If you happened to be watching the kickoff show before NXT TakeOver: In Your House on Sunday night, you may have noticed me with a microphone in hand. That setting was definitely a new experience for me. As I fly from Orlando back home to Boston, here is a collection of takeaways from my brief foray as an on-air talent, as well as a look at In Your House.
- A few weeks ago, I received a call from WWE’s PR department asking whether I would be part of their kickoff show for In Your House. My on-screen history is limited, but having covered the overwhelming majority of the roster either before or during their NXT run, I thought I could add a unique perspective.
For full disclosure, I did not accept any compensation from WWE in the interest of maintaining my impartiality. But there were other enticing reasons to take on the opportunity. It immediately struck me as a better way to gauge the product, seeing elements of NXT that I typically wouldn’t, and the access was phenomenal. I was also able to interview a number of talents (I’m particularly looking forward to writing a feature story on Taya Valkyrie, who is now starring in NXT as Franky Monet), and my Sunday at the Performance Center allowed me a very unique perspective.
Since I covered UFC 263 on Saturday night, I arrived on Sunday for production meetings and prep. Those I worked with at WWE were gracious hosts, and there were plenty of highlights throughout the day.
- For as many WWE shows as I’ve watched and covered, I have never seen the behind-the-scenes machine at work during a pay-per-view, which I was able to do at TakeOver. I saw so many different components that went into the development of this show. I watched the hands-on nature of Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Matt Bloom and Sara Amato throughout the day. At the end of the night, I also caught a glimpse of Triple H congratulating members of the five-way main event as they headed backstage, and it was easy to see how passionate (and spent) all five wrestlers were trying to create something memorable.
Certain moments backstage reminded me of covering show on the indies. There were the hours of waiting for the show to start, the small talk to keep busy and the nervous air of anticipation. Watching the meticulous nature of the makeup artists (especially making Xia Li’s hair absolutely perfect, in nearly two hours in the makeup chair) and seeing the production team—WWE’s unsung heroes—work its magic, was fascinating and provided a different point of view on the event.
- I tried WWE’s famed catering (salmon and vegetables, although grilled chicken and crab were also options). Space to eat was limited, but I had the privilege of sitting in a conference room while Ted DiBiase shared stories about working for Vince McMahon Sr.
One particularly memorable story was when DiBiase was asked to make sure a young talent named Hulk Hogan got over in 1979. When DiBiase wanted to know how McMahon wanted him to accomplish that, he was told however he saw fit. That kind of trust made DiBiase want to do the job even more. Of course, DiBiase and Hogan later became integral pieces of WWE in the 1980s. Despite their feud, which famously included a crooked referee costing Hogan the belt in 1988 and later DiBiase paying off Andre the Giant to sell him the title, DiBiase noted that he was always surprised that he never had a singles match on pay-per-view against Hogan.
- I love to write, but television is an entirely different animal. I’m a fairly calm person off camera, so I didn’t want to be someone I wasn’t when the red light was on. The preshow is incredibly quick, and it feels as if you’re speaking in sound bites, so it took some time for me to get comfortable. While on-air, I tried to stay relaxed and hit my points, and I hope I succeeded.
I can’t stress enough how much of a pleasure it was to work with Sam Roberts. We met Sunday morning at the Orlando Airport Dunkin’ Donuts for a cup of coffee, and he was patient, encouraging and understanding as he walked me through the entire process. I also thought he did an outstanding job leading myself and Arash Markazi (another extremely talented individual) on the air.
I sincerely hope NXT continues to bring in more members of the media to be part of the TakeOver kickoff shows. It really provides a unique lens of NXT, and there are so many talented people who would thrive in that position.
- I spotted Cesaro backstage during the show, who was there to support his peers in NXT. Reginald was also ringside, giving his full support to the roster.
- On to the wrestling. No titles changed hands on the card, though a new Million Dollar champion was crowned. I’ll need to go back and watch the show again to see the parts I missed and hear the commentary, but here are my takeaways from my first live pro wrestling show since March 2020:
- Bronson Reed possesses everything it takes to become a future NXT champion.
One size doesn’t fit all in wrestling, and Reed offers a unique size and look. He showed off his strength in a six-man tag with MSK against Legado del Fantasma, where he retained the North American championship. (MSK’s tag titles were also on the line.)
