Tonight, NXT returns to the WWE Network with its fifth live special. Each of the last four has managed to blow the competition on the main roster out of the water, and based on the last few episodes of the fledgling developmental show and this phenomenal card, we’re expected NXT Takeover: Rival to up the ante. Here’s a look at all the currently announced matches and what to expect. (There’s a strong chance we’ll see a debut from Solomon Crowe. formerly Sami Callihan on the indies, but we’ll stick to the main card.)
Hideo Itami vs. Tyler Breeze
While Itami has quickly become a beloved presence down at Full Sail, largely based off his reputation from Pro Wrestling NOAH in Japan, he was quickly outshined by his new partner Finn Balor, who has been over like rover since debuting a few months back. Similarly, Tyler Breeze hasn’t been given much to do since his loss at Fatal 4-Way, so hopefully we get a solid bout that shows off both of their strengths and gives them some new direction. I’d expect Itami to go over, but I think Breeze could use the win here, especially if my hunch at an eventual Itami heel turn comes to fruition.
No Disqualification Match
Bull Dempsey vs. Baron Corbin
The Dempsey/Corbin feud is secretly one of my favorite things in pro wrestling right now. NXT built up two powerhouses as undefeatable monsters, except one of them (Corbin) actually possesses mystique and charisma, so naturally Dempsey becomes this pathetic Salieri to his Mozart. It’s the kind of thing you would never get to see on Raw, a psychological deconstruction of undefeated streaks and unstoppable hosses. I could never get into Dempsey as the kind of big dude they were initially pushing him to be, but I totally buy into him living in Corbin’s shadow and giving into a more cartoonish shade of villainy. Since it’s a No DQ, I imagine Dempsey can win it here without making Corbin seem weak, but I’d just as soon take Dempsey losing to Corbin every week for the next several months in an ongoing Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner gambit.
NXT Tag Team Championship Match
Wesley Blake & Buddy Murphy (c) vs. The Lucha Dragons
Blake and Murphy winning the tag titles in an upset a few weeks ago was exciting less because they’re an amazing tag team (they’re pretty solid) and more because it reminded NXT viewers title changes wouldn’t just be reserved for the live specials. It also puts the Lucha Dragons in a position to have to chase their old belts, which is a lot more interesting than watching them beat the Vaudevillains over and over again. This should be a fun sprint and continue to show off the real star out of these four, Kalisto, as he hopefully reminds WWE officials why he should just be the next Rey Mysterio (and not get brought up under that rumored hair stylist gimmick.)
NXT Women’s Championship Match
Charlotte (c) vs. Sasha Banks vs. Bayley vs. Becky Lynch
One of the best things about NXT is how much more seriously they treat female wrestlers. You almost never see fatal four way matches with the main roster divas, largely I think because they don’t trust them with the storytelling complexity it takes to pull off this multi-competitor bouts. Between champion Charlotte, who has proven herself time and again, and Sasha Banks, possibly my favorite divas in the company’s employ, I was sold from jump. Somehow, I still doubt a title change will happen here, just because of how dominant Charlotte’s been and the likelihood of her getting called up to Raw before Wrestlemania is very slim. Mainly, I’m looking for more character evolution from Bailey here, as she’s been slowly moving out of that thin hugging fangirl persona and developing into something more multidimensional. (I feel very few things about Becky Lynch one way or the other, but who knows, maybe she’ll surprise us.)
#1 Contender’s Match
Finn Balor vs. Adrian Neville
First of all, how great is it that NXT is choosing its next #1 contender by having a fucking tournament instead of the usual WWE way of just bumbling around into the next dumb feud? Extra props for booking the tournament in such a way that we would get Finn Balor/Hideo Itami along the way to this perfect looking final. These two had a great match in the 2012 Best of Super Juniors tournament in New Japan (a match that allegedly got them both signed to the WWE), so it’ll be a blast to see them lock back up with all the knowledge and experience they’ve eached gained in the ensuing three years. As much as I’d love to see Balor go over here, my money is on Neville getting back into the title picture and building to a three with Zayn and Owens by the next live special. Either way, we’re looking at a possible show stealer, although it will have some very stiff competition in the main event.
NXT Championship Match
Sami Zayn (c) vs. Kevin Owens
It’s hard for me to be mad about certain things happening on the main roster (ie, Daniel Bryan not winning the Royal Rumble, etc) because, well, Kevin Steen and El Generico are headlining a WWE show and it’s for the NXT title. If you’ve been following these two since the indies, getting to see Owens debut at the last live special and IMMEDIATELY ingratiate himself into a feud with his former tag team partner/erstwhile BFF was nothing short of fucking magical. That they’re doing such a good job of selling this angle both to longtime fans who know every square inch of the history as well as newcomers who may only be familiar with Sami is astonishing. It’s the epitome of having it both ways without either side feeling cheated.
As great as the storytelling has been thus far, from the video packages to the promos to the hype the announcers have built up, the real treat is going to be the actual match. There probably are no two wrestlers on the planet (save maybe Okada and Tanahashi) who have as much in ring chemistry as Zayn and Owens. I’ve seen the two of them wrestle one another countless times and not once was I disappointed with the outcome. With all eyes on them and probably a good chunk of time set aside, this is easily going to be a big contender for match of the year and it isn’t even March yet.
NXT Takeover: Rival airs live tonight at 8pm EST (pre-show begins at 7:30) on the WWE Network (free all month long to new subscribers)