I’ll be going live on https://www.twitch.tv/strongstylesmark at 6pm GMT (half an hour after this article goes up), playing two games from my Game of the Year 2020 list, ScourgeBringer & Spelunky 2! I’d really appreciate it if you came along and hung out!
A couple of weeks ago, I started ranking every NXT men’s & women’s champion. There, we discussed the bottom half of the list with reigns that were somewhat underwhelming, but today, we’re covering the top half and get to relive the best of what NXT has given us over the years.
13 – Bo Dallas
Days as Champion: 260
Successful Title Defences: 5
Best Match As Champion: vs Adrian Neville (Ladder Match) at NXT Arrival
While he might not have the most significant legacy in NXT these days, Bo Dallas was the first NXT Champion to really feel like an NXT Champion in the way we know it today. He wasn’t the most amazing wrestler (though he could definitely put on good matches) but he was the first champion with a clearly defined character and style. That’s not to insult Rollins or Big E, both of those guys are world-class, but their NXT characters felt really vague and purposeless outside of ‘win’.
Meanwhile, Bo Dallas was a brilliant character. After floundering for a while as a cowboy(ish) character, he found his ‘Bolieve’ gimmick and the sky was the limit. His heel work is the kind of thing that we praise people like MJF for in the modern-day. A considerable part of its charm is that it would only work in front of an NXT crowd. I don’t think there’s any other crowd in wrestling right now that would literally get out of their seats and turn their backs on the ring to insult a wrestler they dislike.
Bo worked with moments like these to become a genuinely insufferable character. The contrast of the way he would joyously praise self-betterment (helped by his relatively soft voice) and the genuinely despicable things he would do to some of his opponents was pure brilliance. His title defences weren’t all that memorable, but he did have some good ones against Cesaro, Sami Zayn & Neville.
Truthfully, if his reign was in one of NXT’s golden eras, it would probably be remembered a lot more fondly, but it happened just before the wider IWC truly realised how brilliant NXT could be (myself included), so it has a bit of a forgotten legacy. However, that doesn’t stop it from being one of the greats.
12 – Rhea Ripley
Days as Champion: 109
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Charlotte Flair at Wrestlemania 36
Rhea Ripley’s rise was the kind of rocketing upwards that you don’t see very often but is precisely what NXT handles very well. When she first made the jump from NXT UK, it felt like a big deal, but she didn’t feel like the woman who would topple Baszler’s years of dominance. However, NXT set about changing that very quickly. Not only did she lead are WarGames team to victory from a 4-2 deposit, but she took it to the Raw & Smackdown women’s division at Survivor Series, and suddenly she felt like a megastar who could not be stopped.
Her match against Baszler was brilliant and everything it needed to be. Not only did it feel like a massive moment for Rhea to take her place on the throne, but it put a definitive end to Shayna Baszler’s stranglehold that had defined the NXT women’s division for the past couple of years. She launched straight into gear with a great match against her former NXT UK rival, Toni Storm and pushed ahead past the Royal Rumble, where a lot of hype started building around her title reign.
After Charlotte Flair won the women’s royal rumble, the idea that Charlotte was going to challenge for Rhea’s NXT title became the prevalent theory after both the other women’s titles seemed to have plans already in place. Immediately, this drew more eyes to Rhea as she put on a vastly underrated feud against Bianca Belair. I think for many, this was the feud where Bianca became a future star, rather than future mid-carder and the resulting match proved it, something Rhea’s contribution to cannot be forgotten.
However, the best of Rhea’s reign was still to come as she began her feud with Charlotte Flair in earnest. Not only did Rhea then become the first NXT Champion to defend their title at Wrestlemania, but she did it in what was easily the best pure-wrestling match of the entire weekend. I spoke about this match in my match of the year list, but it really was something special that proved how well Rhea could hang with the best, even though she took the loss in the end.
While her reign as champion didn’t last as long as I’d hoped it would’ve, what she did with her 100 days as champion elevated her and everyone around her. She proved that the NXT Women’s division had plenty of life after Baszler left and all of her title feuds were fantastic, so she definitely gets the nod on this list.
