- NXT Takeover: New York. April 5th, 2019. Almost universally viewed as one of the best events, top-to-bottom, in wrestling history. There were five matches on the card, and I have the “worst” of them (Shayna Baszler vs Io Shirai vs Kairi Sane vs Bianca Belair) rated at 4 stars.
- NXT Takeover: Chicago. May 20th, 2017. Another very good Takeover event, but it was the events after the main event that everyone remembers. The Authors Of Pain had just successfully defended the NXT Tag Team Titles against Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa in a Ladder Match. Gargano and Ciampa were making their way up the ramp, soaking in the cheers and chants from the crowd. Everyone knew Ciampa was going to turn heel at some point in the storyline, but when the show-ending copyright tag appeared on the screen, we all let our guards down. Then… it happened. Ciampa did turn heel, and he beat the holy hell out of Gargano for several minutes. The Allstate Arena crowd wanted Ciampa dead, even though it was… again… something people knew was coming. It was just magnificently done.
- NXT Takeover: Dallas. April 1st, 2016. The capacity crowd in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas went completely bonkers for the debut of Shinsuke Nakamura. One of the most legendary wrestlers in the history of Japanese wrestling had arrived in NXT, and it gave us one of the most electric atmospheres in recent memory.
- NXT Takeover: Brooklyn. August 22nd, 2015. Sasha Banks and Bayley give the world an all-time classic match. It’s still the best women’s match I’ve ever seen. Decades from now, I think it will also end up being one of the most important matches of all-time, too. It wasn’t even six years ago, but it has already inspired an entire generation of young girls and young women to become wrestlers. As time goes on, it will only end up inspiring even more. It really has helped to change the direction of women’s wrestling in North America, possibly forever.
- NXT Takeover: Unstoppable. May 20th, 2015. The main event saw Kevin Owens defending the NXT Title against Sami Zayn. It was a good match, but it ended in a No Contest after Zayn was “injured” when he was powerbombed onto the ring apron. In reality, he was already injured, and this match was the storyline reasoning for writing him off so that he could go have surgery. As Owens continued a post-match attack, Samoa Joe made his shocking debut, entering the ring and getting Owens to back off. Joe was very, very high on the list of people most fans never thought they would see on any sort of WWE programming, so this was a huge moment. The crowd at Full Sail University treated it as such.
Those aren’t necessarily the five best moments in NXT history. I simply chose five of my favorites, pretty much at random. It was done to show a point, really… for years, NXT Takeover events were must-see television. You knew you were going to get a show that would end up being one of the best wrestling events of the year. On each card, you also knew that you were going to get at least one match that would compete for Match Of The Year awards at the end of the year. Everything NXT was doing was almost perfectly done. It wasn’t just their in-ring product. Their debuts were done properly. Face and heel turns made sense and were executed at the right time, not too soon and not too late. Title changes were done nicely, even if the person you wanted to win didn’t do so. For years, NXT was simply a brand that could do no wrong.
If you go back up to the list, take a look at the date for Takeover: New York. A little over two years ago, NXT put on a near-perfect wrestling show. That was 26 months ago, but it might as well be 26 years ago with how long ago that feels. Yes, the planet has gone through a COVID outbreak and every single facet of our lives was changed almost overnight, but it’s not just that. NXT is different now, too. Very different. Too different.
So… what happened?
I wish it was as easy as saying they’ve lost too much talent. Some of the top NXT wrestlers of the last decade-plus are now on Raw or Smackdown, sure, while others are now competing for other companies, but that has always been the case with NXT. I view them like the Alabama Crimson Tide college football team. Between 2009 and 2020, Alabama won six National Championships and lost in the final game as they competed for two more. After those seasons, Alabama had a combined 92 players taken in the NFL Draft. Every year, they lost a ton of talent, but they continued to reload. They recruit better than any school in the country, stockpiling talent to continue winning. They had another ten players taken in this year’s NFL Draft back in April, and chances are, they’ll continue to be one of the best teams in college football when the new season begins in September.
