Friday, April 5, 2019

Top 10 NXT TakeOver (and Arrival) Matches of "All Time" (the past five years, basically)


Welcome to Part 1 of our very special WrestleMania Weekend preview of a piece I have been working on for months upon months now: my top 50 wrestling matches of all time. It's going to be a WHILE before this beast finally comes to fruition as it is currently still in the research stage (I have a pretty good idea of what the top 50 are going to be, there's just a few matches I still want to watch before I start the writing process) but I'm so excited about it that I wanted to give folks a little sneak preview and with WrestleMania Weekend upon us, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so in a way that also simultaneously celebrates the biggest weekend of the wrestling calendar.

All ten of these matches will be featured in the final version of the top 50--and some of them might be higher than you think! It's staggering to think about the fact that NXT has only been around for five years and has only done about 30 TakeOvers (and one Arrival) and yet they've already put on 10 matches that I would consider among the greatest in wrestling history. The incredible storytelling combined with world class wrestling has put NXT in a class of its own these past five years, cementing it as easily one of if not the best wrestling promotion in the world today. These matches are the best of the best...

(all matches rated out of 5 stars because lol who cares; but seriously, I don't break the scale lightly--it is reserved for a match that goes above and beyond what I even imagined possible for a "perfect" wrestling match)

10. Antonio Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn -- NXT Arrival

photo courtesy of prowrestlingstories.com
This is the feud that put Sami Zayn on the map and, in truth, may very well have put NXT itself on the map with their prior match--another instant classic 2-out-of-3 falls match with one of the most epic endings you'll ever see. This match might actually be even better somehow, mostly because of the story and the fact that it recalls its own history and uses it to enhance the story. The story here is that Sami Zayn will do absolutely anything to earn Cesaro's respect and he thinks the only way to do that is to beat Cesaro. Zayn beat him the first time they faced off but it was pretty much a fluke victory as Zayn took an unprepared Cesaro completely by surprise for a quick pin. Zayn lost the next two matches decisively, always looking fairly overmatched but still coming close to victory numerous times due to his incredible heart, including in the 2-out-of-3 falls rubber match, which is supposed to be the ultimate decisive ending to a feud. But Sami wouldn't give up his quest to earn Cesaro's respect. It was too important to him. He needed one more chance. He needed it more than anything in the world. 

Throughout the match Zayn again seems overmatched for most of it but scrapes and claws and refuses to give in no matter how much Cesaro beats him. At one point, Cesaro even starts screaming at him to stay down, almost seeming concerned for his health. Sami tries to pull out the old tricks but Cesaro is ready for most of them--including his signature through-the-ropes DDT which Cesaro counters with a MONSTER uppercut. At the match's climax, Sami Zayn is out on his feet but refuses to stay down, absorbing uppercut after uppercut as Cesaro yells at him to stay down. Cesaro hurls Zayn into the air and LEVELS him with the Swiss Death uppercut--the move that won him their last match.

And Sami Zayn kicks out. At one.

Kicking out at one is a message. It's a great big "f*ck you, I'm not dead yet." It is the greatest act of defiance in a wrestling ring. Cesaro is blown away. He becomes incensed and WALLOPS Zayn with one more uppercut before absolutely burying him with the Neutralizer for the pin. And just like that, Sami Zayn has failed again. Except he hasn't. Cesaro starts to leave but then comes back, picks Zayn up, and embraces him, saying something in his ear that we don't hear but is very clearly a show of utmost respect. This guy just took the best shot of a literal Superman and kicked out at one. If that's not worthy of respect, nothing is. In defeat, Sami Zayn has accomplished his goal. But he still lost. His journey continues...

★★★★★



9. The Revival vs. DIY (NXT Tag Team Championships) -- NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II

photo courtesy of wwe.com
So you may have noticed if you read ahead a little that literally half this list is taken up by the ongoing (hopefully) saga of DIY. This is no accident. The rise and fall of DIY, for my money, might well be one of the most compelling wrestling storylines of all time. They arrived in NXT as indie darlings without contracts and were thrown together for the Dusty Rhodes classic. Along the way they became loyal best friends. Even when they faced off in the Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), though their bond was tested, it never broke. This match was their first opportunity at tag team gold and they put everything they had into it. This match is a goddamn symphony and the crowd is the music. They have this crowd in the palm of their hands. As the match rises to its climax, the crowd is losing their minds for every big move, every nearfall. It is exquisite.

The match turns when DIY gets a false three-count due to Dawson slipping Wilder's leg on the ropes. DIY celebrates prematurely which allows The Revival to take out Ciampa by running him into the ring post and then targeting Gargano's leg, as they have with so many opponents in the past. Johnny Gargano taps out in the reverse figure four without Ciampa there to save him and the two sit in the ring, disappointed and distraught, mirroring the ending of their CWC match. Everyone and their mother thought Ciampa was going to turn on Gargano here for being the weak link but he doesn't. He sticks by his best friend and tag team partner, embracing him. But the seeds of doubt are sewn...

