TakeOver: War Games was one of the best WWE events of the year. There wasn't a weak match on the card, and the show featured multiple match-of-the-year candidates -- none shined brighter than the NXT championship match between Andrade "Cien" Almas and Drew McIntyre, and none of the other matches involved a more shocking result.
McIntyre appeared poised for a substantial title reign and seemed to be at the top of his game, but so was Almas. Few superstars in NXT history have experienced as dramatic a rise as Almas has over the past few months. After a successful debut last summer, Almas faded into the background, dropping matches more often than not, and he stood on the outside looking in as new signees walked in the door and made their own way to the NXT championship.
About a year after his NXT debut, that all changed in a hurry. In August, Zelina Vega began accompanying Almas to the ring, and in a three-month span, everything picked up in a hurry for Almas. First and foremost was his character; his transformation from a persona built on arrogance and a careless attitude towards results transitioned into a more focused in-ring approach immediately upon the arrival of Vega.
He started picking up key wins, first over No Way Jose and then Cezar Bononi, but the biggest step forward came in a pair of victories over Johnny Gargano. After defeating Roderick Strong, Almas stepped directly into McIntyre's path, which led to his first NXT championship opportunity at TakeOver: War Games -- and the rest is history.
Wednesday night marked Almas' first appearance since winning the championship. He and Vega had a message for the audience and the locker room.
"You are witnesses to the beginning of a historic championship reign," Vega claimed. "Ladies and gentleman, respect the man! Ladies and gentleman, embrace the legend! Ladies and gentleman, rise for your NXT champion! El Idolo, Andrade 'Cien' Almas!"
After Almas gloated a bit himself, he went on to address whomever would end up being the number one contender for his championship with a message delivered entirely in Spanish.
What will become of Almas' championship reign remains to be seen, but he and Vega are off to a great start. The two have chemistry together, Almas is one hell of a worker and the shock value of his championship victory was a perfect way to grab that spotlight and shine it squarely on them while shuffling things up and adding just enough chaos to throw the whole roster into flux.
So who will be Almas' first challenger?
Almas' title reign will only be as good as the rivalries that define it, and with McIntyre out of the picture for the time being, as noted by General Manager William Regal this week, a new method for determining the number one contender leading up to TakeOver: Philadelphia in January was revealed.
Throughout the upcoming weeks, four qualifying matches will take place, and the winners of those matches will meet in a Fatal 4-Way match to determine who will go to be the first challenger to Almas' NXT championship. The first two qualifying matches took place Wednesday night, and set the tone for what should be a thrilling build to Philadelphia.
Coming off a stellar effort in the War Games match at TakeOver last month, SAnitY's Killian Dain went one on one with Trent Seven, who earned a spot in this match by winning a Battle Royal at a live event in Lakeland, Florida last week. The outcome of this one was predictable, though, as Dain picked up the victory in a solid (and surprisingly short) outing, continuing his upward trend.
Whether it happens on the road to TakeOver: Philly or not, Dain's uncanny athleticism for a man his size, unique look and intense demeanor to go along with his in-ring prowess should take him to the promised land before too long. He certainly didn't look out of place in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 33, and he's only gotten better since then.
The second qualifying match saw Johnny Gargano attempt to get back on the right track against Kassius Ohno. Gargano wasn't even among the initially announced list of compatitors, and entered the match and the championship gauntlet as Velveteen Dream's replacement; according to Regal, Dream was still nursing injuries suffered at the hands of Aleister Black at TakeOver: War Games.
Gargano and Ohno are at similar points in their respective NXT careers. Both are wildly popular, but haven't quite been able to break through as singles performers. This match offered each the opportunity to begin climbing the ladder. It also reminded us that, while neither has truly begun that climb, both are among the best workers in NXT. That was made crystal clear on Wednesday night when the two delivered a sensational match that had Full Sail on their feet by its conclusion.
Gargano came out on top, and also got one step closer to a shot at the NXT championship, as well as another crack at Almas, with whom he's had a pair of incredible matches, including their show stealing effort at TakeOver: Brooklyn III. A potential Gargano/Almas championship match offers the opportunity for Gargano's NXT singles career to come full circle -- and with Gargano's current Achilles heel being any reminder of Tommaso Ciampa, which Almas and Vega have taken advantage of, it gives Gargano even more to overcome.
Ruby Riott and Sonya Deville clash in a rematch
As they round out the NXT phases of their careers, Ruby Riott and Sonya Deville took a break from their recent domination on SmackDown Live and RAW (as part of the Riott Squad and Absolution, respectively) to wrap up their rivalry in a no holds barred match. After suffering a loss in their match prior to TakeOver: War Games in Houston a couple of weeks ago, Deville evened the score in this one.
This short feud was a nice showcase for members of the two new main roster trios to illustrate what they'll bring to the table when given a bigger stage.
What's on tap?
With NXT's first appearance on national broadcast television since becoming a standalone brand coming next Wednesday, the card is stacked with a pair of strong matches. In an NXT championship No. 1 contender's qualifier, we'll see Adam Cole vs. Aleister Black in a matchup of two rock solid championship contenders. We'll also get Ember Moon facing off with the "Iconic" Peyton Royce.
In two weeks' time, we'll get another heavy-hitting episode with the final NXT championship contender's qualifier between Lars Sullivan and Roderick Strong, an NXT tag team championship match pitting Kyle O'Reilly & Bobby Fish vs. SAnitY, and the third match in one of the best series of the year in the world of wrestling as Pete Dunne defends his U.K. Championship against Tyler Bate.