NXT HITS & MISSES 9/23: COVID-19 forces sudden alterations to already abbreviated TakeOver build, developmental talent featured in battle royal, the rise of O’Reilly

by Tom Stoup, PWTorch Contributor

Rhea Ripley Candice LeRae NXT Battle Royal


•Women’s #1 Contender Battle Royal

NXT sure loves going to women’s battle royals to decide title contenders. It would seem lazy if the matches weren’t such good opportunities to glimpse the state of the division as a whole. Including Tegan Nox who was sidelined in a pre-match angle with Candice LeRae, 20 wrestlers were featured. Five are unsigned local talent including Pro Wrestling 2.0 women’s champion Gia Roman. Performance Center trainees Catalina, Rita Reis, Emily Andzulis, and the newly signed Brandi Lauren also got TV time. In fact, setting aside current champion Io Shirai and apparent new Raw Underground co-host Briana Brandy only two active female members of the NXT/Performance Center rosters did not appear, those being Santana Garrett and Jessi Kamea. We had a handful of subplots heading into this contest, as well, and while I’m unsure they all received their due they at least provided more intrigue than the messy dash to a finish these affairs can often become. In particular, aforementioned local talent served as cannon fodder for the feuding powerhouses Raquel Gonzalez and Rhea Ripley, and the careful rise of Kacy Catanzaro continued as she again exhibited her Kofi Kingston-esque elimination avoidance. The finish came down to a unique contest on the ring steps between Shotzi Blackheart and the victorious Candice LeRae. I believe LeRae is the right move as not only could her new character stand to be viewed as a contender but this also heightens her rivalry with Nox, a storyline that has given NXT’s pet project Nox her most effective development to date. Though Shirai is likely to retain in what will be her second TakeOver showdown with LeRae, the “Poison Pixie” does also feel like the most believable usurper of Shirai’s reign yet.

Verdict: HIT

•Backstage interviews with Damian Priest, Io Shirai, Austin Theory

Across the episode we heard three separate interviews pertaining to the North American Championship and Women’s Championship TakeOver builds, all of which lead to next week’s mixed tag between the babyface champions and the “Gargano Way” challengers. Damian Priest improved upon his most recent middling interview by effortlessly coming off as cool and confident. The Shirai and Theory interviews were interrupted, however, as part of NXT’s sudden scramble to build the TakeOver card. This is what happens when you schedule a TakeOver on unusually short notice while your failure and your employees’ failures to abide necessary precautions during a pandemic is also resulting in a depleted roster. If you tuned in to NXT for the first time in a while you’d think Johnny Gargano has been hounding Priest for weeks, when in fact this was week one. The only silver lining to COVID-19 rampaging through the locker room is that the headache of plexiglass banging has been replaced with the venue-appropriate and far less painful crowd noise NXT UK has been using since its return last week.

Verdict: MISS

•Fashion Police throwback

Add Tyler Breeze to the list of conspicuously absent players, as Fandango alone took center stage dressed as Sherlock Holmes to introduce an intentionally confusing concept for deciding the next challengers to Breezango’s tag titles. Martin Stone was also on hand to serve as the frazzled William Regal’s Cockney translator. The “Fashion Police” segments from the “SmackDown Live” era were genuinely amusing, but this felt like a Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer parody movie that relies more on simply referencing the past than creating new humor from old ingredients.

Verdict: MISS

•Jake Atlas vs. Tommaso Ciampa

Despite Atlas’ notable potential as a worker and character, when put in a rematch with Ciampa one might imagine he’s in for another one-sided beatdown. He does, after all, excel at making his opponent look even better than they are. So after Atlas’ initial flurry I expected “The Blackheart” to put things away in short order. The fresher NXT face held on, though, which could be read as a glimmer of hope his midcard championship ceiling is still in the cards. In what may be one of the lesser oddities resulting from NXT’s COVID-19 issues it does seem as though Ciampa’s collision course with Kyle O’Reilly has been diverted for the time being. If the ever-important Ciampa must be heel again to fill the inopportunely injured Karrion Kross’ shoes, however, he could do a whole lot worse than this series of squash matches – a modern rarity.

Verdict: HIT

•Gauntlet Eliminator hype package

If we squint through the framing of this package as a Corey Taylor music video for his new song “Culture Head”, we find an excellent table-setter for the night’s unique main event. Each participant – Cameron Grimes, Kushida, Kyle O’Reilly, Bronson Reed, and Timothy Thatcher – was more or less exhibited in their own respective element, discussing why they want to earn a shot at NXT Champion Finn Balor. Hilariously, Grimes’ makeshift “bayou” is no longer being shot in a way that conceals its true identity as a retention pond next to the Performance Center. The highlight here is O’Reilly speaking in a voice he’s previously kept to his personal social media, sounding like a genuine, down-to-earth human being. It’s difficult to watch “Kool Kyle” and not wind up yearning for his success.

