Heading into NXT TakeOver: WarGames 2 on Sat., Nov. 17, I was a little worried that a line-up consisting of only four matches would leave Triple H and his talented team of performers & creators with a little too much room to work. Maybe aspects of the presentation some of us find cloying or overdone would be too prevalent, or the good stuff would go on for so long it diluted its impact.
Not to worry!
Matt Riddle def. Kassius Ohno via pinfall following a jumping knee
Okay, this lightning fast knockout didn’t really take time away from any of the other matches and therefore alleviate my concerns. Nor did it really help me figure out why NXT was spending so much time building up Ohno if Riddle was just going to run through him.
He probably won’t, at least not this easily. Kassius will say he wasn’t ready, and we’ll get the longer television match we were all expecting. I’m not sure it will be possible to rebuild KO into a gatekeeper again after that loss, at least not immediately. But in L.A. last night, he made Riddle look like an absolute star. This was a smart, easy way to let audiences around the country & the world see SoCal pop for a PWG standout with a gimmick right up their collective alley.
Shayna Baszler def. Kairi Sane two falls to one, retaining the NXT Women’s Championship
Maybe I didn’t have another one of these in me just weeks after Evolution? Maybe the minutes given to establishing the BRO, or a chunk of time off the main event, could have been donated to a stipulation match which was supposed to be the payoff to a long, epic feud?
Whatever the reason (and it wasn’t the effort put in by all the women who took part in it), this felt like a match which would main event a Wednesday night episode of NXT as opposed to a TakeOver one. In a lot of ways, this played like the greatest hits from their previous four matches instead of a fantastic new thing in its own right. We got the aggressive version of Sane which she showed winning the belt in Brooklyn, and lots of the fighting spirit underdog we’ve gotten everywhere else. Baszler was sadistic when she wasn’t surprised by Kairi’s tenacity and ferocity. The interference from Jessamyn Duke & Marina Shafir made sense, and didn’t disrupt the flow of the match. Kairi fighting back against them further cemented her heroic credentials.
But as pretty as Io Shirai’s moonsault was, it was difficult to feel the impact of the babyface run-in. Dakota Kai’s story with Shayna was a while ago, and not everyone may know about Shirai and Sane’s history, so there wasn’t an evident emotional hook. Plus, the finish came quickly after they took out Duke & Shafir. The pin was a clever twist on the champ countering the InSane Elbow into a choke, but with the rapid pace of the whole match and how quickly it came after reinforcements arrived... I wasn’t as wow-ed as I might have been otherwise.
We’re probably headed toward some trios matches, as I think they’ve been running six-women tags with these line-ups on the Florida house shows. It should be great practice for the still-learning Horsewomen (who are very good at reacting as a way to sell the action they’re observing, which is a good start), and a fun program all around. This still felt like a bit of a letdown after a year-plus of Kairi vs. Shayna.
Aleister Black def. Johnny Gargano via pinfall following two Black Mass kicks
Whether or not this was your match of the night will likely depend almost entirely on your feelings toward melodrama. Shawn Michaels has said (on Edge & Christian’s podcast this past week, among other places) that he’s working with the wrestlers at the Performance Center on creating emotional moments within their matches. Things similar to his own “I love you, I’m sorry” Sweet Chin Music to Ric Flair at WrestleMania 24. Johnny Gargano seems to be one of HBK’s prize pupils.
Wrestling-wise, this match rocked. It was fast paced without sacrificing precision, hard hitting without seeming reckless. Both men are amazing talents, and as great as it is to see Black and his presence back on our screens after his injury absence, Gargano is a G-D prodigy. The way he tweaked his moveset and approach to reflect his bad-guy-who-still-thinks-he’s-a-hero character change is subtle, but savvy. And Johnny’s work in some of the countering and transitioning sequences he and Black showed off was spectacular. Things that could easily come off a contrived look natural when he’s in the ring.
Buuuut, I do wish they would show rather than tell on some of the “moments” they’re striving for. The match itself and Johnny’s body language provide us with all the information we needed on the Black Mass tease when he baited Black in for the roll-up and Garga-No Escape attempt. We didn’t need him emoting and asking for the end. Personally, I didn’t need him kissing Aleister’s boot and groveling to that extent. Some subset of those things works just fine without overdoing it. Throw it all in? It’s overdoing it.
If you need or like that kind of arch performance, you probably enjoyed this more than I did.
Something we can all agree on, though? “I absolve you of your sins,” before the second Black Mass at the end? That $#!+ was dope. Black is a character (that weird period where they had him making jokes while feuding with Andrade Almas aside) who doesn’t talk or even emote much. So when he does, like that? You know it means something.
