NXT Takeover: Stand & Deliver: Every Match Ranked

NXT is back bay-bay!

This was easily the best show NXT has put on in over a year and is definitely up there with some of the all-time great Takeover shows. Everyone brought their A-game over the past couple of nights, which feels like the start of a new era for NXT. Both in a metaphorical sense with the rejuvenated roster and quality shows and in a literal sense with new champions crowned across the board.

I’ve got nothing else to say, so let the gushing commence!

12 – Killian Dain & Drake Maverick def. Breezango

There was nothing wrong with this match, it just doesn’t stand out on an incredible card like this.

Dain & Maverick have really entertaining chemistry. I enjoy the fact that Dain just gets tired of Maverick’s shit sometimes and does things like powerbomb him onto the opponents. It’s a shame Breezango didn’t get to make much of their tag title reign, but I think they’re great for spots like this when we just want to see a good match and some friendly faces.

There’s no way Dain & Maverick are winning the tag titles, but I can’t wait to see them try.

11 – Zoey Stark def. Toni Storm

This was in no way a bad match, it’s just this is such a stacked show, even a really good match like this isn’t going to get very high up the list.

It’s clear that the people behind the scenes at NXT are really high on Zoey Stark, and this win will no doubt do wonders for her. I’m a little sad that Toni Storm has had to eat so many losses as of late, but I don’t mind that much since this is just helping an already stacked division get another prominent star. Not much more to say about this one; it was a good match with a nice pace and a surprising but satisfying conclusion. Thumbs up.

10 – Johnny Gargano(c) def. Bronson Reed
(North American Championship)

Takeover lists are always difficult to write because I have to stress that even though I’ve ranked this as the “worst” match on the main show, it was still really good. However, I’ve got to rank something at the bottom, even if I like it.

To me, what made this match fall to the bottom of the pile was that it just lacked that something special I expect from Takeover matches. Functionally, there was nothing wrong with it. I admit, I’m not as big on Bronson Reed as most other people seem to be, but this match still had plenty of upside. A good flow, an enjoyable back-and-forth style that let both men look great in their own ways.

However, when you look at the matches I’ve ranked above this one, there’s just something about them that ‘clicks’ more to me. It elevates them to be something worthy of a show like this, where NXT showcases the best of what they have to offer. I enjoyed this match. I just enjoyed the rest a lot more.

9 – Bronson Reed def. Leon Ruff, Isaiah “Swerve” Scott, Cameron Grimes, Dexter Lumis & LA Knight
(Winner gets a North American Championship match on Night 2)

There was a lot about this match that I really didn’t see coming.

For one thing, it wasn’t the style of gauntlet match I thought it was going to be. However, I’d argue it was better. This way kept it to a more manageable time for the show and gave us much more interesting action when the ring filled up with guys, rather than being left with a bunch of slightly too short one on one matches.

The different phases this match moved through kept the action solid throughout. The dynamic between Ruff & Scott early on felt like the kind of match I want to see a lot more of down the line, and as people kept getting added, chaos reigned, and things got fun. Lumis didn’t have nearly as prominent a role as I would’ve thought. However, it looks like his next major feud is ready to go as LA Knight, despite getting the short end of the stick here, got over as much as he needed to on this show.

This left us with a final three of Grimes, Scott & Reed, which was way better than I thought it would’ve been. They generally avoided any man powdering out, keeping all three of them in the action for the entire time until Grimes was eliminated. Once Reed won, I began to doubt my statement that Gargano would lose the title on night 2, but I still think him winning this match was great for someone who I thought wouldn’t get a shot until later in the year.

8 – Ember Moon & Shotzi Blackheart(c) def. The Way
(NXT Women’s Tag Team Championships)

These women’s tag titles are essentially going to be used as a mid-card title for NXT’s women’s division, and I am totally down for that if matches like this are the result.

