Tomorrow, 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 fourth in a four-part series being released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. Part 4 is, just so you know, really fucking long compared to the other three, and that’s because a whole lot of stuff has happened in the past year that needs to be properly parsed in order to come to a true understanding of the history of NXT. In this final installment, I discuss how the NXT roster shook out during a year of transition, and the eight wrestlers who returned the male singles division to the top – only this time, with a couple of twists that speak to the full evolution of this spectacular wrestling promotion.
So, full disclosure. All three previous installments of this piece were written almost exactly a year ago – a year to the date, in fact, prior to Brooklyn IV. The final part was, naturally, predictive in nature. My theory at the time was that, having passed through three distinct eras represented by NXT’s three championships, it was time for the wheel to turn back to the beginning, with the next phase of NXT seeing a return to the unquestioned importance of male singles wrestlers at the top of the card, fighting over the NXT Championship. You’re going to have to take my word for this, because I obviously never published it, but here’s what I wrote at the time:
“Tomorrow night, NXT fans all over the world will be watching Takeover: Brooklyn III. While it’s theoretically possible that AOP vs. Alexander Wolfe and Killian Dain of SAnity will be the best match of the evening, I don’t think for a moment that’s going to happen. That time is done. Asuka and Ember Moon might be able to pull it off in their rematch from Orlando, but I get the feeling the women are going to have to wait another cycle (and a likely influx of talent from the Mae Young Classic) before they rise to the top once more. No, I think the fourth era of NXT is going to be a return to the main event and singles wrestling in general. NXT is awash at the moment in veteran singles stars who have already proven their in-ring ability to the world – Roode, Drew McIntyre, Hideo Itami, Aleister Black, Andrade “Cien” Almas, and the now-solo Johnny Gargano are all wrestling on tomorrow evening’s card, and that’s without mentioning Roderick Strong, Eric Young, or Kassius Ohno. Beyond that, it’s only a matter of time before Ciampa returns from injury. Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly both appeared on recent episodes of NXT. Even Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch have been making waves over the past few weeks. And of course, everyone is expecting some sort of Brooklyn III appearance from WWE’s newest signee, the only 3-time Ring of Honor world champion in history, Adam Cole.
“That right there is a group of fifteen guys, each of whom could have a great match with any of the others. Throw in No Way Jose and you could book a damn tournament with this class. And sure, with another Dusty Classic presumably coming up, some of them will be thrown into tag teams – that seems the logical endpoint for Burch and Lorcan, and in a division where AOP is suddenly the new Ascension, you’re an idiot if you don’t at least put Fish and O’Reilly together for the NXT version of reDRagon – but for the most part, this is going to be your NXT main event picture for the next 6-8 months. There might be too much talent here for only four wrestlers to thrive, but all that could mean in the worst possible universe is a bunch of Takeovers that look like Brooklyn III: a probably good women’s title match and a probably good tag title match bracketed by three almost certainly stellar singles combinations. And in the best possible universe? All that, plus a couple world-class tag teams created from new, exciting talent, and a revitalized women’s division, free from the tyranny of Asuka, that includes MYC participants like Kairi Hojo, Mercedes Martinez, and Candice LeRae. I don’t know about you, but I am entirely good with that. “
We can see clearly a number of hits and misses when it comes to my powers of prediction. I was right about Fish and O’Reilly and Burch and Lorcan – though it took an abysmally long time for us to get another Dusty Classic, and even then, it was a shadow of its former self thanks to the suddenly paper-thin tag team division. The women’s division these days is indeed comprised almost entirely of MYC talent, but we’ve yet to see a Takeover show-stealer from the post-Asuka generation, and so far, the character work has somewhat outshined the ring work. And while I turned out to be mostly right about NXT transitioning back into a spotlight for great male singles matches, I was off the mark in terms of who those matches would involve, and how they would get there, and most importantly, what they’d be fighting for.
