New year, new NXT.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
WWE’s ostensible developmental brand once again finished out the previous year booking circles around its main roster counterparts, fuelled primarily by the ongoing saga of Evil #DIY as Johnny Gargano continues his descent into madness and NXT Champion Tommaso Ciampa clings onto his precious Goldie with an iron fist by manipulating everyone to his advantage. That said, I wasn’t as hyped going into TakeOver: Phoenix as I had been for previous TakeOvers and, after coming out the other side, Phoenix ended up being one of the weaker TakeOvers in recent memory, much of the show’s clout coming from one instant classic at the midpoint whilst the rest of the show was shored up by interesting but not always spectacular bouts. But, honestly, that’s ok. For starters, it’s still an NXT TakeOver which meant it was focussed, purposeful, advanced a whole bunch of storylines and characters, and didn’t last seven pissing hours. Primarily, though, this came from TakeOver: Phoenix being more of a transitional special rather than a climactic barnburner, all about progressing stories and characters to where they need to be for later instalments, and you’re gonna get a few of those at times.
Plus, “transitional” doesn’t always mean “devoid of value.” Witness the great opener as The Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly and Rodrick Strong) defended their NXT Tag Team Championship in a losing effort against The War Raiders (Hanson and Rowe). I’m pretty certain it was in my very first PPV write-up where I mentioned my belief that tag-team wrestling is the best and Undisputed Era have been a magnificent constant reminder as to that fact. O’Reilly and Strong are so effortlessly in sync by this point and so great at playing their characters – slimy douchebags who aren’t above cheating and disqualifications but would much rather take turns breaking your back over and over; isn’t it funny how much better heels are when they’re not just one-dimensional cowards – that they could probably drag a four-star encounter out of two rotting corpses. Hanson and Rowe are not rotting corpses and although they’re also not fully there yet (you can see brief moments of stiffness and transition between spots involving them throughout the match) they are already fulfilling an abundance of their potential and it makes perfect sense to get the gold off of Undisputed for a while and onto an over as hell babyface team, if only to freshen up the tag scene chain. Plus, I will never not find Hanson’s ludicrous mobility for a guy who looks like an old fashioned hoss to be awe-inspiring; that double handstand back-spring elbow off the ropes was incredible.
After that hot opener, things cooled back down considerably with Matt Riddle vanquishing Kassius Ohno for the third straight time. OK, that’s inarguably a bit harsh, the match was fine. Riddle is a compelling ring presence, there was at least a sense of closure this time when he violently rejected Ohno’s attempts at begging for mercy (which was the catalyst for this third encounter after Ohno’s last extension of friendship turned out to be a ruse for further beatdowns), and the match definitely gained something by the absolute ferocity of both competitors’ strikes and stomps. Like, producing genuine cringing winces from me at many a point. It’s just that this feud inarguably peaked with their first encounter back at WarGames II, the one that ended in about five seconds after one knee strike, and everything afterwards just feels like so much unnecessary padding to keep Riddle from racing further up the card before other stories have had a chance to conclude. Particularly with its placement between a hot tag opener and Gargano/Ricochet burning the house down, Riddle/Ohno III can’t help but feel like a filler match that made it to the main show mainly to keep the audience from burning out before time. Twas pretty good, but not very consequential.
But let’s talk about Johnny Gargano vs. Ricochet for the NXT North American Title. JESUS CRIPES, what a match! Johnny Gargano is inarguably the best performer in the WWE right now and it’s not even close; those “Johnny Takeover” tights he’s been sporting at the last few events do not lie. Ricochet, meanwhile, is almost a year into his tenure with WWE (plus an additional year before when I saw him crop up here and there in various indies) and he is still managing to pull off all new jaw-dropping feats of skill and daring-do that leave my mouth agape – here apexing, and this is after countless other examples throughout the match, on his vault to the floor from the ring mat over a corner post – plus he’s getting better at learning to sell consistently throughout his matches instead of just popping up to hit his stuff like nothing truly fazes him. Put the pair of them together, especially with Gargano mid-descent into villainy, and magic obviously occurs but even still this ruled from start to finish.
