The Best of NXT in 2018

Fan Reviews

This review of NXT from 2018 comes from more of a fangirl perspective than an academic one, and it is meant to reflect only my own preferences for the best part of the WWE Universe. I would love to hear any other NXT fan’s reactions to this past year, and for a second opinion, and a focus just on NXT matches, see https://uproxx.com/prowrestling/wwe-nxt-matches-of-the-year-2018.

Now, I am not going to talk about specific matches here. I don’t remember specific matches well enough to comment on them. What I am doing instead is reflecting on my favorite parts of NXT from this past year. Those parts may be story lines, characters, or moments, but they are all the parts that I think demonstrate why NXT outshines either Raw or SmackDown and why I always hope/dread that my precious NXT babies will be called up to the main roster.

Each entry on this list made me squee in some way this year, starting with the first one, which is basically just one long, sustained SQUEE at the moment (like, seriously, alternating between squeeing and crying).

The Ciampa/Gargano Story, with special guest star Aleister Black

I legit love these men.

After his heel turn at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2017, Tommaso Ciampa went out with a knee injury and left Johnny Gargano to rise as the main babyface of NXT. On Twitter, Ciampa changed his handle from Project Ciampa to Blackheart and began foreshadowing his return with a tweet on Dec 31, 2017. In it he retweeted Gargano’s tweet expressing hope for 2018 by just saying “Happy New Year, man.” He had been playing the Twitter game a little in the second half of 2017 but turned it up in the beginning of 2018 when he was prepping to return.

 

Meanwhile, Gargano secured his first NXT title championship opportunity against Andrade Cien Almas at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia but failed to capitalize on it. Instead of interfering in the match, Ciampa showed up after a disappointed Gargano left the ring with the help of Candice LeRae — and attacked Gargano with his crutch.

Thus began a year-long story arc that is still going! And technically was the latest chapter in their entire NXT storyline.

Ciampa and Gargano went back and forth at each other, both directly and indirectly. Ciampa caused Gargano to be released from NXT on Feb 21, but Gargano was allowed back in after he beat Ciampa bloody at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. From there, Gargano quickly challenged Black for the championship in an attempt to get back on track, while Ciampa continued to cement his status as uber-heel; for a time, he even entered to the crowd booing instead of any entrance music. Their “anniversary” Chicago street fight match at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II this year was brutal, both physically and emotionally.

When they brought Aleister Black into the storyline, things really took a dark turn. Gargano started to feel that he could not defeat Ciampa without becoming a heel himself. He tried to cost Ciampa the championship title during a match against Black, only to end up giving the title to Ciampa during a regular NXT show that aired on July 25, shocking and surprising everyone — including Black.

Bringing Black in was a masterstroke — but more so for how they responded to a legit injury Black sustained at a house show that prevented him from fully participating in the story.  The idea had been to stage a triple threat match between Black, Ciampa, and Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV for the championship, but Black’s injury derailed that storyline. Instead, NXT went full steam ahead with Gargano’s turn to the dark side by setting up a mystery that started Aug 8 with Black being attacked outside the Full Sail arena.

General Manager William Regal focused on investigating the attack after NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV until just before NXT TakeOver: WarGames II. During this investigation, Nikki Cross claimed to know who attacked Black and told Regal (more on that below). Yet we the fans never knew the identity of the perpetrator until just before WarGames, when Gargano revealed he attacked Black, setting up a brutal match at WarGames between Black and Gargano and leaving Ciampa to continue to successfully defend his championship.

After absolving Gargano of his sins at WarGames, Black returned looking for a rematch with Ciampa, only for Gargano to demand a rematch with Black. On the Dec 5 show, Ciampa deftly manipulated both Black and Gargano into wanting a steel cage match to end things between them.

That match happened on Dec 19 — ending with a possible DIY reunion.

Throughout 2018, Ciampa demonstrated an amazing ability to play the heel in matches, in promos, and on Twitter. He seems so natural in his Psycho Killer persona and adeptly fitted it into the requirements of NXT/WWE storytelling. Meanwhile, Gargano demonstrated a natural ability to emote and connect with fans, whether as a face or a tweener. His slide to the dark side has been both logical and delicious, allowing him to flesh out his performance skills and show the world why he is Johnny Freakin’ Wrestling.

It is simply stunning that Ciampa and Gargano have built this story line on the basis of their amazing chemistry since their emergence as a put-together tag team for the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic back in 2015. It has been over three years now, and their arc is the best storyline in professional wrestling right now. If they can keep it up, it may become the best storyline ever in professional wrestling. There are simply too many moments to recount in this post, and I am already fangirling too much in this entry.

Just do yourself a favor: go back to their beginning and follow their story. The journey is well worth it, and I wait with high anticipation for where the story goes in 2019. I know I am not the only one hoping for a complete DIY heel team, especially if TM61 is kaput, and I would love to see a point where DIY holds the tag team title, Ciampa has the main title, Gargano gets the North American title (even Ciampa wants that!), and LeRae gets the women’s title. Please, WWE, just let this amazing trio hold all the belts before you call them up after this year’s WrestleMania or SummerSlam and ruin them — please!?!

Shayna Baszler Can Legit Kill You (Or Me, At Least)

The Jan 10th episode started 2018’s run of new episodes, and Sahyna Baszler was there to usher in the new era of NXT. This opening match positioned her to dominate the women’s division throughout the year by showing both backstage and in-ring prowess on being able to legit kill people.

