WrestleWatch: NXT Takeover WarGames
After spending time in the Vault, WrestleWatch is back in the present day! I've mentioned that I've been a little put off by the current WWE product. Even after Smackdown moving to FOX, the main roster product of both Raw and Smackdown remains creatively inept. Between the really dodgy Superstar Shakeup in early 2019 which seemed to last a whole month, the Wildcard Rule that shit over the entire brand split concept right after, and another Draft recently to appease the FOX overlords, WWE has been unable to maintain logical consistency in storytelling. My overall thought on WWE this year has been this- if they don't give enough of a shit to keep their stories and in-universe rules straight, why should I give a shit? So I've watched the least amount of Raw and Smackdown this year since around 2011. I got through The Authority, Roman Reigns mega-push, Jinder Mahal as WWE Champion... but I haven't been able to bear the weekly product this year for the most part. I keep up with results on websites, and if a match/angle catches my eye, I'll seek it out, but apart from that, meh. It's such a shame, because they have a great roster talent-wise, and their PPVs still deliver- those big events see the talent step up and put on a killer show in spite of creative for the most part.
So that brings up to this big event. It is Survivor Series weekend, and before we get to the iconic 33rd instalment of the second longest running PPV that WWE has, the action starts the night before at NXT Takeover: WarGames. NXT is the one WWE show I still watch on a weekly basis. My wrestling viewing currrently looks like this week-to-week:
Since no channel in Australia broadcasts NXT live, AEW gets my live viewership as the brands/promotions go head-to-head, then I catch up on WWE's third brand once it's uploaded to the Network a couple of days later. NXT was WWE's developmental system, but it has undergone significant change in the past couple of months. To combat the arrival of AEW and the launch of their weekly show Dynamite, NXT went from one hour to two, and went from airing live on the WWE Network to airing live on the USA Network (the same channel that airs Raw). Since that change, WWE have placed more importance on NXT, referring to it as a brand on par with the red and blue brands. That is reflected in the build to Survivor Series this year, where historically it has been Raw vs. Smackdown, but for the first time it is now Raw vs. Smackdown vs. NXT. This has allowed WWE to once again say "the hell with the brand split" and wrestlers from all three brands have intermingled on all three weekly shows for the past several weeks.
NXT has had the somewhat difficult task of simultaneously promoting their role in the Survivor Series PPV, while also building their own TakeOver event, WarGames. WarGames is a WCW creation that Triple H decided to bring back from the dead a couple of years ago to give NXT a gimmick match exclusive to the brand. The premise involves two (or three) multi-man teams fighting in a double ring surrounded by a steel cage. Two men start in the ring and fight for 5 minutes, after that every 3 minutes a new teammate or rival arrives, until all members are in the match. Once everyone's in, the match "officially" starts and can be won by pinfall or submission only. Anything goes. The only tweak NXT has made to the old WCW match is that while the original WarGames matches had a roof on the cage ala Hell In A Cell, NXT took the roof off. However, leaving the cage results in that team forfeiting the match. This is the 3rd year of NXT running WarGames, and it's been highly successful.
The WarGames main event is Team Ciampa vs. Team Undisputed Era. UE have been involved in each of NXT's WarGames matches to date, and their 2019 mission statement has been an Expedition For Gold. They vowed to end the year as champions, and right now it's a prophecy fulfilled- Adam Cole is NXT Champion, Roderick Strong is North American Champion, and Fish & O'Reilly hold NXT Tag Team gold. Ciampa returned early from neck surgery with his sights set on the NXT title he never lost, or "Goldie", but with the Era attempting to run roughshod over NXT, he's putting the championship aspirations to the side for the night to assemble a squad to shut the Undisputed Era up.
Also, for the first time ever, women are competing in WarGames. NXT honestly has the best women's division across any of the mainstream companies or brands (I don't watch all-women promotions like Shimmer or Stardom, so can't judge those). The entire women's division has been embroiled in heated rivalries, and it'll be Team Ripley vs. Team Baszler. Rhea Ripley, from Adelaide, South Australia (represent, yo!), has exploded onto the NXT scene after running through NXT UK and being the champion there. She is a powerhouse that is a physical threat to the dominant reigning champion, former MMA fighter Shayna Baszler.
