With each passing TakeOver event, expectations climb higher. That's the price NXT has paid for putting forth consistently spectacular events; it's an indication of just how consistently good these shows have been.
Unfortunately, "TakeOver: Philadelphia" feels a bit different. I say unfortunately because NXT has a history of devoting enough time in the weeks leading up to a TakeOver to build rivalries to a level where their eventual culmination at TakeOver events feels truly special.
As we move toward the weekend, however, portions of this particular card feel somewhat rushed and incomplete, including its NXT championship main event. On the plus side, every match offers fantastic in-ring potential -- and hopefully, the stories told in the ring Saturday night will make up for some of the development deficiencies.
NXT championship: Andrade "Cien" Almas (c) vs. Johnny Gargano
It's no secret that Almas and Gargano have an incredible amount of in-ring chemistry together. They've proven it on multiple occasions, including their show stealing effort at "TakeOver: Brooklyn III." But outside of Gargano's quest to avenge two straight losses to Almas, this chapter of their feud has had a very one-sided build as Gargano won three different matches to qualify for the opportunity. Luckily, a bit of that was salvaged in the closing moments of Wednesday's edition of NXT TV.
Before this week's show, all we had seen were backstage segments featuring Almas' associate Zelina Vega verbally dismissing Gargano's chances to become NXT champion, and Gargano's persistent push to prove his worth. That push to remove any doubt about how valid a challenger he was went so far that Gargano put his championship opportunity on the line this week against the Velveteen Dream.
When Gargano initially earned his spot as the number one contender, first by defeating Kassius Ohno and then by winning a Fatal 4-way match against Aleister Black, Lars Sullivan and Killian Dain, it was as a replacement of an injured Velveteen Dream. Just three days before TakeOver: Philadelphia, Dream received his chance to be catapulted right into the main event of TakeOver, only to fall just short in an outstanding that allowed both in-ring magicians do what they do best.
While Gargano's journey as a singles competitor has been compelling, Almas' title reign has been anything but. He has performed in a couple trivial matches since beating Drew McIntyre in Houston, but Almas hasn't been nearly as visible as he should've been over the last two months. Almas needed to be on this week's show, and thankfully he was.
- WWE (@WWE) January 25, 2018
Following Gargano's victory, Almas and Vega attempted to capitalize on a worn-out challenger, but after Almas tossed Gargano out of the ring, Gargano answered by charging back in and hitting a slingshot DDT. He added salt to the wound by posing with the NXT championship as the show went off the air.
Underwhelming build to this particular match aside, these two are certainly capable of producing a match-of-the-weekend candidate. They've done it before, and with the intensely personal way each of their first two matches ended, there's something to build from in the match. No matter how it goes, the specter of Tommaso Ciampa looms large.
NXT tag team championships: Undisputed Era (Bobby Fish & Kyle O'Reilly) (c) vs. Authors of Pain
From one underdeveloped championship match to another, the Authors of Pain will look to join The Revival as the only two-time NXT tag-team champions in history when they face off with Bobby Fish and Kyle O'Reilly of the Undisputed Era.
Similar to the NXT championship situation, these two teams have had battles in the past. Both teams took part in the historic War Games match last November -- a match the Undisputed Era won -- but since then, there has been little interaction between the teams. It's difficult to become invested in a match when a storyline is virtually nonexistent. Time could have been a factor, as the Authors of Pain became No. 1 contenders just last week, but Akam and Rezar wreaked havoc on a couple unnamed superstars this week. Perhaps that time could have been better spent orchestrating a heated exchange between the teams.
The result of this match will be very telling as it pertains to the Authors of Pain's future. They'll either begin another run as champs or, in all likelihood, close out the NXT chapter of their careers on their way to either Raw or SmackDown Live.
NXT Women's Championship: Ember Moon (c) vs. Shayna Baszler
Finally, this is a match with the proper, intense build. Shayna Baszler made her NXT television debut less than a month ago and already finds herself in a championship match on one of the biggest cards of the year. And, because of the time and effort that's gone into telling us why we should care, this match feels TakeOver worthy in every respect.
Since her debut, Baszler has embodied the over-the-top bully persona to a T, taking cheap shots at various members of the women's division whenever she got the chance. In her first appearance on NXT TV, she snuck up behind the woman who defeated her in the Mae Young Classic finale last year, Kairi Sane, and locked in a rear naked choke. After that, multiple videos released on social media showed Baszler victimizing several trainees at the WWE's Performance Center with a variety of chokeouts, which caught the ire of Dakota Kai.
That led to Baszler's debut match, where she defeated Kai by referee stoppage after stomping her elbow at an awkward angle, only to continue to beat up Kai after the match until Ember Moon finally chased her off.
In another recent match, Baszler similarly disrespected Aliyah and choked her out well beyond the bell, drawing Moon out once more and inspiring the champ to lay down a challenge in order to stop the madness.
- WWE (@WWE) January 25, 2018
In a face-to-face interview segment this week, Baszler said, "At 'NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia,' when you wake up and see me walking away with that title, you're gonna know that's me walking away with your dreams."
Could Baszler become champion just one month into her NXT career? It would illustrate her dominance better than any onslaught or words ever could, in a fashion very reminiscent of Kevin Owens' giant leap to the top a few years ago. From Moon's perspective, much like the Authors of Pain, her immediate future could be telegraphed by the outcome of this match.
Extreme Rules match: Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole
No match on the TakeOver card has been built up as well as Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole. That, combined with their impeccable in-ring acumen and the stipulation in play, makes this must-see.
Black and Cole only scratched the surface of their capability in their first match against each other, which was the main event of the national television broadcast debut of NXT last month, when Black picked up the win. That match kick-started an intense rivalry in which Cole costed Black a shot at the NXT championship via interference in Black's No. 1 contender's Fatal 4-Way bout a few weeks ago.
Black responded by teaming up with Roderick Strong to attempt to claim the NXT tag-team championships from Cole's compatriots, Fish and O'Reilly, but that too turned into a brawl between Black and Cole.
The brawl prompted general manager William Regal to announce that Black would face off with Cole in an extreme-rules match, a stipulation near and dear to wrestling fans in Philadelphia, which was the former home of ECW.
Black and Cole are capable of putting on a show regardless of match stipulation, but the extreme-rules atmosphere opens the door for plenty of creative spots and booking options. This also feels like a de facto means to find the next No. 1 contender to the NXT championship.
Velveteen Dream vs. Kassius Ohno
This last-minute addition to the TakeOver card appears to simply be a way to get the ultra-talented Velveteen Dream on the show, and if Ohno has proven anything since returning to NXT, he can have a good match with anyone, and a great match with the right opponent. It would be shocking if Dream didn't leave Philadelphia with a big win under his belt.
Other notes from this week's episode of NXT TV
No Way Jose returned from a long TV hiatus and defeated Cezar Bononi.
Bianca Belair defeated Latoya Allsopp.
Part two of the "Who is TM61" video package aired, getting into the early highs of their time in NXT, including their run in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic and 'NXT TakeOver: Toronto' match against the Authors of Pain. Nick Miller and Shane Thorne will return to action next week after more than a year off of NXT TV in a match that will almost certainly be taped before TakeOver: Philadelphia.
Nikki Cross will battle Lacey Evans next week as well, which will also take place in Philadelphia before TakeOver officially begins.