There's a common feeling every time a TakeOver event rolls around -- a feeling in the air that the card has the ability to outshine its main roster counterpart, which takes place next night. Even with all the hype around WrestleMania, this is the case once again as the WWE's third brand heads to New Orleans for one of their biggest showcases of the year.
There's no denying the strength of this year's WrestleMania card. It's stacked from top to bottom. However, the more efficient - approximately three hours shorter -- yet equally capable TakeOver card has just as much a chance to live up to and potentially exceed its lofty expectations, especially considering the abundance of talent performing on the show. Most of that talent will be performing in their first WWE event during WrestleMania weekend.
"NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is specifically so exciting, not just because it's a TakeOver, but because it's WrestleMania weekend," North American Championship ladder match participant Adam Cole told ESPN.com. "It'll be a lot of our first WrestleMania weekends, a lot of the guys from this match. So, knowing that the energy is just gonna' be that much more intense, and that much more exciting, has us all really ready to go."
This will be the first of what will hopefully be many WrestleMania weekends for Cole, who is cementing himself as a fixture within the company.
"I think he plays a very big role, probably, in what WWE will be over the [next few] years," executive vice president Paul Levesque told ESPN.com.
Opportunities will be aplenty on Saturday as the stakes are immensely high in each of the five matches. Every contest has something of significance on the line, ranging from championships to careers, and each of the superstars knows that all eyes are on them to maintain, or raise, their positions in the company.
NXT championship match: Andrade 'Cien' Almas vs. Aleister Black
The early stages of Andrade "Cien" Almas' NXT Championship reign, while respectable, were unspectacular. His extended rivalry with Johnny Gargano was more about Gargano's journey as a singles superstar than the establishing of Almas as a credible champion, despite the excellent matches they had. However, once Almas shifted his sights to his next challenger, Aleister Black, the true aura of a champion began to exude.
A newfound intensity began to brew inside Almas and that was never more apparent than it was on NXT in recent weeks. Cameras cut to a brawl between Almas and Black in the parking lot, which shifted to the ring. Almas commanded the brawl, pummeling Black from pillar to post and displayed a fire that had been missing early on in his championship reign and even before that. That's a credit to his ability to make character adjustments and his pairing with the fiery Zelina Vega.
Black's journey to this point has been highly successful from multiple perspectives. His mysterious persona caught on with the audience from the get-go and his blend of athleticism and pristine striking in the ring is a joy to watch. Let's just say Triple H isn't surprised with his stardom at all. His journey will come full circle on Saturday night when he faces off with the man with whom he defeated in his NXT debut at TakeOver: Orlando at this time last year.
It's a tough match to predict. On one hand, you've got a champion who is just hitting his stride. On the other, you've got a challenger primed to carry the brand on his back. The unpredictability combined with the chemistry these two have illustrated in the ring together should make for a fantastic championship match.
Prediction: Aleister Black wins and becomes the new NXT Champion
Unsanctioned match: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa
This conflict has been brewing since last May. The build has been slow, thanks in part to an injury to Tommaso Ciampa, but the wait has been well worth it. Following Ciampa and Gargano's unsuccessful quest to reclaim the NXT tag team championships from the Authors of Pain in a ladder match at TakeOver: Chicago last May, the #DIY partnership was shattered when Ciampa brutally beat down his former tag team partner.
While Ciampa recovered from surgery, Gargano began his run as a singles superstar in pursuit of the NXT championship. Ciampa was never too far behind though. After a valiant, but unsuccessful attempt to capture the NXT Championship from Almas at TakeOver: Philadelphia, Ciampa blindsided Gargano with a crutch at the top of the stage as the show went off the air. One month later, in an NXT championship match where Gargano's NXT career was on the line, Ciampa interfered, costing Gargano the match and his career. Gargano did gain a bit of retribution a couple weeks ago when he emerged from the crowd and attacked Ciampa, but it was just a taste of what's to come on Saturday.