The stage is set. Y'all know what's about to happen. It's NXT. It's Takeover. It's WarGames!
This is the first Takeover of the NXT on USA era, and right away we see some format changes. In the past, Takeover Pre-Shows have been solely panel talk, with the matches that occur prior to the live Takeover event being taped for the following week's NXT episode. Now that NXT airs live each Wednesday from Full Sail University, we get a live pre-show match!
Charly Caruso, Sam Roberts and Pat McAfee are standing on the stage to give their usual pre-show analysis, but they have microphones that the live Chicago crowd can hear. McAfee botches Rhea Ripley's name, calling her "Shipley", and the Allstate Arena lets him have it. Think it was an honest slip of the tongue, as the sentence he was trying to get out had the words, "Rhea Ripley simply-" in it.
We receive "breaking news" that Mia Yim, set to be a member of Team Ripley, was attacked backstage and will be unable to compete in WarGames. Dakota Kai is nearby and Rhea selects her to join the team, after originally choosing Yim over Kai a couple of weeks ago. Interesting. Given how the storyline is building, this may have been the plan all along, but Mia did get her nose smashed in the other week against Io Shirai in a ladder match, so she may not be medically cleared to compete legitimately.
Sam Roberts calls Dakota Kai a "bottom of the barrel" pick. It's so weird to hear Roberts, a non-wrestler analyst, playing an overt heel role on these panels. I don't dislike it, necessarily, but it's just a little jarring after years of these hosts playing it straight down the middle. He also goes on to take a shot at Matt Riddle for not achieving success in NXT so far, eliciting more boos from the crowd. Riddle faces Finn Balor on Takeover later.
Match 1: Angel Garza def. Isaiah "Swerve" Scott (at 7:35)
Thoughts: Really crisp action to set the tone for the show. They started at a fast pace with reversals and pinning attempts, and never really let up. Garza does his tear-away pants spot (I love how Mauro and Nigel tease Beth Phoenix about that on commentary), and this time the pants serve a purpose- Garza throws the pants at Swerve and uses the distraction to nail a sweet superkick. The intensity rises with a stiff strike exchange. Scott catches Garza on the apron and nails a Death Valley Driver on the apron. Damn, big spot for a pre-show match! Back in the ring, Swerve hits his step-up kick finisher- which beat my boy Bronson Reed the other week- for a convincing near fall. Garza tries to hit a low blow when the ref isn't looking, Scott blocks it, but falls victim to the Wing Clipper moments later. Excellent work. Integrating the Cruiserweight divsion into NXT was a smart move, they've gone from tired post-Smackdown crowds that don't give a shit, to an appreciative smark audience where they're getting over much better. (***)
We begin with a hype video narrated by Shawn Michaels. He does a nice little promo putting over WarGames and NXT, sneaking in the "war is inevitable" line.
In the Allstate Arena, sirens blare and a laser light show gets the crowd hyped as the cage lowers for the first of two WarGames matches tonight. The ladies are kicking this deal off.
