This past weekend, New Orleans, Louisiana played host to several different professional wrestling promotions, all of which offered an abundance of pro graps to wrestling fans of all persuasions. For instance, AAW, Fight Club: Pro, and The Wrestling Revolver co-sponsored the Pancakes and Piledrivers show, which took place at WrestleCon and caused some controversy when AAW tag team champions The Besties in the World (Davey Vega and Mat Fitchett) hit tandem piledrivers on their opponents The Rascalz (Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz) in violation of the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission’s rules. WrestleCon also played host to the Impact vs. Lucha Underground crossover event, featuring a high-profile rematch between Eddie Edwards and the controversial Jeremiah Crane (aka Sami Callihan). Meanwhile, Ring of Honor unleashed their 12th annual Supercard of Honor, this time featuring a hotly-anticipated contest between current Bullet Club leader (and former WWE Superstar) Cody Rhodes and previous leader Kenny Omega, now one half of the Golden Lovers tag team with Kota Ibushi. And, of course, WWE dominated the weekend with another installment of the granddaddy of all wrestling shows, WrestleMania, which this year boasted the in-ring debut of former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Ronda Rousey, along with several other marquee matches.
Yet, for many fans (myself included), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans represented the pinnacle of a week filled with all manner of pro wrestling. Since 2014, NXT’s periodic TakeOver shows have become the gold standard of big-time wrestling events (which is appropriate, given the brand’s predominantly yellow color scheme), often overshadowing the shows produced by WWE’s main roster. Starting with the original NXT TakeOver, which aired exclusively on the WWE Network on May 29, 2014, and continuing through the most recent show broadcast live from NOLA on April 7, 2018, each TakeOver event has offered discerning wrestling fans a fresh alternative to the often stale and sanitized programs featured on shows like Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live!. NXT’s live events routinely feature exciting, hard-hitting action, memorable entrances, hip guests, and emotionally-gripping storytelling. These things and more have helped transform NXT from a mere developmental program to a widely-beloved brand and one of the most popular sports entertainment promotions around.
NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is no exception, largely because it features the final chapter (at least for now) to one of the most riveting pro wrestling story lines currently going. The show starts with a wild six-man ladder match that saw Lars Sullivan, Killian Dain, Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole (BAY BAY!), and the debuting Ricochet and ECIII all vying for the new NXT North American Championship. The match was chaotic and fun, and it allowed every single competitor a chance to shine. Ricochet — a staple of the indie wrestling circuit for years as well as the man behind the Prince Puma mask on El Rey Network’s cult phenomenon Lucha Underground — immediately emerged as the star of the match, taking every opportunity to show off his high-flying offense and impressive strength. Meanwhile, Sullivan and Dain looked appropriately monstrous (the spot in which they tossed Ricochet back and forth was quite fun), and their interactions served as a nice preview for their eventual one-on-one confrontation (HOSS FIGHT). ECIII was instantly over with the crowd and seems primed to fill the entitled heel/tweener spot recently vacated by Bobby Roode (who now wrestles as part of the Smackdown Live! roster). Velveteen Dream proved once again why he deserves to be considered one of the biggest stars in the world; his charisma and athleticism were on full display throughout, and his elbow drop off the top of the ladder was a thing of beauty. The match ended with Cole winning the title, which is the right decision and hopefully gives his character some much-needed direction (he has felt somewhat aimless since debuting at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III on August 19, 2017).
The second match featured NXT Women’s Champion Ember Moon defending her title for the second time against former mixed martial arts sensation (and inaugural Mae Young Classic finalist) Shayna Baszler. At NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia on January 27, 2018, Moon defeated Baszler but suffered an injured shoulder in the process (the same shoulder that Asuka injured on the May 3, 2017 installment of NXT’s weekly show). A few weeks later, on February 14, 2017, Baszler and Moon faced off in a rematch that ended in a disqualification when Kairi Sane attacked Baszler. This led to yet another intense match between the Moon and Baszler at TakeOver: New Orleans, which built expertly on their previous matches. The two women had clearly learned from their prior encounters, as they managed to counter one another’s moves and tell a powerful story in the process. At one point, Moon stomped on Baszler’s left arm (as retribution for what Baszler did to Dakota Kai a few weeks earlier), separating Baszler’s shoulder and leaving her vulnerable. Nonetheless, Baszler managed to pop her shoulder back into place (a la Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon) by slamming it repeatedly against the steel ring post, which provided for a great visual and an excellent demonstration of her toughness. Soon after, Moon hit Baszler with an Eclipse (her finishing maneuver, a diving corkscrew stunner) off the top rope to the arena floor, showing off her own resiliency and reckless abandon. The match ended with Moon going for another Eclipse inside the ring, only to get caught in the Kirifuda Clutch and choked out by Baszler, who left the arena as the new NXT Women’s Champion. Meanwhile, Moon showed up on Raw the following night to tag with new Raw Women’s Champion Nia Jax against Mickie James and former champ Alexa Bliss.
Next up was a triple threat match for the NXT Tag Team Championships that featured the Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar), The Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly and Adam Cole, subbing in for the injured Bobby Fish), and the hastily-assembled team of Roderick Strong and NXT UK Champion Pete Dunne. The match was originally meant as a reward for the winner of the 2018 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, with the winners of the tournament receiving both the Dusty Cup and a title shot against The Undisputed Era (TUE). However, Fish’s knee injury necessitated a last-minute booking change. Thus, on the April 4, 2018 episode of NXT, TUE interfered in the finals, prompting the referee to throw out the match. As a result, the two teams that made it to the finals, Authors of Pain (AoP) and Strong/Dunne, both got an opportunity to face O’Reilly/Cole for the belts. The match itself was sloppy but fun, culminating with Strong’s heel turn, which allowed TUE to win both the belts and the Dusty Cup. This outcome gives the faction some much-needed credibility and (as mentioned above) direction, because they can now brag about being the most successful stable in NXT history while running roughshod over the entire promotion (much like the nWo in WCW or D-Generation X in the WWE). Furthermore, adding Strong to the group sets up some compelling storytelling possibilities down the road, most notably Cole and Strong potentially feuding over leadership of TUE. It could also lead to a faction-versus-faction feud between TUE and cult heroes Sanity (Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe, Killian Dane, and Nikki Cross). In any event, the match outcome should give Cole and his running buddies something to do going forward.
