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St-Pierre’s NXT TakeOver: Phoenix Review

January 26, 2019 | Posted by Jake St-Pierre
Johnny Gargano Tommaso Ciampa NXT TakeOver: Phoenix
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St-Pierre’s NXT TakeOver: Phoenix Review  

As far as television and storytelling goes, I don’t think NXT has ever been better. I know that their 2014-2015 heyday gets a heap of praise – and rightfully so in most respects – but I don’t think enough of that praise is directed towards what this current crop of talent has been able to produce. Hopefully this doesn’t ruffle feathers given nostalgia is a powerful tool, but those 2014-2015 Takeover cards are largely ROH house shows compared to the last 3 years of these events. That’s an obvious statement, because these cards are far less reliant on the in-house WWE recruits, with the company opting rather to outsource the talent to Japan and the indies so they can take 2 years to teach them how to look at the right camera. It’s a condescending and boneheaded move logically given talents like Aleister Black and Johnny Gargano could have been main event talents the second they signed contracts, but boy does it give us some incredible programming in NXT. So much so that any call-up of even a slightly respected talent is met with groans, shrugs, and the somewhat-premature reminiscing for who they were in NXT. Apologies for the long-winded intro, but it kind of blows me away that wrestling under a WWE umbrella can contain some of the most nuanced, logical, and easy-to-watch wrestling on the planet. And at this point of time, I don’t think the weekly NXT show has fired on every cylinder like it has over the past year. Enough of that though, and let’s see what all that great TV has been building towards.

We are LIVE from the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, AZ.

Your hosts are Mauro Ranallo, Nigel McGuinness, & Percy Watson.

NXT Tag Titles: The Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly & Roderick Strong) vs. The War Raiders
This is a very risky match to open the show, but in the most positive way imaginable. Strong and O’Reilly’s output as a tag team – and as half of the Undisputed Era faction – has actually exceeded my already lofty expectations. Without even mentioning their other work, you could just casually put their series with Moustache Mountain out there to validate their talent. I’ll even go one step further and say I think Strong and O’Reilly are better than Fish and O’Reilly ever were… and reDRagon was fantastic. Watching them get thrown around by huge babyfaces Hanson and Rowe will only accentuate their talents, and given I actually loved the Wargames match more than most, I don’t see how this can’t deliver on the back of that.

