I thought this was an apt time to write about the latest step in WWE's global expansion plans. WWE have launched a 5th brand and new weekly show, NXT UK. I've said it before, but the sheer amount of content available in pro wrestling in 2018/2019 is astronomical. Being a wrestling nerd and trying to keep up with everything is almost a full time job in itself- and that's just what WWE produces. God help you if you try to keep up with ROH, New Japan, Impact, Lucha Underground, your local indy scene, and now AEW joining the fray.
Luckily for me, I'm a teacher, which means I'm currently enjoying the school holidays, and that has enabled me to binge all the NXT UK episodes available on the WWE Network, just ahead of their first live special tomorrow, NXT UK Takeover: Blackpool. So consider this a succinct (as possible) guide to the NXT UK brand, and its major players.
WWE talked about global expansion for a long time before finally putting it into action. According to Executive Vice President, Paul Levesque (also known as "The Game", Triple H), the idea was to cultivate stars from all around the world and utilise them in NXT "territories" in different countries/regions. NXT UK (originally just called WWE UK) began with the announcement of a 16 man tournament to crown the inaugural WWE United Kingdom Champion. This aired over two days on the WWE Network, January 14 & 15, 2017.
However, WWE seemed a little stuck. They didn't give the UK wrestlers their own Network show- while it was talked about as being in the works, the NXT UK guys then spent the next year and a half working the British independent scene while under WWE contract, and sporadically appearing on the main NXT brand on the Network. Rumours are that WWE signed a bunch of guys to prevent the UK's World of Sport wrestling program from getting off the ground, but that's neither here nor there at this point. The first NXT UK episode aired on October 17, 2018. Being taped shows, and needing to have storylines and matches set up for a January Takeover event in Blackpool, WWE began dropping double-header episodes every week. As of this writing, we have had 24 episodes aired in just under 3 months. And I watched a large portion of those 24 episodes this past week. Damn. NXT UK's first batch of episodes focused on establishing characters and hierarchies, with long-reigning WWE UK Champion Pete Dunne heavily featured, popular tag team Moustache Mountain leading a fledgling tag divsion, and a NXT UK Women's Champion was crowned in a tournament spanning over several episodes, that being Rhea Ripley.
WWE have gathered a great deal of talent from all around the world for the NXT UK roster, and the ones featured on Takeover tomorrow appear to be the most highly regarded by the higher ups, the major players, if you will. The matches are:
WWE United Kingdom Championship: Pete Dunne (c) vs. Joe Coffey
NXT UK Women's Championship: Rhea Ripley (c) vs. Toni Storm
Finals For The First-Ever NXT UK Tag Team Championship: Moustache Mountain (Tyler Bate & Trent Seven) vs. Zack Gibson & James Drake
No Disqualification Match: Dave Mastiff vs. Eddie Dennis
Jordan Devlin vs. Travis Banks
Pete Dunne is the second-ever and currently reigning WWE UK Champion, defeating Tyler Bate in a 2017 MOTY candidate at NXT Takeover: Chicago. The reign is currently at 600+ days, which shows what faith WWE must have in Pete Dunne... and also shows how long WWE had the whole division/brand on ice. That aside, Dunne is a tremendous performer, with his championship run exceeding Brock Lesnar's Universal Title run and AJ Styles' WWE Championship reign. Not bad company at all. Just 25 years old, Dunne is far more experienced than his age might suggest, having his first professional match at 14 (it seems to be a fairly common theme among UK wrestlers to start very young). Known as "The Bruiserweight", he has a diverse style which incorporates strong strikes, submissions (including joint manipulation), power moves and the occasional high flying attack. His initial appearances on WWE programming saw him as a vicious heel, but over the last couple of years, his association with the popular Moustache Mountain has seen him transition to a tweener/face role. Most wonderfully, in his switch from bad guy to good guy, he stayed true to his character. WWE are often guilty of giving wrestlers the same generic smiley happy traits when they are positioned as a hero. Pete Dunne is sadistic, morally ambiguous and a total badass. Also, his Bitter End pumphandle flatliner finisher is among the cooler signature moves in all of WWE in my opinion.
