I would like to go on the record and state that the WarGames cage match is the best thing that’s ever been invented. Sure, boring people might choose something more practical, like the wheel or electricity or hormone replacement therapy, but look—none of those were invented by Dusty Rhodes. Rather than a world where The American Dream invented HRT, we live in a world where he invented a two-ring cage match where two teams of four-to-five people fight until one of those people can no longer continue.
It’s a genius concept, one that pits a heel faction against a collection of their rivals in a way that gives wrestling fans everything they want—big stars, emotionally heightened storytelling, an excuse for wrestlers to bleed, and the heat/hot tag structure of tag team wrestling seesawing back and forth every three minutes until it’s time for someone to die. Dusty’s last WarGames match, the 1994 classic that saw him, his son Dustin, and the Nasty Boys take on the Studd Stable, is my favorite wrestling match of all time. Thinking about it makes me cry, because within its structure Dusty and Dustin told a story of a father trying to protect his son from enemies old and new, to reunite in one’s old age and the other’s prime and heal wounds from a childhood Dusty was absent for.
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NXT’s yearly WarGames event feels like a tribute to Dusty, who was a producer and coach for the brand until his passing in 2015, a memorial to his contributions as a booker as opposed to his name. While that name isn’t anywhere on this show, it’s impossible for me to watch a WarGames match without thinking about him, the way he structured those matches, the way they were uniquely cathartic in their ability to settle scores. The WarGames match itself feels similar to its predecessors, but serves an entirely different purpose, solidifying the storylines that will matter for the next couple of months as opposed to ending months of hostility. It changes things considerably, thinking about WarGames as a table setting gesture, but it’s able to fit that purpose, too. If nothing else, WarGames 2019 was NXT holding ground on the two main feuds at the top of the card, definitively making the challengers to the top titles in the men and women’s divisions clear and definitive to round out the year. How did the yellow and black brand go about this? Let’s go match by match and find out.
Isaiah “Swerve” Scott vs. Angel Garza (Kickoff Show)
Scott and Garza have had a nice run on NXT television lately, Garza’s leading to an opportunity at the WWE Cruiserweight Championship, Scott’s verging on him breaking out of the limbo where his matches are very competitive but without much consequence. This match didn’t really come together the way I hoped it would. Lots of awkward transitions into moves, most of which wound up okay. Between that and the lack of true stakes, this really was a kickoff match.
WarGames Match: Shayna Baszler, Bianca Belair, Io Shirai, and Kay Lee Ray vs. Rhea Ripley, Tegan Nox, Dakota Kai, and Candice LeRae
To the chagrin of everybody, the story before the match was that Mia Yim was found knocked out backstage, likely concussed, and replaced by Dakota Kai at the last minute while some podcast dork called her a “bottom of the barrel pick.” OBVIOUSLY the big news here is that I am a wrestling genius, a true scholar of the squared circle, as Dakota Kai SNAPPED on Tegan Nox, completely wrecking her after weeks of Significant, Forlorn Looks at her (now ex-) Team Kick partner. The attack? It ruled in a serious way, mean and brutal to the extent that William Regal came out to express his displeasure with Kai, who gave him a shot for his troubles and got censored for dropping European Curse Words on Ripley from the stage. This put Ripley’s team at a 4-2 disadvantage, the kind of thing most WarGames teams end up dealing with at the end of the match as opposed to towards the middle. I’m of two minds, so far as that’s concerned. Like, Mia Yim not being in the match was necessary its narrative structure, but WWE’s WarGames matches are essentially a means of highlighting the top stars of the men’s and women’s divisions, and Yim not getting that opportunity sucks. On the other hand, the purpose of this WarGames match in particular was to establish Ripley as a threat to Shayna Baszler’s dominant NXT Women’s Championship reign, and that mission has been accomplished.
The weird thing is that there never seemed to be a moment where the 4-2 advantage really seemed to play into Team Baszler’s favor. This might just be me being a very, very old person who was watching these matches when I was a child, but WarGames is at its best when the heels have a decided advantage and work as a team to isolate and brutalize the weakest member of the team. Wrestling has changed a lot since a piledriver was a plausible finish to a marquee gimmick match, so I don’t begrudge the weapons and big, individual spots that were central to the last third of the match. It’s a good match, but I’ve never really cottoned to the way WWE constructs multi-person contests, which tend to partition wrestlers off into mini-singles matches. It didn’t feel like Ripley and LeRae had to beat four people, just that Ripley had to beat Baszler. That might be an issue with so much WarGames build happening underneath the Survivor Series brand supremacy stuff, but my emotional investment in the match ended when evil Dakota left the arena.
#1 Contender to the NXT Championship: Pete Dunne vs. Damian Priest vs. Killian Dain
If you read my Wednesday Night War columns, you know that this match is the one I was least looking forward to. None of these guys do anything for me, and getting a shot at the title for winning this three way felt more like a circumstance brought about by it being too early to have Finn Bálor challenge the champion. That said? This was a Good NXT Match with a clever finish, Dunne sneaking a pinning combination out of nowhere for the win. It’s the right call, and it got the job done.
