2019 has been a year when I have rediscovered much of the purer joy in my wrestling fandom. The WWE main roster product that I had followed so closely for so long made me disenchanted with the entire industry, so around the time that I said I was hanging up the pen and dropping the mic as “The Doc” Chad Matthews, I stopped paying much attention to WWE proper and started watching other products that I had not made time for, among them NXT UK.
The viewing experiences I have had watching Pete Dunne build his legacy, The Grizzled Young Veterans emerge as brand-leaders, and stars who I greatly respect from their time elsewhere (like Noam Dar) make the most of increased opportunities hav been fandom-rejuvenating. Though I am fully aware from years of doing this that writing about WWE proper, be it in positive fashion as I faithfully attempted or in total thrashing mode, moves the needle, I am at a point where I would much rather write and talk about other promotions that fuel rather than try to snuff out the fire that I have had for the wrestling business for thirty years. So, if you want to WWE bash, keep doing your thing, ladies and gentlemen, but if you want talk about great wrestling, legacies, and the like, put me back on your radar and let’s get back to talking like we used to, because I miss that and I’m ready to resume that.
An interesting exercise that I have thoroughly enjoyed this year has been to create formulas to rank and file the best wrestling matches in various brands (like 205 Live) or promotions (such as AEW). Remember, I subscribe to the objectively subjective theory, which posits that wrestling matches can logically be judged against one another beyond the purely subjective realm so long as we set the criteria. For NXT UK, I borrowed from the criteria set-up to historically profile NXT Takeover lore, using a 1-5 scale (mostly 3-5 though) to detail the aspects below of each UK brand performance. Such is how I arrived at the forthcoming countdown of NXT UK’s top matches dating back to its inception as a Network show in October of last year. As always, I encourage you to prove my rankings incorrect by sharing your own formula and/or your thoughts!
Psychology (3 strains logic, 4 gets it right, 5 nails it perfectly)
Storytelling (3 lacks depth, 4 good depth, 5 incredible depth)
Selling (3 is fine, 4 is great, 5 is match-enhancing)
Execution (3 is shaky, 4 is perfectly acceptable, 5 is virtually flawless)
Climax (3 is connects well, 4 is connects very well, 5 is strikes the ideal chord)
Build (3 is just there, 4 is quite meaningful, 5 is peak creative)
Historic (3 is small impact, 4 is medium impact, 5 is quite impactful)
Setting (3 is NXT UK TV, 4 is Takeover small, 5 is Takeover big venue)
Intangibles (up to +2 innovation, +1 for crowd, entrance, gear, commentary, etc.)
The Top 12 Matches in NXT UK
#12 – Tyler Bate vs. Wolfgang on the October 24th NXT UK TV (31.0)
5 (Psych) / 4 (Story) / 4 (Sell) / 4 (Exec) / 4 (Clim) / 3 (Build) / 3 (Hist) / 3 (Set) / +1 (Int)
Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne have this sort of Shawn Michaels-Bret Hart from the early 1990s thing going for their recently quieter rivalry. It could certainly be argued that Bate is the more diverse storyteller, whereas Dunne is perhaps overall better because he is the master of his go-to match formula. Bate vs. Wolfgang evidenced the first-ever WWE UK’s Champion’s ability to have a blast of a match against a stylistically unique opponent and simultaneously tell an engaging story with excellent psychology. The test-of-strength sequence early on was further evidence of Bate’s unique in-ring game.
#11 – Travis Banks vs. Joe Coffey vs. Dave Mastiff vs. Jordan Devlin in a #1 Contender’s Match on the June 5th NXT UK TV (32.0)
4 (Psych) / 4 (Story) / 4 (Sell) / 4 (Exec) / 4 (Clim) / 3 (Build) / 4 (Hist) / 3 (Set) / +2 (Int)
Featuring a good mixture of talents culminating in a somewhat surprising finish, this multi-man affair did everything borderline great and nothing outright fantastic, resulting in one of the more rock solid overall efforts of the young brand’s history, but one that may struggle to be remembered, depending on what happens with Travis Banks, where he might get his UK Title shot, and what he does with the opportunity. The two larger men clashing could potentially stand-out long-term, but regardless their train-wreck moments were engaging and complimented the re-heating of the Banks-Devlin rivalry well.
#10 – The Grizzled Young Veterans vs. Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch for the UK Tag Titles on the February 27th NXT UK TV (31.0)
4 (Psych) / 4 (Story) / 4 (Sell) / 5 (Exec) / 4 (Clim) / 3 (Build) / 3 (Hist) / 3 (Set) / +1 (Int)
We know exactly what these two teams are capable of if they ever get a Takeover match together, and this was definitely more than a teaser-trailer should the TO bout manifest, but all the while it was merely very good. Take it to the next level across the board and it becomes legendary, so hopefully we get that aforementioned Takeover experience. James Drake was really impressive in this outing, which is less a recent realization and more the use of this infrequent opportunity to praise the guy; and is there anyone more uniquely over than Zack Gibson? Each time he wrestles, he gets the match an intangible point because the way people respond to him is just such a cool, unique part of his work on the 20’x20′ canvas.
