– If you missed this show, stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it in its entirety.
– If you’ve never been here before and found the column via somebody’s share, we do a regular Best and Worst of WWE NXT column people seem to like. You should check it out, and follow along with us every week. On Fridays we do a vintage version where we recap seasons of the game show years. We’re on season 4 right now.
– Drop a comment and share the column! It helps more than you realize. Keep me in the “bad jokes about wrestling” game.
Please click through for the Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: R Evolution.
Best: Kevin Owens Arrives (And CJ Parker Almost Kills Him)
I never thought a broken nose could be a happy accident (outside of a Brady Bunch episode, I guess), but I can’t think of a more appropriate way to debut Kevin Owens.
Owens is a hard performer to explain. I was going to Ring of Honor shows regularly when he showed up, and I honestly didn’t like him. He was an average looking French-Canadian guy who did slightly worse versions of Naruki Doi’s moves and wrestled in a t-shirt. He was good in the ring, but not as good as guys like Danielson. He was good on the mic, but not as good as guys like Punk. It took me years to understand what people saw in him that made them follow him around and buy whatever VERB NOUN VERB shirt he could fit on a Pro Wrestling Tees page, but I got there: he connects.
That sounds like a vague “make an impact” or “grab the brass ring” thing, but I don’t mean he’s good at connecting. I’m saying he connects. It’s natural. It’s not learned. It’s a thing his brain and body naturally do that cause wrestling crowds to believe what he’s doing and follow along. He’s a leader. A pied piper. He’s that guy who uses his exceeding averageness to be an avatar for the people around him. Whether you like him or not, whether you get it or you don’t, he makes a crowd buzz and react simply by existing near them. Now he’s in the best shape of his life and hungry to make the most of an opportunity it took him 14 years to get. That’d dangerous and exciting.
Also dangerous: CJ Parker palm striking Kevin Owens in the face for real and almost driving his nose through his brain in his debut match. Seriously, that’s what landed Cameron Poe in prison in Con Air. I’m guessing CJ spends Friday putting his phone on Do Not Disturb, whistling to himself and trying not to make a lot of eye contact.
Best: The Lucha Dragons vs. The Vaudevillains Is Exactly What It’s Supposed To Be
This show had a lot of important stuff on it — Kevin Steen’s WWE debut, Finn Bálor going nuclear, the end of Sami Zayn’s “road to redemption” and more — so the tag team championship match didn’t have to be big. It didn’t need to be. The Lucha Dragons and The Vaudevillains are both great teams, but they haven’t been feuding very long. What’s the most heated thing that’s happened, a couple of condescending silent films and some little people getting beaten up?
The great thing about this current developmental environment as opposed to the OVW/FCW days is the emphasis on variety. Circa 2010, everybody in developmental was identical. They were all tallish, hairless, muscular guys working “arrogant young upstart” gimmicks. See basically anybody who wasn’t Daniel Bryan, Low Ki or Brodus Clay on the first four seasons of NXT. It was a Johnny Curtis factory, cranking out these guys who probably had some talent, but were homogenized to oblivion and forced to play the world’s most boring interpretation of “ball.” Now, partially thanks to the influx of top level independent talent hanging onto what worked for them on the indies, there’s variety. You can get a luchador team wrestling old-timey strong men. You can get a cosplaying Irish ninja and his King’s Road friend teaming up against 2010 create-a-wrestlers. You get guys like Owens, and you get them being guys like Owens, and that more or less allows you to differentiate that person in your brain and give a shit.
So yeah, I dug this. It would’ve been a good main-event on a regular episode, and was entertaining enough on the live special without trying (and probably failing) to run with what surrounded it.
Best/Worst: CHIV-AL-RY! CHIV-AL-RY!
The crowd chanting “chivalry” when Aiden English pushed Simon Gotch out of the way of a Lucha Dragons tandem dive was pretty heartwarming, but it also raises an interesting question: are the Vaudevillains heels? I thought they were, but everyone loves them, they seem like decent enough guys and (aside from that one week where they assaulted little people) have continued to be likable and adorable. What, am I going to boo them because they made hilarious silent films about the Lucha Dragons terrorizing City Hall? Do you even KNOW me?
