Depth and Despair – a review of NXT Takeover: Unstoppable

NXT Takeover

At some point NXT is going to become ordinary, right?

I mean at some point NXT is going to slip back down to earth and be another dumb WWE show, with stupid babyfaces that act like bullies, and obnoxious heels that are neutered in what they are allowed to do to get heat and never are allowed to look tough. Right? That’s bound to happen eventually right?

I guess it will when Triple H retires.

In the meantime let’s just all celebrate that there is a really good wrestling promotion out there. Lucha Underground is niche, ROH is invisible, TNA is essentially dead, Global Force Wrestling might just be dead on arrival, and WWE (by that I mean Raw, Smackdown and the monthly PPV’s they run) is bloated, dumb, frustrating and usually only reserved for hate-watching.

NXT, on the other hand, is what wrestling should be. It is what WWE needs to be, but apart from a few key names, and the great production values, it might as well exist on a different planet it is so far removed from WWE’s way of doing things.

Now this is where people will say:

You can’t compare NXT to WWE because WWE is a weekly THREE hour show, with a bigger demographic sample to cater to, Cable Network guidelines to adhere to, and monthly PPV’s to build to.

All of that is true. If we’re discussing things on a technical level, there’s no reason to compare NXT to WWE. The yellow brand is on an in-house internet streaming service, designed to have an indie-flare to its presentation, with shows that cater to the more hardcore wrestling fan, and super-shows that only occur every few months.

But forget all of that. The question is “Does WWE do its thing better or worse than the way NXT does its thing?” They do things differently, and they both “do what they do,” but who does what they do better? I don’t see how anyone can watch Takeover:Unstoppable and say that WWE is better at what it does than NXT is at what it does.

WWE’s shows feel rushed, random and repetitive. They are filled with “characters” who lack any motivation for anything they do, while other characters have motivation that is either unexplained, poorly explained, or simply contradicted on a whim. Commentary doesn’t have any sense of purpose, as the “heel” of the team (JBL) insults the good guys as much as the bad guys, and usually cuts them down in a way that makes the audience care less about the performers. The “babyface” of the team (Booker T) seems to exist only to say something stupid as a way of starting a 3 minute discussion between the team that totally ignores the action in the ring. The anchor of the team (Cole) is lifeless, phony, and a shill for whatever company product or line needs pimping at the moment (and “the match” is never it).

The booking is even-steven, where no one is allowed to have too much of an advantage over anyone for too long, so wins and losses are traded back and forth with no progression to any feud. The heels are treated like wimps so there’s no drama to their fights; they either lose and no one cares because they’re wimps or they win and no one cares because they just cheat all the time. The babyfaces are treated like giant babies who either cry to an authority figure to get a match, or act like a bullies to the guys they are feuding with to goad them into a match. The humor is sophomoric, often sexist, occasionally back-handedly racist, and always idiotic. The midcard is loaded with underutilized talent, the main event scene is tired, the divas division is genuinely insulting (women in WWE have no individual characters: they are just catty, jealous airheads with no depth or substance or motivations. I watch it every Monday night. Why?

Because it’s on every Monday night.

Can you imagine if WWE actually had an off-season. People would actually find other things to watch…things they enjoyed watching, and not something they watch more out of sheer habit and tradition than anything. It’d be like that time the kids from Springfield turned off their TV’s and went outside to play.

Vince would come back in September to empty arenas and zeroed-out ratings. Instead we continue to watch, because every week the circus comes to town, and every week brings the fool’s hope that maybe something exciting will happen.

And then there’s NXT.

Where the characters have depth, the stories have sense, the action is passionate, and the entertainment value is existent. Takeover:Unstoppable wasn’t the best super-show the yellow brand has produced (the undercard was a little lacking); that honor remains with R-Evolution, but it was, as usual, a brilliant two hour show that highlighted everything great the brand has to offer.

