The Emotionality Behind Ciampa/Gargano: Part 1 Pre-Tag Team Titles

Works-In-Process

One night while working on the Ciampa/Gargano slash project i.e. reading fanfic and luvin it), I realized how all these fanfics are not attempts to recode the Ciampa/Gargano (CG) NXT story (e.g. characters, plot points, facts) but to recode the emotions of the stories as those emotions play a role in how fans decode the stories.

For these fans, their emotional reactions to wrestlers are important, and Ciampa and Gargano have encoded some pretty powerful emotional beats into their NXT story. Even before their break-up, fans had a lot to decode about their bond, and the fanfic pre-break-up explores those emotions. The fanfic post-break-up explores different emotions, but also tries to reconcile the negative feelings between the duo to reunite the pair. Being faithful to the story’s facts doesn’t matter as much as exploring the emotional text and subtext of these wrestlers.

To understand how the fans are decoding and recoding the emotional beats encoded into the story, I decided to go back and chart Ciampa and Gargano’s matches across NXT. I wanted to plot the emotionality of their matches, both as a tag team and as singles, to understand what the fans are reacting to with their stories.* And, as a fan myself, it has been fascinating to go back and watch these matches. Especially for their first matches, I didn’t have the emotional investment in them then that I do now (like, seriously, I haven’t loved a “fictional” character this much since David Tennant’s run as The Doctor). This means I am rewatching matches I only vaguely remember with my complete love for them.

While I do not remember the beats, I do remember the results. And knowing what happened does make it easier to pay attention to peripheral aspects of the match, like how they act on the apron or their facial expressions. Those moments are what I focused on to chart the emotional beats — and boy am I finding out some interesting things, like how much of a hugger Ciampa was!

Because there are so many matches to cover since their debut, I am breaking this timeline over several posts. This first one focuses on their work leading up to their tag team win against the Revival in 2016. Basically these are all the matches to build up the duo and the fans’ love for them.

2015: In the Beginning…

Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano are introduced in backstage segment on September 2, 2015. They appear with GM William Regal to set them up as participants in inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, and to set up the comedy-team of Tyler Breeze and Bull Dempsey. In this segment, neither man displays any real emotions other than intensity — even when Regal mispronounces Ciampa’s last name.

Their emotional bonding starts during the Classic. In their round 1 match on September 9, where they win to advance. There is emotional intensity from Gargano on apron trying to get Ciampa to give him the tag, which interestingly sets up a recurring theme of a hot tag from Ciampa to Gargano — like Ciampa needs to be saved by Gargano. More importantly, they hug after win and keep their arms around each other when facing the hardcam during their post-match celebration. They also get down on their knees on the ramp before exiting, with commentators saying how they cannot believe their luck. There, Gargano hugs Ciampa again, basically cradling Ciampa’s head to his chest. This motif would be a recurring aspect of their hugging, with one (usually Ciampa) cradling the other’s head to his chest (see the example below).

Their next match is in the second round on September 16. In their first promo, they respond to Baron Corbin/Rhyno, again bringing intensity. They receive a decent pop with their entrance, given how new they are, and during the match start to show more teamwork. Both men are definitely playing to the crowd and getting crowd behind them. The commentary positions them as faces and underdogs from the beginning. This match also has their first knee/kick move, which would come to be called the Meet in the Middle, but not as a finisher. Importantly, the commentators talk about their chemistry. The crowd is really into match, hoping CG would win. After losing, Ciampa goes to check on Gargano, who got the End of Days from Corbin, and stays at his side, checking on him until the end of the clip. This show of care and concern would become a motif in their matches.

After losing the tournament, they started doing singles matches. The next time they are on NXT together is October 30, only to be defeated by Chad Gable/Jason Jordan. Once again, CG have loads of crowd support, especially for how Gargano interacts with the crowd and his expressions. The match got “This is Wrestling” and “This is Awesome” (x3) chants. CG show teamwork, but perhaps are also the heels in the match given the types of tandem attacks they performed — as well as the intensity of their expressions. This character works suggests NXT was still trying to figure out who CG were in their roster. After loss, Ciampa rolls in pain in ring, with no sign of Gargano. Then the clip shows Ciampa outside the ring next to Gargano, both in pain. No real sign of emotional bonding between them in the match — which, if the goal was to position them as heels, makes sense.