That was NXT’s job. They recruited top-tier talent from all over the world and used that talent to help their product excel. Inevitably, they would lose talent to Raw, Smackdown, and elsewhere. Instead of fading away, they would simply continue recruiting top-tier talent to replace the wrestlers who left. It’s a strategy that works, and it’s a strategy they still employ to this day. There are still a ton of world-class professional wrestlers on the NXT roster.
Even with all that talent, NXT television and Takeover events just haven’t been in the same stratosphere as the ones from recent years. The hype going into the events haven’t been on that level, and the quality coming out of the events haven’t been on that level, either. Just for the sake of conversation, let’s go back to the talent level of the current NXT roster. If you’re going to do that, you have to start at the top, with all of the current champions.
- NXT Champion Karrion Kross
- NXT Women’s Champion Raquel Gonzalez
- NXT North American Champion Bronson Reed
- NXT Cruiserweight Champion Kushida
- NXT Tag Team Champions MSK
- NXT Women’s Tag Team Champions Candice LeRae and Indi Hartwell
Let’s start at the top and work our way down. What is left to be said about Karrion Kross? He might already be the most controversial champion in NXT history. Some love his in-ring style, while others absolutely, positively cannot stand him. I was a big fan of his work in both Impact Wrestling and Lucha Underground, but I will be the first to admit that his matches in NXT haven’t been clicking the way they should. His matches haven’t been bad, in my opinion, but they just don’t compete to what we’re used to seeing in the NXT main event scene. Seth Rollins, Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, Finn Balor, Johnny Gargano, Adam Cole, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Drew McIntyre… that’s just a portion of the NXT Championship lineage. Those are some of the best in-ring performers that wrestling has seen over the last decade, with the awards and accolades to prove it. Kross, despite the flash and the razzle dazzle of his entrance, simply hasn’t shown himself to be on that level. Not even close, actually.
Raquel Gonzalez is a “monster” in the NXT women’s division, but would you say she has been putting on wrestling clinics? No, you wouldn’t, because she hasn’t been. The thing is… she’s not supposed to be the workhorse of the division. She’s still improving on a regular basis, but she’s also not going to be booked to go out there and do what women like Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Io Shirai can do.
Bronson Reed is in a similar boat as Gonzalez. He’s a “monster” in the midcard scene, but you just need to watch his work in PWG to see that he can GO in the ring. His PWG matches against the likes of WALTER, Jeff Cobb, Sammy Guevara, Keith Lee, Timothy Thatcher, and Zach Sabre Jr. all paint a very different picture than what NXT fans are used to seeing from him. It’s not that his NXT matches have been poor. Instead, it’s just that he isn’t booked to have these 15-20 minute sprints these days.
Kushida is where things begin to pick up a bit. He is one of the top cruiser/junior heavyweight wrestlers of this generation, winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title in New Japan on six different occasions. On top of that, he won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles twice (with Alex Shelley), won the Best Of The Super Juniors tournament twice, the Super J-Cup once, and the Super Junior Tag Tournament once (also with Alex Shelley). Even at the age of 38, he remains one of the most exciting performers in the business today. When you see his name on the card, you can expect quality.
MSK is an act that I’ve discussed in multiple columns over the last few months. They might be the most exciting tag team on the planet today, with both men defying the laws of gravity on a regular basis. A portion of the NXT Universe has seemingly turned on the duo for reasons unknown, but it does nothing to affect how fantastic they are in the ring. The problem here is that the rest of the division isn’t up to par with what NXT has had in the past. The Revival, American Alpha, Undisputed Era, DIY, Mustache Mountain, Blake & Murphy… those are just some of the teams that have made NXT’s tag scene unstoppable in the past. There just aren’t legendary teams like that in NXT right now.
