The first NXT TakeOver special of 2018 was primed from the outset to set the tone for Royal Rumble weekend in Philadelphia -- and boy did it ever. Andrade "Cien" Almas successfully defended his NXT championship in an instant match of the year candidate against Johnny Gargano to headline the evening, and it was a tall task to overshadow what had already been a tremendous night.
Here's how it all played out, following a goosebumps-inducing introduction narrated by Paul Heyman, a man as synonymous with wrestling in Philadelphia as anyone on the planet.
NXT championship: Andrade "Cien" Almas (c) def. Johnny Gargano
The early stages of Andrade "Cien" Almas' NXT championship reign have not been spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, despite his successful pairing with associate Zelina Vega. Johnny Gargano's quest to capture the gold however, has been incredibly compelling. Not only did Gargano earn the opportunity to challenge Almas by winning a Fatal 4-Way match, but he defeated Velveteen Dream this week with his No. 1 contender spot on the line.
It has been a story of grit and determination, and though it seemed during this stretch that Gargano had left disappointment behind him in this run, he'd ultimately fall just short of the promised land and the NXT championship Saturday night at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia -- and to add insult to injury, his former #DIY tag team partner, Tommaso Ciampa, was there to rub it in his face and make it all the more painful.
But Gargano's pain and loss was ultimately to the benefit of everyone watching at the Wells Fargo Center or on the WWE Network. Gargano and Almas began the match with some crisp mat wrestling, full of quick reversals, and almost immediately illustrated the incredible chemistry they showcased in their first two matches together. They traded attempts at their finishers -- Almas' hammerlock DDT and the Gargano Escape submission hold -- but each wiggled their ways out. It would take far, far more than that to bring this match to an end.
Gargano grabbed the advantage after that with a perfectly executed trio of a head scissors, drop kick and arm drag maneuvers, but Almas recovered with a vicious chop to Gargano's chest. The two made their way to the outside of the ring, where Gargano attempted a somersault plancha, but Almas sidestepped it as Gargano crashed to the mat right in front of his wife, Candice LeRae, who was ringside for the match (and recently inked a contract of her own with NXT).
Back inside the ring, Almas missed a stomp off the top rope and Gargano responded by executing a belly-to-belly suplex onto Almas into the corner. They rose to their feet at the same time and traded strikes, and Gargano regained the edge. In the corner, Gargano hit one of his patented maneuvers -- a tornado face plant -- and followed it up with a slingshot spear, but only managed a two count.
"Johnny Wrestling" chants began as Gargano attempted another head scissors maneuver, but it was countered into a face buster by Almas. Almas attempted to capitalize on that advantage when he climbed the top rope and attempted a moonsault, and though Gargano moved, Almas landed on his feet and went right into a standing moonsault. Another two-count. Sensing a pattern here?
Again, the two weakened men traded strikes and Almas propped Gargano on the top rope and looked to hit a hammerlock DDT from there -- the same variation of the move that won him the NXT championship against Drew McIntyre at TakeOver: War Games. But Gargano slid out from underneath him and responded with a super kick through Almas' legs right to his face.
Gargano attempted another slingshot spear, but Almas countered and then hit an assortment of consecutive DDTs -- but again, he only managed to keep Gargano down for a two count as the crowd erupted with "NXT" chants.
They made their way out to the ring apron, where Gargano executed a beautiful slingshot DDT that sent Almas' head into the side of the ring as they both crashed to the outside.
When they made it back into the ring, Almas attempted a running double knee strike to the corner once again, but Gargano responded with a clothesline that turned Almas inside out. He followed that up by picking Almas up and tossing him head-first into the turnbuckle like a dart.
Gargano looked to be closing in on another maneuver when Vega distracted him, which allowed Almas to hit a dropkick into the corner -- but it was Gargano who responded with a small package out of nowhere for a two count.
Outside on the ring apron area again, Almas nailed an innovative version of a double-stomp from the top rope, which sent Gargano to the outside dazed and confused. That sparked a "Fight Forever" chant from the raucous Philadelphia crowd.