This feeling them out also explains the singles work they did, that were pretty unspectacular, which is why I am not interested in discussing them here. The goal here is to understand how these two men interacted with each other on NXT, and their evolution as a tag team demonstrated that their strength was going to be through their relationship in and out of the ring. Once NXT realized that as well, CG would light up the arena.

2016: Becoming Official…

Ciampa and Gargano signed their Tier 2 WWE contracts on April 2nd, 2016, meaning that they could still go on indie dates. And they did so through summer 2016, which was great for me, as I got to see them a couple more times at AAW.

On April 13, 2016 they take on the Vaudevillains, and the commentators said they are reunited. By then the Vaudevillains had already appeared on SmackDown, so of course they were leaving. While waiting in the ring to start, Ciampa pats Gargano’s back, which is a move he does a lot over the year. The commentators said Ciampa had seemed out of his mind but seems relaxed  now, and that they both seem relaxed together, being more confident and comfortable. Gargano demonstrates how very skilled he is at showing pain, and got a power-up chant from the crowd. Otherwise the crowd is so quiet I can hear Ciampa trying to encourage Gargano. Hot tag to Ciampa. CG wins, but they just do their cornerpost poses, with no other interaction in the clip.

On May 25 they faced TM-61. When they pose together in corner, Ciampa pats Gargano’s back. Commentators in this match describe how TM-61 are people who really know each other because of wrestling together for so long. This positioning helps establish the relationship for CG: if they can defeat established teams after recently reuniting, then it means they are great. Ciampa calls for crowd support for Gargano. Miscommunication leads to CG collision in ring — they are still new to this, after all. First time they use their finisher as the finisher for a win. High-five after win, then sign of respect to opponents, clapping for them.

Their June 1 is their first match against The Revival. The Revival starts the episode by cutting a promo in-ring against Gable/Jordan (aka American Alpha), the current tag-team champions, but CG come out to support American Alpha and push themselves. Ciampa and Gargano show their mic and burn skills. CG kick Revival out of ring, leading to a match. CG poses together in corner when they come out in a show of unity. The crowd is behind CG, who often call for support, with Revival as the clear heels. A hot tag to Gargano and a quick cover by Gargano to win. Then Revival attacks both separately, with Ciampa attacked more, but saved by American Alpha. No sight of CG after the champions arrives.

At this point it is clear that CG are very good technical wrestlers and able to create matches that are unlike anything seen on Raw or SmackDown, especially for tag-team matches. Their emotional relationship is really just starting, and it would take the next two big matches featuring them both to cement their relationship as central to their NXT story.

CWC and TakeOver II…

In 2016, the WWE produced the Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), which led to reinvigorating the cruiserweight division on the main roster. On June 23, during the first round of the CWC, Ciampa and Gargano created an instant classic.

Now, leading up to it, the WWE produced a package for the match that questioned if their friendship survive. Gargano talks about being thrust into the tag team with Ciampa, but how something clicked instantly. Commentators say CG has chemistry. Ciampa talks about the past year of traveling and rooming together and depending on each other, which has led to their bond growing. He even mentions being in Gargano’s upcoming wedding party, saying “we’re as good of friends as you can get at this point.” The package shows them hugging on the ramp from their first win. Gargano confesses how he perhaps talks to Ciampa more than his fiance. Ciampa discusses how sometimes you hit family harder than others. Overall, the package does a great job summing up the relationship CG has been building and really foregrounds that aspect of the duo to create tension for the match: will they still be friends after one loses to the other?

