500 Seconds on Wrestling — Episode 2: Dave Breaks Down NXT Episode 286

On this edition of 500 Seconds on Wrestling, Dave takes a close look at NXT Episode 286 and discusses some of the issues he feels have weakened the brand over the last few months.

iTunes Link: 500 Seconds on Wrestling on iTunes

YouTube Link: 500 Seconds on Wrestling Episode 2: Dave Reviews NXT Episode 286

Or, if you prefer, you can stream the podcast right here on the blog:

Owens-Balor: The Title Match of the Century

The build towards Owens-Balor on July 4 in Tokyo has been so impressive because the angle itself is largely just fundamentals. The execution has been such that the journey hasn’t felt formulaic at all, however. The match is built around the most basic raison d’etre of professional wrestling: the championship title. The high-energy babyface Balor has proven he is amongst the best and wants the title as validation of his love and sacrifice. The bully heel Owens has proven he is ruthless and needs to keep the title so he can lord it over people and cover his insecurities. To sweeten the pot, the NXT Championship has been elevated to a level that nobody could’ve expected through its involvement in the Owens-Cena storyline on Monday Night Raw.

It’s really simple wrestling math: Over, worthy, popular babyface + despicable but respected heel + coveted title = money match. (And that formula doesn’t even take into account the “smart mark” anticipation of seeing two world-class workers have a match together!)

What made the build towards July 4 so unique, however, was the fact that both wrestlers were presented as highly-credible stars in completely different ways. The champion Owens was established as a legitimate top dog by feuding with John Cena on Raw, going so far as to score a pinfall win over the face of our era at Elimination Chamber. This made Kevin Owens the biggest major league cross-promotional wrestling star since at least Ken Shamrock in the early days of UFC and perhaps as far back as the territorial era. Being portrayed as a beast in both NXT and WWE proper at the same time elevated Kevin Owens from “indy star and developmental champion” to “World Champion-level star.”

On the other hand, Finn Balor’s journey toward this match has been much more about talking than wrestling, and, at times, much more about Fergal Devitt than Finn Balor. The “Finn Balor: The Demon Revealed” promotional packages that aired over the last three weeks of NXT set a new standard for character development in wrestling. They combined the best aspects of an HBO boxing promo, a handmade documentary, and an ESPN “30 for 30” piece. The videos had just enough of that WWE polish to look highly professional without feeling phony or over-produced.

What “The Demon Revealed” did more effectively than anything that’s aired on Raw since the build toward Taker-Michaels 2 at Wrestlemania XXVI, however, was make you care about the match on a personal level. Introducing Fergal Devitt as a human being not just a wrestler, having other familiar faces put him over as a decent guy, and showing clips of him chasing his dream around the world added a bonus layer on top of the classic babyface + heel + title formula. NXT fans already loved and respected Balor as an exciting athlete, but now they are rooting for him on a personal and professional level as well.

NXT may be developmental, but this is the best angle in wrestling.

Why Punk’s “Pipebomb” Matters, Even if He Doesn’t Anymore

By 2011, a decade removed from the crest of the wrestling wave, the WWE’s main event had settled into repetitive monotony. On any given Raw, Smackdown, or pay per view, fans could expect to see some combination of John Cena, Triple H, Randy Orton, Batista, and Edge.

There were several problems with this setup. All five men, while worthy main event workers, had become woefully overexposed through hundreds of hours of television time. Additionally, they were all holdovers from the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression Eras at a time when the company was pumping out new midcarders every week but seemingly no serious top acts. Fans caught on to the fact that the main event had become utterly static and starved to see a new face break into the mix. Then, finally, an opening came: Edge was forced to retire due to injury and a window opened.

June 27, 2011 was C.M. Punk’s chance to become that new guy. Granted, Punk had already been Mr. Money in the Bank twice, the leader of two different effective-until-they-weren’t midcard factions, and a multi-time champion, but he was undeniably second tier. He was an internet darling rather than a television personality, an ROH wrestler rather than a WWE Superstar, and a “skinny fat guy” rather than a chiseled powerhouse. In spite of all those marks against him in WWE’s mysterious book of “Reasons This Wrestler Can’t Be a Top Star,” somehow, the door was left open just a crack, and Punk blew it off its hinges.

Punk’s June 27 promo, known by many fans as simply “The Pipebomb,” was in no way, shape, or form a “shoot.” Anybody familiar with live television understands that directors in production trucks can crash to commercial breaks or cut mics when things get wildly pear-shaped, and since that was not done, it stands to reason that what he said was largely what he was expected to say. What was very much a shoot, however, was the jubilation with which fans heard Punk’s words. He gave voice to the faithful but disenfranchised, and in doing so took the backdoor route to being a top moneymaker.

With this shakeup came the corresponding shift in the WWE in-ring style. Consider the five main eventers listed above (Cena, Hunter, Orton, Batista, and Edge) and visualize each of them having a match – you can probably call the spots yourself. Punk’s rise, along with that of Daniel Bryan, led to a different kind match main eventing WWE shows, one influenced by the hard-hitting Japanese style and an imitative reverence for stars of the past. Had Punk not delivered his June 27, 2011 promo with such conviction and gotten over so impressively, that change may have never happened, and main events might still be wrestlers racing to get in their “Five Moves of Doom.”