This one was a very gradual builder, but that made the heights it reached toward the end feel earned. The bulk of the match is the solid tag action that you’d expect from any match like this. The Way did a good job with the divide-and-conquer style of tag work, and the hot tag felt worth the relative slowness that proceeded them.

As always in tag matches, the best stuff came towards the end when things broke down, and people were jumping in from all over the place. It definitely felt like the women involved just let loose and did whatever they felt like in this last section, and it made for a lot of great moments. I’m glad the champs retained and that it was such a solid match because it definitely gives the feeling that NXT will be treating these titles a lot better than Raw & Smackdown have done.

7 – Pete Dunne def. Kushida

I’ll be frank, picking Kushida here was a bloody stupid pick. In hindsight, of course, Pete Dunne was going to win.

My stupidity aside, I really enjoyed this match. I think it would’ve been better with a more meaningful story, but there’s no denying the incredible technical prowess both men had on display. Kushida keeps impressing with his matches despite the fact that he keeps losing, and it’s these kinds of performances that’ll keep him bubbling away until he can finally start winning again.

Dunne, meanwhile, met Kushida’s quick offence with a range of counters, the likes of which you’ve never seen. Dunne worked to turn everything Kushida did against him, and as balanced as the match was in places, it definitely felt like Kushida never really stood a chance of winning. Dunne was able to decelerate and accelerate the match at his whim and had an answer for just about everything Kushida could throw his way.

I don’t know what they’re going to do with Dunne next, but I hope it’s something meaningful because matches like this make it so clear he’ll be able to run with whatever he’s given.

6 – Karrion Kross(c) def. Finn Balor
(NXT Championship)

Is this good enough for you? People who hate Karrion Kross for reasons I still don’t understand.

I’d say this is the point in the list where the matches reach that higher tier of quality that we always hope to get out of Takeovers. Both men played their roles in this match to perfection. Balor’s strategy of getting in Kross’ head early on was something we haven’t seen in quite that way for a long time, and I loved it. The way Balor painted the cross over his heart and then laughed in Kross’ face every time he’d get chucked across the ring was so good.

The action wasn’t the main attraction of this match because the storytelling carried it better than the action ever could. Balor looked so clever with the game plan he came in with, and for the first section of the match, he actually looked quite dominant over Kross. This time, Kross’s presentation has been different from the indestructible monster we saw last year, and I prefer it this way. Monsters should look beatable but still manage to win anyway.

When Kross took over and put the beatdown on Balor, things got more intense, and the dynamic evened out a lot more. The part of the storytelling I love most is how drastically Balor changed his style once he broke free of Kross’ beatdown. Gone was the slow, deliberate technician, and in its place was a quick and deadly striker, and that looked to end the match as quick as possible. The final portion of the match was far more back-and-forth, and it brought everything together nicely.

Kross winning was absolutely the best choice. Balor’s title reign has been fantastic – better than his first – but it’s Kross’ time. It’s been a long time since we had a true monster at the top of NXT, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the belt.

5 – Raquel Gonzalez def. Io Shirai(c)
(NXT Women’s Championship)

Honestly, when so many of these matches are so good, it becomes difficult to find different ways to talk about how good they are.

This match was a very clear clash of styles that they executed to a fantastic degree. Gonzalez’s ability in singles matches is understated, and I think that’s because her style is more muted than what we’re used to from the women’s division. I don’t mean that as an insult, to be clear, her movements are affectionately fluid, and she understands exactly how to work against her flashier opponents. Her power game is something to be envied, and she manages to mix it in with just enough fast-paced strikes and technical manoeuvres that she comes across as an extremely well-rounded performer.

This match wasn’t all about Gonzalez, though, as Io made sure that no one could forget her. She certainly had the most memorable moments of the match, with a Moonsault to the outside followed by a brilliant looking dive off of the skull (Speaking of, the set for this show looked really great). She understood exactly the kind of wrestler she was up against and adjusted her style to include a lot more of the muted but excellent technical stylings that Gonzalez is good at, and of course, got thrown around like a sack of potatoes at every opportunity.