And frankly, we don’t know that the little people weren’t in on it all along. They acted like they didn’t want to get beaten up, but that could’ve just been part of the sell. If they got beaten up for real (kayfabe for real, I mean), they wouldn’t co-star in the followup movies, would they?
The reason for the Worst is because of the confusing heel/face dynamics. The good guys are double teaming, and the bad guys are trying to save each other because FRIENDSHIP. It’s extremely minor, but I wanted to mention it because I noticed it. On a show with otherwise ironclad alignments it just stood out a little.
Best: A Quick Note About Corey Graves
If you’re a longtime reader of the column, you know Corey Graves is/was one of my least favorite wrestlers. I didn’t like him on the independent circuit when he was Sterling James Keenan, and I didn’t like him in WWE. He was the ersatz CM Punk, hired to be a close-enough placeholder just in case, and he got irreparably injured as soon as Punk bailed. He worked a disaffected greaser thing where he’d be Keanu Reeves in the ‘Rush Rush’ video and then do an upside-down figure four.
That said, it’s always important to clarify that my issue was with Fictional Corey Graves and not Actual Dude Corey Graves. It’s never happy news when a wrestler has to retire at age 30 because it’s caused a bunch of damage to his brain.
The good news is that if this show’s any indication, he’s got a bright career in commentary. I really enjoyed his contributions to the show, mostly in that I didn’t ever notice them, and when I did, they were constructive. He remembers things (like losing his tag titles to The Ascension) and seems to know what he’s talking about without being overbearing, which puts him ahead of “Finn Bálor has been Triple Crown Champion several times” Jason Albert. He nerfs Alex Riley a little, too, because Riley doesn’t have any confidence and gets measured when he’s in the presence of someone he respects. It’s the difference in Alex with Renee and Alex with Booker T. One’s trying to get over a dumb character, and the other’s trying to contribute.
So yeah, a Best for Corey Graves. I hope I get to keep handing them out. Worst case scenario, hey, him being off-screen at the announce table limits the amount of times I have to see him make Stay Down hands.
Best: Chekhov’s Backstage Picture-In-Picture
Sami Zayn’s backstage and Kevin Owens can’t look at him. They haven’t interacted yet even though everybody knows they’re best friends. THIS MIGHT BE IMPORTANT LATER.
Best: The Guys We’ve Been Excited To Show You
When dorks like me got excited for KENTA and Prince Devitt showing up in NXT, we imagined them fully-formed; the versions we’d been watching evolve and compete for years. Last night was the realization of that imagining.
This match could’ve been garbage and we’d still be talking bout it, because holy shit Finn Bálor just crawled onto the stage painted like a Licker from ‘Resident Evil.’ He has teeth ON HIS KNEES. Beyond being cool, it’s just such a big leagues kind of entrance, and if you’re like me a part of your brain went “I want to see what he’ll do at WrestleMania.” He has literally become a monster to defeat the monsters of the world. Konnor’s shifty-eyed dog look to sell his confusion made it even better.
Here’s the thing about wrestlers: we want them to be larger than life. Gods amongst men. When we were kids, we gravitated towards people who couldn’t exist. Hulk Hogan was giant and muscular and burnt sienna and could lift a 500 pound giant. The Ultimate Warrior was this space creature who breathed like a pug and couldn’t take damage and rambled in ancient code. Sting painted his face like a flag and could jump from the middle of the ring to the corner. He could pick up guys like Vader when he shouldn’t be able to. Undertaker was a zombie mortician with lightning powers and a burn victim brother that could summon fire. Even the secondary players were big. Rick Rude could make women faint with a kiss. Ric Flair rode around in jets and limousines with his one-percenter friends. Ted DiBiase had a MILLION DOLLARS.
That’s why the NXT Random Name Generator catches such heat. You don’t want to see “Jackson Andrews,” you want to see THE HONKY TONK MAN. You don’t want “Kevin Thorn,” you want GANGREL. It’s hard (especially as an adult) to live vicariously through a guy named “Randy,” so we see Randy Orton in his plain trunks and his plain everything and we struggle. But if you put THE MACHO MAN in front of Randy and give him a sparkly cape and weird sunglasses, we’re all in. We’re lost in it.
