Inside NXT WarGames

WARGAMES!

A concept lost within WWE properties for 17 years, it's since become an annual tradition for the last five. Started in the NWA territory that eventually became WCW, it wasn't just a pay-per-view or closed circuit spectacular, but a big live event attraction. However, with WCW effectively getting Thanos-snapped, so did the WarGames match.

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Sort of.

The concept re-emerged under different names in different companies. In 2003, MLW ran an honest-to-god WarGames titled extravaganza, complete with War Games vets Terry Funk and Dr. Death Steve Williams. The company would do the same in 2018, 15 years later. But how? Wasn't War Games a WCW property, and as a result a WWE property after the latter's acquisition? Not so fast, said MLW founder Court Bauer.

Now the WarGames name is safely nestled in the loving arms of WWE -- specifically Triple H and NXT. Outside of NXT, WWE has never run a WarGames match, instead, relying on their own Elimination Chamber structure for a different concept that they own. However, in 2017, WWE began running WarGames at the urging of Triple H.

For the first four years that it was brought back, the Undisputed Era were the fixtures, the final bosses. The main character in that integral faction was Adam Cole, who has gone on to join All Elite Wrestling. Being the guinea pig was a fun project for the breakout star.

"It was such an exciting, wild experience," Adam Cole told Fightful. "Especially the first time ‘cause I had just gotten to NXT. It was like my first Takeover match was a WarGames match. So, yeah, the process was very, very exciting. But, also, nerve-wracking. Again, you have a lot of bodies in there. But, when it comes to creatively coming up with it, in every sense of the word, it’s always been a massive team effort. In a lot of those matches, I’ve been in there with a bunch of creative minds, again Shawn Michaels has always been super, super helpful in every way that he can. But, from a group effort standpoint, surprisingly, it has never been too difficult. Just because, again, the guys who have been in those matches, are really, really smart and have been doing this for a long time. So, when you have that many people in there, not only creatively, but very excited for it, it makes it a piece of cake and really, really fun. That’s probably my favorite style of match, I think, in NXT when it comes to gimmick matches. I love the WarGames matches."

By Cole's side in each of those four matches was Kyle O'Reilly, fellow Undisputed Era member. Being thrown into a structure that hasn't been utilized ever in WWE is a daunting task. Even more daunting? The fact that the format was completely changed from the WCW version. Instead, 2017's saw a triple threat tag team match with Undisputed Era taking on AOP and Roderick Strong, as well as Sanity. O'Reilly recalled to Fightful being thrown all the curveballs.

"I couldn't believe they were going to do a WarGames match and then you get there and see it set up wIth two rings and a giant cage," O'Reilly told us. "The first one was three teams, so it was unique and different. To have done it four years, it's cool to be part of something that the entire brand has been built off of. It's not just a WarGames match, it's a WarGames TakeOver. It's become this full thing and it's a great opportunity to be part of something new and unique and special in this business. It's been done before, but it had been a while. It's cool to know that they trust you to make the most of it and represent the company and the match in a positive light."

As Undisputed Era were the primary antagonists, they had plenty of competition. The aforementioned Sanity trio featured Alexander Wolfe, fresh off of an insane NXT Takeover Brooklyn III showing that we'd affectionately refer to as "The Alexander Wolfe Performance" on Fightful -- a breakout performance from a star that perhaps hadn't been in position to show that particular skill set. Following up on that tag team title win, Wolfe was put in the ring with a categorically different role -- pure violence.

Axel Tischer, formerly Alexander Wolfe told us, "In that match, actually, I just do not feel that I showed all the stuff what I could do because we took the part of… We are not a wrestling [crew] and in the beginning of Sanity they have to tell me, ‘Hold back with the wrestling because you’re too smooth. You need to be a little more rugged like. Instead of just grabbing a headlock, you should try to pull his eye out or something like that. That being said, we just had Undisputed Era and AOP & Roderick Strong. So, you had a wrestling team, you had powerhouses, but we don’t care. So, we go down the last in the cage. EY is already beaten up. So, when we came up with the idea of, ‘Hey, how about you bring the weapons in and cause chaos with that?’ In the end, it turned out great. Also, I was very nervous because I used to train a little bit self-defense with the tonfa—like with the nightstick the police have. So, I had the idea if I could do a couple of those moves and I know how to hit them very hard in a safe place. I was lucky to get the jacket off and pull it out like a gun. ‘Cause, ‘Oh, he has something.’," Tischer said.

