While you were sleeping, WWE started Independence Day (really) early, crowning a new NXT champion and bringing Brock Lesnar back to the ring at Beast in the East, a Network special broadcast live from Tokyo’s Ryōgoku Sumo Hall on July 4.
As the name implied, Lesnar’s return was given top billing, and his squash of Kofi Kingston (and his New Day running mates) was appropriately aggressive. But in a nod to the wrestling traditions of Japan – and the rooting interests of the fans who tuned in at 5:30 a.m. ET to watch – the clash between Kevin Owens and Finn Bálor was the bout that had the big fight feel.
After all, this was the nation where Bálor rose to fame as Prince Devitt, winning legions of admirers with his physicality and theatrics. And both were on display as he challenged Owens for the NXT title; Bálor summoned his much-discussed “Demon” as he made his way to the ring in black-and-red warpaint (complete with ominous Oni on his back), then went toe-to-toe with the bruising champ – even hitting the Bloody Sunday finisher from his Devitt days. The match began with the traditional presenting of flower bouquets and a shower of streamers from the fans, both of which gave Owens a chance to push his heeling into hyperdrive, as he tossed his bouquet from the ring and refused to begin the fight until all streamers were cleared. Then, the two got down to business, with KO hitting highlight spots like a rolling Senton off the top turnbuckle, while Bálor stung him with kicks and a couple Coup de Graces that couldn’t finish off the champion.
As expected, the crowd was fiery, stoked by several impressive sequences – like Owens setting up for a Pop-Up Powerbomb, Bálor dodging then hitting a Sling Blade and a Coup – and nail-biting near falls. In the end, Bálor was finally able to close Owens’ reign as NXT champion with another Coup de Grace, raising the title high before his adoring fans…and of course Owens, bad-guy to the end, refused to shake his hand at the end of the match, departing the Sumo Hall to jeers (and John Cena, whom he meets in two weeks at WWE Battleground). The title change made sense in every way, providing another chapter to Bálor’s storybook rise, resetting the scene in NXT – can’t wait for him and Hideo Itami to begin their feud – and moving Owens onto the main roster for good.
The rest of the card couldn’t match the energy of Bálor and Owens, but there were plenty of other highlights. It was satisfying to see Brock back to his destructive ways after the way he was weakened by WWE champion Seth Rollins on Raw and thrilling to watch Chris Jericho – a certified superstar in Japan – play to the crowd (and work stiff) against Neville. The same could be said about John Cena and Dolph Ziggler, who were both crowd favorites here and took down Wade Barrett and Kane in what ended up being the main event. The only real low point of the night (morning?) was the triple-threat between Nikki Bella, Paige and Tamina for the Divas Championship, which never really picked up steam.
But that’s a very minor complaint; because this one was a treat for true wrestling fans. The prospect of Bálor as face of NXT is exciting enough, but even if Owens had managed to leave Tokyo with his title, the thrill of watching live wrestling from Japan – and hearing the crowd break into “This is Awesome” chants – certainly warranted the 5:30 a.m. wake up. In many ways, events like Beast in the East were the reason the WWE Network held so much promise for obsessives, and it’s great to see them finally realizing its true potential. Here’s hoping this wasn’t merely a one-off event – sleep is overrated anyway.