by Frank Lucci
NXT has become the hottest brand in all of wrestling and it’s easy to see why. The “developmental” promotion has sought out many top wrestlers in the industry with seemingly little regard to the unwritten rules of what the WWE wants in their superstars.
Triple H, the man playing the wizard of this veritable land of pro wrestling Oz, has signed big guys, little guys, guys who have been told before they “would never make it to the WWE” and perhaps the most important of all, women for his brainchild. Throw in key elements that have been missing from the main WWE roster (simplified, cohesive stories, emphasis on in-ring ability, focus on both women’s and tag team wrestling) and the brand that was once a third-rate reality TV show has eclipsed the WWE in the eyes of many fans.
When NXT began touring outside of Florida for the first time in May of 2015, I saw no reason not to drive over 200 miles from Rochester, New York to Albany for a chance to see NXT. With the company once again coming to the Washington Avenue Armory on February 20 of this year, I jumped at the chance to see the superstars in training once again.
Of course, it’s never quite as simple as jumping into a car on a Saturday afternoon and driving down the thruway. I had to get up early (i.e: 10 in the morning, I worked until one A.M the previous night) and scramble to secure five tickets. Shockingly, the tickets cost more per person than the WWE live show that had come to Rochester the previous September. I purchased five tickets, (enough to fit into one car) and then had to figure out a) who to offer tickets to first and b) how to gather people who lived out in Buffalo and Oswego to my place so we could all drive together.
I was confident in my ability to go, as that day happened to be a guaranteed day off from Saturday overtime for the shift I was on. Lo and behold, two weeks before the event my work changed my shift to the morning shift. This meant I went from having the day guaranteed off to being on the shift that was primary for working Saturday.
I began to panic slightly. However, it had been several weeks since anyone had needed to work Saturday, so perhaps I would still be in the clear. God and the weather laughed at me and proceeded to dump a foot of snow on Rochester the Tuesday before the show. While I managed to get to work, the main highways were actually closed later in the day due to the storm, a feat unheard of in Rochester lore. Sure enough, the other shifts were cancelled that day and we got to “leave early” (aka shovel our cars out of the parking lot and brave the storm). This lead to Saturday overtime, leaving me high and dry for NXT unless I could find a volunteer to work for me. Despite my best attempts to convince people that a painted up Irishman and an adorable woman in a side ponytail needed me to cheer for them, people did not want to wake up at six in the morning to work for me.
Things were bleak until I asked the women on night shift (who were also coming in for Saturday, but due to their schedule worked through Friday night) If she was willing to work a 12 hour shift. Finally I had a success, and she agreed to stay, leaving me with only four hours to give away. Thankfully my good buddy and fellow wrestling fan John (who had the privilege of seeing Andre the Giant perform) agreed to come in for the rest of my shift knowing how important seeing NXT was to me. John, a diehard Phish fan (as if there are any other types of Phish fans) compared my love of wrestling to that of his love of Phish. I took that as a huge compliment and with my wrestling plans secured braced myself for the long drive ahead.
Saturday came and my four traveling companions were ready to make the long drive with me. Marques (aka occasional Manopera guest Lord Boximus) was ready to see his girl Asuka kick people’s heads in. As the most veteran wrestling fan of our group (he saw the premiere of the Elimination Chamber match at Survivor Series 2002) he got to ride shotgun for part of the trip. Kim, the owner of the car we piled into, intrepidly drove the first half of the trip. Her boyfriend Dan, being the next smallest person in the group, had to ride in the middle seat the entire way. Rob, our fitness freak friend who proudly lost over 100 pounds to become the height and weight of Cesaro, managed to squeeze into the rouge as well. With the weather doing a complete 180 from Tuesday’s storm, deciding to be 50 degrees and sunny, things were on the up and up. With this good fortune we barreled down highway 90 discussing who we thought would be on the card, theorizing about Wrestlemania plans, addressing internet wrestling rumors and in general forgetting that Fastlane was the next day. The 200 plus mile trip was conquered in three hours and change; and after a brief trip of downtown Albany in a quest to find parking we were set.
