After the roaring success of NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn in August – with a capacity crowd of 15,589 attending the first NXT special held beyond the home base of Full Sail University – NXT TakeOver: London on Wednesday night marked TakeOver’s debut abroad. At the end of a seven-show tour of Britain, which took in Newcastle, Glasgow, Sheffield, Blackpool, Nottingham, and Cardiff, the special hailed from London’s Wembley Arena.
This was the ninth NXT special event in total, and the eighth under the TakeOver signature, with five specials occurring across the course of 2015. At around two hours – in contrast to the three hours of each RAW and main roster PPV – every TakeOver feels refreshingly concise and well structured, with a keen focus on the action in-ring. Everything about the brand continues to impress, establishing a cast of characters at once bolder, more colourful, and yet more grounded and easy to relate to than their ostensibly superior WWE colleagues.
Asuka vs. Emma was an ideal opening to the event. Asuka is one of NXT’s hottest talents right now, while Emma – alongside Dana Brooke after an ill-fated run on the main roster in 2014 – is in the process of being successfully rebuilt as a legitimate in-ring contender. The reception both talents received, the blistering pace and the overall quality of this match, fully justified their place on the card: barely worth a mention in the context of NXT, where women can seamlessly occupy any role, but a message for the main show where the ‘divas’ are still little more than filler, serving as a breather or a change of pace somewhere in the middle of more meaningful fare.
As with all five matches on the card, the key here was that neither wrestler dominated for too long. Despite the initial crowd chants of ‘Asuka’s gonna kill you’, and a devastating running hip attack off the ring apron, Emma won a measure of control with a series of elbows, kicks, and submission holds, endeavouring to stay on top of her opponent. When Asuka returned fire with strikes of her own and another hip attack, which brought the first near fall of the match, Emma quickly recovered, her double underhook suplex into the turnbuckle followed by a low splash culminating in a close two count.
Asuka rolled out of the Emma Lock, applying an ankle lock before hitting Emma with a German suplex and a stiff kick. When Asuka cinched in her own finishing manoeuvre, the Asuka Lock crossface chickenwing, Emma only managed to escape by pulling the referee into the fray. Dana Brooke introduced a foreign object on Emma’s behalf, but when it was snatched by Asuka, the revived official considered disqualifying the Japanese star for the infringement. But he allowed the match to continue, and though Brooke distracted him yet again with Emma tapping in a reapplied Asuka Lock, another hard kick gave Asuka the 1-2-3. She remains undefeated, but the match also showcased Emma as a supremely accomplished technical wrestler.
Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson are a real old school heel tag team, a compact contemporary Tully and Arn, without fanfare but utterly convincing by virtue of their wrestling ability. The NXT Tag Team Champions after taking out The Vaudevillains last month, they faced the hugely popular Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady, accompanied by Carmella. Hyping the crowd with their intros, by the time Enzo locked up with Dawson in the centre of the ring, these two teams had already milked a response from the audience unmatched by most WWE main events.
In general NXT’s tag division is stronger than ever, enjoying something of a moment in the sun. Aside from Dash and Dawson, Enzo and Big Cass, and The Vaudevillains, Blake and Murphy are still about, there is The Hype Bros, and the emergent team of Jason Jordan and Chad Gable. After early back and forth, including some double teaming on Cass before Cass launched Enzo over the top rope onto both of their opponents, Dash tossed Enzo violently underneath the bottom rope and he and Dawson maintained the advantage. The hot tag was teased, but interrupted by Dash and then missed by a distracted official.
Finally a DDT allowed Enzo to make the tag, and Cass unloaded before Dawson clipped his injured knee. Enzo was turned inside out courtesy of a big clothesline, but when Cass managed to escape a grapevine submission hold, they hit the Rocket Launcher and covered – only for Enzo to be pulled from the ring with the referee’s hand mere centimetres from slapping the canvas for a count of three. Cass confronted Dawson on the outside but met with the ring post, and the Shatter Machine on Enzo allowed Dash and Dawson to retain their belts, much to the anguish of those in attendance.
Baron Corbin vs. Apollo Crews came into being at the end of October, when Corbin interrupted Crews during a match for the NXT Championship on weekly TV. This was the only match at NXT TakeOver: London that wasn’t a complete triumph, undoubtedly a product of Corbin’s limitations, but it still managed to tell a coherent story. Crews was quickest out of the blocks, but when Corbin dropped him over the top rope as he charged into the turnbuckle, he landed head-first on the steel steps and Corbin took control.
The pattern of the match from there on saw Corbin repeatedly stifling a Crews comeback. Corbin caught Crews as he attempted a crossbody, only for Crews to counter with a small package, but a hard Irish whip into the corner saw Corbin restore his ascendancy. Crews followed up a spell of ground-and-pound with a moonsault off the ring apron, but Corbin recovered with a Deep Six for a near fall. At last it looked like Crews had gained the momentum, countering an End of Days with an enziguri and a standing moonsault, but Corbin held on to the ropes when faced with a spin-out powerbomb, and now landed the End of Days for the big win. The future of Crews in NXT looks bright, while it is unclear whether Corbin is being built as a short-term brute or with something fuller in mind.
