WarGames is a simple match.
When you get past the stumbling block of explaining the rules to everyone, it’s really one of the easiest stipulations in the world to get right. The template and structure for every successful WarGames match was set from day one. It all boils down to a very simple bit of business: the heels must win the numbers advantage after the first period.
Whether it be via coinflip, winning a match beforehand, or whatever else, as long as the heels win the advantage, everything else should follow. I don’t think there’s any other stipulation in wrestling history that has such an essential and pre-ordained structure to it. After every period, the heels send in an additional man and enact a heat segment. They hold the advantage until the next man on the babyface team comes in to even the odds. Wash, rinse, and repeat until The Match Beyond.
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Too many times in the history of WarGames, bookers have tried to outsmart the stipulation. More often than not, attempts to innovate and renew the WarGames formula has led to overcomplicating one of the most slam dunk simple things in all of pro wrestling. Whether that means having more than two teams or breaking out of the confines of the cage or — God forbid — letting the babyfaces win the advantage, there have been many failed attempts at fixing something that was never broken to begin with.
When it comes to WarGames, everyone’s still chasing what WCW achieved on May 17, 1992 at WrestleWar. The WarGames bout between the Dangerous Alliance and Sting’s Squadron is often recognized as the pinnacle of the stipulation under its classic NWA/WCW banner. Although there have been great WarGames matches before and since, I don’t think any of them establish the playbook for the match better than this.
There’s many reasons why this iteration stands so far ahead of the pack. First of all is the lineup. I mean really, just look at the names involved. It’s a wall-to-wall collection of stars and all timers. If you can’t get a great match out of throwing the likes of Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Steve Austin, Arn Anderson, Bobby Eaton, Barry Windham, and more into a cage, then something truly horrible has happened.
Stage Cage Is Set
Another thing that many people underestimate when discussing WarGames is the value of the physical setting. There’s quite a few things about how WCW set up the match that help it stand out. Most notably, WCW’s WarGames always featured a much tighter space than other iterations. WCW generally featured smaller rings than the WWF, and their steel cage set up for WarGames is also much shorter than modern cages. This results in a much more claustrophobic atmosphere. As the cage begins to fill up, one gets the very real sense that there truly is no place to run.
The WCW ring and the WarGames cages really are a bit of an accidental marvel of engineering here. It’s a bit of a lost art in wrestling, finding a way to make these stipulations feel dangerous after so long in use. Notable here is the WCW ring’s narrower apron. This means that the cage wall is as close to the ropes as possible, making bumping into the grate easier for everyone involved. There’s no stumbling or reaching for the cage necessary, it’s even possible to ram your opponent’s head into the cage from within the confines of the ropes. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s incredibly important to maintaining the pace and momentum of the action.
That cramped vibe is key to WarGames, especially in the latter stages of the match. The best WarGames matches have a very real sense of chaos running through them. In spite of the seemingly rigid match structure, the actual action within should be free flowing and crazed.
Even more than other match types, WarGames falls apart the more one can see the gears turning in the wrestler’s brains. Highly choreographed and plotted sequences tend to do poorly in this setting. There’s less room to maneuver about, the wrestlers have nowhere to hide when laying down in the ring to sell in order for one person to take the focus of the match. It’s not like the Royal Rumble where someone can just roll under the bottom rope to the floor as someone runs rampant in the center.
The lower ceiling also plays a key role here. On top of adding to the claustrophobic feel, there’s practical advantages to having it that way. It limits the wrestler’s ability to come off the top rope, further forcing the action closer together. Instead, we see people clinging to the ceiling in an attempt to swing for more momentum. Austin attempts this very maneuver in the opening segment against Windham. Steamboat is far more effective at it, using the roof to get the elevation needed for a hurricanrana.
There’s also an added element of danger to the lower ceiling. A move as simple as Windham taking a standard back body drop seems just a little more breathtaking when the person taking the move grazes their feet against the roof. Also notable is later in the match when Austin takes an atomic drop—but first gets his head bonked on the steel beams of the ceiling. It doesn’t get much better than Sting military pressing Rude into the ceiling multiple times though. Just real, classic WarGames brutality there.
Of course, a match with as many moving parts as WarGames is nothing without a strong layout and impeccable sense of pacing. Both come through beautifully at WrestleWar ’92. In terms of pacing, this match is set up for success. After the first five-minute period of in-ring action, new entrants come in after only two minutes. That’s a guaranteed pop and shift in momentum every two minutes, creating a breathless rush of action all throughout.
It also helps that there are some all-time bleeders in this match that aren’t shy about getting right to the good stuff. Dustin Rhodes, Steve Austin, and Arn Anderson all give us some wonderful color here, really going out of their way to put over the violence of the match.
Strong story beats get peppered in throughout the early segments of the match too. The two that stand out most might be Madusa scaling the cage to hand a weapon to the Dangerous Alliance within, only to be chased off the roof by Sting. Even more satisfying and emotionally driven is the reconciliation that Nikita Koloff and Sting have when Koloff finally enters the match. A brief moment of friendship and forgiveness in the midst of all the carnage does wonders for this match.
The Sting and Nikita interaction also serves to contrast the finish of the match. In the end, what costs the Dangerous Alliance is miscommunication when Larry Zbyszko accidentally blasts Bobby Eaton with a turnbuckle. One team won because they put their differences aside, the other team lost because they couldn’t gel as a unit. Old school pro wrestling morality, as effective today as it was thirty years ago.
An Enduring Legacy
This WarGames is one of the greatest matches of all time, an unassailable piece of the American pro wrestling canon. As far as the traditional WCW WarGames are concerned, it never really got any better than this. It’s one of those special matches that becomes a summation of an entire tradition and genre.
Every single attempt at WarGames since gets measured by how it lives up to the legacy that WrestleWar ’92 left behind. It’s a chase that will continue for years and decades to come. It’s not impossible to reach that standard, but it sure isn’t easy. So many things have to be just right — all the way down to the literal dimensions of the space being used.
As far as I’m concerned, outside of a single miraculous exception in 2006, no one’s ever really come close.