Review – All In

Fan Reviews, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

For those unaware, All In, which took place at the Sears Centre Arena just outside Chicago, IL on September 1, 2018, came about because of a tweet posted on May 16, 2017 by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer. In the tweet, Meltzer denied that an independent wrestling promotion like Ring of Honor (ROH) could ever sell out a large arena like Madison Square Garden. Former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Superstar turned indie darling Cody Rhodes decided to prove Meltzer wrong, teaming with Matt and Nick Jackson (collectively known as The Young Bucks) to organize the biggest independent wrestling show in at least 20 years, if not more. Cody and the Bucks took a huge chance on this show, because it held the potential to be a disaster of epic proportions, especially if the trio failed to fill the venue as promised. Luckily for them, a reported 11,263 rabid wrestling fans heeded the call, filling the Sears Centre to capacity and making All In both a resounding success and a historic (not to mention potentially game-changing) event that took the professional wrestling world by storm.

As Uproxx’s Brandon Stroud pointed out, Cody and the Bucks put together a show that celebrated the past, present, and future of professional wrestling. They made sure to book matches and performers that offered a little something for everyone, from casual fans to the smarkiest of smarks to the curmudgeonly old school types who lament the death of kayfabe and feel that people like Joey Ryan (who practically stole the show with his brief appearance) are “killing the business.” Over the course of five hours, All In turned the National Wrestling Alliance’s (NWA) World’s Heavyweight Championship into the most important title in wrestling, showcased some of the best professional wrestlers in the world, provided a platform for several young up-and-coming wrestlers who deserve wider recognition, paid homage to the stars of the past, and entertained fans with some incredible wrestling. In other words, it was a great show from top to bottom, serving as a nice antidote to the homogenized—and frankly stale—product offered by WWE (though even that has its place in the world of professional wrestling).

The show itself was preceded by All In: Zero Hour, an hour-long preshow event that aired live on WGN America and kicked off with a quick but brutal match between Southern California Uncensored or SCU (comprised of Frankie Kazarian and Scorpio Sky) and The Briscoe Brothers (Jay Briscoe and Mark Briscoe). Though somewhat sloppy at times, the match was fast-paced and entertaining, and it served as a good way to start the whole event because it perfectly encapsulated the feeling of All In: exciting, fun, hard-hitting, different, and not always pretty (the Briscoes were famously deemed too ugly for WWE). SCU picked up the win after Kazarian reversed a springboard doomsday device and hit Mark Briscoe with a vicious powerslam before successfully pinning him.

all-in-zero-hour

Image credit: https://www.tpww.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/all-in-zero-hour.jpg

This was followed by the Over Budget Battle Royal, which featured some of the top stars from ROH, Impact Wrestling, and the indie circuit. The match was characterized by fast and furious action, but every single participant got a spotlight thanks to some great storytelling. Indeed, the frantic and fun battle royal showcased the friendship between Chuck Taylor and Trent Barretta, the tenacity of newcomer Marko Stunt, the power of Jordynn Grace (the only woman in the match), and more. Of course, the match’s ultimate purpose was to get Flip Gordon (repeatedly excluded from participating in All In by Rhodes) onto the main show. ROH mainstay Bully Ray (aka Bubba Ray Dudley) appeared to win the match but was ultimately eliminated by Gordon, who was disguised as masked wrestler Chico El Luchador. Thus, Gordon earned a title shot against ROH champion Jay Lethal later in the night (more on that in a bit).

All In proper began with three preliminary matches, starting with a thrilling singles match between MJF and veteran indie wrestler Matt Cross, who also portrays fan-favorite character Son of Havoc on Lucha Underground. After some exciting back-and-forth action, Cross hit MJF with a pitch-perfect shooting star press and emerged victorious. After that, Arrow star Stephen Amell faced “The Fallen Angel” Christopher Daniels (the third member of SCU) in a brutal contest that saw Amell jump from the top rope only to crash through a table on the floor. Despite some minor botches here and there, Amell acquitted himself well and delivered a respectable performance. It helped that he was in the ring with a knowledgeable veteran like Daniels, one of the best wrestlers of the past 20 years. Following the table spot, Daniels rolled Amell back into the ring and nailed him with the Best Moonsault Ever to win the match. Next up, Chelsea Green, Madison Rayne, Britt Baker, and Tessa Blanchard competed in a four-corner survival match that constituted the only women’s match on the card. All four women gave it their all throughout the match, and the crowd responded to their efforts by cheering wildly and chanting “This is awesome!” more than once. Blanchard eventually won the match after hitting a hammerlock DDT on Green, and while this was the absolute right choice, the ending still felt somewhat off (it seemed like either Rayne or Baker were supposed to break up the pin but missed the cue). Nevertheless, this was a truly exhilarating match that culminated with all four women celebrating together in the ring.

