It was one of the biggest weekends of the year for WWE. Maybe even one of the biggest weekends of the last few years.
If the main goal was to put NXT over in a big way -- and it sure seemed to be -- then TakeOver WarGames on Saturday and Survivor Series on Sunday were a monstrous success. TakeOver was one of the best big WWE Network shows of the year and it was followed by one of the best Survivor Series cards in recent memory. NXT, with four wins, came out on top over SmackDown (two) and Raw (one) on Sunday.
As a brand, NXT was the big winner, and it'll be really interesting to see how its huge push bears out moving forward as it continues to compete with new wrestling organization AEW on Wednesday nights. Meanwhile, WWE didn't do nearly as much for its hallmark brands Raw and SmackDown at Survivor Series, but individuals from both brands did have their moments.
Which wrestlers came out of the last huge pro wrestling weekend of 2019 the best?
Adam Cole certainly had an incredible week and Tommaso Ciampa was made to look like a big deal, but it's hard to argue that not a single man on any WWE roster came away from this weekend appearing to be a bigger star than Lee. He was one of three men in the ring during the Survivor Series five-on-five-on-five match with two of the biggest names in pro wrestling right now: Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins. We're talking former WWE Universal champions, brand ambassadors who headlined WrestleMania, and Lee, who up until 2018 was a popular mainstay of the independent wrestling scene.
It was wild seeing someone like Lee, who worked for years to make it to this level, with guys who have the pedigree and achievements (and stardom) of Reigns and Rollins. The Chicago crowd surely appreciated it, too. They were behind Lee from the TakeOver: WarGames match Saturday -- when he was the most over man in the double cage -- to the Survivor Series match Sunday. Lee even got a clean pin on Rollins before succumbing to Reigns. All of this adds up and surely means that WWE has big future plans for Lee, no matter what brand he represents.
It's easy to see why, too. Lee checks every box. He has the size, look, charisma, the microphone skills, the athleticism and the in-ring work. Strap that rocket to his back. Just make sure it's an XXL.
There were some eyebrows raised when WWE signed Baszler in 2017, especially among those who followed her mixed martial arts career. Baszler was a pioneer of women's MMA. She had a 14-year career and was released by the UFC in 2015 after four straight losses. Baszler was one of the best in the world in her athletic prime, but women were not allowed to fight in the UFC until late in her MMA career. That was a stroke of bad luck, because the biggest MMA fan base didn't get to see Baszler at her best.
That's also why Baszler's ascent in WWE has been so impressive and why her winning the main event at Survivor Series (over Bayley and Becky Lynch) would have been a complete shock two years ago. Pro wrestling is Baszler's second career. She trained in the art during her MMA career and is a catch wrestling master, taught by Josh Barnett and the legendary Billy Robinson. Baszler is now 39 years old and had a full, accomplished MMA career before making the move to pro wrestling. And here she is choking out Bayley in front of more than 13,000 in Chicago in the main event of a one of the WWE's big four pay-per-views.
Just like Lee, it's a sign that WWE (especially Triple H, a longtime advocate of Baszler's skills) is fully behind her. Baszler, in many ways, has been booked as the best women's wrestler in the world, maybe only behind her friend and training partner Ronda Rousey. It'll be very interesting to see what is next for Baszler as she continues to thrive in the squared circle.
Rhea Ripley's past five days:
On Wednesday, Ripley wrestled Becky Lynch on NXT
On Friday's SmackDown, Ripley defeated two of the most decorated champions of the last decade in the WWE, Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair, in a triple threat match
Saturday night featured the first Women's WarGames match, and the team captained by Ripley, despite being down to 2-on-4, won.
And on Sunday, a women's team, once again captained by Ripley, won a 5-on-5-on-5 elimination match to set NXT on the course to victory at the Survivor Series.
Ripley shined in her second Mae Young Classic appearance in 2018, in which her semifinal match against Io Shirai opened a lot of eyes, then became the inaugural NXT U.K. women's champion in late 2018. Her shift to the flagship NXT brand has only been filled with more of the same sweeping success, with a look, character and in-ring style that screams main eventer from the rooftops. Ripley took full advantage of being center stage throughout the NXT invasion and positioned herself for a run at Shayna Baszler and the NXT women's title by pinning Baszler at NXT TakeOver: WarGames.
Ripley is perfectly aligned to be the one to end Baszler's run of more than a year with the belt, and she'd be doing it against a champion who had a big few weeks of her own. Some would have wilted from overexposure after being put in so many big spots, but Ripley stepped up to the moment and proved she has what it takes to be a seismic force in women's wrestling over the next few years.
Oh, and she's only just turned 23 years old.
