Monday, April 4, 2016

Best Coast Bias: Crowning Achievements

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Contrary to what Triple H, Randy Orton, Batista, and Ric Flair might've had you believe once upon a time, evolution is not a mystery. You need to keep your eyes open and a decent memory, but there is connective tissue weaving its way into a narrative for those who take the long view. There was a time when pretty much every Hall of Famer was a jobber, a time when WWE hadn't turned their signature show into a week-long Super Bowl with spandex, and yes, children, once upon a time NXT was a little-known indie with slightly better than most production value playing their heart out for a few dozen die hards in a modified Orlando sweatbox.

It's hard to remember, especially after things like Takeover: Dallas come to an end, because you're looking at the finished result, the official confirmation of greatness. Greatness is blinding in that way, that sometimes the struggles, hard work, concerted effort, and sacrifice that it spawned from get blotted out as if an eclipse were happening. And no foolin', on the first day of April in 2016, NXT shone a light so bright not only in emotional catharses but in match quality as well that big brother's biggest WrestleMania might spend its legacy slowly shivering in the shadows that were cast.

We all thought it had the potential to do so, but that two-hour roller coaster seemingly went by in an eyeblink.

And on a night with title changes and blood, one match stood out even in this rarefied air and went right into contendership for Match of the Year. It's something certain cagey veterans might even call an instant classic. We knew we were going to get something, but this? Who's body was possibly ready?



Oh, that's right. No name change for the King of Strong Style. His theme isn't "Subconscious," but it's damn catchy. It makes you feel like you're going to battle against the final boss and you've Got This.

Two of the best ten wrestlers in the world facing off for the first-time for this widely hyped match. Even if you were somehow clueless before, you got the sense that it was An Event off the entrances alone. An already hyped crowd was overjoyed to see Zayn, per usual. And then Nakamura swaggered out in silhouette and the roof landed in Laredo. The dueling chants went on for a full half minute before you came to realize something as a viewer - Sami Zayn and Shinsuke Nakamura, essentially, were getting a standing ovation for existing.

What a ludicrously high bar to try and surpass.

In doing so, they made it look Sunday morning easy. The fact they did may've been one of the things Corey Graves was referring to during the King's entrance when he hit his signature rope-assisted pre-match pose in the darkened arena under a spotlight bolstered by the jet engine roar disguised as a few thousand wrestling fans and he noted that the word surreal came to mind. Surreal, presumably, is the PG-13 single word used to cover up a fusillade of NC-17 ones. It turns out outside of one minor modification to his finish, we pretty much got the Nakamura we knew and loved in front of a rapturously appreciative audience that also knew and already loved Zayn. When they chanted "Both these guys!", it was warranted and genuine. It was the same when they got the second standing O for existing later on, and at one point in Act III when the competitors were both trying to regain their bearings they launched a "Fight Forever" rallying cry that'll probably go down as the greatest chant in NXT history. It felt like Tom Phillips was reaching into a viewer's brain when he and Graves let the chant ride for 15-20 seconds, flexing so hard they didn't even need to twitch a muscle, before saying with a combination of pride and awe bordering on complete human fulfillment "'Fight forever?' I'm with them. This is incredible."

It was. It truly was, and that was before they even got into the finishing run. This is literally the sort of match that justifies purchasing the Network if for no better reason than you get this match. Even if the Network was solely this match, it would be worth having the Network. There aren't enough hosannas, you should be watching this instead of reading about it, and once done with the rest of this a rewatch is going to be in order here as well.

But it wasn't as if this was some sort of lone flower that managed to bloom out of a pot of dirt. The whole show is worth a rewatch, and if for some reason you can't give yourself over to a match that would've cured cancer upon watching had it lasted five minutes longer, maybe you're just one of those vulture types who missed blood.

You got it in the main event title rematch. It was accidental. Samoa Joe accidentally headbutted Finn Bálor while delivering a kneelift in the early going, though we wouldn't see that and get it confirmed until after the match was over, but to be honest, it delivered the already well-built match into a higher and more easily tangible level of contretemps. When Joe's response to bleeding (quite a bit) of his own blood was to almost not sell it before throwing Bálor into the front row it made for concern for the poor plant (hopefully) that got wiped out, and it lead to possibly the night's best visual. The Samoan Submission Machine, stomping around the floor with his own blood going in a slash across his face and down his chest, looked like he'd just committed a murder and that was merely the overture for more homicides to come.

