NXT Hits the Road | First Stop: Cardiff

NXT has taken the road over the past two months outside of their Full Sail home to bring some of the best in pro wrestling across the Midwest and even the UK. We’ve got women all over attending these non-televised house shows and sending us their reviews! If you’d like to contribute to this series, or any coverage of local events, please reach out to us on twitter! First up, we have the amazing Ru Gunn from Voices of Wrestling who attended NXT Cardiff and it sounds like she had a whale of a time. Read for yourself below!

I made a bet with my (male) companions before we entered the arena and it felt more significant than any other did. I bet that there would be at least one other woman in our row of 20 seats. There turned out to be two other women, bringing our row’s total to three. I would estimate less than 5% of the crowd were women. The women I saw wore a variety of wrestling merchandise that ranged from Bayley headbands to CZW hoodies. Despite NXT having high quality portrayals of women, it feels like Western wrestling still struggles to engage with and welcome women at live events. I would resign myself to pro wrestling being a boys’ club if it weren’t for the vibrantly engaged women I see in the front row of every event by NJPW, DDT and Dragon Gate. Is this a symptom of the WWE’s product and its advertising or is this ultimately an issue of the culture of the fans?

**Editor: Here’s a rundown of the different matches, but mainly the crowds reactions and Ru’s observations, throughout the evening!

Enzo and Big Cass vs Blake and Murphy

While Cardiff receives Enzo and Cass with excitement, Blake and Murphy emerge to find “Where’s Alexa?” chants that only get stronger. I’m almost certain she’s here, because Blake is sporting a French braid and Murphy doesn’t strike me as dexterous enough to have done it for him. When Alexa fails to emerge, the boos start and spread the heat of disappointment, by far the worst one. The Kingdom’s lack of zest has nothing on Black and Murphy who seem to share half a personality.

Asuka vs Alexa Bliss

The men in the row behind me can’t contain themselves when Bliss’s tron video hit. I was overwhelmed with a cathartic mix of pleasure to see her and relief that there wouldn’t be some sort of full-blown riot. When Bliss comes out, all mean eyebrows, swaying hips, and glossy pout, I think about archetypes of women how NXT has been an outlet to expand the way women are represented in the WWE. Bliss is catty, and manipulative. Asuka is playful and ruthless. Both feel like convincing people whose personalities have been turned up to maximum.

Asuka feels larger-than-life. She is spooky, beautiful and her charisma fills the building. An almost mythical woman who’s responsible for so many legendary wrestling matches in Japan is now standing metres in front of me in Wales. Her smile sends chills through me. An arm’s radius of Asuka is a danger-zone, but her speed means nowhere is truly safe. Bliss starts utilising the ropes to compensate for her size, hooking in submissions where she dangles her full weight off Asuka, trying to wear her away.

When the ref breaks the hold, the men behind me yell, “she’s got ‘til five!” A dissenting male murmur from elsewhere breaks into “Asuka’s gonna kill you!”  This engagement is refreshing, wrestling-related chants about the action in the match from focused male fans, relating to and rooting for the women in the match. This doesn’t happen in the main roster at the WWE and I can’t help but think it is once again, a problem of fan culture. This feels like a much less hostile environment than I’m used to at wrestling shows, where I hold my breath during the women’s match worried about sexist comments and have to tuck my legs in so men can push past me to leave for the toilet.

Free from Bliss’s comfort zone of the ropes, Asuka steadfastly refuses to roll for an armdrag spot and stands strong. She has fortitude. When she growls, she is vicious there are no moans or gasps to speak of. She hits her flurry of chops and a spinning backfist, and then yells triumphantly “HIP ATTACK!” This isn’t enough to finish Bliss, she tries for a rollup, but Asuka grabs her tight, like a boa constrictor around a baby mouse, into the Asuka Lock. Body scissors locked in tight. Crossface applied with a deeply unnatural wrench to the head. Bliss taps. Asuka holds her ribs as she celebrates with a winning smile after the match. She winces as she throws her arms above her in victory. Even at a vaguely non-canonical house show, Asuka won’t shrug off the wounds of battling Bliss.

“I’ve got an idea for a WWE.com column!” slurs a man in front of me to his friend, as Asuka’s theme fades out. I brace myself, worried. “It’s called…Ask Asuka!” he sniggers. He’s happy with his pun. I unclench.

Tye Dillinger vs Bull Dempsey

Bull Dempsey’s ill-fitting dressing gown gives the impression of a man who’s hurried out of the bath to answer the door. With a wide grin, he runs the ropes then star-jumps to applause.

