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Welcome, gang, to the NXT Tracker TakeOver preview. This pre-Royal Rumble show is always compelling and unpredictable on a different level, as there’s always a possibility that talent will be going up the next night. Let’s attempt to predict this show anyway, and talk about the booking of the matches leading into the event.
NXT Championship: Andrade “Cien” Almas vs. Johnny Gargano
Life is good for Johnny Wrestling – after a long stay in NXT, he’s been elevated to main event status, and his wife Candice LeRae now works for the company and will likely be on hand for his big match.
Although I can’t say that Johnny’s promos are the stuff of main events on the main roster, we have at least seen a progression and extra depth to his character, and he’s only going to get better from being in this position. Interestingly, Gargano almost completely carried the load as far as selling the match, as Almas has been largely kept off of TV since his title win. Zelina Vega has certainly done her share on the stick, but Almas has been treated like a special attraction, sort of in the pay-to-see tradition of Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior, to name a couple of extremes.
While I’m conceptually on board with the idea of having a pay-to-see talent, there are a couple of mitigating factors here. First, NXT is meant to be a developmental brand, and it’s hard to develop an on-screen persona if one is not onscreen. More importantly, Almas is not the kind of champion – right now, anyway – that can afford to be left off of TV (unless he were to announce that he was a pay-to-see talent any time a roving reporter wanted a word). Almas worked as a gatekeeper for a significant amount of time, and a big win or two – achieved heelishly, but a win nonetheless – would have legitimized his reign and, by proxy, this match.
All that said, it’s been an interesting month-plus for Gargano. This is the kind of hero’s journey that adds so much to a title chase, and win or lose, I think the crowd is going to be fully behind the Gargano machine on Saturday night.
NXT Women’s Championship: Ember Moon vs. Shayna Baszler
On the weekly PWT Talks NXT podcast here at the Torch – give us a listen if you haven’t gotten the chance – Harley Pageot, our more or less official statistician, bemoaned the fact that Shayna Baszler was getting a title match despite just a single win on NXT TV. I find myself less concerned with this, as Baszler was legitimized in the Mae Young Tournament and her natural cockiness and badassery has put her over to a degree where I literally could not have told you she’d only had one TV match.
The sit down interview with both competitors this Wednesday was a great addition to this feud, as Baszler more or less explained her heinous actions toward the division’s also-rans as mere collateral damage as she works her way toward a title reign.
What was weird about the interview, though – and I’ve only put a finger on it in the days since we did the podcast – is that Ember and Shayna seem to be from two different worlds. Shayna comes off as the natural, real, intimidating terror that she truly is. Ember, for all her qualities as a wrestler, comes off as more of a character. It’s a little like the idea of, say, Conor McGregor vs. Captain America. A fun question, but impossible to gauge since the two are from different realities.
It’ll be interesting to see if either of these talents are more…centralized?…as they move up to the main roster. Ember’s high concept act in backstage segments that are usually played straight by the likes of Alexa Bliss and Natalya might really stand out in a strange way. Meanwhile, if she’s allowed to stay on this path, Shayna could be a kind of Brock Lesnar for the women’s division, and I sincerely hope she doesn’t suffer in the case that Ronda Rousey shows up and does essentially the same act on the main roster before Shayna gets there.
NXT Tag Team Championship: Undisputed Era vs. Authors of Pain
It’s a great time to love tag team wrestling – the roster has rarely if ever been as deep with varied, interesting acts as it is now across all three brands. The Authors of Pain have come a very long way since their initial push, as they now and for a long time have come off as the fearless, terrifying monsters they’re meant to be. At this point, my biggest questions for them involve their inevitable call-up date and whether or not Paul Ellering will move up with them or stay off the road.
Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly can be dynamite in the ring, but are likely to kick around NXT for a while, perhaps with a lengthy title reign, while they hone their skills on the mic (Fish is already amusing in his talkative in-ring role; I think we’ll see him progress into a solid interview).
This feels like a foregone conclusion to me, as it HAS to be time for the Authors to move up, but I’ve certainly said that before. All the same, with babyface teams lined up at the door, all the pieces are in place for the Era to retain.
Extreme Rules Match: Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole
If there’s a second match that comes off as a potential foregone conclusion in the case of a surprise call-up, it’s this one. Aleister Black would seem to have very little left to work on, as he’s dynamite as a character, believable in the ring and is now showing that his mic work fits with the overall feel of his character. He could stay down for a title run, but I think Black is much better served by moving up soon and winning his first title on the main roster, perhaps from the likes of The Miz.
We’ve been kicking it around on the podcast, but here’s my dream scenario, with an assist by Torch NXT recapper Justin James: The Miz is the Rumble’s first entrant, while Black rises up to enter next. Black overwhelms Miz, hits Black Mass and tosses Miz with time to spare, and does his trademark sit-down in the ring. Six or eight rounds later, Miz returns to ringside in a rage and signs his own death warrant by helping eliminate Black from the outside.
As for this match, Adam Cole is in desperate need of a signature win. Harley pointed out that Cole is 1-3 in singles matches on TV, despite all the posturing about him being ostensibly one of the brand’s top names. With this match getting the Extreme Rules tag, Cole has all the reason in the world to take advantage and win. Black moves up the next night, and both talents are in a better place than they were the week prior.
Kassius Ohno vs. Velveteen Dream
So, I think Dream might be my favorite wrestler. All things considered, I dig every aspect of his act and feel like I’m going to be cheering him to a level I haven’t cheered anyone in probably four years or so. With apologies to all the great talent on the roster, this is a character that clicks for me on a personal level.
The match was an announcement on social media. It was actually announced before NXT TV aired, which essentially made the announcement a spoiler for the Dream-Gargano match (nobody thought Dream would simply go over, but a triple threat seemed a small possibility).
It’ll be a good match, of course. I wouldn’t have said this a few months ago, but Dream’s time in NXT might be on the short side. Count me as terrified of how much the main roster could squander this act, though.
Who’s Left and Who Wins?
Let’s go with Gargano, Baszler, Fish and O’Reilly, Cole and Dream. However, I feel less confident than usual in almost every match (other than the tag).
Nikki Cross will complete a mini-feud with Lacey Evans in a match that will air Wednesday; it might be Nikki’s time to head to the main roster in the Rumble so this could be a case of her putting over Evans, though I remain skeptical that Evans is worth the trouble. It certainly seemed possible that we were headed for Sullivan-Dain at TakeOver, but we’ll apparently have to wait for that as well. There’s another two guys that could easily show up Sunday, as the Rumble is long in talent but short on monsters.
The Street Profits aren’t booked, but I’m fine with a bit of a slow burn there. I figure we’ll see them next Wednesday as well.
Enjoy Rumble weekend, Torch readers – with an unpredictable TakeOver card and no Rumble leaks like the Orton win last year, it’s looking like a good weekend.