Doctor's Orders: November 21-24, 2016 - Jericho vs. Owens, American Alpha, NXT Toronto Review
By The Doc
Nov 24, 2016 - 11:22:27 PM
”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE's top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
NXT Takeover: Toronto Review
Get American Alpha Off The Bench And Into The Game!
"The Gift Of Jericho," Kevin Owens, The Universal Title, and WrestleMania 33
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Especially given the success of the NXT Takeover specials, is NXT the best brand in wrestling today in your opinion?
Before I dive into NXT Takeover, allow me this moment if you will to say thanks to all of you. I've been doing this a long time now and I want you to know how much I appreciate your reads and feedback and how much I enjoy the conversations we have about this mutual passion of ours. This is a wonderful outlet for me and it would not be the same without you all. Cheers!
(Doc's Note – I switched places with Jim Ross last Saturday night, as he attended NXT Takeover in Toronto just because he's a huge wrestling fan and I traveled to West Virginia to watch his Oklahoma Sooners play the Mountaineers just because I'm a huge college football fan. I finally watched the NXT special last night and was, as has typically been the case, thoroughly impressed)
Asked to describe NXT in a single word, “Simplicity” might be the most appropriate. NXT Takeover: Toronto was the latest in a long-running series of excellent specials since the advent of WWE Network in February 2014 that has turned the Orlando-based subsidiary from a developmental territory into a full-fledged alternative to the WWE main roster product even though it is still owned and operated by Titan Inc. Each one showcases the brilliance in sticking to the tried-and-true pro wrestling basics and how effective that approach can be especially when coupled with WWE's top notch production values.
In many ways then, NXT is a modern combination of WWE and late 1980s Jim Crockett Promotions-led NWA; and the opening contest in Toronto between Bobby Roode and Tye Dillinger was an awesome example. Roode vs. Dillinger, with all due respect to both, is a TNA-level match on paper, but dress it up gloriously with the pomp and circumstance of a WWE show and you wind up with a “Perfect 10” caliber curtain-jerker. Roode and Dillinger worked their tails off for seventeen-minutes, did nothing more than tell an elementary story, and produced a very entertaining match in which it was very easy to invest (*** ½). The Glorious One, to those uninitiated by his TNA career, lived up to his reputation as a Triple H-esque kind of wrestler and anyone who watched a WWE proper event from Sunday to Tuesday should by now be aware of the impression that Dillinger left on Saturday (see the constant chants of “TEN”). Everyone expected their match to be good, but did anyone expect it to be that good?
Couldn't the same be said for the second match on the card? Not since the National Wrestling Alliance was the #2 organization to WWE had we seen a man suspended above the ring in a shark cage like Hall of Famer Paul Ellering was at the latest Takeover. A collection of relatively unknown entities in TM61 and The Authors of Pain was given a considerable boost in aura via the cage itself and the gaudy contraption that held it. That it was also the finals of the 2nd annual Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic helped too, of course, but the presentation was key in providing a platform for the two newish duos to make bigger names for themselves. Both tandems had nice showings, with TM61 gaining via their penchant for throwing caution to the wind a similar amount of credibility as The Authors of Pain earned by winning the tournament. Despite a short length, the match delivered a strong second bout of the evening (***).
Tag Team wrestling, in general, is an area in which NXT has shined particularly bright since the inaugural Dusty Classic a year ago gave us our first prominent looks at American Alpha and the pair that entered Toronto as the only two-time Tag Team Champions in NXT history, The Revival. Dash and Dawson have had one of the greatest years that any tag team has ever had, an objectively subjective fact reinforced by their all-time classic 2/3 Falls Match with DIY last Saturday (**** ¾). Interestingly, Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa also were first seen teaming in last year's Dusty Classic, albeit in far less of a center stage role. They have proven to be every bit the rivals for The Revival that were Chad Gable and Jason Jordan and the underdog dynamic that they have brought to the table since August has given Dash and Dawson the chance to further exhibit their full-range of skills. It will be an engaging and incredibly fun experience to sit down next month and watch The Revival's body of work in 2016 to try and pick out the superlative effort among their bevy of great matches, but a respectable knee-jerk reaction would be to say “nothing can top Takeover: Toronto.” Not just arguably the best tag team match of the year, DIY vs. The Revival 2 might well end up the WWE/NXT Match of the Year period. A quick message to Gargano, though: the show isn't over once the final bell rings – keep selling that leg, brother.
