The ladder match is one of the best stipulations in pro-wrestling history. These crazy, high-risk contests have been a cornerstone in the biggest wrestling companies for decades. The first one to ever take place in WWE was historically-great and still holds up well almost thirty years later. Since then, many wrestlers have tried and failed to replicate that first match’s formula for success. And today, we look back at one that some argue is better than the standard bearer from WrestleMania X.
Today we revisit a special match. Not only was this the first multi-man match in WWE history to be rated 5-stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It was also notable because it took place on the first show in twenty-five years to have two 5-star matches on the same card.
Now, you’re probably asking yourself, ‘why does this star-rating thing matter’? Well, not only is that rating the whole point of this review series, but for many people it signifies an important recognition. Although Dave Meltzer’s opinion isn’t universal by any means, many wrestling fans do hold his ratings as somewhat important, regardless of his own personal biases. And it’s those biases that many people care about. Meltzer is notorious for rating so very few WWE matches as highly as matches from elsewhere. There have been several matches over the decades that fans considered to be among the best-ever, but they weren’t given the 5-star recognition. So when he rated a WWE match 5-stars, it got people talking. It was the second WWE match of 2018 to be rated 5-stars and the fifth out of an eventual twenty-one matches in 2018 to reach that elite level of match quality.
Clearly, the Observer must’ve thought this match wasn’t just historically-great; but apparently, from a quality perspective, it was one of the best WWE matches in history. But was it really? Let’s revisit it and find out.
Today we look back at the NXT North American title ladder match from NXT TakeOver: New Orleans in 2018.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
About a week earlier, NXT General Manager William Regal announced the creation of a new title: the NXT North American Championship. Sigh. Just what this company needs: more belts. At the time, there were eleven belts across all three brands and this one became the twelfth. I guess NXT wanted their own version of the Intercontinental Championship but didn’t want to use that name and also couldn’t call it the NXT United States title. So a happy medium was found with ‘North American’ Championship.
And to crown a winner a Money in the Bank style ladder match was put together (because, WrestleMania weekend and whatnot). These were the six participants going into the match:
Adam Cole: the leader of a dominant faction called ‘the Undisputed Era’. The fans loved him because he was something of an ‘indy darling’, even though he and his group were clearly villains.
EC3: Ethan Carter III, the former Derrick Bateman from the old incarnation of NXT. He was a guy that looked like he’d be a big star, but it never panned out. After Bateman’s first WWE run flopped, he went to TNA/Impact, found a decent gimmick, achieved considerably more success, and was brought back to NXT thanks to a promise of glory.
Killian Dain: a 320-pound monster from the stable SANitY. He was one of many ‘cruiserheavyweights’ that had come about in wrestling over the past ten years. Dain, like many of his compatriots in the wrestling world at the time (like Donovan Dijak, Keith Lee, Luke Harper, among others) was a titan that also liked to dive like he was Daniel Bryan.
Lars Sullivan: at the time, Sullivan was an even bigger monster than Dain. Portrayed as a behemoth with freakishly-large hands, Sullivan was undefeated and unpinned during his initial NXT push.
Ricochet: This match marked Ricochet’s televised debut in NXT/WWE. He was widely considered to be the greatest high-flying wrestler in the world at the time and had amassed a staggering amount of championships and accolades around the world. He had won numerous awards and belts in promotions across North America, Japan, and the United Kingdom and had shown aptness for indy-style wrestling, lucha libre, and junior heavyweight puroresu. He was very much the favorite going into the match.
Velveteen Dream: The former Patrick Clark, Dream was a Prince-like character that was starting to really get over with his character that mixed somewhat over-the-top promos and personality with a deadly seriousness in the ring.
This match took place on April 7, 2018, and was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by TJRWrestling’s John Canton as well.
