This review of NXT from 2018 comes from more of a fangirl perspective than an academic one, and it is meant to reflect only my own preferences for the best part of the WWE Universe. I would love to hear any other NXT fan’s reactions to this past year, and for a second opinion, and a focus just on NXT matches, see https://uproxx.com/prowrestling/wwe-nxt-matches-of-the-year-2018.
Now, I am not going to talk about specific matches here. I don’t remember specific matches well enough to comment on them. What I am doing instead is reflecting on my favorite parts of NXT from this past year. Those parts may be story lines, characters, or moments, but they are all the parts that I think demonstrate why NXT outshines either Raw or SmackDown and why I always hope/dread that my precious NXT babies will be called up to the main roster.
Each entry on this list made me squee in some way this year, starting with the first one, which is basically just one long, sustained SQUEE at the moment (like, seriously, alternating between squeeing and crying).
The Ciampa/Gargano Story, with special guest star Aleister Black
After his heel turn at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2017, Tommaso Ciampa went out with a knee injury and left Johnny Gargano to rise as the main babyface of NXT. On Twitter, Ciampa changed his handle from Project Ciampa to Blackheart and began foreshadowing his return with a tweet on Dec 31, 2017. In it he retweeted Gargano’s tweet expressing hope for 2018 by just saying “Happy New Year, man.” He had been playing the Twitter game a little in the second half of 2017 but turned it up in the beginning of 2018 when he was prepping to return.
Happy New Year, man. pic.twitter.com/fDLd3wbyoh
— BLACKHEART (@ProjectCiampa) January 1, 2018
Meanwhile, Gargano secured his first NXT title championship opportunity against Andrade Cien Almas at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia but failed to capitalize on it. Instead of interfering in the match, Ciampa showed up after a disappointed Gargano left the ring with the help of Candice LeRae — and attacked Gargano with his crutch.
Thus began a year-long story arc that is still going! And technically was the latest chapter in their entire NXT storyline.
Ciampa and Gargano went back and forth at each other, both directly and indirectly. Ciampa caused Gargano to be released from NXT on Feb 21, but Gargano was allowed back in after he beat Ciampa bloody at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. From there, Gargano quickly challenged Black for the championship in an attempt to get back on track, while Ciampa continued to cement his status as uber-heel; for a time, he even entered to the crowd booing instead of any entrance music. Their “anniversary” Chicago street fight match at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II this year was brutal, both physically and emotionally.
When they brought Aleister Black into the storyline, things really took a dark turn. Gargano started to feel that he could not defeat Ciampa without becoming a heel himself. He tried to cost Ciampa the championship title during a match against Black, only to end up giving the title to Ciampa during a regular NXT show that aired on July 25, shocking and surprising everyone — including Black.
Bringing Black in was a masterstroke — but more so for how they responded to a legit injury Black sustained at a house show that prevented him from fully participating in the story. The idea had been to stage a triple threat match between Black, Ciampa, and Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV for the championship, but Black’s injury derailed that storyline. Instead, NXT went full steam ahead with Gargano’s turn to the dark side by setting up a mystery that started Aug 8 with Black being attacked outside the Full Sail arena.
General Manager William Regal focused on investigating the attack after NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV until just before NXT TakeOver: WarGames II. During this investigation, Nikki Cross claimed to know who attacked Black and told Regal (more on that below). Yet we the fans never knew the identity of the perpetrator until just before WarGames, when Gargano revealed he attacked Black, setting up a brutal match at WarGames between Black and Gargano and leaving Ciampa to continue to successfully defend his championship.
After absolving Gargano of his sins at WarGames, Black returned looking for a rematch with Ciampa, only for Gargano to demand a rematch with Black. On the Dec 5 show, Ciampa deftly manipulated both Black and Gargano into wanting a steel cage match to end things between them.
That match happened on Dec 19 — ending with a possible DIY reunion.
Throughout 2018, Ciampa demonstrated an amazing ability to play the heel in matches, in promos, and on Twitter. He seems so natural in his Psycho Killer persona and adeptly fitted it into the requirements of NXT/WWE storytelling. Meanwhile, Gargano demonstrated a natural ability to emote and connect with fans, whether as a face or a tweener. His slide to the dark side has been both logical and delicious, allowing him to flesh out his performance skills and show the world why he is Johnny Freakin’ Wrestling.
It is simply stunning that Ciampa and Gargano have built this story line on the basis of their amazing chemistry since their emergence as a put-together tag team for the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic back in 2015. It has been over three years now, and their arc is the best storyline in professional wrestling right now. If they can keep it up, it may become the best storyline ever in professional wrestling. There are simply too many moments to recount in this post, and I am already fangirling too much in this entry.
Just do yourself a favor: go back to their beginning and follow their story. The journey is well worth it, and I wait with high anticipation for where the story goes in 2019. I know I am not the only one hoping for a complete DIY heel team, especially if TM61 is kaput, and I would love to see a point where DIY holds the tag team title, Ciampa has the main title, Gargano gets the North American title (even Ciampa wants that!), and LeRae gets the women’s title. Please, WWE, just let this amazing trio hold all the belts before you call them up after this year’s WrestleMania or SummerSlam and ruin them — please!?!
