It might seem ridiculous to say, but it’s true: 2018 was the best in-ring year for NXT yet.
Like Emily Pratt’s Ten Best New Japan Pro Wrestling matches of 2018, I was presented with the daunting task of narrowing down a promotion built on great wrestling matches’ best efforts into a ranked list of ten, which, let’s face it, is impossible. After sharing my tentative list with in our With Spandex Slack chat and realizing I’d left off half a dozen important bouts that made the best matches in a series matter, I took a different route.
Here’s what I did:
- the following list is “ranked,” but if you read the Best and Worst of NXT column or really anything I write, you know that my favorite thing is whatever I saw most recently, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. Everything on this list could be someone’s best match of the year list, and a ton of matches that aren’t are good enough to be
- many of NXT’s truly great matches only work the way they do because they’ve been built up by previous bouts, so in situations where I had to choose, say, one of the Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa matches from this year, I just grouped them together
- I’m aware that’s “cheating” and compromises the integrity of my arbitrary list of how good things are, but it felt like the right thing to do, and allowed me to add in a ton of great matches I loved to varying degrees
- if you’re actually wondering how the matches in each sub-listing would rank, I’ll include a bit at the end explaining it (but it’s usually obvious)
- if I didn’t do it this way, the list would be “The Top 10 Johnny Gargano Matches Of 2018,” and don’t pretend that wouldn’t be accurate
With all that in mind, here are my picks for the ten (actually, fifteen) best NXT matches of 2018, with an honorable mention to my favorite match of the year, Matt Riddle vs. Kassius Ohno, seen here in its entirety.
10. Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch vs. Undisputed Era – NXT TakeOver: Chicago II
Before we attempt to wade through Money in the Bank, let’s settle into the warm bath that is NXT TakeOver; a show purposefully designed to be an oasis in the endless desert that is, “trying to sell a McDonald’s-ass palatable interpretation of pro wrestling to everyone in the world.”
It’s the kind of show you go into with relatively high expectations for everything on the card, so when something manages to exceed them — which happens more than you’d expect, but as much as you’ve come to realize — it feels special. That’s how I’d describe the opening Tag Team Championship match from TakeOver Chicago II, and then I’d have to type a chaser explaining how yeah, no, it’s not even the second best match from the night. That’s insane.
If you missed it for some unknown reason and decided to just read about it on an echo chamber wrestling blog, Kyle O’Reilly and Roderick Strong used their unbelievable lack of likability as human beings to defeat Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch, aka Oney and Twoey. It’s about as good of a utility tag team match as I’ve ever seen in NXT, because it avoided a lot of the bigger dramatic tentpoles of DIY and The Revival and accomplished the very old school goal of making championship challengers who might not necessarily be ready for a championship challenge look like the most exciting team in the world. This is EXACTLY the kind of match you have guys like Roderick Strong around for. They can work their asses off, so you put them in a workhorse heel role where yeah, they come out on top in the end — fairly, even! — and by doing so, their opponents look even better than they would’ve in victory by hanging with the (pardon my lack of better phrasing) top guys.
This was such an important opener. The pace is established early, and an NXT crowd that maybe sat through the hour-long “followup” taping pre-show that they should expect good wrestling with cogent psychology delivered very quickly, or at least at the pace the performers have decided. NXT’s always in control of how their show looks and plays, and it’s what makes TakeOvers so special. Everyone there gets it, and is along for the ride. There’s no need for even the smarkiest smarks that ever smarked to “hijack” the show, because we have a built-in and inherent but also deeply earned trust that the people running the show want it to be great for wrestling fans to watch. A lot of italics in this one, folks. It’s two days later and I still can’t believe the best wrestling product in the world is a side vanity project from WWE.
Great roles for everyone here. O’Reilly and Strong looks exceptional for being social turd-burglars who are really good at their job. Adam Cole (bay bay) looks like an omnipresent creep, with his “who has one thumb and says ‘boom,’ THIS guy” thumb entrance and general moral malaise. Undisputed Era look like jerks, but jerks who are having fun, which empowers them. Lorcan and Burch weren’t ready to win the straps, but they got the “stick around so we can give you a standing ovation” post-match curtain call. They deserved it. A-plus, on a scale that includes more pluses than is mathematically recommended.
9. Ricochet vs. Pete Dunne vs. Adam Cole – NXT (October 10, 2018)
From the Best and Worst of NXT 10/10/18:
If you’re wondering why there’s not more to talk about on this week’s episode, it’s because Hour Two (the second half hour) is just 10 minutes of entrances, followed by 18 1/2 minutes of Ricochet vs. Adam Cole vs. Pete Dunne for the NXT North American Championship. If you didn’t watch it, don’t click the Fan Nation video, go to the Network and watch the entire thing in full from beginning to end. Not only is it the best NXT TV match of the year, it’s in contention for the best NXT match of the year period, which instantly makes it better than all but maybe one or two main roster matches.
It’s everything you could want from this match, and could’ve easily happened in the middle of any TakeOver. It’s perfect. You’ve got Ricochet being video game-ass Ricochet while Adam Cole and Pete Dunne get increasingly madder and madder at one another about which guy’s the better Cerebral Ring Technician, so almost all of Ricochet’s comebacks are based on Dunne and Cole breaking their concentration. Even the finish is based on that. Plus you’ve got multiple callbacks to previous matches between the three, including a GREAT bit where Ricochet feints to avoid being superkicked on a moonsault, then gets confident and accidentally moonsaults into a DOUBLE superkick.
It’s three of the very best performers in the company (who are all very good at something slightly different in the ring) doing what they do best for almost 20 minutes.
Really the only downside for me is the commentary, which seriously needs to chill the hell out if they want me to be excited in minute 18, because they’re minute-18-ready in minute one. Plus, Mauro said Dunne was trying to be the first person in the history of NXT to hold two championships at the same time, which wasn’t totally true. And if he meant two NXT singles championships at the same time, they only had one title for the first like seven years of the company’s existence (that they didn’t even get until two years in), and one of the three they have now has spent the past 500 days being competed for in a division of two dudes.
