Championship Crossroads, Post-PPV Problems | Takes, Takes & More Takes #23

Yes indeed folks, ‘Takes’ is back…again! Though maybe not quite as consistently as before, I do want to keep this series around, for better or worse. AEW has its own weekly project now so alongside that, I intend to use this format to cover the other products and promotions that interest me. This week, that has me analyzing ROH and IMPACT’s post-PPV efforts as well as NXT’s divisive build towards TakeOver. Three different shows, all chasing eyeballs and running into brick walls along the way. In fairness, I can relate, so let’s get this show on the road!


Less than a month removed from their critically acclaimed Best in the World PPV, ROH finds themselves in a familiar position. Moderate buzz was gained and then immediately lost, as the promotion’s television product remains a non-factor in the industry’s daily discussion. Wrestling is red hot right now in that sense, with shocking news every other day and yet, ROH couldn’t feel further distanced from the excitement. They just feel isolated, which is a complete contrast to their prior place as the wider wrestling world’s US home.

That’s a real shame too, as the product itself continues to impress. I’ve actually been out of the loop slightly and so, this most recent return was my first viewing of the TV in a few months. Once again, I found myself engaged by the palpable contrast between Shane Taylor Promotions and The Foundation. I don’t think this has been an actual story really, just an obvious clash that they’ve used for some good TV content. It works, could just probably be more, though I understand that story-wise, Violence Unlimited have been The Foundation’s more direct opposition.

That’s fine, as they appear to be an awesome act also but I must say, Shane Taylor Promotions is something special. This is the act that makes ROH’s lack of traction most obvious, as this thing should be an absolute smash hit across the board. It isn’t just Taylor either, as Kaun and Moses, the Soldiers of Savagery, are a money tag team too, one that’ll make a lot of money for years to come. They are an imposing, visually striking tandem but there’s range between them also, with Kaun the more flashy counterpart to Moses’ brute force.

In this particular 8-man tag, STP’s championship trio were joined by their own O’Shay Edwards, who eventually scored the win here. Edwards is a potential star in his own right, making this one of the more complete ‘acts’ around, a truly can’t miss pro wrestling faction. That’s not to take away from The Foundation either, who I still love even if admittedly, this whole thing seems to have been less interesting than it probably could’ve been. I do love the usage of those on the outskirts though, like ROH Dojo product Joe Keys here, established as Jonathan Gresham’s student.

In other news, ROH dedicated this week’s television to the Women of Honor title tournament, featuring three first round matches. This wasn’t a home run or anything, but it was a good start for a revived division that’s previously been infamous. Up first, Miranda Alize advanced opposite Alex Gracia and I probably would’ve placed this in the middle, as it wasn’t the strongest start to proceedings. Gracia has had better showings and for now at least, Alize’s base style is a little rough around the edges. Her strikes looked great at times though, and there’s certainly promise on both sides.

Perhaps my personal favourite performance of the night came second though, as Nicole Savoy defeated Mazzerati. The latter has some raw ingredients for sure but this was the Savoy show, which is telling as I actually think she was working well within herself here. Savoy is a building block for this division, the kind that should be a constant as this project takes shape. Finally, ROH established Rok-C as a ‘Prodigy’ indeed, eliminating a former champion in Sumie Sakai. Guided by a veteran, I thought Rok-C mostly lived up to the hype, producing this episode’s best match in my view.

Either way, credit to ROH for actually committing to the women this time around, which was the main issue last time. We can analyse the many prior problems, both unavoidable and self-inflicted but at core, that’s the reality. They just didn’t care enough and it showed, whereas this already feels different on intention alone. I’m quietly confident honestly, as this line-up looks promising but more than that, this thing has Maria Kanellis behind it internally which thus far, appears to be a positive for all involved. Rooting for the women and rooting for Ring of Honor, important months ahead.


Suddenly tasked with a momentary return to taped television and on a different network also, NXT’s time isn’t getting any easier. After years of being almost protected from the pressures of pro wrestling, this brand is now dealing with an onslaught of issues, many of which are out of their hands. For example, it’s not ideal that their unbeatable champion is losing flat on Monday Night RAW, nor is it helpful that multiple key players in the women’s division were called up overnight. It’s a struggle now, things have changed.

With that being said, this product remains steady, a cold, but competent contrast to the discussion surrounding it. In fact, I enjoyed this particular show quite a bit, but perception is reality and unfortunately, that’s NXT’s biggest hurdle right now. Either way, I’m happy to see Hit Row turn babyface after all, as this was a potential issue that I circled only a few weeks ago. Well, think they’re babyfaces at least but if not, they’re certainly framed that way opposite Legado Del Fantasma. That programme opened this week’s show, with a tag match excluding the respective leaders.

Ashante Adonis isn’t there yet but I must say, he’s incredibly striking. I vividly recall first seeing Adonis on 205 Live, as I found myself befuddled at his lack of buzz and hype. Relatively speaking, that’s since changed, or by NXT standards anyway. He’ll improve on his already impressive base in-ring but in terms of star quality, it’s already there, he’s just got something. By contrast, I’m waiting for Top Dolla’s magnetism to translate in-ring but I sense that’s a confidence thing, which will fix itself before long. Nonetheless, he offered an encouraging hot tag here.

Assuming that ‘Swerve’ will eventually retain his North American Title, I’d imagine that this is LDF’s send-off, right? That feels like a main roster act to me, can churn out strong TV action if nothing else. Speaking of such, Bobby Fish and Roderick Strong certainly did that here, producing an unsurprisingly engaging affair. Considering their history, this would ideally mean more than it did but at the end of the day, it’s 3 vs. 4, with Fish now firmly cemented on the tier below even Strong. Regardless, that didn’t stop these two from doing their thing.

It was a bruising battle, intense and physical throughout in a fashion that felt alive in a way that modern TV matches seldom do. This wasn’t following a playbook, it was unfolding in front of your eyes, even in picture-in-picture. That’s not to say it was a special match or even anything beyond “good,” just thought it was worth crediting them on that front. Strong vs. Kushida is the endgame here and that’s a positive, plain and simple. Honestly, I think both guys could be higher on the card but if you want the Cruiserweights to matter, this’ll help.

This may surprise some, but I even like Cameron Grimes’ ongoing antics with LA Knight. I don’t think that any product should be exclusively one thing and with the 2-hour runtime, NXT especially needs variety. I mean, even those glory days that I so often reference had comedy, Bull-Fit comes to mind. It helps that I think both guys are genuinely good in this silliness and the result is something that doesn’t feel a million miles away from your usual wrestling nonsense. Put it this way, I’d much rather turn talent this way rather than just having them work heels.

With that in mind, I’m stunned to see Dakota Kai as the apparent heel of this women’s title programme. Raquel Gonzalez is a bigtime prospect and I get the fascination but your audience isn’t rushing to cheer her at all. Kai on the other hand? She was and still could be a natural babyface, embrace her prior arc and use this feud to complete it. That’d be my play anyway but as is, Kai cut a strong promo here, explaining herself with conviction. I don’t know, just think the match itself has a far lower ceiling in this form.

As the de facto babyface (I think), Raquel will inevitably sell for a lengthy heat segment that if roles were reversed, could be transformative in Kai’s hands. No good crying over spilt milk though I suppose, this is what they’re seemingly going with and thus far, they’ve made a good start in that direction. Elsewhere, Trey Baxter continued his own good start, defeating Joe Gacy and advancing in the NXT Breakout Tournament. This was an effective enough formal introduction for both men, an immediate styles clash that allowed both guys to show their own potential.

Combine much of the above with a decent main event and you have a good television show, but there’s a looming sense of uncertainty to the product’s future. Clearly, NXT’s place in this ‘universe’ is changing and that’s fine, but it’s making for a weird few months. The brand’s main male title is attached to a guy that’s beaten almost everyone, yet already finds himself in the RAW midcard. The answer is seemingly Samoa Joe and well, as much as I love the man, that doesn’t feel like much of an answer at all really.

That’s another topic for another day though, as in a vacuum at least, I still enjoyed this latest edition of NXT TV.


It’s been an eventful month or so for IMPACT Wrestling, producing the encouraging Slammiversary and a range of headlines since. Three TV episodes later, there’s been an onslaught of news and notes but yet, you’re the blink of an eye away from missing them all. If you had any doubt after the viewership boom and then immediate bust of Kenny Omega’s presence, this show feels stuck, even if the many promotional partnerships have provided their PPVs with an extra punch. The TV though? Well, there’s a lot of options and unfortunately, too few people are picking IMPACT.

That’s frustrating as when you actually tune in, you’ll generally enjoy the experience. It’s been especially engaging in recent weeks, with fans finally back also, adding an energy that had been absent for well over a year. I apologize if much of the above overlaps with my earlier ROH opening, but I will say, there is an obvious difference here. I thoroughly enjoy Ring of Honor’s weekly television product, but I’m not delusional, it has no real hook to the modern wrestling fan. In fact, it often feels disconnected from the promotion’s main angles and ideas.

It’s dated in that sense, a complete contrast to the increasingly common approach to US television. They rotate things like AEW but in a far more formulaic fashion, all over just one hour too. I love that, but it’s not particularly exciting, especially for those further distanced from the product. By contrast, IMPACT follows a far more familiar formula, built around its main characters every week and developing their central arcs with each outing also. You’ll be caught up almost immediately, you’ll see at least a couple recognisable faces weekly.

Now, I do think that sometimes, IMPACT’s creative lacks a big picture outlook, mostly specializing in giving purpose to potentially purposeless talent. With that being said, that’s a complaint that I’ll often return to as the major PPV cycles reach their conclusion, but it’s not relevant here. Perhaps it’s just the return of fans, but I really think that over the last three weeks, this product has been consistently interesting in a way that’s seldom been the case. Granted, much of that is fueled by these promotional partnerships but for now, that’s a feature, not a flaw.

Jay White is the obvious example of that, an absolute revelation thus far. Everyone already thought highly of White but wow, he’s made a statement in my view. I knew that the raw ingredients were there but his transition to this style of product couldn’t have been smoother. On arrival, he was one of IMPACT’s most compelling characters and frankly, I don’t think that’d be any different elsewhere either. He’s just got the answers at this point, has figured things out and is the kind of top guy that can successfully slot in anywhere.

This week though, White was a mere plot device really, providing the bridge for Chris Bey’s entry to the Bullet Club. Obviously, that’s a great fit for Bey, who can eventually tour Japan as a premier junior heavyweight. Not only that, but it guarantees a certain protection too, which has been absent from Bey’s booking at times. Most of all though, this is a win for Bullet Club, finally adding an exciting fresh face to their ranks. That faction isn’t untalented of course but the line-up itself certainly isn’t exciting. Bey changes that and tellingly, beat Juice Robinson here.

Elsewhere, IMPACT crowned a king and queen last weekend, with Matthew Rehwoldt and Deonna Purrazzo coming out on top at Homecoming. That was an ideal bonus show for your subscribers by the way, just fun pro wrestling that could easily exist in a vacuum, but felt newsworthy enough too. Either way, Purrazzo is headed to the NWA’s Empower show, with Mickie James revealing her opponent as Melina. This is a strong poster and on name value alone, an understandable play but I do question the match quality element as naturally, Melina isn’t what she was physically.

Ideally, this whole saga leads to Mickie James herself working Purrazzo in IMPACT, as the champion still needs intriguing opponents. Then again, Tasha Steelz may have just joined that list, now backed up by Savannah Evans as Fire ‘N Flava becomes a thing of her past. That’s a real shame by the way, as they’d become a legitimately great team but Kiera has been there for some time now, so it does feel like a logical time for her to climb the promotional ladder. Steelz can be a player in IMPACT either way, teaming with Evans or as a singles.

Honestly, Steelz is one of the promotion’s most underrated performers. Fundamentally sound, versatile and armed with real personality, Steelz should flourish if her spotlight increases, which would help the Knockouts Title scene tremendously. Upon thought though, the division’s tag titles may need her more. Speaking of such, IMPACT’s obsession with multi-team tag matches refuses to relent, now booking a triple threat in which Violent By Design and the Rich Swann/Willie Mack tandem challenges The Good Brothers. I just don’t get it, these matches come with such a ceiling, all following that same tired formula.