The things that make Tye Dillinger’s act seem made of flourishes are cartwheels, rolls, and widespread fingers indicating “10”. This, combined with his new beard, makes him eerily reminiscent of Adam Rose. Cardiff starts a “Dempsey’s gorgeous” chant; a level of formality one stage removed from the more familiar “Bull is gorgeous”, which Full Sail are allowed.

The ref confiscates Dillinger’s A4 size laminated “10” sign midway through the match but Dillinger produces a smaller, playing-card-sized version, which Bull steals. Bull pretends to eat it, playfully teasing the crowd. It seems hard to believe that Bull was originally sold to us as a petulant monster, rather than the smiling jolly teddy bear that we see here. Bull tucks the card safely into his singlet, amongst a thicket of sweaty body hair, and gleefully mimics Dillinger’s cartwheel.

Dillinger wants his card back, but is squeamish to touch it after being pressed against the moist folds of Bull’s skin, this leads into a very surreal segment where Bull tries to force-feed the card to Dillinger. When it’s finally pressed between his lips, it stuns Dillinger into paralysis, and allows Bull to grab his hand, force him to do star-jumps with him, and then pull him into an armdrag. Dillinger is dazzled by this display of fitness.

I feel like novels could be written about the weird consumption imagery in this match. It would need a lot more column inches to dissect satisfactorily.

When Dillinger manages to get some semblance of control against his smug rotund opponent, a small but spirited “Yes!” chant breaks out on the ground floor. Dillinger leans out, whispers “shhh!” and mimes his “10” hand gestures, which people gladly latch on to instead. Who knew this sort of crowd strategy was all we needed to shut up those CM Punk chants all along? Is Tye Dillinger an influential demagogue type figure, or has NXT just earned enough goodwill for crowds to want to play along?

Nia Jax vs Carmella

I’m feeling it by this point, and I have a little dance to Carmella’s theme, which is full of ideals I aspire to embody. Nia Jax’s shoulder pads make her look like a high level MMO character. I feel like Jax and Carmella should team up. Jax could be her Big Cass. Carmella has the same scrappy vulnerability as Enzo, and weird taste in baggy shorts.

Jax scoops Carmella into the Bear Hug, which would usually signify the end of a TV match shakes her tiny frame and contorts her arm behind her for what feels like hours. Eventually, Carmella musters the strength to reach behind her, and pull down pressure on Jax’s neck for a guillotine, wrenching her jaw.

Carmella summons fire, rolling Jax dazed into the turnbuckle, and flings her body into her, vagina-first. I later find out this move is called the Staten Island Shuffle. Jax shrugs this off and rises, terrifyingly, irrepressibly. She reverses Carmella’s desperate hurricanrana attempt into a powerbomb, completely refusing the momentum. Then the leg drop, and a cocky, one-handed pin gives Jax the win.

This isn’t the sort of epic, emotional struggle that we saw between Jax and Bayley at Takeover but it’s impressive and enjoyable nonetheless and the best match I’ve ever seen Carmella deliver. She struggles to her feet after Jax has stomped away victorious, slowly and to cautious encouragement from the crowd. She’s a face here as she ought to be, being aligned with favourites Enzo and Cass. Sometimes it feels like women, particularly the greener ones, are hated by default. Why is caring about materialistic things, or appearance, endearing in Enzo, but seen as vacuous and shallow in Carmella? The power of a crowed to sink or raise the wrestler is so obvious in this context and again I am reminded of the sexism that is so rampant in other WWE arenas.

Apollo Crews vs Baron Corbin

Baron Corbin is someone that I’d groan at when he appeared on my TV, but somehow he becomes fascinating here just by merit of existing in real life. The night after this, in London, Corbin charmed some fans by mis-remembering indie promotions to insult Crews, but here he’s a little dry in the ring, especially compared to the effortless somersaults and handstands that Crews brings to the match.

Baron tries to stop Crews’ offence by sinking his teeth into him, and I wonder why NXT is hesitant to pull the trigger on giving Corbin a full-on lycanthropy gimmick. I know it would work, I trialed it in Total Extreme Wrestling.

When Crews breaks free, he leaps and strides away like gravity isn’t entirely certain how it should behave around him, not a full-blown amnesia like gravity’s troubled relationship with Neville, but something close.

Crews hits the standing moonsault for the win, retaining his win streak for one more night.