Hanson and Rowe’s entrance is the best sort of cheesy goofiness that only pro wrestling can provide. The Era attack Hanson and Rowe as soon as the bell sounds, trying to catch them offguard early. Rowe bowls both men over though, sending them to the floor so Hanson can have his piece too. Rowe follows them to the floor, where Rowe bodyslams Hanson onto both champions on the floor. The Raiders hone in on Roddy, but Kyle saves his partner from Fallout and starts making his presence known. Strong and O’Reilly use their numbers and speed to isolate Hanson in the corner, but Hanson is able to bumrush his way through a Guillotine to tag in Rowe. Rowe no-sells a forearm and DOCTOR BOMBS STRONG INTO O’REILLY in an awesome spot. Hanson sees both Strong and O’Reilly on the floor, but WIPES OUT ON A SENTON SUICIDA! Rowe is still raising hell in the ring, but the numbers game eventually works out again as Hanson is still out on the floor. O’Reilly works a Triangle on Rowe, but Strong sees Rowe lifting him up, so Roddy tags in and gives him a Backbreaker to bring him back to Earth. Hanson finally makes his way back to the apron as Kyle works for a standing Arm Triangle as Roddy tries to take out Hanson… only for Hanson to STARE HIM IN THE FACE! Strong and O’Reilly take Rowe back into their corner, but Rowe is eventually able to find himself alone and beckoning for a tag… only for O’Reilly to take down Hanson and distract him, so Strong can take out Hanson with a dropkick and Rowe with… well, a dropkick. Rowe is ever-so-persistent though, finally getting to Hanson for the hot tag after destroying poor Kyle with a knee. Hanson cleans house and CARTWHEELS INTO A LARIAT ON O’REILLY! NONSTOP AVALANCHES ON STRONG AND O’REILLY! KYLE ACCIDENTALLY KICKS RODDY! TOUR OF THE ISLANDS ON O’REILLY! BRONCO BUSTER ON STRONG! This is SO GOOD. Rowe and O’Reilly duke it out now, but soon enough all hell breaks loose! POP-UP POWERSLAM ON O’REILLY! HANSON WITH A TOPE SUICIDA TO RODDY! KYLE KICKS OUT! POWERBOMB TO O’REILLY! HANSON SPLASH!! RODDY BREAKS IT UP! FALLOUT… COUNTERED BY O’REILLY! STRONG SUPERPLEXES HANSON~! O’REILLY WITH A DIVING KNEE! HANSON KICKS OUT!!!! BACKBREAKER ON THE APRON TO ROWE! Strong and O’Reilly keep going at Hanson, with Roddy hitting an Olympic Slam for 2. HIGH/LOW ON HANSON! HANSON KICKS OUT! HANSON CARTWHEELS OUT OF THE HIGH/LOW! BACK HANDSPRING ELBOW!!!!! ROWE WITH A FRONT SLAM/POWERBOMB!!!! FALLOUT!!!!! The War Raiders are your new champions. ****1/4 It’s a wonderful thing in wrestling when you can be excited for something, and have every expectation not only met, but exceeded. This was an absolute spectacle, and the exact kind of match you’d want to end such an incredible title reign. Strong and O’Reilly were tremendous in every aspect of their game here, changing up their game as heels to logically get the heat on the much larger War Raiders, but doing it with the sort of tact and excitement that helps bring that logic back to the uber-exciting match you’d expect out of both teams. That’s the mark of a great worker, when you can step outside of your usual formula and produce something just as great… and perhaps even better, in this instance. Everything was beautifully orchestrated, from the opening shine to the maddening heat segment to the balls-to-the-wall finishing sequence. It brought everything that makes the War Raiders great, polished it to your desired WWE level, and created the sort of controlled chaos everyone loved about them previously. My one nitpick is that they had a tiny bit of trouble with overkill near the finish, but they brought the crowd back into it with authority directly thereafter, so that’s not exactly an issue you can penalize them for. Seek this out at all costs because you aren’t going to find much better in the way of tag wrestling.