The fans chant ‘this is awesome’ as one by one everyone but Sullivan and Dain either escape or are thrown out of the ring. Those two hosses tease squaring off as EC3 acts as a cheerleader for them, but soon finds himself trapped between them at ringside. A quick brawl among five of the wrestlers ensues and once again Sullivan and Dain are left standing. But not for long as here comes Ricochet with a springboard shooting star press to the floor! Amazing move.
Ricochet places a ladder in the ring and starts climbing but Dream cuts him off and lands a sweet cruiserweight flip sequence. He gets a standing ovation and looks to continue the momentum but Dream hits the apron as he attempted another springboard. Dream climbs the ladder but Cole stops him. Dain tries to stop Cole’s barrage on Dream but gets kicked for his efforts and then Cole drops Dream with a fireman’s carry knee neckbreaker. Cole climbs again but stops as EC3 comes in. EC3 lands a jawbreaker and drops Sullivan off the apron. He lands a sequence of moves on Cole but then gets dropped by a clothesline from Sullivan. Sullivan does some impressive press slams on both Cole and EC3 but falls out of the ring charging at Dain. Dain charges…and lands a suicide dive through the ropes onto Sullivan. That’s a 320-pound man diving like a cruiserweight. Really impressive stuff here.
Back in the ring, Dain tries lifts Dream onto his shoulders and Ricochet in a backbreaker position at the same time. He goes for a double team move but eats a kick from Cole instead. Five of the six wrestlers brawl in the ring until Sullivan appears and tosses a ladder onto all of them. Sullivan decimates everyone with the ladder and then throws the equally-massive Dain into it with ease. He continues his onslaught by press-slamming Dream onto another ladder and sets up another and starts climbing. The fans boo this until Ricochet climbs the other side and fights with Sullivan. Ricochet flips over and goes for a diving sunset flip powerbomb (shades of Eddy and Edge) but Sullivan holds on. Dream and EC3 come to help Ricochet and Cole climbs up the ladder to punch Sullivan. Eventually, they manage to drop Sullivan. Then Cole realizes where he is and goes to reach for the belt. But Dain cuts him off so he starts arguing with Dain. Dain answers by head-butting him and then body drops Ricochet onto a ladder. Damn, that looked like a brutal landing.
Dain climbs up but EC3 knocks him down. EC3 and Cole start fighting over a ladder, see Sullivan stirring, and then team up against the bigger threat. They grab an even bigger ladder ringside and place it on the apron and the announce table, creating a bridge. Then they launch Dain into it, and then go back to smashing another ladder into Sullivan’s gut. EC3 gets too cocky and does Cole’s signature taunt, so Cole drops him back-first onto a ladder. Superkick party time. Everyone eats a superkick from Cole, including Ricochet, who eats one as he dives. Standing ovation for Adam Cole.
Cole climbs the ladder but Sullivan pushes it aside. Dream drops Sullivan and starts hitting elbow drops on whoever he can. Dream grabs a ladder but Sullivan squishes it into Dream in a corner. He charges, but Dream shoves the ladder into Sullivan, dropping him. Then Dream places the ladder near a corner and climbs it. Then, in shades of Shawn and Razor, lands an elbow drop from the top of the ladder onto Sullivan. That gets a huge reaction. Dream climbs the ladder, but EC3 cuts him off and powerbombs him into another ladder. EC3 knocks down Dream, Dain and Sullivan and climbs, but Cole knocks him off. The two of them try to climb the same side of one ladder, but that ends badly for Cole. TKO off the ladder. Great move by EC3.
EC3 climbs but gets knocked down and bicycle kicked by Dain. He knocks both EC3 and Cole down and then sets a ladder on top of EC3 and lands a standing senton. Suicidal move, but ok. Dain appears unfazed as he climbs the turnbuckle. But here comes Cole who jumps onto Dain’s back in a sleeper hold. But that does nothing to Dain as Dain jumps off the turnbuckle. Vaderbomb onto EC3 with Cole on his back. Yet another crazy move.