In the minds of many, 2016 has been the year of tag team wrestling in NXT much the way that 2015 was the year of women's wrestling. NXT Women's Champion Asuka has been tasked with keeping the momentum going at Takeover specials despite the lack of assistance from any of the principle players that helped launch the Women's Revolution. Nobody left in NXT besides her was deemed ready to maintain that level of achievement, so WWE brought back Mickie James, a blast from the past who was one half of the greatest women's wrestling match in WWE lore, pre-Revolution. James vs. Asuka had the look and feel of a clash between titans of the women's game and the match was accordingly successful at making James seem like a legitimate threat. The quality of the bout was on-par with Asuka's first match with Bayley in Dallas and Mickie was in top form, begging the question as to whether or not her presumed one-off could turn into a more permanent comeback. “Who's next for Asuka?” is another burning query. Really good stuff (*** ½)
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of the NXT Takeover special is its concisely put-together format. The pre-match routine for the main-event rarely begins beyond the 2-hour mark, allowing the crowd to emote in full force throughout the roughly 150-minute run-time. A lot of crowds are gassed by the end of a three-hour show, so adhering to a “less is more” philosophy benefits greatly the NXT cards, which these days are loaded from top to bottom with little filler to give the audience a break; it's all-out investment for the duration and, as a fan watching at home, the show is enhanced by it. Shinsuke Nakamura losing the NXT Championship back to Samoa Joe was, consequently, given everything that the Toronto crowd had left in the tank. For a change, there was a much clearer face-heel dynamic in play as well. The people were solidly behind The King of Strong Style and he responded with a much more balanced display of his arsenal than he showed in Brooklyn three months ago. Joe's offense still dominated the run-time as would be expected, but the ratio of offense-to-defense prompted a much better flow to the action and a shift to that all-important-to-critical success “third gear” this time around. For him, it was up there among his best NXT outings to date and, for Nakamura, it was a clear choice for his second best match in NXT behind only the Dallas bout with Sami Zayn (****).
All in all, NXT continues to deliver on these stages and, though Survivor Series managed to take an old school approach all its own and perform on-par with Takeover: Toronto, the best match of a Big 4 weekend yet again came not from WWE proper but NXT. For years, people clamored for an alternative to WWE that found the right balance between talent, booking, and production; the wrestling world now has it in NXT thankfully.
While many were giving thanks for James Ellsworth writing one of the strangest examples of the huge underdog story in WWE lore on this past Tuesday's Smackdown Live, there was a rare and reasonably impressive sighting of American Alpha, who won the first leg of a pseudo-tournament to crown #1 contenders to the Tag Team Championships at TLC via Tag Team Turmoil.
It has been a strange introduction to the main roster for the highly talented former NXT standouts. Though many industry insiders and knowledgeable fans alike have pegged Jason Jordan and Chad Gable as candidates for the main-event scene a couple of years down the road, the use of the former amateur wrestling studs has been sparing to say the least. They did burst onto the scene shortly after the July WWE Draft, jumping to the forefront of the fledgling tag team division on Smackdown and appearing poised to walk out of Backlash as the holders of the new blue titles, but it has been all down hill from there; The Usos turned heel at their expense and injured Gable in the process, setting up what once seemed the feud of the present that would anchor the division's near-future. However, the unlikely pair of Rhyno and Heath Slater caught fire, plans were altered, and the Smackdown tag belts have been in a holding pattern reminiscent of their Raw counterparts by being around the waists of wrestlers who already peaked in their current incarnations; American Alpha have virtually been ghosts while the division has yet to really get out of the gate in its existence to date.
Could Tuesday this week have been a sign of things to come for Gable and Jordan? Set to face The Wyatt Family on November 29th with a shot at Rhyno and Slater on the line, American Alpha unfortunately emanate an aura of inevitability right now, especially given that Orton and Bray were the sole survivors in a particularly engaging elimination match last Sunday. Should Gable and Jordan lose as many expect, are we to assume that another month may go by without one third of the candidates for Best Tag Team of the Year getting anything other than garbage time minutes, if that, on Smackdown? If WWE TV shows are analogous to NBA games, then American Alpha are akin to popular rookies who produce flashes of brilliance in spot duty, have nobody better ahead of them on the depth chart, yet are not seeing the floor for reasons unexplained.
