The night before WrestleMania offers up one of the biggest opportunities for the NXT roster, and with all superstars ready to shine, the card is stacked with big matches. Tim Fiorvanti and Sean Coyle offer up their recaps and ratings for the event with this page being updated in real time. Ratings for each match are on a sliding scale worth up to five points. Criteria for ratings are based on storytelling, in-ring execution, match psychology, timing and innovation -- worth one point each.
(c) -- indicates defending champion(s)
Unsanctioned match: Johnny Gargano def. Tomasso Ciampa
The fire that was the build to this incredibly personal feud burned slowly over the past year but reached a feverish level heading into the main event. The stakes were as high, possibly even higher, in this match than any of the championship matches on the card. Johnny Gargano was not only looking to win the match and be reinstated to NXT, but perhaps more importantly, was out for revenge to right the wrongs his former tag team partner caused him since their split at TakeOver: Chicago last May.
Ciampa executed a stunning attack onto Gargano at TakeOver: Chicago, costing him a chance to become NXT Champion, and capped it off by costing him his career when he interfered in a match between Gargano and Andrade "Cien" Almas, which, if Gargano lost, would exile him from NXT. Tonight's unsanctioned match was Gargano's final chance to rejoin the NXT roster.
This highly anticipated collision engulfed by a rambunctious New Orleans crowd began with an intense stare-down and stiff offense by Gargano, who unleashed multiple strikes, followed by his patented springboard spear. He proceeded to -- as Steve Austin did throughout his career -- stomp a mud hole into Ciampa in the corner and walk it dry. Gargano's aggression continued to the outside of the ring, highlighted by a dive over the barricade onto Ciampa in the crowd.
Ciampa angrily began his comeback with some vicious strikes of his own. He then removed the padding on the outside of the ring, exposing the concrete, but after a failed suplex attempt, Gargano rebounded with a kick to the face and tossed Ciampa onto and over the announcers table. Ciampa would circle back to that suplex attempt, though, and suplexed Gargano off of the announcers table onto the outside of the ring.
Ciampa's dominance continued, but as has been Gargano's calling card throughout his NXT career, he wouldn't quit. Each time Ciampa knocked Gargano down, Gargano fought back. Ciampa continued to embrace the ruthless heel role when he snatched his recent weapon of choice, a pair of crutches, from a fan at ringside.
Gargano dodged multiple crutch-shot attempts and began a comeback of his own, one that included a powerbomb to Ciampa onto the aforementioned concrete.
Back inside the ring, a moment ensued in which both men attempted to snag the crutch, which was laying in the middle of the ring. After a tug of war, Gargano ended up with it and swung his heart out, nailing Ciampa multiple times, including once to the head. He followed that up with a slingshot DDT, which earned him a two-count.
The fascinating story continued as Gargano removed the pad from a middle turnbuckle, but Ciampa avoided Gargano's attempt to toss him into it. After a knee strike by Ciampa, he executed an innovative swinging powerbomb from a torture rack position. He followed it up with a knee to the back of Gargano's head, one half of the former tag team's finishing maneuver, but Gargano kicked out of the ensuing pinfall attempt.
The fiery Gargano began nailing Ciampa with vengeful clotheslines and locked in his Gargano Escape submission hold. Ciampa made his way to the ropes, but as it was an unsanctioned, no-disqualification match, the hold was not broken. Ciampa broke the hold the way a villain should, by digging at Gargano's eyes.
After a failed attempt by Ciampa to choke Gargano with his wrist tape, they traded dozens of punches until the battle broke with a kick to the midsection by Ciampa and a crutch shot to Gargano's back.
Frustrated that he was unable to put Gargano away, Ciampa began yelling at his former tag team partner and the exposed turnbuckle finally came into play. Gargano tossed Ciampa into the turnbuckle and followed it up with multiple superkicks. All that offense was only good for a two count.