After debuting in the inaugural Mae Young Classic, Baszler made her NXT in-ring debut on this episode against Dakota Kai, who would become one of her long-running opponents after receiving a (kayfabe) broken arm after a stomp from Baszler that led to the match being called due to injury.

Not content to let the match end there, Baszler locked Kai in a coquina clutch that brought out champion Ember Moon. Baszler was thus established as the biggest heel in NXT women’s — and perhaps all of NXT — and she has played the role to a T. Every time she smiles, I worry that someone is going to die.

Throughout 2018, Baszler caused bodily harm throughout the women’s division with various opponents like Ember Moon, Nikki Cross, and Kairi Sane, who she battled with for the Women’s Championship title, leading Baszler to end the year as a two-time women’s champion. With her fellow MMA call-ups, the trio is being polished to eventually join Ronda Rousey on the main roster and complete the new Four Horsewomen stable (although Bayley, Sasha, Becky and Charlotte will always hold that title in my heart).

If Shayna goes up this year, I fear for the women of Raw and SmackDown. Heck, I would fear for the men, too, if WWE would get off their duff and let real intergender wrestling happen. She legit scares me, even though in shoot interviews she seems like a nice person I could hang with (thanks to Up Up Down Down).

The Est Becomes Established

Bianca Belair was a minor player in 2017, and even appeared in the inaugural Mae Young Classic to be defeated by the eventual winner Kairi Sane. But she really began to shine in 2018, appearing in the WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal at WrestleMania 34, and then experiencing a winning streak that saw her tear through the women’s roster at NXT. She won the NXT Universe over with her athleticism, charisma, and hair whip.

Bianca’s year ended with a win in a fatal four-way, giving her a shot at the Women’s Championship against Shayna Baszler. The whip versus the clutch. Should be quite the stiff title match.

What I like about Belair is how natural she seems at this pro wrestling thing. She has amazing power and skill, as her backstory promos have told us about her history of sports competition. But if she couldn’t actually, you know, dead lift other women and toss them aside without a thought, no amount of backstory would matter. The fact that she can do that — as well as all the other moves seen in the video above — effortlessly, and give us a great gimmick with that bullwhip of a braid means she is destined for great things in WWE. I cannot wait to see her and Naomi have a day-glo dance-off, and a triple threat of her, Becky and Charlotte would be amazing.

Just let her run with the title awhile in NXT, because she deserves to shine the bright-EST.

Nikki Cross’ Secret

As mentioned, Nikki Cross played an integral role in the Aleister Black injury angle. She knew who did it (or, per Nikki’s accent, who DEDDIT), and for weeks she stalked the ring and backstage area of NXT’s Full Sail letting everyone know she had a secret, without revealing what she knew. Not even William Regal, P.I., could get the truth out of her. This agent of chaos apparently just wanted to see what would happen when Black got back.

Cross has been a fan favorite since her arrival as part of Sanity, but when they got called up, she got left behind, allowing her to further develop her character and really shine away from their shadow. Now that she is main roster bound, hopefully they don’t dull the crazy from her character, as this wild child is a truly unique example of what women can do in professional wrestling — and by that I mean she shows women can do anything, just like men.

Anything You Can Do, the Dream Can Do Better

At the end of 2017, Velveteen Dream won the NXT Year-End Award for Rivalry of the Year with Aleister Black. This was the “Say My Name” storyline that culminated at NXT TakeOver: WarGames, when Black finally said his name.

His first appearance on May 24, 2017 confused some people (myself included — was he riffing on Prince, who wasn’t that long dead?), but he very quickly became a fan favorite after entering the feud with Black that fall. Their rivalry set the foundation for Velveteen’s elevation to superstardom in 2018 when he feuded with different people and even had a title shot against Ciampa at NXT TakeOver: WarGames II.

However, perhaps his most impressive match was against Richochet at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II. From coming out in his Hulk Hogan meets Prince Puma gear to his attempts to keep pace with and one-up Ricochet, Dream demonstrated that he can have a dream match with anyone.

Two reasons why Velveteen had a breakout year. One, he knows how to perform inside the ring. This match demonstrated that, as he went toe-to-toe with one of the best acrobatic-style wrestlers in the world. In this match it was his undoing, but his power and athleticism will serve him well throughout his career.

Two, as seen from the video, his character work is also amazing, and it shows through his mannerisms and his ring gear. The man went from being a weak contender in Tough Enough to coming up with a gender-defying gimmick that he got over thanks to his performance and costuming. The man borrows from different wrestlers, from Hogan to Rick Rude, but is wholly unique in what he creates from the pastiche.

Side note: I could seriously see him becoming the new Wesley Snipes if he wanted a job in Hollywood.

The Impossible Ricochet

I was sad to see Ricochet leave Prince Puma and Lucha Underground behind, but I am so happy to have him in the WWE Universe, as I hope it helps him earn the oodles of money he deserves.

Ricochet’s in-ring debut for NXT occurred during the ladder match to determine first ever North American Champion at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. While he failed to come away with the gold — because of course Adam Cole would — he still demonstrated that everything everyone loved about him from the indies would translate to the big show — or at least the NXT version of the big show.

Throughout 2018 Ricochet would have some seriously great matches in which he did some very superhuman things. Yet it was his feud with Velveteen Dream that really cemented who he was in NXT by creating several spectacular moments and an amazing match at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II.

And this is just a sampling of it all:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-F0TPRLEMi8

I first saw that as a GIF on Twitter. My jaw dropped open upon seeing it. It still drops open with every repeat viewing. Because, seriously…how can anyone be that good!?!

