NXT: 4 Evolutions – The Tag Team Takeover (2016-17)

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The Revival vs. DIY in Toroto. Photo credit: Cagesideseats.com

In two weeks, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.

This is the third in a four-part series being released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. Part 3 focuses on the NXT tag team division, and how a tossed-together group of jobbers and misfits turned a perennial afterthought into the best and most important part of the show, kept their era going longer than either the main event kings of 2014 or the revolutionary women of 2015, and even took a massive hand in shaping the future that was to come.

 

Ask an average NXT fan what the single best Takeover show has been, and there’s a reasonably good chance they will at least mention the one that took place in Dallas on April 1, 2016. Every match on the card either bordered on or fully achieved greatness, with the exception, oddly enough, of the last one. If Samoa Joe hadn’t started bleeding in the main event, causing the match to stall (and, perhaps, if Joe had won, as he definitely should have) it may have been something close to a perfect evening.

Of course, even if the NXT Championship match between Joe and Balor had gone entirely as planned, it wouldn’t have been the best match of the show. Takeover: Dallas featured the NXT debut of Japanese phenomenon Shinsuke Nakamura, which was also the final NXT match wrestled by Sami Zayn. This remains quite possibly the best match either man has ever put on during their NXT/WWE careers, so good that it elicited a “fight forever” chant from the crowd that felt truly earned. Ask an average NXT fan for the single best match in NXT history, and this one will most certainly be on the short list.

It was also the last time a singles contest would be the best match at Takeover for a very, very long time.

 

The Rebuild

 

During the latter half of 2014 and all of 2015, NXT began a long-term process that would culminate in a stunningly successful commitment to the concept of tag team wrestling. The first step was to essentially rebuild the entire division from scratch. Honestly, there wasn’t that much to rebuild in the first place. From the very start, the division had been primarily slapped together from developmental guys with shaky characters and main roster guys who simply weren’t doing anything else, and none of the steams stuck around or stuck together long enough to matter. The Ascension had been the dominant champions amidst a total lack of competition (the tag division’s answer to Asuka before Asuka showed up) and they were on their way out anyway, working their final match for NXT at R Evolution. In anticipation of this, the NXT creative team swept up every rough-around-the-edges developmental project they had and used them as the building blocks for the new division. Wesley Blake and Buddy Murphy teamed for the first time in the summer of 2014, as did Jason Jordan and Tye Dillinger and Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder. Aiden English got paired up with Simon Gotch to form the Vaudevillains, while Kalisto upgraded from “El Local” to Sin Cara to form the Lucha Dragons. It was this last duo, of course, which would end the year-long title reign of the Ascension and become, in a practical sense, the inaugural tag team champions of the Takeover Era.

The Lucha Dragons and the Vaudevillains were the early standouts in the new tag division, but the other three teams formed in the summer of 2014 were jobbers for the rest of the year. They each suffered distinct fates as NXT entered 2015. Jordan and Dillinger failed completely and split up in February. Dash and Dawson, who dubbed themselves the Mechanics, were primarily house show talent, appearing infrequently on televised episodes and losing when they did. It was Blake and Murphy who were chosen to be the first team dredged up from jobber status and remade into title contenders. They won their first televised match against the Vaudevillains in January of 2015 and followed that up a week later by shockingly defeating the Lucha Dragons for the tag team championship. They successfully defended the titles in a rematch with the Dragons at Rival, but much like Charlotte’s women’s title victory, their sudden elevation was seen by many at the time to be the desperate crowning of transitional champions, a couple undercard guys who would keep the titles warm until the real champs took over. Unlike Charlotte, however, Blake and Murphy possessed neither the athletic dominance nor the charisma to justify their rapid rise, and the audience refused to accept them. Fortunately, when they couldn’t get the disbelieving crowd on their side, they quickly turned heel and entered into a feud with the last pre-Arrival team left in NXT: Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady.

Much like Paige, it’s difficult to talk about Enzo and Cass five years ago without talking about more recent events that led them both to being expelled from WWE, but also like Paige, we see them much differently now than we did at the time. Amore and Cassady had been a duo since 2013, but they were on-and-off participants in the tag division, often feuding with singles wrestlers instead. They made their Takeover debut at Fatal 4-Way during their feud with the Legionnaires, but instead of being a tag team match, it was Enzo vs. Sylvester LeFort with Cass and Marcus Louis in their partners’ respective corners. In the fall of 2014, they entered a new chapter in their careers by adding Carmella to the team (strangely, the only one of the three who is still with the company). She was a refreshing addition, but she was also a brand new character who needed to be established, a feat accomplished via her strange feud with the popular jobber known as Blue Pants. As a result, Cass and Enzo spent the rest of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 essentially managing Carmella, rather than the other way around.