“Finn Bálor” sounds average. “Hideo Itami” sounds like a Miyazaki dad. Certainly not as magical as “Prince Devitt” or KENTA, one word, all caps. If they’re average guys in black trunks, it’s not much. If one’s dressed like Scorpion (or Bruce Lee from Game of Death) and the other’s suddenly slithering to the ring like a swamp monster from hell? Yeah, I can lose myself in that.
Best: Hideo Itami Temporarily Causes Me To Lose My Mind
When Itami lifted Viktor for the Go To Sleep, I gasped so loud I bothered my cat. I lost my mind for a few seconds. This was me, basically:
He didn’t hit it, but the idea that he could and might is enough. He’s already doing the running knee. I guess the silver lining to CM Punk and Daniel Bryan being gone forever is that we might get a fully-powered KENTA in a WWE ring for a hot second.
This was just so great. The atmosphere made it work, and The Ascension got in just enough offense to trick you into thinking they might pull it off. When Bálor was staggering into place for the Fall of Man, I bought it. I probably bought everything last night, because for once WWE created a show where I WANT to.
Worst: Can Somebody Get The Superstar Of The Year Out Of Here
I loved this crowd. They chanted “Pokeball” at Adrian Neville’s tights, shouted down the guy who tried to start a “we want KENTA” chant and rousingly booed WWE’s Superstar of the Year, Roman Reigns. Roman’s going to get a lot of defenders from the “you just want to hate what’s popular” crew, but he kinda deserves it. He’s a palate-swapped John Cena right now, a guy who you think is going to win because WWE decided he should. That’s a terrible feeling. I think a lot of it for me is that when The Shield was around he was the coolest guy in the world, and when they broke up Ambrose became his own thing, Rollins became his own thing and Roman kept the old gear, music and entrance. He’s a walking, pouty reminder that one of the best things WWE’s ever created is gone, and the Rock’s iffy cousin is all we’ve got left.
Also, he deserves to be booed for that “I want to be the first NXT guy to become WWE World Heavyweight Champion” thing. Hey Roman, Daniel Bryan was the first NXT guy to become WWE World Heavyweight Champion. He debuted on NXT episode one, season one. He is the MOST NXT guy. If you want to debate the “game show NXT isn’t actually NXT” thing, save it. Roman started at FCW, not the Performance Center. He didn’t get brought in and start performing at Full Sail like Sami Zayn. He was barely even Roman Reigns there. He was “Leakee,” which we’re all still pronouncing “leaky.” Daniel Bryan was Daniel Bryan on s1e1 and Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania XXX. They even put NXT in his “about to win the championship” video package.
Long story short, f*ck the Handsome Prince, and not in the good way we used to want to.
Worst: Bull Dempsey Is An Obstacle For Every Person He Meets
One of the funniest parts of the show for me was Bull Dempsey in the crowd watching Baron Corbin squash Tye Dillinger. He’s standing directly in front of these ladies with “TEAM CORBIN” signs, and when they cut to Bull you can see them politely trying to cheer from behind this random fat dude who’s ambled up to the rail. At one point the redhead in the Freddy sweater tries to take a picture and has to lean to the side to get it.
That’s Bull Dempsey in a nutshell. Even him standing and doing nothing gets in the way and bothers somebody.
Best: Charlotte Wins The Boss Battle
Women’s wrestling is cool when women wrestle.
Much like the Lucha Dragons/Vaudevillains match, Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks knew what it needed to be. Sasha is secretly one of the best workers on the show, and Charlotte thrives against people who can hang with her and push her to be better. They busted their asses, told an easy-to-follow story — Sasha has a deep inferiority complex, Charlotte has a superiority complex and they don’t get along — and never missed a beat.
I probably praise the NXT women’s division too much, but I love that it exists. I’ll get into it more with the finish of the main event, but I love that NXT gives me these big examples of wrestling done right. Sami’s a “white meat” babyface, so when he has to make a tough decision, he does the right thing. We’re emotionally involved in it because it makes sense, and we need to know more people like that. Women’s wrestling shouldn’t be models without last names botchfighting so guys in the crowd can alternately rub one out or grab a soda. NXT shows that if they’re given characters, motivations, stories and competent wrestling training from a woman who knows how female athleticism and physiology works, women can wrestle as well as any man. Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks wasn’t a shocking exception, it was the norm. NXT treats them like wrestlers, they wrestle like wrestlers, and we’re allowed to love them like wrestlers. That’s AWESOME, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.
