Coming off a week where All Elite Wrestling pulled out all the stops to ensure as many viewers as possible tuned into the “Winter is Coming” Dynamite, NXT really needed its signature TakeOver War Games event to stand out. War Games is one of the brand’s most noteworthy events throughout the year and they needed it to create enough buzz to shift some of the focus back toward them as we head into the new week; we’ll soon find out for certain how much drawing power AEW’s “Winter is Coming” actually has with wrestling fans.
Unfortunately it’s unclear if what NXT set up on TV Wednesday, combined with War Games, was enough to steal some of the spotlight from the Tuesday-Wednesday Omega double-dip, in addition to Sting’s already advertised Dynamite segment. “Unfortunately,” meaning that despite the men’s and women’s War Games matches over-delivering and keeping their end of the deal in terms of wrestling entertainment, the middle of the show either lagged or languished within its lack of stakes. Overall, aside from the main event featuring the Undisputed Era and Pac McAfee’s crew, the totality of the show didn’t quite hit the TakeOver standard we’ve become accustomed to over the years.
As a physical wrestling encounter, the women shined brightly in the opening War Games match. The women’s War Games tend to be more creatively booked in terms of pacing, logic and action, although if I never see someone do a flying crossbody off the top of a cage while inside a trash can again in my life, that would be a good thing. The margin of error is too slim for that dangerous spot. Just don’t — this isn’t ECW. It would also seem Candice LeRae didn’t escape without a major injury (which occurred at some point).
While the action itself was good, where it fell a part compared to last year’s match is its storytelling and a baffling ending that does very little other than to establish another short-term contender to feed stalwart champ Io Shirai. Moreover, with the ending being a miss it took away from the rest of the match regardless of the final spot that saw Raquel Gonzalez super chokeslam Shirai through a table onto the middle divider between both rings. All the women who performed looked good, but the creative side held the match as a whole back. Much of it was typical War Games booking, nothing too far out of the box as a whole. But the ending spiked the match.
In the middle of the PPV we had a trio of matches: the triple threat between Ruff, Gargano and Priest for the North American title, Ciampa and Thatcher, and Grimes and Lumis. Mirroring the opener, all these matches were physically impressive matches. Everyone worked hard and did well within the isolated stories their matches were telling. The problem is if we widen the scope to capture a larger snapshot of what’s happening, all of these feuds aside from Gargano’s don’t feel important, with Ruff’s inclusion feeling more like a throw-in to fuel the primary feud between Gargano and Priest. The belt, although it’s a prop technically, if you’re booking the belts correctly it should not feel like a prop. To have Ruff win the belt only to drop it serves no foreseeable long term purpose, and if you disagree, then ask yourself what he does next.
Ciampa-Thatcher and Lumis-Grimes were again, good matches, but both were lacking a serious narrative hook. For all intents and purposes, Ciampa and Thatcher was a great, hard-hitting match. Yet, comparing it to something like Ciampa’s feud with Gargano, it lacks the emotional gravity that pushes matches to the next level. Both beat each other into pulpy masses, but in the end that isn’t enough.
Comparatively Lumis and Grimes’ strap match was good. However, with Cody Rhodes and Brodie Lee recently doing one on AEW television, NXT’s fell short of that bar. Consequently the match felt subpar in the absence of a real reason for using the strap in the historical context. This is one of the longer term stories on NXT TV, but if this was the blowoff match for their feud then it was flubbed. Again, comparing to the Rhodes-Lee match, it didn’t check off nearly as many boxes in the context of how strap matches have been used.
Finally, the men’s War Games match paid off (probably not, actually. Keep Pat on TV forever) months of build and vitriol between McAfee and the Undisputed Era that surpassed the women’s opener, only because the ending was far more coherent by comparison and better executed. All eight wrestlers stood out and told their stories, complemented by various moments where Pat was cornered and nearly received his comeuppance.
The opening portion with O’Reilly and Dunne was amazing technical wrestling, the booking of the actual match was solid and in this case the right team won in a story it can be presumed will continue until McAfee somehow finally picks up a win over Cole. The ending was near poetic in its violent execution, and while Lorcan did appear to get hurt on the final spot, it’s not nearly as dangerous as the spots Shirai was involved in, especially the end on the divider (See: British Bulldog’s injury in WCW. Remember, the object is to not actually die). To sum it up, execution-wise, it was the best match on the card with no real holes in it.
