Sunday 2 March 2014

NXT ArRIVAL review

I believe that NXT is WWE’s best weekly show. The one hour run time means that performer’s don’t become stale through overexposure. The focus on actual wrestling is refreshing and well-suited to the talented roster, featuring as it does many former indy standouts. Everyone on the show has something to prove and is hungry to impress to gain promotion to the main roster. And everyone there is a relative newcomer to the WWE system, meaning that the stagnation that plagues RAW and SmackDown isn’t present.

These were some of the reasons that I was excited when WWE announced an NXT special would be airing. Another was that it would be live. It’s in the live environment that WWE does their best work. I was also pleased because it was essentially the equivalent of a pay-per-view for the league, the chance for the regulars to perform for a wider audience and impress new eyes. And I’m sure there were new eyes on the show, because it was broadcast on the WWE Network.

Finally I was pleased because it showed that WWE has faith in the NXT wrestlers. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have centred the first of what one assumes will be many live special of the Network on them. It’s nice that the company recognises how good the men and women in the league are.

Dramatic music and lighting started the evening. From the gloom Triple H asked the crowd if they were ready (twice, naturally) and then a spotlight turned on to reveal him stood in the ring. It was a particularly unsubtle way of reminding us who the big star was. Thankfully it as the only instance of overshadowing for the whole show and was easily overlooked. Some fireworks went off and an NXT chant started before a hype video played that showed the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin before giving way to the NXT regulars.

The announce team Tom Phillips, Byron Saxton and William Regal welcomed us to the show as Sami Zayn and Cesaro made their entrances for the night’s opening contest. Both were cheered, which wouldn't have surprised anyone who watches NXT regularly. A "match of the year" chant started up as the bell rung and became duelling chants of "We the people" and "Sami Zayn" when they locked up.

Cesaro took charge for the first several minutes of the match, doing a lot of out of the ring brawling. A particularly enjoyable saw Zayn try to dive through the ring ropes in the corner only to be met with a European uppercut. Not only was it a nice spot well performed but it was also a call back to their previous encounter, something we don't get often in WWE, even in bigger matches. It spoke of their time working for smaller, more wrestling-focused organisations.

Cesaro, grinding that knee like a pro
Cesaro continued to control the match back in the ring as he switched his focus to Zayn's previously injured knee, stomping, grinding and dragon screwing it before applying a single leg Boston crab. Zayn tried to turn the tables with a moonsault after back dropping Cesaro to the outside but got caught and dropped on the entrance ramp. The duelling chants were back when the Canadian rolled back into the ring, turning to cheers when he head and arm suplexed 'The Swiss Superman' into a turnbuckle. He stayed on offence with a blue thunder bomb, which got him a two count, and the Koji clutch. Cesaro twisted his way out of that and countered into the Stretch Muffler, damaging Zayn's knee before he could reach the ropes. Cesaro followed up with his phenomenally over Big Swing and a chunky uppercut in the corner. They exchanged pin attempts before Cesaro double stomped Zayn's face.

Not to be outdone Zayn performed a top rope hurricanrana and followed up with a yakuza kick for a close two count. Cesaro dropped Zayn with an uppercut and told him to stay down. Zayn was up at three, only to get put down again. He was slower to get up the second time, getting back to his feet for seven. The time he staggered up to his feet Zayn managed to absorb Cesaro’s uppercut and fire back with punches, then a crisp German suplex. Cesaro tried coming back with a Neutralizer but Zayn countered with a rollup for two. Seconds later he got another near fall with a sunset flip bomb. Zayn kicked out at one from a Swiss Death, prompting Cesaro to go one better and hit a rolling uppercut and a leaping Neutralizer to finally get the win in an incredible bout.

Afterwards fans chanted "Match of the year!" It's early to be saying that but I'll be surprised if it's not in a lot of top match lists come December. It was easily the best match of the ArRIVAL show.

Cesaro swaggered around the ring posing and walked into the aisle before looking back at Zayn, who was doing a beautiful job of selling the importance of the loss and the devastation he was feeling. Cesaro returned to the ring and stood over Zayn as the fans chanted "Hug it out!", a call back to Zayn's time working as El Generico (as are the olé chants heard during each of his matches). Cesaro pulled Zayn to his feet and, surprisingly, they did hug. I'd expected a handshake. Cesaro then left Zayn alone to soak up the cheers of the fans. I can't imagine a better match and post-match segment to start a show designed to illustrate how good NXT is at its best.

The first man of the night to hear solid boos was CJ Parker. His opponent was Mojo Rawley. His gimmick is basically that he has unlimited energy. Perhaps he’s addicted to Red Bull. He also wears very large trunks. Mojo won a simple but fast-paced match with his sitdown splash Hyperdrive move.

Backstage Emma was shown prepping for her women's championship match. Then a video was shown recapping her NXT career so far. It did a nice job of blending the seriousness with which she approaches with the more humorous aspects of her persona.

That was followed by a similar video for Konor and Viktor, The Ascension. They came out to defend their titles afterwards. For the record they now enter to generic rock music and have dropped the Game of Thrones inspired entrance gear. It's a shame. That was one of the most interesting parts of their act and something that helped set them apart. That said they’re still considered "the total package" by none other than Kevin Nash, so they must be doing something right.

