DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE IS 2,400 WORDS IN LENGTH. IT CONTAINS SPOILERS, BUT NOTHING YOU WOULDN’T LEARN JUST WATCHING NXT. ENJOY.
Whenever I talk to friends of mine that watch wrestling, it seems there’s a few things a lot of them are just out-of-tune with. Usually, that list includes things like 205 Live’s storyline composition, New Japan Pro Wrestling title matches, Ring of Honor event dates and more often than not, NXT’s… everything. A lot of my friends don’t really look at NXT, and that’s a shame because just as 205 Live operates on a very independant wavelength (aside from being part of RAW/Main Event), NXT does the same. It’s this easy-to-digest format but instead of it just being cruiserweights going at it at 200 miles per hour, there’s a much more diverse landscape of characters all vying for their respective prizes. Here’s some of the best things in NXT right now that are likely not being looked at with enough attention.
ANDRADE “CIEN” ALMAS AND ZELINA VEGA ARE AN INCREDIBLE NXT CHAMPION
That’s phrased weird, but I assure you, it makes a lot of sense with some backstory. Andrade has been part of NXT since January of 2016, and since then he’s been in a very Ziggler-esque position. He initially went 8-0 in NXT on TV matches against pretty unimpressive opponents before being stopped dead in his tracks by Austin Aries, who Last Chancery’d him into his first loss. From there, Andrade took a lot of losses in tags to formidable foes, took wins against people like Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch, traded with No Way Jose… you get where I’m going.
The company sees him as a big deal, but he doesn’t ever get anything important handed to him. He gets the debuts of new stars, loses and then keeps it pushing. Or at least he did until Zelina Vega was introduced to the mix. Prior to Zelina, Andrade’s character was simple — a Rudo heel who didn’t answer to anyone, partied too hard before his matches and didn’t like being told what to do. With that tranquilo attitude inherited from the ingobernable past of his, so came losses because of a blatant lack of motivation. That’s where Zelina came in. She became a handler of sorts and harnessed Andrade’s raw skill into something much, much more refined. Something precise. As a direct result of her guidance/opinion, Andrade became a champion and not just any champion, the champion. The NXT champion and the only NXT champion to ever get a five star match (vs Johnny Gargano, NXT Takeover: Philadelphia) from Dave Meltzer.
GOOD MATCHES TO WATCH
- vs Drew McIntyre, NXT Takeover: WarGames
- vs Johnny Gargano, NXT Takeover: Philadelphia
- vs Johnny Gargano, NXT Takeover: Philadelphia. Yeah, again. Watch it again. It’s worth the fucking watch.
ALEISTER BLACK TIPTOES THE LINE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL
NXT’s strength in Andrade “Cien” Almas is his character development over the past two years showing a direct evolution into a formidable champion. NXT’s strength in Aleister Black is zero need for character development. He’s simple because we don’t know anything big about him. There’s no Kane backstory where he burned the house down as a kid and killed his family. (That’s what they imply, right?) There’s no commentary storytime where we learn he’s been training in the Netherlands for years on this quest for something. There’s no Holy Grail in Aleister’s story. He comes to the ring after being elevated into the entrance ramp. He meditates during matches to re-center himself. He strikes like an absolute maniac. He comes out to destructively heavy guitar riffs and screaming metal vocals, is head-to-toe in tattoos, wears tarot cards on his vest and is somehow not over-the-top at all.
There’s no wasted movement with Aleister Black. Watching him is instant satisfaction because when he does anything, you know there was a reason behind it. He doesn’t second guess his Black Mass spinning heel kick. He doesn’t hesitate when he goes to springboard onto an outside-opponent and ends up moonsaulting into meditation. Everything he does is for a reason and so he’s a fascinating spectacle to watch in the ring.
GOOD MATCHES TO WATCH
- vs Velveteen Dream, NXT Takeover: WarGames
- vs Adam Cole (Extreme Rules), NXT Takeover: Philadelphia
- vs Hideo Itami, NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III
THE TAG TEAM LANDSCAPE IS SHAPING UP TO BE INCREDIBLE IN THE COMING MONTHS EVEN THOUGH IT’S ALREADY ABSOLUTELY INSANE
The Tag Team division’s been a cornerstone of NXT for years — featuring incredibly well-booked technical grapplers together, brute force monsters aligning themselves, or even quick-and-flippy gentlemen giving it their all on the 3 ropes. Here’s the lay of the land for every team in the division (because they’re literally all important.)
HEAVY MACHINERY is comprised of Otis Dozovic and Tucker Knight. They’re literally two enormous, hoss guys with beards that love to eat steak and slam into people. Dozovic is built like a literal refridgerator and Knight is a perfect complement to that frame by being Dozovic, but skewed a little vertically.
