Note: The Ringer has a working relationship with WWE.
WarGames, the two-ring steel cage match format that had its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s in the NWA and WCW, and in recent years in NXT, will be featured at WWE’s November event, newly titled Survivor Series WarGames. There will be two WarGames matches highlighting the Survivor Series card, The Ringer learned in an exclusive interview with WWE chief content officer Paul “Triple H” Levesque.
“We’ll have a men’s WarGames match and a women’s WarGames match. The tradition of the Survivor Series has ebbed and flowed and changed slightly over time, but this will be similar to that,” Levesque said. “This will not be Raw versus SmackDown. It will be much more story-line driven. I still look at it as a traditional component to Survivor Series in there because it’s large teams of people competing. We just upped the ante a little bit with WarGames and made it evolve.”
The premium live event, scheduled for Saturday, November 26, at TD Garden in Boston, will dispatch with the traditional Survivor Series format and replace it with the cage matches that were legendary in the realm of WWE’s then-rival, WCW, originally known as Jim Crockett Promotions, the standard-bearer of the old NWA.
From the start, the Survivor Series and its signature format—an elimination tag team bout generally pitting teams of four or five wrestlers against one another—was born of necessity. Crockett was planning to run Starrcade ’87 on pay-per-view, and it would be their first use of pay-per-view—previous Starrcade events reached a smaller audience via closed-circuit TV—and the then-WWF supposedly wanted to derail Crockett’s event by counterprogramming its own pay-per-view event on the same night.
The resulting Survivor Series outsold Starrcade in terms of PPV buys and established itself as the second tentpole in today’s four-supershow rotation, headlined by WrestleMania, with Royal Rumble and SummerSlam joining the calendar in 1988. Its format evolved from a show consisting entirely of elimination matches—which could feature multiple or sole survivors winning the day for their squads—to one that featured world title matches, tournaments, and even the first Elimination Chamber match in WWE history. (Arguably the two most memorable moments in Survivor Series history were not Survivor Series matches at all, but rather the 1997 edition’s “Montreal Screwjob,” in which Bret Hart lost the world title to Shawn Michaels through the intervention of Vince McMahon, and the hatching of the chicken-suited Gobbledy Gooker in 1990.) Few Survivor Series elimination tags, including the Raw versus SmackDown matches that became the standard starting in 2016, established themselves as instant classics, even though they had their share of memorable moments and did allow various feuds, such as the Hogan-Andre story line that carried over from WrestleMania III, to continue to develop.
The WarGames match, by contrast, has been responsible for many all-time great moments. It too was born of necessity in 1987, one of many innovations utilized by wrestler and Jim Crockett Promotions booker Dusty Rhodes to help the undercapitalized company compete with McMahon’s rapidly expanding WWE. Rhodes, who died in 2015, had said the idea for the match came to him after he saw the gladiatorial arena in George Miller’s 1985 postapocalyptic film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Rhodes was a Texan whose primary success came in the wrestling territories of the American South, where cage matches were seen as an optimal way to end bloody feuds by locking hated rivals together in a chicken-wire structure that could sometimes take hours to assemble. In this case, Rhodes needed a structure sufficient to contain JCP’s hottest feud—Rhodes and his allies Nikita Koloff, the Road Warriors, and manager Paul Ellering against the Four Horsemen and J.J. Dillon.
According to Levesque, “I love the original ones, the very first ones, with the Horsemen and Dusty and the Road Warriors and everybody else. Those were always my favorites. It was a different time in the business, a simpler time in the business.”
Levesque says that it’s his lifelong pro wrestling fandom that keeps bringing him back to WarGames, and he made this decision by approaching it as a fan. “One of the things that Vince used to always say is if you put yourself in the seats, you could never go wrong. Now, all fans have different points of view. All you gotta do is go online now and you’ll see every single person has a different point of view and they’re happy to express it. But I think if you go out there and you think, What would you wanna see? If you’re a fan and you just love what we do, what would you want to see?”
Rhodes, who originally envisioned WarGames as a large covered cage that encompassed two wrestling rings, had a solution to the problem that would enable the match to be held throughout JCP’s house circuit. He assigned the task of developing a fully assembled cage that could be dropped from the ceiling and reused from location to location to “Klondike” Bill Soloweyko, a 6-foot, 365-pound wrestler known in competitive eating circles for downing two 72-ounce “Big Texan” steaks in a single sitting, and who enjoyed a solid mat career in the 1960s before settling into a backstage role assembling rings for the Crocketts.
