A hot ladder match saw NXT crown their first ever North American champion, but the rest of the card largely struggled to follow it as Takeover raised the curtain on WrestleMania weekend.

New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center had a loaded card for what’s quickly becoming the annual “let’s overshadow WrestleMania” Takeover. Half of the crowd were given glowsticks for the show-open, which was a live band playing to a video hyping up the card. I must say, teenage me dug a little bit of Korn-lite…

Ladder Match for NXT North American Championship: EC3 vs. Killian Dain vs. Adam Cole vs. Velveteen Dream vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet
This marked NXT Takeover debuts for EC3 (yeah, we know about the past life…) and Ricochet… and perhaps Britt Baker, who was shown in the crowd during Adam Cole’s entrance as part of a crowd shot.

Ricochet got the “main event” entrance, complete with a sweet laser.

EC3 slid to the outside to avoid the usual “everyone attacks each other” open, before he runs his mouth as he tried to turn Sullivan and Dain on each other. It eventually works, but Ricochet flew into them with shooting star knees as the crowd went bananas! Velveteen Dream struggles to get a ladder up, and ends up having Ricochet flip around him, as the debutant made it look oh so easy! Cole and Dream fought over the ladder next, with an ushigoroshi knocking Dream down… but Cole can’t get up the ladder quickly as EC3 runs in with a jawbreaker instead. Sullivan’s in to maul EC3 and Cole, with the latter eating a pop-up powerslam before Dain sent him outside for a tope. What in the world?!

Dain tries the big man “fallaway slam, Samoan drop” combo, but Cole broke it up as the match descended into a bit of a brawl. At least until Lars started throwing ladders into bodies, that is, before he throws Dain into it in the corner, as it became Dream’s return to meet it, courtesy of a press slam.

Sullivan tries to climb the ladder, but Ricochet cuts him off with a sunset flip powerbomb that almost took the ladder with him… and it takes four men to get it off! Cole somehow stays on the ladder and climbs up… but Dain gets him down and drops him with a headbutt. Nice! What wasn’t nice, was Ricochet eating a back body drop into a ladder, as we got to Cole and EC3 working together to restrain Sullivan in the corner with a ladder.

They set up a ladder bridge between the ring and the commentary table, with Dain getting thrown into it. Cole takes exception to EC3 stealing his catchphrase, and after dumping him with an ushigoroshi on a ladder, Cole goes superkick crazy! There’s a call back to the infamous Shawn Michaels/Shelton Benjamin superkick spot with Ricochet, but Sullivan stops Cole from climbing to glory.

Velveteen Dream flies in with a series of Purple Rainmaker elbow drops, but Sullivan’s back to play spoiler again, only to get a ladder thrown in his face, as Dream connects with the Purple Rainmaker off the top of the ladder. Sweet Jesus, that’s high! Dream tries to go for the belt after that, but EC3 pulls him down and powerbombs him into a ladder in the corner, as he followed up with some attempted snapmare drivers onto Dain and Sullivan. They connect, albeit not cleanly, as Cole and EC3 race up the ladder, leading to a nasty TKO off the ladder by EC3. NICE!

More ladder carnage follows as Dain back sentoned onto a ladder on EC3, which was dumb. He looked for a Vader bomb next, but Cole jumps on top as he just became extra ballast instead, as EC3 laid crumpled under a ladder. Ricochet chose to return when Dain and Sullivan squared off, and he just gets Beel’d by Lars… then by Sullivan as he was a bloody ragdoll! Dain tried a running crossbody on Sullivan, but it’s caught and turned into a slam, as Lars started to climb the ladder… only for Ricochet to return and lay in with some forearms. A headkick knocked Sullivan loopy as Ricochet climbs to the top… but the ladder’s pushed backwards, forcing him to moonsault into Cole and Dain on the floor!

Breaking News: Ricochet is quite good.

