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Ahh NXT. When the world of Raw & Smackdown makes it feel like wrestling will never be good ever again (which doesn’t happen all the time, although sometimes it does feel like it) there’s always the warm black and gold glow of Full-Sail University gently sits you down and reminds you that: “Hey! Wrestling’s fun and you enjoy watching it!” Whether it’s compelling storytelling or five-star matches, NXT has just about everything you could want from a modern-day wrestling promotion and no-one better embodies that than it champions.
Between the main Men’s and Women’s Championships, 25 different wrestlers have stood at the top of the brand at some point in their career and each of them brought their own unique style and flair to the title. That said, as is the case with everything in life, not all of them were equal, and it’s always going to be someone’s job to file their opinions on these titles reigns in the form of a ranked list.
As for what criteria I’m ranking these on, it’s a combination of hard stats (days as champion, number of defences etc.) and my personal feelings of the quality of storylines and matches they had while champion. Whatever they did outside of their title reign is irrelevant, all that matters is what they did when the gold was around their waist.
I also won’t be including Io Shirai in this list, nor will I count Karrion Kross. In Io’s case, I don’t think it’s fair to judge a title reign before it’s over, while in Kross’ case, the injury was a tragedy, and the 4 days he held the title wasn’t representative of what was planned for him. All-in-all, I just think it would be mean to put him on the bottom spot of this list when it wasn’t his fault his reign was so short.
With those caveats made, let’s get started.
26 – Kairi Sane
Days as Champion: 71
Successful Title Defences: 0
Best Match As Champion: vs Shayna Baszler at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV
Kairi Sane had the unfortunate distinction of being a hot up-and-comer in the NXT Women’s division during Shayna Baszler’s run of dominance. While this time was terrific for the NXT Women’s division as a whole, with countless incredible matches, very few women ever got a taste of the gold. However, the only woman who managed to interrupt Baszler’s time at the top for a little while was Kairi Sane.
Sane won the title from Baszler in one of the best matches of that year and was just one chapter in the fantastic rivalry the two had. Given who was on the NXT Women’s roster at the time, there was all the potential in the world for Sane to spend a year going around and having brilliant matches with everybody in sight, especially after Io Shirai burst onto the scene. Unfortunately for Sane, Baszler had so much potential, and NXT management saw more money putting the title back on Bazler.
So, at Evolution, without a single title defence under her belt, Kairi Sane lost the title back to Shayna Baszler. Again, the match was great, and Baszler would do great things with the title, but it was disappointing for Sane. It’s an unfortunate scenario of a wrestler being in the wrong place at the wrong time, meaning their chance at crowning glory was swept to one side for someone else.
25 – Johnny Gargano
Days as Champion: 57
Successful Title Defences: 0
Best Match As Champion: vs Adam Cole at NXT Takeover: XXV
Well, if you want a ‘victim of circumstance’ look no further…
Gargano’s title reign should’ve been so much grander. It should’ve felt like the culmination of the whole previous era of NXT. From the moment Ciampa threw Gargano into the LED screen at Chicago in 2017, it had felt like Gargano has NXT Champion was NXT’s new endgame. Then the world intervened, and NXT had to adapt and create something different. Which unfortunately left Gargano in the dust.
The match where Gargano won the title at Takeover New York was fantastic, but it should’ve been so much more. When the finale of the Gargano vs Ciampa series was set for the show, it felt like we were finally going to reach the end of this story. The characters had changed and adapted over the years, but they were still the same people, and they still had business to settle. Then, tragedy struck, and Ciampa got injured. Adam Cole came in as the replacement and – as I said – the match was one of the best of that year, but the moment when Gargano won the title didn’t feel like the massive payoff it would’ve if it was against Ciampa. In fact, once the match changed many fans, myself included, turned against Gargano and was rooting for Cole to win the title instead.
