Saturday, May 18, 2024

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NXT TakeOver: RESPECT in Review: Mission Accomplished

Respect, indeed.

Last night at NXT TakeOver: RESPECT, NXT Divas received their biggest opportunity yet: a spot in the main event. If that wasn’t enough, there was the added Iron Man stipulation, which guaranteed 30 minutes of wrestling and story that would surely hook the crowd.

For me, this was cemented as the most inspiring women’s wrestling moment in recent history before the bell even rang. The mere fact that this match existed – booked in the main event, given a never-before-seen stipulation and promoted with the “big fight” feel – was such a departure from the doom and gloom Diva fans felt at the beginning of the year that I can’t help but see it as a sign that someone there is finally getting it. The foot, so to speak, is in the door. The fight isn’t done, but we’re damn sure getting there.

Bayley and Sasha Banks haven’t single handedly saved the Divas division, no, but they’ve cemented their spots in the history books. Their match will live on forever in what I hope will be seen as the true beginning of the Diva Revolution.

When I declare “Mission Accomplished”, I’m referring to Bayley and Sasha overcoming the biggest hurdle facing the Divas today: convincing the Powers That Be that the Divas are worthy of respect and are worthy of the main stage. That will always be seen as the Divas’ biggest impediment in my eyes. My Night of Champions review stressed that the only thing standing between the WWE and true progression is themselves – their own archaic views. With this match, the WWE (or, rather, NXT), got out of their own way and finally earned the right to place themselves in the company of Ronda Rousey, Serena Williams and the like.

So no, I’m not declaring “Mission Accomplished” for the turnaround of the Divas division. The biggest step has been made, though, so that’s worth some celebration.

That wasn’t the only Divas match on the card, though. We were also treated to the NXT in-ring debut of Asuka, who was pitted against the self-proclaimed “Total Diva”, Dana Brooke. Cue the “Asuka’s gonna kill you!” chants!

Let’s start with the TakeOver Kickoff show, which featured commentary from WWE Hall of Famer, Diva Dirt Legacy Award winner and all-around legend Lita. As expected, it was chock-a-block with Diva-related hype:

On the main show, things got started with Asuka and Dana:

Asuka arrives second, entering to what I believe is new entrance music. I’m not crazy about it, but I’ve had to warm up to nearly every NXT Diva’s theme, so I’m not worried about it.

Off the opening bell, Dana slaps away Asuka’s handshake attempt. They tie up, Asuka taking control with a wrist lock. Dana reverses it, and Asuka reverses it again. Dana turns the tables again and Asuka flips out, taking Dana down into a hammerlock. Dana flips twice, but is not freed. Dana elbows her way out and displays some of her trademark patronizing cockiness, patting Asuka on the head and slapping her.

Asuka simply laughs at this and stares her down. Then, quick as lightning, she starts pummeling Dana with kicks an strikes. Dana reverses a whip into the ropes, but Asuka takes her down with a hip attack. Asuka then shows some sassiness of her own, mocking Dana’s signature poses. Loving it. This is at a “Bayley steals Sasha’s sunglasses” level of greatness.

Dana shoves her, angry, and the two trade blows. Asuka takes her down for an armbar. With some difficulty, Dana makes it to the bottom rope with her boot, breaking the hold. Asuka lays into her with rapid kicks. Dana slips out of the ring and Asuka gives chase, kicking her and tossing her back into the ring. Emma enters the fray when Asuka’s alone on the ring apron, distracting her and allowing Dana to get in a sneak attack. Dana goes for the pin, but Asuka kicks out. Dana takes her to the corner and drives a shoulder into her midsection before choking her in a handstand position. Dana lays Asuka out with a clothesline and locks in a bodyscissors.

Asuka quickly gets free of the hold and latches on an ankle lock. Dana gets to her feet, but Asuka maintains hold of Dana’s boot, grabbing her bodily and hitting a German suplex. Dana gets to her feet, stumbling to the corner and fending off Asuka with a back elbow, but Asuka manages to take her down with a jumping armbar. Dana flips to get free, but Asuka simply modifies her hold, capturing her in a chickenwing hold instead.

Dana eventually frees herself, but she’s quickly blasted with a kick to the chin. Emma gets on the ring apron, but Asuka disposes of her quickly and kicks Dana in the face. Asuka then locks in a crossface chickenwing bodyscissors: the Asuka Lock! Dana is trapped, and she has no choice but to tap out!

Post-match, Dana jaws with Asuka and gets a spin kick to the face for her troubles. When she exits the ring, Asuka comes face to face with Emma, who simply lets her walk away, clearly intimidated. Something tells me things aren’t finished between these three.

