THE NXT REPORT for NXT Take Over: Rival on 2/11/14

THE NXT REPORT for NXT Take Over: Rival on 2/11/14

Firstly, I apologize to my regular readers for being a couple days late with The NXT Report. I’ve started work at a new 9-5 job in the real-world, and have yet to figure out the best schedule for writing an adequate review of the WWE’s best show.

The Raw Review will arrive as usual on Tuesday, but I'm still deciding exactly when The NXT Report will be written and posted.

For now, I’m happy I had a few days to process what took place at NXT Take Over: Rival.

A cloud of tiredness and a sense of obligation definitely affected my viewing at the time, and had I written a review immediately after watching the show I don’t think it would have even attempted to arrive at any sort of objective assessment. I was in the mood for levity, for something fun and maybe even a little lighthearted, something that would leave with with a smile on my face and a sense of hope.

And that is not what this NXT pay-per-view was about - or, more specifically, “levity”, “joy,” and “lighthearted” couldn’t have been harder to come by in the main event between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens (but I’ll go into more detail about that in the finish of this review, and examine why that’s not necessarily a bad thing).

 Kevin Owens kicking Sami Zayn.

Kevin Owens kicking Sami Zayn.

Before I really begin, it must be written, said, screamed, smoke-signaled, Tweeted, Tumbld, YouTubed, Facebooked, and perhaps even Touted how consistently excellent NXT is, and how much better it is than the WWE’s main roster product. Sadly, most WWE-viewers do not know what NXT is. They’re gradually catching on, but more need to know, and the WWE should be doing everything in its power to make people know, because it is, without question, one of, if not the primary reason to succumb to the WWE’s Orwellian nightmare of a product called the WWE Network. For now, NXT exists in a safe space, created by people who love pro-wrestling for people who love pro-wrestling. NXT represents everything you most likely want RAW to be. And on NXT’s bi-monthly specials, you are rewarded for your love, and your love is strengthened as the small, farm league division gives you everything it has to offer.

Given my combination of near-sleep and want of levity, the night couldn’t have started off any better than a match between Hideo Itami and Tyler Breeze.

 Tyler Breeze (left) vs Hideo Itami (right).

Tyler Breeze (left) vs Hideo Itami (right).

I crack up every time Tyler spins around on the stage and stares into the camera. The furry, bedazzled selfie-stick and his fur-coated cell-phone was a perfect pay-per-view flourish for the character. A female "fan" launched herself at Tyler, laying the groundwork for this humorous intrusion becoming a regular part of his entrance, or for the crazy fan to become an actual character. Tyler, true to brilliant form, brushed it off like it was commonplace, knowing grin on his face.

 A crazed Tyler fan is pulled away by security.

A crazed Tyler fan is pulled away by security.

Few performers have the talent to make Tyler’s gimmick work, but he makes it work. He’s an excellent athlete, combining grace of motion with a broad, comedic gimmick, all the while possessing a vulnerability in the ring that humanizes him. When Tyler gets frustrated because he can’t put his opponent away (regardless of all the damage he’s done) it’s had not to sympathize. He can quickly get the crowd on his side without breaking character. He consistently makes you believe in him, and the crowd almost always ends up rooting for Prince Pretty despite his self-absorbed nature.

Hideo continues to impress, but he also continues to tease the audience. We’re seeing more and more of the famed independent wrestling legend. This seems, at the time of this writing, like a well-managed design on the part of NXT’s bookers. Several potential and legitimate top-guys already exist in the brand at the same time. Several of these stars already have massive followings because of their work on the independent scene.

NXT’s bookers have done a good job keeping most of their talent looking strong despite their status on the card. While there are some guys like Tyler Breeze who’ve been working in NXT for a lot longer than Finn Balor or Kevin Owens, genuinely good talent is still prominently featured and their sights are always set on the NXT Championship. The same is true of almost every NXT pro-wrestler, which lends legitimacy to the show.

So while Hideo might be in a holding pattern, this doesn’t feel like a slight at this time. It feels like a way to build Hideo little by little while Finn Balor gets pushed against Kevin Owens.

 Hideo Itami tries to break a submission hold.

Hideo Itami tries to break a submission hold.

Following Hideo & Tyler, the night hit a slump.

The crowd wasn’t particularly forgiving and, at times, sections were outright obnoxious and rude.

Ironically chanting, “One more headlock” during the Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn main event is positively reprehensible, and whoever chanted that should be ashamed of himself and receive a stern talking to. Those headlocks are the reason people pop for the big moves, child, and the majority of the people in that audience and watching at home wanted to enjoy themselves and wanted to appreciate what was happening. You crying out about the headlocks because you find the headlocks boring serves only to agitate everyone and possibly derail a truly spectacular performance put on by master craftsman.

If you, dear reader, are the kind of person who inserts yourself into an event, who watches in a self-aware, snap-judgment, I-Know-Everything-That’s-Happening kind of way, I kindly ask that you do the exact opposite of whatever your instincts tell you to do and let the rest of us just believe in professional wrestling.