The two crawled around in exhaustion before Gargano slowly ascended to the top rope. Ciampa met him up there and delivered a monumental powerbomb/back breaker combination. But yet again, Gargano managed to kick out.
Ciampa removed his knee brace as he set Gargano up for a knee strike, but Gargano snatched the brace and nailed Ciampa as he ran toward him. Gargano then grabbed the crutch again, but as he was about to unleash his frustration onto Ciampa, he pulled back and appeared to be showing some mercy. Ciampa had other thoughts and attempted to hit Gargano with the knee brace, but Gargano ducked and locked in the Gargano escape submission one more time. He then transitioned into an STF while using the knee brace to pull Ciampa's neck back and Ciampa tapped out immediately.
There are multiple potential avenues to travel now that Gargano has been reinstated. His rivalry with Ciampa could continue -- who wouldn't want to see more matches like this down the road -- but Gargano's NXT career is missing one thing, an NXT Championship reign. Perhaps an eventual championship run will be the final chapter in his remarkable NXT career before a transition to the main roster. The options are aplenty, but for now, let's sit back and appreciate what was the show of the year thus far, and quite possibly the match of the year, between Gargano and Ciampa.
NXT championship: Aleister Black def. Andrade "Cien" Almas (c)
In the fourth consecutive title match on the NXT TakeOver: New Orleans card, Andrade "Cien" Almas and Aleister Black faced a tall task in stepping up and delivering something that felt different and special.
If you've watched a match from either Black or Almas over the past few months, however, you should have known that they were going to do everything within their power to keep the energy level up and deliver something truly memorable on a night that had already thrilled fans.
The end result was an NXT championship match that will stand the test of time as one of the best in that title's history. One year after Black made his televised NXT debut at TakeOver: Orlando in a victory over Almas, Black repeated the feat on Saturday night to become the new NXT champion.
The Almas he beat the second time around was a much different opponent, however, and after title matches against Drew McIntyre and Johnny Gargano, along with an appearance in the Royal Rumble, Almas feels ready to do things on Raw or SmackDown in the very near future.
It was clear from the opening moments that there would be no messing around in this match. After tossing Almas to the outside, Black hopped around to the corner and hit a moonsault from the middle rope to a waiting Almas on the outside.
Almas laid a full windup overhand chop onto Black's chest, but even that loud, echoing slap couldn't slow Black's momentum. It took Zelina Vega hitting a hurricanrana that sent Black head-first into the ring steps to turn around the momentum -- and she would play a very big role in pushing forward the momentum at several key points going forward.
"Let's go, Almas" and "Aleister" chants battled back and forth in the crowd, each one louder than the last, Almas wore Black down and nailed a missile dropkick, but Black ultimately turned things around with a bicycle knee lift as Almas flew from the top rope to finally swing the momentum back the other way.
Trading kicks worked in Black's favor, and he used that edge to hit a running knee, a snap kip-up and eventually a springboard middle rope moonsault. Almas flipped out of a sunset flip powerbomb, missed his running knees finisher, but then regained control by hitting a German suplex. Almas missed a top rope moonsault, but landed on his feet and immediately hit a standing moonsault to follow up.
After trading forearms, Black nearly took Almas' head off with a knee that looked like it twisted Almas' neck around a long way, and then the two men hit simultaneous high front kicks and knocked each other down.
Almas popped up first and hit a hip-toss into the middle turnbuckle, and after Black briefly fought back, Almas flashed some of his serious lucha libre pedigree by hitting a spinning tope over the top rope onto Black on the outside.
After a two-count, Almas attempted to bring the title into play, and as the referee was distracted, Vega rolled in the ring and hit a headscissors that spiked Black's head into the mat. Black countered a hammerlock DDT attempt into a Black Mass kick, but Vega put Almas' leg up on to the bottom rope.
Almas rolled to the outside, and as Black climbed the ropes, Vega swept Black's leg out again. With Black perched just above the apron, Almas hit a top rope double stomp, rolled Black in for the double knees and nearly got a three count before a kick-out at the last fraction of a second.
