Just Business: The Sunday Column presents NXT Takeover: Dallas, For Your Consideration


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Just Business: The Sunday Column presents NXT Takeover: Dallas, For Your Consideration

It’s the beginning of the end for Finn Bálor. The Revival wrestle their first classic. Sami Zayn bids farewell to the brand that made him his name. There are a number of reasons why Takeover: Dallas remains my favourite edition of the franchise, and a number that make it worth the time needed to revisit it: historical, emotional, qualitative.

Of the historical, it is perhaps the latter-most of the factors I list above that offers the most compelling reason of all. If we were to look at the history of NXT in generations, it would be difficult not to call Sami Zayn the foremost NXT performer of his. Although he would never have the elongated NXT Championship run that the likes of Neville and Bálor had either side of him, nor would perhaps be able to enjoy the kind of protracted and hyperbolic acclaim that his spiritual successor, Johnny Gargano, can now boast, it was Zayn’s ascension to the top of the Black and Gold Brand and his unrelenting pursuit of capturing its championship that perhaps defined NXT’s rapid boom in popularity between the years of 2014 and 2015.

It was only after a prolonged lay-off following a legitimate injury that Zayn would find his time on NXT truly over and, by the time Takeover: Dallas rolled around, there was certainly an overwhelming sense that his swansong was about to commence prior to his ‘promotion’ to the main roster. It seems only fitting, looking back, that said swansong would be his effort against NXT’s first, arguably still highest profile signing of a major overseas talent who, at the time of his signing, was heavily synonymous with an alternative pro wrestling promotion; one, no less, enjoying its own boom in popularity at the time.

Shinsuke Nakamura’s tenure in NXT would prove to be most unlike Zayn’s own, and heavily defined by as few as two feuds: one against Samoa Joe as the King of Strong Style pursued NXT gold, the other against Bobby Roode as he relinquished it. In besting Zayn in Dallas in 2016, and with Samoa Joe offing Bálor a few months later, Nakamura’s celebrated arrival seemingly ushered in a new stage in NXT history, one characterised less by the kind of protracted arcs characters of Generation Zayn enjoyed and more by a rapidly revolving door of tenures so brief they might be labelled ‘temporary.’

Alongside this, we would see NXT begin to even more aggressively sign new talents from around the globe, plumbing them from every vein professional wrestling seemed to have to offer and stacking talent up so swiftly and with such density that it, by extension, would lead to the inception of the Second Brand Extension in the summer after Takeover: Dallas. And from there, the problems began to stack up more rapidly than they could be addressed.

Zayn vs. Nakamura cannot be convincingly labelled as the introduction to this most recent problematic period for WWE of course. Few would even deign to associate such a deeply ingrained and specifically-NXT classic with the main roster at all. To me, though, what their ‘Forever Fight’ has come to represent in the history books is a turning point; or, perhaps, even a flashpoint. It’s a waymarker in which I can stick a pin, point to and say “that’s when my issues with professional wrestling today were made most manifest.”

Yes, it is with eye-rolling inevitability I must confess my disdain for a match most other fans would claim is the sole reason worth revisiting Takeover: Dallas in the first place. With its expansive, content-heavy approach to the ring action, Zayn vs. Nakamura – and Nakamura’s victory at the end of it – not only ushered in a new age for NXT, and by extension the main WWE roster, but also demonstrated the ascendant pro wrestling match model that I find so disinteresting today. The drama is laid on so thick it suffocates the small details I find necessary more for my volunteered belief than suspension of disbelief. With logic-defying levels of punishment endured by both men, it’s a match that wears its puroresu influence on its sleeve, coupling the ludicrously busy bell-to-bell time with a circular narrative completed by a sudden stop that continues to define Nakamura’s output to this day.

It really is not a match made for a fan of my taste – but, crucially, I’m fine with that. I do not deny that it is a popular entry in the annals of Takeover’s match library, nor decry it its critical success among circles with stronger and more valued voices than what I have to offer. It is, in truth, a match aggressively pursuing the ring fashion of its day and, while I sneer at that fashion, I do not sneer the sensible decision to adopt it. If nothing else, as an entry into the NXT fictional landscape, Nakamura could not have asked for a louder, more celebrated one.

