“All’s fair in love and wargames” – Dakota Kai, 2019. Ladies, Gentlemen, undefined, welcome to NXT TakeOver: WarGames. This was a historic event. No, I’m not talking about the first-ever women’s war games match, I’m on about the first-ever TakeOver event to have no titles on the line. That’s right, think of this as a reverse Clash of the Champions as tonight, all the champions are in non-title action with future title match implications. We also had the big return of longest-running NXT champion, Finn Bálor and a three-way dance between Pete Dunne, Damian Priest & Killian Dain with a title shot the following night at Survivor Series on the line. But was it any good?
Angel Garza vs Isaiah ‘Swerve’ Scott
Before we get into the match itself, I want to talk about how well-produced this particular KickOff show was. By having them on the stage and given arena mics, it felt like this was actually part of the event. Paired with the running story of the attack on Mia Yim, her having to be taken away in an ambulance and Dakota Kai being put in the match, hearing arena reactions and cutting back to the arena itself instead of a staid round-table set-up felt both fresh and effective. Mia Yim, dressed in a Bull Nakano-tribute facepaint, played her part well, seeming Also, Pat McAfee cutting a hype promo before the show starts about ‘how great Chicago is’ was pure glorious cheap pop.
Anyway, the match did its job, it engaged the crowd, the action from both men was effective, used the ring well and showed a certain easy chemistry that suggests with a more substantial story behind it, they could produce something special. As it stands, it felt like considering what each man is capable of, they were trying hard to make the match just impressive enough to keep the crowd interested but not too much that it overshadows anything on the main show. Garza pinned Scott off the Wing Clipper butterfly stunner. Good, far from great.
Winner: Angel Garza
War Games: Team Ripley (Candice LeRae, Rhea Ripley, Dakota Kai & Tegan Nox) vs Team Baszler (Io Shirai, Bianca Belair, Kay Lee Ray & Shayna Baszler)
This. Is. How. You. Open. A. Show! The action started off somewhat as expected with LeRae and Shirai delivering the same hard-hitting action their every encounter has. Then Belair got involved and reminded us why she has some of the best power game in the Women’s division plus she hit the cleanest 450 I’ve ever seen her hit. After this, Ripley picked up a variety of bins, chairs and kendo sticks and helped even the score again. Out came Kay Lee Ray reminding us that NXT UK isn’t just Toni Storm and Rhea Ripley and actually has some great competitors, not just from Australia. It seemed like this was going to be the standard ratatat structure of these matches, then Dakota Kai didn’t go to the cage but instead running booted her best friend, Tegan Nox. It’s not that the turn wasn’t signposted but it’s the sheer brutality with which she went after her best friend, twisting her injured leg around the cage and pulling off her leg brace. If this wasn’t enough, she even went for William Regal setting up my new dream intergender match that will never happen.
The actual ‘match’ half of proceedings as Shayna Baszler skipped down to the ring with the smuggest grin I’ve ever seen was perhaps the best handicap match I’ve ever seen as LeRae and Ripley managed to convincingly fight back against the team of four against them. There were a lot of great moments here, Belair whipping Ripley with her braid only for Lerae to return the favour on Belair with a kendo stick, Kay Lee Ray taking a flying bin to the face, Io Shirai’s beautiful top-cage moonsault. But what really made it work was the focus on not just having these moments happen but making them work as part of the story. The finish was a thing of beauty as we had two resolved Chekhov’s guns in the form of a stack of chairs and the handcuffs on Ripley’s wrist from earlier when there was an attempt to strap her to the ropes. Baszler, having locked in the Kirufuda Clutch found herself handcuffed to Ripley who then proceeded to Riptide pump handle bomb Baszler through the aforementioned chairs. Sure, there were some weird choices, like not really cutting back to let us know what was going on in the structure while Kai was beating down Nox and the camerawork did seem to sometimes forget that LeRae was there as well as Ripley but this was perhaps my favourite of the modern iterations of the war games match as it delivered on story, technique, moments and emotion. Now, onto the important business of watching Dakota Kai kick off all the face’s faces.
Winner: Team Ripley
Imperium’s WALTER, Marcel Barthel and Fabian Aichner are front-row. But where is the Axeman?
NXT Championship Number One Contender’s: Damian Priest vs Killian Dain vs Pete Dunne
Not every match needs to be an epic. I thought WWE would have learnt that after the backlash to the Gargano-Cole series but quite frankly, some manages are just better off being under 15 minutes. This is one of those matches. It’s not one where anything actually done with the time was bad, in fact, a lot of it nicely circumvented three-way dance expectations by keeping all three men in the ring for most of the time but really, it was a solid twelve minute match that at twenty minutes felt very much like it lost some of the blood behind it halfway through. This was undoubtedly Priest’s match, diving over the turnbuckle like he was Liger in the 90s before turning around cyclone kicking everyone’s head off like Chris Hero in the 00s, for a man who’s always been good, often very good but never really had that one signature performance, this really showed how the developmental system can bring out the best in already close-to-finished products.