Moustache Mountain (Tyler Bate & Trent Seven)
At just 19 years old, Tyler Bate became the first-ever WWE UK Champion. He didn't hold it all that long, but nonetheless a great accomplishment, and a great feel-good moment to end the first WWE UK Tournament. Bate is a short, yet heavily muscled wrestler, and can pull off incredible feats of strength, such as performing an airplane spin on one wrestler while performing the giant swing on another. On the other side of the coin, he can also do dazzling acrobatic moves such as the Fosbury Flop and the Spiral Tap.
His partner Trent Seven is the veteran of the duo. They clearly have a close bond, as Seven trained Bate. Seven has a bit of a dad bod, and doesn't have the athletic skills of Bate, but he uses his veteran cunning and psychology to get the job done. They complement each other perfectly, and mid 2018, Moustache Mountain had a series of stellar matches with The Undisputed Era, where they were able to capture the NXT Tag Team Championship in the famed Royal Albert Hall. Their charisma and charm have made them cult favourites with NXT UK crowds wherever they have gone.
Dubbing himself "The Iron King", I certainly won't argue with the imposing Scotsman. He made his presence felt early in the existence of the NXT UK brand, forming a faction with his brother Mark Coffey and Wolfgang, known as Gallus (a Scottish term meaning daring and confident). Gallus have attacked Travis Banks and the British Strong Style faction (Dunne, Bate & Seven) and become a formidable force. As a singles competitor, Joe Coffey has defeated Banks, Seven, and the tenured Leeds luchador, Ligero. Coffey employs a hard-hitting style that makes the most of his size and power- lariats, powerbombs, and the highly effective Pounce. Coffey enjoys a size advantage over a large amount of NXT UK competitors, weighing in at 242 pounds.
Zach Gibson & James Drake
Gibson began his NXT UK campaign in the second annual UK Tournament. He utilises a stifling submission style, aggressively attacking body parts with malice. Based on crowd response, he may be NXT UK's number one heel. While Gibson established himself as a villain throughout the tournament, I can't help but feel the amount of heat he receives is due to the crowd having prior knowledge of his act on the UK indy scene. His first appearance on NXT UK saw him damn near get booed out of the building! However, he is a great promo and is able to use that to generate a even greater response. In the ring, his mannerisms are great and he has unique signature moves in the Shankley Gates (keylock from the Camel Clutch position) and Ticket To Ryde (elevated Codebreaker).
James Drake is kind of along for the ride at this point, Gibson has been the standout of the two men. However, Drake does have a sweet jacket emblazoned with "Grizzled Young Veterans", which I get a kick out of. A bit of research tells me that Gibson and Drake teamed in Progress under that moniker, and won their tag championships twice. Gibson and Drake should be an excellent foil for the beloved Moustache Mountain at Takeover tomorrow.
While I wait for NXT Australia to become a thing, this will have to do. Adelaide's Ripley made her first appearance in WWE at the 2017 Mae Young Classic. Tall, beautiful and athletic, she looked to have potential, if seeming a little generic. Well, in 2018, Ripley once again entered the MYC, but this time brought a whole new look and attitude as the "Mosh Pit Kid", with heavy metal vibes and a IDGAF mantra, Rhea Ripley tore through her competition before losing to finalist Io Shirai. Her aggressive approach and devastating Riptide finisher became a deadly combination upon entering NXT UK, dominating that tournament with victories over Xia Brookside, Dakota Kai and finally Toni Storm to become the first NXT UK Women's Champion.