It is perhaps the volume of Nakamura’s successful arrival on the scene at Takeover: Dallas that makes it so easy to forget that this was the Takeover that boasted two other firsts as well. One of them proves an effective continuation of a running Takeover theme carrying on from the year before, in its own way a final chapter in a trilogy of matches that were striking at the very heart of the paradigmatic recruitment shift NXT was responsible for. Following his confrontations with Samoa Joe and Apollo Crews at Takeover: Brooklyn I and Takeover: London respectively, at Dallas Baron Corbin is pitted against the also-debuting Austin Aries.

At the time, their intelligent and surprisingly creative encounter was met with a lukewarm critical response – itself an indication of the exacerbation that the general professional wrestling discourse was undergoing, In retrospect, it’s not going to invoke much grandstanding even from fans who enjoy it, but it is another instance of Corbin’s strange habit of proving in NXT the potential seemingly wasted on WWE’s main roster, while once more highlighting what is arguably NXT’s most towering legacy: its embrace of the independent circuit and the infamy names and talents had built for themselves there.

Really, Corbin vs. Aries is a mild curiosity for the card though. A passing whimsy, perfectly serviceable but ultimately perhaps best defined as basically inoffensive, it is far from among the most notable talking points of a show otherwise littered with firsts vital to the historical narrative of the brand and divisive talking points we could debate for days.

Consider Bayley’s then-shocking loss of the NXT Women’s Championship to the insurgent Asuka. At a time when the Empress of Tomorrow has been worryingly side-lined for a such a prolonged period that it might be a safe bet to label her once overwhelming aura as dead and buried, we have a responsibility to remember the impact she had on NXT between 2016 and 2017. Her journey at Takeover may have started with an outrageously good bout opposite Emma in London, but her victory over Bayley in Dallas would be the true beginning of her dominating yet competitive run as Women’s Champion on the Black and Gold Brand. Alone, that significance should be enough to champion the match – and the event that homes it – as worthy of revisit, but this is only further augmented by the reaction of the live crowd to the unceremonious and humbling conclusion of Bayley’s feel good run carrying the gold.

An audible gasp sucks the air out of the arena as Bayley passes out in the thrall of the Asuka Lock and the referee awards the Empress of Tomorrow the championship. The entire arena seems to tangibly ache with a desire to snipe at the decision, to voice a virulent backlash against the turn of events. The atmosphere of the show shifts undeniably and you come to realise that the thin moral line defining Asuka’s actions that seemed to underpin her final encounters with Ember Moon in the waning days of her reign were actually fully in play from as early as her initial championship victory. Not only was she a character, then, who carried a profound sense of menace and an impenetrably intoxicating aura, she also possessed a biting moral complexity – ‘an edge’ for lack of a better term – and her outing opposite Bayley at Takeover: Dallas, as such, in one view, could be considered Asuka’s most defining performance.

Perhaps you remain unconvinced as to why I chose Dallas as my final Takeover to champion for revisiting. If you are, then all I have left is the opportunity to point at the event’s bookends: at the opener, an admittedly unpolished but nevertheless quintessential Revival title defence that would usher in the Tag Team Revival so important to NXT’s new era, and at the end, a divisive but powerfully characterful blood-stained NXT Championship contest between Finn Bálor and Samoa Joe.

That main event is perhaps my very favourite NXT Championship Match; it may even be my favourite NXT match of all-time, in fact. I understand this sounds like a conscious dissension from prevailing perception on my part, but the reason for this stance is because of my views on watching professional wrestling as performance art. While more straightforward thought would have fans aggravatingly obsess over the decision to stop the match dead a number of times because of Joe being busted open during the match’s first few minutes, from a performance art perspective those pauses are an integral part of a broiling, visceral, frankly outright feral encounter between a wrecking machine possessed of soulless intellect and a demonic champion possessed of heightened physical and mental attributes.

