Adam Cole Ranks and Dishes on His Best Matches and Moments as WWE NXT Champion
After eight years of the NXT Championship, you would be hard-pressed to find a better titleholder than the current one, Adam Cole.
The 30-year-old has consistently delivered inside the squared circle and carried the championship to prominence during NXT's latest era on the USA Network. Additionally, his resume of remarkable matches in defense of the belt speaks for itself.
Cole has broken every record and defeated every notable name the black-and-gold brand has to offer in the last year. All he has left to do is write the end of his story with Velveteen Dream when they do battle in a Back Lot Brawl this Sunday at TakeOver: In Your House.
Their rivalry has been brewing for over six months and is set to culminate when the lights are literally at their brightest. Where it will fall among his many memorable title defenses remains to be seen, but if one thing is for sure, it's that the leader of Undisputed Era never disappoints whenever his gold is up for grabs.
A case can be made for Cole being "main roster ready," but there may be no need to move him to Raw or SmackDown if he makes good on his promise of holding the title until the day he retires. His stint on NXT has been nothing short of stellar, and his lengthy list of barn burners with the belt is proof of that.
With his high-stakes war with Dream at TakeOver: In Your House fast approaching, here are the best seven matches and moments of Cole's historic reign as ranked by the champ himself.
What Makes a Great Match According to Cole?
WWE has been touting Edge vs. Randy Orton at Backlash on June 14 as the "greatest wrestling match ever," and if nothing else, it has generated some great conversation among fans as to what makes a truly classic contest.
Having competed in a handful of match-of-the-year contenders himself across several promotions over the course of his career, Cole arguably knows better than anyone what an all-time great match consists of.
Even without a formal audience in attendance, it is entirely possible Edge vs. Orton lives up to the lofty hype. In fact, it could end up being the best bout of the year for WWE, but Cole feels otherwise given the incredible last year he's had with NXT.
As you will soon see on this list, he has been involved in his fair share of superb matches as champion. A great bout is a combination of many things, but above all else, a compelling story and an electric audience are key.
"The unbelievable story leading up into the match, how emotionally invested the audience is before the match even begins, how emotionally invested they are watching the match," Cole said during a phone interview on Thursday.
"Obviously, we don't have a bunch of fans in the audience right now, so hopefully them watching invested from their couch at home or wherever they're watching the event."
"As far as Edge and Orton are concerned," he continued, "they're two of the absolute greatest of all time. The matches that Edge has had have been unbelievable. The matches Orton has had have been unbelievable. But the greatest wrestling match ever?
"When you talk about the greatest wrestling matches ever, I personally think you think of Adam Cole and the amazing NXT title defenses I've had and the many, many more NXT Championship defenses I'm going to have. When we talk about greatest wrestling matches ever, look no further than yours truly."
7. Going Full Circle with Finn Balor (NXT)
Before a few months ago, Finn Balor was the longest-reigning NXT champion at 292 days. With successful title defenses against Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe and Apollo Crews, he was widely regarded by fans to be among the greatest all-around champs as well.
That was until Cole came along.
It's rare that a titleholder gets to face (let alone defeat) the person who held the record before them, but Cole had the chance to do just that when he and Balor met in a match for the NXT Championship on the December 18 edition of NXT, which was the brand's final live show of the year.
He knew the only way he could earn the title of being the "best ever" was by knocking off the man who was once the measuring stick for success in NXT.
"Why that one was special was, at that point, I was in pretty deep with my NXT Championship run and I was really solidifying myself as one of the best NXT champions of all-time," Cole said.
"The one looming thing was the longest-reigning NXT champion Finn Balor, who had recently come back to NXT, so a lot of people had fantasized about us challenging each other with the title on the line. That one was really special."
Balor beat Cole in one of his final matches on the independent scene over five years earlier, so he was extra determined to avenge that loss and show how far he'd come since their original encounter.
"Fast-forward a bunch of years later and here we are on NXT television with the title on the line," Cole said. "It was really cool. I look at Finn Balor as absolutely one of the greatest NXT champions of all-time, so it was really important to me to not only have a good match with him, but also to walk away still the NXT champion to prove I am what I say I am, and that's the greatest."
6. Producing a Story-Filled Spectacle with Tommaso Ciampa (TakeOver: Portland)
From TakeOver: New York to TakeOver: Portland, the three-way saga involving Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa and Cole lasted a whopping 10 months.
Of course, Gargano and Ciampa had their own separate story since well before that, but Cole's involvement spiced things up and ensured the focus was always on the NXT Championship.