Speaking of The Good Brothers, Karl Anderson played fall down man here, taking the pin in this week’s 6-man tag main event. That’s fine, as the champions beat Bey and White last week and frankly, the babyfaces needed this win. Namely, Frankie Kazarian needed this win, taking his Elite hunting antics to IMPACT. That was a natural fit and showed how with even the smallest shift, these partnerships can provide momentum. Ideally, Eddie Edwards and Sami Callihan aren’t your two top babyfaces alongside him, but such is IMPACT.

At some point, you’ve got to let things evolve in that sense, catapulting a few of these newer names forward. That day feels as though it’s coming sooner rather than later but for now, IMPACT television is three for three in my view, yet to miss since the return of fans.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!

Fyter Fest Thrills, SmackDown Shines | Takes, Takes & More Takes #22

Well folks, it’s been awhile. Four months ago, this series abruptly ended after what I thought was a decent little existence. Simply put, I couldn’t keep watching the wrestling at that rate, and that may be the case moving forward. If so, this’ll be a short-lived comeback but with fans returning, it feels like a good time to start fresh. NXT, AEW and SmackDown are the focus today so with that in mind, let’s get this show on the road, quite literally.


Since the rehiring of Samoa Joe, I’ve made my own return to NXT. No longer losing a wrestling ratings war, NXT’s move to Tuesday has been a positive step critically, even if a lateral move commercially. I do agree with the consensus though, that this is a good show that’s already benefitting from standing alone each week. At times, I still struggle with an overarching emotional investment but there’s barely a babyface in sight, so that feels inevitable regardless of their new night.

Either way, I can always embrace a wrestling match to start a wrestling show and NXT delivered that here, giving Dakota Kai and Ember Moon some time to set the tone. I feel like I’ve seen this match a lot but Kai and Moon are honestly two of my personal favorite television workers right now. That may sound hyperbolic but I really do think the world of both, just incredibly watchable and able to produce sound matches of this length without exhausting me.

Now without Shotzi Blackheart, Moon’s safety net is gone and admittedly, I do fear for her. To me, she’s a prime candidate for the classic NXT heel turn and I’m just not sure that’s what this brand needs. Then again, perhaps it’ll be more feasible when/if Kai and NXT Champion Raquel Gonzalez split. Ideally, Kai chases Gonzalez as a babyface but whatever form or fashion they choose, that programme feels inevitable after Dakota’s win here. Moon will always be valuable, I just hope that creative has her back.

Speaking of Gonzalez, she’s now set for at least a mini-programme with Xia Li because again, babyfaces, who needs them? The match sounds like an interesting case study at least, a real look at what those two obviously talented women can do without a clear leader involved. I’m intrigued, even if from a more analytical perspective than anything tangible. The women’s division is in transition right now, losing three names last week and apparently gaining Mandy Rose in return. Frankly, I’m very much for this as a trend.

Some talent just gets stagnant on the main roster and stylistically, RAW and SmackDown are too similar to make a shift matter. NXT feels like a genuine clean slate though, especially for Rose, who never really had a proper run on the brand. Rose is someone that clearly, they want to use but it’s just never really worked in my opinion. The raw ingredients are there but not quite to the extent necessary, she’s not incompetent by any means, just lacking a standout skill-set based her main roster usage at least.

Elsewhere, a logical direction was taken with the NXT North American Title, as Legado del Fantasma headed in Hit Row’s direction. This makes sense on numbers alone but again, I have questions. Are we doing an actual babyface turn for Hit Row here, because that’s what should probably happen. Look, ‘Swerve’ is a wonderful villain but this is a money act, just embrace it and try to get something over. The shades of grey stuff remains my biggest issue with this product, though I’m admittedly excited for that eventual match.

The NXT Breakout Tournament got underway also, as Duke Hudson defeated Ikemen Jiro in a pretty short affair. Personally, I wouldn’t have started this tournament with a virtual showcase match, but that’s a bigger picture thing. Am happy for Duke Hudson regardless, who was over a year removed from the ring. Then Brendan Vink, Hudson was a brief RAW regular, teaming with Shane Thorne under the tutelage of MVP. With a big frame, Hudson jumps off the page, armed with a unique charisma too.

Hudson can talk and has a palpable confidence, but it’s not traditional wrestler stuff. He’s almost dry, bringing a different delivery and no, I don’t just mean his accent, which also rules. Simply put, he was an intriguing signing, an intriguing add to RAW and now, an intriguing piece of this tournament. I doubt he’ll win it, but this victory alone suggests that there’s some sort of plan, which bodes well if nothing else. I do worry about these ‘prospects’ though, as the main event scene seems so set in place.

Speaking of such, Adam Cole still isn’t going anywhere and indeed, remains completely miscast as a heel. I know, I know, it’s annoying and you want me to move on but seriously, know your viewer. The NXT audience loves Adam Cole and after such a sustained stint as top heel, that may as well be embraced. Cole still stands out on this roster and for all his faults, that’d probably be the case in any promotion, on any brand. Build around him as the lead protagonist I say, at least that’s fresh.

Finally, Karrion Kross retained in the main event, vanquishing genuine contender Johnny Gargano. A title change seemed possible here but in the end, Gargano was a mere afterthought, as Kross left Joe laying to close the show. I actually liked the match though, able to produce an engaging title tilt without having to fill half an hour along the way. That helped Gargano as much as Kross, simplifying things and getting right to business. It was a very simple match really, with Gargano playing the de facto babyface.

Though it’s a distant memory now, few are better at that, fighting from underneath and sprinkling hope spots throughout. The Kross saga fascinates me, as he’s not even uh, bad? I mean, he’s not particularly good I guess but like, he’s mechanically fine, just kind of flat. That’s whatever, but he’s now been framed on-screen as a bell to bell disaster and with this audience, that’s hard to shake. I feel for him really, as this level of skill can be worked with, it’s not Kross’ fault that he’s immediately won the title, twice!

Nonetheless, Samoa Joe is seemingly next up for him and that’s exciting news, I think. I mean, I’m excited anyway, very excited in fact. To me, a return to NXT signaled the likely end of Joe’s in-ring career but this angle suggests otherwise. I think that Joe has been used rather well thus far but as a wrestler, his value is obviously multiplied. Now, another title reign? I’m less sure. Joe is wonderful, an all-timer but he’s been NXT Champion and going backwards will seldom lead anything forward.

I’ll watch either way, of course, as Joe is king but you get my point. It’s time for a new era in NXT or at the very least, fresh ideas for familiar faces. Joe is Joe, he’s an attraction certainly but a centerpiece in 2021? Probably not the best placement. I enjoyed NXT though, it’s consistently good and slowly but surely, they’re earning my attention.


For over a year, AEW was operating without its special ingredient. That was easy to forget at times, especially as Dynamite went from strength-to-strength but after two weeks on the road, it’s impossible to imagine a product without these crowds. Across the country, wrestling fans are just desperate for this release, infinitely more invested than they even were before the promotion’s ‘pandemic era.’ The roster is stronger, the matches are neater, the promos are better, and the result is great television. This week in particular, those factors produced an all-time episode of Dynamite.

As all shows should, it started with Wild Thing and somehow retained that pace, just two hours of nothing but hits. Moxley’s opener with Karl Anderson shouldn’t be ignored though, an engaging TV bout reminiscent of Anderson’s many G1 undercard bouts. Moxley is just special, bringing a raw energy to this show that’s not possible with anyone else. The entrance is just icing on the cake really, the final touch to one of wrestling’s great thrills. Next week, Moxley’s got Lance Archer in a Texas Death Match too, so he’s certainly making up for lost time.

Speaking of such, Ricky Starks is back, and he still feels as certain for stardom as ever. He and Brian Cage produced an exciting bout that in opting against a surprise, actually surprised me. The story throughout has been that Cage is distancing himself from Team Taz and indeed, they finished the job for him, helping Starks and switching ‘The Machine’ babyface. This feud aside, I don’t really know about Cage’s usefulness in that role, especially as a singles. Perhaps Jake can bring him and Archer together, as the latter’s own direction feels in doubt after Wednesday.

Starks staying heel is interesting, as I did feel that for the sake of balance, he could be used on the other side. As a cocky, but charming babyface, Starks felt like a natural fit opposite MJF or Ethan Page, but this route definitely helps Team Taz. This way, the faction maintains its variety and Powerhouse Hobbs can now fully fill the position of group monster. Elsewhere, Cody Rhodes is back apparently, as reliant on fans as we all recalled. This feud with Malakai Black is off to an encouraging start, just a matter of keeping things simple.

AEW has my trust in that sense too, with ‘Hangman’ Page’s pursuit of Kenny Omega continuing to set the standard for modern wrestling storytelling. This is one of the industry’s great arcs, and the emotional weight of Dark Order’s involvement is truly staggering. That act isn’t just in this story, they are its heart and soul, bringing the fans to life with their support of ‘Hangman.’ The audience is just ready for this, they are ready for Page as champion and when that match arrives, the big fight feel should be striking.

This show always seemed set to deliver, but Christian’s renewed rivalry with Matt Hardy was a common critique. That’s fair enough but in reality, they just had a good wrestling match, one that the audience thoroughly enjoyed. It’s amazing what happens when two pros are protected enough and then left to their own devices, truly shocking stuff. Once again though, this show may have been a home run, but it was still light on development for the women’s division. Yuka Sakazaki vs. Penelope Ford was enjoyable enough, but Britt Baker remains the focus.

At least this week, that resulted in something good, as Baker cut a simple in-ring promo that breathed life into this feud. I’ve long thought that at times, fans are slightly hyperbolic with Baker’s ability on the microphone but no doubt, this one fit the bill. Baker spoke with great conviction and the content was good also, just a strong short segment to steady the ship after a few rough weeks. Even still, I’d like to see a secondary women’s feud in some form or fashion as without that, this thing can only climb so high.

Finally, Darby Allin and Ethan Page provided the perfect conclusion to their violent conflict. Some dynamics just work, and this is one of them, two rising stars simply made for each other. Allin’s passion for bumping like a wild man brings something seemingly psychotic out of Page, adding an edge to his ‘All Ego’ persona. Page is a player, and this feud should be just the start, but I must say, it’ll be hard to make him look as dangerous as Allin has as of late. It’s something special, a feud that could and should be revisited through the years.

After this, Allin’s next step should be interesting, as history suggests that he and Sting have to find another pair to fight at All Out. Personally, I almost expected a student vs. teacher direction but Allin’s victory here makes that even more unlikely, so I guess we’ll see. Either way, this was an all-time outing for AEW, one of the greatest editions of Dynamite yet. Next week looks strong too, even if not quite to this level but special names aside, this just feels like a new norm really, simply extreme examples.

This roster is such that the quality should be consistently high, especially with their almost rotational approach to wrestling television. Simply put, enjoy the ride folks, it rules.


After over a year without live crowds, the blue brand was back in front of fans this week. The first step of WWE’s long-awaited return to touring, SmackDown was a triumphant occasion, also concluding the build to Money in the Bank. As expected based on the advertisements alone, it was a good show but with this energy? It felt like much more than that. After a hilariously understated welcoming by Vince McMahon, an onslaught of entrances occurred, preparing to open the show with a blockbuster 6-man tag.

This ten minutes or so stole the show in truth, and I don’t even mean that as a criticism of the rest. The whole thing was truly epic, a collection of ‘moments’ that after everything, felt truly earned. Reigns was out first, setting the tone for an electricity that peaked with Edge, entering to an unfathomable reaction. For all the talk of fickle crowds swaying opinion, Edge was a case of the opposite, suffering from the ThunderDome’s silence. Regardless of creative, this guy was always getting cheered, whining or not.

Edge probably shouldn’t beat Roman, like ever but his overness is such that I’m no longer dismissing it. Unnecessary? Yes. Short-sighted? Probably but a complete misstep? No, the audience suggests otherwise. Either way, this was a very good 6-man tag, with Rey and Dom Mysterio taking Edge’s side opposite The Bloodline. Mysterio continues to connect with Jimmy and Jey as perfectly as you’d expect, and that tag title tilt is a potential show-stealer on Sunday, even on the pre-show. This was about Reigns and Edge though, with the latter eventually standing tall.

