Key Takeaways From 'TakeOver 31': Performances by Finn Balor and Io Shirai Define NXT Brand

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Pro wrestling promotions are defined by their champions, and that principle was on display at Sunday’s NXT TakeOver.

NXT Women’s Champion Io Shirai extended her title reign with a victory against Candice LeRae, and the NXT Championship was also retained by Finn Balor in a physical match against Kyle O’Reilly.

The two matches highlighted the TakeOver special, which was the first show to take place inside WWE’s new-look Capitol Wrestling Center. Both outcomes were expected, but to the credit of the champions, there was genuine suspense over the finish. With NXT in a Wednesday night battle against a phenomenal opponent in All Elite Wrestling, featuring Shirai and Balor as champs is a necessity.

Io Shirai at NXT TakeOver

Pound for pound, Shirai is arguably the most talented wrestler in the world. Her movements in the ring are so fluid and crisp, and it is incredible to watch the way in which she never wastes a movement. This was visible through her double stomp, 619, and moonsault, which is the best in wrestling. The match also highlighted her resilience, overcoming the antics of LeRae and Johnny Gargano to emerge as champ.

There are no plans to extend the program between Shirai and LeRae, who is now effectively out of the title picture. With the upcoming WWE Draft beginning this Friday, LeRae and Gargano—who lost earlier on the TakeOver card to Damian Priest—would be good fits for the main roster. Following her victory, Shirai was challenged on the video screen by Toni Storm, who will add a tremendous amount to NXT on a weekly basis, and Ember Moon, who is finally healthy after a year on the injured list. NXT has the best women’s division in wrestling, and so much of that is a credit to their champion.

There is more uncertainty regarding upcoming challengers for the NXT Championship, though zero doubts exist regarding the man leading the division. There have been many changes atop the NXT men’s division over the past few months. The title moved from Adam Cole to Keith Lee to Karrion Kross, who vacated the belt due to a shoulder injury immediately after securing it. That ultimately led to Balor holding the belt for the first time since April of 2016, and there is no better fit as champion to oppose AEW on Wednesday nights. That does not necessarily mean NXT will win the ratings battle, or even improve their rankings in the highly-sought demographics, but it does provide instant credibility. Balor could be the face of any wrestling company in the world, and NXT is fortunate to have him as the face of their brand.

The Balor-O’Reilly match was extremely well done. Like Shirai-LeRae, the outcome was never in question, but the objective here was to present O’Reilly as a bona fide main event talent. O’Reilly is only known in NXT as a tag team specialist, partnering with Bobby Fish in the Undisputed Era, but he is a highly accomplished singles wrestler from his years pre-dating NXT.

O’Reilly is smaller, but there is a hybrid nature to his work that captures pieces of both Bret Hart and Daniel Bryan. WWE is succeeding with a similar goal on SmackDown, elevating Jey Uso from tag team extraordinaire to main-eventer, but this is especially hard to do without a response from a live crowd. Uso benefitted from working beside Roman Reigns, who helped him achieve the most memorable moment of his career in the match together at Clash of Champions, and that is exactly what Balor did for O’Reilly.

Finn Balor at NXT TakeOver

O’Reilly went old school and worked the left knee of Balor, who sold the injury to the point where it appeared the outcome was in jeopardy. Balor went to great lengths to make O’Reilly look like a threat to win the title, with his reactions and facials highlighting the prowess of O’Reilly, putting a spotlight on his technical prowess and joint manipulation. There was precision in the title match, and that is the standard NXT has set with Balor as its champ.

Balor won the match with his Coup de Grace finisher, remaining undefeated in all TakeOver appearances since his return to NXT last October. Both wrestlers left the match bleeding, and it was easy to enjoy the precise delivery of pro wrestling presented by both Balor and O’Reilly. There is no clear-cut next challenger for Balor, but that is the beauty of having him as champ. He is the draw, which allows multiple new faces to challenge like we just witnessed with O’Reilly.

The Wednesday night “wrestling war” is far different from the one that took place on Mondays in the 1990s. The wrestlers all want their peers to succeed, but the companies remain out for supremacy. As TakeOver showed, NXT is in its best position to compete with Shirai and Balor as its central stars.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.