This was a worthy send-off for Io Shirai’s fantastic title reign and crowned a new champion in spectacular fashion. Long may she reign.

4 – Santos Escobar(c) def. Jordan Devlin(c)
(Undisputed Cruiserweight Championship)

I was unsure how these two would mesh their styles. As it turns out, the answer was bloody brilliantly.

I loved how they waited to get the ladders involved in the match. We got a solid 5 minutes of the match before either of them picked up a ladder for the first time. It gave the match a great sense of rising tension. It served the story as well, both men want to prove they’re worthy of heading up the Cruiserweight division, so they started out with some classic cruiserweight action.

Things kept building nicely once the ladders got involved. They still moved very quickly and incorporated the ladders into their offence in fun ways. It may not have been anything we haven’t seen in ladder matches before, but it didn’t need to be. The various leaps & falls off of ladders were the kind of spectacle we couldn’t see anywhere else on this show, and it helped this match stand out amongst an incredible lineup of matches.

As the match reached its climax, I bought into a lot of the false finishes. Which was helped by the fact that I really had no idea who was going to win. Ultimately, while I wanted Devlin to win, Escobar is probably the better choice. He’s been on a roll like few others since winning the interim title, and hopefully, Devlin can set his sights on a certain champion over in the UK…

3 – MSK def. Grizzled Young Veterans & Legada Del Fantasma
(NXT Tag Team Championships)

Chaos, that’s what this match was. Pure, non-stop chaos. What more could you possibly want?

It’s no secret that, in general, I like my wrestling fast and crazy, so this match was always going to tick all of my boxes. Having three amazing teams like these in the ring was a recipe for success from the word go, and they still managed to exceed my expectations. Every person in all three teams seemed to be in the perfect place at the perfect time to hit the perfect move. There was barely a moment to catch your breath in this one with how well it cycled between the active participants, and no one was underrepresented.

It felt like the bulk of the story was between MSK & GYV, with Legada Del Fantasma playing spoiler to that dynamic, getting involved when both of those teams got too mixed up with each other. It was a really interesting dynamic. It only got touched on in a few moments, but it added just that little extra bit of emotional investment I needed to become totally absorbed in the match. I really bought into a lot of the false finishes here, and with each one, I fell in love with the match more. It was the kind of match that built to what I thought was the climax and then managed to build even further.

MSK isn’t who I would’ve gone with to win, purely because there aren’t many people for them to face right now. However, it is absolutely deserved. They are clearly a fantastic tag team destined for great things in NXT. Maybe they’ll hot-potato the titles once or twice, but I have no complaints about them winning the titles.

2 – WALTER(c) def. Tommaso Ciampa
(United Kingdom Championship)

WALTER really is just one of the best wrestlers in the world. His style is so unique, but it’s almost intangibly great. He can work hard, fast, monstrous or technical depending on what the situation calls for, and he’s a brilliant judge of which style is needed for what opponent.

In my predictions, I said this match would have a bit of all WALTER’s best title defences so far, and I think I was pretty spot-on with that statement. The primary baseline of the match was the technical prowess of both men. When the two of them got tussling in that technical style, it was a thing of beauty. There was a bunch of brutality in there too. WALTER’s chops could win a title independently, but Ciampa wasn’t afraid to chop back just as hard. The striking segments felt like they carried this match a lot better than it should’ve been able to, and it added that brutal feel we were hoping for from this match.

What’s brilliant thought was how it pulled in the underdog vs monster dynamic. The truth is, I don’t think WALTER actually ever looked that dominant over Ciampa in the match, and yet Ciampa’s performance still made him feel like the incredible underdog you just had to root for. As soon as the weakness in WALTER’s right hand opened up, Ciampa desperately tried to do all he could with it.