So yeah, that’s how good the match is. My only criticism is one innocuous line of commentary like 15 minutes in. And Percy Watson’s only contribution being to yell “OH!!” when people hit moves. GO WATCH THIS MATCH. NXT IS VERY GOOD.
8. Adam Cole vs EC3 vs Killian Dain vs Lars Sullivan vs Ricochet vs Velveteen Dream – NXT Takeover New Orleans
From Scott Heisel’s Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: New Orleans:
Starting off TakeOver: New Orleans with this absolutely bonkers six-man ladder match was both a blessing and a curse: These performers lit each other up to such an insane degree that it absolutely murdered the crowd for the following two matches. Let’s go over some quick observations I jotted down throughout the entirety of this 31-minute(!) match (which wasn’t even the longest contest on the card):
- Ricochet is over as hell already, with the crowd losing their minds just when he walked out. Luckily, he backed up the hype with a ton of memorable spots in the ladder match, and he also had no problem being used as a rag doll for Lars Sullivan and Killian Dain’s dual feats of strength.
- Speaking of Dain and Sullivan, holy sh*t was that suicide dive early in the match incredible. While we still didn’t get full-on Hossfest 2K18, there was enough carnage between the two (and doled out by the two to the other four men in the match) that I had zero complaints. Even though neither of them won (and neither of them should have won, either), both were booked practically bulletproof. (For example, it took the combined effort of four men to powerbomb Lars.)
- EC3 probably had the least impressive athletic feats but added a wonderfully unexpected dose of comedy to the proceedings (his “EC3, BAY BAY!” taunt was delightful).
- Velveteen by-god Dream once again stole the show with a series of elbow drops, each more ridiculous than the last. I’m already setting aside some money to pledge to his YouCaring fund in 20 years when he needs a hip replacement.
And then we have the winner of the match, Adam Cole. As I wrote in my TakeOver: New Orleans predictions:
“That leaves us with EC3 and Adam Cole. EC3 was instantly over from the second he stepped inside Full Sail a few weeks ago, and while Cole has his catchphrase, he also has a pretty dire W-L record and hasn’t accomplished much of anything as the leader of his nWo-esque faction. Even though I’d rather see EC3 win, I think Cole needs it more, which is why I also predict Kyle O’Reilly and whoever his partner may be to retain the tag belts earlier in the night. Give their faction most of NXT’s gold and let them run wild for the rest of 2018 — or at least until Takeover: Brooklyn IV.”
7. Johnny Gargano vs Aleister Black – NXT Takeover: War Games II
Johnny Gargano deserves some kind of pro wrestling equivalent of a Pulitzer for bringing years-long storytelling and months-long layers of emotional action and reaction back into North American, WWE-style professional wrestling. I know the guy’s hero is Shawn Michaels, but shit, he’s the only person in Shawn Michaels’ league when it comes to, for lack of a better phrase, performance acting to highlight special moments in high-stakes wrestling matches.
The matches he’s had with and against Tommaso Ciampa, more than anything else in WWE possibly ever, feel like chapters in an ongoing story. The Cruiserweight Classic and the Dusty Classic are A Game of Thrones, everything building up to TakeOver Toronto and the match with The Revival are A Clash of Kings, the AOP feud and ladder match are A Storm of Swords, Ciampa’s return from injury and everything through New Orleans was A Feast For Crows, and the summer mystery with Aleister Black and the payoff at War Games are A Dance With Dragons.
There’s so much to this Aleister Black match that it’s almost hard to summarize, from the Punisher-themed gear contrasting his current state of mind to his Captain America kit from earlier this year, to Black using the Velveteen Dream “counter the corner finisher with taunting” spot, to Gargano learning from his mistakes and countering the fumble twice. It’s really a storytelling masterpiece, and I can’t overstate how awesome as shit Black looked here. He was a kung fu action hero and The Undertaker delivering supreme pro wres justice to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 26 at the same time. He’s quicker, stronger, looks better, is more dynamic, and is instantly back in peak in-ring acting and performance shape. Like Ciampa, the injury seems to have emboldened him. It’s wonderful.
On top of all that, it’s just fucking brutal. There are so many moments where you cover your mouth and lean forward and murmur “oh my GOD” to yourself. The literally suicide dive Black countered with a knee to the face was a big one. I thought Gargano was DEAD. And anyone who had a problem with Black pulling his kick at the end of that Lars Sullivan match was rewarded tenfold with the Black Mass(es) that finished this one. I don’t know how Gargano still has a jaw.
One of the things I love so much about Black’s persona is that he can compete in these back-and-forth matches and make you believe he’s going to lose, but when it’s time for him to win, he is ALL BUSINESS. Like, I can’t name a wrestler who is better at physically and emotionally taking control of a match in its final moments than Aleister Black. Just look at him when he connects on that Black Mass, and keeps Gargano from hitting the mat. It’s natural. It’s organic. It’s a man who is so unbelievably ready to kick the sins out of his enemy’s heart that he’s calmed himself to prepare for the killing blow.
And of course, “I absolve you of all of your sins” followed by another, even more brutal (somehow) Black Mass is the “I’m sorry, I love you” of NXT.
6. Tommaso Ciampa vs Velveteen Dream – NXT Takeover: War Games II
While Baszler and Sane made me love it and Gargano and Black had the most artistic impact, they both might’ve been overshadowed by the simpler, yet possibly more engaging Tommaso Ciampa vs. Velveteen Dream. It’s the two most fully-formed and sure-of-themselves characters in the company. The belle of the ball against a guy so hated in a company where getting heel heat is nigh impossible that his entrance theme used to be silence and boos. It’s putting two people at the top of their game against one another for the first time in a high stakes situation and having it explode into beautiful fireworks.
First of all, Velveteen Dream continuing to take a shit on Hulk Hogan is my favorite. Mauro called it a “tribute,” but I think we know Dream better than that. Hollywood Hogan was always the best (worst) version of Hogan, and him updating his previous Hogan cosplay to the deeply more preferable WCW/nWo version was pitch-perfect. I loved the velveteen lightning bolts down the legs, and his desperate need to keep his headband on, as if he was protecting a bald spot.