Ricochet then defeated Adam Cole for North American Championship at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV and participated in NXT TakeOver: WarGames II with the NXT Avengers of War Machine and Pete Dunne. His high flying moves have quickly made him an NXT favorite.

Hopefully he is not shoehorned with a stupid gimmick on the main roster like Adrian Neville was, taking away that man’s brilliance. Ricochet is another of those men who gravity forgot, and I would hate for him to be as forgotten by WWE creative as they did Neville.

Kyle O’Reilly’s Expressions

I am not an Undisputed Era fangirl, although I do prefer Roderick Strong as a heel than as a babyface (oh man, was he vanilla!). But I do love Kyle O’Reilly’s facial expressions.

O’Reilly is my favorite part of UE. I am always looking at him whenever another of the faction (usually Adam Cole) is speaking. When O’Reilly is in the ring, I worry for the other wrestlers, as his attacks to people’s hamstrings and knees makes my own legs buckle.

I am glad that Bobby Fish has returned so that ReDRagon can continue to have amazing tag matches in NXT. If they are called up, I hope The Revival can be revived and set up against them. Those two teams would be able to redefine WWE tag team wrestling if creative gave them half a chance.

Matt Riddle’s Flip Flops

The King of Bros made his NXT in-ring debut on Oct 31 against Luke Menzies. I like Matt Riddle,  but I am never really excited by him. I’ve seen him live and up-close at AAW, and his matches are stiff and fun, but as a character the “bro” persona leaves me cold.

But I love his entrance into the ring where he flips off his flip-flops. That little touch could make him a big WWE star because it both encapsulates everything he is as a professional wrestler — both in terms of his move set and character — while also just being so damn cool I could see fans being willing to pay just to see it.

Plus, how can WWE not capitalize on it by selling Bro Flip-Flops in 2019?

Come Back Any Time, Prince Pretty

On Dec 12, Richochet held an open call to defend his North American Championship. In the weeks leading up to the match, people wondered which new NXT recruit it could be.

Then Prince Pretty’s entrance music started and Tyler Breeze returned to Full Sail to meet Ricochet in the ring.

Everyone in attendance was so happy to see their favorite wrestler/supermodel return — including me. Breeze and Tye Dillinger are those two NXT favorites who just haven’t gotten enough attention on the main roster. At least Breeze was able to make magic with Fandango by creating the Fashion Police, and his regular appearances on Up Up Down Down further cement him as a cult favorite.

But damn was it nice to see him wrestle again. This match with Ricochet helped remind everyone that there was a time when we loved to watch Breeze wrestle, and that Prince Pretty was not just a gimmick character but a highly skilled in-ring performer.

It also helped to highlight the fears of many NXT fan, to see a favorite return from the doldrums of WWE. I hope WWE creative was watching this match, to be reminded of what Breeze can do in-ring. This man can shine if only you let him. Until then, just let him come back to NXT every now and then to work out the ring rust. We will always be glad to see him. And have him bring along Dillinger, too.

Steaks and Weights

Two big burly men: Otis Dozovic and Tucker Knight. These two guys should not be able to do the things they can do, and yet they do every time they enter the ring together as Heavy Machinery. And I love them for it. I hope they don’t go the way of all the other great NXT tag teams that I loved when they get to the main roster.

Heavy Machinery encapsulates everything that is great about NXT. Two exciting characters who seem like they are always having fun, both in the ring and in their promos, who also have great wrestling skills and matches that get the fans behind them. They are, to my understanding, what WWE has always tried to have: great sports entertainers, in every facet of the industry.

So when they get to the main roster, don’t waste them, WWE.

And That Is That

I loved NXT in 2018. But I also loved NXT in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. It always brightens my week to watch the show, and they always seem to find some way to make my heart sing. I look forward to what, and who, they bring in 2019.

For now, just let Ciampa and Gargano form heel DIY — and then call them up as a way to reset them back to faces.

The Surreal Reality of Professional Wrestling: A Wrestlemania Reflection

Audience Studies, NXT, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, WWE
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The Undertaker’s WrestleMania entrance. [All media provided by the author unless otherwise noted.]

Any WrestleMania weekend experience is going to be marked by surreal moments. From the shear spectacle of the WWE’s collection of events and activities, to the overwhelming amount of professional wrestling occurring over seven days, and to the breathtaking risks and frequently draw-dropping storytelling of the performers on cards all across the weekend’s host city, it is certain that every fan attending these events will be able to take home a story of when they stood up in exclamation and awe. As an attendee of both of World Wrestling Entertainment’s major wrestling events over that weekend, Saturday night’s NXT Takeover: New Orleans and Sunday’s WrestleMania 34, I became privy to some of these moments experienced by those around me.

I attended the NXT show on my own since my WrestleMania companions were arriving late in that evening. On the way from the parking garage to the Smoothie King Center, my stride was overtaken by another man who appeared to also be on his own. He slowed down as he approached me and I was certain I was about to be asked if I wanted to buy an extra ticket or that he was going to try to engage me by telling me how nice my shoes were (this last part is a common line for grifters in New Orleans).

Instead, the man looked at me with a face full of amazement, arched his elbow and lifted his thumb in the direction he had just come from and told me “I just ran into the Miz back there!”

I, not being exactly the most socially skilled academic or wrestling fan on the planet, could only think to say, “Oh, yeah? That’s cool.” This did not deter my new sidewalk companion’s excitement. “Yeah,” he continued, “just walking around. Freaking awesome. I love WrestleMania weekend!”

