From the darkest corners of the Internet it came, speculation, hearsay, rumors, and then conformation: the WWE brand split was returning. From 2002 to 2012 the WWE Monday Night Raw and Thursday Night Smackdown shows featured completely different rosters of stars, and with a deep bench and seemingly aimless storytelling direction of late, many armchair bookers have suggested for months that another brand split is just the shot in the arm that 2016 WWE needs to rise above mediocrity. But what of NXT? The developmental brand masterminded by semi-retired WWE icon Triple H has carved out its own niche in recent years as a pared down, more athleticism focused fan favorite alternative to vanilla WWE’s “sports entertainment” morass, but would it be able to maintain its semi-autonomy as a legitimate second brand with two big brothers now vying to pick at its ripest fruit?
When it was announced a few weeks back that the upcoming quarterly NXT Takeover Network Special would be entitled “The End”, fan speculation ran rampant that NXT was indeed finished, about to be swallowed whole by one of its father entities, leaving behind all its scrappy charm and the well-deserved good will it had built up over its short but beautiful life under Helmsley’s tutelage. In the end, “The End” wasn’t quite the end of the franchise as we know it, just, according to a post-event interview with H himself “signifying how far NXT has come, and how what started out as a developmental system for WWE has become its own brand in the company”, and that “tonight marked the beginning of NXT completely focusing on becoming a complete brand in WWE moving forward”. Nor was it the history maker that Takeover Dallas was, but NXT hardly ever disappoints, and it wasn’t about to start here, even though it’s days may be numbered.
The show opened with the debut of Andrade “Cien” Almas in a short sort-of squash match against rising NXT star Tye Dillinger. Almas looked great in the ring but the character may need some work, currently falling somewhere in between a more serious version of the hated main roster Shining Stars, but a lot less fun than new-ish NXT phenomenon No Way Jose. Next up was the rubber match for the tag belts between American Alpha and The Revival, with even more super solid old school tag team ring psychology than their amazing Takeover Dallas encounter, and the refreshingly surprising booking decision of having the heel Dash and Dawson beat (becoming the first ever two time NXT tag champs) the beloved Jordan and Gable. Even more astonishing was the beat down AA received post-match from a mysterious new team managed by wrestling legend Paul Ellering. The Full Sail crowd got a TON of heat on social media for chanting “who are you” at Ellering. Christ, even I recognized him (I’m no expert on pre-Attitude era, non WWF stuff), though I couldn’t believe how young he still looked.
Austin Aries vs. Shinsuke Nakamura anchored the show, a dream match between the ROH/TNA stalwart and the real life Japanese Anime Character. Aries may have gotten in even more believable offense than Sami Zayn did against the King of Strong Style in Dallas but in the end it was all Nakamura, continuing his undefeated streak since stepping on American shores that creative would be idiots not to manipulate into a Goldberg style monster push. Speaking of monsters and more smart booking, the show ended with an astounding double main event of title matches, Asuka defending against Nia Jax for the women’s’ strap and Finn Balor facing Samoa Joe in NXT’s first ever cage match to regain his World Title.
Asuka vs. Jax was a master class in pacing, Asuka forced for once to be the one on the defensive against impossible odds, and Jax playing the monster heel to perfection without the legitimately hated Eva Marie there to muddy the waters of her well-deserved push. Asuka was the victor when it was all said and done but Nia Jax lost nothing in the way of heat or momentum in the process, and looks super ready to go gloriously bulldoze through all the blonde model types currently stinking up the joint on Raw and Smackdown. Joe vs. Balor was another brutal encounter between the Samoan submission specialist and the Demon (in black and white this time, more Venom than Carnage). More exhilarating bewilderment with the brilliant booking here, Joe going over clean to retain after destroying Finn with an almost hard to watch top rope, cage assisted muscle buster.
If had to use one word to describe this show it would be “solid”, a wholly entertaining two hours of television. How many other American wrestling promotions can you say that about? ROH’s stuff is great but definitely hard to find (legally anyway) for most, Lucha Underground is awesome but basically a modern WMAC Masters (don’t get me wrong, my stupid ass REALLY liked WMAC Masters). TNA is only good for Brother Nero memes and whatever the hell that train wreck on Botchamania was where the skull faced girl’s boobs kept almost falling out. And WWE, well, if WWE had any confidence in their current offerings they wouldn’t be splitting the damn thing in half again now would they?
So where does NXT go from here? As you’d expect, word around the old campfire is that Uncle Vince is gonna be raiding a lot of the cool stuff from Hunter’s toy box (not that he hasn’t already) to make his upcoming brand extension even marginally feasible. NXT Takeover Brooklyn 2 is still booked for Summerslam weekend in August though, so the NXT we know and love still has at least a few months’ worth of life left in it. Let’s make ’em count boys and (especially) girls!
Photos courtesy of WWE.com