Promoted since 2017 as part of their critically-acclaimed TakeOver series, NXT’s take on the War Games match, named WarGames, has traditionally been well-received.
Initially brought back by NXT General Manager William Regal in November 2017 to restore order to the black-and-gold brand after weeks of commotion involving The Undisputed Era and rivalling parties, the former WCW staple has since become a focal point of NXT’s annual calendar, with 2021 set to mark the seventh and eighth NXT incarnations of the bout following one in 2017 and 2018, and two in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
In World Championship Wrestling, the aptly-titled “Match Beyond” was originated as the signature match type of The Four Horsemen, who were, at the time, the top guys in the company. From there, the match was held a combined 31 times in WCW, concluding when Kevin Nash, Jeff Jarrett, Scott Steiner, and The Harris Brothers overcame the quintet of Booker T, Goldberg, Sting, and KroniK on the September 4th, 2000 broadcast of Nitro.
Since then, numerous other promotions – from Combat Zone Wrestling to Ring Of Honor to Women Superstars Uncensored – have created their own take on the stipulation, but none will ever be as good as the original.
The criteria for this ranking will take into account not only the in-ring quality of these bouts, but also their positioning on the card, the intensity of the story to justify such a stipulation, and what the match led to in the immediate aftermath, i.e. championship success, the conclusion or continuation of the feud(s), babyface and/or heel turns, etc.
Admin aside, which NXT War Games match tops our list?
Team Candice Vs. Team Shotzi (2020)
This, in no way, required the War Games stipulation. WWE, seemingly, so desperately wanted this storyline to be bigger and feel more important than it was ever going to be, but alas, it flopped.
The match was a spotfest, and not the good kind. It was the kind that bombards the viewer with spot after spot, needlessly performing recklessly for thirty-five straight minutes. This isn’t due to the competitors involved, either, but rather WWE’s insistence on having a minimum of two of every big gimmick match a year.
There was very little of a story to warrant this, with Toni Storm having turned heel while feigning saving a downed Ember Moon from Candice LeRae, Dakota Kai, Raquel Gonzalez, and Indi Hartwell. Members of Shotzi Blackheart‘s squad were determined through backstage segments (in Rhea Ripley and Ember Moon’s cases), while Io Shirai joined during a heated brawl against LeRae’s team. Essentially, she was joined by the trio because she needed a squad of four.
Just one year on, you forget this match even happened. The Undisputed Era vs. Pat McAfee’s team was a far more memorable bout, overshadowing this by a great amount. Had it not been for Io Shirai’s famed cage dive with a bin over her head, then all memory of this match would have been erased.
Given that Candice – who, at the time, was on the verge of greatness alongside Johnny Gargano, Indi Hartwell, and Austin Theory in The Way – suffered a serious arm injury from a spot, perhaps she, too, wishes the match could be erased from memory.
The Undisputed Era Vs. Team Ciampa (2019)
This tried too hard.
NXT TakeOver: War Games 2019 was promoted just under two months following the launch of All Elite Wrestling’s new weekly show, Dynamite, so the Wednesday Night Wars were in full swing. NXT was doing fine as a weekly product, but it was slowly becoming obvious that the brand was trying to achieve too much to combat their newfound competition.
Technically speaking, the match was fun, which was no surprise given that all eight involved had prior experience in high-level independent promotions (Ring Of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, et al). The spots that occurred, while too rushed and not spaced out enough, were often delightful sequences, and the match at least followed some sort of structure; The Undisputed Era wore down each member of Team Ciampa when they had the numbers advantage, concluding with the shock arrival of Kevin Owens.
The setup itself was awful. Keith Lee and Matt Riddle had been saved from a post-match Undisputed Era attack, leading to Tommaso Ciampa saving them. War Games was scheduled without a complete Team Ciampa lineup, which, at least, provided that shock factor, but the whole point of War Games should be that everyone involved is in this huge feud that can only be resolved by entering the “Match Beyond”.
Then, Riddle was removed, as he was set to face Finn Balor instead. Dominik Dijakovic took his spot for no reason other than that he was a semi-big deal in NXT at the time.
