The emergence of NXT over the last few years as a major part of the WWE’s product line has perhaps been the company’s greatest success story. Far from its origins as an also-ran reality show, NXT has become the best pure enthusiast brand in the company, offering match-ups that bring the best and brightest stars of the indie circuit up alongside the company’s own homegrown talent – but most importantly, offering a level of consistency, logic, and coherency in storytelling the main roster brands struggle to attain.
It’s tempting, and probably fair, to chalk a lot of this up to NXT showrunner Triple H – certainly, the show often feels like the effort of a man using the vast resources of his in-laws to create a perfect wrestling sandbox – but the sum of NXT’s current identity owes perhaps even more to the work of the late Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes is of course known for his decades-long in-ring career and position as the focal point for some of the most important moments in pro wrestling history (seriously, go watch the “Hard Times” promo if you haven’t, or watch it again if you have), but in NXT he paired that with surprising pop culture savvy and a keen eye for trends. One foot in the past, one pointed forward toward the future.
And so it’s appropriate that the latest in an unbroken string of sterling NXT Takeover special events once again pays tribute to Rhodes by restaging one of Rhodes’ most unique contributions to the industry: the WarGames match. This is, of course, hardly the first time NXT has paid tribute to Rhodes – the brand holds an annual tag team tournament named in his honor – but WarGames is a particularly surprising return. It has been just a shade over 17 years since the last officially-branded match using the stipulation of two teams fighting in two rings surrounded by a steel cage, held in the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling promotion.
As a result, TakeOver: WarGames goes out of its way to remind you of the history behind the event, with vignettes showcasing vintage footage of the match and constant name-dropping of key figures associated with the match’s history. Pro wrestling works because it is built around the crafting of a synthetic narrative that grants merit and logic to the proceedings, and WWE often (re)writes that narrative to further its own bottom line – anything that the company cannot directly lay claim to by invention or purchase often gets pushed aside or ridiculed (the revisionist history around the Monday Night Wars being a key example). Hence, the lack of WarGames is explained very simply – it’s not a WWE thing, it’s not a McMahon thing, therefore in WWE kayfabe it is not a thing.
But here we are, not only not downplaying the role of NWA and WCW in the history of wrestling but celebrating it on a WWE broadcast meant to showcase the up and coming talent that will theoretically be the next wave of stars for the company. One foot in the past, one pointed toward the future.
Match #1: Kassius Ohno vs. Lars Sullivan
We start off a show heavily trading in the legacy of pro wrestling with one of the most beautiful spectacles in all of sport (scripted or otherwise): a hoss fight. This one is between basketball jersey enthusiast Kassius Ohno and Lars Sullivan, a man announcer Mauro Ranallo calls “a Jack Kirby illustration come to life.” I don’t really see it myself, but it’s the first of at least two Marvel Comics references Mauro made in the show so the man is at least speaking my language.
The match itself was nothing special – no technical wizardry or flashiness, just some solid power spots and some surprising agility on Sullivan’s part. There was some decent enough storytelling – Ohno breaking through Sullivan’s seemingly impervious defense and sending the big man down was a nice moment sold well by the announcers (who were on-point throughout the night). Sullivan wins after hitting the Freak Accident and it was an okay, if bog standard opening match that left me questioning exactly where these guys (and Sullivan especially) fit into a company that has an overabundance of big guys who are hard to take down. It didn’t help that one of the night’s best matches came right after.
Match #2: Aleister Black vs. Velveteen Dream
Watching Patrick Clark find his groove has been one of the best narratives of the past few months of WWE programming and it paid off handsomely in Houston. Clark was a bright spot in the otherwise dismal last season of Tough Enough, getting eliminated early in the competition despite his genuine knowledge of and passion for the business (and actual wrestling training). The Velveteen Dream gimmick, a sort of hypersexual but still PG pastiche of Prince and Rick Rude, was admittedly surprising, but he has inhabited and owned the role. The gimmick provides a fantastic contrast up against Aleister Black, a man who looks like every edgelord Create-A-Wrestler you’ve ever played online in WWE2K. I kid Black, though. The guy is a great performer and has an outstanding entrance that makes me wonder if he might potentially be a new frontrunner in the arms race to fill the void left by The Undertaker.
So here we have a match between two possible mega-stars playing characters diametrically opposed in concept working a brilliantly simple feud – Dream has simply been harassing Black, trying to get him to “say his name” and show respect Black doesn’t think Dream merits. Outside the text of kayfabe, it’s a metatextual battle for the soul of pro wrestling between gritty edginess and cartoonish camp, as illustrated by Dream’s opening salvo in the match of revealing Black’s face airbrushed on his tights.