Matt Riddle vs. Kassius Ohno
I was absolutely stoked to hear this match was booked for another Takeover. While I actually loved how they introduced Riddle at the Wargames show by pinning Ohno in 10 seconds, the workrate geek in me was a bit saddened that we didn’t get to see them have a barnburner on the Takeover stage. Traditional logic points to this being the match I was hoping to see, and since this show isn’t written by 30 stressed-out monkeys on the main roster, I have no reason to quell my excitement.

Ohno tries pushing forward immediately, but gets more than he bargained for as Riddle runs off of the ringsteps with a forearm. Riddle brings him back into the ring and works him over some more before trying a Sunset Powerbomb, only for Ohno to run the apron over his eye and stomp him. Ohno wacks Riddle with an elbow, prompting Mauro to reference the Korean Zombie to warm my heart. Ohno continues the punishment, booting poor Riddle in the mouth before running him into the steps with a cravate. Riddle stares Ohno down as he re-enters the ring, and counters a Suplex with a Rear Naked Choke! Riddle tries a German, but Ohno STOMPS HIS FOOT to nuclear heat… but Riddle powers through and hits the German anyway. Riddle kicks away, so Ohno BITES HIS TOE AND KNEES HIM IN THE FACE. LIGERBOMB! Riddle kicks out. Ohno heads up top and HITS A MOONSAULT! RIDDLE KICKS OUT! MAFIA KICK! SENTON COUNTERED INTO A CHOKE! Ohno rolls to the ropes, but Riddle continues the punishment with stomps and kicks. Ohno begs off and wants a fist bump but Riddle knees him… INTO A SLEEPER SUPLEX! TRAPPED ELBOWS! OHNO TAPS! Matt Riddle taps Ohno to strikes in 9 minutes. ***1/2 Maybe a little shorter than I’d have liked, but even so it’s really hard for me to complain about a sprint of this quality. Riddle has always excelled in these kinds of matches, where he can sell a little bit and work into his explosive fits of offense without having to drag things out, and that’s exactly what they did here. It’s the formula EVOLVE followed to get him over as something different and if NXT can model Riddle after that here as well, then I don’t see why he won’t get over just as big as forecasted. I thought Ohno’s performance as the pussy heel was the star of the show here though, as he tried to act like a big tough brute against the proven MMA fighter, and when he got beaten down, he ran away like a child and begged off. It’s that sort of arrogant heel-work that doesn’t happen enough these days because guys don’t want to look bad, and Ohno was a total pro at it while still maintaining his airtight workrate. It’s not exactly intricate but when both performers are this advanced at their jobs, it’s impossible for something like this to not deliver. I’m very excited to see where Riddle goes from here, although with a caveat that Kassius Ohno isn’t pushed to the wayside after his underrated performance in this rivalry.

