HOUSTON — The crowd gathered outside Toyota Center was as diverse as the menagerie of characters set to collide in that building at WWE Survivor Series.
A gray-bearded man with military insignia pinned to his shirt waited in line in a wheelchair. A mother in a football jersey rested her hands on her young son's shoulders. A pair of brothers, one in a red Raw T-shirt, the other representing SmackDown in a blue tee, stood closer to the entrance, waiting for the doors to open for the pay-per-view event.
One fan donned a Kane mask. AJ Styles gloves stretched over many a kid's hands. A woman in full-on Bayley cosplay carried a replica WWE Championship over her shoulder.
And a tattooed man sat perched on a ledge dressed as Finn Balor's demonic alter ego, urging fans to take photos with him.
The energy that crackled in that gathering of fans wasn't limited to the Toyota Center's main entrance. Fans in wrestling T-shirts milled around the downtown streets hours before the event.
WWE events always inspire a Comic-Con-like environment, but there was something special in the crisp air on Sunday. The sports entertainment giant was in the midst of taking over Houston. NXT TakeOver: WarGames kicked things off on Saturday, Raw clashed with SmackDown at Survivor Series the next night and then Raw and SmackDown would happen inside the arena on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.
Survivor Series wasn't as massive as WrestleMania, but there was clearly a party-like vibe to it all. With WWE's bringing in names like Kurt Angle, John Cena and Triple H, it felt like pro wrestling's version of MLB's All-Star Weekend.
When Sirius XM host and WWE panelist Sam Roberts asked the fans gathered behind him to get hyped for the cameras, there was little coaxing needed. The exuberance came organically.
The weekend wasn't without its disappointments, though.
The ending of Team Raw vs. Team SmackDown was a deflating mess of illogical booking. The women's elimination match looked like a comedy of errors at points. Drew McIntyre's heartbreak as he clutched his injured arm following his NXT Championship match was hard to watch.
But TakeOver and Survivor Series delivered wall-to-wall entertainment, as the two branches of the WWE product each offered its unique flavor.
TakeOver Pt. 1
A massive steel cage hung ominously over two side-by-side rings like some metal stormcloud.
But it was easy to get distracted by the sparsity of the crowd instead of that image. Black tarps hung over large stretches of seats. Several rows were completely empty.
Despite the promise of the return of the WarGames match for the first time since 2000, the crowning of a new NXT women's champion and a United Kingdom Championship bout, the TakeOver event didn't pull in the crowd WWE had to be hoping for.
However, the audience sounded louder than its size.
That became evident as soon as the show kicked off and Ruby Riot charged out to fight Sonya Deville. It grew more apparent as a thunderous "Bruiserweight" chant later rumbled for UK champ Pete Dunne.
One can spot the difference between an NXT crowd and a WWE one in the lobby. Bullet Club T-shirts dominate the landscape. Beanies, beards and glasses seem to be the official uniform for the serious fan.
But it's in their reaction to the action that one truly sees who these folks are.
During Dunne vs. Johnny Gargano, no subtlety of the in-ring drama went unnoticed. A float-over move by Dunne wowed the crowd. The appreciation for escapes was audible. This was a technical showcase merged with a high-risk clash, and the audience ate it all up.
When Kairi Sane later climbed to the top turnbuckle poised to hit her signature diving elbow drop in the Fatal 4-Way for the NXT Women's Championship left vacant by Asuka's move to Raw, the crowd stood at attention, as if ready to salute the move.
Sane didn't claim the gold on Saturday. Ember Moon did instead.
Frank Allen, an engineer who lives in Houston's Westbury neighborhood, was most looking forward to seeing Sane. The fact that her full ability wasn't on display in a short match was disappointing. But he's among the fans who can see the bigger picture.
"Rather than Kairi Sane just getting the belt, she has to chase it, which is really cool," Allen said.
Velveteen Dream vs. Aleister Black didn't take long to make it clear it would be the night's show-stealer. The flamboyant heel sauntered in wearing tights with Black's face airbrushed onto them. His showboating style provided a contrast to Black's glaring, brooding ways.
Their back-and-forth battle hooked the crowd, eliciting gasps, cheers, laughs and hearty applause. Mikos, a fan who attended both TakeOver and Survivor Series, was most impressed with that bout.
"The story that they told from start to finish was amazing," he said.
Allen was sold on that showdown, as well. "Black is the guy WWE is pushing, but Velveteen got over on his character," he said. "And he did a damn good job in the ring."
The night would offer more performances to fawn over, more reasons to chant NXT.
TakeOver Pt. 2
In part because we live in an age where fans don't necessarily boo for heels and root for babyfaces, instead choosing their favorite performers, Andrade "Cien" Almas didn't get treated like the villain despite the awful things his character has done. When Almas tangled with McIntyre in search of his first NXT Championship reign, an engaged crowd pulled for him.
The host city played a role in that, too. Houston is a city with a robust Hispanic population. It's not surprising that Cien, a Durango, Mexico, native, received a hero's welcome.
"Si se puede!" chants broke out during the action. Every near-fall he scored had fans bouncing in their seats, ready to burst.
In one of the most surprising moments of the weekend, Almas knocked off the bigger man, dethroning the Scotsman. Some spectators covered their mouths in shock. A collective gasp preceded a celebration.
McIntyre, meanwhile, leaned against the ring ropes after the bell as staff examined his arm.
More pain would soon follow. Nine men met in a two-ring battlefield surrounded by steel in the main event.
