The week after an NXT TakeOver special is typically an opportunity to pause, digest what's just happened and reset for the weeks and months to come. That was anything but the case this week, with the second edition of the WWE United Kingdom championship tournament and the official launch of the NXT U.K. brand. But with both major events in the rearview mirror, there's even more to celebrate this time around.
Over the past year in particular, TakeOvers have been able to showcase the depth of the NXT roster like never before. Each time out, there are matches and stories that, at worst, stand shoulder to shoulder with what's happening on Raw and SmackDown and, at best, tell the kind of long, complex story that simply doesn't fit in to the way stories are told on the main roster at this point in time.
Expectations for "NXT TakeOver: Chicago II" were through the roof after the unparalleled reaction to "NXT TakeOver: New Orleans," and with the exception of perhaps one match on the card, everyone who performed inside of the Allstate Arena on Saturday night met or exceeded that bar. Even in the case of Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, who had one of the most memorable matches in NXT history to close out the show in New Orleans, they came through in a big way with another match for the ages.
"Something like tonight is when all the pieces fit and it's just magic," said Paul "Triple H" Levesque in an exclusive interview with ESPN shortly after the show wrapped up Saturday night. "It's like the puzzle set up so nicely that you shake the box and all the pieces just fall into place and the picture's there -- it's perfect."
It's one thing to tell a story that bounces from in-ring action to promos and interviews, and plucks at the heartstrings along the way. It's another test entirely to go out in front of more than 10,000 people when the lights are brightest and fully realize that story over the course of a pro wrestling match. Whether Gargano-Ciampa marks the end of a chapter, a pause in the story or the launching pad for some final yet-to-be-told chapter, both men walked out of that arena having left every part of themselves in the ring.
"The match has to deliver off the story you're telling, right? You feel like, 'OK, now we got there, we're there. We've set the table really well. Now can the story deliver on it?'" said Levesque. "That is the beauty of the art of what we do, and also the dilemma of what we do. The final chapter ... it's never the final chapter, because the book never stops, but that kind of final chapter that you're telling [for now], it goes live, so no matter the best plan of how you see it playing out, it can go awry.
"Shawn [Michaels] and I talk about this a lot," continued Levesque. "It's almost more nerve-wracking for me back here watching it play out, because you want it to be so good for them, and just the heart and soul that everybody puts into it. It's tough as a fan, because you don't know -- you just watch it and you're either entertained or you're not. But everybody puts their heart and soul into all this stuff."
With the crazy week in the world of NXT behind us, it's natural to turn back toward some of the big lingering questions that always come back into focus after a TakeOver. Is the depth of the roster reaching a point where it's actually starting to choke off opportunities? Could (and should) NXT ultimately expand its hour-a-week time slot to reflect the level of talent it houses?
For Levesque, it's a complicated question.
"There are times when I look at NXT and part of me loves the hour format because everybody's got busy lives," said Levesque. "By the time you get to Wednesday ... if you're a huge fan, by the time you get to Wednesday, you've watched five hours of WWE, and then you're watching NXT. And that's if you didn't watch '205 Live.' There's a lot out there. The great thing is they're all slightly different, so there's a little bit of something for everybody.
"I run into things, for me, when we're scripting out weekly episodes of NXT, [where] it's like, 'Oh, man, I'd really like to debut this person, or do this thing with this new character, or help get a persona going or something [else], and I don't have the room to do it," Levesque continued. "There's a fine line between that and leaving them wanting more, so it's a balance."
It was evident, even on a successful night in Chicago, how much of an embarrassment of riches NXT has on its hands at the moment. EC3 and Kairi Sane appeared in the crowd, and Adam Cole was merely a supporting act to Roderick Strong and Kyle O'Reilly's tag team title defense -- and that's before you even get into Keith Lee, who introduced himself to the world of NXT on Saturday night.
Later in the night, on a conference call, Levesque pointed out that they could've done another NXT TakeOver special the very next night with just people who didn't appear on Saturday, and they'd have put on another great show. It's just the nature of the beast as it currently stands -- a feature, more so than a flaw or a bug with the system.
"I've heard people say it to me, even on these TakeOvers, 'How can you do this card and not put EC3 on? How can you do this card and not put Adam Cole on? That's a disservice.' No, you just don't put everything on the show. You save something for the next one that's even bigger. You save something for the episode that's even bigger. To me, that is the 'leave them wanting more' part in it, and I think we do a pretty decent job of balancing it -- but it's always a work in progress."
Though we've seen some wiggle room with the window for certain TakeOver specials expanded over the past few months, it appears NXT will be sticking with the one-hour block for the time being. On the other hand, NXT picked up some real estate in a tangential way this week with the announcement of the NXT U.K. brand -- and the interaction between NXT's "main roster" and the stars of the U.K. gave us a glimpse as to how that now-established brand will function.
And from the way Levesque talks about it, the U.K. is just the start of a global NXT (and WWE) expansion.
"I think that what makes that meaningful is having that sort of oversight grouping, the NXT kind of connection between all of it," said Levesque. "Whether that brand's in the U.K., whether that brand's in the Middle East or South America or Australia, whatever that is. Having that kind of oversight, where you can move things around back and forth."
Moments like Moustache Mountain shocking The Undisputed Era for the NXT tag team championships prove that there will be opportunities for mobility moving forward, with stars coming up in the U.K. and other regional areas and then bumping up to the "main" NXT brand at the right time. Even once they've made such a move, there's an attraction at bringing in bigger NXT stars for major crossover events.
"It's like Marvel, in some way -- there's all these different stories and different characters and different sort of universes, but they all kind of connect together at some point in time, and they all exist within that Marvel Universe," said Levesque. "I think it's the same with this -- they all sort of exist [by themselves], but play off each other."
By slowly expanding the company's circle of influence, Levesque hopes to capture the best of both worlds -- giving fans a regular chance to watch their own show with its own local flavor, while still getting the chance to see their favorites at big shows once they've started moving up in the world.
"The beauty of this is to be able to deliver it on a local basis, to places that in the past have been able to only have [the] WWE level of what we do once or twice a year," said Levesque. "Some places in the world, where our fans are the most passionate, we're limited by the geography of the world in what we can deliver to them. If I can deliver something to them that's incredible locally, but then have something bigger that comes in, and they can see it blossom and grow into other things.
"[It's like] the band that they love and they saw get started comes back twice a year and does big stadiums for them. You still love them, but you [also] see these new local bands that keep you invested in the music -- and as long as people are loving the music, that's all that matters to me."