There’s great psychology and storytelling throughout as both men try to get into each other’s heads, but there’s outstanding physicality as well – the match starts off with extended chain wrestling, Clark gets to show off some incredible athleticism with some outstanding springboards and a brutal modified DDT, and Black gets in some of his usual stiff strikes and a gorgeous crucifix-to-octopus hold combination. The match comes to a head as Dream stumbles to his feet and screams his own name in one last act of defiance before Black puts him away with the Black Mass. This was a star-making performance for both men and the payoff where Black finally gives Dream what he wants as he sneers “Enjoy infamy, Velveteen Dream” as a twisted, begrudging note of respect to his defeated foe was note-perfect. I loved everything about this match – sometimes the simplest stories are the best ones.
Match #3: Fatal Four Way (NXT Women’s Championship): Peyton Royce vs. Kairi Sane vs. Ember Moon vs. Nikki Cross
In its modern incarnation, NXT has generally been a place where female talent can thrive (compared to the often-murky waters of the main roster), and its Women’s division has traditionally been one of the show’s highlights. However, it is also at a crossroads. How do you go from telling a story largely built around a seemingly indestructible champion (Asuka) to rebuilding after that champion is on to the main roster?
It helps when you have a division full of top-flight wrestlers and performers, of course. It’s hard to pick a better four competitors than the ones in this match, all of whom have a legitimate claim to be in the running thanks to smart long-term storytelling and mastery of their characters and in-ring roles. Those characters are a big part of why this match is so fun: Kairi Sane is a pirate princess (with the best elbow drop since Randy Savage), Peyton Royce is a Kardashian-adjacent social media star, Ember Moon may or may not be a werewolf, and Nikki Cross is an unhinged anarchist brawler. One of my standards for a good wrestling match was “does it sound like it would make a good movie if these characters fought each other”? This one does.
The match itself was outstanding, with plenty of the expected Fatal Four-way spots and one of the fastest paces of the night – all four women were in top gear out of the gate, with some of the best (and stiffest) offense of the night. Most of my notes for this match are in bold and all-caps, which says something about how good the match was – there wasn’t enough time to really reflect on nuance when another cool thing was around the corner. All four women got a chance to shine, but I must call out Sane especially for some innovative and clever spots, including one of my favorite moments of the night where she used Royce as a human weapon leading to a rare 2-for-1 elbow drop.
Usually in matches like this with three “legit” face competitors and one cowardly heel, the heel wins, leading Royce to be the most likely victor. That’s why I was legitimately surprised when Moon finally closed the loop and picked up the win, not only because it’s a long time in coming and well-deserved but also because it demonstrates that continuity and coherence that makes NXT shine. See, the last time Moon challenged for the title at a TakeOver, the story was that her Eclipse finisher (one of the most visually impressive, protected, and potentially dangerous spots in the division) was going to finally put Asuka away. While she hit Asuka with it in the match, the champion barely held on to retain. This time, not only does Moon hit it, she hits Cross and Royce with it at the same time and scores the win – a win that Asuka, the woman she couldn’t beat before, shares with her by handing her the title in front of a home state crowd. It’s a nice button on Moon’s entire arc so far, and really rewarding storytelling.
NXT has played a pivotal role in the legitimization of female wrestlers on WWE programming – the first-ever women’s match to headline a main WWE event took place at 2015’s NXT TakeOver: Respect, and former champ Asuka herself has one of the longest title reigns of any sort in modern WWE history. While some might argue this match isn’t quite in that that same historic space, it’s also hard to look at a match-up of four women of different ethnicities and nationalities, all of whom have clearly defined personalities and characterizations, and not marvel at how far the company has come and the clear mission statement it seems to be making for the future.
Match #4: Drew McIntyre vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas w/ Zelina Vega
McIntyre and Almas are the names on the marquee, but make no mistake – this is Zelina Vega’s match.
That’s a bold statement, perhaps – especially considering that it’s hard not to read this match as a sort of redemption story for both men. Almas, née CMLL and New Japan’s La Sombra, came in with a ton of hype but floundered in his early face run, while Drew McIntyre was famously let go from the company only to be hired back after a particularly draining round of main roster call-ups. But Vega is on another level right now, acting both as a perfect mouthpiece for Almas and a secret weapon. Watch her get right in the face of McIntyre before the match starts – McIntyre is at least a good foot and a half taller, but Vega is absolutely the biggest force in the ring. She’s operating at near-Heyman levels.
