After a holiday hiatus, NXT returned with a bang last week when Commissioner William Regal announced that the #1 contender to the NXT Championship would be decided in a Triple Threat match between Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin, and Samoa Joe. However, that match is happening next week. So tonight, we’ll have to settle for seeing all three men in action as they have their final tune-ups.

Sami Zayn vs. Adam Rose

First up is the returning hero and presumptive favorite to become #1 contender. However, April is a long way from now. If they are planning to headline WrestleMania weekend with Balor vs. Zayn, Zayn winning next week’s Triple Threat would mean quite the extended build. Perhaps a better plan would be to go ahead and get the Baron Corbin title shot out of the way and then let Zayn ascend to his Dallas main event spot.

I can’t imagine this was the match the crowd was hoping to see in Sami’s return to the Full Sail ring. Yes, Sami Zayn is probably the best babyface in wrestling today (apologies to Daisuke Sekimoto) but the layout of this match was nonsensical. Sami often gets stuck in matches where he’s forced to give most of the offense to an opponent who has no claim to being anywhere near Sami’s level. That was the case here.

After Sami had the advantage for a short period at the beginning of the match, Rose took over and received 50% or more of the offense. The finish was similarly silly as Sami basically lucked in to getting Rose in the Koji Clutch, which forced a submission.

Despite my problems with the match structure, little things in NXT usually mean something. Zayn securing the victory with his submission finish is likely to factor in next week’s finish. **

Johnny Gargano is backstage to tell us he will face Samoa Joe tonight. Johnny thinks Joe is taking his failures out on everyone else and acting like a bully. Johnny will stop Joe how you always stop a bully: punching him in the mouth. This was a middle-of-the-road promo but hearing Gargano refer to himself as “Johnny Wrestling” did elicit a cringe from me.

After Gargano’s promo, I was ready, willing, and Gable for a pre-tape from London’s favorite tag team. Jason Jordan and Chad Gable are disappointed they weren’t even nominated for 2015 NXT Tag Team of the Year, especially since Blake & Murphy were nominated. In case you’ve forgotten, they beat Blake & Murphy at Takeover: London, which happened in 2015. Sure, that was in a four-way tag match, so they lay out the challenge to Blake & Murphy for a one-on-one match.

After they beat Blake & Murphy, they’ll be the alpha males of NXT. Though once they remind each other that Gable was an Olympian and Jordan wreaked havoc in the NCAA, they realize they can be the alpha males of all of America. Thus, the American Alphas team name was uttered into existence. As they run through their catch phrase, Jordan slaps Gable a little too hard on the shoulder. Gable: “That hurt though… we’ve got a match next week. Don’t hurt my rotator cuff.”  These guys are the best. Even if Jordan went to Indiana.

Tye Dillinger vs. Apollo Crews

Tye Dillinger being over at Full Sail is further proof that the NXT crowd will get into ANY gimmick that allows them to chant something repeatedly. At least that’s how I’ve justified their interest in Dillinger and The Ascension, among others.

As for Apollo Crews, he has been a disappointment to me thus far. I love his look; I love his charisma. But his matches have nearly uniformly bored me to tears. Part of the problem (stop me if you’ve heard this) is that Crews sells way too much in every match. This guy looks the part of a legitimate bad ass. On top of that, we know he is an elite athlete. Let him show off and squash people along the way. This match had those same problems and was somewhat reminiscent of their first meeting at NXT: Brooklyn. There is no reason for a character like Dillinger, who is absolutely dead in the water no matter how much people like yelling “10!” again and again, to get much offense at all against Apollo Crews. Overall, this match was just there. Crews ended it with his new powerbomb finisher that HHH suggested to him, as seen on Breaking Ground. **1/4

Apollo cuts a promo after his match that recalls his earlier bout with Finn Balor, which ended when Baron Corbin interfered and Samoa Joe subsequently turned on Finn. Apollo says he doesn’t like a match that ends in disqualification. He wants another shot at Balor. He knows he hasn’t earned the right at a title shot so he just wants Balor with nothing on the line. Promos are not Apollo’s strength but I liked the idea of this promo and the execution was not bad.

Alexa Bliss is backstage with Blake & Murphy. She castigates the boys for embarrassing her in London and says she’ll redeem their trio in her tag match tonight with Emma against Bayley and Carmella. Blake & Murphy try SO HARD to be funny, interjecting during Bliss’ promo. I thought Bliss meant she was embarrassed because they lost in London but maybe it was because they acted like this the whole trip.

There is a very short Vaudevillians video that seems to be telling us the group is turning heel. Or dying. I’m unclear.

Baron Corbin vs. Rich Swann

The second of our three Triple Threat combatants is out for his match. Interestingly, Corbin gets little reaction. I’m not sure the Full Sail crowd even hates him at this point. He’s just there. Rich Swann, however, gets a nice little pop in his first NXT match. The fans even serenade him with “All Night Long.”

