It was the biggest night in NXT history - at least until two weeks from now. Triple H’s developmental show-turned-WWE Network selling point & “indie killer” graduated to the big time, going live on USA from 8 - 9PM Eastern before moving to the company’s streaming service (kind of, more on that later) from 9 - 10PM Eastern.
As Papa Haitch himself said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. How did they do? Let’s dig in!
Statement of intent
If you lived through the Evolution (the faction, not the women’s wrestling push) era of Raw, or remember the first few pre-TakeOver live specials, you were probably tempted to roll your eyes when Hunter’s was the first face we saw on the broadcast. I know I was. But I thought this was the perfect open.
Grab folks who might be flipping channels or Raw/SmackDown watchers who are checking this out with a familiar face, delivering a passionate promo about why he’s proud of the show. Then he throws back the curtain, and we’re treated to frenetic Fatal 4Way featuring the females - sorry, my love of alliteration got away from me there.
We get these kind of matches from the main roster, but they’re usually reserved for pay-per-view (PPV). It’s rare a women’s match would get ten minuted on a Monday or Tuesday night. Rarer still are the times when that bout would only have one white person in it.
They grabbed us with The Game, then showed us one way NXT might be changing it.
Bianca Belair, Candice LeRae, Io Shirai & Mia Yim all got moments to shine in the #1 contenders match. Belair’s power, and Shirai’s... well, everything stood out. Candice demonstrated once again why it’s such a shame she’s spent most of her time in WWE as a supporting character in her husband’s story (it’s worth noting Johnny Gargano was nowhere to be found on the episode). LeRae proves a female babyface can kick just as much ass as anyone else. If there was a weak link here it was Mia, not because she did anything wrong, but because she continues to struggle to stand out. Hate to say it, but the feel good story of the 2018 Mae Young Classic may find herself fighting for time in a crowded division, even with the show expanding to two hours every week.
The right person won, if for no other reason that she’s the only one who hasn’t already come up short against Women’s champion Shayna Baszler. The Queen of Spades and her sidekicks tried to intimidate Candice Wrestling, but she stared them in the eye.
This Women’s title match will go up against Nyla Rose & Riho’s on Oct. 2, and you have to think we might finally see Baszler drop the belt for good here. Especially with Io all lined up as LeRae’s first challenger, and an opportunity for Shayna to put Rhea Ripley over on her way to a more sports-oriented SmackDown.
Prophecy fulfilled, but the Dream lives on
Having Roderick Strong beat Velveteen Dream for the North American title so Undisputed ERA can lord their dominance over NXT as we head into this next phase of the brand’s development is absolutely the right call. Dream and the secondary title have done all the can for one another at this point. Roddy needed a signature win to maximize his value as a member of his group, and as a storytelling tool for Trips & the creative team.
Because this match proved, once again, the value of having someone like Strong working out of the WWE Performance Center. NXT might not be the developmental show per se any longer, but they’re still in the business of developing new stars. It might be for Raw or SmackDown or it might be for themselves, but the newer talent will start here.
Velveteen’s a great example of that. He’s got unteachable charisma and the right level of athletic skill, but he’s still learning how to put that together to work a great match. Roddy is exactly the kind of wrestler who can guide him through one, and presumably help him learn how to do it without him in the future.
This was as good as Hunter knew it would be when he made it the main event of the more important hour of Wednesday night’s live debut. Strong looked unbeatable, but Dream somehow managed to be in a position to beat him. The ending was probably a tad overbooked - not sure you need two Undisputed interventions sandwiched around a ref bump - but it protected Velveteen, and established/reminded everyone what Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish and Roddy can do whenever any of them are in the ring.
That reminder’s important, and not just to establish TUE as the top dogs on the show. There’s a TakeOver coming up that pits teams against each other. And with the annual WarGames match just a couple months away, the NXT UK champ and his four man unit were all over this episode. Hmmm...
Under my umbrella
WWE can talk all they want about how they’re just focused on themselves and aren’t worried about what anyone else is doing. But the past week has consisted of the company reminding anyone who’s watching that they have talent coming out of their ears - including several who they’ve left sitting on the shelf for the past few months.
Lio Rush is one such talent, and maybe the most valuable example given his youth and upside. Mauro Ranallo spun his absence by saying he was focused on his music career, and implied Rush may have been addressing the mental health issues he recently opened up about dealing with earlier in his life. Whatever the spin for his public dust-up with WWE and its veterans, NXT is the right place for him at this point in his career. Especially with 205 Live being even more folded into the brand than it already was.