Feeling good about arriving half an hour before the show was scheduled to start, our spirits were high. Groups of wrestling fans converged on Washington Avenue and everyone was excited to attend the sold out show. On the way to the building we passed a dead crow who had slammed into a window while flying, broke it’s neck and face planted into the ground below. I decided this hardcore sight warranted an “ECW” chant – unaware of the bad omen the crow represented. We got to the doors to see the line snaked around the side of the building, which was expected. Little did we know, the line went around the building and had almost passed the end of the line walking from our car to the building’s front door. With the clock rapidly counting down to the start time of 7:30 the familiar panic began to set in. We joked that Rob, fit as he was, should have stripped down to his underwear and pretend to be a local jobber working the show to get us in. With five minutes until the start time seeing us still snaked around the building, we debated bum rushing the garage entrance of the building when a car pulled up. 7:30 hit and we were still outside.
All seemed quiet so we thought perhaps WWE officials had wisely delayed the start time. We were wrong however, and soon we reached the point where we could heard the crowd inside cheering. It turns out that Triple H had come out to hype up the crowd before the show’s first match started, and a large portion of fans missed it. With the doors nearly in view we heard the first wrestler’s theme hit. It was Asuka, and the mood in the line soured quickly. Many fans were peeved that poor planning was leading them to miss one of NXT’s brightest stars, myself included. Once I recognized Asuka’s theme I let out a F-bomb at the top of my lungs, public decency and the children (which there was a surprisingly large amount of, though nowhere near the amount found at WWE shows) be damned. We were even more pissed when her opponent was announced as Eva Marie, as we knew the match would be a disappointment anyway. Finally, realizing the crowd outside was getting hostile, the event staff opened up the VIP entrance to the crowd, and we filtered in to see Asuka make Eva Marie tap out to the Asuka Lock. With my group finally in the building we settled in to our seats and got ready for the show.
Next we had Apollo Crews come out to a decent crowd reaction. His opponent Alex Riley received a very mixed reaction, as some people were either confused as to whether he was heel or face. Some wondered why he was facing Crews when the official fight card poster for the event had Elias Samson wrestling Crews. Either way, the two had a short but relatively uneventful match that saw Riley kill time by running out of the ring repeatedly and Crews trying to hit his signature moves. Eventually Crews rallied against the former announcer and hit his five moves of doom for the win.
Nothing against Riley, but he is a pretty bland wrestler in a sea of colorful personalities and has become the Curtis Axel of NXT. Crews needs an opponent who can work at a higher work rate so he can really shine. Until then, he is destined to be second banana in NXT.
Carmella came out solo for the third match on the card and did her usual stick on the mic. The princess of Staten Island was bursting with energy, but without her main men she lost a step or two. However, she is miles ahead of her opponent Peyton Royce when it comes to having a character. At this point I decided to check out the merch booth, but the line was long enough that I could still check out the action in the ring. However, roughly 70% of this match was the crowd chanting “smell her flower” – referring to the flower Royce brings to the ring as part of her frankly terrible “Venus Fly Trap of NXT” gimmick. When Carmella got ahold of said flower, she smelled it to the delight of the audience as Royce acted like Carmella had just bit the fingers off her newborn child. Once the actual in-ring action took place it was decent, but as I neared the merch booth the bleachers obstructed my view. With only a few people ahead of me I heard the bell ring and Carmella won the match. I was comfortable with my choice to skip the match to grab the awesome fight card poster they made for the event as well as a Samoa Joe shirt.
Just as I had almost made it to the merch booth my heart sank as Enzo and Big Cass’ music hit and the crowd collectively lost their minds. The tag team easily got the loudest sustained pop of the night and the two New York City natives responded accordingly. I got my gear just as they got to the ring after Enzo’s introduction speech and the crowd chanting “How you Doin?” Enzo and Cass relished the Albany crowd, as they considered wrestling there a hometown crowd. It’s astonishing how over the tag team are, although part of the crowd’s love may have been due to the (false) rumor that the two were to appear at the Fastlane Pay-Per-View the next day. Their opponents were The Vaudevillians, who got a nice pop before the crowd settled into the routine rhythmic clapping audiences use to show their love. The two veteran teams have wrestled countless times in the past, but the four men put on a great show for the crowd. In particular, Aiden English played to the crowd while Simon Gotch was in the ring and Big Cass threw Enzo around almost as much as his opponents. Seeing as Enzo and Cass had the crowd in the palm of their hands, the two walked away with a victory before intermission hit.
