Previously on the Best and Worst of NXT War Games: The Undisputed Era won War Games, Velveteen Dream and Aleister Black stole the show, and Kassius Ohno got his ass kicked by a new wrestler. Crazy how much NXT has changed in the past year!
If you missed this show (you crazy person), you can watch it here. If you’d like to read previous installments of the Best and Worst of NXT, click right here. Follow With Spandex on Twitter and Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter, where everything and everyone is terrible.
And now, the Best and Worst of NXT TakeOver: War Games Dos, originally aired on November 17, 2018.
Best: Match Of The Year
LOL, nice going, Big Kass.
Bless NXT TakeOver, the best ongoing wrestling serial in existence, for opening with Kassius Ohno having his “when I get into the ring I’ll expose Matt Riddle in one second flat” words spoonfed back to him knee-first and losing to beautiful-ass Matt Riddle in record time. This is the best use of Ohno; as the bumbling dork in the child’s basketball onesie who thinks his shooting sleeve gives him magical elbow powers and gets knocked out by Surfer Von Erich in less time than it takes me to say, “Ohno looks like somebody put a wig on a California Raisin.”
In all seriousness, I love how this sets up Riddle’s character. He’s not stupid, necessarily, he’s just aloof, and not quite sure how all this pro wrestling stuff is supposed to work. He’s like R-Truth, but deadly. A deadly shoot-fighting R-Truth. Imagine how dangerous that guy would be, just wandering in and out of your life on a whim and able to snap you into unconsciousness before you realize he’s even lifting his leg. We’re blessed to have him. Bros by any other name would smell as sweet.
Before we get into what actually made the show so good, I want to show some love to the NXT TV debut of Lula Waltman, adorable angel dog and X-Pac’s best friend. If you follow me on social you know Lula and I are tight, and babysitting her at WrestleCon while Pac signed autographs is still my favorite memory of that weekend.
Love you, Lula. So much better of a crowd guest than like, Trevor Lee waving at us.
Best: Shayna Baszler, Hypocrite
Watching the show live, I initially felt a little underwhelmed by this match. I know full well in my heart and head that it’s because I’d hyped it up so much — it’s my favorite feud being blown off in the best and most important NXT stipulation — and they’d have to move mountains to live up to it. Crazy expectations I’d put on my own reaction to something I love. I think we all do that from time to time.
When I got back to the hotel, I watched it again on the Network, and I thought about it as I fell asleep, and again when I woke up. And while it’s probably the what, third best match on this show? I’ve come to understand it more, and now that I’ve lived with it for half a day or so, I’m kind of in love with it.
Why? Because it not only tells the story of Sane and Baszler’s rivalry, it brings it full circle and fully, clearly justifies the heel as a deluded hypocrite. The first time Sane and Baszler met in the ring, Baszler underestimated her. Sane’s this wacky little happy-go-lucky pirate princess with a wheel she carries to the ring, and Baszler’s a real fighter. Because of that underestimation, she lost. The next time they fought, Baszler brought the fight. At TakeOver Brooklyn this year, Baszler got too comfortable and underestimated Sane again. Sane countered the Kirifuda Clutch into a pin and won the NXT Women’s Championship. Instead of admitting defeat, Baszler declared to everyone she could (including us) that Sane didn’t beat her … Shayna beat herself. This becomes important later.
At Evolution, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir got involved. You can say that Sane caused it by dumping Baszler in their laps and pissing them off, and Baszler leaned into that. “They wouldn’t have done anything if YOU hadn’t caused it.” Even though she had to cheat to win, Shayna felt justified in her actions.
So that brings us to 2-out-of-3 falls at War Games. Kairi is your babyface, so when it’s her turn to pick up a fall, she does it fighting from underneath. She has to take out three of the Four Horsewomen with an In-sane Elbow to the outside, then has to roll Shayna back in and hit her with another. It’s a clean, clear, indisputable pinfall earned against incredible odds.
Compare that to Shayna’s two falls:
- in the first fall, she purposefully distracts the referee so Duke and Shafir can run out from the back and attack Sane. The justification that Sane “brought it on herself” at Evolution goes out the window, because she did NOTHING to provoke them here. It was a premeditated attack to gain a cheap fall, and there’s no way to justify it otherwise
- in the final fall, Shayna wins by playing possum, goading Sane into dropping an elbow on her, then adjusting slightly so she can get her arm under Kairi’s and roll her over into a pin. Why is this important? Because Shayna Baszler didn’t win; Kairi Sane beat herself
Shayna’s two talking points of “Sane caused the Horsewomen to attack” and “Kairi can’t beat me, only I can beat me” or disproved by the narrative of the match. The bully who believed she was completely justified in her actions (1) needed help, and knew she needed help so much she organized something before the match, and (2) could not beat Sane on her own merits even once. She needed to cheat for the first fall, and needed Sane to “beat herself” to pick up the second.