That particular degree of momentum just wasn’t being sustained in this show’s current state, but it had a segment left in it yet. As was widely hinted at beforehand, Finn Balor is back on the ‘main roster,’ returning to SmackDown and silencing Sami Zayn. Obviously, Balor is a wonderful talent and on the babyface side, the rich get richer. Reigns has always had interesting opponents available and Balor may now top that list, especially with their history. That’s been a magical pairing before, so I can only imagine its potential now.

Also, for all the criticisms of NXT’s most recent form, Balor is a credit to it. That brand allowed Balor to refresh his persona, reminding the world of his ability and rejuvenating his own brand in the process. That should be far more common than it is, even if Balor is an extreme example, considering his skill and popularity. WWE has the structure to utilize a global territory system and yet, their desperation to keep everyone on the red and blue brands result in mass overexposure. Keep things fluid, it’s best for all involved.

Inevitably, things did dip some from there, transitioning to another tag match between the champions and the team of Shotzi and Nox. As far as I know, Natalya and Tamina lost this exact match last week so heading into Money in the Bank, a match they’re inexplicably in, a repeat felt puzzling. I do understand the urge to feature the NXT call-ups in front of live crowds though, as this particular audience seemed mostly uninitiated. Unfortunately, even in victory, Shotzi and Nox were an afterthought. The whole match was really, with Liv Morgan and Zelina Vega on commentary.

On the bright side, Morgan’s reaction was very encouraging and though it’s nothing new, they certainly have something with her. Morgan connects and is genuinely likeable, now earning the more cynical viewer’s respect over the years too. People like Liv, and quite naturally root for her which silly as it sounds, is increasingly rare in this division. I don’t think that Morgan needs to win on Sunday as that doesn’t seem like the story to tell here but based on the current line-up, I’m struggling to see a stronger alternative.

Frankly, I don’t think the actual winner is even booked yet. I personally expect either Doudrop to take out Alexa Bliss, or Sonya Deville to replace Liv Morgan. In the former scenario, a Becky Lynch return feels in play but then again, perhaps it’s just these eight. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a talentless group, far from it. Unfortunately though, it is an uninteresting line-up as sadly, most of the performers involved are simply positioned poorly on weekly TV. If it stays as is, Morgan jumps off the page as an ideal victor.

Whoever wins, they aren’t likely to dethrone Bianca Belair anytime soon. Receiving an absolute superstar reaction, Belair felt like a face of the company level figure, just exuding charisma. Belair gets better every time I see her but credit to Carmella, the challenger in this replacement matchup. For the longest time, I had gripes with Carmella’s in-ring efforts but this year, she appears to have really smoothed out those rough edges. Her bump and feed here was better than ever, showing actual aggression when the time come too.

Together, Belair and Carmella combined for a strong title match, convincing me that a proper programme is worthwhile. Sasha Banks is the obvious choice for SummerSlam though, which will probably take shape next week. Before I move to the main event, it’s worth mentioning Baron Corbin, who was absolutely tremendous here. This shtick is awful silly but I was thoroughly entertained, securing this as Corbin’s peak in my mind, even though I’ve only seen one segment. I like Corbin too, but this was actually good in a way that fleeting multi-man matches aren’t.

That led us to our aforementioned headliner anyway, as Kevin Owens dropped Corbin before the fatal 4-way main event. It was a showcase of SmackDown’s Money in the Bank participants, ultimately meaningless but an exciting sprint nonetheless. Rollins eventually won, which I hope erases him from the shortlist of actual contenders. Look, I’m not going to dance around this situation as it’s simple, Big E should win this match. In fact, Big E should also beat Bobby Lashley at SummerSlam. I’m tired of waiting, it’s been a year now, get on with this before it’s too late.

Regardless, this was a strong show, packed with excitement and feel-good fun. That sounds goofy, but it’s true, the audience was happy and WWE didn’t actively upset them. Three good matches and nothing that offended me, that’s a great night at the office, especially under these circumstances. I will say though, the ThunderDome crowd noise making momentary returns is very bad for my brain, as it results in me fearfully watching the fans, still hiding my many scars from those horrifying screens.

Oh well, very good show, seriously.

NXT: Somewhere in the Middle

I’ve told this story before but it’s weird enough that frankly, I’m sticking with it. I have this vivid memory of summer 2016, a horribly hot day in July. I’m not good with the heat personally, which won’t be a surprise to anyone that’s seen me sweat profusely while just um, podcasting. Yeah, not a big fan but this particular day, I was too enthralled to worry about that. I’d been watching NXT for awhile at this point, even if admittedly, I arrived a little late.

I didn’t see the ascension to relevance, wasn’t watching at all then but the cool brand era, that I’d lived. Well, this is my personal peak. Yep, a particular episode of television that no one else really remembers. I just remember being so excited, as this show would be headlined by The Revival’s rubber match with American Alpha. Those teams had already combined for two thrillers and now in a television main event, they’d settle the score in a 2-out-of-3 falls match.

To me, that programme encapsulated NXT’s appeal, with this match a perfect example. For all of the incoming international talent, this product had very pronounced roots. Dusty Rhodes’ influence combined with Triple H’s taste to create something awful Crockett, early 90s WCW at the very least. That’s my pro wrestling folks and don’t get me wrong, it certainly wasn’t a perfect comparison. The promos weren’t comparable but there was a relative grit to the product, one absent on RAW and SmackDown.

Eventually, Triple H would lean even further in this direction, actively using WCW brands and even resurrecting WarGames. Unfortunately, the evolution of their recruitment system was less to my taste and before long, the super indie elements began to win this stylistic tug of war. In 2016 though, there was still a squad that matched my ideal NXT. In Finn Balor and Samoa Joe, the brand had genuine top guys with global reputations, performing with polish and poise. Philosophically, there was a match, a middle ground.

That’s not to say that things got worse as that changed. In fact, the main event matches only got more and more critically acclaimed, but they certainly changed. For me, that change dragged NXT further away from the elements that I liked. The simple, competition-centric narratives that felt so at home in that studio setting. If Balor and Joe fit in that world, The Revival and American Alpha were building it with each and every match. The roots of that clash were palpable, and they didn’t trace back to WWE either.

That night, they produced another enduring tag team tilt but first, Alexa Bliss and Bayley combined for a real time capsule of a match. Though nothing epic or grand, that match was Bayley at the peak of her babyface powers for me, leading the way as a division’s true ace. Not just the moral compass but a physical standard-setter, adding a sense of real hierarchy and importance. In my mind, that match was an announcement of intention for Bliss too, who had never looked more comfortable inside the ropes.

That was of course, a credit to Bayley, who had and would continue to have far better matches, but was versatile enough to play a different, more selfless role here. Both women would soon be called up, with Bliss unexpectedly climbing the SmackDown ladder almost immediately, becoming champion before the year’s close. To me, this match is not only a key moment in that progression but also, a reminder of this era. Bayley provided the bridge for NXT, a transition from Horsewomen excellence to whatever came next.

American Alpha and The Revival had less main roster success but in my mind, that almost felt fitting. Eh, no surprise there, what would Vince know anyway? They were Crockett teams, they belonged where tag team wrestling mattered! That internal monologue may work for me, but it doesn’t make Jordan’s fate any less cruel. After steadying the ship following that infamous Kurt Angle reveal, Jordan still had so, so much to offer. We’ll always have these matches though and at the very least, so will he.

That version of NXT isn’t the most popular as far as I know. In fact, I think that many view 2016 as a relative downswing within the brand’s hot streak. It’ll always be my favourite though, an idyllic middle ground that married the brand’s stylistic influences with a roster that clearly didn’t require any developing at all. It was a system that always had flaws and inevitably, they became increasingly pronounced but that doesn’t erase this television, some of the best that any promotion has produced in recent memory.

That continued for a few years after this, and even inspired me to cover NXT weekly from around May 2017 through to September of the following year. The Tommaso Ciampa – Johnny Gargano saga signified a finale and fall for me personally, though I’ll always cherish that New Orleans match, which I thankfully attended. Before the move to USA Network, this brand was bulletproof in its own way, protected from the pressures of a ‘proper’ pro wrestling promotion.

We didn’t know how many people were watching the television, we didn’t know of the major events’ drawing power without the assistance of a WWE PPV. We could guess but little more which while less interesting perhaps, adding a certain naivety. To me, that naivety was rich in the whole presentation back then, a product of optimism, fuelled by wrestlers looking directly towards their own bright futures. History has steadily altered those puzzle pieces, reshaped with every hit and miss.

That doesn’t change my experience watching this show’s peak though, that doesn’t remove my memory of that particular episode in the summer of 2016.

Roderick Strong: A Diamond in the Rough

Believe it or not, Roderick Strong is almost five years removed from his NXT debut. In October 2016, Strong entered in relatively under the radar fashion, setting the tone in a fashion that wasn’t unfamiliar to Strong. One of Ring of Honor’s focal points for over a decade, Strong was seldom the star. Instead, Strong was the reliable glue, a consistent show-stealer even within a squad of skill and star potential. Franchise players came and went, one by one, colleagues receiving the chance to change their lives.

Clearly, Strong had to wait a little longer, never quite jumping off the page like his most prominent peers. Strong wasn’t showy or theatrical, he wasn’t outwardly charismatic in a way that separated him from the rest. Instead, the beauty of Roderick Strong was and is that in theory, he shouldn’t stand out at all but yet, he only needs the bell to ring in order to do exactly that. There’s an intensity to Strong, a sense of competition that’s so authentic, always projecting an unparalleled physicality.

That truth may not separate Strong on a scouting report but it does so immediately when put into use. Strong’s consistency earns him a confidence, trust creatively that in any spot, he can and will deliver. That allowed Strong to swiftly stick in NXT, even if not in a grand, glaring fashion. Instead, Strong just earned his role on the roster and expanded it with each and every showing. Though he wasn’t initially involved in anything particularly enticing, Strong quickly established himself as a name of note.

One of the brand’s lead babyfaces before long, Strong soon pursued Bobby Roode, the NXT Champion. Though not a natural fit in that role, Strong again made the most of every in-ring possibility, producing some of the more energetic outings that the title scene had seen in years. In hindsight though, that was a mere introduction for Strong, laying the groundwork for his eventual betrayal. Around a year after opening up about his road to pro wrestling success, Strong sold his soul at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans.

By joining The Undisputed Era, Strong effectively conceded defeat, desperate for a sure-thing after such constant heartbreak. As is probably too often the case on that brand especially, Strong was proven right but in this case, at least it was for something worthwhile. The Undisputed Era became the ultimate NXT act, a defining constant during the product’s critical peak. Strong was the supporting single at times, one-half of a staggering team with Kyle O’Reilly at others. The role was so incredibly Roderick Strong, an encapsulation of his career perception and productivity.

That’s a credit to Strong too, not a criticism. For all his immense skill, Strong is selfless, able to spotlight others without losing a piece of himself. The move alongside Cole and co benefitted both sides, allowing Strong to quietly compile yet another collection of TV thrillers. The focus was usually elsewhere but that didn’t make Strong any less valued, quite the opposite in fact. On a brand of prospects awaiting opportunity and stars requiring protection, Strong provided a necessary bridge between both.

Strong isn’t finding himself, he’s a known commodity that provides quality in any and every match imaginable. That position not only suited Strong, but it expanded his impressive legacy. As a part of The Undisputed Era, Strong had the run that he’d probably be known for, the workhorse among workhorses, an integral piece of a famed faction. Nothing lasts forever though, not even The Undisputed Era, abruptly disintegrating earlier this year. With Cole and O’Reilly now feuding, Strong and Fish were left without a clear direction, suddenly spare parts.