As it turned out, Takeover: Brooklyn III was an anomaly, a weird blip on the cyclical analysis radar similar to the show that had taken place 18 months earlier in Dallas. Contrary to my expectations, Asuka and Ember Moon did, in fact, put on the best match of the evening, one last magical moment for the women of NXT before Asuka’s departure for main roster fame, or whatever you call the dumb things they’re doing with her on Smackdown these days. Or at least, I think it was the best match of the evening. I know others disagree, and the strange thing is, it’s hard to say they’re wrong. For the first time in a long time, Takeover’s “match of the night” was a tough call, because there was another match – possibly two, depending on who you ask – that gave Asuka vs. Ember a run for its money. And here’s another strange thing: those other two matches were both men’s singles contests with nothing whatsoever on the line. The tag team championship match and the NXT championship match were both perfectly fine, but they ultimately served primarily as introductions for the group that would come to be known as the Undisputed Era. Aleister Black’s match with Hideo Itami, however, was truly superb, showcasing Black as an incomparable striker and heralding his meteoric rise to stardom. And while I would say the women’s championship was the match of the night in terms of pure wrestling quality, it had very few implications for the future of the yellow brand. In that way it was similar to the UK Championship match between Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne at the previous Takeover – the best match, yes, but secondary in terms of overall impact and resonance. At Takeover: Chicago, that impact was carried by the tag team main event. At Brooklyn III, it was carried by the show opener, Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade Almas, which provided a phenomenal contest while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the fourth era of NXT.
Keeping it 100
The last 12 months of NXT have been full of surprises, but perhaps none less anticipated than the lightning-fast career rehabilitation of “Cien” Almas. The formerly masked luchador had been in NXT for more than a year by the time Brooklyn III came around and had seemingly missed out on his opportunity to be an NXT star. He arrived at Takeover: The End in June 2016, defeating Tye Dillinger in the opening contest. It was a weird environment from the start. Dillinger was a perennial jobber in the vein of CJ Parker, a guy whose main job was to lose to guys like Almas, the international wrestling veteran making his NXT debut, and to make them look as good as possible in the process. But Dillinger had recently begun to catch fire with the NXT crowd, kicking off a journey that would see him become an improbable but massive fan favorite, and the audience didn’t quite know what to do with Almas, who was wrestling unmasked, under a new name, with a significantly uncool look, and who was more famous in Mexico and Japan than he was in America, anyway. Almas won the match as scheduled, but the crowd was never on his side, and while Dillinger became a cult hero and rode that status all the way to a spot on the main roster (where he has done nothing, of course, but that’s NXT’s relationship with the main roster for you) Almas was suddenly the new Tye Dillinger. He lost to Bobby Roode at Takeover: Brooklyn II in Roode’s Takeover debut, lost to Roderick Strong at Takeover: San Antonio in Strong’s Takeover debut, and lost to Aleister Black at Takeover: Chicago in Black’s Takeover debut. Turning heel helped, as did a new manager in the form of Zelina Vega, but going into Brooklyn III, I don’t see how anyone could possibly have foreseen what happened next.
Almas emerged victorious from the ruins of the house he and Gargano burned down in Brooklyn, mostly thanks to the interference of Vega, who distracted Gargano with a DIY t-shirt that reminded him of Ciampa’s betrayal. In fact, Almas would go on to play a key role in the Gargano/Ciampa feud, and his involvement in that story is a partial explanation for his career turn-around. In the story, Ciampa had just turned on Gargano in Chicago, split up DIY, and brutally assaulted his former partner. In real life, though, Ciampa was suffering from a knee injury, and the scheduled feud between them had to be put on hold. For whatever reason, it was Almas who was chosen to occupy the majority of Gargano’s time until Ciampa was healthy enough to return, and he and Vega were seamlessly inserted in ways that constantly reminded the audience of Ciampa’s existence. And also for whatever reason, Almas and Gargano worked perfectly as opponents in the ring. Wrestling Gargano brought out the best in Almas, finally allowing the audience to see and understand just how good he was. His resurgence was the result of a multitude of factors that just happened to coincide at the opportune moment. That’s just how wrestling works sometimes. Most of the time, really.