Remember how Corbin had that surprisingly good match against Neville awhile back? That is what he needs: someone to bump around for him. They keep throwing him in there with big guys for him to have hoss fights with but that does not play to his strengths. Let him in there with a small guy who can make him look like a hoss. Unfortunately, even with Swann working his ass off to feature Corbin, Baron can’t help but go back to his normal, boring control spots. That is probably more of a reflection of what he’s being taught than his own instincts because it is a problem that pervades NXT and WWE.

Still, this match was much more fun than I anticipated right up until the finish, when Corbin used his Deep Six spinning side slam instead of his usual End of Days finisher. The moves are too similar so it looked more like Corbin did the wrong move. Corbin always does a great job hitting End of Days with great emphasis and I would like to have seen that here to put an exclamation point on a good match. **1/2

Bayley and Carmella are backstage in advance of their impending tag match. They start by talking about Carmella’s victory in the battle royal last week, which elevated her to #1 contender to the NXT Women’s Championship. For now, they are playing this simply: it’s just two best friends getting a chance to show who’s better in the ring. They then start to talk about their tag match but Dash & Dawson interrupt them. They want to remind Carmella that they beat Enzo & Cass at NXT: London. These guys are better on the mic than Blake & Murphy to be sure, but their energy spent trying so hard wears me out just watching them.

Carmella is very aggravated by The Mechanics but, fortunately for her, Bayley is there. A Bayley hug makes everything better.

Emma & Alexa Bliss vs. Carmella & Bayley

It’s amazing how good Alexa Bliss and Carmella are. I can’t pretend I predicted this for either of them when they first appeared. It does make you wonder, though, why NXT has done such a better job developing women than men? Is it simply because there isn’t nearly the same kind of competition on the women’s side so the progress is more obvious? Or is there something else?

Emma & Bliss attack BayMella before the bell. Bayley is hurt and the referee delays the start of the match to let her recover. Once the bell rings, Emma & Bliss take advantage of Bayley’s injury and work her over in their corner. Bayley teases the hot tag to Carmella but Emma cuts it off. Bayley’s hope segment follows but the crowd is strangely nonplussed. Bliss cuts Bayley off again, this time with the assistance of a distracted ref. My match layout concerns did not extend to this match. The structure was a very smart way to keep the heat on Bayley despite her clearly being a tier or two above Emma and Alexa Bliss.

Finally, Carmella gets the hot tag but her offense isn’t perfectly built for that role. Despite that, she gives every ounce of energy she has to trying to make it work. The finish comes somewhat quickly and abruptly after Carmella takes the advantage. She locks Bliss in her figure four headscissors and gets the submission victory.

I loved this. There was a southern style to it but it maintained the flair these four women bring to their matches. *** 

Because we need even more promos and more segments on this episode, Finn Balor gets a backstage promo! If the Oprah gif meme weren’t so played out, I’d invoke it here. Since there are less than ten minutes left and we haven’t even gotten to the main event, Finn very quickly tells us he’s spoken to Mr. Regal and Apollo Crews is going to get his wish of a non-title match against Balor.

Johnny Gargano vs. Samoa Joe

There are only eight minutes of TV time left for the main event. That’s a real shame because Gargano has been doing some of his best work since he came to NXT. Similarly, Samoa Joe seems to really be finding his groove. Save Jay Briscoe, is there anyone more believable than Joe? Everything he does and everything he says seems totally legit.

After only a couple of minutes, commentary says this has been a “steady, methodical dissection.” We must not be seeing the entire match because I’m not even totally clear who would have been doing the dissecting, though I can guess. On the other hand, the Samoa Joe Sweat Scale tells us this match may not have gone on that long. Honestly, it was hard to get a feel for the bout. It was mostly a back and forth but they did a good job of utilizing Gargano’s athleticism to show off Joe’s ability to power through and swat Gargano away. Despite that, either the short time they were given or the possibility that the match was clipped left me unable to really sink my teeth into it.

To end, Johnny taps to the Coquina Clutch, and the show finishes just how it began, with one of next week’s #1 contender Triple Threat competitors making his opponent submit. I don’t think that was a coincidence. We’ll see if it pops back up in next week’s main event. **1/2

Final Thoughts: There simply was not enough time for anything on this show. They squeezed in five matches and seven promos or pre-taped segments. It’s a one hour show. This episode had the pace of an Attitude Era RAW. If you’re pressed for time, don’t miss the women’s tag match or the Jordan & Gable segment. Otherwise, this episode was merely an appetizer for next week’s main course: A Triple Threat match between Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin, and Samoa Joe. The winner gets his shot at Finn Balor’s NXT Championship.