Has there ever been a wrestler who imbues an audience with as much joy as Bayley? The reigning NXT Women’s Champion is a constant delight, and who would have expected the story of her match with Nia Jax – on the surface a conventional David vs. Goliath affair – to rest compellingly upon Bayley’s powers of submission?
The advantage enjoyed by a bigger and broader athlete over someone more sprightly is often overdone, and the title holder should never appear too frail and floundering. In the early going Jax used her considerable power to dictate the shape of the match, but Bayley got in some offense of her own through reversals, dropkicks, and a succession of elbows from the middle rope in an attempt to bring down her challenger. When Jax was able to sustain her command, it was after powering out of a pinning predicament – sending Bayley tumbling out of the ring – and following up with a series of Samoan drops and leg drops to the back of Bayley’s head, both of which resulted in near falls, which perhaps could have been more if Jax had been less casual with her covers.
Jax grew frustrated, and sought to finish things with a Samoan drop off the top turnbuckle. But as she laboured up the ropes, she was met with clubbing forearms, before Bayley locked in a guillotine choke with bodyscissors, taking Jax back to a standing position on the canvas. She powered out twice, but twice Bayley returned to the guillotine, leaning back and applying the full pressure of the hold at the third time of asking, drawing Jax down to the mat and stretching as Jax clawed and grasped. Finally Jax was forced to tap out, in a demonstration that only proved her credibility while showing the depth of Bayley’s tenacious spirit.
The main event between Finn Balor and Samoa Joe for the NXT Championship was cultivated when Joe turned on his longtime friend, in a conscientious attempt to make himself impossible to overlook as the number one contender for the title. Heading into Wednesday’s match their feud was already a success in so far as – subtly conveyed by Joe – it portrayed a heel turn equally logical and intriguing, rather than presenting us with the end of a friendship as an act of motiveless malignity.
Balor emerged with a variation on his Demon entrance, the black, red, and white face paint accompanied by a Victorian-era top hat and cape. After feeling his opponent out, he stalked Joe from the ring apron in the early phase of the match, which ended when Joe avoided a double foot stomp on the steel steps and slammed Balor into the arena floor. Back in the ring, Joe capitalised with measured strikes, and a reverse elbow and spinning front kick in the corner.
Finn tried to find a way back into the match, but Joe kept on top courtesy of stiff elbows, knees, and submissions. He missed with a senton splash in the centre of the ring, but recovered with a vicious chop and a dive through the ropes to the outside. A sequence unique within Joe’s moveset saw him transition quickly from a powerbomb and pin into a Boston crab into a crossface. But Balor refused to tap, and suddenly a DDT restored parity. He piled on the offense with a flurry of chops, a stiff enziguri, and a somersault dive over the top. Then a diving double foot stomp to the back of Joe’s head brought a two count.
More stiff kicks and a Sling Blade were countered when Joe landed a senton. He positioned Balor on the top turnbuckle and went for the Musclebuster, but Balor flipped through for another near fall. Then a Pele kick resulted in a spell on the canvas for both men, and when they rose on the count of nine, they went back and forth with jabs and forearms, chops and slaps, until Joe clasped in the Coquina Clutch. Joe battled to maintain the hold, but when he took the issue to the mat, Balor rolled to his feet and landed a double foot stomp. The two competitors looked for a last surge of energy, Balor taking the advantage via another Sling Blade and a trio of drop kicks.
However Joe caught him ascending the top rope, and as he readied himself for a big Musclebuster, there was the genuine sense that he was about to win the match and take the NXT Championship: finishing moves still count for something in NXT. Still Balor blocked and forced Joe to rethink the manoeuvre, then a fierce chop sent Joe tumbling to his back. A quick Coupe de Grace, and at last we had a winner, with Balor retaining his title.
Outside of The Undertaker and Bray Wyatt, Bayley, Finn Balor, Enzo and Big Cass, and Asuka possess the most captivating entrances in WWE, Samoa Joe’s approach is convincingly no-nonsense, and the lighting too cultivates an aura around Baron Corbin. Without descending to the inanity of the main roster’s fifty-fifty booking, every wrestler in NXT is able to show their worth through meaningful in-ring performances. Each match on the card at NXT TakeOver: London went for more than ten minutes.
The London crowd also deserve a note, as through the course of the show they recited and reformulated the full British sporting songbook, asserting their presence without ever holding the special to ransom. While some may waver on the appropriateness of singing during a wrestling match, those inside Wembley Arena always focused on the competitors at hand, paying acute attention to every moment. Aside from the novelty value, when they sang, for instance, ‘Hey Bayley, I wanna know if you’ll be my girl’, the aim was purely to express support and stir their favourite into a comeback. In full voice, they offered NXT a love song.