So yeah, totally in love with this now. What an amazing feud. Now we get to transition into the Horsewomen as a formal group, positioned against Sane, a Dakota Kai who showed up to help even the odds without being afraid of the consequences, and an Io Shirai who might as well have been wearing a shirt that said “fuck you, Charlotte Flair,” when she hit a moonsault to the floor so beautiful someone could’ve painted it. Yellow ropes forever.
Best: Johnny Catholic Meets His Maker
Johnny Gargano deserves some kind of pro wrestling equivalent of a Pulitzer for bringing years-long storytelling and months-long layers of emotional action and reaction back into North American, WWE-style professional wrestling. I know the guy’s hero is Shawn Michaels, but shit, he’s the only person in Shawn Michaels’ league when it comes to, for lack of a better phrase, performance acting to highlight special moments in high-stakes wrestling matches.
The matches he’s had with and against Tommaso Ciampa, more than anything else in WWE possibly ever, feel like chapters in an ongoing story. The Cruiserweight Classic and the Dusty Classic are A Game of Thrones, everything building up to TakeOver Toronto and the match with The Revival are A Clash of Kings, the AOP feud and ladder match are A Storm of Swords, Ciampa’s return from injury and everything through New Orleans was A Feast For Crows, and the summer mystery with Aleister Black and the payoff at War Games are A Dance With Dragons.
There’s so much to this Aleister Black match that it’s almost hard to summarize, from the Punisher-themed gear contrasting his current state of mind to his Captain America kit from earlier this year, to Black using the Velveteen Dream “counter the corner finisher with taunting” spot, to Gargano learning from his mistakes and countering the fumble twice. It’s really a storytelling masterpiece, and I can’t overstate how awesome as shit Black looked here. He was a kung fu action hero and The Undertaker delivering supreme pro wres justice to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 26 at the same time. He’s quicker, stronger, looks better, is more dynamic, and is instantly back in peak in-ring acting and performance shape. Like Ciampa, the injury seems to have emboldened him. It’s wonderful.
On top of all that, it’s just fucking brutal. There are so many moments where you cover your mouth and lean forward and murmur “oh my GOD” to yourself. The literally suicide dive Black countered with a knee to the face was a big one. I thought Gargano was DEAD. And anyone who had a problem with Black pulling his kick at the end of that Lars Sullivan match was rewarded tenfold with the Black Mass(es) that finished this one. I don’t know how Gargano still has a jaw.
One of the things I love so much about Black’s persona is that he can compete in these back-and-forth matches and make you believe he’s going to lose, but when it’s time for him to win, he is ALL BUSINESS. Like, I can’t name a wrestler who is better at physically and emotionally taking control of a match in its final moments than Aleister Black. Just look at him when he connects on that Black Mass, and keeps Gargano from hitting the mat. It’s natural. It’s organic. It’s a man who is so unbelievably ready to kick the sins out of his enemy’s heart that he’s calmed himself to prepare for the killing blow.
And of course, “I absolve you of all of your sins” followed by another, even more brutal (somehow) Black Mass is the “I’m sorry, I love you” of NXT.
This might be my actual match of the year right now, which is saying something, because I’m not even sure it was the best match on this show yet. I have no idea what The Winds of Winter and A Dream Of Spring are going to look like, but I’m first in line waiting to buy a copy.
Best: Lord, He’s A Voodoo Chile
While Baszler and Sane made me love it and Gargano and Black had the most artistic impact, they both might’ve been overshadowed by the simpler, yet possibly more engaging Tommaso Ciampa vs. Velveteen Dream. It’s the two most fully-formed and sure-of-themselves characters in the company. The belle of the ball against a guy so hated in a company where getting heel heat is nigh impossible that his entrance theme used to be silence and boos. It’s putting two people at the top of their game against one another for the first time in a high stakes situation and having it explode into beautiful fireworks.
First of all, Velveteen Dream continuing to take a shit on Hulk Hogan is my favorite. Mauro called it a “tribute,” but I think we know Dream better than that. Hollywood Hogan was always the best (worst) version of Hogan, and him updating his previous Hogan cosplay to the deeply more preferable WCW/nWo version was pitch-perfect. I loved the velveteen lightning bolts down the legs, and his desperate need to keep his headband on, as if he was protecting a bald spot.
I know I speak in hyperbole a lot for affect, and that I’ve probably watched more wrestling in my life than anyone should, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a live crowd and felt them react to a nearfall the way they did the big falsie in Dream vs. Ciampa. Ciampa wants to finish off Dream, so he does his “roll to the outside and pull up the mats” gimmick, trying to set up a hanging DDT on cement. Dream pushes him off and over the table to block. As they’re recovering Ciampa, who is hate incarnate, hears Mauro Ranallo scream-references in his ear and hilariously throws some garbage at him, which I consider an under-the-radar nWo reference. Ciampa’s distracted by his own uncontrollable animosity, so Dream scoops him up, Dream Valley Drives him (onto double padding, which explains Ciampa’s kickout, I think) and IMMEDIATELY heads up top to hit a huge, perfect Purple Rainmaker. Everyone in the building lost their mind. It was HIS MOMENT. He was GOING TO WIN, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US KNEW IT.