And, sure enough, in a exclusive, we see Dana being tended to by a physician. At first, she’s unresponsive, and Emma’s worried:

Then, suddenly, she’s awake, asking Emma how quickly she beat Asuka. Emma assures her that it was quick, and urges her to lie back down. Out of nowhere appears Asuka, who mocks Dana and pats her on the head. She stares down Emma, who is wise enough to know that she should back away slowly.

Shortly after this, we are greeted with another Nia Jax promo:

This is the same promo we’ve seen for a few weeks, but this time we’re given a debut date: next week. Bring it on!

In what felt like no time at all, it was time for the main event of the evening. Someone call Tony Stark, because it’s Iron Man time:

As Bayley and Sasha make their entrances, we see Lita, Becky Lynch, Charlotte and Stephanie McMahon at ringside. A “Women’s Wrestling!” chant breaks out as we are reminded that this is the 10th Iron Man match in WWE history.

The bell sounds, and as the clock begins ticking down from 30:00, Bayley and Sasha circle each other to “This is awesome!” and “You deserve it!” chants. The come toe to toe and Sasha backs off. They circle again and tie up, battling for control. They shove off and circle again.

The Divas tie up again, Sasha backing Bayley into the ropes. Bayley takes control, but Sasha quickly regains it, locking Bayley in a side headlock. Bayley shoves Sasha off into the ropes, but Sasha knocks Bayley down on the return. Sasha goes for three subsequent pins, but Bayley kicks out of each.

Sasha latches on a front facelock, pulling Bayley to her feet and switching to a side headlock. Bayley shoves Sasha off into the ropes and knocks her down. She goes for three pin attempts of her own, but none get the job done.

The Divas have a staredown as they get to their feet, plotting their next moves. Sasha charges and Bayley ducks, pulling her into a backslide pin. Sasha rolls them both into a seated position and they both stand up, arms hooked. Sahsa pulls Bayley into a rollup, but Bayley kicks out. They trade pin attempts, but no three count is scored. Bayley takes control and goes for two more pins, but Sasha kicks out.

Sasha takes Bayley down with a dropkick, stalking her to the corner. Bayley looks intimidated, but fights back. Sasha captures her arm, but Bayley shoves her off into the ropes and hits a series of offense. She goes for the pin, but Sasha kicks out. Her shoulder looks to be in bad shape, so Bayley focuses on the shoulder and whips her into the ropes. Her attack is ducked and Sasha hits her with a headscissors takedown off the ropes.

Sasha is catapulted onto the ring apron, but she battles back, climbing to the top rope and sending Bayley flying across the ring. She charges to the corner and sends Bayley into it. She attempts the Bank Statement, but it’s blocked, Bayley clinging to the ropes. Bayley goes for the Bayley-to-Belly, but that too is blocked. Sasha falls to the mat and goes to regain her bearings in the corner. Bayley offers Sasha a hand up, and she takes it. Sahsa feigns a hug, taking the opportunity to slam Bayley to the mat by her hair. She goes for the pin, but Bayley kicks out.

Sasha taunts Bayley, sending her into the corner. Bayley leaps off and takes Sasha down with an arm drag and hits a series of back elbows, sending Sasha out of the ring and to the outside. Sasha again needs a moment to regroup, but Bayley follows, hitting a dropkick around the ring post not once, but twice!

Bayley tosses Sasha back into the ring, ducking Sasha’s attack and knocking her legs out from under her. She reenters the ring and hits a bulldog, going for the pin. Sasha kicks out. Bayley grabs Sasha, but is rolled up for a surprise pin. Sahsa uses the ropes for leverage, but the referee spots it and breaks the pin. A close run-in with the referee gives Sasha an opening, and with the ref distracted, she pokes Bayley in the eyes! She immediately pins Bayley and earns the first fall of the match! Nearly 21 minutes remain in the match.

Sasha stays on the attack, pummeling Bayley. She chokes her in the corner with her boot. Bayley fights back, tackling Sasha and punching her. Sasha takes back control easily, pulling Bayley to her feet and to the corner. Bayley battles back, though, slamming Sasha face-first into the corner repeatedly. Sasha returns the favor, slamming her hard into the second turnbuckle.

Sasha grabs Bayley by the hair, propping her up in the corner. She goes for the double knee drop, but Bayley slips out of the way, lifting Sasha and dropping her neck-first into the ropes. When she tries to continue the attack, Sasha forearms her and knocks her down. Sasha climbs to the second rope, but Bayley grabs her for a Bayley-to-Belly out of nowhere! She pins Sasha and evens the score to 1-1! 18:30 remains in the match.