For the rest of 2017 and into 2018, circumstances continued to fall in Almas’ favor. At Takeover: War Games, mere months after his win over Gargano in Brooklyn, he shockingly defeated Drew McIntyre for the NXT Championship. McIntyre had only been champion since Brooklyn himself, but there were already rumors flying that he was getting called up – unlike most former NXT champions, McIntyre had tasted main roster success in the past, and Roode, his Brooklyn opponent, was already gone. Furthermore, McIntyre ended up seriously injuring his arm during the match with Almas. Whether Almas’ victory was planned due to McIntyre’s career situation or changed on the fly due to his injury, he was yet again in the right place at the right time. In January 2018, at Takeover: Philadelphia, Almas main-evented the show as NXT champion, again defeating Gargano in one of the best singles matches the yellow brand has ever seen. He made his main roster debut the next night by entering the 2018 Royal Rumble.
After it became clear that Almas was destined for the main roster, he predictably dropped his championship to Aleister Black in a phenomenal match at Takeover: New Orleans. He has since taken Smackdown by storm with Vega by his side, recently wrestling a critically acclaimed match against reigning WWE Champion AJ Styles and being rumored as someone the company is excited about moving forward. If you had told me a year ago that an NXT title match would be the highlight of a Takeover card for the first time since 2014, and that it would involve Andrade “Cien” Almas, who would go on to become a potentially major player on the main roster, I would have laughed. It’s a strange world we live in, and the world of wrestling is even stranger.
The Demon and the Dream
The fact that there was such a robust and healthy debate about which Brooklyn III match was the best one speaks to the overall quality of the show. But no such debate existed for War Games, which closed out 2017 on a decidedly odd note. It’s true that the show featured Almas’ upset title victory and the crowning of Ember Moon as the new NXT Women’s Champion, but at the time nobody really knew what to make of the decision to give Almas the gold so quickly after McIntyre’s win in Brooklyn, and Moon’s victory was less resonant due to the fact that her predecessor, Asuka, had vacated the title rather than losing it. The show opener featured the Takeover debut of Lars Sullivan, making it notable but not remarkable, while the main event pit three teams of three against one another in something kind of like the old WCW War Games match, but not really. It was a bizarre idea and clearly a corporate edict rather than the result of organic NXT storytelling, as WWE had begun experimenting with bringing some nostalgic WCW elements back to television, and NXT was chosen as the guinea pig. The match was an entertaining mess and basically exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of tag team wrestlers trying out a new thing for the first time. It may have main evented over the championship match even without the War Games stipulation, but it probably shouldn’t have.
The best match of the night, by far, was possibly even more surprising than Almas winning the title. It was Aleister Black, the bad-ass Dutch striker with the huge demon face tattooed on his back who everybody agreed (and continues to agree) is a guaranteed superstar, against the Velveteen Dream, a character that transformed from derided stereotype to beloved sensation overnight and out of nowhere like an RKO, or maybe a flash of purple lightning. It’s almost impossible to imagine two wrestlers with fewer similarities than Black and Dream, particularly in terms of how fans perceived them heading into War Games. But the story they told, and the match that concluded it, left us absolutely awestruck.
Even though he lost his first Takeover match, the Dream was the clear winner of the entire event. Before War Games (and again, it must be re-stated, the brilliantly constructed feud leading up to it) he was just Patrick Clark, former Tough Enough washout who had already tried out a couple different characters on NXT television, but hadn’t found anything that worked. He seemed like just another failure to come out of WWE’s home-grown developmental system, another example of why NXT was spending so much time and money signing independent stars with pre-existing fan bases and established track records rather than trying to make their own. We thought we had seen enough of Clark to know he wasn’t going to make it. And when he debuted the Velveteen Dream character, with its disco-esque aesthetic and overtly sexual mannerisms, we let out a collective groan. Not only was NXT giving Clark another shot, but this was the type of character that WWE has never been able to tastefully pull off, even when the standards of tastefulness were considerably lower than they are now. Surely there was no way it could possibly work in 2017.