When the two made it back into the ring, Gargano managed to lock in the Gargano Escape, but again, Vega interfered, distracting the referee, which allowed Almas to rake the eyes of Gargano and break the hold.
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With Almas outside of the ring, Gargano mustered up the energy to hit a suicide dive to the outside onto Almas. However, when Almas reentered the ring, Vega executed a hurricanrana onto Gargano, sending him into the steel ring steps on the outside of the ring.
In what looked to be the end of a long battle, Almas capitalized by successfully nailing his hammerlock DDT onto Gargano -- but somehow, he kicked out just before the three-count. Back to the outside of the ring, Vega attempted to once again make her presence felt -- but at that moment,LaRae came to her husband's aid and battled Vega through the crowd and to the back.
LaRae's efforts weren't enough, though, as Almas mustered the last of his energy to deliver a running knee strike to Gargano on the ring apron area and right into the ring post, leaving Gargano with a far-away look in his eyes. Almas followed that up with a draping hammerlock DDT for the win.
As uneventful as Almas' NXT championship reign has been thus far, this effort was as undeniable a moment as Almas has had in his career and almost makes up for all of the negatives. It was an exhausting, but incredibly entertaining war illustrating the heart and determination by both superstars. Those wondering how they could follow the Extreme Rules match were left with no doubt.
As if the heartbreak wasn't enough, after the match, the Philadelphia crowd gave Gargano a standing ovation filled with "Johnny Wrestling" chants as he and LeRae made their way up the ramp. As he turned to acknowledge the crowd, Ciampa finally made his appearance, charging into the frame to nail Gargano with one of his crutches. He adding salt to Gargano's many wounds as LeRae tried to shield her husband.
After many months of rehab, and putting their war to come on the shelf, this was the start of what should be the most personal rivalry in NXT history -- and a fitting centerpiece to NXT TakeOver: New Orleans.
Extreme Rules: Aleister Black def. Adam Cole
There's no hotter rivalry going on NXT than Adam Cole and Aleister Black. After costing each other matches in their pursuit of NXT Championship aspirations, General Manager William Regal declared that they'll settle the score in an extreme rules match and what a perfect location for it. Philadelphia, the home of ECW, has seen its share of hardcore battles. Cole and Black looked to add another one to that list.
As "this is awesome" chants reigned from the crowd in the opening moments of the match, Cole didn't take long introducing weapons into the match. As the early portion of the match progressed, the ring area was surrounded by steel chairs, kendo sticks, tables, garbage cans and ladders.
The first highlight worthy moment of the match saw Black attempt a springboard moonsault only to be caught in the midsection by a kendo stick shot from Cole in mid-air. Ouch.
A little later on, both men attempted to suplex each other on a ladder propped up in the corner of the ring, but Cole nailed an enziguri to create a bit of distance.
Soon after, a ladder was brought into play when Black performed an inverted electric chair drop to Cole.
As blood began dripping from the hand of Cole, Black went for the cover, but Cole managed to kick out.
In the following sequence, Black placed Cole's head on the propped up chair and climbed up to the top rope to attempt a high-risk maneuver. However, Cole recovered, tossed the chair to Black and kicked it into his face sending Black through two tables which were set up on the outside of the ring in one of the highlights of the match.
Cole was only able to get a two-count out of it thought after he tossed him back into the ring. Cole tried to take it to the next level as he set up two more chairs, propped up next to each other, back to back. Out of nowhere, Black recovered and lifted Cole onto his shoulders and performed a death valley driver into the upright backing of the chairs.
Cole's Undisputed Era cohorts, Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish came to the aid of their leader, pulling Black to the outside of the ring and nailing their high-low finisher.
They dragged Black to the announcer's table, but Eric Young, Killian Dain and Alexander Wolfe of SAnitY came to Black's rescue and chaos ensued to the roar of the Philadelphia crowd.
That roar got even louder when Dain nailed a suicide dive onto his own SAnitY teammates and Undisputed Era.
