One of the most exciting times on the WWE calendar -- Royal Rumble weekend -- has arrived. While surprise Rumble match entrants will thrill the Phoenix crowd and WrestleMania rivalries will begin to take shape, NXT will once again set out with a mission of being the talk of the wrestling world by weekend's end.
Every time there's an NXT TakeOver event on the schedule, WWE's so-called third brand has had a tendency to steal the show before the stars of Raw or SmackDown even get the chance to shine. On paper, the lineup for NXT TakeOver: Phoenix points towards history having a great chance of repeating itself.
"Here we are, on the way to TakeOver: Phoenix," executive vice president of talent, live events and creative Paul Levesque said on a TakeOver conference call on Wednesday afternoon. "And once again, a very exciting card. You could look at this thing from top to bottom; there's really not a whole lot on it you'd say can't steal the show."
The five matches on Saturday feature a blend of NXT veterans looking to add to their legacies, and up-and-comers on the verge of elevating their careers to new heights. Hungry superstars like the War Raiders and Bianca Belair will have the chance to get their first taste of NXT gold, newcomer Matt Riddle will have the opportunity to put himself in title contention with a high profile win and NXT mainstays Tommaso Ciampa, Aleister Black, Johnny Gargano and Ricochet will look to cement their statuses as the faces of the brand.
NXT championship: Tommaso Ciampa (c) vs. Aleister Black
Ever since Tommaso Ciampa won the NXT championship, he has imposed his will virtually unopposed over the rest of the men's roster. While Aleister Black missed much of the second half of 2018 due to injury, Ciampa and former tag partner Johnny Gargano dazzled audiences and rounded out a trilogy for the ages. Ciampa then capped off the best year of his career with a match of the year candidate with the Velveteen Dream at NXT TakeOver: War Games II in November.
But Black is back, and after addressing the matter of his mystery attacker in Gargano, he's got his eyes set on recapturing the brand's top prize, putting his perfect (7-0) record at TakeOver events on the line.
The crowning moment of Black's career came last year during WrestleMania weekend when, at TakeOver: New Orleans, he defeated Andrade to become NXT champion. He carried the NXT torch proudly as the brand's captain with championship victories over the likes of Eric Young and Lars Sullivan. That reign, thanks to an interfering Gargano, came to an abrupt end on an episode of NXT TV in July when Ciampa shocked the world with a championship victory. Black will look to right the biggest wrong of his NXT career on Saturday, but given his consistent presence alongside Ciampa, the questions surrounding Gargano's involvement in this match remains.
Prediction: Tommaso Ciampa retains.
North American championship: Ricochet (c) vs. Johnny Gargano
"Johnny Gargano versus Ricochet. I don't know how anyone will top that," Levesque said. "Ricochet is just, Ricochet. And the one and only Johnny Gargano, in some ways Mr. TakeOver, just continues to deliver time after time."
While Ciampa has found success from a singles perspective as the reigning NXT champion, Gargano is still searching for an individual taste of gold. Gargano declared his intent to win a championship in 2019 and he'll have that opportunity this weekend.
Gargano has had separate conflicts with Ciampa, Black and Ricochet throughout the past year, but it's the North American champion he has feuded with heading into Phoenix. His unlikely reunion with Ciampa could play a major role in Gargano's quest for the title -- along with his direction moving forward in 2019.
On Wednesday's NXT episode, Ciampa assisted Gargano by blindsiding Ricochet during an altercation between champion and challenger. That brought out Ciampa's opponent, Black, who targeted Ciampa, but Gargano returned the favor and came to the aide of his former tag team partner. As the show came to a close, Ciampa and Gargano hinted at reconciling after months of heated battles and conflicts. However, before Gargano could accept Ciampa's handshake, Gargano's wife Candice LeRae emerged from backstage to remind him of everything Ciampa had done and to talk her husband out of making this deal.
Prediction: Johnny Gargano wins the North American championship.
NXT women's championship: Shayna Baszler (c) vs. Bianca Belair
The start of Bianca Belair's NXT career has been nothing short of stellar. Her combination of strength and athleticism is impressive, and she has reminded anyone within an earshot that she is still undefeated.
"[Belair] continues to show what a phenomenal, world-class athlete she is and has taken to this in an incredibly quick manner," said Levesque.
Belair, a homegrown talent who came up through the ranks of NXT and the Performance Center, will face her toughest test on Saturday night as she looks to join Paige and Charlotte Flair as the only superstars in history to win the NXT women's championship in their debut TakeOver match.
In her way is Baszler, who has claimed high profile championship victories over Ember Moon, Kairi Sane and Nikki Cross thus far in her NXT career. Coupled with the champ's dominance is her advantage in the form of compatriots Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke, who have been by her side since they interfered on her behalf at WWE Evolution in October.
Will Belair's undefeated streak continue, or will Baszler remain an unstoppable force atop the NXT women's division?
Prediction: Baszler retains with help from Shafir and Duke.
NXT tag team championship: Undisputed Era (c) vs. War Raiders
"Time after time, the Undisputed Era guys continue to show, in a lot of ways, why they are a benchmark in the tag division across the industry," said Levesque.
Outside of a brief NXT tag team championship run by Moustache Mountain, Undisputed Era has ruled the tag team division for more than a year. In addition to conquering Moustache Mountain, they have thwarted talented teams including Heavy Machinery, the Authors of Pain and the duo of Danny Burch and Oney Lorcan.
This time around, they'll clash with the juggernaut that is the undefeated War Raiders. Rowe and Hanson made their NXT TakeOver debut at War Games in Los Angeles last November, as part of the winning side of the eponymous War Games match against the Undisputed Era. Now they're coming for their titles.
"Here [the War Raiders] are at TakeOver, coming off an impressive showing at War Games, coming off all the success they've had and now stepping into the ring for the NXT tag team championships," said Levesque. "To me, it's a statement to how well they've done since they've come in."
Prediction: War Raiders become the new NXT tag team champions.
Matt Riddle vs. Kassius Ohno
Matt Riddle's first TakeOver match, which was as also against Kassius Ohno, lasted mere seconds. Riddle caught Ohno with a stiff knee to the face as the impromptu match began and that was all she wrote -- dropping Ohno's TakeOver record to 0-4.
Since that time, Ohno has taken his vile persona to the next level with vicious attacks on Riddle and in a tainted win against Riddle's buddy, Keith Lee via low blow. While Ohno is still looking for his first TakeOver win, Riddle is in a position to end this rivalry with another win and work his way up the ladder towards championship gold.
"(Riddle) has an innate charisma that you can't take your eyes off him. He's just one of those guys," Levesque said.
Prediction: Matt Riddle wins.
ESPN Stats & Information's Joey Koontz contributed to this story.