WWE NXT 7/25/2023: 3 Things We Hated And 3 Things We Loved

Welcome to Rllegends's review of "WWE NXT," celebrating the star-crossed love between Carmelo Hayes and Ilja Dragunov since ... well, technically since last week, but in our hearts, since the beginning of recorded time. Hayes and Dragunov were scheduled to be tag team partners tonight, alongside Trick Williams, so we were hoping for some more interpersonal drama on that score, and boy were we ever not disappointed. We also had a Cora Jade vs. Dana Brooke kendo stick match to look forward to, plus appearances from Dominik Mysterio and Rhea Ripley. And let us not forget "The Decision," a Gable Steveson segment that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that WWE is still not above making references to decade-old sports references.

But beyond that, was it good? Was it compelling? Did it make us more or less excited for this Sunday's Great American Bash pay-per-view! The answers to these and other, extremely similar questions lie before you! Our live coverage is here if you just want the facts — for the facts plus the truth, here are three things we hated and three things we loved about the 7/25/23 episode of "WWE NXT."

Loved: So far so good for The Judgment Day in NXT

In last week's column, we expressed some reservations about Dominik Mysterio winning the "NXT" North American title. We still have those reservations. But we have to admit, Dominik carrying around a singles title has been everything we wanted it to be, and we really enjoyed his show-opening promo with Rhea Ripley. It's nice to see The Judgment Day actually sticking around and becoming a regular "NXT" presence; that goes a long way in terms of the logic of the title change. But more than that, we liked the way Dom's victory is enhancing, rather than trampling on, the existing story of Wes Lee and Mustafa Ali. Lee's promo the week after finally losing his title was the exact right cocktail of emotions for what that character would be feeling, and Ali continues to shine as the smarmy "babyface" who finally slipped up and revealed what he actually thinks of his so-called friend. They probably didn't even need to do the thing where Ali tried to hit Dominik but hit Lee instead, but when they did, it was perfectly believable that Lee would execute a furious attack. We also enjoyed the two of them stopping fighting long enough to realize that Dom and Rhea were laughing at them from the entrance ramp. Lots of really engaging relationships and character motivations going into this Great American Bash triple threat, and that's entirely because Dom is mostly a super annoying but compelling side note in the existing storyline between Lee and Ali.

As for Ripley, she has her own agenda, which is apparently motivating Lyra Valkyria by giving her the most vicious-looking Riptide we may have ever seen. Ripley and Valkyria had the main event match on Tuesday (though not the main event segment) and it was awesome, with Ripley making Valkyria look like a million bucks and more than capable of competing at the top of the main roster WWE women's division. This match made us see Valkyria differently, and it made us actually excited for her upcoming match with Jacy Jayne, because now that match has real emotional stakes: Can Valkyria prove her worthiness in Ripley's eyes?

We love all of it. Hats off to The Judgment Day for becoming regular participants in "NXT" without overshadowing and diminishing the other members of the roster or their ongoing storylines.

Hated: The gymnasts, triumphant

You know what kind of does diminish other members of the roster? Losing to Dana Brooke.

The kendo stick match between Brooke and Cora Jade was actually pretty decent, all things considered. It certainly met the prompt — there were kendo sticks aplenty, and even a steel chair thrown into the mix, and we really enjoyed Kelani Jordan providing Brooke with the dreaded pink kendo stick. It hurts more when it's pink, everyone knows that. That's just a fact. Unfortunately, the entire point of this match, from a narrative standpoint, got thrown out the window by the fact that the Orlando crowd was firmly behind Jade, despite the fact that they were supposed to be rooting for Brooke. Everyone knows this happens in wrestling sometimes, with the most memorable instances being those in which the performers adjusted to the crowd reaction and changed roles on the fly, but either such things are discouraged in "NXT" or Brooke and/or Jade lacked the improvisational ability to deviate from the original match structure. They just carried on with Jade trying to antagonize a crowd that wanted her to win while Brooke pulled off a bold comeback in front of people who wanted her to lose. Under those circumstances, it doesn't really matter how many cool spots you hit.