Verdict: HIT

•Fabian Aichner & Raul Mendoza vs. Danny Burch & Roderick Strong

Another issue with the earlier Fandango skit is that in being deliberately confusing as an attempt at comedy, the resulting preliminary contender’s match wound up being actually confusing. While recognizing its illogical nature that was likely another last-minute result of NXT’s many COVID-19 positives, I actually enjoyed the novelty of the stipulation that the winners would square off in a singles match against one another to cement their own usual team as the actual #1 contenders (step aside, Gauntlet Eliminator). This made for plenty head-scratching, however, when instead of fight, Burch and Strong simply postured following their win as commentary said the singles match would be aired on next week’s program. These elements aside, the action was fine as one expects from the gentlemen involved. The only problems stemmed from the separately rated Fandango video. Tempted though I am to dole out more “misses” for segments clearly affected by an irresponsible approach to the pandemic, I’ll give it a pass.

Verdict: HIT

•Damian Priest vs. Austin Theory

In the second of two matches I thought would clock in about half the length they ended up going, I wound up appreciative that Priest was matched up with yet another wrestler great at feeding, bumping, and selling. Priest is really rising to the occasion of this North American Championship reign. So, while I want to laud the segment overall based on that quality, this was ultimately just to add a tiny bit of heat to the frigid TakeOver build when Johnny Gargano attacked Priest after the bell. It’s possible this would have worked better had Gargano not previously been announced as the TakeOver challenger out of nowhere on social media, though the onus would then be on Priest to lose his admirable cool and demand the defense since Johnny Fill-in-the-Blank has done little of late to earn such a shot.

Verdict: MISS

•Returning wrestler teaser

This brief video may have looked like a scene from an early 2000s direct-to-VHS espionage flick, but it did an excellent job of generating curiosity over just who the mystery person being promoted to show up on TakeOver will be. At first I thought it could be Evolve Champion Josh Briggs, whose recent signing was an inevitability and surely takes precedent over other lingering developmental projects (Cal Bloom, Daniel Vidot, etcetera). When I realized the voiceover was indicating this person has “come back” to “take [the title],” I started thinking of former champions now idling like Bo Dallas and Bobby Roode. Former challengers also feel possible since the vignette does not specify this was someone who succeeded in winning the title, though few realistic options come to mind there given certain circumstances and main roster positions. A re-hired Curtis Axel? A miraculously returning Tyson Kidd? Then it finally dawned on me how embarrassingly closed-minded I was being, as the video never specifies what gender this person is. WWE’s own promotion of it after the fact has been careful to utilize gender-neutral pronouns. So this feels wide open to be anyone from Ember Moon to Eva Marie. To state the core benefit more simply: it’s got us talking.

Verdict: HIT

•Isaiah “Swerve” Scott vignette

Swerve challenged Santos Escobar to a Cruiserweight Championship match with the rest of Legado del Fantasma barred from ringside. This being a widely superb feud that has escalated both Escobar and Swerve, the hope is to see it get a TakeOver spot. The video was no-nonsense, to-the-point, and either of the involved competitors remain a welcome sight on my TV.

Verdict: HIT

•Antonio de Luca vs. Ridge Holland

Earlier in the night Holland got a solid video package showcasing his legitimate rugby background thereby saving a trip to Wikipedia for anyone wondering if this is just a recycled Cesaro gimmick. Holland also referred to his younger self as “Little Ridgey,” so even if his squash of de Luca didn’t end up being characteristically impressive I’d still have no choice but to applaud.

Verdict: HIT

•Gauntlet Eliminator – Kyle O’Reilly vs. Kushida vs. Bronson Reed vs. Timothy Thatcher vs. Cameron Grimes

Talk about your promising fields. When really breaking down the possibilities here, though, this absolutely seemed like O’Reilly’s for the taking. And not only did he take it – he personally eliminated three of the other four combatants. Unfortunately the “gauntlet eliminator” gimmick added little to the bulk of the actual proceedings and failed to captivate. We even got an unwelcome Velveteen Dream run-in after Dream appeared to have been written back off TV last week amid his ongoing controversy WWE refuses to yield transparency on. It’s great to see O’Reilly booked in a featured TakeOver singles match, though, as his NXT tenure has long felt like a breakout singles run waiting to happen. The past several weeks have not only galvanized me in that thought, but also brought me to believe that if things continue to go well O’Reilly could find himself alongside Sami Zayn as having one of the best feel-good NXT Championship wins in the title’s lineage. That said, Balor will win on October 4th. I do believe, though, that this will be an important step in the bubbling Undisputed Era breakup, and it will serve as a major signal to look at O’Reilly as a big deal in and of himself as opposed to just part of a whole.

Verdict: HIT

Total: 8 Hits & 3 Misses for a rounded Hit percentage of 73%

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