Walking into the Barclays Center Saturday night, NXT women’s champion Asuka and No. 1 contender Ember Moon faced unbelievably high expectations.
They walk in the shadows of the “Four Horsewomen” and Alexa Bliss, all NXT alumni who have been the only ones (with the exception of current SmackDown women’s champion Naomi) to hold the women’s titles since September 2015. Each of those women all reached that platform by changing the game in NXT, most notably with what’s regarded as one of the greatest women’s wrestling matches of all-time, Sasha Banks vs. Bayley, which just so happened to highlight the very first NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn show.
One year ago, at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, Moon made her NXT debut in a win over Billie Kay, and Asuka won an emotional match over Bayley to retain her NXT women’s championship. On Saturday night, Moon and Asuka entered their NXT women’s title match with two potential paths: either Moon would be the one to finally end Asuka’s 500-plus-day winning streak, or Asuka would put herself on a path towards riding into the sunset and the main roster, never having been defeated in a one-on-one match.
Neither path presented an easy challenge for Moon in particular, with the personality and popularity among NXT fans making her the de-facto “villain” in this match, despite Asuka having developed some more sinister tactics in the later stages of her title run. She could have easily been overshadowed or, if you prefer, “eclipsed” in this match, and the crowd reaction as Ember Moon walked to the ring foretold of a tough battle ahead.
But ultimately, when it came down to the bell-to-bell moments, Asuka and Moon put on an absolute stunner that could easily be called the match of the night, not to mention in the conversation with Bayley-Banks. Asuka ultimately walked away still holding that NXT women’s championship, though to get to that point, she weathered her most physical title defense to date.
“She’s pretty strong, and that’s true, yes. This was the toughest challenge yet,” said Asuka, in an interview with ESPN.com shortly after her victory. “Ember has a lot of skill, and a bright career ahead.”
What Moon and Asuka did in that match had the crowd on the edge of their seats for almost the entirety of the contest. By the time Moon hit the Eclipse, her finisher that to that point had never been kicked out from, only for Asuka to get her shoulder up, the Barclays Center was ringing out with dueling “Let’s go Asuka” and “Let’s go Ember” chants that picked up at several points in the match.
Even after she finally succumbed to the Asuka Lock, it was clear in the moments she sat in the middle of the ring, with the NXT fans cheering, that Moon had taken a massive step forward with this performance
“I remember being a little kid and wanting to be my own hero, because I was bullied and that sort of thing,” said Moon, shortly after the match. “That I could go out and just have that moment where I could be my own hero, fend for myself and be embraced by all of those people — it was the most rewarding experience that I’ve ever had in my life.”
Cheering for Moon did not mean that Asuka had taken any steps backward, to be clear. The cheers went back and forth, but they were as loud as they ever were for the longest-reigning WWE women’s champion of the modern era.
“It was excellent. I could feel it when they were really cheering for me,” said Asuka.
Those kinds of reactions have become a regular thing for Asuka, through 10 undefeated NXT TakeOver appearances and 11 televised NXT women’s championship defenses. For Moon to be so wholeheartedly embraced by the NXT Universe in that same moment was a huge boon for the NXT women’s division as a whole, especially with the prospect of Asuka moving on in the near-future.
In six months or a year down the line, no matter what happens in the future for her, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III became a defining moment in the life of Ember Moon.
“To feel that energy. They always say the crowd makes the match — the audience, the NXT Universe made that match. I never thought in a billion years that I would have the opportunity to make someone feel that way in a match. At one point in the match, I just had chills. I didn’t think that I was capable of something like that, making people care so much about what we do.”
Asuka was hesitant to make any definitive statements about her future, but she did make clear, however, that she may have exhausted the list of top NXT women’s championship contenders for the time being.
“There are some great wrestlers in NXT, and more are coming in, too,” said Asuka. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but yes, maybe at this point, there are no opponents left for me in NXT.”
It may not have been a coincidence, then, that Bayley, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch were in the front row watching this match. Or, for that matter, that Kurt Angle and Daniel Bryan, the on-screen general managers of Raw and SmackDown, respectively, were shown sitting in luxury boxes earlier in the night.
Not that she needed any additional motivation, but Asuka picked up on that vibe while she was in the ring.
“During the match I sensed them, I saw them, and that got me a little more excited and competitive,” Asuka said. “Since I’ve been in WWE, and I’ve been a champion in NXT, the whole point has been to get to SmackDown or to Raw.”
If SmackDown or Raw are indeed in her immediate future, Asuka’s targets are clear. There are any number of great matches to be made, but her attention is focused squarely on the “Four Horsewomen” and championship gold.
“There are two women I haven’t faced yet — Sasha and Charlotte,” said Asuka. “And I’d like to go back and face Bayley and Becky as well. But ultimately, my focus will be on whichever woman is champion, wherever I go.”
As for Moon, and the rest of the NXT women’s division, the future is a little less certain. The picture may become a little clearer in the next few days, or over the next few weeks of NXT TV programming. But no matter what the future holds, Moon is now squarely in the center of the future of women’s wrestling in NXT.
It was only one match, but when you look at some of the most prolific careers in the history of the wrestling business, one match can mean everything.
“At any point in time, when a little girl has a dream — this is that moment,” said Moon. “And there’s nowhere to go but up from here.”