What a difference a year makes. Just over one year ago at the inaugural TakeOver: Chicago event, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa walked side-by-side down the ramp into the main event looking to reclaim the NXT Tag Team Championships. By the end of that night, the entire NXT landscape changed and the most intense rivalry the brand has ever seen was born.
Roderick Strong kicked off last year's show with a big win over Eric Young, looking to put himself on a course toward championship gold. This year, he'll head into Chicago with a title around his waist as the Undisputed Era looks to retain the tag team championships.
Nikki Cross had championship aspirations at last year's event but fell victim to the face of the NXT women's division, Asuka. This year, it's Cross who's establishing herself as the hero within the division with the same goal in mind.
Add on an intriguing NXT Championship bout, and a collision between two electrifying newcomers, and TakeOver: Chicago has the potential to set the wrestling world ablaze. Last year's show was one of the more memorable WWE shows of 2017, and despite the course of change over the past year, the 2018 version has all the makings of a repeat performance.
Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa -- Street Fight
It was the closing moments of last year's TakeOver event in Chicago that cemented a lasting memory and began one of the most personal and compelling WWE rivalries of the past decade.
Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa were among the most popular tag teams on any brand under the WWE umbrella. Their chemistry together was uncanny, they performed with fierce excitement and the fans loved them for it. The former NXT tag team champions headed into the main event last year looking to reclaim the titles from the Authors of Pain. What followed was a highly physical ladder match that saw #DIY come up short. ... But that wasn't the real story.
Just as it appeared TakeOver was going off the air, with Gargano and Ciampa posing on the entrance stage, seemingly enjoying one last moment in NXT before their main roster call-up, Ciampa became the ultimate villain with a sudden and vicious attack on his now former tag team partner.
While Ciampa recovered from a significant -- and legitimate -- leg injury, the attack haunted Gargano in the ensuing months. He struggled to gain traction in his pursuit of a singles career with NXT Championship aspirations, and just when it appeared he had righted the ship, Ciampa returned to drag him back down.
After an extended feud with then NXT champion Andrade "Cien" Almas, Gargano was given a final chance to realize his dream and become champion. However, if he lost, he'd be forced to leave NXT. As Gargano was seconds away from tapping Almas out, Ciampa emerged and delivered a crutch shot to Gargano's back, causing him to lose the match.
Gargano's year-long journey was built with an impending collision with Ciampa in mind. That collision ended up turning into a match of the year candidate at TakeOver: New Orleans, a match Gargano won to "win his job back."
Many storylines would have ended right there, but this isn't one of them. It couldn't be.
The drama continued and got even more personal when Gargano's wife, Candice LeRae, inserted herself into the conflict, pleading for the madness to end. As a result, during a scuffle between Gargano and Ciampa a few weeks back, Ciampa shoved Gargano off the ring apron directly onto LeRae, knocking her out cold and taking the war to a whole new level. Gargano got a measure of revenge a week ago with a blistering attack on Ciampa, the final build to Saturday night's street fight.
Ciampa seems due for a win, and a win would elevate what has already become a vile character even further. The build would seem to indicate that Gargano's obsession with revenge, even at the expense of his family, will cost him in the end.
Prediction: Tommaso Ciampa wins.
NXT championship match: Aleister Black vs. Lars Sullivan
When Aleister Black's most recent foe, former NXT Champion Almas, made the transition to SmackDown Live, a major opportunity presented itself. Black was in need of a challenger, and superstars were quick to jump at the opportunity.
Ricochet and Velveteen Dream voiced their championship intentions, but it was the massive Lars Sullivan's actions that spoke louder than words. Sullivan solidified himself as the No. 1 contender with a win over both Ricochet and Dream in a handicap match last month. Since that match, Sullivan has played the part of the insurmountable challenger wonderfully.
During his initial interaction with Black on NXT TV, Black attempted his patented Black Mass spinning heel kick on the big man, but Sullivan caught Black's foot with one hand, asserting his dominance. He proceeded to deliver his Freak Accident slam.
Black addressed the situation on the go-home episode of NXT saying, "[Sullivan] will soon realize that nothing is too powerful and that his carnage is not imminent because he will simply fade to black."
That brought Sullivan back out, who maintained a physical advantage over the champ. Black attempted some strikes but was overpowered and met with three more Freak Accident slams.
Sullivan posed with the title and established himself as a legitimate threat to Black's championship. While Sullivan is being presented as a true threat, it seems a bit early for Black to drop the title, unless he's off to the main roster.
This will be Black's first TakeOver title defense since winning the gold in New Orleans, and a substantial reign would seem likely for the superstar NXT has built its current brand around.
Prediction: Aleister Black retains.
NXT women's championship match: Shayna Baszler vs. Nikki Cross
Since her arrival to NXT, Shayna Baszler has played the role of the bully to perfection. In her NXT debut, she snuck up behind Kairi Sane and choked her out, setting the tone of the character she'd be portraying. She went on to capitalize on every cheap shot made available to her, instill fear within the division and, oh yeah, defeat Ember Moon to become NXT women's champion and take hold of the division.
One superstar wasn't buying in though. Following a successful title defense against Dakota Kai last month, Baszler continued the onslaught on a helpless Kai. Enter Nikki Cross, who had not been featured on television too much since her SAnitY comrades shifted over to SmackDown Live. Cross's bizarre antics rattled the ruthless Baszler, and the following week, she took the fight to the champ, leaving her with a bloody lip.
Cross has been positioned as the savior of the women's division, and she's clearly championship material. However, the new-look NXT women's division revolves around Baszler's tyranny, and that story has just begun.
Prediction: Shayna Baszler retains.
NXT tag team championship match: Undisputed Era vs. Oney Lorcan & Danny Burch
Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch have long been two of the most underrated performers in NXT. Their high-octane, stiff style is a joy to watch, and in each of their first TakeOver matches this weekend, they'll finally get their chance on a big stage. Their tag title opportunity comes on the heels of Burch's pinfall victory over the Undisputed Era's Kyle O'Reilly in a six-man tag match last month.
While Roderick Strong and O'Reilly battle Lorcan and Burch, the intriguing aspect of this bout will be the usage of Undisputed Era leader and North American Champion Adam Cole and U.K. champion Pete Dunne, who has sided with the challengers. Neither Cole nor Dunne are on the TakeOver card, so their involvement is likely.
The Lorcan/Burch story has been fun, and they are fantastic performers, but the Undisputed Era's aura is largely due to their possession of championships, and it seems premature to change that.
Prediction: Undisputed Era retains.
Velveteen Dream vs. Ricochet
Looking for a possible show stealer coming out of the TakeOver and Money in the Bank events? Look no further. The athleticism of this duo is otherworldly, and the few sequences where we've seen them work together have been stellar.
Before Lars Sullivan inserted himself into the NXT championship picture, both Dream and Ricochet let their championship aspirations be known. They butted heads in the process, and a rivalry between two of NXT's brightest young stars was born. The potential for this bout is sky high, and the winner will likely put themselves in position for an NXT championship match down the road.
Prediction: Ricochet wins.