Surely, this was not NXT’s strongest year ever. Triple H’s pet project has undergone major changes that put pressure on the product to succeed under tough circumstances. The late great Dusty Rhodes’ passing was a major blow to the product. Rhodes was one of the smartest minds in wrestling history, coming up with out-of-the-box ideas and gimmicks that, somehow, just worked. They also lost one of their best writers, Ryan Ward, who went to Smackdown. Lastly, the company lost a handful of talented wrestlers due to call-ups. No longer do they have a roster with years upon years of developed characters and familiarity.
Because of the creative losses and patchwork roster, NXT did not have its best year, though it is worth noting its last surge in the past few months has been top-notch . However, even with its shortcomings throughout the year, it still produced an, overall, very good year. Its weekly television show was, for the most part, consistently watchable and inoffensive while its NXT Takeovers were way above average, producing some of the best matches this year. Here are three of them that stick out from the pack and have a claim for the best match this year.
3. NXT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH: REVIVAL (C) vs. DIY
The dynamics of these two teams complement each other. The Revival consists of two rugged, no-nonsense ruffians, and if their strapping power is, somehow, enough to handle, teams need to overcome their remorselessness as well. The Revival have no problem bending and twisting the rules in any way to gain an advantage, and they also have no problem injuring people to a point where they cannot walk. Conversely, DIY is built in a different fashion. Tommaso Ciampa is the hard-hitting stallion whereas Johnny Gargano is the quick, fast and athletic one who is the workhorse and takes more than he dishes out to keep his team in the match.
Together, they make for compelling matches attributable to Revival hard-nosed, no-nonsense ways, Gargano’s face-in-peril selling proficiencies, and Ciampa knack for cleaning house like a rabid dog. The story was that DIY did their homework better, studying the Revival’s tendencies to a tee, which helped them look like the clear favorites to win the match, but Revival’s cheating ways was too much for DIY to keep up with, even though they were clearly the superior wrestlers.
This may have started a tad too leisurely for some, but the pace indubitably kept accelerating down the stretch, catapulting the match from good formula tag-team wrestling to something epic. The action, towards the climax, was so dramatically manic and anarchic with a twist at every turn. Almost more important than all the pandemonium was that both teams felt as if they had an equal chance of winning. It was well-booked with both teams having legit claims to win and feeling if so they were on the same level, unlike so often in WWE, where one wrestler drops to the other’s level to make it even.
2. NXT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH: REVIVAL (C) vs. DIY 2/3 FALLS
At the previous NXT Takeover, these teams set the bar at a high level when they had arguably the best tag match in NXT history. However, they somehow surpassed it and then some. This was an even better match, thanks to the first match being used as stepping-stone for this match. The best rematches are when they feel like the next chapter in a book. That is exactly what this felt like. The teams understood each other more. They tried exploiting each other’s weaknesses. They themselves did not fall into previous traps or, at the very least, knew how to counter those traps. These call-backs enhanced the match from a psychological standpoint, but also made the match much more entertaining for those who remembered the first match. The fan’s deja vu sensed a spot they already saw coming, but then the wrestlers spun the direction of the match into a completely different direction, keeping the fans on the edge of their seat, cluelessly trying to guess what would happen next.
There was also more hatred in this match than before. Even though it never broke out into a heated brawl, the tension between the teams was palpable. The DIY were growing tired of the Revival looking for every underhanded edge they could find, while the Revivals were fed up with the DIY coming back for more instead of staying down. Accordingly, there was more oomph, snap, and impact behind the moves performed. Undoubtedly, the right team won. It was DIY’s time to shine after coming so close in the past, as they were finally able to muster up oodles of wherewithal and courage to defeat their barbarous foes.
Everything about this match was nigh on perfect. Good ole fashion, purely unadulterated tag team wrestling with nasty abhorrence, shrewd psychology, crafty structuralism, gritty pacing, gut-wrenching storytelling, and pyramid schematic escalation to the crescendo.
This match is a textbook exemplification of how NXT understands its audience so well. It was Shinsuke Nakamura’s first match in WWE/NXT history. In preference of booking a squash match, to build him up progressively, NXT’s writers realized he was already over with the NXT audience, and the best option was to allow him to demonstrate what makes him so special. Because it takes two to tangle, the product picked one of the best in-ring wrestlers in the company to lock horns with Nakamura. That wrestler was Sami Zayn.
This match did not need a backstory, build up, heat, ramifications, or consequences. It was two uber-competitive wrestlers wanting to see who the superior wrestler was, with them using different game plans and strategies to outmaneuver their opponent.
While never facing off before, both wrestlers gave off the impression they had been wrestling one another for years. The best wrestlers can compare other people’s styles and quirks to those who they never wrestled and not miss a beat, exactly what these two did. They established a turbulent pace, one with a ton of peaks and valleys, turning in every which unforeseeable direction. They also had exceptional timing resulting in so many complex spots, sequences, and exchanges that were so awe-inspiring and hard to believe.
Nakamura and Zayn have so many subtle characteristics that make it hard for people to take their eyes off them. Nakamura has such vibrant and palpable charisma. It is so larger-than-life due to confidence and flamboyance behind it. Zayn, meanwhile, has the grassroots fan appeal to fulfill the void left by Daniel Bryan: an average-sized man who must fight harder than everyone else has to, due to his physical disadvantages, but does so on account of his perseverance, resilience, and never-say-die attitude. There is money to be made in both superstars for dissimilar reasons.