SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
•Johnny Gargano vs. Ridge Holland
There was no nonsense before we crashed right to our opening contest to qualify for the first of two second-chance entries into the NXT North American Championship ladder match at this Saturday’s Takeover: XXX (say that five times fast). I’m one who actually likes show-opening promos to set the tone for a given evening but I’d be lying if I said going straight to Johnny Gargano’s entrance wasn’t attention-grabbing, especially on the first week NXT is running unopposed by the preempted AEW. Most importantly, this match was a bit of a stateside coming-out party for Ridge Holland who had the perfect foil in Gargano with whom to exhibit his rugby-influenced power style. It is impossible to look past the nasty bump Gargano took that reportedly halted the match’s taping midway through, and it was surprising to see that bump shown (and replayed many times) even if Gargano was fine to finish afterward. That said, to me this is an example of the measured risk wrestlers take every time they step in the ring. As opposed to being careless or irresponsible with his opponent, it appears as though Holland simply didn’t get the full rotation he was looking for after Gargano’s weight was added to his own in midair. Something to work on, but not something to raise an immediate red flag over. Ultimately, “Johnny TakeOver” went over as he should have to become what I expect will be the glue in the big ladder match, though the key takeaway here is that Holland is continuing to capitalize on the promise he’s shown since he first began appearing as job talent on NXT programming.
•Dakota Kai vs. Jessi Kamea
Like Holland, Kamea is one I’ve had my eye on for a few years, though I greatly preferred her bubbly nerd character before she transitioned to being the ambiguous “muse” then eventually transitioned again to being the generic utility jobber we see today. She was perfectly okay in this standard affair designed to put Kai over before Kai challenges Io Shirai for the NXT Women’s Championship. This segment was really about the post-match where Kai cut a rare in-ring promo, which led to a brawl with Shirai, which in turn led to Raquel Gonzalez returning with a sudden big boot and a beautiful one-armed powerbomb to the champion. Gonzalez’ brief yet curious absence was sufficiently worked into the Kai/Shirai build, though doing her return here as opposed to at TakeOver feels like a tell for where the safe money already was – that Shirai will retain. Still, the ingredients here were strong and Gonzalez dominating is always a welcome sight on my screen.
•Tegan Nox interview
In the lone backstage segment of the night McKenzie Mitchell reached Tegan Nox to comment on her feud with Candice LeRae, which I wouldn’t for the life of me have been able to remember was a thing. We learned that Nox likes to socialize over wine, so on a scale of Nox segments to Nox segments, this was significant. Add “likes wine” to your character sheet – below “bad knees” but above “fiend for pizza.”
Verdict: A HIT on the Nox Scale
•Breezango & Isaiah”Swerve” Scott vs. Legado del Fantasma
The Cruiserweight division has been on such a roll that even their obligatory, feud-extending six-man tags are good. We didn’t get anything revolutionary here, but this was a fine example of just how featured Swerve has gotten to be as he looks to challenge title holder Santos Escobar. Swerve enjoyed an upgrade to his entrance graphics, and was confidently in charge of each of his opponents going into the break with the more WWE-tenured Tyler Breeze and Fandango deferring to his lead. After commercials he got the hot tag that had been built up by Fandango, who has come to specialize in building hot tags. Then after looking as though he was to emerge victorious, his team only lost due to confusion over legal participants as Escobar scored the fall over Breeze. Swerve almost certainly won’t defeat Escobar in the end, but the focus he’s getting is a relief to see when despite his magnetic talents he could have easily just been used as cannon fodder. We also got word after this that Raul Mendoza & Joaquin Wilde of Legado del Fantasma will wrestle Breezango and the team of Danny Burch & Oney Lorcan in a number-one contenders match on the Takeover pre-show, and I am digging the idea of Mendoza & Wilde holding tag gold.
•Adam Cole-Pat McAfee face-to-face
As if I wasn’t already bought in on the idea of a completely full-of-himself Pat McAfee stepping to the newly babyface Adam Cole and bringing whatever crossover attention he can to Cole’s potential as a difference-making star, McAfee went ahead and cut one of the promos of the year for this go-home. Though according to Triple H’s comments on the same day’s media conference call McAfee is a lifelong WWE fan who has always “dreamed” of being a wrestler, McAfee the character is perfectly framing his perception of this feud as something he can simply strut into and succeed at without care. Then, when met with Cole’s collected response and demonstration on a swarm of security guards, McAfee compellingly emoted the fear hiding just behind his façade. Matched by the casual way he is produced, he is embracing his role as an outsider and has played a large part in making the match with Cole by far the top selling point for TakeOver: XXX. As an added point of intrigue he was flanked here by other former Indianapolis Colts players, leading us to wonder just how much of a factor they – and Undisputed Era in turn – may play on Saturday.
Verdict: The ceremonial biggest HIT of the night
•Aliyah & Mercedes Martinez (w/Robert Stone) vs. Shotzi Blackheart & Rhea Ripley
I can’t disagree with the current slotting of any of these wrestlers, and the match was perfectly fine for the most part (added to the cool new upgrade to Rhea Ripley’s entrance), but overall this felt more like filler than anything. The edited crash pad powerbomb from Ripley to Mercedes Martinez did not help matters. Furthermore, the babyfaces don’t seem to be facing a challenge here. We will have to look to the follow-up to see how the Robert Stone Brand retaliates, but for now…
•Karrion Kross-Keith Lee video
Though this was pitched to as if it could be a “Prime Target” – a format that might not fit Karrion Kross – it was pretty much just a music video cutting footage from this title feud to the Metallica song being used as the Takeover XXX theme. Seeing as there were no further go-home angles for this after last week’s fireball stunt I am in favor of the video having been included to at least try to sell Saturday’s presumed main event, and its production values were high as has long been expected of WWE. In the end, however, it was just a re-hash music video that could have been saved for TakeOver itself in favor of, say, a medical update on Lee.
•Finn Balor vs. Velveteen Dream
Our predictably slotted main event for the final second-chance entry into the Takeover ladder match enjoyed the hype of a video package just past the first half hour mark. Balor remains marketable to Wednesday night’s target audiences, though that may not last if NXT continues to play it safe with his returned-from-the-main-roster dust before giving the guy some meaningful wins. Here he’s losing thanks to the eye-rolling interference of literally everyone else who qualified for the ladder match, as well as the surprising interference from Timothy Thatcher whom Balor is now abruptly booked in a Take0ver grudge match against. We went through two commercials with passable action that never quite rose to even Balor’s rarely inspiring water level. This is all added to the fact that Velveteen Dream was brought back to TV before WWE bothered to publicly address their investigation of the strong allegations against him, and he is now winning his way to a Takeover title match after Triple H has mired the situation further with an uncharacteristically stumbling deflection of the matter on the aforementioned conference call. NXT has succeeded in making me unsure just who will come out of Saturday our new North American Champion, but this final segment before Take0ver was an unbecoming mess.