Just Business: Takeover: Blackpool – The First Impression


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Just Business: Takeover: Blackpool – The First Impression

Tonight’s NXT UK Takeover: Blackpool event saw us return to the site where it all began for WWE’s British brand, and like before the Empress Ballroom provided for a beautifully intimate setting, shimmering like the Manhattan Centre’s older European cousin happy to stage the efforts of WWE’s US brand’s much younger cousin.

Evoking memories of the inaugural UK Championship Tournament of this time in 2017, the atmosphere was electric from the start as Moustache Mountain – adorned in a classy black and red tribute to the iconic team of Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid, the British Bulldogs – clashed with delightfully repulsive villains Zack Gibson and James Drake to crown the inaugural NXT UK Tag Team Championships.

It would prove a lengthy and deeply riveting encounter with teams trading advantages, set apart not so much by high octane action as is so often the case over in the States but rather by the largely looming spectre of Moustache Mountain’s visceral history opposite Undisputed Era just last year. Looking to pick apart the older, arguably less durable member of Moustache Mountain, Trent Seven, it proved an intoxicating watch as Drake and Gibson gradually dragged us, unwillingly, down the road to revisiting the past that saw the Mountain crumble underneath the cold-blooded precision of Undisputed Era’s game plan in the tag feud of 2018. Clearly, Drake and Gibson had done their homework and knew exactly how to go about achieving their objective, honing in on Seven’s arm until it was left limp and cradled.

With both sides of the combative equation being pushed well beyond the limits of their normalcy, both teams were able to nail game-changing moves only to find themselves one second short of a victorious pin fall, the Empress Ballroom repeatedly raising the roof in appreciation of the grit and guile shown by all four men. It would, in the end, prove to be a zealous mistake made by a desperate Seven, all too aware of the blood staining the back of his blonde head, of the arm hanging near helplessly from its socket and of his younger partner lying sprawled helplessly on the outside, that would prove to be the fan favourites’ undoing.

Never has a suicide dive proven truer to its name in the story of a match than this night, where Seven ate the humility of failure and the feral likes of Drake and Gibson lifted what, to my mind, might just be the most beautiful championships in the entire industry at the end of an anxiously competitive psychological horror story.

From there, the ‘Irish Ace’ Jordan Devlin – who had viciously assaulted his opponent and 2018 UK Championship Tournament Finalist Travis Banks earlier in the evening – found himself incurring the wrath of the Kiwi Buzzsaw from before he could even reach the ring. It was perhaps Banks’ own fault, then, that, in return, a petty, aggressive and now panicked Devlin targeted the leg injured by his earlier assault with a vengeance. There was little impressive about his ensuing beat-down that saw him stomp Banks’ shin into dust, though the narrative certainly immersed a resident audience who, as Devlin boasted of his credentials, demanded vengeance through the presence of Devlin’s acknowledged mentor Finn Bálor.

In what could prove to be one of the most memorable coups of Takeover: Blackpool, it was to a raucous reaction that Bálor emerged, adorned in black and white gear as stark as the simple morality tale unfolding, now inflected with a sense of national Irish pride.

In the rush of excitement Bálor’s unexpected cameo incurred, it should not be forgotten that Devlin – afforded arguably the biggest platform of the entire evening – did himself and his home brand proud with a stony visaged performance that refused to let the sudden onset of a larger profile intimidate him. Instead, with a sneer on his face, Devlin absorbed the disdain of the audience in a commanding effort, taking the opportunity to bitterly mock the mentor that inducted him into the business while, at the same time, sneakily getting the physical better of his enemy.

The resulting match was simple but effective, as classic a slice of mid card fare as you might want to ask for. Bálor’s mid-section was targeted, the inaugural Universal Champion’s disadvantages flecked with authoritative comebacks in which the veteran was all too happy to oblige Devlin in the humbling the ‘Irish Ace’ and his actions had been begging for. Impressively, Devlin’s own swagger never wavered, even as the competition heated up and the symmetry between competitors came to be consciously played upon the longer the bout went.

Perhaps inevitably it would be the bigger star and mentor-turned-humbler Finn Bálor who would pick up an unsurprising victory, but the match proved such a deeply satisfying watch, refreshing in its composure and pointedness and a joy for Devlin’s risen performance, that I would be nothing but delighted to see their newly generated issues revisited in a future feature-length encounter that perhaps affords the ‘Irish Ace’ an opportunity to take his career to a new level.

From an upset result in the opening contest to the shock appearance of Bálor, Takeover: Blackpool only escalated further as we moved into the No Disqualifications Match between the towering Eddie Dennis and the leviathan Dave Mastiff. No nonsense and broiling, their scrap wasted absolutely no time in indulging the genre to which their effort was bound. Taking traditional ideas, like the swift introduction of a kendo stick, but mixing them with colourful character touches, like the way a grimacing Dennis leads Mastiff to his feet with the stick under the chin, their match exuded creative zeal throughout.

Eddie Dennis put in a potentially show-stealing performance. Charmingly pantomime in his physical reactions, pitifully deplorable in the speed with which he introduces the match’s various toys – and between steps and chairs, canes, tables and even the floor of the Empress herself glistening like the deadly invitation of a femme fatale’s dazzling smile, it really does run the gamut of the most common No DQ tropes – Dennis caps his gloriously hateable effort off with some genuinely impressive feats of strength. From catching Mastiff in mid crossbody, nailing him with his own take on the Razor’s Edge and even nailing a brainbuster on the leviathan, Dennis proves himself a formidable performer and an even more formidable character – even the manner in which he slinked off through the crowd after his defeat like a slighted coward was brilliantly characterful.

