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Please click through for the Best and Worst of WWE NXT for April 8, 2015.
Worst: So It’s Come To This
This week’s episode of NXT features three great wrestling matches and some legitimately engaging video packages, with one problem: it takes place at WrestleMania Axxess during the week before WrestleMania and features the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal qualifying tournament, which means if you’re in the 100% of people who watch NXT and also watched WrestleMania, you know what happened. If this had aired like, Saturday night or Sunday afternoon before Mania I’d consider it one of the best episodes they’ve ever done. As it stands, it kinda feels like an episode you missed and went back to watch a week later.
What’s weird is that the entire show (until the very end) pretends it’s relevant. They’ve got video packages of Randy Orton signing autographs and talking about how San Jose needs to get ready for WrestleMania. WWE Superstars dress like the Three Stooges to play golf and do Kid ‘n Play dances with local mascots. John Cena, Daniel Bryan and the Bella Twins stand on a fancy balcony and wave at the populace like they’re Princess Di. All it needed was Derrick Bateman doing another “here’s what you missed on NXT” Glee opening.
Worst: Breezing Through Round 1
Round 1 of the tournament features four matches:
… unfortunately due to time restraints and this being an hourlong WWE Network show and not like, a compilation DVD of NXT’s weekend of live performances (nudge nudge), we see all four of them in a minute-long clip montage. Each match gets about ten seconds of footage. I can’t complain about the show being slightly too late and then get mad that we didn’t see enough of it, but I would’ve really liked to have seen the first round. I think I was waiting in an endless line to meet Jake The Snake Roberts and Ivory as this was happening. I mean, I’m glad we got to see the good matches featuring the top stars of the tournament, but like 40% of my love of NXT is in irrational support of the newbies and jobbers, so of course I want to see Jason Jordan wrestle KENTA. Of course I want to see Bull Dempsey lose to one weak spinning heel kick from a guy 1/3 his size. This is my life’s blood.
Best: The Two-Man Booth
The entire show is called/narrated by the two-man commentary booth of Rich Brennan and Corey Graves. It’s perfect. I don’t know how to describe it without getting all hyperbolic and hyper-specific about my preferences, but it’s exactly what NXT — and WWE — needs. It’s subtle. Subdued. They call the matches and the moves but still put the emphasis on storytelling. They put over the performers and the show. They never yammer on endlessly to fill the silence because the damn match can do that, and they never seem like they’re talking over one another or competing for mic time. They’re just two smart guys with good speaking voices who genuinely seem to understand and enjoy the product.
I want this going forward. No more Alex Riley, no more Renee yelling “ooh” at transitional moves, no more Jason Albert saying he saw every wrestler ever at the Performance Center. Just Rich Brennan calling Slingblades and Corey Graves calmly giving a shit.
Best Ever: NXT San Jose
The highlight of WrestleMania weekend (and honestly one of the highlights of my life as a fan going to live wrestling shows) was NXT’s Friday night show at San Jose State University. Imagine being in a building with over 5,000 wrestling fans packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, treating WWE’s developmental show and its performers like the damn Undertaker at WrestleMania. That’s what it felt like. It felt like being in one of those ECW crowds you watched on sketchy VHS tapes in 1996. It felt like thick, palpable love.
The fact that it was recorded makes me happy, and I hope it’s available in full somewhere down the line. Just upload it as a “vault” special on WWE Network or something. Release a Best of NXT 2015 DVD and include it as a special feature on the blu-ray. I don’t know. I just want people to be able to see it in its entirety, because it was great and special from beginning to end. I was sitting over in the corner to the right of the entrance, so I got to watch Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, Vince McMahon and everybody from Scott Hall to Shawn Michaels wander out and watch with smiles on their faces. It was like some great Christmas movie where a boardroom of stuffed-shirts realizes Santa’s real and start dancing around the table singing carols.
It also featured a moment I can’t believe I was live for: Hideo Itami using the Go 2 Sleep for the first time as a WWE Superstar.
THAT’S how you do it. The second he signed with the company, all the people who co-opted his offense should’ve been forced to hand that shit back over.
