Doctor’s Orders: The Greatest Matches and Rivalries in NXT Takeover History (Part 2)

Perhaps the most difficult decision that I had to make for my latest book, The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era, was to leave NXT out of the mix. The research phase of that project started two years prior to NXT becoming what we now know it to be and, because I think it fair to state that we are still developing a sense for how we are going to historically judge NXT against its main roster peers, particularly as it pertains to the yellow brand’s impact and scope, I just did not feel it was yet appropriate to put NXT on par with WWE proper or NWA/WCW lore.

Nevertheless, here I sit a former podcast host and on the brink of becoming a lazy part-time LOP columnist and I find myself fascinated by what NXT has accomplished over the past few years, with the Takeover franchise especially. The reputation that Takeover has built – counting on paper the number of classic matches for each card before the event with expectations of greatness fulfilled on the night – should astound any diehard WWE fan who, at times during the WrestleMania Era, has felt like Vince and Co. unnecessarily (and oddly) put a critical ceiling on its in-ring product. Bold statement time: Takeover has, based purely on what happens from bell-to-bell, produced nearly as many bonafide classic wrestling matches as WrestleMania already. I mean, cue the Holy you-know-what chant!

Having written what I am fairly certain was my final wrestling book page and, thus, feeling very confident that I will likely not be engaged with sports entertainment journalism long enough to someday integrate NXT into a massive project like The WrestleMania Era, I felt like NXT Takeover was something that I needed to explore through the Doctor’s Orders before entering an uncertain LOP future. Those of you who have followed my work over the long haul will probably appreciate that such fascination with anything wrestling related usually turns into a column series, and here we are.

For my book, I crafted a detailed formula to thoroughly assess the various aspects that shape how fans and pundits use the term “greatest.” To some in the business, for instance, Rock vs. Cena is the greatest match of all-time because it set the PPV buy mark, while others would say the greatest match is Austin vs. Bret because of the exemplary storytelling. Greatness should not be limited to a plethora “one or the other” positions (best vs. most popular or anything of the sort), such has been my stance during this entire decade, tackling the process of adding measures of objectivity to a topic deemed completely and utterly subjective and attempting to broaden the way that we have these conversations.

I took that formula and tweaked it to fit NXT Takeover. On a 1-5 star scale, appropriately, I graded the best match in each of the top rivalries in NXT history, picked from a pool of consensus classics, on the psychology, storytelling, selling, execution, and climax of their in-ring performances, their historic ramifications on NXT lore, the setting (as defined by a pre-made scale for crowd size), the strength of their pre-match build-up, and the rating given by Dave Meltzer to account for popular opinion, as well as a few additional points (not on a scale of 1-5, mind you) for any intangible qualities (i.e. a special entrance, an innovative move or sequence never before seen, a rivalry-befitting gimmick, etc.). The sum total of the scoring yields the rivalry’s standing, which will be continuously updated as this long-term process advances.

Rather than give you the list in its entirety as I have always done before, this project will be done more leisurely. I am picking the matches to watch at random, scoring them, and writing about them. When I have finished two, I will post the write-ups here and update the master list that will keep tabs on the rankings. NXT Takeover matches upcoming will be assessed roughly 4-6 weeks after they are initially viewed and then added into the pool. Who knows? It could become my lazy part-timer thing that I update for years, or perhaps it will end when I run out of matches to watch. I’m not sure, but I am having a blast with it so far and I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

Drew McIntyre vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas (w/ Zelina Vega) for the NXT Championship at Takeover: War Games
Psychology: 3.5 / Historic: 3 / Setting: 5 / Storytelling: 4 / Selling: 4 / Climax: 4 / Execution: 4.5 / Popular Opinion: 4 / Build: 3 / Intangibles: +1
Total Score: 36.0

NXT is unlikely to remember McIntyre for his contributions to its history. He had just two Takeover matches, but though both were 4-star efforts for the NXT Championship, he was unmemorably cast as a babyface when clearly he was the perfect “WWE guy” heel against more indy-influenced NXT protagonists, rendering him a rather dull character in an environment still very much known for the personalities it cultivates. That said, McIntyre’s in-ring performances were noteworthy for less overt reasons; namely, they were quite easily the best matches of his WWE career as of late 2018, at least in terms of their athleticism, execution, and sequencing.

