SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
•Finn Balor promo
Though denying even the champion a full entrance in a practice we’ve seen all too frequently on NXT of late, this week’s program kicked off in a way that would echo throughout the night as WarGames has entered the rearview. Balor delivered even more confidently than is his custom, and was interrupted by Pete Dunne, Kyle O’Reilly, and Damien Priest – all wrestlers who absolutely belong in this top title picture right now. The above-it-all Balor left the potential challengers to bicker amongst themselves before he was approached by Scarlett, who was dressed as if Madonna was making a music video for a “Silent Hill” soundtrack (it’s a compliment). The segment’s best moment came with Balor’s expression in response to this confrontation – as opposed to shrinking from the return of a man expected to demolish him in Karrion Kross, Balor gave an expertly sly grin in anticipation of the inevitable showdown as if he’s been waiting for it all along. Other choice moments included O’Reilly questioning whether Balor really won their TakeOver 31 match as he’s “spent the past two months eating through a straw,” Priest coolly referring to Scarlett by her pre-WWE nickname “Smokeshow,” and Balor again referring to working with him as getting “the Finn rub.” The individual participants are still dealing with their own ongoing personal feuds, but with this open NXT appropriately set the table for a compelling 2021 men’s title scene.
•Jake Atlas vs. Isaiah “Swerve” Scott
For all his recognized talent, Jake Atlas’ TV time over the past several months has failed to convey the company’s belief in him. Even last week’s win over Tony Nese fell flat, no matter how many times commentary reminded us Nese once had (read: spilled) a cup of coffee with the Cruiserweight Championship; and there’s no way anyone bought the WrestleMania-level fake crowd noise behind Atlas’ generic post-match interview. Getting a clean win over the more focal Swerve in this perfectly swell cruiserweight contest, however, is the most promising his presence has yet felt. On the other side of it, moving Swerve heel through his frustration feels appropriate as it was difficult to see where Swerve slotted in as a babyface after losing an extended title program against Santos Escobar. This brief encounter took ingredients that have been stale for weeks and reimbued some interest, even if it’s a mystery why Swerve’s buddy Ashanti “Thee” Adonis has disappeared down a 205 Live hole.
•Ever-Rise vs. Grizzled Young Veterans vs. Fabian Aichner & Marcel Barthel
This collection of teams has not made for great television over the past several weeks, but it’s at least been consistent. Though a pittance, it’s a step up from where the tag division has been most of the calendar year, and it’s bringing a divisional hierarchy into view with the Grizzled Young Vets looking dominant. The match itself was entirely too chaotic, but unlike last week did not overstay its welcome before getting its job sufficiently done.
•WarGames recap package
It is rare in routine circumstances to see this much footage from pay-walled events given away on the fallout TV, but the choice to present this package feels like a smart move. Though this year thankfully featured more actual narrative in the cages than other recent iterations, more than anything NXT’s version of WarGames aims to be a pure demolition derby. Showing a litany of spots and having the participants comment on them while not giving too much away could lead to Network subscriptions in both the short- and long-term. For those who already have the Network, this was fresh enough to be inoffensive.
•Toni Storm interview
In one of many threads stemming from the various title pictures, Storm – much more believable as a heel and currently looking very good to become the next NXT Women’s Champion before spring – was attacked by Io Shirai before Ember Moon got involved. Raquel Gonzalez is Shirai’s forthcoming challenge, but in the meantime Moon and Storm will be battling for next. Just a quick affair, and considered alongside the concise Gonzalez interview later in the night this altercation did an excellent job of further cementing character motivations not only ahead of this week’s main event but also likely for months to come.