Shayna Baszler Can Legit Kill You (Or Me, At Least)
The Jan 10th episode started 2018’s run of new episodes, and Sahyna Baszler was there to usher in the new era of NXT. This opening match positioned her to dominate the women’s division throughout the year by showing both backstage and in-ring prowess on being able to legit kill people.
After debuting in the inaugural Mae Young Classic, Baszler made her NXT in-ring debut on this episode against Dakota Kai, who would become one of her long-running opponents after receiving a (kayfabe) broken arm after a stomp from Baszler that led to the match being called due to injury.
Not content to let the match end there, Baszler locked Kai in a coquina clutch that brought out champion Ember Moon. Baszler was thus established as the biggest heel in NXT women’s — and perhaps all of NXT — and she has played the role to a T. Every time she smiles, I worry that someone is going to die.
Throughout 2018, Baszler caused bodily harm throughout the women’s division with various opponents like Ember Moon, Nikki Cross, and Kairi Sane, who she battled with for the Women’s Championship title, leading Baszler to end the year as a two-time women’s champion. With her fellow MMA call-ups, the trio is being polished to eventually join Ronda Rousey on the main roster and complete the new Four Horsewomen stable (although Bayley, Sasha, Becky and Charlotte will always hold that title in my heart).
If Shayna goes up this year, I fear for the women of Raw and SmackDown. Heck, I would fear for the men, too, if WWE would get off their duff and let real intergender wrestling happen. She legit scares me, even though in shoot interviews she seems like a nice person I could hang with (thanks to Up Up Down Down).
The Est Becomes Established
Bianca Belair was a minor player in 2017, and even appeared in the inaugural Mae Young Classic to be defeated by the eventual winner Kairi Sane. But she really began to shine in 2018, appearing in the WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal at WrestleMania 34, and then experiencing a winning streak that saw her tear through the women’s roster at NXT. She won the NXT Universe over with her athleticism, charisma, and hair whip.
Bianca’s year ended with a win in a fatal four-way, giving her a shot at the Women’s Championship against Shayna Baszler. The whip versus the clutch. Should be quite the stiff title match.
What I like about Belair is how natural she seems at this pro wrestling thing. She has amazing power and skill, as her backstory promos have told us about her history of sports competition. But if she couldn’t actually, you know, dead lift other women and toss them aside without a thought, no amount of backstory would matter. The fact that she can do that — as well as all the other moves seen in the video above — effortlessly, and give us a great gimmick with that bullwhip of a braid means she is destined for great things in WWE. I cannot wait to see her and Naomi have a day-glo dance-off, and a triple threat of her, Becky and Charlotte would be amazing.
Just let her run with the title awhile in NXT, because she deserves to shine the bright-EST.
Nikki Cross’ Secret
As mentioned, Nikki Cross played an integral role in the Aleister Black injury angle. She knew who did it (or, per Nikki’s accent, who DEDDIT), and for weeks she stalked the ring and backstage area of NXT’s Full Sail letting everyone know she had a secret, without revealing what she knew. Not even William Regal, P.I., could get the truth out of her. This agent of chaos apparently just wanted to see what would happen when Black got back.
Cross has been a fan favorite since her arrival as part of Sanity, but when they got called up, she got left behind, allowing her to further develop her character and really shine away from their shadow. Now that she is main roster bound, hopefully they don’t dull the crazy from her character, as this wild child is a truly unique example of what women can do in professional wrestling — and by that I mean she shows women can do anything, just like men.
Anything You Can Do, the Dream Can Do Better
At the end of 2017, Velveteen Dream won the NXT Year-End Award for Rivalry of the Year with Aleister Black. This was the “Say My Name” storyline that culminated at NXT TakeOver: WarGames, when Black finally said his name.
His first appearance on May 24, 2017 confused some people (myself included — was he riffing on Prince, who wasn’t that long dead?), but he very quickly became a fan favorite after entering the feud with Black that fall. Their rivalry set the foundation for Velveteen’s elevation to superstardom in 2018 when he feuded with different people and even had a title shot against Ciampa at NXT TakeOver: WarGames II.
However, perhaps his most impressive match was against Richochet at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II. From coming out in his Hulk Hogan meets Prince Puma gear to his attempts to keep pace with and one-up Ricochet, Dream demonstrated that he can have a dream match with anyone.
Two reasons why Velveteen had a breakout year. One, he knows how to perform inside the ring. This match demonstrated that, as he went toe-to-toe with one of the best acrobatic-style wrestlers in the world. In this match it was his undoing, but his power and athleticism will serve him well throughout his career.
Two, as seen from the video, his character work is also amazing, and it shows through his mannerisms and his ring gear. The man went from being a weak contender in Tough Enough to coming up with a gender-defying gimmick that he got over thanks to his performance and costuming. The man borrows from different wrestlers, from Hogan to Rick Rude, but is wholly unique in what he creates from the pastiche.