From there this very excited Miz-bump-into-er sped up is gait and became part of the maddening crowd shuffling into the arena.

NXT Seat

My seat at the Smoothie King Center for NXT Takeover: New Orleans.

I encountered a number of other varying types of fandom once inside the arena. The WWE’s most important annual event draws people from all around the world, and I was genuinely surprised at the many different types of people who had come out for the NXT show. Once in my seat I found I would be spending the following four hours next to what I can most kindly describe as someone representative of the wrestling fan stereotype: a rather large and odorous young man draped in a Matt Hardy “Mower of Lawn” shirt, who insisted to his companions that he had the inside scoop on all things wrestling. He did not, by the way, have any scoop that could not be found on the average wrestling website.

On my other side was a family of four who had made the trip from eastern Europe to attend the weekend’s festivities. When not fully engaged in the show myself, I took note of the son, the youngest member of his family, and his wide-eyed excitement at the action – it was all fresh for him and he wanted to be a part of the crowd in spite of his father’s insistence on keeping a cool demeanor.

It was an interesting placement, being wedged between these two perspectives. On my right was an example of what is commonly conceived, derivatively, as a wrestling fan – loud, obsessed, judgmental, and borderline obnoxious. On my left was a child whose every impulse was to be pulled into the carnivalesque theater of professional wrestling and to engage with it innocently, as if the whole thing were a real competition that held immeasurable stakes. When it comes to professional wrestling, these personalities are equal parts contrastive and complimentary. They are both fully engaged with the products they consume, they are both lost in the moment of the thing, and they are both, willingly or subconsciously, suspending their sense of reality and biting on the narrative being presented to them.

Viewing these two differing ends of pro-wrestling fandom was one of my personal surreal moments from that weekend. Seated uncomfortably in the 300 level of the Smoothie King Center (perhaps the most uncomfortable seat I have ever been in, and I only fly coach), I was taken aback by two personalities I have been. Looking at the young boy, I remembered when I was about ten years old and my parents took me to a tiny armory in northern Maryland to watch a WWF house show, and I saw my favorite wrestlers at the time fight right in front of me, including a match between Bret and Owen Hart, an occurrence that now I wish like hell I could have appreciated more at the time. Looking at the young man on my right I thought about how I had attended yet another house show as a teenager and saw Brock Lesnar in the opening match, before he had debuted on television, and how, being a fledgling internet smart mark, I leaned over to my friends and said smugly, “I read about this guy.”

By contrast, I spent WrestleMania 34 wedged between some old friends whom I made during the ten years I spent as professional wrestler myself. I spent most of the event exchanging thoughts with my friend Greg, an accomplished and still very active performer in the northeast who works under the ring name Greg Excellent. Greg and the promotion he founded, Ground Breaking Wrestling, were the main reasons I was able to live out my own boyhood dream of being a wrestler, and I felt it particularly poignant that I was able to attend the biggest event in the industry with him. It is a rare moment for me to see Greg or any of my close friends from the business, having stepped away from wrestling to pursue my graduate degrees in Milwaukee and now Baton Rouge, and it was another surreal moment to walk into a sea of more than 70,000 people alongside a good friend with whom I share an extreme passion for the business.

Mania seat

My view for WrestleMania.

Greg and I talked about everything wrestling and WrestleMania related. We discussed the sheer size and design of the event (the beautifully designed Carnivale-inspired stage was even more impressive and massive in person). We talked about the booking of the event and effective booking in general, something we have always clashed over.

We argued over the finish to Asuka versus Charlotte straight into the next morning – Greg is and will always be wrong in supporting the end of Asuka’s streak here, just to be clear. We shared our excitement for the mixed tag match with Ronda Rousey and the entirety of the John Cena/Elias/Undertaker segment, both segments which we agreed personified professional wrestling at its best with emotional storytelling and in-ring action that was exciting and intelligent. We each struggled to take in the main event of the show amongst a crowd in revolt. We even kept our conversation and debates going after the event, over burgers at an extremely busy Fuddruckers inside of a New Orleans casino (a surreal event in itself).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MjWgOx1vuU&w=560&h=315]

Some shameless self-promotion: A match between myself and Greg Excellent.

Through all of this conversation, Greg and I were actively exemplifying the spectrum of wrestling fandom. In the middle of moments like the aforementioned mixed tag match and Undertaker segments, we were on our feet and giddy alongside the other 70,000 plus people around us, stepping back into the enthralled bodies of our younger selves, oblivious and ignorant of the unreal nature of wrestling (“It’s still real to me, damnit!”).

In other moments, such as our disagreement about the Smackdown Women’s title match (in which, let us not forget, Greg is wrong), we were alternating between being internet smarks, assuming we knew what was best, and being experienced professionals within the pro-wrestling world, albeit at a much smaller scale.

We oscillated between the perspectives of the wide-eyed European boy and the smarky twenty-something that I was crammed between the night before while wrestling with our own personas as performers and students of wrestling and storytelling, and all the while we were likely an irritant to the poor folks in front of us who just wanted to watch a wrestling show.

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Seriously the wrong moment here, no matter what Greg says. [Photo courtesy of WWE.com]

I suppose my point in sharing all of this is simply to express my own amazement in the ways that the most surreal of all entertainments attracts and literally brings together myriad perspectives. Often times, like with the young boy and the smart mark at NXT, these perspectives can seem contradictory – one innocent and the other cynical – but the fact is that they all come from an identical love for the spectacle of sports entertainment.

