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The NXT TakeOver that was so important it didn't even need a proper title was a fast-moving show that showcased about what can make NXT a great product. When NXT at its best, it is producing high-quality action with logical storytelling, all presented within the context of a real athletic competition. While the WWE main roster can get bogged down with too many gimmicks and hokey sports entertainment angles, NXT at its best remains an oasis where the traditional elements of professional wrestling remain relevant while at the same time embracing the modern aspects of in-ring action, creating a product that bridges the gap between old-school wrasslin', and the youthful style that was popularized on the independent scene.
TakeOver 31 (seriously, why couldn't they have given it a generic name? Even something like "TakeOver: Balor vs O'Reilly" would have worked) featured five matches, the perfect number for a show that wants to give all of its matches enough time to accomplish their goals, but not overstay its welcome. As far as PPV-level shows go, it is hard to find a show that would be easier for someone that is not a huge wrestling fan to enjoy. The action is consistent and the storytelling is simple. There wasn't any filler on the show and certainly nothing that would be embarrassing for a non-wrestling fan to see. There were a few small issues here and there, but this was an excellent show.
Finn Balor vs Kyle O'Reilly: ****1/4
Kyle O'Reilly was at one point, my favorite wrestler to watch in all of wrestling. This was back when he was on a singles run, having won the Pro Wrestling Guerilla world title and had emerged as a consistent wrestler in NJPW's Junior Heavyweight division. I would have argued with anyone that O'Reilly was among the best wrestlers in the world. O'Reilly hasn't been bad at all in NXT, in fact he has been great. However, being relegated to mostly tag team wrestling prevented him from having these long, dramatic singles matches, something he really excelled at. A proper O'Reilly match is a physical, lengthy struggle that mixes mat wrestling and MMA-inspired technical grappling with heavy strikes and great selling. For a long time we haven't seen that, but I knew when NXT announced that O'Reilly would be facing Balor in the main event of this show, it had potential to be great.
Perhaps this match doesn't resonate with everyone; it is kind of different from NXT's house style and a far cry from the more sports entertainment-based angles on the main roster. This was a very different match from the main event of Clash of Champions, which was almost a soap opera (that enjoyed, by the way). Some fans might find it boring, but this sense of real, athletic struggle, is what makes pro wrestling appealing to a lot of people. You can show this kind of match to even the most cynical critic of pro wrestling, and convince them that what these performers do is an art form.
O'Reilly easily could have won this match; in fact NXT probably needs some new names in the main event picture so it wouldn't hurt to immediately give O'Reilly some legitimacy. That is okay though, O'Reilly obviously isn't the kind of guy that WWE sees as a potential big singles star, so having him in this match, even as kind of a last-minute replacement, was more than I expected. I hope he gets more time as a serious singles wrestler, although the show going off the air being about Adam Cole and Ridge Holland and not O'Reilly makes me kind of pessimistic about how seriously pushed O'Reilly will be going forward.
Santos Escobar vs Isaiah Scott: ****¼
The match was awesome. I felt that during this match, the elements of the Capitol Wrestling Center really worked. Having the small number of fans ringside, as well as some of the imported noise on the broadcast, really brought an energy to the show that has been missing. It felt like it was an intense back-and-forth match being watched by thousands of fans. There was nothing spectacular in this match, but it was just a series of well-executed spots that created a sense of real competition between two wrestlers.
Escobar was tremendous and showed all kinds of potential. I'm a big fan of the entire aesthetic of Legado del Fantasma, it feels both big-time and something very different than what WWE typically does with its hispanic wrestlers. The Cruiserweight Championship is something that doesn't have any real value in WWE, but through Escobar the title is slowly finding its way back to relevancy.
Damien Priest vs Johnny Gargano: ***½
Gargano has found himself dealing with 1995 Shawn Michaels Syndrome; which isn't a surprise given Michaels' influence in NXT. What I mean by that is that Gargano is supposed to be the heel in this match, wrestling a larger babyface. The problem is that Gargano still wrestles as a babyface; the same hope spots, same moveset, etc. The psychology is off when he is supposed to be a heel as the focus of the match becomes the "babyface" in peril, which in this match was Gargano, not Priest.
Of course, like 1995 Shawn Michaels, the work is still very good, which numbs a lot of the criticism. The match was well-executed and entertaining. The issue becomes that I don't think the match did much for Priest, even though he won. It still felt like the focus of this match was on Gargano, who really has nothing to gain in facing Priest. It is naturally very hard to do a Large Babyface vs Small Heel match, and like Keith Lee's match against Johnny Gargano from earlier this year, this one didn't really psychologically pull things together. The match was entertaining but I don't know if it accomplished its goals from a character perspective.
Io Shirai vs Candice LeRae: ***½
As a worker, Io Shirai is the best women's wrestler in the history of the company. Obviously there have been bigger stars and better overall performers, but bell-to-bell, nobody has been better than Shirai. Watching her work and just how she moves in the ring, she looks like she is at a completely different level than everybody else. I really can't say enough great things about her, she is one of the best professional wrestlers in the world, full stop.
