NXT WarGames, which took place on December 5th, 2021, was the first major NXT event to not carry the “TakeOver” name since NXT Arrival in 2014. That would have been significant in and of itself, but the main event of the show also saw “Team 2.0” defeat “Team Black and Gold” in the titular WarGames match. Just one month later, it’s been made clear that NXT is changing on a foundational level, not just a superficial one, and the NXT that has existed for the last decade is being swept aside.
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In our part one of this exploration of NXT’s legacy, we discussed the freedom and creativity of its early years, exemplified in the story of Bo Dallas, and NXT’s relationship with independent wrestling, represented by the feud between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. There are two other major elements that the NXT-that-was boasted, both also echoed in that same NXT WarGames event. The first is how NXT fundamentally altered women’s wrestling in WWE at a time when Vince McMahon’s interest in the women’s division was at a catastrophic low – the very fact that there was a women’s WarGames match on the show, and on past WarGames TakeOvers, is a testament to that change. The second is how NXT’s longest, most epic feud mirrors the fate of NXT itself, and how “Black and Gold” couldn’t survive the departures of that feud’s two participants.
The Four Horsewomen
Four women stood in the center of the ring amidst the cheers of the Brooklyn crowd, each raising a hand, each hand displaying four fingers. In her other hand, Bayley held the NXT Women’s Championship, having just defeated her biggest rival, the ruthless Sasha Banks. In that moment, however, Bayley and Banks were no longer rivals. They weren’t really even characters anymore. They were professional wrestlers who had just put on what is one of the greatest women’s matches in WWE history, and arguably the best match in the history of NXT. Standing beside them were Charlotte and Becky Lynch, two other members of the NXT women’s division, who also had standout matches with Banks and Bayley over the course of the previous year. While the group known as the Four Horsewomen have never been an on-camera stable, this was a moment for the curtain to come down, a moment to stop worrying about fiction and simply appreciate four performers who had done the impossible: revitalized women’s wrestling in WWE.
It was August 22nd, 2015. A month earlier, Banks, Lynch, and Charlotte had made their debut on Raw, as Stephanie McMahon loudly and dramatically called for a revolution in the women’s division. That revolution turned out to be both more and less than fans had hoped. Less in that WWE’s relationship with women’s wrestling remains problematic to this day, and the Four Horsewomen did not magically produce gender equality in the company, as the McMahons would have you believe. More, in that the women’s division was entirely overhauled in terms of talent.
While plenty of male wrestlers have historically seen their NXT success fail to translate to the main roster, female wrestlers called up from NXT have thrived, some finding more success than they ever had in Full Sail. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman on the main roster who isn’t an NXT alumnus, and performers like Alexa Bliss, Carmella, and Zelina Vega, who spent the majority of their NXT careers as managers, have found success and even championship gold as wrestlers.
The extent to which WWE had devalued women’s wrestling in the years leading up to NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn can’t be overstated. If you need proof, take a look at the women’s matches that made the WrestleMania card from 2007 to 2015. If NXT has one success that can’t be taken away, it’s that it defibrillated the WWE women’s division and developed wrestling’s strongest female roster this side of Stardom.
The revolution wasn’t exactly the one Stephanie McMahon was talking about, but it was most certainly a revolution. It started behind the scenes, with the hiring of SHIMMER Women Athletes standout Sara Amato, who remains a head coach at the Performance Center to this day. It started with early NXT wrestlers like Paige, Emma, and Summer Rae, all of whom deserve credit for laying down the pavement upon which the Four Horsewomen rode. It started simply: the women of NXT WERE treated as legitimate competitors, were allowed to wrestle technical clinics, or hit powerbombs, or wrestle lengthy matches for a the NXT Women’s Championship.
Then the Horsewomen arrived. TakeOver events began, too, each one featuring a different combination of the four: Charlotte vs. Bayley, Charlotte vs. Banks, Banks vs. Lynch, and at one memorable show, Charlotte vs. Lynch vs. Bayley vs. Banks. Each one was better than the last, culminating with the masterpiece in Brooklyn, eventually leading to very real and sustained change in WWE’s presentation of women’s wrestling, chief among them two WrestleMania main events and the women’s Royal Rumble.
Since that main event, WWE has grown more and more complacent in its showcasing of the women’s division, almost as though they feel they’ve done everything they needed to do in that area. They’re woefully mistaken, of course, but the fact that we’ve yet to see a second all-woman Evolution show or a third Mae Young Classic tournament doesn’t change the fact that we got those things in the first place, and we probably wouldn’t have if not for NXT.
Several Final Beats
There are so many other things that stand out about NXT as it exists in the collective memory. Asuka’s undefeated streak, unbroken until after she was called up. The Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. Shinsuke Nakamura wrestling Sami Zayn in Dallas and the birth of the “fight forever” chant. Bobby Roode’s theme song. The rise of Shayna Baszler, Bianca Belair, and Rhea Ripley. William Regal screaming “War Games!” Keith Lee vs. Dominik Dijakovic. Io Shirai’s heel turn. The Undisputed Era. But the thing that defines the later period of NXT and stands as a monument to both its admirable commitment to long-term storytelling and its ultimate failure and dismantling, is the cursed feud between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa.
It seemed like such a random pairing, two indie guys who had never teamed up before and just happened to come into NXT at the same time. They competed in the first iteration of the Dusty Classic and actually won a match before being eliminated in the second round, but the team wasn’t expected to stick around after that. Both wrestlers had been more prominent singles stars than tag team specialists, and their initial NXT contracts allowed them to simultaneously work on the independent scene, where continued wrestling as a tag team, most notably in promotions like PWG, AAW, and Beyond.
Still, it was expected that this unexpected double act would split up sooner rather than later, and in the summer of 2016, the time appeared to have come.
Gargano and Ciampa met in the first round of the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic in a hard-fought match that was won by Gargano. It seemed obvious to everyone what would happen next. Ciampa had played the good babyface during his NXT run to that point, but there was a reason he had been known on the indies as the Sicilian Psychopath. In the aftermath of his defeat, Ciampa was visibly upset. He refused to shake Gargano’s hand. He climbed onto the ring apron, pounding at his own skull as though there was something inside him crying to be released. He was about to turn on Gargano. Of course he was.
But he didn’t. Instead, the two men embraced. They remained a duo, one of the cornerstones of NXT’s red-hot tag team division, which by 2016 had surpassed the women’s division as the best part of the show, anchored by Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder, the Revival. And if the women’s division had Banks vs. Bayley in Brooklyn, the tag team division had the Revival vs. Gargano and Ciampa (who eventually acquired the collective name #DIY) in Toronto, a two-out-of-three falls tag team classic that, like Banks/Bayley, has an argument for being the single greatest match in NXT history. Gargano and Ciampa emerged victorious, and while their tag title reign was short-lived, they remained an anchoring team for another six months, long enough to participate in the first tag team TakeOver main event, which they lost to the Authors of Pain.
That’s when Ciampa finally turned on Gargano, pulling the trigger on a feud NXT fans had waited a year to see. But as it turned out, they would have to wait a little longer, as Ciampa had torn his ACL during the tag match. This would turn out to be a consistent theme for the feud — after demonstrating how well they could execute a slow burn storyline, NXT was now forced to drag it out even further. The end result was a narrative that unfolded over the better part of five years, which created some of NXT’s best matches and moments, and yet somehow never achieved the climax it deserved, due to the vagaries of fate.
Upon Ciampa’s return, he and Gargano main evented three straight TakeOvers and engaged in a brilliant storyline that saw Gargano flirt with a heel turn and a heel DIY reunion before revealing that he was just suckering Ciampa into a fourth TakeOver match – only for that fourth Takeover match to be canceled due to another Ciampa injury, this one career-threatening. Gargano won the NXT Championship by defeating Adam Cole instead, after which Ciampa appeared and embraced his former partner, turning him face and re-uniting the two when Ciampa returned again. Gargano would then engage in his own heel turn, costing Ciampa the NXT Title and once again setting up their long-awaited fourth TakeOver match – only for the COVID-19 pandemic to strike, ensuring that match would take place in an empty arena. What should have been the epic conclusion of a story that had taken years to tell turned out to be a silent, joyless dud, ending the star-crossed feud with a whimper instead of a bang.
In the end, Gargano and Ciampa shared the ring one last time at NXT WarGames 2021, in which they appropriately represented NXT’s old guard in a losing effort against the new stars of NXT 2.0. Gargano’s subsequent departure from the company, combined with Ciampa’s loss to Breakker, who symbolically kicked apart the signature X of the NXT logo on his way to the ring, marked the end of an era of NXT as surely as the firing of William Regal. Honestly, it was the most fitting possible way for the promotion to die. Like the Gargano/Ciampa feud, NXT was a long-term project that frequently achieved greatness, but was ultimately doomed by outside forces beyond its control.
With the rise of All Elite Wrestling, NXT was suddenly no longer the thinking fan’s alternative to main roster programming. Vince McMahon’s near-total refusal to throw his support behind NXT alumni kept NXT looking like the little guy, the black sheep of the WWE family. The sense of an internal schism kept fans on NXT’s side despite the brand’s massive popularity and rapid expansion. But in 2019, a threatened WWE decided to weaponize their third show by moving it to the USA Network to counter-program against the fledgling AEW Dynamite, and the situation changed. Now in a ratings battle against AEW, NXT’s identity suddenly became that of the corporate stooge, a low-level minion standing in the path of the new promotion on the block, which as it happened actually was an alternative to WWE. In that moment, it was almost painfully easy for AEW to take up the mantle of the counter-culture, and the coalition of die-hard, extremely online wrestling fans that had been NXT’s core demographic suddenly flocked to TNT. Hobbled by corporate expectations and stripped of its primary support structure, NXT was defeated in the ratings and left for dead by former headliners fleeing a sinking ship, and WWE, of course, responded by finishing the job.
Wrestling is cyclical by nature. It ebbs and flows. The version of NXT that rekindled many fans’ love for the sport over the course of the 2010s can always be revisited, but it was never going to last forever. For nearly a decade, it was the best thing in professional wrestling, and we have the ripple effects to prove it. Now it’s time for something else. Despite all Triple H’s “the future is now” branding, NXT was never the future of wresting. The next evolution of the industry, however, is already upon us, and it’s possible – healthy, even – for those of us who were ride-or-die NXT fans to look back at the thing we loved with grace, fondness, and perspective, while simultaneously looking ahead to what the actual future might hold. To quote an old, largely forgotten science fiction novel, there has been joy. There will be joy again.