WWE NXT 7/18/2023: 3 Things We Hated And 3 Things We Loved

Welcome to Wrestling Inc.'s throughly subjective but somehow also totally unassailable review of "WWE NXT," the show where stars are made, where friendships are tested, and where the Italian mafia goes to war with Scotland! It was an action-packed Tuesday night this week, with pretty much all of "NXT's" numerous storylines getting advanced and a main event that saw the crowning of a new "NXT" North American Champion. There's a lot to talk about — "NXT" tends to take more risks than main roster programming and thus can achieve levels of uncut pro wrestling goodness "Raw" and "SmackDown" could only dream of, but can also very easily crash and burn.

What did we think of the evening's festivities? We thought you'd never ask! The bare-bones facts of the show can be found via our live coverage, but for those looking for more analysis and opinion, here are three things we hated and three things we loved from the 7/18/2023 episode of "WWE NXT."

Loved: Carmelo Hayes, Romance Champion

To paraphrase the spectacular NBC sitcom "The Good Place," the show-opening confrontation between "NXT" Champion Carmelo Hayes and #1 contender Ilja Dragunov was intense, and if we're being honest, sexually charged. Is it possible we just feel that way because we're gearing ourselves up for Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi teaming up again on "AEW Dynamite" this week? Yes. Yes, it is. But it really did feel there were some vibes going on between Hayes and Dragunov, even if they were the "not consciously intended" kind that wrestling tends to naturally generate when men start talking to other men about how manly they are. Don't believe us? Go back and watch the segment again. Even the crowd can feel it.

Anyway, that whole element aside, the champ and the challenger had a good segment this week, with Trick Williams trying to lay the blame for last week's loss on The Judgment Day's mastery of the numbers game, only for Hayes to jump straight to blaming Dragunov for interfering. It's nice having the cocky, superior version of Hayes back in our lives — his title feud with Bron Breakker before the latter turned heel was entirely too respectful, and he's been struggling to keep his edge ever since — and Dragunov is as smooth on the mic as he is in the ring, accusing Hayes of being all calculation and no feelings, prompting Hayes to open up about the pressure and meaning of holding the "NXT" title. When it comes to putting over the importance of their championship match at Great American Bash, it was good stuff. And as a secret romance novel, it ended up being even better, as Dragunov continued stepping in to defend Hayes from heels like Schism despite the fact that Hayes has no interest in being defended by him, meaning Dragunov will have to overcome his overprotective instincts while Hayes overcomes his fear of codependence if they're going to get together by the end.

What? Are we really the only ones who see this? Joe Gacy literally said "We can all sense the tension," I mean, come on! Hayes didn't call himself Christian Casanova on the indies for nothing!

Hated: The tag team division, romance killer

So we finally get Angel Garza and Humberto Carrillo back on WWE TV (sans their Los Lotharios name, which should have been a red flag), they go out and give us a fast-paced, high-flying match against Nathan Frazer and Dragon Lee, the kind of match you'd show an AEW fan if you wanted to prove to them that WWE also tries to have high workrate matches sometimes, they take ONE extremely competitive loss, and suddenly Carrillo is turning on Garza and breaking up the team? What the hell? You couldn't keep using these guys as an established veteran tag team, you had to split them up? Maybe tomorrow we can be optimistic that it will be better for both of them in the long run, but right now it doesn't feel that way. This was their first televised tag match that wasn't a battle royal since January; you'd think "NXT" would at least take some time to remind the audience who these guys are before sending them off on their own.

And to make matters worse, this wasn't even the only tag team break-up of the episode! The "NXT" debut of Bronco Nima and Lucien Price ended up being a pretty huge disappointment, mainly because it wasn't even really about them. Instead of giving Price and Nima a squash match against "local talent" or something like that, "NXT" put them in a match against Axiom and Scrypts, with the story being that Axiom didn't really want to be in an actual tag team and pulling back a little from Scrypts' enthusiasm for the idea. It's a fine idea that could have been stretched out for a while — we particularly enjoyed Axiom just straight-up being bad at tag team wrestling, as evidenced by him not knowing what to do when Scrypts did the extremely basic "arm wrench, tag out, pass off the arm wrench" manuever — but instead aggressively moved into its next phase when Scrypts turned on Axiom, allowing Price and Nima to pick up the win in their first match. So we're, what, just back where we were in May with these two? What was the point of any of this if it was just going to end with Scrypts turning heel again? We don't mind heartbreak if there's a good reason for it, but this just seemed like the "NXT" creatives didn't know where to go next and went backwards instead.