Cody

Image credit: https://statics.sportskeeda.com/editor/2018/09/05f8b-1536103448-800.jpg

The crowd was still buzzing as a video package played to set up the next contest, which saw Cody Rhodes challenge Nick Aldis for the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship. Rhodes made his way to the ring accompanied by an entourage that included his wife Brandi, his dog Pharoah, and coaches Diamond Dallas Page, Glacier, and Tommy Dreamer. Aldis, meanwhile, walked to the ring alongside Sam Shaw, Shawn Daivari, and Jeff Jarrett (who received a cool reception from the crowd). The match felt like an extended homage to the NWA matches of the past, complete with an injury angle, a blade job by Cody, a run-in by Daivari (who ran straight into a Diamond Cutter delivered by DDP), and a lot of old school grappling from bother performers. It also featured plenty of drama and powerful storytelling. For instance, near the end of the match, Aldis climbed to the top rope to deliver a diving elbow drop on an unconscious Cody, only for Brandi to throw herself on top of her husband’s prone body and take the brunt of the move. This sacrifice allowed Cody to recover and hit Aldis with a Disaster Kick followed by a Cross Rhodes for the win. The post-match celebration was possibly the most emotionally powerful moment of the night, as a tearful Cody clutched the belt that his father, Dusty, helped make famous.

The next match wrapped up one of the longest-running storylines on the Bucks’ YouTube series Being the Elite and led to All In’s funniest (and possibly best) moment. “Hangman” Adam Page faced “Bad Boy” Joey Janela in a Chicago Street Fight that remained mostly confined to the ring and the surrounding area but still managed to be both vicious and innovative. Each man unleashed and endured brutal punishment during the encounter, though Janela absorbed most of it and was visibly bruised and battered by the end of the match. At one point, Janela’s valet, Penelope Ford, entered the ring and showed off her impressive athletic skills as she tried to save her man from Page’s devastating assault. However, even this was not enough to stop Page’s rampage as he continued to pummel Janela throughout the match, which ended when Page laid out Janela with a Rite of Passage off the top of a ladder through a table in the middle of the ring. After the match, in a moment that recalled The Undertaker’s entrance, the arena lights went out and a video of Joey Ryan, killed by Page several months earlier (watch Being the Elite for the full story), appeared on the screen. A bloody and seemingly deceased Ryan lay in a hotel bed, but then his penis started moving, indicating there was still life in the body (seriously, watch Being the Elite). At that point, a procession of men dressed in inflatable penis costumes solemnly marched to the ring followed by Ryan, who emerged to thunderous applause. Ryan performed his patented YouPorn Plex on a stunned Page, who was then carried from the arena by the Dick Druids (for lack of a better term) while the crowd cheered. Side note: Professional wrestling is amazing.

joey-ryan-all-in-entrance-645x366

Image credit: https://411mania.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/joey-ryan-all-in-entrance-645×366.jpg

Up next was the ROH title match between Gordon and Lethal, who wrestled as Black Machismo, a gimmick centered around Lethal’s spot-on “Macho Man” Randy Savage impersonation. Savage’s brother, Lanny Poffo (who previously wrestled for WWE as “Leapin’” Lanny Poffo and The Genius), even accompanied Lethal to the ring. The match started with Lethal and Gordon performing an extended homage to the Savage/Steamboat match from WrestleMania III via a sequence of moves that recalled that seminal match. It was an impressive performance from both men, who managed to balance the wackiness and the drama almost perfectly. About halfway through the match, Lethal “woke up” from his daze and wrestled the rest of the match as himself. From that point on, the action ramped up as both men hit big moves on their opponent and, in true ROH style, kicked out of multiple finishers. Gordon showed a lot of heart and was clearly the crowd favorite, but nonetheless he failed to earn the victory. After an intense battle, Lethal hit his signature move, the Lethal Injection, to defeat Gordon and retain the ROH title. After the match, the two competitors shook hands in a show of mutual respect but were interrupted by a returning Bully Ray who was looking for a measure of revenge against Gordon. Bully Ray beat down both men, but thankfully Chicago’s own Colt Cabana came out to make the save, teaming with Gordon and Lethal to put Bully Ray through a table via a triple powerbomb.

This triumphant moment was followed by two dream matches, starting with “The Cleaner” Kenny Omega taking on Penta El Zero M (aka AAA and Lucha Underground star, Pentagon, Jr.). Back in 2017, during a six-man tag team match that took place at PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles (BOLA), Omega squared off against Penta for the first time ever in a brief confrontation that only left fans wanting more. Thankfully, Cody and the Bucks were more than willing to give the people what they wanted, and they booked Omega vs. Penta in a singles match at All In. The two competitors faced off in a thrilling encounter marked by some truly hard-hitting action, with each man throwing their most devastating moves at the other throughout the nearly 20-minute match. Omega hit Penta with several V Triggers (one of his signature moves), while Penta retaliated with several wicked chops and a devastating package piledriver on the ring apron. Yet, despite their best efforts, neither man could put the other away. That changed, however, when Omega managed to finally hit Penta with One-Winged Angel after repeated failed attempts. This allowed Omega to come out on top, much to the delight of the fans in attendance, who remained loud and rowdy throughout the entire encounter.