On-screen, Strong soon ‘resigned’ from NXT, legitimately putting his future in even greater doubt. I don’t think anyone expected Strong to retire or even leave, but a cross-brand move felt feasible, especially with such speculation surrounding NXT’s own rumored developmental programme. Instead, Strong returned in emphatic fashion, unveiled as the centerpiece of Diamond Mine, a faction built on straightforward, no-nonsense aggression and brutality. In many ways, that describes Strong’s style, the only thrills coming when firmly packed within the violence. After one match, the fit proved as seamless as it sounds.

Now armed with Malcolm Bivens as a mouthpiece, Strong gets a chance to do something that under the WWE banner, seemed unlikely at best. In Diamond Mine, Strong seems set to the star of his own show, the almost sole focus of his own faction. Strong’s already set his sights on Kushida, the NXT Cruiserweight champion. That possibility presents the chance to complete an incomplete venture, a reminder of Strong’s small stint on 205 Live. Entering a tournament for the brand’s vacant title, Strong seemed perfectly at home in his three bouts.

In fact, Strong felt like a long-term solution for the Cruiserweight division, a contender to build around as his NXT run neared completion. Only weeks later though, Strong’s aforementioned turn changed everything, not only keeping him in NXT, but tying him to its central act. Even still, there was certainly something to Strong in that role, pairing his own athleticism with that special spite, explosively grounding the brand’s flashiest acrobatics. Now over three years later, such an opportunity can be revisited, all without Strong even leaving his home brand.

Either way, Strong’s legacy is secure, one of his generation’s great pure workers. Few have been more watchable, as consistently exciting and worth your time as Strong. With Roderick Strong, there are no off-nights, just another chance to steal the show.

Andrade El Idolo: A Question of Ceiling

Now over a month removed from his AEW debut, Andrade El Idolo’s stint has already been nothing if not divisive. Andrade certainly didn’t enter in emphatic fashion, a direct contrast to last week, as Malakai Black shot an angle on arrival. Instead, Andrade just sort of strolled out, introduced by Vickie Guerrero of all people. That in itself was a debate but while far no disaster, the presentation was just rather uninspired, like a last-minute solution to something that felt deserving of a greater focus. Then again, that’s a question of ceiling.

To me, Andrade is a potential world champion in AEW, a sure-fire top guy. Whether that’s the perception outside of my own head though, time will tell. For now, it’s seemed like somewhere in the middle. In his sit-down interview with Jim Ross, Andrade was definitely framed as can’t-miss talent, just one in not any great rush. With Black, there was a momentum to capitalize on, a unique opportunity to have someone go almost directly from one flagship show to the other. In Andrade’s case, it’s a little steadier.

Successfully requesting his release over three months ago, Andrade wasn’t immediately active, sparking immense speculation as to his eventual landing spot. Unfortunately, three rounds of actual releases followed and so, Andrade slid down that discussion. Even still, Andrade jumped off the page among an immense list of free agents, he just wasn’t the conversation anymore. AEW’s usage reflects that in some ways, clearly intent on making Andrade a star of substance, just all at their own pace.

Thus far, Andrade’s brief talking segments have been effective, even if nothing blockbuster. Andrade has always looked like a star but his charisma is a focus here, acting with a cocky dismissiveness, simply above it all. Matt Sydal felt like the perfect first opponent too, though the result wasn’t anything to write home about. Andrade was quite visibly rusty, not especially sharp compared to his usual standards. Sense it’ll take some time for him to find the middle ground between his two prior careers, but I’m not too concerned.

That star presence doesn’t need any adjusting though, and Andrade is too great to be anything less for long. AEW has my trust in that regard too, earning it with the eventual positioning of Brodie Lee and Miro in particular. For all their talent, neither man was an immediate smash hit in my view but quickly found their feet, soon producing career-best efforts. It’s a product that positions people to succeed, allowing them to sink or swim but always ready to send a lifeboat out for assistance.

That gets to my point really, I trust this talent and as much as one can, I trust this system too. As a fan, that puts me in an unfamiliar position as I don’t really see an asterisk or disclaimer worth noting. Instead, this all feels very simple, the perfect opportunity for a world-class performer to fulfil his potential. That’s the actual unknown here though, what is that potential? Was it inflated by a red-hot NXT product that was niche by design? Or was it wasted by an incompetent main roster?

As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle but I’m far too invested to share that stance. Instead, those NXT memories remain fresh in my mind, a constant reminder of not only what could’ve been, but also what could still be. That version of Andrade is one of my all-time favourite pro wrestlers, just a beautiful bell to bell talent, armed with a striking physical presence too. Andrade is such a polished pro, showcasing such staggering range with an always palpable poise.

Move for move, Andrade can match anyone, an explosive hybrid that’s also shown such perfect pacing in his most complete bouts. The Johnny Gargano sequel may be the best that I’ve ever seen, a genuine contender for greatest match in WWE history. His main roster struggles were a point of no return for me personally, the ultimate indictment of that system. I really was convinced, apparent flaws and all, that Andrade was a generational talent that after such a stunning NXT stint, would be rightly treated as such.

Now, three years later, AEW can right those wrongs. There is just one small issue though, as believe it or not, Vickie Guerrero isn’t Zelina Vega. Now, I don’t hate this act as much as others, but it just doesn’t feel right. Since that initial segment, Guerrero’s presence has certainly been toned down, as she’s either been absent or if not, a very restrained version of herself. That’s a step in the right direction but it doesn’t immediately make this match, it’s simply better than the worst alternative: a shrieking Guerrero stealing any and all spotlight.

The truth is though, no version of Guerrero stands up to Vega, which inevitably reminds me of Andrade’s shaky start in NXT. While I always loved his work, Andrade was unable to connect until Vega arrived, a perfect fit that would transform his trajectory. That’s a credit to Vega’s skill-set as well as their chemistry, but it adds a sense of doubt to my confidence. I don’t question Andrade’s ability but without Vega, I almost have to question his ability thrive in this setting, the early evidence demands as much.

Personally though, I’ll stick to my guns, assured that in the end, Andrade will prove to be the gamechanger that I’ve always perceived him to be. If not, at least one half of my assessment will need revisiting, either Andrade’s ceiling or AEW’s adaptability. Either way, I won’t be wrong, the information will have simply changed.

Climbing the Big Board: Isaiah ‘Swerve’ Scott

You know, I always liked Isaiah ‘Swerve’ Scott. I’d only seen bits and pieces, but what I saw, was impressive. He had a natural charisma and was exciting once the bell rang, but that’s a pretty familiar scouting report. Hadn’t dug much deeper and so ignorantly, filed Scott alongside NXT’s many other prospects that fit a similar bill. Now though, as ‘Swerve’ seamlessly transforms into one of the brand’s most engaging characters, the centrepiece of Hit Row is climbing my big board at an unparalleled pace.

Firstly, Hit Row’s mere existence on WWE TV is a triumph, but to do it in such grand fashion, that’s something special. Such authenticity is seldom found within a presentation as pristine as this, it’s even rare for talent firmly within a creative comfort zone. This is the kind of act that people will look back on fondly one day, which is a compliment that I’ve found increasingly absent from NXT’s most recent offerings. This is something outwardly un-pro wrestling, which I mean as a compliment, because more fool pro wrestling.

Beyond that though, I’ve been amazed at Scott’s range in this role. Hit Row is rich with chemistry and personality so naturally, all involved have a palpable cool factor. That’s one thing and ceiling-wise, it certainly matters, especially on a product that’s long lacked that trait. What impresses me most about ‘Swerve’ though is how quickly he can flip a switch and go through the gears. That character can be many things at once, all without sacrificing either side of the coin.

In only brief talking segments, Scott has been truly sinister in a fashion that screams through the screen. There’s a spite to his delivery, a ruthlessness to his presence when necessary, it really adds an element of nastiness to this whole persona. The bravado and confidence are obvious but that edge really gives the sense that Hit Row’s support and the NXT North American Title are making a monster. I love that, because it unlocks dynamics that on paper, wouldn’t appear immediately obvious.

In his last two matches of note, Scott has actually had two of the more stylistically specific opponents available. First, he had the natural underdog of Leon Ruff and then, ‘Swerve’ took Bronson Reed’s title. The big man was a tougher task physically but credit to NXT, Ruff really was a perfect choice for this evolving character. That’s when Scott found this current form and against such a pure protagonist, it was really allowed him to explore the extremes of what that character can and eventually will be.

In a landscape increasingly reliant on gifs and moments, ‘Swerve’ managed to start that match with a second striking enough that it’s stuck with me. Luring the fiery Ruff in and in one sudden jolt, dropping him with a single knee. The best pro wrestling needs time to breathe but personality can be captured with a sole action or visual. This was that for Scott, something so outwardly arrogant but yet impressively smart. Scott felt like the bully in that pairing, which doesn’t speak to his offence, it speaks to everything in-between.

Strange comparison really and not one for social media metrics but weirdly, that match reminded me of the 205 Live golden era. Those daring matches that’d work silent crowds into a frenzy, armed with a stipulation and just desperate to make magic. Now as North American champion, I’m intrigued to see what kind of opponents Scott is paired with and more importantly, which direction he takes those dynamics in. Physically, I get the sense that ‘Swerve’ could quite comfortably produce back and forth thrillers but ideally, this character allows for more substance than that.

My one concern doesn’t really rest on Scott’s shoulders though to be honest, it’s more his usage on that brand specifically. In my view, NXT has a slight issue with ‘Swerve’ in that on a product packed with villains, he’s the most engaging they have. Unfortunately, he’s also the show’s most charismatic, legitimately cool offering too, which is a conflict of sorts. I mean, it’s a good problem to have in some ways, as if nothing else, it certainly means that you’ve got a special character climbing the ranks.

I do think it’s an emerging problem to solve though, even if only for the protection of that show’s three or four remaining protagonists. Hit Row can work as a babyface act, but it sure feels limiting of Scott, who’s currently painting a pretty impressive picture of villainy. That’s their bridge to cross though and for now, I’m just updating the scouting report. ‘Swerve’ is one that I missed on at first glance but there’s something here, something that leaps off the page as soon as you give it a moment of your time.

How far he goes and in what form, that’ll be decided in the coming months but as NXT is forcefully pushed into a necessary new era, Scott is certainly one to watch.

Chamber Choices, A Disputed Era | Takes, Takes & More Takes #18

After a particularly niche edition, ‘Takes’ returns to its pursuit of that elusive casual fan this week. With Elimination Chamber fast approaching, RAW and SmackDown are back in the fold, finalizing their builds to Sunday’s PPV. The WrestleMania directions are (very) slowly taking shape but inside the Chamber, more answers should surely emerge. Elsewhere, NXT leaves a critically acclaimed TakeOver event with momentum on their side and even a television hook too. Can they capitalise though? Time will tell folks, let’s get to the takes.


Sparking analysis of age, RAW’s Elimination Chamber line-up is certainly polarising. In terms of talent, it’s hard to argue, featuring six revered performers but yet, the whole thing lacks excitement. It all feels familiar, disappointingly dry considering the setting. With that being said, I do love this particular “gimmick” and have no doubt that this talent will maximise it. As far as result, there’s certainly some intrigue too, even if that’s partly rooted in the brand’s lack of overarching direction.

Clearly, McIntyre is feuding with Sheamus but considering the almost two months between Sunday and WrestleMania, that remains questionable as a major match for the ‘Grandest Stage of Them All.’ It does feel like a very suitable non-title, supporting act though, which only makes this match more interesting. More on that later but staying with the assumption that McIntyre retains, it’s tough to find the ideal challenger that should stand opposite him. Braun Strowman is looming but that feels more like Fastlane, frankly.

Part-time attractions aside, there is one name that jumps out from the dwindling list. The current United States Champion, Bobby Lashley met McIntyre last June, suffering a defeat that eventually cemented The Hurt Business’ formation. Since then, he’s dominated and after Sunday, both he and McIntyre could’ve effectively erased their list of contenders. To me, that represents an opportunity, the chance to bring some relevance back to this secondary crown. The US Title once symbolised top contender status and Lashley can revive that, earning a WrestleMania clash with McIntyre.