A shooting star press onto EC3 on a ladder follows for Ricochet, as EC3 was taking some punishment, before Dream cut off Ricochet’s ladder climb. Ricochet ducks a ladder, and accidentally creates another ladder bridge, which worries me, as Ricochet ate a rolling death valley driver onto it. Good LORD! Dream goes from giver to receiver of pain seconds later as Sullivan draped him on a ladder, before dumping EC3 onto him with a Freak Accident off the apron. Everyone’s taking so much punishment here, this is beyond bonkers! Ricochet’s due for more of the same as Dain has him on another ladder bridge, but Cole makes a save… and gets a Michinoku Driver onto Ricochet through the ladder. GOOD LORD GUYS.

Sullivan heads back inside the ring finally and starts to climb, barely stopped by Dain before EC3 threw a ladder into Sullivan’s legs. Dain got it too, as everyone but Ricochet started to climb… he finally joins them as we have a six-way slugfest, which eventually gave way to Dream scraping the title, only to get dropped with a neckbreaker off the top of the ladder! We’re left with Dain and Sullivan on the ladder, but a Freak Accident took Dain all the way to the floor, as Lars was the last man left… until Ricochet’s springboard knocked Sullivan and the ladder down!

With what might have been the last working ladder, Ricochet climbs, only to get knocked to the outside with a wacky landing by Adam Cole… who scaled the ladder super quick yo grab the title. Yep, he’s a champion, bay-bay. A hell of a stunt show, but I know there’ll be lots of purists who’ll be mad that folks didn’t “try to win” often enough… but this was a superb start to the show. ****¼

Backstage, Andrade Almas is ranting at his title belt…

NXT Women’s Championship: Ember Moon (c) vs. Shayna Baszler
Good luck following that ladder match… well, we get a live band for Ember Moon, because it’s WrestleMania weekend!

Ronda Rousey and Jessamyn Duke were at ringside cheering on Shayna, who started by nonchalantly slapping Ember out of the ring, as she tried to surprise the champion. Moon dragged her to the floor for a shotgun dropkick into the ring steps, then a flying lungblower back inside for a near-fall. Is everyone just doing that move to show up Veda Scott this week?

Baszler manages to take over though, grabbing an arm before rocking Ember with a knee in the corner ahead of a gutwrench suplex for a near-fall. A submission attempt follows, but Ember counters with headscissors, only for Baszler to come back with knees as the match swung back-and-forth.

Moon’s leaping leg kick nearly puts Shayna away, but from the kick-out Baszler goes for the Kirifuda clutch, only for Moon to leap onto her back to break it up. Ember whiffs badly with a springboard crossbody, and Shayna stands on her hand as she threatened to stomp the champion’s forearm in two. The tables quickly turn though, as Moon tries the same thing, but there’s confliction before Ember does the thing!

Moon tries to finish off with the Eclipse, but Baszler crotches her in the ropes, then kicks Ember in the head, leading the champion upside down. Shayna decided to ram her shoulder into the ring post to reset it before going after Ember… but she’s knocked down as Ember connects with an Eclipse to the floor. That we barely saw because it was zoomed in too much!

Both women barely beat the count back into the ring, but from there Baszler snaps in with a Kirifuda Clutch… which Moon escapes by going for the arm as Baszler has a bullseye. Regardless, Shayna went for a triangle armbar, which Ember powerbombed out of for another near-fall, before another Eclipse was caught and turned into the Kirifuda clutch… which Baszler held on to with one arm as Ember struggled into the ropes… before being rolled back into the middle of the ring. Ember’s last gasp was to try and turn it into a pinning predicament, which didn’t work, as she passed out, forcing a stoppage as Baszler claimed the title! A really good match that almost overcame the shadow of the opener, with Baszler showing heart and guts you’d usually associate with a good guy – before squeaking out the result. ***¾

“I’m the best wrestler you’ve seen in forever!”

