THE NXT REPORT
The latest episode of NXT continued the brand’s return to a more upbeat, mini-pay-per-view tone, as the heroes finally stood up to the villains.
The first match of the night was a decent bout between Tyler Breeze and Kalisto. The crowd contributed to the quality of the match, delighting in Tyler Breeze’s cries to the ref, “Don’t touch me!” and chanting “Do not touch him!” Tyler is a pure, self-obsessed heel, a modern play on a trope that’s been refined, successfully and unsuccessfully, throughout the years. Booked properly (as he tends to be on NXT), there’s a chance for Tyler to be the most successful iteration of this trope in decades. He exists as an exaggeration of today’s social-media-self-obsessed society - his new, fuzzy selfie-stick the latest (and incredibly welcome) addition to his absurdly self-indulgent entrance. Tyler is among my favorite performers in the NXT brand because despite the outlandish nature of his gimmick, despite how convincingly despicable he is, he still manages to elicit genuine sympathy from the viewer.
And this is because he tries incredibly hard to win - always.
He doesn’t shy away from a fight.
He’s constantly trying to defeat his opponents, and he seems genuinely exacerbated and furious when he can’t seem to put them away (see NXT Take Over: Fatal 4 Way for a perfect example of Tyler’s surprisingly sympathetic nature).
Even his conceited cry, “Don’t touch me!” makes him likable. Most gimmicks like Breeze’s represent a delusional human being, someone who is trying really hard to fool themselves, in addition to the rest of the world, into believing a lie. Tyler doesn’t seem like he’s lying.
Tyler is more confident than that, and that supremely arrogant, unyielding belief that he is, indeed, a gorgeous man in a world of uggos, makes it more enjoyable to watch him, and it also represents a very real quality of the modern self-absorbed individual.
We’re all conceited little kids occasionally, believing we’re somehow better or more important than everyone else. Tyler let’s us live vicariously through him. He doesn’t say anything particularly nasty to the audience (such would be beneath him), and he never brutally harms another person.
He’s just a good athlete who really enjoys being good-looking, and that self-assuredness combined with his in-ring tenacity somehow results in an endearing character. He also seems genuinely disturbed when someone offends his world-view or his precious space. His "do no touch me!" comes from a place of such believable concern for the well-being of his gorgeousness that he's inevitably amusing.
Next came a match between Big Cass and Wesley Blake. NXT’s storytellers have caught on that the Black & Murphy as tag-champs experiment hasn’t gotten over with the fans and most likely won’t get over. And so the more likable combination of Cass & Enzo seems to be on the path of claiming tag-team title glory. The positive responses the duo consistently elicits during their pre-match promo is the sign of a team that could potentially revitalize the division. Several silly, far-fetched gimmicks define tag-team wrestling in NXT, and the WWE as a whole, at the moment, but Enzo and Cass walk that fine line between cartoonish & believable. In them is a worthy mantle for the tag titles, an opportunity to make tag wrestling exciting and genuinely fun again.
NXT Women’s Champ and resident Boss, Sasha Banks was defeated via count-out by Columbus, Ohio hometown girl Alexa Bliss. The crowd booed the finish, because despite being the purest heel in the WWE today, Sasha has a strong group of supporters. Not even a home-town bias could help Alexa when facing The Boss.
Sasha is completely disinterested in the audience's praise, however, proving, as other NXT-heels prove, that a performer can stay a “bad guy” or “bad girl” even when their athletic prowess and excellence in performance wins the crowd over.
Sasha Banks is one of the most inspiring, empowered pro-wrestlers I've ever seen. There's something in her swagger, the subtlety of her every movement during her entrance that makes me think, "I need to be more like that." I'm not condoning being a "mean-girl", but Sasha's power is undeniably captivating, and it can inspire any gender - her confidence rubbing off on the enlightened viewer. After seeing her perform, I feel a little bit like a Boss. That's the signature of an important talent.
I'm similarly inspired by the brilliance of Kevin Owens - who's in-ring-style is like a cross between Mick Foley & Sami Zayn's. Watching him go to work is a revelation, and his match with Alex Riley was no different. Owens works with brutish grace, flowing from post to post, tumbling end over end into his opponents, flipping out of the ring and sliding back in, selling unexpected dropkicks and stiff forearms to perfection.
Last week demonstrated that a character like Riley who hadn’t found much success on the main roster, actually could find new life on a brand that respects the performer and respects the intelligence of the viewer.
He held his own against Owens at the start of the match, the two shoving each other and angrily slapping each other in convincing fashion. It’s rare to see matches begin the way real fights begin, but the angry grins, and the spittle-laced screams exchanged between Owens and Riley felt like a shoot - and that’s a testament to the authenticity of Kevin Owens’ character and the kind of match he inspires, as well as Riley's commitment to the feud.
Owens is the heel of the future.
NXT’s bookers have created a monster in Owens, but a monster made all the more powerful by his humanity.
Owens has a family that he’s fighting for, but he’s still a heel.
He’s not afraid of a fight. He’s not sniveling or obnoxious - he’s a man who wants to destroy everyone around him.
His deeply villainous nature is revealed in the fact that he’s also a liar and a hypocrite.
He claims to fight for his family, to want to be the Champion so that he can earn more money for his wife and kids. And while that’s certainly the truth of Kevin the human being, Kevin Owens the character uses that tale as a guise. The fascinating truth of that character is that he’s furious he’s been consistently overlooked. He’s furious that Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn were called up to “the big time” before him, and he’s making everyone pay for it.
Owens did attack Sami because he was jealous of Sami - he felt betrayed by Sami.
Owens continues to dismantle NXT’s performers because he wants them all to pay for achieving success before him, success that, in his mind, he deserved long before them.
It will be interesting to see what happens when and if Sami returns.
Owens is steadily gaining a following because he’s so dominant and impressive.
What would it mean for Sami Zayn, a man who’s been curiously absent, to return to a darker NXT, a NXT that sided with the villain while he was away?
As usual, these are the characters and the narratives that will keep a pro-wrestling fan engaged.
NXT is the guiding pro-wrestling light fans have been searching for, a perspective on the art that is perfectly aligned with the ways of the modern world.
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