SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
•Kushida & Leon Ruff vs. The Way (Johnny Gargano & Austin Theory) – Men’s Dusty Classic Round One
NXT’s opener featured fairly unremarkable action outside someone (Theory) finally countering Ruff’s QTE-esque turnbuckle springboard spot. While Gargano and Theory taking on tournament favorites the Grizzled Young Veterans in the quarterfinals sounded like the better match, Kushida pinning North American Champion Gargano to advance plays into those wrestlers’ singles feud. The Way meddling to give the Veterans a quarterfinals victory won’t be ideal, but it will get the North American Championship scene where it needs to be ahead of the February 14th TakeOver.
•The Finn Balor/Pete Dunne Saga Continues
Across four segments throughout the night, NXT built to what will likely be a Wednesday night title defense for Balor against Dunne. Dunne made a good case for himself in a promo video by claiming Balor is simply a part of Dunne’s own legacy, and, being the heel, got away with inaccurately ascertaining that he’s always had to deal with being compared to Balor despite his own accomplishments. William Regal offered Balor a tag match against Dunne’s accomplices Danny Burch & Oney Lorcan, to which Balor replied, “You know I don’t have any friends.” Balor has been coming on too strong with his “cool guy” act lately, if not his entire second NXT run thus far, and this loner declaration was the lowest point yet. After Regal suggested Balor “keep [his] enemies closer,” Balor decided to cash in a favor with rival Kyle O’Reilly. The simplicity of the scene lent to its gravitas as Balor and O’Reilly shared an unbroken glare and monosyllabically agreed to team together. O’Reilly acknowledged Balor as “champ” in a moment that added to the unfortunately submissive nature he’s been revealing. Despite the minor issues, this was all a welcome throughline that effectively developed the interim top title angle.
•Ashanti “Thee” Adonis (w/Desmond Troy) vs. Karrion Kross (w/Scarlett)
Between Damian Priest and Desmond Troy, since his return Kross has been paired off against wrestlers who rival his height, making him appear smaller than his presentation intends. Though the post-match attack will likely lead to another Troy squash before Kross moves on to Balor for TakeOver, taking on the five-inches-shorter Adonis – and exhibiting a slightly more varied squash moveset in the process – was the exact right idea this week even if Adonis seems to have a higher ceiling. Adonis did an excellent job selling a resulting injury that led to he and Troy being removed from the Dusty Classic (to be replaced by a post-Fight Pit Tommaso Ciampa and Timothy Thatcher, perhaps).
•MSK Video Package
Are Borat impressions still endearing? Were they ever? Even if passé Borat impressions do seem like something Nash Carter and Wes Lee (Zachary Wentz and Dezmond Xavier of the Rascalz) would do, it’s probably not something they should do on TV much less as the introduction to their getting-to-know-you promo. The talented and promising duo did touch on their familial bond, and said winning the men’s Dusty Classic would mean a lot to them. Then Ember Moon, for some reason, said they are one of the most innovative teams to ever hit NXT because they are, well, so innovative. Hard-hitting analysis from Moon there. This vapid characterization is not a bump in the road for MSK, per se, but certainly not a boon to the early days of their NXT ascent. What’s worse, we’re still no closer to knowing what the heck “MSK” is supposed to mean.
•Imperium (Fabian Aichner & Marcel Barthel) vs. Lucha House Party (Lince Dorado & Gran Metalik) – Men’s Dusty Classic Round One
Though Lucha House Party’s NXT wins are overall negatives for the Wednesday brand since we’re talking about a team that rarely if ever wins anything on Raw and SmackDown, Dorado and Metalik actually looked like the superior team against the ailing Aichner and Barthel so this particular win felt justified in and of itself. Plus, the quarterfinals contest they move on to will allow Legado del Fantasma to get their win back against the main roster duo. With the NXT UK-based losers still struggling, Alexander Wolfe awkwardly appeared atop the ramp to greet them as they exited, suggesting more is to come from a reunited Imperium quartet.
•Fight Pit Precursors
Since boxing-style weigh-ins and dressing room rules explanations are not shown to be standard in NXT, trying to further legitimize a Fight Pit match by showing them here simply makes everything else on the show appear less legitimate. This might be more acceptable were we to believe these events actually do occur prior to other matches, and only the ones that result in silly shoving matches are aired, but that has not been established to be the case.