★★★★★



8. DIY vs. The Revival (TakeOver: Toronto)

photo courtesy of cagesideseats.com
Now, in part two of the Revival/DIY story, things seem to be playing out in a very similar manner. There are certainly some key differences and the two teams have scouted each other quite a bit since their first match but in many ways this match initially plays out as something of a mirror image of its predecessor. That is, until the Revival go after Gargano's leg again. Dash Wilder brings one of the belts into the ring and Gargano goes for the roll-through kick but gets it blocked with the belt. He then finds himself once again in the clutches of the reverse figure four. This time, however, he fights through and gets to the ropes. Finally, Gargano catches Wilder in the GargaNo Escape. Dawson is about to break it up but Ciampa catches him in the bridging Fujiwara armbar. Dawson and Wilder implore each other not to tap out, grabbing each other's hands to stop each other from tapping but finally can't stand it anymore and both tap out simultaneously, leaving DIY standing tall as the NEW NXT tag team champions.

★★★★★



7. Tomasso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano (TakeOver: Brooklyn IV)

photo courtesy of 411mania.com
I wish I could do these in chronological order but the whole ranking system thing kinda ruins that. When Ciampa turned on Gargano at TakeOver: Chicago, they had waited so long to pull the trigger that it was actually somewhat surprising. The heat Ciampa got from the crowd for it was NUCLEAR and he took it and ran with it, proving to be one of the best heels in WWE. Sadly, before that could happen, Ciampa was sidelined with an injury almost immediately following the turn and we had to wait EVEN LONGER to finally see them clash. Once he returned, however, he and Gargano put on some of the greatest wrestling matches I have ever seen. The story that they told of two former best friends turned bitter enemies and the inner turmoil of Gargano meeting the total vitriol of Ciampa was absolutely masterful. This was the last of their three encounters (and hopefully not the last one ever), a last man standing match. It makes the list largely on the strength of the storytelling but also because it brought some truly unique moments to the last man standing match--a match that can be very difficult to do well--including my favorite: both men getting up after a one count late in this grueling match. The last man standing version of kicking out at one. So creative, I absolutely loved it.

A lot of people didn't like the ending of this match because they felt it made Gargano look like an idiot but I thought it was perfect. Gargano is so blinded by rage and revenge that he no longer cares about winning the match, no longer cares about the NXT title, all he cares about is hurting Ciampa. As Ciampa is about to be counted down, handcuffed to the railing on the side of the stage, Gargano, not satisfied to simply win the match and the championship, sprints at 1000% capacity to blast Ciampa with a completely out-of-control knee to the face, which ultimately allows Ciampa to accidentally get to his feet and win the match. This is the moment Gargano is fully turned into a monster by Ciampa, which was his goal all along. Gargano allows blind rage and hatred to corrupt his mind and soul so completely that the only thing he cares about anymore is hurting Ciampa. This corruption is the catalyst that ultimately leads Gargano down a dark path that culminates with Ciampa convincing Gargano that they should join forces once more as Evil DIY. Absolutely spectacular. No notes.

★★★★★



6. Bayley vs. Sasha Banks (TakeOver: Respect)

photo courtesy of uproxx.com
Again I have to do this sort of out of order but the story of Bayley is a very similar one to Sami Zayn, which I'll get to in more detail in a minute. She was the lovable loser. The fan favorite. The perennial underdog. She was the only one of the Four Horsewomen of NXT not to get called up with the rest to bring the Women's Revolution to the main roster and to take part in the inaugural women's championship match, retiring the Divas title in favor of a much more respectable women's title. Sasha was the yang to Bayley's yin: conniving, cunning, mean-spirited...an alpha female through and through. When Bayley won the title at TakeOver: Brooklyn, it was the ultimate validation of her journey and her insistence on doing things her way--the right way. It was one of the most emotional moments in NXT history and maybe even wrestling history.

Everyone said that match should have main evented TakeOver: Brooklyn and WWE listened. At their next live event special, Bayley and Sasha would become the first women ever to main event a WWE live event special in a 30 minute iron man match for the NXT women's title. This match is brutal both physically and emotionally. I don't think any of us will ever forget the moment when Sasha took Bayley superfan Izzy's headband and snapped it in half, causing Izzy to sob uncontrollably. But it was the ending of this match that had me literally screaming. The score is tied. Both women are desperately trying to catch each other in submission holds. They want to MAKE each other give up. Sasha goes for a Banks Statement but Bayley reverses it into a modified armbar. Sasha tries to hold on but then Bayley--the nicest nice person in all wrestling--STOMPS THE FUCK out of Sasha's face and Sasha gives up at the very last second, giving Bayley a 3-2 victory.

