Saturday, 23 May 2015

NXT Takeover: Unstoppable review

NXT's Takeover shows have become the most consistently enjoyable, well-rounded and well-booked shows in wrestling since they debuted on the Network last year, with a string of main events that knock the average main event of a WWE pay-per-view into a cocked hat. But this success has brought high expectations with Takeover shows now frequently being more hotly anticipated than the main roster pay-per-views on either side of them.

High expectations can be difficult to meet. Thankfully this show didn't disappoint. In fact it was quite possibly the best of the bunch so far.

Girls in furry hoodies kicked the show off by strutting up and down the entranceway like it was a catwalk. They were there as part of a special entrance for Tyler Breeze. The fact that wrestlers were getting special entrances on a Takeover show was the first sign that the show would be even better than expected. WWE usually only bothers with those at WrestleMania (excluding Finn Bálor's demon getup for these shows, obvs). Breeze came out and gazed into phones the models held for him. He was wearing a red robe, because male models.

With Breeze in the ring the announce team recapped an injury angle that had originally been brought up on the pre-show. Hideo Itami, who had been scheduled to fave Breeze and Bálor in a three-way match to earn an NXT title shot, had been found writhing in pain on the floor of the car park (parking lot, to you North American types). NXT champ Kevin Owens was shown walking passed uttering "That's a shame." The implication seems clear: Owens attacked Itami because he was concerned about the possibility of facing him.

Entrances are cool, yo.
Finn Bálor was super over for his entrance. The crowd was chanting for him long before Breeze's music cut (although in fairness that was at least partly due to the lengthy recap). Bálor's outfit had been augmented with a pair of bat-like wings and spikes on his face. The facepaint was upgraded too: red veins on his thighs and a gaping, glaring orange eye on his back. Both entrances topped all but Rusev's tank from WrestleMania.

After exchanging headlocks, quick pin attempts and drop kicks in the opening moments Breeze took control with a kick to Bálor on the apron. Bálor absorbed stomps and a neck breaker before getting trapped in a side headlock. He fought out and sent Breeze off the ropes only to be hit with a sunset flip. Being a stone cold pro he rolled through that and drop kicked 'The Gorgeous One' in the face for a two count.

Bálor worked Breeze over with chops and sent him retreating out of the ring with a soccer kick, following onto the apron and double stomping Breeze's back before throwing him back into the ring. Bálor climbed to the top rope to attempt another double stomp but Breeze rolled away. Bálor went for an inverted Bloody Sunday but Breeze escaped only to be met with a sling blade seconds later. Breeze crawled to a corner and dragged himself to his feet before catching Finn with a crisp super model kick as he dashed across the ring from the opposite corner.

Bálor kicked out at two so Breeze busied himself with loosening a turnbuckle pad then stomped a mud hole in Bálor in the opposite corner. Bálor staggered to the middle of the ring ducked a Beauty Shot and went for the double stomp. Breeze rolled out of the way and snuck in a school boy for two. Finn went into the loosened corner with Breeze following in with a splash. Bálor avoided the move and Breeze avoided the exposed metal under the loosened pad (a win for both lads, really). Bálor got a rollup. Breeze kicked out, sending Bálor head first into the turnbuckle. Breeze gave him a Beauty Shot as he turned backed around and immediately went for the cover.

Bálor kicked out at two and rolled to the outside. Breeze three a fit in the ring before following Bálor out of the ring. Bálor reappeared towards the entranceway, leaping on Breeze from the shadows and knocking him to the floor. He then clambered onto the entrance rig and dove off with a cross body. 'Prince Pretty' was then thrown back into the ring for a shotgun drop kick and the top rope double stomp to bring an end to an excellent match.

Owens was shown watching Bálor celebrate on a monitor in the back. He shook his head as if to say "That's nothing special" before walking off. Some highlights of NXT's Philadelphia swing followed that. The best bits of this for me were seeing the reception for Sasha Banks's entrance and Bayley gleefully saying she'd never been to New York before. Both of them were giving such honest reactions and there positivity was infectious. That's a large part of NXT's appeal: the talent are so happy to be doing what they're doing. 