Walking out of the NXT show, I overheard a group of young men talking excitedly about their weekend. They had been shouting so much during the show that they had all strained their voices. The spoke in gasps about how incredible the show was, they wondered how they would be able to handle WrestleMania if NXT had taken their voices, and, most endearingly, one of the young men talked about how he had already been made speechless that weekend when he met Asuka at WrestleMania Axxess.

I had enjoyed the show myself, but my excitement was nothing compared to that of these young men, and in those moments where I eavesdropped on their conversation and heard their enthusiasm for professional wrestling, I could not have been prouder to be a part, as both fan and participant, of this strange and surreal thing we call professional wrestling.

Review – NXT TakeOver: New Orleans

Fan Reviews

This past weekend, New Orleans, Louisiana played host to several different professional wrestling promotions, all of which offered an abundance of pro graps to wrestling fans of all persuasions. For instance, AAW, Fight Club: Pro, and The Wrestling Revolver co-sponsored the Pancakes and Piledrivers show, which took place at WrestleCon and caused some controversy when AAW tag team champions The Besties in the World (Davey Vega and Mat Fitchett) hit tandem piledrivers on their opponents The Rascalz (Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz) in violation of the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission’s rules. WrestleCon also played host to the Impact vs. Lucha Underground crossover event, featuring a high-profile rematch between Eddie Edwards and the controversial Jeremiah Crane (aka Sami Callihan). Meanwhile, Ring of Honor unleashed their 12th annual Supercard of Honor, this time featuring a hotly-anticipated contest between current Bullet Club leader (and former WWE Superstar) Cody Rhodes and previous leader Kenny Omega, now one half of the Golden Lovers tag team with Kota Ibushi. And, of course, WWE dominated the weekend with another installment of the granddaddy of all wrestling shows, WrestleMania, which this year boasted the in-ring debut of former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Ronda Rousey, along with several other marquee matches.

Yet, for many fans (myself included), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans represented the pinnacle of a week filled with all manner of pro wrestling. Since 2014, NXT’s periodic TakeOver shows have become the gold standard of big-time wrestling events (which is appropriate, given the brand’s predominantly yellow color scheme), often overshadowing the shows produced by WWE’s main roster. Starting with the original NXT TakeOver, which aired exclusively on the WWE Network on May 29, 2014, and continuing through the most recent show broadcast live from NOLA on April 7, 2018, each TakeOver event has offered discerning wrestling fans a fresh alternative to the often stale and sanitized programs featured on shows like Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live!. NXT’s live events routinely feature exciting, hard-hitting action, memorable entrances, hip guests, and emotionally-gripping storytelling. These things and more have helped transform NXT from a mere developmental program to a widely-beloved brand and one of the most popular sports entertainment promotions around.

NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is no exception, largely because it features the final chapter (at least for now) to one of the most riveting pro wrestling story lines currently going. The show starts with a wild six-man ladder match that saw Lars Sullivan, Killian Dain, Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole (BAY BAY!), and the debuting Ricochet and ECIII all vying for the new NXT North American Championship. The match was chaotic and fun, and it allowed every single competitor a chance to shine. Ricochet — a staple of the indie wrestling circuit for years as well as the man behind the Prince Puma mask on El Rey Network’s cult phenomenon Lucha Underground — immediately emerged as the star of the match, taking every opportunity to show off his high-flying offense and impressive strength. Meanwhile, Sullivan and Dain looked appropriately monstrous (the spot in which they tossed Ricochet back and forth was quite fun), and their interactions served as a nice preview for their eventual one-on-one confrontation (HOSS FIGHT). ECIII was instantly over with the crowd and seems primed to fill the entitled heel/tweener spot recently vacated by Bobby Roode (who now wrestles as part of the Smackdown Live! roster). Velveteen Dream proved once again why he deserves to be considered one of the biggest stars in the world; his charisma and athleticism were on full display throughout, and his elbow drop off the top of the ladder was a thing of beauty. The match ended with Cole winning the title, which is the right decision and hopefully gives his character some much-needed direction (he has felt somewhat aimless since debuting at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III on August 19, 2017).

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Image credit: http://insidepulse.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/NXT-Takeover-New-Orleans-NXT-North-American-Championship-Ladder-match-1.jpg

The second match featured NXT Women’s Champion Ember Moon defending her title for the second time against former mixed martial arts sensation (and inaugural Mae Young Classic finalist) Shayna Baszler. At NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia on January 27, 2018, Moon defeated Baszler but suffered an injured shoulder in the process (the same shoulder that Asuka injured on the May 3, 2017 installment of NXT’s weekly show). A few weeks later, on February 14, 2017, Baszler and Moon faced off in a rematch that ended in a disqualification when Kairi Sane attacked Baszler. This led to yet another intense match between the Moon and Baszler at TakeOver: New Orleans, which built expertly on their previous matches. The two women had clearly learned from their prior encounters, as they managed to counter one another’s moves and tell a powerful story in the process. At one point, Moon stomped on Baszler’s left arm (as retribution for what Baszler did to Dakota Kai a few weeks earlier), separating Baszler’s shoulder and leaving her vulnerable. Nonetheless, Baszler managed to pop her shoulder back into place (a la Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon) by slamming it repeatedly against the steel ring post, which provided for a great visual and an excellent demonstration of her toughness. Soon after, Moon hit Baszler with an Eclipse (her finishing maneuver, a diving corkscrew stunner) off the top rope to the arena floor, showing off her own resiliency and reckless abandon. The match ended with Moon going for another Eclipse inside the ring, only to get caught in the Kirifuda Clutch and choked out by Baszler, who left the arena as the new NXT Women’s Champion. Meanwhile, Moon showed up on Raw the following night to tag with new Raw Women’s Champion Nia Jax against Mickie James and former champ Alexa Bliss.