11 – Adrian Neville
Days as Champion: 286
Successful Title Defences: 9
Best Match As Champion: vs Sami Zayn at NXT Takeover: R-Evolution
It’s genuinely hard to believe that this is the same person as the utterly ripped monster we see on AEW currently.
Neville had the benefit of being the first NXT Champion to experience the joys of the fabled NXT Takeovers. These Pay-Per-View events for NXT that would produce some of the best wrestling of the past decade. While the early Takeovers aren’t the most memorable, I’d still put their main events on par with many of the more memorable ones, and Neville is a huge part of that.
While I’d argue Rollins may be a better all-round wrestler, Neville was the first NXT Champion that was allowed to having long main-event matches for the title that benefitted both him and his opponents. Looking back at the opponents he faced during his title reign is a laundry list of wrestlers who are so much better than they ever were on WWE’s main roster. It’s almost sad in a way, but the incredible matches he had with the likes of Tyson Kidd, Tyler Breeze & Bo Dallas are definitely worth a rewatch if you’re in the mood for it.
He was also the first NXT Champion to experience a proper character arc during his NXT title reign. That was the benefit of NXT back then, the writers knew their characters would have an endpoint of their stories. While that’s still somewhat the case these days, it’s a little more nebulous, and you have people like Gargano & Undisputed Era who have been in NXT for ages. Neville’s transition from a pure high-flying babyface champion into a character who, despite still being good, doesn’t mind taking a shortcut here and there was an interesting one. I know it was mostly only done to serve Sami Zayn’s story, but it still made Neville’s journey a great one to look back on.
With this placement of Neville, we see how unfair a list like this can be because while 11th place sounds low, he really was a brilliant champion. It’s just that NXT raised the bar year-on-year for the better part of a decade, so the people who came after him managed to surpass his incredible achievements.
10 – Bayley
Days as Champion: 223
Successful Title Defences:5
Best Match As Champion: vs Sasha Banks at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 1
Bayley was the last of the four horsewomen to hold the NXT Women’s Championship, and I think it’s safe to say that her reign solidified the legacy the four of them would leave on NXT and the legacy they will leave on women’s wrestling when they one day hang up their boots.
Bayley’s title reign started off in the best possible way any title reign can begin, with the culmination of NXT’s best stories to date, not to mention my personal favourite NXT match of all time. Bayley & Sasha Banks’ rivalry in NXT is the stuff of legend, so much so that people spent 5 years begging for it on the main roster before it finally happened. Bayley’s first title defence continued that feud with the iron-woman match at NXT Takeover: Respect and it lived up to the second match’s hype so much so that many people say they prefer this match.
While Bayley’s reign would never reach those heights again, it still definitely stayed strong. Bayley put down a wide variety of opponents during her title reign, including Alexa Bliss, Carmella, Nia Jax. She even got a half-way decent match out of Eva Marie, which is a miracle in and of itself. Bayley’s title reign is like a who’s who of current Raw & Smackdown women’s division stars and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When she eventually lost the title to Asuka, it was a big deal and a brilliant match, along with feeling like the perfect time and the perfect situation for Bayley to bow out of NXT.
Bayley was this eternally endearing character who you always wanted to route for. While the main roster would eventually squander this so much that they had to turn her heel (which led to another top-tier title reign), NXT Bayley was a bundle of purity that brought joy to all of our spiteful hearts.
9 – Charlotte Flair
Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 258; 2nd Reign – 73
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 6; 2nd Reign – 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Io Shirai vs Rhea Ripley at NXT Takeover: In Your House
Being the daughter of one of the greatest to ever do it is no small shadow to step out of. It’s the kind of shadow that many 2nd or 3rd generation wrestlers have utterly failed to step out of (including Ric Flair’s other children), but NXT did something very interesting, but in hindsight, quite clever. Quite simply, for the entirety of her NXT run, she had no surname. It was no secret whose daughter she was, but they didn’t always draw attention to it and kept her just as ‘Charlotte’. Even on the main roster, they waited until she was an established superstar in her own right before starting to call her ‘Flair’.
