When WWE Network held its first NXT TakeOver event in May of 2014, NXT ceased to be just a developmental territory.
It became the unofficial number-two promotion in America and will hold its twenty-fifth TakeOver special this coming Saturday. WWE still hasn’t figured out what a goldmine it’s really sitting on in NXT, but we — the fans — haven’t doubted it in years.
For all of the hubbub and excitement over AEW’s Double Or Nothing this past weekend, we all kind of forgot that we’ve had that old-school wrestling product we’ve been craving all along. It’s been right under our noses.
In recent years, NXT TakeOver events have become a staple of the night before big WWE pay-per-views. And with each show, the fans and experts say the same thing: “The main roster has its work cut out for it tomorrow.”
There’s a reason for that. With each successive show, NXT TakeOver produces another match that seems like it just can’t be stopped.
Here’s our list of the five best NXT TakeOver matches of all time.
5. NXT Championship Match – Sami Zayn (C) vs. Kevin Owens, NXT TakeOver: Rival
Sami Zayn defeated Neville in December 2014 at NXT TakeOver: R-Evolution to become the NXT Champion. At the end of the show, his old friend and nemesis Kevin Owens made his debut.
Owens seemed to be out to celebrate with his friend. Instead, he powerbombed him on the ring apron and left him laying. And this began what I would argue is the first really personal main event feud for NXT. Zayn was the plucky babyface who got cheated out of his big moment. Kevin Owens was the unfeeling prize fighter, uninterested in anything but winning titles and making money.
The best NXT TakeOver matches 5-star mat classics, with so much back-and-forth action that it’s hard for the fans to even catch their breaths. Not this one.
This was just roughly 25 minutes of Kevin Owens beating the crap out of Sami Zayn.
It wasn’t bloody (because WWE), but it was brutal. Owens was relentless. He hit him with a wicked gutbuster and followed it with a senton, but Zayn wouldn’t stay down. Owens’s patented cannonball wouldn’t put Zayn down. Zayn mustered a bit of a comeback and got a few near falls, but Owens just wouldn’t let up.
Eventually, Owens hit a virtually unconscious Zayn with back-to-back pop-up powerbombs. And Zayn still wouldn’t stay down for three. In a finish WWE hasn’t used since, Owens went for a third powerbomb, and the referee ended the match and awarded the win, and the championship, to Owens.
Like I said, it isn’t the standard back-and-forth actionfest we’re accustomed to from NXT TakeOver. But this match told a story and gave us a unique finish.
4. Aleister Black vs. Velveteen Dream – NXT TakeOver: WarGames 2017
The best matches aren’t about championships or ladders or briefcases. They’re about wrestlers with simple goals willing to go to extremes to achieve them.
In the lead-up to this match, Aleister Black refused to acknowledge the Velveteen Dream by his name. Seriously, that’s the basis of the whole feud. And NXT got weeks’ worth of television and built up a compelling story.
Dream vowed that at the end of their match at NXT TakeOver: WarGames in November of 2017, Black would say the name “Velveteen Dream.” And here’s my favorite part (well, besides the match): It wasn’t made a stipulation. If this was a Monday Night Raw or SmackDown Live feud, that would be part of the contract.
They kept it simple. Dream said, “You’re gonna say my name.” Black said, “No, I’m not.”
It was a fierce match that combined solid mat wrestling with brawling aspects and some high-flying from both guys. This wasn’t the main event, but it had all the elements of one. There was a spot with Black doing his signature taunt, a bounce off the rope into a sit-out on the mat. Dream answered with his Rick Rude-esque shimmy.
And near the match, Dream laid in the punches hard on a beaten-down Black, demanding, “Say my name!”
In the run-up to the final sequence, Black countered Dream’s attempt at a Death Valley Driver and sent him crashing down before hitting a Fade To Black, which only got a two-count. Dream recovered and hit his Purple Rainmaker top-rope elbow, again only getting two.
Dream went up for another elbow, but Black kicked him in the face to block. The kick sent Dream into the ropes, where his arms became tied up. Finally, Black hit his Black Mass finisher and put the Dream away for the three-count. All of the fighting was spectacular, the work was amazing, and the crowd was on its feet. But the best was yet to come.
Both men sitting on the mat, Black called for a microphone and finally relented.
“Enjoy, infamy … Velveteen Dream.”
3. NXT Women’s Championship Match – Sasha Banks (C) vs. Bayley, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn
To think that just four years ago, Sasha Banks and Bayley were waiting to become big stars on the main roster. And look at them now!
Anyway. While the Divas on the main roster were still toiling away for the butterfly belt, WWE’s approach to women’s wrestling was evolving in NXT. Indeed, the Women’s Evolution had already started at this point, as Banks, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch had already debuted on the main roster.
But Banks still held the NXT Women’s Championship, a fact she hung over Bayley’s head throughout the build-up to this contest. It was the standard arrogant heel telling the underdog babyface that she wasn’t good enough. Again, standard doesn’t mean bad, as long as it’s well-executed. And this feud was very well-executed, as was the match to settle it.
It was a furious fight from start-to-finish, with Bayley finally becoming fed up with the constant personal and physical assaults from Banks. She absolutely lost it, and for this one match, the audience saw a side of Bayley it hadn’t seen before. The two gave us a solid back-and-forth contest, and a finish that brought the roof off of the Barclay Center.
