Classic Match: Sami Zayn vs. Antonio Cesaro, NXT ArRIVAL

Kyle Fowle
Cesaro, Sami Zayn (source: WWE)’s Classic Match series takes a closer look at significant and super cool matches from wrestling history.

There was a lot riding on the very first NXT (TakeOver, technically) special. It was the coming out moment for the Black and Gold brand, one that had the potential to shape what NXT would become years down the road. Today, we know NXT as one of the best things WWE puts on our TVs, but five years ago it wasn’t clear if the show could compete with the likes of RAW and SmackDown. NXT ArRIVAL was exactly that, an arrival of a new brand, a new kind of wrestling and production within WWE.

The show itself boasts an incredible main event ladder match between then NXT Champion Bo Dallas and his challenger Adrian Neville, and a stellar bout between Paige and Emma for the NXT Women’s Championship. As great as those matches are, it’s the show’s opener—a singles match between Sami Zayn and Antonio Cesaro (NXT was all about using the full names)—that really steals the show and captures what NXT would become.

Zayn and Cesaro had gone to battle the year before, in a 2 Out of 3 Falls match that’s consistently cited as the best WWE match of 2013, so the excitement for this match is palpable. The crowd is ready for another MOTY contender, and the story heading into the bout is whether Sami Zayn—clearly the underdog—could earn the respect of the towering Cesaro. As the match begins, it’s clear that these are two wrestlers who know each other well. They keep their distance for a bit, knowing that any slip-up could result in a quick loss, and then trade lockups before reaching a stalemate.

Then, Cesaro takes control. After fighting back and forth, Zayn heads to the top rope, but it’s too early in the match for such a high-risk move. Cesaro uses Zayn’s momentum against him, catching him off the top rope and spinning him into a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker. Zayn rolls to the outside, looking to create some space to recover, but Cesaro doesn’t let it happen. He happily keeps his opponent on the outside, slamming him into the barricade numerous times and stomping him while he’s down. It’s a clinical approach from the Swiss Superman, as he looks to wear out Zayn early by not giving him room to catch his breath.

Zayn tries to fight back with his signature slingshot DDT through the turnbuckles, but once again it’s a high-risk move that Cesaro has scouted. As Zayn pops through the ropes, Cesaro introduces his face to a nasty European uppercut. Zayn goes limp, his body only held up by the turnbuckle. Cesaro sees his opportunity. He goes after Sami’s leg, the source of a previous injury, slamming it against the ring post and then stomping on it back in the ring. He doesn’t let up. With Sami grounded, he hits that leg with driving knees and a dragon screw leg whip. Even if Zayn can fight back, it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll be able to get off the Helluva Kick.

Years of watching Sam Zayn fight his way through WWE has told us that, if nothing else, he’s scrappy. He will always find a way to claw back into a match, no matter how defeated he looks. He gets in some brief offense at this point, stunning Cesaro with a running heel kick. Cesaro senses the momentum shifting, so he goes right back to Sami’s leg, locking him into a single leg crab. Zayn fights out, tosses Cesaro to the outside, and then sees his moment. He builds up his speed on the ropes and goes diving to the outside, but once again Cesaro’s strength is simply too much. He catches Zayn and reverses the move into a suplex that rocks the steel ramp. Cesaro races back into the ring, confident that he has a countout victory. Like I said though, Zayn is scrappy. He just crawls back into the ring before the countout.

Sami Zayn, Cesaro (source: WWE)

Still, Cesaro doesn’t seem worried, and for a moment that’s his problem. He begins to think he has complete control of the match, and that bit of ego allows Zayn to gain some momentum. He dodges an attack from Cesaro and then hits him with an exploder suplex into the corner turnbuckles. Then, he immediately picks him up for a beautiful Blue Thunder Bomb, which results in a near fall. After all the abuse he’s taken, it’s Sami that gets that first near fall. Incredible.

With Cesaro woozy, Zayn locks in the Koji Clutch, hoping to make Cesaro tap or pass out. This is looking like Zayn’s moment, where he finally overcomes the odds and snags a win. Cesaro is wily though, and he sneaks out of the submission and locks in a stretch muffler, extending the ligaments in Zayn’s already injured knee. With Zayn trying to fight out, Cesaro flips him into position for the swing, but Zayn counters that into a roll-up for another near fall.

The pace is frantic. Cesaro kicks out and then immediately goes for the swing again, this time hitting Sami with the rotations. He lets Sami go, and when he hits the mat Cesaro jumps into the air and comes down on Zayn with two boots right to the face. The ref counts 1, 2, and then Sami gets a shoulder up milliseconds before the ref’s hand hits the mat a third time. Full Sail erupts in “this is awesome” chants.

Cesaro looks baffled. He doesn’t know what will keep Sami down. So, he puts him on the top rope, looking for a devastating move, but Zayn counters with a reverse hurricanrana. That sends Cesaro reeling into the corner, and Zayn loads up and delivers the Helluva Kick. Sami crawls into the pin, but it’s not enough. Cesaro kicks out at 2, and once both men are on their feet again, Cesaro starts beating the holy hell out of Zayn.

Sami Zayn, Cesaro (source: WWE)

Standing in the middle of the ring, Cesaro hits Sami with one uppercut after another. “Stay down,” he shouts, frustrated by Zayn’s insistence on staying in this match despite looking completely lifeless. Briefly, it looks like Sami might actually make a comeback. He hits Cesaro with a few fists, throws him across the ring with a suplex, and reverses the Neutralizer into an incredible flip-through powerbomb.

That’s all the momentum he gets though. When he runs at Cesaro, the Swiss Superman pops him up and hits him with one more brutal European uppercut. Zayn kicks out of the cover at 1, to the shock of everyone. So, Cesaro goes back to the well. He hits him with one more uppercut, and then the Neutralizer delivers the final blow. Zayn is finally down for the count, and Cesaro gets the very first win at an NXT TakeOver event.

But, this match is about more than wins. Like I said, this is about Sami earning Cesaro’s respect. After the match, Cesaro gets halfway up the ramp before turning and coming back to the ring. He stands over Sami and then offers him a hand. He helps Zayn up, and the two embrace in the corner. The respect has been earned, both for Zayn and for NXT as a whole.

You can go back and revisit this match (and the entirety of NXT ArRIVAL) on the WWE Network.

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