It was a mechanically flawless match with an emotionally resonant story that filled the match at every opportunity. I will honestly be shocked if this match isn’t in my top 3 when I come to make my match of the year list this year.

At the end of night 1, I really thought nothing could top this match, but man… there was something on the horizon I couldn’t have seen coming.

1 – Kyle O’Reilly def. Adam Cole

What an epic match.

To address some of the criticisms I’ve seen. Yes, it was a bit long. It probably could’ve been 30 minutes instead of 40 and not missed out on much. However, it really didn’t seem 40 minutes long to me when I was watching it. It gripped me so completely that how long it was taking didn’t even enter my mind until it was over. The other major one I saw was too many kickouts, which I disagree with, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

As expected from a 40-minute match, it was a slow builder but a gripping slow builder. Things started out thick and fast, as you’d expect, with a feud as intense as this one, but the pace slowed very soon in, and the brutality slowly ramped up from there. The two men managed to balance the hard-hitting action with an intense set of technical wrestling moves for a lot of it, which kept the action ticking over and kept me interested for when the bigger spots started coming.

The segment centred around the chain, I thought, was particularly good without how they kept bringing it back into the match in unexpected ways. It’s that kind of style that wins me over with weapons matches, where the weapons are used as exclamation points on the action, no the sole focal point on it.

Where this match went from “bloody great” to “match of the year” was in the back half, though, when things were a lot slower, but every move became really meaningful. The various Last Shot attempts & dodges, the fall through the stage, it all elevated the match into that “epic” style few matches can reach. The kickouts, though, the kickouts. People said there were too many, I disagree. The thing is, if you look at the match, Cole only really kicked out of one big move towards the end – the Last Shot from O’Reilly. O’Reilly, meanwhile, kicked out of loads, and that is precisely the point of the story. O’Reilly keeps coming back despite being utterly dead on his feet. One of the last kickouts, where O’Reilly barely gets his shoulder a few inches off the ground, was so powerful to that end.

O’Reilly had to win this to become a star in NXT, which is exactly what he’s done. That long shot of him walking away from the fight, utterly battered, is the look of a hero. I don’t know where or when, but he’s our next NXT Champion, and no one can deny him.

And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this. Please, let me know what you thought of the show, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure you come back here this time tomorrow for my Wrestlemania predictions!

NXT Takeover: Stand & Deliver: Predictions & Analysis

Every time a Takeover comes around, it’s always a bit of shame that so many talented performers get left off of the card. Thankfully, NXT finally decided to copy Wrestlemania, and now we’re getting a two-night show! Five matches each night, and honestly, all ten of them look like absolute winners, and I am pumped to see how all of these wrestlers try to top each other. Let’s get predicting.

Night 1

Pete Dunne vs Kushida

Not a whole lot of story riding on this one, but it’s two guys that absolutely couldn’t be left off of the show.

Kushida’s experienced a bit of a fall since losing to Gargano. I was pretty confident he would win, and now I don’t really know what they’re planning on doing with him long-term. That said, this match is a great way to tide him over. Pete Dunne similarly is feeling a bit directionless right now. He lost to Balor, and now he’s just hanging around. It doesn’t help that Burch & Lorcan are out of action right now, too, so he can’t even do faction-based stuff. That said, this match is going to be fantastic. Pete Dunne has been one of my favourite wrestlers for a long time, and there’s no doubting Kushida’s ability in the ring. I’m looking forward to seeing these two styles collide. Kushida works quick and technical, which should play quite well against Dunne’s slow, mat-based style.

Picking a winner is significantly more difficult, though, because both of them need a win. Both are coming off significant losses and are looking to regain momentum. It’s more of a matter of who I think will be in a more prominent position in the immediate future. I’m going to go with Kushida. While I think Dunne is a top-level talent, Kushida feels like he’s more on the rise at the moment, and a win like this could push him into a credible main event spot. On top of that, I think night 1 will be pretty heavy on heel wins, so this should balance it out.