Seeing their best-laid plans fall directly into the bin, NXT management did what they do best and adapted. They didn’t stubbornly stay the course, they changed tactics and during the rematch a couple of months later. Cole took the title from Gargano, ending a completely empty reign. Once again, the match was one of the best NXT has ever produced, and it started off a fantastic title reign for Cole (more on that later), but it left Gargano with nothing to do from that point onwards. He’s managed to find a better character angle to take now, but it took almost a year to get there.
The only thing that separates this title reign from Kairi Sane’s down at the bottom is that Gargano’s matches where he won and lost the title were better. Other than that it’s just two faces that should’ve had everything but, thanks to circumstances beyond their control, ended up with almost nothing.
24 – Keith Lee
Days as Champion: 52
Successful Title Defences: 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Dominik Dijakovic on NXT 15th July 2020
Well, this was a disappointment.
For context, when I started writing this list, Lee hadn’t even won the title yet. It was during the build to The Great American Bash, and there were high hopes for Lee to have a dominant run at the top of NXT.
I think the main problem with Lee’s title reign is that it came just a little too late in his run. Lee spent about a year doing practically nothing of note in NXT until he suddenly hit the big time in 2019. He had that star-making performance against Roman Reigns & Seth Rollins at Survivor Series. He spent the first half of 2020 blowing everyone away with his defences of his North American Championship. Realistically, he probably should’ve taken the title from Cole in the spring.
By the time Lee won the title, two things had happened. First, those behind the wheel on Raw realised what a ready-made star they had on their hands with Lee, and they wanted a piece. Second was that an absolute monster had arrived in NXT by the name of Karrion Kross, and there was no way he was doing anything other than shooting straight to the top.
There was at least some good story during his reign, I loved the rivalry turned friendship that Lee & Dijakovic have shared over the past year, and it was brilliant to play that into Lee’s feud with Kross. In addition, at least Lee got to defend the title at least once, which puts him over both of the other champions we’ve covered so far. As disappointing as it was for Lee to lose the title so quickly, he’s absolutely killing it on Raw right now, and we’ll always have that euphoric visual of him holding up both titles amongst the confetti.
23 – Drew McIntyre
Days as Champion: 91
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Andrade “Cien” Almas at NXT Takeover: WarGames
It pains me to do this, it really does.
Being a man who had already seen success in WWE prior to his 2017 run in NXT, it always felt like Drew was never going to stick around for very long down at the Performance Center. Not only had he already been an established WWE star before his 2015 release, but he’d come back looking like one of the toughest tough guys to ever be tough, of course Vince was going to decide he wanted a piece of that action on Raw & Smackdown sooner rather than later.
This meant that, despite coming into NXT full of fire and taking the title from Bobby Roode in an excellent match, he didn’t really get much of an opportunity to do anything exciting with the championship while he was holding it. While the 91-day length is longer than several other entries on this list, he didn’t get a chance to show what he can really do in any of those 91 days. Both of his successful title defences were on NXT TV, rather than at a Takeover, which meant that they didn’t have that atmosphere or drive that takes NXT matches to the next level despite both being excellent.
When he lost the title to Andrade, it came as a surprise to many, myself included, as it felt like his reign was only just kicking into gear. As it turned out, even if he had won that match it wouldn’t have made a difference, as Drew suffered an arm injury in that match and was out of action until Spring of 2018 when he showed up on Raw.
Drew Mcintyre is a brilliant wrestler who deserves all the success he is currently experiencing in his career; however, he left no lasting impact whatsoever when it comes to NXT.
22 – Samoa Joe
Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 121; 2nd Reign – 13
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 1; 2nd Reign – 0
Best Match As Champion: vs Finn Balor (Steel Cage) at NXT Takeover: The End
Given that Joe was the first-ever two-time NXT Champion in history, you’d surely expect him to be a lot higher on this list than fourth from bottom. However, let me ask you a question: What did Joe actually do with the title? Seriously, what did he do during his time as champion to leave any impact whatsoever on NXT? The answer, my friends, is nothing.
