THE NXT REPORT
I watch professional wrestling the way professional wrestling wants me to watch it.
I get completely swept up in a good match.
While I’m observing in-ring action, I’m rarely cognizant of the specific motions of a match, even when they’re painfully recognizable; cheap-heat, high-spot, comeback, finish. I don’t even really pay attention to the working of an injury in the detached, complacent way many (dare I write jaded) fans do.
I’m just in it, and then, after it’s over, I enjoy disassembling the match, figuring out how the performers moved me to the moment of pop.
This latest episode of NXT was different.
For the first time in my life, as I watched Kevin Owens fight Finn Balor, I took note of the specific moments in the match that contributed to one of the most precise, realistic finishes I’ve ever seen. My mind split into two entirely different, yet parallel states, one side innocently, emotionally immersed in the story, the other carefully analyzing and appreciating, cerebrally, what Owens and Balor were doing and why they were doing it.
Throughout the majority of the match Owens worked a dominant heel style, a methodical pace we’ve come to know and love or know and disdain. He abused his power, wrangling Balor into a rear chin-lock and holding him there (much to the chagrin of an impatient, unappreciative, smarky sect of the crowd), countering Balor’s high-flying comebacks, toying with Balor and tossing Balor from pillar to post.
Then, gradually, Balor gained a bit of steam after launching himself over the ropes to the outside of the ring, where he crashed into Owens. His kicks and forearms and leaping attacks stunned the Champion-brute, throwing Owens off balance.
And then, with one well-timed counter, Owens avoided a massive dropkick and Balor’s knee smashed into the ropes.
Crying out, Balor clutched his knee, screaming and writhing in pain, drawing the attention and the concern of the referee.
Owens, ever the predator, began working Balor’s knee, smashing the fragile joint into the ring-post, kicking the back of his leg, dropping his entire weight down on Balor’s vulnerable limb.
But Balor did not give up.
He came back again. He fought and he fought, and he managed to knock Owens down…flat on his back…setting Owens up for the “Coup de grace” - a spike-drop-kick off the top rope into the opponent’s guts.
As Balor climbed to the top rope, members of the audience’s mouths gaped - their hands clutched the sides of their heads, their eyes expanding with hope. They’ve come to know the sight of Balor climbing those ropes as the prelude to finality. They suddenly believed that it was possible for Balor to win.
And then Balor hit his finisher! The hero had seemingly succeeded!
But Balor’s finisher requires that he use the full weight of both legs. The result of delivering that final blow to Owens was an unbearable impact on his already wounded knee.
And so the damage that had been done to the joint throughout the match finally caught up to Balor. He could not move in to cover Owens after landing his finisher. He could only spiral onto the mat and groan in agony. The move that had consistently guaranteed him victory, was now the move that guaranteed defeat. He became his own worst enemy.
Owens quickly rose to his feet and popped Balor up into a power bomb.
Victory for the heel champ.
Realism informed this story in a way we rarely see on the main roster.
“Injuries” are worked often, but “injuries” do not often directly relate to one’s finisher quite in the way it did here, and they’re rarely worked to create a dramatic conclusion that is as believable as it is heartbreaking. I see in this finish consideration on the part of Balor & Owens, two performers who know their strengths, know their audience, know their move-set, and know how to use their canvas to paint something beautiful.
We see Balor take a brutal beating. We see him manage to come back again and again, despite an injury. And then, just when it seems he’s finally regained ultimate control, he is sabotaged by himself.
Oddly enough, Balor’s character is protected by the realism of this match. He didn’t simply “do the honors” or “job” to someone “superior”. His defeat is resultant from a well-crafted story - it’s not random or meant to elevate someone at the expense of someone else. It is a defeat that contributes to Balor's evolving legend and the war between Balor & Owens.
Balor doesn’t appear weak. He looks like a hearty athlete who made a calculated risk that didn’t pay off. Legitimate athletes in legitimate sports do this all the time. Hail Mary’s are thrown. They're often not received, dropped or intercepted. Failure is common in legitimate sport. While defeat always stings in competition, it doesn't ruin - at least not always. Athletes know that they just have to keep fighting.
It's time that perspective inform pro-wrestling a little more, so that every pro-wrestler isn't immediately tainted or "buried" in everyone's eyes if they should lose a match or two. NXT is discovering a way of allowing people to lose, but still remain viable, main event contenders, talents one does not think less of due to a loss.
This match, this story, represents that kind of athletic authenticity, the kind of authenticity this medium wants to promote in 2015 and beyond.
This was a very quick episode of NXT, made up of promo vignettes, Mania adverts, and one other match between Sasha Banks & Alexa Bliss, but it provided a perfect example of what two skilled performers can achieve when given the time and freedom necessary to creating something memorable.
There’s a potentially fascinating long-term rivalry in Balor & Owens and, as a result, the future of NXT’s main event is in good hands.
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