Almas once again attempted a hammerlock DDT, Black tried to spin it into a Black Mass kick, but Almas hit a dropkick to the back of the head of his own. The action spilled to the outside, and as Black was once again perched on the apron, Almas hit his running double knees that sent Black head-first into the steel ringpost. He was dead weight for Almas to pick up but eventually came up.
Almas got Black positioned for the suspended hammerlock DDT, but Black used the last of his strength to back body drop Almas all the way to the outside. Black climbed to his feet, ran the ropes and hit a full flip over the top rope. He tossed Almas back in, but Almas popped back up, hit a hammerlock DDT and seemingly locked up a successful title match. However, for the second time, Black got his shoulder up with a fraction of a second to spare.
In her fourth attempt to get involved, Vega ultimately got her hand stuck in the figurative cookie jar. She got caught red-handed climbing to the top rope, and her flying cross-body ended with Almas catching her out of midair.
As Almas stood there, with Vega in his arms, Black hit the Black Mass kick and, as the crowd screamed along, the "1-2-3" gave Black the pinfall victory and made him the new NXT champion.
Black's one-year journey to this point couldn't have culminated more poignantly, and he has no shortage of challengers to come. If this was Almas' swan song, it couldn't have been much better, either.
NXT tag team championship and finals of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic: Undisputed Era (c) def. Authors of Pain vs. Pete Dunne and Roderick Strong
The story going into the match was squarely focused on Adam Cole and whether or not he could be a productive contributor with about 30 minutes of recovery time after a hellishly violent six-man ladder match (see below).
The new NXT North American champion walked out gingerly, several steps behind his partner Kyle O'Reilly, with his ribs taped up and his left arm tucked to his side.
Undisputed Era simply wasn't going to walk out of New Orleans with the tag team championships in hand unless they got some outside assistance, and for the past few weeks, theories flooded the WWE universe about what could happen. There were plenty of outside candidates mentioned, most notably Chris Dijack, who has a common independent history, but that all overshadowed the possibility of an inside man.
A few months after rejecting the Undisputed Era's offer to join their ranks, Roderick Strong shocked the world, turned on his tag team partner Pete Dunne and allowed Adam Cole, Kyle O'Reilly and the laid up Bobby Fish to leave TakeOver with all of their titles intact.
The Undisputed Era walking out with the titles in hand couldn't have been a result further from the minds of fans in the opening minutes.
The Authors of Pain bumrushed Cole and O'Reilly and everyone converged in the middle of the ring. Cole got double powerbombed through a commentary table almost immediately, and he didn't factor into the match again.
O'Reilly threw everything he had at his four opponents, though, as he took out both Akam and Rezar, and then Strong, before going to battle and taking Dunne down as well. Strong settled that down, and hit a uranage into a backbreaker on O'Reilly for a two-count.
But O'Reilly kept on fighting throughout the match. He locked a triangle choke on Strong, and when Akam tried to interrupt the proceedings, he slapped an ankle lock on Akam until Rezar powerbombed Dunne into the pile to break it up.
Dunne, who got as loud a reaction as anyone in the match outside of Adam Cole, flashed the kind of skills that made his TakeOver: Chicago match against Tyler Bate so special. O'Reilly tried to German suplex him twice, but twice Dunne flipped out and landed on his feet. Dunne hit a spinning DDT on Rezar, but then the Authors of Pain sprung into action by hitting a supercollider powerbomb on O'Reilly and Dunne and a Last Chapter on O'Reilly, only for Strong to break it up.
Strong hit an Olympic Slam on Rezar, but only got a two-count. Strong nailed a backbreaker to O'Reilly on the apron, then Dunne double stomped O'Reilly on the apron for good measure. They hit an assisted bitter end on Rezar, but Akam broke it all up before the three-count.