The team of Candice LeRae and Indi Hartwell are in an interesting spot. The women’s tag team division isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but that isn’t on their shoulders, of course. Hartwell is also someone who, without being a member of The Way, wouldn’t hold any sort of title right now. Hate it if you want, but it’s the truth. She’s just not ready for that kind of spotlight on her own, but the pairing with LeRae allows her to come along for the ride and not have to handle too much too soon.
If you look at all that, what’s the first thing that jumps out at you? For me, it’s the fact that the NXT Title, Women’s Title, and North American Title scenes aren’t good enough to carry an NXT show right now. For almost the entire history of Takeover shows, you could almost pencil in a Match Of The Year candidate for whatever the NXT Title match was going to be. You could just about do the same for the Women’s Title and the North American Title matches, too, just sometimes on a slightly lesser level. In no way am I saying these matches are looking like dog shit these days, but that shine simply isn’t as bright as it once was.
What about the “little” things?
William Regal has been the NXT General Manager for almost seven years now, which is an eternity for a pro wrestling authority figure. For example, Eric Bischoff is the longest-reigning General Manager in Raw history, while Teddy Long holds that record for Smackdown, and their reigns combine to be about as long as Regal’s in NXT. Regal has done a tremendous job in the role, being tough, but fair, and giving NXT fans what they want far more often than not. Recently, the storyline has been that Regal is losing control of the show. People are being attacked left and right, and brawls are all over the show. It built up to this week’s episode of NXT, where Regal was about to step down, only for Samoa Joe to make his return to the company as an enforcer, of sorts, for the GM. Is that going to build excitement for the brand and its shows? I mean, Joe is an awesome presence and one of the best (and most believable) “talkers” in all of wrestling, but I don’t think it will. At face value, the addition of Joe doesn’t make any sense. He’s not an in-ring competitor, but he has been granted the ability to get physical with wrestlers when the situation calls for it. Does that mean that wrestlers can get physical with him, too? Obviously, in a storyline, a wrestler would be facing a fine, suspension, or termination if they put their hands on William Regal, so shouldn’t that extend to Regal’s enforcer? Maybe I’m just biased because I want Joe back in the ring again. I just don’t see too many situations where someone is going to get one over on Regal and Joe. You know wrestling fans… it won’t take too long before people are complaining that Joe beating up members of the NXT roster is getting “old” and they feel he’s “burying” people. I’ve already seen complaints about how Karrion Kross reacted to Joe’s return. The argument is that Kross, 48 hours removed from defeating four of NXT’s best, was immediately “punked out” by Joe, and he tucked his tail and left the ring when he was told to. We can’t make complete judgements yet, as it has only been one episode, but as I said, I’m not confident this will be a game changer.
Another issue to look at is the lack of fans in attendance for NXT shows. Yeah, yeah, yeah… every wrestling company had to deal with that, at least for a while. NXT, arguably more than any other promotion, feeds off of those wild crowds. Go back to those aforementioned Takeover events at the beginning of this column. Molten hot crowds were given equally great in-ring action, and both sides continued to feed each other into a frenzy. Now, NXT shows are quiet, taking place in a dark Capitol Wrestling Center. It’s almost like they’re stuck in time, back at the beginning of the COVID outbreak. Raw and Smackdown are taking place in the super bright Thunderdome, with virtual fans everywhere. AEW is happening at Daily’s Place, a unique outdoor venue with loud wrestlers in the front rows and now, loud fans sprinkled throughout the place. Even when NXT tries to add fans, like they did at In Your House, it falls flat. The fans were quiet, and they were also largely in the darkness. Watching at home, it was as if nobody was there. Is that going to change for NXT any time soon? Well, WWE has announced tour dates for different cities around the United States until the beginning of September, but it’s all for main roster shows. It hasn’t been announced yet, but the rumor is that NXT will be doing small venue (200-400 fans) house shows in Florida starting next month. If those shows will be anything like the pre-pandemic shows in those cities and venues, the wrestlers will largely be NXT roster members who aren’t quite on television yet. To prove my point, one of those last shows before the outbreak was in Largo, Florida on February 28th of last year. The main event of said show? Killian Dain defeated Omari Palmer. Other matches on the show included Babatunde (Smackdown’s Commander Azeez) and Nick Ogarelli (AEW’s Nick Comoroto) defeating Aleksander Jaksic and Tehuti Miles (now known as Ashante Thee Adonis), as well as Tino Sabatelli defeating Denzel Dejournette. No word on when NXT’s “main roster” goes back on the road, but you have to assume it will be relatively soon. They sure could use that boost.
