Io Shirai beat Candice LeRae at NXT TakeOver 31 on Sunday night to retain the NXT Women’s Championship.
LeRae hit the Wicked Stepsister but was unable to get a pinfall because the referee was out of the ring after catching the blowback when LeRae countered a moonsault from Shirai. Johnny Gargano ran down from backstage in an attempt to make an inconsequential count.
As if that weren’t enough, Gargano distracted the official referee long enough for LeRae to slam the title belt into Shirai’s head. Shirai somehow kicked out.
The stunned challenger clearly lost her focus as she was shortly the recipient of a Spanish fly and moonsault as Shirai maintained her spot atop the women’s division.
The title match between Shirai and LeRae came into focus a couple of weeks ago when a Battle Royal was held on NXT TV to determine the No. 1 contender and Shirai’s opponent at TakeOver.
LeRae entered the match as one of the top contenders, and she improved her chances of winning before the bout even started by attacking former friend Tegan Nox and rendering her unable to compete.
The Battle Royal came down to LeRae and Shotzi Blackheart. They fought to the apron and were both in peril, but the resourceful LeRae managed to launch Blackheart off the steel steps and to the floor to secure the victory.
It didn’t take long for LeRae to assert herself, as she interrupted a Shirai backstage interview later that night and attempted to intimidate her opponent, although that didn’t seem to work on The Joshi Judas.
With LeRae’s husband, Gargano, challenging Damian Priest for the NXT North American Championship at TakeOver, a mixed tag team match pitting LeRae and Gargano against Shirai and Priest was booked for the go-home episode of NXT.
The Poison Pixie looked like a legitimate threat entering TakeOver not only because of what she has done recently but also because of how she performed against Shirai in the past.
Most notably, Shirai and LeRae faced off in a highly celebrated match at NXT TakeOver: Toronto last year. Shirai won the match, but LeRae pushed her to the limit in what was easily her best match in NXT to that point.
The roles were also reversed back then, as LeRae was a clear babyface and Shirai was a clear heel. Now, LeRae is the heel and Shirai is more of a tweener who leans face because of her popularity.
Because of the role reversal, Sunday’s match felt fresh, and there was no shortage of excitement surrounding it within the WWE Universe.
Shirai managed to retain the title as most expected, but LeRae performed well again and may not be far off from finally capturing the elusive NXT Women’s title.
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