It’s sometimes said that every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of Aleister Black and his recent injury – and subsequent, triumphant return – it seems that this adage may well have proven true.
While it would be incorrect to say that Black’s run as NXT champion was bad, it feels as though the then-champ played second fiddle to the story unfolding between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. And while we were gifted an epic rivalry that will surely go down in pro-wrestling history, Black’s lacklustre title run felt like collateral damage.
It was beginning to feel as though Aleister Black was spinning his wheels, and despite hints of impending embroilment within the Ciampa/Gargano saga – in which Black felt primed to play a key role – his eventual loss to Ciampa, when it came, felt less shocking than, well, kind of inevitable.
And then the injury happened. An unfortunate incident at a house show wrote Black out of contention for an unknown length of time. When it happened, it seemed something of a disaster. Whatever small momentum Black seemed to be gathering had been snuffed out, and the Ciampa/Gargano story carried on without him. It seemed that Black would be left languishing in a kind of storyline no-man’s-land. Who knew where he’d end up upon his return?
But, to wheel out another hackneyed old cliché: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And that’s what NXT did, and by ‘make lemonade’ I mean ‘pull a brand-new storyline out of your backside at short notice’. The ‘Who Shot JR’-style tale of Aleister Black’s mystery assailant was a touch of brilliance, allowing the former champ to remain relevant even in his absence.
Despite not actually appearing on NXT TV for over a month, Black never left the collective consciousness of the NXT audience. Speculation ran rampant, with ever-wilder conspiracy theories running alongside more obvious bets like Ciampa, or Lars Sullivan: could it be an act of vengeance by Candice LeRae? What about frustrated, overlooked Kassius Ohno? And what, exactly, did Nikki Cross know?
It takes work to make a storyline compelling when its main element has spent the best part of the narrative not actually appearing. So it was crucial that Black’s return was handled properly. On this, NXT not only delivered, but excelled.
For weeks, NXT’s unlikely Cassandra, Nikki Cross, has been a key element in the Who Whacked Black story, so it’s entirely fitting that Black’s return should be heralded by her, in sinister prophet-of-doom style: he’s here.
A literal fade to black, and there he was. Materialising in the ring, calm and cross-legged, beckoning a wild-eyed, hypnotised Cross to share her secret – a feat nobody has been able to achieve, in spite of weeks of cajoling. And then that wordless fury, culminating in this week’s roaring rampage of revenge, in which nobody – not even the hapless NXT security team – was left unscathed. Aleister Black, we are reminded, is a force of nature, and you would be wise not to incur his wrath.
If some of Black’s mystique had been lost during his title run, it feels very much as though it has been amply restored. Aleister Black is at his best when his body does the talking. That’s not to say he’s bad on the mic – he’s perfectly adequate, if not quite EC3-levels of comfortable – but it’s not his words which best carry the persona built around him: a furious chaotic neutral, allied to nobody but himself. He does not need words, because he does not need to be understood.
It’s what makes him a perfect foil to both Ciampa and Gargano: Ciampa is hell-bent on ruining Johnny Gargano for his own wicked amusement (though recent tweets imply a degree of emotional attachment, for all his denial). And Gargano is collapsing under the weight of his own hubris, torn between the desire to destroy Ciampa and the (increasingly distant) need to do the right thing.
Aleister Black, though, does not care about any of these things. He just wants retribution. And the narrative door is wide open, now: where Gargano’s act of apparently random cruelty will lead the two is anyone’s guess.
Will Nikki Cross (left rudderless after her mysterious exclusion from the SAnitY stable) continue to play a role in the proceedings? Can a man ever truly be good or evil, or is Gargano beyond saving now? Only one thing is certain: we’ve got a hell of a ride ahead of us.