REMEMBER NXT? Preview of NXT TAKEOVER BROOKLYN III

SummerSlam is almost here which means for the third year in a row NXT will be IN YOUR (Brooklyn’s) HOUSE!

All the superstars of the yellow brand are set for the show that is basically their WrestleMania. The biggest matchups possible, all three titles on the line, and at least one likely title change add up to a show that promises to be one to remember.

Two years ago the first Takeover Brooklyn was arguably the best WWE-produced show of the year, although to look at the card today it was very lopsided. The women’s title match between Sasha Banks and Bayley was of course the big one, which the NXT title ladder match between Kevin Owens and Finn Balor couldn’t top, but after that it’s not much…on paper. Samoa Joe vs Baron Corbin doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping when you read it on a marquee, nor does the Vaudvillains vs Blake and Murphy. Tyler Breeze vs a past his prime Jushin Thunder Liger is an odd matchup, and there’s no alternate universe available where Tye Dillinger vs Apollo Crews is going to sell tickets. It’s a two match show that really is just a one match show, but it worked because the combination of crowd and “moment” aligned the stars in such a way that it was magic from open to close. It was the first Takeover outside of Full Sail and the first NXT show where the brand no longer had to say they were the next big thing, they were able to show it. If it was NXT’s WrestleMania, this was their WrestleMania III, a two-match show with a lot of okay-but-fun stuff you’ve forgotten about, made extra special thanks to the atmosphere of the moment itself.

A year later was the sequel that’s another that isn’t much on paper; in fact it’s noticeably weaker in terms of star power. Shinsuke Nakamura vs Samoa Joe was the big draw, as the women’s division was in serious rebuilding mode. The two main-eventers put together a great (great) main-event but once again it was upstaged by an earlier match. If NXT in 2015 was all about the women, NXT in 2016 was the year of the tag team. Revival vs DIY was the best tag match I’ve ever seen, one of the better matches I’ve seen in seventeen years as a fan, plus having watched untold hours of old footage, and was easily the best match anyone saw that whole three-night weekend (NXT+SummerSlam+Raw). But other than that, there just wasn’t a lot of starpower to carry the show. If it was NXT’s WrestleMania, it was their WrestleMania 12, a one-match show that exposed how thin the roster was.

The whole NXT brand has been in a tough spot since the Sami Zayn/Adrian Neville years. The added exposure of the WWE Network plus the bringing in of hot, ready-to-go indie talent added a lot of eyeballs to the product, eyeballs that hadn’t been with the show since its days in a FCW barn or being streamed on WWE.com. These new fans expected a mini-WWE, where everyone was polished, everyone full of hype and everyone able to deliver a five-star match. For a while, NXT had it, losing Zayn but gaining Nak, losing Owens but gaining Roode. But along the way, while everyone was paying attention to the top, the underneath was crumbling. Then, when more main-event talent moved on than could be replaced, the whole brand was exposed as thin, green and lacking in a singular face to build around. Bobby Roode is great, but he can’t carry a brand. Asuka is fierce but she’s too limited to work as the face of the product. None of the tag teams have the personality needed, and tag teams in general don’t really work as faces that run places. NXT is in a rebuilding mode, not only with its roster, but also with its fans’ expectations. It’s probably no surprise that viewership on the weekly show has dropped dramatically over the past two years, but Triple H and William Regal and the rest of the people in charge are not panicking. They can afford to be patient in a way Vince McMahon probably can’t when Raw’s ratings take a sustained tumble.

It may take another Takeover Brooklyn or two before we get there, but eventually fans will return to seeing the yellow brand for what it’s supposed to be: A place where almost-ready talent hones their craft, puts finishing touches on their character that Vince is going to ignore anyway, and learns how to work a variety of matches with a variety of opponents under a variety of circumstances. It may take another Takeover Brooklyn or two before we get there, but eventually NXT will be back to its roots, and then will be able to build more slowly to where it wants to be, a legit third brand that’s must-watch week in and week out.

Or we could just bring in Adam Cole and keep trying to be Raw-but-logical.

Takeover Brooklyn III features five matches, almost any one of which has the ability to steal the show. Let’s break it down:

Johnny Gargano vs Andrande Almas

This non-title match features beloved cruiserweight Johnny Gagano, eager to put his tag team days behind him (you remember Tommaso Ciampa, yes?) and make it as a solo act. His opponent is Andrande Almas, who has been with NXT for the better part of two years but is only just now finding some of the spark that made him such a big get when he signed with WWE. It helps that he has a beautiful valet, Zelina Vega (who moonlights as a Zumba Instructor), to give him a little more personality. There’s no rivalry here, there are no stakes, no title opportunities or pink slips on a pole. This is just two dudes who wrestle really well throwing hands for a predetermined amount of time. On some random NXT episode in Full Sail this might be a ten minute snoozer, but the Barclays Center will be electric and that will elevate the match. If given time, it could steal the show.

Prediction: Typically in WWE, when neither man needs the win or the loss and the match has no stakes, the tie goes to the babyface. Triple H is an old school NWA guy, however, and in the NWA, a tie always went to the heel. Almas with the win in 11 minutes.

Aleister Black vs Hideo Itami

Poor Hideo. Who doesn’t like the guy? He’s genuinely nice, a hard worker, always good to fans. He’s suffered some tough injuries in his NXT career and that’s played a big part in his not graduating up to the main roster like basically all of his contemporaries have done. I like Hideo. The whole WWE universe really likes Hideo. I know he’s working as a heel but fans are able to separate the real person from the character, and everyone likes Hideo.

Does anyone actually love Hideo?

