HOUSTON -- NXT TakeOver: War Games might not go on to be known as the greatest TakeOver of all time or having had the grandest crowd or most technical classics. But when it comes to moments that will live well beyond one Saturday night, War Games will, at the very least, match up with the best of them.
It will be known for the shocking title change, as Andrade "Cien" Almas shocked the world, and the night that Asuka symbolically handed over the NXT women's division to Ember Moon with the women's title. But perhaps even before those landscape-shifting victories, two images of the first War Games match in almost two decades will immediately come to mind when we all look back at this night in Houston.
Roderick Strong suplexing Adam Cole effortlessly from the top of the cage onto most of the other participants, and for the live crowd who got to see everyone slowly rise from a crumpled heap in the arena as the cage lifted, a moment of raucous applause for a bloodied and battered Alexander Wolfe. After getting sliced open garishly following a suplex off the top rope through tables went awry, he was carried out of the ring and up the ramp by Killian Dain and Eric Young to loud "Wolfe" chants from the remaining crowd -- and most stayed to pay their respects.
Undisputed Era (Adam Cole, Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish) def. SAnitY and the Authors of Pain with Roderick Strong (Cole pins Eric Young)
If there was a question in anyone's mind whether or not this triumvirate of trios had earned such a huge platform, it was quickly silenced by all nine men's willingness to throw caution to the wind over and over again for the better part of an hour. Sure, there were complaints about there being no top to the cage, most likely forgotten after Strong and Cole's leap of faith, and the shark cages took a little explaining, but given the various restraints and freedoms having two rings and a cage provides, it would've been hard to ask much more of anyone involved.
The pace of the match only dragged a couple of times in the match, and for the most part, the match had a flow to it amidst the chaos. The one-on-one-on-one moved into a huge advantage for Cole, Bobby Fish and Kyle O'Reilly, but the timing of the releases of each of the shark cages came at intervals that changed the pace beautifully. Introducing weapons was a creative turn, as well, and helped accentuate certain moments in just the right way -- most memorably when Dain hit the unlikeliest of "Coast-to-Coasts" and somehow managed not to crush O'Reilly entirely.
This was well thought out, and with the exception of Wolfe's injury, everything seemed to go off without a hitch. The big men showed their strengths by handling two men at a time, superior versions of finishers flew all over the place -- including a memorable supercollider from the Authors of Pain that squished Dain in between Fish and O'Reilly at the edge of opposite rings -- and everyone left the ring no worse for the wear going forward, outside of the obvious physical damage done.
The future, in this particular case at least, seems somewhat of a given. We'll get Strong versus Cole, and Fish and O'Reilly seem likely challengers for the tag team titles. The Authors of Pain might be closer to the main roster than most realize too. Sure, Cole hit his flying knee on Young to pick up the victory in the end, but all nine men in the match merely seemed to survive -- and somehow, all came out better than they looked going in.
Andrade "Cien" Almas def. Drew McIntyre via pinfall to win NXT championship
An abrupt and truly surprising end to a promising NXT title reign for McIntyre seemed completely contrary to everything that led up to his match against Almas, but if this truly was an audible called because of McIntyre's reported injury, it was as clean a way to do it as you're going to get in a pinch.
Leading up to that top rope, trapped-arm DDT, Almas and McIntyre traded two of the most believable near-falls in recent memory -- each had at least some of the crowd convinced that the match was over. Almas got his chance to shine opposite a game McIntyre, and instead of losing as he did to Bobby Roode, Austin Aries and others along the way, Almas got to flash some wild offense, such as a blind moonsault from the top rope to the outside, and hoist the gold at the end of the night.
As solid and as well-matched as McIntyre and Almas were -- and boy, were they, with Almas bumping like crazy and McIntyre not far behind -- Zelina Vegas was the secret ingredient in this formula. Rather than simple distractions, Vega twice attacked McIntyre -- once successfully -- and proved a manager or representative doesn't have to be a passive contributor to the equation. No matter how long Almas' title reign might stretch on, the combination with Vega should make for a potent heel pairing going forward.
Here's to hoping that McIntyre, if he's as badly hurt as surmised by Triple H after the event, is back to throwing suplexes over his head in no time.
Ember Moon def. Kairi Sane, Peyton Royce and Nikki Cross to win NXT women's championship
If you want an example of squeezing absolutely everything you can into a 10-minute match, this would be a fine example of such an effort. The fireworks started when Moon powerbombed Nikki Cross onto the floor, and they didn't really let up until Moon landed a dual Eclipse on two opponents that ultimately led her to victory.
After two unsuccessful shots at Asuka and the title -- each a war in their own right -- it was all too fitting that Asuka insisted on handing over the title she vacated to essentially hand over the keys to the kingdom.
But back to the crazy spots, if only for one more moment. Kairi Sane hit her In-Sane elbow on two opponents. Royce finished off a tower of doom spot with a picture-perfect German suplex, instead of a vertical suplex. Everyone hit their finishers, and Cross even hit a modified, top-rope hangman's version of her neckbreaker. Even if most figured Moon would walk away with the title, the haymakers cast back and forth throughout the match held that all in doubt.
While Cross and Sane came out of the NXT women's championship match perfectly fine, Royce essentially inherited Moon's unfortunate crown of never being able to win "the big one." Between her and Billie Kay, who was absent for the match outside of their collective entrance, something seemingly has to give in terms of where they head in the future.
Aleister Black def. Velveteen Dream via pinfall
While so many careers seemingly turned on one night's worth of matches, the biggest move forward could easily belong to Velveteen Dream. It was a match made to be an absolute coming-out party against Aleister Black, and both men delivered.
Not only did Dream go blow for blow with the kickboxing expert, but he absolutely held the crowd in the palm of his hand by the end of the match -- and most of it came in moments that didn't involve any direct offense at all. From the moment Dream stepped out from behind the curtain wearing Rick Rude-esque airbrushed pants with his face on one side and Black's on the other, it was easy to sense this wasn't going to be an ordinary match. When Dream did the Rude hip swivel, our thoughts were confirmed.
Each man exchanged taunts -- particularly weird, yet appropriate, when Black challenged Dream back -- but the build in energy from the crowd and the animosity that followed in the ring absolutely set the stage for a thrilling finish. The balanced back-and-forth led to kicks, knees, superkick replies and, finally, a Black Mass kick from Black that seemed far more desperate than any he'd had to throw before.
Black's postmatch statement, "Enjoy infamy, Velveteen Dream," was as symbolic of Dream's true arrival to the NXT hierarchy as any high-flying move Dream pulled off in the match -- and his future couldn't be much brighter.
Lars Sullivan def. Kassius Ohno via pinfall
Lars Sullivan made a statement by absorbing punishment for the vast majority of a five-minute match with Kassius Ohno by turning it all around on a whim, shaking it all off and planting the considerably sized Ohno for a convincing victory -- the most significant of his run so far.
Ohno pushed Sullivan far harder than anyone who came before in the long line of cannon fodder for the giant, but it has become increasingly easier to question where Ohno's future in NXT is headed. It's not quite time for desperation, but he could be reaching a crossroads soon enough. Between Ohno and the long-absent Hideo Itami, it's getting close to do-or-die time for some of NXT's most experienced in-ring veterans.