As NXT Women’s Champion, she took Paige’s work in women’s wrestling and took it further than ever before. While she was still slightly constrained by the lingering perspective of women’s wrestling as a sideshow, she blazed a trail that was truly her own and made sure no-one could deny her star power. She was (and still is) one of the best female wrestlers on the planet and she made sure that her talents were never denied.
On top of that, her title reign put the spotlight on her contemporaries and turned the four horsewomen into the establishment they are today. Her work didn’t just elevate her, it elevated Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, hell, even Natalya and Summer Rae looked a hell of a lot better after having a great match with Charlotte. The Fatal 4 Way between all of the horsewomen remains their only encounter to date, and it was everything you’d hoped it would be.
Charlotte’s second title reign was very different. When she won the title, I thought it would be a lot more than it was. While I thought Rhea should’ve won at Wrestlemania, I saw the upside of having someone with Charlotte’s star power carry the NXT Women’s Championship, as it could elevate everyone in the division. Which sort of happened. Rhea initially looked really good with how she stepped it to Charlotte, but quickly became the unimportant player as Io Shirai stepped into the spotlight once again. Ultimately, Io winning the title from Charlotte was a huge moment, and Io has had a fantastic reign since then, but I was really hoping for more; and if some backstage reports are to be believed, the NXT writers were hoping for more too…
While her second reign was disappointing as a whole, it did bring us a couple of really great matches (including 2020’s best WWE match). Meanwhile, the roads Charlotte paved with her first title reign ensured that she will forever have a legacy in NXT as one of their best champions.
8 – Sasha Banks
Days as Champion: 191
Successful Title Defences: 4
Best Match As Champion: vs Bayley at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 1
If Paige’s reign is where the rise of women’s wrestling started, and Charlotte’s is where it built a solid foundation, then Sasha’s title reign is where it became mainstream.
Looking at the title defences through each of these first three NXT Women’s Champions, the progression is clear as day. Sasha’s title defences were not only more frequent, but the matches average a longer runtime, especially on Takeover events. This was also when stories in the women’s division finally started to properly pull away from the stereotypical stories of friends suddenly hating each other, or the classic “you’re just jealous”. We started to see writing that was on-par with the storylines the men were getting, and it was proving a success.
Outside of that, Sasha continued to raise the bar that her predecessors had set. She took on all comers and looked like a strong badass as she did so. She put down Charlotte (twice), Becky Lynch (in what was inarguably Lynch’s best singles match in NXT) and Alexa Bliss in matches that were all a lot of fun to watch and of a high enough quality for a mainstream wrestling audience to finally start to take notice.
What undoubtedly put this over the top though, is Banks’ legendary feud with Bayley. I’ve talked about it a bit already, but it cannot be understated just how monumental this story and the match at Takeover: Brooklyn was in establishing women’s wrestling as the kind of franchise that the mainstream wrestling fans would not let WWE ignore. When WWE sit around patting themselves on the back for what a great job they’ve done with this whole ‘women’s revolution’ stuff, it’s moments like the end of that Brooklyn match that we can look to as the truly great moments.
While most of the focus is on Bayley’s story when it comes to this moment (and rightly so), there’s no such thing as a good underdog story without a proper villain, and Sasha Banks in NXT may be one of the best. Before “The Boss” just became a meaningless nickname, Banks carried herself with an indomitable aura that you hoped and prayed would be destroyed, but never was. Her entrance at Takeover: Brooklyn is the perfect example of this. Showing up in a black SUV with blacked-out windows and a swarm of bodyguard may not be the flashiest entrance ever, but it’s precisely what a character like her is made for. Don’t get me wrong, Sasha’s current persona is excellent, and I’m loving it, but this version of Sasha Banks will be the one I always remember the most fondly.