The Mechanics [c] vs Chad Gable and Jason Jordan

The crowd had been rambunctious from the get-go, but there is a fever pitch after the interval and everyone is a bit tipsy (not me, I’m a professional). People get to their feet easier, and stay up to cheer. I’m not sure at what point in the tour the No Limit Gable/Jordan chant developed, but by Cardiff it had caught on, and the enthusiastic voices of thousands singing Eurodance riffs barely pause during this match.

Of all the wonderful surprises of the NXT live experience, my favourite is confirming that Gable is every bit as good as he seems on TV, and marvellously handsome, too. He’s visibly thrilled by his chants, and can barely wipe a broad, dimpled grin off his face even when confronted with tag-team foes and current champions the Mechanics. Every movement of his pleasantly compact frame is purposeful and, heading towards an end goal of a painful hold or an advantageous position. His cool and meaningful wrestling makes Crews’ seem flashy and frivolous by comparison. Gable has weaponised his physique; and is doing it with adorable flair that makes me want to watch him in any strange or funny match stipulation available.

This match has some excellent wrestling, but the moments that get the biggest reactions aren’t offensive maneuvers. It’s looking bleak but Jordan quickly notices Gable being bullied and lifted to a Shatter Machine after being distracted by the ref. Jordan leaps between the ropes and scoops Gable down into his arms and into safety with great tenderness. This act of camaraderie spurs the crowd to pop, briefly putting their song on hold to break into deafening cheers. Maybe wrestling isn’t really about fighting, like fairy tales about adventuring knights aren’t really about killing dragons. It’s about much more mundane, relatable things like a friend who has your back.

The match builds deliciously towards a Jordan hot tag. The moment is artfully delayed repeatedly, thwarted by the brutish Mechanics’ fists. Finally, Gable rolls through Wilder’s legs to clap Jordan’s hand. When Jordan is in the ring, he throws Wilder over his shoulder as if he’s a bag of balloons, then without taking a breath, drags Dawson in tight for an incredible fisherman’s suplex. Whether it’s the singlet that has the magic powers, or if Jordan has just been inspired to elevation by his friendship with Gable, he looks excellent, the two of them shining stars with irrepressible presence. Maybe that’s just what meeting someone who really inspires you, clicks with you, does, if you’re a wrestler. They genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company, compared to the Mechanics, who are the champions, but the way they move and interact in the ring tells us barely anything about their relationship with each other.

Tragically, the Mechanics’ unsportsmanlike brawling disposes Jordan at ringside for a pivotal moment. Gable attempts to drag Dawson over the ropes and back into the ring, but he’s too weighty to maneuver safely, and Dawson falls heavily on to Gable, pinning him down. A split second, and it’s over, the Mechanics retain.

Gable and Jordan hug after the match, and the impassioned No Limit chant continues until long after they’ve disappeared behind the curtain.

Bayley [c] vs Emma with Dana Brooke

Cardiff brought a mighty collection of lungs here tonight. The “Hey Bayley…oooh, ahh, I wanna know, will you be my girl?” song had a decent showing at NXT Takeover, but here, it swells into crescendo after crescendo. Dana pouts at ringside and covers Emma’s ears, while Bayley pretends to play coy, secretly gesturing “more” to the crowd with a sideways gleeful grin. “Yes I will!” she shouts, which only gives the Welsh choir more of an excuse to serenade her. It was surreal enough at Takeover to have singing underscore Bayley’s struggle against Jax, but here the chorus lasts the whole match, a backdrop for every bit of action, willing her to victory. Perhaps on TV the chants could come across obnoxious or disruptive but in person, it felt like we were having a moment of magical rapport.

Emma takes advantage of Bayley soaking up the appreciation by grabbing the NXT Women’s Championship and stalking up the ramp with it. Bayley stomps after her and elbows Emma in the face, lest her demeanour lets us think for a moment that Bayley is harmless.

The match is underwhelming in terms of ring work, the most basic of squeaky-clean babyface vs devious heel stories. Dana’s shouting and distracting eventually gets her sent backstage and the crowd erupts into the sort of reverent cheering that only ejecting a manager warrants. In the heat of the moment, Emma leaps for a sneak rollup, but Bayley is ready to counter with the Bayley to Belly.

Finn Balor [c] vs Sami Zayn vs Samoa Joe

A few disparate “ole”s starts up as soon as the women leave, they swell and rise up until it’s like we’re drowning. It feels silly to miss someone you don’t know, but Sami Zayn has a realness, an emotional honesty, that has reached out of the wrestling ring and tugged the heartstrings of fans across the world. The shoulder injury on his main-roster debut, against John Cena, could not have been a more effective way to position Zayn as an underdog. Regardless of his absence, I’m just excited to see him back where he belongs.