O'Reilly and Dunne went at it in the middle of the ring, and Dunne nailed a solo bitter end to seemingly lock up the victory, but then Strong's master stroke fell into place. He turned on Dunne by hitting the end of heartache, then rolled O'Reilly on top of Dunne.
Cole, who finally made his way back into the ring after the match was over, and O'Reilly sat stunned, and Cole flinched as Strong reached for him. But it was merely a symbolic move. He snatched the Undisputed Era armband off of Cole's arm and put it on -- bringing things full circle from the first time he was offered such an olive branch. Strong helped Cole up and the group celebrated. With Fish on the shelf for the foreseeable future, Strong makes all the sense in the world as the third man in Undisputed Era -- and as that third man, he gets to be a tag team champion anyways. At the same time, he's made a bitter enemy in Dunne, reigniting their friendly rivalry as a blood feud. Fish joined the trio on stage, and though it's a bit of a stretch for a team that wasn't even in the tournament to begin with to win the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, this was a solution as good as any that could've happened in NXT.
NXT women's championship: Shayna Baszler def. Ember Moon (c)
While Ember Moon has taken her place atop the NXT women's division, it's Shayna Baszler who has truly established herself as the shining star within the division. Through cowardly sneak attacks and an intent to injure, Baszler has created one of the most villainous characters to grace NXT.
Moon, who has had a respectable title reign thus far, seems poised for a main roster run more sooner than later coming off her appearance in the inaugural women's Royal Rumble match in January.
Would Moon begin to make that transition and pass the torch to Baszler or would she add another win to the championship resume that followed the greatest champion in NXT history in Asuka?
In their previous TakeOver encounter in Philadelphia, Baszler targeted Moon's arm throughout the entire match. This match began with strike heavy offense by both sides and ironically enough, it was Moon who locked in the first submission of the night with a crossface.
It didn't take long for Baszler to recover though and she displayed some of the most impressive offense we've seen out of her since her arrival to NXT. Her knee strikes were particularly noteworthy.
While their TakeOver: Philadelphia match was more of a one-sided assault by Baszler, this bout featured more back and forth action, and as a result, was a much better match.
When Baszler hinted at beginning her destruction of Moon's arm again, Moon sidestepped it and gave Baszler a taste of her own medicine as she stomped on Baszler's left arm. Moon followed it up by twisting Baszler down to the mat using the injured arm. Baszler sold the injury to perfection as she popped the apparent dislocation back into place using the ring post.
The injury slowed Baszler down enough for Moon to capitalize as she nailed her innovative eclipse finisher from the top rope to the outside of the ring. Dramatically, they both made it back into the ring just before the 10-count when Baszler locked in her kirifuda clutch. However, Moon fought her way out of it by pulling on Bazsler's injured arm.
Following a powerbomb to counter a triangle choke, Moon ascended the top rope hoping to nail another eclipse. This time, she was caught in midair by Baszler who locked in the kirifuda clutch yet again. Despite Moon's extended fight to break the hold and get to the ropes, Moon lost consciousness and the referee rang the bell.
Following the win, Baszler celebrated with her four horsewomen comrades Ronda Rousey and Jessamyn Duke, who were ringside.
Could this be the end of Moon's run in NXT? It's likely she'll get a crack at reclaiming her title, but it certainly seems like a changing of the guard. We'll get a better sense of both Moon and the NXT women's division's direction in the weeks to come.
NXT North American championship ladder match: Adam Cole def. Killian Dain, Lars Sullivan, EC3, Ricochet and Velveteen Dream
A multi-man ladder match with these six particular stars was highly unlikely to disappoint, and the show-opener seemed destined to kick NXT TakeOver: New Orleans off in emphatic style. But even with seemingly impossibly high expectations going into the match, Ricochet, Velveteen Dream, Lars Sullivan, Killian Dain, Adam Cole and EC3 laid absolutely everything on the line and blew everyone away.
Though it was ultimately Cole who walked away with gold in-hand, all six men got a moment to shine, with tremendous breakout performances from Ricochet and Velveteen Dream in particular.