It is all too easy to throw adjectives and synonyms at the work of Bálor and Joe in Dallas that night – primal, animalistic, brutal, sharp-toothed, blood-thirsty, battle-crazed and on and on. Like most outstanding professional wrestling performance art, though, there is no fan who can proclaim its quality better than the match proclaims it for itself. With Joe becoming increasingly frustrated – and, through that frustration, increasingly aggressive – by the pauses in the action as the referee fights to fend off the challenger’s literally visible blood-lust, and with the demonic Bálor relentless in his barrages of offense against this seemingly insurmountable opponent, their tale escalates ceaselessly, the stakes ratcheting higher and higher as it runs longer and longer and the resultant atmosphere is unlike most I can remember experiencing in my time as a wrestling fan. It’s overwhelming and certainly infectious, transporting you away from your chair and into the gladiatorial fervour of the arena.

Couple all of that with the striking aesthetic, both in terms of the physicality and the ‘window-dressing’ too, as well as the cerebral depth of how the entire scenario unfolds and, to my mind, you get a grungy, sweat addled and gnashing classic of a main event far beyond any we’ve seen since. That might be a dissenting opinion of one, but such is my profound love for the match I am happy to take what blows I might in pursuit of getting fans to give it another go. Takeover: Dallas has no shortage of reasons behind why you should fire it back up on the Network once more but, for me, the main event is foremost.

Such is likely not the case for the majority, however. What should be, though, is the final boast Takeover: Dallas could make; or, less apocryphally, I suppose its first. This was the Takeover that started the rest of the life of NXT’s tag team division.

So frequent now are the kinds of creative flourishes that the Revival if nothing else popularised in their library of work as NXT Tag Team Champions that we don’t often pause to give credit where its due for their origin. The Revival’s confrontation with American Alpha to start Takeover: Dallas was not the first time the Top Guys wrestled on a Takeover, nor was it even their first title defence. It was, though, I think, their first best effort – and the first of many more to come, which would see each subsequent encounter seemingly top all those before it. Their rivalry with Alpha might never have reached the superlative conversations that would later be had about their work opposite the more synonymous DIY, but it is not unreasonable, I think, to argue that without their work opposite American Alpha we might never have had those conversations about the DIY feud at all.

The first in a trilogy, Revival vs. Alpha at Takeover: Dallas is a furiously energetic piece of work. It lacks the polish later efforts swelled on, but its rougher edges, if anything, add to the raw atmosphere of the entire show that would so passionately reach its zenith in the aforementioned main event. In that sense, this rabid curtain jerker sets a tone, more importantly a pace that everything after it continues to complement. The design of the piece has vintage classic stamped all over it, thanks to the emotional heft carried by the challengers and the manipulative street-smarts relentlessly demonstrated by the defending champions. Its result is a feel good rush that jump-starts the evening and is possessed of an energy that doesn’t so much electrify the crowd as it does burns through the veins of every member of it – including anyone sat watching it back in 2019.

The Revival’s legacy is now a towering, oddly silent one, but their first of three encounters against American Alpha, that so gleefully opens up Takeover: Dallas, is far from silent and possessed of towering quality for it. My regular The Right Side of the Pond co-host and Lords of Pain legend Mazza said at the time it was, to him, not just the first match of that year’s WrestleMania Weekend but also its best. He may just very well have been right.

Certainly I believe it to be the opening match of the very best edition of Takeover, and while few will agree with that I hope I could at least convince those who don’t to revisit the show all the same. It is historic, divisive and boasts a number of all-time great NXT bouts on its card. What other reason do you need?

Next time, I’ll be moving away from NXT and its Takeover franchise to begin documenting which of WWE’s main roster pay-per-views throughout history I believe are worthy of being revisited too, starting with my retrospective on a prime example of just how much tone can contribute to the success of a special event, in the form of 1990’s take on Survivor Series!

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