The first WarGames match followed Rhodes’s preferred ruleset, one that he thought suited the nature of the confined structure: One member of each five-man team (the same number as would participate in the Survivor Series tag matches later that year) starts inside the cage, which has locked doors on either side. Because these competitors are supposed to hate each other, the match should be a vicious brawl from the outset—there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, so they can slam each other into the cage, gouge each other’s eyes, and so on. When five minutes have passed, one of the doors is unlocked and a member from the team that won a “coin flip” (usually a heel, so they can fire up the crowd) enters the ring and a two-on-one fight ensues—a handicap match in which the solo participant is brutalized for two minutes, until the odds are again evened and a fresh competitor can do some damage. The teams alternate entries at two-minute intervals—with handicap advantage going to the team that possesses the temporary numerical advantage—until everyone is in the ring.
However significant the damage dealt, there can be no official outcome to the match until all 10 competitors are in the ring. This period, christened “The Match Beyond” by Rhodes, can end only with “submission or surrender” of one person. WarGames, unlike Survivor Series, didn’t follow an elimination format. The weakest link on the team, by quitting or submitting, costs his teammates the match. In the first WarGames, at the Great American Bash in Atlanta’s Omni arena, Rhodes’s teammates focused their attacks so heavily on Four Horsemen manager J.J. Dillon, whose in-ring wrestling days were long behind him, that Dillon eventually surrendered from injuries to his shoulder. A second instance of the match, at 1987’s third Great American Bash event in the Orange Bowl, saw Dillon replaced by Ray Traylor—the future Big Boss Man of WWE, wrestling under a mask as “War Machine”—but the same outcome for Dusty and his allies, who forced War Machine to surrender after Road Warrior Animal scraped the big man’s face repeatedly with a spiked armband.
Both as a performer and a booker, WarGames is a central part of the legacy of Dusty Rhodes, who worked with Levesque when he was reinventing the WWE developmental system and launching NXT, its TV show.
“When I was creating NXT and that system, he was my partner in a lot of ways. I’m a big fan of his work, his booking, his philosophy,” Levesque says of Rhodes. “You know, I often say I’m one of the luckiest people, because for almost 30 years, I got to sit under the Vince McMahon learning tree. And while I was almost doing a startup company, so to speak, with a very limited budget and everything else, I got to do that with Dusty.
“When we lost him, it was tragic, because he contributed so much to the business, and his ideas and his concepts and his business ideas are still floating around today. That should tell you something, because there’s very few people in this industry with that [influence].”
That influence is felt in the reverence with which people still discuss the early-era WarGames matches. Even after Crockett sold JCP’s assets to Ted Turner, who rechristened the promotion WCW and launched nationwide in 1988, the WarGames matches were often legendary affairs, earning the coveted “five-star” match rating from longtime wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer. But WarGames was also a highly strategic concept: Dusty’s version of the match was primarily a bloody brawl, and although injuries could and did happen, the toll from bleeding and brawling was much easier on the body than falling off the ring apron or taking other, similar bumps. And this was necessary, because from its debut in 1987 until 1991, WarGames was a touring attraction, performed throughout the country before live crowds rather than only at pay-per-views. The WrestleWar PPV became the home for WarGames in 1991, and it would serve as the key component of Fall Brawl from 1993 to 1998.
In the early days of WarGames, the bloodletting was a major part of the presentation. It’s one of the chief reasons that some people have a hard time imagining the match on the WWE main roster, where bleeding has almost disappeared in recent years. According to Levesque, don’t necessarily expect the gore to return with the match format.
“The world has changed. The world has evolved. I don’t think it’s necessary,” Levesque said. There is still blood in WWE, but there are medical personnel to check on wrestlers if there is an inadvertent cut. “If we have talent that gets [cut open], usually you’ll see them roll out and they’ll get looked at to make sure that there’s nothing dangerous,” Levesque added. “I’m just of the opinion right now, given the state of the world and the pandemic, and at the end of the day, what we do is dangerous enough without intentionally making it more dangerous. Yes, we did [feature bleeding] for a long period of time, but we’ve changed that practice. And it’s irresponsible to go back.”
