Off the Top Rope: No Longer Content to Wait, Dakota Kai Grabs Her NXT Spot

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterDecember 11, 2019

Off the Top Rope: No Longer Content to Wait, Dakota Kai Grabs Her NXT Spot

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    The New World Order will invade the WWE Hall of Fame on WrestleMania weekend, joining the immortals of the business and earning each member a rare double entry into the virtual assemblage of the best of the best.

    But do they belong?

    The faction was the headline act for WCW during the Monday Night Wars—a good thing when the promotion was beating WWE weekly in the television but less impressive in the final years as the Ted Turner-owned enterprise spiraled out of control and eventually went out of business.

    Here, we'll discuss their legacy, talk to rising NXT star Dakota Kai on the eve of the biggest match of her WWE career against Mia Yim, pick a match of the week and more. 

    You can join Bleacher Report every Wednesday for in-depth interviews, analysis and a sneak peak at what the future has in store in the sport of kings.

NXT Superstar Dakota Kai: 'We Are the Main Roster Now'

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    Dakota Kai sat on the shelf for nine long months, furiously rehabbing her knee and waiting anxiously for her return to NXT. But it turned out the black-and-gold brand wasn't quite ready for her.

    When she was rejected and denied a place on Rhea Ripley's WarGames team in November, something in her snapped.

    Her partner, Tegan Knox, bore the brunt of the resulting explosion. But Mia Yim was also a victim, and she will be seeking her revenge on NXT (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET, USA Network).

    Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden had a chance to talk to Kai about big changes, both for the entire NXT locker room and for her wrestling persona, heading into a huge national televised match.


    Jonathan Snowden: You're the first NXT performer I've talked to since the move to the USA Network. I'm curious about how life has changed at the Performance Center now that you guys are doing two hours of weekly national TV. Is there a different energy there? 

    Dakota Kai: I think I can speak for everyone here—a lot of us at NXT and at the Performance Center have been dreaming about this for a long time. And, I know that us going to TV on the USA Network was something that was in the works for a while. I want to say over a year they've been talking about it and then they finally pulled the trigger on it.

    There's a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, especially those of us who are on TV every Wednesday, to make sure we show everyone what we already know and what the NXT Universe faithful have already seen over the last few years that NXT has been a thing.

    There's a lot of excitement.The energy has been very, very exciting. It makes a lot of the new trainees at the Performance Center want to step up their game because there are a lot of opportunities for everyone to show what they are capable of. It's been crazy.


    JS: I bet. It's been crazy to watch. It's such a huge change. For a long time, the goal was to move up to the main roster. After a successful Takeover they'd call somebody up to Raw or SmackDown and there would be this backstage footage, everyone would hug, there would be tears, you'd get your photo taken with Triple H...

    Dakota Kai: All of that (laughs).


    JS: Now what's the goal? As we move into 2020, what are you guys aiming for? What's the goal for NXT Superstars right now? Does the idea of the main roster still exist?

    Dakota Kai: I don't think we really look to Raw and SmackDown as moving up to the main roster anymore. We are the main roster now. The only difference before was that Raw and SmackDown were on television and we were on the WWE Network. Now that we are also on that same level, the main goal of everyone at NXT is to just keep bringing it and to really elevate everyone within the brand itself.

    We are the third brand, and a lot of us are so very loyal to NXT. We want to stay and just help elevate it to that level. I mean, us being on the USA Network is the first step but we have so much work to do in terms of continuing to bring your eyes to NXT and show everyone watching that we are on the same level as Raw and SmackDown.

    They're doing their thing too, but I think here at NXT, we offer something edgy. We offer the kind of wrestling that I think a lot of people crave. 


    JS: When I was growing up there was no one modeling the kind of hard-hitting, action-packed women's wrestling you guys do. Frankly, WWE's women, especially in NXT, are setting a new standard.

    With that in mind, which performers do you look to for inspiration? Are there glimpses of excellence from the past you look back to? Who motivated you and who are the people who set the standard you're trying to meet?

    Dakota Kai: When I started watching wrestling, Trish Stratus, Lita and Molly Holly were very much in the forefront. Women's wrestling in general has evolved a lot to where it is today. But, at the time, those women were bringing it. They were amazing for that time.