Velveteen Dream shows up with some pretty ladies backstage. As he SHOULD.

NXT North American Title: Ricochet (c) vs. Johnny Gargano
This match doesn’t need much exposition given the fact that it’s Ricochet vs. Johnny Gargano, but I actually find it to be an interesting wrinkle in the ongoing Gargano storyline. It’s a title held by someone not Tommaso Ciampa, which raises a few questions. If he loses, what sort of shot will he have at fighting Tommaso again? If he wins, would he fight Tommaso with the title on the line? Or is he too far gone to want that anymore? There’s a lot to work with here, and both results make for interesting detours in this astonishingly well-coordinated long term story. You add that with the fact that Johnny Gargano has a scientifically proven inability to disappoint on a Takeover, and I don’t know what else you could possibly want out of pro wrestling.

They go hold-for-hold in the opening moments here, with Gargano proving himself to be the superior technical wrestler early. Ricochet isn’t one to let someone outdo him though. Gargano ends up cheapshotting Ricochet, and things devolve into a slugfest. Ricochet’s speed continues to serve him well, taking Johnny outisde for a GORGEOUS STEP-UP ORIHARA MOONSAULT! Ricochet brings him back into the ring for a super Frankensteiner, but Gargano drops under and Snake Eyes the champion. Ricochet tries a standing Moonsault, but Gargano scouts it and boots him out of the air in a nifty spot. Johnny adds onto it with a chop to the throat for good measure. Ricochet telegraphs a Slingshot Spear, and finally hits the standing Moonsault to Gargano’s back. Ricochet continues the head of steam, hitting his beautiful springboard uppercut before rolling into the Northern Lights/Brainbuster combo for 2. Ricochet somersaults, but he springs right into a Ligerbomb… right into a Crossface from Gargano! Gargano tries the Garga-No Escape, but Ricochet slithers out. Gargano tries the Slingshot DDT and DUMPS HIM TO THE FLOOR! SPACEMAN PLANCHA~! Ricochet follows with a standing Shooting Star/second rope Moonsault combo for a nearfall. Gargano follows Ricochet to the top and tries a Frankensteiner, but RICOCHET LANDS ON HIS FEET~! PELE KICK COUNTERED… SUPERKICK FROM GARGANO! PELE KICK FROM RICOCHET! HANDSPRING ELBOW… COUNTERED INTO GARGA-NO ESCAPE!!!!! COUNTERED INTO A REGALPLEX INTO THE CORNER! 630… but Gargano rolls to the opposite side of the ring. Ricochet tries to hop over the top rope for the Frankensteiner, so Gargano moves… only for RICOCHET TO HOP OVER THE RING POST ONTO HIM! SPRINGBOARD 450! GARGANO KICKS OUT! SHOOTING STAR EATS KNEES! CRADLE! RICOCHET KICKS OUT~! DIY SUPERKICK SENDS RICOCHET TO THE FLOOR! TOPE SUICIDA FROM GARGANO… CAUGHT INTO A BENADRYLLER… COUNTERED INTO A REVERSE RANA FROM GARGANO!!!! SLINGSHOT DDT!!! RICOCHET KICKS OUT!!!!! Gargano is frustrated and harkens back to the Tommaso Ciampa match, undoing the mats outside of the ring, but he can’t bring himself to do it. SMALL PACKAGE FROM RICOCHET! GARGANO KICKS OUT! DISCUS LARIAT FROM RICOCHET! PHOENIX SPLASH MISSED! SUPERKICK FROM GARGANO!!! TILT-A-WHIRL INTO GARGA-NO ESCAPE FROM RICOCHET!!! GARGANO BREAKS AWAY! They both head to the apron, where Gargano posts him and looks down at the exposed concrete. BRAINBUSTER ON THE CONCRETE!!!! SLINGSHOT DDT!!! Johnny Gargano is the new North American Champion. ***** At some point, you have to wonder what you did in life to deserve such great wrestling. It’s to the point that I have trouble writing things about these Johnny Gargano matches because it all speaks for itself. Gargano’s grasp of storytelling and psychology is so unbelievable that every time he wrestles it floors me. He brings the best out of himself and everyone he steps in a ring with. With Almas, he harnessed his lucha base and melded it into a bonafide classic. With the Ciampa matches, he wrestled spirited brawls that showed the inner turmoil of someone betrayed and made Ciampa look like a murderer in the process. With Aleister Black, he mixed his explosiveness with his underrated heel ability to take a beating in the midst of an elite wrestling match. And here, he worked around Ricochet’s incredible flying prowess and made it into a psychological tool. Ricochet’s speed and athleticism was Gargano’s kryptonite at several points here, and there is no better wrestler in the world at making flying look easy. It was a beautiful clash of styles, mixed with the fantastically-built psychology and increasingly rough finishing stretch made for one of the best matches in the history of NXT. Not only did this match accomplish the feat of having a great bout in itself, but it furthered Johnny Gargano’s story in an interesting way. Now Johnny isn’t the loser he was in danger of becoming after the last several Ciampa outings. This new conflicted personality has earned him undeniable proof of success in a championship and now it’s not as obvious as to where he’ll go from here. Sure, it gives us more questions, but they’re interesting, new questions. That’s the mark of great booking and it’s not often in wrestling that this great booking accompanies one of the best matches of the decade for WWE.

NXT Women’s Title: Shayna Baszler (c) vs. Bianca Belair
These poor girls. While I’m slightly concerned about a potential clash of styles, this match interests me greatly. I wasn’t a major fan of the first Mae Young Classic for a bevy of reasons, but one of the major bright spots came in the form of Bianca Belair. Her charisma and athleticism were immediately known, and despite her inexperience, I don’t know how you couldn’t see superstar potential. While I disagree with NXT just now starting to reintroduce her rather than let her learn on the job as a TV character (one of my main gripes with NXT in fact, and it’s only bound to get worse with the mindless talent hoarding they’ve been doing), my hope is that her year of seasoning lends itself to a starmaking performance against a rapidly improving Shayna Baszler.