It simply did too much too soon after AEW Dynamite’s launch. It was increasingly obvious that this was a ploy to get a win over the Tony Khan-helmed promotion, which hampered the match’s overall presentation.
The match-ending manoeuvre, for example, in which Tommaso Ciampa gave Adam Cole an Air Raid Crash off the cage and through two tables below, was sublime and deserves all the props thrown its way, but was it needed? Cole and Johnny Gargano had just performed a similar sequence in their NXT TakeOver: Toronto II clash three months beforehand.
In the months following, Cole and Ciampa waged war over the NXT Championship, as Keith Lee and Dominik Dijakovic did over the North American Championship, but this felt like a case of War Games happening for the sake of having War Games. WWE, somehow, fails to understand that they don’t always have to have a men’s and women’s version of a certain stipulation. It works for the Royal Rumble, but thus far, it hasn’t for War Games.
The Undisputed Era Vs. The War Raiders, Ricochet & Pete Dunne (2018)
It’s just as well, really, that the match itself was superb in 2018, as there wasn’t much of a story to justify the use of the War Games stipulation.
Like The Undisputed Era vs. Team Ciampa, 2018’s War Games outing happened for no reason other than WWE had to find a use for the absurdly long steel mesh structure; Pete Dunne’s inclusion, for example, felt particularly random, with the only logic behind it being that he, Ricochet, and Adam Cole had contested the North American Championship not long before this.
Ricochet was the real star here. His and Adam Cole’s generational North American Championship match from TakeOver: Brooklyn IV was revisited slightly in the early opening, with Cole catching the ex-Lucha Underground Champion mid-flight with a Backstabber. Other Ricochet-related highlights included him flying between the two rings and executing his inaugural double-rotation Moonsault in WWE, doing so off the top of the cage.
Not much else of note happened, though.
A big Tower of Doom off the cage preceded the aforementioned double Moonsault. Hanson flattened Kyle O’Reilly through a table. A staredown between the two quartets, one in each ring, provided a visual reminiscent of the late-’80s War Games matches.
That’s all, really. In-ring-wise – and given the star quality involved – this was a letdown.
The finish saw Pete Dunne hit a Bitter End on Adam Cole, followed closely by a springboard 450 splash from Ricochet for the double pinfall victory. At this stage in the history of NXT TakeOver main events, that traditionally would have been a mid-match near-fall for a huge cheer, rather than the actual ending. It didn’t quite work here, though the remainder of the match was solid.
It just suffered from a lack of story development. Bobby Fish locking Pete Dunne in the shark cage would have sufficed, had it been Dunne and a partner who captured the NXT Tag Team Championships from Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, and not The War Raiders.
The Undisputed Era Vs. SAnitY Vs. The Authors Of Pain & Roderick Strong (2017)
The first War Games match under the NXT banner, The Undisputed Era, SAnitY, and the trio of The Authors of Pain and Roderick Strong served as a means of breaking the match back in.
Presumably, WWE officials used this almost as a beta test. Is there interest from the audience in seeing the dual-cage stipulation featured once more as a yearly event? Does it work in the NXT brand? Had they chosen the right competitors for their maiden voyage?
Ticks to all of these questions. It ruled and it ruled hard, with the story justifying the stipulation’s revival. The nine men involved had been butting heads effectively since the prior August’s NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III, where Adam Cole debuted and formed The Undisputed Era, while SAnitY captured the NXT Tag Team Championships from Akam and Rezar. William Regal legitimately had no other choice without leaving NXT a chaotic mess.
In this instance, the big attraction spots weren’t spammed. You had a stereo Tower of Doom spot, Roderick Strong’s superplex from atop the cage, and Alexander Wolfe‘s top-rope German suplex through a table, but nothing as memorable as we’ve now become accustomed to. This was to be expected. It may have been NXT’s sole attempt at nailing the War Games stipulation, so while you’d traditionally want to go all out to impress those watching, you had to be mindful of not exciting viewers too much, or else they’d expect the same thing on a yearly basis.
Adam Cole’s chair-assisted Shining Wizard ultimately put Eric Young down for the count, serving well as a decisive, albeit out-of-nowhere, match-ender. The right winners unquestionably, given Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly would win SAnitY’s tag straps just weeks later, but they could have – and perhaps should have – created a more enticing closing sequence.
