The Best and Worst of NXT Takeover: Vengeance Day

On the day of love, NXT looked to make its audience fall in love with its product all over again. But were they successful? Brandon Bethune looks at the highs and lows from their latest Takeover offering.

It was Vengeance over Valentine’s for NXT on February 14th. (Photo Credit – Netral News)

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and with it, another NXT Takeover. No it wasn’t called St.Valentine’s Day Massacre, and that’s something unfortunately we all have to live with.

I think it’s fair to say that NXT, compared to other years, has very much rested on its laurels when it has come to Takeover specials. Coming up to a year after the last great Takeover in Portland when live crowds were still a thing (remember that?), we have yet to see a truly great Takeover since then, one that brings us back to the glory days of NXT pre-USA Network and pre-Wednesday Night Wars. 

Going into the oddly but obviously titled Takeover: Vengeance Day, this was a trend that didn’t seem like it would change. Despite some excitement surrounding the quality of Finn Balor vs Pete Dunne, Kushida vs Johnny Gargano, and the Dusty Classic finals, there was nothing in terms of true storyline engagement that made this show feel at all important. By the time the show was over however, a lot had changed.

For a Valentine’s Day show, there was a lot to love about what largely felt like a return to the best NXT has to offer, with amazing matches and set-ups for the future, but as with Valentine’s Day and modern-NXT comes a sense of cynicism and bitterness towards things that may not have lived up to what else was going on around it. 

With that said, let’s looks at the ups and downs of NXT Takeover: Vengeance Day, to see how NXT has laid the groundwork for the future of the black and yellow brand.

Best and Worst: Dusty Classic Finals

MSK won the men’s Dusty Classic, while Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez became the first ever winners of the women’s tournament. (Photo Credit – WWE.COM)

Every year in NXT, the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic has consistently been one of the best things about the brand. But this past year, as with a lot of NXT, the tournament seemed set to fail. The NXT tag team division has faltered greatly since the pandemic struck, with a string of hit and miss champions and matches turning what was once their best division into fodder for the main event storylines (otherwise known as the Raw and SmackDown tag divisions).

However, it seemed NXT was on a mission this year to use the tournament to at least partially revamp not only then men’s tag division, but the women’s as well, with the introduction of the first female Dusty Classic tournament. There was a sense of optimism surrounding both finals being highlighted on a Takeover as a way of selling the importance of tag wrestling once again. Unfortunately though, only one of the finals really hit the mark.

Starting with the worst of things, the opener of Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez vs Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart in the women’s finals didn’t seem to click like it should’ve. The psychology of the match was way off in the beginning, with the baby faces attempting to double team Raquel in plain view of the referee, and in even more of a baffling choice, got the heat on Dakota Kai to build to a Raquel hot tag, even though she was meant to be the monster heel. Boggles the mind that does.

This along with the general messiness of the spots in the match didn’t help things, and though it picked up at the end with Raquel dominating Ember Moon and the right team winning, the way we eventually got to the fulfilling conclusion was too clunky and confusing to count it as a true positive.

The men’s finals on the other hand was nigh on spotless. MSK vs The Grizzled Young Veterans was the exact opposite of the women’s finals in the best possible way, adapting a stronger psychology and smoother in-ring work to benefit the story of the match. MSK have been the hottest new arrival in NXT in years and this match was their coming out party as the next big thing, with Nash Carter showing equal parts great selling and babyface fire, while Wes Lee (get it?) performed a beautiful hot tag and provided the best high-flying NXT has seen since Ricochet. MSK also had the best dance partners in Zack Gibson and James Drake, who work the exact opposite style to MSK. Akin to a slightly more modern version of FTR, Gibson and Drake have been the best kept secret in NXT’s tag division for a while now, and after playing runners up in the final last year, they were more than ready to fill the spot again.

MSK looked like absolute stars in victory here and are surely now on course for an NXT Tag Team Championship victory, and the Grizzled Young Veterans won’t be far behind them. Following this match and tournament, the men’s tag division in NXT is looking brighter than it has in a long time, and while the same can’t be said for the women’s given it spans beyond NXT’s control, a potential title win for Dakota and Raquel down the line could lead them to big things as well.

Best: Gargano vs Kushida

The world-renowned pair went to war over the NXT North American Championship. (Photo Credit – WWE.COM)

Kushida said on his Twitter account after this match took place, that a match with Johnny Gargano was part of the reason he joined NXT from NJPW in the first place back in 2019. If this was the match he’d hoped for, it was well worth the jump.

This is despite the relative quiet hype surrounding the match in the build, which lacked anything substantial behind it. NXT’s slow adoption of sports entertainment over wrestling has sucked the life out of indie dream matches like this that NXT used to be built on. The excitement surrounding Johnny Gargano Takeover matches has diminished since his heel turn last year, and even though he has now found his ‘way’ in his heel role, the damage it’s done to his aura on his path there is irrefutable. The same could be said of Kushida in his run in WWE so far, with injuries and inconsistency branding him potentially as WWE’s next big Japanese failure akin to what the former Hideo Itami was in the promotion.