They played a trailer for the Paige movie, and I sense a lot of creative license was used here… Adam Cole was in the trainer’s room, and teased not being able to appear in the tag title match that’s next.

NXT Tag Team Championships – Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic 2018 Finals: Authors of Pain (Akam & Rezar) vs. Pete Dunne & Roderick Strong vs. Undisputed ERA (Kyle O’Reilly & Adam Cole) (c)
Kyle O’Reilly wore both belts, as the Undisputed ERA used the Freebird rule here… meanwhile, Adam Cole had taped-up ribs after that ladder match that ended barely half an hour earlier.

Jeff Jarrett and Dustin Rhodes were shown in the crowd, if you’re counting front row views.

Adam Cole was targeted early on as the Authors of Pain tried to make him a non-factor, clearing the ring so they could kill O’Reilly with a powerbomb/neckbreaker combo for an early two-count. The AOP clear the Spanish announce table so they can try and powerbomb Cole through it, and they succeed despite Cole’s best efforts. A good match so far for those who dislike Adam Cole…

Kyle O’Reilly on his own tried to win the match, but he’s quickly taken down by a keylock from Dunne, before retaliating with a series of kicks, only to get dumped by a backbreaker from Strong. More backbreakers from Roddy dump O’Reilly awkwardly as we nearly get an early finish, before Kyle locked in a guillotine, then a triangle armbar… only for that submission attempt to be rudely broken up.

Finally the bout starts to resemble a tag contest, as the Authors isolate Roderick Strong for a long spell… but it killed the crowd as Strong didn’t even get a sniff of hope for a while. Kyle’s back in… but gets booted away as the AOP kept up on their former War Games partner… only for Strong to push away and make the hot tag to Pete Dunne. Forearms from Dunne left the AOP down, before he flipped out of a German suplex and kicked O’Reilly in the head.

Rezar eats a satellite DDT for a near-fall, before we go to Dunne and O’Reilly trading strikes, only for Akam to wipe them out with a double clothesline. A Super Collider follows, before O’Reilly takes the Final Chapter… but Roderick Strong nicks in at the last moment to break up the count! Dunne snaps a finger as the makeshift team tried to get back into it, and nearly succeeded when Rezar ate a knee and an Olympic slam from Strong, who followed up with a backdrop suplex onto the apron to keep O’Reilly out of it. Duelling knees to Rezar led to a waistlock facebuster and a Bitter End combo for a near-fall, before Akam gets sent into the ring steps as things went a little wonky.

In the end, Dunne nails O’Reilly with a Bitter End…but Roderick Strong breaks up the cover and hits his own man with the End of Heartache, then places O’Reilly on top… and I may be tired, but I think Roderick Strong just joined the Undisputed ERA! As a match, the crowd sounded like they were still worn out from the opener, but they sure did pop for the finish, as I guess Strong’s going to be replacing Bobby Fish while he’s on the shelf? ***

That turn would have been so much more effective were the crowd not cheering throughout.

NXT Championship: Aleister Black vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas (c)
Black shoots out of the gate here, crashing into Almas with an Orihara moonsault in the opening seconds, before going for a crucifix armbar in the middle of the ring, switching into a sunset flip as Almas was firmly on the defensive.

Zelina Vega gets involved, throwing herself with a ‘rana to send Black into the ring steps as the champion suddenly had an advantage. He keeps up, throwing Black into the ring post, before he chose to wear down on Black, sinking in a rear chinlock and clinging onto it until Black charged him into the corner…

…only to reapply the hold instantly!

Tit-for-tat boots and elbows follow as Almas tried to turn the pace, using a hanging armbar in the ropes, as the balance remained delicately poised. Kicks from Black had Almas on the back foot, leading to a diving knee as the champion found himself in a little trouble, with a Quebrada getting a near-fall for Black.