7 – Bobby Roode
Days as Champion: 202
Successful Title Defences: 4
Best Match As Champion: vs Hideo Itami at NXT Takeover: Chicago
Roode is one of the more forgotten NXT Champions, which I think is a real shame because he’s one of my more favoured ones. Ultimately, I think this is down to how WWE did absolutely nothing with him during his time on the main roster. When people these days say that Bobby Roode is a crap wrestler, as much as I disagree, I can understand where that perspective comes from, when that’s how WWE’s treated him for years. It’s perhaps one of the worst cases of mishandling between NXT and the main roster in history because Roode’s time as NXT Champion was brilliant.
While his entrance theme and overly dramatic Takeover entrances were undoubtedly the most memorable parts of his title reign, the truth is he had some really good matches too. They were never the flashiest affairs, but they always such a firm grasp of the fundamentals that they honestly didn’t need that much extra to be great watches. Roode cultivated this character who thrived on the understated and simple and his style reflected that. It’s styles like this that I point to when I want to prove that ‘wrestling heel’ doesn’t have to mean ‘slow and boring.’
On top of that, he had a great character. He was never the best promo in NXT, but he had a clear mission statement and the way he carried himself was all you need to know. The robes, the suits, the watches, it was a brilliant set of ideas that made him the ideal opponent for just about anyone. Whether it’s someone chaotic like Shinsuke Nakamura or Hideo Itami (KENTA) or a true of heart family man like Roderick Strong (before he joined UE, at least).
I will always be upset that WWE management never saw anything in him, because he genuinely deserved so much better, but at least we got this.
6 – Kevin Owens
Days as Champion: 142
Successful Title Defences: 5
Best Match As Champion: vs John Cena at Elimination Chamber 2015
The dude beat John Cena clean as a whistle while he was champion, what more do you need to me to say?
Following Zayn’s title win, Kevin Owens turned up. I don’t mean he debuted, he already did that earlier that night, I mean the Kevin Owens we all know today turned up. I know he’s a face at the moment, but the utterly despicable man who would turn on anyone and everyone he’s ever loved and use his words to utterly eviscerate them, that Kevin Owens turned up.
It was shocking to see him immediately contend with Zayn for the title because surely Zayn wasn’t going to lose the belt so soon after his remarkable win? Oh…oh no.
The match between Owens & Zayn was something we hadn’t seen from NXT until this point, and it was brilliant in how horrible it was. The way Owens kept beating him down with no remorse for his former best friend as Zayn just flopped around, surviving, but only just was heartbreaking. Owens became a monster that night, and a monster with a championship no less, winning the match via referee stoppage, which was incredible.
Owens kicked his title reign off with a bang, having a brilliant, but completely forgotten match with Finn Balor on NXT TV, before running through Sami Zayn again at Takeover: Unstoppable. Zayn had a bit more fight in him this time, but Owens still came out of it looking dominant, even if he was laid out at the end by a debuting Samoa Joe. From there, Owens’ title reign took a fascinating but very unusual turn.
In a surprise debut on Raw, Owens showed up to answer John Cena’s open challenge. He wasn’t the first NXT star to do this, but instead of merely having a great match and then losing to Cena, Owens put Cena down in a promo and then laid waste to him and his title. When a champion vs champion match was set for Elimination Chamber, I think we were all a bit sceptical. In 2015, Cena hadn’t transitioned yet into the great wrestler who puts over young guys that he is today, and people were still expecting the worst. However, we didn’t get it, in what was a genuine surprise, Owens hit Cena with the Pop-Up Powerbomb and pinned Cena as clean as clean can be.
From there, Owens continued to defend the NXT title on the main roster. He beat both Zack Ryder & Heath Slater in rapid squash matches and had a rather good match with Neville on Raw for the title. However, his title reign would come to an end quickly afterwards, as Finn Balor beat him for the title in Japan, where Balor made his name as Prince Devitt.
Owens did things as NXT Champion that no-one else has ever done with the title, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he ended up spending less than 6 months in NXT before moving up to the main roster. However, the downside of that is that he didn’t have a very long reign, and while numbers aren’t everything, in the context of this list, it certainly causes him to drop a few places.