Other things I liked:
– Sasha stealing Charlotte’s moves, and Charlotte being able to counter because she knows how her own shit works
– Sasha’s dive through the ropes. If she keeps doing it I’m gonna start calling her “Queen Cuerno.”
– THAT SPEAR THOUGH. Charlotte using her size and speed to bulldoze Sasha and Sasha selling it with a full shooting star press was the best.
– Pretty much everything else they did.
Worst: Sasha’s Hair, And A Quick Note About Bayley Being Stupid
1. At R Evolution, the role of Sasha Banks’ Eyeballs was played by Sasha Banks’ Hair.
What’s going on up there? It makes her look like she’s balding. It makes the top of her head look flat. Like O-Ren Ishii when she gets scalped in Kill Bill. This was BECKY’s idea, wasn’t it?
2. On the pre-show, Bayley interrupts Sasha’s interview to tell her she’s not gonna beat Charlotte. Sasha boots her in the knee again. Hey Bayley, stop walking up to people who can kick your ass and insulting them to their faces. It never ends well for you. Also, be nice to people. You’re Bayley. You can be confident without being mean.
Best: The End Of The Road
18 months of build. Half an hour of brilliance.
Sami Zayn’s been on a “road to redemption.” Since his debut, he’s been a do-gooding fan favorite who can pull a four-star wrestling match out of his ass, but can never seem to win the “big one.” He wanted Cesaro’s respect and ultimately got it, but in a loss at NXT Arrival. At NXT Takeover, he lost a #1 contender match to Tyler Breeze. At Fatal 4-Way, he couldn’t close the deal. The entire time he’s held his chin up, confident that being a nice guy who politely greets backstage announcers and doesn’t take shortcuts was the best way to be.
After Fatal 4-Way, champion Adrian Neville tells Zayn that without the ability to check his ethics at the door and take that extra step, he’d never be NXT Champion. It’s a proven fact of WWE life. The multiple time champions are the worst, most opportunistic people in the world. Ric Flair. Triple H. Randy Orton. John Cena doesn’t see a problem with anything he’s ever done, including waiting for Rey Mysterio to win a title tournament and challenging him later in the same night. They’re all jerks, because being a jerk is what works. It’s what people cheer. Nobody does the right thing. It’s “just wrestling.” Ask anybody.
Zayn got a one-on-one title shot against Neville on the weekly show. Neville blew out his knee. These guys have been friends for years and competed alongside and against one another all around the world, so Zayn stops to check on him. Neville rolls him up for three. It was never about faking injuries or cheating; Neville is simply willing to be a jerk to get what he wants. Zayn fires up, puts his career on the line and slaps Neville in the face. Now it’s time for HIM to be the jerk. He wants that belt, or he wants nothing at all.
The match happens. The match is a goddamn masterpiece. It goes back and forth for 30 minutes. They kill each other. Sami hits a Helluva Kick in the corner and accidentally elbows the referee in the head. The referee is made of fragile baby glass and collapses, garnering a “this ref sucks” chant from the crowd, but that’s what referees do. They suck. The ref is down, the NXT Championship is in the ring and Neville is prone. This is Sami’s moment. This is his chance to check his ethics at the door. To take that extra step. To be champion. All he has to do is bash Neville in the face with the belt, toss it, revive the referee and count the three. He gets “redeemed,” becomes champion and justifies his presence in WWE.
That’s the thing, though. Sami doesn’t always get what he wants. He gets what he needs.
He gets right to the brink of giving in. After a moment of hesitation, he says “f*ck that” and decides to do the right thing. Neville takes the shortcut. He rolls Sami up from behind and the ref counts one, two … and Sami kicks out. They pop up, and Neville runs into an Exploder in the corner. Zayn preps for the Helluva Kick and runs a hand over his face. He’s removing doubt. He blasts Neville in the face, covers and wins the NXT Championship. He wins it the right way. He walked into the match expecting to be the jerk he never wanted to be, and accidentally found out that the man he’s always been is the only man that matters.