And we were right. It couldn’t have worked. It shouldn’t have worked. The fact that it somehow did work, and continues to work to this day, still blows my mind. Because it turns out that Patrick Clark is an enormously talented performer who plays the Velveteen Dream perfectly, performs at a high level in amazing matches, and has won the unadulterated adulation of the NXT audience. The sensual, pansexual character of the Dream has not only avoided being offensive, but actually comes off as extremely empowering. As a straight white dude, I hesitate to say that, and it should be taken with at least a few grains of salt, but I would be legitimately surprised if it was not true. At the very least, it’s encouraging for those of us with a progressive mindset when NXT’s next big thing is a non-cis black man who makes eyes at his opponents before demolishing them with his superior wrestling skills, as opposed to distracting them with his Gay Powers and pinning them because they just felt so uncomfortable being around a man wearing that much eye liner, which is how this kind of thing has gone down in the past. Since War Games, the Dream has participated in two more match-of-the-night contenders at Takeover, and his appearances have become synonymous with both fantastic wrestling and fantastic storytelling.
As for Black, all he did after War Games was have great Takeover matches with Adam Cole and Almas, whose NXT Championship he successfully claimed at Takeover: New Orleans. As the final part of my theory unfolds, you’ll notice that the eight wrestlers involved here are divided pretty cleanly into two groups: those primarily wrestling in the main event and/or for the NXT Championship, and those in the midcard. The Velveteen Dream undoubtedly has championship gold in his future, but for now, he falls into the latter category. Black and Almas, on the other hand, are in the first category, both former NXT champions who have spend the majority of 2018 near the top of the card. The only reason they haven’t wrestled in many Takeover main events (Black has never main evented Takeover, a streak that sadly continues thanks to his recent injury) is because of the other two guys in that first category, who simply refuse to let the spotlight shine brighter on anyone else.
Just One Moment
The first cycle of the Takeover Era ended when Kevin Owens powerbombed Sami Zayn on the ring apron. It was a massive betrayal that promised an unbelievable story to come, a story of best friends turned bitter enemies, the next phase in the unending circle of unity and hatred that has defined the entire careers of these two specific wrestlers. But for a number of reasons, we didn’t really get that story. Owens took Zayn’s title in ruthless fashion, but it happened to take place on the same night that the women’s division officially took over NXT. Moreover, Zayn and Owens were both flirting with the main roster, with Zayn actually wrestling a match on Raw against John Cena…and getting injured, putting his feud with Owens in limbo. Owens himself began flirting with the main roster almost immediately afterward, to the extent that when he lost the NXT championship, it happened on a main roster show. He moved on to his own feud with John Cena while Zayn was still recovering. The promised story never came to be, at least not in its best or truest form. Too many disparate forces had coincided to prevent it from happening. It was the victim of bad luck and bad timing.
When Tommaso Ciampa mirrored Owens’ actions and turned on Johnny Gargano after the main event of Takeover: Chicago, it seemed like the exact same thing was happening. Yes, the long-awaited breakup of DIY had finally happened; yes, Ciampa had finally introduced NXT to the persona that had earned him the moniker “Psycho Killer” on the independent scene; yes, it seemed as though we were destined for a prolonged, amazing feud between the two. And then it turned out that, whoops, Ciampa had suffered an injury – an ACL tear, no less – that would prevent any of it from taking place. We didn’t even get a single confrontation between the two before Ciampa left for his recovery. NXT blood feuds between former best friends were just cursed, it seemed. It wasn’t going to happen.
As previously mentioned, however, NXT did a brilliant job of telling the continuing story of Johnny Wrestling while constantly tying it back to Ciampa. Gargano couldn’t cut it as a singles wrestler, suffering a frustrating losing streak and constantly coming up short against Almas and Vega, who used the history between Gargano and Ciampa to their advantage time and time again, despite Ciampa’s absence. NXT used the setback of losing Ciampa as an opportunity to tell a slow-burning story about Gargano, and they were able to drag it out just long enough for Ciampa to return. After losing to Almas in the main event of Takeover: Philadelphia, Gargano was attacked by Ciampa, who wasn’t quite ready to wrestle again, but could move around well enough to be part of the show. When Gargano got himself into yet another championship match with Almas, this time with the stipulation that he would leave NXT if he couldn’t win the title, Ciampa interfered to cost Gargano the match, briefly ending Gargano’s NXT career. But because this is pro wrestling, Gargano would get the chance to win his job back at Takeover: New Orleans, finally facing Ciampa in a match NXT fans had been waiting nearly a year to see.