Match 1: Team Ripley (Rhea Ripley & Candice LeRae) def. Team Baszler (Shayna Baszler, Bianca Belair, Io Shirai & Kay Lee Ray) (at 27:24)
Thoughts: Goddamn. These ladies brought it, and brought it hard. Starting with Candice and Io, they showed a great deal of skill and finesse early on, and the aggression ramped up from there. Team Baszler had the WarGames advantage, meaning Bianca Belair was the next participant to join the match. Her attire was covered in images of herself, complete with tiny braids. Love it. Next to arrive was team captain Ripley, and she introduced a bunch of weapons upon her arrival (she's pretty much a weapon herself). As the match rolls on, the intensity never lets up. A great, if somewhat predictable, angle goes down- when it's Dakota Kai's turn to enter, she turns heel, destroying her best friend Tegan Nox in the shark cage that teams are confined to at WarGames. She smashes up Nox's surgically repaired knee repeatedly in the cage door, security and NXT GM Regal try to stop her, she shoves Regal, she trash talks Rhea and Candice in the ring (including some censored swearing)... it's immense. This means it's 2 on 4 with both Kai and Nox removed from the match. Team Baszler gets some great beatings in- including a gorgeous moonsault spot from Shirai off the cage- but Ripley overcomes the odds by hitting her Riptide finisher (pumphandle powerbomb)- onto a chair!- on the women's champ Baszler for the monumental win. If there was any doubt about Rhea's career trajectory in NXT, that doubt has to be erased now. What a performance, what a match, what a thrill ride. Incredible way to open the show. (****1/2)
Match 2: Pete Dunne def. Damien Priest and Killian Dain (at 19:56)
Thoughts: You almost feel bad for these guys, having to follow that WarGames match. The winner of this Triple Threat faces Adam Cole at Survivor Series for the NXT Championship. That stipulation kind of gives away the result- Dunne was the only babyface in the match, and pro wrestling as a general rule avoids heel vs. heel matches, especially on PPV. But it was a hell of a ride getting to the result, and that's what we're after as wrestling fans. Priest was especially impressive in his Takeover debut, doing some crazy athletic shit, including a dive to the outside that cleared the ring post. Dain cannonballed around the ring and ringside area, using his size and brute force to his advantage. Dunne took to the skies with a big moonsault to the outside, but he was at his best showing off his trademark sadistic side, snapping fingers and working submissions to try and negate the power of his much larger opponents. Inventive finish where Dain sentons onto Priest with Dunne on his back, and Dunne has the presence of mind to stack himself quickly on top of Priest for the 3 count. Dunne, Dain and Priest were in an unenviable spot, but they rose to the occasion in an excellent fashion. (****)
Match 3: Finn Balor def. Matt Riddle (at 14:21)
Thoughts: Considering this was not the original plan, Balor and Riddle did a phenomenal job here. We were meant to have Balor vs. Johnny Gargano, but Gargano suffered a neck injury that took him out of Takeover for the first time since he joined the company. This meant some shuffling had to go down, with Riddle getting taken out of the WarGames match and plugged into this spot. This was the first real taste of Balor as a heel in WWE, and that added another layer of intrigue. He seemed to hit harder and have more of a vicious streak, and Riddle, being a former MMA fighter, can throw strikes with the best of them. Something I appreciate about Riddle though, is that his entire style isn't just MMA. He can fly, he can do power moves, and he can mix in a variety of strikes and submissions too. This was about re-establishing Balor for the most part, but Riddle got plenty of spots to shine, including a cool bit where Riddle steals Goldberg's Spear/Jackhammer combo, and also using the Go To Sleep (I know he uses it semi-frequently and calls it the Bro To Sleep, but I still thought it was a fun cheeky move to pull off in Chicago). A nice story was told with Balor using his veteran knowledge and experience to counter and cut Riddle off at certain points. My final takeaway from this battle is this- the 1916 looks SO much better than the reverse 1916. I'm glad the OG version finished the match, because it looked absolutely devastating. Plus, Finn is a bad boi now, he doesn't need to be popping the crowd with his Coup De Grace flying double stomp. Well done, boys, such good shit. You gotta love it, pal! (***3/4)
Match 4: Team Ciampa (Tommaso Ciampa, Keith Lee, Dominick Dijakovic & Kevin Owens) def. Undisputed Era (Adam Cole, Roderick Strong, Kyle O'Reilly & Bobby Fish) (at 38:26)
