All the highs and even higher highs from another exemplary TakeOver.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
There are no bad TakeOvers. There are less-good TakeOvers, sure, but in the 4 years since WWE started running live specials for what is still ostensibly meant to be their developmental brand, NXT, I have yet to see a single outright bad or even middling TakeOver event. Whilst the main roster continues to frequently flounder through absurd booking choices, an inability to read and react to crowd responses, majorly inept storytelling decisions, and succumbing to an evermore exhausting bloat in PPV lengths – SIX GODDAMN HOURS FOR SUMMERSLAM, WHY – NXT instead puts together logical, exciting, tightly-paced and narratively-fulfilling specials that effectively act as a concentrated microcosm of why professional wrestling is so goddamn good. You could show TakeOvers to wrestling neophytes and turn them into full-blown converts by the time it’s gone off the air. I don’t keep up with wrestling as much as I used to, but you’re damn straight that I will still clear my schedule every single time a TakeOver comes around.
NXT has been on a roll this year and that honestly still feels like I’m underselling it. You want to know how good TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 was? The show opens with the best tag team match in all of WWE this year, a white-hot pulse-pounding masterclass of grappling, storytelling, near-falls and feats of strength… and it’s only the third-best match on the card (maybe the second if you’re not as into Gargano/Ciampa III as their previous encounters). TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 was inches away from equalling April’s TakeOver: New Orleans, which was genuinely one of the best PPVs I have ever seen. I was on the edge of my seat, my heart was often in its mouth, multiple times I was legitimately shocked by some of those physical feats, and I genuinely jumped out of my seat with my fist pumping wildly in the air at the conclusion of Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane. Just top-to-bottom absolutely magnificent viewing that reminded me why I slog through 7-hour post-shows masquerading as Biggest Parties of the Summer; because, sometimes, wrestling is fucking awesome.
Rather than adhere to our usual site policy of a generalised round-up, we’re gonna take this card match-by-match because anything else would be doing a disservice to everyone involved. Christ, the show’s weakest match would have been a show-stealer on the main roster! (Also, because we’re going to cover SummerSlam as well in a few days and, need I remind you, SIX HOURS AND 13 MATCHES so it helps to have a format in place.)
Tag Team Wrestling is The Best, you guys
So, as previously mentioned, TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 opened with definitely the best tag-team match in WWE all-year and arguably since that match between #DIY and The Revival in 2016, as The Undisputed Era’s Rodrick Strong and Kyle O’Reilly clashed once more with Moustache Mountain’s Trent Seven and Tyler Bate for the NXT Tag Team Championship. If ever you needed evidence that main roster tag-team wrestling is being done dirty, here’s the match for you. Strong and O’Reilly have become such a well-oiled machine that I keep forgetting this set-up has only come about on account of Bobby Fish being out on injury rather than it just being the default for Undisputed Era, the smoothness with which they execute those double-team moves is insane. The pacing is impeccable, somehow starting hot and only getting hotter without ever risking burnout – the first hot-tag Bate makes to Seven about a third of the way in, and all the fake-outs in the run up to it, is a prime example of why tag team matches are so much better when both teams are competitive throughout rather than the usual WWE trope of the faces starting hot then being beaten down for half a century before the hot-tag gets made.
Also, Tyler Bate is only 21 years old and I hate him for that. Like, how dare he be this good! He is 2 and a half years younger than me and he’s exploder-suplex-ing guys into each other on the ring ropes, suicide-diving onto them, then countering being thrown into the ring by leaping head-first into the ropes and using that momentum to turn around in midair and clobber Strong with a jumping lariat! The nerve of this man! And he’s not even anywhere near his full potential yet, but he’s still so good! Look at him fling Kyle O’Reilly into Rodrick Strong whilst trapped in a triangle choke! CHEER THIS MAN!
But what pushes this match over the top besides the sheer quality of the grappling and the nuclear-heat of the crowd are those last few minutes. NXT, in contrast to how the rest of the WWE seems to operate, loves rewarding those who actually keep up with and pay attention to the weekly shows on every level, not just the big highlight reel moments. Back in July, Moustache Mountain lost the titles back to Undisputed Era when Bate, who is the protégé of Seven, threw in the towel rather than see his mentor have his knee broken by O’Reilly. It seemed like we were headed for some resentment and a break-up, but in a backstage interview afterwards Bate explained his side to Seven who appreciated the gesture but didn’t think it should have been done because, as it is strongly inferred, Seven wants to instil a never-say-die attitude in his mentee and demonstrate that, with such a desire, you can do damn-near anything.