Everyone likes him and everyone likes liking him, but he just doesn’t inspire people the way others do. He lacks that magnetic quality that make the obvious superstar main-eventers…superstar main-eventers. Even a guy who is more boring in the ring, like Bobby Roode, can still draw out much bigger reactions based solely on the strength of his personality. Other guys like Nakamura, Asuka and Mojo Rawley, who all struggle with English just like he does, have managed to overcome their handicap through one of a kind charisma, animal-like ferocity in the ring, and being friends with a popular NFL player. Hideo has the same handicap, but he doesn’t have the same crutch. When he does something that really moves people, like throwing someone over his shoulders for a GTS, the crowd erupts with the most self-aware cheer you’ll ever hear. Everyone is so excited, not because the move is exciting (though it is) but because people in the crowd (who really like Hideo) are so happy for him to see everyone else cheering for him too. We’re cheering that we have something to cheer and we’re happy he’s getting an applause. Cause we really like him.

And nothing more.

Aleister Black is exactly the kind of superstar Vince will have no idea why he’s popular, why he connects with audiences or what the big deal is in anyway. He will stare at him the way apes stared at the monolith in 2001. And then he will probably put him in a three month feud with Bray Wyatt that ends in a “ring of cockroaches” match that everyone complains about online.

Black is still undefeated and while it’s possible Hideo could cheat to get the win, I don’t see it happening. It doesn’t really fit the kind of character he has right now. He’s not beating Black cleanly either so a Black finish and Hideo freakout postmatch seems the safest bet. Both of these guys can flat out go, and if given time and if the crowd is really engaged, they could surprise people with the match of the night. Black with the win in 13 minutes.

AUTHORS OF PAIN vs SANITY

This match feels like NXT creative wanted it to be our generation’s Legion of Doom vs Demolition (which never happened on TV, amazingly), but while The Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar, pictured here) have blossomed into NXT’s mini Road Warriors, SAnitY just aren’t doing it. They’re serviceable but that’s all they are.

The placement of this match will go a long way to determining how well people stick with it. Put it on first and it will be okay, but put it on after the women’s title match and it might get ugly. It’s not going to steal the show, but if doesn’t over-stay its welcome and the big guys pull out some big spots, it might surprise people and be “good.” Authors of Pain for the win, though, unless they’re getting called up. I don’t think they are until right after Mania, however. AOP in 12 minutes.

ASUKA vs EMBER MOON

This is easily the biggest match of the night, and even though it probably won’t go last, it deserves to. It has the most story behind it, it has a 500+ day title reign, and it has a challenger ready to become the next face of her division. Asuka losing (and Asuka should definitely lose) needs to be the biggest moment in NXT since Sami Zayn beat Neville. You don’t hold a belt for a year and a half, never lose a single match of any kind, and then lose anywhere but on the main-event of the biggest show of the year.

These two put on a show back in April, and I thought the title would change hands then. It didn’t and now we’re getting a rematch on the company’s biggest show of the year, with Asuka all but certain to be called up within 48 hours of the show fading to black, with the best babyface on the roster to carry the title into the future. The stars have aligned; you would need Vince McMahon levels of “gotta swerve the internets” stupidity to mess this up. Give them main-event time, watch the crowd go bananas and end it clean. It’ll be a classic worthy of the brand’s biggest stage. Ember Moon in 15 minutes.

BOBBY ROODE vs DREW MCINTYRE

In this era where in-ring ability matters more to fans than ever before (due to so many incredible athletes working in the business today), it’s impressive that these two have managed to top the bill and held fans attention. Bobby Roode has everything you want a superstar to have except for in-ring wow-factor. He’s not bad in the ring at all, but he will never be flashy. He will never make your jaw drop. He’ll never make you rewind the roku. He’s got a great look, great persona and a theme song so fun it defies a one-word description, but he’s white bread in the ring. He’s Randy Orton without the RKO.

Drew McIntyre is not much better, in fact he’s a few notches worse. His look is good, but he’s got a bland character and uninspired entrance music. When his music hits, there’s a sudden “YEA!” from the crowd as they’re excited to see someone they know, but it quickly fades as no one really cares about Drew McIntyre. He’s Randy Orton without the RKO or the weird pose Randy does that all the fans try to imitate but only whack people’s faces when they do. This match is going to need something extracurricular because right now its a WWE2k match between Randy Orton and Randy Orton, God help us all.

The ring could be set on fire and I’d still be inclined to fast forward to ten minutes after the opening bell.

Drew is the second coming of no one. He’s going to fart around on NXT probably until the Spring and get called up to Smackdown where he’ll do nothing for a year or so and then jump to Raw as Vince’s “project” only to flop there too. He’ll be off working for Jeff Jarrett in whatever “rasslin” venture he’s overseeing in three years. In the meantime Roode is going to hold the title until someone with a modicum of charisma is ready to claim it (and then go to the main roster where Vince will rename him “Bobby” and push him to the moon because in-ring ability is dead-last on his list of priorities). My money’s on Adam Cole to take the strap from him. As for this match: Roode in 15 but it will feel like twice that.

It may seem like I’m down on NXT overall but I’m not. The main-event just happens to feature a really bad match-up according to each man’s strengths and weaknesses. The rest of the card looks to be anything from really good to potentially amazing. The card from top to bottom is the strongest of the three Takeovers, but the show’s best match will probably be third-best out of the three Brooklyn shows’ best matches. If this is NXT’s WrestleMania, it feels like WrestleMania 22: we’ll like it on paper and will remember the moments that wowed us, but it’ll probably leave us wanting more.

Here’s to Saturday.

And here’s to Naitch. Woo. Praying for ya.

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