Technically, War Games was the fist Takeover whose main event wasn’t contested for a championship. But War Games barely counts; the tag team champions were at least involved, even if their titles weren’t on the line, and again, it was a weird show, very much out of place in Takeover history. New Orleans was the city that played host to the first Takeover special whose main event didn’t involve champions, wasn’t about a championship, had nothing whatsoever to do with gold or titles, and unquestionably deserved its spot at the highest point on the card. And while I realize I’ve been writing some variation on this phrase a lot over the course of this journey, the first Takeover match between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa is undeniably one of the best, if not the best, wrestling matches ever performed under the Takeover brand. A big part of NXT’s evolution has been the way it just keeps outdoing itself, year after year, and 2018 has thus far been the definitive showcase for that evolution.
Gargano won, of course, in a finish positively dripping with story and symbolism, and was restored to the NXT roster. And of course, his feud with Ciampa continued. They main evented Takeover: Chicago II, again with no titles on the line, and again put on an unbelievable contest, this time with Ciampa winning after Gargano gave in to blind hatred of his enemy. That blind hatred bled into regular NXT television, culminating in an NXT Championship match between Ciampa and Black, in which Gargano tried to interfere on Black’s behalf but ended up inadvertently handing Ciampa the title. And in a couple of days, at Brooklyn IV, Ciampa and Gargano will face off in their third straight Takeover main event, this time with the title on the line. Somehow, despite poorly-timed injuries (and, as it relates to Black being removed from what was originally a triple threat main event, because of poorly-timed injuries) the Ciampa/Gargano blood feud has become everything we wanted it to be, and more.
The Best In North America (Baybay)
It would be easy at this point to say that the four wrestlers who defined the fourth cycle of the Takeover era were Gargano, Ciampa, Black, and Almas – aka the primary wrestlers in and around the NXT title picture – and leave it at that. That doesn’t work, though, for a number of reasons. It leaves the Velveteen Dream out in the cold, for one thing, which seems inaccurate based on the quality of his matches. It also assumes that the fourth cycle revolves around the brand’s primary championship, which is simply untrue. The defining element of the fourth cycle, as it turns out, is the fact that NXT finally has the one thing it has always lacked: a roster deep enough and talented enough to support a midcard that can steal any given show, complete with their own championship to fight over.
It’s true that the United Kingdom Championship has been largely an NXT thing since its inception (so much so that it will soon become the grand prize of the upcoming NXT UK) but there’s only been one UK title match at Takeover, and the British wrestlers who fight for it have been inconsistent participants in the weekly NXT TV program. It was always treated as more of a special attraction than an actual part of the show. And that actually made sense as little as a year ago, before NXT got so big and became such an important part of the wrestling landscape that there was literally too much talent to go around.
The NXT midcard really began last year in Brooklyn, when Adam Cole, one of the biggest names in independent wrestling and a former three-time Ring of Honor world champion, closed out the show by attacking the newly crowned Drew McIntyre. By his side were fellow ROH alums Fish and O’Reilly, who had attacked both SAnity and the Authors of Pain earlier that same evening. The trio called themselves the Undisputed Era, and everyone just kind of assumed that Fish and O’Reilly would go after the tag titles while Cole pursued McIntyre for the NXT Championship. It didn’t take long for Fish and O’Reilly to win championship gold, but for Cole, it was a different story.
We can only speculate as to why certain things happened the way they did. Cole could have easily filled the role Almas did — a heel champion who used outside interference to help him win – and the nature of Cole’s debut certainly seemed to position him as the next contender to McIntyre’s championship, but Almas got that spot, instead, and Cole ended up with the rest of Undisputed Era in the War Games match against SAnity and the makeshift team of AOP and Roderick Strong. I suspect part of the reason is because Fish and O’Reilly were feuding with SAnity, a three-man group, and it made more sense for Cole to be Undisputed Era’s third man in that battle as opposed to doing his own thing with somebody else. Whatever the reason, Almas was an unmitigated success as champion, and two villains fighting each other has rarely made for appointment viewing in pro wrestling, so Cole was forced to take a step back. Unfortunately, because he was a singles wrestler, there was nowhere to go. He had a great match with Black at Takeover: Philadelphia, but lost, because Black was being groomed to take Almas’ title. Cole, it seemed, was being groomed for nothing. All that hype for his arrival, and he was occupying the same space on Takeover cards as Apollo Crews and Austin Aries – popular singles wrestlers who were stars on the independent scene, but who couldn’t break into the title picture and thus became little more than a footnote in the history of NXT.