It was a marathon of a demolition derby. The Authors of Pain used their opponents as weapons, slamming their foes onto each other. The Undisputed Era swarmed the opposition, rattling bodies against the cage. The match saw one breathtaking spot stacked onto another.
The fight left Alexander Wolfe of Sanity bleeding from his head. For much of the bout, he lay on the canvas out of the camera's view, a towel under his head sodden with blood.
The lengthy chaotic drama didn't drain the crowd. In fact, each stunt turned the excitement dial up a notch.
Mikos noted that he loved the bout and how it's energy escalated. "As the match progressed, it picked up and picked up," he said.
Adam Cole and The Undisputed Era stood triumphant afterward. And when he and the Toyota Center crowd shouted "Adam Cole bay-bay!" in unison, it felt like an amen to a most violent prayer.
Survivor Series Pt. 1
Sunday's crowd looked different than the one glued to TakeOver, both in terms of size and demographics.
It took a long while for the full audience to show up, though, forcing Elias and Matt Hardy to wrestle in front of mostly empty seats. Only a sliver of energy filled the building for many of the pre-show matches, including Enzo Amore's defense of the Cruiserweight Championship against Kalisto.
These matches were clearly filler, short and inconsequential. The crowd responded accordingly.
At one point, a fan wearing glasses looked up from his phone and asked someone behind him, "When does the real stuff start?"
As a fan of Mexico's lucha libre style, Hector Yamamoto, a high school wrestling coach, came to the show most excited for the high-octane Kalisto. The King of Flight, though, spent much of his match at the wrong end of a chinlock and didn't get much chance to wow.
"I expected more, to see more," Yamamoto said. "In Houston, with such a big Mexican fanbase, you think they'd want to do more [with Kalisto]."
Soon, as the PPV proper approached, the atmosphere changed. The seats filled out. The noise level rose.
Unlike the NXT crowd, the Survivor Series attendance was filled with kids and women. Families carried a feast of nachos and soda to their chairs. Teenage girls proudly held up Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks signs.
The PPV's first official match saw The Shield face The New Day, one brand's dominant trio taking on the other's. The connection to both teams was clear. Chants broke out for each; near-falls had many folks screaming.
Roman Reigns received his usual round of echoing boos. But these were often interrupted by chants of "This is awesome!" as he and The Shield pulled off a first-rate opener against The New Day.
And as the card rolled on, fans seemed determined to have fun, no matter what unfolded in front of them.
The women's five-on-five match ran off the rails at points as Alicia Fox and Naomi fumbled against each other. The eliminations were too quick in certain cases. The action was not nearly as crisp as these Superstars are capable of, but the crowd remained hyped, like one at a bullfight, alternately cheering on the bull and the matador.
Chants of Asuka's name swelled. Young men bounced to The Usos' music. Fans clutched their replica championship belts to their shoulder as they bowed down to Charlotte Flair, aka The Queen.
Survivor Series Pt. 2
When AJ Styles stepped out from behind the curtain and raised his gloved hands in the air, a sea of smartphones clicked pictures of him.
Both he and his Survivor Series opponent, Brock Lesnar, garnered some of the biggest, heartiest responses of the night. The two warriors soon earned that adulation between the ropes. The battle between the WWE titleholder and the universal champion delivered.
Lesnar flung Styles around like a dog that has torn into the garbage and begun to hurl its contents into the street. The Beast Incarnate looked the most energized he's been in years.
Styles' comeback was a thriller, looking several times as if he were actually going to fell this monster with his flying forearms.
He did not. An F-5 derailed Styles' chances and ended a barnburner.
Victor Macias, who traveled all the way from Sacramento, California, was among those who came away impressed. "I think we all saw Brock's best match, possibly ever?" Macias said. "Never been invested in a Lesnar match like I was tonight."
The men's five-on-five contest followed.
First, fans watched a parade of entrances. Shinsuke Nakamura shimmied to the ring to the sound of violins. Balor strutted through smoke. A spotlight zeroed in on Triple H as he spat water into the air.
In the ring, Raw took control in a bout that featured a Nakamura vs. Balor mini dream match, Braun Strowman's bowling over lesser men and Shane McMahon's taking a dropkick into the guardrail that looked like it legit knocked his lights out.
Never mind that this all came in the fourth hour of the show and on the second night of wrestling for many, the audience remained energized.
"The crowd was awesome tonight," Macias noted. "The dueling chants between Raw and SmackDown made it that much more fun."
Chaos marred the bout's final moments. Triple H turned on Angle and stared down Strowman in a scene of forced tension. The established stars got the lion's share of the spotlight. And WWE once again relied too much on the past rather than build for the future.
Triple H, despite his part-time status, was one of the biggest stars of the show, and the post-show for that matter.
That didn't seem to put a damper on the experience for those in attendance, though. A buzz filled the building even as everyone headed for the exits.
Perhaps the electricity surging through the crowd dulled the analytical part of the brain.
The night won over Yamamoto for one. "That was entertaining and I got to see one of the greats," he said in reference to Triple H.
Neel Sood, a law student, talked about the added layer of enjoyment one gets from seeing it all in person. "This was my first live show ever and the vibe is just different," he said. "You get an adrenaline rush from the crowd that you can't get watching from home."
And Sood chose quite the show to attend as his first. Flaws and all, Survivor Series was a thrill ride. TakeOver the night before was a reminder just how often the NXT brand comes through in the biggest spots.
The weekend most certainly created lasting memories, for the diehards in Bullet Club attire as much as the kids decked out in Styles gear.