Beyond that though, Jade losing to Brooke is just a bizarre decision, and we're not sure what to make of it in terms of Jade's overall positioning. The "NXT" women's division is pretty strong up top, and there was a lot of good stuff from the women this week — the dueling video packages/promos from Tiffany Stratton and Thea Hail were both excellent, and we can't believe we don't have enough "loves" for Roxanne Perez beating Blair Davenport up and down the aisles of a convenience story, spiritually avenging her mentor, Booker T, who was once beaten up in a grocery story by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. That group, plus maybe Valkyria now, feels like it should include Jade, but instead she's more at the level of Gigi Dolin and Kiana James. Would "NXT" book Jade to beat Hail right now? We don't see it. Not exactly where we thought those two wrestlers would be in 2023.

Loved: Bron Wagner

We've been pretty cool on this whole Von Wagner babyface thing in recent weeks, but that was mainly because he was just re-telling the same part of his tragic backstory over and over again. All we really wanted was for him to start actually doing something, and boy, did he ever do something Tuesday night! First of all, he beat the crap out of Javier Bernal, then — in a move that was hilariously (but accurately) framed by the announcers as "listening to the fans" — drove him through the announce table with a powerbomb that would make Drew McIntyre stand up and take notice. And then, in the immediate aftermath of that powerbomb, he was trucked by Bron Breakker.

It's both a surprising and brilliant piece of booking. Wagner is a sympathetic babyface now, but he has the disadvantage of being a huge sympathetic babyface, and it's not the easiest thing in the world to make a huge guy look sympathetic. Knowing this, "NXT" spent a few minutes making sure everyone remembers how huge he is (via a real, actual squash match and subsequent table spot) before having Breakker, who is perfectly capable of out-muscling Wagner regardless of their respective sizes, run in and level him. There's no way Wagner won't be an underdog against heel murderer-of-all-he-surveys Bron Breakker, and he's been on such a tear of random chaos recently that we don't even really need a reason for his attack. The two characters make perfect sense together; get these big meaty men slapping meat in the ring as soon as possible.

Hated: Boring Corbin

What was the worst possible outcome for Gable Steveson's "Decision" promo segment? The answer, of course, is "it's a tie between every outcome that involves him being on WWE TV," but there are still distinct degrees of bad outcomes within that larger spectrum of bad outcomes, and one of the worst outcomes was the one we actually got.

Steveson came to the ring to announce whether or not he was leaving WWE before his highly-touted career had even began, which was definitely a thing WWE would have him do if he was actually leaving instead of beginning said career. Before he could actually announce his decision, in true WWE fashion, he was interrupted by Baron Corbin, who has returned from his journey of self-realization as ... the same person, mostly? Vaguely Depressed Corbin? It's still apparently his job to be the first big win for an exciting new talent, so we suppose the more things change, the more they stay the same. Everything about this was terrible, including the performances from both Steveson and Corbin, we're beyond disappointed that Corbin's new gimmick is "regular guy," and we have zero interest in a match between the two at Great American Bash. The only "decision" that actually got made Tuesday night was our decision about which part of Sunday's PPV to use as a bathroom break.

Hated: Are these the only tag teams you have?

"NXT" is in such a weird spot with tag teams right now. Gallus are the champions, The D'Angelo Family are presumably the next champions, and everyone else has either recently broken up or isn't really doing much work in the proper tag team division right now, like Schism or Chase U. Nathan Frazer and Dragon Lee are a thing, but they're apparently now in an eight-person feud with Meta-Four after the comatose Noam Dar was miraculously revived by an imitation Heritage Cup which he now refuses to believe is anything other than the real thing (this is amazing, by the way, we love it, no notes, change nothing). So when Tony D'Angelo and Stacks Lorenzo need a warm-up before their title match on Sunday, they get the new guys — Lucien Price and Bronco Nima. Which is a weird spot for them, considering they won their debut match because one of their opponents backstabbed the other one, and now get their second match against the #1 contenders, who definitely are not losing a tag match right before GAB.