Couple all of that that with an impressively agile performance from Mastiff as well and what we ended up with was a memorable No Disqualifications Match that, on paper, perhaps had no right to be quite as athletically impressive as it proved to be.

Take championship stakes, spice it up with personal animosity, throw in an emotive history and then place it all inside the pressure cooker of an intimate venue on a historic night and nine times out of ten you’d get nothing short of magic. Rhea Ripley and Toni Storm, then, had everything playing in their favour to steal Takeover: Blackpool from under the noses of their male compatriots.

The predominant turn of acrimony was set early as the two competitors got down and dirty with closed fists brawling and a cat and mouse chase around the ring as the otherwise brutal champion momentarily demonstrated her truer, more cowardly colours. It would, however, take only one moment of shifting luck – wherein Toni Storm was sent spine first into the barricade,eliciting memories of how the two women arrived at this larger stage – for Ripley to take the kind of vicious advantage in which her animalistic dominance was allowed to take centre stage.

Emerging out of that one-sided tale framed by a partisan crowd siding with the disadvantaged challenger was a wonderfully understated underdog story as Storm is forced into plying together a self-immolating effort that often forces her into executing offensives that threaten to damage her as much as her opponent. The silent but clear subtext that results effectively reinforces the plight of Storm as the plucky hero and the challenge presented by the monstrosities of Rhea Ripley, marking Takeover: Blackpool’s semi-main event as an impressively confident composition more than capable of upholding, even of warranting its spot high on the evening’s card – even if it didn’t quite steal the show after all.

Following on from the winding victory of the villains in the evening’s foremost match, the feel-good win of Toni Storm proved a nicely complimentary touch to the event and a sensible move to boot, considering vigilant WWE fans have followed Storm’s journey across two Mae Young Classics to get this point. Genius was the tainting black mark on the win, as Storm was forced into the animalistic territory that took Ripley to the top in order to best the champion, yanking on Rhea’s hair so as to hit that second all-important Storm Zero, arguably succeeding only through a moral loss.

So it was we came to Takeover: Blackpool’s main event between the longest reigning champion of the modern era and primary beneficiary thus far of the existence of NXT UK, Pete Dunne, and his incumbent challenger – a Joe Coffey angry, embittered and intimidating in his resentment because of the manner in which he was overlooked in the formative days of the brand. Indeed, Coffey, pointed and clear-eyed in pursuit of his mission statement, provided a compelling adversary for the feral and dangerous Dunne thanks to his magnetic stage presence and composed demeanour.

Impressively, both men carried and presented themselves as genuine main event blockbuster talents in their entrances and the so-called ‘big fight feel’ was difficult to resist. The crowd was partisan. The commentary track was grandiose. The lack of motion before the bell was frightening in its serenity. This was a match that absolutely exuded confidence in every sense, the work and achievement of expert craftsman and in-ring statesmen in full command of the art form’s subtlest disciplines – for the most part, anyway.

It started, as the adage goes, like human chess, both men exchanging holds and demonstrating their favoured methods – Dunne’s painful manipulation of the physical minutia, Coffey’s overwhelming explosive force – while scoping for early difference makers against their savvy opponent. Their respective learning curves are what then begin to drive the action forwards with patient, simmering intensity.

Fittingly, for what was arguably the biggest match of Dunne’s UK library thus far, the Bruiserweight’s odyssey this night was one that saw him forced to rely on alternative foundations to survive the best his enemy could dish out. His speedy athleticism and his durable resilience both felt to be more prominently on show than prior outings of the champ, in turn intoning the size of the threat posed by Coffey.

That threat roars into fresh life late on as Dunne was forced to dig ever deep into his pool of resources, thanks to the challenger seeming revealing new devastating weaponry by the minute. Reduced only to opportunistic footwork and his biggest moves, the anguish unfolding on Dunne’s face and the growing awkwardness in his increasingly sluggish gait betrayed a champion tumbling ever deeper into unavoidable desperation – until a seemingly killing blow was delivered by Coffey in the form of a powerbomb on the edge of the ring apron!

Delving ever further into deeper pools of exasperation from that point on expressed through ever growing physical superlatives, by the time the two stand-off in opposing corners before a truly electrified audience, it was clear Dunne and Coffey had crafted the first slice of in-ring iconography in NXT UK’s young history.

Of course, by the time the match came to its exhausted conclusion, there had been a deeply uncomfortable degree of repeated, dogged flirtation with disaster, a near shameful indulgence in the over-the-top tropes of the ‘Epic,’ and whether it will prove to be a mistake for NXT UK to be denied forward motion at such an important crossroads in its history, the title remaining in Dunne’s hands still longer, only time will reveal. But history will be its own judge on that front.

For tonight it is enough to know that, with a high stakes and thrilling opener, a deeply character-driven and effectively executed middle of the card, an emotive semi-main event and a headlining effort playing off of grandiose ideas and composed (at least in its first three quarters) with suitable confidence, not to mention a bonus cliffhanger ending, Takeover: Blackpool delivered admirably on its promise, presenting high-end quality ring product in a cleverly constructed event before an excitable crowd in a beautiful setting to set the pace for WWE’s major productions in 2019.

Is it hard to believe Takeover: Blackpool could be topped? Frankly, no. But that hyperbolic assessment shouldn’t detract from its relative success and, if anything, only further reinforce what the evening’s show made a major point of: NXT UK has more untapped potential than any of us perhaps realised.

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