Leon Ruff vs Isaiah “Swerve” Scott vs Bronson Reed vs Cameron Grimes vs Dexter Lumis vs LA Knight
(Gauntlet Match)
(Winners gets a North American Championship Match on Night 2)

Let’s just go through the list.

Leon Ruff – Dude became a star out of nowhere earlier this year, winning the North American title in the kind of shock title change that NXT hasn’t ever done before. Since then, he’s faded quite significantly, but that brief story has given him a foot in the door that cannot be removed. I think he’ll get the Kofi spot in this match, lasting the longest. However, I don’t think he’s going to win. If I were to hazard a guess, I think he’ll probably last until Cameron Grimes, where the length of time he’s spent in the match will catch up to him.

Isaiah “Swerve” Scott – I really thought he’d be a bigger star by now. He’s still a somewhat prominent player on NXT, but I’ve been expecting him to break through for a while now. Aside from his Takeover match last year with Escobar, he’s not had any major singles feuds in NXT. Unfortunately, I don’t see him going anywhere here, as I think Ruff will put him away in quick order.

Bronson Reed – A great wrestler, quickly on the rise. Unfortunately, the title scenes are just a bit too crowded at the moment to deal with him. It’s part of the problem we’re seeing with NXT’s new system of not sending people up as often. It’s just getting a bit crowded around the top, and I don’t think Reed will get a proper look-in at either of the main singles titles until at least the end of the year.

Cameron Grimes – For a while, I just didn’t get Grimes. His character was quite weird and kind of vague, but he’s slowly brought me round over the past 6 months by being one of the funniest guys on the roster. The way he plays everything is just hilarious. His anger, his fear, his joy, all of it just brings a smile to my face. The rich stuff he’s been playing up recently is some of his best work yet, and while it does have a limited lifespan, I’m enjoying it while it’s happening. I would be thrilled if Grimes got shot towards the title now, but I don’t see it happening. Heel vs heel wouldn’t really work in this instance, so we’ll have to wait a while before Grimes reaches the moon.

Dexter Lumis – This guy has to be the favourite, right? They’ve literally been building it for months now. Lumis has been on a one-man crusade against The Way. His weird and creepy attitude seemed like it would make him more of a heel, but he’s been quite carefully booked and is now a sort of twisted anti-hero that you can’t help but cheer. The simple fact of the matter is that Gargano vs Lumis has been a match they’ve been building to for ages, and it would be so weird if they didn’t follow through now.

LA Knight – I didn’t know much about LA Knight before he joined NXT, but I’d definitely enjoyed what little I saw of his time as Eli Drake. He’s been brought in a bit differently to most other signings, and I honestly thought he wouldn’t even wrestle on this show just because of how he’s been booked. That said, I’m glad he has. Hopefully, he can put on a really good final section of this match against Lumis. Knight is the only other person I think has a chance of winning, just because it’s his Takeover debut.

I’ve got to go with Dexter Lumis to win, though. Knight is possible, but given the heel dynamics at play here and how much Lumis has been built towards Gargano, I just don’t see it happening.

MSK vs Grizzled Young Veterans vs Legado Del Fantasma
(NXT Tag Team Championships)

I think I speak for everyone when I say that it’s a damn shame Burch & Lorcan didn’t get to defend their titles at this show. They’ve been a team for ages and have had so many moments of brilliance. They finally got their go with the gold, and it was snatched away from them before they could make a proper run of it.

That said, with unfortunate circumstances come opportunity for others, and now the door is wide open to swoop in and have a great title run. I think these are the perfect three teams to select for this match. There’s a huge mix of styles & characters in here that is bound to make for something incredible. NXT doesn’t do these multi-team matches all that often, but all of the ones I can remember have been brilliant, so I’ve no doubt this will be the same.