So we reach the closing stages of their rubber match here, and it’s now Bate’s turn to get trapped in O’Reilly’s kneebar with Seven on the apron getting the “if you go break that up, I will disqualify you treatment” from the ref. The seconds stretch on, Bate is in evermore excruciating pain, so Seven, in a fit of desperation, reaches for the towel and looks prepared to throw it in… but he just can’t do it. He can’t give up on Bate like that because, as his mentor, he knows that Bate can get to safety, so Seven flings the towel into the crowd and screams that encouragement to Bate who wills himself over to the corner for the tag. Moustache Mountain don’t win following that, because Undisputed Era are the kind of slimy opportunistic heels who are also annoyingly good at what they do, but that doesn’t negate the moment and it doesn’t negate the lesson. Sometimes, you’ll give it your all and come up short anyway, but at least you gave it your all and didn’t give up. Just fantastic stuff from everybody. “Fight forever” indeed.
I also liked it when the actual Vikings turned up after the match to squish the barely-standing Undisputed guys because wrestling is great.
Velveteen Dream is totally trying to get themselves’ fired, right?
I mean, the Dream came out with “Call me up, Vince” airbrushed on the arse-end of their tights, in prime real estate where the crowd and, more specifically, all of the hard-cameras couldn’t miss it. Obviously, they wouldn’t have gone out without prior approval from at least somebody in creative, especially since even Mauro Ranallo drew attention to it on commentary, but still, right? The Hogan get-up at the last TakeOver was brash enough, but between this and Dream’s deliberate overselling of EC3’s offense in the first half of the match, almost definitely a callback to the infamous Hogan/HBK SummerSlam match-up, Velveteen is totally trying to get themselves’ fired. I loved it, because Dream is already preternaturally good and he’s 9 months younger than me (THE NERVE), but I also want them to stop because I don’t want anything bad to happen to this beautiful creature. Tyler Breeze on the main roster is still too raw a wound to bring up.
Anyways, EC3 vs. Velveteen Dream suffered partly because the crowd was still burned out from that opener and because it was more of a straightforward WWE-style match than NXT typically gives us. The latter is not a knock against the match, by the way; one of my favourite things about this card is how each and every match provided something different from everything else on the card, so it was kind of a supercard for the variety provided by wrestling as a whole. It was also to be expected given that Dream and the former-Derrick Bateman are WWE-grown talent instead of wholly imported tastes from elsewhere, but this was still a fun time! The match wasn’t a classic, but it told a good story thanks to both wrestlers being great characters and consistent sellers, whilst the ending of Dream hitting both the Dream Valley Driver and Purple Rainmaker elbow on the ring apron – statistically the Hardest Part of the Ring™ – was very sweet indeed. It did what it needed to do, providing a relative rest for what was to come, without taking that as an excuse to phone proceedings in and even making a compelling argument for more WWE-style matches in NXT more often.
Also, Dream won and I can’t dislike a TakeOver match where the Velveteen Dream actually won! Can we get Dream into a rematch with Ricochet but this time for the North American Title, so we can finally put some gold around their waist?
SELL, YOU GODDAMN EXPERT-LEVEL CPU!
Let’s get this out of the way up front so that you’re not left with the false impression that I disliked Ricochet vs. Adam Cole for the North American Championship: either that throat kick counter by Adam Cole needed to be the finish, or Ricochet needed to actually sell the effect of it for more than 10 seconds before just shaking it off. Adrenaline is a hell of a drug, obviously, and it can always be used as a shorthand for why certain wrestlers aren’t straight-up dead or hobbling around like The Black Knight after more devastating moves, but there’s a limit, y’know? You still have to at least look like you’re suffering from the effects of having a foot slammed right into your trachea whilst you were flipping backwards through the air every now and again (our next match is a masterclass in this but I’m getting ahead of myself). Otherwise you end up looking and acting like when the WWE 2K games decide they’re sick of the player and effortlessly reverse any action taken after a finisher hits like they’re goddamn Terminators.
OK, we all got that? All on the same page? Good, glad we can understand each other. After all, other than that one perfectly valid criticism, this was still Adam Cole vs. Ricochet so of course it was brilliant. Adam Cole is a guy who understands the value that consistent trash-talking can bring to the story of a wrestling match, so even though it’s relatively basic – revolving around repeated assertions that Ricochet is “not special” – it backs up and adds to the story in the ring on both the mental and physical levels, particularly when he starts doing things like countering handstand-backsprings into backstabbers. Ricochet, meanwhile, despite his issues with selling and the lack thereof, is still Ricochet and therefore the mark-ier side of me completely forgets about them when he’s doing absolutely gorgeous hurricanranas on the ring apron to the outside from inside the ring that are clean as a whistle. These two have excellent chemistry with one another and, when you combine that with a crowd that’s pretty evenly split but also fully recovered from earlier, that leads to the kind of ringwork where, for the moment at least, it’s easy to ignore the logic loopholes and just lose yourself in the sheer thrill and drama of the match.
