One of the biggest internal side effects that came with the launch of the WWE Network in 2014 was increased visibility on the company's recently rebranded developmental territory, NXT. Weekly NXT shows and special events provided a platform just as a transformational class of NXT stars was coming into its own, and that convergence allowed for something far beyond simply developing the next generation of stars.
NXT became its own brand with an ability to stand on its own, with dynamic performers and storylines that energized a unique fan base. There were landmarks along the way, but the single moment that showed what NXT had become in the loudest possible terms came on Aug. 22, 2015, with the first edition of NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn.
Like NXT as a whole, its special events started off rather inauspiciously but made an impact from the very start. The precursor to TakeOver specials, NXT Arrival, aired three days after the launch of the WWE Network as the first live event ever broadcast on the network. The show, highlighted by an instant classic between Cesaro and Sami Zayn and a Bo Dallas vs. Neville main event for the NXT championship, set the bar quite high.
The first five TakeOvers, from May 2014 through May 2015, stayed inside the friendly confines of Full Sail University. But from the moment the show hit the road for the first time, for the first TakeOver: Brooklyn event the night before SummerSlam, NXT took an entirely different kind of leap.
NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn I
The event was a major breakthrough for the brand on a number of fronts, not the least of which was the scale of the event. To that point, for its weekly shows and TakeOvers, NXT superstars performed in front of crowds of 400 to 500 people from their home base of Full Sail University. The Barclays Center allowed over 15,000 fans to file in, and the pressure to deliver was high, but boy did it deliver.
Looking back on that first TakeOver: Brooklyn card, the concentration of star power is stunning. With the exception of Jushin "Thunder" Liger, who appeared in a one-off match against Tyler Breeze, and former NXT tag team champions Blake and Murphy, every other performer on this show reached the main roster. The main event ladder match, featuring former NXT champions and main roster world title-holders Finn Balor and Kevin Owens, got outshined by a match of the year candidate for 2015 in which Bayley found her ultimate triumph over Sasha Banks.
To put a little more context into it, 2015 was a big year for women's wrestling. It marked the beginning of what would initially be known as the divas revolution, later the women's revolution, that has seen a steady increase of attention given to women's wrestling ever since. Just one month prior to TakeOver: Brooklyn, three of the most talented female performers in the company -- Banks, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch -- were called up to the main roster. They provided an instant jolt to the women's division seen on Raw and SmackDown.
But Banks had some unfinished business to take care of as the reigning NXT women's champion. She put her title on the line against Bayley, arguably the most popular wrestler in NXT history. After washing out of both NXT women's championship tournaments in the first round, Bayley slowly fought her way up to the top, but she constantly fell just short. She lost her first two NXT title shots against Flair, and then continued to bump into the ceiling against Flair, Banks and Becky Lynch, including a four-way match between the women who would come to be known as the "Four Horsewomen" of NXT in which Banks won the title.
After putting her demons behind her, dispatching Lynch, Flair and Emma in consecutive weeks to avenge past losses, Bayley was ready to stake her claim. She got her shot at Banks on the biggest possible stage, and the result was one of the greatest women's wrestling matches in the history of the WWE.
Bayley and Banks dazzled the crowd with well-timed sequences, innovative spots and an incredible story that finally affirmed Bayley's ability to win the big match. To top it off, we were left with the lasting image of Bayley, Banks and their "Four Horsewomen of NXT" comrades, Charlotte and Lynch, emotionally celebrating the performance following the match. It was one of the most memorable moments in NXT history.
The match was held in such a high regard that it received the NXT year-end award for overall match of the year.
Not to be outdone, the final bout that night featured Owens facing Balor -- two superstars who could each realistically headline WrestleMania in the not-too-distant future.
The match often gets overshadowed by the women's match that came before it, but Balor and Owens put forth an effort in the first-ever NXT ladder match that remains one of the finest main events in TakeOver history. It solidified Balor as the top star on the brand at the time and raised the bar for all future TakeOver main events.
The Vaudevillains got their big moment, accompanied by "Blue Pants" (Leva Bates), as they became NXT tag team champions; Aiden English was actually one of the first people to say that NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn was NXT's WrestleMania. Baron Corbin took a big step forward in a slugfest against Samoa Joe. Apollo Crews debuted against Tye Dillinger, and Breeze got one of the biggest opportunities of his wrestling career by facing Liger in his only WWE-branded appearance to date.
Needless to say, the first TakeOver special in Brooklyn was remarkable. It set the stage for NXT to tour the world, and for TakeOver specials that could fill much bigger venues for all but two future instances. But as TakeOvers came to be tied to major WWE pay-per-views, an interesting convergence once again came together. With SummerSlam locked into the same location for four years (and counting), NXT would hit the same building for TakeOver specials each time around.
And after blowing the roof off of Barclays Center the first time around, NXT proved that its home away from home was most certainly Brooklyn.
NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II
The star power at the event was once again through the roof, with the notable in-ring debuts of current NXT mainstays Ember Moon and NXT champion Bobby Roode. But once all was said and done, everything that happened in the ring was what once again illustrated just how special an event NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn had become. One need look only at the captivating spectacles of the entrances made by Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura to see how far things had come.
Tag team wrestling has always been a strength within the brand and that was never more apparent than when NXT tag team champions The Revival successfully defended their title against the beloved duo that named themselves #DIY. Loud chants reverberated through the building as both teams had a match full of drama and believable near falls that became another match of the year candidate. The crowd was so enthusiastically behind Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa that when #DIY lost the match, the air was sucked out of the place; this match would ultimately go on to enhance the tag team title matches at the next four TakeOver events.
The women's championship match brought things full circle, as Bayley's final chance at the NXT women's championship was denied by Asuka, who was still in the early stages of her now 500-plus-day reign on top.
To cap off the night, we saw the first chapter of the most intense rivalry in NXT history as Nakamura challenged Samoa Joe for the NXT championship and won that title for the first time. Their rivalry carried on through the rest of 2016 and into early 2017.
For 33 years, WrestleMania has been the Super Bowl of the WWE. It's the event that every superstar strives to be a part of, and the one that gets the most mainstream attention. While NXT has decades to go to approach anything resembling that level of attention, it's not too early to recognize that TakeOver: Brooklyn has become the most anticipated show on that brand's calendar by knocking it out of the park the past couple of years.
TakeOver: Brooklyn III looks to continue that trend on Saturday, and the impressive card shows every sign of another first-rate spectacle -- one that will certainly be worthy of standing as NXT's biggest showcase of the year.