"As far as storytelling goes, it's literally everything," Cole said. "There are some situations where you don't have the time, or maybe it's not the situation brought to the table where the story you have to tell is within that 15-20-25 minutes in the ring. But if you have the chance to tell the story over months, an extended period of time in the ring, there's nothing better."
Cole related the magic that The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels were able to create over the course of a decade to the long-term storytelling he had with Gargano and Ciampa this past year.
The many months of bad blood he had with The Blackheart made their match in Portland in February that much more personal.
"I get excited talking about it, it's just exhilarating," Cole said. "To then go and have the match I did with him and to close that chapter of the Gargano-Ciampa saga as far as Adam Cole is concerned was awesome. I think a lot of people thought he'd walk away as champion that night. It didn't happen because, again, I'm the greatest NXT champion of all time, but I'm very, very proud of that match as well."
Very few, if any, can say they've beaten Ciampa and Gargano in the main event of TakeOver on multiple occasions, and considering Cole can lay claim to that as well, his status as the best NXT champ ever had may well be undisputed.
5. Capping off a Tremendous Trilogy with Johnny Gargano (TakeOver: Toronto II)
You could say any of the three TakeOver matches Cole and Johnny Gargano had for the NXT Championship last year were the best of the bunch, and you wouldn't be wrong, but the 2-out-of-3 falls war from TakeOver: Toronto II was extra significant.
They had the tough task of reaching the same bar they set with the first two matches and did so by giving each fall a special stipulation. The first fall was a standard wrestling match, followed by a Street Fight and then a Steel Cage clash.
For all intents and purposes, it was a Three Stages of Hell matchup with a different name. After all the abuse they put each other through their program, the main event was worthy of such a stipulation.
"I do think in the first two, Johnny and I showed bell-to-bell, in a straight-up wrestling match, we could have a great one," Cole said. "I think we proved that at WrestleMania weekend and then at TakeOver: XXV. This one was so much different. Of course, we started with the wrestling match, but then it turned into a Street Fight, then it turned into a crazy cage match with weapons all over the cage. It was wild."
This match ended their epic trilogy and saw Cole reign supreme with his title intact. Cole and Gargano went to great lengths to capture the aggressive nature of their feud and did a terrific job of giving fans what they wanted.
"I'm very proud of that one as a way to close out the Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano feud because coming off two matches that people really, really enjoyed," Cole said. "In this case, we knew we wanted to make this one as different, as crazy, as wild as we possibly can to really put a stamp on this trilogy of matches.
"I remember laying there when that match was done and being very proud of the matches I had with Johnny—and also being very sore."
4. Withstanding the Pressure with Matt Riddle (NXT)
With his move to the main roster confirmed, Matt Riddle leaves behind a slew of fond memories for fans in NXT, including this classic clash with Adam Cole for the NXT Championship.
The night was October 2, and for the first time, NXT went head-to-head with the debut of AEW Dynamite on TNT.
It was an exhilarating evening for wrestling fans who were torn on what to watch. Those who tuned into NXT were not disappointed, as the show opened with Cole vs. Riddle with the former's coveted title on the line.
Although it wasn't the first time they had faced off one-on-one, it was easily their best, as it had a TakeOver-level vibe to boot. With the stakes high and the pressure on, Cole and Riddle delivered a gem of a match.
"I look at a guy like Matt Riddle and he truly is one of the best. His skill set, his ability, he's captivating. He's just an unbelievable pro wrestler," Cole said. "I knew we had a ton to prove. I knew a lot of eyes were going to be on us. Fortunately, the NXT crowd that night was ready to go, ready to chant, and I was more motivated than ever to just have a really, really great wrestling match."
Also around that time, Cole was dealing with a wrist injury. Instead of it hindering his performance, it added to the story they were trying to tell with viewers convinced that his championship reign was in jeopardy.
"There were so many different factors going on but so much of those few months had happened so quickly that you didn't really have time to truly be stressed," Cole said. "You were just so worked up about what was happening in the moment before you. I feel like that showcased what the NXT Championship is all about to a television audience to the best of our ability."
3. Wrestling Daniel Bryan in a Last-Minute Main Event (SmackDown, Nov. 1, 2019)
NXT was always intended to be involved in the build to Survivor Series, but the invasion from the black-and-gold brand on the November 1 edition of SmackDown came completely out of nowhere.
When several WWE Superstars were delayed on their journey back from Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia, the stars of NXT were given their big break by being brought in to jump-start the brand warfare storyline for Survivor Series. It wasn't announced until halfway through the show that the main event would be Cole defending his NXT Championship against the illustrious Daniel Bryan.