On the other side of the ring, Black propped Cole up next to the announcer's table, climbed the barricade and performed a double knee stomp onto him through the table.
When the reentered the ring, Cole grabbed a chair and proclaimed "I'm gonna' end you!" Quite the opposite as he was met with Black's Black Mass spinning heel kick finisher and covered Cole for the three-count, bringing an end to a violent bout.
It remains to be seen where Black and Cole go from here, but there are a lot of moving parts to the chaotic scene that unfolded tonight including SAnitY's desire for retribution on Fish and O'Reilly.
NXT women's championship: Ember Moon (c) def. Shayna Baszler
There will always be an endless debate as to whether or not there is such a thing as a good loss, but if there has ever been a loss in NXT that made a heel the definitive woman to beat in the division, that's what we got from Shayna Baszler on Saturday night in Philadelphia.
After dominating almost the entirety of the match against Moon, only for a submission attempt to get rolled over into a fluke pinfall in Moon's favor, Baszler sulked in the corner post-match for two minutes and then absolutely snapped; she choked Moon out for several minutes before aggressively flashing the Four Horsewomen sign and making her exit -- all but guaranteeing there's another chapter to be written in this story.
From the beginning, Baszler was portrayed as a star and the entire match was essentially a custom-made showcase for a woman who has made a monumental leap since debuting in NXT just over a month ago. Her entrance, which had her pacing the backstage hallways ala Goldberg before coming out, added yet another edge.
Baszler, who made a name for herself and slingshotted herself to the top of the NXT women's title picture by bullying everyone in her path, was right back to it as the bell rang, backing Moon into a corner before bringing her down for a ground and pound. While Moon was able to clear the ring with a kick, as soon as they got back in the ring, Baszler hit a set of violently effective knees and put Moon down.
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In the exact same fashion she neutralized Dakota Kai a few weeks ago, Baszler stood on Moon's hand and hit the same elbow stomp that put Kai out of action. She worked the elbow for a long stretch, but Moon finally found the momentum to fight back with a springboard cross-body, followed by a big forearm in the corner.
Baszler was perfectly positioned for the Eclipse, Moon's finisher, but in hitting the devastating top rope stunner, injured herself worse and couldn't immediately go for the cover. The referee called out the doctors, with two officials coming out to check on Moon's left arm, but she ultimately sent them away. Baszler caught Moon in an armbar, and it went on for minutes at a time.
There were rope breaks and roll-throughs, but Baszler kept bringing the action back to the middle of the ring. Moon clasped her hands, rolled towards the ropes, and yet couldn't get away for long. After Baszler locked in a modified armbar for the fourth or fifth time, it looked as though Moon was done for, until one last spin from out of nowhere gave her the leverage and momentum for a pinfall that lasted exactly three seconds to escape with the win by the skin of her teeth.
Velveteen Dream def. Kassius Ohno
On the road to the top, there are going to be speedbumps and messy moments. If Velveteen Dream is able to learn from those mistakes and recover as he did on Saturday night after a couple of unfortunate slips and botches, he'll prove to be as big a star as he wants to be.
Dream picked up the pinfall victory over Kassius Ohno after landing some big moves that got the crowd back behind him, and hopefully walked away with some lessons that will help him continue to roll along on a growing wave of momentum.
As Dream walked down the ramp, he was accompanied by one male and female in what might be a new entourage -- a move that could be another big step forward in his promising career, should that be the way things are heading. Dream, who was acting as though this was a boxing match and promised a quick knockout on the man known as the "Knockout Artist," landed a shot on Ohno's jaw right off the bat and danced around as though Ohno was done.
Ohno rewarded his arrogance with a stiff forearm and a kick that sent Dream to the outside. Dream, staggered but not out, eventually pulled off a huge spinebuster on the larger Ohno to the delight of the Philadelphia crowd, who loudly chanted "Velveteen." He tossed Ohno around with relative ease, and even suplexed him, but Dream took the early stages of the match less than seriously while keeping hold of the momentum.