Anyway, this was a match where I thought they could give the win to either guy. As it went, I’m guessing Black is in line for a shot at Tommy Sports Entertainment, while Johnny Failure spirals further downward. Can’t wait to see it. Less excited by how much they’ll probably tell me what I’m seeing.
Tommaso Ciampa def. Velveteen Dream via pinfall following a hanging DDT onto the steel partition to retain the NXT Championship
Here’s where I out myself as a bit of a hypocrite, or at least a walking contradiction. Because this bad boy was guilty as hell of indie finisher spamming and probably could have used some editing in that regard. But I loved it.
For one thing, the spamming served a purpose. Of all the matches on the card, this was the one with least suspense about the outcome. With NXT, there’s always a chance they’ll deliver a shocking result, but a Dream victory would have been a big old shock. So how do you get people to take a chance and buy in to the possibility of a surprise? Include a bunch of stuff they weren’t expecting. That’s what false finishes are for.
Another complaint I’ve seen/heard about this match is that Dream’s schtick - from the Hollywood Hogan entrance attire to the Figure 4s, leg drops & stun guns - is a little too house show-riffic and not befitting a TakeOver title match. To which I say... maybe, but I don’t think so.
Is it a little cheesey? Sure, but that’s the kid’s character. He’s giving us and himself the ultimate Experience, and for a wrestling fan, that includes playing like you’re Hogan, Flair, Savage and Austin when you get your first championship opportunity on PPV. I also trust Patrick Clark and the team at NXT to have this match be part of his overall journey. The next time he gets a title shot, and even as he works toward future chances, I expect his character will grow to realize he needs to deliver and live in his own experience, rather than just channeling others. Being more than a Hogan cosplayer will be the key to unlocking the next level of Velveteen Dream.
Or, I could just be a mark for both guys here, and that’s why I loved this match. Ciampa didn’t really bust out anything new (other than using Eddie Guerrero’s boot trick from WrestleMania XX, one of my all-time faves, so... yeah, I’m a mark), but he’s been operating at such a high level for a while now that just staying at that level is a feat unto itself.
Pete Dunne, Ricochet & War Raiders def. Undisputed ERA (Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, Roderick Strong & Kyle O’Reilly) in WarGames when Dunne & Ricochet pin Cole after hitting a Bitter End and a splash
Credit where credit is due. At least WWE figured out how to film and produce their version of WarGames without inducing nausea. I greatly preferred last year’s outing, but I can never rewatch that because of the shaky cam and zooms through the fence and (burp)... excuse me, gave myself a flashback.
There were some great moments (there I go being hypocritical again) in here. Roddy running wild when he came in - man, do I like watching that guy wrestle. Undisputed ERA having plunder with their logo on it stashed under the rings was the greatest dumb pro wrestling thing. The bit where UE had Dunne isolated in one ring with O’Reilly trying to get him to tap while the other three kept the faces at bay, until Ricochet leapt over them to break the hold was a great scene. And how can you not pop for the double moonsault?
But those moments didn’t coalesce into a good match, or an overall good story. And there was some not good along the way, too. The tension they teased among the good guys never manifested itself in any meaningful way. Fish’s trick of double locking the shark cage before the Bruiserweight was released made everyone involved look pretty dumb - you realize you can never win the match if he doesn’t get out, right Bob? And why didn’t General Manager William Regal’s team of dunderheads have multiple keys or bolt cutters handy?
Nit picks aside, this thing was just too dang long, and felt like other matches we’ve seen between the players, just in a new environment. Everyone busted their ass, and I like a lot of these fellas as much as I do Dream and Ciampa. But the expectation was set early on to watch for spots as opposed to an overall narrative. There were no stakes, and the guys wrestled that way at times.
NXT’s WarGames stip is a work in progress, and I am grateful for some of the strides WWE made in presenting their version of this concept this time around. But if they’re going to do it every year, they’ve got a ways to go. And maybe they should start by making sure they have a reason to put a bunch of guys in the match, and that those guys’ characters have a reason to fight once they’re in there.
Even as I was watching TakeOver: WarGames 2, I knew I was being harder on it than I probably should (or than how many others were reacting to it). And it was a few of the more enjoyable hours of pro wrestling that I’ve watched in a while. But it wasn’t two and a half hours of OMG like I’ve come to expect from NXT’s Saturday live specials.
WarGames 2 is absolutely something fans of wrestling and the black-and-yellow brand should make time for. But it’s not one I imagine I’ll make time for repeat viewings of like I have for many TakeOvers past.