I’ll be honest with you, dear reader…I really don’t know what to make of this latest episode of NXT. It certainly wasn’t bad, and I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to judge an episode of NXT harshly because it doesn’t “live up” to brand’s standard of excellence.

I can only accurately describe this episode as awkward.

Sami Zayn returned…

Now that should be a sentence that ends with an exclamation point, not a vague ellipsis.

If you’re reading this you likely know Sami’s story, but in case you’re a new reader or don’t watch NXT, I’ll briefly sum up - after months of trial and tribulation, the underdog fan-favorite wrestling god that is Sami Zayn finally triumphed and won the NXT Championship. That same night, Sami’s long-time friend from the indy-wrestling scene, Kevin Owens, debuted on NXT. It was a great night for professional wrestling. At the end of that show, in the midst of a tearful embrace, Kevin betrayed Sami and power-bombed him against the ring-apron. What proceeded was a two-month rivalry that eventually resulted in Kevin Owens brutally maiming Sami Zayn in a championship match until Sami was rendered unconscious and deemed unfit to continue. And so the reign of the brutal Owens began. Sami disappeared from NXT, going off to tour in Abu Dhabi for a month while Owens continued to dominate NXT.

So one would think that when Sami returned it would be triumphant, explosive, moving, and significant. One would think a Sami return would be presented as one of the most important moments in pro-wrestling today.

Instead, Sami seemed to quietly, randomly appear on this show.

The energy in the crowd wasn’t up to par, and the promo he cut was so short that there wasn’t anything narratively significant to become emotionally invested in.

I’m fairly sure the promo was edited down - it was so stilted and brief and ended so awkwardly that I must believe the editors had to account for time and snip away some substance.

The last we heard from Sami Zayn in a similar solo-promo setting was when he’d just won the NXT Championship and coined the phrase Sami Zayn and the Zayniacs. In that beautiful promo he united the world, transforming himself, the NXT Championship, and professional wrestling into an uplifting, unifying philosophy that could make “the whole world sing!”

Now we see him and he doesn’t even seem that mad at Kevin Owens.

It was exciting when he explained that he had a plan, but when he revealed that his plan was simply to take back his NXT Championship and “beat Kevin Owens’ ass”, it’s hard not to feel the proverbial wind fade from the proverbial sails.

Due to the way NXT has been booked lately, and the fact that Sami has been there for a while and reached the mountaintop, it’s hard to see how he’ll fit into this heel-dominated NXT.

The presentation of this return, the lack of any build toward a return, makes it seem as though the brand isn’t pushing Sami versus Owens in the way that rematch naturally demands.

Now I know injuries and politics always affect booking, but I’m perplexed by this promo, by this lackluster return.

The issue is complicated further by the fact that Rhyno came out and declared himself the front of the line when it comes to Kevin Owens’ NXT Championship.

And that’s just absurd.

Rhyno quickly established himself as a kind of sideshow attraction, and nothing else

To see him confront Sami Zayn backstage and tell Sami that he’s gonna have to “go through Rhyno” to get to Kevin Owens is absolute nonsense.

I’m rarely a stickler for the rules…but Rhyno is simply being inaccurate.

Sami has his rematch clause. He doesn’t need to win a number one contender’s match or prove anything to anyone…especially not a guy like Rhyno.

Now I’d believe someone like Finn Balor or Tyler Breeze approaching Sami to chastise him for being gone, saying something like, “NXT has changed. I know you’ve got your rematch clause, but I don’t believe you belong her anymore. I’m the one fighting for that title. I’m the one who cares about it. You have to prove to me that NXT still means something to you.”

Then you have a match or a series of matches that makes sense.

But Rhyno?

Does anyone really believe Rhyno has a shot at the NXT Championship? Should that even be an idea or an option put in anyone’s head?

There’s a mounting problem in the WWE’s farm league and it’s also the league’s strength - everyone wants to be NXT Champion.

There’s a fine line between grounding pro-wrestling fiction in realism, in everyone’s desire to be the best, and clogging up your fiction with a bunch of characters who share the same motivation.

Almost every single night we hear from every single character about being “NXT Champion”…and from guys who simply shouldn’t be saying that phrase yet or even be close the title.

There are guys who clearly deserve to talk about being champion like Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn…even Tyler Breeze and Hideo Itami.

But Rhyno and Solomon Crowe?

At what point does hearing seven people saying they want the same thing become redundant?

At what point does that redundancy hurt the NXT Championship and hurt all those performers who clearly aren’t going to be NXT Champion?

The brand is in transition, and it should commit to that transition.

Owens and Zayn have unfinished business but I wonder if that business is not meant to be finished at a much later date on the main roster. I wonder if their story doesn’t dictate Zayn surpassing Owens yet again and getting promoted to the main roster, leaving Owens to languish in the farm leagues, inspiring Owens to transform the farm leagues in his own image.

As far as actual matches go, there’s not much to write about.

Bailey and Emma had one of the most awkward encounters I’ve ever seen in the ring - it’s as though Emma did not understand her character or didn’t want to commit to being a heel or just didn’t know what her job was, and this resulted in a messy, downright uncomfortable scene.

Blake & Murphy beat The Lucha Dragons. Why The Lucha Dragons appeared on NXT after seemingly making their RAW debut is beyond me and a perfect example of why the company needs to more clearly unify these brands and grasp what the actual relationship between the brands is. I understand NXT is taped, but the company needs to account for that. WWE needs to start making a RAW and an NXT for people who watch both shows - or at least consider that there are people who watch both shows and that booking those shows improperly dilutes both products and taints the viewer's perception of a gimmick.

On RAW, I thought The Lucha Dragons were superstars, amazing performers who arrived to revitalize the WWE’s languishing tag division.

On NXT, I saw them as dull and uninteresting, and all I could think about was, “Why would they want to be NXT Tag Champions when they’ve been on Monday Night Raw?”

Continuity is clearly not an issue the WWE cares about and that’s a problem in a pop-culture world run by people who care about continuity so vehemently they’ll protest the slightest alteration to their beloved canon.

The main event was fine.

Hideo Itami and Tyler Breeze are both great talents, but together they don’t always gel.

Tyler makes the match fun and Hideo brings the violent energy, but there seems to be a physical disconnect that often results in a slight botch or an ill-timed delivery.

Nevertheless, it’s always fun to sit down and watch NXT, even an episode that’s less than stellar such as this one. And the brand consistently surprises me, so it will be exciting to see how the various narratives evolve in the coming months.

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