NXT has become a juggernaut. Boasting a deeply popular weekly product and an international cousin all its own, the black and gold brand has long since transcended its original purview of operating a televised developmental territory to gradually feed talent into WWE’s main roster. To call it a cultural phenomenon would be to overstate its prevalence, but to call it a countercultural movement would not.
The crown in its jewel, it is no secret, is the Takeover franchise. Time after time, NXT produces a Takeover event met with nothing but critical acclaim from the mass audience and the franchise is home to a raft of matches most contemporary fans would be quick to name classics.
It is a funny thing, then, to rewind the clock back to a point as early as May 2014 and revisit the earlier days of this now booming concept. Rather than a countercultural movement, in 2014 NXT was a glorious secret being kept less and less well. The product was considerably smaller in almost every respect – the crowds, the cards, the scope, even the reach of its popularity. While many might see such a time as quaint in the light of what NXT has since grown to become, others, myself included, are more liable to see it as refreshingly freed from the chains of the superlative that, today, the brand seems so desperate to tie itself to. In May of 2014, NXT was a product achieving more utilising much less, rather than one that talked much with little to say.
This is why, of all the Takeovers we’ve now had over the years, the very first show to carry the name remains one of my favourites ever to carry the name. Free of the grandstanding or self-congratulatory posturing we would see later in the life of the franchise as the product moved to meet a false criteria it imposed upon itself through its exploding popularity, the inaugural Takeover is a humble two-hour event produced with maturity and creative verve. Anything it might lack in size and glamour it makes up for with creative substance, with the seriousness with which it treats its featured stories and with its match quality.
It is that match quality that may very well lead to many fans today looking back on the inaugural Takeover and considering it inadequate. Even with a somewhat reduced standard of quality, it’s difficult to imagine a contemporary audience getting much of anything from the opening contest between Adam Rose and Camacho, and on this side of The Revival’s run on the brand the Ascension’s own title stint – here marked with a defence against the original Lucha Dragons line-up – could watch as desperately wanting.
I would argue, though, that there is more than one criteria by which a match might be deemed a success. I don’t need fifteen minutes of workhorse action to be left entertained. I don’t need lashings of false finish or a pic’n’mix of unnecessarily high risk exchanges to enthral me. Today’s show-stealing culture is, in my mind, quite toxic. Provided a match contributes to the experience of watching a professional wrestling show end to end by understanding its place on the card and its role in the context of everything else, I’ll be left satisfied.
In the case of the first NXT Takeover, it is this criteria that best defines the two opening contests. Though Rose vs. Camacho won’t stay long in the memory, in the moment it’s an energetic start that enthuses the crowd with innocent fun to get the ball rolling, importantly setting an upbeat tone that lasts. And though the Ascension vs. Lucha Dragons is a straightforward tag team contest bereft of any of the post-modern trappings of The Revival’s most vaunted work, its colourful showcase of characters in both the literal and figurative sense not only maintains the vibrant tone of the opener but proves the benefits of having a system, like NXT’s, that takes care to develop acts robustly and attentively; make no mistake, the Ascension are a hot act at this stage in NXT’s life-cycle precisely because of this.
This first Takeover, then, is a Takeover that doesn’t obsess over ‘match quality’ at the expense of everything else. It possesses a wider vision than its much later descendant shows. So much so, revisiting it now feels like something of a palette cleanser, truth be told.
I appreciate not everyone will feel like this. A lot of my tastes in professional wrestling, after all, are housed in my love for the mid-1990s New Generation product that liked to keep things small and simple and straightforward, while orbiting around a ring fashion that I would call more cerebral, others with more contemporary leanings might call slower, even duller in their harshest critical moments. If any fans reading these words do feel this way, they should fear not.
This first Takeover offers plenty to refresh any fan jaded with the way the franchise has evolved over the years like myself, certainly, but it is, all the same, the starting point for that very evolution. It would be fair, I think, to say that even the most boldly minded fan of NXT in 2014 would have been cautious to predict the kind of success the brand has come to enjoy over the last five years, but they would not have been out of place in stating a want to see it. This is a show that wears its signal for change explicitly on its sleeve and latches onto the notion as its central theme. In doing this, it offers up plenty for contemporary tastes too.
As if its name wasn’t enough to indicate this alone, its opening video package drives the idea home by highlighting the already then-flourishing alumni of NXT. The Shield, Paige, Rusev, the Wyatt Family and more are all shown as pre-eminent successes of this relatively fresh new system the company had instigated. As the show then progresses, you come to see what are now tropes of the franchise executed for much the first time, most notably in the form of the talking head video packages used to hype the Sami Zayn / Tyler Breeze number one contendership match. We still see these tricks today, but rewinding the clock to see them in their infancy feels curiously nostalgic.
It is perhaps that story of Sami Zayn’s pursuit of the NXT Championship that fosters that nostalgia, though, and one glorious aspect of the first Takeover when revisited is being able to lunge chin-deep into the origins of most fans’ favourite brand. It was Zayn’s quest to capture NXT gold that really gave the show its first long-running arc, an emotively charged angle that began to naturally span months, building up a sense that Zayn himself was destined for stardom. As it happened, that sensation would prove to be a storm in a teacup, and the reasons as to why are a conversation best saved for another time. Returning to the first Takeover, however, allows you to cast aside the sour taste of what never came next and, instead, plant yourself firmly in the realm of the joyous storytelling of the time.