In the penultimate match, Aleister Black challenged Andrade “Cien” Almas for the NXT Championship. While the match itself was good, it failed to generate the same level of drama or excitement as Almas’ incredible match against Johnny Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. The Almas/Black match felt somewhat thrown together, and therefore lacked the sense of urgency and excitement that marked Almas/Gargano. During the buildup, Black and Dain challenged Almas for the title, leading to a number one contender’s match between the two. Black came out on top and spent the next few weeks verbally sparring with Almas’ valet/manager, Zelina Vega. The promos were good, but never felt personal in any way. In that regard they were the exact opposite of the promos leading up to the Gargano/Almas match, as Vega made that match incredibly personal by constantly reminding Gargano of the betrayal of his former best friend, Tommaso Ciampa (more on that below). Furthermore, while Almas nailed the role of entitled heel champ during his run, his mic skills proved less than stellar and hurt his credibility somewhat. Crowds never quite connected to him as a face, and failed to respond strongly to him as a heel. Meanwhile, much like Cole, Black’s character often felt directionless, and that aimlessness remained in his feud with Almas. Therefore, the title match lacked an emotional core, though both performers delivered an entertaining contest. Black and Almas are undoubtedly two of the best wrestlers in the world, and they showed off their skills in the match, which was unfortunately hurt by the lack of a compelling story. Still, Black emerging as the winner is a good thing; he’s got the look and the talent to carry the company, especially if the NXT creative team gives him some solid storylines. Almas, meanwhile, is likely headed up to the main roster, and if WWE keeps Vega as his mouthpiece, he should prove an extremely valuable addition to either Raw or Smackdown.
Finally, in the main event, Gargano battled Ciampa in one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching matches in the history of NXT. The two spent years as singles wrestlers on the indie circuit before getting called up to NXT as a tag team on September 9, 2015. They competed in the first Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, making it to the second round, only to lose to the team of Baron Corbin and Rhyno. Ciampa and Gargano then competed in the first-ever WWE Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), with Gargano eliminating Ciampa in the first round. Afterward, they reunited as a tag team under the name DIY (Do It Yourself) and had a series of classic matches with then-NXT Tag Team Champions, The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder). On November 19, 2016, DIY defeated The Revival to win the NXT Tag Team Titles, but lost them to AoP two months later at NXT TakeOver: San Antonio. DIY faced AoP once more in a brutal ladder match for the Tag Team Titles at NXT TakeOver: Chicago on May 20, 2017, but came up short in the end. After the match, an injured Ciampa turned on Gargano, setting up a bitter rivalry between the two. Over the next few months, Gargano emerged as one of the top babyfaces in NXT, while Ciampa disappeared from the weekly show during his long recovery from knee surgery. He eventually returned to become one of the most hated heels in NXT, interfering in a match that not only cost Gargano the NXT Championship, but drove him out of NXT. This then set up a much-anticipated unsanctioned match between the two former best friends at TakeOver: New Orleans.
The match delivered on every level, cementing both performers as two of the best wrestlers in the entire world. Ciampa and Gargano held nothing back, taking sick bumps throughout and nailing one another with stiff strikes that no doubt left more than a few battle scars. More importantly, they told an incredibly emotional story in the ring, with Ciampa unleashing his anger at being abandoned by the NXT Universe, and Gagano fighting for his career. At one point, following nearly 30 minutes of grueling competition, Gargano was set to bash a battered and bruised Ciampa with a crutch (retribution for Ciampa doing the same to Gargano several times throughout the feud), but stopped when he realized his former-friend-turned-enemy was defenseless. In that one moment, Gargano solidified his place as the purest white-meat babyface in all of WWE (while simultaneously revealing the inconsistent characters of most of the main roster faces). The match featured several other shocking and heartrending moments, including Gargano powerbombing Ciampa onto exposed concrete, an exhausted Gargano crawling over to a disgusted Ciampa (who, by that point, sported a nasty-looking swollen black eye), and Gargano using Ciampa’s own knee brace to lock Ciampa into a submission and forcing him to submit (pictured above). Gargano eventually picked up the win, thus reclaiming his spot on the NXT roster and hopefully starting down the path toward a run with the NXT Championship. Ciampa, meanwhile, remains one of NXT’s most loathed characters, and his activity on social media gives fans the sense that this feud is far from over.
Overall, while it never quite reaches the heights of NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn (in which Bayley fought Sasha Banks in one of the greatest title matches ever televised) or NXT TakeOver: Chicago (which featured an all-time classic between Dunne and Tyler Bate for the UK Championship), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans continues NXT’s impressive streak of excellent live events. The show offered a variety of matches and spotlighted some of the best wrestlers around, culminating in an exciting and emotional match that served as a capper to one of the best feuds of the last few decades. Fans of NXT should come away happy, and those who have never watched the product may not get the same sort of impact from the main event as those who have followed along week after week, but the in-ring action should nonetheless satisfy even the most jaded smark. NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is a triumph, and promises a bright future for WWE’s most over brand.