We say it every year, but – good luck, ‘Mania!
It’s a foregone inevitability these days that NXT: TakeOvers will leave fans saying “Wow, good luck topping that…WWE Sunday Night PPV.” Ever since TakeOvers became a regular thing before WWE’s Big Four PPV events, they’ve been the shorter, better-paced, better-booked shows. And TakeOver: New Orleans was no exception. It left viewers wondering how WrestleMania 34 could ever top the thrills and chills it provided.
Now, no one’s saying WrestleMania 34 won’t have great matches or truly exceptional moments. There are plenty of bouts to look forward to, along with the hotly-anitipated return to the ring by Daniel Bryan. It’s going to be seven hours long though. That the two hour pre-show, which will contain two big Battle Royals and the Cruiserweight match, and then a five-hour main show. WrestleMania definitely plays the quantity game. Not just in length, but everyone on the two-brand roster (save for possible a few stragglers) will be on the show. It’s not just focused on the most important stories. Everyone gets a seat at the table.
‘Mania will also be a spectacle. The enormity of the crowd mixed with the pageantry of the entrances and performances is very close to being the main draw. NXT: TakeOvers also provide heightened costuming and entrances, but it’s still a modest offering when compared to motorcycles, tanks, flamethrowers, and the various types of suped-up accessories WrestleMania employs.
NXT, which only runs a one-hour weekly show (as opposed to WWE’s five hours of programming) gets to book their stories and matches more traditionally while also not having to put every member of their roster on TV each episode. TakeOver, because of its totally acceptable two-and-a-half to three-hour run time gives us a compact card where each match is able to provide a different flavor.
Let’s take a look at how perfectly booked TakeOver: New Orleans was. Not from an in-ring performance standpoint, because everyone was top-tier talent, but from a pacing and story standpoint. By looking at what each match provided and how we never got the same thing twice.
The Demolition Derby
This was almost the biggest risk of the night, putting the exceptional multi-man ladder match for the new North American Championship right up front. It was the match people were most looking forward to on the card and it was the opening song. Not only did it feature amazing wrestlers, but two of them were new additions to the NXT roster, making their debut in this match – EC3 and Ricochet. Also, it was guaranteed to end with a NEW champ.
To be honest, after the dust settled in this brutal Fury Road of a contest, I was a little worried about how the rest of the night would compare. But this is where expert booking came in handy. Also, because of Bobby Fish’s injury, and the hell Adam Cole endured during this contest to become the new champion, his sub-in role during the tag team title match later on became a much bigger issue.
The Last Gasp of a Fighting Champion
Up next was the match for the NXT Women’s championship. I always like seeing the spotlight women’s bouts come a bit later in the card, more toward the main event slot, but I understand that, because of Cole’s role, they couldn’t put the tag match next. Also, the tag bout was a three team affair and that would mean two crowded matches in a row.
As it stood, this was a great match. Ember Moon always has much better PPV matches when she’s facing someone a second time – like with Asuka previously. Unfortunately, Ember Moon also has trouble with choke-from-behind style submission holds (Asuka, once again) so she wound up falling to Shayna Baszler’s Kirifuda Clutch. But this was the type of match Shayna needed to assert her dominance (and further show off her Ronda Rousey connection) while also giving Ember Moon a cool send off if she is, indeed, being called up to the main roster.
The Bitter Betrayal
This was the most suspect entry of the night. It was already saddled with being the second hardscrapple multi-wrestler affair on a short card, but it would have to do so without ladders. Also, there was the added element of the Dusty Rhodes tag team tournament trophy being on the line for, assumedly, the two teams who weren’t already the champions. It just wasn’t the cleanest of stories.
Everyone performed incredibly, but there was still the sense that the opening ladder match was better. That’s why the Roderick Strong twist worked so damn well. This match needed something. A few drops of hot sauce. And the Strong swerve gave us the much-needed “moment” for this match. It also perfectly meshed up with Fish’s injury and the fact that Undisputed Era needed an extra player in order to believably retain their gold. Because poor Adam Cole took a table spot nap through most of this one.
So this cool shocking twist wound up saving this match and becoming the night’s big moment. The Backbreaker became the Backstabber.
The Instant Classic
With the decision being made to put the Gargano/Ciampa grudge match on last, Aleister Black challenging “Cien” Almas for the NXT Championship would go on next. And while this match was superb enough to fill any main event spot, you’d come to understand, after TakeOver was over, why the Gargano match closed things out.
Black vs. Almas five-star filled the one-on-one fast-paced “Holy S***!” match of the evening. It was the title match we knew these two could deliver, with numerous “WTF?” near falls and a handful of nice sneak attack spots by irreplaceable treasure Zelina Vega. This match was no where close to being as personal as the grudge match that would follow, but it was just personal enough to work. And the finish, with Almas not being able to block the Black Mass kick because he had his arms filled with Zelina was perfect.
The Power and the Story
Notably, Gargano/Ciampa moved a much slower pace than Black/Almas. It was a drawn out affair with emotion driving the action and once the fight was over, and Gargano had bested his foe and gotten his job back, you once again realized how much of that rare Daniel Bryan underdog/babyface quality Gargano has. It’s so hard to be a true and pure face these days. Part of it has to do with his size, sure, but there’s a fire. There’s an “X” factor present where people just want to root for you.
Again, this one stood out initially because it didn’t unspool at breakneck pace. Admittedly too, when Ciampa was in control, there were some slow patches. But once the endgame kicked in and the false finishes came fast and furious, it got incredible. And the finish, with Gargano trying to see if there was any light left within the twisted Darth Ciampa, but also him being smart enough to expect that last ditch double-cross, was freakin’ aces.
Plus, Ciampa slowly walking to the ring with nothing but loud boos from the audience as his entrance music was spot on (and something Ziggler should have done when he supposedly ditched “gimmicks”) while Gargano’s Thor: Ragnarok vest was sweet sweet nerd-blivion.
Check out our full WrestleMania 34 match predictions here!