That’s not to say McIntyre and Almas are any slouch. After two all-out spot fests, the pair starts with a slower, more traditional wrestling match that gives way to a faster second half highlighted by a blind moonsault to the outside from Almas. McIntyre moves faster than he looks and works as a perfect base for Almas’ style, so this is a great match-up.
But Vega, every bit Chekhov’s Manager on the outside, is a constant presence as the two battle it out – a fun white-meat babyface spot has McIntyre gently setting Vega back on the ring apron after a failed attempt at a hurracanrana, a spot that returns near the end as she hits a vicious spiked version of the move on him while Almas distracts the ref. It’s classic heel manager material with a progressive NXT twist, which makes the fact that it doesn’t work even more surprising as McIntyre goes on to take Almas out with a vicious kick that sends him spinning end-over-end in midair (only for Vega to help Almas get his foot on the ropes).
It all comes to an end as Almas hits a vicious-looking hanging DDT off the ropes for the win. What first felt like one of the least essential matches on the card ended up as a great showcase for two guys who needed it. Almas gets a little overzealous and accidentally drops the title during his post-match celebration before standing triumphant on the announce desk, but as the first Hispanic NXT champion, he’s more than earned the enthusiasm.
Match #5: Authors of Pain w/ Roderick Strong vs. SAnitY vs. The Undisputed Future (War Games)
WarGames makes the show run longer than TakeOver normally does, but time flies when you’re having fun. The pomp and theater of pro wrestling is clear as sirens accompany the lowering the WarGames cage. Nigel McGuinness calls it “the most dangerous match in sports entertainment,” which is perhaps not quite the effective bit of rhetoric it seems when there are at least three or four other match types billed as such in the WWE canon. We get a nice little “bro-hug” between Arn Anderson and Dustin Rhodes before the match, which warmed my heart and got me through the incredibly lengthy explanation of how the match works – which I am reasonably certain is the longest match introduction in NXT history.
The structure of the traditional WarGames match is built around a two-team dynamic. Changing that dynamic for a triple threat match requires three teams equally at odds with each other for it to work. Because one team will by necessity get a numbers advantage early on, a partnership must be struck, and for it to have any narrative weight, it must be an unlikely one. While the face/heel lines are blurred here, NXT has been building to this since at least the last TakeOver with the introduction of the Undisputed Era faction of Ring of Honor alumni, and giving SAnitY and the Authors bad blood from their last tag champion match works well enough. There’s at least enough antagonism for the multiple arcs and rising and falling action in the match to make sense.
And from a narrative standpoint, each team is booked uniquely. The Authors get plenty of time to show off their powerhouse status, at one point throwing teammate Roderick Strong from one ring to another like a lawn dart in our second “human weapon” spot of the night. SAnitY, true to anarchist form, is the first team to introduce actual weapons to the match, highlighted by Alexander Wolfe’s introduction of the all-too-rare collapsible baton to the squared circle. The Undisputed Era plays the cowardly, cocky heel role to a T, including one particularly funny spot where Kyle O’Reilly misses with a chair shot that bounces off the ropes and hits him in the face.
With nine competitors and two rings, the match quickly devolves into beautifully orchestrated chaos that makes good use of the physical space. There’s almost too much to take in to recap, but Killian Dane established himself as a wrestler that operates almost outside of the reality established in kayfabe, taking out everyone else in the match with a cross body splash. The highlight in a match full of them is probably Strong’s suplex of Cole off the top of the cage, complete with a “please don’t die” chant from the crowd. Cole scores the win for his team by kneeing a chair into Eric Young’s head, but the entire match is a glorious throwback not only to past Wargames but also the spectacle of early ’00s WWE and ECW “hardcore” matches. Dave Meltzer called it the “best weapons match” of the year, and who am I to argue?
This is a legitimate contender for the best TakeOver ever, and certainly one of the most historically significant since 2015’s TakeOver: Respect. For all the ballyhoo and fanfare around the main event (well-deserved though it was), the real story isn’t there. It’s in the star-making, next-level performance of Velveteen Dream. It’s in the emotional payoff to Ember Moon’s long pursuit of the Women’s Championship. It’s in the giddy, genuine thrill of Andrade Almas waving the NXT Championship around his head. With Takeover: War Games, NXT continues the long march of WWE into a more inclusive tomorrow while still putting on an outstanding wrestling show for new and long-time fans. Dusty would be proud.