When the rebooted NXT developmental federation began to host its own special events in the summer of 2014, the wrestling public at large very quickly took notice; where FCW, or before it, OVW, was something very few fans were privy to, NXT’s presence on the still shiny and new WWE Network meant that it was very easy to invest in. Here we could see indy darlings under new names and the athletes from other backgrounds WWE were trying to make into wrestlers before they made it to the main roster. With the advent of NXT pay-per-views, that audience was going to get a whole lot larger, especially given the way word of mouth works in the IWC.
Those early Takeovers were very different beasts to the ones we have today, which are tied mostly to the Big Four main roster events, take the name of the city they are worked in, and arguably have as much production and fanfare as many main roster shows. No, at the beginning, they were more intimate, filmed at Full Sail, with a smaller and more obviously “developmental” cast, and dare I say it, a bucket load more charm. The first Takeover created buzz for the first coronation of Charlotte as she went over Natalya, who came down from the main roster especially. The second, Fatal Fourway, rather obviously featured a main event fatal fourway for the NXT Championship, whilst the third, the clumsily titled R-Evolution featured both the culmination of Sami Zayn’s quest to finally take that title from Neville, but also the heinous betrayal of him by the debuting Kevin Owens. However, it during the fourth installment in the series that NXT and Takeover really came of age. That event was NXT Takeover: Rival.
The first three events had taken place before the UK had access to the WWE Network, and so I had caught them at a distance, several days afterwards, by various means, and therefore I had not been as invested in them as perhaps some had been, but by the time Rival rolled around, we had the Network, and so I looked forward to checking it out, particularly given the signing of hot property Finn Balor, the prospect of Zayn vs Owens, and the continuing acclimatisation of Hideo Itami. An extra bonus to this “Silver Age” of NXT Takeovers was the fact they took place on a Wednesday night, giving you a bonus two hour pay-per-view when you came home from work on a Thursday night (for what it’s worth, I find the tying of Takeover to Big Four pay-per-views a mistake, and I really can’t stand naming them after cities. It takes all the personality out of them). And so it was that I fired up NXT Takeover: Rival as soon as I returned home on the evening of the 12th February 2015, and the show I watched that night remains my favourite Takeover experience to this day.
The card gets off to a brisk and breezy (pun very much intended) start with a curtain jerker that is the very soul of the old pro wrestling adage: maximise your minutes. Hideo Itami had been eased into competition in NXT with a feud against The Ascension where he brought in his friend Finn Balor as back up, but following that, the two partners had been thrust into a number one contenders tournament which would form the bulk of the storytelling for three of the midcard matches on the card. During that tourney, Itami had beaten NXT homegrown stalwart Tyler Breeze, but came up short against his erstwhile partner Balor in the semi-finals. Breeze, disgusted at what he perceived as Itami “wasting” the honour of defeating him but not winning the tournament, assaulted Itami backstage, setting up this mouthwatering opener. Not only was the set up good old fashioned wrestling booking 101, the clash of characters was compelling. The arrogant pretty boy played by Breeze had proved a smash hit with the Full Sail crowd, the selfie-stick and pouting giving way to petulant anger come bell time, and this formed a marvellous contrast to the dignified, honourable man from the dojos of Japan. Working a cracking pace from the opening bell, the action was built around Prince Pretty dominating the match without being able to put his man away, despite kayfabe injuring Hideo’s knee and hitting the Supermodel Kick in the middle of the ring. In a fantastic sequence towards the end, Itami does a kind of puro version of a Hulk Up, hits his signature striking offense, and sees the young heel off. It really is a blast of a match to go back and watch, and it’s a pity that injuries restricted Itami in his WWE tenure (although as my colleague Samuel Plan argues convincingly here, his spell with the company had plenty of highlights too) and equally a pity that no-one on the main roster seemed to understand the value of a guy like Breeze.
A further issue that came out of the tournament played out in the form of a brief but engaging no holds barred hoss fest between a green Baron Corbin and the sadly departed Bull Dempsey (Dempsey is a weird guilty pleasure of mine, don’t @ me). Dempsey had cost Corbin both his much hyped winning streak (odd as it is to consider now, Corbin squashing jobbers in less than ten seconds was once the most over gimmick in Full Sail) and a place in the tournament final when he interfered in the Lone Wolf’s match with Adrian Neville. Looking back at this clash of the big men, it’s refreshing that they are in and out in four minutes, get in plenty of heavy hitting offense, but don’t feel the need to hang around for twenty minutes. If ever an illustration was needed of the old school restraint of 2015 NXT compared to the bombastic overindulgence of 2019 NXT, there it is. The company were selling the bejesus of the End of Days at the time, and Bull walked right into one after he whiffed on a chair shot. I love it! Kind of like a modern take on The Ultimate Warrior vs Hercules from Wrestlemania IV in its brevity and purpose in building up one hoss at the expense of another whose star was fading (not that Dempsey’s star was ever rising to be fair, but you take my point).