From the moment superstars began entering the ring, the crowd was already well into the match. Everyone other than Sullivan got a big, positive reaction, and the fans began chanting "this is awesome" before anyone even touched.
It's easy for multi-way matches to get bogged down in between spots, or lack a general narrative between the "oh my god" moments, but that was anything but the case in this match despite some of the most intense ladder spots ever attempted inside of a WWE ring.
Ricochet set the tone early. After an early scramble for ladders, Sullivan and Dain were set up on the outside and looked up just in time to see Ricochet hit a top-rope-to-top-rope-to the outside shooting star press onto the two giants -- and there was rarely a moment for fans to catch their breath in between. Everyone jockeyed for position and hit relatively big moves, but business picked up once Lars took a ladder and threw it full-speed and connected with multiple faces along the way. He then picked up that same ladder and used it as a battering ram to clear everyone else out.
Lars started to climb the ladder and Ricochet stepped in the way. He attempted to flip over the ladder and hit a sunset flip powerbomb, and though he initially failed, EC3 and Dream helped, and Cole climbed the other side of the ladder to punch Sullivan in the face to allow the triple powerbomb to happen.
After some more jockeying for position, Cole and EC3 worked together briefly and set up a ladder bridge between the commentary table and the apron, and that would come into play later. EC3 got a little too familiar, though, and tried to do an "EC3, Bay Bay" shout that did not go over well with his temporary partner. Cole hit EC3 with a Death Valley Driver onto a ladder and then doled out superkicks for Dream, Dain, Sullivan, EC3, and, finally, nailed Ricochet as he was mid-air from a springboard with a final kick to the face.
A deafening "Adam Cole Bay Bay" capped off his first big moment in the match, but it was not yet meant to be. After Velveteen Dream cleared out most of the competitors with standard flying elbows, he climbed all the way to the top of a 20-foot ladder and nailed Sullivan flush. EC3 powerbombed Dream from midway up the ladder onto another ladder propped up in the corner, and then it just descended into true chaos.
EC3 ate a Vader Bomb from Dain while Cole was on Dain's back, and a ladder was lying on E3's face. After Ricochet got ragdolled around, Sullivan pushed the ladder over slowly, and Ricochet did a moonsault from atop the falling ladder onto Dain, Cole and EC3.
Ricochet continued to create a highlight reel with a shooting star press onto EC3 while he laid on top of a ladder. Dream then racked up another insane-looking move with his patented DVD onto a ladder bridge between a ladder and the turnbuckle. That's when the outside ladder bridges -- that's right, two of them -- came into play. Lars hit his finisher on EC3 through Velveteen and the ladder, which broke, and then Dain matched it on another ladder bridge by leg dropping Ricochet while slamming Cole, breaking through as well.
All six bodies lay broken between the ring and both commentary tables. "Fight forever" chants rang out in the Smoothie King Center as Sullivan finally started to stir. Everyone else was seemingly done for, except Sullivan, who began to climb. Dain rolled into the ring to challenge him, climbing the other side of the ladder, while EC3 slid another ladder into the ring -- jabbing both giants with it before setting a second ladder up alongside of it, as Adam Cole climbed opposite him.
Dream set up a third ladder in a row, at which point Ricochet finally got back into the ring opposite him, all six men battled on ladders with the title swinging above them. Cole hit a side-Russian legsweep on EC3, taking them out of the equation, while Ricochet nailed a neckbreaker on Dream to neutralize them. It was back to the two giants. Lars hit his finisher on Dain from off of the ladder to a thunderously loud noise, but as Lars climbed up, Ricochet springboarded onto Lars' back and pulled him off the ladder and face-first onto another ladder on the ground.
Cole knocked Ricochet off the ladder and he flipped over the top to the outside.
Cole swooped in, climbed quickly, and yanked the title down to become the first ever NXT North American champion to a roar of applause. It was already a monumental moment in Cole's career, and his night was still only halfway done.