That’s merely fantasy booking though, as Lashley seems just as likely to continue his control over the brand’s second tier. If so, the Chamber match is immediately wide open again, with two options standing out in particular. After being so emphasised since landing on RAW, AJ Styles feels worth mentioning, potentially regaining the title to set up a WrestleMania match with Edge. That could be a marquee enough bout, leaving McIntyre and Sheamus to that aforementioned undercard slot. Edge still feels headed to SmackDown though, so probably not.

Even if reluctantly, that naturally guides me in one direction. Randy Orton has been ‘feuding’ with ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt for three months. Well, he’s really been feuding with Alexa Bliss, but it’s been quite the adventure regardless. These two seem set for a conclusion on the industry’s biggest stage, but could a title be hanging in the balance? An Orton win would certainly allow that, with Wyatt then returning for revenge. Personally, I’d prefer a Firefly Fun House sequel but considering the content, something more heated (!) is probably required.

Though uncertain, the WWE Title scene feels set in stone compared to its female counterpart. With Lacey Evans legitimately pregnant, Asuka is left without an opponent for Sunday and hilariously, this division is suddenly without its central angle. That seems more like a feature than a flaw but either way, this fiasco continues to amaze. There are some easy options here, for better or worse but it’s such a lost division that honestly, anything could be next. Charlotte Flair is the obvious name and has been since returning.

Flair could revive her villainous ways, stealing the title and betraying her alleged friend. That would set up another match between the two for WrestleMania, which would be fine even if somewhat uninspiring. Personally, I’m once again looking in Rhea Ripley’s direction, hopeful that in this position, she could breathe new life into the RAW ranks. A night one title win would be the perfect statement for such a blockbuster talent, positioning Ripley for a long reign featuring a WrestleMania defence against both Flair and Asuka.

If they intend to achieve anything with this title, the decision seems obvious. At this point, Asuka vs. Flair is a retread regardless of route, even if the match itself will almost certainly deliver. Ripley represents the chance to make a new star, the opportunity to change this brand’s division. There’s a lot of talent already onboard but Ripley is new, the fresh face that if handled correctly, could reignite interest in the established women opposite her. If not though, there is a reliable choice available.

Currently scoring wins on SmackDown, Bayley is without an obvious WrestleMania direction. That could change on Sunday, with Bayley becoming RAW’s top female heel immediately, taking the title in an ‘open challenge’ scenario. For the sake of balance, you’d need to send some names the other way but in a big picture sense, this feels like a decent enough move to steady the ship. On the other hand, perhaps it’s time to do the opposite, embracing this chaos and making the increasingly crazed Alexa Bliss champion.

That seems like an ill-fit considering Bliss’ continued interactions with Orton, but it’s hard to dismiss considering their creative just three weeks ago. Bliss conquered Asuka with ease in a decision that was immediately rendered useless, only damaging the latter. That was short-sighted and perhaps this would fit a similar bill, but it’s worth mentioning anyway. Either way, RAW’s half of Elimination Chamber is a relative mystery and there’s an intrigue to that, which should only enhance the matchups’ physical potential.


Hoping to follow up on a magnificent TakeOver event, NXT produced a surprisingly complex effort. After five great matches, Sunday’s show had a blockbuster climax too, as in one fell swoop, Adam Cole shattered The Undisputed Era. Finally armed with a hook, NXT had a major story to develop, a cliff-hanger to capitalise on. The intention was indeed to build on that feat too, as the brand attempted a pretty emotive post-show angle. Unfortunately, social media turned those hopes into a fleeting nightmare, sparking some debate along the way.

After being taken out by Cole, Kyle O’Reilly was stretchered to the back following the broadcast’s conclusion. Neither live nor posted immediately after, NXT certainly intended to produce an angle that stood separate from the pack. Understandably, this was an almost throwback attempt at creating some doubt. That’s what wrestling is built on in truth but through no fault of anyone involved, this thing spiralled in fascinating fashion. It left me pondering the industry’s current state, who is being worked and with what goal in mind.

For the sake of clarity, NXT wasn’t attempting to portray a “seizure,” they were simply seeking sincere sympathy, rather than the more pantomime-style support often seen nowadays. In the traditional sense at least, there’s very little true ‘heat’ in pro wrestling, it’s much more self-aware than that. People still boo and cheer, it’s just not as raw as it once was. These angles are an attempt to escape that but is the audience willing to play ball? To me at least, it feels as though the viewer is increasingly reluctant to be fooled.

That creates an interesting dynamic, further complicating the audience’s relationship with their favourite heroes and villains. These men and women feel more human than ever, for better or worse and in O’Reilly’s case, this was a far more personal concern. That sounds silly, as the fan of yesteryear would cry tears in a similar scenario but yet, they obviously couldn’t track the footage on social media. They weren’t reading the performers’ peers share their own concern either, which only complicates things further. I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong here, it’s just clearly evolving.

Either way, NXT added a significant piece to this puzzle, even if it was frustratingly overshadowed by the above dialogue. In the grand scheme of things though, this brand still leaves the week better than they entered, suddenly hosting a pretty intriguing main event scene. My expectation is that the title is headed back Cole’s way, likely at WrestleMania. Personally however, I’d prefer that both Balor and Cole move on, coronating O’Reilly with two wins on that stage, conquering both friend and foe. If necessary, even send main roster stars in the other direction.

Elsewhere, Io Shirai’s reign feels in need of a jolt. NXT has one of the industry’s strongest women’s divisions but yet, the results still fall short of that group’s potential in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, the women regularly produce strong matches, but I’m often left wanting something more substantial, a conflict that’s truly memorable. I’m not sure who fits that bill on this brand, but Raquel Gonzalez no longer seems like the obvious choice, almost becoming a de facto babyface when standing opposite the tag team champions.

Her and Dakota Kai’s match with Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart delivered regardless, really kicking off TakeOver in style. The male final only raised the bar higher too, as MSK stole the show with an extraordinary match opposite the Grizzled Young Veterans. Carter and Lee’s pursuit of Burch and Lorcan should reinvigorate the tag title scene, almost certainly producing matches of immense quality. Ideally, this will be exactly that though, a true chase that maximises this momentum. MSK are a special act, though I think their segments still need more authenticity than this current polish.

While personally, I maintain that this product lacks a truly fitting presentation, the key pieces are in place. Whether you love the weekly ups and downs or not, NXT has a growing group of top talent that’s headed in at least vaguely interesting directions. Among those is Balor, perhaps wrestling’s strongest champion in my view. In the big picture sense, everything is set, featuring the right performers in for the most part, the correct positions. It’s now a matter of making compelling TV, which clearly, is easier said than done.


Led by a far less dispensable champion than their red counterpart, SmackDown enters Elimination Chamber in a very different state. It feels certain that no matter what, Roman Reigns is entering WrestleMania as Universal Champion. That limits the mystery surrounding their Chamber match but on the other hand, the line-up alone warrants some intrigue. Neither of these matches lack talent but SmackDown’s group feels fresher to me, more exciting in terms of palpable, on-screen momentum. The places in play feel fluid, it’s an evolving landscape.

Speaking of such, Cesaro finds himself as one of the favourites, all mere months after nearing complete irrelevance. In a neat villainous touch, Reigns will face the winner on Sunday, enhancing his heel persona while also indirectly elevating McIntyre. That stipulation makes Cesaro seem all the more fitting though, positioning the organic babyface as an underdog, rallying bravely in a relatively brief thriller. Bryan and Owens could fit a similar bill of course, but Cesaro would benefit the most, both from the Chamber and Reigns himself.

Then again, an Owens win wouldn’t hurt but considering the loss that awaits against Reigns, such a path should probably be left alone. In some ways, I suppose this scenario does unlock a heel win but personally, I doubt it. Though Sami Zayn’s antics could fit in this role, such a presentation would muddy the waters in a fashion that Reigns doesn’t require. He’s a truly despicable villain, cementing that is far more important than some fleeting comedy. The only concern with a Cesaro win is simple, then what?

Reigns’ destination seems clear, almost certainly a WrestleMania main event with Edge. For Cesaro however, it’s less obvious, though the recent Seth Rollins interaction could be a clue. If forgotten by WrestleMania, any Cesaro climb would be rendered useless so ideally, he’s indeed factored in. A match with Rollins is an enticing one, the kind of in-ring standout that every undercard needs. I personally assumed that Bryan would be Rollins’ WrestleMania opponent but at this juncture, I’d imagine he’ll be willingly dispatched from the pre-show battle royal.

Elsewhere, SmackDown’s other suspected marquee match is steadily taking shape, with Bianca Belair and Sasha Banks becoming a momentary tag team. This Sunday, they’ll even challenge for the tag titles, taking on Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler. If the plan here is simply spotlighting some tame tension, I’m already somewhat disappointed. It’s early days of course but I’m reminded of that infamous AJ Styles – Shinsuke Nakamura build, a “dream match” that after so many cold exchanges, felt like anything other match. It’s hard to make things special when you’re interacting every week.

On the other hand, this direction could just as easily spark something spectacular, adding more intensity than sheer spectacle. An official ‘turn’ for either could be a step too far but something shocking is ideal, even if Banks only leans in that direction for the next two months. A post-match handshake could quickly redeem her anyway, I just feel that if they’re going to be featured alongside each other for two months, this’ll need some animosity. Clearly, time will tell and I could be wrong, I just want this to be bigger than buzzwords and branding.

Either way, I’m not sweating Sunday’s result as frankly, those belts just are what they are at this point. It’s not a disaster, but instead a very comparable female equivalent of WWE’s male tag titles, which is a tale as old as time. The key isn’t the result, it’s the dynamic between Belair and Banks. Clearly, this feud is using that familiar plot point but if its good, their raw talent will easily handle the rest. Honestly, that’s a necessary triumph at this point, both for these two women as well as the division in general.

It’s not lost on me that for all the talent onboard, I’m still regularly critiquing the handling of these women’s divisions. That’s frustrating and not just isolated to WWE either. Even within that system, some are clearly doing better than others but in terms of big picture, I wish there were a more complete offering among them. RAW’s ranks are a mess, NXT is lacking a fitting central conflict and SmackDown, well that just feels like a failure of planning. Banks had no strong heels awaiting her and instead, I’m watching Natalya and Tamina defeat The Riott Squad.

The blue brand does strive to feature most, and everyone has a role but with the wrong women showcased, that’s swiftly for nought. It just feels as though collectively, things could be better. Perhaps that’s always the case in fairness, but I’d imagine that in at least some form or fashion, you can see my point. Nonetheless, I still believe that Banks and Belair can headline WrestleMania, which for now, should remain the ultimate goal. Hopefully they’ll get there, regardless of the route taken.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!

New Destination, No Surrender on Vengeance Day | Takes, Takes & More Takes #17

It’s a unique week in the wrestling world, but certainly not a quiet one. Making its series debut, Pro Wrestling NOAH returns to Budokan Hall, presenting their pivotal ‘Destination’ event. In more familiar territories, IMPACT Wrestling and NXT look towards their own major events, completing the respective builds to those very shows. With two tales of revival and an increasingly polarising punching bag, we certainly aren’t low on topics so with that in mind, let’s get started.


Set for their latest IMPACT Plus special, the artists formerly known as TNA have taken a quite unique approach to this Saturday’s No Surrender event. Producing a card with more tag tilts than a NJPW ‘Road To’ show, IMPACT certainly can’t be accused of having a roster lacking bodies. Quality? Well, that’s a different debate but honestly, I’d say they are fairing well in that regard also. Seriously though, I’m continually intrigued by their approach to these specials, seemingly still seeking a balance in my view.

These subscription shows are obviously canon but at times, do feel like bonus content to me. Well, sometimes they do anyway, and No Surrender feels like one of those times. With that in mind, the assumed main event makes far more sense, as Tommy Dreamer challenges Rich Swann for his IMPACT belt. In fear of being dismissive, this is effectively IMPACT stealing a title match, doing something that’s solid without detracting from Swann’s overarching conflicts. I mean, shenanigans could render that last sentence silly, but I doubt it.