It could be argued a guy Joe's height pushing three bills delivering an elbow suicida while his chest gets redder than a gerrymandered district in North Carolina might be a form of death. The crowd was increasingly livid over the medical staff and Smilin' Drake Wuertz continually getting in between the men and breaking the flow by trying to stem and then seal off the wound as best they could, but it just added lifts to an already heightened reality. At a certain point about midway through they either did the best they could and backed off the more intrusive breaks or they just realized that it wasn't going to be the sort of thing they could fix on the fly and threw their hands up metaphorically about it.

Either way, Joe wasn't going to stop. Why would you when your offense is possibly the best its ever been and at worst is the best you've had in about a decade? And nearing closer and closer to 300 days as holder of NXT's World Championship, Bálor was sure down to take the worst Joe's dished out and a little more in order to try to retain the gold. Even with the intended narrative flow disrupted, you could easily make the argument that this one was a harder-hitting affair than their really good first fight in London, and what an appropriate ending considering the weekend it was--Joe had the Kokina Clutch locked down, but ended up playing Roddy Piper to Bálor's Bret Hart from over two decades ago as the Champion got a surge of energy in, ran up the ropes, and pinned Joe down long enough to walk out champion. It was a result that saw him stand tall in the middle of the ring and turned a still blood-covered and now completely disbelieving Joe into a deaf mute.

The Big X was actually the only Championship to not change hands in the Lone Star State. Right before the main event, Asuka culminated an almost hilariously successful six-month run by besting Bayley to hold the NXT Women's World Title. She never cheated, or even got close to doing so. If she's not exactly a black hatted villain, though, there's something pretty dastardly about her striking ability, and it was a worst case scenario for Bayley here. Even with going back to former tried and true successful maneuvers that she usually doesn't deploy (her Zack Sabre Jr. impersonation that she beat Sasha Banks in the Iron Maiden with, the guillotine that put Nia Jax to sleep in London last Takeover) she couldn't find the one thing that would keep Ms. Most Dangerous at bay (sorry), and her lone attempt at a Bayley-to-Belly was countered. She wasn't outclassed, and she never gave up; hell, she probably lasted longer in the Asuka Lock than every other victim combined. But after an excruciatingly long time in the submission hold, she went limp. It was only for a couple of beats, but it was long enough to draw the curtain on her almost eight-month long title reign. It's a testament to both their abilities that this had to follow Zayn/Nakamura and never dropped the crowd's ardor one bit, even if the air temporarily left the building when they found out that the belt had changed hands.

It was the exact opposite response the opener got, when American Alpha defeated their latest duo of now former champions in the Revival to get the gold themselves. For a while early on after a Pier 4 was narrowly averted, it looked like Chad Gable was going to win the titles all by his damn self since he's such a gangstar on the mat. You know his steez, Actually, upon reflection this was similar to the other title change in which brilliant champion(s) suddenly found themselves against someone(s) that they just couldn't draw upon the repository of what'd made them so successful for weeks and months on end. Bayley had no answer for the Empress of Today's striking ability; here, the Revival couldn't really gain a foothold with their usual shadiness and didn't have a long expanse of cutting off the ring into the Bad Part of Town where they really thrived. Not even cheating succored for long enough to secure the pinfall, and it was actually a Revivalesque blind tag by Jason Jordan when it seemed like his boy was on the ropes that set up their finisher and first title reigns. And it must be noted that out of all the post-match interviews, theirs is the one most likely to cause a 5000% increase in dust mites.

This show was so hilariously loaded that the worst thing on it was Baron Corbin vs. Austin Aries, and that merely suffered from not being something transcendent and/or historically important--it was still well-worked and smartly done from both sides, ending with Aries outsmarting Corbin to gain a flash pinfall that'll probably keep their contretemps going on a bit down the road. When the worst thing is still good, you know something's great. And quelle surprise, that's what NXT served up here. Yet again.

No wonder Kota Ibushi and Bobby Roode were in the building. No wonder people were going "...oh, and apparently WWE has a show or is doing something on Sunday too LOL". No wonder that in their biggest show on the biggest weekend in company history with the biggest platform, NXT took a 98 mph heater coming over the middle and hit it so high and so far up that the lights exploded like fireworks. The black and yellow imprint is a natural when it comes to their biggest events, and this is merely the next shiniest crowning jewel ever until they unveil whatever comes up next, and that'll probably (somehow) surpass this.

After all, that's what evolution looks like.