Ranking the Best Matches of the WWE NXT Black and Gold Era Ahead of Reboot

Erik BeastonSeptember 18, 2022

Ranking the Best Matches of the WWE NXT Black and Gold Era Ahead of Reboot

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    Credit: WWE.com

    NXT achieved success and notoriety from 2012 through 2021 under the banner of black and gold. It revolutionized the industry, introducing fans on a grand scale to the talent that had plied its craft around the world by bringing them under one umbrella and producing some of the best professional wrestling television and live events of the last decade.

    Women's wrestling took center stage, competitors once thought of as being too small to headline events suddenly had a platform they could star on, and there was a certain reverence to the past, present and future of the industry.

    The rebranding of NXT to 2.0, with a neon color scheme and change in tone and character, spelled the end of the brand as fans knew it.

    The rise of Triple H to creative head of WWE meant that the brand he once oversaw and treated like his baby would have the opportunity to return to what it once was: destination viewing for fans of the sport of professional wrestling.

    The September 13 episode of NXT went off the air with a graphic that seemingly returned the brand to its black and gold roots, creating excitement and intrigue for what comes next. Ahead of the perceived relaunch of the brand with the most passionate fans in the business, these are the 10 extraordinary matches that defined its first incarnation.

10. TakeOver Chicago: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa (June 16, 2018)

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    The rivalry between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa is one of the best ever produced by NXT, thanks in large part to the fact that they were so close as tag team partners prior to their shocking breakup.

    At TakeOver: Chicago in June 2018, Ciampa attempted to avenge a loss to his former best friend just two months earlier in New Orleans.

    The appropriately violent Chicago Street Fight saw a red-hot crowd, a barrage of chair shots from Gargano to Ciampa ala Steve Austin on The Rock at WrestleMania X-7, and a teased hospital trip for the heel.

    A fantastic finish saw a relentless, vengeful Gargano handcuff Ciampa and repeatedly assault him with superkicks until producers hit the ring and attempted to pull him off. Ciampa, double tough and having survived the beating, seized the opportunity and delivered a DDT on the exposed wood of the squared circle to pick up the win.

    This was masterful work from both men, and Ciampa was at his height as a sniveling heel. He begged off when necessary and was ruthless and relentless at other times. He escaped with a win that he did not deserve, the perfect follow-up to Gargano's victory in that first match and the perfect reason for them to run it back again.

    A classic match and a testament to the quality of the black and gold brand in that it ranks at No. 10 on this list.

9. NXT Arrival: Sami Zayn vs. Cesaro (February 27, 2014)

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    There were plenty of matches to be excited about on that first live event special for NXT, but none captured the attention of the audience quite like Sami Zayn's quest to defeat Cesaro one-on-one.

    The two had met before, but Zayn had fallen short of defeating the Swiss Superman and the rematch was his opportunity to rectify that. Except, he could not.

    The 23-minute opener, the first live event match in WWE Network history for those keeping track, saw Zayn throw everything he had at the man who would go on to win the inaugural Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal just days later at WrestleMania XXX, only to have Cesaro cut him off and take him down.

    Such was the case late in the bout, when the bigger, stronger heel put an emphatic end to his opponent's comeback with an uppercut, then finished him with the Neutralizer for the hard-fought victory.

    An appropriate start to the NXT black and gold brand as we would come to know it, the match laid the groundwork for every other one on this list.

8. TakeOver Chicago: Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne (May 20, 2017)

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    Tyler Bate made history as the first NXT UK champion, but his former friend and longtime opponent, Pete Dunne, set out to end his reign on the grand stage that TakeOver: Chicago provided.

    He did just that.

    The Bruiserweight and his young opponent delivered a grueling 15-minute battle that featured the familiar foes countering, reversing and kicking out of everything the other threw at them until an ill-fated dive by Bate over the top rope at his opponent.

    It missed, and the Brit crashed and burned, setting Dunne up to deliver the Bitter End and earn his first championship victory under the WWE umbrella.