All Adam Cole did on Sunday was compete in an NXT championship defense against Pete Dunne and steal the show out from underneath everyone on all three brands. For all of the stories and tremendous moments throughout the night, Cole and Dunne woke up an occasionally quiet crowd with 14 jam-packed minutes of wrestling magic. From a Panama Sunrise on the apron to a similar counter to Dunne's Bitter End, Cole proved why he's in the top tier of in-ring performers in the wrestling business today.
It was the culmination of a rather unreal stretch for Cole. At the start of the month, Cole beat Daniel Bryan in the main event of SmackDown and then faced Seth Rollins the following Monday on Raw. This week alone, he won a ladder match against Dominik Dijakovic ahead of WarGames on Wednesday, beat The New Day and Heavy Machinery in an eight-man tag team match on SmackDown, and then took one of the craziest falls imaginable as the victim of a Tommaso Ciampa air raid crash from the top of the WarGames cage on Saturday.
Less than 24 hours after that stunt, Cole went out and stole the show. It's been his M.O. since joining the WWE, from his debut in Brooklyn in 2017, through every close call, his breakout year in 2018 and his final climb to the top in 2019. Cole is a guy that you can put anywhere on a card and count on him to exceed all expectations, but anywhere he lands outside of the main event is likely only going to be to the detriment of anyone who has to follow him.
A proper rivalry with Ciampa is likely to stretch into 2020, and with the depth of the current NXT roster, Cole will be able to show out at every opportunity given to him in NXT. Whether that means anchoring NXT for the foreseeable future or moving his show (and likely the rest of The Undisputed Era) over to Raw or SmackDown somewhere down the line, if he doesn't have a prominent spot on the WrestleMania 36 card, it would have to be considered a letdown.
It feels like it has been awhile since Reigns was standing tall at the end of a big match on one of the biggest shows of the year. On Sunday, Reigns was the sole survivor in the five-on-five-on-five elimination match pitting Reigns' SmackDown squad against Raw and NXT. Reigns pinned Lee with a Spear to earn the victory.
Reigns has not been the face of WWE since he had to take time off to battle leukemia last year. His comeback from that ordeal has been nothing short of incredible. And it seems like he is ready to take his place as the promotion's chosen one again. With SmackDown on Fox and in front of more eyeballs than any other brand, Reigns will surely have a pivotal role moving into WrestleMania season. This appears to be just the start of a monster push.
Could it be Reigns vs. The Fiend at WrestleMania in April? If so, the Survivor Series might have been Reigns' latest jumping-off point. First, though, Reigns has unfinished business with Baron Corbin after they had intra-SmackDown beef Sunday night. They'll likely meet at TLC on Dec. 15 in a gimmick match.
There was only a handful of winners outside of the NXT locker room on Sunday night, but you can definitely count Sasha Banks among them. She was the last woman standing on Team SmackDown in the women's 5-on-5-on-5 elimination match, and it took a conspiracy between three women from the NXT team to finally put her out.
Up to that point, Banks had had a masterful night. She was flying around the ring, hitting double knees and giving and taking high-flying moves throughout the match. She earned three eliminations, including two of the most memorable knockouts of the night -- a double submission with Natalya to knock out Toni Storm, and then a Hart Attack to take out Bianca Belair.
More importantly, she reminded us of two key things: her cunning and ruthlessness, on full display when she took out Natalya after those two moves, as well as an air of importance that should serve her well moving forward. Since her return in September, Banks had two great matches against Becky Lynch, but still hadn't had a defining moment since her move to SmackDown. With the SmackDown women's championship picture seemingly wide open, the potential of trying to either seize the spotlight and the title from Bayley immediately or lining up a longer plan to do so looms large.
Even in defeat, Banks sent a reminder to everyone that she's a top-level talent that shouldn't be ignored.
Raw's winners: Viking Raiders
You have to search pretty far and wide to find a pure winner on the Raw side of things, so the natural place to turn is the only element of Team Raw that scored any points on Sunday night -- the Viking Raiders.
Along with The Undisputed Era and The New Day, the Viking Raiders accomplished a great deal in what could easily have been a throwaway spot on the Kickoff show. It was sadly a throwback to a period in which tag teams were unfortunately shunted to the pre-show period for long stretches, before New Day and The Usos made the tag team titles undeniable.
Even as the last few fans filed into the Allstate Arena, Erik, Ivar, Big E, Kofi Kingston, Bobby Fish and Kyle O'Reilly had a chip on their shoulders and ultimately proved to be the perfect primer for the start of the main pay-per-view card. Erik and Ivar settled into a familiar pattern with pre-WWE rivals Fish and O'Reilly, and impressively slid into a comfort zone with New Day despite very limited history.
Their fluidity and strength are a powerful combination, and Sunday's showcase proved the Viking Raiders have everything it takes to bring stability and value back to tag titles that have far too often been passed around like a hot potato in 2019, if given the chance.