“Everyone welcome to NXT!” Johnny Gargano proclaims at the top of the hour. Newly minted as the North American champion two weeks ago at Halloween Havoc, he is here to defend his title in a match he set-up last week talking to the “grim reaper” or “Ghostface” or whatever. In total, NXT right now is in a perfectly ideal spot to open with Gargano, because over the past few weeks, there has been no NXT champion present. Finn Balor, current champ, is out (and would eventually be announced to be coming back next week). So, why not start off with the face of NXT above all other faces – the Triple Crown champion, the only two-time North American Champion, insert other NXT first Gargano has definitely done.
But NXT really isn’t focused on Gargano entirely. “And welcome to Johnny Gargano’s wheel of challengers!” He even sings and does a hip thing. “Respect the wheel,” says the man who hated the idea his match was being decided by a wheel weeks ago. He brings up his first reign of the North American belt and losing the title immediately. He then leans into the fact he is cursed since the same thing happened to him with the main belt, too. “With one spin, someone will get the opportunity of a lifetime, and I will show the world where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.”
An obviously gimmicked wheel. Leon Ruff is where it lands, scribbled on the wheel while the rest are printed on. “Leon Ruff, coooooooooooome on downnnnnn!”
This is the beginning of NXT. A moment many fans will not forget for a while, what transpires here is a fantastic continuation of a pretty simple story. But how NXT manages to do this is plainly brilliant. The start of this episode warrants a different take on it than usual. So let’s dive into Johnny Wrestling’s North American title defense…
NXT North American Championship – Leon Ruff vs. Johnny Gargano (c) (2 stars)
Ruff is fired up. This is a shock to him, just as much as everyone else in the CWC. Gargano even poses with him for a moment. Gargano drinks it all in, throwing and pummeling Ruff all over the ring. There’s a moment where Ruff actually gets on the outside on the apron in the corner and lands an elbow, then he slides on the top rope and jumps down each rope, avoiding each strike from Gargano. It’s a true moment of understanding what Ruff is all about – a freakishly great use of athleticism and cunning. Damian Priest is seen in the audience and Gargano messes with him, but when Gargano gets back in the ring, he’s distracted and Ruff gets him for a school-boy near fall. Gargano takes back over and starts really taking it to Ruff with more and more power moves, culminating in a facebuster on the middle turnbuckle. As Gargano goes to land a superkick, Ruff slides under and lands Gargano in a crucifix pin.
And just like that, Leon Ruff is your new NXT North American champion.
Mass hysteria occurs. This is easily the biggest upset in NXT history. Priest helps put the belt on Ruff, but it falls directly to the ground when Ruff raises his arms. He follows after him, celebrating. Gargano is emotionally devastated. Cut to commercial. When they cut back, Damian Priest hands Ruff keys to a car and tells him to leave, the rest of the back cheering him on for the massive upset. A surreal experience. Gargano is furious and gets pulled away by officials while Gargano argues to William Regal that he deserves another shot at the belt and Priest shoots him down, reminding him he made this happen to himself.
NXT Cruiserweight Championship – Santos Escobar (c) vs. Jake Atlas (2 ½ stars)
Atlas and Escobar are a bit of a stretch following all that insanity, but back-to-back title matches on a weekly show – I’m not complaining. Atlas has been taking out Escobar’s minions Mendoza and Wilde and refusing to back down, while Escobar clearly continues to attempt and hold all the cards in his hands, repeatedly attempting to break down and slow down Atlas throughout the match. Tons of stretches and strikes, Escobar is looking like a real champ looks. Atlas warded off Mendoza and Wilde multiple times throughout the match, maintaining this look of integrity and passion that has been his story since day one. This match surprisingly had a boost from the ridiculousness of the previous match, mainly for the process of struggle and push-and-pull action throughout. But this match never really hit a really high mark, and when the finish was a finisher reversed into another finisher, it doesn’t feel like a massive pop that it should’ve been. Escobar retains.
We come back to a very angry Shotzi Blackheart saying she’s pissed off and explained a deeper part of why that tank was so important. Cut back to the ring, and we got some action.
Raquel Gonzalez vs. Xia Li ???
Boa comes out to the ring, Raquel is very confused. Boa explains that Xia Li isn’t here and he is sorry. Gonzalez ain’t taking that for an answer. She kicks Boa out of the ring as he tries to exit, then throws him around ringside and lands a few blows. She sends a very real physical message and then tells Boa and everyone else to keep her name out of their mouths. As Boa lays in the ring, a dragon flies around all of the various screens, and an older man comes out to deliver a message to Boa. He reacts as if the message scrawled on his hand is painful, like it is acidic or burning him. Pretty bizarre segment.