Finn Bálor vs. Matt Riddle
The only issue with this match is that NXT debuts are a virtual lock for the debuting person, and after years away from NXT, Finn Bálor was a lock to win. But wrestling being what it is, knowing who’s going to win doesn’t really put a damper on what was, I think, one of the best matches of Bálor’s WWE career. I’m really, really glad that dude isn’t bringing out The Demon or whatever, because the leather jacket/black gear/harsh spotlight combo on his entrance had Big Cruising Energy, the swagger of a dude who doesn’t need alter-egos to stomp someone’s guts out. Riddle, no stranger to a dream match’s trappings at this point, was the right person for Bálor’s re-debut, someone just on the edge of NXT’s main event scene, a threat to both of the brand’s singles championships, and one of the faces the USA Network era of the show is built around.
Bálor’s turn is still the story, and the mean streak he’s brought to NXT over past couple of weeks was on display here, too. This was a big, meaty singles match on a show that really needed one, a statement win for Bálor that showcased what Riddle is capable of against WWE’s upper-echelon. My favorite match on the show by a good stretch.
WarGames Match: Undisputed ERA (Adam Cole, Roderick Strong, Bobby Fish, and Kyle O’Reilly) vs. Tommaso Ciampa, Keith Lee, Dominik Dijakovic, and Kevin Owens
So, all of that stuff about Dusty Rhodes up top? The best part of this WarGames match for me was when Kevin Owens hit the ring as Tommaso Ciampa’s fourth man, because Owens was part of the last generation of NXT that Dusty had a hand in. That’s a really tiny thing to get sentimental about, but the way his entrance changed the tone of the match had a classic WarGames vibe to it, a total game-changer in the face of a unified group of utter dickheads.
The Undisputed ERA are so good in that role, too. The Shield, the Wyatt Family, and the New Day have made it easy to forget how truly awful WWE tends to be at making stables compelling. More often than not, WWE’s bad factions—think the Nexus or the Authority—are emulating other bad factions, trying hard to be the nWo without adjusting for how truly awful the nWo was most of the time. Adam Cole, Roderick Strong, Bobby Fish, and Kyle O’Reilly work incredibly well as a unit, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine them breaking up. Mauro Ranallo is too busy calling dicks “peninsulas” to point it out, but the Undisputed ERA are the best version of the Four Horsemen that WWE’s ever conjured. WarGames was designed as a Horseman trap, so it makes sense that they’ve been in all three of NXT’s men’s WarGames matches.
Owens hitting the ring to bail out Team Ciampa came at the right moment, too, as Adam Cole spent a ton of time sliding tables into the ring. Before KO’s music hit, I was sure that the minute and a half of Cole goofing around on the outside was going to derail the match for me, since dude also propped one up against the guardrails just so that Ciampa could pieface him into it before he officially entered the match. It wasn’t good! But Owens brought a palpable energy to the match, which glued things between the individual big spots together quite nicely until its finish, an insane Tomasso Ciampa Air Raid Crash on Cole, delivered off the top of the cage through a couple of tables.
I had the same issue here that I did with the women’s WarGames match, which is that I didn’t have an emotional connection to it beyond Owens’ involvement. I’ve reached the end of this review and haven’t mentioned Keith Lee or Dominik Dijakovic, who did fine work during the match but felt secondary to Ciampa’s quest to beat Cole. With Owens leaving the cage almost as soon as the bell rang, I was left with those three in the ring over a lifeless Adam Cole. From there, all I really see is where Ciampa and Cole are going.
NXT WarGames 2019
- Dakota Kai's turn. Like, goddamn. So much fire she had to be on five-second delay.
- The big top-of-the-cage spots from the women's War Games matches were rad!
- The sheer amount of stuff dangling from gear. Bianca Belair had braids! Shirai and Ripley both had hanging chains! A good match for seamstresses.
- Finn Bálor vs. Matt Riddle felt like a special singles match in a way that is actually pretty hard for NXT to pull off.
- Kevin Owens, Kevin Owens, Kevin Owens.
- That air raid crash was legit breathtaking.
- Mauro was bad enough that Corey Graves subtweeted about how he routinely railroads Beth and Nigel.
- Mia Yim getting taken out of the match. Not that it wasn't the right call for he story that got told, but Mia rules.
- Beyond the NXT logo on Kevin Owens' shirt, none of the NXT vs. Raw vs. SmackDown stuff spilled over into this show, which exposed how lazy the lead-in to both WarGames matches was.
- Similarly, the fact that most of the people in the WarGames matches will be wrestling on Survivor Series kind of undercuts how much damage the match can do, unless every representative loses in like five minutes.
- The show felt like an extended transition rather than something with significant stakes.