They dim the lights for this match, the tron, which had been displaying a muted monotone union flag logo is switched off, and the crowd is plunged into darkness. A bright spotlight illuminates the ring. It suddenly feels serious, and intimate. The light picks out flecks of dust in the air, hovering, suspended in space above the ring.

Samoa Joe refuses to get in the ring for the first part of this match.  Finn Balor and Zayn ignore him, share a terse handshake, and lock up together to begin alone. Joe paces around ringside, grabbing their legs when they come near to the ropes. Zayn and Balor have an excellent sense of how to utilise each other’s strengths. When Joe’s awkward ringside presence becomes irritating, Balor wordlessly whips Zayn into the ropes and Zayn threads a dropkick between the middle ropes, directly into Joe’s face.

Joe teases a walkout after this, lumbering off back up the ramp. Zayn and Balor exchange glances, suddenly looking essentially like old partners-in-crime. They scamper after him and shovel him back to the ring, in between the ropes, and hit him with some choice double-team kicks.

Left alone, Zayn and Balor have some fun, in a delightfully cute scene which house show dreams are made of. Zayn playfully picks up Balor’s leather jacket from the apron, and Balor is distressed Balor as a man who values personal boundaries. As a stroppy retaliation, Balor grabs Zayn’s tartan jacket and flat cap and puts them on. Zayn, equally grumpy now, pulls the leather jacket on tight. He pulls the jacket open and thrusts his crotch forward, in an imitation of the champion. This causes an aghast shocked expression from Balor, who then booms out in his thick Bray accent “How dare you?!” when he has composed himself, he busts out a spookily accurate pantomime of Zayn’s skanking. This all hits the spot of feel-good comedy interaction with an already easily pleased crowd, so it’s no surprise that we’re outraged when Joe inevitably uses the distraction to sneak attack Balor with a big-man enzuigiri.

The match continues to be a very enjoyable three-way match; it manages to make every man’s position important and realistic all with a consistent pace. Joe catches Balor with an elbow to the collar that starts a sort of perpetual motion machine of elbows, as Balor throws one to Zayn, and Zayn throws one back, and so on. The smaller men eventually fall, leaving an exhausted but still standing Joe to suplex both of them. While everyone is panting on the mat, Zayn sneaks an opportunistic roll up to Balor and the mood of the match changes.

Zayn is less playful now and Balor knows he has lost his brief alliance so things start getting intense. While Joe thinks, the attention is off him he takes a second to nurse his wounds at ringside while Zayn runs towards the ropes at a disconcerting speed. If you know Zayn, or his alter ego, you’re expecting his characteristic show-off feint bounce off the ropes, but instead he flings himself into a diving senton, landing square on Joe’s broad shoulders. He dashes back into the ring, empowered by adrenaline, and throws a gorgeous, perfect Blue Thunder Bomb on to Balor. We know it couldn’t happen, but for those brief seconds, as the “ole”s get louder and I’m trying to take notes but my hands are too sweaty and my mouth is just hanging agape, I really believe, like maybe he could. Maybe Sami Zayn is going to win the NXT Championship back right here in Cardiff tonight.

When Balor recovers, he pushes Zayn into Joe, who catches his head in the crook of his elbow easily. Balor dropkicks Joe, which causes Joe to fall backwards and DDT Zayn, it’s silly wrestling logic but it makes me gasp anyway. The men keep scrapping and brawling and they exchange a sequence of perfectly choreographed kicks, a boot, a Pele, a Helluva Kick, until they all lay there in a flawless triangle, chests rising and falling under the spotlight.

Zayn teases the turnbuckle Brainbuster, but Joe grabs him down and into a Coquina Clutch. Zayn’s struggling, grasping at nothing, turning red in the face. Balor sees an opening, and climbs the ropes to hit a calamitous Coup De Grace on the bodies of both men. He pins Zayn. The champion retains.


*Huge thanks to Ru Gunn for providing us with this intimate look into the UK crowds and what they bring to the WWE Universe. They sure do give American fans a run for their money in terms of creativity and enthusiasm. We’re honoured to have the insight of wrestling fans from all over as part of our Outside Interference series and would love to hear from you about local house shows so we can get a glimpse into what the wrestling community is really like through the eyes of the most important aspect– the fans.

Please be sure to follow Rhiannon on twitter: @ru_gunn

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