Ricochet winning is also the absolute right choice, since, much as I love me some Adam Cole, nothing’s really been done with the title since it was first introduced at TakeOver: New Orleans other than as decoration around Cole’s waist. It’s time to elevate that belt and give it some action which is something Ricochet can absolutely be counted on to deliver. As for Adam Cole, he can get the rematch out of the way and then move on to feuding with Alistair Black when the latter returns from being the victim of NXT’s equivalent of Who Shot Mr. Burns? since it was definitely him and the rest of Undisputed Era that (kayfabe) took Black out. I mean, it’s that or Candace LaRae.
Match of the night, best match that Shayna Baszler has ever had, best women’s match overall since Asuka/Moon II.
Can I just take a moment to heap a whole bunch of love on Shayna Baszler? I hate her but it’s for exactly the reasons that I am supposed to hate her, and that almost never happens in wrestling nowadays! Seriously, her character work in and out of the ring is utterly immaculate. Baszler, simply put, is a bully. Like, did you ever have that one bully back in school who just wanted everyone to fear them? They didn’t want respect, they didn’t want to find some kind of worthy adversary, they didn’t come from a broken home or anything like that, they just wanted everybody to be afraid of them. Worst of all, they actually loved it when somebody stepped up to challenge them because they were good enough to back up their smack talk and would slam that person back down with authority, thereby further cementing their power and fear over everybody else. That kind of bully? That’s Shayna Baszler and she’s so utterly detestable that I simultaneously respect the hell out of her for it whilst hating her guts, which is exactly the reaction she’s going for.
Kairi Sane, meanwhile, is a Japanese pirate princess with the most beautiful elbow drop you will ever see in your worthless goddamn life. Of course she’s a natural babyface, how could anyone not want to root for the Japanese pirate princess with the sweet-ass elbow drop?! Sane defeated Baszler last year in the finals of the Mae Young Classic and, despite Baszler getting her win back once she debuted in NXT earlier this year, it’s a fact that’s been gnawing away at her ever since because a) nobody can stop bringing it up and b) it gives Sane a measure of confidence and lack of fear when facing Baszler which drives the latter insane since, again, Baszler wants nothing more than total heart-stopping fear out of every woman in the NXT locker room. Give an inch or show any hesitation, and Baszler will systematically break every bone in one of your appendages with a sadistic smile. Withstand that and refuse to back down, and Baszler becomes rattled and furious, eventually making that one momentary mistake which costs her it all.
Baszler vs. Sane for the NXT Women’s Championship proceeds to weave all of those threads together into a magnificent 13 and a half minutes that ranks amongst the absolute best matches from any promotion all year. It’s just incredible. From the opening ground game between Sane and Baszler, the former trying to throw the latter off by valiantly attempting to best Baszler at her own specialty, to the brutally hard to watch spots where Baszler tries to destroy Sane’s knee (the torque she gets on it is just unnatural)… that spot, not coincidental to my exemplary grade on this match, benefits tenfold from Sane selling the hell out of it throughout the rest of her match, never letting us forget just how much damage Baszler has caused to it whenever she has to go to the top rope or tries in futile to lock in The Anchor. And, once again, there’s NXT paying off its own history by having the biggest segments of the match occur as a direct result of Sane’s actions on the go-home show – demonstrating her finishers to an observing Baszler in an attempt to strike fear into Baszler’s heart, only for Baszler to then come up with counters that lead into the Kirifuda Clutch.
That finish, by the way, is a magnificent work of art. Sane goes up for a third Insane Elbow, Baszler blocks it with her knees and locks in the Kirifuda Clutch, but Baszler is so confident that this is the end of Sane that she takes her head out of the game for long enough to allow Sane to hit her own counter, rolling up Baszler for the three-count because it never crossed her mind that Sane may have also been scouting her too. Sane wins, but Baszler lost, which is the crucial difference Baszler herself points out in her excellent post-match interview, and it’s pretty much the exact same way that Ember Moon first defeated her back in TakeOver: Philadelphia (albeit with a different finisher). God, this whole match was just incredible and both women should be immeasurably proud of themselves.
“I feel like you and I are destined to do this forever.”
You wanna know how good Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa are wrestling each other? They were able to make a Last Man Standing match great! AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura couldn’t make a Last Man Standing match great even before we got to that insipid bullshit finish, but Gargano and Ciampa found a way to make it work even with the continuing off-putting overzealousness of modern WWE officials who see fit to start 10-counts if one of the wrestlers doesn’t immediately kip up from a simple clothesline.