That arrogance gave Ohno a few openings, but after a strike or two, Dream snapped back into serious mode and locked a modified camel clutch on Ohno. Even as Ohno came up, all it earned him was a face full of the top turnbuckle. Just as he had prompted Aleister Black to do, Dream got in Ohno's face as the crowd chanted "say his name." Dream rarely stopped moving until he locked in a submission, and every time Ohno fought out Dream had a response to maintain control.
The match turned when Dream got overconfident and tried to suplex Ohno twice -- the second of which allowed Ohno to flip Dream inside out and catch his breath. They both got up at the same time, trading uppercuts, forearms, elbows and kicks, and Ohno splashed Dream with a cannonball to set up a roaring big boot, which earned him a two-count.
Ohno teased his roaring elbow finisher, but as he set it up, they went back and forth, with Dream ultimately landing a superkick. Dream's first attempt at his rolling death valley driver missed, and the crowd let them hear it, and it took both guys a minute to reset and get back into the match.
Dream flew off the top rope and ate a big boot, but Dream quickly turned it around and used his momentum to hit a modified death valley driver to great effect. Ohno fought his way up and hit a ripcord roaring elbow, but only got a two-count on Dream. After multiple attempts to lift him up, Dream finally got Ohno up for the proper rolling death valley driver. As the crowd got back into it, Dream capped it all off with a real crowd-pleaser of a purple rainmaker, hitting his flying elbow from the ringpost instead of the top turnbuckle to pick up the pinfall victory.
NXT tag team championships: Undisputed Era (c) def. Authors of Pain
Though they never fully reached the levels of crowd-pleasing popularity in NXT as some of their predecessors, The Authors of Pain's performance in what could have been their final NXT match offered a look into the future where Akam and Rezar could be crowd-favorite destroyers.
Sure, in the end Kyle O'Reily and Bobby Fish squeaked out a win and retained the NXT tag team championships, but the Authors of Pain put on one of their most impressive in-ring showings to date and played the good guys with a lot of believability.
Before the bell even rang, Akam and Rezar couldn't be held back as they blindsided the new tag team champions and got them off balance from the very beginning. O'Reilly and Fish continued to try to stick and move and out-think the size disadvantage, but Akam and Rezar thwarted every early effort and flung the tag team champions around the ring and the ringside area at will.
The match turned when Fish swept out Akam's knee while he wasn't the legal man, and then he followed it up with a spear that sent him and Rezar out of the ring to even up the numbers. That gave O'Reilly a chance to continue to work the knee. From there, it was the Undisputed Era's chance to play the numbers game, but even 2-on-1 they had their hands full with Akam. Every time they worked the knee, they were able to re-establish their momentum and kept the action in their corner.
Between their swift kicks and strikes, and their ground-based submission offense, they were able to slow the match until Fish got a big head and got in Rezar's face. That distraction allowed the Authors of Pain to regain the momentum, and for the first time in a long time (and perhaps ever), The Authors of Pain got a true babyface reaction. Rezar cleared the ring and hit power move after power move, capped off by a combination Samoan Drop and backpack flattener on both members of the Undisputed Era.
Some cheap shots let Fish and O'Reilly regain control, including an impressive exploder suplex by Fish, but their attempt at a finish was broken up. After Akam got back into the ring and the Authors of Pain nearly hit the Final Chapter, Fish chopped out Akam's knee and brought him down. As O'Reilly locked in a knee bar on the damaged knee of Akam, Fish locked a standing sleeper on Rezar to try to hold the giant off, to no avail.
Rezar flipped Fish onto O'Reilly, breaking up the submission attempt, and as Fish was sent out of the ring, O'Reilly fell victim to a buckle bomb and repeated knees. The supercollider powerbomb nearly ended it for the Authors of Pain, but a headscissors by O'Reilly and a collision of the three other men opened up a small window and allowed O'Reilly to roll Akam up to sneak away with the Undisputed Era's titles intact.