#9 – Pete Dunne vs. Joe Coffey at NXT UK Takeover: Blackpool (32.0)
4 (Psych) / 4 (Story) / 4 (Sell) / 3 (Exec) / 3 (Clim) / 4 (Build) / 4 (Hist) / 4 (Set) / +2 (Int)
It was a hard-hitting war with an exhaustive run-time that flirted at points with book-ending the first UK Takeover with truly special performances, but wound up held back from peaking by its execution and flow. The climax was ugly and pretty well sealed its fate, ending the aforementioned flirtation with greatness; they went to the top rope in an attempt to do something and appeared to mess it up, then went back a few minutes later to do it again and appeared to botch it again, which sucked all the life out of the performance. It was too bad because there was a lot to like about the match too. Beginning with that intangible big fight feel and well working its way through the first half of an ambitious run-time, the match slowly started to lose its footing as it progressed toward the ill-fated climactic minutes. A do-over of 20-minutes in length would be lovely.
#8 – WALTER vs. Pete Dunne for the UK Title on the May 22nd NXT UK TV (33.0)
5 (Psych) / 4 (Story) / 5 (Sell) / 4 (Exec) / 3 (Clim) / 4 (Build) / 4 (Hist) / 3 (Set) / +1 (Int)
Certainly not the masterclass that was their Takeover: New York performance, but it was a solid set-up match for the next in their series. It is so compelling to watch Dunne try to take down someone who is that much bigger than he is. The Bruiserweight, after all, is a play on cruiserweight, which is the weight class that Dunne fits within, so his skill at working over arms/hands is put to such an immense test opposite a dominant and massive opponent like WALTER, who is essentially the archetypal modern big man in pro wrestling. When I watch WALTER, I cannot help but to draw parallels between him and the German national football team because, like die mannschaft, he is physically imposing to a point where it just seems highly unlikely that anyone can beat him; when he is on the ropes, like Dunne put him in this match, it is hard not to get sucked into the drama of the underdog slaying the favorite. That said, awkward pacing and a finish that put the focus on the future rather than the present match knocked this down a peg from Dunne’s library.
#7 – Pete Dunne vs. Noam Dar for the UK Title on the October 17th NXT UK TV (34.0)
4.5 (Psych) / 4 (Story) / 4 (Sell) / 5 (Exec) / 4 (Clim) / 3 (Build) / 4.5 (Hist) / 3 (Set) / +2 (Int)
In the historic first-ever main-event of the WWE Network’s NXT UK show, Dar stepped up to the considerable challenge and thrived, as he has had the tendency to do over on 205 Live these past few years. It was a substantial task to give the Scottish Supernova, but he made sure to leave an impression in defeat, with two beautiful counters into ankle lock submissions and several soccer kicks to attack Dunne’s knee that contorted your face in reaction. Dunne was his usual baller-self, though he did not sell Dar’s leg-concentrated offense that well; that is not to take much away from The Bruiserweight, though, as it was a pleasure to watch him build his resume as the go-to guy of the promotion and super long-reigning champion.
#6 – Pete Dunne vs. Jordan Devlin for the UK Title on the November 28th NXT UK TV (35.0)
5 (Psych) / 4 (Story) / 4 (Sell) / 5 (Exec) / 5 (Clim) / 3 (Build) / 4 (Hist) / 3 (set) / +2 (Int)
Dunne’s legacy-building earned a boost from this performance, as he and Devlin combined for a thrilling title match that perhaps never seriously threatened to switch the championship holder but certainly told a very compelling if not rather predictable story. Devlin announced himself rather boldly as one of the top two or three guys on the brand and was a bit better sell of his injured hand away from equaling Dunne’s efforts. There was an awesome moment during the latter stages when they avoided a finisher kick-out and instead opted for a simpler and, in my opinion, more effective storytelling device; I greatly appreciated that small detail. Overall, this was an excellent example of how to mesh the joint-manipulation tendencies of the home style with faster-paced action and innovation. Would not mind in the slightest a Best-of-Seven series between these two.
