On the second edition of NXT TakeOver: Chicago, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa returned to the scene of the breakup of #DIY at the Allstate Arena to settle tensions a full year in the making ... and made it count, while Velveteen Dream and Ricochet settled tensions that have boiled over since NXT TakeOver: New Orleans.
First-time title challengers Lars Sullivan and Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch got their shots at Aleister Black and The Undisputed Era, respectively, but got the short end of the stick, while NXT women's champion Shayna Baszler defended her belt against Nikki Cross on Saturday night in Rosemont, Illinois.
(c) -- indicates defending champion(s)
Chicago Street Fight: Tomasso Ciampa def. Johnny Gargano
Just over a year ago, at the inaugural TakeOver: Chicago event, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa walked side by side down the ramp into the main event looking to recapture the NXT Tag Team Championships. About 25 minutes later, #DIY was no more and the premier villain in NXT was born in Ciampa. Ciampa's brutal assault on Gargano at last year's event haunted Johnny Wrestling for nearly an entire calendar year until Gargano exacted some revenge in a classic bout at TakeOver: New Orleans back in April. But that was just the beginning.
Since that match, the personal nature of this rivalry escalated quickly as Gargano's thirst for revenge surged with each passing week, even at the expense of his wife, Candice LeRae.
This time around, Gargano and Ciampa were set for a street fight, and the potential for brutality was sky high. That was an understatement.
Both superstars entered the ring, crutches in hand, ready to do battle the carnage began immediately. Following a somersault by Gargano onto Ciampa to the outside of the ring, both men took the fight into the crowd, the template for any good street fight. Gargano wore out Ciampa with a stop sign a fan had hidden between two posters. He then dove off the stands, performing a cross-body block onto Ciampa on the concrete surface.
Eventually, they made their way back into the ring, and Gargano filled the ring with weapons. Crutches, garbage cans and steel chairs were strewn all over the canvas as the two heated rivals blasted each other with strikes and alternating suplexes.
Street fights don't stay in the ring though, right? Right. As Ciampa rolled to the outside, Gargano nailed a perfectly executed suicide dive, but Ciampa responded with a vicious knee to Gagano's face and began to take control. He trapped Gargano's head inside a steel chair, launched him into the steel ring steps in an innovative spot and continued the onslaught on the outside of the ring.
Back inside the ring, Ciampa pulled out a pair of handcuffs, but Gargano fought back by way of his patented spear through the ring ropes. Gargano proceeded to whip his former tag-team partner with his leather belt, but it wasn't long before Ciampa rebounded by way of a powerbomb turned into a back-cracker onto Gargano. That was nothing compared to what he did next. With Gargano on his shoulders, Ciampa drove him off of the ring apron, back-first onto the ring steps. Valiantly, Gargano mustered enough energy to kick out of a pinfall attempt.
In an unusual twist, Ciampa began to take the ring canvas apart. He pulled the mat off the ring, exposing wooden planks, and placed Gargano on the top rope. Gargano wiggled free and the two ended up right where they began, in the middle of the ring, trading stiff strikes.
The next vicious sequence saw Gargano attempt to launch himself to the outside of the ring onto Ciampa, only to be met with a garbage-can lid to the head. Back in the ring, Ciampa pummeled a dazed Gargano and nailed him in the back of the head with a crutch, but somehow Gargano kicked out of a pinfall attempt.
Ciampa then walked a limp Gargano up the ramp, reminiscent of the conclusion of last year's TakeOver: Chicago, and slammed him into the entrance set. In a vile piece of storytelling, Ciampa removed Gargano's wedding ring, spit on it and tossed it away, which angered Gargano enough that he lifted Ciampa onto his shoulders and drove him off a couple large production boxes about 12 feet in the air through two tables, the exact move done to him at this time last year by Ciampa.
Gargano wasn't done, though. As Ciampa was being stretchered out of the arena, an enraged Gargano wheeled him back to the ring, handcuffed his hands behind his back and pelted him with super kick after super kick. As Gargano locked in his Gargano Escape submission, officials dragged Gargano out of the ring, but he fought them off. As Gargano was about to enter the ring again, Ciampa caught him, hit a DDT onto the exposed ring area and managed to cover him for the win.
This was, without question, the most brutal match in NXT history and one of the most barbarous in WWE history. Ciampa's victory likely extends this epic rivalry even further as it progresses toward an elite level. We're witnessing one of the classic professional wrestling rivalries of our lifetime here. Enjoy it.
NXT championship match: Aleister Black (c) def. Lars Sullivan
A single, high-profile mistake can torpedo a match's reputation and take away from everything that preceded it -- but if fans can set aside the crucial moment in which an Aleister Black kick appeared to miss Lars Sullivan's head despite Sullivan crumpling into a heap, they'll realize that Sullivan put on a very solid performance in his highest-profile opportunity to date.