Peter, as always, delivered the goods. Going into the match, Peter was 0-3 in NXT Triple Threats, having taken the pin in all three so his victory mattered more here than if it had been just a straight one-on-one blow-off with Priest as it was breaking the curse of a lifetime. Dain continues to feel like he’s not worked out what makes him distinct as a singles performer but still is a solid hand at power moves. Overall, I just felt this never got my pulse racing, I could appreciate what was happening but I was never impressed, shocked or thrilled by it. Peter won off a surprise landing on Priest for the pin. Good luck for Survivor Series, Pete, at least you’ll have had an extra hour to recover over Cole.
Winner: Pete Dunne
Finn Bálor vs Matt Riddle
We were meant to have Johnny Gargano vs Finn Bálor here but sadly, injuries meant that plans had to change. Even if what we got could still have been better, I couldn’t help but feel like stylistically if not thematically, this might have been a more interesting match than what we were originally offered. Not just because we have two of the most prominent packages in modern wrestling going head-to-head if you’ll pardon the pun. Riddle, with his combat sports background, representing the current indie generation, meshed interestingly with Bálor, who represents in many ways the last generation, bringing with them a contest that went from technical contests to strike exchanges to power moves and flips.
This was another one like the previous match where for the most part, it failed to hit that top gear and seemed like it could do with some more aggression to really sell the match. I don’t know whether Bálor was playing it that he was saving his real anger for Gargano, the man who he believes ousted his position but even Riddle at times seemed to lack intensity. It may equally have been that Bálor was going for cold and calculated but if so, I’m not sure it quite worked. Luckily, the home stretch really kicked it into something of the speed of exchange I expected. Hopefully, if there’s a rematch, I’ll see more than just hints of what we could have had. And the crowd might, you know, boo the heel. Bálor pinned Riddle off the 1916 lifting reverse DDT.
Winner: Team Ripley
War Games: The Undisputed Era (Adam Cole, Roderick Strong, Kyle O’Reilly & Bobby Fish) vs Team Ciampa (Tommaso Ciampa, Dominic Dijakovic, Keith Lee & Kevin Owens)
Please, before I get into criticising this, don’t worry, I did like the match. Do not contact me to tell me I’m wrong because I have a few complaints about what we saw here but don’t let them detract from what was a very enjoyable match. So we do have to acknowledge that this followed the modern war games structure even more religiously than the opener. Out came Ciampa and Strong, they put on a beautiful five minutes of back-and-forth, then came Kyle O’Reilly who joined in a beatdown with the numbers advantage. Dijakovic evened the odds, Bobby Fish came to give the heel advantage again, Keith Lee evened things out and Adam Cole collected a lot of tables, resulting in him getting one of the pops of the night WHICH SHOULDN’T HAPPEN FOR THE HEEL only to be put through one before he even got inside the cages. Then came team member four of Team Ciampa, former NXT, US, Intercontinental and Universal Champion, Kevin Owens. The one bit of the build to Survivor Series I have enjoyed has been watching RAW & SmackDown stars come home and look revitalised to be back in front of a smaller but undeniably louder crowd.
There was some very good stuff to be found in this match, unsurprisingly a lot of it involving Strong and Lee’s interactions, when they eventually go one-on-one, it will rule. Everyone delivered at least one great moment, be it Dijakovic repeatedly elbowing O’Reilly into the ropes, Owens taking a destroyer onto the metal ring connector, Lee hitting a tornillo, Strong avalanche Olympic slamming Lee or Ciampa ending the match with a ring top AVALANCHE AIR RAID CRASH OFF THE CAGE THROUGH TWO TABLES! Much like the two ladder matches to determine team advantages for these matches, the women’s match going first did somewhat detract from this one as it delivered as much if not more in-ring but did seem to be heavier on the spots with less connective tissue between them (and lack of Io Shirai). But frankly, when you’ve got spots as good as these, maybe you don’t need a story between them. Hopefully, Owens enjoyed his holiday down here and goes back over to RAW feeling ready to Stunner that title off Brock Lesnar. But as far as NXT is concerned, this was a well-done and worthy main event, building well off the women’s opener and producing another great war game. Plus, it came in at ten minutes shorter than last year’s. Even WarGames match has no business being over 45 minutes. Ciampa pinned Cole off a cage-top avalanche air raid crash through two tables. I won’t get tired of typing that, ever.
Winner: Team Ciampa
Another watchable show from NXT. “TakeOver” continues to smartly keep the cards small and quality high. This one did have a more skippable than normal undercard as the pre-show and Triple Threat never quite delivered and Balor-Riddle only really had flashes of brilliance. There was nothing here on the level of Aleister Black vs Velveteen Dream from “WarGames I” or vs Johnny Gargano from “WarGames II”. But the 2 signature matches were both very good and worked well as a double bill so if strapped for time just watch the opener and the main event. With Ripley and Ciampa both pinning champions here and Lee pinning Roddy just two weeks ago, I am excited to see where NXT goes from here.
All images courtesy of WWE.com