THE NXT REPORT (12/18/14)
This was another strong week for the WWE'S strongest hour, NXT, on the WWE Network.
Coming off of NXT Take Over R-Evolution, this episode needed to push the top narratives forward, but also serve as epilogue to the events of last week’s remarkable pay-per-view. The result was an unexpectedly superb main event, where the intensity of last week both winded down to a simmer, but also contributed to the mythos of Kevin Owens.
Owens’ debut last week, both at the start and conclusion of R-Evolution, is the most impressive debut I’ve had the privilege to see live. And while there are many other wrestlers on the roster who’ve been in NXT longer and conceivably have a claim to the main event and the NXT Championship, Owens instantly feels like the right fit for top heel. And, from the character’s perspective, he deserves that top spot above any of the WWE’s home grown, performance center talents due to all of his work on the independent circuit. And, because of his natural charisma and power, it's hard to deny he's better than a lot of guys on the roster.
The first match of the night was between Bayley and Becky Lynch.
Becky cut a decent heel promo backstage. This interview was the most comfortable she’s seemed on the mic, her brogue and growing swagger helping her to stand out.
I’m not convinced she’s a natural heel, however. People want to cheer for her. Cheering for her just feels more natural than booing her. Her rocker-Irish-girl shtick is just too likable to hate. Even if such isn’t purposeful and NXT is genuinely trying to get us to hate her, it makes sense within the fiction that the character doesn’t seem natural as a villain. She’s a good person trying to be bad because she’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. Lynch’s performance, or her inevitably likable disposition, despite being a heel, works in her favor in creating a character that seems to have been manipulated by NXT’s most powerful heel, Sasha Banks.
The match itself wasn’t the most memorable, but it also wasn’t meant to be an amazing back and forth wrestling match. It was meant to help Lynch get over as a heel. Bayley was on offense for the majority of the exchange, pummeling Lynch into submission, until Lynch finally targeted Bayley’s injured knee and scored a submission victory.
My only criticism of the match is that Lynch didn’t gain enough offensive power for a long enough period of time. In the final minutes, Bayley countered Lynch’s knee-attacks so many times that she looked too powerful and Lynch looked a little too bumbling. The hold on Bayley, an impressively executed tangling of legs, was so quick that Lynch didn’t get enough time to appear like a dominant heel victor who did a vicious thing to succeed. It looked a little more like she won by accident.
Regardless of the particulars, Lynch is an impressive talent and has quickly carved out a niche on the card. And the NXT women’s division could be its own show, the matches and stories are so consistently excellent. They put a top-tier man on the main card to shame, and not just because they’re allowed to do so given greater creative freedom.
Should those in charge of NXT and should the booking philosophies and the storytelling philosophies of NXT ever manage to inform the WWE’s main roster shows then the WWE will surely see a surge in popularity, a wrestling renaissance fans of the medium are starved for.
In the next match, Bull Dempsey defeated a “local competitor”.
I’m very conscious of the fact that pro-wrestlers and people in the business occasionally read some of these blogs, and I always try to remain cognizant of the fact that human beings play these characters who break their bodies for our entertainment.
So my criticisms come from that place of respect and awareness for the craft and hard work put in, but also a place of wanting to see things get better.
Bull Dempsey occupies a potentially problematic place on the card.
This is the least flattering attire I've ever seen.
My concern for the gimmick is two-fold.
- It’s too similar to two other gimmicks on the card; Baron Corbin and Kevin Owens.
- He really needs a wardrobe change.
I remember when Bull debuted and my immediate reaction was, lose the singlet. I like the fact that he’s supposed to be a “throwback”, and I understand how his look is meant to represent this aspect of his gimmick, but there’s no getting around how not intimidating that singlet is, especially now that it has his initials planted firmly on his backside.
It might seem overly nitpicky to harp on ring-attire, but ring-attire, like entrance music, move-set, and oratory ability, is a make or break component of a gimmick’s success.
Bull’s relentless seriousness, his always-angry attitude, the idea that he’s a beast is undermined by his look.
And no favors are done for the man when he’s standing across from the visually striking Baron Corbin.
When I look at Bull I see someone who should be wearing a sleeveless tee-shirt and some jeans with tapped fists. While that’s been done to death, and while that veers potentially too closely into Owens’ gimmick (already a problem anyway), it’s clear something needs to be done with the character to try and catapult him to the next level.
He’s proven to be decent on the mic, and the most entertaining he’s been was a brief stint as a face with Mojo Rawley as a tag partner.
Seeing him shove Baron and then run away is classic heel fair. But it doesn’t feel like the kind of heel the gimmick wants to be. It all just comes off as trying too hard while Baron just needs to literally stand in place and do absolutely nothing but give a passing glance into the camera to get over.
Baron’s finish is just so much more entertaining, despite being less athletically impressive, that these enhancement matches keep making Baron look stronger and Bull look weaker. It’s gotten to the point where being fed jobbers isn’t helping either too much, however, so it is reassuring to see that they have found a rival in one another.