The injury history of WarGames is the stuff of legend—“A team doesn’t win WarGames, they survive WarGames,” Dustin Rhodes, son of Dusty and onetime WarGames competitor, once said. Levesque says that injuries are always a consideration when they’re putting together a match of this scale. But the wrestlers’ desire to make memorable matches is usually their top concern.
“Look, when you have guys and women performing at the highest of levels, I feel like I spend more time talking them out of stuff than I do [talking them into something],” Levesque said. “I’ve done this for years, and as you’re sitting back there behind that TV monitor, watching this go down, you’re holding your breath the whole show. I feel like there’s always a risk-to-reward ratio. Is it so big that people are gonna walk away from this with that vision implanted in their mind and they’ll never forget it? Because if you are risking your health and your longevity in your profession, over that spot, over that moment, it needs to be worth it. So I’ve talked people out of doing things because sometimes I’m like, ‘Look, be honest; it’s just a spot.’”
WarGames remained a fixture in WCW’s touring landscape through 1988, with matches being held throughout the summer pitting various combinations of Rhodes, the Road Warriors, Koloff, Sting, Lex Luger, and “Dr. Death” Steve Williams against the Four Horsemen—the matches having proved a convenient vehicle for advancing ongoing, stable-driven story lines. By the time of the July 1989 Great American Bash, the Midnight Express were on the side of the angels, teaming with the Road Warriors and Steve Williams to challenge Paul Heyman’s Samoan SWAT Team (Anoa’i family members Samu and Fatu, better known as Rikishi and the father of Bloodline members Solo Sikoa and the Usos) along with the Jimmy Garvin–Michael Hayes–Terry Gordy incarnation of the Freebirds. This match ended like all WarGames events of this era: Justice—and the good guys dedicated to upholding it—prevailed when Road Warrior Hawk submitted Garvin with a hanging neckbreaker.
After a brief interlude with no WarGames matches in 1990, WCW revived it in 1991 as part of a feud between Sting and the Horsemen that had consumed the better part of the previous two years. The ensuing match, held at the inaugural WrestleWar event in February 1991, was a four-on-four affair that pitted Ric Flair, Barry Windham, Sid Vicious, and Larry Zbyszko—replacing an injured Arn Anderson—against Sting, the Steiner Brothers, and Brian Pillman. Pillman was the sacrificial lamb during the initial two-on-one handicap period, absorbing a beating from Flair and Windham, during which his shoulder appeared to be injured (working a specific injury of a team’s weakest link being a leitmotif established with Dillon in the first WarGames). In one of the most memorable WarGames moments—and an argument for the value of the cage roof as part of the story—the giant Vicious twice elevated Pillman for his powerbomb finisher, banging Pillman’s head against the cage, rendering him unconscious and giving the bad guys their first-ever victory in this match format. Iterations of this match, with Sting, Luger, El Gigante, Pillman, and other allies always prevailing, would serve as the last touring instance of WarGames; it became an exclusive PPV event after its final use in house shows in August 1991.
In 1992, with Flair having departed for WWE, the major story lines in the WCW became concentrated on Sting and his problems with Paul Heyman’s Dangerous Alliance stable (so called because Heyman was performing as cellphone-wielding yuppie Paul E. Dangerously). At the second and final installment of WrestleWar, in what many consider the best installment of the original style of the WarGames match—a covered cage; only surrender or submission ends the bout—Sting, Dustin Rhodes, Windham, Ricky Steamboat, and Koloff took on Rick Rude, Steve Austin, Arn Anderson, Bobby Eaton, and Zbyszko. The bloody match between these legendary performers came to a suitably epic conclusion when Zbyszko, having removed the metal buckle from a broken ring rope, attempted to deck Sting—who was being held from behind by Eaton—only to have Sting duck and Eaton absorb the shot, forcing his submission moments later to an armbar from the Stinger.