In March of 2015, however, Enzo and Cass entered into their first championship feud against Blake and Murphy, and it turned out to be the thing both teams needed most. The crowd, finally allowed to treat Enzo and Cass as a serious, competitive wrestling team, fully embraced them as babyfaces, particularly given that Blake and Murphy were, by now, getting booed at every turn. The popularity of Enzo, Cass, and Carmella began to skyrocket. As for the champions, feuding with a team that included a female manager allowed them to go get a female manager of their own. At Unstoppable, Blake and Murphy retained the tag team titles against Enzo and Cass thanks to the surprise interference of Alexa Bliss, who turned heel and instantly began doing her best work, both in and out of the ring. With Bliss beside them, Blake and Murphy transcended their prematurely-pushed status and finally became an integrated part of the tag division. Enzo and Cass, meanwhile, had suffered the first of many unfair losses that would eventually cement them as lovable underdogs, the Zayn and Bayley of NXT tag teams.

Blake and Murphy would finally lose the tag team championship in Brooklyn to the resurgent Vaudevillains, whose fan favorite turn and association with Blue Pants led them to a thrilling and emotional victory, but in a strange twist, they turned out to be the most transitional champions of all. Because the last of the three jobber tag teams from that fateful summer of 2014 was nearly ready to emerge and take tag team wrestling to a whole new level.

 

The Revival

 

One of the defining elements of NXT in 2015 was the introduction of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, which culminated in October at Respect. While the finals of the tournament actually focused on thrown-together singles wrestlers rather than actual tag teams – the match pit Baron Corbin and Rhyno against Samoa Joe and NXT Champion Finn Balor –the quarter- and semi-finals revealed the next step in the tag division’s transformation. There was the team of Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa, both recently signed independent stars, who were put together seemingly at random but who would continue teaming together for almost two years as DIY. There was Jason Jordan and his new partner, Chad Gable, who made it to the semi-finals and, as American Alpha, would quickly become the most popular tag team in NXT. And there were the jobbers, Dash and Dawson, who created the single biggest shockwave of the tournament when they defeated the Vaudevillains, the reigning NXT tag team champions, in the second round. The Mechanics had previously won their first televised match as a team, over a year after they first became one, by defeating Enzo and Cass. They made it to the semifinals of the Dusty Classic, as well, before being defeated by eventual winners Balor and Joe. Then, in November, they prematurely ended the Vaudevillains’ championship reign, marking the second time that year that the tag titles had changed hands on a regular episode of NXT. But unlike Blake and Murphy, Dash and Dawson were here to stay.

The new champions successfully defended their titles at Takeover: London against Enzo and Cass in a match that certainly challenged the two women’s contests (Asuka vs. Emma and Bayley vs. Jax) for match of the night. The prolonged feud between the two teams did more for Enzo and Cass than even their feud with Blake and Murphy had, as the ruthless titleholders repeatedly injured body parts and beat their challengers into submission. Enzo and Cass’ underdog popularity grew to a fever pitch – partially because of what the same feud was doing for Dash and Dawson. They engaged their opponents without sportsmanship or mercy, but they never cheated. They won because they were better. And the greater the fans’ desire to see Enzo and Cass finally win the championships grew, the more unbeatable Dash and Dawson seemed every time they retained.

This dynamic culminated in February of 2016, when the two teams clashed for the final time at Roadblock, a main roster pay-per-view. It was a show-stealer, the first great tag team match of the year, though most assuredly not the last. Enzo and Cass again failed to win the straps, but they had been made as a tag team, and they debuted on Raw two months later to an ear-splitting uproar of cheers. Dash and Dawson, meanwhile, officially named themselves the Revival and took their ascending reputation into a feud with another beloved team, American Alpha.

If it weren’t for the fact that Nakamura vs. Zayn was a thing that happened, Alpha’s emotional championship victory over the Revival in Dallas would have been the best match on the show. But that was merely a blip. It would be more than a year before a singles match outshone the tag division at a Takeover event again. Jordan and Gable, sadly, were not long for NXT; they lost their titles back to the Revival at Takeover: The End and were drafted to Smackdown a month later. Their last NXT match was a loss to the debuting Authors of Pain, the final team that represented the 2016 dominance of the resurrected division. While the AOP were busy destroying their competition in the second Dusty Classic, the Revival was engaged in an epic feud with DIY, who had spent the year building up a huge level of fan support, partially due to their individual participation in the Cruiserweight Classic. The two teams put on an incredible show at Takeover: Brooklyn II, and then topped it with their 2 out of 3 Falls match in Toronto, another match that is easily considered one of the best in NXT history, and which ended with Gargano and Ciampa finally holding the titles high.

That match was the tag team division’s masterpiece, but even then, it was obvious that the end was coming. There’s a reason these NXT cycles tend to happen annually – Wrestlemania season is also “debut new main roster talent” season, and every April, Raw and Smackdown take tribute. The Revival’s run as champions had turned out to essentially be a year-long reign broken up for a couple months by Alpha, and in the process, Dash and Dawson had become the faces of tag team wrestling. Losing the belts to DIY less than five months before Wrestlemania 33 signaled the Revival’s imminent departure from NXT, though they still had a swan song left in them.