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Image credit: https://411mania.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Shayna-1.png

Next up was a triple threat match for the NXT Tag Team Championships that featured the Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar), The Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly and Adam Cole, subbing in for the injured Bobby Fish), and the hastily-assembled team of Roderick Strong and NXT UK Champion Pete Dunne. The match was originally meant as a reward for the winner of the 2018 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, with the winners of the tournament receiving both the Dusty Cup and a title shot against The Undisputed Era (TUE). However, Fish’s knee injury necessitated a last-minute booking change. Thus, on the April 4, 2018 episode of NXT, TUE interfered in the finals, prompting the referee to throw out the match. As a result, the two teams that made it to the finals, Authors of Pain (AoP) and Strong/Dunne, both got an opportunity to face O’Reilly/Cole for the belts. The match itself was sloppy but fun, culminating with Strong’s heel turn, which allowed TUE to win both the belts and the Dusty Cup. This outcome gives the faction some much-needed credibility and (as mentioned above) direction, because they can now brag about being the most successful stable in NXT history while running roughshod over the entire promotion (much like the nWo in WCW or D-Generation X in the WWE). Furthermore, adding Strong to the group sets up some compelling storytelling possibilities down the road, most notably Cole and Strong potentially feuding over leadership of TUE. It could also lead to a faction-versus-faction feud between TUE and cult heroes Sanity (Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe, Killian Dane, and Nikki Cross). In any event, the match outcome should give Cole and his running buddies something to do going forward.

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In the penultimate match, Aleister Black challenged Andrade “Cien” Almas for the NXT Championship. While the match itself was good, it failed to generate the same level of drama or excitement as Almas’ incredible match against Johnny Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. The Almas/Black match felt somewhat thrown together, and therefore lacked the sense of urgency and excitement that marked Almas/Gargano. During the buildup, Black and Dain challenged Almas for the title, leading to a number one contender’s match between the two. Black came out on top and spent the next few weeks verbally sparring with Almas’ valet/manager, Zelina Vega. The promos were good, but never felt personal in any way. In that regard they were the exact opposite of the promos leading up to the Gargano/Almas match, as Vega made that match incredibly personal by constantly reminding Gargano of the betrayal of his former best friend, Tommaso Ciampa (more on that below). Furthermore, while Almas nailed the role of entitled heel champ during his run, his mic skills proved less than stellar and hurt his credibility somewhat. Crowds never quite connected to him as a face, and failed to respond strongly to him as a heel. Meanwhile, much like Cole, Black’s character often felt directionless, and that aimlessness remained in his feud with Almas. Therefore, the title match lacked an emotional core, though both performers delivered an entertaining contest. Black and Almas are undoubtedly two of the best wrestlers in the world, and they showed off their skills in the match, which was unfortunately hurt by the lack of a compelling story. Still, Black emerging as the winner is a good thing; he’s got the look and the talent to carry the company, especially if the NXT creative team gives him some solid storylines. Almas, meanwhile, is likely headed up to the main roster, and if WWE keeps Vega as his mouthpiece, he should prove an extremely valuable addition to either Raw or Smackdown.

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Finally, in the main event, Gargano battled Ciampa in one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching matches in the history of NXT. The two spent years as singles wrestlers on the indie circuit before getting called up to NXT as a tag team on September 9, 2015. They competed in the first Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, making it to the second round, only to lose to the team of Baron Corbin and Rhyno. Ciampa and Gargano then competed in the first-ever WWE Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), with Gargano eliminating Ciampa in the first round. Afterward, they reunited as a tag team under the name DIY (Do It Yourself) and had a series of classic matches with then-NXT Tag Team Champions, The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder). On November 19, 2016, DIY defeated The Revival to win the NXT Tag Team Titles, but lost them to AoP two months later at NXT TakeOver: San Antonio. DIY faced AoP once more in a brutal ladder match for the Tag Team Titles at NXT TakeOver: Chicago on May 20, 2017, but came up short in the end. After the match, an injured Ciampa turned on Gargano, setting up a bitter rivalry between the two. Over the next few months, Gargano emerged as one of the top babyfaces in NXT, while Ciampa disappeared from the weekly show during his long recovery from knee surgery. He eventually returned to become one of the most hated heels in NXT, interfering in a match that not only cost Gargano the NXT Championship, but drove him out of NXT. This then set up a much-anticipated unsanctioned match between the two former best friends at TakeOver: New Orleans.