For more on how amazing this was, consult this video of the crowd going ape-nuts for hometown hero Bayley, then watch the NXT Breakdown followup where she’s unable to mention it without bursting into happy tears. This is a great thing and worth supporting. Just all of it.
Better Than The Best Ever: Hideo Itami’s Road To WrestleMania
If you only watch one part of this week’s show — or NXT this year, frankly — watch the 10-minute Hideo Itami WrestleMania 31 video. WWE Fan Nation has about half of it uploaded, so at least watch that.
The full version chronicles WWE signing KENTA, him coming to the United States and experiencing an unexpected learning curve, battling back and eventually winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal qualifying tournament and competing at WrestleMania. Along the way you get to see him hit the GTS in San Jose, lose his emotional evenness as he tries to make it back to the locker room after the battle royal and basically be the best dude (and father) in the world.
His journey is emotional, and honestly my favorite part is watching his adorable sons tag along and be happy little wrestling fans. They mimic the GTS, introduce themselves in English and bother Tyler Breeze while he’s trying to play video games:
I kinda want to live in that screencap.
For the longest time I’ve wanted NXT to explain their history, characters and motivations through Lucha Underground-style videos, and this was basically the WWE version. They have the best production team on the planet and (at least in the video packages) truly get what makes pro wrestling special to its audience. Even when wrestling is at its worst, you can count on WWE’s hype videos to make it make sense. So when it already makes sense and carries some kind of emotional relevancy, they knock it out of the park. This doesn’t have the LU Robert Rodriguez ironic pulp melodrama to it, but it doesn’t need it … in ten minutes they turn Hideo Itami from “Japanese guy the Internet likes” into a real, fully-formed, important WWE character. He feels like the Asian guy they aren’t going to mess up. That by itself is incredible progress.
This will join Lonely Road Of Faith and the Placebo recap of Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker on the list of video packages I revisit again and again to remind myself why this dumb thing I love sometimes makes so much sense.
Best: All Of The Wrestling
And, of course, there was pro wrestling.
We get three matches in their entirety, the semi-finals and finals of the tournament: Hideo Itami vs. (Adrian) Neville, Tyler Breeze vs. Finn Bálor and Itami vs. Bálor. As you might expect, they’re all great. Itami vs. Neville in particular is great, and I’m glad a television audience got to see it. I watched it from the NXT Experience line waiting an hour and 45 minutes to meet Sasha Banks (and Kevin Owens and Baron Corbin). When I was about 10 minutes from the front they replaced them with Blake & Murphy and Dana Brooke in the world’s biggest downgrade. When Brooke is the new Trish Stratus and Blake & Murphy are the new British Bulldogs or whatever I’ll probably regret hopping out of line to watch the finish up close, but for now I feel pretty good about my decision.
Bálor’s matches were great as well, and I like that he remains this overpowered attraction without necessarily having to win all the time. We’ve seen him lose to Kevin Owens and now Hideo Itami, so it feels less like “Finn Bálor beats everybody with impunity” and more like “you have to be really f*cking top shelf to beat Finn Bálor.” It also makes Demon Bálor feel more important, and like a special thing he can only summon in moments of extreme duress. It’s his Limit Break, or whatever. I hope they establish some parameters for it beyond “he puts on facepaint sometimes,” because you’d figure he’d break it out for a shot to go to WrestleMania. But maybe he has to save it up, and wanted to use it AT WrestleMania. Maybe he’ll eventually get to, and good lord, what a magnificent day that will be.
So yeah, this was a wonderful night of pro graps, and I wish there’d been a reasonable way to make it more time appropriate. This stretch of shows getting NXT to Ohio and California have been really great for atmosphere, branding and in-ring work, but I’m ready for them to head back to Full Sail on a semi-permanent basis and refocus on the characters and stories instead of how broadly cool NXT is. I’m sure there’s a happy medium. If WrestleMania month becomes NXT’s annual “hey everybody, notice us” month full of showcase stuff instead of Dead Inside Emma and Vanishing Quasimodo Marcus Louis, I’ll at least understand.