So… what else is there?
Something I’ve mentioned in the past is how I feel the likes of Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Adam Cole, etc. are all on the brand after doing just about everything there is to do there. Is NXT being “held back” a bit by continuing to push those same people at the top, even if they’re still doing great work? These are people who have been in NXT for years, winning all sorts of titles, and bucking the trend I mentioned earlier where an NXT wrestler gets big and then moves on to something else. Again, this is how it works with wrestling fans. Even if someone is putting on good matches and cutting good promos, fans will eventually grow tired of them if they’re at the top of the card for weeks, then turning into months, and then turning into years. It might seem weird at first, but are people sick of guys like Cole and Gargano always being involved in title pictures? Fitting this theory into the theme of this column… are people seeing Cole and Gargano involved in another title match and/or another main event of a Takeover, and having it alter their excitement for the show before it even begins? If you’re a fan of those guys, that’s perfectly fine. This is the kind of thing that is subjective, anyway. YOU might see Adam Cole competing for the NXT Title and get excited, but THAT GUY sees Cole in the main event and doesn’t want to watch. When you’re keeping the same guys around, eventually matchups stop being fresh. It’s inevitable.
I think you have to at least make a brief mention of AEW here, too. When AEW and NXT were going head-to-head on Wednesday nights, the general public’s interest in NXT, as a whole, took a major hit. The ratings showed that pretty clearly. NXT was taking a big hit, while AEW was, generally, doing pretty well with their viewership numbers. I’ve said it from the beginning, and I’ll say it here again… NXT has had a better overall in-ring product than AEW, but Dynamite was always a better “variety” show, with something for just about every type of wrestling fan. When it was announced NXT was moving to Tuesdays, a lot of people expected to see their viewership numbers go back up. They wouldn’t have to deal with Dynamite splitting their audience up. It looked like that might be the case for a bit. Their Tuesday debut show (April 13th, 2021) saw their highest viewership numbers since their heavily-hyped Halloween Havoc show last year. The following week’s viewership numbers were up from the first show, but it’s been mainly downhill ever since. Now, they’re right back to where they were when they were going up against Dynamite every week. What happened? I know I’m not the only one who feels this way about how you compare NXT’s programming to AEW’s programming. Did people see AEW and realize they were putting on a “better” show, deciding to spend their time watching what that company was doing instead? A new promotion, with fresh faces (especially to the average fan) and fresh matches, is a pretty big deal. Don’t hate on me. I’m only asking questions.
The best (worst?) part about the last 3100+ words I’ve typed out is that it might not matter in a few weeks. What if Karrion Kross drops the NXT Title? How about if NXT takes their television show back on the road and starts performing in front of arenas full of people again? What if they continue debuting new names and/or signing independent stars to boost their roster? I want to reiterate that I’m not saying NXT has been trash. I’m not talking about them going from the worst wrestling show of all-time to must-see programming in a month’s time. It isn’t going to take a miracle to save them from extinction or anything.
Honestly, I think it starts at the top. I’m a fan of Karrion Kross, but I think it might be time to move in a different direction. Have him drop the title and then take him to Raw or Smackdown, where I think he fits in a lot more. People are already predicting Kross will drop the title to Samoa Joe at the next Takeover event. That’s fine with me. Whatever the move is, I think it needs to be done. From there, you see how that affects the brand, as a whole, and you can go from there.