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The match delivered on every level, cementing both performers as two of the best wrestlers in the entire world. Ciampa and Gargano held nothing back, taking sick bumps throughout and nailing one another with stiff strikes that no doubt left more than a few battle scars. More importantly, they told an incredibly emotional story in the ring, with Ciampa unleashing his anger at being abandoned by the NXT Universe, and Gagano fighting for his career. At one point, following nearly 30 minutes of grueling competition, Gargano was set to bash a battered and bruised Ciampa with a crutch (retribution for Ciampa doing the same to Gargano several times throughout the feud), but stopped when he realized his former-friend-turned-enemy was defenseless. In that one moment, Gargano solidified his place as the purest white-meat babyface in all of WWE (while simultaneously revealing the inconsistent characters of most of the main roster faces). The match featured several other shocking and heartrending moments, including Gargano powerbombing Ciampa onto exposed concrete, an exhausted Gargano crawling over to a disgusted Ciampa (who, by that point, sported a nasty-looking swollen black eye), and Gargano using Ciampa’s own knee brace to lock Ciampa into a submission and forcing him to submit (pictured above). Gargano eventually picked up the win, thus reclaiming his spot on the NXT roster and hopefully starting down the path toward a run with the NXT Championship. Ciampa, meanwhile, remains one of NXT’s most loathed characters, and his activity on social media gives fans the sense that this feud is far from over.

Overall, while it never quite reaches the heights of NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn (in which Bayley fought Sasha Banks in one of the greatest title matches ever televised) or NXT TakeOver: Chicago (which featured an all-time classic between Dunne and Tyler Bate for the UK Championship), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans continues NXT’s impressive streak of excellent live events. The show offered a variety of matches and spotlighted some of the best wrestlers around, culminating in an exciting and emotional match that served as a capper to one of the best feuds of the last few decades. Fans of NXT should come away happy, and those who have never watched the product may not get the same sort of impact from the main event as those who have followed along week after week, but the in-ring action should nonetheless satisfy even the most jaded smark. NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is a triumph, and promises a bright future for WWE’s most over brand.

 

 

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.

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War Games Revisited

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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My first encounter with a War Games match came back in the early nineties.  I can remember it well, even after all these years. I’d ensconced myself in the little attic bedroom at the top of the house, gathered around me a generous supply of feasting materials, and settled down to watch something new and exotic – The 1989 Great American Bash.

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was. This wasn’t WWF; it was WCW[1], and all I knew about WCW was that it wasn’t WWF. Tearing open my first bag of Space Raiders, I crammed the borrowed videotape in to the VCR player I had surreptitiously liberated from the downstairs living room, pressed play, and hunkered down for a three-hour escape into the world of professional wrestling.

At first, though, I was confused. Was the friend who’d lent me the tape having a laugh? Was this a documentary? Why was I looking at a field – with horses – and why did the outside of the arena bear more than a passing resemblance to a factory? Suddenly, I was worried. Was this all going to end in disappointment? Had I got my hopes up for nothing? I thought I might have, until the opening video package kicked in to reveal some well-trodden territory, and just like that, I was back on track.

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Pulling the ring on can of Diet Coke, I revelled in the graphically rendered stars and stripes that crisscrossed the screen and peered hard at the little floating parallelograms of wrestling action that whizzed on by to the rousing wail of guitar based rock. This was what I’d expected. A world of professional wrestling, with it’s larger than life denizens, who inhabited such distant lands as Baltimore, Maryland[2].

Yet, for all that was familiar to me from my regular WWF viewing, already so much seemed so different. Everything was less colorful somehow – muted almost – although, to be fair, I was watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that from the get go, things appeared less vibrant, more, dare I say it, raw. Then it was into the arena and down to the rings.

Wait, rings?

While the two rings were certainly surprising, surprisingly, this wasn’t what surprised me most. What surprised me most was the gloom. It seemed to wrap everything up in a shroud of mystery. All that I could see clearly were the rings, and maybe the first few rows of fans opposite the hard-cam. Everything else was composed of, at best, shadowy outlines, and at worst, impenetrable darkness.

This contrast didn’t change as the camera switched to a fan point-of-view and then out to a slow pan of the entrance area. Everything, apart from the ring, was still an enigma. Even the entryway seemed dark and foreboding. Flooded with blue and purple light, the wrestlers emerged for the first bout as if from nowhere. Where once there had been darkness, figures began to materialize, first as distant shadows, before slowly resolving to full illumination. It was as if these men had emerged from the dark hinterland that surrounded rings. It was as if they had crossed over from that unformed space beyond the light, as if they had emerged from the very shadows and stepped in to the world of wrestling.

Even when the house lights came up, the contrast remained pronounced. A few more rows of fans became visible, but for the most part, there was the ringside area and the darkness beyond. As a young viewer, this dynamic drew me in toward the action in the rings. I was a part of the audience, invited in to view the world of wrestling but forever confined to the shadowy and somehow distant space beyond. Or so I thought.

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Returning now, in 2017, to the 1989 Great American Bash, I’m drawn to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of binary opposition to explain my experience of that aesthetic (Dundes, 1997). For me, the narrative of the event, and my entrance into that event, was driven by the juxtaposition of the binary opposites of, as Roland Barthes (1972) would suggest, the great solar spectacle of the wrestling ring and the surrounding gloom.

It was this oppositional reading of the space in which the fans existed against the space in which the wrestlers existed that allowed me to construct meaning. The wrestlers were elevated to a special world, the world of wrestling, while the rest of us (including me in my little attic room) were kept from this space. Here, the wrestlers were amplified, luminous and dynamic[3]. The spectators, by contrast, were mostly static, sitting in rows behind a barrier and often in shadow.

The gaze of the wrestlers and the spectators worked in binary opposition too. As a young boy watching the TV, my gaze was primarily focused on the wrestlers. So too were the spectators in the arena. The gaze of the wrestlers, by comparison, was primarily focused on their opponent. Again, this distanced me from the special world of wrestling. I was there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily on the outside looking in. The construction of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them.