Banks locked in her signature finishing hold, the Bank Statement, only for Bayley to reverse it. But the champ made it to the ropes. The Bayley-to-Belly Suplex got a near-fall for the challenger, and we got the signature snap and tightening of the ponytail. No more Little Miss Hugs-A-Lot.
An inverted Frankensteiner from the top rope (how to describe this … oh, I know: Ow) gave Bayley the win and the NXT Women’s Title.
After the match, she finally earned the respect of Banks, who — along with Flair and Lynch — hugged the new champion and posed for the crowd. Banks, Lynch, and Flair were moving on, and they signaled that Bayley was now the standard-bearer for the women of NXT.
2. NXT Championship Match – Andrade “Cien” Almas vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT TakeOver Philadelphia
There’s a reason Johnny Gargano’s nickname is “Johnny TakeOver.”
There wasn’t much of a story between these two. The real story for Gargano was his fight through the singles ranks after being destroyed by his former DIY tag team partner Tommaso Ciampa. For Almas, it was all about being the unbeatable champion, as his business manager Zelina Vega had made him an unstoppable force in NXT.
That, in a nutshell, is what makes this match great, and it’s what makes for great pro wrestling. Just because you have two guys in the ring going through different stories doesn’t mean you can’t use their match to continue those stories.
The action between the two was the NXT standard turned up to 11. There were near falls, finish reversals, beatdowns, brawls, and straight-up mat wrestling. Gargano and Almas put on a master class in pro wrestling storytelling with this contest.
What’s most impressive about it is that there were never great spots for the sake of having great spots. Every backflip, every reversal, and every near-fall was a story unto itself. There was not wasted motion – each move had a purpose.
Gargano eventually locked Almas in the Garga-No Escape, but Vega was there to pull Almas to the ropes. This earns a warning from the referee, because wrestling referees are great at their jobs. Almas used the time Vega bought him to take a breather.
With the referee again distracted by checking on Almas, Vega nailed a headscissors rana on Gargano, sending him face first into the steel ring steps. Back inside, Almas hit his hammerlock DDT, but Gargano miraculously kicked out.
Almas dumped him to the outside, where Vega went to attack again. But Gargano’s wife, Candace LaRue, jumped out of the crowd and started beating Vega down on the outside. Back in the ring, Gargano hit a springboard DDT, but it still wasn’t enough to put the champion away. He locked on the Garga-No Escape again, but Almas made the ropes.
A sick running knee sent Gargano’s head bouncing back, earning what Meltzer would probably call a 5-star concussion. Another hammerlock DDT, with Gargano propped up on the second rope, finally put the challenger away.
After the match, LaRue helped her husband back up to the entrance ramp. But as the show went off the air, Ciampa ran out and nailed Gargano in the back. Their story was far from over.
1. Unsanctioned Match – Tommaso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT TakeOver New Orleans
This is the greatest NXT match of all time.
The only thing on the line here was pride. Ciampa showed a willingness to go to ridiculous lengths to make Gargano’s life a living hell. And Gargano, broken down by the constant barrage of Ciampa’s mind games, needed to go to a dark place to gets his vengeance on Ciampa.
Their feud reached such a fevered pitch that NXT refused to sanction the match. There would be no rules, no disqualifications, and no count-outs. The referee for this contest only had one job — declare a winner by pinfall or submission.
And this match was brutal. Absolutely brutal.
Now, when I say it’s brutal, I don’t mean that it was a bloodbath (it was’t, because again — WWE). But the punches were stiff, the bumps were cringeworthy, and at any moment, I was fairly sure one of these guys might die.
Ciampa got the early advantage. He remained confident that Gargano wasn’t capable of being as violent or ruthless as he needed to be. But Gargano proved him wrong in a hurry.
Gargano knew that Ciampa was still nursing a knee injury, so he played some mind games of his own. He beat Ciampa senseless with a crutch he found just laying around (because wrestling). Johnny TakeOver followed up Crutchamania with a DDT onto the ring apron.
After dumping Ciampa over the ringside barricade and into the front row, Gargano rushed at him and nailed a suicide dive onto the floor. But Ciampa’s brutal instincts kicked in, and he suplexed Gargano onto the barricade before nailing a backbreaker outside the ring.
And in a sickening warning of things to come, Ciampa pulled back the protective mats at ringside to expose the concrete floor below. Both guys avoided suplex attempts onto the concrete, and the brawl continued. Up on the ring apron, Gargano teased a DDT onto the concrete below, but Ciampa escaped. But Gargano still had his legs hooked.
In one of the sickest spots I’ve seen in any wrestling match, Gargano powerbombed Ciampa onto the concrete. It’s absolutely horrifying, doubly so considering Ciampa’s lingering neck problems.
Somehow Ciampa didn’t die, and the match continued. It was furious back-and-forth action, until Gargano absolutely snapped. He ripped off Ciampa’s protective knee brace and just started beating the holy living hell out of his opponent with it.
Finally, Gargano locked Ciampa in the Garga-No Escape with the knee brace across Ciampa’s face for extra leverage. Ciampa tapped out, and Gargano won the battle. But Ciampa was satisfied that he’d won the war, as he’d forced the heroic Gargano to take a walk on the dark side.
We’re not sure if any of these matches can be topped. Then again, we say that at the end of every NXT TakeOver show. So it’s entirely possible that NXT TakeOver XXV will force us to amend this list somewhere down the line.
And we can’t wait for it to happen.
NXT TakeOver XXV will stream live from Bridgeport, CT, on the WWE Network this Saturday, June 1, at 7 PM ET
All images courtesy of WWE.