After a fairly quick intermission (that the venue botched hard by not having enough food prepared for the audience and ridiculous lines to boot) the crowd was ready for more action. What we got was Elias Samson, who got booed like he just ate the last known bison. When he meandered his way to the ring and began playing his guitar things got even worse. The crowd started chanting “drift away” to the New Day Rocks beat. Channeling my best Zoidberg impression, I yelled “Your music’s bad and you should feel bad” which at least made the guy in front of me laugh. While Samson’s gimmick is really lame, he generated so much heat I couldn’t hear him over the boos, so at least he can say he is the male Eva Marie. In addition, his negative reception perfectly dovetailed into monstrous cheers for his opponent Sami Zayn. The ska-tastic Zayn made Samson look good, although to be fair Samson is perfectly fine in the ring. Zayn gave The Drifter plenty of offense, probably because he is polite and Canadian. However, Zayn stormed back and delivered a Helluva Kick to end the contest.
Bayley stormed into the arena next, and the Women’s champ got a very high pitched pop for the many young ladies in the crowd. Bayley spent several minutes giving high fives and knick knacks to fans at ringside because Bayley is pretty much the perfect woman. Her opponent was Alexa Bliss, who was without Blake and Murphy. Quick side note worth mentioning: Bliss has a fantastic butt. Our entire group and everyone in our section agreed. Meanwhile, back in the ring Bayley opened up the match by doing the worm several times, because once again, she is perfect. After the third time Bliss attacked, showing some good heel instincts. Both women put on a good match, and the Glitter Blizzard by Bliss is a thing of beauty. Like most heels, however, Bliss ended up losing to Bayley. Another worm was in order, and the crowd showered the champ with cheers for a great match.
The main event of the evening was a tag match with Baron Corbin and Samoa Joe facing Austin Aries and NXT Champion Finn Balor. Corbin got a decent amount of boos, but the crowd cheered heel partner Joe. Meanwhile, Aries got a tremendous pop from the crowd as most everyone knew who the indy veteran was despite not yet appearing on TV. Balor also got a great pop, but the leather jacket/flashing the title thing makes him look like he may be a pervert. Just once I want him to open his jacket to reveal Krang.
There was a nice bit of psychology to start the match as the face team sent out Aries to please the chanting crowd, only for Joe to refuse to start the match unless Balor was in the ring. Corbin did a series of hokey strikes in the corner followed by posing and yelling, which was super goofy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ares ended up taking loads of punishment and the small boy behind us tried in vain to start a “let’s go Austin” chant for five minutes before his mom told him to stop. This match inspired many great moments from the crowd, with a guy near us yelling “NXT lifer” at Corbin, who clearly heard it and looked pissed afterwards. The Lone Wolf had one fan who kept cheering for him, despite the “shut the fuck up” chant he drew. Because I have the maturity of a five-year old, I tried to start a “Baron Corbin’s a weenie” chant (which did not take off). The four men gave a great performance, ending with the champ cleaning house and winning with the Bloody Sunday. The good guys swept the event, making sure everyone went home happy. Balor thanked the crowd and as a special treat called out Bayley so he could dress up like her and imitate her entrance to the delight of the crowd. Immediately after we hightailed it out of the arena, as we had a three hour drive home to deal with.
The event was a huge success, despite the staff trying hard to throw a wrench in NXT’s momentum. They were probably the biggest heels of the whole show. As our car drove the long stretch from Albany to Rochester listening to Deltron 3030, Action Bronson, and 18 minute long prog metal songs we went through highlights of the evening and tried to picture a scenario where Fastlane could top even an untelevised NXT show.
While a stadium full of fans screaming for the spectacle of a Pay-Per-View is always a treat, an armory of passionate fans watching passionate performers trying to give back what they have received to the fans cannot be topped. Not by the WWE as it stands now, but perhaps when Balor, Bayley and the others make it to the main roster (hopefully with their personalities and gimmicks intact), the company can find its way out of the rut it’s in and start flying high again.