    The women I was watching as I moved forward in my career were the Four Horsewomen, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch and Bayley. A lot of the women here in NXT have an independent wrestling background. We very much keep the athleticism and the performance in ring as the main focus. They sort of started that here at NXT. They were the trailblazers.

    I just want the women's division at NXT to be the best. That's our focus every week, just to bring the best wrestling for all of us. And I think we're doing pretty well. Everyone's really pleased with how it's going.


    JS: When you were dealing with the ACL injury this year and had nine months to sit and think about it, was there a part of you that realized, "Hey, nice girls aren't going to make it here. I've got to do something to make a splash because all these other women are so good." 

    I have to imagine there are also elements of reality to the WarGames story. There are a limited number of spots on each WarGames team just like there are only a handful of spots in NXT generally. And there are a lot of talented women you are fighting for those positions. Did all of that make it easy to deal with what your character did because that is kind of your life?

    Dakota Kai: Oh, 100 percent. When my injury happened, I was kind of on the verge of getting bigger opportunities. But the injury halted all of that.

    When it happened, there was a lot of time spent thinking about what I had done in NXT, which is still good. But at the same time, I don't think that I really got to show everyone who Dakota Kai really was. So, there was a lot of time dwelling on that, and I made a promise to myself and to everyone. I tweeted about it too: When I came back, I would hit the ground running.  

    I also made a promise to myself that I would show everyone what they hadn't seen yet. The start of my NXT career up until I got injured was OK. But it wasn't really what I wanted to show people. I'm going to start taking my opportunities and showing everyone what I'm capable of.


    JS: What you are capable of turns out to be some pretty rough stuff. That was a brutal assault on your former partner, Tegan Nox. As a performer, how do you get yourself into the head space where you're going to put that kind of beating on somebody? How do you get yourself into that mood?

    Dakota Kai: I think part of it is just knowing the amount of responsibility that's on me, so I do spend a lot of time before matches by myself. I don't do a lot before my matches except just get in the zone and be on my own. I'm not really that exciting. I just want to tell an amazing story.


    JS:  Bringing the knee brace out with you to the ring was a nice touch. What inspired that? It represents a lot, I imagine both to Tegan and yourself. That's making a statement of some sort.

    Dakota Kai: Yes, for sure. We had both gone through the same injury, the same journey. So, taking her knee brace off at WarGames and keeping it on me sort of like a token, I think that that says a lot in itself. I don't really have to talk about the knee brace. I think that just showing it and showing everyone including Tegan that I have her knee brace on me adds to the statement I made. I see it as a warning.


    JS: You're fighting Mia Yim on the next NXT. I could tell last week that she's out for blood. It's serious business. Obviously, you mean serious business, too.

    When I think about NXT women, a lot of times I think of very technical matches. They're very well performed but don't feel like they are motivated by dislike or hatred. This one feels different. Do you think this is more than your standard wrestling match?

    Dakota Kai: I think what I did to Mia at WarGames made a statement. That fuels her fire. She obviously wants to have a fight.

    This is going to be a fight. This isn't going to be a "wrestling match." It'll be a fight. It will be her coming for revenge. Coming for my neck. But I am going to show her it wasn't a one-off thing that happened. This is a new Dakota Kai. Everyone better tune in because it's going to be crazy.

For Life: The Controversial NWO Absolutely Belongs in WWE Hall of Fame

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    We talk a lot about "history" when we discuss professional wrestling. More than any other sport, wrestling preserves its past, leaning heavily on nostalgia and rose-colored memories of the way things were.

    In some ways, that just makes sense. In the real world, Michael Jordan is too old to come back and challenge Lebron James for NBA supremacy. The concept is patently ridiculous. In wrestling, that dream match could happen easily. 

    Age, in the world of pro wrestling, is a very relative concept.

    The result is a continuing obsession with days gone by, particularly the recent past and the iconic performers who can still trudge their way to the ring, wave to the fans and maybe even take a bump or two.

    It's also why, every year, there is such intense discussion leading into Hall of Fame season. Fans care. They've been taught to.

    Because of this obsession with the past, fleeting, ordinary and even humdrum events are often incorrectly labelled as historic. But there's no exaggerating the events of July 7, 1996. Hulk Hogan, the immortal star of ring and screen, made his way down the aisle, presumably to once again help good triumph over evil. 