Sure, the build to this match followed as stereotypical a monster vs. champion buildup as you're ever going to get, but for Black and Sullivan alike, this was an opportunity for each to prove drastically different things. For Black, it was an ability to adapt his style to a less-experienced, larger opponent; for Sullivan, it was to prove he could hang one-on-one in a similar fashion to his performance in the North American championship ladder match in New Orleans.
Everything about this match made sense from the opening bell. As he did in the lead-up to the match, Sullivan caught the Black Mass kick in the first two minutes. Black fought valiantly in the early moments of the match, charging with a barrage that led to a Meteora from the apron to the floor, but it wasn't long before Sullivan imposed his will.
Even as Black fought back every advance, Sullivan gained ground with each push. He absorbed everything Black had to offer,then grabbed full control by chest-bumping Black out of the ring. From the moment Sullivan caught a moonsault from the middle rope to the outside, it was an uphill battle back into the match.
Sullivan flashed arrogance and a good grasp of how to get loud boos from the crowd throughout, and flashed his freakish strength with powerslams all over the ring and even from a running start on the apron. Then there were the lariats, which left Black laid out no less than four different times.
An ill-advised flying headbutt came crashing down onto Black's knee and Black spent the next four minutes attempting to cut down the monster. He appeared to do so, as a sweeping kick to the legs and a boot to the face slowed Sullivan down, and a springboard moonsault to a standing Sullivan earned Black a two-count.
As he'd done to all of the opponents he'd laid out to this point, Black attempted to pick Sullivan up with his foot for Black Mass -- but Sullivan hit a running chop-block that went after Black's knee. After another blow injured Black's knee, Sullivan locked in a stretch muffler that torqued Black's knee over his neck.
Black fought back, only to get slammed to the mat, followed by a clubbing blow to the back of the head. After the powerslam onto the apron that sent Black tumbling to the outside, Sullivan nailed a diving headbutt that had the assembled crowd very nervous -- only for Black to kick out at the very last moment. "Aleister!" chants rained down from the rafters of the Allstate Arena.
A spear attempt by Sullivan was cut short and he hit the ground, and that's when the phantom kick took the air out of what was a pretty hot crowd. Black got them back in a hurry; after eating a clothesline that turned him inside-out, Black hit a Black Mass kick flush. When Sullivan defiantly climbed to his knees, Black hit it again to put the match away, much to Chicago's delight.
While there's no telling what's next for Sullivan, Black seems likely to be on one of two paths: headed either toward EC3, who was in the crowd, or Ricochet, fresh off of his victory over Velveteen Dream.
NXT women's championship match: Shayna Baszler (c) def. Nikki Cross
Since her arrival to NXT, the women's division has revolved around the tyranny of Shayna Baszler, who captured the NXT Women's Championship from current RAW superstar Ember Moon at TakeOver: New Orleans back in April. However, one superstar refused to give in to Baszler's bullying techniques, and in the process has become the savior of the NXT women's division. That superstar is Nikki Cross, who is pursuing a singles run in NXT with the departure of her SAnitY comrades to the SmackDown Live roster.
Cross entered last year's TakeOver: Chicago event looking to dethrone then-champion Asuka, but fell short. She looked to avoid a repeat this time around. Cross, whom the Chicago crowd was firmly behind, made early use of her psychological advantage over Baszler by way of her bizarre temperament. She pleaded with Baszler to attack her, confusing the champ. The two then traded rear naked choke attempts before Cross started assaulting Baszler. That was put to rest when Baszler dropped Cross back-first onto the steel entrance ramp.
That was the opening she needed as Baszler began to inflict continuous punishment by way of strikes and submissions. However, the deranged Cross, who plays the role so well, smiled through the punishment and began to make a comeback of her own, culminating with a reverse DDT onto the ring apron and a swinging neckbreaker with Baszler's ropes draped over the top rope.
As Cross attempted a pinfall attempt, Bazsler, out of nowhere, locked in her devastating Kirifuda clutch. Cross tried to fight through it, but it was too much. As she did frequently throughout, she smiled through the pain before passing out, abruptly ending the match.
Despite the uninspiring outcome, the future is bright for Cross, who received the type of positive reception not seen within her division since Asuka ruled the land. It's disappointing, though, that she didn't get enough time to capitalize and build upon that Saturday night. Her character development up to this point had been flawless.
As for Baszler, who's next? The first name that comes to mind is Bianca Belair, who has been putting on stellar performances on NXT TV lately.
Ricochet def. Velveteen Dream
There's a temptation in any match with two guys who are willing to throw any and all caution to the wind to go too fast out of the gate and have nowhere to go.