Bianca mouths off a little too much and things soon turn into Belair showing her athleticism by out-quicking Shayna early. Shayna uses Bianca’s huge brainto post her in an AWESOME spot, using that to work on the arm as the action slows. Shayna is eating her lunch, working her arm before kneeing her in the mouth for good measure. Shayna yells at her some more, which turns out to be a bad idea as Belair smacks her and begins making a comeback, hitting a Spear for 2. Shayna throws up an armbar, so Bianca stomps the hell out of her in return. Bazsler gets the knees up on a big splash and hits a switch knee for a 2 count. Shayna pulls an Anderson Silva when Bianca tries to punch her, but Bianca STARCHES HER with a hair whip to the gut. SHEESH. They work themselves into a sloppy ref bump, and Bianca hits the Psycho Driver with no ref. Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke head in to save Shayna, but Bianca disposes of them… only to walk into the Kirifuda Clutch. Bianca starts powering up and COUNTERS INTO A SNAP SUPLEX~! Bianca heads up top, but Jessamyn intereferes, allowing Shayna to COUNTER A 450 INTO A CHOKE! BIANCA WON’T DIE… BUT SHE COLLAPSES! BIANCA IS STILL STIRRING! BELAIR STANDS BACK UP! BASZLER KEEPS IT ON! Bianca Belair passes out in 15 minutes. ***1/4 This match started off with a lot of problems, but credit to both women, they pushed through and came through with a fantastic finishing stretch to keep things together. It’s a little bit of a shame that they have to rely on Shayna’s minions for the constant interference as NXT normally doesn’t stoop to the main roster’s tired booking crutches, but they still pushed through it and made it out with a respectable effort. Bianca still needs a lot more seasoning before she’s ready to take on main event outings, and as good as Shayna can be, she isn’t exactly the most polished competitor in the world either. The concern I had with their styles clashing ended up ringing true for most of this bout, but once they stepped back and worked the basic struggle spots, this match skyrocketed in quality. Hell, I thought they timed that hair whip spot like pros too. The crowd certainly helped their cause as they really believed in Bianca and made her hope spots something significant rather than time-fillers, meaning we ended up getting something to believe in as viewers too. So yeah, while it started on a bit of a rocky road, things smoothed over as they figured things out. For two fairly inexperienced workers, that’s an admirable quality. This isn’t a match that needs a 6 month program, but it worked well enough for its spot.

NXT Title: Tommaso Ciampa (c) vs. Aleister Black
It’s kind of crazy that on a card with Matt Riddle, Kassius Ohno, and Johnny Gargano that this is the match I’m most looking forward to, but that’s the way it goes. There just simply isn’t a better heel performer in wrestling right now than Tommaso Ciampa. From the limited amount I’ve seen, Daniel Bryan comes close, but not even he has the talent of feeding off of loathsome energy like Ciampa does. Every movement he makes is just a disgusting act of hatred. Every word he speaks is filled with a horrible sense of dread. He covets his title to a point where you just want him to keep it, because the idea of someone else touching it after him is horrific. There’s literally nothing redeemable about Tommaso Ciampa and in a world where faces and heels don’t exist on such a plain level, that stands out even more. And when a wrestler of that caliber stands across the ring from Aleister Black, perhaps one of the most dynamic babyface wrestlers you’ll ever find, everything is amplified. I could not be more excited for this unless WALTER was the special referee or something.

