Does NXT have your attention now?
After Kevin Owens’ shocking appearance on Raw – which concluded with him standing over 15-time world champion John Cena, arm raised high (and boot on the U.S. title) – and Sami Zayn’s gallant, gutty effort on the show two weeks prior, it’s clear WWE is pulling out all the stops to promote Wednesday night’s NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable, and they’ve done a masterful job of it, raising the profile of both the promotion and the men who will meet in the main event.
But while this TakeOver (live at 8 p.m. ET on the WWE Network) will no doubt benefit from the increased exposure, advance hype was never an issue – not with the backstory Owens and Zayn bring to their feud, the expected fireworks between NXT Women’s Champ Sasha Banks and challenger Becky Lynch, or the triple-threat match between Finn Bálor, Hideo Itami and Tyler Breeze. Rather, it was an unfortunate run of injuries that threatened to throw a wrench into the proceedings.
First, Owens underwent knee surgery, and though he’s since healed, Zayn will be working their match tonight with a shoulder injury, one suffered during his appearance on Raw and subsequently (and, somewhat miraculously) folded into the storyline damage he suffered at the hands of Owens at TakeOver: Rival. That real-life injury cast this match in doubt, though during a confrontation with K.O. on last week’s pre-taped episode of NXT, Zayn let it be known (via some, uh, interesting voiceover work) that he’s good to go, a point NXT mastermind Triple H reiterated during a conference call yesterday.
The extent to which Sami will be able to take bumps remains to be seen, though it only adds another layer to the match…as if this one needed it. The history between the two men goes back years and spans promotions, and Owens’ brutal assault on Zayn at Rival definitely felt personal. There’s genuine psychology and physicality here, and seemingly everything is in play (as evidenced by Sami’s comments about Owens’ son during their aforementioned face-to-face), making this arguably the top feud in all of wrestling. Of course, given Zayn’s condition, Owens’ destruction of Cena on Raw and the fact K.O. meets the Face of the Franchise at WWE’s Elimination Chamber special on May 31, an appearance from Mr. Hustle, Loyalty, Respect might be in the cards.
An injury to Itami – he, too, reportedly hurt his shoulder, though his impairment might keep on the shelf for 6-8 months – has him out of the triple-threat against Bálor and Itami, which is a shame, considering the Japanese star had really found his footing in the WWE Universe, and had worked memorable matches with both men. Who will replace him? Well, Triple H wouldn’t tip his hand, though he did say Itami would be “represented” in the match (which will determine the No. 1 contender for the NXT Championship), officially kicking off speculation that recent WWE signee Sesugh Uhaa – or even indie star Samoa Joe, who has been linked to the promotion for months – could debut in his stead.
Fantasy booking aside, we know Bálor and Breeze will be present and accounted for, and if this is your first introduction to either man, get ready. The acrobatic and dramatic Bálor seems likely to be the next member of the NXT elite to make his main-roster debut, and his ring entrances have quickly become the stuff of legend. Breeze has been working in the WWE developmental program for nearly five years now, though he’s definitely found his stride (and his selfie stick) as a self-obsessed heel in recent months, and he’s no slouch in the ring, either: During NXT’s recent run of live shows, he and Bálor worked a series of well-received matches with Owens, perhaps suggesting that, regardless of who replaces Itami, Prince Pretty or the man formerly known as Prince Devitt could be moving on to face the champ.
Speaking of well-received, Women’s Champ Sasha Banks drew raves during her main-event match against Charlotte at NXT’s live show in Philadelphia, though anyone who’s seen the two work probably responded to those reviews with “Yeah, duh.” Both represented to the fullest during a Fatal Four-Way for the title at Rival – a match won by Banks, beginning her reign – and now, another participant in that bout, Becky Lynch, gets her shot at dethroning “The Boss.” Lynch has overcome injuries and traveled great distances to make it to NXT, and after defeating Charlotte and Bayley to earn a title match, she’s begun to rally the fans to her cause.
Banks, of course, has been phenomenal as the heel champion (bringing a blinged-out stamp to the Unstoppable contract signing was genius), and with each clinic she puts on in the ring, she makes it apparent she’s not only one of the best female wrestlers on the planet, but clearly destined for bigger things. Does she drop the title to Lynch and proceed to WWE’s main roster? Surely, either her or Charlotte – perhaps both – are primed and ready, now someone just needs to pull the trigger.
Also on the Unstoppable card, the feud between NXT Tag Team Champions Blake & Murphy and microphone fiends the Realest Guys in the Room finally comes to fruition, and each team has definitely flourished in the spotlight. Since winning the belts in January, the dudes unofficially known as the Dubstep Cowboys have stepped up their heel game (and their in-ring work), and the duo of Enzo Amore and Big Cass have definitely proven to be more than just a comedy act…if anything, they could be the new New Age Outlaws. Let’s just hope the third member of their team, Carmella, doesn’t double-cross them here. A hoss fight between Baron Corbin and Rhyno and a battle between the impromptu teams of Bayley and Charlotte and Emma and Dana Brooke are also featured, and should provide an interesting mix of blunt-force trauma and innovative athleticism…and, hey, at least Corbin vs. Rhyno should be short.
The road to Unstoppable has been weird and winding, but now that we’ve arrived, its title seems oddly prescient. The profile – and the stakes – have certainly been raised; now it’s up to the men and women of NXT to deliver. They’ve suffered bumps and bruises (and much worse) to get to this point, and, if history is any indicator, I’m sure they’ll deliver.