5 – Finn Balor
Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 292; 2nd Reign – 137+
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 4; 2nd Reign 2+
Best Match As Champion: vs Kyle O’Reilly at NXT Takeover: 31
Finn Balor’s time in NXT has been a bit of a weird one, and I think my opinion of it varies quite noticeably from the general opinion of the IWC. While I could never deny that Finn’s run as champion defined NXT’s first golden era, I actually think his second (and current) run in NXT is far superior.
His first run with the title began in grand fashion, winning it in front of a Japanese crowd in the land where he made his name. He defended it in NXT’s first-ever ladder match, which was a great match, but will enterally be overshadowed by the Sasha/Bayley match that preceded it. From there he defended the title against Apollo Crews…via DQ and then battled Samoa Joe for well over six months. Truthfully, Balor and Joe never had a bad match, I was just sick of seeing by the end, and it brought down my opinion of Balor’s title reign.
Granted, NXT didn’t have the enormous depth of talent that they do now, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that Balor didn’t get to wrestle a greater variety of his opponents for what was, at the time, the longest title reign in NXT history. That said, Balor’s still in 5th place on this list because all of his matches were good-to-great and it was the longest reign in NXT history for several years.
What puts him over the top for me though, is his current run as NXT Champion. When he returned to the black & yellow brand, it was unclear exactly what his role would be. He fought for the title twice but lost both times. Then he turned heel and embraced his old ‘prince’ persona again, but with new wrinkles for everything he’s done since then. It seemed like he was mostly going to be around to have feuds with NXT’s up-and-comers, but the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Karrion Kross’ injury worked in Balor’s favour.
He beat Cole for the title and, despite only defending it twice so far, has already had a better title reign than his first if you ask me. Both of his matches against Kyle O’Reilly were two of the best I’ve ever seen either man put on. On top of this, the boosted credibility and profile of NXT these days combined with Balor’s heel persona makes him so much more fun to watch week in and week out, even when he’s out healing a broken jaw.
I have no idea where Balor’s current title reign is going to go, and maybe this time next year, he’ll be worthy of one of the top spots on a list like this, all I know is, I like what I’m seeing now, and he could even usher in a third golden era for NXT in 2021.
4 – Tommaso Ciampa
Days as Champion: 237
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4
The top 5 of this list were tough to organise, because they’re all so brilliant.
While the process for years in NXT was that people will eventually leave the brand and go onto the sometimes greener, sometimes barren pastures of WWE’s main roster, Ciampa was the first person who really felt like he’s an NXT guy for life. His feud with Gargano is inarguably the best in the brand’s history so far, and as much as Gargano was the face, I think Ciampa is the one who came out of it looking like one of NXT’s greatest stars.
In his seven months as champion, he only defended the title three times, which is something I’ve railed on other people for, and it did contribute somewhat to Ciampa not making the top three. However, all three of those title defences were truly incredible matches and some of the best title defences NXT has ever seen.
His first defence was in a Last Man Standing match against Gargano, in what was the last true match of their feud (I don’t count the cinematic one from 2020 because it was shit) and it enclosed everything that had gone into that iconic story. Gargano fought with all of his heart and soul, but at the end of the day, Ciampa was just tougher and smarter…and he didn’t throw himself off of a stage for no reason like Gargano did.
Next up was against Velveteen Dream in what remains to this day Dream’s best match in terms of wrestling action. Dream had been on the rise in NXT for a while, but this match was when many, myself included, sat up and realised that he could easily be the top guy on the brand if the opportunity arose. Finally, he wrestled Aleister Black in a match that was everything I wanted it to be and more. Two of the best pure wrestlers to have been NXT Champion facing off against each other and made for a brilliant watch.
Unfortunately, things would end on a bit of a bum note. As the finale match was set for Takeover: New York between Ciampa and Gargano, Ciampa would suffer a neck injury that required surgery and saw him out of action for over half the year.
The injury was heartbreaking and came at the worst possible time in terms of the story being told, but that shouldn’t be allowed to take away from the incredible run Ciampa had at the top. Not only was he one of the best-defined characters NXT had seen in years, with heel heat so genuine that for a while, they didn’t give him entrance music because the boos were so loud, but he was one of the best wrestlers to ever sit atop the brand of black and gold.
