Doctor’s Orders: Unique Classics Overshadow Older School Main-Event at NXT Takeover: Phoenix

QUESTION OF THE DAY: In order, what were your favorite matches from Takeover: Phoenix?

Happy Rumble Sunday, ladies and gentlemen. It was not my original intention to write a review for last night’s Takeover event, but as usual I really enjoyed the yellow brand’s offering and felt that two of the matches were so good that I woke up with an itch to write about the show as a result.

I’ll comment straightaway that I do not believe it was any sort of candidate for best Takeover ever, as was the case with two of the five 2018 offerings, but overall it lived up to the reputation of the Saturday night Big 4 precursor. Any time that we get a trio of four-star or better matches on the same card, it would be challenging to mistake the host event for anything less than stellar. Takeover’s general adherence to a much-appreciated five match structure makes it unique, though, in the sense that something of a lesser quality stands out more. Matt Riddle vs. Kassius Ohno, for instance, was fairly routine compared to the Big 3 of the night, so the top-end success of a Takeover often depends on how well a match like it performs. Some might argue it a mundane exercise to rank and file NXT’s signature events post-most-recent-Takeover, but that is the fortunate problem that Trips and Co. have created for themselves with how consistently they have outdone their best offerings. Awesome once demands awesome twice, thrice, and so on.

For me, Riddle vs. Ohno was rock solid (***), and there will likely be claims that it was passable at best in this era of the standard having been lifted to such dizzying heights, but it well served its intended purpose of giving The King of Bros a chance to show some fighting spirit. I was impressed with Riddle and prompted to desire a bigger opportunity for him to showcase his talents at a later date. I was left feeling the same about Bianca Belair, who won over a lot of people both in the crowd and on the net with her gutsy comeback in the lengthy climax of her Women’s Title bout with Shayna Baszler. Like match two of the card, match four had a tall task, adequately filling a space that followed aesthetic magic, and if you wanted to say that the relative greenness of the combatants shown through in Baszler-Belair, I would listen to you and nod in agreement, but at the same time there was a storytelling aspect aided in part by Belair’s prior undefeated record that made the Women’s Championship match (*** ¼) more engaging. Paralleling Riddle, Belair showed fighting spirit and, even though the performance overall was more Bazsler-Nikki Cross than Baszler-Sane or Moon, it helped set the stage for something presumably more significant down the road.

The two most memorable matches of Takeover: Phoenix that the previously discussed had to follow beg an interesting question about future signature events of comparable booking dynamics (and it is a question that WWE proper has to answer as well): if you set so little restrictions for what the non-main-event matches are allowed to do, and get content-heavy, aesthetically stimulating action accordingly, then how does a more traditional main-event style match for the main championship keep the audience engaged enough for the headliner to maximize its potential?

Make no mistake, Aleister Black’s challenge of Tommaso Ciampa was excellent, but it feels increasingly odd to claim that, in a review of a show produced under the WWE umbrella, the WWE main-event style is “old school” in its psychological focus. The puro-influence on psychology in WWE has become so pronounced, but when you have matches where innovative offense and sequencing is so heavily emphasized, working over a body part, and the inherently slower pace that comes with it, there is a natural tendency for the older school aesthetic to appear lesser rather than just different, and certainly the live crowd reaction apparently magnifies this issue. Personally, I loved the narrative crafted in last night’s final match (**** ¼), despite the fact that I was yawning and already emotionally spent by even its mid-point. It was characterful and smart as hell and may watch in replay as better than the original viewing, but it felt in the moment like a match that struggled to compete with its peers from earlier on the card. A quarter to a half star in this era sometimes feels like a wider gap than ever before.

The War Raiders topping the Undisputed Era to win the Tag Team Championships was exactly the type of match that makes me wonder, “Well, if that’s the strategy you’re going to employ in the opener before unleashing the slower pace in the main-event, why not just let the Tag Title bout close the show?” It’s like trying to watch The Departed right after watching Avengers: Infinity War. Strong and O’Reilly did an awesome job trying to cut the ring in half and make it seem plausible that their craftiness could overcome the sheer awesomeness of Hanson and Rowe, creating a running dialogue in your mind that questioned the increasingly obvious outcome. The Raiders seemingly should not be able to do what they do at their size, as the flow of a match involving behemoths against cruiserweights classically dictates a specific pace, but Hanson and Rowe buck tradition and unchain any preconceived pacing restriction to near-equal the match flow one would better expect from something like the UE against Mustache Mountain. Utterly fascinating, really, and the catalyst for Takeover: Phoenix’s tag match to enter the pantheon of NXT lore (**** ½).

How do you possibly top an offensive onslaught the likes of which Takeover lore has never seen before from a tag division renowned already for several historical instances of offensive magic? Apparently, let Ricochet and Johnny Takeover have 25-minutes to put the pedal to the metal and never let up for more than a minute. Like a Simone Biles gymnastics routine, they set the degree of difficulty so high that even if not everything that they attempted was connected at peak accuracy, their performance was still a notch or two better than all else. There was a lot to unpack in that match (**** ¾), too, as it was not just the aesthetics that made it special, though it was the all-time level aesthetics that pushed it to the near (or at) five-star territory; Gargano’s story and his ability to express emotion through his facials continues to set his work apart, no matter if its against Andrade, Ciampa, Black, or now Ricochet, and the result is that we are bearing witness to one of the most incredible big match resumes of the WrestleMania Era. Give Ricochet a ton of credit too, as his game is confidently wowing you with an arsenal that nobody else can equal, which makes him hard not to like and gravitate towards.

In terms of spot creation and innovation in sequencing, Gargano-Ricochet was like a Ladder Match without ladders, a stunt-brawl of the utmost quality complimented incredibly by the underlying, on-going Johnny Wrestling saga. Trying to top it on the night was damn-near impossible. It will be topped eventually, though, and you cannot help but get excited wondering about how.

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