★★★★★



5. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn (TakeOver: Dallas)

photo courtesy of robsagenius.com
I'll probably always have a major bias toward this match. I was there to witness it live. I was in that legendary crowd that created the "Fight Forever" chant and it was truly an indescribable experience. Some people will argue that this match had the unfair advantage of a nuclear hot crowd that was in a frenzy just to see Shinsuke Nakamura debut in WWE. To me, the crowd wouldn't have been so out of their minds throughout this match if it wasn't so amazing. They orchestrated that crowd beautifully. The other common criticism (not even a criticism so much as an observation) is that there's not much of a story being told here, at least leading up to the match. I would argue that, in addition to being a passing of the torch as Zayn's swan song and Nakamura's debut, the story within the match is excellent. Once Zayn makes Nakamura bleed his own blood, Nak shifts into another gear of brutality. It gets ugly. And Zayn realizes soon after that if he can't find it within him to match Nak's brutality, Nak may very well destroy him. Of course, no one can match Nakamura's brutality so he ultimately prevails but the dance they do in the ring and the story they tell is absolutely incredible. When it's all over, each man raises the other's arm and then Sami is given the NXT send-off he deserves as the crowd chants "Thank You, Sami."

★★★★★



4. Tommaso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano (TakeOver: Chicago II)

photo courtesy of wwe.com
This was the sequel to their first and greatest match (a legendary effort, in my opinion) and in some ways it actually ups the ante quite a bit. There's actually a little bit more action in this one and the vitriol is kicked up a notch as well. The brutality is also definitely turned up as this one is a Chicago street fight. Some of the emotional climaxes of the match are also heightened--particularly the moment where Ciampa removes Gargano's wedding ring, spits on it, and throws it into the crowd. This drives Gargano into a rage. He puts Ciampa through a table head first, echoing the moment when Ciampa turned on his former tag team partner at the previous year's TakeOver: Chicago. Ciampa is being taken out on a stretcher but that's not good enough for Gargano, who drags him back in the ring, giving Ciampa an opening to hit a through-the-ropes DDT on part of the ring that Ciampa has removed the padding from for the win. Not quite the opus that their first encounter was but a brilliant piece of work nonetheless.

★★★★★½



3. Bayley vs. Sasha Banks (TakeOver: Brooklyn)

photo courtesy of cagesideseats.com
One of the ways in which my analysis of wrestling might significantly from others is the importance I place on storytelling and emotional impact in wrestling matches. To me, this is the very essence of what makes wrestling truly unique. This is the highest purpose of the art of professional wrestling. The outcomes are predetermined so that stories can be told both in and out of the ring. They're usually somewhat simple stories but they play out in such a visceral way that the power of these stories can be immense. Sometimes a story and a match is so compelling and so emotional that it brings tears to my eyes.

This is one of those.

This was simply one of the most emotional moments in NXT history. The match was legendary on its own--especially the climax of Bayley hitting Sasha with a TOP ROPE REVERSE RANA are you freaking kidding me--but the story leading up to it and the moment where Bayley finally won the big one literally brought tears to my eyes. And I don't mean like...a few tears. I literally ugly cried at this match. That's just about the highest praise I can give a wrestling match. I don't know if there's anything else to say about it. Just a legendary moment.

★★★★★★



2. Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa (TakeOver: New Orleans)

photo courtesy of cagesideseats.com
This is simply a masterpiece. It is the ultimate climax of this epic, amazing story. It is one of the most compelling, emotional, brutal, and brilliant wrestling matches I have ever seen in my life. It is Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa's magnum opus. And it features one of the most effective, heart-wrenching, beautiful emotional climaxes of any wrestling match I've ever seen. The way Johnny Gargano portrayed the turmoil and conflict in his heart in those magical moments was nothing short of high art and solidified, in my mind, Gargano's place as the best wrestler on the planet and certainly the greatest in-ring storyteller of a generation and quite possibly one of the greatest of all time.

★★★★★★

1. Sami Zayn vs. Adrian Neville (TakeOver: R-Evolution)

photo courtesy of cultaholic.com
This, for my money, is wrestling perfection. Beyond perfection. The match in and of itself is perfection. Every move crisp and flowing logically from the next. The harrowing climax puts it over the top. Sami Zayn, the perennial nice guy who has never been able to win the big one, time and time again coming up short in the 18 months since his NXT debut (according to Neville, because he lacks the "killer instinct"--in other words, he's not willing to compromise his integrity and take shortcuts to win), is faced with the ultimate choice. Sacrifice his values and take the easy way out by hitting Neville with the belt to win the match or stay true to himself and do things his way, win or lose. The crowd BEGS him not to do it--Sami's values are what makes him Sami and the reason he is the most beloved NXT superstar there's ever been. And he listens. He stays true to himself, throws down the belt...and it VERY nearly costs him everything. But he steels his resolve, wipes away all doubt from his eyes, and NAILS Neville with the Helluva Kick to cap the 18 month journey of the heart and soul of NXT. Add to that the fact that his best friend, Kevin Owens, who made his debut in the opening match of the show, does exactly what Zayn wouldn't do, betraying his best friend to position himself for a title shot, is the icing on the cake of what is the greatest NXT match of all time.

★★★★★★

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