Previously on the Best and Worst of NXT: Angel Garza won the Cruiserweight Championship and proposed to his girlfriend for pretty much the best Wednesday you can possibly have. Also, Finn Bálor won a shot at the NXT Championship by defeating Keith Lee in a cool GIF contest.
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 WWE NXT for December 18, 2019.
Best: NXT Clash Of The Champions
The only reason to watch this week’s episode are the two NXT Championship matches that bookend it. There’s not a lot of story or character development or plot development going on in the middle, but the opening and closing matches are so good that you won’t even care. They open with a TakeOver-quality match with a predictable but totally understandable finish, and close out the night with a bout better than most of what we saw on TakeOver this year.
So, let’s start with Finn Bálor getting his shot at Adam Cole’s NXT Championship. In last week’s column, we wrote:
Next week’s show is a big one, as Finn Bálor challenges Adam Cole for the NXT Championship in a match that definitely won’t end with Johnny Gargano running in and costing Bálor …
We got everything after the ellipses wrong (against our better judgment), but I think that first half is what most people expected going in. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense if Bálor had shown up on NXT TV and kicked Johnny Gargano into the Local Medical Facility, gotten a title shot against Adam Cole, and then not have it ruined by comeuppance from Gargano, would it? That’s just pro wrestling, y’all.
So we end up with the NXT TV Special: a very good 15-minute match with a logically inconclusive finish that sets up a different very good 15-minute match with one. The benefit of the doubt we give NXT is based on the idea that if a match ends in “ballyhoo,” the end point is still great matches with conclusive endings. It’s not a schmozz to set up a schmozz to set up another schmozz until “schmozz” is all you’re guaranteed and everything feels like never-ending, cyclical bullshit. Bálor vs. Gargano is gonna rip, and honestly? I think Finn Bálor is better right now than he’s ever been, at least in WWE. The past two weeks have been his best in-ring work here, period, thanks to the tweener persona giving him an edge a hat made out of belts never could.
One thing, though:
Will somebody PLEASE come out and help those very real fans in the front row who keep getting crushed by the security rail? They were under there for a while. Is arena security just gonna leave them down there with their legs broken? Remind me to never have a heart attack while standing in the bleachers at Full Sail.
Very Best: Rhea Ripley Wins, Brutality
I mentioned it up there in the NXT Championship section, but Shayna Baszler vs. Rhea Ripley for the NXT Women’s Championship in the main event to close out the year of live TV at Full Sail was next-level awesome. This is one of the best NXT matches all year, which is saying something. If you’re going to end Shayna Baszler’s 400+ day championship run and general reign of dominance over the division, this is how you do it; not by having someone get lucky or out-smart her, but by having someone who is her physical equal stand toe-to-toe with her, fight off her lame friends, survive her toughest holds, and straight-up kick her ass.
This is the kind of match that gets elevated by the crowd response. The actual in-ring action is good, sure, but if they were performing for a dead crowd, it wouldn’t be the same. By doing it on a studio show, you build up the characters’ reputations over a period of time and when you pay it off, the faithful who have been there throughout it all are right there with you. This was the very rare WWE example of “striking while the iron is hot,” and giving someone a win exactly when they need it, exactly HOW they need it, and going all the way with it.
Ripley and Baszler’s facial expressions are top shelf here, and really carry the story they’re trying to tell. As an old school wrestling fan, I popped for the return of the referee “checking the arm” to make sure somebody’s doing okay in a submission hold, instead of the modern WWE thing where a ref just looks at somebody and stands up waving their arms like Kermit the Frog because they know it’s the finish. Little things like that allow drama to build, and, more importantly, communicate that drama to the crowd. There are more things you can do with a submission than “counter” and “pass out in it,” you know? Ripley not only keeping that arm powered up but grabbing the referee to regain her balance and make a statement to the audience was killer. It’s also an easy way for Baszler to complain her way into a rematch, because Ripley put her hands on an official and should’ve been disqualified. That’s not really the case, but it makes enough sense to pass.
I think you’d have to be pretty cold on your insides — and I say this as the world’s leading Shayna Baszler mark — to not smile watching Ripley hit that finish off the ropes, win the championship, and lose complete control of herself in a seizure of happiness while everyone celebrates with her.
What a match. Wrestling is great sometimes.
(Whatever you do, Rhea, don’t give Io Shirai the next title shot. YOU’RE GONNA HAVE A BAD TIME.)
Best: The Rest Of The Show
Like every episode of NXT on USA, the random stuff they don’t announce and just kinda dump in the middle of the show is good. It’s just hard to write, “this was good, so and so won, wish there was more universe-building stuff like when NXT was on the Network or better yet Hulu” for everything.
