The significant match that this week's NXT revolved around was Finn Bálor versus Kevin Owens. It was notable for a couple of reasons. Probably the biggest is the fact that it was a first time ever match. That wasn't a lie concocted by WWE or an overly accurate statement playing on name changes, the two men really hadn't ever faced one another. As genuine international stars away from NXT this first meeting was a big deal.
Secondly, the match was for the NXT championship. Despite supposedly being a title for developmental talents (i.e. not full-fledged WWE Superstars™) the NXT championship has become one of the most meaningful prizes in wrestling. It's treated with importance by the wrestlers. It's presented as important by the writing team. As such it's seen as important by fans and that ensures that it means something when it's defended. This being Owens' first defence only added to that.
Finally, there was a secondary match for the NXT women's championship. Like the men's title, the women's championship has been portrayed as something important and desirable by and to the women who compete on the show. After a lengthy journey to winning the title (it lasted over a year, for the record) Sasha Banks has been positioned as a fighting champion poised to dominate the division. It made sense for her second defence (the first was a one-on-one rematch with former champ Charlotte) to take second billing on such an important episode.
Bliss and Banks opened the show. The challenger started off with a series of flash pin attempts, trying to win early or wear the champion out trying. Banks put a stop to that by kicking Bliss as she flipped herself into the air using the corner ropes, following up with a mocking curtsey and the rope hung double stomp before applying her straightjacket surfboard.
Bliss bridged out of that and got another flash pin but Banks kicked out and quickly rammed her foe into a turnbuckle. Bliss surprised Banks with a headscissors and then sidestepped a charge, sending Banks tumbling out of the ring. Banks took an eight count before she was thrown back into the ring to be walloped with a slap by the challenger.
|One mistake and Banks is still the champ.|
Bliss dropped Banks with a string of clotheslines and hit a Glitz Flip (a knees-first standing moonsault which I'm convinced must have started out as a botch). Sasha kicked out and was immediately dropped again, this time with a sunset bomb. She escaped as the crowd began chanting for Bliss, who was climbing up to the top rope. That would be her undoing: the champion yanked her down to the mat and applied the Bank Statement for a submission victory.
The match could easily have been a throwaway affair with Bliss being sacrificed to make emphasise how dominant Banks is. By allowing her to control the pace of the match Bliss was elevated even though she lost. Banks also benefited, being portrayed as a woman savvy enough to capitalise on her opponent' sole mistake. It was another good women's championship match.
After that things went backstage for a while. We got a short Kevin Owens interview, of the sort he's been so good at for a long time. He mentioned being motivated by his family, getting over his character, acknowledged the reputation both he and Bálor have outside of WWE, getting Bálor over as a bigger threat to him than someone like Alex Riley and telling newcomers they were seeing a special match, and dropped in a disparaging remark about Bálor's face paint demon gimmick, introducing a reason for Bálor to not paint himself up for the match (needed because this was a recorded episode, not a live special, meaning there wasn't the time for Bálor to get dolled up). Then a video played recapping the debut of Owens, his short road to the title, and Bálor's victory in the number one contender tournament. It was a nice piece of work.
That was followed by an exchange between Emma and Bayley. Emma again tried to turn Bayley to her way of thinking, telling her a lack of aggression had caused her to lose to Becky Lynch and that the crowd won't get her where she wants to be. It's a clever use of Emma's return to NXT after a failed run on the main roster. Which is WWE's own fault for introducing her in such a haphazard fashion but it's nice to see them at least using it for what looks like a promising story here.
The segment ended with Bayley telling Emma that she was wrong about the fans and getting slapped to the ground for doing so. It'll be nice to see to women feuding over something that isn't the women's championship. It makes the division feel deeper.
A brief interview between Devin Taylor and Tyler Breeze was interrupted by Hideo Itami, who laid out the challenge for a two-out-of-three falls match on the next show. Breeze did a good job of looking like a guy who's intimidated and trying not to show it. Then we were shown a Finn Bálor video, highlights of his six months in WWE so far with him discussing his previous accomplishments, the face paint, and his desire to win the NXT championship over the top. It was more good work that placed importance on Bálor, Owens and the title.
The backstage action wound up with Blake and Murphy apologising to Carmella for nearly hurting her the week before. They'd bought her a necklace with their championship bonus. Yeah, a championship bonus. That's a minor but nonetheless great touch. It shows that there's an incentive beyond honour and respect (which, let's be honest, could be construed as hollow words) for wrestlers to become champions. Carmella seemed impressed with the necklace and bickered about it with Enzo and Cass, who were convinced it was cheap tat from the mall.
|Owens love him some power bombs.|
Owens v Bálor was a twenty-five minute belter. It started slowly with Owens wandering around ringside and the pair exchanging "wear down" holds before gradually building to a faster pace, the two trading bigger moves and kick outs. Bálor escaped Owens' apron bomb but got dropped with a crucifix bomb (because Owens is big on power bomb variants). He kicked out of a belly-to-belly suplex before back dropping the champion out of the ring and hitting him with a tope. After being rolled back into the ring Owens took a double stomp to the back of the neck. He kicked out, naturally.
Owens reversed an inverted Bloody Sunday but didn't avoid a Pele kick. Bálor followed up with chops, a sling blade and a lariat before going for the inverse Bloody Sunday again. This time he got it... but Owens kicked out. Bálor went for the corner drop kick which sets up his double stomp finish but Owens moved and immediately targeted the obviously tweaked knee of Bálor, wrapping it around the ring post, stomping it, and even dropping onto it with a senton.
|Owens in pain there because he's smacking a title belt into his own head.|
Bálor managed to escape a power bomb attempt and gave Owens a double stomp. Owens kicked out and stumbled into the corner. Bálor followed him, obviously intending to try a big, match-ending move, but Owens grabbed him and leapt off the second rope with a fisherman buster. Bálor kicked out, surprising the audience, and managed to slip in a kick to the head of Owens. But Owens was un-phased. He gave the challenger's leg a vicious kick before charging into the corner with a pair of cannonballs, the second on Bálor's bad leg draped on the bottom rope. 'The Real Rock 'n' Roller' avoided a third, managed to get in a charging drop kick and the top rope double stomp... but his leg was too injured for him to go for a cover. By the time he was back on his feet Owens had recovered enough to blast him with a pop-up power bomb to end the match and keep his championship.
The match couldn't have been better. Bálor was kept strong in defeat with the implication that he had the match and the belt won with his double stomp but Owens wasn't cheapened by cheatign to retain. His victory was fully earned: he'd targeted Bálor's tweaked knee and weakened it enough for it to pay off in the match's closing moments. There's an argument for Bálor having to earn another title match and an argument for him being deserving of another straight away. It'll be interesting to see how the situation plays out as NXT continues its dominance as WWE's most well-booked programme.