For one thing, Joe’s title win wasn’t even televised. For context, by this point in 2016, Joe & Balor had been feuding for ages, and Joe had come out on the losing end every single time. At both London & Dallas, Balor had put Joe away cleanly, walking away with the title both times. Then suddenly one night, on an untelevised house-show, Joe wins the title from Balor. It wasn’t a botch, this was a genuine booking decision made by NXT management. Now, title changes happen on house-shows once every couple of years or so (usually at Madison Square Garden), and it’s always fun when it does. However, in Joe’s case, it felt a bit underwhelming, especially after he’d failed to win the title so many times before.
Joe’s 121 days to his first title reign may sound impressive, but don’t let that fool you, nothing of interest happened during that time. He defended the title against Balor in a Steel Cage, in a good match, but nothing extraordinary. Then Shinsuke Nakamura burst onto the title scene, they feuded for two months, and when they finally had a match, Nakamura won the title, just like that.
“But what about his second title reign?” I hear you ask. Well, it lasted about as long as this sentence.
Joe won the title back from Nakamura at Takeover: Toronto in a shocking moment. However, this title reign lasted an upsettingly short 13 days. The only reason Joe even won the title back is that NXT was doing a show in Nakamura’s home country of Japan in a couple of weeks and they wanted Nakamura to win back the title there. That’s honestly it. Joe left NXT shortly afterwards, and it honestly felt as if he’d never been there in the first place. It seemed like him having the NXT title was more just something for him to have on his resume when he went up to the main roster. I honestly don’t think the history of NXT would have looked any different if the title had gone directly from Balor to Nakamura instead of using Joe as a stop-gap.
21 – Shinsuke Nakamura
Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 91; 2nd Reign – 56
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 0; 2nd Reign – 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Bobby Roode at NXT Takeover: San Antonio
I seriously considered having Joe & Nakamura share a slot to be entirely honest with you because I have very similar things to say about them. As great as we know Nakamura can be, I don’t think he left much of an impact on NXT while champion. His best work on the brand all came before he won the title. His match against Finn Balor was one of the last stepping stones before he challenged for the title and his match with Sami Zayn (his unquestionably best match in NXT) was his debut.
By the time he’d actually won the title, it felt like NXT was ready to move onto the next era. They were starting to sign a bunch of big names left-and-right, and with no secondary title, they rushed a bunch of them to the title too quickly. In fact, Joe & Nakamura are great examples of this. They both should’ve had long and fruitful reigns with the title, but they rose to the top at almost the exact same time, which meant they both dragged each other down.
The story with Nakamura’s title reigns is just as dull as Joe’s. He won it from Samoa Joe at Takeover: Brooklyn II, lost it back to Joe at Takeover: Toronto, before winning it back again in a taped match from Japan. A few weeks later, their feud finally ended when Nakamura beat Joe in a Steel Cage in Melbourne. It’s worth noting that all of these matches were good, it’s just that it had got very tiresome by the end, and I now look less fondly on the earlier matches as a result.
Finally, Nakamura was free of Samoa Joe and could move on to defend the title against NXT’s best a brightest…or not. Nakamura surprisingly lost the title at Takeover: San Antonio to Bobby Roode…and that was that. He lost a rematch to Roode in Orlando and showed up on Smackdown later that week. Thankfully, Roode would break this cycle and be a far superior champion, but it meant that Nakamura’s legacy in NXT is quite a disappointing one.
20 – Sami Zayn
Days as Champion: 62
Successful Title Defences: 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Adrian Neville at NXT Takeover: R Evolution
Sami Zayn’s title win marked the end of the first era of NXT. It was the biggest story the brand had ever had, and Zayn’s title win represented the culmination of it. It was the point where many fans finally turned their heads and started paying attention to the black & gold brand. The great thing about Takeover: R Evolution though, is that it didn’t just culminate a great story, it immediately started a new one.