3 – Asuka
Days as Champion: 522
Successful Title Defences: 11
Best Match As Champion: vs Nikki Cross at NXT 23rd June 2017
After the four horsewomen left NXT for Raw & Smackdown, there was a lot of concern surrounding the division’s future. NXT had spent so much time hailing Charlotte, Becky, Sasha & Bayley as prodigies that there was a worry no-one would be able to fill their spot and make waves in quite the same way. In hindsight, it’s laughable we were ever worried.
It was clear from the moment she signed that Japanese star Kana (re-christened Asuka for NXT) that she was going to be a big deal on the brand, getting the ‘sitting in the crowd’ treatment at an NXT Takeover, which seems to be their favourite way of showing off new superstars. Her dominance was immediate, and it didn’t take long for her to build up quite the winning streak. By the time she won the title, she was so popular that people didn’t even mind that she had to take down the beloved Bayley to become a champion.
Asuka held the title for an incredible year and a half, defending it against just about everyone who was anyone in the NXT women’s division at the time. Bayley, Nia Jax, The IIconics, Ruby Riott, Nikki Cross & Ember Moon all stepped up to take on the empress of tomorrow and all were put down in some of the best matches the division had seen at that time. Asuka was untouchable, and the hype surrounding her managed to only keep building as her undefeated streak surpassed even that of Goldberg’s.
She got to tell some interesting stories in her time as champion too. She got to wage a brutal war against the unhinged Nikki Cross and told a compelling story with Ember Moon of Asuka starting to retain her title by any means necessary. Unfortunately, Asuka’s title reign would come to an end somewhat prematurely as an injury would force her to vacate the title after a record 522 days holding it. Whether or not this was a good thing is down to your perspective. On the one hand, this allowed her to drop the title without losing her undefeated streak that immediately gave her an aura of indestructibility when she debuted on Raw later in the year. However, it also meant that no-one in NXT got to benefit from being the one to finally topple Asuka, which could’ve instantly made a new star-like Kairi Sane or Shayna Baszler.
Regardless of how it ended, there’s no denying that Asuka’s title reign was one of the best while it was happening. She looked incredibly strong at every turn and was able to build up her opponents’ standing in the eyes of the fans, even when she was beating them. She really did it all.
2 – Adam Cole
Days as Champion: 403
Successful Title Defences: 11
Best Match As Champion: vs Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: XXV
For Cole, you essentially take everything I said about Asuka, add a large handful of the greatest matches in NXT history, and you’ve got your answer as to Cole’s position on this list.
From the moment The Undisputed Era appeared in NXT, they have been absolutely beloved by the fans, and with good reason. Although they are some of the more despicable heels of NXT’s current generation, they have this undeniable cool factor to them that you just can’t help but love. Their entrance music is basic but carries this swagger to it that dramatically enhances their walk down to the ring, and ‘Adam Cole Bay-Bay’ is one of the most fun things to yell as part of a live crowd.
When Gargano had his crowning moment at Takeover: New York, there was the feeling that maybe it should’ve been Cole’s time to shine. In hindsight, giving Gargano a run with the title, even a fleeting one, was the right move, because Cole didn’t suffer even a tiny bit from having to wait an extra couple of months. As soon as Cole won the title, he began his incredible work at the top. The title looked so perfect around his waist, and he put in some incredible work as champion.
Straight away he defended the title against NXT UK star Zack Gibson, and Akira Tozowa at Evolve’s 10th-anniversary show, which was a great showcase. He then put an end to his epic feud with Gargano in a three stages of hell match that was as over-the-top as it was brilliant fun to watch. From there, Cole ran through everyone who stepped in his way, often with the help of The Undisputed Era, but quite a few on his own merit. During this time, The Undisputed Era fulfilled their ‘golden prophecy’ where every title in the NXT men’s division was held by a member of the faction.
