kick out of 65 finishers at the end of your shows? Here’s Finn Bálor dropkicking him off the announce table, giving him maybe the most gruesome Coup de Grace he’s ever delivered — just full on sternum and guts demolition — 1916’ing him all the way to death, and then pinning him in the most dominant way possible without putting his actual, uncovered, and fully visible balls on Gargano’s chin.
The match is everything you want it to be; hard-hitting with a slow feeling-out process that gradually builds to meaningful offense and a finish that doesn’t insult your intelligence or outstay its welcome. It’s … well, it’s the opposite of Ciampa vs. Cole, but we’ll get to that. I would actually argue that this is the best match of Finn Bálor’s WWE career, although I might have to watch it again, and know I like Johnny Gargano’s whole thing more than some. I thought this actually addressed a lot of the problems with Gargano’s matches against Adam Cole, and more or less forced Gargano into a more realistic presentation of professional wrestling via non-stop kicks to his heart. Low key the best match of the night from a critical standpoint, but nowhere near as fun or rewatchable as Lee vs. Dijakovic or the tag title match.
It’s fun when your big judgment of the wrestling show is, “I liked this match more than this other match because I prefer one style to another,” instead of, “this is the only thing that kind of made sense and didn’t make me feel stupid for watching.” NXT’s really good about that.
And with that said,
The Main Event
I don’t want to give this a “Best” or “Worst” because I don’t want my read of it to sound sensational, but … yeah, this was closer to Worst than Best for me. Keeping in mind that NXT TakeOver “Worst” is usually still pretty good.
In the words of the late, great Sarah Lynn, it’s just too much, man. We’ve made a lot of jokes about Johnny Gargano kicking out of everything, but … was Adam Cole the problem all along? Or whoever’s in charge of putting together Adam Cole’s championship matches? Because Tommaso Ciampa is on God Mode during this match to a detrimental degree. Having the righteous babyface fight off interference and run-ins and weapon shots and stuff is great. Gargano and Cole did that brilliantly in their 2-out-of-3 falls match. But when you spend the entire mach selling your surgically repaired neck and take 33-plus minutes of offense TO the neck only to COMPLETELY no-sell a Canadian Destroyer on the floor to hit your signature moves and make the OTHER GUY kick out? It’s not even performed in desperation, he just pretends it didn’t happen and continues on with the match. What the hell is that? At some point you stop stretching out the drama and take your match into the uncanny valley.
Like I said earlier, I think situational power-ups or “hulk ups” or no-selling can work. But where Lee vs. Dijakovic was two healthy behemoths doing absurd offense nobody should be able to perform or take in an effort to one-up one another, Cole vs. Ciampa was completely built around Ciampa’s recovery from neck surgery and whether or not he’d be able to last long enough to overcome an opportunistic champion and his three henchmen. It’s a totally different story. Dijak takes a Spirit Bomb and accidentally bounces up onto his feet, screams through the pain, and continues selling the move as he’s doing it. Ciampa’s just … not. They’re just doing moves to each other for half an hour and none of them matter. It’s ADD as balls when it shouldn’t be, and doesn’t HAVE to be. These guys are two of the best in the world between the ropes. They don’t need to be Kane and the Undertaker at WrestleMania 13. I honestly think I have to blame it on the agent that put it together, because I can’t think of another reason for it to have happened like this.
It’s especially egregious when it happens at the end of the night, when we’re somewhat desensitized to exciting pro wrestling with dramatic kick-outs. Every match before it, maybe with the exception of Ripley vs. Belair, included really believable and compelling near-falls that contributed to the overall story of the match. So when you’re 29 minutes into the main event and past the three-hour point, you just kinda want to see something different. It’s why I defended a lot of those Bobby Roode championship matches back in the day; yeah, they weren’t as “awesome” as the rest of the card, but they were DIFFERENT. They weren’t just what worked earlier done over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
And speaking of doing things over and over, here’s Johnny Gargano to hit Ciampa with the NXT Championship and cost him the match.
This part I didn’t mind, I just wish it hadn’t been the one thing that “worked” after 30 minutes of the NXT Champion failing to be able to pin his opponent despite shooting him in the face with a rocket launcher.
It’s justified, too, in a way. I know Ciampa had a big feel good comeback story but let’s not forget dude made Gargano’s life hell for like two years and then thought everything was good because he hugged him once. Gargano just got brutally emasculated by Finn Bálor, so now he’s got to go win the NXT Championship again to prove he’s as good as he started believing he is. Former friendships just get in the way of that. It’s a nice inversion of the original Ciampa/Gargano dynamic, where Ciampa felt forgotten and replaceable. Now Johnny’s gone rogue without Ciampa’s prompting, and now Ciampa, of all people, is the one who’ll have to bring him back to his senses.
Ciampa and Gargano’s story needs an ending, and you might as well do it right now in case Ciampa’s repairs don’t hold up or one or both of them gets sent to the Smackdown jobber mines. It’s NXT’s grandest attempt at telling an epic story, and even if you don’t love the book, you don’t want it to end with Frodo collapsing at the foot of Mount Doom.
Just … keep the kick-outs to under a hundred each, okay?
Best: Top 10 Comments Of The Week
Riddle: Hey Daniel
Bryan: Hi Matthew
Riddle: You still got the number for the hemp belt maker?
Candice backstage: “well, I guess I’m doing the goth eyeshadow again”
The Real Birdman
This main event is so over booked, Leva Bates is gonna become it’s manager
You can say what you want about Mauro but I’ll take his one-liners and being excited over Cole’s boredom or Graves droning on about “deep water”
Sam Roberts is the inspiration of Councilman Jamm from Parks and Rec…not funny in real life.
No lie, it makes no storyline sense, but I kind of want the locker room to empty and have them all just beat the hell out of UE because they’re all just sick of UE’s shit
NXT: “We don’t do cool down matches”
Johnny: Finn you can’t just do finger guns after every move
William Regal couldn’t be here tonight as he had to explain to the Watcher’s Council how he never detected that Shayna was a vampire for three years.
Baron Von Raschke
Vince: This is great, but you know….
HHH: I know….we aren’t allowed to have good tag team wrestling on the main roster…
Vince: Good…I’m glad we finally
HHH: …until you are dead.
Vince: …understand each oth….What was that?
Another TakeOver‘s in the books, and I have to say, it’s an all-timer. I don’t know if it can touch New Orleans or New York, but it’s definitely in the top five.
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