Dain finds himself face-to-face with Sullivan again; but before they can go at it, Ricochet starts attacking both men. That proves to be a bad idea as Sullivan biel throws Ricochet literally across the ring. the fans start chanting ‘throw him back’ at Dain and Dain happily obliges. Ricochet is sent flying across and out of the ring by Dain. Hoss fight between Dain and Sullivan. Sullivan eats a sole butt to the gut. Dain gets the upper hand and charges. But Sullivan catches him in midair and slams him Mark Henry-style.
Sullivan climbs a ladder again but Ricochet cuts him off. Ricochet climbs but Sullivan lifts the ladder from the opposite side. Ricochet looks like he’s going to fall. Wait, no, he transitions into a moonsault. From the ladder to Cole and Dain on the floor. All three men wipe out.
The fans chant ‘NXT’ as Ricochet gets up and lands a springboard dropkick on Sullivan. EC3 tries to cut him off but gets kicked onto a ladder (somehow). Ricochet then proves he’s a crazy daredevil bastard by landing a shooting star press onto EC3 onto the ladder. Ouch. Ricochet climbs again. Dream cuts him off and charges with a ladder but misses. Dream struggles with Ricochet but manages to placer one ladder against another one, creating an elevated ladder into a corner. Dream places Ricochet on top of that flat ladder and climbs. Ricochet cuts him off. They struggle on top of that ladder like it’s a scaffold. Ricochet double-legs Dream and goes for a double stomp but Dream stops him. Death Valley bomb onto the ladder! Christ, what a brutal landing for Ricochet.
No one is in the ring as Sullivan clotheslines a groggy Dream and places him onto the ladder that was placed between the ring and the announce table earlier. EC3 tries to attack him but Sullivan overpowers him and drags him out of the ring. Massive waist lift slam by Sullivan! He drives EC3 into Dream, into the ladder and the ladder snaps. But wait, he’s not the only one. Dain places Ricochet on another such a ladder. Cole tries to cut Dain off. Dain pick him up and dives onto Ricochet through the ladder. There’s nothing but carnage going on here.
Sullivan gets up first and climbs a ladder slowly but Dain cuts him off. EC3 hits both of them with another ladder and then set it up next to them. He climbs one side as Cole climbs the other. four men brawl atop two ladders, all reaching for the same title belt. Dream grabs yet another ladder and places it on the opposite side of Sullivan and Dain. Dream and then Ricochet climbs up as Cole gets knocked down. Cole Russian leg sweeps EC3 off their ladder. Dream climbs over and is fingertips away from getting the belt. He brawls with Ricochet. Ricochet counters into a neckbreaker off the ladder. That leaves Sullivan and Dain. Sullivan slams Dain from the ladder. Sullivan climbs again. Ricochet jumps onto him from the turnbuckle and knocks the ladders down. Ricochet climbs with a sudden burst of speed. Cole lifts that same ladder from the other side and knocks Ricochet out of the ring. Cole climbs up and grabs the title. Cole has won!
Winner and Inaugural NXT North American Champion after 31:16: Adam Cole
In my play-by-play commentary above, I noted that a lot of things were awesome/cool/crazy/whatever. Unfortunately, those were flashes of greatness in a largely by-the-numbers car crash match that, to be honest, wasn’t anywhere near 5-star level.
The match played out as something of a Bingo game with the numbers on the card replaced with typical indy-style tropes that have come to dominate the modern landscape. As the match went on, I basically started checking off things that have become typical of modern matches. These included, in no specific order: big flip out of the ring onto a group of waiting wrestlers below, dive through the ropes, superkick spam (complete with obvious and unnecessary thigh-slapping), yay-boo strike exchange, momentary alliances that are broken up for no logical reason, slapstick comedy, needlessly-complex setup for a move that wasn’t justified, someone getting thrown through a table/ladder/object and said object breaks, and random chants that didn’t always make sense.
Now, I’m not saying all of these things are inherently bad. But when you have all of these things and then some, the match veers off into overkill and exaggeration.
