As we round the corner toward the holidays, I find myself becoming a little burnt out from a tumultuous year for wrestling fans and journalists alike. We’re nearing Survivor Series, and it is usually after this pay-per-view that WWE starts to relent on their break-neck sprint through pay-per-views to end the year. But, with All Elite Wrestling only just coming off the heels of their first proper pay-per-view after debuting on TV, WWE may not have the option to slow down during the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
That said, I think both promotions are doing great things with their respective women’s divisions. As with anything, though, there is always room for improvement, hence why we’re here week after week! First, let me discuss with you all the beauties (pun intended) that we’ve come across in AEW and NXT in these last two weeks.
The Good AEW/NXT: I have many scattered thoughts about the excellent wrestling and storyline development I’ve seen in both promotions since I last wrote. I want to first talk about them individually, and then together to point out a coincidental — but positive — thing that both divisions are excelling at right now.
As far as AEW, I am pleased now that we are now entering a phase of television where we can see repeat characters on screen, with new women still showing themselves bit by bit. In the tag match featuring Jamie Hayter and Emmy Sakura versus champion Riho and Shanna, I got more of an idea of each woman’s persona and the stories that they try to consistently tell in their matches. This is what I’ve been wanting from AEW for the past few posts, is for a bit more story to be told with a level of continuity. I absolutely loved the sequence between Riho and her former trainer Emmy to end the match; so smooth and amazing I was actually yelling at my TV in awe watching their grace! I am sad to say that I was unable to see their meeting at Full Gear, but if it was anything like what we saw in that match, I am positive it tore the house down.
In other areas of the division, we saw the return of Nyla Rose and Awesome Kong, the former of which I was beginning to get worried was only used as a diversity trophy of sorts for Dynamite’s big premiere. Seeing both of them return on the same episode of Dynamite made me realize that, just by their shared presence in the division, AEW’s women’s division may be more believable than WWE’s. For example, if Nyla Rose were to ever win the women’s title, she would have believable competition in her weight class to challenge her in the form of Awesome Kong.
My oh my, friends. In a matter of two weeks, the landscape of the wrestling world (or rather, WWE & AEW) is rapidly changing before our very eyes. We just witnessed a draft on RAW and Smackdown, and new challengers for the NXT women’s championship have announced themselves. Also, we’ve seen a couple of new faces in the women’s division on AEW, adding a few more pieces to the mysterious puzzle for this new fan.
Moving forward, I’ll be breaking up Nylons into two sections: NXT and AEW side-to-side, and WWE’s flagship shows as one. While I certainly respect and appreciate the differences between AEW and NXT, it only makes sense to consider them simultaneously, as they are primetime rivals and seek to offer wrestling fans very similar flavors. At the same time, RAW and Smackdown have always seemed to exist in the same universe, although I’m not sure if that will change with the draft and “rivaling” networks brought into the fold.
Let’s begin with the delicious morsels that the Wednesday night shows have given us the last two weeks.
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AEW/NXT: I feel that the last weeks were neither truly good or bad for either show, but pinpointing one positive across both is that it seems like storyline progression is happening. For AEW, we see a friendly rivalry between champion Riho and Britt Baker forming, with a title match last week that in my opinion proved Riho to be a crafty and adaptive defender in the ring. The week before last, we also had secondary characters emerge in the form of Bea Priestley and Emmy Sakura, the former of which looking to be a future opponent for Britt Baker. The next few weeks will clue us in to whether or not AEW can be trusted to develop women’s storylines outside of the main title picture, a skill that WWE in this era has fallen short with. But, for the time being, things are looking promising for the upstart promotion.
As for NXT, I have to say that I am impressed with the depth of the women’s division displayed over the course of the last two weeks. I can count on more than one hand the amount of women active on NXT TV on at least a biweekly basis, as it should be. I was awestruck this week when I saw Rhea Ripley for the first time. Her size in comparison to her peers demanded my attention, and her squash match with Aliyah (ending with that insane figure-four-pumphandle slam thingy) was exciting to see. Monsters are so rare in the women’s division, and Rhea seems to be the kind that can both believably dominate, but also be defeated by gutsier opponents.