Earlier this year, there was a quiet rumbling among WWE analysts that the American Alpha series with The Revival in NXT, coupled with the general resurgence of the tag scene down in Orlando, was the first shot fired in a Tag Team Revolution similar to what the women of NXT had created before them. The Double As and Dash and Dawson had some of the best tag team matches of all-time from April to June and reminded fans of the world's premiere wrestling organization just how much the division was capable of adding to the product when properly utilized and allowed to shine at its brightest. American Alpha's feud with The Usos, once Gable and Jordan made their anticipated debut on Smackdown, was positioned to at least attempt to meet the standard previously set with The Revival and perhaps bring a quality of tag wrestling to the main roster the likes of which had not been seen since Paul Heyman unleashed Edge & Rey Mysterio, Los Guerreros, and Angle/Benoit on the genre in 2002. Especially once Jimmy and Jey finally developed further as characters, it was all but signed and sealed that American Alpha would combine with The Usos to create magic and help build the brand. That now seems like a distant memory.
Could their lack of opportunity simply be a microcosm of a larger issue? The NXT-to-WWE transition is still a process that is finding its footing, granted, yet it could be argued that the ratio of successful call-ups as compared to the failures is skewed toward the negative. NXT in the last two years versus the version of NXT that produced Wyatt and The Shield seem like two separate historical entities to be frank, so can we agree that, aside from three out of the Four Horsewomen, Kevin Owens, and Finn Balor (and maybe The Realest Guys in the Room), that the vast majority of the NXT call-ups since the WWE Network Era began have mightily struggled to replicate their NXT success? If so, a further dissection of the matter reveals a common theme of an initial push that mirrors the booking of characters shaped in NXT and then an abrupt abandonment of that which made the NXT run successful, followed by a sharp downturn in push and a hasty move to the back burner. Add that to the running narrative of WWE focusing, at times, so much attention on the present that the future can be ignored and it becomes apparent that WWE must have just forgotten about American Alpha after deciding to go with the hotter hand (Beauty and The Man Beast) back in September.
That such borderline egregious errors in consistency follow a long-running plight of tag team wrestling in modern WWE history and not just a problem with call-ups from NXT, perhaps the lack of air-time afforded Gable and Jordan – especially since, as one of their old rivals from NXT, Scott Dawson, pointed out, Ellsworth has gotten well beyond his 15-minutes of fame – is just the latest in a lagging commitment to anything beyond singles wrestling, but you nevertheless look at the talent that American Alpha possess, see them on the sidelines while the equivalent of the mascot is getting major minutes, and wonder on what plane of existence must the higher-ups be that they cannot see how valuable a fast-paced, intelligent tag team could be to the show every Tuesday?
Jason Jordan and Chad Gable are too good at what they do - and have too much upside for what they one day might do - to continue holding the proverbial clipboard. American Alpha are the closest thing we have seen to the Steiner Brothers since the all-time greats from the University of Michigan hung up their tag team boots in the mid-to-late '90s. The masters of Rick and Scott's fates were infamous for being inept, but even they rarely failed to feature the incredibly dynamic duo; do not continue to make the same mistake, WWE. How about getting Jordan and Gable off the bench and giving them meaningful minutes?
One the most pleasant surprises of 2016 has been the resurgence of Chris Jericho’s character. Three straight years of monotony had previously given the impression that Y2J was done contributing much to WWE beyond nostalgia, but a heel turn on AJ Styles in early March prompted Jericho to regain his form and become arguably the most consistent highlight of Monday Night Raw ever since.
Missing from Jericho’s body of work this year, however, is a stellar angle with a memorable payoff. Though the feud with The Phenomenal One got Y2J kicked back into a higher gear, it also came during one of the weakest television creative stretches of the decade on the Road to WrestleMania 32 and his matches with Styles, while quite good, never truly reached the level of greatness reminiscent of his all-time classic rivalries.