Joyous storytelling: an ample way to describe the centrepiece of the entire show, Sami Zayn vs. Tyler Breeze. Though it is a match that flirts dangerously with overplaying its dramatic climax as so many comparable matches of more recent Takeovers so often do, it successfully avoids the trap and opts to leave the room at what feels like the perfect time. This means the match itself is a reminder of a time before NXT became the post-modern dystopia it has, for me, long since become. It is a match compiled with maturity, peppered with creative flourishes and lent weight by its high stakes: a shot at the NXT Championship. True enough, it benefits from the youth of the franchise at the time, for Zayn’s now familiar routines in particular, but it ultimately proves to be a real treat for anyone deciding to return to the show. It is a warming reminder of Zayn’s original championship plight, and so too one of Tyler Breeze’s startling comeback story as a performer and rapid ascension as a character.
Naturally, Zayn’s odyssey is not the only arcing narrative present on NXT Takeover that was quintessential to the earlier years of the brand’s life. In the case of Charlotte Flair vs. Natalya for the vacant NXT Women’s Championship, you have another: the gestation of the so-named ‘Women’s Revolution.’ And, perhaps more importantly for some, another thumpingly good match too. Sure, it sometimes watches as a little too rehearsed, at other times a little awkward or poorly judged, but it carries its weight ably enough and, vitally, for its time, was a bar-raising effort from both women. Augmented by the presence of related legends Ric Flair (in fine animated form!) and Bret Hart, and wrestled for the high stakes of crowning the first NXT Women’s Champion after Paige, it’s an early cornerstone in the narrative of the aforementioned Revolution that would set a tone others would seek to later capitalise on.
Not that its only worth is to be found in such historical context. Flair vs. Neidhart tells a fabulous story of Natalya’s veteran savvy competing against Charlotte’s emergent instincts, and emergent would be the word of the day. It’s fascinating to return to this bout in 2019, to see the now towering figure of Charlotte reduced to the status of a rookie whose true personality was visibly still developing. There’s an air of authority about Charlotte as she competes, hints of entitlement, hints of the confidence she now carries herself with, but all of them still in their earliest stages of development. It’s a chrysalis performance, and it’s fascinating for it.
It is a match that also highlights perhaps the great curiosity about NXT Takeover, and the facet that marks it as deeply unique in the annals of the Takeover franchise. For all of its verbose overtures about moving towards the future, it is a show with one foot also placed firmly in the past. Natalya is, after all, a veteran of the game at this point. The ringside presence of legends invites repeated visits to a twenty year old rivalry. A visit from the since graduated Rusev to engage in some jingoistic flag-bashing opposite Mojo Rawley is a nod to the brand’s recent past. The commentary team comprising of a Tom Phillips flanked by William Regal and Byron Saxton feels reminiscent of NXT’s Florida Championship Wrestling predecessor.
The show’s main event is the biggest tell, though, which sees the defending NXT Champion Adrian Neville, in a time when he still had a first name, defending his ‘armour’ as he calls it against the veteran Tyson Kidd.
Truthfully, it’s a match as phenomenally important as it is phenomenal. Consider that it is the first main event of a show named Takeover and it is comprised of two smaller competitors far removed from the prototypical WWE headliner: a hint at the paradigm shift about to take place. Yet its central narrative is hinged on notions that success in NXT opens the door to success on the main roster, as the embittered Kidd intends to utilise the NXT Championship exclusively and solely as a ‘platform’ to get back to the likes of Monday Night Raw and Smackdown: a narrative that would feel utterly out of kilter were it to occur in the main event of a Takeover today. Dig deeper still and what you find is a subtle and unapologetic narrative about what NXT would go on to become, symbolism of the way in which NXT would grow beyond its original remit and turn into a viable alternative rather than a dependable feeder.
Though Kidd’s desire to use NXT as a platform is the narrative, symmetry is the theme. Neville and Kidd are presented throughout this smart, cleverly constructed contest as equals in every regard, transforming the match into a visceral, high-contact crossroads not just for its characters but for its brand. Not only is the head of this so-called ‘developmental system’ presented as equal to a veteran of the main roster, so too is he crowned the ultimate victor, thematically granting the NXT brand the last laugh. It’s an insurgent victory emblematic of the insurgent mindset that fuelled NXT on its upward journey to where it is now, and it seems fitting that it comes at the end of the main event of the first show named ‘Takeover.’
Ultimately, whether you’re a die hard fan of NXT or not, the first ever Takeover remains worthy of revisiting. It sits still as one of my favourite iterations of the franchise, a poised and confident two-hour slice of professional wrestling that demonstrates how to use elements of the past to bolster a movement towards a future being embraced utterly unapologetically, all through the guise of a precisely constructed card void of grandstanding and unconcerned with grandeur. That’s my view on NXT Takeover, for your consideration.
And it was the first of many more views to come. Over the course of the following year, The Sunday Column will be dropping every two weeks to present my view on another WWE event for your consideration, a curated collection of 25 of my favourite WWE pay-per-views of all time.
That will start in earnest in October, but for the remainder of this month keep your eyes peeled for my view on two more personal favourite NXT Takeover events, beginning in two weeks,with my retrospective on NXT Takeover: Brooklyn.
What are YOUR thoughts on the first-ever NXT Takeover event? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!
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