TYLER BREEZE vs FINN BALOR (#1 CONTENDERSHIP TO THE NXT TITLE)

Originally this was to be a match featuring Hideo Itami but a shoulder injury kept him out of what very well might have been a win. Last week, in the sit-down interviews hyping the match both Balor and Breeze gave the same answer: “It’s not if but when I claim the #1 contendership, I don’t care who I face, I will be the champion.” Hideo was asked the question but he said nuts to your script and declared “If I win I want Kevin Owens because he’s a bad man.” Hideo was given a big rub around WrestleMania and in a video package was shown to be a great father to his kids and someone who worked hard to slowly climb the ladder of success. Owens is a pretender who uses his love for his family as his excuse to do cruel things and to take shortcuts to further his career. I would have loved to have seen a feud between them. Hopefully, when Itami returns, I will. In the meantime, Hideo was shown injured in the parking lot outside of Full Sail Arena, which will explain his absence and possibly start a “Who ran over Stone Cold story” for his return.

Spoiler Alert: It was Samoa Joe. He did it…for Finn Balor.

(please don’t take that seriously)

As for this match…it was very very good, but we’ve seen some combination of these two (along with Itami) in matches for months now. I don’t recall too many one-on-one Breeze vs Balor matches, so that made this one a little fresh, but it still felt a bit rehashed by association. Both men certainly gave it their all. Tyler Breeze is like Sasha Banks in that he has totally mastered his character and has improved in the ring immeasurably in just the past year. He seems stuck behind the flashier guys who have come in recently–Owens, Balor, now Joe–and that’s a shame, but hopefully he’ll get a chance to command the spotlight before moving up to the main roster.

No one should have doubted the finish, however. Once it was announced as a one-on-one match (and thus, once there was no chance that someone else might be added to replace Itami), and especially once Balor debuted new demon paint, it was clear to all who was walking away the victor. That took some of the drama away from the contest, but it didn’t take away from the solid performances by both men.

8/10

DANA BROOK & EMMA vs CHARLOTTE & BAYLEY

The tag match between the ladies was not offensive, but it was very last minute. There’s a bit of a precedent for that on NXT: Last time it was Hideo Itami and Tyler Breeze getting the last minute match before Takeover:Rival. Before that it was a Baron Corbin squash that was tossed out there for R-Evolution. Mojo Rawley (remember him? No? Let’s keep it that way) had the nothing-match at Takeover:Fatal Four Way, and before that he got squashed by Rusev at the first Takeover event.

So it’s not like a thrown-together match is anything new, but it’s still nothing to get particularly invested in, other than for the actual competitors involved: Dana Brooke is the great enigma, hated by fans for being a WWE-style Diva in a land of NXT-women. She can’t really wrestle, but NXT is supposed to be the place to learn that, no? Emma was the former NXT darling who went to the main roster, was turned into a WWE-style Diva and is now back on NXT, all jaded and ruined. She’s doing some great subtle work to convey that unique character and it’s paying off. Charlotte is the former “hoss” of the NXT women’s division. She plays a good tweener role and is admired for her skill. She’s here simply because her NXT storylines are all finished, and she hasn’t been called up to the main roster to be ruined yet. If you got her, why not use her? And then there’s Bayley, who is so wonderful and loved: She’s right there with Sami Zayn as the most pure and wholesome babyfaces in the company that the jaded wrestling fans haven’t turned on out of spite. When you have four characters that are either great workers, compelling characters, or both, why not throw them together in a tag match? I might have wished for a more fleshed out story between Charlotte and Dana, but it’s not terrible, and neither was the match.

That the good guys won makes me think this was just a one-off for the show, but of course the real feud here is between Bayley and Emma and Bayley wasn’t involved in the finish so I’d expect that one to continue until a one-on-one match is had.