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I continue to be impressed with the diversity of the women’s division of NXT; no one woman seems to be a carbon copy of another. So far, if we’re grading on visibility alone, I would have to give the edge to NXT. Now, work on getting the main shows up to speed, WWE!
RAW and Smackdown: Bayley! She was the knight in shining armor for me in the wake of the draft. Doing a complete 180 from Hell in a Cell to the first edition of Friday Night Smackdown, Bayley has completed her heel turn with the destruction of her beloved Bayley Buddies. The promo that she cut on last week’s Smackdown was first class, and there was a kernel of truth in the majority of her assertions.
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What resonated the most was her saying that she was tired of letting her cookie-cutter gimmick define her, hinting at the stagnation she likely felt with her babyface character. The videos of young fans sobbing as they watched their hero abandon her happy-go-lucky personality really made apparent the impact of Bayley’s turn, and the pure shock that fans can feel when our sense of familiarity with certain characters is ripped away.
Not only this, but possibly the coolest thing about Bayley’s turn is that she seems now to be more authentically herself. Pamela Martinez, the person, has a punk, skater girl style, and listens to alternative rock like that of her new entrance theme. I got the sense that she now feels a little more at home being able to break free creatively, but also be a little more of herself. I look forward to seeing what Bayley and her bob hairstyle will do next!
The Bad AEW/NXT: After three weeks of AEW on TNT, I am still disappointed to see only one women’s segment per show. I’m confused as to why we aren’t having as many showcase-type matches for the women as we seem to have for the male stars every week. I am unsure at this point if this is because of a small number of women currently signed with the company, or if they are simply prioritizing the men right now. But, I do know that it needs to be addressed before habits form in formatting the shows every week. Allocating space for the women early on in the company’s history will prevent the inequalities in the women’s division that we so often see in established promotions.
Having good wrestling with a few women can only take the division so far. If the stars align correctly, I do believe AEW’S women’s division could be more interesting than NXT’s. But, people want options for our favorites. Give them to us.
In NXT land, a critique that has emerged for me is this: why is Shayna Baszler still champion? In watching the product for about a month now, I can’t find anything discernibly different about her in comparison to her peers. WWE seems to have a hard-on for “combat” level athletes who have histories in MMA. Even still, they only favor some of them.
For the women, it seems that they push the more masculine-leaning of these MMA-types. To me, I think there’s a logic (and potential crossover appeal to male audiences) behind pushing Ronda Rousey over Sonya Deville, or Shayna Baszler over Taynara. It seems they want to push the women who look more intimidating in real life, walking down the street, who scowl a little more convincingly, over women who are in other contexts coded as more “cute.”
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In any case, it seems that the reason Shayna has held the belt for so long has less to do with her look and accolades in MMA, and more to do with the fact that they have not built other women to her level (sort of like how Ronda was on the main roster, with the exception of Becky).
And even this fact is surprising, because it seems like there is plenty of talent on the NXT women’s roster. All they need to do is pick a woman and run with her. And do that with the next one, and the next. And suddenly you have a roster of stars, rather than a sky with only a few twinkles.
RAW and SD: I’m not even sure where to begin with this storyline, but whatever is going on with Lana, Bobby Lashley, and Rusev is….weird. And bad. It is out of left field, and I can’t pinpoint the malice that potentially lies behind this storyline.
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There were rumors in the past about how Vince McMahon didn’t like Rusev because he could not fathom how someone as “unattractive” as Rusev could snag someone as beautiful as Lana. So maybe this storyline is his attempt at taking a jab at Rusev, his way of writing his own fan fiction of who Lana should have ended up with. Maybe this is his way of turning Rusev into the “cuck” he thinks he deserves to be. (Please see this video to learn about the racist and sexist roots of the word “cuckold.”)
Or maybe it’s an excuse to sexualize Lana. Take your pick, but honestly none of these reasons are good. Lana and Rusev on screen have unmatched chemistry because they are real-life partners, and to do this just seems like drama for the sake of drama.
I hope we find better things to do with the both of them soon. But particularly for Lana, who is not that great in the ring; it would be a shame to jeopardize her popularity with fans because someone in the back wanted to prove a point, or live out a sick fantasy in storyline. We can and should strive for more, and I hope miss CJ Perry is able to achieve that one day soon.