Either way, the Dreamer narrative is simple, and he knows how to portray it, cutting those passionate promos that go viral once every three years. Look, that’s not a knock, Dreamer is obviously beloved so good for him, I’m sure the match will be fine. Frankly, I doubt it’ll need to be anything more than that as main event or not, this doesn’t feel like the actual headliner here. To me, that’s The Good Brother’s latest tag title defence, taking on Private Party as well as Chris Sabin and James Storm.

The core attraction there is obvious, involving AEW as well as the event’s greatest physical potential. Even still, I’m slightly frustrated, increasingly tired of these multi-team matches. The Good Brothers feel like IMPACT’s biggest stars to me and as a fan, I very much enjoy that. Let’s embrace it though, give me some main event matches, give their title defences twenty minutes, present them as the promotion’s ultimate. Granted, the opposition may not always allow that, but Dreamer is your singles challenger, so it’s not exactly a stretch.

To me, the multi-team affair screams prelim. It’s a classic WWE play in fact, featuring three or four teams in a sprint that ultimately, we’ll all forget. I really wanted a traditional tag match between The Good Brothers and Private Party but in fairness, the latter’s heel shift very much muddies those waters. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying this act’s recent efforts, they just aren’t the protagonists for Gallows and Anderson to work a heat segment on. At least Sabin and Storm could solve that much, certainly not hurting the quality either.

Elsewhere, there’s not a whole lot that jumps off the page. I mean, there’s a lot on the page, but it’s not anything of much interest to me personally. The “Triple Threat Revolver” is naturally interesting but that could leave me dizzy, sparking more fear than excitement. Finally, I’m hopeful that the Texas Tornado stipulation will unlock Fire N Flava’s programme with Havok and Nevaeh. I’d imagine that these two teams will be moving on after Saturday but in-ring, they could do with concluding things on a high in my view.

All things considered; No Surrender isn’t a particularly impressive offering from IMPACT. It feels like a transition, which is fine as long as their eventual destination makes up the difference. The AEW relationship is interesting in that regard, an obvious triumph but perhaps complicating their usually cohesive creative. Time will tell but right now, I sense that for everyone’s sake, The Good Brothers’ bout will need to deliver.


Once again building their television around the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, NXT completed their path to TakeOver: Vengeance Day. The finals are now set, as MSK will take on the Grizzled Young Veterans, while Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart meet Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez. The latter has my interest in particular, with Moon and Blackheart being an immediate tournament standout. Kai and Gonzalez are ideal opposition too, perfect heel hurdles for a match that with time to breathe, could become something quite special.

To me though, they should be just that: heel hurdles. In my view, Moon and Blackheart are the obvious choice here, taking the tournament and hopefully, then the Women’s Tag Team Titles too. That’d be a win for the belts, as well as the team’s two parties. Moon is a familiar face, the perfect partner for Blackheart to stand alongside as her exposure expands. In addition, it feels like NXT is the place for these titles right now, even if the touring element continues to stutter.

With a title match still looming, Gonzalez will need to be protected of course, perhaps even writing Kai off afterwards. It’s clearly time for Kai to move on and this would achieve that while elevating Gonzalez also. The male final is a less layered scenario, with the brand clearly requiring an MSK win. Heel champions await and even beyond that, Carter and Lee are the fresh faces to reinvigorate the tag ranks, plain and simple. Nonetheless, this match should be great, a pure babyface-heel clash that appears limitless.

Overall, these two tournaments have been solid but unfortunately, little more. The lack of range in formula coupled with a relatively rushed format, producing something that often left me wanting more. The matches seldom fell short of good; I just wish that they would’ve catapulted past that level more often too. Either way, none of this is the actual central attraction for Sunday’s show, with Finn Balor’s title defence against Pete Dunne firmly retaining that position. This has match of the year potential, even if the build isn’t anything spectacular.

As I’ve covered before, Balor has been an immense champion, boldly shifting NXT’s main event style. Dunne should fit into Balor’s developing system perfectly, creating a competitive, technical, and tough affair. I’d personally expect Balor to retain, though I could also see O’Reilly being the endgame. In which case, a Dunne victory feels far more feasible but for me at least, it doesn’t quite feel like the correct time. Speaking of such, I’m struggling to see a title change in the women’s division either.

Pursued by Mercedes Martinez and Toni Storm, Io Shirai feels set to leave Sunday with the belt still around her waist. The aforementioned Gonzalez is a factor in that, pinning Shirai at WarGames. That seems to be the direction here, with the next TakeOver, or perhaps even WrestleMania, hosting Gonzalez’s title win. Even if not though, Storm simply doesn’t feel ready. Her value is obvious and she’s clearly talented but the titleholder of a division this deep? I’m less sure, as her heel persona still feels incomplete right now.

It’s struggling to escape a somewhat hollow middle ground, caught between cool and clowning. On the other hand, Martinez just feels cemented in a different role. It’s a necessary role, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t seem like one set for title wins. By contrast, KUSHIDA seemingly needs exactly that, finally gaining momentum. A run as North American Champion would help that progression, giving the belt a new identity if enabled to steal the show weekly. I’m not convinced that’ll happen, but I’m excited for their match regardless.

At this point, TakeOver: Vengeance Day is a familiar story. The show looks objectively good, perhaps even great. In terms of hype, we know the deal by now. NXT is a brand struggling for relevance, battling a damaged public perception among what could be their core audience. It’s an increasingly tough gig but if nothing else, I find the TV enjoyable enough. It’s far from ground-breaking and I rarely anticipate the next chapter, but it has its moments, which is more than other shows can say.


Intrigued by their recent rebuild, Pro Wrestling NOAH has been on my wrestling to-do list for a while. Their story has always fascinated me but classic matches aside, I’d never followed them closely. Instead, I’d pop in and out on recommendation, which is fine but somewhat hollow compared to a more invested experience. With my NJPW viewership dwindling, I only found myself more enticed by NOAH, eventually deciding that Destination would be a logical starting point: the promotion’s return to the iconic Budokan Hall.

Motivated to enter with at least some sense of knowledge, I quickly found quite the adventure awaiting me. The legendary Keiji Mutoh would be main eventing, challenging Go Shiozaki for his GHC Heavyweight Title. Shiozaki’s reign had been critically acclaimed, inspiring my interest with some immense title defences. Mutoh’s presence somewhat surprised me but so did the ardent fan’s reaction, seemingly terrorised by the thought of a title change. I’d never even pondered such a possibility but NOAH’s audience had and clearly, they were very much right to.

Mutoh’s title win earned a range of reactions, but I must say, I personally found his performance to be admirable. Everything I’d read had me expecting much worse but for all his physical frailties, Mutoh was still one-half of a genuinely compelling main event. Shiozaki of course deserves most of that praise, selling at an extraordinary level, almost forcing drama into proceedings. From there, the action naturally escalated, resulting in some scares until eventually, Mutoh scored the sudden win. Not a disaster in terms of quality, but the result remains divisive.

From the outside looking in, this feels like a transition to Kaito Kiyomiya, NOAH’s young star. Kiyomiya featured in perhaps my favourite match of the night, teaming with Yoshiki Inamura to defeat Jun Akiyama and Naomichi Marufuji. This was a generational clash and they captured that perfectly, gelling for a tremendous tag team tilt. The legends looked great, battering their youthful counterparts until a sudden rally turned the tide, allowing Kiyomiya to get the pin. The stylistic contrast was wonderful, only enhanced by four inspired performances.

Kiyomiya’s win positions him neatly for a challenge against Mutoh, the legend now holding NOAH’s ultimate crown. Unsurprisingly, he indeed challenged Mutoh at the event’s conclusion, all while Shiozaki resentfully looked on. Speaking of legends, Masakatsu Funaki remains incredible, ageing marvellously and bringing great physicality to his bout with Kenoh. Though seemingly polarising to some extent, this match achieved a lot in ten minutes and personally, I loved it. Funaki took Kenoh to school on the mat, taking control immediately and unleashing some staggering strikes along the way.

Then, in an instant, the momentum shifted, with Kenoh rocking Funaki and seizing, earning the sudden win. As someone that’s become increasingly frustrated with New Japan’s famed house style, finishes like this are a swift reminder of variety’s value. This finish was logical but more than that, it forces me to focus moving forward. I’m on night one as a viewer and through four matches, finishes feel fluid, anything can happen at any time. The talent isn’t simply working within one outline, which adds a tremendous amount to my personal enjoyment.

In the same vein, Seiki Yoshioka scored a relatively swift victory of his own, becoming the GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion. Taking on Daisuke Harada, Yoshioka gained momentum early and seldom stepped back, catching the eye with some extraordinary offence. Yoshioka’s dynamism was obvious, maintaining a grip on things and then just winning, effectively overwhelming Harada. The action never stalled and while this showcased Yoshioka in particular, Harada’s reputation speaks for itself so I’m excited to watch more of his current work also.

To conclude, this was a refreshing watch for me, and I’m delighted by how immediately palatable I found the product. That introductory phase can be tough at times but here, it was seamless, with the diverse action quickly giving me something to latch onto. Mutoh’s victory didn’t stun me, as I’d read enough wary predictions to expect it, even if the match well exceeded my expectations. Though I may not always cover it in this series, I intend to stick with NOAH moving forward and every once in a while, will hopefully report back.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!

Rumble Routes Underway, Dusty Cup Classic | Takes, Takes & More Takes #16

After weeks of hype, speculation and admitted fear, WWE’s Royal Rumble event has come and gone. Overall, it appears to have been a hit, generally drawing critical acclaim as the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ takes shape. That wasn’t the only headline last weekend though, as NJPW produced their latest classic, with Hiroshi Tanahashi conquering Shingo Takagi. Elsewhere, NXT featured a standout match of its own, continuing the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, while welcoming Edge too. Lots to cover folks, let’s get to it.


As some of you may recall, my NJPW fandom didn’t start this year in the steadiest shape. After missing much of their return in 2020, I entered Wrestle Kingdom with a somewhat cautious optimism. Though the overarching direction didn’t entice me much, the talent’s continued consistency is hard to deny. The promotion’s famed “house style” will continue to spark conversation but the quality is obvious, especially with Kota Ibushi as double champion. Beyond that obvious physical appeal though, one particular match had my emotional investment.

Fresh off a throwback victory over Great-O-Khan, Tanahashi found himself in a familiar position, fighting for gold in a major main event. Granted, the belt wasn’t quite as recognisable, with Tanahashi challenging Shingo Takagi for his NEVER Openweight Title. Takagi had become a historically great owner of that crown, only expanding on Tomohiro Ishii’s prior efforts, and continuing the belt’s alliance with brutality. Takagi is one of the industry’s most prolific performers, simply willing each and every encounter to something worthwhile.

Even still, this matchup was an intriguing one on paper. While the potential seemed undeniable, it was a fascinating styles clash of sorts. Tanahashi famously took NJPW’s main event matches in a different direction, using a distant tradition to popularise relative simplicity. His matches aren’t built on physicality or even aggression, striving for a more grandiose drama, since immovable from the modern ‘epic.’ The drama in Takagi’s matches is far blunter, building with the enthralling action, emotive on the sheer damage sustained along the way.

That was an interesting mix but to the surprise of no one, they managed it with ease. This wasn’t a bout that subverted expectations or even escaped the current genre, it was a case of two men simply perfecting it. Tanahashi is the original master of this match and though his physical decline is increasingly pronounced, his unparalleled grasp of pacing and selling only weaponizes that truth. It’s an on-screen narrative after all, as Tanahashi struggles to remain relevant, leaning more and more on his reputation as the thinking man’s wrestler.

Initially, that was palpable, with Takagi operating at Tanahashi’s pace as the old ace still battled to keep up. As things escalated though, Takagi steadily brought Tanahashi into his world but by then, his challenger was inspired. Tanahashi’s time working Takagi’s leg paid off too, proving that sometimes, new tricks aren’t necessary, especially with old tricks as great as this. Tanahashi remains the emotional pull of NJPW for me personally, he’s the guy that I care about most, the titan that I’ll forever adore.