#5 – Pete Dunne vs. Danny Burch for the UK Title on the November 6th NXT UK TV (35.5)
4.5 (Psych) / 5 (Story) / 5 (Sell) / 5 (Exec) / 5 (Clim) / 3 (Build) / 4 (Hist) / 3 (Set) / +1 (Int)
As you can see from the scores, there was not a ton of separation between the title defenses by Dunne in the early stages of the UK TV show’s existence. They were all great and all reputation-enhancing for both the champion during perhaps the most noticeable stretch of his historic title reign and his three challengers, but I think the scoring does the Dunne-Burch match that led the pack justice because it was just slightly better, bottom line. The British wrestling on display was highly engaging, with Dunne’s ability to tear apart particularly the upper limbs of his opponent continuing to stand out as the unique trait that should keep him in the upper echelon of the business for a long time; there is just something about the way that he does it. All the while, the primary factor that boosted this match above Dunne’s other 2018 bouts in NXT UK was how close it felt like Danny Burch came to winning the title; it should probably never have felt that way to the learned fan (no way Dunne was losing on a non-Takeover), but somehow this match managed on account of their gifted storytelling prowess and the riveting final minutes.
#4 – The Grizzled Young Veterans vs. Noam Dar and Kenny Williams for the UK Tag Titles on the May 9th NXT UK TV (36.0)
5 (Psych) / 4 (Story) / 5 (Sell) / 5 (Exec) / 5 (Clim) / 4 (Build) / 3 (Hist) / 3 (Set) / +2 (Int)
At this point, it needs to be acknowledged that the foundational pieces of the NXT UK brand’s early success critically have been Dunne, Devlin, and The Grizzled Young Veterans. The Tag Team Champions have been golden. That there was not much separating the classic UK Takeover match and this title bout on the weekly TV speaks volumes about their consistency; they are the kind of duo that could be utilized in a Takeover main-event setting and nobody would bat an eyelash about it because they are that good and that over. This was smart, the sort of psychologically-driven performance that re-watches well because it built around something more than just moves. Dar and Williams sold perfectly, so by the time it ended, you felt good and thoroughly worked over, loving to hate Gibson and Drake and rooting for the plucky babyface team making a real go of it.
#3 – Jordan Devlin vs. Travis Banks in a Falls Count Anywhere Match on the March 6th NXT UK TV (38.0)
5 (Psych) / 5 (Story) / 4 (Sell) / 4 (Exec) / 5 (Clim) / 5 (Build) / 4 (Hist) / 3 (Set) / +3 (Int)
Devlin being one of the MVPs of the early NXT UK era and Banks being one of the best on the brand in his own right, anticipation was high for their Takeover match, but it got turned into a feud-enhancing angle on the night. Two months later, after several more highly engaging segments pushed this rivalry into “best feud in NXT UK’s young history” territory, the payoff delivered in a big way, successfully offering something a bit different from much of the library produced on NXT UK TV up to that point. Devlin has proven himself quite versatile.
#2 – Mustache Mountain vs. Zack Gibson and James Drake at NXT UK Takeover: Blackpool (39.0)
4 (Psych) / 5 (Story) / 5 (Sell) / 4 (Exec) / 4 (Clim) / 4 (Build) / 5 (Hist) / 4 (Set) / +4 (Int)
To crown the first ever NXT UK Tag Team Champions, these four gave us everything we could want from a wrestling match, thrilling us to the bitter end with a level of storytelling rarely reached with plenty of “wow” moments along the way. As usual, Bate and Trent Seven elitely sold for their opponents, which contributed greatly to their comebacks and to the magnificent false finishes of the performance, but it was Gibson and Drake who stole the show, the former with his love-to-hate personality pumping the match with audience participation and energy, the latter dazzling with well-timed and expertly-executed athletic feats, and both exhibiting a command of the moment that stood out more than anything else on the inaugural NXT UK Takeover.
#1 – Pete Dunne vs. WALTER for the UK Title at NXT Takeover: New York (40.5)
4.5 (Psych) / 5 (Story) / 5 (Sell) / 4 (Exec) / 5 (Clim) / 5 (Build) / 5 (Hist) / 5 (Set) / +2 (Int)
Undoubtedly the class of the NXT UK brand since its inception. It is Dunne vs. WALTER, and then everything else, respectively. Matter of factly stated, it could be a long time before something could equal the set of circumstances that allowed this match to be all that it could be; it might take someone like Sheamus, on the brink of retirement due to injuries accumulated across the decade, coming in for a last hurrah in an effort to further elevate the brand with his European star power (“WALTER retires Sheamus” might read the headlines) or someone like Drew McIntyre or Cesaro finding their way to the UK Title scene for a brief stint and a showdown with the Austrian. There might be other matches that can equal the quality of Dunne vs. WALTER, but the likelihood of it being equaled in terms of the New York setting or the historic nature for this brand of seeing a challenger like WALTER emerge so full of anticipation and a near two year reigning champion like Dunne seems far-fetched at this time. Not only is this the best match in NXT UK lore, but it is among the very best of the Takeover franchise at large.