For a change of pace, I’m not going to write anything for this section, because I feel it is too soon to tell where the true insidious patterns are developing in both WWE and AEW. With AEW still in its infancy and the draft causing us to see WWE’s main brands anew, I consider the last two to three weeks to be a hard reset of sorts.
Things are slowly building, so I am going to give the benefit of the doubt and allow things to play out. For now…
A whole new woooorld….a whole new place I never knew…..
It is certainly a whole new world for you and me, and watching the two sides of the Wednesday Night War last week got me excited for this world’s potential.
Because WWE did just have a pay-per-view, though, we’re obligated to discuss what went down. Likewise, because I watched both NXT and AEW for the first time in the last couple of weeks, I have many thoughts to share about those products as well, as a new viewer.
So I think it best in this post if I run down the pros and cons of NXT versus AEW, as well as HIAC. Lastly, rather than finishing with the usual Thorny section, I wanted to end with a little hope for the future of women’s professional wrestling as we know it. We’ll call that, the Revolutionary.
Let’s crack on!
The Good AEW: I have quite a few general thoughts about All Elite Wrestling’s first TV airing in general, but we’re here every week to talk about the women. And, the first thing I want to address has almost nothing at all to do with the wrestlers: the female referee. Although I am pretty sure one or two female referees have been introduced in WWE, I have yet to see one on their main shows, RAW and SmackDown. As this female referee was officiating on Dynamite, she was praised by the commentary team as an expert at her job. She was also involved later in a pull-apart brawl later in the episode between male wrestlers.
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I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time of viewing, but the fact that she was actually acknowledged as female, and proficient in her work, felt significant. Referees often get a bad reputation as conveniently incompetent officiants to matches, ignored until their miscues need to drive storylines forward. But, in the wrestling world, they still hold a fair amount of power to call matches down the middle. And if they’re really good at doing their jobs, they can rise to the reverence that people like Earl Hebner has. An unexpected delight in the first TV match of this new promotion!
Also, I was shocked and elated to see that the match to determine the first-ever AEW women’s champion was between two women of color. Not only this, but women of two extremes size-wise — a plus-sized Native woman in Nyla Rose (more on her later), and a diminutive Japanese woman in Riho. In the American wrestling market, the sizes of these women are marginalized. But in AEW, they seemed to find a home.
NXT: I absolutely loved the women’s matches that I saw in the last two weeks. On the whole, I was struck by how prominent feminine energy was in NXT compared to the main roster (if we can still call it that). The women usually have multiple matches and/or segments in a single episode, and such a thing happens seemingly intentionally. On the main roster, it feels much more like women are the final touches to the night’s show, rather than a thoughtfully considered component.
From top to bottom, I saw everything that the men get showcased for women: matches, return packages for those who’d been injured, championship matches, quick backstage bits. Additionally, we have Beth Phoenix on commentary where, unlike Renee Young, she is actually allowed to speak without being belittled by her male cohorts. We even have a black, natural-haired ring announcer. All of these things made apparent to me that the women’s division of NXT has depth. There is a main event made up of champion Shayna Baszler and whoever she is feuding with, a mid-card of future women’s champions like Mia Yim, Io Shirai, and Bianca Belair, and even a lower mid-card of women who perhaps won’t be champions one day, but still add to the division, like Taynara.
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Because I was simply exposed to more women, I am probably more excited to see the women’s division of NXT week-to-week. The standout star for me was Io Shirai. She had me hooked from her electrifying entrance, but kept me interested with her excellent heel work and in-ring prowess. I do believe NXT has stars in its ranks.
Hell in a Cell: I mean, undoubtedly the opening match between Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks for the RAW women’s championship.
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This bout was beyond inventive with the spots that these two ladies pulled off. To name a few: Sasha’s various meteoras to Becky (onto a ladder, through a table), Sasha’s planting of a chair trap in the Cell early in the match to thwart Becky toward the finish, and Becky’s innovative chair-on-a kendo stick dropkick to a seated Sasha in the corner of the Cell.
This match was exciting from start to finish — well, almost to the finish (we’ll get to that). But this match stole the show and once again made a case for the women deserving a main event spot. There’s really not much else to say about this match besides this: go and watch it! Potentially one of the greatest Cell matches ever, but definitely of the modern era.