    It was a measure of revenge for Dunne, whom Bate defeated to win the title in the first place. The Bruiserweight had to watch another man celebrate a title reign that he believed should have been his. On that night in Chicago, he set things right, stomping out Bate's reign and setting himself on the path to become one of the great NXT stars of all time.

7. TakeOver Dallas: Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (April 1, 2016)

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    The debut of Shinsuke Nakamura at TakeOver: Dallas in April 2016 was a monumental moment for the brand. After years of establishing itself as one of the hottest wrestling destinations in the business, it managed to convince an internationally recognized and respected free agent in the New Japan Pro-Wrestling export to sign with the company.

    Nakamura's first opponent would be a man synonymous with NXT and one of the men responsible for building it into the attraction it had become: Sami Zayn.

    Expectations were high, and the competitors still managed to blow them away, delivering an instant classic that had fans in Dallas hanging on every near-fall. Nakamura would score the win following Kinshasa, but the match was as much about Zayn's final ode to the black and gold.

    He would make his WrestleMania debut the following night and embark on a main roster run that sees him doing his best work today, in 2022, as part of The Bloodline. He is a different worker now, and the match with Nakamura remains one of the shining examples of just how otherworldly and unmatched he was between the ropes at that point in his career.

6. TakeOver R Evolution: Neville vs. Sami Zayn (December 11, 2014)

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    We follow Zayn's last match in NXT with his first championship win.

    The NXT crowd was (and still is) extremely loyal to the men and women who compete for them on a weekly basis. In 2014, Zayn was the most beloved wrestler on the brand, the underdog from the underground. He had competed in the big matches before but could never get over the hump and score that defining victory.

    At TakeOver: R Evolution, he was one win away from achieving the greatest feat of his career in winning the NXT Championship. In the weeks leading into the match, the constant reminders from champion Adrian Neville that he had not yet won the big one only served to light a fire under him.

    With the wrestling world watching, Zayn denounced the idea of cheating to earn the win and, instead, tossed the NXT title belt aside and delivered a Helluva Kick to score the victory and his first world championship.

    A crowd wholly behind him and the drama of Zayn's championship quest make this one even better on re-watch than it was when it initially occurred.

5. TakeOver New Orleans: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa (April 7, 2018)

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    The shocking betrayal by Ciampa of Gargano at the close of TakeOver: Chicago set the stage for an epic encounter that stole the weekend out from underneath WrestleMania XXXIV and quickly established itself as one of the best matches in modern WWE history.

    Ciampa was at his height as a heel, completely embracing the villainous persona by stealing crutches from a child at ringside, mocking his DIY team with Gargano and taking every opportunity presented to him to talk trash to his former best friend.

    Gargano answered with an intensity and aggression the audience had never seen in him before. It was that rage that set up the finish as the Clevelander blasted Ciampa with his own knee brace, applied an STF and used the brace across his face for the submission win.

    A great, dramatic bit of storytelling, this was a fantastically physical match that proved to be just the start of a feud that would define the brand throughout its later days. It was also proof positive that Gargano and Ciampa could be the centerpieces of the brand after helping to boost its reputation as key members of the tag team division.

4. TakeOver Brooklyn: Bayley vs. Sasha Banks (August 22, 2015)

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    Like Zayn before her, Bayley had developed into NXT's loveable loser. She would always get to the dance but never earned that victory that would affirm her spot among the best. It is a history Sasha Banks used against the beloved babyface in the lead-in to their match at TakeOver: Brooklyn in 2015.

    The desperation to prove she belonged had to have been going through her mind as she found herself trapped in the Bank Statement, The Boss relentlessly stomping away at her broken hand.

    Banks had entered the match as the undisputed champion, the best in her field. A grand entrance, with glitz and glamour, signaled her arrival while Bayley took to the squared circle as she always did, with fans cheering her on.

    Those same fans hung with her, encouraging her to fight through the pain and agony caused by her hand injury. They rooted for her as she fought Banks on the top rope, then erupted when she brought the champ down with a poison rana, then added the Bayley-to-Belly to secure the win and her first championship.