In this match’s case, it opened with the token high-flying daredevil – in this case, Ricochet – doing his crazy aerial stuff to set the tone of the match. I’ll give credit where it’s due and say that Ricochet’s high-flying was amazing here. This was Ricochet at his best, before he was fully subdued to fit WWE’s slower, more blatantly-choreographed style. He was in this match to dazzle and take sick bumps, and he did that with style.
Dream was another key player in this match as he was involved in more of the big spots. He dove from the top of a huge ladder and gave out elbow drops like they were toys on Christmas. He also got to have a small moment to shine with his DVB onto the ladder which, while brutal-looking, was also laborious in its setup and seemed kind of anticlimactic all things considered.
Cole was there to be the cheap villain that stole the victory, which made perfect sense given his position in NXT at the time. He was a little too over-the-top for my liking (especially with his silly taunt and the superkick spam), but he juxtaposed that by taking some brutal bumps as well, especially the fall while on top of Dain’s back.
Speaking of Dain, his mini-feud with Sullivan was actually the best story of the entire match. The two of them spent much of the match trying to out-power each other and see who could deliver the most sickening damage onto someone else. And even though his WWE career didn’t pan out well, I think Sullivan actually stood out the most here. Yes, most people think Ricochet was the star because of his ‘big flippy stuff’. But most of us have seen that before (I know I have) and as good as Ricochet was here, I think Sullivan had more of an impact on the match. He was the biggest threat to everyone else and dished out more damage than all of them as well. He manhandled EC3, Dream, Ricochet and even Dain, and the latter was more or less his size. He was so impressive in this match that I actually started getting behind him. More than anyone else in the match, Sullivan acted like a monster and looked like a legit threat. This was especially true given how many big moves and segments were centered on the other participants trying (and failing) to keep him down.
That leaves EC3 who was…largely a non-issue here. He didn’t really do anything of note in this match and spent more time getting knocked down than anything else. He was almost completely forgettable here, with his only notable moments were getting squished by Kain and then slammed mercilessly by Sullivan and landing a cool TKO from the ladder.
I got the feeling these guys were trying to create an NXT version of a hybrid between the early (read: best) Money in the Bank ladder matches and the fabled TLC II match. Unfortunately, this match didn’t come anywhere near those earlier matches’ historic greatness. A big problem with this match is its length. It was twice as long as TLC II yet it featured just as many wrestlers. And because it was longer, it featured a lot more dead air during which nothing happened. There were so many moments when all but two of the wrestlers would be down outside the ring, thus giving the standing two wrestlers ‘their time’ to ‘get their stuff in’. And once one duo of wrestlers was done, it became ‘another duo’s turn to do the same, so that eventually everyone would ‘have their moment’. I get it, that’s done to showcase every wrestler in the match. But that strategy also makes the match predictable and phony.
For a match that’s supposed to be utter chaos and completely unpredictable, there was so much that was by-the-numbers that could be telegraphed from a mile away. And while there was a bit of that same ‘telegraphability’ in older matches, it was more subdued in those older ones and painfully obvious here. Add to this an unshakeable pattern of unnecessary ‘your-turn-my-turn’ structure that wasn’t organic or necessarily logical, and you have a recipe for a match that looks great at first but doesn’t hold up well to time.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match would’ve been much better if they shaved off 5-8 minutes. That would’ve eliminated most of the dead air segments and would’ve given the match more of a consistent pace. It also would’ve forced the wrestlers to be a bit faster and more creative since they wouldn’t have enough time to set up unnecessarily-complex spots. And while the match had A LOT of good things going for it, it was ultimately pulled down by its own excesses and self-indulgent high-spots.
Ultimately, this was less a dramatic gladiatorial fight for a coveted prize and more of a competition for who can pull off the most GIF-able moves. If that’s the kind of wrestling you like, you’ll be happy with this match. Personally, I think it was great, but far beneath more classic ladder matches from years and decades past.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.