There’s something depressing about watching the NXT Network specials, of which this is the fourth. They’re good. Really good. Arguably the best shows WWE has promoted all year. And what’s depressing about that is that it shows that there are people within WWE who know how to create interesting characters that work in the wrestling environment, script wrestling in the long term, and structure a show to give matches time to breathe and make them mean something, yet none of this knowledge is ever utilised when putting RAW or SmackDown together. It’s frustrating.
R Evolution is the best of the four specials. By now WWE have had time to work out what works on them and what doesn’t, and they’ve moved away from including main roster talent. It’s clear that the NXT roster is trusted enough at this point to put on a great show by themselves, which is nice to see. And it makes for a more satisfying, self-contained experience.
The show kicked off with a great video package in which everyone featured on the show (bar The Ascension for some reason) talked about taking over. It was the general “Our time is now” sort of thing you’d expect, but done in an effective, enjoyable way, and not overstaying its welcome.
That video was heavy on Kevin Owens, who made his in-ring debut in the show’s opening match. He got a huge “Fight, Owens, fight!” chant as soon as the crowd saw his name flash up on the screen, which was heartening. The commentary team, here consisting of Rich Brennan, Alex Riley and Corey Graves (who announced after the first match that he’d retired on doctors’ orders but would be staying with WWE as a commentator), talked up Owens’ fourteen year journey to WWE. Because of peculiar company policies they didn’t acknowledge where he’d been on this journey, but it’s still something that they mentioned how much time he’s dedicated to getting signed by WWE.
The match was fairly one-sided in favour of Owens. He smashed CJ Parker’s sign (this evening reading “My fight matters”) and hit a senton dive to the outside. After taking a palm strike and a few other basic moves Owens got the win with a fisherman’s neck breaker and a pop-up power bomb.
Backstage, Adrian Neville was shown stretching and prepping for his match. This was accompanied by an insert of him saying he wouldn’t take responsibility for the scenario Zayn had created for himself, a promise that he’d leave NXT if he failed to win the championship on the show. Neville’s reasoning was that he needed to think about his own career, and he had to show he could beat Zayn to continue to be considered a top prospect for advancement to WWE proper.
Match number two was the tag team title match, champions The Lucha Dragons defending against The Vaudevillains. Sin Cara and Kalisto were decked out in gold gear. Because they were the champs, presumably. The match started off with some high-flying offence from the Dragons, Gotch being isolated for the first couple of minutes. When he made the tag English slipped out of the ring and tugged Cara underneath the bottom rope to sling him to the floor, earning himself a "That was manly!" chant, one of the most amusing of the night.
|Gold Dragons. Because... ahhhhhh, you get it.|
The challengers remained in control for a longer stretch, before Kalisto managed to tag back in. The crowd were into his high flying clean-up but not as much as they could have been. I suspect that was because Gotch and English were the more over team despite being cast as the bad guys. The Dragons wiped out English with a pair of dives, Gotch avoiding them at the last moment. He immediately grabbed Kalisto and got him back into the ring to attempt one final, match-winning move. It backfired on him. Kalisto hit him with a Salida del Sol for the win.
That was followed by a Baron Corbin squash win over Tye Dillinger. In deference to the fact that Dillinger is a pseudo-featured performer on NXT Corbin was not permitted to continue his streak of twenty “second” victories. He instead beat him with snake eyes, a big boot, and End of Days in about forty seconds or so.
The most notable thing about the match was Bull Dempsey applauding at ringside after Corbin had won. They spent a lot of time staring at each other. Then Corbin left. Then he came back and they stared a bit more. I’m into the build-up to their eventual match in a big way, but even I found this much staring unnecessary. Although it was a bit erotic.
Sami Zayn was shown in a locker room, staring into space. That was presumably meant to be him mentally preparing for his title shot in the main event. Enzo and Big Cass showed up and offered him some water. He declined. In an insert Zayn talked about taking away the safety net with his promise to leave and stated he wanted to be the NXT champion before progressing to the main roster. It was a good speech, making it clear that the championship means something to Zayn, which in turn made the match with Neville mean more.
Up next was The Ascension v Hideo Itami and Finn Bálor. Itami had some new, vaguely Goku-esque, ring gear. Bálor topped that with ease. He did one of the elaborate, face paint entrances he’d been doing in the few months before he signed with WWE. Here he crawled to the ring painted up like Carnage (though with enough difference to avoid any sort of legal action) with dreadlocks. I assume it was part of the plague demon thing he mentioned in relation to the Bálor name. It was nice to see him allowed to do this in WWE. I’d hoped they’d let him do it for special occasions (like these live Network shows and pay-per-views) but hadn’t gotten my hopes up. It’s nice to see them trying something that is clearly out of their comfort zone. And good work to Bálor for pulling it off and making himself stand out. It was one of the many highlights of the show.