Fortunately, a situation is organically progressing into a viable opportunity for Jericho to round out the physical year since his return to the dark side with a storyline that culminates in the caliber of match for which he became famous throughout the 2000s. His best friendship with Universal Champion, Kevin Owens, may have begun as an experiment, but to call the results of the Jeri-KO trial anything but a rousing success up to this point would be an understatement. Say what you will about comedy in WWE and how illegitimately comedic it usually is, but when two guys with the right chemistry and timing are paired together, it can significantly elevate both the participants and the overall show. Jericho and Owens have added fantastic entertainment value to an otherwise tedious three hour program every Monday and, like Y2J was able to do with The Rock in 2001, they have quietly and slowly built a tension between them amidst their jesting routine that seems primed to eventually spark a heated split.
Without the comedic stylings of Jeri-KO, it might be easy to outright claim the latter half of the equation’s initial foray into the main-event scene a failure to date. Owens has performed well in his matches (though perhaps not to his full potential) and has certainly done well emoting his character’s motivations on the microphone (last night’s outstanding pre-title match promo was a hallmark example), but the Prizefighter’s title reign has faded to the background while Goldberg and Brock Lesnar have taken the limelight in a manner similar to CM Punk’s in 2012 when overshadowed by the combination of Lesnar, Triple H, Undertaker, and The Rock; he has even been supplanted by the Women’s Championship saga between Sasha Banks and Charlotte (no shame in it of course, but it is virtually unprecedented in WWE).
Many reasons exist as to why Kevin Owens as the Universal titleholder has become a more obscure part of the flagship’s creative process than typically seen with Raw’s top champion – the complete absence of Triple H to further enforce KO’s standing as his hand-picked guy and Seth Rollins resulting mundane heroism among them – but fortunately there exists “The List of Jericho” and all of the fun that comes with it. It is a symbiotic relationship, the bond between Jericho and Owens; none of what Y2J is doing would be quite the same without KO and vice versa. The emergence of their unique dynamic has kept Owens, if not front and center because he’s the champion, center stage because he and Jericho form the most entertaining element of Monday Night Raw. Naturally, KO’s substantial fanbase would rather him be both the best part of the show and the primary focal point, but if you cannot be the latter for reasons beyond your control, then surely you would want to control your own destiny as best you can by being the former.
When they do pull the trigger on their break-up, it seems – judging by the crowd reactions to their teases of genuine tension thus far – that it may have enough heat to justify being a centerpiece angle of a show as big as WrestleMania 33. Last night’s Raw offered a preview of what is likely to come and a hot Toronto crowd bought into it hook, line, and sinker before Jeri-KO renewed their existing alliance. Y2J was clearly painted as the protagonist-in-waiting; people have renewed investment in cheering the legend now that he has stepped up his game and produced some of the finest character work of his career. Owens, like all great heels, is at his best when opposite a sympathetic figure (see Sami Zayn); it matters not why fans find Jericho sympathetic (a clipboard?), just that they do and, if they rally strongly behind Y2J, it will simply be one of the best things that could happen to KO, especially if he is still champion when the turn occurs.
Regardless of whether or not the Universal Championship will be on the line when they finally come to blows, if the end result of the Jericho and Owens relationship is a marquee, potentially show-stealing match on “The Show of Shows,” then the time and energy put into what essentially would have been a comedy angle-turned-serious business will have definitely been worth it. Some of WrestleMania’s most memorable matches were born of the sort of long-term storytelling ostensibly on display between Jericho and Owens over the last few months. Y2J himself has been a key member of a few of them, his feuds with Shawn Michaels and Christian in back-to-back years exemplifying the benefits of the slow-burn.
Looking into the crystal ball, it would seem a distinct possibility that Jericho and Owens could wrestle for the title at Mania, but even if the gold is not up for grabs or if cracks in the foundation give way to a Fight Jericho Fight before Mania, then this could nonetheless be the defining feud of KO’s first run with the gold and red. Jericho has found something that fans are latching onto that Seth Rollins has yet to find and that Roman Reigns may never find. Owens, to perhaps cement himself as a major player in his current role, needs a protagonist to emerge who engages the crowd like Jericho has. If Y2J can literally give KO the “Gift of Jericho” in the next few months, then maybe we will remember Kevin Owens during his first headlining stint as more like Jericho in 2008 and less like Jericho in 2001/2002.