Side note: I could seriously see him becoming the new Wesley Snipes if he wanted a job in Hollywood.
The Impossible Ricochet
I was sad to see Ricochet leave Prince Puma and Lucha Underground behind, but I am so happy to have him in the WWE Universe, as I hope it helps him earn the oodles of money he deserves.
Ricochet’s in-ring debut for NXT occurred during the ladder match to determine first ever North American Champion at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. While he failed to come away with the gold — because of course Adam Cole would — he still demonstrated that everything everyone loved about him from the indies would translate to the big show — or at least the NXT version of the big show.
Throughout 2018 Ricochet would have some seriously great matches in which he did some very superhuman things. Yet it was his feud with Velveteen Dream that really cemented who he was in NXT by creating several spectacular moments and an amazing match at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II.
And this is just a sampling of it all:
I first saw that as a GIF on Twitter. My jaw dropped open upon seeing it. It still drops open with every repeat viewing. Because, seriously…how can anyone be that good!?!
Ricochet then defeated Adam Cole for North American Championship at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV and participated in NXT TakeOver: WarGames II with the NXT Avengers of War Machine and Pete Dunne. His high flying moves have quickly made him an NXT favorite.
Hopefully he is not shoehorned with a stupid gimmick on the main roster like Adrian Neville was, taking away that man’s brilliance. Ricochet is another of those men who gravity forgot, and I would hate for him to be as forgotten by WWE creative as they did Neville.
Kyle O’Reilly’s Expressions
I am not an Undisputed Era fangirl, although I do prefer Roderick Strong as a heel than as a babyface (oh man, was he vanilla!). But I do love Kyle O’Reilly’s facial expressions.
O’Reilly is my favorite part of UE. I am always looking at him whenever another of the faction (usually Adam Cole) is speaking. When O’Reilly is in the ring, I worry for the other wrestlers, as his attacks to people’s hamstrings and knees makes my own legs buckle.
I am glad that Bobby Fish has returned so that ReDRagon can continue to have amazing tag matches in NXT. If they are called up, I hope The Revival can be revived and set up against them. Those two teams would be able to redefine WWE tag team wrestling if creative gave them half a chance.
Matt Riddle’s Flip Flops
The King of Bros made his NXT in-ring debut on Oct 31 against Luke Menzies. I like Matt Riddle, but I am never really excited by him. I’ve seen him live and up-close at AAW, and his matches are stiff and fun, but as a character the “bro” persona leaves me cold.
But I love his entrance into the ring where he flips off his flip-flops. That little touch could make him a big WWE star because it both encapsulates everything he is as a professional wrestler — both in terms of his move set and character — while also just being so damn cool I could see fans being willing to pay just to see it.
Plus, how can WWE not capitalize on it by selling Bro Flip-Flops in 2019?
Come Back Any Time, Prince Pretty
On Dec 12, Richochet held an open call to defend his North American Championship. In the weeks leading up to the match, people wondered which new NXT recruit it could be.
Then Prince Pretty’s entrance music started and Tyler Breeze returned to Full Sail to meet Ricochet in the ring.
Everyone in attendance was so happy to see their favorite wrestler/supermodel return — including me. Breeze and Tye Dillinger are those two NXT favorites who just haven’t gotten enough attention on the main roster. At least Breeze was able to make magic with Fandango by creating the Fashion Police, and his regular appearances on Up Up Down Down further cement him as a cult favorite.
But damn was it nice to see him wrestle again. This match with Ricochet helped remind everyone that there was a time when we loved to watch Breeze wrestle, and that Prince Pretty was not just a gimmick character but a highly skilled in-ring performer.
It also helped to highlight the fears of many NXT fan, to see a favorite return from the doldrums of WWE. I hope WWE creative was watching this match, to be reminded of what Breeze can do in-ring. This man can shine if only you let him. Until then, just let him come back to NXT every now and then to work out the ring rust. We will always be glad to see him. And have him bring along Dillinger, too.
Steaks and Weights
Two big burly men: Otis Dozovic and Tucker Knight. These two guys should not be able to do the things they can do, and yet they do every time they enter the ring together as Heavy Machinery. And I love them for it. I hope they don’t go the way of all the other great NXT tag teams that I loved when they get to the main roster.
Heavy Machinery encapsulates everything that is great about NXT. Two exciting characters who seem like they are always having fun, both in the ring and in their promos, who also have great wrestling skills and matches that get the fans behind them. They are, to my understanding, what WWE has always tried to have: great sports entertainers, in every facet of the industry.
So when they get to the main roster, don’t waste them, WWE.
And That Is That
I loved NXT in 2018. But I also loved NXT in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. It always brightens my week to watch the show, and they always seem to find some way to make my heart sing. I look forward to what, and who, they bring in 2019.
For now, just let Ciampa and Gargano form heel DIY — and then call them up as a way to reset them back to faces.