And just like that…War Games is back.
NXT hosted their 18th (including the debut Arrival show) TakeOver event from the not-quite sold out Toyota Center in Houston. It’s a shame that the yellow brand failed to pack the house because the show they put on was more than worthy of such a big venue.
Over the past couple of years the overall NXT audience has dwindled a tad. That’s to be expected; anytime you lose a roster featuring Neville, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Enzo and Cass, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura in steady succession it’s hard to keep rolling along as though everything is fine. The brand did its best to replace one outgoing superstar with another but that core group that was on the brand from 2014-2015 basically defined the show. It was the golden age of the product and as those guys were called up, a chunk of the fanbase lost interest.
To counter that, the Network has tied the brand to several gimmicks to try and jumpstart semi-hardcore fan enthusiasm. Tournaments featuring tag teams, women, UKers and cruiserweights have all been well-received, but it’s the latest offering that sparked the biggest reaction: War Games.
Bringing back the classic NWA/WCW match was a stroke of “what took you so long” genius and now that the show is behind us, what do we think? Let’s look at the pros and cons of this updated, 21st century version of The Match Beyond.
PRO: CAGES FOR NON-COMBATANTS
This was a great little idea that illustrates how much more thought Vince McMahon’s empire always put into visuals and production-design than the NWA/WCW. The old War Games would feature absolute anarchy happening in the cage, while on the outside Ric Flair and the rest of the Horsemen would be chilling in folding chairs on the sideline, like they were watching a matinee. Putting the non-combatants in cages creates this unspoken impression that, while there is mayhem happening in the match, there is more on the sideline just waiting to be unleashed. It creates an extra sense of anticipation that the old matches lacked.
The addition of the “shark tank” cages conjured—probably intentionally—thoughts of the Elimination Chamber match. That’s fitting, I suppose, since the Chamber match was basically pitched as “Survivor Series meets War Games.” The evolution of the concept informed and inspired many of the choices used in the revival of the original model.
CON: CAGES ON THE RAMP
Having said that, while the idea of the shark tanks was good, it was not the best-executed idea. Putting the cages on the ramp created this silly moment three times in the match: Whenever the alarm would sound and the spotlight would shine on the cage, there was a fumbling and bumbling ref trying to unlock the door followed by a sprint to the rings. It made the build up to the moment when the next team would enter anticlimactic.
Here’s what I would have done: I would have suspended the cages above the rings and when the buzzer sounded, dropped a trap door, releasing the next fighter into the match like a demented carnival bunking booth. That’s a silly idea I know, but it would have created a crazy visual of eager fighters literally dropping into the melee. It’s closer to how the elimination chamber handles it, albeit without the clunky phone booth doors to deal with.
PRO: NO ROOF
Yes I complained when it was announced. Yes I missed seeing the hilariously low roof. But it allowed for a much greater variety of high-flying action and some big spots. I’m averse to change by nature, but this was a big one that ended up being not as big as I thought it would be. By the end of the match I never even missed it.
CON: PINFALLS ALLOWED
On the other hand, War Games needs to revert to being “SUBMIT OR DIE!” Pinfalls in traditional cage-matches never made much sense because the big selling point of the concept is that it features two men locked in a blood-feuds where both guys want to maul each other (or one babyface wants to maul a squirmy heel). Pinfalls in that environment are too clean, too “by the books.”
War Games has the same idea in its history; it’s two teams that hate each other and who aren’t interested in scoring a pinfall victory and earning some kayfabe bonus check. It’s about proving that your team is better than their team by forcing them to submit in humbling fashion. Adding pinfalls really neuters that idea. Having said that, this match didn’t have the months-long blood feud building up to it that the old War Games matches had, so it didn’t feel like much of an omission this time, but it may in the future.
PRO: ESCAPE THE CAGE MEANS INSTANT LOSS
I’m assuming this decision came about because someone in NXT’s creative team actually thought about cause and effect (which the main-roster writers rarely do). Taking the roof off the cage means someone is going to climb the cage, which means someone in the audience is going to wonder “can he just leave the match and go back in?” Thus the rule was stated that if you leave the cage you automatically forfeit the match. It was a clever subversion to the traditional cage match rule, where escape meant victory. I wonder if future matches might expand on that idea, and feature a sequence where a heel team tries to force a babyface underdog out of the cage, flipping the script on a traditional cage match. That would be an interesting twist.
CON: TEAM ENTRANCES
This was an especially strange change from the old matches, in that there were only three teams of three, as opposed to two teams of five. The old matches had a great ebb and flow as it shifted from a singles match to a handicap to a tag to a handicap tag, and so on.
At TakeOver, it started as a triple threat that quickly became a three on one on one. It was awkwardly imbalanced from that point on until all three teams were in the match. At that point it was gangbusters but there was a stretch in the middle where the action got kind of clunky. Maybe next time go back to the old method of releasing one team member at a time. Along the same lines, while I enjoyed the variety of styles on display with the three teams, I still prefer two larger teams than I do three smaller ones, and I think having one pinfall to win it all was a mistake (I’d have gone with an team-elimination format).
The match wasn’t perfect in design or execution, but the thrills, the fun, the insanity and the mayhem of War Games was perfectly replicated, especially once everyone was in the match. The happiness that the pros gave me far outweigh the annoyances of the cons.
Deriving satisfaction from a Pro Wrestling match really is dependant on storytelling. That’s something non-fans don’t understand, which is why they scoff at watching a half-hour of half-naked people pretend fighting. It’s the storytelling that drives the product, however: It doesn’t matter what the story is (a single match, a tag match, a cage match, a street fight, etc), as long as it’s well told with good action and psychology, a hot crowd and enthused commentary, and of course a satisfying finish, it’s a win.
This was a win. You could just feel that the match was working. The crowd was into it, Mauro was at his best “Gus Johnson calls the Final Four” self. Every wrestler had a moment to shine* and the finish was pitch-perfect.
*Killian Dain eating the key that locked the cagedoor shut is a perfect example of why wrestling, when it works, works in spite of its own silliness. There was no reason to eat that key. Escaping the cage meant losing, so what does it matter? You’re not really locking anyone in since there’s no roof. But the moment worked because the crowd and commentary sold it so well it didn’t matter. It was cartoon insanity, in the middle of an all-out melee, spread across two rings, inside a steel cage. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t the way things used to be.
But it was War Games.