One aspect of the old NXT which most certainly has come a long way is the tag division. It really was lean pickings back in 2015, with champions Blake and Murphy, The Ascension, The Lucha Dragons, The Vaudevillains, and the beginnings of the Realest Guys In The Room making up the division. It would take the advent of American Alpha, The Revival, DIY and Authors of Pain to make the tag scene on the yellow brand the most enjoyable thing in all of wrestling, but nevertheless, The Lucha Dragons and Blake and Murphy put together a perfectly respectable effort here. The story of the Aussie and the Texan coming from nowhere to win the tag gold in a shock result was a sound one, and the fact that they then proved themselves no one hit wonder in retaining their belts here was sound booking logic. Of course, it would take the Alexa Bliss heel turn to truly make Blake and Murphy interesting on NXT, but you see enough here of Murphy to understand where his recent success on 205 Live came from.
However, it’s the tremendous closing tripartite of bouts which really send NXT Takeover: Rival into the stratosphere. One of my favourite matches of 2015, or indeed, of the past few years, Neville vs Finn Balor, to me, stands up to scrutiny against any of the more prominent and celebrated NXT “marquee matches” of the past four years, and betters most of them. The fascinating dynamic of the then longest reigning NXT Champion and veteran of the promotion Neville taking on the glamorous new signing in Balor was given extra frisson by the fact that they knew each other well from the independent scene. The Adrian Neville of NXT was a grittier character than the one who would arrive minus a first name on the main roster, and in the pre-match hype package, he asserted that the Demon character was designed to intimidate and put opponents off their game, but he would not be intimidated. It’s easy to forget how much fun the Demon entrance was back in the early days, and how much more successfully the character was explained back on NXT. Although I have frequently asserted that I would rather he were the Demon full time (The Undertaker did not become The Undertaker only on special occasions), the idea of it being an enhanced self that came out for the greatest battles worked perfectly well. Neville takes on the classic Bret Hart role in face v face matches, where he becomes the de facto heel for the good of the match and his opponent, opting for more of a ground and pound approach than we might expect. With both men denied their signature high flying offense, the match becomes a kind of race to the top rope, with the man able to hit their top rope finisher destined to be the winner. As with all great in ring stories, it’s the simplicity that makes it so effective; while Balor got the knees up to deny the Red Arrow, Neville was unable to stop the Coup de Grace, and Finn would move forward as the number one contender to whoever was to win the main event. While there have been more hyped NXT singles matches since February 2015, I can’t recall many I enjoyed as much as this one.
It’s indisputable that the women’s division first developed its current gravitas down in NXT, especially with Paige’s battles with Emma, but with both of those women graduating to the main roster, the stage was set for the Four Horsewomen to continue the great work begun by the Brit and the Aussie, and in the fatal fourway at Takeover Rival, we got an authentic classic of the genre. I contended for a long time that I preferred this to the much hyped Bayley vs Sasha match from Brooklyn a few months later, and though I no longer think that, I do still very much love this early example of what these four women could achieve together. It’s crazy to think about the Becky Lynch we see here in her first big WWE match becoming ‘The Man’, but the seeds are most certainly there, while Sasha was just coming into her own as that bitchy “Boss” character, Bayley was starting to develop more grit and Charlotte…well, she was Charlotte, for better or worse. Banks and Lynch had been allies in the weeks before this match, and their alliance mostly holds, although the Irishwoman’s determination to leave her mentor behind is also evident. The action is fast paced and clean, with signature spots aplenty, particularly from a vicious Sasha, who hits a double decker corner double knees on Charlotte and Becky, and an on fire Bayley hitting corner elbows and a middle rope Bayley to Belly on The Queen. It’s the finish that I love the most though, with the Banks Statement not forcing Charlotte to tap but exhausting her so much that The Boss could roll her over and pin her to win her first NXT Women’s Championship. Fantastic stuff.