Thoughts: This was outstanding. Maybe not at the same level as the women's one, just because Team Ripley vs. Team Baszler had so much going for it as far as the build and paying off stories, along with the Kai heel turn. But the guys did an excellent job, and it was a fun dynamic where UE had the numbers advantage, but with the size advantage of Lee and Dijakovic, both teams had their stretches of looking strong. Team Ciampa came into the match a man short, and there was a lot of speculation about who the fourth man would be. I like how they waited until the partner's participation in the match to reveal who it was, that was a cool little hook. Don't know if I like that Owens was the surprise. I was hoping for John Morrison- who apparently signed a WWE contract a couple of months ago but is yet to grace our screens again- or Velveteen Dream returning from injury. While I thought Owens would have been better on Raw, he did some great work here. I appreciated the little touches KO made- wearing his old NXT shirt out there, and hitting a Pop-Up Powerbomb- his old finisher that he effectively shelved in favour of the Stunner, but it was a stable of his NXT days. The Owens stuff aside- I really appreciate the poetic justice of Adam Cole bringing a whole bunch of tables into the match, only for it to backfire spectacularly and be the cause of his loss. And the finish! Air Raid Crash from the top of the cage through two tables. It looked incredible. Mamma Mia, indeed. And a final note about all this- obviously Owens got a lot of spotlight here, being the returning hero to NXT, but it didn't detract at all from Ciampa. The team captain rightfully got the biggest moment by pinning reigning NXT Champion Adam Cole. Now that WarGames is done, the Cole/Ciampa feud can really get cooking. (****)
NXT Takeover: WarGames was a stellar example of why people love the NXT brand. Even with popular stars Johnny Gargano and Velveteen Dream on the shelf, this incredibly talented roster rose to the occasion and put on a sublime display of pro wrestling, top to bottom. Great action boosted by the storylines and characters involved in it. It was intense and violent without being grotesque or gratuitous. It is abundantly clear that the creative forces behind NXT are very different to the ones tasked with writing for Raw and Smackdown. The matches and results were satisfying on a stand-alone basis, but they also created intrigue and anticipation for future matches and shows. Definitely a show worth watching, one that Triple H and his crew should be immensely proud of.
Oh, and another thing- only 4 matches on the main card, is that a record for a PPV/special event? NXT Takeovers typically have 5 matches, but due to WarGames being such a long match by design, and having two this year for the first time, there was zero time for fluff or filler. I know some Royal Rumbles in the past have had 5 matches too, but is 4 a WWE PPV record? If you know of any other WWE cards that have only 4 matches (or even shows from other wrestling companies), let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments of any social media you read this on. I really like it. WWE have definitely been guilty of cramming too many matches into their shows in recent years- Wrestlemania in particular was a struggle to get through this year.
As I finish writing this review, it is approximately 9am Sydney time. I was so excited about this WarGames show, it's one of my quicker reviews I've put out- at least in terms of how soon after the show I wrote it and published it, I know it's not one of the quickest things to read! But I believe I'm about an hour away from the Survivor Series Kick-Off starting, and I'm very excited for this year's show! As I mentioned, I haven't enjoyed the weekly product for a while, but WWE are still consistently delivering on PPV. Survivor Series is one of my all time favourite PPVs, but on paper there's several drool-worthy matches.
-WWE Championship- No Holds Barred- Brock Lesnar vs. Rey Mysterio. Lesnar and Mysterio faced each other several times during Brock's orignal WWE run from 2002-2004, and they always had good chemistry. The Beast Incarnate is a very different performer these days from the Next Big Thing, but when he gives a shit, he's as good- or better- than almost anyone on the roster. There's something about Brock and Survivor Series too- this is the 3rd year in a row he's faced a much smaller opponent- 2017 vs. AJ Styles, 2018 vs. Daniel Bryan, now 2019 vs. Mysterio. The No Holds Barred stipulation creates believable opportunities for Rey to get openings, but the masked man is still 100% going to Suplex City.
-Universal Championship- The Fiend vs. Daniel Bryan. Bryan had a fantastic match with Bray Wyatt at the 2014 Royal Rumble, so we know that they can have a great one here again. But there's also a big curiousity factor here for me- The Fiend is a tremendous character, the videos, the build, the random attacks on so many people... but can the character translate to a great match? Daniel Bryan is the perfect opponent to help answer that question.
-Then there's the women's triple threat- Becky vs. Bayley vs. Shayna. Another great triple threat on paper- Styles vs. Nakamura vs. Strong (AJ will definitely be the default face for that one). Adam Cole vs. Pete Dunne. Viking Raiders vs. Undisputed Era vs. New Day. And the traditional Survivor Series matches!
So much goodness. My body is ready. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you all back here after Survivor Series!
Until next time, take care,