All that changed in New Orleans, with the introduction of the NXT North American championship. The first champion was determined via a six-way ladder match that rivaled Gargano vs. Ciampa for match of the night, and naturally, it ended up being Adam Cole. With a shiny new gold belt to carry around and have matches over, Cole’s NXT career was suddenly legitimized. Unlike NXT midcarders before him, he’s practically guaranteed a Takeover spot every time it comes around, and more importantly, he has his own defined space in NXT that doesn’t feel constantly in danger of slipping away. And he also happens to have a solid, stable group of opponents who are likewise just too good to fade into the background.
That ladder match for the North American title wasn’t just redemption for Cole. It also featured the NXT debuts of two massive stars: EC3, who had actually been an original NXT participant back in the game show days and was returning after spending several years reinventing himself from the ground up, and Ricochet, a bonafide wrestling phenomenon who had been packing arenas all over the world, from New Japan Pro Wrestling to Lucha Underground. If Gargano, Ciampa, Black, and Almas are this cycle’s definitive main-eventers, then Dream, Cole, EC3 and Ricochet are the scions of the new NXT midcard, four men who could put on a five-star match with any of the others at any time, as Dream and Ricochet proved at Takeover: Chicago II. That was another Takeover event where you could make a case for two or three matches as match of the night. Was the Ciampa/Gargano rematch good enough to take it again, or did Dream and Ricochet outdo them? You can answer that question however you want, but get used to asking it, because the war between NXT’s two distinct singles divisions isn’t going anywhere.
The Beginning is the End is the Beginning
I don’t know what the rest of 2018 has in store for NXT. Everything I say from this point on has as much chance of being accurate as the first time I tried to tell this story, one year ago. WWE Summerslam happens right after Brooklyn IV, and Summerslam is a big time for main roster call-ups. Almas has already departed. Black might be next, or Gargano, or Ciampa. Ricochet and EC3 might have shortened NXT careers as WWE proper seeks to capitalize on their popularity. There’s simply no way to know.
But here’s what we do know: the announced card for NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV.
- Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa for the NXT Championship
- Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane for the NXT Women’s Championship
- Kyle O’Reilly and Roderick Strong vs. Mustache Mountain for the NXT Tag Team Championship
- Adam Cole vs. Ricochet for the North American Championship
- EC3 vs. Velveteen Dream
I can say with no risk of hyperbole that this has the makings of being the best Takeover special in NXT history. In every other cycle, there has been a weak link somewhere over the course of the show. In 2018, there are none. The Undisputed Era (with Roderick Strong filling in for the injured Fish) is anchoring the tag division, having come damn close to stealing Chicago II with their match against Burch and Lorcan, Mustache Mountain combine incredible wrestling ability (Tyler Bate) with a tremendous understanding of storytelling (Trent Seven), and the newly-signed War Raiders are waiting in the wings and will likely make an appearance in Brooklyn. Baszler vs. Sane is a highly-anticipated rematch of the MYC finals, and while the strengths of the women’s division recently have lain more in their character work than in their ring work (though one certainly informs the other), additions like Bianca Belair and Candice LeRae have begun refilling the ranks just in time for the second MYC to fill them even more. And six of the eight defining wrestlers of the fourth cycle are competing in singles matches, each one equally likely to be the best. This is the kind of card that NXT has never had before, the kind of card for which it’s impossible to guess who will take match-of-the-night honors because every single contest has the potential to do so. Yes, the wheel has come all the way around once again, but the wheel is now bigger, stronger, and better than ever before. That is the true testament of the (r)evolutionary growth of NXT.