Bálor and Itami controlled the match for several minutes, kicking The Ascension around and generally showing that they’re a pair of hard cases. A flapjack from Konor turned the tide and Itami was isolated. That led to lots of kicks, punches and sleepers. This went on for some time, but they kept things lively with some good hope spots for Itami. One saw Hideo fingertips away from making a tag as he was held in a bear hug. Another saw Konor chucked out of the ring by Itami where he yanked Bálor from the apron just before Itami reached him.
Eventually Itami did make the tag. Bálor took care of both guys, hitting the pair with a tope, giving Konor a stiff kick, and going for a double stomp on Viktor. He moved out of the way so Bálor hit him with a brainbuster inverted DDT. Konor made the save but Itami appeared to throw him out of the ring. Viktor got an STO on Bálor and Itami again appeared to stop the count.
|Definitely not Carnage.|
Seconds later the audience erupted when Itami hoisted Viktor up nto his shoulders for a Go 2 Sleep. That was followed by massive boos as Konor helped his tag partner escape. They setup for The Fall of Man on Bálor but Itami pulled Konor out of the ring, leaving Viktor to attempt his clothesline part of the move alone. Bálor ducked and hit a Pele kick. Itami returned to the ring with a drop kick, and then the pair hit stereo double stomps onto both Konor and Viktor with Bálor pinning Viktor for the win.
It was a good match. It’s easy to praise Itami and Bálor. They don’t have the reputations they do for nothing. What deserves attention is how well The Ascension worked together as a team. They’ve learned how to work as a big, bruising tag team that knows how to isolate people. If WWE had a better stocked tag division I’d say their upcoming promotion to the main roster seemed promising. But that’s not the case, so we instead just have to hope they can survive together.
In the back Renee Young asked Roman Reigns what he was doing at an NXT show. He said he wanted to see an awesome show, especially the main event. Yeah, because Reigns is all about great wrestling. He also announced his goal is to be the first NXT alum to win the WWE championship. I know he meant the current, developmental version of NXT, but it still needs pointing out that Daniel Bryan debuted on the original NXT format and he’s a three-time champ. Unlucky, Reigns.
The video that preceded the Sasha Banks v Charlotte women’s title match saw Charlotte telling us that she's genetically superior and Banks saying Charlotte is genetically basic. Both are heel statements, but because Charlotte’s dad is Ric Flair her comments were taken as those of a babyface. Sasha also claimed that she taught Charlotte everything but that she’d kept a few tricks in reserve. Naturally Charlotte refuted this. Set to highlights of their interactions since Takeover II (though strangely omitting their time together as part of the BFFs) it was a great video.
|You can tell this is a grudge match because Sasha's using Charlotte's move.|
Sasha started out aggressively, shoving Charlotte and giving her some chops before taking several in return. Sasha came back with a very technical throw into the steel stairs. Then she worked targeted the champ’s abdomen, including a great back stabber into a straitjacket dragon sleeper. Then she switched things up and used Charlotte’s own figure four headlock.
Charlotte powered her way to her feet and fell back to give Charlotte an electric chair drop. Sasha was the first to her feet but Charlotte was the first to go on offence with chops and a neck breaker. Sasha threw her outside and hit a suicide dive.
They traded blows before Charlotte gored Sasha with a big spear. ‘The Nature Girl’ went for the traditional figure four, the one on the legs, but found the it reversed into a small package by Sasha for a count of two. Sasha got a neck breaker. Charlotte went for a moonsault, landed on her feet as Banks rolled out of the way, and hit a senton splash for two of her own. Charlotte attempted to his a Razor’s Edge but Sasha escaped and sent her face first into the turnbuckle. ‘The Boss’ tried to hit the champ with a superplex but was pushed off and hit with Natural Selection, putting her down for the three count.
As is generally the case with women’s matches in NXT, this far surpassed anything the Divas have done on the main roster all year. Both Banks and Charlotte continue to improve as performers. I’m sure both would love to get onto the main roster and start working RAW and pay-per-views because that’s what signifies progression in WWE. From a creative perspective they’re better off in NXT. There they get to wrestle lengthy, satisfying matches for a title that means something.