After this two-year golden age, the WarGames match became a fixture of WCW’s Fall Brawl pay-per-view, with later matches having the same varying quality as the rest of the company’s output. The 1993 match is best remembered for the in-ring debut of another Dusty Rhodes innovation: the Shockmaster (Rhodes’s longtime friend Fred Ottman, a huge man best known for his work as Tugboat/Typhoon in WWE), whose first appearance with the company—which consisted of his falling through a wall while wearing a painted and bedazzled Star Wars stormtrooper helmet—was later characterized by WWE.com as “a debacle many still consider one of the worst gaffs [sic] in the history of sports-entertainment.” The Shockmaster did secure the win in that match, submitting Booker T to give himself, Sting, the British Bulldog, and Dustin Rhodes the victory over Vader, Sid, and Harlem Heat.
The 1994 installment, which saw Dusty Rhodes return to the ring alongside Dustin and the Nasty Boys to challenge the “Stud Stable” consisting of Colonel Robert Parker (Southern wrestling mainstay Robert Fuller), Terry Funk, Arn Anderson, and Bunkhouse Buck, was another good stable-facilitated fight, a classic brawl in the territory-era style and among the better matches in Dusty’s later career. The 1995 edition featured more factional warfare, with the company’s main babyfaces—Hogan, Luger, Sting, and Randy Savage—defeating “Taskmaster” Kevin Sullivan’s cartoonish Dungeon of Doom stable. In 1996, Team WCW, which had been questioning Sting’s loyalties due to the actions of an impostor Sting who had been supporting the nWo, saw the real Sting dismantle the fake before leaving teammates Arn Anderson, Flair, and Luger to their fates at the hands of the nWo team of the Outsiders (Kevin Nash and Scott Hall), Hogan, and the impostor Sting. In 1997, the revival of the Four Horsemen as a credible threat to the nWo was squashed when new Horseman Curt Hennig turned on his team after he entered, leading to a brutalization of Flair that forced ex-NFL star and then-Horseman Steve “Mongo” McMichael to surrender.
Things took a downward turn for WarGames in 1998, when a three-way match between three-man teams Roddy Piper, Diamond Dallas Page, and the Warrior (a.k.a. the Ultimate Warrior of WWE fame); nWo Hollywood’s Hogan, Bret Hart, and Stevie Ray; and nWo Wolfpac’s Nash, Hall, and Sting ended in a pinfall victory for Page. In addition to being one of only three Warrior matches during his brief run in WCW, it was the first WarGames match to end by pinfall—and was widely panned by critics.
After a lull in 1999 during which no WarGames matches were held, the 2000 edition of WarGames—the last one staged by WCW, and subtitled “Russo’s Revenge”—went out with a spectacular thud on an episode of Monday Nitro. Instead of the classic two-ring cage, new creative director Vince Russo used the towering “Triple Steel Cage” that was prominently featured in the David Arquette–helmed movie Ready to Rumble, a Warner Bros.–produced flop that utilized WCW intellectual property and wrestlers.
With the acquisition of WCW by WWE in 2001, the WarGames match fell into a period of disuse that lasted until Levesque revived the match for NXT in November 2017. Other promotions had kept the match format alive, with Major League Wrestling holding a WarGames-style match in 2003 and revisiting the concept in 2018, IWA Mid-South staging another in 2005, and Ring of Honor putting on several “Steel Cage Warfare” matches from 2005 to 2013. Total Nonstop Action, still operating today as Impact Wrestling, utilized “Lethal Lockdown” matches from 2005 to 2016—essentially the original WarGames format, with the quit/submit rules intact and a cage roof from which various weapons hang.
The long absence of WarGames from the official WWE lineup appears to have been an unfortunate byproduct of the company’s emphasis on its own creative output. Speaking on his podcast in 2017, WarGames veteran Jim Cornette explained that, in his experience with WWE creative, it wasn’t something that was pitched because it was considered difficult to film and hadn’t been an original idea from Vince McMahon or his inner circle. Describing WarGames as “one of the greatest gimmick matches that consistently worked,” Cornette went on to note that Triple H had reportedly been interested in doing WarGames—a rumor that proved true when “The Game” successfully relaunched the event at NXT TakeOver: WarGames in 2017.
For his part, Levesque deflects most of these critiques. It is slightly more difficult to film a match with two rings and a cage, but the real issue is that there’s an extra ring out there for all of the other matches on the card.