•Women’s Dusty Classic Commencement
To add a dash of pomp to the beginning of the first women’s Dusty Classic, Beth Phoenix returned in person to the Performance Center. Unfortunately Phoenix’ return is significant not for any reason related to the NXT women’s division, but instead related to informing speculation as to her husband Edge’s tricep rehab status. The self-aggrandizing ceremony was kept mercifully brief since ultimately this slapped-together tournament pales in comparison to the many other “firsts” WWE has at long last been affording its women’s divisions. Phoenix read a list of wrestlers who helped build the NXT women’s division in the past – a list including Carmella, who, while a semi-important figure on SmackDown of late, did nothing of real importance during her time in NXT.
•Mercedes Martinez & Toni Storm vs. Team Ninja (Kayden Carter & Kacy Catanzaro) – Women’s Dusty Classic Round One
Earlier in the show Martinez and Storm cut a backstage promo, for which Storm was even more overwrought than usual. Neither of these singles heels make sense in a random tag pairing, but they insisted they are unified in their goal to easily dispatch their diminutive first round opponents. Once between the ropes, the action was unsurprisingly superior when the less tenured wrestlers were being led by Martinez instead of Storm. As opposed to gaining the predictable underdog win on their own merit, Carter and Catanzaro needed help from Io Shirai’s vengeful attack on Martinez which in turn distracted Storm. Still, Team Ninja’s progress has been some of the most interesting to monitor as NXT has transitioned even further from its developmental roots, so the victory is welcome and puts them in an interesting position to have a less than 0% chance of toppling likely finalists Raquel Gonzalez and Dakota Kai. Shirai and Storm were briefly seen being pulled apart from one another backstage later, and Carter and Catanzaro interrupted McKenzie Mitchell’s announcement of Adonis’ injury to gratingly celebrate their win like excited schoolchildren.
•Bronson Reed vs. Tyler Rust (w/Malcolm Bivens)
The hilarious Bivens hasn’t been given much to work with, but he gets in what he can as he did while keeping cool in his surprise that Rust had gotten himself a match against “The Colossal” instead of a pushover as was probably his intended scheme. For reasons unbeknownst to commentary, Isaiah “Swerve” Scott gave Reed a cocky grin backstage prior to the match, stating, “Don’t ever get in my business again.” The two of them are set to have a rematch soon, but whatever “Swerve” is on about did not manifest in Reed’s dissection of Rust. Just a short while ago Rust had one of the most eye-catching NXT debuts of the past few years, yet he’s already being left off TV for weeks at a time before getting crushed by Reed. This could still be spun favorably, and the recently returned Reed does need to feast, but seeing Rust so quickly suffering a definitive loss after a miscommunication with his manager is discouraging.
•Santos Escobar Promo
Since the Cruiserweight Championship has a tendency to feel unimportant even when someone as strong as Escobar is holding it, it’s excellent to hear Escobar referring to himself as “The Champion of Champions” and ridiculing other male singles champions specifically to insert himself into their air. Escobar even took a grand swipe at Karrion Kross for getting injured in his victory over Keith Lee. While this seemed to be setting up a Jordan Devlin confrontation through Escobar’s words and even the way the camera framed the scene with room for Devlin to appear (a return that seems to still very much be in the cards at hand), Lucha House Party interrupted instead to brawl with their upcoming Dusty Classic opponents Raul Mendoza and Joaquin Wilde. Curt Stallion joined in to target Escobar, which led to a backstage interview segment in which Escobar said he’ll be putting his title on the line against Stallion next week. Overall this was a much-needed return to presenting Legado del Fantasma as an important element, and it stokes curiosity over how well Stallion will fare in his first NXT match.
•Killian Dain & Drake Maverick Interview
Dain & Maverick rendered another instance of what makes them so likable as a team, but NXT choosing to give them screen time after a first round win in the men’s Dusty Classic is overshadowed by the fact that their win over the Bollywood Boys was on 205 Live. To be fair, Legado del Fantasma’s win over August Grey and Curt Stallion was also on 205 Live and they are in a good position to win in the quarterfinals, and with a 16-team tournament it only makes sense to spread the less important matches to a less important show. That means, however, that Dain and Maverick working through the brackets is not an important enough story to be told during NXT’s two hours. Besides, the duo has pulled MSK for next week so either way their time in the men’s Classic is limited.
•Tommaso Ciampa vs. Timothy Thatcher – Fight Pit
While not unquestionably great like the first Fight Pit match, this awaited showdown of inevitable BFFs found ways to utilize the unique structure in a few ways we did not see last year, and focused on telling the story of Thatcher dominating in his element when pinfalls are taken off the table. The participants did get a little too cute when Drake Wuertz obediently tabled long enough for Ciampa to hit a Willow’s Bell off of the official’s back, but every other element on offer was impressively sound. Ultimately this succeeds in recalling why Thatcher was viewed as a potential top talent upon his debut and during his initial rise, and thereby makes a possible case for the attraction of the Pit to be brought out more often.