Meanwhile, DIY turned out to be transitional champions themselves. In the first Takeover of 2017, they lost the belts to the Authors in San Antonio in a match that rounded out the list of major players in the tag division. Just as there were four main event stars anchoring 2014 and four female stars anchoring 2015, so there were four tag teams who defined NXT in 2016. But unlike the first two eras, this third renaissance extended into the following year. The division’s new equivalent to Bayley and Zayn, in terms of character and journey to the championship, were DIY. Like Zayn, they lost the belts at the very next Takeover, and like Bayley, they lost them to an undefeated powerhouse. The difference was that at the start of 2017, neither the women’s division nor the main event scene was ready to take back the baton. Asuka was still the biggest, meanest megalodon in a tiny pond full of goldfish; she spent her time in San Antonio wrestling in a fatal four-way that never felt competitive despite the inherent champion’s disadvantage. There was a new class of rising female wrestlers in the form of Ember Moon, Nikki Cross, and Ruby Riot to go along with the “Mean Girls” duo of Billie Kay and Peyton Royce, but few of them were even a believable threat to Asuka, and none of them were prepared to have matches as good as the tag teams were having. In contrast, the NXT Championship was a hot potato in 2016, bouncing between guys who everyone suspected were getting called up the main roster any second. Samoa Joe should have won the belt in Dallas, but the decision was made for Balor to retain. So Joe won it at a house show, instead, and successfully defended against Balor at Takeover: The End, because Balor was getting drafted to Raw. At the next Takeover in Brooklyn, Joe lost the title to Nakamura, then won it back at the next Takeover in Toronto, then lost it back to Nakamura at a house show in Osaka, Japan. Joe debuted on the main roster, at long last, in 2017, and Nakamura would finally lose the championship for good to Bobby Roode in San Antonio. After failing to capture the title back at Takeover: Orlando, Nakamura would go to Smackdown, ending a bizarrely transitional year for the NXT main event.

It’s not that any of those matches were bad. None of them were bad. It’s just that the entire time, the tag division just kept being better. AOP vs. DIY was absolutely the best match of the San Antonio show, and in Orlando, the Revival returned for one last Takeover match, an amazing three-way elimination contest against both DIY and AOP. Unlike the previous groups of four, all four of the revolutionary tag teams can say they were NXT Tag Team Champions, but unfortunately, they never got the “everyone in the same ring” match like the main eventers had at Fatal 4-Way, or the Horsewomen had at Rival. This match, nonetheless, was an equally exciting substitute, and allowed AOP to stake a true claim as lords of the division. Their final challenge came later in 2017 at Takeover: Chicago, in a match that finally proved to be the end of the tag team era.

 

The Redux

 

If you want to say that Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate for the new UK Championship was the match of the night in Chicago, I would say congratulations, you have eyes. But even though it was the best match, it wasn’t the most important. The most important match was the show’s main event, a ladder match…for the tag team titles.

We rightly make a big deal out of it any time women’s wrestling main events a WWE show, but it’s almost as rare to see tag team wrestling main event a WWE show. The only instances I can even remember involved singles stars who happened to be teaming up, not established tag teams. Established tag teams never main event. And yet, here were the Authors of Pain and DIY, tearing the house down to close a Takeover special. As Bayley and Sasha Banks had been given the main event at Respect in recognition of their accomplishments, and the accomplishments of the women’s division as a whole, so were these two teams given the main event in Chicago in recognition of the greatness they had helped tag team wrestling achieve. In this match, the fires of the third incredible era of NXT burned brightest just before they died. The Revival, after all, were days away from their Raw debut, and as for DIY, well…

If there had been any doubts about the cyclical nature of NXT history as laid out here, they were all laid to rest before Takeover: Chicago went off the air. DIY lost their bid to regain the titles, bathed in the appreciation of the crowd, and walked back up to the ramp together, arms in the air. And just went it became clear that the “end of show” graphic was hanging out a little too long, Tommaso Ciampa beat the living hell out of Johnny Gargano. Fans had been expecting something like this since Gargano beat Ciampa in the Cruiserweight Classic, but it had been long enough that most of us were convinced it wasn’t actually going to happen. When Kevin Owens debuted, we were worried we’d never get the Owens/Zayn feud, and Owens turned immediately. With Ciampa, we were worried he would turn on his partner and break up a great tag team, and just when we were finally convinced he wouldn’t, he did.

Which meant only AOP was left. Which meant it was official. It had taken a little longer than usual, but NXT was once again about to change forever, again. This time, however, would be very different. Chicago played host to the first Takeover main-evented by Ciampa and Gargano, but it was far from the last. The destruction of the third era gave immediate and transcendent birth to the fourth, which was, has been, and continues to be characterized by another group of eight wrestlers, this time putting on some of the best singles matches wrestling has ever seen. By 2018, NXT had come full circle, but the circle was bigger and better than anyone could possibly have imagined.

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