The program between Reed and Santos Escobar is one that will be worth watching. Both are seasoned veterans and international talents (Reed is from Australia and Escobar is from Mexico). And although it feels like the vast majority of wrestlers have worked together somewhere along the way in their careers, Reed shared after the show that this was their first time in the ring with one another.
“We’d never crossed paths before NXT,” Reed says. “Right away, you can tell he’s so smooth in the ring, and he’s been so well trained. For him, wrestling is in his family. We saw flickers of it tonight, and I’m sure he’s going to keep coming for the title.”
- Xia Li and Mercedes Martinez had a fantastic match, and both need to be prominently featured moving forward. There are few talents in all of wrestling as authentic and hard-hitting as Martinez, and Li offers so much potential for stardom. Their match, which Li won as the program continues, served as a reminder that NXT needs a secondary title for the women’s division.
I know there is already a proliferation of belts, but the depth of the men’s division makes a secondary title (North American championship) a no-brainer. There is simply too much talent in the women’s division not to have another singles title.
- Even when Cameron Grimes loses, his stock rises.
Grimes lost his ladder match against LA Knight, who now receives his first real push in NXT. As for Grimes, who took some brutal bumps off the ladder, his current trajectory has him headed toward becoming a fan favorite. His character is certainly unique, as is his backstory.
Growing up in Cameron, N.C., Grimes—whose name is Trevor Caddell—lived on the same street as Matt and Jeff Hardy. He was extremely close with his father, Tracy Caddell, who helped start OMEGA Championship Wrestling in North Carolina in the late 1990s. This promotion featured a number of wrestlers that went on to enjoy major success, including the Hardys and Shane Moore.
Up until this current run in NXT, the best work of Grimes’s career occurred outside the television spotlight. He set himself up for success by mastering that throwback, Mid-Atlantic wrestling style, and now has entered a whole new territory by combining a compelling character with his in-ring performance. Unfortunately, his father is not here to see it, having passed away from a heart attack three years ago at the age of 50.
When watching Grimes work, particularly as he ping-pongs around the ring, or takes gruesome ladder bumps like he did at In Your House, it is only natural to think of a son doing everything possible to impress his father. The Cameron Grimes story is far from complete, and hopefully last night’s loss makes his redemption story even sweeter.
- Raquel González and Karrion Kross both successfully defended their titles.
González won her match against Ember Moon, and the two developed some really solid chemistry together in the ring together. There was a sequence where Moon had the match won, but Dakota Kai interfered and placed González’s foot on the rope to stop a pinfall. Kai adds another component to this story. I’d like to see Shotzi Blackheart get a shot at the title, as she could be another really dynamic opponent for González.
As for Kross, there was part of me that thought we may see a new champion to inject some unpredictability into NXT, but I understand the decision to have Kross retain. His title reign began in April, and he needs more time to establish himself as champion. Though he won this five-way, the structure of the match was open-ended enough where he can still have programs with Pete Dunne, Kyle O’Reilly, Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole. Gargano may be the best fit, but NXT is sitting on a potentially big opportunity to turn Cole face and let him run as its top star. This would mean he’d need to be distanced from O’Reilly, who is also a babyface, but that could also be revisited in time, and would also mean he needs to dethrone Kross for the belt.
- The show was built around nostalgia meeting the present, and that was true in the way the card played out. A lot of the old In Your House shows served as table-setters for the more signature pay-per-views, which is exactly what happened here.
Regardless of outcomes, every story on the card was extended. Bronson Reed and Santos Escobar will shift to singles matches, while MSK still has business to settle with Legado del Fantasma. The program between Xia Li and Mercedes Martinez is just heating up, and Cameron Grimes will seek retribution against LA Knight. Raquel González and Dakota Kai aren’t finished with Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart, and the focus on the men’s title remains building Karrion Kross into an unstoppable force.
The TakeOver in August will be a turning point for NXT and its singles titles. By then, Kross and González will be in the fifth month in their title reigns and Reed will have held the North American title for four. With a return to full-capacity venues looming, this summer will mark a critical juncture for NXT that will be a massive factor in determining the direction of the show for the remainder of the year.
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.