An unsanctioned match between the two will take place at TakeOver. If Gargano wins, he will be reinstated. The stakes are high, but that's not the story here. The story is one of revenge. Finally, Gargano will have the opportunity to right the wrongs Ciampa has caused him throughout the past year.
Prediction: Johnny Gargano wins and rejoins NXT
NXT women's championship: Ember Moon vs. Shayna Baszler
In just three short months since her debut on the NXT roster, Shayna Baszler has become one of, if not the best, villains within the brand. She has used sneak attacks and cheap shots with the intent of causing injury, which are perfect priorities for any successful heel. In a TakeOver: Philadelphia rematch where Ember Moon squeaked out a victory, Baszler will get another opportunity to win the NXT Women's Championship.
With newcomers including Kairi Sane, Bianca Belair and Dakota Kai getting more TV time as of late, one has to wonder if a new era of women's wrestling in NXT is being ushered in to join Baszler.
"There are so many women to be honest with you. Every one comes in and puts in 150,000 percent. To name a few, Kairi Sane, Candice LeRae, Dakota Kai, and then you also have Bianca Belair, whose proving to be a powerhouse and quite the dominant threat, every week on NXT TV," Moon told ESPN.com. "You have so many of these women, like Lacey Evans, and so many that you haven't even heard of yet that haven't even had an opportunity yet to show you what they can do. I think every woman that you have and haven't seen on NXT is a threat for the NXT women's championship. It's just the level that we are pushing our division to, and the level that we intend to extend every single time."
If a new era is indeed upon us, perhaps we're nearing the end of Ember Moon's stellar near two-year run in NXT in favor of the up and coming Baszler. We'll undoubtedly get some answers after Saturday night's match.
Prediction: Shayna Baszler wins and becomes the new NXT women's champion
North American Championship (ladder match): Adam Cole vs. Velveteen Dream vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. EC3 vs. Ricochet
This match screams not only show stealer, but WrestleMania weekend stealer. Newly signed EC3 and Ricochet will join Cole, Velveteen Dream, Killian Dain and Lars Sullivan in a ladder match featuring such a wide variety of immense talent. The prize? The new NXT North American championship.
"A lot of people have already said they're convinced that this match is gonna' steal the weekend," Cole told ESPN.com. "And it absolutely has the potential to, considering the talent that's in there, and the craziness that NXT brings."
You could make a case for any of the six superstars taking home the gold. Cole and Dream have become staples within the brand, Dain and Sullivan appear poised to take that next step towards stardom and EC3 and Ricochet could make a career defining first impression. It's a toss up.
"You've got six really, really hungry guys -- six guys who are really excited for this weekend, and six guys who are just ready to steal the show," said Cole. "That night is gonna' be very, very special on every level. But that's the best part about NXT, is everyone on that show wants to steal it. Everyone wants to have the absolute best performance."
Prediction: Adam Cole becomes the first NXT North American Champion
NXT tag team championship/Dusty Rhodes tag team classic final: Undisputed Era vs. Authors of Pain vs. Pete Dunne & Roderick Strong
Following a chaotic fracas in what was supposed to be the final match of the third annual Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic on Wednesday night, Saturday night's affair will be for all the marbles.
As the Authors of Pain and Pete Dunne and Roderick Strong were battling it out in an exciting final match of the Dusty Classic in which the winners would take on the Undisputed Era at TakeOver, Cole and Kyle O'Reilly made their presence felt by interfering and trouncing both teams and having the match thrown out. As a result,it'll be a triple threat match on Saturday. The winning team will be the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic winners and the NXT Tag Team Champions.
One important detail of note is who will be joining O'Reilly in defending the tag titles. Fish is dealing with an injury and has not been medically cleared to perform at TakeOver. Will Cole pull double-duty on Saturday night or will a fourth member of the Undisputed Era crop up? That ever-important detail has yet to be confirmed.
Prediction: The Undisputed Era retain the NXT tag team championships