The women's match at Takeover Blackpool has a distinctly Aussie flavour, with the South Australian native Rhea Ripley taking on Toni Storm, who despite being world travelled, calls the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia home. Storm's character has a different spin to Ripley on the whole "rocker" deal, with Toni all about having that good time, but being all business when the bell rings. Storm developed quite a reputation pre-WWE for exceptional matches in Japan in the Stardom promotion, and in the UK in the company Progress Wrestling (Progress works with WWE, and several of their staff help run NXT UK). Storm's biggest WWE achievement to date is winning the 2018 Mae Young Classic by defeating Io Shirai at the Evolution PPV in October. She also had an outstanding match against Japanese legend Meiko Satomura in the semi-finals of that tournament. Storm works very well between the ropes, every move being crisp and believable, and she is getting better and better each time out with her selling and garnering emotion from the crowd. It may be too soon in Rhea Ripley's reign for it to be Toni Time in Blackpool, but it would still be great to see. Loving that Australian wrestlers are getting recognition on a worldwide stage. Hopefully, Robbie Eagles and Jonah Rock are next!
"Bomber" Dave Mastiff
Mastiff is what would happen if Vader and Kevin Owens somehow had a baby. At 300 pounds, but running around the ring like a much lighter man, Mastiff is the most physically imposing man that NXT UK has to offer by a considerable distance. I have no idea how he executes his cannonball finisher safely, but the ring seems to shift a good 3-4 inches every time he hits it. It's early days, and we'll see how he does in a longer format at Takeover, but my first impressions of the Bomber are that I'm very impressed.
Dennis is a former headmaster (principal) that opted to give up his career in education to become a pro wrestler. Ah, if I wasn't physically disabled, odds are I would do the same. His arrival to NXT UK was built up over several weeks with pre-taped interviews and promos which were extremely compelling. He spoke about knowing Pete Dunne and Mark Andrews, watching them claim success before him. Nothing really came of that though, and while he's been given some squash matches to build his profile, I haven't been impressed so far with his work. Also, I think the brand is trying to present him as some kind of monster, which doesn't quite hit home for me. Sure, he's tall at 6'6". but he's too skinny to be the least bit intimidating. And he needs serious work on his facial expressions, they're so cartoony that I've busted out laughing on a few occasions.
Claiming himself to be "The Ace" of NXT UK, much like Tanahashi is considered The Ace of New Japan, Devlin has come leaps and bounds from his first appearance in the inaugural WWE UK Tournament. Known in many circles as "Mini Balor", because Finn trained him and... well, he looks like Balor, Devlin has done a masterful job of creating his own identity and being one of the more interesting people on NXT UK. He had an outstanding UK Championship match with Pete Dunne, and hit another home run with Ligero. Absolutely a future UK champ in the making.
Known as the "Kiwi Buzzsaw" and being a former Progress champion, it's nice to see people from near my part of the world doing well in wrestling. Banks got to the finals of the 2018 UK Tournament, but was hampered by injuries. Upon returning to action in NXT UK, Banks found himself the target of the Gallus faction. In the ring, he's starting to put together some solid performances against the likes of Joe Coffey and Wolfgang, but I'd like a promo or video from him to get a better sense of his character. Right now he seems a bit bland as a personality.
So there you have it. NXT UK. As a new brand, it's going to have growing pains, and it can never be perfect at the start, but the foundation is there for something really strong moving forward. One thing I think could be improved overall is a fleshing out of characters. NXT UK is 100% a niche product at this stage, but they could make it a little more accessible to the casual fan by letting us know who these people are, so that we can care about them more. Moustache Mountain, Gallus and Rhea Ripley have got videos, mic time, segments and it's worked well. I think the NXT UK bookers are a little reliant on fans just knowing who wrestlers are based on their history in the Progress promotion, or other UK indies.
That said, the actual wrestling action has been top notch, and I expect that Takeover Blackpool tomorrow will be much of the same. It's on the WWE Network live at 6AM AEST... yeah, I won't be alive at that time on a Sunday. But when I do wake up, watching it straight away on demand. You should too!
Until next time, take care.