By former Lords of Pain 205 Live reviewer, “205 Clive”.
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Professional wrestling is in as much of a lockdown as the world it inhabits. Just like everyone else, wrestling companies are turning to, or relying on already established technology to maintain fan engagement. Social media watchalongs. “Best Of” compilations on their streaming services. Exclusive access interviews to superstars of today and before. With consumers stuck in their homes, one could argue the wealth of content available now surpasses even that of the pre-Coronavirus era.
WWE has decided to take advantage of this lockdown by using a very real situation for millions and reviving the very name for which it is most appropriate. The latest in the NXT Takeover saga is in the books and, to celebrate 25 years since its creation, In Your House has returned to WWE screens. The questions posed in this column are: were fans given the chance to truly relive that era? Or was the clever play of words dusted off for name appeal only?
I’ll be honest in saying I’m new to the original catalogue. As hinted at above, WWE is one of those companies who has flooded its streaming service with tastefully constructed trips down memory lane. With time on my hands, and Bret Hart posing in front of a shockingly bright, oh so nineties background on the WWE Network’s front page, my interest was piqued. After watching the first three shows in less than a week, my addiction was growing. So cliffhanging was the content, and even with all knowledge at my disposal online, I had to see for myself what happened next on the following Monday Night Raws. After, for instance, an AWOL Owen Hart finally turned up, only to cost him and Yokozuna the Tag Team Titles. Or what exactly was 1-2-3 Kid’s motive when playing mind games with Razor Ramon and costing him a loss to Dean Douglas?
In amongst the compelling creative, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that matches were given time to breathe (doffs cap to personal favourite so far: Bret Hart vs Jean Pierre Lafitte). The New Generation Era is seldom touted as a success when discussing WWE’s past. Instead, the Attitude Era is far more frequently lauded over. As it happens, my downtime has seen me revisit television from early 2000. Barring the classic series of Cactus Jack Vs HHH promos and setpieces, I was harshly reminded of too many short and countless matches for matches’ sake that littered Raw and Smackdown.
This was not the case with the mid-nineties. While shorter bouts served specific purposes, it allowed for the longer ones to draw you in, slowly but surely, till fever pitch was reached. This is mostly the case with NXT’s Takeovers as well, and is already a positive comparison between the two eras. More importantly, though, the originals escalated in a more natural and slow burning manner. Finishing moves were protected and used sparingly throughout these dramatic marathons. Without the need to repeatedly spam one’s finisher in the final stretch of what is essentially a continuous sprint. This is what has seen NXT in the crosshairs in particular lately. Especially the Cole, Gargano, and Ciampa trio dominating the epic length main event matches over the last two years.
It was refreshing this past Sunday, then, to see Cole win his bout against Velveteen Dream with just one signature move, rather than a dozen. Even with the litter of hubris that surrounded the pair (the match outcome was a personal disappointment, but that’s another story for another day). Or, shortly after, the surprisingly brief but fiery destruction by Karrion Kross of Ciampa. A true statement of intent regarding Kross’ position in the male singles hierarchy. Also, that he’s not in NXT purely to accumulate “workrate” points. Even Finn Balor, prone to slingblade and dropkick overuse, either had attempts thwarted or delivered with purpose, the next move mapped out as the match crescendoed. Finally, Johnny Wrestling himself. Normally guilty of modern wrestling’s worst habits, Gargano indulged instead in a fun game of cat and mouse more commonly associated with his current trainers’ programs back in the day.
Another tick in the pros columns is something that would be remiss of me not to mention. The main question on everybody’s lips beforehand was whether we would see the return of the classic House set. Well, an exact replica, it may not have been. But it was more than close enough to get the nostalgia coursing through fans’ veins. This vibrant set, lawn and all, brightened up what has been quite literally a dark and drab time in NXT’s past few months. The action may have livened up the place to a certain extent, as the brand has stuck to its black theme. Personally, however, any quality has been sucked up by the empty, vacuous walls. Episodes were beginning to run into each other, save for the artistically huge Karrian Kross debut entrance.
Thankfully, the nostalgia didn’t just stop with the physical aesthetics. From hype videos with outdated graphics, to the delightfully cheesy ice cream sandwich and Ico Pro adverts, the production crew had carte blanche as it pertained to giving fans several nods to the past. Ones that only the most hardened of hearts would find fault with. Even the house stencil shaped instant replay feature made a return. As did a certain Todd Pettengill, wry enough to poke fun at his own shtick, while equally doing so in his trademark innocent and charming manner. The jury is out when it comes to WWE’s love letters to the past. On this occasion, though, illuminated faces replaced eye rolls and disdainful groans.
The retro approach was definitely in keeping with Triple H’s recent edict of putting smiles on people’s faces. Yet, one factor was missing from the evening to make it a true home run. One reason why I have become a quick fan of the early In Your Houses is the themes that dominate individual shows. Whether it be the grand debut of Jeff Jarret’s country song, or Jim Cornette’s frantic scrambling to find a replacement for the aforementioned Hart. Even the eponymous show’s hook where one lucky fan could win an actual house. These were all devices that told a story throughout the evening and had fans engaged for more than piecemeal matches smooshed together. The last time I remember WWE doing such a thing was at Fastlane 2019, as Kofi Kingston faced a multitude of adversity. Before that? Nothing really stands out in recent memory, at least.
I’m not against the modern version WWE presents as its monthly specials. Or, more specifically in this instance, NXT. Many a Takeover is up there with the best two to three hours of wrestling I’ve ever witnessed. However, with hindsight now in my arsenal, an opportunity presented itself for NXT to, in this part at least, encapsulate what is personally lacking from WWE currently. Instead what we saw on NXT Takeover: In Your House was that same, segregated format which is sadly the norm. Again, this isn’t a bash on the show itself. Rather, a “what if” scenario that could have separated this Takeover from a format that has come under increasing scrutiny of late. Besides, evening long stories are par for the course on weekly television, afterall. The consistent quality of them, however, is another matter….
This negative is just a personal and minor quibble, what with the originals so fresh in my mind. Overall, it was a good day at the office. In this instance, the Performance Centre. One that WWE is having more of recently, as it acclimatises to presenting its shows behind closed doors.
With wrestling as a whole going through a reset of sorts, NXT this week reverted back to a type not only reminiscent of simpler times, but one that also scrapes off the layer of excess with which its Takeovers have recently been liberally applied. Personally, NXT Takeover: In Your House’s successes could even be used as a blueprint for a turning point for the brand. A redo of the Takeovers’ tiring formula. But, as well, a reliving of the glory days that initially saw WWF achieve a monumental boom. Here’s to hopefully a new chapter in NXT’s third brand, and to the In Your House ethos!
Let me know your thoughts on the above column in the comments below, or @RickyandClive on Twitter.
Read my previous Brand Extension columns here.