    There are a lot of matches that fans can look at as the moment NXT elevated itself from a developmental brand to a genuine third option for fans of WWE, and it is hard to argue against Banks vs. Bayley from Brooklyn. An all-timer that was as important to the Women's Revolution that would encapsulate WWE in the weeks, months and years to come, it was a transformative moment for the performers involved, women's wrestling and the brand as a whole.

3. TakeOver Toronto: DIY vs. The Revival (November 19, 2016)

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    DIY's Ciampa and Gargano had opportunities to defeat The Revival for the NXT Tag Team Championship prior to TakeOver: Toronto in November 2016 but could not put an end to Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson's run.

    With one last chance to prove they were the best team in the business, the babyfaces threw everything they had at their opponents in a match that was, arguably, the best of the year and one of the best tag team offerings WWE has produced over the last decade.

    Pulling from their previous encounter in Brooklyn, the teams captivated the audience with storytelling and athleticism in a Best 2-Out-of-3 Falls setting. The callbacks to previous spots in other matches highlighted the attention to details of the performers while the drama of each near-fall had the fans sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting with bated breath to see if Gargano and Ciampa would finally pull off the championship victory.

    They did.

    The challengers applied respective submissions to their opponents, leaving Dawson and Wilder to look each other in the eye before submitting and bringing their title reign to its end.

    The emotion of this one alone is enough for it to, perhaps, rank even higher than it does. A truly great match and another hint of the greatness of all four men long before they were headlining TakeOvers and starring on AEW Dynamite, this ranks among the upper echelon of WWE contests.

    That it is only No. 3 on this list is a testament to the two others that come in just ahead of it.

2. TakeOver 36: Ilja Dragunov vs. Walter (August 22, 2021)

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    The final NXT TakeOver as we had known them, No. 36, featured Ilja Dragunov challenging Walter for the NXT UK Championship. The match, the followup to their first incredible encounter across the pond, was hotly anticipated and figured by many to be the best on the card.

    And it was.

    A physical war of attrition between two incredibly hard-hitting, tough competitors, it was everything fans expected and more.

    The Ring General and leader of Imperium did what he does and looked to sap the fight out of his opponent with a barrage of strikes that reddened the chest of his opponent. Dragunov proved resilient, though, absorbing everything thrown at him and advancing.

    Then, he unloaded his arsenal on his opponent, tiring him and forcing the seemingly impervious Walter to tap out in a moment that had even the commentary team exclaiming in disbelief.

    Dragunov's victory had been built to over a year, and his win, in front of the fans in Orlando, was the perfect culmination to not only his journey, but two years of utter dominance from his Austrian opponent.

1. TakeOver Philadelphia: Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade "Cien" Almas (January 22, 2018)

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    Gargano was the heart of soul of NXT for a long time entering Philadelphia for TakeOver 2018. He had won some and lost others and withstood a shocking betrayal at the hands of former friend and partner Tommaso Ciampa. He had also seen opportunities pass him by following heartbreaking defeats.

    There was ever reason to think, in the City of Brotherly Love, that his NXT Championship match against Andrade "Cien" Almas would end in the same disappointing fashion that so many major matches had for him.

    It was with that in mind that he and Almas crafted the perfect match, built on dramatic near-falls that had fans guessing that Gargano's run would end on a sour note, especially as the champion upped the aggression.

    Gargano fought his way back into the match, though, and appeared to have victory in-hand, only for Almas to slam his head into the ring post, delivering his trademark running knees into him and finish him off with the draping DDT.

    A night so many expected to be Gargano's was, instead, confirmation of Almas as champion. The disappointment was tempered by what was a truly special match, probably the best in NXT history. It was the product of superb storytelling over a long period of time and two guys in the prime of their careers, just throwing everything at the canvas as an appreciative Philly crowd watched on.

    Probably a perfect match, accentuated by the return of Ciampa after the match and a brutal crutch shot to the back of Gargano's head to set up that match.


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