As the Sami Zayn/Kevin Owens rivalry builds toward the next NXT Take Over special the show continues to hit a beautiful stride. Zayn & Owens embody everything that pro-wrestling fans want out of a WWE product in 2015. Their story is grounded in a recognizable, forth-wall nudging continuity informed by reality, a deeply emotional bond founded on brotherhood and athletic competition. They are not superstars fighting to entertain the crowd - they are athletes fighting for a prize, that persistent motivation colored by the deeper, psychological drama of their characters.

Watching Zayn and Owens interact is rewarding because the story and the performances respects the intelligence of the viewer. The past is not ignored. There is no etch-a-sketch treatment to the narratives of NXT from one month to the next. The Sami Zayn and the Kevin Owens fans have enjoyed for several months are the same characters with the same motivations and the same histories. This consistency in characterization and presentation lends significance to each new event because each new event is pregnant with the significance of the previous.

For example, the opening promo exchange between Owens, Zayn, and Regal made perfect sense all on its own. If you had no prior experience with these characters you would have understood exactly what was happening thanks to the clarity and the believability of the delivery. Grounding pro-wrestling fiction in a realistic, sport-focused world also makes those stories inherently recognizable because most people are familiar with the nature of sports competitions and how legitimate rivalries build between athletes. 

But if you’ve stuck with this rivalry for the past several months, you would have noticed how this latest scene between Owens, Zayn, and Regal was a direct reflection of an earlier promo-battle.

Months ago Owens, dismissing Sami Zayn as beneath him, stated that he would only fight “for a prize”. He played on Sami’s pride and Sami’s frustration, coaxing Sami and Regal into giving Owens his desired championship fight.

 Kevin Owens demands a title shot - stating that he's only interested in the championship and not his rivalry with Sami.

Kevin Owens demands a title shot - stating that he's only interested in the championship and not his rivalry with Sami.

Now, on this latest episode, months later, the roles have been completely reversed.

Owens, the champion, is only interested in fighting Sami because of their feud, and Sami, using Owens’ own tactics and language against him, said that he only “fights for a prize”. For the first time since Owens’ arrival in NXT, Sami Zayn explicitly stated that Owens has lived in his shadow, and that Owens is the one who needs a fight with Sami more than Sami needs a fight with Owens. It was a powerful moment sold to perfection by an irate Owens.

To have witnessed this natural reversal of roles, to have watched this intense feud evolve over the course of the past several months has made for one of the most entertaining, engrossing feuds I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.

The intelligence of the booking and the intelligence of the choices the performers make is abundantly clear at every turn, often represented in subtle auditory and visual touches. For example, in keeping with the theme of role-reversal, Sami stood on the ring apron while Owens stood inside the ring with Regal in-between. This image is a direct reflection of the aforementioned promo several months back where Owens coaxed Sami into defending the title; standing on the apron, telling Sami he would only “fight for a prize”.

 The opening promo between Kevin Owens (left), William Regal (center), and Sami Zayn (right).

The opening promo between Kevin Owens (left), William Regal (center), and Sami Zayn (right).

The rest of the show was equally enjoyable.

A nice feud is brewing between Bayley and Emma.

Emma stole Bayley’s headbands and tee-shirt prior to Bayley’s match against Dana Brooke. Emma eventually distracted Bayley during her match, setting up Dana’s victory.

Bayley later vowed to get her stuff back in a post-match promo.

You might think it sounds a little silly that headband-theft would become a point of contention between two grown women.

But it works.

It works because having watched Bayley in NXT we know the significance of her headbands (she hands them out to the little boys and girls in the crowd whom love her), and so we believe that it would actually upset her to have them stolen.

Emma’s also working a heel gimmick where she’s trying to show Bayley that her crowd-pleasing, happy-go-lucky, #HugLife will get her nowhere in the WWE. Emma is taking out her frustrations with herself, with the fact that she didn't make it on the main roster with a happy-gimmick.

It’s a good basis for a believable conflict that could culminate in an excellent contest at the next Take Over special.

 A distressed Bayley can't find her headbands and tee-shirt!

A distressed Bayley can't find her headbands and tee-shirt!

The night ended with a short, but enjoyable contest between Alex Riley and Sami Zayn that ended with Owens dismantling both.

Again, history played a role in the emotional resonance of Owens’ attack.

He slammed Riley against the ring apron, the move that started this Zayn rivalry in the first place, and also helped serve as Adrian Neville’s exit from developmental. 

These moments stay with the viewer, each scene contributing to an ever-expanding tapestry of pro-wrestling bliss.

 Sami Zayn challenges Kevin Owens for the NXT Championship.

Sami Zayn challenges Kevin Owens for the NXT Championship.

We lean forward in our chairs when Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens speak.

We pay attention when William Regal books a match.

We pop, with the utmost intensity, when our hero finally wins and we cringe, in genuine pain, when our hero fails.

And this is all because NXT presents itself as a legitimate sports organization where athletes fight for the prize.

NXT audiences often rise to their feet and chant, “This is wrestling!” during particularly excellent matches. Those chants are entirely accurate.

This is professional wrestling.

And it is glorious.

Thank you for reading. You can listen to my real-time review of Extreme Rules on The Work of Wrestling podcast right now, for free, in iTunes! Subscribe, rate, and review and never miss a new episode every Monday. You can also contact me via the various social media gimmicks listed below. Have a nice day!