Immediately getting annihilated by his best friend Kevin Owens, Zayn had a red-hot storyline to kick off his title reign. He put on a good show in his rematch with Neville shortly after he won it, but following that, it was all Kevin Owens. NXT had taken it’s biggest babyface and given him a rival that had everything. Not only are they real-life best friends, and thus know each other better than anyone, but they’ve both got unmatched microphone skills and storytelling ability. It was that storytelling ability that pulled Zayn’s title reign up a few places from where it should realistically be.
When you look at the bare facts of how Zayn’s title reign ended, it sounds like a travesty. The biggest babyface NXT ever had up until that point got absolutely annihilated, to the point where the referee called for the bell, handing the title to the new monster heel, barely two months into his title reign. The thing is though it was brilliant. Zayn as a face is undoubtedly a character that benefits from getting arse kicked, and the story surrounding it meant that this outcome made sense. Owens knew Zayn’s in-ring style inside and out, while Owens had totally transformed himself into a killing machine. There was nothing Zayn could do to get one over on Owens, and it made all the sense in the world.
However, as great as the story was, it doesn’t change the fact that Zayn lost the title after barely having a cup of coffee with it.
19 – Big E Langston
Days as Champion: 168
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Seth Rollins at NXT 6th December 2012
When looking back on the history of NXT, the early champions are always pretty hard to rank, because the only thing that connects 2012-2014 NXT to 2015-present NXT, is the name – apart from that, they may as well be two completely separate entities.
As it stood, Big E was a big dominant guy who had an undefeated streak, and that was pretty much it. The fun & exciting part came from where he demanded that the referee count 5 on his pinfalls instead of three. A fun little gimmick at first, but it’s not a great deal to go on. This was before the NXT writers room was full of the most inspired storytellers in the business, and was instead just a bunch of guys that weren’t ready to write for Raw yet.
He dethroned Rollins to become the second-ever NXT Champion, as Rollins was a bit busy being one-third of the newly debuted Shield at the time. Then we hit our next stumbling block with this era of NXT, because, although Big E held the title all the way from the start of December through to the end of May, he only defended the title three times, with minimal story going into any of them.
He dispatched of Conor O’Brian (who would later become one half of The Ascension…and put a ‘K’ at the front of his name for some reason) sometime in March. A few weeks later he beat Brad Maddock (yes, the guy who was Raw GM so briefly you’d almost certainly forgotten about it) in under 90 seconds. Then Bo Dallas came around, and that was that. Big E had already debuted on the main roster by this point as Dolph Ziggler’s lackey, and there was very little value in him being NXT Champion anymore.
I think Big E definitely has some decent role in establishing NXT for the success it would later see, but I can’t say that what he did with the title was particularly impressive.
18 – Ember Moon
Days as Champion: 140
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Shayna Baszler at NXT Takeover: New Orleans
Based on the numbers, you might think Ember should be a bit higher up on the list, but as much as she had an enjoyable run as champion, I don’t feel like she left much of an impact on the brand.
In 2017, it felt like Ember Moon was to be the successor to Asuka’s throne. It’s hard to say whether or not she would’ve eventually overcome Asuka had The Empress of Tomorrow never gotten injured, but the general feeling was that Ember Moon was going to be sitting on top of the NXT Women’s division for quite a while. Sadly, she fell short of these expectations, not because of any fault of hers, but because she was surrounded by some extremely hot prospects.
When Ember Moon won the NXT Women’s Championship, it wasn’t too far out from the very first Mae Young Classic tournament ending, which meant that there was a fresh crop of incredible women’s wrestlers waiting for their time to shine in NXT. Ember was delayed in winning the title to begin with, thanks to the insanely hot run Asuka found herself on, but once Ember got a hold of the title, there were some high expectations.