Hated: Maybe just stop

Speaking of lower-tier feuds that don't feel like they have any idea where to go, we have no idea what to make of Gigi Dolin vs. Kiana James this week. Women's wrestling gets unfairly maligned a lot in online wrestling spaces, and the last thing we want to do is add to that, but, it has to be said: Tuesday's match between Dolin and James was actively bad. Admittedly it wasn't all their fault, as the feud has been booked poorly overall — the match happening in the middle of a random episode 12 days before Great American Bash made the entire thing feel unimportant — but the performers themselves didn't help. Both women looked disengaged the entire time, like their hearts weren't really in it, and we don't know what's going on with James in the ring lately. She's gone from feeling like one of "NXT's" biggest gemstones waiting to be polished to looking like someone who doesn't know how to throw a punch, and we can't entirely explain it. Dolin wasn't great in this one either, don't get us wrong, but James stood out more of the two.

When you get right down to it, more than the wrestlers looking sluggish or the overall slow pace of the match, the problem was there just wasn't any story hook here. Dolin is supposed to be the bullied outcast taking on the popular mean girl, and it looked like they were leaning more in that direction last week, but none of that made it into this match. The only story element here involved the paint that may or may not have been in James' purse, and all that did was make the referee look like a massive idiot by letting the wrestlers hit each other with the purse in plain sight. When the only idea you have to structure your match around is the worst thing that's happened in the feud so far, you get what you deserve. We don't know if this was the end of the storyline or not, but at this point we'd almost rather both women move on to something else, because this isn't making anyone look good.

Loved: Everything else in the women's division

Dolin vs. James aside, we were very into everything else happening in the "NXT" women's division this week, and yes, that includes the bizarre gymnastics montage performed by Dana Brooke and Kelani Jordan. It was so weird. We're not sure Brooke vs. Cora Jade in a kendo stick match or whatever is going to be a good watch on the next episode, but screw that anyway, give us more of these amazing gymnastics music videos. Gymnasts stick together!

On a more serious note, the segment involving Blair Davenport and Roxanne Perez was good for entirely different reasons. These interviews where the two feuding wrestlers are talking into a camera from different locations have become a staple of the Paul Levesque regime, and they don't usually work, but this one was incredibly effective. Davenport is an excellent promo, and we really like the fact that instead of both parties exchanging tough words and the segment just ending, Davenport actually got under Perez' skin so much that Perez had to walk away. That's some really great heel work, and what "NXT" is doing with the Perez character being insecure and anxious in the aftermath of her early success is very interesting. If their Great American Bash match is half as good as the build to it has been, we'll be talking about it for a while.

But of course, the crown jewel of the women's division continues to be Thea Hail, who the rest of Chase U continues to rally around in her efforts to defeat Tiffany Stratton and claim the women's championship. Hail had a short match with Elektra Lopez this week that was significantly better than Dolin vs. James, just because it did what it needed to do and took it home. The best part about Hail is the way she physically embodies her character at all times, especially while she's wrestling. She moves like she's barely in control, her limbs flailing around randomly, trailing in the air behind her on as simple a maneuver as an Irish Whip. She wrestles the exact same way her character walks and talks (or perhaps, more accurately, runs and screams) and in the process she becomes inherently likable. She's a living, breathing sympathy generation engine, someone you'd want to be friends with, someone you'd lay your life on the line for because you know she'd do the same for you. She physically inhabits her character at all times, which is really impressive considering her age.