Dana Brooke and Emma entered together to the former's music for their tag match. Emma was wearing wine coloured ring gear and a darker shade of lipstick than usual. Because she's a heel now. Charlotte and Bayley had their own entrances. Charlotte gave her subpar wooo (she'll never seem as effortlessly crazy as her pa) and Bayley gave some kids wristbands. She is one of the most delightful babyfaces in all of wrestling.

Figure Eight. Twice as good as her dad's figure four? Erm... no.
Bayley dominated the opening of the match, handling both her foes with ease. An "Evil Emma" chant started up when Emma first tagged in. It was amusing. Eventually Dana distracted Bayley allowing Emma to pull her off the second rope down to the mat, giving the heels the advantage. After a couple of minutes she made a tag to Charlotte who came in to clean house with chops and boots to Brooke. An Emma distraction briefly got the heels the advantage but Charlotte quickly regained control. In a great finishing sequence Charlotte applied the figure eight leg lock, Bayley baseball slid through the gap underneath Charlotte's arched back, and Bayley-to-bellied Dana to stop her making the save. Charlotte then broke the hold, shot to her feet and hit Emma with Natural Selection to get the pin fall.

The match followed a well known formula but it was still enjoyable thanks to the popularity of Charlotte and Bayley, the effectiveness of Emma's recent heel turn, and Dana's strong introduction. They did a lot in less than seven minutes.

A recap of Sami Zayn v John Cena from the May 4 RAW was shown before a shot of Zayn in a bathroom psyching himself up. For his match. Out at ringside new signees were shown sitting in the crowd. There were two lasses, two lads, and one Uhaa Nation. Uhaa got a massive pop and had his name chanted. Based on that reaction and the vignettes that have been airing to hype his signing he'll debut towards the top of the card. I hope he fairs better than his fellow Dragon Gate USA alum Solomon Crowe. He's not made much of an impact since he first appeared.

Rhyno versus Barry Corbin was match number three. This was better than I'd expected. It was only the second Corbin match that's not been a squash and was presented as his toughest challenge since how tangled with Adrian Neville back in January during the number one contendership tournament. It was an even match won, predictably, by Corbin with the End of Days after he'd dodged Rhyno's fabled Gore.

A recap of Owens' interaction with Cena on the May 18 RAW was shown next. Greg 'Generic Interviewer' Hamilton (who will never soar to the heights of such legendary backstage hands as Todd Pettengill or Jonathan Coachman) asked Owens for a moment. Owens mentioned his three successful title defences during the recent northeast tour and took the opportunity to remind everybody that he'd laid out Cena. On the subject of Sami Zayn Owens offered some "veteran advice" (an amusing dig at Cena trying to offer him advice): Zayn shouldn't show up or he'd never be seen again. He did Cena's hand gesture as he said that.

That was followed by the long-awaited NXT tag team championship between champions Blake and Murphy and challengers Enzo Amore and Big Cass. This was the sloppiest match of the night by a significant margin. But the appeal of Enzo is very much nothing to do with seeing him wrestle. And it wasn't that bad, it just stood out on a card where everything else, even the Corbin match, was booked really well. Cass played the unstoppable, no-selling juggernaut (something that would have been keeping Reigns strong for months now if the main roster writing team knew what they were doing). Blake and Murphy isolated Enzo every time they got a chance and double teamed Cass whenever they were opposite him. It was simple but it worked. Enzo being a sympathetic figure who works well as an over matches underdog helped.

The finish was a swerve I'd called a few weeks earlier. Alexa Bliss appeared and attacked Carmella, distracting Cass as he was getting ready to launch Enzo off the top rope for their assisted splash finisher. He left the ring to check on Carmella and got wiped out by a Murphy super kick (for the record Murphy really needs to introduce a solo finisher and call it Murphy's Law). Murphy then distracted the referee, allowing Bliss to shove a recovered Enzo off the top rope to be pinned by 'Frosted Flake' Wesley Blake.