Since I mentioned Io Shirai a second ago, here she is defeating a slightly-more-competitive-than-normal Santana Garrett. The highlight is Santana breaking out the Muta Lock, and I hope I’m not alone in saying it reminded me of Emma and made me wish/hope that Emma gets a comeback run in NXT at some point before she’s through. Emma and Paige (and AJ Lee) actually started the WWE women’s revolution that the Four Horsewomen and somehow the Bella Twins get all the credit for, and she’s arguably the original NXT call-up that got completely ruined on the main roster. Justice for Emma.
The most surprising of the middle-of-the-show matches was KUSHIDA’s loss to Grimy Cameron. I’m a way bigger fan of KUSHIDA than I am of Grimes, but I really liked how this was done. You can’t ever really have a competitive division on your show if you so clearly delineate the “stars” and “top guys” from everyone else. You end up like Raw, where the Viking Raiders wrestle jobbers who aren’t even part of the company every week, while most of the roster sits on their hands in the back. Or you get situations where guys like Roman Reigns have to have 10 heels thrown at them to make a fight believable, when you could’ve just booked Baron Corbin or Dolph Ziggler to be something other than loser cowards for the better part of the past decade.
By having a match like this where Cameron Grimes steps up and defeats KUSHIDA on a level playing field with his finisher, you build up the believability that he might beat the next guy, and the next guy, and so on. KUSHIDA doesn’t really lose anything from it, either, because wins and losses can and should happen to even the best and most promising performers. Now when they have a rematch, you won’t just assume KUSHIDA’s gonna win and halfway pay attention. He might not, you know? Grimes might be the guy. At the very least, KUSHIDA earns something observable by learning from his loss and coming back to even the score with the guy who beat him fair and square. And then we probably get a rubber match with added importance that doesn’t feel like it was the plan from the beginning and made us watch it get built backwards from the end. Everybody wins!
In the NXT hoss division, “Archer of Infamy” (what does that MEAN) Damian Priest defeats Killian Dain (who looks like the love child of Dean Ambrose and Giant Haystacks in his jeans and black t-shirt ensemble) in a competitive match. I’ll be honest, I tuned out a little in this one, due to some combination of not caring about the characters and needing a break of some kind with all the other Very Good Matches going on. Remember, NXT, you are an embarrassment of riches! We can have different kinds of matches in these two-hour shows, you don’t have to run TakeOver every week to compete with Dynamite!
Anyway, Notorious Bow and Arrow Guy Priest plays off their personal issues stemming from Pete Dunne’s victory in the triple threat at TakeOver War Games and Kill Dain’s penchant for injuring people’s ribs. Priest only winning when he was able to survive the Vader Bomb by getting his knees up was good cause and effect storytelling. It was Dain’s one real moment of confidence, and it backfired on him. I like Priest as the answer to the question of, “what would happen if Baron Corbin was smart?”
Finally, we have another Worlds Collide preview match featuring a star from NXT UK, Travis Banks, taking on a star from NXT who is somehow not considered from NXT UK even though he literally held the United Kingdom Championship for like two years and just recently switched brands again, Pete Dunne. Banks vs. Dunne as “NXT UK vs. NXT” is like Undisputed Era vs. Street Profits being “NXT vs. Raw.” Nobody cares about brand supremacy, guys, even when the matches are good. Especially when the brands exchange talent so frequently!
Regardless, this is easily the best Travis Banks WWE match I’ve ever seen. The can’t-miss moment here is the Avalanche X-Plex, which gives that botched Scott Dawson and Big E thing from TLC a run for its money in the Most Painful Suplex Of The Year competition. YIKES.
Also, +1 to Mauro Ranallo for the great call, “AND IT WAS BANKS LOOKING FOR A SLICE OF HEAVEN … HE FOUND A TASTE OF HELL!”
Best: Top 10 Comments Of The Week
If Shayna is warming up for her Rhea match by sparing with Jessamyn Duke then she might as well drink a warm glass of milk while listening to ocean sounds
Jessamyn Duke threat level:
Balor’s knee-pads and Beth on commentary…. X’s and Oh’s!
Jessamyn Duke being used as a literal training dummy shows they’re at least self aware.
Ok Full sail, we’ll let you get away with that one.
The Voice of Raisin
Best case scenario, Keith Lee and Rhea Ripley tie for breakout star of the year, and break the tie by having a match about it on the first NXT of 2020.
Rhea draped in red, green, and gold… Merry Christmas to us all!
Super Calo etc.
I’m watching aew and NXT on a split screen, and now both of them are in split screen mode for commercials, I can’t see shit
Dave M J
Santana Garrett was 31 years old
The Real Birdman
AEW finally goes to commercial and it’s Damien Priest on the other end.
Never let it be said they don’t know how to counter program
Drop a comment down below to let us know what you thought of the show, share the column to help keep us in business over the holidays, and rest easy knowing we’re trying to fix that weirdly masked “like” button for open discussion threads. Join us sometime next week for Roderick Strong issuing an open challenge for the North American Championship, Keith Lee and Lio Rush forming the team KEITH LIO, and maybe more. Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everybody!