Sasha rolls out of the ring. Bayley follows and goes for her dorpkick around the ring post, but Sasha catches her, pulling her through and tossing her into the steel steps. Sasha tosses Bayley back into the ring and pins her. Bayley kicks out! Bayley is tossed out of the ring, Sasha following. Sasha pulls her to her feet and tosses her into the steps again…twice! She talks trash to with Bayley’s superfan Izzy before tossing Bayley back into the ring and attempting the pin. Bayley kicks out!

Sasha pulls Bayley to her feet and tosses her out of the ring once more, seemingly tweaking Bayley’s knee in the process. She takes Bayley all the way to the top of the entrance ramp and tosses her into the LED screen! Bayley is out. The referee performs the 10 count and Bayley is counted out! Sasha wins the second fall with 15:30 remaining in the match.

While Bayley recovers, Sasha performs a NXT cardinal sin, stealing Izzy’s headband and mocking her in the ring, prompting tears from the little girl. The referee continues his count, and Bayley narrowly makes it to the ring to avoid losing another fall. Sasha covers her for the pin, but Bayley manages to kick out. Sasha mocks Bayley’s signature arm wave, stomping on her back. Bayley crawls to the corner while Sasha talks trash. Bayley goes for a kick, but Sasha catches it, yanking her up for a backbreaker! Sasha goes for the pin, but Bayley kicks out.

Sasha pulls Bayley towards the middle of the ring and goes for a Boston Crab. Bayley kicks frantically, trying to block it, but Sasha locks it in! Bayley crawls toward the ropes and breaks the hold, but Sasha stomps on her head and keeps her down. She grabs Bayley by the boots and drags her away, but Bayley reverses her hold and rolls Sasah into a surprise pin! She earns the three-count and ties it 2-2! We have 12:20 remaining in the match.

All of this takes a lot out of Bayley, and she’s left flat on the mat. Sasha props her up in the corner and goes for the double knee drop, but Bayley again avoids it. She goes on an offensive streak, taking Sasha down with double axe handles. She tosses Sasha into the ropes and plants her face first to the mat! She pins Sasha, but it’s not enough.

Sasha stands up in the corner and Bayley hits elbow after elbow, tossing Sasha towards the middle of the ring and diving off the second rope with a back elbow! She goes for the pin, but Sasha again kicks out.

Bayley suplexes Sasha onto the top rope, catching her in a tree of woe. She drops an elbow onto Sasha! She pins her, but it’s still not enough! Bayley sits Sasha on the top rope and follows her up there. The two trade blows and Sasha slips free! She stands upright and traps Bayley into a tree of woe of her own. Sasha plants the prone Bayley with a double knee drop and pins her. Bayley kicks out!

Sasha grabs Bayley by the hair and props her up in another tree of woe. Bayley sits up and Sasha hits blow to the back to get her back in position. She charges shoulder-first but Bayley sits up, narrowly avoiding the attack! Sasha falls out of the ring. Bayley kicks her through the ropes and follows, slamming Sasha’s hand into the steel steps twice.

Bayley sends Sasha back into the ring and goes for the pin, but Sasha kicks out! Bayley blasts Sasha’s bad shoulder against the middle rope and sends her back out of the ring. Bayley follows, pulling the steps out of position. The Divas battle next to the steps and Bayley takes control, slamming Sasha’s hand against it. She then catapults off the steps and clotheslines Sasha!

Sasha fends off Bayley, kicking her into the steps. Both Divas catch their breath. Sasha slips into the ring as the referee starts his count. Sasha comes flying back through the ropes with a suicide dive, but Bayley catches her and hits a Bayley-to-Belly on the outside! She sends Sasha back into the ring and pins her, but Sasha manages to kick out!

Bayley slowly gets to her feet, setting Sasha up in the corner. She seats her on the top rope and climbs up to join her. Sasha fends her off, but Bayley battles back. Sasha again shoves her away. Bayley flies back at her and hits a Super Bayley-to-Belly! She pins Sasha, but her foot’s on the rope! We remain tied at 2-2!

Both women are clearly exhausted, but Bayley is first to her feet. She pulls Sasha up and lifts her to stand on the second rope. She climbs up there with her and hits a reverse Bayleycanrana, but Sasha is quickly on her feet. She hits a Bayley-to-Belly of her own, pinning Bayley! Bayley kicks out, but is then hit with the Bank Statement!

With 90 seconds remaining in the match, Bayley is desperate to get to the ropes. She struggles, and Sasha rolls through applies the submission again! We have a minute left! Bayley hangs on and somehow fights free. She slams Sasha bad hand on the mat.