Even the best-laid plans will go awry, and they certainly did for Sanity and Tischer himself. Not only did Sanity not win the match, Tischer was busted open during the match. What's WarGames without a little blood, right? Those awry plans weren't so bad after all. It caused the crowd to sympathize with the typically unhinged character.

"The memories on that was good and I appreciate that a lot of fans got behind me in that part especially after I looked like a freaky zombie with all the blood over my head," Tischer laughed, "Which was a freak and lucky accident because I did not feel any pain because I was full of adrenaline. I was in the moment. I stick to the character, which gave him more adrenaline They let me continue. They didn’t take me out so I could finish the match and in the parts they needed. The fun part was I had to stay down because people saw that I continued and they appreciated that and chanted my name. But, it sucks when the other guys wanted to do something, so I had to stay a little bit down and then in the end, when the cameras went off, they kind of went nuts because I always stayed in this character. From curtain in, to curtain out, I tried to be that persona all the time. So, yeah. It was definitely a great match. I have great memories. If people have seen something from me that they liked and thought, ‘Okay, he can do something,’ I appreciate that as well because that’s the credits, in general, of all those guys had in the first WarGames match."

Even getting ready for a WarGames match, much less the first one is near the peak of NXT anxiety. One of the world's most famous match types, in what is often one of the biggest stages of the year for NXT. Not only that, but William Regal shouting "WARGAMES!" has become somewhat of a tradition. The shocked faces actually didn't have much time before to prepare, as Kyle O'Reilly recalls

"Shortly before Regal made the match, we had known about it, so it doesn't give you a ton of time to think about it. Every single year, I've gone on the Network to watch almost every WarGames match because they are fun and nostalgic and well done. If I can bring a little piece of it to the match, I'd be happy. I think it was WarGames 97, [Sean Waltman] comes in and is bumping all over and I wanted to channel that guy. He had his work boots on and was making everyone look great. That was where I was coming from." O'Reilly told us.

Waltman's performance comes up several times while speaking to talent for this feature. The smallest member of the New World Order in 1997, his work had to counter that of teammates such as Buff Bagwell, Konnan, and Kevin Nash. For Waltman, he was achieving something his good friend Triple H had dreamed of, and could only watch from a distance as he was in WWF at the time. The fact that Triple H wanted it wasn't lost on so many of the performers that he'd mentor in NXT.

"You could tell there is so much passion put in every single project, but WarGames, you can tell everyone is having a great time. The stress is always going to be there, but for some reason it's a little less on WarGames because we're all like, 'It's WarGames season, Yeah!'," former NXT Champion Raquel Gonzalez told us.

Axel Tischer added that most talent knew of Triple H's love of the concept. "I hear he had the plans before the first Elimination Chamber and then they created that deal. Yeah, creatively of course Triple H, in that position, he’s the man for sure. That he can have his own vision, what he thinks, what he wants to do and everything, it speaks for itself ‘cause NXT is amazing. NXT:UK, too. It’s more like the wrestling product which I more appreciate than the main roster stuff because personally I like wrestling and less entertainment. But, main roster is more entertainment because they want to put more butts into the seats. So, business wise it’s a smarter decision, I guess. But, NXT has a good balance of that. But, in the end, Triple H did a large part with helping us out with ideas in the way of we do not know how transition from here over to there because he and Shawn are both in charge with like they are there watching the rehearsals and out of nowhere comes this great idea of, ‘Hey, guys. Try to do this and that.’ It’s just like instead of a left turn, do a right turn and, ‘Wow. Really? Great.’ ‘Cause it’s better timing and the camera works better together. So, it’s that kind of a genius he is, and Shawn Michaels as well because they always give you that little bit you do not know, but you need to perfect something. They have the knowledge all over of the years of being on top and pass it on to the younger guys."

As Tischer mentioned, good pal of Sean Waltman and Triple H's, Shawn Michaels, has also been helpful towards the process. "They do a really good job inspiring us without fully telling us what to do. They're just like, 'here is the canvas and the paint, you guys paint your picture.' They have always been really pleased with everything we've created and hopefully those opportunities continue to come," O'Reilly said.