Of course, Stratton is no slouch on the mic herself, and their showdown this week was highly enjoyable, with Stratton agreeing to give Hail a rematch, but refusing the submission match stipulation until she was literally forced into it by Hail's unstoppable Kimura Lock. Hail vs. Stratton is by far the match we're most looking forward to at Great American Bash, and it's mainly because we want to see Hail perform on a PPV stage. She probably won't win the title, but she'll be Thea Hail, and that's enough.

Loved: Return of the Don

We'll say one negative thing about the story of the D'Angelo family this week. The extended video package that lays out exactly how Tony and Stacks executed their scheme against Gallus was entirely unnecessary, at least for us. We're on the ride, guys; you don't need to try and fill every plot hole, we don't actually care. Do you know what we do care about? A segment involving the extended D'Angelo Family, played by a bunch of amazingly-dressed and physically overacting extras, standing with Stacks in the ring to welcome the Don back home. Next time, save your explanations and get right to the crowbars.

Aside from that one thing, we loved every single part of this storyline on Tuesday, from Tony's stereotypically cinematic release from prison with Stacks waiting for him outside to Mark Coffey getting put through a table of h'ordeuvres. In addition to Chase U, the D'Angelo Family is the "NXT" act that feels most like the old days of the brand, before the WWE Network and the Takeover Era made it a super-indie, back when it was just a place where the weirdest s*** could get over as long as the performers committed to it hard enough and the fans bought in. And you know they've bought in when a blatant mafioso (and again, to be clear, canonical murderer) who calls himself "The Don of NXT" is getting welcomed back like a conquering hero. We are pulling so hard for Tony and Stacks to take the tag titles from Gallus at Great American Bash. These guys have put their hearts and souls into a gimmick that is fundamentally, gloriously stupid, and they deserve to be rewarded for it.

Oh, and also, Tony runs into Dominik Mysterio backstage and tells him that "Benny the Bumper from the yard says hello." ONE MILLION GOLD STARS.

Hated: Dominik Mysterio, North American Champion

Dominik Mysterio defeated Wes Lee to win the "NXT" North American Championship this week, and we have extremely mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's good to see Dom with a singles title, it's going to make him and Rhea Ripley even more of an insufferable power couple, and it's not necessarily the worst thing in the world to have "NXT's" best looking title belt paraded around on "Raw." We can absolutely see why you would do this from a certain point of view, particularly since you're building The Judgment Day up as the biggest and most important act in WWE aside this side of The Bloodline.

On the other hand, though ... this really kind of sucks. Interference or no interference, this is the second straight week a member of The Judgment Day has defeated one of "NXT's" reigning singles champions, and this time the title changed hands. We're not crazy about how this makes "NXT" look in the hierarchy of WWE, and we're not crazy about a main roster act holding "NXT" gold. The last time that happened the championship got retired in a unification match, and the time before that, they immediately stripped Solo Sikoa of this very same title for entirely nebulous reasons. It's just doesn't feel great if you're a fan of this show and the talent on this show, especially because after 11 successful defenses and nine months as champion, somebody else could have really used the rub from beating Lee. Like, that dude's title reign had become kind of a big deal, and "NXT" was in a position to capitalize on that by giving the title to an up-and-comer — Eddy Thorpe, Dragon Lee, maybe even this weird new Baron "Only what you take with you" Corbin, if it had to be a former main roster guy — and really boosting his stock. Instead, Lee's reign is ended by Dominik Mysterio? Is he going to continue being a regular presence on the show? (We hope so, since, you know, he's champion now, and also because we want to see more of Ripley giving tough love to Lyra Valkyria) Are they really going to run Dominik vs. Mustafa Ali at Great American Bash? Is that a thing that's happening?

Again, we sort of see the reasoning, and maybe it'll all work out great, but we can't help but wonder if somebody backstage saw that Jack Perry was facing HOOK for the FTW Championship on "Dynamite" Wednesday night, considered the prospect of a chickens*** heel running around with a lower-level title and being annoyingly proud of it to get heat, and thought, "What if we did that too, but a day earlier?"