Blake, Murphy and Bliss, the new faction of killer heels.
Bliss celebrated in the aisle with the champions as Enzo, Cass and Carmella's scowled at them from the ring. It wasn't the shocker WWE probably wanted it to be (at least not to me) but it makes a great deal of sense. Carmella should now get an easier time from the crowd for staying loyal to Enzo and Cass while Bliss gets to tweak her character and try playing a heel. It opens up an interesting story too: Bliss was happy to be the girl on the arms of the champs where Carmella wanted to help her lads become the champs. That could play well. Bliss had done everything she was going to as a face for now, up to and including wrestling for the women title, so this benefits her. I'm interested to see how the inevitable six person tag plays out.

Eva Marie was shown in the audience as the Dubstep Cowboys wandered backstage. She stood up and blew a kiss to the camera. I've no idea what the point of her being there was. The only thing I can think of is that she'll be getting a regular slot on NXT over the next month or two and this was a way to reintroduce her. If they want to polish her up before sending her back to the main roster (which they might considering they're paying her to do Total Divas and little else right now) NXT is the place to do it. And it's nice to see the women's roster getting fleshed out a bit.

Speaking of the women's division, Sasha Banks' NXT women's title defence against Becky Lynch was preceded by a strong video package and the backstage-walk-to-the-ring trick, both of which helped to amp up the importance of the bout. Lynch entered with newly dyed hair, a leather steampunk coat and goggles. This redesign was the most interested I've ever been in her (although that's not saying much). I was still firmly behind 'The Boss' in this match though. As were the audience, to begin with. The opening moments saw them soften towards Lynch as she out-wrestled Banks, going for pin attempts again and again and targeting the left arm to set up for her armbar finisher. Banks would eventually take a time out in the ropes and the gain the advantage by driving Lynch into the ring apron with an arm wringer.

Banks stayed on Lynch before taking a break to mock her challenger's signature taunts. Lynch staggered to her feet when Banks locked in a straight jacket sleeper but Sasha took her back down with a lung blower, expertly keeping the move applied and rolling her into a camel clutch then around on to her back again to add pressure with a boot to the back. Becky managed to fight her way out again but got hung in the ropes for Sasha's double stomp, which she hit on the arm.

The champion stayed on the challenger with a nasty-looking (in the right way) armbar and a stomp on the point of the elbow before applying a version of the key lock. As the crowd blessed the women with duelling chants Becky managed to roll backwards to get a two count. Sasha kicked out and reapplied the hold but Becky rolled back again, this time going all the way to her feet and hoisting Banks up for a power bomb.

Back on their feet Lynch fired up on Banks, knocking her down with clotheslines and a (rough) missile drop kick. Banks came back with a top rope arm drag and running knees to Lynch's face. Lynch kicked out of a cover, desperate to stay in the match and win the title. Banks hauled Becky to her feet. They exchanged slaps and rolled out of the ring where Lynch viciously wrapped Banks's arm around a ring post. Back in the ring Lynch northern light and T-Bone suplexed Banks onto her injured arm, earning herself a "Suplex City!" chant. Banks escaped a second T-Bone and went for a suplex. Lynch countered with a snap suplex, rolling through into the armbar which had been built up as absolutely devastating in the preceding weeks.

Sasha made it to the topes to break the hold and Lynch rolled out of the ring for relief. Banks targeted her with a suicide dive but Lynch held on to her, staggering back to her feet and smacking Banks back-first into a ring post. Becky followed via the top rope. That led to her downfall: Banks caught her with an armbar takedown off the turnbuckle and flowed into the Bank Statement for the hard fought tap out victory.

Sasha Banks deserves a long reign.
This match was incredible. It told a logical story with both women targeting arms to set up for the signature submission holds. It presented them as athletes driven by their desire to win a prize and prove that they're the best. When it comes to women's wrestling (particularly in WWE) that's incredibly hard to find. It also got over their characters. Banks mocked Lynch on her way out, the cocky heel who'd proven she was better. But Lynch looked strong in defeat, putting up such a fight that she won over an initially hostile audience. This was demonstrated when they gave her a standng ovation and started singing her entrance music before it started up. In modern wrestling that is a powerful vote of confidence. Good job, Becky and NXT management. You've finally made movement winning me over on Lynch.

