My friend Brandon and I went to the NXT house show at Chicago’s Portage Theater on Saturday afternoon, and had an absolute blast. Though the event started with hiccups that resulted in a line three blocks around the building 20 minutes before it was scheduled to start, the venue recovered quickly, the show started about 25 minutes late, and there was never a dull moment thereafter. Some observations:
1) Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady opened the show. Enzo is charismatic on the microphone, and it’s impossible to overstate how gigantic Cass is in-person. Given Vince McMahon’s proclivity for big men, I’d be willing to bet at even money that Cass is an eventual WWE champion.
2) Eva Marie is more over as a heel, and Bayley as a face, with the NXT crowd than anybody of either persuasion is on the main roster. Both of them, as well as Nia Jax, are stars. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to disregard the possibility that their stories will be poorly written when they get to Raw, running the risk of dissipating into mid-card oblivion. (See: Tyler Breeze.)
— RyanK (@RyanK) January 18, 2016
I’m pretty sure that the NXT storytelling deliberately calls for Eva Marie’s gimmick to be someone who is fairly limited in the ring (above video is actually from the later show, but illustrative). When compared to to strong workers like Bayley, and past NXT standouts Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, her ongoing elevation infuriates the crowd and makes them genuinely despise her. This is a good thing in this era of pro wrestling, where viable heels are few and far between.
Bayley, on the other hand, is the quintessential babyface. She has exceptional ring psychology, and her feud with Sasha Banks was probably my favorite thing in pro wrestling in 2015. Recognizing the income disparity and that performing for WWE is presumably her lifelong dream, I’m not sure that I’d be in any hurry to relinquish my throne if I were Bayley. She has a profoundly special connection with the NXT audience.
3) Baron Corbin reminds me of a hybrid of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash (in the ring, at least). Apollo Crews does some things athletically that are a real spectacle up-close.
4) Finn Balor and Sami Zayn closed the event with a splendid match. As the crowd chanted something along the lines of “Do this Monday’s,” Balor, who made his bones in New Japan, shook his head, “No.” It’s hard to explain Balor to someone who hasn’t seen him before. He’s insanely muscular in the sense that he has approximately zero percent body fat, but he’s also not someone with cartoonish biceps.
Every time the subject of advancing to the main roster is broached with Balor in an interview, he sounds lukewarm about it. He’s such an obvious star that they’re going to have to call him up at some point, but as with Bayley it’s understandable why he would want to savor his time at the forefront of a movement that people will remember decades from now with fondness.
5) Meanwhile, the main roster is in a rut. Part of that can be attributed to injuries—Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, John Cena, Randy Orton, Nikki Bella, Sasha Banks, and Cesaro are all out of action right now (and Bryan may be permanently)—but it also comes down to the idea that we are being force fed lazy stories.
Roman Reigns is improving on the mic but has been overexposed, the announcers couldn’t sell treats to a dog, and the Wyatt brood have spent the past couples months in a mid-card feud with old ECW stars but we’re suddenly supposed to take them seriously as Royal Rumble contenders.
It’s not as though there are no bright spots—The New Day remains delightful, Kevin Owens is individualistically compelling even as his feuds are not, and the Becky Lynch angle with Charlotte and Ric Flair is pretty fun—but upwards of 85% of Raw and the PPVs feel like a chore at this point.
The fervently devoted NXT crowd, which sold out the building twice on Saturday for un-televised events, was aware of all this, and sincerely appreciative of the effort we were given.
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