After a good feud with Matt Riddle, November 2019 rolled around and NXT was to be included in the brand warfare for Survivor Series, alongside Raw & Smackdown, which was a big deal. Cole showed up on Smackdown, and not only had a fantastic 20-minute match with Daniel Bryan but won the damn thing as clean as you’d like. Cole was one of the NXT stars who put on an incredible double-performance that weekend, participating in a brutal WarGames match, before defending his title against Pete Dunne in what was easily the best match of the night.
Cole continued to lead NXT into the new year, and even in the pandemic era, Cole put on some of the best matches out of everyone on the brand. He took out a returning Finn Balor and a returning Tommaso Ciampa in matches that were much-hyped, long-awaited and didn’t disappoint. His feud against Velveteen Dream defined a good chunk of the spring and was one of the highlights of that period until his reign would finally come to an end at Keith Lee’s hands in July.
Cole’s run at the top of NXT was the kind that hadn’t been seen in the men’s division of NXT for a long time, and it was sorely needed as many of the top stars moved on to the main roster. Cole and The Undisputed Era dominated NXT for so long, and yet it never got tiring, and they never felt boring, it’s no wonder that almost as soon as Cole dropped the title, the group turned face, people are desperate to cheer these guys. It defined NXT for a long time and put to bed any doubts about whether a guy like Cole could really be a top star.
1 – Shayna Baszler
Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 132; 2nd Reign – 416
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 3; 2nd Reign – 8
Best Match As Champion: vs Kairi Sane at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4
There’s no way it could’ve been anyone else. Asuka may have had an undefeated streak, Cole may have had the cool factor, but no-one felt as indestructible and dominant during their time as champion as Shayna Baszler.
After being the runner up in the first Mae Young Classic, Shayna ended up jumping the gun on winner Kairi Sane and took the title from Ember Moon in reasonably dominant fashion almost as soon as she arrived on NXT. Many people at the time were expecting Ember Moon to pick up where Asuka left off and have a lengthy run as champion, but Baszler shocked everyone by putting an end to that early. In all honesty, Baszler’s first run with the title was nowhere near as great as her second, however, even though many of her matches weren’t the best, her character work was second to none. She came into her dominant, cocky (but could back it up) and nasty persona so easily, and it would only grow.
Baszler lost the title to Kairi Sane at Takeover: Brooklyn 4 in what is one of my favourite Takeover matches ever, but quickly took it back in another brilliant match at Evolution. This is where Baszler started to use fellow former MMA stars, Jessamine Duke & Marina Shafir, as her entourage who would interfere in matches for her, adding to her aura of indestructibility. NXT show so much restraint with heel groups interfering matches so that, when they do, it almost always serves the story in a way that enhances it, not diminished it as we see on Raw & Smackdown all the time.
From here, Shayna’s dominance and heelish persona would grow and grow, to the point where the NXT audience could cheer for just about anyone, even heels if they went up against Baszler. She understood how to get under a crowd’s skin both in promos and during matches, without sacrificing the in-ring action’s quality. She also had the fantastic ability to look vulnerable without ever looking weak. In all of her battles with women like Io Shirai, Kairi Sane or Bianca Belair, you felt like maybe they were just an inch away from toppling Baszler, and maybe if they had just one more shot they could do it, but Baszler still came out on top every single time.
Finally, Baszler’s reign actually got to feel complete by the time it ended. Not only had she torn through the NXT women’s division and beaten everyone there is to beat, but she actually got to lose the title to a fast-rising star, so someone gets to benefit from everything she built up. Rhea Ripley became a star pretty much overnight, and the timing was perfect for her to be the one to finally put an end to almost two years of Baszler’s dominance. The moment when Rhea won the title was a fantastic climax and one of the highlights of 2019, and that was only possible thanks to the unmatched title reign Baszler had leading up to it.
While Baszler was champion she had the best matches, did the best character work, elevated everyone she stepped in the ring with, and capped it all off by making a brand new white-hot star in Rhea Ripley. That, my friends, is what a perfect title reign looks like.
So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. As another reminder, I will be going live very shortly after this article is posted, so please check out https://www.twitch.tv/strongstylesmark if you haven’t already. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where my coverage of the Royal Rumble will begin with predictions!