Their pre-match interview adds to the package when the interviewer asks how being partners affects the match. Gargano says it matter if Ciampa is his partner or like a brother, and Ciampa is upset on how all he ever hears is people talking about “Johnny Wrestling.” They both posture about who is going to win, with Ciampa saying he will hurt the other, to which Gargano says “You do what you gotta do.” This exchange basically foreshadows Ciampa’s heel turn in 2017.

The match itself — is simply amazing. It is their first time fighting each other in the WWE, and is the main event of the episode. Being the main event also foreshadows the one-on-one matches they would have in 2018. Interestingly they are wearing the same colors: black, white, yellow. At the start, Ciampa is reluctant to shake hands and is intense, according to commentators, who call his attacks on Gargano vicious. Tommaso mockingly chants Johnny Wrestling to the crowd (again, foreshadowing his heel turn). The commentators play up Ciampa’s Psycho Killer history and position Johnny as the underdog, under assault, weaker, less intense. The commentators are worried about Gargano getting so many shots to the head, and are surprised he is taking so much violent punishment from the brutal Ciampa.

Ciampa routinely performs violent moves on Gargano, who keeps kicking out, making Ciampa frustrated. Commentator worried about the glassiness of Gargano’s eyes while Ciampa takes down knee pad to knee the other in head. But Ciampa pauses as commentator says these two are a tag team. Gargano looks back just in time to see Ciampa hesitate and question what he is doing, potentially to his friend, allowing Gargano to rest and then superkick him.

Ciampa comes back with vicious lungblower, but Gargano again kicks out of pin, making Ciampa scramble away with shocked look and leaving Gargano completely dazed. This leads to a “This is Awesome” chant as Gargano struggles to get up and an annoyed Ciampa questions what to do. Gargano legit looks like a wounded deer as he reaches out for Ciampa as both men lay on the mat — and Ciampa looks like a mountain lion. Commentator says how much it means to win this CWC if two friends are willing to beat each other up. They are also getting a “Fight Forever” chant.

Ciampa chops Gargano, spits in his hand to chop the other again. Gargano gets angry. Ciampa grabs Gargano’s jaw to force him to stand, as Gargano just stares at Ciampa. Ciampa shakes his head in disappointment, giving Gargano the opening to slap his face. Then Gargano has the opening for the pin.

Immediately after the match, Ciampa is visibly upset in the middle of the ring, while Gargano has retreated to corner. Ciampa still upset when referee raises Gargano’s arm in victory. After the referee leaves, both men are still in the ring, with Gargano kneeling and Ciampa standing. Gargano gets up, looks at the other, who doesn’t make eye contact with him. Gargano extends his hand for a handshake of respect, looking at the other who still won’t make eye contact. Ciampa walks away, shaking his head, and goes to leave the ring as Gargano sits on the mat.

Ciampa stands on ring, hits his own head, then goes back in. All the while the crowd is chanting to try to get him to go back to Gargano. Ciampa sits next to Gargano, grabs the other’s head and pulls Gargano to his chest in a hug as the crowd cheers. Ciampa then raises Gargano’s hand, and it is then that he makes eye contact with Gargano as they nod at each other. Then Gargano hugs Ciampa, who is visibly still upset about his loss. They shake hands as they get up, and then they hug again. Gargano then raises Ciampa’s hand.

In their official post-match interview, Gargano is asked what his victory means for their partnership. Ciampa comes into the interview when Gargano starts talking about him as a best friend. They just make eye contact. Gargano asks if he had to hit so hard, to which Ciampa responds with just “Johnny Wrestling” and walks off, to which Gargano laughs and says “that means he loves me” and says he considers Ciampa like a brother. Fraternal love cannot be easily broken.

Then, on August 20, the duo would make their first NXT TakeOver appearance at TakeOver: Brooklyn II versus The Revival for the tag-team championship. This match would go on to be voted as one of the best matches of the year.