The Bad AEW: The only negative thing I can say about AEW based off a singular episode is that there was only one women’s match to consider. Because I am starting from scratch with AEW, I am unsure of how many women they currently have signed with the company. From what I hear, their women’s division so far is obviously more sparse than WWE’s, but it has potential and diversity. I am hoping that Dynamite can showcase depth with their women’s roster, to help female fans (or fans of women’s wrestling) see themselves in the product.
This is a crucial time for AEW to appeal to the audiences they want to attract, so if they want to prioritize the female demographic of wrestling fans — ever “niche” as it may seem — they must do so early and often.
NXT: Honestly, from what I have seen, I have nothing bad to say about the product thus far! One thing I can nitpick is that it is obvious where the women of color in WWE are allowed to thrive. Clearly, a metamorphosis happens to the women’s roster from NXT to the main roster, in that the image of “woman” in WWE becomes less randomized and more blonde and white. If anything, this was the most infuriating realization I had watching NXT weekly TV for the past few weeks.
Hell in a Cell: The booking of the RAW women’s title match was wrong. There is no reason Becky needed to win on Sunday, and it should have been Sasha. Full stop.
Becky would not have been hurt by a loss. Sasha would be. Becky did not need another win to cement her status as a top woman in the women’s division. Sasha did. Sasha needed this win, to legitimize her return, her heel turn, and redeem the last several months (or really years) of careless booking. It is tiring to see Sasha perpetually used to put over other women in the division. She has faced off against each of her Four Horsewoman counterparts, and in each feud, she seceded the win to her opponent. In most of the biggest matches of her career, she has had to do the favor for someone else. (No really, think about it.)
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And when it possibly counted the most, WWE dropped the ball again. The news has since come out that she is potentially injured, so I suppose her losing was for the best. But the decision to have her lose was likely made prior to her injury occurring, and thus a decision WWE made of sound mind and body themselves.
And to add insult to yes, injury, Bayley also lost her title on the night to Charlotte Flair. While the loss for Bayley doesn’t have the high stakes that Sasha’s does, the two are still interconnected. So, their double-loss on Sunday (and their voyeuristically filmed tears about their losses) nullifies any momentum the two of them had going, together and individually.
Put simply, I don’t know where we go from here for Boss n’ Hug. And I don’t have confidence that WWE does either.
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I wanted to take a break from my usual pessimistic self to discuss something that made me very emotional upon discovering it for myself; something that made me feel utter joy.
I was watching AEW, and as each wrestler went on, I did a quick Google search to learn a little more about who they were. I searched Nyla Rose as the women’s match went on and, after glancing at her Wikipedia page, I noticed some recent news articles about her. I saw the word “transgender,” I investigated. And suddenly I realized the weight of Nyla’s existence in AEW.
For those not aware, Nyla Rose is the first transgender wrestler to be signed by a major wrestling promotion in the U.S. Immediately, I thought back to Patricia Arquette’s recent speech on the Emmy stage, wherein she implored Hollywood to hire trans actors and end the stigma surrounding trans folks’ existence, referencing her fallen trans sibling, Alexis.
And here was AEW, in reality, Cody and Brandi Rhodes, giving a trans woman a job. Without any fuss, without parading it or shoving it down our throats. Without expecting a pat on the back. And that is significant. As any “first,” especially with a doubly marginalized identity as a First Nations, trans woman, Nyla will face hatred and bigotry.
But, there must always be a first for there to be a second. And third. And tenth. And the door was opened for Nyla and any other trans person hoping to one day wrestle in the division that so matches their identity.
Nyla in interviews has already acknowledged some of the pressure that being the first entails. She said the following in a panel interview with other AEW stars:
“I’ll be so happy when we get the point where it’s ‘Nyla did something’ and that’s the headline. That’s where we gotta get. If I could help get us there, I don’t mind driving the car for a little bit. I’m used to these long road trips.”
With Nyla driving for now, we’re certainly on our way somewhere.
I’m rubbing my proverbial hands together at all of the wrestling I can consume on a weekly basis. At last, I don’t have to settle for a one-course meal; I, like you reading this, can buffet to my heart’s content now.
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.