I know I speak in hyperbole a lot for affect, and that I’ve probably watched more wrestling in my life than anyone should, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a live crowd and felt them react to a nearfall the way they did the big falsie in Dream vs. Ciampa. Ciampa wants to finish off Dream, so he does his “roll to the outside and pull up the mats” gimmick, trying to set up a hanging DDT on cement. Dream pushes him off and over the table to block. As they’re recovering Ciampa, who is hate incarnate, hears Mauro Ranallo scream-references in his ear and hilariously throws some garbage at him, which I consider an under-the-radar nWo reference. Ciampa’s distracted by his own uncontrollable animosity, so Dream scoops him up, Dream Valley Drives him (onto double padding, which explains Ciampa’s kickout, I think) and IMMEDIATELY heads up top to hit a huge, perfect Purple Rainmaker. Everyone in the building lost their mind. It was HIS MOMENT. He was GOING TO WIN, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US KNEW IT.
When Ciampa kicks out and flops over into the ropes, Dream doesn’t hesitate. He goes for the big elbow from the top to the apron that finished off EC3, but guess what? Ciampa’s an in-ring general and a wrestling genius and, as far as I could understand, was baiting him in. He moves, Dream crashes into the floor arm first, and it’s just a roll back into the ring and a hanging DDT onto the steel connecting the two War Games rings and it’s over. Dream, over. While the Dream’s over.
It’s so, so much fun, and while it’s not the laced-up-tight masterpiece that Gargano/Black seems to be, it was the perfect WWE dream in NXT form: a guy doing nothing but big punches, goofy leg drops, and a big elbow off the top as the most over person in the world based solely on his passion and character, taking on the next-level heel champion who even makes people who salivate over heels hate him.
It’s pro wrestling, full stop.
5. Mustache Mountain vs. Undisputed Era – NXT (July 11, 2018) + Mustache Mountain vs. Undisputed Era – NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4
From the Best and Worst of NXT 7/11/18:
… the main event NXT Tag Team Championship rematch between Mustache Mountain and the Undisputed Era flying monkeys is great because yeah, these guys are assholes, but part of what makes them SUCH assholes is that they’re very good at what they do, and have somewhere between the right amount and way too much confidence. The finish here isn’t Undisputed Era bumping the ref and hitting somebody with a foreign object, it’s Kyle O’Reilly skillfully ripping apart Trent Seven’s entire leg and making it matter by being so insufferable about it. It just keeps coming at you, whether it’s straight-up or needs a cheap shot to sneak its way in. He just keeps grabbing you and pulling you to the ground and trying to break your parts.
I have a couple of small complaints, but I wanted to just type outright how good of a match this is, and how you should find and watch it as soon as you can. NXT’s been a real oasis for good WWE wrestling as of late, more than usual, even, and this week’s episode felt like a special gift during a week with Asuka vs. James Ellsworth, Seth Rollins calling people sheep-fuckers, and Bayley and Sasha Banks arguing in therapy.
The small complaints:
- at some point you’ve gotta stop doing the dueling chant, even if it’s fun. It’s a 15 minute match and they don’t stop the dueling chant until like 10 minutes into it. It got to Super Dragon levels
- if you take a shot every time Mauro Ranallo screams HE’S A FATHER FIGURE about Trent Seven, you’ll be dead from alcohol poisoning before the fall
- I don’t love “throw in the towel” finishes, because there’s never a towel tease. If you never see someone in a tag match consider throwing in the towel but then refusing, your brain instantly knows that the appearance of a towel means it’s the finish. The drama dies the second it shows up
But then they did one, you guys.
While it wasn’t necessarily my very favorite match of the night (that goes to the NXT Women’s Championship match, which we’ll get to at length in a minute), the objective best match of the night, at least in terms of what wrestling is right now and what about it appeals to an NXT type of crowd, was Undisputed Era vs. Mustache Mountain for the NXT Tag Team Championship. There’s been a lot of brilliant tag team wrestling in NXT over the past several years — thanks for leaving a legacy, Top Guys! — and this match deserves to be considered among the very best.
Now, in any Best and Worst of TakeOver column, I could explain that I liked a match because they did this cool move, or they did this cool move, or I loved this strike exchange or sequence. I liked the crowd heat, or I liked the character work, and I’m sure I’ll cover a lot of that, but what I want to specifically point out in this one is the “throw in the towel” moment, which could’ve been a simple callback, but ended up working (at least for me) on a much more complex level.
Hair Hill won the tag titles from Ring of Dishonor at the UK show at Royal Albert Hall, and they had a rematch for the straps on the July 11 edition of NXT TV. Trent Seven trained Tyler Bate, so he’s like a father figure to him. Mauro yelled it about 65 times if you didn’t know. In Bate, Seven sees a young guy who has an absolutely ridiculous amount of natural talent and was apparently gifted the body of a tiny little Greek God by default, who can absorb everything he has to teach like a sponge. Seven. Seven’s not an old guy — he’s in his mid-30s — but Bate is THE FUTURE in capital letters with stars around it. Seven wants to give him all the knowledge he can, like he’s putting a baby into a space ship and sending it to Earth before Krypton explodes. Bate recognizes this very real, very uncommon love of a father and will do anything he can to help and protect him, but he’s still learning. He’s still developing, and he hasn’t yet “reached his final form,” or however you want to put it. It’s why Pete Dunne is this insane charisma tornado and Bate just kinda stands around pleasantly waving.
In the match, Seven ends up caught in a Kyle O’Reilly knee-bar and nothing they do can get him free. Bate’s already made too many saves in the match, so the ref threatens him if he interferes again. And sure, he could’ve just interfered and stomped KOR and gotten his team disqualified, but he’s an honorable little Paladin and won’t intentionally disqualify himself. Eventually the trauma is too much (and Bate’s never really experienced it before, at least not on WWE TV), so he throws in the towel. Mustache Mountain loses, and Undisputed Era becomes the second-ever two-time NXT Tag Team Champions. Again, shout-out to some Top Guys. In a promo afterward, Bate explains himself, and makes all of these motivations super clear to anybody paying attention. Seven appreciates it, but doesn’t think he should’ve done it. Presumably he explained why in detail when the cameras weren’t in their faces.
