The sheer unlikelihood of Hideo Itami and Roderick Strong facing off in the main event of a weekly show featured on the WWE Network is staggering, even moreso when you consider that a shot at the NXT championship at one of the company's flagship TakeOver specials was on the line.
The roads traveled by Itami and Strong have been long and eventful, and they each came a long way to find themselves under the bright lights at Full Sail University.
At the age of 19, Itami kicked off his professional wrestling career debuting for All Japan Pro Wrestling. But he really began creating his legendary name with the newly formed Pro Wrestling Noah promotion in 2001 as part of the junior heavyweight division. Being able to thrive in that environment combined with frequent appearances in Ring of Honor events helped establish Itami as one of the top performers in the world.
The accolades were abundant as he became a three-time GHC junior heavyweight champion (the second of which came against Daniel Bryan), a three-time GHC tag team champion and finally, in 2013, the GHC heavyweight champion.
After his much-hyped signing to a WWE contract in 2014, Itami has been plagued by the injury bug time and time again, staggering his development and progression in the company. Following his second extended injury-induced absence, Itami returned with a vengeance a couple of weeks ago, healthy as a horse and with his eyes on the prize -- Bobby Roode's NXT championship. He followed up his confrontation with the champ with a successful in-ring return last week when he defeated Kona Reeves.
Despite making some serious statements, he'd have to earn the opportunity to battle for the title.
The same year Itami made his professional wrestling debut, Strong did the same independently in Florida, where he grew up. We learned a lot about his upbringing in a two-part mini-documentary that aired over the past couple of weeks that detailed his troubled childhood, his will to rise above it in pursuit of a dream and his new joy of fatherhood.
That dream transitioned into a number of promotions including Ring of Honor, Full Impact Pro and, like Itami, Pro Wrestling Noah. Strong and Itami actually clashed for the first time in June 2006 at an ROH show in Detroit, in a main event that managed to overshadow the ROH world title match that followed. Strong flourished most in ROH and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, where he captured a number of titles including a title reign in each promotion.
As his career progressed, Strong ended up back in Florida, this time under a WWE contract and performing for NXT -- and finally, Strong and Itami crossed paths once more with the highest stakes either had faced.
And what a match it was.
The early feeling-out process picked up in pace and turned into quite a display of excellently executed sequences. Aptly Strong, the "Messiah of the back breaker," hit several unique versions of the move, including one of the pump handle variety, but Itami found a way to rebound.
Itami relied on his impeccable striking abilities, but also pulled out innovative maneuvers including a falcon arrow suplex from the middle rope. The conclusion of the compelling back-and-forth affair saw Itami nail Strong with his Go To Sleep finisher, setting him up for a showdown with Roode for the NXT championship at TakeOver: Chicago.
Strong, on the other hand, faced familiar problems as he was attacked post-match by SAnitY, as shown in a WWE-exclusive clip from after the broadcast went off the air on the WWE Network.
- WWE (@WWE) May 11, 2017
#DIY gets their shot at the Authors of Pain in Chicago
Despite the rise of Heavy Machinery, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa made it clear on Wednesday night that the next tag-team title opportunity should be theirs, declaring that, "the line starts behind #DIY." The former champs were interrupted by the duo of Tino Sabbatelli and Riddick Moss, and an impromptu match was born.
Sabbatelli and Moss worked a fine match from a psychology standpoint and played up the arrogance factor. It was perhaps their best overall showing. But it wasn't enough as a hot tag to Gargano turned the contest in #DIY's favor. The finish saw Moss suffer the fate of #DIY's meeting in the middle knee/kick combination.
After the match, general manager William Regal announced that #DIY will challenge the Authors of Pain for the NXT tag-team championships at NXT TakeOver: Chicago. In a twist that gives the tag-team division yet another chance to steal the show, as has become the trend of late, the titles will be on the line in a ladder match.
Aleister Black dominates
As Andrew Feldman noted in an NXT-focused piece a few days ago, the brand has had a great deal of success discovering talent and building their star quality. That development process is well underway for the dark and foreboding Aleister Black, a man who Triple H predicts is "going to be a player."
Black was at it again Wednesday against Cezar Bononi, with Black's renowned kickboxing skills serving as the highlight of the contest. The crowd reaction has been growing by the week, with "Aleister" chants filling Full Sail University as the bout began. Bononi, who is relatively unknown in the land of NXT, was able to show off a little offense, but Black took control with some impressive knees and eventually the devastating Black Mass standing spinning heel kick. And that was all she wrote.
Rounding out the TakeOver card
• The conclusion of the chaotic melee that happened at the close of the NXT women's championship No. 1 contender battle royal last week saw Ember Moon suffer a rough landing against the guardrail as Asuka tossed her out of the ring. It resulted in a shoulder injury, and Moon offered the following statement regarding her status: "There's no TakeOver: Chicago for me. I'm out." The match will now be a triple threat between Asuka, Nikki Cross and Ruby Riot.
• It was also announced that, following a special WWE U.K. show last week, that the WWE U.K. championship be defended at NXT TakeOver: Chicago. "Bruiserweight" Pete Dunne will challenge Tyler Bate for the title, in a rematch of the U.K. tournament finals from back in January. I've been calling for it for months, and with the weekly U.K. show seemingly ready to debut on the network, this should be another great way to remind fans of just what these guys are capable of.