My only hope, for the sake of the performer, for the fans, and for my own viewing interest, is that Bull is perhaps reinvented or treated differently in presentation so as to convince us of his beastliness.
Next came the always enjoyable Enzo and Big Cass. The Ascension made quick work of them because Enzo was busy trying to impress Carmella. It wasn’t very clear that Enzo was trying to impress Carmella, however. She wasn’t in position and Enzo didn’t have much to work with, so it was up to commentary to sell the idea that he was trying to impress Carmella.
The Ascension, who is on their way to the main roster, cut one of their standard promos about Hideo Itami and Finn Balor falling and The Ascension rising. The Ascension has a good name, but “The Ascension will rise” is a chuckle-inducing redundancy. The phrase is almost literally stating, “This thing that’s rising will rising.”
I’m hopeful for these guys, but very fearful for them, a far too common theme in today’s environment.
Their mic skills are incredibly old-fashioned, right at home in the 80s and early 90s, and while a part of me likes that, I can’t see that flying on RAW.
We’ve seen how crowds have reacted to Adam Rose, Bo Dallas (though Bo was getting over a bit), and, most recently, New Day.
Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of the WWE’s younger performers, it’s hard to place one’s faith in the WWE’s higher ups to book these gimmicks properly on the main card. This bad booking combined with the talent’s occasional missteps on the mic or in the ring really hurts a younger wrestler’s chances. There are so many forces at work going against one’s ability to get over in today’s world and it’s all resultant from the environment in the company.
The Ascension could either revitalize the tag division or fail to resonant with fans given their dated phraseology. No matter what, if they continue in NXT they’ll stagnant, so, ready or not, it would seem, they have to test the main roster waters. The less they speak, right of the batt, and the more damage they do in the ring, the better their chances.
Lastly we come to the main event, a match between former champ Adrian Neville and Kevin Owens.
This match was much more excellent than I thought it would be allowed to be. Following last week’s remarkable in-ring action, it would have made sense had this match been a bit shorter and a little less back-and-forth, more focused on getting Owens over in a one-sided bout.
Fortunately, for both performers and fans, this was a stellar main event.
It began with Owens working a typical heel, avoiding Adrian and waltzing around the outside of the ring. This was a bit jarring at first as one’s natural inclination is to like Owens, especially after his first match last week where he worked straight babyface.
Eventually he took over the match, settling into a dominant force. The build to Adrian’s comeback was spectacular, with Owens screaming, “You were the champion for a year! You’re a joke!”. And just when the match slowed down and it seemed as though it would remain one-sided, Adrian fought back with a flurry of kicks and flying maneuvers. Suddenly the match elevated to a place of unexpected power, each character staking their claim in that ring.
Adrian reminded you why he was the champion, and Owens reminded you that he is a force to be reckoned with, a violent man with a massive chip on his shoulder ready to show you why he should be the NXT Champion.
While I understand the finish - a double-disqualification that only made sense when Owens power-bombed Adrian into the ring apron, mirroring last week’s violence against Sami Zayn - allowing Owens to go over Adrian clean would have done more to keep building his legend.
It could have been a truly powerful moment to see Adrian come back, fight valiantly, only to fall in the end.
While this double DQ seemingly protects Adrian, seeing Adrian lose clean to Owens wouldn’t necessarily damage Adrian in the crowd’s eyes beyond repair. He’ll remain beloved and respected. And he’s easy to imagine that he's on his way out.
This is just backseat booking and semantics, and I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for how things exactly went down.
Regardless, Kevin Owens has instantly skyrocketed to a place of prominence in NXT.
The fit is natural. The fact that he’s already more compelling than many NXT roster mainstays can easily play a part in his gimmick and his run. He can cut vicious promos on why there’s a reason he’s instantly at the top, that he is, very simply, better than everyone else.
He cut a decent promo with Adrain at the start of the show, giving us a glimpse into what it will be like when he and Sami Zayn finally go toe to toe.
Kevin Owens sounds like and even resembles Sami Zayn, in the way that best friends reflect one another’s patterns of speech. This has always been something about friendship that interests me; do we gravitate towards our friends because we’re inherently similar, or do we take on the qualities of our friends over time?
The answer is likely a mix of both, and this paradigm could make for a great feud where Kevin Owens exists as a dark reflection of Sami Zayn, an example of what happens when you grow up on the wrong side of town and your parents do not love you.
Sami will be able to fire back with the undeniable fact that he’s earned his success, that he’s worked just as hard as Owens and that he’s just as strong, and Owens will be able to fire back with digs at Sami’s upbeat, crowd-friendly gimmick.
No matter what, great things are in store for the future of the WWE’s future stars, and we fans of the art of professional wrestling would be wise to pay attention.
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All photos via WWE.com.