At TakeOver Brooklyn 4, it’s Bate’s turn to end up in a Kyle O’Reilly knee-bar. The scene is exactly the same, only now the stakes are even higher: if Seven gets disqualified, they not only lose the match, they lose their chance to get back the Tag Team Championship. He grabs the towel and wants to throw it in, but can’t; and this is the best part of the match, because it shows why Seven is the mentor, and the lesson Tyler Bate learned. Seven throws the towel into the crowd and expresses his undying support and love through an outstretched arm, palm open, waiting for a tag.
Bate’s in the opposite corner thanks to some opportunistic cheating from Roderick Strong, but in that moment he realizes what Seven meant, and that if he has the pure love of a mentor who truly believes in him, he can do anything. That gives him the strength to drag himself across the ENTIRE DIAGONAL LENGTH OF THE RING by his arms, doing desperate push-ups the entire time, until he’s finally, finally able to make the tag. Trent Seven’s love and knowledge taught him how to reach down deeper and find another level of heart he didn’t know he had.
It’s an indescribable kind of moment that connects with everyone in the crowd in one way or another, and a shining example of why these two teams are so gifted at what they do. Mustache Mountain ultimately loses thanks to a timely 2-on-1 double-team on Seven after Bate gets sent to the floor, because not every story with happiness in it gets a happy ending. And maybe Tyler Bate still has a lesson or two to learn. If WWE could learn anything from this, it’s that it’s easier to care about characters when they care about each other.
4. Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream – NXT Takeover: Chicago II
Here we have three of the best things that can happen on a wrestling show:
- Velveteen Dream existing
- direct Lucha Underground references
- massive Fuck Yous to Hulk Hogan
I’m still not totally sure why these things all came together like they did, but I’m glad I got to see it. We talk about it in more detail in the Money in the Bank edition of McMahonsplaining dropping on Wednesday, but it feels like Patrick Clark maybe understands ring psychology on a level few others do, and managed to connect the dots between (1) Ricochet’s past in Lucha, (2) Ricochet referencing that past with bootletg Prince Puma tights at PWG, (3) Dream’s believe that being home grown means more than getting indie street cred, which one might gain in Lucha Underground or in PWG, (4) the very real animosity still lingering around Hulk Hogan, (5) an understated comment on Hogan’s inevitable return to the company, (6) a line between the Dream/Ricochet rivalry and Hogan/Rock at WrestleMania, which is the WWE established line of good and important crowd reactions, and (7) the assertion that while Dream can be as good as Ricochet, Ricochet can never be the “king” of a sport featuring names like Hulk Hogan, who are synonymous with “wrestling” period to most of the country. Plus, it’s Dream’s way to saying, “you aren’t a legend, and those legends aren’t as good as me.”
Like Dream’s interpretation of a Hollywood Hogan entrance, the match took on an embarrassment of layers, from the illustration of the story that “anything Ricochet can do, the Dream can do better,” to the surprising gameplan of Dream abandoning mind games almost completely to take out Ricochet with athleticism. Which is like trying to beat a fish in a fight by drowning it in the lake.
The brilliant bit of psychology here is that the underlying suggestion of “anything you can do, I can do better,” is that Dream’s not only attempting to prove that to the audience, he’s proving it to himself. So he pushes himself to places he wouldn’t normally go, and his 100% commitment to a character idea — the defining characteristic of being the Velveteen Dream –pushes his research and effort all the way. Meaning that not only does he have to one-up Ricochet, he’s BECOME Ricochet. The tights, the moves, the attitude. There’s no back and forth heat segments here, it’s literally back and forth MOVES. The ENTIRE MATCH. Nobody gains an advantage until someone straight-up wins. And Dream’s forced to go to Ricochet’s crazy extremes in the game of one-upsmanship, going so far as to copy Ricochet’s MISTAKES. Ric misses a big dive from way too far out, so instead of just capitalizing, Dream has to go up and miss a BIGGER dive from FARTHER away. It’s the same amazing and psycho competition vibe from Dream/Black, with more of a focus on the body than the mind. It’s incredible. Absolute master work.
Ricochet is a star, but Dream is the shit, man. I’m actively afraid of how good that guy’s going to be, and how good he already is. I know they did the Hogan/Rock staredown gag at the beginning of the match for a character goof, but they also probably did it so they can have an NXT section of the big Dream/Ricochet video package before their SummerSlam main event or whatever in three years.
I don’t do star ratings, but this one gets five.
3. Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane – NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 + Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane – WWE Evolution + Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane – NXT TakeOver: War Games II (2 out of 3 falls)
As mentioned earlier, Shayna Baszler defending the NXT Women’s Championship against Kairi Sane was my favorite match of the night. I loved every minute of it. I went back and watched it on the Network again to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, and besides remembering the NXT commentary team exists, I was right. There’s SO MUCH here to love, from the callbacks to weekly TV to the now year-long history of Sane vs. Baszler, to the counters and the counters to counters and everything in-between.
My favorite moment of the entire thing is that on Wednesday’s episode of NXT, Sane attempted to show Baszler she had a “killer instinct” by dropping three (3) elbows on poor Aliyah, then locking her in the Anchor, seen here. She sent a message, sure, but she also made a big mistake: Shayna Baszler is dickhead Fonzie, right? So yeah, she’s wrestled Kairi a couple of times, but I wouldn’t trust her to be interested in doing any intense homework on her. But here’s Sane saying “here’s my signature finisher, as a reminder,” and “here’s my submission I’m using to beat everybody,” directly to Shayna’s face. So Shayna’s response to that is OF COURSE going to be a slick counter. Kairi goes for the Anchor at TakeOver, and Baszler yanks her directly the hell into a Kirifuda Clutch. It’s almost lights out. It’s BEAUTIFUL.