I think the titles could go any of the three ways, but there’s definitely one that sticks out in my mind as the better option. MSK are fantastic, they’ve made a hell of a splash in their short time in NXT so far, and they’re absolutely the future of this division. That future isn’t quite yet, though. Similarly, Legado Del Fantasma has done great work, and given that Escobar might not have that Cruiserweight title for much longer, giving them the tag titles could be a good way to keep their momentum going. However, I’m picking Grizzled Young Veterans. They fill a similar heel role to Burch & Lorcan, but they are enough their own team that it won’t feel like a cheap imitation. Gibson with a microphone in his hand is sure-fire entertainment, and they’d be the perfect foils if you want MSK to chase the titles following this show.

WALTER vs Tommaso Ciampa
(NXT United Kingdom Championship)

Definitely the match I’m most excited for on night 1. This could be a brutal match.

My favourite match of 2019 was Pete Dunne vs WALTER from Takeover: New York, and one of the reasons I liked it so much was because of how it balanced the intricate, technical, mat-based style with high-impact spots that made even some of the more mundane stuff feel like a huge deal. Stylistically, I think Ciampa has a lot in common with Dunne, except he has a bit of extra flair about him, which means he can turn the pace up to something incredible when he wants to. I’m expecting this match to be a bit of a hybrid of all of WALTER’s best title defences so far. It’ll have some of the technical prowess of his match with Dunne, the emotion of his match with Tyler Bate and a lot of the brutality from his match with Ilya Dragunov.

The one downside this match has is that I think the result is pretty obvious. While I don’t think it’s impossible, I would be incredibly shocked if Ciampa won that UK title. It would undoubtedly do wonders for the show, but I don’t think he quite fits with what they’ve got going on down there right now. It’s the kind of thing that, if they did it, I’d love it, but I also don’t really want it to happen. WALTER retaining is the sensible pick here, and he gets to continue his mammoth run with the title. I know he couldn’t defend the belt for most of 2020, but I honestly think he’d still be holding it now regardless. I have no idea who will finally topple him, but it’s going to be a huge deal when someone does.

Io Shirai(c) vs Raquel Gonzalez
(NXT Women’s Championship)

I was somewhat critical of NXT in 2020. They were still putting on great shows, but it definitely felt a tier below what they’d been doing for the past few years. The one person I never had such criticisms of is Io Shirai, who has been the absolute top star of NXT in my mind for ages. She carried the brand on her back throughout 2020 and has had the opportunity to put on several brilliant matches as the women’s division continued to fill with incredible talents.

So now, we’re in a situation where the division’s biggest and most unstoppable star collides with the fastest rising star the division’s seen since Rhea Ripley. In fact, it is pretty much exactly like the Baszler/Ripley thing, only with the heel/face dynamic reversed. Gonzalez doesn’t wrestle a very flashy style, but she can still use it to put on fantastic matches. I think many were sceptical of her abilities at first, but her time tagging with Dakota Kai and her singles match with Rhea Ripley silenced those doubts in my mind. She & Kai won the women’s Dusty cup, which was a great moment and, although it was brief, got to be the first NXT Women’s Tag Team Champions.

So is she going to win the title? I really don’t know. I think it’s a given that she will win the title; I’m just not 100% sure it’s right now. While Shirai has been champion for almost a year and done wonders, it doesn’t quite feel like the end of her time yet. On top of that, Gonzalez has Kai in her corner, and the tension between them is bubbling just below the surface. I could absolutely see a situation where jealous Kai costs Gonzalez the title. However, I could also see them playing the long game on that front, having Gonzalez win the title until Kai eventually decided she wants it for herself. That said, this is NXT’s biggest show in quite a while, and I think giving us a big change of the guard would be the right impact to leave, so I’m going with Raquel Gonzalez to become champion.

Night 2

Ember Moon & Shotzi Blackheart vs The Way
(NXT Women’s Tag Team Championships)

NXT getting their own women’s tag titles is something that’s felt inevitable for a while. When the main belts were first introduced, they made a big deal out of how they were going to be defended on all three brands, and then it just never happened. I think maybe once someone had a match with The IIconics? I honestly don’t remember. Now, with NXT having a far deeper women’s roster than it did a few years ago, something was desperately needed for the mid-card scene of that division, so these titles should do wonders to that end.