All of which leaves us only with the epic main event; fifteen years of brotherhood turned bad, the first act in a shared universe tale matched only by Ambrose and Rollins in recent years for its sheer emotiveness. WWE are adept at utilising history when they choose to, and in invoking the decade and a half long friendship between the two Canadians, they made sure to light the fuse on the emotional dynamite, particularly when allied to the previous story Zayn was involved in on the yellow brand, a year long quest to prize the NXT Championship out of the fingers of the aforementioned Adrian Neville. Having finally climbed to the top of the mountain in a heart stopping career vs title match in December of 2014, Zayn was on cloud nine, until his old friend arrived and ruthlessly destroyed him, beginning a two month mind games campaign that culminated in this match.
In terms of character acting, both men are at the top of their game; the smug, cool, piratical antagonist Owens against the impassioned, wronged, vengeful Zayn. This contrast is played up immediately in the semantic thread of the match, with the prize fighter choosing to slide out of the ring and tease getting back in several times, planning on dousing the righteous fury of his opponent, who can barely suppress his desire to get his hands on the man who betrayed him; the resultant somersault plancha to the outside that takes KO down for the first time is therefore brilliantly cathartic. This energetic assault is doomed, however, as Owens soon picks his spot by dropping Zayn head first onto the bottom turnbuckle, putting himself in the driver’s seat and allowing him to methodically grind his countryman into the mat. It’s the way that Owens does everything at a pace that suits him that impresses, his utter refusal to get drawn into anyone’s match but his own, in kayfabe terms. Zayn, for his part, bumps like 1994 Shawn Michaels and sells the assault to perfection. The visceral power of the match lies in the shock we feel at seeing a beloved champion dismantled in front of our eyes.
The second act of the contest thus begins with an impassioned comeback from our desperate hero, throwing a trio of unhinged clotheslines that takes the bullying challenger out of his gameplan and to the floor, whereupon the pace quickens and the adrenaline fuelled Sami hits an impressive Blue Thunder Bomb for a close near fall. The inherent drama of professional wrestling is very well illustrated by the undulating tempo of this bout, the switches of momentum which are handled so subtly here, and with such aplomb; when Zayn inevitably gets caught, Owens raises his game to quickly underscore his theft of the advantage, nailing a cannonball in the corner and a huge shoulderbreaker, but Zayn remains unbowed and unbroken and counters the Pop Up Powerbomb with a dropkick, following up with the Half and Half Suplex for a near fall of his own.
The hope spots for Sami are so well handled here that the organic feel of the match is never compromised, and the way that the champ’s all or nothing plancha to the outside results in his downfall is entirely in keeping with the story the two men have been telling, as is the kick out of the Pop Up Powerbomb. With the doctors surrounding ringside, Owens’ series of powerbombs is disturbing to witness and leads to that least used of finishes; the referee stoppage, and the award of the title to Owens validates the character’s entire methodology and pattern of behaviour since the turn at Takeover: R-Evolution. It’s wrestling television of the highest order, capped off by the over the top emotional celebrations of the new champion; KO called his spot and the gamble paid off. Again, it’s a match that should be talked about far more than it is; I’d take it over almost any NXT Takeover main event that has come before or since.
NXT Takeover Rival was the apex of achievement for the original Takeover model, before the roster became so stacked with former indie talent that their shows each became as glamorous, if not more so, than the majority of main roster pay-per-views. Back then, the brand’s status as a developmental territory was far clearer, allowing the shows to be tributes to old school virtues of good booking and solid work in the undercard supporting a marquee match or two up top. I can’t help thinking that in going all in for a series of four epic, feature length matches every single Takeover since 2016 or so, WWE have lost some of the charm of the format. It was a kind of loving tribute to the old In Your House pay-per-views of the mid to late 90s, with a two hour or less run time, a card which built to the important matches, and an individual theme to each show rather than a generic match gimmick name or the name of the city used in lieu of any creativity. Although I have very much enjoyed Takeovers since Rival – especially the tag exploits of American Alpha, The Revival, DIY, Authors of Pain, Sanity, Undisputed Era and Moustache Mountain – I do feel that the shows have lost their original sense of charm and wonder to a large degree as they strive to sign ever more stars, and put on ever more “epic” matches and moments. For me, Rival will always be my favourite NXT show. I’m surprised that more people don’t talk about it, which is why I’ve shared my love of it with you today, to keep it alive in the memory and encourage you all to revisit it.
This is Maverick, requesting flyby.
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