Before I talk about the second counter and the finish, I want to once again bring up the value of not only selling, but having the first half of your match actually have something to do with the second. It’s what bugged me about Cole/Ricochet, even though it didn’t hurt that match that badly. Here, Shayna decides to rip Kairi’s legs apart. Brutal stuff that would’ve broken Hulk Hogan’s ankles on his first day of training. Because of this, Kairi is forced to work a leg injury into everything she does for the remainder of the match, even on offense, whether it’s taking too long to go to the top rope and getting caught, to having to visually acknowledge that she’s using adrenaline to force her way through the pain. She’s telling by non-verbally communicating, which is something I often see from international talent or people in masks trying to tell stories for North American crowds. It’s why Sami Zayn is so good at what he does … he spent so long under a mask, he had to learn how to communicate without just holding his arms out and yelling at people. Shayna working the leg makes sense, too, because Kairi needs her legs to get to the top rope AND to anchor the Anchor. By hurting the leg early, Kairi has to work that much harder to get those moves, and stumbles.
To bring in the narrative of Shayna Baszler The Bully, we see an amazing moment where Kairi more or less “hulks up” on her with face-to-face confrontation and BIG SLAPS, which are to send a message more than they are for offense. This helps take Shayna off her gameplan, because as we’ve seen, the only way to shake her up is to stand up to her. If she has the mental edge on you, you’re toast. Sane uses this to build momentum, and right when she thinks she’s about to drop a big elbow into Baszler’s heart and put her away … this sequence happens.
Shayna gets her knees up to block the elbow, because she has it scouted (and has already been hit by two, including one baby one off the second ropes to the back). Having countered both finishes, Shayna grabs the Kirifuda Clutch and COMPLETELY forgets to keep her head in the game, because she’s confident this is the death blow and that she’s won. But again, because she’s a self-obsessed bully who only has love for her three friends from MMA Town, she never even CONSIDERS that Sane would’ve done HER homework and worked up a counter to HER finish. So the second Baszler leans back to finish Sane off, Sane uses that momentum to roll backwards like an adorable pirate princess Bret Hart and scores a shocking, instant three to win the match. Kairi f’n Hojo is your new NXT Women’s Champion, but she didn’t beat Shayna Baszler … Shayna Baszler lost.
For more on that:
All the stars. I loved this with my entire heart. Easily my favorite NXT women’s match since Asuka got called up into oblivion, and maybe since Bayley/Sasha. That’s overstating it a little, but I couldn’t have liked it more. Now Kairi Sane’s got a ready-made feud with Make American Great Again Lacey Evans, and Baszler’s free to come up to Raw to hang out with Ronda Rousey and either be the Starscream of the Four Horsewomen, or break the ankles of her mirror universe Good Twin, Bayley.
From the Best and Worst of WWE Evolution:
Here’s something you probably already knew before you click on this column: my favorite match of the night was Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane for the NXT Women’s Championship. It combined the blood feud of Charlotte Flair vs. Becky Lynch with the technical brilliance of Io Shirai vs. Toni Storm, featured cameos from Jessamyn Duke and Bianca Belair and Lacey Evans at ringside, made Baszler the first-ever two-time NXT Women’s Champion and set the stage for the Four Horsewomen running wild on NXT television and being an actual, functional pro wrestling faction.
The match was all about the history. There are callbacks to EVERY Baszler vs. Sane match, including a great bit where Sane once against reverses the Kirifuda Clutch and gets a nearfall. She exploits the same weakness that won her the championship back at TakeOver Brooklyn, but Baszler has been training for situations just like that and is able to escape. Baszler amps up the Dickhead Fonzie routine to eleven here, especially during that incredibly memorable arm bar on the outside of the ropes using Sane’s own body weight to hurt her. Magical.
I had a few people tweet at me that they weren’t happy with how the match ended, but I loved it for a couple of reasons.
- Shayna Baszler is a heel, so while she should win most matches fairly and on her own because she’s an unimaginable bad-ass, the occasional underhanded “way out” is great. Especially since they’ve built up the story that Sane’s invulnerability to Baszler’s bullying has gotten into Baszler’s head, and she’s kind of intimidated by it (even though she’d never show it) and needs to take shortcuts. Same thing they did with Asuka and Ember Moon, which as you can see in the battle royal is still relevant despite neither of them being on NXT and not even sharing the same main roster brand
- most important, KAIRI STARTED IT. Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir are just sitting in the front row alongside Lacey Evans and her grumpy daughter when Kairi backdrops Shayna onto them. The way it’s set up it doesn’t look like Kairi was specifically trying to hit Shayna’s friends and training partners, but she did, so the shit was on.
- again, the Four Horsewomen as an actual faction on NXT TV could be INCREDIBLE. When was the last time we had a female faction that actually ran things and needed to be stopped? All those “Women’s Revolution” teams Stephanie McMahon drafted on the fly were terrible. The Horsewomen are an actual real-life faction of bad-asses, can play on the history of the “NXT Four Horsewomen” who were important but NEVER a real team, and shit, don’t you want to see them all come up to the main roster at the same time and try to get Ronda Rousey to team up with them again? Ronda can be the DDP to their nWo.
And for another reason, it sets up another Baszler vs. Sane match, hopefully at NXT TakeOver War Games. One of the things I love so much about NXT’s booking is that since so much emphasis is put on wins and losses, especially on big shows, rematches and continuations of feuds feel important, even when they should feel tired. Like, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa wrestled too many times in a row, but if they have another match announced, we might go “wow that’s soon” but also we’re gonna lose our goddamn minds over Gargano vs. Ciampa. Baszler and Sane have managed to stay at each other’s throats since the ending of the first Mae Young Classic, through NXT TakeOver Brooklyn IV, and now onto Evolution. That’s three different “brand” platforms for the same WWE feud. That’s awesome.
Oh, and the Four Horsewomen team have been competing against some grouping of Kairi Sane, Io Shirai, and Mia Yim at live events. Don’t you want to see that? Immediately?
Watching the show live, I initially felt a little underwhelmed by this match. I know full well in my heart and head that it’s because I’d hyped it up so much — it’s my favorite feud being blown off in the best and most important NXT stipulation — and they’d have to move mountains to live up to it. Crazy expectations I’d put on my own reaction to something I love. I think we all do that from time to time.
When I got back to the hotel, I watched it again on the Network, and I thought about it as I fell asleep, and again when I woke up. And while it’s probably the what, third best match on this show? I’ve come to understand it more, and now that I’ve lived with it for half a day or so, I’m kind of in love with it.
