Once again, an NXT TakeOver event delivered the goods.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
It’s become so common an occurrence that a sentence that features both “NXT TakeOver” and “a positive statement as to its quality” can be accused of artificially inflating a word count since TakeOver is synonymous with exceptional wrestling, especially in 2018 which has arguably been the brand’s best year top-to-bottom. NXT the brand has been on a roll even outside of these utterly sensational quarterly PPVs, but their TakeOvers this year are separated on quality graphs by a mere matter of inches, and I mean that in a good way (unlike with how this same observation could also be applied to WWE’s 2018 main roster PPVs). WarGames II functioned rather like a season finale for NXT as a whole, which makes sense since the brand effectively enters hibernation for the seasonal/holiday period until the new year rolls around, and like the best season finales it conclusively paid off certain big long-term stories in satisfying manners whilst leaving others in intriguing places for when we pick them up again next year. If it’s arguably the weakest TakeOver of the year, that’s only because the bar had otherwise been set astronomically high rather than a sign of subpar quality.
Heading into the event, there were only four matches officially scheduled on the card, but the question of which would kick off the show – one that appeared to be unanswerable, given how none of them on-paper, thanks to the intensity of their respective narratives, felt quite right as an opener – ended up a moot one when Matt Riddle had an impromptu match against Kassius Ohno. The pair weren’t scheduled to face off until the televised episode of NXT following the TakeOver, but Riddle, a former MMA star, has clearly been clueing up on his wrestling and knows the quickest and easiest way to get himself onto a PPV card he’s otherwise not booked for is to gate-crash it and demand a match anyway. Honestly, I wouldn’t even call this a match since it lasted precisely seven seconds, with Riddle blasting Ohno in the face with a knee strike as soon as the bell rang and getting the pinfall, but I laughed like a maniac and loved it all the same. Ohno’s second run with the company has seen him turn into a doormat goober anyway, the former Chris Hero just never finding his footing in WWE, so getting this feud out of the way in a decisive fashion that allows the King of Bros to move on to brighter things was smart booking and primed the audience for the rest of the evening.
I have penned very lengthy and unapologetically effusive words about the rivalry between pirate-princess Kairi Sane and newly-minted two-time NXT Women’s Champion Shayna Baszler in the past that, when distilled down to their core essence, effectively mean “I could watch them fight forever.” Their match here, Baszler vs. Sane for the NXT Women’s Championship in a Two out of Three Falls Match, promised me almost everything I ever wanted being paid off for good in the definitive feud-ending stipulation for the NXT brand. In practice, though, it was somewhat disappointing albeit only because of how excellent their prior encounters this year had been and a general sense of the match being rushed (this barely went over 10 minutes). That said, the rushed pace was definitely a positive in the early going, providing a needed intensity with Sane going gun-ho against Baszler the second the bell rang and getting the expected interference from Baszler’s fellow MMA Horsewomen cronies, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir, out of the way at the first fall rather than the third.
Because, outside of my selfish desire to see everyone fight each other forever, this was a smartly booked match that put a neat bow on this version of the feud for the time being without compromising anybody’s characters. Sane is now established to be above Baszler’s level in terms of pure skill, so Baszler’s dickbag bully of a character, whilst still being sadistic and dangerous, is having to resort to the kinds of corner-cutting and lucky tactics she otherwise wouldn’t take, like a shitty hypocrite. Sane taps to the Kirifuda Clutch after that initial interference for Fall 1, fights out from under the odds stacked against her to beat the once-more cocky Baszler clean in Fall 2, and then is victim to a dissatisfying roll-up in Fall 3 that allows Baszler to escape with the title. The interference pile-up that closes out that last fall even works spectacularly, paying off Dakota Kai’s year-long arc with Baszler – Kai was broken by her both mentally and physically at the year’s start, a victim of Baszler’s merciless bullying – bringing Io Shirai and her gorgeous-ass moonsault into the NXT fold, and reconfiguring this feud for the future by giving Sane back-up to bring against the Horsewomen. Unlike when main roster matches end in such a fashion, everybody really did come out of this looking strong.
Similarly acting as both a perfect feud-ender for one competitor and a vital chapter-closer for the other was Aleister Black vs. Johnny Gargano as Black sought revenge for Johnny’s parking-lot beatdown of him prior to TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 whilst Johnny sought to complete his perfect record of five-star matches at 2018 TakeOver events. If you need an indicator of just how talented the bookers in NXT are compared to the main roster, look how they handled the sudden injuries of top stars in the middle of high-profile feuds. NXT turned Black’s injury into a Summer-long “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” mystery that incorporated almost the entire roster, minted one of its women (Nikki Cross) into a white-hot star, and smoothly added new wrinkles and dimensions to one of its biggest stars in a way that didn’t negate his prior characterisation or feel drawn-out/rushed. RAW, meanwhile, has handled Roman Reigns going down with leukaemia – get well soon, Big Dog, genuinely – by panicking like mad and throwing random shit at the wall hoping something, anything, will stick whilst the one feud born from this that otherwise makes sense, Dean Ambrose turning on Seth Rollins, has been left to simmer for too long with no forward momentum and no given reason for occurring despite it having been well over a month since the turn.