“Yeah, it can be more difficult to shoot and it can be a bit more of a challenge, but I think we’ve found over the years ways to do it and make it work,” Levesque said. “It’s not difficult. It’s just different. It makes everybody think outside the box. When you do this 52 weeks a year, multiple times a week, there’s a pattern to what you do and it becomes easy because it’s a rhythm. And then you do this one show a year where, no, there’s two rings and two hard cameras. And everything is different. People have to think differently. And that sometimes is a little bit uncomfortable, but I like the challenge of that.”
The NXT iterations of WarGames changed the format slightly—they allowed wins by pinfall and didn’t feature a cage with a roof. “When we first started redoing them,” Levesque remembers, “people were upset that we didn’t have a top on the cage. And I was like, ‘Well, we already have one with the top on [Hell in a Cell].’ And the other thing is, it used to drive me nuts when I was a kid that the cage was too short. You’d see like what happened with Brian Pillman, where he got put up for a powerbomb and it wasn’t enough space.’
“[Taking the top off the cage] allows you to do so much more stuff. Look, in the old generation, no one was about to jump off the top of that cage. The times have changed, the business has evolved, and the cage that WarGames is held in needed to evolve, too.”
Thanks to NXT’s Undisputed Era stable (Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, Kyle O’Reilly, and eventually Roderick Strong), the first four men’s installments all but wrote themselves, with the villainy of Cole’s stable allowing for the incorporation of strong big-man workers such as the Viking Raiders, Keith Lee, Dominik “T-BAR” Dijakovic, and even former NFL player turned announcer Pat McAfee, who used the top of the exposed structure to good effect in 2020 when he hit all seven men in the ring with a swanton bomb. In 2019, a women’s version of WarGames was held for the first time; Dakota Kai’s memorable turn on her teammates Rhea Ripley, Tegan Nox, and Candice LeRae still wasn’t enough for Shayna Baszler, Bianca Belair, Io Shirai, and Kay Lee Ray to claim the victory in what was, next to the 1992 WrestleWar installment, arguably one of the strongest examples of the match to date.
The reshuffling of NXT, resulting in the launch of NXT 2.0, raised questions about the future of the WarGames match after a pair of strong NXT TakeOver: WarGames matches in December 2021. Its legacy was, of course, intact—WWE’s Elimination Chamber match is a direct descendant of the style, and AEW had revived its own closed-cage version of WarGames as a quit-or-submit “Blood & Guts” special Dynamite event in 2021, then staged another in 2022 (the title is a reference to Vince McMahon remarking that he didn’t intend to do the “blood and guts and things of that nature such as being done on perhaps a new potential competitor”). But by virtue of the way it was deployed to showcase so many premier talents in NXT, WarGames is as much a part of Paul Levesque’s legacy as Dusty Rhodes’s. Its permanent revival as part of a main-roster WWE property is long overdue, a testament to both Dusty’s innovative work in the past and Triple H’s willingness to ensure that this past remains part of the sport’s future.
Since it took Triple H’s ascension to his current position to make WWE WarGames a reality—and since Levesque was using the format in NXT when he was there—there will undoubtedly be those who see this move as a statement from the new creative decision-maker in WWE. McMahon, who retired from his role as chairman and chief executive of the company in July amid a misconduct investigation, was replaced as chairman by his daughter Stephanie McMahon (who is married to Levesque); she and Nick Khan serve as co-CEOs. Levesque was recently elevated to the role of chief creative officer and oversees all in-ring decisions.
“Survivor Series has been an amazing event for 36 years. And it needs to evolve a little bit and this year seemed like the right time to do it,” Levesque goes on. “We’re going to go to the TD Garden in Boston on the 26th, and it’s already about as close as you get [to] sold out without us [announcing the WarGames matches]. But you know, this is about serving our fans. I wanna give them everything they can have.”
When asked if there is any wisdom from Dusty that he holds dear, Levesque says that one of the most valuable lessons that Rhodes taught him was not to hold yourself to an unrealistic standard.
“When you’re first starting something, the successes stick with you, but the things that go wrong stick with you even more so,” Levesque says. “You’ll have something in mind, and in your mind, it’s gonna be great. And then you watch it come to life and you’re like, that was terrible, and you beat yourself up. And Dusty would always walk by me and he’d tap me on the shoulder. He’d say ‘Kid, remember what I said, if you get 70 percent of what you see in your head to come out on TV, that’s a grand slam.’ I keep that thought in my head all the time. It’s been a valuable lesson.”