    He ended the night with spittle flying from his mouth and garbage flying into the ring, as wrestling's hottest heel and part of an act that would reconfigure the power structure of the entire sport.

    Along with Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Syxx, he helped reinvent what heels looked and felt like. The NWO became the centerpiece of the first organization to truly challenge Vince McMahon's WWE since the promotion first expanded nationally in the mid-1980s. 

    The NWO's legacy, of course, isn't pure. Nothing in a business this tawdry could be. The three men, together with a seemingly never-ending collection of hangers-on, took WCW to the top.

    However, the weight of their presence eventually collapsed the entire structure, leading some, like pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, to label the act a failure:

    "For all its fond memories of the glory period of WCW and the Nitro winning streak, ultimately, the angle and the power given the participants and what they did with it was a colossal failure, costing the company not only more money than it earned them, but costing the company its very existence. But the beginning was done correctly. Somewhere along the way, when it came time to give back, the giving back was fake." 

    The truth is, enthusiasm for every wrestling act peters out in time. As Meltzer points out, the NWO was no different. The distinction here was the height of the glory they reached.

    When it came down to it, WCW couldn't find other performers who could capture the huge audience they had helped cultivate. The enterprise collapsed, in part because the NWO had helped make it so large and top heavy.

    Inducting the members individually (as WWE did with Hall, Nash and Hogan) doesn't quite suffice, not if you want to truly capture what they meant to the industry. Part of the group's glory was seeing them together, occupying the ring as an invading force, the coolest guys in the room inviting us into their world for a short time each week on Nitro. 

    To me, the group's inclusion in the WWE Hall of Fame is not just proper, it's necessary. You can't truly reflect one of wrestling's glory periods without shining a light on its most compelling act.

Match of the Week: Juice Robinson/David Finlay vs. Evil/Sanada (New Japan)

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    New Japan Pro-Wrestling's tag league is typically a tour even the most hardcore fans take off.

    The wrestling never generally moves beyond passable, with the performers and audience seemingly taking an opportunity to recharge their batteries and prepare for the buildup to the Tokyo Dome in January.

    This year, honestly, was no exception.

    Beyond the gentle humor of Colt Cabana and Tour Yano and the bizarre performance art of Kenta in a series of flirty backstage skits, little stands out. Until, that is, the final match of the tour, conveniently arranged to decide the winner and recipients of not only two weird looking trophies but also a tag title shot at the Dome.

    David Finlay (son of former WCW and WWE standout Fit Finlay) delivered a star-making performance fresh off an extended absence due to a torn labrum. Together with partner Juice Robinson, he has a chance to help reinvigorate a division that often feels like an afterthought.

    The two have a breezy chemistry, connecting not just with the audience, but also with each other. It's fun to watch them perform—and the ultra-serious world of New Japan can use a bit of fun now and then.

Three-Count: Looking Ahead

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    NXT (USA Network, 12/11/2019)


    1. Tommaso Ciampa vs. Keith Lee vs. Finn Balor: This is a No. 1 Contender match to determine the next challenger for Adam Cole's NXT Championship. 

    Prediction: All three have been positioned to look strong, each clearly a worthy competitor for WWE's most prestigious title.

    Ciampa has a history with the belt and Balor has his main roster sheen, but Keith Lee's star turn during the NXT Invasion angle propelled him to a new level. This is no time for a slow burn. It's time to make Lee a bonafide icon.


    2. Mia Yim vs. Dakota Kai: For years, the NXT women's division has been a showcase of some of the world's most technical and proficient wrestlers on the planet. But it's rarely featured a grudge match quite like this.

    Prediction: Kai's heel turn at WarGames was perfectly executed. It was a standout performance, marking her as a wrestler worth keeping an eye on. Likewise, Yim silenced a lot of doubters by holding up her end of an excellent ladder match with Io Shirai last month. 

    I have no idea who is winning this one—and that's a good feeling.


    3. Lio Rush vs. Angel Garza (NXT Cruiserweight Championship): These two have quietly built up a fierce little feud. It's a bout for championship glory but somehow feels even bigger than that. This one is about family, pride and pecking order as much as it's about a gold belt. 

    Prediction: This match steals the show and Rush continues his reign. After a rough patch behind the scenes, he's once again looking like a can't-miss future star.