Why? Because it not only tells the story of Sane and Baszler’s rivalry, it brings it full circle and fully, clearly justifies the heel as a deluded hypocrite. The first time Sane and Baszler met in the ring, Baszler underestimated her. Sane’s this wacky little happy-go-lucky pirate princess with a wheel she carries to the ring, and Baszler’s a real fighter. Because of that underestimation, she lost. The next time they fought, Baszler brought the fight. At TakeOver Brooklyn this year, Baszler got too comfortable and underestimated Sane again. Sane countered the Kirifuda Clutch into a pin and won the NXT Women’s Championship. Instead of admitting defeat, Baszler declared to everyone she could (including us) that Sane didn’t beat her … Shayna beat herself. This becomes important later.
At Evolution, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir got involved. You can say that Sane caused it by dumping Baszler in their laps and pissing them off, and Baszler leaned into that. “They wouldn’t have done anything if YOU hadn’t caused it.” Even though she had to cheat to win, Shayna felt justified in her actions.
So that brings us to 2-out-of-3 falls at War Games. Kairi is your babyface, so when it’s her turn to pick up a fall, she does it fighting from underneath. She has to take out three of the Four Horsewomen with an In-sane Elbow to the outside, then has to roll Shayna back in and hit her with another. It’s a clean, clear, indisputable pinfall earned against incredible odds.
Compare that to Shayna’s two falls:
- in the first fall, she purposefully distracts the referee so Duke and Shafir can run out from the back and attack Sane. The justification that Sane “brought it on herself” at Evolution goes out the window, because she did NOTHING to provoke them here. It was a premeditated attack to gain a cheap fall, and there’s no way to justify it otherwise
- in the final fall, Shayna wins by playing possum, goading Sane into dropping an elbow on her, then adjusting slightly so she can get her arm under Kairi’s and roll her over into a pin. Why is this important? Because Shayna Baszler didn’t win; Kairi Sane beat herself
Shayna’s two talking points of “Sane caused the Horsewomen to attack” and “Kairi can’t beat me, only I can beat me” or disproved by the narrative of the match. The bully who believed she was completely justified in her actions (1) needed help, and knew she needed help so much she organized something before the match, and (2) could not beat Sane on her own merits even once. She needed to cheat for the first fall, and needed Sane to “beat herself” to pick up the second.
So yeah, totally in love with this now. What an amazing feud. Now we get to transition into the Horsewomen as a formal group, positioned against Sane, a Dakota Kai who showed up to help even the odds without being afraid of the consequences, and an Io Shirai who might as well have been wearing a shirt that said “fuck you, Charlotte Flair,” when she hit a moonsault to the floor so beautiful someone could’ve painted it. Yellow ropes forever.
2. Johnny Gargano vs Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas – NXT Takeover: Philadelphia
From Scott Heisel’s Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia:
At 32 minutes and 22 seconds, Andrade “Cien” Almas and Johnny Gargano was the longest singles match in TakeOver history, and the second-longest match overall (WarGames was 36:37, in case you were wondering). And the brilliant thing about Almas/Gargano was it never felt bloated, or purposely slowed down, or like the two competitors were stalling for time (looking at you, Bobby Roode’s TakeOver main events).
I’m honestly not sure how to even write about this match. As a proud Clevelander, I’m totally a Gargano homer, and I’ve been plenty critical of Almas in this run as someone who hasn’t inspired a crowd at all and can’t cut a promo, but both of these men were completely on fire — and it’s a testament to both of them that they carried this match for as long as they did with a crowd that had already been through a roller coaster for the past two-plus hours. Highlights:
- Almas’ entrance looked awesome: Backed by a mariachi band, he steps out in the colors of Mexico wearing his La Sombra mask, and it made me finally take him seriously.
- Go back and rewatch this thing, if you haven’t yet: The first handful of minutes is pretty much nothing but lucha libre tumbling, with minimal serious contact. It gave Almas a chance to find his rhythm early, which let both performers settle into their styles nicely.
- I loved the bit where Almas – who supposedly has outgrown being a showboat thanks to Zelina Vega — still hits tranquilo into the ropes, allowing Gargano to slide under him, trying to outsmart Almas, only to get briefly caught by Cien — who then gets immediately outsmarted by Gargano as he hits a devastating slingshot spear. The pacing of this spot was bonkers, and speaks volumes as to how well these two work together.
- Another example of that perfect chemistry is when Almas went for his hammerlock DDT on the apron, which Gargano blocks and turns into a slingshot DDT over the top rope onto the apron. This match was seriously like watching Picasso paint.
- Shoutout to Almas hitting the Tree of Woe on Gargano on the outside of the ring. That looked 10,000 times better (and more painful) than any time Alberto Del Rio ever did it.
At some point, right around when Candice LeRae jumped the barricade to fight off Zelina Vega, I stopped actively taking notes and just sat back and appreciated the masterpiece that was being created right in front of me. Almas and Gargano did such a good job with this contest — easily one of the best matches in NXT history, and certainly a star-making and champion-validating performance for Almas — that I almost, almost thought Tommaso Ciampa wasn’t going to show up to cost Gargano the title. Then we got a clean finish (well deserved, by the way), followed by yet another end-title ruse a la the end of TakeOver: Chicago, and then we got the attack of the killer Tommaso (all credit to With Spandex commenter Ryse).
Ciampa didn’t need to beat Gargano down; the man had already lost. All he had to do was make his presence known, and more importantly, make his presence felt. (Supplemental Best for Ciampa swinging that crutch at maximum velocity, and leaving a full imprint on Gargano’s back.)
Gargano’s entire singles feud with Almas has been based around the idea that maybe he couldn’t hang as a singles competitor, with the ghost of #DIY hanging above him. Even though he lost his big championship opportunity, he knew he brought the house down and proved to the world he could hang in the main event, finally shedding the #DIY albatross. But as Ciampa said way back in his heel-turn promo last May: “Newsflash: I am not a damn afterthought.”