Then came the War Games match, and suddenly this opposition shifted.

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By the virtue of a camera operator being stationed inside the double cage and between the two rings, no longer was I excluded from the space of the world of wrestling, but rather I was immersed amidst it. The oppositions were shifting, but only for me. The live audience was still bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling, but, from my little attic room at the top of the house, I had now entered that cage with the wrestlers. I was in the world of wrestling. Just like the wrestlers who had emerged from the gloomy hinterland, I too had now transcended to the light to become bodily co-present with the very world I’d been excluded from only moments ago.

It wasn’t a permanent transcendence, however. It was only fleeting and transitory. One moment I was in the ring, as Jimmy Garvin raked Bobby Eaton’s face across the mesh of the cage, the next, I was cast out. Sent back to the audience and set apart from that special world. That was okay with me though. Those little moments were enough. Those brief instances of privilege, where it was just me and wrestlers in the ring had transformed an event that had at first accentuated my distance from the wrestling world to one that had immersed me in that hallowed space more than anything I’d experienced before.

I remember feeling a sense of sorrow when the War Games match came to an end and the cage was removed with the main event still to come. When Ric Flair faced Terry Funk for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, I’d expected to be back on the outside looking in, and for the most part I was, until the binary oppositions shifted once more.

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After Flair had won the match, the fight continued, spilling into the crowd, with the brawl expanding to include the Great Muta, Sting, and Gary Hart. Soon, all five men crossed over into the space of the of the audience. No longer were the wrestlers set in opposition to the spectators; now they inhabited the same space. No longer were the wrestlers amplified, and luminous in contrast to the audience; now they were often in shadow. No longer were the wrestlers solely those who were dynamic; now the space of the wrestling world had converged with the space of the audience and I too had been invited back in via the roving camera operator, and the experience had been exhilarating.

It was with memories of this level of immersion in the text that I approached the 2017 NXT TakeOver: WarGames, some twenty-eight or so years later. Initially, I had planned to discuss in this posting how and why the aesthetic changes that have occurred on the surface of professional wrestling pay-per-view events have impacted on storytelling; however, within moments of streaming the NXT TakeOver: WarGames event, I was struck by how much hadn’t changed at all. Okay, so maybe the floating parallelograms were gone, but there were still two rings. There was still the opening video package, with clips of wrestling action and shots of downtown. There was still the generic guitar-based rock theme, and there was still, for me at least, the sense of something a bit different.

So, what do I mean by that? Well, while NXT is a part of WWE, it is also an entity in its own right. It’s distinct. There is a purposeful separation between NXT and the other brands of WWE, and this separation strikes me as more pronounced than the separation between Raw and Smackdown Live. This differentiation is especially evident in the visual aesthetic of the brand. Like the WCW of all those years ago, NXT seems to be less vibrant in color palette than the other brands of WWE. The dark grey, if not charcoal, canvas is a marked signifier of this tonal shift, much like the dark canvas utilized in the 1989 Great American Bash. It stands out. It makes thing different, more gritty somehow.

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The aesthetic binary oppositions of the world of wrestling are, I would also argue, more pronounced in NXT too. While the wrestlers – or should I now say sports entertainers – no longer emerge from the gloom of a dark and foreboding entrance way (except for maybe Lars Sullivan), the dark once more enshrouds the NXT audience, clearly delineating the brightly lit world of wrestling from the dark space around it. This, of course, can be read in opposition to other WWE pay-per-view events, or indeed, Raw or Smackdown Live, where the WWE Universe is often celebrated in full light, showcasing the full or near full arenas as a testament to the popularity of the WWE product. It’s another level of differentiation. In NXT the audience, for the most part is hidden, and for me, this begs the question –  just who exactly is sitting out there?

In this way, I found that the dark visual aesthetics of NXT TakeOver: WarGames again distanced me from the special world of wrestling, and maybe even the audience. I was once more there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily back on the outside looking in. Again, the construction and aesthetic of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them. Even with the on screen paratextual prompts to engage with discussion about my consumption with other members of the WWE Universe (obviously unavailable to WCW in the late eighties), I was encouraged to discuss and share my experience, not participate.

Much like the 1989 Great American Bash, only in the WarGames match itself did this aesthetic of exclusion give way and allow the viewer to transcend the binary limitations of the audience to become bodily co-present in the wrestling world. Once more, I was invited in to the wrestling world to stand shoulder to shoulder with the denizens of NXT. Once more, the live audience remained bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling; but for me, as a viewer, I was back in that cage with the wrestlers. I was bodily co-present again. I was right there in the ring when Roderick Strong superplexed Adam Cole into the assembled masses of humanity, and dare I say it again, it all just felt a little more raw than Raw.

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185657

So, as I sat there, no longer in the attic room at the top of my parents’ house but in the living room of my own house, no longer watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but watching on a fifty-inch LED smart TV, I had expected much to have changed. Yet on the surface of the text, and most notably in the visual aesthetics, I found that, at least with NXT TakeOver: WarGames, not much had, and truth be told, that made me happy. It was just a shame there wasn’t a big in-crowd ‘schmoz’ ending.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.) New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Dundes, A. (1997). Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect. Western Folklore, 56(1), 39-50.

Notes

[1] This was in fact Jim Crocket Promotions and the National Wrestling Alliance, but I didn’t know that till much later.

[2] I’m from Scotland, and at that point in my life I’d never even ventured so far as to cross the border into England, let alone Maryland.

[3] Although, for me, much less so than in the WWE.

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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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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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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