Plans change and plans go awry as highlighted earlier, but not just in the ring, with moves, or unfortunate bloodletting. In 2019, Adam Cole was in a particularly scary spot during a WarGames match. Production caught the reaction of his girlfriend, Dr. Britt Baker DMD. It was also referenced on commentary "that's Adam Cole's girlfriend!" It accelerated the moment, added gravity to it.....and wasn't supposed to happen. Baker was already a top star for NXT's Wednesday competition in All Elite Wrestling. After the event, Triple H himself told Fightful that certainly wasn't a part of his vision.

"The director that took the shot didn't know who it was, just went to the woman in the crowd that had the most concerned/crazy look on her face and he took the shot. The second he took the shot, somebody next to him, I'm sure said who [it was] and he got off the shot. I don't have a problem with it in any way, shape or form. Then, to not address it, it's the elephant in the room that you don't address. Now, it's weird, right? I would never want to put a talent in that position. I get why she's here. I get who she's here with. I would never want to put her in a position where I took a shot of her and it gets her heat or it gets her to have a problem with her employers and what she's doing. I wouldn't want that to be a problem for her, and it very easily could be," Triple H said.

Not only did it not give Baker any issues, it was parodied on All Elite Wrestling TV shortly after with Baker herself recreating the moment. Triple H still said he was fearful of the possibility, and Baker confirmed he was apologetic after the event, though she didn't believe the producer didn't know who it was.

Triple H continued, "When I saw it, at first, I was like, 'Oh my God, was that just Britt?' Then I'm like 'Ughhh,' cause I feel bad. I don't want to put anybody like that in a position where that could be problematic. It doesn't need to happen. I don't have a problem with [the shot] or it being on camera or saying [her name]. I just would never want it to be problematic for anyone else. I'm happy for her. She has a good thing going on, she's killing it. I certainly wouldn't want that to interfere with what she does."

Baker ended up as one of the top Google searches following the events.

The spot in question may have surprised Baker for a whole different reason, as NXT Champion Tommaso Ciampa tells it.

"Adam Cole is terrified of heights. Like, terrified," Ciampa told Fightful. "For rehearsal we wanted to go climb up to the top of the cage to see how sturdy it was. Not super sturdy. Went up there. You could definitely tell he had some nerves. Then when we went out there to do it live, there’s a moment where we’re both perched up there, kinda sitting or crouched and we know three table spots have to break or whatever. I can see them, but he can’t because he’s looking the other way. I’m literally having the conversation with him as calm as I can because I know how nervous he is. ‘Alright, so that was the Bobby Fish moonsault. Yup, now they’re setting up the superplex. It’s alright, man, I got you. So, when I pick you up, I’m gonna count to three and we’re gonna go. It’s gonna be okay. I promise, I got you.’ I’m literally lifting him and knowing, because of where we are the cameras aren’t picking up the audio, as I lift him I literally go, ‘Okay, one, two three, here we go.’ I did it in as calm and in a voice I would speak to (my daughter) in. To this day he’ll tell that story, too and it’s one of my favorite memories because he’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever shared a ring with."

That fear of heights, coupled with perhaps just a different mentality, has Adam Cole not thinking of crazy WarGames spots too far ahead of time. Instead, as it becomes more of a reality, then the ideas begin to flow. After four straight years in the match, it'd got to the point Cole just assumed he'd be in and taking a wild bump.

"Definitely as it gets closer," Cole said. "I used to think more about the future and stuff that I needed to accomplish. But, again, for two reasons. One, I’m learning to live in the moment more. So, often times I’ve been so preoccupied with currently what I’m doing that I’ll just be focused on that. Secondly, because it’s the pro wrestling industry. Stuff can change all the time. But, definitely, in the months leading up to it, once we get to two months out, I’m absolutely envisioning, ‘God, how can I fall off the cage this year?’"

But ya know what? It happens. In fact, even his own teammate in Undisputed Era, Roderick Strong, said his fondest WarGames memory was being beating up Cole before they joined forces.