Anyone who thought that'd be the case in the highly anticipated match between Ricochet and Velveteen Dream, however, had another thing coming. They started far more slowly and technically than most would have expected and built up to a tremendous performance that showed off the best each man had to offer.
Since New Orleans, Ricochet and Dream had been engaged in a battle of wills, which ranged from an uneasy pairing against Sullivan that fell apart to the challenge Ricochet laid forth in dramatic fashion leading up to this match.
As he's done for all of his TakeOver matches to date, Velveteen Dream had some special gear in store for his opponent -- a mix between Hulk Hogan and a certain cat-based persona Ricochet left behind when he came to the WWE.
Everyone inside the Allstate Arena knew the high spots were coming, but Dream and Ricochet made them earn it. Dream took control early with a variety of strikes and submissions, which allowed Ricochet to fight back with agility ranging from a cartwheel into a running backflip that left him in a hero pose, face to face with Dream.
But rather than lighting the rocket and letting things go, Dream re-established control and put his swagger on full display. He was even the first one to hit a high spot, with a lucha-style step on the middle rope and a flip out and over onto Ricochet on the outside.
Dueling "Velveteen!" and "Ricochet!" chants permeated the arena throughout, with "This is awesome!" and "Fight forever!" finding their way out over the course of the match. Slowly but surely, Ricochet and Dream lulled everyone into what seemed like a pattern and a false sense of security until Ricochet let fly with a suicide dive, ran back into the ring and nailed a twisting Fosbury Flop that saw him land on his feet.
Ricochet got caught out on the top turnbuckle. Dream recovered. They fought on the top rope and Ricochet won, but then it was Dream. It was back and forth throughout, but then there this exchange that ended with the biggest spot to date -- a modified Death Valley Driver while Dream stood on the middle rope -- and it was full speed ahead to the finish.
Dream got the crowd unglued with a vertical suplex to the outside. He hit a standing DVD, and Ricochet responded. Dream hit a standing corkscrew DDT, and Ricochet ultimately responded with one of his own. They tried to hit each other's finishers, dive across the ring and adapt their movesets, but the battle of wills ultimately ended up in Ricochet's favor.
Ricochet, with the last of his energy, got up and nailed the 630 to Dream's back and held on for dear life as the ref counted to 3 -- securing the victory and bragging rights in this still-young rivalry that got intense in a hurry. It would be nice to see Dream step up and walk away from a big match like this with the victory, and though it hasn't quite happened yet, he seems on the precipice of some very special things.
And this war might not be over yet.
NXT tag-team championships: The Undisputed Era (c) def. Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch
Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch have long been two of the most underrated performers on the NXT roster, and finally got their chance to shine at a TakeOver event. Their championship opportunity came after Burch secured a pinfall victory over one-half of the tag champs, Kyle O'Reilly, on an episode of NXT TV a few weeks ago.
The intriguing part of this match was how Undisputed Era leader Adam Cole and WWE U.K. champion Pete Dunne, who has sided with Lorcan and Burch in recent weeks, would factor into the bout, if at all.
As you'd expect from the physical performers involved, the match was stiff, but technically sound. Strikes were aplenty early and often, whether it was a vicious European uppercut or chop from the Lorcan-Burch duo, an O'Reilly kick or a perfectly executed dropkick from Strong.
The match progressed with high-octane, back-and-forth action, each team getting its licks in as the crowd showed unwavering support for the "heel" champions. One sequence that stood out saw Lorcan get the hot tag from Burch and furiously take it to both Strong and O'Reilly, culminating with a somersault plancha over the top rope to the outside onto both of them. He followed it up with a double blockbuster onto both of them.
The pace remained frenzied, with strikes seemingly getting stiffer. The Chicago crowd chanted "This is awesome!" in appreciation as Lorcan, who took a rough bump onto the ring apron early in the match, performed a European uppercut to O'Reilly, who was atop Burch's shoulders. However, when attempting a pinfall, Cole interfered, placing O'Reilly's foot on the ropes. He was subsequently tossed out of the match.
Shortly after, Burch and Lorcan locked in simultaneous crossface and half-crab submissions onto both O'Reilly and Strong, but O'Reilly kicked his way out. By this point, the crowd was rightfully chanting "NXT!", and a strikefest ensued. The finish saw the champs nail their high/low strike/leg sweep double-team finisher onto Lorcan for the 3-count.
It was one heck of an effort by both teams, but it was a curious decision keeping both Cole and Dunne -- the latter of whom didn't even appear -- out of the picture for the most part. The entire build to this match revolved around their involvement. Regardless, this was an incredibly strong way to open TakeOver: Chicago, and a coming-out party for the unsuccessful challengers.
Where the tag champs go from here remains to be seen, although we will see them again as part of the NXT U.K. championship event, but the dominant War Raiders can't be too far behind.