Almas cuts off Black as he went up top, before missing a knee as he’d countered out of a sunset bomb. A double moonsault, a la Ospreay connects as Almas surprised Black for a near-fall, before they decided to trade off with kicks. That didn’t do so well for Almas, although he snuck in a back elbow before Black almost sent himself flying outside from the follow-through of a kick to Almas’ face!

Duelling head kicks knocked both men down, as the crowd counting ahead of the ref threw Mauro Ranallo on commentary. Yeah, it’s been one of those crowds. Almas tried to boot Black again, but he has more luck shoving away a Quebrada, sending Aleister to the floor for a wacky corkscrew plancha from the inside out! Now we’re getting going! Zelina Vega grabs the belt for Almas, but the referee quickly disarms him… but that allows Vega a chance to get in and spike Black with another ‘rana for a near-fall.

Almas tries a hammerlock DDT, but Black rolled through for a near-fall, before Black Mass gets a two-count… because Vega pulled Almas’ foot onto the rope. That harlot! She gets involved again as Black went for a PK off the apron, allowing Almas to shove him into the buckles ahead of a double stomp through the apron! That’s quickly followed up with a running knees into the corner for a near-fall.

After saving a ref bump, Almas avoids a Black Mass and lands a dropkick of his own, connecting with the back of Black’s head, before they went to the apron as more running knees sent Aleister crashing into the ring post. That’s followed up when Black tries for a draping hammerlock DDT, but a back body drop sent Almas to the floor for a tope con giro!

Black tries to follow up, but Almas is waiting for him with a hammerlock DDT for a near-fall… before a Black Mass connected as Vega tried to cheat once too many, and that’s all! Aleister Black is your new champion… and that was a match that took far too long for my liking to get going. I liked how the story of Vega cheating too often paid off, but this was way too slow in the early stages for me – even if I am the outlier in that regard. ***½

Unsanctioned Match: Tommaso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano
The stipulation is quite simple: Gargano wins, he’s back on NXT. If he loses, he’s gone forever… even though he already lost a loser leaves town match. It’s the culmination of an almost year-long story, which started when Ciampa turned on Gargano all the way back at Takeover: Chicago last May.

On the pre-show, there were very strong hints that Candice LeRae would somehow turn on Gargano. I sure hope that is not the case. Especially given how many Gargano fans were present…

Ciampa had no music for his entrance, as I’m sure Dolph Ziggler watched on with a keen eye… especially since Tommaso drew insane heat for just existing. Compare that with the God-like love for Gargano, who sure was lucky that NXT didn’t delete his music and video files when he lost that match! There’s a nice touch as the referee, Drake Wuertz, isn’t wearing the zebra stripes, but rather a more casual polo shirt, and we start with Gargano laying into Ciampa with right hands, throwing in a slingshot spear just to get him back to some punches as he stomped a massive mudhole into his former tag team partner… and walked it dry!

A Bret Hart turnbuckle bump and a clothesline to the outside saw Gargano have Ciampa in place for a tope suicida, before he whipped Ciampa into the crowd. I just notice now that the ringside area is noticeably larger than usual, giving Gargano a longer run-up to leap over the barriers into Ciampa as we get some crowd brawling.

Don’t tell the commission!

A backbreaker on the floor followed after Ciampa turned it around, before he started to pull up the padding at ringside, teasing a suplex onto the concrete, only for Gargano to slip out and instead counter with a superkick off the apron! Mauro Ranallo and Percy Watson become collateral damage as Ciampa’s thrown into them, drawing chants of “Mamma Mia”, as Gargano took Ciampa onto the table for a teased piledriver… but instead Ciampa throws a TV screen into Johnny’s midsection before suplexing Gargano from the table to the floor. OUCH.