It’s perfect. It’s the reason I complain about heel and face dynamics all the time … because when you do it right and you don’t cop out, it’s worth it. It’s worth it. Zayn’s a person a kid watching the show could look up to. Zayn’s a person an ADULT watching the show could look up to, and should choose to live vicariously through. He’s the good guy, because he’s the GOOD guy. In a WWE world where he could’ve sold out his heart and been celebrated just the same, he made the decision to rise above it and be something better. You had an entire crowd of normally rabid wrestling fans chanting “NO!” at a chance for their favorite to seal the deal and win the title. Why? Because you told them a story, and it was good enough that they paid attention.
I love this. I love it with my whole heart. If it’s not the best WWE match of the year, it’s one of them. Everyone involved in making this happen should be proud of it for as long as wrestling’s a thing.
Worst: This Is A Special Moment And All, But Get Your Ass To The Back, Tyler Breeze
This was the one problem I had with the main: the post-match celebration, with Tyler out there in a t-shirt and cat fur vest, clapping for Sami Zayn. I don’t care if you had him stand in the back, he’s Tyler Breeze. We see him. Unless the next scene is a Beauty Shot from outta nowhere and a selfie on Sami’s unconscious body, let him say his congratulations in the back.
Best: Destined To Do This Forever
I’ll admit it, I shed real tears at the main event. It made me feel excitement and love I don’t normally get from wrestling anymore, at least the WWE version. It was all the stuff I want from wrestling happening, and making me feel right for asking for it all the time. I got misty as hell when Kevin Owens showed up and hugged his best friend. These are fictional people, but the people playing them are real, and sometimes share a parallel journey. This matters.
Yes, I got some WrestleMania XX vibes from it too, but shut up.
During the post match celebration, I kept waiting for Zayn to hop down off the turnbuckles and eat a package piledriver. The way they filmed it prevented us from seeing the rest of the ring, and I just knew Owens was lying in wait. He wasn’t, and the “goodnight everybody” graphic showed up, and I thought we were done. “Maybe it’ll happen on the tapings,” we all thought. Then, they lingered. The camera held on just a little too long, and Owens put his arm over his buddy’s shoulders.
What kind of awful human being beats up their friend in a jealous rage, and who chooses to do it during their ultimate moment of personal and professional triumph? It was one of the best moments Zayn will ever have, even if he becomes a 20-time WWE Champion, and Owens took a dump on its chest.
And I LOVED it. When you’re done with Flair/Steamboat, you have to move right into Flair/Funk. The Zayn/Neville story is over, and now we’ve got Zayn’s best friend slamming him into the ramp and powerbombing him into the ring apron out of spite.
Not only did NXT put on one of the best shows of the year — one of the best shows in years — but they planted the seeds that’ll make the next live special even better. Wrestling is a beautiful story of brutality that never ends, and we’re only a few months away from NXT’s next reminder of how perfect it can be.
Best: Top 10 Comments Of The Night
CJ Parker shows up to a PPV to lose to a debuting superstar. Well at least it’s fitting his love of recycling.
Corey Graves: “I’m a part of the announce team from now on and I could not be more fired up about it.”
Alex Riley: “And I could not be more fired about it.” *drinks*
The Vaudevillains need to feud with Randy Orton when they get called up, just so we can get an RKO Pictures joke.
“YA! YA YA! YA! YA! YA! I AM LORDE! YA! YA! YA YA!”
Huge pop for the FIREMAN’S CARRY.
Screaming go to sleep at 9 pm devoid of context probably makes the neighbors think I’m a horrific parent.
Pedigree vs. hard work. This match is the Nature Girl vs. the Nurture Girl.
NXT R: U Crying?
PhilBallins finishes us off with two.
BAH GAWD IT’S CJ PARKER’S FINAL FORM!
So basically, NXT is college with hope and fun and interesting new people.
And WWE is the horrible, horrible real world. Ruled by a rich racist white guy who was gifted his success and doesn’t give a shit about what you want.
If you’re at the 12/12 tapings at Full Sail, I’ll see you there. If not, let’s do this again next week. Exactly the same.