SAnitY is composed of Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe, Killian Dane and Nikki Cross. They’re like The Wyatt Family, but without any real backstory. They’re vicious, well-rounded and individually all extremely strong. Eric Young is a crafty, technical ringleader. Killian Dane is like Heavy Machinery-sized, but he does Tope Suicidas. Alexander Wolfe busted himself open during WarGames, got treated to, and then finished the match.
THE UNDISPUTED ERA (or ReDRagon) is comprised of indie darlings Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish, as well as a leader in Adam Cole. They have a very fast-paced but heelish, methodical style to their wrestling and haven’t been afraid to actually pull some underhanded tactics during each other’s matches. While Cole doesn’t really wrestle in the team a lot, he is involved in a lot of what they’re involved in. Right now, they’re the champions.
STREET PROFITS is comprised of Angelo Dawkins and Montez Ford. They literally go out and have fun while dancing, drinking out of solo cups and moving through the crowd. They require no convoluted explanation. Watch this video.
THE AUTHORS of PAIN are comprised of brutes Akam and Rezar (Occam’s Razor — which is the most direct solution to a problem) and manager Paul Ellering, who formerly managed the Legion of Doom. They’re incredibly, incredibly strong killing machines backed by a genius known for his ability to handle monstrous stars. While both new to wrestling in general, both are involved in some of NXT’s best tag team showdowns.
lastly, TM-61 is comprised of Nick Miller and Shane Thorne. They’re two cruiserweight sized competitors from the DIY/Revival Era in 2016/2017 but due to injury, they sat out nearly all of 2017 and returned recently against the Ealy Brothers. They’re explosive, quick, fun to watch and super coordinated in the ring. Hell, Thorne broke out a Fosbury Flop in that Ealy Brothers match. Take a look.
GOOD MATCHES TO WATCH
- Authors of Pain vs DIY vs The Revival, NXT Takeover: Chicago
- Roderick Strong & Authors of Pain vs SAnitY vs The Undisputed Era (Wargames), NXT Takeover: WarGames
- SAnitY vs Authors of Pain, NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III
EMBER MOON IS A FITTING SUCCESSOR TO ASUKA
If you follow WWE in general, you’d know that there’s a woman on the roster who goes by the name of Asuka who is currently 500+ days undefeated since her debut in NXT. Plenty have come to fight her, plenty have lost to her, but absolutely no one has ever put her shoulders to the mat for 3 seconds or tapped her out. She is, in all fairness, the absolutely most dominant woman in WWE history.
Ember Moon, however, came the closest to defeating her.
This is going to sound like an Asuka display more than an Ember display, but follow along. Asuka’s character was always based around just always having one more trick up her sleeve — whether that meant playing a more strike-heavy game, being more submission-oriented — she was always one step ahead until you caught up. Then, she was two steps ahead. For months, Ember and Asuka feuded back and forth over and over until it came to a head at Brooklyn III, where Asuka did something she’d never done before. She used an illegal tactic to secure her win, which meant that for once, she looked less than invincible. Ember Moon had shone a light upon Asuka’s weak point after taking her to her limit and while she didn’t walk home with the title, she did walk away knowing she made Asuka do something less than honorable.
After Asuka vacated her title, Ember ended up vying for a spot in the match to determine the new NXT Women’s Championship where she beat Peyton Royce, Nikki Cross & Kairi Sane to become the final successor to Asuka. Asuka then showed her respect for Moon and since, Moon hasn’t shown any signs of being less than the best champion possible. She gives it her all every time she’s in the ring, she has phenomenal skill in making you feel like you’re going through her struggles too and by the time the bell’s rung, you can be proud of her when her hand is raised.
GOOD MATCHES TO WATCH
- vs Asuka, NXT Takeover: Orlando
- vs Asuka, NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III
- vs Shayna Baszler, NXT Takeover: Philadelphia
WE’VE GOT AN INSANE CLASS OF DIVERSE STARS COMING IN RIGHT NOW
In NXT, there’s almost a meme of new signees every 3-4 months right before a TakeOver event. Wrestlers from independant circuits with high buzzes will get signed and then more often than not, right there in the crowd at the next TakeOver, they’ll be sitting there announced by Mauro as “the newest signee to the NXT roster”. It’s formulaic, but it’s almost a meta joke by now and right now is quite possibly the best class of new signees in a while.
EC3 (formerly Derrick Bateman) is a reality-era NXT participant who was part of Season 4 (and lost) and then entered in Season 5 midway through (and then lost there too) until he was jobbed out in the weekly television brand NXT rebrand and then left the company for the indies. From there, he went to Impact, became Ethan Carter III, gained multiple World Championships, stopped being such a boring plank of wood, got a great physique and created a lane for himself to come back to WWE with.