1. Johnny Gargano vs Tommaso Ciampa – NXT Takeover: New Orleans (Unsanctioned Match) + + Johnny Gargano vs Tommaso Ciampa – NXT Takeover: Chicago II (Street Fight) + Johnny Gargano vs Tommaso Ciampa – NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4 (Last Man Standing) (+ the previous two years + ongoing)
From Scott Heisel’s Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: New Orleans:
This “unsanctioned match” started off way too cold for my liking: Gargano has waited nearly a year to finally get his hands on Ciampa in the middle of a ring, and instead of jumping him like Austin does to the Rock at WrestleMania X-Seven, we get a minute of the two of them sizing each other up (perhaps admiring all of the new abs between them). That got my goat a little — where was the pure hatred?
Stupid me. Little did I know these guys still had 36 more minutes of wrestling left to give, making this not only the longest match in TakeOver history but the longest one-fall match in the history of NXT. (The only match longer is Samoa Joe vs. Sami Zayn, 2-out-of-3 falls.) I loved that the first pinfall attempt didn’t come until about a third of the way through the match, after we had already had a long brawl into the crowd and an absolutely sickening suplex spot off the announce table to the ground — and that the first pinfall attempt, on Gargano, only resulted in a one count. A one count. Fuck you, Ciampa.
The comedy in this match was unintentional but still great — Ciampa chucking Gargano at Percy Watson, for example, could easily be Ciampa’s face turn, and his stealing of a audience plant’s crutches was hilarious in how completely random it was — but it was these little moments of levity that kept the match moving through spot after painful spot. Even the crowd got in on the action, chanting “You deserve it!” after Gargano powerbombed Ciampa onto cement, which had to suck.
In fact, Ciampa took such a brutal beating in this match that I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up back on the injured reserve for a little while. He clearly had a swollen face and a black eye toward the end of the match, and while I’m sure he was selling his knee damage, there’s no way that surgically-repaired body part feels perfect after that contest.
The ending was probably the best ending NXT has constructed since Sami Zayn won the NXT Championship off Neville, or at least since Bayley/Sasha I at TakeOver: Brooklyn. Leading up to it, each man revisited their half of #DIY’s joint finisher, neither could score a three count, proving they need (or at least used to need) each other more than either currently want to admit. Ciampa connects with his second Project Ciampa (aka that absolutely insane powerbomb into a lung blower), this time from off the second rope, but Gargano, who at this point is running purely on instinct, manages to kick out in a way that feels purely from muscle memory. It certainly isn’t for self-preservation.
At this point, Gargano is fighting for his livelihood, and he retrieves a crutch, ostensibly to beat Ciampa so badly he will give up on his own accord. The two have already slapped each other silly, reminiscent of the final exchange of their 2016 meeting in the Cruiserweight Classic, but as Gargano winds up to destroy his nemesis, he realizes Ciampa is defenseless, and he stops. He remembers when Ciampa was about to knock his head off with a running knee back in the CWC, but took sympathy on him as Gargano was the one unable to defend himself back then. Then, it happens: Johnny Gargano offers mercy to the person in the world he hates the most. Not just a person who has wronged him or disrespected him; a person who destroyed Gargano’s career and passion twice over, and was looking for a hat trick. This is the person Johnny Gargano decides to pardon.
And then, like Scar fighting Simba, Ciampa seemingly accepts his fate as Gargano’s lesser, only to take one last swipe at his enemy, borne out of a dark heart that’s too far gone to be redeemed. But unlike Simba, Gargano immediately sees it coming and is able to reverse it into an STF with Ciampa’s own knee brace pulled tightly across the face of the Fuckface, resulting in a near-instant submission.
Holy shit. Pro wrestling is awesome, you guys.
So that’s that: Johnny Gargano is officially back in NXT, at least until this feud with Tommaso Ciampa comes to an end. I don’t see that happening for a while, though: I fully expect gimmick matches in the pair’s future, whether it’s a steel cage or last man standing or something new entirely. It seems foolish to keep Gargano in NXT forever, and I hope he gets called up before the year is out, even if that means he never gets a run with the NXT Championship. But he doesn’t need a title to be the true champion of NXT — he just needs integrity.
I could go on forever about this match. Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano are building a weird thesis statement with this feud, illustrating point by point how good a modern pro wrestling rivalry can be. This thing ties back into the Cruiserweight Classic, for God’s sake. Not to mention the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, or their individual attempts at runs in NXT, or their history as a scrappy underdog babyface tag team, and all the physical mannerisms and memorable moments caused by all of it. And of course there are overt references to the breakup, from Ciampa dragging Gargano up the ramp specifically to “turn on him” and toss him into the LED boards again, to Ciampa pulling Gargano up on a ridiculously unrealistic pile of production garbage so he can create the same image of dominance from the turn. The first one worked out better than the second for him.
The thing I loved most here was the misdirect of Candice LeRae. With her doing a “kick his ass” cameo before it started and WWE’s suspicious pan around her as Gargano was leaving, I thought for sure there’d be some extraneous marriage drama nonsense. They’ve conditioned me to expect it. I didn’t know if Candice was gonna show up and be a damsel in distress like she’s been for too much of the angle, or if maybe she was gonna show up and swerve Johnny, or get physically involved with Ciampa. Instead, despite the tease, she did none of these things, allowing the match to tell its story on its own merits and re-contextualizing Candice as someone who yeah, has wrestled a match or two and maybe won’t pass out if her husband falls off the apron and grazes her on the way down.
Aside from the callbacks and the understanding of who these characters are and how they should be reacting to things, the best part of the match is how Ciampa has blatantly gotten into Gargano’s head and turned him into the Ciampa of the feud. So the entire thing has been Ciampa trying to make Johnny someone he’s not. Someone like him, who has to worry and obsess and suffer. He couldn’t do it in New Orleans — Gargano not only won, but offered Ciampa a moment of redemption in the finish, underlining the fact that he was still consciously “above” Ciampa’s games — but now he’s got Gargano flipping out, interrupting people’s matches, being weird to his wife, and so on. He’s “not the same person” he was at the beginning of the feud. Here, when Gargano triumphs again and starts feeling badly about having hurt his former friend, he’s allowed a moment to slowly realize this dude TOOK OFF HIS WEDDING RING, SPIT ON IT, AND THREW IT AWAY. That’s so much worse than mentioning somebody’s kids in a promo, right? So Gargano FLIPS THE HELL OUT and goes HAM on him, handcuffing him and superkicking him so many times it started reaching Rock/Mankind Royal Rumble levels of uncomfortable. Ciampa is dead in the water and people are trying to pull Johnny away and let him know he won, FFS, but it’s not enough. Hubris and rage drive him back into the ring one too many times, and Ciampa opportunistically grabs him by the head, DDTs him onto some wood, and pins him with his arms still bound.
