Doctor’s Orders: The Greatest Matches and Rivalries in NXT Takeover History (Part 1)

Perhaps the most difficult decision that I had to make for my latest book, The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era, was to leave NXT out of the mix. The research phase of that project started two years prior to NXT becoming what we now know it to be and, because I think it fair to state that we are still developing a sense for how we are going to historically judge NXT against its main roster peers, particularly as it pertains to the yellow brand’s impact and scope, I just did not feel it was yet appropriate to put NXT on par with WWE proper or NWA/WCW lore.

Nevertheless, here I sit a former podcast host and on the brink of becoming a lazy part-time LOP columnist and I find myself fascinated by what NXT has accomplished over the past few years, with the Takeover franchise especially. The reputation that Takeover has built – counting on paper the number of classic matches for each card before the event with expectations of greatness fulfilled on the night – should astound any diehard WWE fan who, at times during the WrestleMania Era, has felt like Vince and Co. unnecessarily (and oddly) put a critical ceiling on its in-ring product. Bold statement time: Takeover has, based purely on what happens from bell-to-bell, produced nearly as many bonafide classic wrestling matches as WrestleMania already. I mean, cue the Holy you-know-what chant!

Having written what I am fairly certain was my final wrestling book page and, thus, feeling very confident that I will likely not be engaged with sports entertainment journalism long enough to someday integrate NXT into a massive project like The WrestleMania Era, I felt like NXT Takeover was something that I needed to explore through the Doctor’s Orders before entering an uncertain LOP future. Those of you who have followed my work over the long haul will probably appreciate that such fascination with anything wrestling related usually turns into a column series, and here we are.

For my book, I crafted a detailed formula to thoroughly assess the various aspects that shape how fans and pundits use the term “greatest.” To some in the business, for instance, Rock vs. Cena is the greatest match of all-time because it set the PPV buy mark, while others would say the greatest match is Austin vs. Bret because of the exemplary storytelling. Greatness should not be limited to a plethora “one or the other” positions (best vs. most popular or anything of the sort), such has been my stance during this entire decade, tackling the process of adding measures of objectivity to a topic deemed completely and utterly subjective and attempting to broaden the way that we have these conversations.

I took that formula and tweaked it to fit NXT Takeover. On a 1-5 star scale, appropriately, I graded the best match in each of the top rivalries in NXT history, picked from a pool of consensus classics, on the psychology, storytelling, selling, execution, and climax of their in-ring performances, their historic ramifications on NXT lore, the setting (as defined by a pre-made scale for crowd size), the strength of their pre-match build-up, and the rating given by Dave Meltzer to account for popular opinion, as well as a few additional points (not on a scale of 1-5, mind you) for any intangible qualities (i.e. a special entrance, an innovative move or sequence never before seen, a rivalry-befitting gimmick, etc.). The sum total of the scoring yields the rivalry’s standing, which will be continuously updated as this long-term process advances.

Rather than give you the list in its entirety as I have always done before, this project will be done more leisurely. I am picking the matches to watch at random, scoring them, and writing about them. When I have finished two, I will post the write-ups here and update the master list that will keep tabs on the rankings. NXT Takeover matches upcoming will be assessed roughly 4-6 weeks after they are initially viewed and then added into the pool. Who knows? It could become my lazy part-timer thing that I update for years, or perhaps it will end when I run out of matches to watch. I’m not sure, but I am having a blast with it so far and I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Bayley vs. Becky Lynch for the NXT Women’s Championship at Takeover: Rival
Psychology: 4 / Historic: 4.75 / Setting: 3 / Storytelling: 3.5 / Selling: 3.5 / Climax: 4 / Execution: 3.5 / Popular Opinion: 4 / Build: 3 / Intangibles: +0.5
Total Score: 33.75

Attempting to properly contextualize the way that modern enthusiasts will contextualize women’s wrestling in NXT, and without question WWE at large, is a challenging endeavor. Its peak has been one of the stories of the decade, but it remains so young and fresh by comparison to the rest of pro wrestling history. What frankly should become the point in women’s wrestling lore when it truly arrived was February 2015’s Fatal Four-Way. Never before had so many fans gone out of their way to say things like “those ladies killed it” and “that was awesome” in response to a women’s wrestling match. Their ceiling had been built about two stories lower (at least) than what had been built in men’s wrestling history, and the group that would become known as the Four Horsewomen practically shattered it (even if it was not that much better than Banks vs. Charlotte two months prior).

Respectfully to all women’s matches that came before it in the mainstream, the 4-Way was the one that altered perceptions to a level that eventually became labeled a “Revolution,” so in that sense Bayley, Charlotte, Sasha, and Becky are the true revolutionaries of what women’s wrestling has become. The match was topped numerous times and it almost feels like the equivalent of watching a men’s match from the 1980s, as if 2015 was a really long time ago and instead of less than half a decade. Yet, so much has changed, and this was the most important stimulus for creating a consistent standard in women’s wrestling that rendered its predecessors the stone age. The ingenuity in spot design, the athletic ability, the distinct lack of the “Diva” style, and the passion for their craft that emanated pungently across the internet proved that the NXT Women’s Championship match was capable of stealing the show.

That it was probably more of a 3 ½ star match than a four-star match is really irrelevant, is it not? This is one of the most important matches in NXT history and it will likely be sustained by popular opinion of its big picture value in a discussion such as this one for as long as the Evolution continues.

Asuka vs. Ember Moon for the NXT Women’s Championship at Takeover: Brooklyn III
Psychology: 5 / Historic: 4 / Setting: 5 / Storytelling: 5 / Selling: 4.5 / Climax: 4.5 / Execution: 3.5 / Popular Opinion: 4.5 / Build: 3.75 / Intangibles: +1
Total Score: 40.75

As a pretty jaded WWE fan when this match took place and as a jaded enough WWE fan to stop doing podcasts after 5 ½ years in the time since this match took place, it is possible that the usual finger-on-the-pulse of the critical consensus that I had developed between 2003 and 2016 let up too much on account of my jadedness to fully gauge how well Asuka vs. Moon II was received both in the moment and in hindsight, but having attended TOB3 live and having replayed this performance on numerous occasions, if people generally do not already pretty much love this match, here’s hoping they eventually come around to it because, frankly, it is awesome.

The psychology of Asuka taking Moon so seriously that she would try to and successfully injure the challenger’s shoulder within the first few minutes of the runtime, coupled with how relentless The Empress of Tomorrow was in her assault of the injured limb, was just tremendous, as was Moon’s ability to not only sell the pain, but logically burst through the trauma and her attacker to fight back and nearly win (fantastic false finishes here). The flow of the storytelling and the pacing made this fairly upper mid-card runtime feel like an epic main-event too.

Simply put, there is just a lot going for this match and the feud that it culminated. Moon in some ways was merely the catalyst for the highest point of Asuka’s character development arc, so it probably will not be mistaken as one of the finer feuds in NXT lore, but it was still very good bordering on great. Legitimate vulnerability was largely foreign to the dominant champion’s run in NXT before she prompted questions about a heel turn at Takeover: Orlando when she cheaply defeated Moon, perhaps in fear of Ember’s deadly finisher, The Eclipse.

Historically, in isolation to NXT’s modern existence especially, this will go down as the finest match that Asuka – one of NXT’s foremost acts, male or female – ever had for the yellow brand. That has to matter in the big picture discussion.

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QUESTION OF THE DAY: Which Takeover match are you most looking forward to this Saturday night?

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