We’re roughly a month into the eternal war between WWE NXT and All Elite Wrestling, and something of a familiar pattern has emerged: AEW seems fresh by virtue of being new and different, and NXT is solid because it’s been solid for a very long time. It’s easy to hand wins to AEW. Given enough time, I’ll probably do it enough to be accused of being on their payroll. The fans are hyped up, the matches are new and unique, and for the most part everybody is wrestling like their next match on national television could be their last.
It’s been awhile since NXT was unpredictable. You have to go back seven years, when it was a show where Daniel Bryan had to run an obstacle course, to be surprised by NXT. It was a weird time, NXT, and then it became a showcase for the dudes Triple H liked most from the PWG DVDs he was probably torrenting, and it became less weird. It’s hard for me to root for less weird, harder for me to evaluate what’s good and what’s great in a promotion where every enziguri and tope is treated like a tiny revolution in wrestling when the guys doing the enziguris and topes are gonna end up getting called Shorty Gable in a couple of years on the shows that “matter.”
That said? This week, I’m giving the W to the institution. It’s a close win, since both NXT and AEW Dynamite were great shows with plenty of good in-ring action. Really, we’re all winners! But here’s how NXT pulled this one off.
How NXT won the war: Settling into itself.
For the past three weeks, NXT has felt like a show desperate for love and attention. A glut of title matches, main events opening the show, shuffling Finn Bálor back to the brand— it was a bit like watching a movie where a rich jerk tries to convince a hitman not to kill him by offering everything he’s got. Car? Yours. Watch? Yours. Money? I’ll double it! KUSHIDA vs. a heavyweight? How about a dude the size of three heavyweights???
The thing about the rich jerk in those movies is that he always ends up dead. So it was nice to turn on NXT this week and get an opening match that felt like an opening match. Rhea Ripley and Bianca Belair weren’t putting on an epic for the sake of an epic, and they weren’t exchanging an impossible number of nearfalls for a championship, but they put on a good, competitive wrestling match where the stakes were simple and the storytelling mostly clean. It’s a look from NXT TV that I haven’t gotten since I began watching the show again, and it was actually pretty pleasant to see two hours of wrestling build to a satisfying conclusion. It’s the kind of thing WWE hasn’t been able to do consistently for decades, and that NXT is largely untested at.
NXT is never going to stop feeling like a simulacrum of independent professional wrestling, and at this point that’s something I’ve come to accept. It’s good, of course, if you’re seeing people like Keith Lee and Dominik Dijakovic for the first time, but if you’ve been following their careers for longer than they’ve been signed to WWE, you’re looking at two men trying to recapture the magic of their first couple of matches on a stage capable of pummeling the magic out of a unicorn.
So it was with lowered expectations that I entered the main event, where NXT North American Champion Roderick Strong put his title up against two large men who were justifiably angry with Strong for prolonging their best of 7,777 series by interfering in their rubber match. I was wrong to lower my expectations! It was a smart, well-paced match that actually used the triple threat match’s usual pitfall where it’s difficult to have three people wrestling at once to its advantage, as Roddy let Lee and Dijakovic continue one-upping each other until they felt like they were the only two people in the match. When it seemed like Lee was going to win the title, Strong nailed him with a knee strike and retained his title. A dickish, clean win.
The aftermath of the match is where NXT scored huge this week. With the Undisputed Era in the ring celebrating with Strong, Tommaso Ciampa came to the ring to fight them on his own. Then Johnny Gargano joined him to even the odds. Finally, Finn Bálor came to the ring, standing tall with Ciampa and Gargano … before Pele kicking Johnny Wrestling in the mush. It was a legitimately surprising way to bring Bálor back into the NXT fold, and one that’s a lot more compelling than a beloved WWE Superstar returning to his old stomping grounds so he can repeat the past.
Bálor, in assaulting Gargano, looked more alive than I’ve ever seen him in WWE. It’s easy to forget how good Bálor is as a heel, since he’s a charming boy who loves LEGO and smiling in his thirst traps. The Bullet Club and six years of wrestling fans wearing that t-shirt or some variation of it started with Bálor, and was never a punchline with him in command. I remain unconvinced that anchoring NXT isn’t a step backwards for him, but I’m excited to see where he goes next, and this is the first time I’ve been excited about anything in NXT all month.
How AEW lost the war: Old man yells at high spots.
On a recent episode of his podcast, Jim Ross, the legendary announcer, dick pill salesman, and cowboy hat emoji user said that he didn’t particularly like the style of wrestling AEW presents. While wrestling fans didn’t exactly seem surprised to learn that capitalism is a system of economics where famous men can be paid large sums of money to do things they’re not really interested in, Ross had done an admirable job of hiding that disdain until the opening contest of this week’s AEW Dynamite, where he seemed downright upset by the frequency with which the Lucha Brothers and Private Party landed death blows on each other without even thinking of going for the win. Wrestling commentary is supposed to enhance the television presentation of matches, but Ross’ play-by-play never let me settle into the match.
As such, I began to wonder if AEW has figured out its rulebook yet. What they’re trying to do is mesh the American, Mexican, and Japanese styles of wrestling together, and while the differences aren’t huge, they are noticeable. Take tag team wrestling: In America, you make a tag by making physical contact with your partner. In Mexico, you can do that, or you can leave the ring and let your partner take over. On Dynamite, Private Party did the former, the Lucha Brothers did the latter, and the match felt convoluted as a result.
The other thing that AEW hasn’t quite gotten a grip on is whether or not they use traditional faces and heels. The exception to this is the feud between Cody and Chris Jericho, where Jericho is the Judas in your mind, and Cody is whatever’s the opposite of the Judas in your mind. Thing is, AEW has no qualms about making Cody’s role as an Executive Vice President of the company part of the story, and there are few things in this world I hate more than companies and their Executive Vice Presidents. Outside of this weird dynamic, everybody else is a decision left up to the fans on a match-by-match basis. But wrestling fans have astoundingly bad taste, as evidenced by their love for dudes like Cody, so some hints would be nice.
The main event, Jon Moxley vs. PAC, was very good. While NXT’s main event was wrestled to its conclusion, Mox and PAC had “television time remaining,” which is carny-talk for “this match will end in a draw.” That’s what happened, though the two managed to ramp up the intensity in the last five minutes in a way that made the match climactic despite not being climactic at all. The usual contrivance where the referee counts to two and the bell rings, or the bell rings and a wrestler taps out, were not in play here. Mox hit his finisher in the last ten seconds, but Pac kicked out safely before the bell. It was clear that both men had more to give, but alas, the night’s biggest villain was a special presentation of the TBS Original Series The Misery Index.