Her first defence of the title was against Sonya Deville on an episode NXT in November. It was a good match, but it was only 7 minutes long and served more to be a mini-showcase for Sonya Deville than anything substantial. Then Ember ran into the woman who would cause her run at the top to be cut short: Shayna Baszler. Admittedly, Baszler was nowhere near as dominant as she would later become just yet, but anyone with half a brain could see all the potential in the world, so her winning the title was very much a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
Moon successfully defended the title against Baszler twice, however, both times it was by the skin of her teeth; one via an opportunistic rollup and the other via DQ. On top of that, Baszler laid waste to Ember at every opportunity. Great for the purposes of building Baszler up as the next big thing, not so great for Ember and her title reign, which would end at Takeover: New Orleans with relatively little fanfare.
As great as Ember Moon had the potential to be as champion, the way history has played out, her legacy is entirely overshadowed by the two dominant forces that surrounded her in the form of Asuka & Shayna Baszler.
17 – Seth Rollins
Days as Champion: 133
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Big E Langston at NXT 6th December 2012
Rollins gets a prestige boost by virtue of being the first champion, but that doesn’t carry him far.
If I’m being entirely honest, my thoughts of Rollins as champion are very similar to my thoughts on Big E’s time as champion. The difference here being Rollins at least wrestled for a lot longer during his title defences. Admittedly, that’s not much of a benefit when his main rival was Jinder Mahal, but it’s still got to count for something.
Defeating Jinder Mahal in the finals of a tournament, Rollins was chosen as the very first man to carry the black and gold brand to glory, and he did an admirable job for the upstart promotion. His first title defence was against Michael McGillicutty – who would later come to be known as Curtis Axel – and while it wasn’t anything incredible, it was a better match than you’re probably thinking it was.
Rollins then didn’t do much of anything for a few months, until Jinder Mahal came sniffing around once again, looking for vengeance. Following this match, Rollins debuted on the main roster as part of The Shield, and the writing was on the wall for his title reign. At the next set of tapings, he lost via DQ to Corey Graves in 5 minutes, then lost the title to Big E.
Much like Big E, Rollins held the title for a decent number of days and defended the title cleanly in decent matches. That, alongside being the very first champion gives him a slightly grander legacy as champion than most from this era, but that really isn’t saying much in the grand scheme of things.
16 – Aleister Black
Days as Champion: 108
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Tommaso Ciampa at NXT 18th December 2018
Aleister Black was such a dominant force in NXT for so long that I always find it quite surprising looking back at his title reign because it’s so boring. He’s one of those people who ended up doing most of his best work before and after his time as champion. All of his best matches (vs Velveteen Dream, vs Johnny Gargano, w/ Ricochet vs War Raiders) happened without the championship over his shoulder.
His victory against Almas was a good one, but it didn’t main event the show, as that slot was (quite rightly) taken by the first Gargano vs Ciampa match (trust me, this is going to be a pattern). Black was made to look very strong as champion and came out on top more often than not in any encounter he had, but none of them were all that memorable.
He defended the title against Eric Young on an episode of NXT that was good, but not very long. Then, when Takeover: Chicago II rolled around, Black once again had the main event spot taken from him by the second Ciampa vs Gargano match. Sadly, his match wasn’t anything too special either, as he dragged Lars Sullivan to a passable 15-minute match.
Before we knew it, the time had come for Black to lose the title, and it wasn’t even on a Takeover event. After being shunted aside for it twice, Black found himself stuck in the middle of the Ciampa/Gargano feud. Gargano’s actions in his title defence against Ciampa would indirectly cause him to lose the title. Black was set to fight in a triple threat match for the title at Brooklyn 4, but an injury put the lid on those plans.
Black’s reign wasn’t very glamorous or memorable, but it rises this high on the list because he was treated very well as champion. As I said, he rarely if ever lost a non-title match, and continued to cultivate his strong and mysterious persona.
15 – Andrade “Cien” Almas
Days as Champion: 139
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: Philadelphia
Andrade is one of those people that I always seem to forget was NXT Champion. Not because he didn’t do well as champion, I liked a lot of what he did, he just didn’t seem to leave much of a mark on the belt at the end of the day.