Regardless of a few rotten apples, the entire crowd did seem somewhat deflated after the botchy matches between Baron Corbin & Bull Dempsey and the team of Blake & Murphy and The Lucha Dragons. To be fair, Baron and Bull didn’t have much time to put too much together. While I thought the finish was good enough, the crowd seemed to bemoan the somewhat wonky delivery of Baron’s End of Days.

 Baron Corbin sets up giving Bull Dempsey The End of Days.

Baron Corbin sets up giving Bull Dempsey The End of Days.

Following this came Buddy & Blake, the very new NXT Tag Champions, defending against The Lucha Dragons. Buddy Murphy & Wesley Blake simply haven’t endeared themselves enough to the audience yet, and they haven’t had the memorable matches to seem like legitimate champions. There’s a sense that something is missing with that tag team, and when you add that feeling with the high-flying, inevitable botchyness of The Lucha Dragons you wind up with a messy match.

There were moments when both teams genuinely seemed confused as to what they were supposed to do. Normally there’s an unheard-of amount of kindness exchanged between the NXT fans and the performers - a botch can sometimes lead to an amusing wink & nod from the performers. Botches aren’t the end of the world typically, but on this night, when everyone was looking for the best, and when everyone’s expectations were so high because of every special that’s come before, the trials and tribulations of this particular tag bout brought the energy level down a bit.

All that changed when Finn Balor crawled to the ring in his ceremonial Predator-garb. Finn is a fascinating character in that he’s two good gimmicks in one. We see hints of the pay-per-view painted animal-Balor on the regular NXT show, but out-of-warrior-paint Finn moves differently in the ring, fights somewhat differently, and he certainly uses his eyes differently. Regular-Balor is a straightforward athlete looking to win a fight by being as fast and effective as he possibly can. Animal-Balor is a psychological beast, every gesture a grand, eloquent, physical expression of his soul.

 Finn Balor in his war-paint.

Finn Balor in his war-paint.

Adrian Neville played a great straight-man against Balor’s theatrics.

Not only was the match itself superb, the mere existence of a number one contender’s match on a pay-per-view is a breath of fresh air. Even though Balor and Neville had no previous rivalry, there was a pre-match vignette detailing their journey through the NXT Championship No.1 Contender’s tournament over the past month. By the end of that vignette you knew exactly who these two performers were, you knew what they were fighting for, you most likely picked a favorite, and you probably felt like the NXT Championship meant something.

 Finn Balor gives Adrian Neville a flying kick through the barricade.

Finn Balor gives Adrian Neville a flying kick through the barricade.

This is the kind of no-nonsense real-sport presentation fans of the art of professional wrestling desperately crave. This is what today’s generation wants from the WWE. Not the language or the violence of The Attitude Era - purely a sense of realism and authenticity.

(You can hear Stone Cold Steve Austin and myself talk about it in the player on the sidebar of this page).

That realism and authenticity isn’t reserved for the male wrestlers.

Charlotte (easily one of the best wrestlers of her generation), Sasha Banks (easily the best heel of her generation), Bayley (easily the best face of her generation), and Becky Lynch (who carved out her space in the match and delivered) are no longer proving why women’s wrestling is viable. They’re no longer simply convincing you to not have a smoke or use the restroom during their matches. The quality of their performances transcends all discussion about women in wrestling and arguments for why women should be taken seriously in the medium. At this point, to look at the NXT Women’s Division as proof that not only can women wrestle, but that people actually want to see women’s wrestling is almost insulting. It’s like saying the color blue is the color blue. It’s stating the obvious.

 Charlotte kicks Bayley.

Charlotte kicks Bayley.

These four ladies delivered one of the best matches I’ve seen in quite some time, outdone only by the previous Women’s Championship match two months ago. Every single performer found their spot, played with the audience, reacted appropriately to the action, and sold to perfection.

Charlotte has been Brock Lesnar-like in her reign. Her mystique, her aura of unbridled confidence and proven superiority convinced you that she would never lose. Especially in a fatal-four-way. Hence why she became the focal-point of the other ladies’ attacks. The combination of a devastating Bayley-To-Belly Suplex off the top rope (possibly the best spot of the match) and Sasha Banks’ cross-face proved too much for The Queen. Charlotte didn’t tap-out, though. A crucifix-pin is what finally brought her reign to a clean finish.

It was a victory that felt earned after all of the remarkable work Sasha Banks has put in. She’s a deserving champion and one of the finest performers in the entire WWE corporation.

 Sasha Banks wins the NXT Women's Championship.

Sasha Banks wins the NXT Women's Championship.

And that brings us to Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens.

Heartbreak is the most common word I’ve read and heard surrounding the outcome of this match.

At the time it happened, I honestly felt deflated by the proceedings, and it didn’t help in the least that I knew I was supposed to feel that way.

