Doctor’s Orders: The Greatest Matches and Rivalries in NXT Takeover History – Legends Stake Their Claims

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Which match at Takeover: Phoenix do you expect to steal the show?

Perhaps the most difficult decision that I had to make for my latest book, The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era, was to leave NXT out of the mix. The research phase of that project started two years prior to NXT becoming what we now know it to be and, because I think it fair to state that we are still developing a sense for how we are going to historically judge NXT against its main roster peers, particularly as it pertains to the yellow brand’s impact and scope, I just did not feel it was yet appropriate to put NXT on par with WWE proper or NWA/WCW lore.

Nevertheless, I love NXT, and out of a desire to study and contextualize the greatness from the canvas of its signature event, Takeover, this project was born. For my book, I crafted a detailed formula to thoroughly assess the various aspects that shape how fans and pundits use the term “greatest.” I took that formula and tweaked it to fit NXT Takeover. On a 1-5 star scale, appropriately, I graded the best match in each of the top rivalries in NXT history, picked from a pool of consensus classics, on the psychology, storytelling, selling, execution, and climax of their in-ring performances, their historic ramifications on NXT lore, the setting (as defined by a pre-made scale for crowd size), the strength of their pre-match build-up, and the rating given by Dave Meltzer to account for popular opinion, as well as a few additional points (not on a scale of 1-5, mind you) for any intangible qualities (i.e. a special entrance, an innovative move or sequence never before seen, a rivalry-befitting gimmick, etc.). The sum total of the scoring yields the rivalry’s standing, which will be continuously updated as this long-term process advances.

Read the full introduction here.

Finn Balor vs. Kevin Owens in a Ladder Match for the NXT Championship at Takeover: Brooklyn I
Psychology: 5 / Historic: 4 / Setting: 5 / Storytelling: 4 / Selling: 4 / Climax: 4 / Execution: 4 / Popular Opinion: 4.25 / Build: 3.5 / Intangibles: +1
Total Score: 38.75

This is the kind of great match that does few things exceptionally. Though it was indeed a very good story-driven Ladder Match, its strength is the characters, each of which was in its NXT peak and both of which were seemingly quite instrumental in the rise of the NXT brand to the level where it could regularly be expected to sell out the venues housing the Big 4 WWE pay-per-views every quarter.

KO was such a stud back then, his bully heel persona so widely critically acclaimed to go along with the success it would go onto have on the WWE main roster in 2015 through 2017 particularly. He was such a great bad guy, earning the admiration of the rabid NXT fanbase while also convincing those same enthusiasts to play along with his act despite how much they liked it; there is an awesome spot in this match that exemplifies that statement, the one in which he sets up a ladder like he is going to do the cannonball onto it and Finn, only to pull up at the last second to deliver a simple punch. Just awesome…

Balor had come on very strong concurrently, with his Demon alter-ego getting Undertaker-like entrance specialization, as was the case opposite KO on both occasions. Some have questioned it, but if WWE leaned into that week-in and week-out, they could have a new mythical-like presence consistently (who says a Taker-type needs to be really tall?). All the Balor character potential resides in the Demon and its atmosphere-enhancing pre-match introduction.

In hindsight, KO and Balor essentially had in the very first Takeover: Brooklyn main-event the battle to determine who would be the biggest star to come out of NXT as we have known it, and in that case the loser probably came out the winner, arguably (probably).

Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura at Takeover: Dallas
Psychology: 4.5 / Historic: 5 / Setting: 4 / Storytelling: 4.5 / Selling: 4.5 / Climax: 4 / Execution: 4.5 / Popular Opinion: 4.5 / Build: 3.5 / Intangibles: +2
Total Score: 41.0

By the time this match took place, Zayn had established himself as Mr. Takeover, with three legendary matches in the first two years of the franchise’s existence. As such, few in the still fledgling yellow brand’s history had been more important to the establishment of NXT’s reputation. On Sami’s way out, Nakamura was coming in from New Japan as perhaps the most bankable foreign commodity Triple H had ever signed. Reflecting back, the ensuing Zayn vs. Nak match earned a response that arguably could not have happened before that point in NXT’s timeline, and no crowd reaction has yet equal it. In terms of the memory-enhancement that an audience can bring to the table, the battle between the Rising Sun and the Underground’s leaders was Rock-Hogan-esque. Plus, the in-ring performance was just plain excellent.

For them to be able to take virtually no back story on television and build the kind of anticipation that they did was a feat in and of itself. The emotional resonance was off the charts in Dallas, amplified in no small part before the bell rang by Nakamura’s utterly incredible CFO$-produced theme song. A powerhouse combination, the booming participation by the fans and the first prominent air-time for Nak’s theme, and one that helped shape the bout’s legendary status. They could have coasted to a 3.5 star match and still the intangibles would have remained, rendering their overall presentation a noteworthy success on what was unequivocally the Takeover that set the standard for all others to follow, but Nakamura and Zayn stole the show.

The King of Strong Style was never better in his North American career than he was on that night; he was never more crisp with his execution, he was never more unique, and he was never a hotter prospect. He debuted with a popular pick for 2016 Match of the Year and, in the eyes of many, it was all downhill from there. Maybe that is not fair, but maybe it would be unfair to Zayn not to acknowledge that it was, in fact, Nakamura’s best under the WWE umbrella, by a mile, and subsequently give Sami all the credit that he deserves for having given NXT one last classic for the ages before he began a new journey on the main roster.

Leaderboard

#1- Revival vs. #DIY (46.5)
#2- Bate vs. Dunne (43.5)
#3- Undisputed Era vs. Mustache Mountain (42.25)
#4- War Games 2018 (41.5)
#5- Nakamura vs. Zayn (41.0)
#6- Asuka vs. Moon (40.75)
#7- Dream vs. Black (39.5)
#8- Owens vs. Balor (38.75)
#9- Almas vs. McIntyre (36.0)
#10- Four Horsewomen-Way (33.75)

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If you wish to dive deeper inside my mind when it comes to historical ranking via The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era, you can order it through pretty much any online avenue (just search for it in a browser and various options will pop up), but for those who prefer to buy your books via Amazon as I do, here are a few links to make it easier:

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