This poor ring announcer is just horrendous at her job. It’s an intense tie-up in the beginning, both men pouring out of the ring with it as well. Aleister schools him on the mat as they re-enter, and soon enough his speed completely flusters the champion. Aleister criss-crosses in front of him, so Ciampa just boots Black in the mouth in response. Black fights back and comes out on top of him with a gorgeous Tope Con Hilo. Black keeps on him in the ring, hitting a Quebrada for a quick two count. Ciampa heads to the floor for a rest, and he’s able to catch a Black kick and run it into the steps, changing the momentum in an instant. Ciampa is in firm control now, continuing work on that knee using his… knee. How nice. Ciampa gives Black a kneebreaker off the announce table and postures a little bit for a drink of water, so Black boots him in the chest to get the big spit take spot. Black’s knee makes it harder for him to follow-up though, as he is knocked on his ass immediately after getting back into the ring. Black finds a moment to fight back, so he goes all out with an insane running enzuigiri that sends both men crashing to the floor. Ciampa just continues after the knee, which doesn’t allow Aleister to mount much significant offense until he limps through a comeback, hitting a labored Roundhouse for 2. Aleister escapes the Fairy Tale Ending, but is too slow hitting Black Mass, allowing Ciampa to hit a lariat to the back of the head. Aleister is gutsy though, kicking away and bridging a German on one leg for 2. Black tries putting him up with the bad leg for Black Mass, but can’t get it going, allowing Ciampa to take advantage and put in a Half Crab. Black tries to counter into one of his own, but again the leg gives way. Black tries the Triangle Moonsault, but is too slow, so CIAMPA GIVES HIM THE TOWER OF LONDON ON THE APRON! Ciampa hoists Black up with his foot ala Black Mass, but Black knees him in the face for his trouble. He can’t follow up though, so Ciampa knees him right back. They slug it out and end up trading pin attempts, with neither man on the winning end. Ciampa rocks a slowed Black with a lariat, but Black catches a running knee and hits the BLOOD MOON STOMP! BRAINBUSTER! Ciampa kicks out. TRIANGLE MOONSAULT FROM BLACK! FAIRY TALE ENDING FROM CIAMPA! BLACK KICKS OUT! Tommaso now moves the ring mats to expose the concrete like Gargano earlier, but Aleister gives him a Meteora! BLACK MASS IN THE RING! TOMMASO ROLLS TO HIS STOMACH! That was so, so great. CIAMPA PUTS THE REF IN THE WAY OF BLACK MASS!! HE ROLLS INTO A DRAPING DDT!!!! FAIRY TALE ENDING! BLACK KICKS OUT!!! FAIRY TALE ENDING AGAIN! ALEISTER FIRES UP… BLACK MASS CAN’T SCORE! FAIRY TALE ENDING! Tommaso Ciampa retains in 27 minutes. ***** I’m going to bet this match resonated a little more with me than it did others, but that’s fine. Quite frankly, I thought this was a pro wrestling clinic and even better than the earlier five star affair of the night. Even if no one in the world gives this match a five star rating, I’m going to stick by it because I think this is one of the best matches in NXT history. In every way, this match succeeded and did so in such an overwhelmingly entertaining way that I’m not sure I can muster the words to properly convey my love for it. Everything from the overarching limbwork to the little transitions in momentum… all of it was done perfectly. The idea of working a body part is some of the easiest psychology you can implement in a pro wrestling match. One person beats the hell out of another person’s limb and renders it nearly useless, giving him the advantage by taking out a crucial body part. Unfortunately, this mode of storytelling has been prostituted by guys like Seth Rollins who use it as a time-waster until he can hit his cool Falcon Arrow, but this match was a stark reminder as to how great that brand of psychology can be. Aleister Black should be shouted from the rooftops as a great pro wrestler for his performance here. He struck a damn near perfect balance between agony and adrenaline, building up the courage to hit his big moves while also paying the price later on for doing them. That’s what selling should be. Obvious enough to make a dent, but nuanced enough also to keep the excitement. I cannot rave enough about Aleister Black as a performer, so I might as well move onto Tommaso Ciampa. This man is a superstar. There is a not a wrestler in the year of our Lord 2019 that works heel to this standard. No one can combine the horrible persona, facial expressions, promo ability, and ringwork to create such a credible, interesting “bad guy” character. He does so many little things impossibly well. Hell, the moment that put this match over the top for me was Aleister Black slipping on water. It’s ridiculous. But Tommaso Ciampa is such a goddamn good pro wrestler that he used the water he spit onto the floor to take advantage of the work he did on Aleister’s knee, making him slip, and hitting him with the Fairy Tale Ending. That is next level intricacy that blows me away. I always thought highly of Tommaso, but I never knew he could do this. I never knew the former Tommy End could create such a hotly contested, perfectly structured, psychologically rewarding match. I’m just blown away. If there is a pro wrestling match in 2019 that exceeds this, I’ll have gotten way more than I deserve in life… because this is as good as it gets.

The credits seem to roll but new North American champ Johnny Gargano makes his way out… and #DIY poses together with their trophies. Oh man.

The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
This is probably the easiest grade I could ever give in my 8 years reviewing wrestling. It could very well be possible I'm riding the high of just seeing things live and being biased towards wrestlers I like. That's probably true in fact. But I'm over the moon with this Takeover. Plain and simple. It's the first time I've ever given two ***** ratings in a singular show. Only an event like this can make The Undisputed Era vs. The War Raiders the third best match of the night. If that's not the recommendation of the century, I don't know how you can call yourself a wrestling fan. Get this show by any means. It's worth five thousand years of the WWE Network, and possibly even ten thousand. I rarely sit in front of my computer this blown away, but it's a great feeling that I'm sure you felt if you watched it too.