Haitch is insistent his comments about the cruiserweights coming under the NXT umbrella didn’t mean the purple brand was going away, but if there’s any way he can bring the show to Full Sail and the built in fanatics that venue provides... Rush’s battle with Oney Lorcan was great. It was on par with most 205 Live main events. But Lorcan’s gorgeous aggression & violence, and Lio’s underneath work & thrilling comebacks seemed much better because they were done in front of a crowd that was with them from the jump instead of being almost reluctantly dragged into the action like most post-SmackDown audiences.
His ring work makes it easy to cheer for The Man Of The Hour, and NXT’s crafted a story for him that supports that. His showdown with Cruiserweight champ Drew Gulak should be excellent - especially if it happens here.
A brawl to end it all
Given how much time was left in the show when Killian Dain and Matt Riddle entered the arena for their Street Fight, you knew it was gonna get messy early. What I didn’t know was that it was gonna end up involving WALTER & Imperium, Street Profits, Pete Dunne, Danny Burch, Forgotten Sons, Cezar Bononi, Angel Garza, Bronson Reed, Raul Mendoza, Mansoor, and pretty much everyone who got one of the homemade-looking shirts WWE Shop released this week.
This started when the NXT UK champ couldn’t help himself and just had to slap a choke hold on the King of Bros the first chance he got. We’re not mad about it, WALTER. It ended after the show went off the air, with General Manager William Regal angrily announcing that Dain & Riddle would restart their match on USA next Wednesday, and giving them an incentive to finish it this time. The winner gets a shot at Cole’s NXT title.
This also gave us a glimpse at just a fraction of the other talent Trips is hording in action. It’s quite an array of weapons, too. Former UFC fighters, rising indie & lucha stars, ex-TNA guys, people you’ve seen on Raw, international talent... any way you can become a pro wrestler, there’s a person who’s done it in NXT. It won’t be possible to find time for them all, but nobody’s gonna get stale. And performers can be rotated in frequently to see what clicks with the Florida live crowd, and the national televison audience.
As for tonight, it was a freaking brawl. What wrestling fan doesn’t love that.
- So... the Network shit the bed for a whole lot of people when the time came for viewers to switch from cable to streaming. I didn’t get in until quarter after. Claire was down until 9:30 EDT. The “one show, two channels” thing was a disaster waiting to happen, and it happened. Not sure what can be said about other than hope it doesn’t happen next week, and at least it won’t be an issue on Oct. 2 when all two hours is on USA.
- We got a fair amount of video packages (including ones hyping Dakota Kai’s return next week, and the latest Keith Lee/Dominik Dijakovic war on the same episode), and a pair of squashes. All I have to say about Cameron Grimes finishing Sean Maluta in seconds is that his running double stomp is a great looking move. Regarding Xia Li’s win over Borne & Boujee’s Aliyah? Li’s someone I’d love to see succeed, and not just because she’s easy on the eyes. She had a slip up during this match, but her moveset mixes in her Chinese martial arts background in a unique way that’s a lot of fun, and she has an infectious personality regardless of whether she’s smiling or pissed off.
- Pete Dunne also had a match with Arturo Ruas that surprisingly wasn’t a squash. Not sure this helped the Bruiserweight much for anyone who doesn’t already know his history, but Dunne’s made to the existing NXT audience, so it probably doesn’t hurt to put him in something like this. “This” was a chance to show how stylistically different the bouts on USA Wednesdays will be. We’ll get cruisers, and hosses, and ladies of the powerhouse & high-flying variety. And we’ll also get the occasional Evolve-esque grapple****.
- The closing segment wasn’t the only place we saw Imperium. WALTER, Fabian Aichner, Marcel Barthel & Alexander Wolfe (the latter three of whom all have history in NXT Prime) crashed another planned squash so Big Daddy could deliver his “the ring is sacred” speech. Full Sail was very excited to see the Ring General every time they glimpsed him - so much so that the first guy to stand up to him, Kushida, kind of got lost in the scene. The super junior legend reclaiming his time from WALTER was pretty cool, though, and I would love to see that play out over a longer feud.
A big part of the analysis of this episode has to do with how the USA hour will perform. How big will the audience be? Will it convince folks who don’t subscribe to the Network or who only use it for PPV to tune in, and come back?
Full disclosure - I’m the wrong one to answer those questions. I’ve been watching this show since it took over the NXT initials, and I have an emotional attachment to it because my emailing Geno to say “hey, do you mind if I submit reviews for this Hulu show” is how I started what is now a career as a wrestling blogger. Triple H had me from “We are not your kind”.
But if you’re a wrestling fan, I can’t imagine you’d watch these two hours and not see something that appeals to you. The live premiere delivered at least a little of a lot of the things NXT does well.
Will they be able to consistently do that? What happens when the head-to-head competition rolls in on Oct. 2? Or if Vince McMahon wants to get involved if the ratings aren’t great and NBCUniversal is grumbling?
I don’t know. But I’ll be watching to find out.