One Twitter follower of mine described the match as The Empire Strikes Back of the Sami Zayn/Kevin Owens’ rivalry. Reading that actually helped put the conclusion in perspective for me, and made me excited for their inevitable clash in the future.

My dissatisfaction at the end of the night wasn’t because the villain had succeeded, however. It wasn’t because Sami, my guy, had lost.

In fact, I thought Sami should lose. And this is coming from someone who teared up when Sami won two months ago. This is coming from someone who considers Sami’s victory the best thing he’s ever seen in pro-wrestling.

But, given the way the story had been constructed, given the way Kevin Owens was introduced and built over the past two months, it only made sense that he would win. It’s a powerful, crushing story. We see our chosen hero finally succeed after months and months of pursuing his ultimate dream. Then, a friend-turned-enemy reaches out of the past and brutally snatches away all of that glory. And the friend-turned-enemy does it with ease, without remorse, and without waiting in line. It’s operatic. It’s brilliant.

I get it.

 Kevin Owens powerbombs Sami Zayn.

Kevin Owens powerbombs Sami Zayn.

And maybe my dissatisfaction with how things specifically went down is nothing other than personal preference. Maybe it was my mood. Maybe this is the kind of experience that everyone will simply formulate their own opinion about and stick to.

But when I saw Kevin Owens clutch that belt and scream in triumph, when I considered “This is the way he’s winning it for the first time?” it felt just a tad hollow, and not in the he’s a heel so you’re supposed to feel that way kind of way.

Within the fiction, Kevin Owens won because Sami messed up and concussed himself on the entrance ramp.

Following a springboard backflip to the outside, Sami slammed down into Kevin’s shoulder and fell backward and seemingly whacked his head against the steel. He then appeared dazed, confused, and as though he legitimately could not continue with the match.

Doctors then rushed down to the ring to attend to him, and the line between reality and fiction was blurred to perfection.

Owens then powerbombed Sami several more times despite the presence of the doctors, and the crowd became genuinely uneasy and disturbed by what they were seeing.

And that's good.

It was good…in that way…but also, it wasn’t as though Kevin Owens had purposefully given Sami a concussion by dominating him.

Sami had done one too many flips and knocked himself out.

And then Owens went in for the kill.

Perhaps that gets Owens more heel heat, the kind of heat they want him to have, but I can envision a scenario that’s even more disturbing, even more effective and more in keeping with the story that’s almost exactly the same apart from Sami selling a self-induced concussion.

From my perspective, the way things went down just makes Sami seem a lot weaker than he deserves to seem, and it makes Owens’ victory not as dominant.

Had Owens simply gained the upper-hand at the end of the match and then pummeled Sami into oblivion (doctors coming out and ref calling the match and all), I could walk away with an appreciation for the bleakness of it.

But the finish simply felt awkward to me.

I believe Owens would look more evil if he was the only reason for Sami’s destruction - not Sami mistakenly bashing his head off the entrance ramp. Imagine Owens powerbombing Sami again and again and again, punching Sami in the head, throwing Sami into the turnbuckle, beating Sami’s face into the mat and screaming and laughing as he did it until finally the ref was forced to call the match because Sami had passed out.

I realize this is getting way more specific than most people ever care to get. I understand that many will love everything about this match, and I understand arguments can be made in favor of things going down exactly as they did, and I understand why.

My slightly negative reaction might also just come down to the fact that I like seeing someone pin someone’s shoulders to the matt. I understand there are reasons to not end every match that way, and I understand that sometimes the best stories are told without a clean finish. But I also rarely find satisfaction in something being “wonky”, and I cannot bring myself to care about the fact that I’m supposed to be dissatisfied by a finish like this.

In my mind, purposefully creating something dissatisfying or sad because you want to elicit a dissatisfied or sad reaction from an audience is childish and easy.

I genuinely enjoy being emotionally devastated by drama, by tragedy, when it’s well-constructed, when it's not trying to make me feel terrible about life. It's sad so I want you to feel sad, is what an adolescent storyteller thinks, and that's often where pro-wrestling ends up.

Pro-wrestling tragedy is always so much worse and dissatisfying than well-constructed tragedies in other mediums because it's an unending narrative (so there are no promises of inevitable resolution of any kind) and the tragedy is purposefully rubbed in your face to earn heat...not catharsis. That will always feel cheap to me. It's much less interesting than being genuinely moved by the natural evolution of a tragic story that's inherently heartbreaking. Wrestling, even at its best, is blatantly poking and prodding you for a response, and I often find that process grating, old-fashioned, and simple.

In this match, the poking and prodding could have been simplified and less self-aware. 

To put my dissatisfaction in the simplest terms: I feel like I watched Sami Zayn lose because he slipped on a banana peal, not because his nemesis cracked his skull open. I’d be much more interested in the latter.

Regardless of my dissatisfaction with the details of the main event, Sami and Owen represent the best the WWE has to offer. The athleticism and the emotional intensity in their fight is unmatched.

They represent the present and the future of professional wrestling, and I look forward to watching their epic rivalry unfold for many years to come.

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