Considering that, this match was very much for me, both in content as well as narrative. From the outside looking in, this was a simple tale of Tanahashi rolling back the years but in truth, it was simply a great champion once again finding a way to win. If the immense praise convinces you to watch this match, I’d imagine that in some ways, it could be quite befuddling. In the first half especially, Tanahashi looks old and slow, almost stumbling from one step to the next, seeking any type of rhythm in a match type that he once made famous.

The rest is objectively magnificent but if invested, it’s only enhanced by that prior portion. Tanahashi’s physical state appears truly tragic at times, creating something sincerely inspiring as he rallies late. It’s such a simple story and that’s Tanahashi’s brilliance, taking the tiniest things and making them matter. There’s an innate sense of competition to his major matches, a raw spirit of sporting pride. At times here, Tanahashi tried to match Takagi’s penchant for violence but that’s never the appeal, it’s that beautiful flow, the wonderful ambiance of a Tanahashi title tilt.

It feels unfair to say so little about Takagi when covering this match but honestly, he speaks for himself. Whether you’ve been watching him for one decade or one minute, Takagi’s talent will be undeniable, battering foes while developing a vulnerability that never hurts his aura. His selling is immense, a perfect example of how to pack those bruising exchanges with drama and emotion. This match was magic, another classic for two all-time greats, a reminder of what this style can be when limited to its core ingredients.

Elsewhere, Will Ospreay and Satoshi Kojima exceeded all expectations in the show’s co-main event, producing a thrilling No Disqualification match. This didn’t jump off the page for me personally but Ospreay was desperate to maximise it and inexplicably, Kojima was delighted to assist his hopes. These two went to a level that I never imagined, far beyond Kojima’s usually spirited showings in recent years. Kojima still has a lot to offer but this was an inspired effort, something truly staggering after a 30-year career.


Though solid, The Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic had been progressing in somewhat understated fashion. Yet to produce something transcendent or whatever the current NXT equivalent for that term is, this tournament was rather indicative of the brand hosting it. With an in-ring style that’s restrictive enough to be deemed limiting, these matches manage to be too textbook to explode while featuring an excess that keeps things firmly in the middle. It’s not a grounded or gritty style, the finishing stretches make sure of that.

Personally, that’s no issue at all for me, as TakeOver main event insanity aside, I’ve always enjoyed NXT’s bell-to-bell action. There’s enough variety without losing the product’s overall feel, which isn’t easy with such a range of talent. In the right hands, it can be a perfect mix for my taste too, which was the case with this week’s main event. Bringing the Dusty Cup to a new level, The Undisputed Era combination of Adam Cole and Roderick Strong shared an unsurprising classic with Tommaso Ciampa and Timothy Thatcher.

This was brilliant, rooted in tight, cohesive action, rich with physicality. Thatcher especially stole the show in that regard, with Strong a worthy runner-up. Nastily mutilating the backbreaker king, Thatcher added a spite that made his de-facto heat segment matter, injecting a palpable intensity. That allowed things to feel alive as the action developed, it never seemed like stalling but instead, an organic escalation. Strong matched his aggression and then some, battling away in a fashion that made Thatcher look more formidable than ever.

Naturally, they soon found themselves in the modern sequences that we’ve come to expect but on execution alone, this warrants more than an eyeroll. These guys combined perfectly, even finding a sudden finish to complete a match that overall, encapsulated everything compelling about the NXT formula. I love Thatcher but in WWE’s system, this really feels like his role to me, the heat segment leader in a steady, “throwback” heel tandem. He and Ciampa are a great fit, even if their disposition is slightly less clear than that right now.

Elsewhere, both brackets continued as they were, producing sound action but little more. I was glad to see Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez overcome Kacy Catanzaro and Kayden Carter, as the latter still seems lacking the polish for any further emphasis. As personalities, I remain unsure and physically, their raw potential still needs time to develop in my view. This particular match was enjoyable enough though, as was Legado Del Fantasma’s win over Lucha House Party. It’s fine, but nothing anyone will be revisiting years down the line.

In fairness, those matches weren’t NXT’s only hook this week, as Royal Rumble winner Edge also made an appearance. I’ve seen lots of praise for his presence on this show but frankly, I found the whole thing to be somewhat hollow. Edge effectively stood between Finn Balor and Pete Dunne, embracing the NXT brand and in theory, elevating the title resting on Balor’s shoulder. That was certainly his intention too, but it felt more manufactured than I’d like, bordering on patronising even. It doesn’t help how much better Edge’s delivery is either, as Drew McIntyre found out this week.

More on the male Rumble winner later though, as I’m not sure any of us are taking the NXT option seriously. Nonetheless, I’m glad that segment hit for others, as the core idea was definitely logical. On the other hand, I remain bemused by Toni Storm’s handling. It’s nothing horrific, don’t get me wrong but there’s no spark to the whole thing, Storm is simply a heel now and I’m waiting for her to go through the gears. That’s in terms of performance as well as momentum too, as Storm continues to be competent without truly connecting.

She has obvious star potential of course, which makes her inability to piece it all together even more frustrating. Perhaps I’m missing something, as Storm is certainly good, I’m just waiting for her to separate herself from the pack. In fairness, bolder booking would help, especially so soon after a heel turn. Then again, NXT was nothing if not bold with Santos Escobar, as he basically dominated Curt Stallion while a surprising programme with Karrion Kross took shape. Stallion can really sell, and I enjoyed their match but the direction? Hmmm.

I’ll have to see the endgame of course but on paper, it looks like an unusual choice for both men. This is two heels slotted in completely contrasting positions, hard to see any benefit unless Kross is being sacrificed for the Cruiserweight Champion. That’s not only unlikely but frankly, it’d be nonsensical, regardless of my gripes with Kross’ game. Either way, I enjoyed NXT this week, the main event’s quality alone was enough to ensure that much.


Featuring both of last Sunday’s Royal Rumble winners, SmackDown opted for a surprisingly patient approach, concluding the programme without a decision made. In terms of on-screen progression, it was actually a somewhat quiet week for WWE, which was the last thing I expected on Monday morning. With that in mind, let’s revisit last weekend’s PPV, as that remains the real headline. Closing the event with a triumphant Edge, WWE inspired the latest chapter of an ongoing debate surrounding their roster’s age and stagnation.

In my view at least, that’s a very real issue and has been for some time but in a vacuum, Edge was a logical enough choice. When the more youthful alternatives are Daniel Bryan, Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura, you aren’t missing much in that regard. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d have personally preferred Bryan, but Edge fits a similar bill, even fresher after his lengthy absence. This wasn’t a case of tomorrow’s star being ignored, it was a case of choosing between legends that Reigns can conquer, plain and simple.

Granted, that’s rather assumptive of me. Firstly, Edge’s WrestleMania opponent remains unknown, but the best fit seems obvious. McIntyre doesn’t need the resentment of an all-babyface clash with Edge and NXT seems unfathomable, so that leaves Reigns. Their character contrast is the perfect way to portray Edge’s comeback narrative, pairing him with the promotion’s most dynamic male star. For me though, Reigns has to win. I mean, he doesn’t have to as in the end, their decision will make no difference whatsoever but even still, I’d deem an Edge title win to be short-sighted.

The reason that Bryan was so appealing in this role is just as apparent with Edge: it’s the reality that they can lose to Reigns without really losing a thing. They are cemented stars, established legends, that’s the beauty of a familiar face. For now, it seems that Reigns will continue to battle Kevin Owens, which concerns me for all the reasons that it’s been concerning me for weeks now. You have to be careful here, as this is swiftly becoming redundant and if not handled properly, could render Owens something similar.

If Edge was at least slightly divisive, Bianca Belair was a far more acclaimed choice. In a sign of things to come, Belair closed the Rumble opposite Rhea Ripley, two of the division’s brightest stars. With RAW’s women struggling for any direction whatsoever, Belair seems set to remain on SmackDown, challenging Sasha Banks at WrestleMania. This week, we got a preview of that programme’s potential, as well as a reminder of the challenges that may await. It’s a babyface – babyface match, but one half of that equation is far less pronounced than the other.

Belair has become a refreshing protagonist, quite traditional in her authentic, sincere likeability. On the other hand, Banks’ ‘Boss’ persona exists closer to shades of grey. She’s a babyface, just one only ever two steps away from turning heel. Against Belair, Banks seems destined to become the in-ring antagonist and as the champion, she’s inevitably the status quo here too. After all, Banks is the standard, an established centrepiece standing in the way of Belair’s ascension. That’s a simple story, but it naturally positions Banks as the de facto villain.

That’s fine unless it stands in opposition to WWE’s intentions. In which case, this could muddy the waters in a fashion that concerns me, simply removing Belair from her currently pronounced position. Time will tell though as we all have far bigger worries right now, with Carmella inexplicably remaining in the title scene. SmackDown’s exact route to WrestleMania seems unclear, but the endgame feels completely locked in and ideally, that’ll lead Banks and Belair to a WrestleMania main event. Physically, they are almost certain to make magic.

Elsewhere, Daniel Bryan continued his tour of selflessness, again losing clean to Cesaro. What is there left to say about this man’s mindset? Probably even less than there is to say about these two performers, two of their generation’s greats. This was another thrilling little match, the latest in an emerging collection for Cesaro in 2021. Though it’s hard to have much faith in the planning behind these things, the re-emphasis of Cesaro is good television if nothing else, and the same goes for Shinsuke.

Finally, Big E remained Intercontinental Champion, pinning Apollo Crews after Sami Zayn had been thwarted once more. This whole scene is entertaining enough, though I continue to want more for E. It’s not that he’s being wasted or anything close to it, I just think that on a roster filled with talent needing something steady, E is already ready for a far bolder role. Basically, I’m not sure what’s being achieved here, as in my view, E’s time in New Day gave him enough organic progression for a lifetime.

In addition, I hope that Crews isn’t headed in the classic ‘bitter loser turns heel’ direction, but I sense that he very much is. That’d be a shame but in fairness, this roster needs rebalancing, so I understand it. Overall, SmackDown did a masterful job of filling time without really achieving much of anything. When producing this many hours of television, that’s an art in itself, so I can’t complain much. I can wait when it comes to the bigger picture, just entertain me in the meantime.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!

Wrestle Kingdom Acclaim, The Big Bill Goldberg Debate | Takes, Takes & More Takes #12

It’s been two hectic, painful weeks since my last ‘Takes’ but upon return, I’m certainly not struggling for topics. The last five days have been packed with wrestling excellence, as in-ring brilliance comes from every angle in 2021’s opening month. Today, we tackle New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom event, as the famed promotion makes its series’ debut. Elsewhere, NXT continues to compete, producing quality while on RAW, it’s a mixed bag as usual. Let’s get to it folks, I have many takes to deal.


At the conclusion of their year’s biggest week, New Japan Pro Wrestling finds itself in a quite fascination position. Their blockbuster, two-day event was critically acclaimed but a cloud has since emerged, as Jay White’s status appears suddenly unclear. More on that later but for now, let’s discuss the shows themselves. I haven’t watched NJPW at all since their summer stadium show and have heard differing takes from those still following. To their credit though, they’ve made Wrestle Kingdom bigger than their current momentum, which is quite the feat.

In fact, that element makes this a genuine WrestleMania equivalent, relatively speaking of course. People were interested, or at least cautiously optimistic, as NJPW entered its most unique Tokyo Dome event yet. Left to only applaud and stomp their feet, the capped audience watched on as some of the world’s finest painted their very own masterpieces. It was instinctual in that regard, as these men trusted their vision and hoped that even in silence, the fans were following along with their full attention and interest.

Now, that’s not to say that the setting impacted these matches, but I certainly felt as though it altered my viewing. This really felt like a glance into the top guys’ most idealistic view, a look at their absolute dream match. That brings us to Kota Ibushi’s two main events, the second coming in an almost 50-minute title tilt with Jay White. NJPW has an established main event ‘style,’ a generally epic structure that their title bouts operate within. I don’t think that these two matches were divorced from that either, but they certainly had their own flair.

Ibushi and Naito have a distinct chemistry, bringing a form of violence that bizarrely fits alongside their usual majesty and grace. I loved their match, even if my lack of direct investment hindered its ability to truly connect with me as it did with others. The bout with White fit a similar bill, even if it had differences in approach. Ibushi is incredible because honestly, I don’t think this length even really suits him, he’s just too good to make anything but magic in this spot. He was masterful here, even if I thought he especially benefited from White’s personality.