This feud, you guys. This goddamn feud. I could write a full 2,000-word essay on this feud alone. It has been, without exaggeration, my favourite thing of the whole year. Ciampa and Gargano have been utilising their wars across the last several TakeOvers to paint some utopian vision of what storytelling is possible in modern professional wrestling, where each and every single encounter across their years-long narrative – from scrappy underdog besties to deserving Tag Team Champions to the ultimate betrayal and now this blood feud – builds upon one another with such wounded bleeding heart that the result feels like watching a grand tragic opera unfold in real-time. These were two men who would die for each other, and now they are going to kill each other. And I don’t mean in the sense when fans and commentators say that wrestlers are “killing each other for our entertainment.” I mean that, by this point, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa are going to kill each other and they will not stop until one or both of them are literally dead and/or buried. If you think I am exaggerating, then you obviously didn’t watch this match where they both tried to do exactly that… and it’s gut-wrenching. Properly genuinely heart-breaking.
Ciampa vs. Gargano for the NXT Championship in a Last Man Standing match is the weakest of their official trilogy for me only because of that stipulation and accompanying smothering-parent refereeing. It took a while to pick up a full head of steam in contrast to their prior two encounters which hit the ground running and did not stop until the tolling of the bell, some of that being intentional and some of it coming from the referee completely failing to read the room and starting counts despite one of the two guys clearly not being done with the other yet. Other than that, it’s yet another masterpiece in a series that is seemingly incapable of delivering anything less than. Ciampa delivering two straight running knees and declaring that “we’re not done by a longshot” to Gargano’s face before being blasted by the chair he’d set up, Gargano hitting Ciampa with his own finisher onto the exposed wood of the ring, Ciampa wiping out a random production member and then literally burying Gargano with stage debris, equipment, padding, and said wiped-out production member… this was not a match lacking in memorable moments of its own right.
But, as this story naturally does, it always comes back to that stage. To that crutch. To those handcuffs. To that exposed concrete. Gargano and Ciampa want to kill each other, but Ciampa also wants to trap Gargano in an endless loop of their shared worst moment: the moment Ciampa broke up #DIY back at TakeOver: Chicago. The moment he killed friendship out of a paranoid delusion that Gargano would do the same thing to him whilst out on injury by flinging him into the Titantron and then crashing them both off of the stage. He’s forcing them both to relive their lowest point over and over again as a way to torment Gargano, yes, but also because it’s the one moment that was inarguably Ciampa’s. The one moment where everyone talked about him and only him, the lowest point that was also his highest point prior to winning the NXT Title – achieving Johnny Gargano’s biggest dream before Gargano himself could and even then only because Gargano inadvertently helped.
Meanwhile, Ciampa is also corrupting Gargano, turning the purest babyface in NXT into a vicious, obsessed bundle of rage whose vendetta against Ciampa is costing him his friends, his marriage, his principles, and his self-worth. Ciampa has corrupted Gargano to such an extent that Gargano is willing to kill the both of them so long as it means that Ciampa doesn’t win. And that’s why, at the match’s end, after kicking that broken crutch away into the crowd, after handcuffing Ciampa to the stage, and after hearing and rejecting Ciampa’s pleas for mercy and tearful remorse, Gargano pulls down his kneepad and sprints towards Ciampa with the running knee, hitting Ciampa… but also launching himself and his knee off the stage and into various production equipment, dislocating the knee and being unable to answer the 10-count, whilst Ciampa lucks his way into doing so.
It’s an ending that probably divides people because logically it’s super-dumb. But emotionally? It’s perfect. It is absolutely perfect because it fits the narrative totally. Gargano succumbed to the hate, to the corrupting influence of Ciampa and the trauma of his betrayal, and effectively tried to pull a murder-suicide because he just doesn’t care anymore. In the process, he gave Ciampa exactly what the latter wanted: Tommaso Ciampa won, completely. But even in victory, Ciampa seems defeated. He doesn’t lord his victory over the crowd or Gargano like in previous instances. He just slinks off to the back, broken. Even when he comes out at the very end of the show to pose with the title whilst Gargano is being tended to by medics, it feels hollow and wracked with fatigue and sorrow. Maybe his cries of “I’m sorry” whilst at the mercy of Gargano were genuine? Maybe they were as hollow as when he tried the same trick at TakeOver: Philadelphia? Who can say. All we can know is that it’s all just so sad. It never had to be this way, that’s the worst part of all, but now it is and they are going to do this dance forever until one of them literally kills the other a la Lucha Underground, yet even if they did I doubt it would bring them any comfort.
God bless these two absolute geniuses and emotional torturers. I swear that you could pen full dissertations around this feud by now. Theoretically, Gargano’s been written out for the time being, but there is absolutely one final chapter to go in the future. I don’t know when it will be – the pipe-dreamer in me hopes we can delay it until at least after TakeOver: War Games II because this feud has benefitted immensely from taking its sweet time – but I already know that my heart will not be emotionally prepared for it. Goddamn, I love wrestling.
Callum Petch is feeling low and not into sometimes.