Ciampa keeps up the aggression, backdrop suplexing Gargano through the decorative hood of the announcer’s desk, drawing some distinctly non-PG chants while also somehow killing Mauro’s headset. Back inside, Ciampa stomped on Gargano’s head as Nigel McGuinness seemed to be the last commentator standing for a while. We’re back with tit-for-tat strikes, but Ciampa gets in a backdrop suplex for a one-count, before a modified cloverleaf forced Gargano into the ropes… except there’s no rope breaks!

The aggression continues as Ciampa stomped a mudhole through Gargano’s head on the apron, following with a running knee as the (presumably) British contingent called Ciampa a wanker. It’s time to water a plant in the crowd, so Ciampa can steal a fan’s crutches – with security conveniently nearby as the plant hobbled away. Ciampa swings and misses with the crutch as Gargano began a comeback, scoring a roll-through into an upkick.

Ciampa tries to fight back as he teases suplexing Gargano onto that exposed floor from earlier, but instead his Air Raid Crash off the apron is blocked and turned into a nasty sunset bomb off the apron. That splat… OWWWWW. Still, at least the crowd found a valid use for that “you deserve it” chant!

Both men return to the ring and fight for that crutch… Gargano wins out, and whacks his former partner in the stomach and the back with it, then again in the surgically-repaired knee! Johnny charges, but gets dumped to the floor, where he uses the crutch again to almost behead Ciampa ahead of a slingshot DDT from the apron for a near-fall.

Gargano removes some turnbuckle padding ahead of a lawn dart… but Ciampa escapes and instead tried a backdrop suplex to the floor. A slingshot spear’s cut-off with a knee to the head as Ciampa nearly takes the win with the Around The World spinning rack bomb, before a running knee to the back of the head continues the run of near-falls.

Tightening up his knee brace, Ciampa looked to use it as a weapon once more, but Gargano escapes and lands a series of lariats, only for Ciampa to hit one of his own before a reverse ‘rana from Gargano turned into a back cracker… Another tiltawhirl headscissors from Ciampa ends up getting countered into the Gargano Escape, but despite a rope break, Gargano rolled back into the middle of the ring, only for Ciampa to rip at his nose to forcibly break the hold.

Ciampa turns it up a notch by trying to choke Gargano with his wrist tape, but it doesn’t work as they trade off with right hands, slowly wearing away each other until a low blow from Ciampa put Gargano down. A vile crutch shot to the back follows, before Project Ciampa wiped out Gargano… just for a two-count! Holy hell!

Ciampa looked on with disgust as Gargano tried to pull himself up, and he succeeds with a superkick and a nasty lariat, before finally hitting the lawn dart into the exposed buckle! Two thrust kicks later, and we still don’t have a winner as Ciampa somehow found a way out! They head up top as Ciampa caught Gargano with a gamengiri, before teasing another avalanche Air Raid Crash, before a super Project Ciampa dumped Gargano for the nearest of near-falls.


Ciampa pulls down his knee pads as he looked for a knee trembler, but Gargano whipped him in the knee with his own brace, before snapping the crutch so he could tease using it one more time… but Ciampa cowers? Confliction and confusion reigned supreme, as did compassion as they called back to the Cruiserweight Classic almost two years ago… but it almost was a ruse as Ciampa swung with his knee brace, before Gargano swapped the Gargano Escape, using the brace, and MY GOD HE WON. JOHNNY GARGANO WINS! ALL IS RIGHT WITH THE WORLD! *****

They… they topped the ladder match. I have no words! Such exquisite story telling, both from a physical and emotional level, and I’m waiting until well after the copyright bug before this goes up… and we’re done! Good luck topping that, ‘Mania!

From my standpoint, Takeover suffered from starting out too hot. That ladder match was so insane, nothing could have topped it – and while the rest of the card was solid, until the blowaway main event, it was hard to not compare the midcard to the opener. All told, this was your typically fantastic Takeover, no matter what order the matches were in. I’d perhaps not read too much into the plethora of title changes, especially since the days after WrestleMania are traditionally call-up season, but the refreshed scene in NXT sure makes for interesting viewing!