August Grey – featured previously as a student of Timothy Thatcher’s – came back last week and attacked Thatcher, and now Thatch is back to return the favor. Interrupting a backstage interview, Thatch barrels through. Thatch applies a front guillotine and officials get in the way, but that’s not enough, so he throws him through what was Dexter Lumis’ art he was working on of Cameron Grimes before it was destroyed. Lumis just stares at him and Regal tries to keep them from fighting. (For now.)
Toni Storm vs. Candice LaRae (3 ¾ stars)
Commentary sells this as “TakeOver-worthy” and, really, they aren’t wrong. Supremely great chain wrestling with plenty of leverage being used by both women from the get-go. Storm applies a ton of holds in a very short time and really has a lot of great chemistry with Candice, but, then again, it’s not exactly surprising that anyone works well with Candice. From just the first few minutes of this match, it was immediately apparent this was easily Toni’s best match so far in her return to NXT. There’s a certain moment in the match where Storm lands a headbutt before the slow build back to peak momentum of the match where she landed a fisherman’s suplex for a very close 2 count. Both women really give a great match here and they don’t hold a lot back, especially with a very crooked finish like this one. Candice gets a cheap win with her feet on the ropes. Immediately, the “reaper” comes down and a brawl starts. Shotzi comes down, but she’s stopped quickly and the “reaper” finally reveals herself as Indi Hartwell.
Breezango are backstage, and they cut a very short bit on getting back their tag titles tonight against Lorcan and Burch. After the break, we come back to Thatch and Lumis.
Timothy Thatcher vs. Dexter Lumis (2 ¾ stars)
These guys got a little history. Thatch actually injured Lumis’ ankle and put him on ice for a while back in late July in a triple threat match with Finn Balor. Thatch immediately goes for it and uses it as a main focus all match. Lumis is… well… strange, still. Thatch’s extremely deliberate and excruciatingly painful stretches and holds are slow and torturous and entertaining in a certain way, but the brutality and very eerie attitude that Lumis handles very gracefully are a very nice foil to one another and give the match a good feel. Lumis and Thatcher really handle the pacing of this match so well, making sure that the slow, painful moments are then followed well by great exchanges of big moves that keep moving the match forward in a linear, completely transparent way.
And then Cameron Grimes shows up. Hahahahahahaha.
Thatcher gets a roll-up 1-2-3 real fast and Grimes immediately starts fighting Lumis. Grimes gets Lumis’ head in a burlap sack and really tries kicking his head off. We cut back to Gargano approaching William Regal’s office. Regal keeps his stance. Gargano is still very upset. We get a massive package of the entire history of Rhea Ripley and Io Shirai in a “Prime Target” segment, but first Tommaso!
Ciampa is in a dimly lit room and starts talking about tough guys. He mentions the locker room has been talking and not doing so he’s out to fix that.
And, holy shit, we’re not waiting for Io and Rhea for the next TakeOver – it’s next week.
The “Kings of NXT” all come out – McAfee, Dunne, Lorcan, and Burch – to the fallout of last week’s attack on Killian Dain and Drake Maverick. You can hate him all you want, but as a man who deeply respected Pat before and now getting to see him cut promos on NXT is just AMAZING. Now he’s joining them on commentary????? YES.
NXT Tag Team Championships – Oney Lorcan & Danny Burch (c) vs. Breezango (3 stars)
Lorcan and Burch keep things even enough from the get-go, but Breezango and their chemisty working together overpower those two from the start. Throughout the opening salvo, Dango and Breeze are constantly one step ahead and they stay the real reason this match is any good. It’s not that Lorcan and Burch do anything bad, it’s just Breezango consistently have the placement, work, and effort here. Even Drake Maverick gets involved and nails Lorcan with a move to get Dango his leg drop finisher. But Lorcan barely kicks out and Pete Dunne cleans up Maverick. Dango and Lorcan are completely out of it, Dunne throws McAfee in for a long enough distraction for him to eliminate Breeze for a moment for Lorcan to tag Burch. They apply their elevated DDT and get the 3. Chaos ensues and as Drake, Dango, and Breeze summarily getting trashed while Breeze gets the boot from McAfee.
I thought this episode was a little downhill from last week, but it didn’t have any particularly bad moments. In general, I think the next couple of weeks will be building a TakeOver up and we’ll be getting word from Finn Balor on the title next week, which is destined to be a very important segment.