Almas provided McIntyre an ideal dance partner. Drew is a true specimen with a vast array of physical tools that he can employ against a wide variety of opponents, and against Cien he was able to put on display how adept he is at working with a smaller, faster talent. The brisk pace at which Almas likes to work gave McIntyre the opportunity to showcase the upper limits of his athletic potential, not just with the impressive series of throws and the eye-popping jumping attacks/strikes, but also with his ability to keep up when Cien turned on the jets of his ultra-quick, super-slick sequencing and counter-wrestling. They had good chemistry at War Games, which translated to high scores for them in the storytelling, execution, and climax categories and allowed them to earn a respectable score to help validate their inclusion in this historical evaluation despite a distinct lack of engaging pre-match build-up or in-match psychology.

I see it as a shining example of what McIntyre could have brought to NXT had his run lasted the typical year to eighteen months. A heel turn and feuds with Aleister Black and Johnny Gargano could have potentially offered NXT lore two more candidates for discussion here, both of which would have been boosted by the Drew we see on Raw adding more emotional and psychological stakes.

If we alter the above narrative to be primarily focused on Cien instead of McIntyre, then it perhaps becomes one of the enduring legacy matches of Andrade’s impressive peak NXT run, which includes that absolutely terrific Takeover series with Johnny Wrestling.

The Undisputed Era vs. Ricochet, Pete Dunne, and The War Raiders in a War Games Match at NXT Takeover: War Games II
Psychology: 4 / Historic: 4.5 / Setting: 5 / Storytelling: 4.5 / Selling: 4 / Climax: 4 / Execution: 4.5 / Popular Opinion: 4.25 / Build: 3.75 / Intangibles: +3
Total Score: 41.5

This one is a beast to absorb and demands a huge amount of your time, and though there will be no rush for yours truly to catch it for a third time at any point in the near future, I did find committing the space in my life for it to be truly gratifying. Gone was the three-team dynamic from the first re-iteration in 2017, which looking back was not a great decision and the only reason why so few of us moaned and groaned about such an odd booking choice was that we were distracted by the mere fact that War Games was finally back at all. Even though the most recent one was the second, its return to form both in format and in tip-top execution makes it almost as historic as the gimmick’s comeback.

One could certainly question the run-time, as the early-going struggled to uphold the standard set by the NWA stylistic benefit of just sheer violence as the ring filled up. On replay, though, when you know that the first twenty minutes is just setting up the frantic, far better presented than last year in terms of production value War Games proper, in lieu of Submission or Surrender, the initial third-ish gets re-contextualized as “they were just gearing up to go long.” A very talented group of wrestlers, perhaps as Justin Ballard of Enuffa.com suggested the greatest collection of pure wrestling talent in the history of the vaunted stipulation, did a commendable job filling the final two-thirds with innovation aplenty, a few legitimate false finishes, very engaging overall action, and a wonderful stand-off between the teams moving into a rock solid climax.

The Undisputed Era channeled The Four Horsemen and The Dangerous Alliance and owned the responsibility of being the heel team that people have grown to love to hate, an especially important dynamic for War Games. It is possible that a faction of their upper-end value will never be duplicated in NXT. They had a truly fantastic summer of 2018 that should rightfully render them immortal to the yellow brand’s burgeoning history. It cannot be understated how much Roderick Strong has brought to the faction since he slickly turned heel in the spring of ’18. He will be remembered as the x-factor that put them over the top.

As for the babyfaces, they all shined in their own ways. In addition to The One and Only’s all-time great stunt, the subtle acknowledgment of respect between Ricochet and Dunne added depth to the storytelling and The War Raiders collective ability to move around the ring for men of their size paid fine tribute at least to what Killian Dain did in 2017.

Leaderboard

#1- War Games 2018 (41.5)
#2- Asuka vs. Moon (40.75)
#3- Almas vs. McIntyre (36.0)
#4- Four Horsewomen-Way (33.75)

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