What say you, ReaderLand? First and foremost, I want to know where your excitement level for NXT is these days. How does it compare to, say, last June or the June before that? If you’re someone who thinks there is a problem, or problems, with the NXT product, what do you think it is? Is it something I mentioned, or is it something else? If you’re someone who thinks there is no problem with NXT right now, that’s fine. You can hit me up and tell me why you think everything is going swimmingly for the brand. I want to hear from people from all points of view here. As always, hit me up in the comments section below, or on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage), and let me know what’s on your mind.
Weekly Power Rankings
- Karrion Kross vs Adam Cole vs Pete Dunne vs Kyle O’Reilly vs Johnny Gargano: As I said in my Running Diary of Takeover: In Your House, the match was really well put together. Kross could be physically dominant for a bit before the odds would turn against him. He’d be out of the match for a bit, allowing the other four to run a full sprint of a match until he returned, when we’d start back over with his physical dominance. Beating four of the best that NXT has to offer in a single match gives Kross a ton of momentum, whether you want him to have it or not.
- Kofi Kingston & Xavier Woods vs Randy Orton & Riddle: It may not have seemed like it would work when they were first paired up, but Randy Orton and Riddle are both putting in work to make it… work. On the other side of the ring, you have Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods, who have been on a really big in-ring roll over the last few months. This was one of those out-of-nowhere 20+ minute matches on television that fills up a good chunk of time on a three-hour show that desperately needs it sometimes. Good stuff all around.
- Samoa Joe Is Back: I said earlier that I’m not completely confident that this could be a game changing thing for NXT, but I’m still glad to see Samoa Joe back on television. I’d much rather see him wrestling again, but I understand that it might not be an option for him anymore. We’ll just have to wait and see. While we’re talking about Joe’s return segment, though, can we take this moment to give William Regal props for the emotion he showed? The tears, the trembling of his voice, the look of pain and exhaustion on his face… it was all really well done.
- Renee Paquette & Jon Moxley Become Parents: Congratulations!
- Tommaso Ciampa & Timothy Thatcher vs Grizzled Young Veterans: You knew they were going to beat the hell out of each other, and that’s exactly what they did for nearly 20 minutes. A brutal, hard-hitting affair.
- Christian Cage vs Angelico: I’m still really surprised that AEW hasn’t done more with Christian from a storyline aspect, but he’s been having some good matches since his arrival with the company. “Young vs Old” is a big backstory behind a lot of his matches, and he’s showing that he can still “hang” with his younger, faster opponents. With a 4-0 singles record in AEW, it’s probably only a matter of time before you see him stepping up in competition, before eventually moving on to chase after a title.
- Roman Reigns Throwing Dominik Mysterio SMOOTH THE FUCK OUTTA THE RING: Longtime readers of my columns will get that reference right away. In 2012, we were all treated to a famous visual of Kane pushing Zack Ryder, who was in a wheelchair at the time, off of the Raw stage, sending Ryder crashing to the floor below. In my Running Diary at the time, I made mention that Kane pushed Ryder SMOOTH THE FUCK OFF OF THE STAGE, and the phrasing stuck. People would quote it, and it only got crazier when I started saying stuff like that on podcasts I used to do for this very site. Nearly a decade later, I think Kane has to pass his crown on to Roman Reigns, who nearly made me die laughing when he threw Dominik Mysterio SMOOTH THE FUCK OUTTA THE RING on Smackdown. From the look of sheer terror on Dom’s face to the purposely-done camera shot not showing Dom’s landing, it was comedic genius.