Now the problem: what’s the next move? What are the payoffs and more succinctly what are the stakes here? We recently published a piece detailing NXT’s growing inconsequential presence. In it we talk about the noticeable shift in NXT’s presentation since moving to television, and moreover how everything feels different from its former self and more in line with mainline WWE. It’s still distinct and has its unique pieces, but more and more I’d agree that NXT is falling into the same short-term booking traps that Raw and Smackdown do. For example, the men being in War Games makes complete sense. Cole and McAfee have been at each other’s throats for quite a while so it’s logical to stick them into the most violent cage match possible to attempt to squash the beef. Again, all eight men performed exceptionally well here.
However, the women’s match didn’t make sense. Why does Toni Storm turning make sense? Why was Io Shirai not one of the forerunners in kicking off the road to War Games? She is the champion after all, correct? Moreover, why was she even included? This show needed some title defenses and she should have probably defended with Finn Balor on the shelf. There are definite story threads to pick up, but the match lacked the narrative substance the men’s match did.
The endings were conclusive opposites; it’s uncertain with the heels winning if LeRae’s injury affected the outcome, but with the final spot seeming choregraphed it’s a little bit more apparent the ending went as planned. And if so, Gonzalez pinning the NXT champion over Kai, LeRae and Storm makes zero sense long term. If you wanted to sew another thread to knit more fans into the narratives ahead of Wednesday, that was the chance. Literally any of the other three would have been a better choice to pin the longtime champion. If the result is Gonzalez and Shirai having a match Wednesday, even if it’s to set up a future match between Shirai and Kai, they’re about to be outdrawn by a 61-year-old Sting.
N(e)Xt Move is Yours, Papa H
This was NXT’s opportunity to respond to AEW in a way that sets up a reason for tweener fans to tune into NXT on Wednesday, and that didn’t happen. AEW, with what has already been announced for the show, should not under any circumstances draw less viewers than last week’s Winter is Coming special. NXT, under no circumstances, should be in the neighbourhood of AEW’s final viewership this coming week because they have done very little to incentivize fans to watch their program over Dynamite. Sting and Omega explaining himself are flat-out trump cards for the 913K who watched Dynamite last week; it could even be argued that Dynamite losing any viewers at all this week is a loss. Last week’s show was that important to AEW moving ahead, and this week is a barometer of that show’s success.
Breaking down this show and what it means for NXT, we need to dissect the outcomes. What does Gonzalez pinning Shirai lead to? What does the ending to Lumis-Grimes lead to? Did it draw and is it worth continuing? What’s going to be new with Gargano and Priest? Ciampa and Thatcher? Undisputed Era and McAfee won’t disappear, and that’s for the best. Looking at these elements, what is a hook for watching NXT Wednesday?
Balor returning to — as much I love Balor’s work — repeat the same promo he uttered multiple times over the last year? The Karrion Kross and Scarlett return is coming, but a dangled carrot for something that MAY happen isn’t enough. Piece by piece, as good as TakeOver was from an actual wrestling standpoint, the narrative threads fray. If we were to equate this to fishing, there isn’t any real bait to hook anyone other than devout WWE fans into their program this week. It’s an unfortunate reality.
If we look at the combined NXT and AEW audience numbers like we did last week, from show to show the only way to explain the huge swings or slight declines is that there is a defined base of viewers who mostly shift between shows during their airing (combined with others who outright just choose to not watch either on any given week — like ones where both draw less than 800K). That means there is a group of fans who aren’t necessarily going to have preconceived which show they’re going to watch, and if they have, they can be easily swayed into watching one over the other depending on what’s trending. That needs to be taken advantage of.
This puts NXT behind the 8 ball without any consequential threads to seriously pick up, and forces the NXT braintrust to pack together an explosive show. They need to setup Kross. They need to, if Balor can go, setup a rematch with O’Reilly that night, have Kyle win only to be destroyed by the returning Kross. These are things they can do to capture eyeballs from AEW, pitting Shirai potentially against Gonzalez simply isn’t the answer. Ultimately, if that isn’t even paid off, then what was the point of the ending of that match?
Last week during a media call HHH said that NXT was working off a plan that fully establishes them within the next 10-15 years, reiterating previous statements that this “race” is a marathon. The irony in his thought process though is the group’s operating like AEW isn’t also building up its own future through its own development projects. Is it leagues behind NXT developmentally? Certainly so. But it is happening nonetheless and to assume that over time NXT will automatically eclipse AEW consistently is presumptuous.
That same belief presumes, as NXT has slowly slipped toward, that companies can book in the mainline WWE style mere weeks at a time or on one, two or three-week cycles. It presumes to hold events at specific times of the year when it doesn’t make sense, which we broke down quite well this weekend. Pretense has become harmful to WWE and now NXT, and part of the solution for them to resume their position as the industry leader is admitting that their operation is fundamentally flawed. Otherwise, whether this is a marathon or a sprint, the end result will be the same as it is 81% of Wednesday nights.