Before the match, backstage, Ciampa gives Gargano the #DIY shirt, says its because they do things their way. This announces them as being finalized as a tag team, and sets up their relationship as being foundational to their story and success. In a pre-match package, when they meet with Regal after the CWC,  he says he hopes the CWC match won’t prevent them from acting as a team. Ciampa said that most teams don’t get to chose, but they do, and that he chooses Gargano every day. Saying this just drives home the point they are not brothers, but are not just friends. They seem to be something more, and they are going to tell their NXT story their way.

They come out in their new shirts and Ciampa puts his arm around Gargano, pulling him in, as they take in the scope of where they are and what they are about to do. Throughout the match, the crowd is loudly behind them, chanting “Let’s go Ciampa” and “Johnny Wrestling.” At one point in the match, both Revival guys are chasing after Gargano but Ciampa jumps into the ring to stand by his side and face down the Revival. The commentators say CG are long time friends who know each other very well, billing CG as they have done for past tag teams, thereby cementing them as officially working together as partners.

And then it seems like Johnny has pinned Dash Wilder after a Meet in the Middle, but Dawson puts Wilder’s foot on the rope and the referee calls it a two-count. Meanwhile Ciampa hugs Gargano to celebrate, so before they are made aware, CG are hugging in the middle of the ring as the crowd goes crazy over the supposed win. CG are holding each other in celebration when the referee informs them they didn’t win.

The Revival goes on to hurt Gargano’s knee, which was injured from the CWC. The Crowd tells him not to tap to Dawson’s figure four submission hold, but Johnny, in agony, does. As the Revival celebrates, CG sit in the middle of the ring, heartbroken. Ciampa gets up as Gargano’s hands are over his eyes, despondent. Ciampa then leans down and hugs Gargano, helps the other up, and keeps his hand on Gargano’s back as they thank the crowd. He then helps Gargano walk out of the ring. Outside the ring, Gargano says I’m sorry, and Ciampa pulls him back in for another hug, with his head to Ciampa’s chest. Ciampa keeps his hand on Gargano as he leads the other up the ramp.

With the CWC and TakeOver II matches, CG cement their abilities as in-ring storytellers, able to create emotional moments as they react to their opponents — even when those opponents are each other. In moments of loss, they are able to show their love for each other by being concerned for how each other is doing. Ciampa, in particular, demonstrates a level of tenderness that seems contradictory to his Psycho Killer persona. Ciampa seems to legit care for Gargano, so much so that he is willing to risk not winning the CWC match, and he is not going to hold Gargano responsible for losing the titles. The relationship between the men is becoming more important than winning.

Dusty Rhodes Redux…

The last couple matches to note in this post are not terribly noteworthy as they do not do much to build the emotionality of their story. In the 2016 Dusty Rhodes Classic, CG have a first round match versus Tian Bing/Ho-Ho Lun on October 26, which is really only important for noting it as the first time they came out to #DIY entrance theme. After winning, they moved on to the second round on November 2 versus the Revival; but the match never happens as Dawson came out on crutches, claiming a severe knee injury, and the Revival forfeited so they don’t have to face DIY in the match. The third round on November 9 was against the Authors of Pain. In one interesting moment, as both AOP are about to attack Gargano, Ciampa comes in to stop that double teaming, just like he did in TakeOver II. At the end, DIY has AOP beaten when The Revival shows up from underneath the ring and attack Johnny, but the referee didn’t see it, leaving Tommaso to be pinned.

Essentially this string of matches was just meant to further the rivalry between The Revival and #DIY, which led to the championship match between them at NXT TakeOver: Toronto. That match began #DIY’s championship reign, which would then lead to their breaking up, and the darkness that followed. Those matches will be covered next, in part two of this series.

 

*One thing I also need to chart is the transmedia nature of this story, as both Ciampa and Gargano did a lot on Twitter to build up their characters and relationship. They posted about living together, for example, and their work with Bobby Roode and the Glorious Bombs created a meme that still plays out today. What I have in these posts are just the NXT tapings, but these online appearances are definitely a part of this emotionality timeline.