For Cole, his longtime admiration for his opponent was what made the match so special to him.
"First and foremost, Daniel Bryan is a guy when I was a fan in high school I idolized," Cole said. "I remember watching him and being so captivated by him. I thought he really was the best wrestler in the entire world. So captivated by his matches and what he brought to the table. On the independent scene, as he was leaving and I was kind of entering, I never had the chance to wrestle him before."
Another factor that added to the excitement of the affair was the idea that the bout was put together on the fly. Cole and Bryan virtually had zero time to prepare, yet they had no trouble developing instant chemistry, captivating the crowd and putting on a barn burner for the NXT title.
"That throwing-your-boots-on-the-second-you-get-there match I had with Daniel Bryan was the first time we had ever faced each other in any capacity. It was super last minute and we were rushing as fast as we could to get to the building. The next thing I know, I'm out the ring and defending the NXT title against Daniel Bryan. It was crazy, and fortunately, a lot of people really liked that match. Daniel Bryan is without question one of the absolute best pro wrestlers I have ever stepped in the ring with, so I'm very happy I beat him."
Needless to say, this one episode of SmackDown (and more specifically this match) was extremely effective in setting the stage for Survivor Series later that month.
2. Capturing the Championship from Johnny Gargano (NXT TakeOver: XXV)
The age of Adam Cole in NXT began over one year ago when he collided with Johnny Gargano for the NXT Championship and emerged victorious. Unlike their original encounter, this didn't have a stipulation, yet it was totally thrilling from start to finish.
It had been heavily teased going into the anticipated rematch at TakeOver: XXV that Undisputed Era was on the verge of breaking up due to the tension teased between Cole and Roderick Strong. Thankfully, those signs merely turned out to be a red herring and culminated with Cole taking the title.
Cole had his fair share of notable matches and moments earlier on in his NXT run, but nothing came close to the pure energy of that outing and the raucous reaction he received upon winning the big one.
"When I think back to that night, it was such a combination of things. I had just wrestled Johnny Gargano a couple of months prior [over] WrestleMania weekend where he beat me and he became the new NXT champion. Not only did I have that hanging over my head, but the pressure of having a rematch when the first match was loved as much as it was is challenging and that puts a lot of pressure on you."
Always one to rise to the occasion, Cole competed with every intention of topping their New York meeting. Some may argue that they were successful, if only for those electrifying final few minutes.
"I knew going into TakeOver: XXV that I had a lot to prove and certainly a lot to live up to, but fortunately, again, that night was special in some ways," Cole said. "Not just because I won the championship, but I view it as liking it more than the first match that we had. That one was very, very special in its own right and is certainly up there when it comes to my favorite NXT title defenses."
1. Stealing the Show with Pete Dunne (Survivor Series 2019)
Interestingly enough, Adam Cole's top title defense didn't happen on an NXT TakeOver special. Rather, it was last year's installment of Survivor Series, which is considered to be one of WWE's most important pay-per-views on the calendar.
The 2019 event, of course, carried a Raw vs. SmackDown vs. NXT theme, but Cole had other plans that evening rather than participating in any other brand warfare matches. It was announced mere days beforehand that he would defend the NXT Championship on the show against the winner of a Triple Threat at TakeOver: WarGames III.
In other words, Cole had next to no time to prepare for whoever his opponent would be, not to mention that he was banged up from being put through the wringer by Tommaso Ciampa and his squad at WarGames. Logically, it should have been impossible for him to walk out of that show still the NXT champion, but per usual, he found a way to win.
Survivor Series emanating from Chicago (a notoriously hardcore crowd for wrestling fans) helped their cause, along with how wonderfully they worked together. The timing couldn't have been better coming off Cole's matches with Daniel Bryan on SmackDown, Seth Rollins on Raw, and Team Ciampa at WarGames.
"If I had to pick a favorite [title defense], strictly because of the month and the positioning of where I was, the successful title defense against Pete Dunne at Survivor Series is up there," Cole said. "I hold that one and the night that I won the championship as [being] very special. Not only because I got to wrestle at Survivor Series and it being the first time the NXT Championship was defended, but just the crazy month that I and so many other people had had.
"To think it was 24 hours before I went through a 50-minute war in WarGames and I was thrown off the top of the cage. I was battered, beaten and bruised but still went out, still had a tough match, and still walked away as the NXT champion. I think that one is up there too as being very special as far as title defenses go."
If Cole has his way on Sunday, fans can expect many more out-of-this-world NXT Championship clashes from him for a while to come.
Catch Cole in action against Velveteen Dream this Sunday at NXT TakeOver: In Your House on WWE Network.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.