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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: There is a spoiler here for NXT UK and is marked as such.
This past Sunday night was WWE’s first ever all women’s pay-per-view called Evolution. While other promotions feature an all women roster (Shimmer and Shine most notably), this is the first time WWE has put all the focus on their women Superstars. The event was held in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, NY, a venue with a lot of wrestling history. I personally saw my first wrestling show in this very arena. While there is no former WWE show to compare this too, it is interesting to note that this show was held less than a week before WWE Crown Jewel, another one of the Saudi Arabia shows that bars women from competing. I was at Evolution in person, so my review will be from an in person point-of-view.
The crowd at Evolution was a nice mix – I saw fans of all ages, genders, and races. There were women cosplaying as their favorite superstars – I noticed women as Alexa Bliss, Nikki Bella, Carmella, Becky Lynch, Ronda Rousey, Asuka, and Trish Stratus. There were also tons of shirts for women superstars, some from WWE Shop, and others from back in the day or from independent sites. The merchandise tables only had merch from women superstars, in both men’s and women’s cuts. Sadly, they did not have anything from their new Curvy Collection (women’s cut shirts in plus sizes).
SPOILER: During the pre-show, the audience at home saw footage and interviews from the red carpet, along with promos for the upcoming matches. The audience at the Coliseum saw Rhea Ripley defending the NXT UK Women’s Title against Dakota Kai. While the NXT UK show has not showed Rhea winning the title, her holding the belt is known to the WWE Universe. The match itself was short, but fun. The crowd seemed fully invested in the match, and I am personally excited to see more of Rhea once her title defenses start to air on the WWE Network. My rating: B+.
The show opened up with rock legends Nita Strauss (in the ring) and Lzzy Hale (on the ramp) shredding their guitars with Lzzy also singing about Evolution. It was hard to hear from my seats in the 200 level, but the crowd popped when they realized who was performing.
The first match up was the tag team match of Trish Stratus & Lita (Team Bestie) versus Alicia Fox & Mickie James (with Alexa Bliss). Lillian Garcia, former ring announcer, was here to announce this match. Trish came out first to a huge pop from the crowd, followed by Lita who got an even louder pop. Alexa then came out to cut a brief promo making fun of Lita and Trish’s age. Alicia and Mickie came out to Mickie’s music. During the match Lita and Trish both received “you still got it” chants, and when Alicia Fox botched a save there was one of the loudest boos of the night. Lita performed a Twist of Fate on Alicia, followed by a moonsault on both Alicia and Mickie. Mickie was then on the receiving end of a Chick Kick from Trish, who then pinned Mickie for the win. For the most part the legends in the ring looked good, with the exception of a Stratusfaction that looked sloppy. Fun Fact: Trish debuted 18 years ago in Nassau Coliseum. My rating: B+.
Courtesy of WWE.
Next up was the Women’s Battle Royal. Each woman had her own entrance, which was a welcomed departure from former battle royals. Lilian Garcia came back to announce this match as well. Every woman came out by herself, with the exception of The IIconics. The IIconics cut a promo on their way to the ring, and this saw them as the first ones eliminated. The new stars circled around the legends, and then the all-out brawl happened. One thing I noticed about the audience was that there were no “Rusev Day” chants for Lana, nor did any of the other women get their significant others mentioned (something the crowd normally does). Some of the bigger pops from the match were when: Mandy Rose eliminated Sonya Deville; when Nia and Tamina gave a shout out to their cousin Roman Reigns; when Ember Moon eliminated Asuka; and when Zelena Vega appeared again towards the end to try to eliminate Nia and Ember. The crowd popped when Nia won, though I think they would have been happy with any of the three final women winning. Fun Fact: Michelle McCool became the first Diva’s champion in Nassau Coliseum. My rating: B+
Next up was the finals of the Mae Young Classic: Toni Storm versus Io Shirai. Toni was in the 2017 Mae Young Classic, coming up short in the semi-finals. This match was a chance at redemption for her. Io was looking to make a name for herself in WWE, after taking the Japanese wrestling world by storm. Before either entered the ring, there was a shot of Jessika Carr on the screens. Jessika is the first woman referee WWE has, and received a nice pop from the crowd when she was shown. Both women received healthy pops from the crowd, and I would estimate the crowd was 50/50 on who they wanted to win. These women received the first “this is awesome” chant of the night. After a lot of back and forth that made both women look strong, Toni won. Both women were very emotional after, especially when Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and NXT Trainer Sara Amato came out to give both women roses. In one of the sweetest moments of the night, Toni and Io were hugging and crying in the ring, even as Toni helped Io to her feet. You could tell there was true respect and sportsmanship from both women. My rating: A+
Courtesy of WWE.