"My number one memory is superplexing Adam off the top of the cage," Roderick Strong told Fightful. "I'm scared of heights, I know he's scared of heights, it's one of those things where you don't even realize how high it is until you are up there. Adrenaline is so crazy where it's like, 'I don't even care.' I've never free fallen off of anything in my life except in that moment, especially backwards when I couldn't see. The one where the Viking Raiders took a bad bump, it's to be expected. In those matches, it's chaos and carnage and that's the exciting part about it. You're not going in there not thinking you might get banged up. You go in there expecting the worst and hoping you come out as unscathed as you can. I love WarGames, it's awesome. Four in a row, it's insane."

Tischer, who was only in one WarGames match, distinctly remembers the process of cooking up innovative, violent ideas.

"With the WarGames match, we had the build up of the cage in the warehouse Performance Center and we had the chance to go in there and just spitballing ideas and putting it together. We had everything together and then we passed it on. It goes to Triple H and he watches it over it over and he says blah-blah-blah. The vast majority of the match got through with like, ‘Okay, that’s a good idea.’ Because you had so many great minds in that match. Undisputed Era, tons of experience. We had a lot of experience as well. So, everybody was working so good together and even fed moves to each other. ‘Hey, you can that move. You can do this to me. We place it right here and right there.’ Everything flowed so good.The only pain in the ass was the production. Because we had to bring it on paper. We had it in our heads, but then we had to bring in production and right in the match as well, we had our cues and all the, ‘Make that happen and that’s why we go over there.’ But, then we did not plan for the replays, so that ruined the rhythm of the match. Which, you probably will know when you watch it. Maybe now when you watch it. That was a little bit of a bummer. Because we all tried to give the 100% perfect. We want it picture perfect. No wrinkle, no glitch, no nothing," Tischer said.

It's not only the death-defying breathtaking moments that capture the emotion of the stars involved. Tommaso Ciampa has had his fair share of those -- and one in mind for this feature -- but there are sentimental images he holds close to his heart with those he loves, and those he respects.

"One, there’s a photo that was taken, it was off to the right side of the entrance—a fan took this photo—and it overshoots my wife holding Willow and looking at me entering the cage. I still have it. I have no idea who took it, but my God, I love that photo. Another one is, so Kevin Owens is one of my favorite people in wrestling, after the match just standing on the ramp with him, we shared some words. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that, that was really cool. To think of the production of it being WarGames and we’re all just killing each other, and me and him are counting one-two-three before we jump off the top. WarGames is always great. It’ll be exciting to see what they do this year for it as well," Ciampa said.

The excitement of WarGames isn't just for the boys. A huge part of Raquel Gonzalez's ascent towards the NXT Women's Championship was a huge WarGames win. She's also slated for this year's event, so the feeling won't be strange to her.

"It's always a battle, mentally, to stay focused before any big match because there is so much going on and you want to stay focus on your opponent and your objective, which is obviously to win in the ring," Gonzalez told Fightful. "With WarGames, you have teammates and it's not just you and your tag partner. There are two other people you're also trying to help and protect while still taking care of your four opponents. WarGames was absolute insanity. It was so much fun and so cool. Even just being put in the cage and waiting to come out, there is so much adrenaline and excitement running through your veins, you're just ready to get your hands on anyone. There is so much excitement and it was one of the best experiences I've had in my career. It was amazing to be a part of that."

NXT WarGames isn't WCW WarGames, and it's not supposed to be. It's been adjusted, tinkered with, expanded for a modern day audience. With NXT itself experiencing much of the same, we can only guess what kind of changes will be in store. The NXT WarGames as we knew it the first four years helped launch the brand into a prime-time cable program. Tischer recalled those special feelings, and one of the changes.

"It was definitely one of my career highlights. It was not only the first time I had the chance to main event Takeover with all those amazing other guys. It was the first WarGames match for NXT and, so-to-speak, WWE. The newer concept just got an amazing reaction. Some people hated it because they took the roof off. Now people dig it and do not want to get the roof back," Tischer said, closing us off.

We're not sure what the future holds for NXT, but it looks like WarGames will remain a part of it. This Sunday, we see several who helped usher in this new generation of the violent structure take on those who seem to be carrying the torch.

NXT WarGames takes place Sunday, December 5, and can be seen on Peacock.

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