NXT Takeover 31

Capitol Wrestling Center, Florida

Everyone’s favourite black and gold brand kicked off a brave new era in spectacular fashion.

With Raw and Smackdown currently emanating from inside the awe inspiring ThunderDome, NXT followed suit by moving from its spiritual home of Full Sail University to something entirely different.

Officially unveiled just hours before the first match of the night, NXT announced the Capitol Wrestling Center to the WWE Universe. A throwback to a previous venture by Jess and Vincent J. McMahon between 1953 and 1982, the new arena featured a wall of virtual fans, cage-style fencing and most eye-catching of all, real life fans in attendance.

Sure, only 100 people were permitted entry. But a mix of development talent, friends, family and a limited number of fans, signals things are moving slowly in the right direction.  Unfortunately to ‘enhance’ the atmosphere, crowd noise was also piped in threatening to derail any natural energy.

The ambience of the CWC was one of claustrophobia. Fans separated by pods. Virtual fans ominously staring down from one wall. More akin to a fighting pit than a wrestling arena and the action inside the ring was every bit as frantic and brutal as the new surroundings.

What would a Takeover be without Mr Takeover himself, Johnny Gargano? Aiming to uphold his side of a promise to become the first husband and wife duo to hold NXT gold at the same time, Gargano faced off against a Damien Priest in the hottest form of his career.

A fantastically frantic bout saw Priest retain his North American Championship and leave ‘Johnny Wrestling’ once again suffering a loss on NXT’s biggest stage. At this stage, Gargano is more Mr Show Up than anything else. Similar to Dolph Ziggler on Raw and Smackdown, his star power has long since diminished. There would be very little momentum or even grandiose in a rumoured move to the red or blue brand without some serious remodelling.

It’s a crying shame considering his well-earned reputation as the epitome of NXT. We could be taking the long path to redemption, but with countless new talent vying for the spotlight all over the company, Gargano finds himself the underdog once more.

The resurgence of Kushida on the NXT brand has been met with acclaim from the WWE Universe. Displaying a new mean streak on show and an opponent that has hit the headlines in 2020 for all the wrong reasons, this was a home run of a combination backed up by the Japanese Superstar’s undeniable in ring ability. At Takeover 31, we may have witnessed the first steps on his journey to the NXT Championship.

Since the Cruiserweight division moved to NXT, the belt has felt more prestigious. An upgrade from bright purple to almost black certainly helped but the recent reign of Santos Escobar has seen its stock rise even further. 

Shockingly the match between Escobar and challenger Isaiah Swerve Scott marked the first time the belt has been defended on an NXT Takeover event. Such an occasion was marked by a blistering back and forth: both men stepping up to prove just how much the division has to offer. A slightly muddled finish to the match saw Swerve hit his head on the bottom turnbuckle hook, (stripped of its usual padding earlier) and Escobar retaining.

NXT boasts the best women’s division in all of professional wrestling. No question. No debate needed. The depth, ability and spectrum of characters available to call upon is astonishing. Current champion Io Shirai is proving each week why she is considered one of the best in the world right now.

Her opponent at Takeover 31, Candice LeRae, has long been considered somewhat of a veteran of the division. The pair have met previously with Shirai playing the heel, but even a swap of personas couldn’t help LeRae capture her first NXT Championship. A slightly silly ending – including LeRae’s husband Johnny Gargano clad in a referee’s shirt – slightly soured the closing stages. It was a great showing to that point though.

Following the match, a short video promo added Toni Storm to an already stacked roster. For the few weeks preceding the PPV, a mystery Superstar teased their return. That Superstar was revealed to be former champion Ember Moon, offering an embarrassment of riches for NXT.

It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that NXT could run their own female exclusive PPV in the near future. Equally the flagging women’s divisions on Raw and SmackDown could be about to benefit by poaching talent.

Quite simply stealing the show, albeit as expected, was the main event. Champion Finn Balor defended the NXT Championship against Kyle O’Reilly. For anyone unaware of O’Reilly to this point, we implore you to check out not only his work in NXT with Undisputed Era in tag team action but also his singles matches in NJPW and ROH.

Although he has been almost exclusively a tag team guy in NXT, O’Reilly has always been one of the more charismatic members of Undisputed Era. Finally awarded a chance to shine in his own right, the Canadian technician grabbed it with both hands.

Maybe it was the new surroundings. Maybe it was the very vocal audience. Or maybe it was the excruciatingly brutal punishment dished out by both men but these guys killed it. When both men have to be legitimately checked over by medical staff after the match, you know there has been a war inside the ropes.

Shots to the liver, knees to the face and submission moves aplenty – this was almost as difficult to watch as it was to be in the ring. Sorry, that’s not true, but you get the picture. It was a real standout moment for both men. Solidifying Balor as the man, while establishing Kyle as a main eventer in his own right.

Blood pouring out of both men’s mouths, Balor gained the victory, delivering his coup de grace. A slightly bizarre end to the PPV saw Leeds native Ridge Holland throw a beaten Adam Cole towards the ring at the match’s conclusion.

It feels far too soon to push Holland into a major angle against either Cole or Balor but it does hammer home NXT’s current trend of pushing new talent.

One final word on the NXT LOUD soundtrack for the PPV, delivered by Corey Taylor in the shape of Culture Head. It marks a great weekend for the Slipknot frontman after being awarded Rushonrock’s Record of the Week for new album CMFT.