When Ciampa kicks out and flops over into the ropes, Dream doesn’t hesitate. He goes for the big elbow from the top to the apron that finished off EC3, but guess what? Ciampa’s an in-ring general and a wrestling genius and, as far as I could understand, was baiting him in. He moves, Dream crashes into the floor arm first, and it’s just a roll back into the ring and a hanging DDT onto the steel connecting the two War Games rings and it’s over. Dream, over. While the Dream’s over.
It’s so, so much fun, and while it’s not the laced-up-tight masterpiece that Gargano/Black seems to be, it was the perfect WWE dream in NXT form: a guy doing nothing but big punches, goofy leg drops, and a big elbow off the top as the most over person in the world based solely on his passion and character, taking on the next-level heel champion who even makes people who salivate over heels hate him.
It’s pro wrestling, full stop.
Best: War, What Is It Good For
Finally we have the War Games match. The story can be summed up easily: The Undisputed Era are the worst people in the world, think their camaraderie means they’ll be able to manipulate their way to another War Games victory, and have a battle plan that plays their opponents’ members’ natural animosities toward each other against them.
The match itself is a lot of fun, especially if you like WWE hardcore style where people get hit with weapons for 20 minutes but nobody bruises or bleeds. I was sort of raised on War Games matches being a butcher shop of crimson masks and, well, war, so the homogenized version that “works for now” instead of 1987 takes some getting use to. It’s a lot like watching modern Hell in a Cell matches where nobody bleeds, the weapons are the same weapons they’d use if no cage was there at all, and people fall off the side from pre-cut hand-holds onto big crash pads. It’s my own fault for growing up in the blood-soaked south in the 1980s. It’s better that these people get to grow old and not have quarter-deep forehead scars from blading eight times a week. I know.
There’s a lot here. The reason I think it falls a little shorter than the rest of the card is that it’s 47 minutes long. That’s a lot for a WWE cage match. It was sort of “epic by design” instead of organically epic, if that makes sense. That’s not really a criticism, I guess, because it’s SUPPOSED to be the big epic blowoff, but if you’d chopped about 15 minutes off The Match Beyond it might’ve had more of an impact. I don’t know a way to suggest improvement on eight of the top guys in the company going batshit with weapons for 50 minutes.
The double moonsault’s going to make it into every NXT highlight video from now until the end of time, so it’s got that going for it. The plan of Bobby Fish entering last, making a beeline to Dunne’s cage and beating him up and throwing away the key so he can’t escape was pretty great, even if the plan sorta shot itself in the foot. You can’t win unless everyone’s in the ring, but maybe they knew he’d get out eventually. I kept wanting someone to just throw their opponent over the cage to the floor to win the match on a technicality.
Long story short, it’s something different and broad and extreme (in a variety of definitions) at the end of a show built around character, competition, and pro wrestling excellence. It’s something for everybody, which is something the main roster forgets to do outside of WrestleManias and assorted SummerSlams. I’ll probably never get through all 47 minutes again, but the highlight videos rules, and Ricochet met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul for the ability to move around like a video game.
Best: Top 10 Comments Of The Night
LIKE A WITNESS WITHOUT A BIBLE, MAURO CANNOT SWEAR!
Jacob deGrom: What do you think should be the deciding factor for the Cy Young?
Adam Cole: Undisputed ERA
Watching a Ricochet match always makes me feel like Homer when the Yakuza is fighting the Mafia on the Simpsons front lawn. I don’t want to make a comment because you know Ricochet is gonna do something awesome.
That match reminded me of “Death Becomes Her”, two great performers weighed down by Goldie having too big of a role.
Did Aleister wear Drago to the ring?
HHH: But what about Hogan’s…you know…issues?
MCMAHON: Vince has no memory of that.
I want Dream to find a shirt and put it on, just so he can tear it off.
They called her Shayna Two-Times because she said everything two times, like “I’m gonna go retain my title, retain my title.”
Baron Von Raschke
Ciampa is going to spend the next month bullying Mauro and that leads into Nigel coming out of retirement to challenge Ciampa at the next TakeOver
Ciampa was waiting for the logo to show up in the corner so he could go after Dream again.
What a TakeOver, man. I don’t know if it passes New Orleans on my list of the best TakeOvers ever, but it’s in the conversation. As I said on Twitter, NXT is such a blessing. The top wrestling company in the world that has worked hard for decades to deemphasize pro wrestling has this little side project that preserves everything good about the sport in amber. So happy it exists. Dusty’s somewhere smiling his ass off.
Between now and January NXT enters a period of relative inactivity due to all the holidays, but NXT TakeOver: Phoenix happens on January 26, so it’ll be fun to see where everything goes. This show is so great, and they didn’t even have room for Keith Lee, Bianca Belair, EC3, Lars, the Street Profits, and a ton of people who could pop in and steal the show. I can’t wait, and I’m happy to know that every few months I get three hours to renew and replenish my love of this stupid, exceptional thing we’ve made our lives.
Drop down into the comments to let us know what you thought, share the column around to spread the good will, and be here Sunday night and Monday morning for the NXT TakeOver post-show, Survivor Series.