But when the bell rang on the night, with no faction shenanigans or interference to be had, Gargano vs Kushida hit every single mark it could have. Over 25 minutes, Gargano and Kushida provided a breathtaking display of fast-paced athleticism mixed with mat and submission wrestling to build the hype of this dream match back from the ground up.

It wasn’t all perfect, Kushida’s relentless focus on Gargano’s arm felt a little heelish at times, before that was then thrown out the window for the finishing DDT spots. Kushida losing again could also be seen as a negative, but given this was the first time he really felt like his old New Japan self in match since his NXT arrival, I doubt the damage done is that severe, even if it was a clean loss to a Johnny Gargano who now resembles less than the Johnny Takeover of the past, and now just your average chickenshit WWE heel.

The quality of the match will be what trumps all other memory of it in all fairness, and regardless where the story pans out from here, Gargano vs Kushida delivered on the dream match qualities we knew it had but had forgotten about before it took place.

Worst: A Lack of (Toni) Time

Io Shirai retained her NXT Women’s Championship over Mercedes Martinez and Toni Storm. (Photo Credit – WWE.COM)

It’s a shame writing this as a down as the issues with the NXT Women’s Championship Triple Threat Match weren’t really the fault of the wrestlers themselves.

Cut for time after a blistering one-two punch of Gargano/Kushida followed by the men’s tag finals -and squeezed before Balor vs Dunne in the main – Io Shirai vs Toni Storm vs Mercedes Martinez didn’t quite reach the heights it could’ve if given adequate time to shine like others on the card.

The action was good, but again it speaks to the differences within NXT now that good is considered a let down by grand Takeover standards. Mercedes Martinez cut a legitimate and looming presence over the match while Toni Storm oozed her usual arrogant charisma and smooth ring work, while Io Shirai continued to excel as the division’s centrepiece, but again the individuals couldn’t combine under the tight conditions to make anything land like it should’ve.

Even the dependable table spot used to elevate a match failed just as Toni Storm laid eyes on it, leaving this odd middle moment of Shirai having to leap off the scaffolding before then having to reconfigured a rushed finish which left you asking ‘is that it?’

Best: The Prince vs The Bruiserweight

Two athletes close to home faced off as England’s Pete Dunne challenged Ireland’s Finn Balor for the NXT Championship. (Photo Credit – WWE.COM)

Another dream match marred by an undesirable build up, Finn Balor vs Pete Dunne was again a case of the wrestlers having to work their hardest to make up for the lacklustre hype surrounding it. 

Work they did, and what resulted was a hard-hitting main event which built slowly from a beginning where Dunne targeted Balor’s fingers, and later his weak jaw, with Balor looking to neutralise Dunne’s kicks by going after his legs, to a fast paced finale of strike exchanges and finisher reversals that cast doubt on what seemed like an obvious conclusion.

One great spot had Dunne locking Balor in a triangle choke which had him beaten, if only Finn hadn’t been right at the ropes the moment he passed out, meaning on a different day Dunne could’ve been the champion, protecting Dunne and giving him a heelish claim to victory even in defeat. 

Balor’s mannerisms to sell Dunne’s beat down through the match only heightened the drama, thus making it so much more impactful when Balor inevitably put him down in the end after a Coup De Grace and 1916 for the win.

A really good main event to cap off a mostly great night in-ring. However, it was what happened after the bell that left us with the most hype surrounding NXT in a very long time.

Best: The End of an Undisputed Era

Former champion Adam Cole shocking turned on his Undisputed Era teammates. (Photo Credit – WWE.COM)

Leave it to the Valentine’s Day Takeover to rip our hearts out with the classic NXT trope of shocking twist after the show closing logo.

For months now, after Adam Cole’s loss of the NXT Championship and the emergence of Kyle O’Reilly as a main event player, fans have been salivating for the end of The Undisputed Era. Not in any bad way, but because we as fans know that the Undisputed Era breaking up is NXT’s next great story.

NXT has always done great betrayal angles. Be Owens/Zayn, Gargano/Ciampa, or now Cole/O’Reilly, with Roddy and Bobby stuck in the middle and a little Finn on the side, this has the potential to be what reinvigorates NXT as the brand it once was. 

It was perfectly timed as well and hidden right under all our noses. After Balor and O’Reilly’s recent wars and the respect built between them, Adam Cole has been left lingering in the shadows as he watches the man who took the NXT Championship from him take on his best friend, who just so happens to be overtaking him as the No.1 in the UE.

It’s a story we all wrote in our heads for months but expected the least right now, which is what made the turn so great. Cast your minds back to Johnny Gargano’s heel turn on Ciampa at Takeover: Portland this time last year, and the apathy that came from a repetitive angle ending an otherwise amazing card. NXT hasn’t recovered since that night, where they reached the crescendo of their last era and bungled the entry into its new one.

But now with the Undisputed Era break-up story hopefully right ahead of us, with the break-up ending the best Takeover since the pandemic began, hopefully NXT can dust itself off and once again become Undisputed themselves. 

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