Overall, the match was fun, engaging for the viewer, and did War Games justice in its revival. In hindsight, though, it just could have went that extra bit further, seeing as it wasn’t going to be a one and done deal.
The Undisputed Era Vs. Team McAfee (2020)
Really, this is the only NXT War Games match thus far where every wrestler’s participation in the match was justified. This was a legitimate gang warfare situation; no entrants were added just to have even teams.
The Undisputed Era and Pat McAfee’s group had real, heated on-screen beef that could only be resolved in War Games.
Not only had Adam Cole and Pat McAfee wrestled a banger of a singles match at the previous August’s NXT TakeOver 30, but this was came about after it was rumoured The Undisputed Era would be splitting up. Kyle O’Reilly had been getting a slight singles push away from the group, challenging Finn Balor for the NXT Championship at NXT TakeOver 31, while Bobby Fish had been injured. This was The Undisputed Era’s first – and subsequently last – match back as a united quartet.
It was wrestled near-perfectly. The opening flurry between Pete Dunne and Kyle O’Reilly was a masterclass in technical wrestling, and as each other entrant came into the cage, the match quality only improved.
Pat McAfee stole the show without question, though, Moonsaulting through a table not long after entering, and then taking a series of insane bumps thereafter. His somersault dive off the cage, in the same vein as Io Shirai’s cage dive from earlier in the evening, was an important fixture of NXT’s output of content throughout the pandemic. Additionally, his selling of Adam Cole’s Panama Sunrise was beautiful.
Kyle O’Reilly pinning Oney Lorcan worked wonderfully as a finish, too, given what followed over the following few months, while Roderick Strong stomping on Pete Dunne’s back to interrupt a pin was a subtle, yet outstanding callback to “The Messiah of the Backbreaker” initially joining The Undisputed Era at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans.
Both Bobby Fish and Oney Lorcan ended up injured, with Fish being absent for Adam Cole’s heel turn on Kyle O’Reilly the following February. Luckily, these injuries were nothing too serious, and instead acted as a means of putting over the sheer danger of participating in the War Games structure.
Team Ripley Vs. Team Baszler (2019)
Not only did Rhea Ripley‘s team vs. Shayna Baszler’s team make history at the 2019 NXT TakeOver: War Games, it did so in remarkable fashion.
The match was signed because Ripley and Baszler had been engaged in a war over the latter’s NXT Women’s Championship. This wasn’t a story of gang warfare, you see, hence why both “The Nightmare” and “The Queen of Spades” were asked to each pick three partners. They chose Candice LeRae, Tegan Nox, and Mia Yim, and Bianca Belair, Io Shirai, and Kay Lee Ray respectively, so even then, there was a bonus feud interjected between LeRae and Shirai.
As a match, though, it was sublime from start to end. It was inarguably one of the greatest cases of WWE’s first-time-ever-for-the-women moments to date.
Effectively, everything worked. Dakota Kai’s legendary heel turn on Tegan Nox – after she’d already mysteriously ambushed Mia Yim backstage, leading to her replacing the former RECKONING – was matched effortlessly by the incandescent brutality – pun very much intended – of Rhea Ripley, who entered, and almost instantaneously dropped Bianca Belair face-first on a trash can with such impact. It was a simplistic spot that worked tremendously well.
Furthermore, the likes of Io Shirai and Kay Lee Ray using the dual-ring setup to their high-flying advantage was a superlative addition; the former’s Moonsault off the cage onto both Bianca Belair and Candice LeRae remains an iconic part of modern NXT history.
That Rhea pinned Shayna off a Riptide across two chairs was the correct ending. It took nothing away from her ultimate NXT Women’s Championship capture a few weeks thereafter, either. It merely added to the excitement on a weekend that turned Rhea Ripley into a megastar. Her Survivor Series performance the next night was just as amazing, as was the ensuing Dakota Kai vs. Tegan Nox feud.
All in all, this was a rare moment of WWE getting a match, its setup, and its aftermath almost entirely correct.