Punk’s run after the “Pipebomb” wasn’t long – almost exactly two and a half years – but that promo casts a longer, more important shadow over WWE and its history than Punk himself.

Dusty Lives: Finn Balor, Starrcade ’83, and an Incredible Legacy

The news of Dusty Rhodes’ passing sent ripples across the American consciousness this week. To wrestling fans, Rhodes was an icon of an era, a powerful kingmaker, and a highly complex figure who had been a part of wrestling’s greatest high- and lowlights in five different decades. To those who know little about wrestling beyond that it’s a thing that some people watch, Rhoades still stood out as a larger-than-life figure. He was a man who you didn’t channel surf past regardless of how you felt about pro wrestling, a captivating figure who came to represent far more than a fake fight ending with a big elbow.

Though his death robbed the wrestling business of one of the last great geniuses from the era of great wrestling geniuses, Rhodes’ legacy can be seen continuing through one of WWE’s hottest commodities, NXT. The build towards Finn Balor facing Kevin Owens in Japan for the NXT Title feels especially marked by Dusty’s touch. The match bears incredible similarity to the main event of one of the most important shows “The American Dream” ever helped put together: Starrcade ’83.

To compare Balor-Owens to Race-Flair may seem far-fetched, considering one represented two men at the pinnacle of the profession while the other is for a developmental title, but if you scale down the splendor that was Starrcade, the tremendous storytelling and structural similarities are clear to see. Both matches feature grizzled, physical heels taking on prettier, more athletic babyfaces. They are both David and Goliath stories in which “hometown” youths take on ugly bullies who came in from the other territory. Each match is strategically located in the place where the hero is most likely to get a megastar reaction: Flair in Greensboro and Balor in Tokyo.

On this week’s episode of NXT, a promo package hyping the upcoming match delivered the pitchline, “Finn Balor Arrives. Tokyo, Japan. July 4th.” The line was remarkably reminiscent of Scarrcade ’83 subtitle “A Flair for the Gold.” Each statement is basically promotional lingo for, “The babyface wins.” An essential part of the build is tipping the audience that they can be assured of consummation and don’t have to worry about being swerved or let down.

Therein lay the brilliance of Dusty Rhodes: he never forgot that for all the cleverness and complexity that can bookers and fans breathe into wrestling, at the end of the day people want to see the babyface win. Even when it was impractical in the large picture, Dusty’s instinct was always to give the people something that looked like a babyface victory. It was that desire to provide the fans with an uplifting moment that led to the creation and eventual over-use of the now-infamous “Dusty Finish.” In a sense, Dusty’s booking was like Marxism: it was highly humanistic and sought to make people happy but was hampered by the over-complexity of all the essential moving parts. Dusty may be gone, but the best parts of him live on.

Set Up For Failure: The Deeply Flawed Structure of the WWE Tag Title Elimination Chamber

The WWE Tag Team Title Elimination Chamber match contained talented wrestlers, including a bona fide top heel team and a bona fide top babyface team, featured good action, and delivered a definitive finish. However, the match fell well short of what it could have been — an assertion of the Tag Team Titles as a featured prize – because of poor structure. Whoever put this match together should not be putting together matches for pay per views.

All matches are reliant on a good start to set the tone for what follows. This match had a hard time getting over because it started with the two least established teams in the ring. The Lucha Dragons are popular, and The Ascension are disliked, but neither is the team that people paid to see. Cesaro and Kidd should have been one of the first teams in the Chamber to give the match and show the hot start it needed.

Of course, when Cesaro and Kidd did enter third, they needed to work harder than they should have to recover from the lull that opened the match. The structure of the match really let The Masters of the Universe Down. If they weren’t going to begin the match, Cesaro and Kidd should’ve been set up to enter to a monster pop, and neither happened because WWE sent out the wrong teams to start the show.

Once they were in the match, Cesaro and Kidd absolutely shone on offense. The crowd popped for their spots, but the realization quickly set in the last three teams were New Day, Los Matadors, and Prime Time Players. With even the most innocent fan subconsciously knowing that the heel champions would be out last, it was apparent that a few minutes of rather inconsequential wrestling would follow. Given the barely-established nature of Lucha Dragons and The Ascension and the barely-credible nature of Los Matadors, the wrestlers were left with only one tool to do to get the crowd invested: stupid spots. Kalisto and El Torito obliged.

Then, momentarily, the match looked poised to turn around and get serious when The Ascension eliminated both the Dragons and Matadors in quick succession, but their immediate loss to the Prime Time Players undid all of that good storytelling and simply reinforced the old WWE trope that established main roster veterans can always beat relative newcomers easily. What followed was a slow-paced, shapeless period of wrestling between two teams who had no storyline heat behind them.

Then, there was Cesaro’s elimination by The Prime Time Players. When there’s one set of over babyfaces in the match and they are not finalists, you will be in trouble with the crowd. Luckily, people are into chanting “New Day sucks,” so the match wasn’t a total loss, but the frustration from the audience was palapable during the match’s final minutes.