Sasha hits the Bank Statement again, but Bayley reverses it! She locks in an armbar, working on Sasha’s bad hand. Sasha is in agony, and taps out with mere seconds left! Bayley finishes the match ahead 3-2, retaining the Women’s Title!

In the aftermath, both Divas are joined by the entire NXT roster, who assemble at the top of the ramp. Hi Athena and Sara Del Rey!. NXT GM William Regal is there, as well as the aforementioned Becky, Charlotte, Lita and Stephanie. Sasha is handed a bouquet of flowers and stands at the front of the massive group. Triple H delivers Bayley’s bouquet in the middle of the ring, hugging her.

With that, TakeOver fades to black, ending on what might be the greatest “feel good” moment in NXT history.

Thoughts: Dana and Asuka’s match definitely exceeded my expectations. Sure, Asuka is well known for being a fantastic wrestler, but I didn’t expect Dana to keep up so well. Wrestling is a dance: it takes two to make a good match, and Asuka and Dana made surprisingly good partners.

Asuka was clearly the star, working quicker than any Diva I’ve ever seen and whipping out that amazing transition to the Asuka Lock. She is obviously destined for stardom on the main roster, but I hope they give her time to develop a big following in NXT. And, until the main roster booking gets its act together, I don’t think they’d be able to do her justice there anyways. It’s a matter of preparing the main roster for her, not her for it.

I’m willing to bet that Dana and Emma aren’t done with Asuka. They’ll probably try to use their numbers advantage to get revenge. I only hope that Athena is brought in to even the odds. That tag team would blow minds. In fact, I’d love to hear a convincing argument against those two competing in the NXT Tag Title division. I don’t think there is one.

As far Bayley vs. Sasha… what is there to say? They managed to outdo their performance in Brooklyn, and not just because it had the Iron Man stipulation and took place in the main event. They told an even better story than before, took better risks and even found a way to improve their chemistry. The mark of a legendary match is the feeling of emotional exhaustion it leaves in the audience, and this bout achieved that more than any other NXT Divas match so far. Like never before, these women left it all out there.

There’s also something to be said for these two specific women getting this opportunity: Bayley, one of the very few Divas who has been allowed to buck the trend of sexualization, and Sasha, a woman of color in a company notorious for its diversity issues. It just adds another layer of greatness to this moment: not only are two women the face of a live special presented by one of the most beloved and prestigious brands in wrestling, but it’s two women who break the Diva mold completely. It’s a double whammy for progression in women’s wrestling.

This was a surreal experience, from the announcement to the buildup to the match itself to the aftermath. Back in February, when Diva fans witnessed a 30 second match and got #GiveDivasAChance trending, I never would have expected this to happened. Sure, NXT has had a reputation for treating the Divas well for a while now, but a main event match? No way. An Iron Man match? Keep dreaming. I fully believe that it was the Diva fan community that made this happen. No change happens without someone to push for it. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, after all.

Seeing all of this, it’s all too easy for the cynic in me to contrast it to the lackluster treatment of the Divas on the main roster. Sure, things have improved with Paige‘s heel turn (or tweener turn?), the return of Natalya and the much-deserved push of Team B.A.D., but I get the sense that it will be a long time before we see the Divas treated with this much respect on Raw, SmackDown and Pay-Per-Views. For the longest time, I’ve stressed my belief that the underlying issue afflicting the Divas division was the lack of weight their segments and matches had. There was no importance. Importance is achieved through captivating storylines, awe-inspiring matches and well-rounded performers, and the main roster Divas weren’t given the opportunity to display any of that. The so-called Diva Revolution didn’t deliver on that either, because all hype and no substance don’t create real change.

A sense of importance isn’t difficult to achieve, and this TakeOver special proved it. The biggest hurdle will always be earning the faith of the Powers That Be. Booking Bayley and Sasha in a main event Iron Man match spoke to NXT’s faith in the Divas to carry a show all on their own. They had the balls to place the weight of an entire special on the Divas’ shoulders, and in doing so won half the battle. There was little doubt from that point that Bayley and Sasha would hold up their end of the bargain and deliver.

And deliver they did. One can only hope that this helps convince those in charge of the main roster that two Divas – even those who buck the traditional “Diva” label – can captivate the crowd and tell a story just as well, if not better, than the men. With what we’ve seen from NXT’s expanded touring, you can’t tell me that this is a phenomenon limited to the crowds at Full Sail. All that’s separating the NXT Divas and the main roster Divas is the presentation. They aren’t sideshows. They aren’t novelty acts. They’re wrestlers. Treat them like they’re important, and voila: they will be.

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