Since his exhilarating NXT championship victory over Drew McIntyre at TakeOver: War Games last month, Andrade "Cien" Almas' championship reign has unfortunately felt like a secondary element of the show. Over the course of the past month, Almas has only performed in one television match -- a short encounter with Fabian Aichner -- and NXT has instead focused on the tag team and U.K. titles.
That largely stems from the fact that Almas had no legitimate obstacle in his path, thanks to the untimely injury to Drew McIntyre -- but that all changed on Wednesday night, as a familiar rival was placed in his path as we draw closer to NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia.
Over the past three weeks, four qualifying matches took place in which the winners advanced to a Fatal 4-Way match to determine the new No. 1 contender for Almas' NXT championship. Killian Dain, Johnny Gargano, Aleister Black and Lars Sullivan clashed in the main event on Wednesday night, and by the close of action, Johnny Gargano emerged as the first challenger to Almas' reign.
Each participant brought a different skill set to the table, and as a result, we got a little bit of everything in this match: quickness, power, aerial attacks and stellar striking. The overall product was chaotic, and that's meant with sincere endearment. The pandemonium-filled affair saw Dain splash Sullivan through the announcer's table, an avalanche double powerbomb by Gargano and Black to Dain off the middle rope and an entertaining showdown between Gargano and Black.
In what has to be considered an upset given some of the high-profile losses he has suffered of late, Gargano came out on top, but it wasn't without some controversy. Black appeared poised to pick up the victory after he nailed Sullivan with a picture perfect Black Mass spinning heel kick, but Kyle O'Reilly, Bobby Fish and Adam Cole -- Cole being the man Black defeated to qualify for this match -- rushed the ring and prevented Black from a pinfall attempt.
- WWE (@WWE) December 28, 2017
They laid him out in the process, and Black was still recovering when he was met by a slingshot DDT from Gargano, which ultimately led to the three count.
While it's a surprise to see Black take the pinfall, it effectively sets up a program between two of the best workers in the brand in Cole and Black. Black prevented Cole from advancing into the NXT championship picture a couple of weeks back, and Cole returned the favor this week. It was a bit jarring to see a match as big as Cole vs. Black on regular NXT TV to begin with, but if it ends up on the NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia card, it should be one of the highlights of the night.
As for the new No. 1 contender, Gargano, this is quite a leap as it pertains to his singles career, especially when compared to the struggles he endured early on. He'll get the opportunity to avenge two losses against Almas over the past handful of months, both of which showed the incredible in-ring chemistry between the two men. Almas got the better of him in a show-stealing effort at TakeOver: Brooklyn III and followed it up with another win in a great bout on the Oct. 11 edition of NXT TV. In both instances, the match turned when Zelina Vega got in Gargano's head with a #DIY T-shirt, reminding Gargano of his former tag team partner Tommaso Ciampa and the betrayal that happened at NXT TakeOver: Chicago.
It does raise the question of whether Ciampa, who has been out for months with an injured knee, will be lurking in the shadows, looking to spoil his former tag team partner's shot at glory.
Ember Moon defends the NXT women's championship
Ember Moon has had quite the journey since debuting in NXT last year. Her mystifying persona and in-ring athleticism caught on with fans instantly, and she experienced success early on. Then she ran into the dominant NXT women's champion Asuka, who handed Moon her first loss at a TakeOver event in Orlando earlier this year. Even worse, she missed another opportunity to challenge for the title at TakeOver: Chicago in May due to injury. But she returned, and after another valiant effort at TakeOver: Brooklyn III over the summer, she once again failed to capture the gold.
Moon's time to shine finally came last month after Asuka had vacated the title and moved on to Monday Night Raw. Moon defeated Kairi Sane, Nikki Cross and Peyton Royce at TakeOver: War Games to become the sixth NXT women's champion. This week, she successfully defended it for the first time against Absolution's Sonya Deville, who was rounding out her NXT career following a transition of her own to the main roster on Monday nights.
- WWE (@WWE) December 28, 2017
Following the match, one of the superstars Moon defeated at War Games, Sane, approached the top of the stage and, without saying a word, extended her telescoping lens and looked toward Moon in the ring. She let it be known that she has her eyes on the championship, but moments later, in a shocking twist of events, the woman Sane beat in the finals of the Mae Young Classic this summer, Shayna Baszler, made her NXT television debut by sneaking up from behind her and choking her out.
Baszler adds an ultra-intense element to an already stacked NXT women's division. Perhaps her comrade, Ronda Rousey, who has begun the transition from MMA to professional wrestling, isn't too far behind in making her televised debut as well, but that's really just conjecture.
In any case, it'll be interesting to see who steps up as Moon's next challenger.
The Street Profits picked up a quick victory over Kris Starr and Riley Apex. Following the match, they cut a solid promo claiming that 2018 will be their year.
Next week's episode of NXT will be a two-hour year in review highlighting some of the biggest moments of 2017.
In two weeks, SAnitY will get their NXT tag team championship rematch against Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish.