NXT TakeOver: War Games
November 18, 2017
Toyota Center
Houston, Texas

Watch: WWE Network

Meet our previewers:

JR Goldberg occasionally gets roped in to Takeover reviews. He normally just watches CMLL, which is kind of like WWE but with an older roster and even lazier booking and an alcoholic referee.

Andy LaBar can’t log in and edit the google doc so JR gets to write his bio for him. One time, Andy commissioned an artist to draw a picture of the Necro Butcher and Galadriel riding a centaur together. He told JR that in confidence. Note from Andy: all true. Also loves Zelina Vega.

Lars Sullivan def. Kassius Ohno

JR: I can’t in good conscience root for someone in a Duke outfit. I have literally never seen Lars Sullivan rassler before. I like that Sullivan is big and ugly. More rasslers need to be big and ugly. One of the successes of previous generations is that I could never picture them doing anything else. Sullivan doesn’t look like he could sell me a car or answer my IT questions. That rules, wrestling needs more people like this. This match is interesting as someone who doesn’t watch a lot of NXT, because the structure is seemingly based around him being tremendously physically impressive, but Ohno is big himself and used to working with smaller wrestlers, and seems a bit unsure of how to really make Sullivan’s offense pop. Realistically, this is an extended squash, and while Ohno is a great choice to lead Sullivan through a compelling match, I’m not sure he was a great choice at making Sullivan look like a physical freak, which I think was the overall point of the match. Fine but forgettable.

Andy: Ohno out here in his Duke getup so I hope he gets knocked the fuck out. Mauro describes Lars Sullivan as a “Jack Kirby creation come to life”, which is the best comparison Mauro has made in NXT. On another comic book note, Sullivan looks like he is ready to play the part of Clayface in the next Batman movie. I love that a guy as big as Lars sullivan, who clearly doesn’t have the mechanics of a workhorse, uses really exaggerated knee strikes in his matches, which he does here against Ohno. Ohno gets a couple of boots in on Lars and a kip-up before Lars flips him inside out with a huge lariat. After years of being the literal “biggest” guy on the indies, it’s pretty crazy to see Ohno getting decimated by someone bigger. After a missed top rope headbutt, Ohno gets the most offense in on Lars that anyone has been able, ripping through him with elbow after elbow before knocking him down with a cyclone kick. Ohno keeps fighting back, but after kicking out at 1, Lars dodges a rolling elbow and hits the Freak Accident for the victory. This match had good heat and showed us what happens when Lars is challenged a little bit. The finish was never ever in question, though. **3/4

Aleister Black def. Velveteen Dream

JR: The “manipulator” trope in wrestling is an interesting one, and it stands to reason that it’s one that HHH would feel comfortable exploring in NXT. Velveteen Dream fancying himself as a master of mind games, but ultimately doing it for purely egotistical and performative reasons is a unique spin on something (re: Bray Wyatt) that can end up ringing hollow after a time. Black’s stoicism has played a tremendous part in this as well, and it will be interesting to see if he has to, or is capable of, showing the cracks in the veneer in this. Of course, early in this match, and perhaps in a way throughout the entire feud, Black is presented as so superior the mind games take an almost irrelevant back seat. Black, with nary an expression, manages to get the upper hand with submissions and maneuvers outside of his normal repertoire. In some way, the opening section of this match, with Black’s dominance and Dream’s thwarted attempts at escape and repeated shouts for respect, completely reverse the face/heel dynamic we are told to expect. The crowd shows this as well, as they slowly but surely end up behind Dream during his extended control segment. I will say that Black is impressive in ring; Dream’s timing or positioning are a little off on multiple occasions, and Black is consistently able to react and things look snug and good.

As an aside, it should be every wrestler’s goal to get the crowd so invested in the match that the audience forgets to say “sweet” after a two count. The Velveteen Dream accomplishes this with his nearfall. Black does not. As the match progresses, Dream is positioned again and again as a valiant but youthful face, looking inward to overcome in the face of a dominant veteran heel. It ends abruptly, as the camera misses the finish, in what is a consistent problem for Takeover. After the finish, Dream gets his name said. Bizarre. A fine match technically, but I was confused by how it was booked, even if it probably had the desired effect.

Andy: This match has clearly been the best built match in this whole Takeover, and one of the best and most interesting builds they have had in a year or two. While clearly the superior wrestler (and future star), NXT has done an awesome job getting Velveteen Dream in a place that he matters, that he is an actual threat to someone who has the gimmick of being unbeatable. For what it’s worth, Aleister Black still has perhaps the best theme in all of WWE/NXT – I don’t know how long they can keep this guy in developmental (from a character standpoint). Velveteen Dream is rocking a haircut for the ages, and some Rick Rude-esque airbrushed tights with his face on one leg and Black’s on the other. Amazing. There is true hate in Black’s eyes as the bell rings and they start with a…lockup. Fuck. The early going features mostly Black working neck locks on Dream, which is a bit unexpected and a letdown, even if the two are doing a solid job of making the holds meaningful. After Black’s classic moonsault/criss-cross sitdown, Dream imitates the Rick Rude swivel and the two are having a taunt off. Dream continues the Rude impression with a Rude Awakening after an extended control segment. Black gets a series of kicks in, before Dream is able to sneak in his rapid DVD out of nowhere for two.

The crowd seems firmly between Velveteen Dream, and I cannot blame them, this match has really cemented him as the best PC-produced wrestler in some time. Velveteen Dream brings the crowd to their feet with a Sister Abigail-like DDT, and after the slow going, this match and the drama has really picked up. Black works heel, attacking Dream while tied up in the ropes and gets a sudden victory with the Black Mass. The Velveteen Dream came across as the bigger star here, and turned himself into someone the people want to root for. At the conclusion, Aleister Black finally addresses Dream by name, showing him respect. Disjointed match, but super enjoyable on the whole. Excited to see where both of these guys go. ***1/2

NXT Women’s Championship
Ember Moon def. Peyton Royce, Kairi Sane & Nikki Cross

JR: I like Nikki Cross’ commitment to a character that essentially amounts to “manic pixie dream girl but asexual, unwashed and psychotic”. Realistically, every woman in this match has a pretty well defined role, and it will be interesting to see how they interact and play off one another. Nikki Cross taking a powerbomb on the outside is probably a sicker bump than anything Adam Cole will take in War Games. Multiperson matches are a double edged sword: while there is constant action, almost by necessity, if none of the performers go in with a clear idea on how to show they have a plan, it can descend into just moves, and things lose meaning. There are four really capable wrestlers in this match, but the match suffers from a lack of dynamism if it’s just women taking turns diving on one another. At the very least, when Cross is on offense, it feels different, because she as a persona is probably incapable of doing anything but attacking everyone and she does so with purpose and pace.

Royce, to her credit, has also fell into a more opportunistic role. Sane, who I usually enjoy, seems a bit lost in this. The moments between the moments for her have been lacking. Moon wins with her finisher on two women, right after Sane hit her finish on two women. A lot of the other women’s four ways have been stronger, and it is because those matches all featured performers who had clearer ideas of who they were and what their roles in a match should be. Moon and Sane are two strikingly different and talented wrestlers, but in this they managed to feel redundant. If this was a three way with only one of the two, would it have been a different narrative in anyway? A capable cover band playing your favorite song from the past few years.

Andy: Does Kairi Sane have “Yo Ho” literally repeating through her entrance music? As an adult man who loves Disneyland way more than I should, this makes me want to vomit if so. However, they should get a live sea shanty band to play some time. Peyton Royce has some new gear, looks fantastic and is somehow going to do this without Billie Kay. Oh no. Ember Moon is probably the best wrestler on the roster that I care about the least. The “gimmick” and the song and the look is just off putting to me, but she rules in the ring. With all the ladies outside following some dives, Ember Moon essentially breaks Nikki’s back with a powerbomb onto the floor, sick as hell. In the ring, Royce, Ember and Sane are exchanging big spots, but Royce gets the climax, taking advantage of superplex attempt by giving a German suplex to both Moon and Sane off the top. Cross is in, a barrel of insanity, taking out all the other women, hitting her finisher on Sane but Moon is able to save the pin and knock her out. All the women get their finishers in, Peyton nearly pinning Cross with the fisherman suplex, Sane nearly pinning Cross after hitting the elbow on her and Peyton, but in the end, Ember Moon is able to hit the Eclipse on both Cross and Peyton to get the pin and become the new NXT Women’s Champion.

This match had a lot of action, and was just big move after big move, the way that Fatal Four-Ways are supposed to be. In a moment that is pretty great, Asuka comes from the crowd to deliver the title to Ember Moon. All the women did a great job here, but it didn’t feel like quite the classic of the other big multi-woman matches in NXT. ***1/4

NXT Championship
Andrade Almas def. Drew McIntyre (c)

JR: Almas is the most main roster ready performer in NXT and it’s not close. In NXT, he’s partially a victim of an arc that wrestling fans can’t relate to: he was too cool and attractive to focus on being awesome at wrestling. Drew McIntyre comes out in a utilikilt, shamelessly pandering to the wrestling fan/Warhammer 40k demographic. I desperately want Almas to win and then lose the title to Microman, the mascot that Almas left CMLL to escape because he knew he could never beat him. The early portions of the match are spent establishing that Drew is a serious wrestler, and that he has studied and learned from the interference patterns of Vega. Even with that, Almas is capable enough to stay in control. I may be wrong, but in the Takeover era, I think Almas is probably the only person to escape the big show jobber role and ascend the card.

Almas works this match in a really interesting way. He’s a heel, so he curtails his offense, but he’s smaller so he has to stick and move. He really gets across the idea that he is supremely confident, and he punishes McIntyre whenever the pace picks up. That being said, the two big nearfalls, Almas shows frustration and doubt and vulnerability, which helps accent the bomb based offense of McIntyre. Almas is so great at making things look organic. When he can’t get the counter powerbomb out of the corner, he seamlessly transitions in to another great piece of offense. There is a lot of great subversion of Almas’ bad habits in this match as well, like his early celebration with the belt opening the door for interference for a tremendous nearfall. The nearfalls have been so great in this match, that I became convinced that McIntyre would win, and while the finish was a little abrupt in the moment, it fit the narrative beautifully of Almas being able to consistently adjust and still be effective. The best in ring NXT title match since Zayn was around.

Andy: Drew McIntyre is one of my favorite in-ring wrestlers in the world while maintaining his status as one of my least favorite wrestlers out of the ring. El Idolo, Andrade Almas and Zelina Vega are just my favorite, period. While feeling like perhaps the “smallest” NXT title match in years, this is nevertheless perhaps my most anticipated from an in-ring standpoint. The early portions of this match feature Drew having an answer for most of what Almas and Vega can throw at them, but Almas eventually gets up on Drew, his intellect winning out. The story is sneakiness vs strength. Vega, for her part, has an opportunity to be an all-time level manager – she is just so good. Drew manhandles Almas with suplexes and chops and rapidly tears form in my eyes. Fuck it, no moves. Mother fucking Andrade Almas won. This had huge spots, huge near-falls, excellent work from Zelina. And our man, my man, Andrade Almas finally showing he is the champion we deserve. This is the best NXT Title match in a long time and the most excited I’ve been about something in WWE this year. I completely lost myself in this match. Watch it, watch it, watch it. LOS! ****1/2

The Undisputed ERA (Adam Cole, Bobby Fish & Kyle O’Reilly) def. SaNITy (Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe & Killian Dane) & The Authors Of Pain and Roderick Strong

JR: Sanity is like if Zack Snyder wrote an E-Fed gimmick if you gave him nothing but Bray Wyatt promos for research and nothing but methamphetamine for sustenance. I don’t care who wins this as long as it’s not Sanity. Fuck Sanity. I want to say I don’t really care about most of the War Games changes, because I guess I sort of assumed that it would be bastardized in some way when they announced it. That being said, I think the way they are doing entrances is inherently lazy and takes away the fabricated team strategy that served to make so many War Games matches compelling. Adam Cole’s team is out next. Adam Cole is like the wrestling equivalent of Matt Damon from Team America: World Police. The Authors of Pain are out last. I wonder who Roddy’s favorite author is. I’ll bet it’s John Gardner. He seems like an October Light kind of guy.

Nothing sums up the Weekend at Bernie’s-ing of War Games than a half-hearted “This is awesome” chant before anything happens. Mauro hasn’t annoyed me that much tonight, but if you’ve never seen Takayama/Frye, you have to trust me that Mauro referencing it because of Adam Cole and Roderick Strong is preposterous. Mauro blocked me on twitter once because he was vanity searching and he saw a tweet I wrote saying he was Mike Adamle with access to the NJPW Wikipedia page. That has no bearing on this match, just sharing. The Unidisputed Era is the first time out, which probably sets up the strongest narrative choice, but it depends almost entirely now (if you assume AOP comes out last) on Strong’s ability to be a sympathetic face in peril. Of course, as I write this, the Authors come out second, so what do I know. The Authors really change the complexion when they come, creating the dynamics that I was lamenting the absence of in the women’s match. It feels different when they are there. Perhaps this is a bit of a hot take, but I would say if you just take NXT work into account, they are by far the strongest workers in this match. Sanity comes in next and brings in some plunder, which is smart, as it gives them a crutch that almost on its own changes the narrative again.

Killian Dane has really stood out and has been positioned to do so. He’s being booked so strongly that it almost seems like he may be a challenger for Almas in the near future. It’s very interesting in this how uneven it’s been, not in terms of the overall action (which has been strong) but in terms of who has stood out. Roderick Strong has been essentially invisible, as has Bobby Fish, who just sort of wanders around until his next double team spot. Credit where credit is due, Eric Young has been great, finding and understanding when he needs to stand out and when to concede the stage. Adam Cole is left standing after all sorts of nonsense and he has this tremendously smug look on his face, as though he has convinced himself that his immense luck is a byproduct of his superior skill. I don’t understand why the Authors of Pain would try and prevent Cole from escaping and eliminating his team, especially when the announcers have made note of Ellering on the outside to help them strategically. The forfeiture rules around escape have been a narrative disaster here. It’s interesting that in a match with three teams, there were never any shifting alliances or double teams of opportunity. Instead, we get Adam Cole winning War Games via pinfall over Eric Young. A Demolition Derby at a county fair.

Andy: Two of my all-time favorites sitting ringside for this: Dustin Rhodes and Arn Anderson. Going into this, I’m definitely on the side that the changes to the rules are a mistake. I’m a War Games completist, I love most of them, even the bad ones. On the whole, it’s my favorite gimmick in all of wrestling and while I can accept that this isn’t going to be the same type of match as the first few, I’m still disappointed in a jaded fan way. Oh man, Roderick Strong is in AoP fatigues, I hate that, but good for him. As feared, the “captains” aka the singles stars start this match – by having teams come in together, this eliminates the “strategy” narrative that old War Games matches have. By that logic we would have had like Bobby Fish Vs. Roddy Vs. Dain, but whatever! Stay positive, stay positive. Roderick Strong is in control at the end of the first 5 minutes, and of course the first team in is the Undisputed Era.

This is great, and how it should be, but by having 3 people in at first, the 5 minutes went by too fast – no one seemed truly down in the dumps. O’Reilly and Fish destroy Strong and Young for awhile, and the next team in is the Authors of Pain. In a classic reckless move, one of the AoP throws Adam Cole between the rings and he lands right on O’Reilly’s head. They throw everyone into the second ring and finally this feels like a big time brawl. War Games needs dudes who are insane and brutal like the AoP, fuck a workrate. Alexander Wolfe brings in a nightstick and that’s kinda fucked up, but at the same time – it makes his offense impactful for the first time ever. Killian Dane begins throwing in chains and garbage cans and chairs. Oh yeah, Sanity is insane, I remember! Dane locks the door and eats the key, because he doesn’t give a shit. Okay, Killian Dane is the focus now, diving between the rings to take out everyone, destroying Adam Cole and hitting a Michinoku Driver, where Fish lands on Cole. Dane and Rezar face off in between the rings for a big boy strike exchange. This is easily the longest any War Games has lasted during the “match beyond” segment and boy does it have a lot of moves, near-falls and plunder. Look, a ton of stuff happens in this match. It’s a car crash, but one that kept me entertained throughout. Weapons were used, Roddy superplexed Cole off the cage, Wolfe bled intensely from his head, and Dane looked like a star.

In the end, Cole hit the shining wizard into a chair to beat Eric Young, with all the participants laid out. This match was far from perfect, but every War Games has tons of shit wrong. This wound up being more enjoyable than I thought it would and more enjoyable than the beginning promised. Plunder can be fun, and this was a whole lot more fun than the big main roster plunder matches we have had recently. I still don’t need Adam Cole, though. ****