Weeeeeeell it’s the Big Tent: NXT at Download Festival

What I believe to be a big part of NXT’s appeal is its presentation, and a big part of that is their use of music. With #NXTLOUD bringing about a new incarnation of a rock ’n’ wrestling connection, giving us licensed music for TakeOvers, featured artists on entrance themes, live performances as well as a partnership with the Download Festival. For the past couple of years, NXT has been a featured act at the festival alongside some of the biggest acts in the rock, punk and metal worlds. I was lucky enough to attend this year and got a plentiful helping of the graps over the three days I was there, curious to see just how different a wrestling show would be in the strange setting of a tent in Derbyshire.

Sheltered from the elements under a huge tent, the open air setting was literally a breath of fresh air from what are usually quite stuffy environments at wrestling shows. Admittedly, sitting in the fourth row was quite cramped, worsened by the guy to my right having stuffed his pockets with what I can only assume was a brick and a sea urchin, but most of the time I was stood at the back (and you can spot me in some of WWE’s clips on YouTube with my arms crossed like an old school World of Sport fan). For me at least, I found standing to be quite pleasant. There was no fannying around getting up for entrances and wondering when the appropriate time to sit back down was, no stretching your neck to see around the heads in front of you, and there was plenty of freedom to move somewhere with a better view whenever you liked. On top of all that, you had some lovely shade, a sought after rarity at the festival. The crowds seemed to always be packed with wrestling fans rather than people looking for a reprieve from the June sunshine or waiting for their next bands to play. The line for the pre-show signings would always gather large numbers, the top stars always got their deserved pops and when a match came round that gripped us, we were a rowdy bunch.

Another noticeable difference about the tent arena was due to the nature of the setup, the sound production was significantly different. Without the benefit of the typical acoustics an indoor venue would provide, and being limited for speaker placement, those tunes came flying at you pretty raw. What’s more, at a music festival, even though the stages are spaced a fair ways apart, you’re still competing to be heard by the most people possible and draw them in. As a result, whenever the first beat of Pete Dunne’s theme song hit, your bollocks flew across the bloody field.

But, what of the actual wrestling?

The major focus of these shows was hosting the first round of the WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament to determine who would compete at the Royal Albert Hall. For whatever reason, all of the tournament matches I saw felt somewhat clunky, with each one having at least a couple of noticeable miscues, such as Kenny Williams elbow dropping the top rope rather than his opponent, and Tucker dropping very short on his suicide dive. It seemed like those with stronger presences on the British scene, like Joe Coffey and Dave Mastiff, had their contingents of fans in attendance, but I think the trend in sloppiness coupled with the majority of the crowd not having been exposed to these UK division wrestlers made for their matches to be some of the shows’ low points. I like to think I give all the matches I watch a chance, but sticking Tyson T-Bone in there with Jordan Devlin for ten minutes with some ugly botching and little heat, you’re killing me. Despite all that, I still have ultimate faith in the newly announced NXT UK brand, I’m proper buzzing for that. It’s coming home!

Editor's note: isn't this just the most beautiful picture of Ricochet you have ever seen in your life?

Editor's note: isn't this just the most beautiful picture of Ricochet you have ever seen in your life?

With the festival taking place just a week before TakeOver: Chicago, the marquee matches were based around the high profile feuds, which resulted in some real gems, but I will forever curse my A-Levels for making me miss Ciampa versus Gargano on the first night. My ‘Match of the Weekend’ definitely goes to Pete Dunne defending his UK Championship against that complete bastard of a man, Tommaso Ciampa. Just when I thought joining in with ‘Adam Cole Bay-Bay!’ was taking the cake for my favourite chant, I got to experience the pure euphoria that is shouting along with ‘Fuck You Ciampa!’. Considering how WWE like to throw us a curveball every so often and have title changes at house shows, most recently with AJ Styles winning the United States Championship last summer, I was sucked into each pinfall attempt much more than usual. When the referee went down, I was near enough convinced I was about to see Dunne get robbed of his belt, but what I did get to witness was the monstrous roar of Johnny Gargano’s music hitting and sending us all ballistic, to Peter retaining the championship.

Though the main events were stacked like a house of cards every night, the undercards did have their shining moments. Fabian Aichner, a man I’ve grown to love since first seeing him in the Cruiserweight Classic in 2016, really demonstrated his worth over the weekend in particular, putting on a pair of great matches against Ricochet and Tyler Bate. Though his opponents were definitely set up as the stars of these bouts, Aichner provided the perfect counter to them. With this pair he was able to power them around whatever which way he wanted whilst still matching their pace in the quickest of sequences. But above all else, his crowning moment was responding to the ‘Right Said Fred’ chants with; ‘I’m too sexy for this ring!’.

Nikki Cross also made her presence felt over my few days there, receiving cheers that rivalled some of the brand’s biggest names and used that support to create some of the most crowd-pleasing moments of the weekend. She veered towards the more comedic side of her crazed character for these, scaring her tag team partner in Stephanie Newell more than anyone else, as well as poor Candice LeRae after coming to her aid. It was like watching an excitable Labrador looking to play with your one friend who’s not really keen on dogs, their face full of fear and confusion.

Another standout from the weekend was the man that made Purple Rain my drink of choice, The Velveteen Dream. It’s easy enough to rave about how charismatic the man is on TV, but witnessing him in living colour really hammers it home. He was hugely engrossing, beckoning people from outside the tent to ‘come see The Dream’ and dragging out his entrance, knowing full well he had our entire attention in his grasps. His antics continued beyond the ring, embracing the character so consistently during the pre-show autograph signings that the man sat next to my brother sent a text reading; ‘Just met Velveteen Dream, he’s a cunt.’ When you can elicit that kind of response before the show even starts, you know you’re a good heel.

Overall, NXT at Download was an odd yet very enjoyable experience. It had everything you’d expect from a house show in terms of the cards and sending the crowd home/back to their tents happy, a mixed bag of roster selection, joined with varying match quality from ‘just fine’ to ‘pretty damn great’. The one-of-a-kind setting and atmosphere set it apart from all other shows I’ve attended, and I’d absolutely go again if the opportunity arises. So, if you’re ever at Download and find yourself with some time, go have a look-see at the wrestling; I’m positive it will entertain you much more than you’d think.

Noah Leatherland