The video before the main event did a great job recapping the feud between Zayn and Owens: Owens debuting and immediately targeting Zayn, winning the championship two months (to the day) after his debut; Zayn going home; both men interacting with big boy John Cena; their friendship before WWE (less their rivalry because WWE, understandably, doesn't want to admit they're doing ROH reruns); and Zayn telling Owens he's not a good role model to his son, a driving motivation of the Owens character. It recapped everything without becoming laborious and I imagine it was particularly useful for newcomers.

Zayn entered to a rousing pop. Owens entered to a mixed reaction that gave way to cheers when people noticed that he was sporting a John Cena T-shirt. The Cena mockery continued when he teased tossing the shirt to the crowd before dropping it to the floor (whadda heel!).

Owens slipped out of the ring at the opening bell. His intention was to frustrate Zayn by eeping him waiting but it didn't work: Zayn left the ring when Owens' back was turned and launched himself onto him from the steps. Zayn dominated the first half of the match, which was mostly about brawling around ringside and into the crowd. Both guys were great during this period, Sami playing the fiery babyface and Kevin the sly heel looking to create space to find weak point.

Kevin Owens. Fan of power bomb variants.
After a few minutes they found themselves at the bottom of the entranceway. Zayn gave the champion an Exploder suplex and then charged him (possibly looking for the Helluva kick but it didn't look like it), only to be caught with a pop-up power bomb onto the apron. To all intents and purposes that was the end of the match. After a brief pause Owens pushed passed referees checking on Zayn and started kicking him in the head. He was pulled away several times. Each time he went back for more.

Owens would eventually throw Zayn into the ring and continue his attack there. William Regal, general manager extraordinaire, rocked up and got in Owens' face. Owens pushed passed him to continue his attack so Regal fish hooked and pulled him off Zayn. Owens dropped him with a headbutt then grabbed a chair from ringside. A look of regret flickered over his face as he held the chair aloft, then it disappeared and Owens brought the chair down on Zayn's injured arm.

Music played. Owens, being a wrestler, was distracted by this. He immediately forgot all about Zayn and gazed at the entranceway to see Samoa Joe.

Joe walked with purpose and stepped into the ring with purpose. He and Owens went nose-to-nose before Owens backed off. As if trying to prove a point he didn't leave the ring so Joe stormed up to him and they went nose-to-nose again. Owens left after that, hearing boos and chants of "Fight, Joe, fight!" and "Joe is gonna kill you!"Joe posed then called doctors beck into the ring to check on Zayn.

Owens briefly returned from the back. Joe readied himself for a fight in the ring and Owens briefly looked as though he was going to give him one. Instead, clearly feeling mixed emotions, he picked up his championship belt and headed backstage. The show ended with Owens saying "I did what I had to do" as the audience chanted "What a father!" and "Father of the year!" in reference to Owens's increasingly hard-to-believe comments about only wanting to do right by his children.

Takeover: Unstoppable was the best wrestling show in months. The commentary team were on point. Every wrestled like they had something to prove. Every match had a reason to happen and told a story. There were two great matches in Bálor versus Breeze and Banks versus Lynch, the latter of which is a match of the year contender, and a satisfying brawl to close the show. Plus the debut of Samoa Joe, which is a big deal for its historic significance as much as anything else. Everyone, whether they won or lost, left NXT looking tronger than they had before it and the show as a whole solidified NXT's status as the hottest brand in wrestling. Not bad for two hours of work.

Results summary:
Finn Bálor defeated Tyler Breeze to become the number one contender to the NXT championship
Bayley and Charlotte defeated Emma and Dana Brooke
Baron Corbin defeated Rhyno
Blake and Murphy defeated Enzo Amore and Big Cass to retain the NXT tag team championship
Sasha Banks defeated Becky Lynch to retain the NXT women's championship
Kevin Owens versus Sami Zayn went to a non-finish

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