Rival is an apt subtitle for this week's NXT TakeOver show, as one of the most heated rivalries in wrestling continues on a bigger stage.
Sami Zayn defends his NXT title on Wednesday night's TakeOver against Kevin Owens. While it's the first time Zayn has ever faced Owens in NXT, their rivalry – or, more specifically, the rivalry between El Generico and Kevin Steen – raged throughout the country for the better part of three years. Before their feud, Generico and Steen joined together in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. For almost three years, what started as an oddball pairing developed into one of the top teams on the independent circuit, putting on no shortage of memorable tag matches.
That all ended at ROH's Final Battle 2009 when Steen turned on Generico. For all of 2010, the two best friends became bitter enemies. Their feud was the one constant in Ring of Honor for the year, and won Wrestling Observer's Feud of the Year. While it initially ended at Final Battle 2010, with Generico beating Steen to send him from the company, Steen would resurface in ROH six months later, and the two would have several more matches in both ROH and PWG before Generico finally left to join WWE. The feud was on ice until finally Steen signed with WWE over the summer, and made his debut as Kevin Owens at (R)Evolution in December. Sami Zayn won the title, but was brutally attacked by his old rival to end the show.
So why is this important to anyone besides those who followed the feud before they came to WWE? Because it illustrates a fundamental difference between NXT and WWE. In Vince McMahon's world, the history of a wrestler essentially starts when they join the WWE. Sure, they may make vague references to them wrestling for years just to reach the company, like they did with Daniel Bryan. However, at no time would they mention what that person did in the past. Daniel Bryan has faced the likes of Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Jamie Noble and Luke Harper, and not once has it been mentioned that they've been wrestling for years. Yet, in NXT, they liberally refer to the past. While they haven't gone into the details, they've talked about how Zayn and Owens teamed and fought together for years. It doesn't just come from the wrestlers either; the commentators and the production team get into the act as well. Just take a look at the terrific promo video they ran at the end of last week's NXT:
Now, they don't show pictures of the matches they've had in the past. That would be difficult, what with Sami Zayn having such a different gimmick now. But they do show pictures from the past with both of them in it, something that would never happen on the main roster. It's not just in this specific feud either. When Zayn started his feud with Adrian Neville, they kept referring to their past together. Same with the team of Finn Bálor and Hideo Itami. Yes, they make their own history in NXT, but they use it to build upon the past, rather than simply replacing it.
This isn't new to wrestling. In the territory era, wrestlers often would keep their characters as they moved around the country, and if it was relevant, the new organization would reference their past. Sometimes, feuds could continue as wrestlers jumped from territory to territory, or even be carried out simultaneously in several organizations. This is just one of the many similarities NXT has to one of the old territories, but it might be the one that best shows Triple H's vision of wrestling. We hear so often about how much respect H has for the history of the sport, so why should it be a surprise that his baby not only feels like a throwback, but respects the histories of the wrestlers in it?
This isn't to say that every feud has to be based on the past. However, NXT is certainly showing that fans won't be confused by infusing history into feuds, and it actually enhances what's shown in the ring. NXT is billed as the future of the company, but NXT TakeOver: Rival is very much built in the past. And that's not a bad thing at all.
While Owens and Zayn is the main event, it's certainly not the only thing NXT has in store for us. Finn Bálor and Adrian Neville will face each other for the right to become Number One contender for the NXT title. While the battle between the two will undoubtedly be great, for those of you who missed the last TakeOver, Bálor's entrance and his "war paint" might be the most anticipated part of the match. Bálor was arguably the least notable of the three indie stars who signed over the summer (Bálor, Owens and Hideo Itami). He may prove to be the biggest star in the WWE of those three, and Wednesday night could be the first step.
When it comes to the women's division in NXT, so much of 2014 was dedicated towards the ascension of Charlotte, both in her rise up the ranks to Women's Champion and her development as a wrestler. So it's only fitting that 2015 kicks off with a title match that sees her defending the strap against the three women she spent the most time dealing with in 2014: Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Bayley. These four have been dancing around each other for about four months now, and the chemistry is certainly there, so you can expect yet another good match from the women of NXT. This match should set the direction for the whole year of the women's division.
Some people were surprised that the Finn Bálor /Hideo Itami match in the Number One contender's tournament wasn't the final. However, the late addition of Itami vs. Tyler Breeze to Rival makes things a little more clear. Breeze has been somewhat pushed aside with the additions of Owens, Balor and Itami. Putting him in this match allows him to stay in the spotlight, and wouldn't have been possible if the finals was Itami vs. Balor, since Breeze and Neville have fought so often over the past few months. It will be fascinating to see how their styles mesh in this match.
The new tag champions, Wesley Blake and Buddy Murphy, will give the Lucha Dragons a rematch for the titles. Blake and Murphy seemingly came out of nowhere to win the titles, as they had been used primarily as jobbers. They won their first match on screen against the Vaudevillains at the end of January, and then a week later they beat the Dragons for the title. It's hard to say exactly where they're going with this team, as they're somewhat generic right now, especially when compared to the Dragons, Vaudevillains or the Realest Guys in the Room. However, there's no doubt that they can wrestle, so their reign should be interesting to watch, starting with their TakeOver match.
Finally, Baron Corbin and Bull Dempsey will blow off their feud in a No DQ match. With the squash matches these two have had, we'll see how much the No DQ stipulation comes into play, and how long they let the match go. Corbin is on the rise in the company (he just got his first shirt), so we'll see where he goes after he's done with a feud that revolved around 20-second matches.