Jay White has become a truly wonderful performer. He has genuine presence now, armed with sublime character work and a focused, smooth in-ring style. His pacing made this runtime work in my view, sharing enough different pieces of himself to keep things fresh. White had a post-match exclamation mark too, cutting a staggering promo that seemingly sparked a new chapter for this character. Days later, that chapter seems much less clear but again, more on that later. Either way, White, Ibushi and Naito weren’t the only one to shine at the Tokyo Dome.

Hiromu Takahashi had a similar effort, even if on an admittedly lesser scale. His story was sincerely heroic, fighting through apparent agony to reiterate his status as the ultimate junior heavyweight. I’d like to see him mix with the heavyweights again in 2021, as that feels like a seamless way to freshen things up. Can only speak for myself of course but that does feel like an issue. There are new faces on the card but at the business end of things, I feel as though I’m seeing familiar sights, both in personnel and presentation.

That’s fine, as with the event’s three headliners and Kazuchika Okada, you have four of the world’s greatest wrestlers. Okada was in inspired form here too, producing an early match of the year contender with Will Ospreay. Hiroshi Tanahashi remains ace also, using his emotional weight to tell another beautiful tale opposite Great-O-Khan. It’s hard to replace or remove these names, as was shown by EVIL’s brief time as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. These main event men are special, it’s a matter of reinvigorating things without hurting the quality or lowering standards.

On the bright side, NJPW will always have mastery elsewhere, as Shingo Takagi continued to thrive, sharing an absolute thriller with Jeff Cobb. Their match was my favourite of the entire event, just a brutal, nasty barn burner for the NEVER crown. Cobb is a guy that though talented, has flattered to deceive at times in my view. That wasn’t the case here though, as he performed at an astonishing level, gelling with Takagi perfectly. Shingo is a very special worker, perhaps the industry’s most reliable in fact.

Considering all of this, it’s hard to be anything but positive. Entering 2021, New Japan Pro Wrestling continues to produce the world’s most critically acclaimed in-ring product. Its tropes have their critics of course, but the modern viewer seems to generally adore this style, it’s earned a place in their hearts. That trend keeps this promotion relevant as long as the top guys can carry it but unfortunately, their shot at building upon this momentum may be slim. Even limited crowds appear currently in jeopardy and that’s not the only factor either.

Jay White’s future has been referenced a few times here and it goes without saying but clearly, I have no clue. With that being said, this isn’t a bidding war that NJPW can afford to lose. The big question is, can they afford to win it? There’s no doubt that if White leaves, this promotion will bounce back as they previously have from even bigger departures. It’s not ideal though, as a trend of this sort is unlikely to help their quest for the less committed viewer. This scenario isn’t even slightly surprising however, as White is a big-board topper in terms of talent.

Not only that, but he’s just 28, making him a rare main event act that has years and years ahead of him. Those kind of acquisitions aren’t available every day, which only makes this current discussion more intriguing. Personally, I’d like to see White continue on his current path, taking a direction sparked by his aforementioned post-match promo. If not though, NJPW will stay steady, collecting classics along the way. They may not have gained my full attention with these shows, but they did further the sentiment that as a wrestling fan, Wrestle Kingdom is an annual priority.


Calling the ‘LEGENDS’ play for the first RAW of 2021, the former flagship brand didn’t hit a homerun on its first try. Frankly, the legend cameos aren’t worth discussing and I don’t even mean that as a critique. That’s just how they use them, its nothing new now and is clearly aimed at people that apparently watch this show once a year. Fine, it’s mostly harmless and if nothing else, this episode concluded with a legitimately strong world title match. Drew McIntyre hasn’t had it easy as champion, but his effort is admirable.

McIntyre was once again great on Monday, matching Keith Lee’s physicality for an enthralling affair. As a brand’s lead titleholder, in-ring versatility is an invaluable trait and to his credit, McIntyre has shown that consistently over the last year. He’s adaptable, which allows matches like to be such reliable hits. Lee isn’t any struggle to carry either, bringing his own unique skill set to the table. When his best stuff is placed smartly, Lee looks like a can’t miss top guy and that was the case here, wowing opposite McIntyre.

That match wasn’t the show’s final statement though, as Goldberg then arrived, challenging McIntyre for a title match at Royal Rumble. This is a complex case, as naturally, much of the reactions are shaped by prior perceptions. Goldberg has become a resented figure among portions of the fanbase, a symbol of all the promotion’s flaws. While almost certainly unfair, that element was apparent here, as two great athletes had their physical performances overshadowed by Goldberg’s stumbling promo. That’s a very real thing, a never-ending trend of the big shows bringing out the ‘real stars.’

Personally though, I’m torn. People may scoff at this but I can’t lie, this match is more interesting to me than any RAW alternative. Will it be better? Almost certainly not but in terms of intrigue, it’s a winner for me. Is that slightly perverse in terms of the outcome? Sure, but Goldberg still has a mystique that for all the main roster’s talent, is very much absent on weekly TV. That speaks to other issues, and the reality that while I respect them all, very few of these men feel like ‘stars’ to me.

They are capped by their availability, damaged by the weekly rollercoaster that is Monday Night RAW. That’s a real shame, but it’s also from my vantage point at least, the truth. I’ll roll my eyes and speak objectively where I can but when the bell rings, this one will have my attention. In fact, I have no real complaints if this is what it should be: a marquee win for McIntyre in a fresh, exciting sprint. That’s perfectly acceptable, even if not real progression. Part of the appeal comes in my uncertainty though, the sense that Goldberg can beat anyone.

For better or worse, at least it’s a talking point I suppose. Those aren’t packed within this product, or not for long anyway. Last week, RAW ended with a well, polarising segment involving Randy Orton and Alexa Bliss. It was a literal cliff-hanger, introducing a mystery that in the end, was solved with a short backstage promo. Bliss wasn’t even present this week, likely saved for an episode without such a secure headline. That’s logical in some ways, but also completely nonsensical. There’s an audience for WWE’s more show storytelling, but at least do it properly.

Be episodic television or don’t be, as this bizarre middle ground is frustrating. The stuff with Wyatt isn’t often my thing, but they don’t help themselves with those that are genuinely intrigued. Months back, when he first “abducted” Bliss, they struggled to follow-up and here, with something even more absurd, they just didn’t. Patience is a virtue of course but if one star asks another to burn them to death, it should probably have an extended importance beyond its singular segment. That stuff needs to mean something, otherwise it’s just mindless insanity.

Finally, I last covered this brand before TLC, so it’s worth briefly mentioning Charlotte Flair’s team with Asuka. Though her surprise was expected, I can’t overstate my disappointment in its execution. Flair already feels as though she’s in the exact same spot, which is a position that was steadily failing her. They had time to find something new, a chance to truly craft a character with depth. It’s the opposite, as she’s again defined by her title wins and heritage. Flair deserves better as frankly; my own disinterest disappoints me at this point.

She’s not alone either, as Asuka continues to struggle as RAW Women’s Champion. Honestly, even that’s unfair. She’s not being treated like a champion in any shape or form, no one is even chasing her crown. Instead, Asuka is ‘The Queen’s friend and for all of her efforts on RAW Talk, Charlotte can’t adjust that perception because that’s simply what the booking wants. The whole division is shockingly bad, an embarrassing waste of resources. This isn’t a talentless group, it’s just an incredibly mishandled group.


If NXT can even come close to this week’s episode consistently, 2021 should be a very strong year for them. The latest of their TV specials, ‘New Year’s Evil’ was a smash hit critically, headlined by an incredible title match between Finn Balor and Kyle O’Reilly. I loved what those two did at TakeOver and thought this effort was even better, my favourite bout for the NXT belt in some time. it was such a refreshingly focused affair, intense and physical but never losing shape, telling simple wrestling stories from start to finish.

Balor honestly deserves more credit, both currently and in a historical sense. He feels like a forgotten great at times, another cautionary tale of the main roster, quietly escaping that setting. His NXT work is anything but a departure from motivation though, as Balor has been inspired since returning to the brand. He’s not only delivering quality either, he’s actively reshaping the style and structure of these title matches, refreshing this main event scene in the process. He’s making the most of these matchups, allowing things to breathe and adding depth too.

O’Reilly is the ideal dance-partner for that approach, with such a vivid style that’s a perfect match for Balor’s broader strokes. Stylistically, Balor has impressive range but after seeing these matches, he should probably continue on this path. It’ll need adjustments of course, especially against Karrion Kross but if Balor indeed meets Dunne first, he can produce something that belongs in a similar lane. The real key is keeping Balor in the game, as if active, he can swiftly remind the world of his value as a brand’s centrepiece.

The main event was a masterpiece, but it wasn’t this show’s only hit, as Rhea Ripley produced a very different kind of thriller with Raquel Gonzalez. I really don’t even know where to go with my praise of Ripley, who continues to bump and emote at a truly elite level. Her handling has been dismal for some time but ironically, it’s actually allowed this stint to become genuine developmental. It’s forced Ripley to adjust and show different sides of herself, making her a better performer along the way.

Ripley has shown an astonishing ability to be vulnerable in this programme with Gonzalez. She’s badass but sympathetic, even if still badass first and foremost. She’s also had to lead Gonzalez, showing a selflessness that’s truly made her foe a star in NXT. That’s the kind of skill that makes Ripley even more special, even if I wish it weren’t required in such haphazard fashion. Nonetheless, she’ll leave this recent chapter a better performer than she entered, so it’s now just a matter of getting the real push right.

Gonzalez of course deserves her own acclaim, bringing an intensity that allows Ripley to sell with such passion. She’s a natural in that regard, a symbol of the physicality that this division needs. Gonzalez adds a different element by default, but her surprising polish only makes it more appealing. This is the kind of act that you can build a division around and she’s quickly becoming that calibre of performer too. They’ll almost certainly be circling back to Gonzalez’s pinfall over Shirai soon and it’ll be fascinating to see what she produces in that setting.

Incredibly, NXT could’ve been even stronger too, as I was left mostly underwhelmed elsewhere. Personally, I think that Santos Escobar and Gran Metalik can do far, far better than they managed here and in Karrion Kross vs. Damian Priest, this episode had a puzzling opener also. Kross puzzles me in general, as his physical performance doesn’t seem to match this presentation. It’s branded as methodical, but his persona feels more tied to something violent, something aggressive. The reality isn’t bad, it’s just an attempt at Randy Orton’s work without an act that fits it.

Kross doesn’t go through the gears, it’s static and steady which again, fine if only it didn’t follow such pomp and circumstance. On the other hand, Damian Priest impressed me in this role, selling with commitment and showing great energy as he fired back. He was a complete contrast in that regard, which fits the heel/babyface split but doesn’t exactly prepare Kross for another title win. Instead, it made Priest feel like the star, even in defeat. That doesn’t feel like the purpose of this, nor does Kross seem like that kind of heel.

I didn’t mind this match to be clear, and found Priest engaging as the defiant babyface. It just felt like the wrong match at the wrong time, especially if Priest is moving on. If so, I’m optimistic about his chances as from my vantage point, he’s genuinely improved in this system. With Kross, this is a familiar hurdle for me, but we’ll see, perhaps it simply warrants an adjustment in his handling. Either way, him beating Balor doesn’t feel like the answer, as this was one of their strongest shows yet and Kross certainly wasn’t the reason for that.

I’d suggest sticking with Balor, at least for now anyway. That’s another conversation for another day though, as this was a positive week for NXT. As I’ve stressed before, this roster is great, it’s simply a matter of positioning them to succeed. I loved this episode and if other pieces connected as they could have, it would’ve been even better. No need to concede defeat, give the audience a weekly attraction or hook and trust the talent to make it worth their while.

Well folks, that concludes this week’s edition of ‘Takes, Takes & More Takes.’ Got a take? Send it over on the Twitter, @JoeHulbert! Be nice though and try to disguise any critiques as compliments. Thanks pals, speak soon!