all-in-penta-omega

Image credit: https://lwosonprowrestling.ms.lastwordonsports.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2018/08/all-in-penta-omega.jpg

The next dream match saw “The Villain” Marty Scurll battle “The Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada one-on-one. The story of the match was that Scurll wanted to prove he was main event talent by beating one of the very best wrestlers in the entire world. Okada, meanwhile, abandoned his recent crazy gimmick (which he adopted after losing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to Omega) in favor of his seemingly unstoppable “Rainmaker” persona for the match at All In. Even with this development, the match proved grueling for both men, who hit each other with everything they had as they struggled to pick up the win. Scurll looked like a top contender throughout the contest, holding his own against a massively overpowered opponent. At the same time, Okada demonstrated exactly why he is considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, appearing charismatic and tough while executing some of the most exciting moves ever seen in a professional wrestling ring. The match also featured some excellent storytelling, as each man got to strut their stuff and bust out their signature moves in some exhilarating ways. For instance, Scurll has recently been dogged by chants of “205,” a reference to WWE’s 205 Live and his less-than-heavyweight stature. At one point, Okada made “205” gestures with his right hand as a prelude to hitting Scurll with his finisher, the Rainmaker, but this momentary act of hubris allowed Scurll to grab Okada’s fingers and “break” them using one of his own signature moves. Ultimately, Okada came out on top after nailing Scurll with two consecutive Rainmakers, but Scurll left the ring looking like a main-event-caliber performer.

The show concluded with a chaotic six-man tag team match in which New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) star Kota Ibushi teamed with the Bucks against Rey Fénix, Bandido, and legendary luchador Rey Mysterio (who came to the ring dressed like Wolverine of the X-Men). Sadly, the match was pressed for time and the performers had to hurry to hit all their spots, marring the flow of the contest somewhat. Nevertheless, it was a fun encounter that featured a couple of fantastic sequences, most notably a one-on-one face-off between Ibushi and Mysterio that, like Omega/Penta at BOLA, left the crowd wanting more. Everyone else got a moment to shine, though Bandido benefited the most from the match; it was a perfect venue for him to strut his stuff and show the crowd exactly why he is currently one of the most buzzworthy wrestlers around. The match ended when the Bucks hit Bandido with the Meltzer Driver and pinned him for the win. Afterward, all the performers embraced and celebrated together while the crowd roared their approval. As the luchadors walked to the back, Cody, Brandi, Omega, and Matt and Nick’s families came to the ring. Cody and the Bucks then delivered an impassioned speech about how All In represented a revolution in professional wrestling, and they credited the massive crowd with helping to make it happen. After some concluding remarks from Omega, the performers retreated backstage to a standing ovation from the rowdy crowd.

allinpost

Image credit: https://lwosonprowrestling.ms.lastwordonsports.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2018/08/all-in-penta-omega.jpg

It remains to be seen if the show is indeed the game changer that Cody and the Bucks claim, but one thing is certain: All In felt like something different, something that absolutely has the potential to alter the professional wrestling landscape, long dominated by WWE and its brand of sports entertainment. That Cody and the Bucks managed to book an independent wrestling show that sold out a large arena and attracted 11,263 people suggests that wrestling fans are hungry for a change and want something more than what they get from WWE programming. Indeed, the crowd responded enthusiastically when Matt and Nick teased the possibility of a second All In (title suggestion: “All In – Too Sweet”), suggesting that any potential follow-up show would likely draw as many people as the first. The runaway triumph of All In also demonstrates the power of social media holds over professional wrestling because Cody and the Bucks accomplished this historic feat largely due to their savvy use of platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

Ultimately, All In shined a light on the larger professional wrestling world beyond the confines of WWE, which was always at its best when facing competition from other companies (such as WCW). This is why it is ultimately pointless to compare what Cody and the Bucks did to what Vince and company do on a weekly basis (a comparison that forms the basis of many All In reviews). There is room for both because they each appeal to different audiences. In the end, All In demonstrates the need for someone that can compete with WWE rather than replace it, because healthy competition brings out the best in everyone involved, which benefits wrestling fans. Regardless of whether a second show ever materializes, All In will stand as a great independent wrestling show, as well as a historic moment in the history of the professional wrestling industry.

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.

War Games 07-14-87.png

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.

War Games 05-17-92.png

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

001_NXT_11182017hm_1310--06c368a5477cd353169df42b68f1abc4
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

012_NXT_11182017ej_2096--ce0c6569c62a2bdcd458fde3e4fdc59c
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

021_NXT_11182017hm_3066--74156fe60e33faf890e6b2bd85e93656

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

032_NXT_11182017ej_4211--6ec82891485897a169f4434afbb8dafd

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)

044_NXT_11182017ej_5574--f937b9f97613189e6f9fc51e607fd049

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.

Header image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185620