Johnny Gargano's pursuit of the NXT championship was a fun ride. It was as compelling a story as anything NXT has done over the last year (and maybe more), but all good things must come to an end. With Gargano out of the championship picture, and seemingly out of NXT for good (for now), it's time for a new challenger to step up as NXT TakeOver: New Orleans draws near.
The NXT roster is full of capable talent that's ready to step up, but there's a bunched-up group of contenders who all have valid claims to be next in line -- but only one contender in particular with a history of his own against the current NXT champion.
But New Orleans seemed to be the furthest thing from the minds of Andrade "Cien" Almas and his associate, Zelina Vega. They confidently made their way to the ring Wednesday night with one purpose -- to gloat about their ability to prevail over Gargano on four straight occasions.
"What do they call that in baseball? A clean sweep," Vega exclaimed. "Johnny, you talk about earning their [the audience] respect. Who cares about their respect? Who cares? You know what Andrade earned? Money. Fame. Power. ... And unlike most women, I don't feed off of my man's success. I create it. And that's why you're still looking at the NXT champion, Andrade 'Cien' Almas."
Almas added that he turned Gargano from Johnny Wrestling to "Johnny jobless."
- WWE (@WWE) March 1, 2018
As Almas and Vega made their way toward the exit, however, their potential future stared them straight in the eyes. The haunting introduction to Aleister Black's theme filled Atlanta's Center Stage Theater and the supremely talented Dutchman hit the ring, ready to deliver a message of his own. As he stared down Almas, who stood on the stage looking on, and raised a microphone to his mouth, SAnitY's Killian Dain interrupted the party. Dain ducked the Black Mass kick and then delivered an emphatic statement without speaking a word, hitting his "divide" running cross body block.
In a moment, there was clarity; the path to the NXT championship will go through Black and Dain. The two are set for what should be an intense physical battle next week to see who will step forward as a rightful and worthy contender.
Black is the smart play here. He is one of the fastest rising stars in NXT and fans are drawn to him. His mysterious aura is intriguing, and he's one hell of an in-ring worker. Dain is a great performer in his own right and his time should come, but this feels like the perfect opportunity to capitalize on Black's ascension and popularity.
Shayna Baszler's villainous persona intensifies
The Mae Young Classic was an important moment in the ongoing women's evolution in professional wrestling over the past year. The tournament allowed a multitude of talent from both within and outside of WWE to shine -- and none benefitted more than the two superstars who advanced to the tournament finals, Shayna Baszler and Kairi Sane.
The matchup featured a classic babyface versus heel showdown, with Sane adored by the audience, and a clash of styles. On the surface, she's small in stature and all smiles, but when the bell rings, she's fierce and that resonates with fans. Baszler, on the other hand, the consummate villain, takes cheap shots when necessary without a hint of remorse. After a very good match, Sane came out with a win and won the inaugural Mae Young Classic.
Like all good antagonists though, Baszler came back with a vengeance. In her NXT debut a couple of months ago, she snuck up behind Sane and choked her out. Since that time, she has blindsided various members of the division and focused on injuring everyone up to and including NXT women's champion Ember Moon, against whom she repeatedly has targeted the arm she injured in their matchup at TakeOver: Philadelphia. Sane saw enough last week during a rematch between Moon and Baszler, and the result was a Mae Young Classic finale rematch for Wednesday night.
It was a match that went much differently this time around. Baszler evened the score by submitting Sane, courtesy of a super Kirifuda Driver (superplex directly into her Kirifuda Clutch). Following the match, Baszler approached the announcer's position and called out Moon -- promising that if Moon would face her again, Baszler would "either leave with her title or a limb."
Baszler has been in NXT for less than two months and already generates more heat from the crowd than anyone else on the roster. As she continues to improve in the ring, she has a bright future ahead of herself as a top heel within the division.
The Velveteen Dream notches another win
The Velveteen Dream and the first U.K. champion Tyler Bate had been trading words over the past couple of weeks. It was inevitable that the score would be settled in the ring, and one week after an impressive victory over No Way Jose, Dream continued his upward trend with a win over Bate.
With the NXT championship picture coming together without him, it will be interesting to see what direction Dream heads as we near TakeOver: New Orleans. Regardless of where he lands on the card, he's sure to crank up the entertainment level of the show and shouldn't be too far away from an NXT championship once the action is all said and done with WrestleMania weekend.
- As he awaits another opponent to sink his teeth into, Adam Cole, with the assistance of Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish, defeated Cezar Bononi. Cole teased offering Bononi a spot in the Undisputed Era before the match, only to blindside and then make quick work of him.
- The third annual Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic begins next week with a rematch of the 2016 finals. The defending champions, the Authors of Pain, face off against the runners-up, TM-61.