Comparing NXT’s WarGames To Its Predecessors

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

WWE finally took its first shot at WarGames at NXT Takeover: WarGames. The War Games concept was originally dreamed up by the American Dream Dusty Rhodes after watching Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It started off as two teams of five that would collide in two rings surrounded by a steel cage with a roof. One member from each team would start and usually after 5 minutes and a coin toss someone new would come in the match.  It was usually the heel team that would have the advantage and the only way to win the match was by submission after both teams were in the cage.

The original War Games matches often featured the Four Horsemen with manager JJ Dillon as a combatant and the opposing team was often led by Dusty and would feature The Road Warriors, Magnum TA, or other babyfaces in Jim Crockett Promotions. The matches were bloody affairs that would usually end with JJ Dillon submitting for the Horsemen so none of the wrestlers ended up looking weak. Most of the early matches are still looked upon with high regard.

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Image Credit: Screen Cap from War Games 07-04-87 via WWE Network

The match would undergo some changes. In 1993 WCW switched from teams of 5 to teams of 4. The biggest change was done in 1998 with the match being contested by 3 teams of 3: Team NWO Hollywood, Team NWO Wolfpack, and Team WCW. The match could be won by submission OR pinfall and had the added element of being every man for himself since the winner of the match got a WCW Heavyweight title shot.

The match was poorly received, but not as poorly received as the match in 2000. This match used the triple cage that was introduced earlier that year, and also featured in the film Ready to Rumble. The winner would have to climb to the top cage, retrieve the Heavyweight title, and walk out of the cage with it. The match was booked by Vince Russo, if that gives you any indication of how overbooked the match was, and it’s not usually looked at as an official War Games match.

So the big question is did the match at NXT Takeover measure up to the originals?

I personally feel that it does. The match did take a little bit to get going, but once everyone was in the cage, it was a spectacle. The lack of roof was a little strange at first, but the roof always seemed to limit the moves that could be done and actually led to Brian Pillman legitimately getting knocked out in 1991 when Sid Vicious went for a powerbomb and he wasn’t able to get Pillman all the way up and ended up dropping him on his head. Sid went for it again, which also yielded close to the same result. The match was stopped shortly afterward.

The use of weapons was a great throwback as well. In 1992 Madusa climbed up to the top of the cage to drop Paul E Dangerously’s cellphone into the ring to be used as a weapon. This match also featured the turnbuckles being disassembled and used as a weapon in the finish of the match so the new match wasn’t the first to feature weapons.

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Image Credit: Screen Cap from War Games 05-21-92 via WWE Network

The NXT version of the match also relied on a little bit of intrigue like in 1996. That match had the NWO line-up of Hollywood Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and a mystery 4th man who they hinted would be Sting. Team WCW was Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Lex Luger, and Sting. Before the match Sting had to convince his allies that he was on their side. They weren’t convinced, and when it came time for the 4th member of the NWO to come out, it appeared to be Sting.

When the time came for the final WCW member to come out, it was the real Sting who laid out the NWO single handedly before leaving the match. Roderick Strong seemed to be the odd man for his team and the Undisputed Era did offer to take him in. Strong did turn them down on a previous episode of NXT, but I know I was waiting for the turn to happen and was actually relieved that it didn’t. Instead he superplexed Adam Cole from the top of the cage.

The match wasn’t quite as bloody as previous ones, but it did have blood after SAnitY’s Alexander Wolfe hit a German Suplex from the top-rope that took him and Akam from the Authors of Pain through tables. Eric Young appeared to suffer a cut on his nose as well. When the match was over all nine men laid in the ring to sell the damage of the match, even the Undisputed Era who were the victors.

The match wasn’t a sprint of violence like 1992, but it wasn’t disorganized and kind of boring like 1998. As far as it being WWE’s first crack at this match, it was great. They had the right people involved in this match, and I’m looking forward to seeing this be a signature NXT match if it’s not used on the main roster.

Header Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos%20#fid-40185648

NXT TakeOver: WarGames – The Past Is Prologue, The Future Is Bright

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185589

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

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185606

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

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185617

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

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185635

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)

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185659

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?

Final Thoughts

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.

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