As 2020 seemed to mark the end of NXT’s 2nd goldern era, I think it’s interesting to look at where it began. Most people focus on the Gargano/Ciampa rivalry, as that’s a large part of what defined the era, I think a very good case could be made for Andrade as the first champion of that era. The match where he won the title from Drew McIntyre was good, but not amazing thanks to Drew’s injury, but Andrade would work his arse off to make his title reign worth it from there onwards.
Having Zelina Vega as a mouthpiece was brilliant for him and the two clicked better than most wrestler/manager combinations have in recent memory. They both carried themselves with a cocky swagger that suited Andrade’s persona and even though they didn’t directly talk all that much, their chemistry during Andrade’s matches was incredible.
Speaking of Andrade’s matches, there’s one that sticks out in the mind far more than others. His first title defence at Takeover: Philadelphia against Johnny Gargano was the first in a long, LONG series of genuinely unbelievably good series of Takeover main events. It was the first match in NXT to be awarded 5 stars by the Wrestling Observer and remains one of my favourite NXT singles matches to this day.
The problem with Andrade though is that he doesn’t have much of a legacy in NXT outside of that match. He defended the title again a few weeks later against Gargano in another great match that is largely forgotten by history. Then, while the match where he lost the title to Aleister Black was brilliant, it was entirely overshadowed by everything else that happened on Takeover: New Orleans, a show seen by many to be NXT’s finest work.
I wanted to place Almas higher, but when you look at his title reign’s content, it doesn’t really justify it. Admittedly his match against Gargano carries him up a handful of places on its own, but given that it was immediately followed by the Ciampa/Gargano feud, this reign tends to be a bit more forgettable.
14 – Paige
Days as Champion: 273
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Emma on NXT 12th June 2013
Paige is somewhat of a difficult one to rank in the context of this list. When you compare her to the women who came after she’d left NXT, she technically didn’t do all that much fantastic stuff with the belt, however, I think doing that woefully understates the impact she made on, not just NXT, but main roster WWE as well.
With Paige, you have to look at what was going on with the women’s division in WWE at the time and how Paige’s work compares. For one thing, WWE was still calling them ‘Divas’ instead of ‘women’. The longest women’s match on Pay-Per-View for the entirety of WWE in 2013 was 11 minutes long, and that was only because it was a 7 on 7 elimination tag match, and even then it was one of the worst Survivor Series tag matches we’ve ever seen.
Then, you put that in contrast to what Paige was doing in NXT at the time. She was putting on 15-minute matches that outshone just about any women’s match in WWE history at the time and carrying the only women’s title that felt like it meant anything in WWE. When looking back at the rise of women’s wrestling WWE, the four horsewomen are always the most obvious people to point at for where it all started, but I don’t think that’s true. The four horsewomen may have brought the idea that women can actually do great wrestling to a mainstream audience, but Paige was the one who knocked the door down in the first place for them to take advantage. It’s entirely possible that without Paige putting in the incredible work that she did, NXT never would’ve come around to booking it’s women’s division seriously, and then where would we be?
It wasn’t perfect though, the fact that she defended the title only 3 times in 9 months isn’t the best, especially when one of those was a 3- minute match against Summer Rae. On top of that, she never actually lost the title. Instead, she was forced to vacate it by JBL (who was apparently the General Manager of NXT for a while?) after she showed up on Raw in the spring of 2014 and won the Divas title from AJ Lee. That move did lead to great things in the long-run, but the fact that the first NXT Women’s Champion never actually lost the belt is a bit of an oddity.
Paige laid the groundwork for what would become NXT’s revolution in women’s wrestling, and her role cannot be understated. However, when you compare her to the modern era, where women’s wrestling is taken far more seriously, her title reign just doesn’t quite hold up against a lot of them. She was the one who lit the fire but didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the flame.
And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know what you thought of these NXT title reigns, either in the comments below, or on Twitter @10ryawoo. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where I’ll be covering my favourite post-game features in the Pokemon series, PLUS the week after that for part 2 of this list!