6/10

BARON CORBIN vs RHYNO

From the beginning it was understood what Ryhno’s role would be in NXT: He was the “name” who could come in and give a rub to a rising talent, while also being a reliable attraction for when NXT goes on the road. Crowds have stayed hot for him, and his feud with Baron Corbin—if this match is any indication—did it’s job. Corbin is kind of character that would have died on the main roster, where the majority of the crowds wouldn’t have even cared enough to boo him as a bland do-nothing face or as a silent-monster heel. He would have simply existed, with no reactions to propel him higher up the card. He would have been Adam Rose.

NXT, however, has crowds that let you know what they’re thinking. They’ll cheer for Sasha Banks (the heel) but they’re not booing Becky Lynch (the face). They just happen to like the villain more than the hero. If you’re a guy like Baron Corbin the fans are going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but at some point they’re going to expect more from you. At first fans were counting how quickly he could squash the jobber of the week. Then they were happy to cheer him against the sad sack Bull Dempsy. But after that he spent weeks going back to the jobber well, and the fans turned, demanding to see either more from him as a character or less of him as a performer. Instead of digging in their heels (as WWE did with Roman Reigns a few months ago) or just ignoring the backlash (as WWE does with just about everyone else the fans are tired of), NXT subtly turned him heel and started working him in longer matches. First a minute, then two minutes, until finally at Takeover he was given a full-fledged, seven minute contest. He delivered his offense, sold for Rhyno, rarely missed a spot and in the end was put over to look strong. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was a stepping stone and Corbin stepped up. Mission accomplished.

7/10

BLAKE & MURPHY vs ENZO & CASS (NXT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP)

This will be the most controversial match of the show. Many were expecting a title change. Others were thinking perhaps a heel turn for Carmella. The second theory made sense a month ago, but slowly and surely the third wheel in the group has started to win fans over. The loud and brash Enzo has always flirted between hilarious and obnoxious but Carmella tends to lean too much to the latter while her boys have leaned perfectly on the former. She still has some work to do before she’s universally loved, but I noticed a LOT fewer boos in her introduction. It was smart not to turn her.

It was also smart not to put the titles on the good guys just yet. They only just started this feud, and Blake and Murphy have excelled in their role. The champs have gone from “random team up of two jobbers” to legit heels with real heat and enough skills in the ring to back it all up. Adding Alexa Bliss to the mix is a good next step in the feud and gives everyone something more to work with on the way to the eventual and long-awaited title win for the boys from Jersey and Queens.

There’s no question that Enzo and Cass are going to easily transition from NXT to WWE. Cass’ size and Enzo’s mouth will get them over instantly. The big hangup has been their ring work. The match here showed that Enzo especially has been working steadily on getting better with his transitions and on incorporating a few more moves to his limited arsenal. It’s easy to forget the other side of NXT is a training facility where guys who weren’t ten year indie vets train and learn and improve. Not everyone is El Generico or Kevin Steen when they debut. Enzo and Cass are improving and once their ring skills reach a certain level of sustained good-enoughness, the sky will be the limit.

8/10

SASHA BANKS vs BECKY LYNCH (NXT WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP)

There’s not much I can say about this. Writing too much almost feels unfair to the greatness of it. Here’s what I wrote down as my initial impression as soon as the match was over:

The match was raw and real. It was sloppy in a couple spots, but sloppy in such a way that it added to the story between the two ladies: They weren’t “sports-entertaining” for the love of the audience; they were fighting for a prize and for respect from each other. The preshow music video made this feel like a WrestleMania main event. It’s night a day the way women are treated on NXT vs WWE. On NXT they are real people, real wrestlers with real characters and real feuds, and they just happen to have boobs. On WWE, they are cartoons. They are an out of touch sexist’s idea of what women are and should be. It’s shameful how such brilliant work is being limited to the basement of Titan Towers.