- WALTER Passing The 800-Day Mark As NXT United Kingdom Champion: I know that NXT UK was on the shelf for a bit when the pandemic first started, but that does very little to take away from the fact that WALTER has been the brand’s champion for 803 days as of the day this column gets posted. That’s an insane amount of time. He does have ten successful title defenses in that time, so it’s not like he has held the title for a year without any defenses. As an added bonus, his matches are always quality. His return to the OG NXT brand has been teased for a while, so it’s only a matter of time before he’s back in the United States caving in chests of a new set of opponents.
- Montez Ford vs Chad Gable: Not only was this a fun match, it was also a fresh one. Obviously both men have been tag team guys, but this was still the first time we’ve seen them in a one-on-one setting. In an alternate universe somewhere, Ford vs Gable is a World Title feud. On this planet, though, it’s just a nice singles match in the middle of a tag team feud. I’ll take it for now, I guess.
- Bronson Reed & MSK vs Legado Del Fantasma: Similar to the layout of the main event at Takeover: In Your House, this match allowed for MSK to run wild and do the things they do, only for Reed to tag in and slow things down with his power work. That’s not a complaint at all, mind you. It works for everyone involved, allowing them to showcase what they do best.
- “Hangman” Adam Page & “10” vs Brian Cage & Powerhouse Hobbs: The slow burn face turn for Brian Cage continues. In the grand scheme of things, that’s the thing that will be remembered about this match, but it was still a nice little tag match with all four men putting in work.
- Kevin Owens & Big E vs Apollo Crews & Sami Zayn: Another tag match that won’t matter much in the end, but it was still a ton of fun. These men are good, valuable pieces of the Smackdown roster that can be interchanged and used in singles, tag, and multi-man matches with no problems at all. I think I’ll have more to say about that in a future column.
- Kacy Catanzaro & Kayden Carter vs Dakota Kai & Raquel Gonzalez: This might have been the best performance from Carter and Catanzaro since they were paired up. It was also their first match in two-and-a-half months, so it seemed fresh for them. The women’s tag division in NXT really… really… needs some more teams. Even though they lost the match, maybe we’ll see more from Kacy and Kayden moving forward.
- Cesaro Is Back: The man is so, so talented in the ring. Having him be away, even for a month, is tough. I’m glad to see him back.
- John Cena Being Open To Turning Heel: For years, fans have been clamoring for Cena to turn heel. Of course, WWE never gave that to anyone. Cena, in numerous media interviews, always remained strong in the thinking that he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, turn heel. You know the deal… can’t disappoint the fans, it puts the company in a weird spot, blah blah. In a recent interview with Chris Van Vliet, Cena was again talking about a heel turn. He mentioned that he has probably remained face for so long because of WWE’s lack of confidence in another top star, either for him to match up against or to help pick up whatever slack is created by such a seismic shift. Cena then mentions that, with Roman Reigns becoming the megastar that he has become, maybe it might finally be time to look into that long-awaited heel turn. Who knows if it will ever happen, but this is honestly the closest we’ve ever been, so it’s exciting to think about.
This Week’s Playlist: “The Party Continues” by Jermaine Dupri, Da Brat, & Usher… “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” by K-Ci… “Daydreamin” by Tatyana Ali, Lord Tariq, & Peter Gunz… “After Party” by Koffee Brown… “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By” by Method Man & Mary J. Blige… “Trick’n” by Mullage… “Tops Drop” by Fat Pat… “One Step Closer” by Linkin Park… “Crawling” by Linkin Park… “In The End” by Linkin Park… “Papercut” by Linkin Park… “Beamer, Benz, or Bentley (Shady Megamix)” by Slaughterhouse… “Gun Harmonizing” by Royce Da 5’9″ & Crooked I… “Something 2 Ride 2″ by Royce Da 5’9” & Phonte… “Far Away” by Royce Da 5’9″… “Writer’s Block” by Royce Da 5’9″ & Eminem… “Brackish” by Kittie… “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down… “Loser” by 3 Doors Down… “If You Must” by Del The Funky Homosapien