Ricochet is a Junior Heavyweight/Cruiserweight class competitor famous for starring in Lucha Underground as figurehead Prince Puma and innovating generally incredible offense all over the globe on the indies from New Japan to Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. He’s got some of the most innovative moves in the world (not to spoil anything, but he may or may not have busted out a 630 Splash [that’s a 450 with an extra half rotation and some change] at an NXT House show recently) and on top of that, he’s one of those cruiserweights that feels too good to be pigeonholed. It’s up to him to keep that stigma up in NXT.
War Machine are a destructive tag team from Ring of Honor known for their bold, heavy-handed offense and… beards, to be honest. They’re known for their beards. In addition to being two-time IWGP Tag-Team Champions, they’re WCPW Tag-Team Champions, ROH Tag-Team Champions and PWG Tag-Team Champions. They’ve won gold all over the world, but this is the biggest stage possible — let’s see if they can get it here.
lastly, Candice LeRae is the only one on this list who actually has televised NXT airtime where she competes/takes a shot at anyone: and that’s because she’s Johnny Gargano’s husband and is currently tied into a storyline with him against Andrade “Cien” Almas and Zelina Vega. She’s known for her independant showings — mostly ones where she goes up against male competitors and dishes out just as much punishment as she can take. (Google “Candice LeRae lumbar check” if you’d like to verify) Candice also had airtime in the Mae Young Classic, where she took two wins before she lost to eventual finalist Shayna Baszler. Candice is an incredible wrestler — one that transcends gender opinions and I personally can’t wait to see where NXT takes her.
JOHNNY GARGANO FEELS LIKE DANIEL BRYAN DID RIGHT BEFORE THE YES! MOVEMENT
Surely I wouldn’t leave out what pretty much embodies all of NXT.
It feels only fitting that the one to anchor this entire piece is Johnny Wrestling because after Philadelphia, it feels as if he truly is the future of Western wrestling. In fact, as I’m writing this, I put on NXT Takeover: Philadelphia just because I felt as if it would make good background noise and as I near the end of the event and Almas/Gargano kicks off, I realize I’m literally going to have to stop writing this, rewatch the entire match again from start to finish and then come back and finish up. I’ll be right back. In the meantime, watch this video of Gargano’s cool ass entrance theme.
Alright, I’m back. Listen, Johnny Gargano’s awesome. There is something absurdly gratifying about watching Johnny Gargano do good things and I can’t really put my finger on why. He’s a fantastic wrestler willing to take awesome risks for the win, he’s generally an underdog everywhere because he’s a smaller guy, he’s scrappy. He’s just… good. He is, in all fairness, EXTREMELY remniscient of Daniel Bryan right before the YES! movement started and that’s a cool thing to think about. He’s this rare form of a star where everything just comes together and creates something you could never boo.
On top of that, he’s immersed in one of the greatest feuds in NXT history right now against his former DIY tag-team partner Tommaso “Blackheart” Ciampa in a story that’s been going on for close to 2 years. You see, prior to the Cruiserweight Classic, Ciampa and Gargano only linked up to be a temporary team for the Dusty Classic in 2015. From there, they just kind of… stuck. Ciampa’s gimmick had always been this vicious, destructive killer that never fit with Gargano’s happy-go-lucky style and so while we all knew the fact there’d be a falling out was an eventuality, we didn’t know how it’d go. In the Cruiserweight Classic, Gargano vs Ciampa was a first-round match and it was, in all fairness, one of the best matches of the tournament but it’s even better in retrospect because of a very, very simple detail people didn’t pick up on. You see, there’s this moment at 1:30 in this video from their match. Watch closely.
Ciampa, prior to 1:30 in the video gives Gargano a backbreaker onto the apron that Gargano kicks out of at the last moment of 2. In wrestling world, this means a finisher or signature move will put that groggy opponent down. Ciampa pulls his kneepad down and prepares to break Gargano’s jaw with his knee… and then hesitates. He hesitates, and it costs him the match and after the match Ciampa rejects a handshake and walks off… but then comes back and gives Gargano a hug and they reconcile in the ring. It’s seemingly nothing until Gargano and Ciampa lost their match at Takeover: Chicago against the Authors of Pain. Ciampa attacks Gargano viciously and if you watch the attack back, you’ll realize… Ciampa peels his kneepad down and doesn’t hesitate. After nearly 2 years, the pent-up aggression of Gargano being the star and Ciampa playing second fiddle burns into Ciampa absolutely destroying Gargano before being taken out for injury for a number of months.
Right now, we’re in the stage of the feud where both men are 100%. Gargano’s finishing business with Almas for the title and Ciampa’s rehabilitated enough to take Gargano on, because that’s what we all want to see. We all want to see this heinous asshole get destroyed by everyone’s favorite underdog. It’s one of those stories that you just… get behind. You can understand the motivations of both sides. You sympathize with Ciampa’s frustrations, but you want Gargano to come out ahead. It’s a perfect, perfect feud that’s been boiling for years and right now, in NXT’s golden age, it plays out week-by-week right before our very eyes.
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