Friday, May 22, 2015

NXT Takeover: Unstoppable - Underclassmen Outshine WWE Superstars

Kevin Owens, with chair, looms above injured Sami Zayn
Kevin Owens is not the sort of person the WWE used to hire. Let alone shine the spotlight on. He’s not especially tall. He’s overweight. He has a face and a beard that you'd expect to pass on the street, not see on your TV. But when you see him wrestle he makes you into an instant fan not in spite of all that, but because of it. It would be wrong to say Kevin is unassuming, because if you spilt his drink at a bar you would likely be terrified of what this guy might do to you, but his stamina and athleticism far surpass what you’d expect from someone with his physique.

And when Kevin somersaults over the top rope onto a wrestler outside the ring, you aren’t thinking ‘how graceful’ you’re thinking about how much it would hurt to have Kevin Owens somersault on top of you. Everything Kevin does looks like it hurts. That he got his nose broken moments into his first televised match in NXT only helped establish the character. With blood pouring from his nose, and streaming down his shirt, Kevin didn’t pause to have the referee check the injury. He just kept on pummeling the other guy as if he didn’t care.

The crowd gasped with every feat of strength, speed and agility. More importantly, the crowd believed every moment. Let’s get one thing straight, very few wrestling fans are unaware that wrestling is staged, but we’re all there to be told a story. To be shown something we can believe in. Just the same as audiences packing into Broadway theaters.

And Kevin made it very easy to believe. When he told everyone he would fight anyone at any time, we believed. We he told everyone he was there to win the title and to earn the big money to support his wife and kids, we believed. When long time NXT standout, and Kevin’s real life best friend, Sami Zayn, won that title, and Kevin rushed out to congratulate him, anyone who had followed these two through the smaller independent wrestling promotions couldn’t help but believe in what was a genuine moment.

Two best friends. Together again. Simultaneously enjoying the biggest nights of their careers. It was truly a magic moment. The NXT copyright logo came on screen signifying the end of the broadcast as the two friends walked to the back… but instead of fading to black Kevin instead turned on his friend attacking him from behind and power bombing him into the side of the ring. If you don’t know what a power bomb is, all you need to know is that it looked real and it looked like it really hurt.

When Kevin Owens wants to be booed, he’s damn well going to get booed.

That attack led to a title shot two short months later, and a completely lopsided and brutal beating later, Kevin Owens was walking around with the title over his shoulder, or around his ample waist. And no one was going to question him.

And that is just one example of the kind of storytelling happening on NXT.

The recently broadcast ‘NXT Takeover: Unstoppable’ live event had a couple of big question marks hanging over it, with two of the biggest stars on the card picking up real injuries in the weeks leading up to it. Coming hot on the heels of one of the best wrestling shows I’d ever seen, Unstoppable seemed poised to be a good but not great two hours of wrestling, but I should have learnt to stop underestimating NXT.

If you saw the original version of NXT back on the SyFy channel, you can put that completely out of your mind. NXT is now a fully grown wrestling federation all by itself, with its own roster of wrestlers, its own production style and its own look and feel. Most weeks NXT airs prerecorded on Hulu and the WWE’s own WWE Network (an online ‘over the top’ channel), presenting an hour of good to great matches, but it’s the live specials which air exclusively on the Network which represent unmissable TV for anyone even vaguely interested in wrestling.

Take relative newcomer Finn Balor. On the pre-recorded episodes Finn is a particularly gifted wrestler whose most notable trait is that he’s Irish. The Finn Balor who wrestles on the specials is a whole other entity all together, crawling out through the smoke, painted up like a monster, wearing a cloak that doubles as dragon’s wings, with spines all down his back. This Finn Balor is the demon, bringing a mystique and charisma arguably not seen since the heydays of the Undertaker.
Finn Balor in demon form is a sight to behold
It isn’t criticizing his match last night with Tyler Breeze (a character who is a male model that moonlights as a wrestler) to say that Finn’s entrance overshadowed the whole affair, because the entrance was that entertaining. Finn and Tyler put on a solid wrestling match, fighting to get the next title shot against the winner of the rematch between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Finn won the honor, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t. When the demon shows up it’s electric, whatever happens.

Another area where NXT outright embarrasses its bigger brother is in how it treats the women on the roster. Featured in two long matches, NXTs women put on wrestling matches absolutely on par with what the guys do. Charlotte Flair will headline a PPV someday, and it will be absolutely deserved. It doesn’t hurt being the daughter of the most decorated wrestler ever, Ric Flair, but Charlotte deserves every bit of praise that’s come her way. She is the very definition of a natural and was the star of the tag match featuring the team of her and Bailey vs Emma and Dana Brook, as she is the star of most every match she’s featured in.

Becky Lynch shows real emotion after her match
But it wasn’t her night to shine the brightest in the division. Easily taking home ‘match of the night’ honors were Women’s Champion Sasha Banks and title challenger Becky Lynch who wrestled a 20 minute plus masterclass. Anyone who doesn’t think women can wrestle as well as men could do a lot worse than watching this one. While the hard hitting moves and risk taking stunts impressed, what impressed more was the ebb and flow of the match, as both women tried to isolate and injure an arm of their opponent in order to set up a submission finish. Numerous escapes and reversals later, Sasha was able to get the win, but Becky Lynch had a star making performance and cemented her name as one to watch.

NXT is also a place where you get to see wrestlers still honing their craft, be it promising work in progress Baron Corbin finally getting the chance to show he can work longer matches as he went up against aging star Rhyno, or tag team challengers Enzo and Big Cass who are finally starting to gel inside the ring. It’s rewarding to see the steady improvement of people you want to see succeed. Enzo and Big Cass have been incredibly entertaining on the mic and outside the ring, but seeing them put on their best in ring performance yet was a highlight of the night even if our generic champions Murphy and Blake walked away with the titles.

In the main event, Sami Zayn got his rematch against Kevin Owens and a chance to win back the belt, but it was never going to be. With Sami clearly injured when he wrestled John Cena on Monday Night Raw a couple of weeks back, the story was one of a hurt contender refusing to back down. If there was any doubt ahead of the match, none was left after it. Don’t show up to fight Kevin Owens if you’re hurt, because you’ll just get more hurt. And he won’t stop trying to hurt you even more even after you’re incapable of defending yourself.

With the match waved off, and Kevin still trying to further hurt Sami (who he claims he has no personal issues with), there was one final surprise as Samoa Joe, arguably one of the biggest stars of the last ten years not to have wrestled for the WWE, made his surprise debut to call out Kevin. Word is that Joe had never been too interested in working for the WWE, but saw in NXT a style of show and a pool of talent where he knew he’d fit right in.

And really, that says as much about NXT as anything else. NXT is a wrestling show that puts the wrestling first. That puts the best wrestlers at the top of the card, rather than the most marketable or best looking guys and gals. On the main roster, wrestling is a dirty word, the wrestlers dubbed ‘entertainers’. NXT shows that at least some people working for the WWE remember how entertaining wrestling itself can be. That shines through in a TV show that's not only winning wrestling fans over, but making people into wrestling fans.
Photos from WWE.COM

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