To complicate matters (and worsen them) the aforementioned backstabber, Scrypts, was on commentary for some reason and added precisely nothing, spending most of his time facilitating an argument between Vic Joseph and Booker T about whether they should be calling him Scrypts or Reggie (Scrypts is now his "street name," apparently, meaning only people from the streets can use it, or something). The attack by Axiom was as welcome as it was inevitable, but it had almost no impact on the match, meaning that as expected, Price and Nima are now 1-1, or to be more accurate, 0.5-1.5. Not exactly the dominant force promised by all those weeks of video packages.

It should be noted that the match was fine, but these are the kinds of ideas that distracted us and made us care about it less, especially since we knew the outcome. Lorenzo is really fun to watch, though; his ring style has basically become "hurl myself at someone else with reckless abandon," and we dig it. We also liked that weird slithering motion Price did at one point, when he was smiling and making his face look like one of the monsters from "Attack on Titan." That has possibilities.

Loved: Tough love triangle

Where to even begin with Carmelo Hayes and Ilja Dragunov?

We could talk about how good Hayes looked in the six-man tag match, hitting all his spots ridiculously cleanly and on time, etc. etc., but if you've been reading this column lately, you know that what we really want to talk about is the look of frustrated longing on Dragunov's face while Hayes and Trick Williams are working together in the ring to take out various Schism members. And we definitely want to talk about Ilja once again trying to do his best to help Melo win a match and once again failing, accidentally taking out Williams on the outside with a move that was intended for Gacy. We thought this scenario might bring out some of Melo's old heel tendencies and he might use the hit on Williams as an excuse to walk out on Dragunov, leaving him to be weakened by Schism. But what we actually got was way better: Dragunov fighting off the Schism (mostly) on his own, and because he is a Determination Wizard and worlds above Schism in the "NXT" hierarchy, getting ready to win the match himself instead of tagging out to Hayes. But instead of letting him do that, Hayes tags himself in and wins the match, because Ilja might screw it up. As has been the theme of this feud so far, we have Dragunov trying to help and/or protect Melo, while Melo insists he needs neither.

That honestly could have been the end of it, but we got so much more. Because now Williams is pissed off at Ilja and wants to fight him. Melo knows three things simultaneously: (1) He loves Trick and understands his reasons, (2) he respects Ilja and doesn't want Ilja to think less of him if Trick calls llja out, and (3) if Trick calls Ilja out, Ilja is going to f***ing murder him. He tries to talk Trick out of it; no dice. He tries to talk Dragunov out of beating Trick's head in; no dice. There's nothing Melo can do to prevent these two people he cares about from fighting, and he doesn't want to take sides, but after Ilja is done destroying Williams and is preparing for the killing blow, Melo jumps in front of it. What else was he going to do, just stay out of out while Trick gets entirely wrecked? He has to intervene, because he and Trick actually do depend on one another, despite the fact that Melo didn't want to depend on Dragunov. And of course, this causes Ilja to recant his previous overtures of friendship, dramatically declaring that Melo should treasure his friendship with Trick, because after Sunday, it'll be all he has left.

Sorry, but if you don't see how this is very obviously a love triangle, we don't even know what else to tell you. It's barely even subtext. Carmelo Hayes chose Trick Williams over Ilja Dragunov, and now Dragunov wants to make him pay for that, while Melo wants Ilja to pay for what he did to Trick. And guess what? Now the main event of Great American Bash, which could easily have been just a regular babyface vs. babyface "we respect each other" affair, has real stakes and emotional consequences beyond the championship, because characters on a wrestling show should be motivated primarily by their feelings for and about other characters. We love that "NXT," for the most part, seems to understand that.

And no, we don't care who interfered in the six-man tag while wearing Schism masks. We're not worrying about that. We're on to GAB!