•Tommaso Ciampa vs. Cameron Grimes
While Grimes fits better than Timothy Thatcher with Ciampa’s new gimmick of hand-picking whom in the locker room to take to task, it is funny for Grimes to be Ciampa’s second target after thoroughly losing his latest feud. It’s also dubious for it to have taken Ciampa so long to put Grimes away considering how the North Carolina boy has been booked. Of course that’s no slight on Grimes himself, who shines no matter the situation and can talk himself over any time he needs to. It is certainly not lost that he’s on TV this week while the bland person he’s spent the past couple months putting over is not. As with their post-match stare-down on Sunday, it’s still difficult to know what to make of Thatcher continuing to take interest in Ciampa as he displayed by seating himself at ringside for this bout. It almost seems as though Thatcher is on the hunt for a new BFF. Then with new Thatch as Thatch Can student Tyler Rust being courted by Malcolm Bivens, further curiosity is added. It’s all unclear as of yet, but it’s intriguing.
•Boa & Xia Li video
It’s a good thing Boa and Xia Li (and Karen Q for that matter, assuming she is indeed the shrouded matriarch) are as talented as they are, because the heightening intensity of these brutal training videos means they will have no choice but to deliver big when the time comes to bring all of this to the ring. This particular edition of these cinematic teases enjoyed the best production value yet, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the videos’ style doesn’t feel like a fit on NXT TV. Thankfully the footage in and of itself is good enough to possibly be reframed in future promo packages, and if Boa and Li do in fact meet their potential back between the ropes it won’t matter how rocky the road getting them there has been.
•The Gargano Way promo
If Johnny Gargano implies his character rehearses his goofy promos before doing them live, does that forgive how very scripted this particular goofy promo felt? Either way, with the Gargano Way standing in the ring as an unmasked quartet for the first time, this at least provided a glimpse of the personality the promising Indi Hartwell brings to the table. We also got another eyebrow-raising blink-and-miss-it moment of Gargano stating he values wins and championships above all else as Candice LeRae looked at him, nonplussed. Whether that detail leads anywhere may not be known for months and months. The real meat here came when Damien Priest interjected to address his unfinished business with Gargano and Austin Theory. Priest conducted himself confidently before being physically waylaid by a returning Karrion Kross. The leather jacketed Kross looked great as he sidelined Priest then departed via sports car in what could be setting up a logical black & gold farewell for Priest as Kross zeroes in on the belt he never lost. Kushida was also later shown backstage aligning with Leon Ruff to take on Gargano & Theory next week, which feels as though it’s leading to believable North American Championship contention for the Time-Splitter.
•Killian Dain vs. Pete Dunne
Another situation where a top title contender is dealing with a personal feud, if this second-best match of the night had one issue it’s that it ran a little long, especially for a match with an interference finish. Apart from that quibble, it’s Dain and Dunne – not only do they rarely disappoint, but Dain also proved here that, completely against type, he can play a sympathetic babyface. As a result the returning Dain & Drake Maverick act becomes even more likable. The interference from NXT Tag Team Champions Danny Burch & Oney Lorcan – as well as Maverick attempting the save – did fit, as well, as it smoothly moves the issue of the tag titles right back where it should be. It also reaffirms the heels’ alliance on an episode shying away from mentioning their unifying benefactor Pat McAfee. Now just to get Dunne’s new tan faded to a few notches below Oompa-Loompa.
•Raquel Gonzalez vs. Ember Moon
The main event and match of the night wisely pitted power against agility, telling the story of Gonzalez’ strength overcoming even Moon who has been more impressive than ever each time she’s appeared since returning to NXT. It is unclear how long Gonzalez’ partner Dakota Kai may be out after WarGames, but the timing allows Gonzalez to fly on her own as her steady rise from her debut in the first Mae Young Classic begins to crest. Gonzalez impactfully brought back her former Stan Hansen lariat finish as a set-up for her newer one-armed powerbomb for the win. She may not seem every bit the monster she’s presented to be, but she is grasping this long-awaited opportunity to her best. Toni Storm and then Rhea Ripley made their respective presences felt after the finish, giving a complete snapshot of the NXT Women’s Championship scene heading into the new year. With the strong sense that Ripley is main roster-bound sooner rather than later it is believable that, were it up to her, the Nightmare would choose to give her final rub to her longtime Performance Center training mate and Coconut Loop tag partner Gonzalez.