There was so much potential in the ring to open the Elimination Chamber show, but the ball was badly dropped due to poor structure.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Demons

Finn Balor and his pet Demon represent the ultimate marriage of two of the biggest stars of an era in WWE: Jeff Hardy and the Undertaker. Since his arrival in NXT, Balor has consistently been portrayed as more Hardy than Hardy. He’s a risk-taker. He’s attractive. He has a personal connection to the fans. He wrestles intensely exciting matches. What he doesn’t have, though, is the recklessness that derailed the much-loved Carolinian’s journey to the top of the mountain.

Balor’s superiority to Hardy as a potential top star draw is also evident when one considers their signature alter egos: Willow was Jeff Hardy being someone else, whereas The Demon represents a place that Balor reaches in his mind and spirit when the stakes are most high and the odds most unfavorable. Willow was a failure because people felt as though they were being cheated out of seeing the Jeff Hardy they knew and loved. On the other hand, when people see The Demon, they feel like they are seeing their favorite wrestler turned up way past eleven and into the stratosphere.

The Demon is the closest thing to an Undertaker gimmick on the current wrestling scene. The act has a special mystique that elevates Balor from being a top star on the show to the stop star on any show. His now-signature entrance is exactly the kind of thing that people pay money to see, even more money to see in person, and even more money to see up close in person. If the character is protected, as Undertaker was effectively for the last half-decade, Finn Balor’s entrance at Wrestlemania could become one of the most anticipated aspects of the big show.

However, much of the money in The Demon is in Balor not being The Demon – at least not most of the time. Unlike the Undertaker, who at times in his career was overexposed by week-in, week-out television appearances, Balor has the luxury of being Finn Balor on TV. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he can simply portray the exciting, high-flying, straight-up wrestling babyface with the natural bond to the fans. Living as Jeff Hardy with a slow build to being the Undertaker once every four months would give Balor the chance to be the biggest money babyface of his era.

Unfortunately, NXT Takeover: Unstoppable was the perfect example of a show where the Demon should have remained chained in Hades. The positioning of the match was all wrong for Balor to take things to the supernatural level. A vicious, mystical, quasi-monstrous being should never, under any circumstances, jerk the curtain. Furthermore, even the announcers were openly discussing how the match was less juicy than it should have been due to the injury to Hideo Itami. Add those factors together with the pressure not to burn out the crowd early, and the result is a match that was “just really good.” The Demon shouldn’t be in really good matches; The Demon should be in the match of the season.

N(utshell)XT Takeover: Rivals as a Microcosm of the Territory

If Takeover: Rival was your first NXT show, you now know everything you need to about the WWE’s universe-within-a-universe. The two-hour special was the perfect representation of what NXT provides viewers on a weekly basis, beauty marks, warts, and all.

The Good:

NXT is the place where polished, highly-athletic, highly-motivated independent and international performers make their pitch to be on national TV in front of an audience of millions. The hunger on this show was palpable; you could feel it oozing from Zayn, Owens, Neville, and Balor. The two showcase singles matches both felt like they meant something to the competitors involved. Whether their goal is to get closer to the NXT Championship or closer to the WWE main roster, all four men went to the ring and asserted themselves as ready for the next step.

NXT also provides a platform for women (as in athletic female adults) to prove themselves as equal to their male counterparts in wrestling skill, ability to get over, and drawing potential. The fatal four way match for the NXT Women’s Title was not just a compelling title match, it was deserving of a spot on the short list of all-time four person matches. This battle was truly a testament to what makes NXT unique in the mainstream, as there aren’t even four Divas on Raw or Knockouts on Impact who are over enough to be in a twelve-minute title match.

The Bad:

NXT is a developmental territory where a lot of wrestlers who won’t ever have a good match wind up on the card. Bull Dempsey and Baron Corbin were provided the No DQ stipulation in an attempt to “help” them have a watchable match. It didn’t work. Brawling hossfights can only have two outcomes: both guys look tough, or both guys look like they can’t wrestle. This match was a reminder that even the well-traveled WWE bag of tricks is no substitute for talent. The Tag Title match was similarly hard to watch, containing a whole Botchamania episode of blown, mistimed, or otherwise weak-looking spots, which resulted in the competitors not telling any story beyond “The titles change hands.”

The Ugly:

NXT is a cool wrestling show for cool kids to watch. This was on display more clearly than ever when the crowd in the building for Rival did significant damage to the Zayn-Owens main event. Owens, the thinking heel, goaded his way into a title match he hadn’t earned… and came out to a tremendous pop. He beat up his best friend in a way that pushed beyond the limits of sportsmanship, competition, or good taste… and got tremendous pops as he did it. He won the title in the most controversial, flimsy way possible… and got a tremendous pop. Zayn never got his fired-up comeback because the crowd was too busy showing how much they think they know about wrestling by cheering the violent guy rather than the nice one. The crowd let down Zayn, NXT, and anyone who bought into the angle.