The story going into the main event was that NXT champion Adrian Neville was convinced Sami Zayn couldn't win “the big one” and that Zayn was seemingly beginning to doubt himself. They reminded us of his losses to Cesaro and Bo Dallas and Neville saving the title for himself at Takeover II by pulling the referee from the ring as Zayn seemingly had their four-way match won. It was a vvery effective reminder of their history with one another.
The audience was not into Neville as the match began. He received a scattering of boos when he entered and outright hostility when he was introduced. By contrast Zayn was the most over man on the show. Everyone wanted to see him finally win the championship.
They started off evenly exchanging holds. Zayn was the first to score a big move several minutes in when he hit a back breaker and followed with his seated moonsault to the outside. Nev slowed the pace down with a rear chin lock and knee strikes. When he only got a two count off a drop kick he had a word with the referee. Apparently he felt a drop kick was enough to put Zayn away, even though it’s no longer 1985.
|Doesn't Neville's hair look exciting in this picture.|
Zayn hit a clothesline and a drop kick of his own when Neville turned around, then blasted him with a suicide dive. He went for what I suspect we were meant to think was a brainbuster but Neville countered it and the pair went through a series of reversals, culminating with Zayn catching Neville in mid-air and giving him a Blue Thunder bomb.
The champion came back with a jaw breaker and a running uppercut, followed by a German Suplex and a sitdown power bomb. When Zayn kicked out of that Neville started blasting him with forearms. That fired Zayn up and the pair traded blows, Zayn getting the better of the exchange when he walloped Neville with a lariat.
Zayn missed the Helluva kick, hit the turnbuckle full force, and slumped down to the mat. This left him in perfect position for a Red Arrow. Neville went for it but met Zayn’s knees on impact, and then found himself put in the Koji Clutch. That was met with loud chants of “Tap!” Neville didn’t. Instead he put his foot on the rope to force a break.
Sami went for an Exploder suplex but Neville dead-weighted him and got a small package. Zayn’s kick out sent Neville up into the air and onto the referee. Being a caring guy Zayn checked the referee to see if he was okay. When he turned around he was super kicked in the face and given a reverse hurricanarana. He kicked out for a very good false finish.
Zayn took forearms, ducked kick and hit two rolling German suplexes and a half Nelson suplex. It was around this point he started loudly using expletives that were edited out of the broadcast, which someone would definitely have had a word with him about. ‘The Pride of Montreal’ went for another Helluva kick but Nev left the ring. Zayn followed him and did the dive through the ropes tornado DDT. Back in the ring he finally got the Helluva kick but Neville pulled the referee in front of him as he took it. Nev again left the ring as Zayn tended to the ref.
When the champion returned it was with his title belt. Zayn booted him and he dropped it. That gave Zayn the chance to pick up the belt and take the easy way out, a guaranteed title victory. The audience gave a booming chant of “No!” as Sami went back and forth on what to do. Ultimately he turned around and dropped the belt outside the ring. But that left him open to a schoolboy from Neville.
Zayn just kicked out for another searing two count. Back on their feet the challenger nailed the champion with a corner Exploder suplex and another Helluva kick before finally pinning him the middle of the ring to win the title.
Within minutes a random assortment of lads and lasses from the locker room had wandered down to the ring to congratulate Zayn on his victory. Most prominent among them were Enzo and Big Cass (presumably because they’re the most over guys on the roster not booked for the show) but Hideo Itami, Solomon Crowe, Kalisto, Sin Cara, Pat Patterson, and, of course, Kevin Owens were also among the group. The long-time friendship between Owen and Zayn was acknowledged.
After a few minutes Neville, who had been slumped dejectedly in a corner, returned to his feet. He continued teasing a full blown heel turn and kicked Zayn’s hand away when he offered it for a handshake. But then he gave him a hug instead and everything was fine.
|The end to a great story.|
Well, fine for a few minutes at least. After some more celebrating and the commentary team signing off Zayn was left alone in the ring. He left and was joined by Owens for another embrace and a friendly walk backstage. But as they walked up the ramp Owens grabbed Zayn and slammed him backwards into the steel, then dragged him back to the ring and gave him an apron bomb. It was a great way to close the show. A surprise and the kick-off for a brand new main event feud that anyone who watched Ring of Honor in 2010 knows will be very, very good.
R Evolution could not have been better.
Results summary:Kevin Owens defeated CJ Parker
The Lucha Dragons defeated The Vaudevillains
Baron Corbin defeated Tye Dillinger
Hideo Itami and Finn Bálor defeated The Ascension
Charlotte defeated Sasha Banks
Sami Zayn defeated Adrian Neville to win the NXT championship