The Undisputed Era v Authors of Pain (NXT Takeover: Philadelphia, 1/27/18)
Man, the Authors of Pain have gotten reeeally good. Assuming this is what they are now. I think the last time I saw them was early last year and while I didn't think they looked bad or anything, they never left much of an impression. But they were a ton of fun here. This was a pretty great brutes v technicians match and I thought Akam especially was on point in showing some vulnerability. Fish and O'Reilly had a bunch of cool stuff to work over the knee and Akam sold it all great, trying to swat at flies when the UE would swarm him, doing lots of limping and hopping on one leg. He was always dangerous, but if it looked like he'd caught one of the two the other guy would usually manage to cut him off. At one point both Fish and O'Reilly took turns charging him in the corner and Akam would keep flinging them away, just tossing them over his shoulder or booting them with the good leg, but then Fish improvised and hit a dragon screw around the middle rope to down him again. Fish and O'Reilly worked like a true unit, basically. Rezar came in swinging off the hot tag and the whole finishing stretch was strong, with a couple awesome moments to boot, my favourite being Akam hitting an apron lariat across Bobby Fish's face. Finish with Akam's leg buckling under him leading the to miscue was a cool way to make Fish and O'Reilly look crafty without having either AoP come off as weak. It sets up a rematch pretty well too, and I'd absolutely be down for it.
Andrade Cien Almas v Johnny Gargano (NXT Takeover: Philadelphia, 1/27/18)
Yeah, this was pretty tremendous. It isn't ordinarily a style I like very much. I'd say it's somewhere between New Japan main event and junior heavyweight epic and neither of those things appeal too much to me, but I thought they managed to play to the strengths of those styles whilst circumventing their worst aspects. The first ten or so minutes didn't totally connect with me, but it was some decent slow build and I did like how they managed to work in the early parity/stand-off spots without looking like dorks. They didn't feel rote or cheesy and I'm someone who has an inexplicable hatred for parity/stand-off spots. So you know, fair play to them. The missed double stomp in the corner leading to Almas taking the overhead belly-to-belly into the turnbuckles was where they really grabbed me. There were still some iffy parts after that, like the way they sort of hinted at going with the back work without ever really following through on it, and at times I never got much of a sense of PERIL, but largely it built super well and the pacing was excellent. I've seen three Gargano matches in the last two years. He's always been a nutty bumper and he was a fucking lunatic in this, but more than anything else he came across as a true underdog you wanted to succeed. I already knew the result, but there were moments where I was all in on him somehow pulling it out the bag. I got goosebumps when he kicked out of that first hammerlock DDT. I wanted Almas to tap on the No-Escape and deflated like everyone else when he got a foot on the ropes. I thought his distant facials were pretty hokey, but I'll almost always take hokey facial expressions over someone burning through shit to get to the next part of their routine, and at no point did it feel like either one of them were guilty of cutting the moment short. There was some laying around, but it felt earned, and without the laying around there wouldn't be that sense of gravity. The Zelina Vega stuff was done super well too. Obviously Candice hopping the rail and spearing her out her boots was amazing, but beyond the pop it felt like a key part of both Johnny and Almas' story. I guess it was similar to Rock/Lesnar from Summerslam in a way, with Vega as Almas' Heyman and Candice's spear as the surrogate Rock Bottom. Had Vega stuck around there would always be the sense that she was the difference maker. I suppose she still was in a way, but in the end Almas had to go it alone and it wasn't Vega who dragged him to the ropes that second time. It wasn't Vega who hit the ludicrous running knees into the ring post. And it wasn't Vega who pinned Gargano clean as a sheet.