The match was good, but not great. The problem I had was the referee bumps, which were both poorly executed. The angle where Gargano came out with the referee shirt, and the referee was distracted and started yelling at Gargano "Give me back MY SHIRT!" was both preposterous and overbooked. The work in the match was very good, but I can't rate it much higher with those shenanigans.
KUSHIDA vs Velveteen Dream: **¾
This match was okay, but probably below the typical standards of an NXT TakeOver, which are extraordinarily high. At one time, Dream felt like the brightest future star in the entire company. However, that feels like a million years ago. When Dream was a babyface, he felt like he had an extra notch of charisma that others did not have. As a heel he doesn't offer nearly as much, without even getting into his troubles outside-the-ring. Since he isn't much of a worker and got by on his charisma, the onus here was on KUSHIDA to get the most out of the match. He tried hard, but there is only so much you can do.
Harold Meij Resigns
To those in the know, Meij resignation as the President of New Japan Pro Wrestling was not a huge surprise. There were rumors back in January that Meij wasn't long for the job, and throughout his two-and-a-half-years on the job, there had been plenty of breadcrumbs dropped to indicate that all was not well with Meij in charge. However, what ultimately led to his resignation and dismissal is still unanswered.
One common theory is that NJPW, having been battered by the pandemic, needed to get Meij's high salary off of the books. Meij was making upwards of $1 million per year, and NJPW, whose business is centered around live events and merchandise, was hit harder than companies like WWE and AEW, who rely on TV contracts that were not affected by the pandemic. That is certainly plausible.
Meij was a very unconventional hire for NJPW. For starters, he isn't Japanese, Even though Meij clearly had extensive knowledge of the Japanese marketplace, having previously served as Vice President of Coca-Cola Japan and later as the CEO of toy manufacturing giant Tomy, it was unusual to have a non-Japanese executive for a Japanese company. It was also unusual for someone from outside of pro wrestling to be handed the job of NJPW president. Those were likely two strikes against Meij heading into the job.
Meij likely faced hurdles throughout his time in NJPW due to his inexperience in the industry. While he was a big fan of wrestling, there were grumblings from talent that "Harold" didn't quite know what he was doing, according to various reports. The professional wrestling industry is unique, and practices that would be considered normal in the traditional business world may be frowned upon in pro wrestling, and vice versa. I'm not sure how Meij was expected to bridge that gap.
Another reason that may have contributed to his dismissal was that when he was hired, Meij promised that he would get NJPW to $100 million in revenue by the end of 2020. Without a lucrative TV deal that was never going to happen; and with the pandemic ruining 2020 for NJPW from a business perspective, he wasn't going to be able to deliver on that promise.
Lastly, as Dave Metlzer wrote in the latest edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Meij took some heat for letting The Elite, and especially Kenny Omega, walk and form a rival company in AEW. According to Meltzer, Meij and NJPW did not take the idea that The Elite would go and found their own wrestling company seriously. They didn't think talent that had never run a wrestling company before would amount to much, and they arrogantly assumed that Omega would never leave Japan since he loved living in the country so much. Obviously, they were incorrect and the loss of Omega and The Young Bucks, as well as the rise of AEW, hurt NJPW's potential outside of Japan, a market that had been a huge source of growth for the company, particularly with Omega as the main star.
With all of that being said, and with the fact that he only resigned a few years after getting the job, there is a tendency to label Meij as a failure. The problem is that if you look at the bottom line, that is a hard argument to make. Under Meij, NJPW saw years of record revenue. Up until the pandemic, even with the loss of The Elite, the company was still in great shape. Coming off the high of back-to-back sellouts of the Tokyo Dome in January, the company looked primed for a huge year, featuring a likely sold-out Madison Square Garden show in August. The pandemic ruined everything, but Meij really can't be blamed for that.
The most notable thing about NJPW during Meij's time at the helm was the growth of NJPW outside of Japan. While the seeds had already been planted before Meij came aboard, NJPW set new benchmarks outside of Japan under Meij. The company instantly sold out MSG in April 2019, successfully ran a big show in London that same year, and put together regular tours of not only the US, but the UK and Australia as well. The company also launched a new dojo in the US under the supervision of Katusyori Shibata. There are certainly complaints about things that NJPW could have done better during their international expansion, but the company grew exponentially under Meij's watch.
In the end, Meij probably wasn't the best man for the job. Perhaps an executive with more experience in the wrestling industry wouldn't have created as many internal enemies, and would have been savvy enough to recognize that The Elite leaving the company would be a huge blow and would have been able to retain Omega. That being said, he also wasn't exactly a failure as the company's profits show. Coming off the pandemic, Takami Ohbari, the former CEO of NJPW America who is taking over as President of NJPW, will have an uphill battle. There are ways to improve the company, and hopefully Ohbari won't face the same internal hurdles that plagued Meij.