Ember & Shotzi both seemed like they were ready to head up to the title scene, but they decided to give that spot to Gonzalez instead – a decision I agree with, all things considered – so letting these two run with the tag titles for the next while until the singles title is ready for them was definitely the way to go. The Way, meanwhile, has been excellent as of late. I had lost interest in Gargano as a heel before this faction came together, and I think they’re all much more entertaining together. Candice LaRae is another one who felt a bit directionless after losing to Io, and this seemed like the logical next move.

I have no doubt that these four women will put on a great match. I don’t think there’s any doubting the ability of any of them. I’m going with Ember Moon & Shotzi Blackheart to retain. Given that the first champs lost the title really quickly, I think doing another title change so soon would devalue these new belts, which is something they don’t need. I’d much rather Moon & Blackheart hold them until at least the summer to really show that NXT will be treating these belts with more respect than the main roster treats their women’s tag titles.

Adam Cole vs Kyle O’Reilly

This is the match I’m most looking forward to on night 2.

For the longest time, I was of the opinion that The Undisputed Era should never break up. I thought they should go to the main roster as a unit and stay that way until the time felt right. Then, when it became clear that they weren’t going to the main roster anytime soon, it became a bit muddier. THEN, Kyle O’Reilly had those pair of great title matches with Balor, and it became clear that he was ready to become an amazing singles star in NXT. This meant that, while it was still a sad occasion when Cole broke up the faction, it felt like the time was right.

Now we’ve got a match between two people who know each other in the ring like few else (they once had a singles match at Wrestle Kingdom, for God’s sake). They’ve by far got the hottest story going right now, and it’s going to be a barn burner. I’m expecting some real vicious action here, and I have faith in them to use the hardcore stipulation to its fullest potential.

As much as I’d like to pretend this one was up in the air, Kyle O’Reilly has got to come out the winner here. Unless they do a screwy finish (which is certainly possible), O’Reilly needs this win to establish himself as a main-stay in the main-event scene of NXT. I think he’s going to win the NXT title at some point in the next 12 months, and this needs to be the start of his rise. I love Adam Cole, but that dude can do whatever he wants in NXT for the rest of his time on the brand; he is fully established. O’Reilly still needs the firm footing of a vindicating victory here.

Johnny Gargano(c) vs The Winner of Night 1’s Gauntlet Match
(North American Championship)

So, it’s a bit harder to talk about this one when I don’t know who the challenger is going to be, but looking at Gargano’s run as champion, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag for me. His matches have always been great, there’s no questioning that, but his character has gained me and lost me at certain points. It was an exciting fresh direction for his character when he first turned, but it quickly wore thin. I think he tried too hard to be more menacing and threatening, and it just didn’t suit him. Eventually, he shifted it into more of a ‘chicken-shit’ heel, which suits him so much better. His interaction with The Way every week always has this bumbling comedic edge that is very fun to watch.

As I said in my night 1 predictions, I think the challenger will be Dexter Lumis. He’s been Gargano’s primary focus for months now, and it would be weird if anyone else won. I don’t really know how these two will mesh in the ring because I’m still not entirely sure what Lumis’ style is. He seems very fluid and adaptable to who he’s in the ring with. This is most certainly a good thing, it just means I’m unsure of what kind of match we’re going to get when these two collide.

What I am sure of is that Dexter Lumis is coming away with that title. I would actually say Gargano is going to lose the title no matter who the challenger is. He’s been around the North American title scene for a long time now, and it just feels like his time is up. Lumis makes the most sense to win the title, but even if it’s someone like LA Knight or Cameron Grimes, I think switching the title is the right move. The North American title needs to be around the waist of someone on the rise now, rather than an already established star.