But getting back to Black/Gargano: this ruled. It’s objectively the best match of the night (although our next match was my favourite), stuffed to the gills with high-impact wrestling, stiff strikes that make one wonder how the receiver isn’t dead or at least concussed – if there was ever a time for a Corey Graves-style “well, he’s dead,” then Black’s knee to Gargano’s face as the latter attempted a middle-rope dive was it – a palpable intensity that made every strike, every counter, every hold matter, and the character work! Oh, the character work! The deluded heel who thinks he’s the hero of his own story is not a novel concept on its own in wrestling, hell it’s not even new in NXT since Tomasso Ciampa is still running about, but Gargano is SO GOOD AT IT here! Engaging with those split audience reactions by playing up the cheers and clearly being rattled by the boos, gaining some semblance of perverse thrill from tapping into his dark side, mimicking Ciampa more than he would like to admit, and growing ever more desperate as Black refuses to stay down or tap out, the fear in his eyes widening as he slowly realises that he can’t escape this reckoning. He’s also matched at every turn by Black, in fact this may be my favourite Black match yet, and the closing “I absolve you of your sins” prior to the second Black Mass (two Black Masses for the two Gargano sneak-attacks) is already a pantheon-worthy quote for NXT. Incredible stuff.
And then, somehow, it got topped! Well, in my opinion, anyway. There were at least five moments where I believed that Tomasso Ciampa vs. Velveteen Dream for the NXT Championship was going to end with Dream becoming the new NXT Champion, and one moment where I truly believed that it was going to happen! I’m talking actual nail-biting borderline-yelling “YES! GET HIM!” certainty after he Dream Valley Driver-d Ciampa onto the outside padding before sprinting over for that Purple Rainmaker elbow, with the kind of raw excitement and joy that great professional wrestling can provide. I got worked, brother, as Ciampa would end up retaining via a draping DDT onto the steel linking the two rings set up for WarGames, and I loved it. The match was just sensational, twisting the heel version of Dream’s character, the narcissistic preen who craves the spotlight and will perform to it at all times, effortlessly into a face simply by pitting it against The Worst Human Being Alive (that would be Ciampa) as brilliantly-handled mind games.
Seriously, Dream has been one of the best parts of NXT for a full year now and his bandwagon is running out of space for those who are only just now coming around to his genius. But if it took until now for you to fully fall for the experience of Velveteen, at least it came from the best match of his still-short career – HOW IS THIS MAN ONLY 23?! The way he assimilates the movesets and attire of classic wrestlers into his arsenal should be cheap and derivative, but his execution is always exemplary and finds new spins on each through posture and facial expressions, plus his willingness to throw himself into every action whether by or to him hence that sick, in both positive and negative ways, elbow bump at match’s end. Ciampa is in prime-dick mode, constantly surprising me with the new depths he is willing to sink – this time going so far as to attack Mauro Ranallo at ringside when the commentator was correctly labelling his behaviour “sick” and “vile” – in a way I wish more heels were allowed to. It’s just a stunner of a match, booked in a schmozzy borderline house show way that nonetheless works totally, aided by great character work, perfectly-pitched pacing, a molten crowd, and allowing a WWE referee to be smart and perceptive for once (or more accurately thrice)! Even if we didn’t coronate Dream as the new champion (there are still too many Ciampa stories to tell first), we at least coronated him as The Guy with this match because, seriously, how could you NOT?
Capping off the evening was the titular WarGames as Undisputed Era (Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish, and Roderick Strong) took on Ricochet, Pete Dunne, and War Raiders a full year after they began their display of dominance in that TakeOver’s WarGames match. Such a full circle nature made this satisfying on a storytelling level as the Era’s history of meddling, backstabbing, trash-talking, and dick-hole-ry with everyone on the opposite team finally caught up with them in a big way and their overconfidence backfired spectacularly. Whether it be Pete Dunne dishing out long-overdue payback to Roderick Strong for the latter’s betrayal back at TakeOver: New Orleans, Hanson of the War Raiders getting his hands on O’Reilly for trying to destroy his knee in the weeks leading up to WarGames, or Adam Cole getting a double-comeuppance from both Dunne and Ricochet after crashing their heated rivalry earlier in the autumn, there was a definite sense of an ending from this WarGames which certainly helped its 47 minute runtime (the longest match in NXT history) go down smoothly. But, really, as is the WarGames tradition, this was mainly a glorious car-crash of violence and big flashy spots. Tables destroyed, kendo sticks snapped, chairs battered, the works. Also, Ricochet did a double moonsault off the top of the cage and who cares that it barely hit anyone LOOK AT THIS NONSENSE THE MAN IS NOT HUMAN!
There’s not as much to say about the match, I personally feel, since much of the joy in this one especially is just watching the carnage unfold. But it was a lot of fun and a great note to end NXT’s year on. With how we’re mostly leaving things, not to mention the stories and feuds going on further down the roster that didn’t make it onto this TakeOver, I’d say the brand has never been on surer ground heading into the new year. Here’s to another 12 outstanding months of wrestling!
Callum Petch fought the war but the war won.