If not for the high drama, many months of buildup and shocking debut that all occurred in the main event, this women’s title match could have easily closed the show and no one would have thought twice of it. I was worried going in whether Becky could go one-on-one for 20 minutes and if Sasha could go one-on-one without a strong dance partner, but man they blew my expectations out of the water. The opening chain wrestling sequence was wonderful; it only needed a strong punctuation mark in order to cue the standing ovation it deserved. Lots more top rope and high risk stuff than I was expecting and a few power moves too from Lynch. She really has improved ten-fold in just a few months. Sasha remains the gold standard so there’s really nothing to say about her. She’s the best in NXT, probably the best in WWE, and certainly deserves to be near the top of the PWI Best Wrestler ranking for this year. This was her third title match in a row for a Takeover show, tying with Charlotte. There’s no reason she won’t make it four in a row in a few months. I just hope, when the time comes (hopefully a long time from now), she’s doing the favors for Bayley in a match that does main event a Takeover.

I loved the ovation Becky got at the end too, and the crowd singing her song was very sweet. Almost everyone there was rooting for Sasha, simply out of sheer love for her and her brilliant work, but Becky got the respect she deserved. The whole spectacle of the match was a testament to NXT’s greatness.

10/10

KEVIN OWENS vs SAMI ZAYN (NXT CHAMPIONSHIP)

Here’s why NXT > WWE in a nutshell:

  • SummerSlam 2014: Lesnar beats Cena in a one sidded affair, takes title
  • Night of Champions 2014: Cena immediately returns for a rematch with Lesnar, suddenly shows moxie and “seems” to almost win for no reason other than plot convenience, but the match ends on a DQ for no reason at all really, leaving everyone annoyed on multiple leves=ls.

and then there’s NXT:

  • Takeover: Rival: KO beats Zayn in a one sided affair, takes title
  • Takeover: Unstoppable: Zayn returns after taking time to recover, shows an organic level of moxie and although he never “almost” wins, he avoids getting caught in a powerbomb early in the match (which is what doomed him last time) and manages to get in some good shots, making people believe he could have a chance. The match ends in a non-finish, but the reason it did was natural and organic and made sense in the story line. It was also greatly executed, and left the fans with a happy go-home moment too.

NXT being better than WWE has nothing to do with “appealing to smarks” or “being an indie-flavored show” or saying “it’s just a one hour show; Raw is three” or “there’s a PPV every month; NXT only has to do one every few months” or “they don’t have advertisers to worry about or cable network guidelines” or any of the arguments you hear when you say “NXT > WWE.

Forget all of that. This match worked where Cena vs Lesnar at Night of Champions did not, because in the writing was better, the performances were better, the execution was better and the finish was better. That has nothing to do with appealing to smarks or any other argument. It’s just about making good TV. That’s what NXT is.

Having said that, we’ve had two Takeover’s in a row with a non-finish for the main event. We only get these things a few times a year; I understand the need to move the story forward, and sometimes that means you need a non-finish like this because “Zayn vs Owens II” was not a match; it was a story. I get that, and sometimes things like that have to happen during a big event like Takeover, but the next Takeover needs a definitive finish, even if that means a top guy takes a clean loss. If you get to the point where you have to protect the wrestlers at the expense of the story, then you’re halfway to being WWE.

Don’t be WWE. Be NXT.

Be good TV.

9/10

____________________

Overall, if you’re new to the WWE Network or you’ve yet to subscribe, you need to see this show. It highlights everything great about the best thing WWE has going. Characters and storylines have depth, finishes are logical, and even when the bad guys win you’re mad at the bad guys, not the product.

I think everyone assumed the tag straps would change and I admit, when it didn’t happen I thought we’d be in for a shocking title change in the women’s bout. In the end, no titles changed hands, which ends up being a good thing that needed to happen, if only so fans would not become so conditioned to expect it every time there’s a Takeover. The undercard was not great, but it wasn’t necessarily weak, and the main event matches more than carried the show, with the crowd on their feet, entertaining matches, and surprising (yet logical) finishes.

As with all of these Takeover specials, I can recommend you show it to a non-fan to help them understand why you love this silly pseudo-sport.

Well done.

9/10

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