|A perfect gift for any wrestling fan (screencap courtesy of NXT Means Business Tumblr)|
It ended the way we all knew it was going to end, with William Regal upside down and at the complete (lack of) mercy at one of his numerous proteges, this one Antonio Cesaro; seconds away from Neutralization.
And then it ended the way we all knew it was going to end... and then it didn't.
Yes, NXT spent 2013 garnering accolades and making main event roster stars the way acne multiplies on a ninth-grader. Sure, the Christmas episode of the show featured all the different tentacles that came out of Full Sail's grasp in a myriad of packages: quick-hitter promos from the Shield, Bo Dallas, and Bray Wyatt, Paige talking about becoming the first and so far only Women's Champion and the moment moving her to tears, the birthing of the Performance Center, the litany of now WWE stars that got their starts in Full Sail and everybody who's probably going to be next up the ladder. But in a world where they might've put on the Match of the Year by any WWE standard, let alone NXT's, it was the man who beat Sami Zayn 2-1 in it that was on center stage for the show's lone match.
Antonio Cesaro showed up earlier in the program in another quicker hitter full of himself, per usual. He laid it out simply: while Regal helped him get his spot in WWE, that meant less than zero now. He was younger, stronger, better, and they both knew this day would come and it would end the way we all knew it would. Later on, Regal would go on to reiterate what he's been saying ever since the first time he saw the Swiss Death in FCW: Antonio Cesaro was ten times better than he's ever been, and even worse that he needed a miracle...the sort of thing that doesn't come to faithless old villains like himself.
And on this evening, it didn't come. No matter how hard the crowd tried to will it, no matter Byron Saxton hoped his humiliation would get avenged, not even the brief starbursts of hope that the former Intercontinental and European Champion provided could sustain themselves and expand into anything lasting. Cesaro was all the things he said he was, that we all knew at heart he was: better, stronger, younger.
But it was another NXT MOTY candidate anyways, that rarest of rare birds: a wrestling match. As in, two men stand in the middle of the ring and try to outdo each other with chain wrestling. With joint work. With no weapons, and no shenanigans (whelp, depending on how you feel about chop blocks and using the referee's five count to kick a guy a lot); just two of the best ever to do it from across the pond showing a really small and unbelievably fortunate audience a soupcon of what the World Of Sport was and not losing a single person's eye blink in the process. It didn't matter that Cesaro was a force of nature and Regal was merely paddling in the wake of an oncoming wall of water; he fought it off as long as he could and ascended to martyr in the process of fighting it off for as long as he could. At one point, Cesaro had Regal at his mercy and his grin was far too damn wide to be misconstrued as anything friendly.
But Regal kept fighting, even when his body betrayed him in part thanks to the work the Swiss Superman had done to the point where he couldn't even run up momentum to do the Knee Trembler. And suddenly, humanity had found Antonio Cesaro. Just a glimmer, but enough. The smirk faded from his face as Regal desperately tried to turn back to the clock, get back to something resembling what and who he's been for decades but laid waste to on the mat. He wouldn't give. If this was to be the end, he relished it on these terms, as he'd said earlier. Cesaro hesitated, looking remorseful and then downright sad. If Regal hadn't been pulling on his thigh wraps to try and save himself, it might've ended there. But Regal wouldn't give in until a bell had been rung, and what passed was almost a mercy Neutralizer to deflate the crowd's hopes but underscore why they'd been chanting "This is wrestling" in the opening third of the match.
And Antonio Cesaro, the winner of the MOTY and the closest thing that WWE let alone NXT has to BEAST MODE, looked absolutely defeated.
It ended the way we all thought it would.
And then with more concern, and then a final handshake on the rampway, it didn't. No cheapshot, no thumb to the eye (though if anyone would've appreciated such skullduggery Bill Regal would be that man); just the show of respect and humanity from a man who lived his life by eschewing all those noble attributes from the one man who'd be able to get it out of him.
That was the way the best show of 2013 ended, with another MOTYC, the way we all thought it would. But by blending the old and the new and showing off depth and nuance you might never see on Raw, Smackdown, or a PPV, it didn't, either. Just one villain passing on the dark torch to another, younger, better, stronger version, a funhouse mirror from days gone by.
And then the screen went black.
2014 beckons, after all.