The greatest act in NXT? They're definitely not the worst
We were informed by Tom Phillips that The Ascension had issued an open challenge for a title match. It was answered by Too Cool. Amazingly they were heavily cheered. There are clearly lots of positive people in Orange County, Florida. Grandmaster Sexay was kept isolated by The Ascension for several minutes before he finally made the hot tag to Scotty 2 Hotty. He tried for The Worm but got hung up on the ropes and hit with The Fall of Man (a.k.a. Total Elimination) for the three. For what this was, an example of The Ascension being a rough, tough and impossible to stop team and a chance to see Too Cool again, it was a fine match.

Next up Paige got the video package treatment. She put over the championship and Emma. Again, it did a very good job accomplishing its goals. If the students at Full Sail University are involved in this area of production, one of the reasons NXT is recorded there, then they’re learning from some of the best.

Stephanie McMahon came out before the women's title match and talked up the Divas divisions of WWE and NXT. She introduced Emma and Paige and shook hands with both before the match. Presumably that was supposed to be meaningful but it didn’t feel it. It felt like a misguided attempt at doing some sort of women’s pride thing. When Triple H puts people over it has meaning because he’s been a wrestler and a multi-time world champion. When Vince puts people over it has meaning because he’s the greatest wrestling promoter ever and knows a good act when he sees one. Stephanie is a former WWF women's champ, I suppose. But how many of you actually remembered that? It’s certainly not what she’s known for.

Anyway, the story of the match was that the two knew one another very well and were able to counter each other's moves and, to use a cliché, their counters. Emma dominated Paige for a lot of the match, working over her back with submission holds and even using a power bomb, not something you see in the standard Divas' match. She was even able to kick out of Paige's usually reliable Paige Turner. Eventually Paige applied a move Regal referred to as the Scorpion Cross (it looks a little like a reverse Sharpshooter but sees the person applying the hold taking their opponent's arms and hoisting the torso up from the mat) and won via submission. It was a great match. The sooner Emma and Paige are on the main roster facing AJ Lee the better.

A hype video was shown for Adrian Neville. He's the sort of performer who lends himself to a highlight video because he performs so many fun to look at aerial moves. It was excellent and once again not only showed how good a wrestler its subject was but also saw the subject put over the importance of the match they'd be having.

Before the main event it looked like we'd get Xavier Woods versus Tyler Breeze. 'The Sultan of Selfies' got a better reaction than R-Truth's protégé, including a "Breeze is gorgeous!" chants. The match didn't happen though. Alexander Rusev stormed to the ring and jobbed out both Woods and Breeze. Lana cut a pro-Rusev promo and got a “USA!” chant (c’mon guys, it’s 2014). Rusev spoke in Bulgarian and got the “What?” treatment.

NXT champion Bo Dallas was the last man of the night to get the vid treatment. The focus was on establishing Bo as a face unaware that he's a heel for new viewers. It also covered some of his "Bo-lieve" highlights. Then a second video aired looking at the Dallas v Neville feud. That was just as good as the others that had aired. It was a good night for video package fans.

Shawn Michaels came out to hang the championship belt above the ring and talk up the importance of NXT and the match we were about to see. If WWE were willing to get him in for the first live NXT special surely they could have got him for the first RAW of the Network era too? He would have added something to what was otherwise a fairly flat episode of RAW. But that's by the by.

Look at that action!
The challenger got cheered when he entered. The champion got heavy boos that petered out to a fairly flat reaction. Both got a handshake from HBK. The match that followed was good. There have been better ladder contests but it was impressive for two guys making their first attempts at the gimmick. Neville took some hearty bumps and kept the crowd behind him. Dallas took fewer spills but did do a good job when it came to ensuring the crowd kept riled. That's one of his strengths as a performer.

The finish saw Dallas buckle bomb Neville into a ladder and then get a ladder kicked into his face as he charged the flagging challenger. Neville then scooped the champ onto a ladder and connect with a Red Arrow and left him free to climb the ladder and snatch the belt for the win. He got a long time to celebrate as the announcers talked up his winner and status as a future star. To really hammer the point that he’s a man to watch home John Cena was shown applauding him from the crowd.

This is something that could hint at an imminent promotion for Adrian Neville. If it were to happen it’s unlikely the NXT belt would be shown or even referred to, but Big E made the move to the main roster just after losing the strap, as did Seth Rollins, and Dallas himself had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the bright lights of Monday Night RAW only a couple of months before he captured the gold. NXT title reigns are linked to promotions if history is anything to go by.

I think more ladder matches are in Adrian Neville's future
I like Adrian Neville but I hope that isn’t the case here. A call up while WWE’s focusing on WrestleMania, or even in the weeks immediately following that big card, would almost certainly result in him being left adrift. So would, I suspect, moving him up as a singles performer. There are so many guys working solo in WWE right now that it’s tough to imagine anyone, no matter how good they are, making a sufficient impact.

Personally I think Neville would be best served working on the main roster in a tag team with a fellow flier like Kofi Kingston, Justin Gabriel, or Evan Bourne (remember that guy?). Being part of a team would lead to more use as the tag division’s getting a little light, and it would also allow him to grow on people over time. That said WWE have shown they know what they’re doing with moving people up during the last eighteen months, so if Neville, or anybody else, gets moved out of NXT I’ll assume they know what they’re up to until I see otherwise.

WWE did an excellent job with NXT ArRIVAL. It highlighted NXT’s excellent roster and illustrated why it’s a programme worth watching. As special as it was it was not that far above the levels of quality seen on an average episode, which speaks more to the programme’s consistency than anything else. I hope a lot of people with the WWE Network (being in Britain I wasn’t one of them) tuned in for this. It deserves to be regarded as a success.

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