Fans will probably debate for years to come how the best way to handle this year’s Wrestlemania would’ve been given the plague of injuries currently crippling the main WWE roster. But what no one doubted was that the highlight of the weekend would undoubtedly be Friday night’s NXT Takeover. Wrestlemania still looms large as I write this but the main roster definitely has their work cut out for them after the clinic that the rising stars of NXT put on, with champions Bayley and Finn Balor more than living up to their usual excellence, and challengers Asuka and Samoa Joe proving their worth in hard fought, edge-of-your-seat battles, not to mention the emotional farewell of NXT’s “heart and soul”, and one of the most monumental debuts in all of WWE history.
Even the most casual fans of New Japan Pro Wrestling (raises hand) know Shinsuke Nakamura. Part Freddie Mercury, part Iori from King of Fighters, the flamboyant “King of Strong Style” has made a huge mark on the international scene with a flurry of stiff strikes and knees and his “real life fighting game character” swagger. When it was announced a few months back that Nakamura was heading to America under the NXT banner, fans were just as excited as they were cautious. NXT has recently done right by Japanese stars like Hideo Itami and Kana (AKA Asuka) as well as non Japanese wrestlers that made their mark in the land of the rising sun like Finn Balor. Shinsuke Nakamura’s unique style of fighting and fashion was a different beast altogether though, could he make the transition unscathed? In a word: “YeaOh!”
The show opened with a true tag team classic. I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Revival’s no nonsense, no frills style or American Alpha’s “Kurt Angle X 2” shtick, especially compared to the outsized personalities of Enzo Amore and Big Cass and the “so ridiculous it shouldn’t work at all but totally does” Vaudevillians, but this match totally won me over, an old school showcase of storytelling and ring psychology that’s sorely missing from the lackluster (aside from New Day, of course) WWE Tag division, AA pulling out the well deserved Tag Team Championship win to a rapturous crowd reaction.
Speaking of the crowd, they were super into everything, positive and enthusiastic throughout the whole night, elevating a great show to a legendary one right alongside the spot-on live commentary team of Corey Graves and Tom Phillips, putting every other talking head on the payroll (aside from Mauro Ranallo, of course) to shame. But as Graves, ever the class act, stated on Twitter: “the men & women in the ring made it effortless for us. I got to be a fan.”
If there was one misstep in the otherwise sterling presentation, it was the confrontation between Austin Aries and Baron Corbin, which was all offense from Corbin until Aries snuck in with the win using a roll up. No disrespect to Corbin, who gets a lot of shit in the media but seems at least somewhat misunderstood and has been using that “I’m an asshole” stigma to get solid heel heat as of late, but it would’ve been nice to see more of the innovative offense that made Aries a standout in TNA and ROH, especially in his debut match. Hopefully NXT fans will get that sooner than later.
The night ended of an impressive double main event, the valiantly heroic Bayley passing out to the Asuka Lock, crowning a new NXT Women’s Champion in the charismatic Japanese export Asuka after a grueling back and forth war, and Finn Balor by his own admission “barely surviving” a bloody brawl with unstoppable juggernaut Samoa Joe to retain his NXT Title. These matches were prime examples of why NXT has such a ravenous and loyal fanbase, perfectly executed and endlessly entertaining, but the match of the night, possibly the match of the year, was the mid-card meeting of Sami Zayn and Shinsuke Nakamura.
Already making appearances on the main roster, including a well deserved spot in the Wrestlemania ladder match for Ryu and Ken-esque friend/rival Kevin Owens’ Intercontinental Championshp, this was undoubtedly Zayn’s NXT swan song, passing the torch to the Japanese newcomer Nakamura, and what a final match it was, an absolute showcase of (strong) style and substance, with several heart stopping and unforgettable sequences. The men brawled to a standstill trading fists and elbows, Nakamura joyously tasting his own blood before continuing the charge. It wasn’t all the Shinsuke show though, the former El Generico getting off plenty of his signature offense, including a gloriously executed Blue Thunder Bomb. His attempt to fly through the ropes and deliver his patented DDT though was met with a stiff boot from the King, and in the end Sami fell victim to Nakamura’s “Kinshasa” (renamed from “Bomaye”, the “kill him” chant from Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s historic “Rumble in the Jungle” to the region of the Congo where the fight took place, very cool) flying knee and was ultimately defeated.
Zayn and Nakamura then shared a friendly, respectful handshake while the bewildered crowd erupted with a deafening “Thank you, Sami” chant. Zayn is hopefully on to bigger and better things on the main roster, with the King of Strong Style on a crash course to dominate the American wrestling scene just as he has in his homeland.
The weekly NXT show isn’t always “must see TV” but these “Takeover” specials have fast become appointment viewing, getting better and better with every broadcast, and this show wasn’t just the best one yet, but overall one of the best Amercan “Pay Per View” type wrestling specials in recent memory. Can WWE Wrestlemania live up to NXT Takeover’s hype? Your move, Main Roster.