Ciampa didn’t just win, he won. Gargano is just as broken as him now, at least for the time being, and he proved it. He did it. He drove a wedge between this guy he simultaneously loves and wants to murder, and for the first time since before the crowd chanting “Johnny Wrestling” and expected someone to “replace” Ciampa in DIY, Tommaso feels like they’re on the same level. I’d honestly love to see Gargano continue his descent into madness until he and Ciampa are stuck together again, a couple of jerks in a tag team, destined to do this forever like the yellow ropes versions of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Ciampa showed up in army fatigues, and Gargano dressed himself like Captain America. They double-turned without either of them turning.
A lovely match. A lovely everything, mixing brutality with pathos and pulling it off with mad brilliance. And so it goes.
Finally we have the third NXT TakeOver main event between Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, which ended up a one-on-one Last Man Standing match for the strap instead of a triple threat because Aleister Black got shot by Maggie Simpson in the parking lot at Full Sail University and everyone on the roster was there but nobody saw anything.
At this point, me explaining the backstory of Gargano/Ciampa and citing references and backlinking everything makes me feel like a college professor trying to assign you A Lesson Before Dying and hoping you actually take the time to read it and understand its themes. These guys are turning the main-event scene of a big leagues wrestling promotion into an active performance art project, and are, without exaggeration, taking the medium somewhere that televised pro wrestling hasn’t been in like 30 years. For real. Everything in these matches matters. The crutch is a symbol of a broken friendship. The DDT onto the exposed wood of the ring, the camera work, the taunts, the desperation, all of it.
Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version, and you don’t even have to read anything:
That’s Chicago, Chicago II, and now Brooklyn 4.
They’re killing each other. That’s the story. There’s a whole thing about whether or not Johnny Gargano will go completely to the dark side and become his rival, and another thing about how hungry and desperate Tommaso Ciampa is to prove himself on his own and vindicate his own psychopathic rationalizations of who he is and why, but ultimately the story is that these two guys are so sad about a broken friendship and a lost opportunity that they’re literally killing each other. From the inside, and on the outside. Ciampa’s visibly broken. He was begging off before the finish, just to try one last shitty thing to save himself, like he did in New Orleans. Gargano’s so maddened he’s attacking people, running in on matches, interrupting others, alienating his family. It’s so much more than “will he be a good guy, or won’t he?” It’s corruption. It’s about betrayal being a sickness, and making strong men weak.
If I had to point out my favorite moments in the match, it’s easy. Number one is Ciampa hitting three powerbomb lungblowers in a row and condescendingly sitting in a chair in the middle of the ring while Gargano clings to life. Number two is a guy at ringside getting knocked out, and Ciampa using the man’s unconscious body as dead weight to bury Gargano and try to keep him from getting up before 10, along with some production equipment and a table and part of the security railing. If I had to point out my least favorite moment?
Here’s Johnny Gargano going full Sting.
This single moment made this #3 on my list of Gargano/Ciampa matches. I get what they’re doing, and I love it in theory: Gargano once again gives in to his revenge fantasies and doesn’t realize (through Sami Zayn’s example so long ago) that to defeat the enemy, you have to keep yourself. You can’t BECOME them. Gargano becomes his enemy, sacrifices everything he knows is right, and tries to permanently injure a defenseless man who is begging off. I even like the idea of Gargano hurting himself during the move, and that hubris costing him and keeping him from being able to get to his feet. I like all of that. What I don’t like is the visual of Johnny Gargano doing a big anime taunt and then sprinting his dumb ass off the side of the stage, flipping into some weirdly arranged equipment and flopping around.
Dude looked like a total goober doing that, and I went from deep, emotional engagement in a years-long story to … I don’t even know what, but it was somewhere between laughing and furrowing my brow. It was some Dean Ambrose loser bullshit on display in a promotion that rarely does that, from a guy who has been the most A+ worker on the show for years now, at the end of the third match in the best series the company’s ever seen. He might as well have had a TV explode in his face. Did Ambrose show up on Raw looking all cool and jacked and pass his evil comedy shmuck demon onto Gargano? Did he fall in the lake of reincarnation?
And again, just to say it, the ending doesn’t ruin everything. To me, it was just extremely bad execution of a good enough idea that looks way worse coming after such a masterpiece of a match, in a series of masterpiece matches. I hope that makes sense. Imagine if Flair/Steamboat 3 had ended with Steamboat getting his leg caught in a monitor hole in the announce table and flailing around helplessly while the ref counts him out. Imagine if Punk/Joe 3 had ended with The Great Khali showing up and brain-chopping them both.
Obvious Mini-Rankings Round-up
1. the second Mustache Mountain vs. Undipsuted Era match from TakeOver
2. the first one from TV
1. Shayna/Kairi from Brooklyn
2. Shayna/Kairi from Evolution
3. Shayna/Kairi from War Games
1. Johnny/Ciampa from New Orleans
2. Johnny/Ciampa from Chicago
3. Johnny/Ciampa from Brooklyn
And That’s Our List!
Those are just my choices, so I want to hear what you loved most from this year. I was originally going to do a Best WWE Matches Of 2018 list and combine WWE and NXT, but it would’ve just been Bryan vs. Lesnar, any time Becky and Charlotte got pissed at each other, and “Seth Rollins” with a bunch of NXT matches ahead of them.
Drop down into our comments to let us know your choices and rankings, remind us of anything we didn’t include or missed — of which there are a TON, and that’s just Pete Dunne alone — and let’s head into 2019 knowing we can at least count on one of WWE’s brands to artistically fulfill and then kick our asses every time out.