The 3 versus 3 match was next up. Riott Squad came out first and they were all dressed as horror movie villains. Then Sasha came out, followed by Natalya then Bayley. There was a small pop when Bayley’s Buddies came up. The crowd was firmly behind Sasha, Bayley, and Natalya, though there was a small boo when Sasha’s hometown Boston was announced (unsurprising because the event was held in Yankee territory). When Natalya and Sasha Banks performed the Hart Attack there was a nice pop, and it was a great reference to Natalya’s late father. After a back and forth match, Liv Morgan of the Riott Squad got hit by a triple finisher – first a power bomb from Natalya, followed by a dive by Bayley, then a frog splash from Banks. Banks pinned Liv for the win. The match made every woman in it look strong, which is always a nice thing. My rating: A.
The NXT Women’s Title match was next. The match itself, Kairi Sane versus Shayna Baszler, is a rematch of the finals of the 2017 Mae Young Classic. Jessica Carr was back to referee the match. The crowd was roughly 70/30, for Kairi. This match took the crowd a bit to warm up to, but once they got into the match, they got loud. Shayna holding Kairi up by her arm and then dropping her to the ground got one of the bigger pops, as did Kairi doing an elbow drop to Shayna on the ground. The latter move got an “NXT” chant from the crowd. Shayna’s fellow Four Horsewomen, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir, got involved in the match, helping Shayna win and become the first 2x NXT Women’s Champion. Kairi did not tap to Shayna’s submission hold. Rather, she passed out and could not answer the ref’s call. My rating: A+.
Courtesy of WWE.
The hottest match of the night was Becky Lynch versus Charlotte Flair for the Smackdown Women’s Championship in a Last Woman Standing match. The only way to win was to incapacitate your opponent so bad they could not get up for a ten count. The crowd was firmly behind Becky, with the loudest boos of the night going to Charlotte as she entered. According to a friend who was watching at home, the Network made it seem like the crowd was booing Becky and cheering Charlotte during the pre-match package. Despite booing Charlotte when she came out, the crowd did cheer with her chops and when she cleared off an announce table. The crowd was so against Charlotte that there were times my friend and I thought the crowd would riot if Becky didn’t leave with the belt. Some chants included “boo the woo” and “you deserve it” when Becky was burying Charlotte. The match ended with Becky power bombing Charlotte through a table, incapacitating Charlotte for a 10 count. Rating: A.
After this match there was a graphic shown for WWE Crown Jewel that was booed so badly they took the graphic down after only a few seconds. This showed a lack of foresight on the production team – the crowd did not want to see a graphic for a show women cannot compete in during Evolution.
The final match was Ronda Rousey versus Nikki Bella (with Brie Bella). The crowd was firmly on Ronda’s side during the entrances, while during the match there were some “let’s go Ronda/let’s go Nikki” chants. From my seat this was the only time I heard sexist chants going on. A group of men were chanting “Cena left you” to Nikki, as well as yelling “beat her [Nikki] like Cena should have.” This was the only time I felt uncomfortable during the event. Thankfully, my friend Pat yelled at them to “shut the eff up.” The match itself was great, though I would have put it before Charlotte and Becky. Nikki looked strong, getting Ronda with the Rack Attack 2.0. Ronda ended up winning after getting Nikki in the arm bar, despite numerous interferences from Brie Bella. My rating: A-.
Overall Evolution was one of the better PPVs and cards I have seen in a while. There was a feel of an NXT event to it, with the way the ring was set up (no LED screens on the posts or ringside). The barriers were the metal ones instead of the thicker ones. I fully enjoyed myself, and hope this was not a one off event. Seeing the women leave it all in the ring was wonderful and this event celebrated women of the past, present, and future. Overall PPV rating: A-.