Like, I genuinely do not understand how any fan of professional wrestling could come away from this match dissatisfied. You want convincing hard-hitting strikes? Plenty of those here. Flippy shit? Ricochet’s in this match, of course there’s flippy shit and it’s extremely good flippy shit (that reversal from Gargano’s hurricanrana where he just lands on his feet and walks off like a badass popped me like nobody’s business). Technical wrestling? Gargano goes to town on a whole load of excellent submission holds in the early stretch as part of the match’s narrative – Gargano, still believing himself to be the hero, is attempting to wrestle a clean-ish match but can’t put Ricochet away with either his bread-and-butter (technical wrestling) or his opponent’s bread-and-butter (flippy shit) so, having already seen this exact scenario play out countless times across his singles career, gives in to the Ciampa inside of him and cheats via exposed concrete and CIAMPA’S OWN FINISHER to win. Narrative? Well, I just explained this match’s narrative and the beats, red herrings, and eventual trigger-pulls were executed to perfection – I also love how all of Gargano’s opponents’ motives so far have been “beat the sense back into him because they know Johnny Freakin’ Wrestling is still in there somewhere.” God, this was SO GOOD, YOU GUYS! And Gargano winning the title (coupled with the Main Event which we’ll get to) indicates that NXT are nowhere near done with this story yet which is wonderful news to me!
Whatever came after Gargano/Ricochet was naturally going to pale in comparison and suffer from a burnt-out crowd. Shayna Baszler vs. Bianca Belair for the NXT Women’s Championship was perhaps the weakest match Baszler has had in a while, never quite finding the fifth gear it needed to shoot up into something truly great, but it was solid enough as it happened and I’m growing fonder of it as I reflect more. The reasons for that, both positive and negative, come from Belair who could not have screamed “transitional opponent due to Kairi Sane being ill at time of the relevant tapings” any louder and who, for as good as she already is, isn’t quite at primetime level just yet. Much of the match focussed on Baszler methodically beating her from pillar to post, furthering the story of Miss UN *clap* DUH *clap* FEA *clap* TED *clap* punching way above her weight class, but even with the occasional sloppy move she demonstrated a firm understanding of her character as the cocksure heel slipped away to reveal a hyper-talented but insecure rookie who will give until her last breath if it means she has a chance of winning. She reminded me a lot of Velveteen Dream in a way, here, that first time she stood up in the Kirifuda Clutch feeling very much like a star is born moment akin to Dream’s outside Dream Valley Driver to Ciampa at WarGames II. Should these two have a rematch a year or so down the line, that’ll almost definitely rule like nobody’s business. But for now, this was very good.
Finally, we had Tomasso Ciampa defending Goldie (the NXT Championship) against Aleister Black in a match that definitely felt about five minutes too long and was hampered by some inconsistent selling but otherwise delivered in a surprising manner. The last time these two officially squared off one-on-one, right before Black got injured on the road to TakeOver: Brooklyn 4, the story was that, good as he was, Ciampa could not hang with Black to a degree of being able to beat the man, instead merely surviving through sheer luck right until Cursed Gargano showed up to hand him the title on a silver platter. Given that past, plus Ciampa’s opponents since capturing the title, one might expect a similar result here, but instead we got a highly competitive and often technical wrestling match which Ciampa won pretty decisively as a result of the largely-clean work he’d put in beforehand: Ciampa’s second Project Ciampa in a row gets countered, Black attempts the Black Mass but is now in too much pain from Ciampa having worked the base leg throughout, letting Ciampa trap him back in the move for the three-count.
In a way, it’s kinda anticlimactic? But also, in a way, it’s bloody brilliant? Gargano and Ciampa are inseparable no matter what becomes of their careers outside of NXT, so I think it is super-telling that the pair effectively switched roles in their matches on this show. Gargano embracing his inner-Ciampa and, resultantly, gaining his first singles gold in the promotion; Ciampa embracing his inner-Gargano and, resultantly, knocking off the biggest challenger to his belt in a way that he doesn’t have to delude himself over. When he beat Black the first time, he rubbed it in everyone’s faces that it was solely due to him being just that good, “the greatest Sports Entertainer of all-time,” despite the obvious evidence to the contrary; a fluke win, tainted, like Ciampa has shown before. But this time, he really did do so by being just that good; a hard-fought victory, undeniable, like Gargano might have clawed (whilst still being an undeniable heelish dick since this is Tommaso Ciampa). And so they end the show stood side-by-side once more, now both wearing gold, meeting back where they started all those years ago but with the purity of their prior babyface personas stripped away for inarguable villainy. #DIY is dead, long live #DIY.