Well, it happened. Following months of rumors, reports and rebuttals, Samoa Joe showed up at NXT's TakeOver: Unstoppable on Wednesday night, bringing an abrupt end to Kevin Owens' second consecutive main-event mauling of Sami Zayn and signaling (perhaps once and for all) that WWE is serious about controlling indie wrestling as well.
Make no mistake, signing Joe – one of the most decorated and dominant independent wrestlers of the past decade – is a major coup, and a pretty decent surprise: On Tuesday, NXT's driving force, Triple H, downplayed chatter that the Samoan Submission Machine would turn up at TakeOver. But what it might symbolize, especially in light of the recent signing of Sesugh Uhaa, the rapid rise of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn and reports that Destination America was canceling TNA wrestling (on the night Joe, arguably its biggest star, walked down the NXT ramp), is that WWE now holds all the chips. Or at least the overwhelming majority of them. That might seem hyperbolic, but, hey, this is wrestling.
Sure, there are still competitors and talented outliers on the fringes, and, as of yet, no official word on TNA's fate, but if it were to go under, it would surely free up other big names – ones WWE now appears willing to snap up as is. After all, they're already selling Samoa Joe T-shirts, which suggests at least a tacit acknowledgement of his history and accomplishments, and his deal reportedly will allow him to continue booking dates elsewhere. In short, he will not be developed in the WWE style. He is a finished product, a brand, the very definition of a high-priced free agent, and more of his kind will almost certainly follow. WWE has always had the leverage, and, with the success of NXT and the Performance Center, they've now got the platform. All that had been missing was a desire to go all in. Samoa Joe staring down Kevin Owens on Wednesday night certainly indicated that desire is growing by the day.
So what will Joe actually do in NXT? For starters, he'll definitely butt heads with Owens, who backed away from a confrontation last night. The sight of the scurrying champion was an unfamiliar one for those who have watched him decimate the competition (and John Cena) since arriving at Full Sail, but it definitely sets the stage for these two brawlers to come to blows. And that, in a nutshell, is what TakeOver was all about: It was an exceptionally scripted event that hit all the right notes (including a few high ones), but ultimately focused on advancing storylines.
Injuries to Zayn and Hideo Itami certainly forced the issue; the former's maladies (both real and story) were woven into his shot at revenge against former friend Owens, the latter's resolved via a preshow parking lot assault (probably at the hands of K.O.) that left him out of the triple-threat to determine the No. 1 contender for the NXT title.
In the case of Zayn vs. Owens – which, it should be noted, began with the champ coming to the ring in a John Cena T-shirt, a truly next-level heel move – Sami certainly got off his share of offense, but was felled by a brutal Pop-Up Powerbomb on the ring apron that left him incapacitated. There were doubts going in about how much punishment Zayn would be able to take in this match, but he worked hard and controlled much of the action – and while it would be nice to see these two guys go at each other at full strength, Zayn will presumably now get time to heal in real life. And, thanks to Samoa Joe, he'll also get another shot at Owens – since their match never officially ended.
Itami – scheduled to compete against Finn Bálor and Tyler Breeze – will reportedly be out for 6-8 months thanks to a shoulder injury, but if it really was Owens who took him down, well, then he'll eventually get his chance to settle the score with the champ. But it's Bálor who should get first crack, after defeating Breeze in a back-and-forth match that featured a pretty solid spot on the ramp, stiff Supermodel kicks and a high-impact Coup de Grace finisher (and a pair of excellent ring entrances). As far as TakeOver openers go, this one was definitely a cut above – but with Itami out of the equation, it felt like the intensity had been taken down a notch. And I'm not really sure why they're giving the Demon another shot at the strap, especially after Breeze's development in recent months. Still, NXT's storyline advances: Case in point, Bálor's win now makes it four guys on the roster itching to get their hands on Kevin Owens.
NXT Tag Team Champions Blake & Murphy retained their titles against the Realest Guys in the Room, thanks in no small part to the third-party shenanigans of Alexa Bliss. She took out Carmella, distracted Big Cass and shoved Enzo Amore off the top turnbuckle and into a pin. Amore played face-in-peril for most of the match, Cass got in a few power moves (and worked through a couple rough patches) and, though the crowd wanted the Realest Guys to finally nab the belts, a win by Blake & Murphy made the most sense here, especially given the paucity of competition in NXT's tag-team ranks at the moment. The chase will continue, and hey, it will make Amore and Cass' eventual victory all the sweeter.
Baron Corbin continued his ascent by beating Rhyno, and while their match certainly wasn't a thing of beauty, it was satisfyingly blunt and did prove that the Lone Wolf is capable of working longer (for him anyway) bouts, which is a welcome development. Onward and upward for Corbin, though they really need to give him some late-period 'Taker tights already. In a women's tag match, Bayley and Charlotte defeated Emma and Dana Brooke, when Naitch's daughter hit the Natural Selection on Evil Emma (whose new attitude seems to have resonated with the Full Sail faithful). You get the feeling neither of these respective feuds are over just yet, and the supposedly jealousy fueling Charlotte/Brooke makes for a compelling story, so once again, things move along.
Of course, all four women are also in pursuit of NXT Women's Champion Sasha Banks, who held onto her title by forcing Becky Lynch to submit to the Bank Statement. This was not only the match of the night, it was another significant step forward for the entire Women's Division, proof positive that the formula of "Workers + Time" really does equal greatness.
If the Fatal Four-Way at TakeOver: Rival was the previous high mark for women at NXT, Banks and Lynch surpassed it last night, delivering the goods with a spirited, psychological war packed with solid chain wrestling, strategic targeting of offense, teeth-clenching submissions and plenty of new looks from Lynch (and, no, I'm not talking about her orange hair or steampunk-inspired ring attire). In the lead-up to this match, Bex had made it clear she'd been waiting her whole life for this opportunity, and she pulled out all the stops, including an impressive shoulder-drop spot that showcased her strength. Banks gave as good as she got, working over Lynch's arm and driving knees with fiendish intent. The crowd ate it up, but Becky was the star: You believed she was willing to leave it all out on the mat, and as the match wore on, that her formidable armbar might get Banks to tap (for real this time). And when "The Boss" caught her on the top rope, yanked her down and slapped on her submission, you also believed Lynch had nothing left. The end was a mere formality, and though Banks left with her championship, Becky departed to a standing ovation, the crowd chanting along to her theme. As the saying goes, these two told a story, and it's safe to say, in Lynch, a new star has been born.
And, yes, that's what this business is all about. NXT continues to prove that, with the right mix of talent, trainers and time, WWE truly can develop the next generation of main-roster mainstays. It might just be more cost effective to import them from elsewhere. TakeOver: Unstoppable was testament to both of those ideals, which is a good thing for fans of professional wrestling, but bad news for the business (and, really, any indie star not of Samoa Joe's caliber). Though perhaps I'm overreacting. Vince McMahon can't just sign everybody, can he?