Jordan Devlin(c) vs Santos Escobar(c)
(Undisputed Cruiserweight Championship)

A match that we’ve been waiting for forever, and it’s finally happening. I was really excited when Devlin won the Cruiserweight title, but he ended up not doing much with it. It wasn’t his fault, of course, or anyone’s for that matter. The pandemic did what it did, and he was one of the casualties. Escobar was the star that was able to rise in his place, and he definitely made the most of it. Abandoning his mask and former ring name to become a fresh character, the kind of which the Cruiserweight division hadn’t yet seen.

Putting these two together in the ring seems like a recipe for success. At first glance, they don’t seem like they’d mesh, but Escobar has shown how adaptable he can be with the variety of opponents he’s taken on during his title reign. Devlin’s style is less fluid but just as good, and I think as long as these two click in the ring (which I assume they will), we should be in for a treat.

Picking a winner is a bit difficult. Giving Devlin the win would allow him to have the Cruiserweight title reign that I wished he could’ve had when he initially won the title, but Escobar has proved to be a great asset to the division in Devlin’s absence. NXT’s never been one to shy away from an unexpected new star when they come along, but they also like to stick to their plans wherever possible. It’s a tough one because I could honestly see them going either way. My gut says Jordan Devlin, so that’s what I’m picking. This is the one I’m struggling the most with, though.

Finn Balor(c) vs Karrion Kross
(NXT Championship)

This is the match I’ve been waiting for.

I’ve seen people be very critical of Kross’ astronomic rise in NXT, and honestly, I don’t get it. I know his match with Keith Lee was a bit underwhelming, but he was injured for most of it, so I actually think it was bloody good for what it was. On top of that, his character has this indestructible aura around him that we haven’t seen in an NXT Champion since Aleister Black & Tommaso Ciampa were holding the belts. I think he’s got all the talent necessary. His look is incredible, his entrance is even better; how on Earth could this guy do anything else but immediately become the champion?

Kross’ injury was extremely unfortunate, but it gave way to Balor’s run as NXT Champion which has been fantastic and by far my favourite run of Balor’s career. He’s made new stars and put on fantastic matches left and right with a character that has the kind of edge I’d been wanting to see from him since the moment he first showed up in NXT in 2015. I’m excited to see how these two mesh in the ring. Kross’ hoss style is an interesting one, and I think Balor will be able to adapt to it well. Balor’s current character allows him to be a dominating badass and a plucky underdog depending on his opponent, and I think he’ll be able to use both sides to great effect in this match.

I’m pretty confident about picking the winner here, but not as much as I probably should be. I’m going with Karrion Kross because it just makes sense. They gave him a Lesnar-style push to the title when he first debuted, and even though the injury derailed him a bit, I don’t see why they’d abandon those plans now. Balor has been a fantastic champion, and part of me does think they might just want to keep going with him. There’s the seed of doubt in my mind, but I just can’t bring myself to pick Balor to retain; it’d be a dumb move. It’s Kross’ time; let’s hope it can go as planned this time.

NXT Takeover: Vengeance Day: Every Match Ranked

What a great show. There’s really no simpler way to say it. This show far exceeded any of the 2020 Takeovers in my view and was an absolute joy to watch from start to finish. It’s shows like this that make ranking the matches difficult. The middle of the list was especially hard to rank on this one as all five of these matches have things worth raving about.

The biggest headline though is what happened after the main event, I’ll talk about it here so it’s out of the way. In my heart, I kinda wished Undisputed Era would go on to Raw or Smackdown as a unit but ignoring that, they have done everything there is to do in NXT. They’ve risen, they’ve fallen, they’ve risen again, and they’ve fallen again, as far as NXT is concerned, their story is done. Which means that the options were to either have them move on to the ‘main roster’ or break up and turn them all into singles stars.

I think there’s going to be some very interesting storytelling on the horizon between the faction, especially with Dunne and Balor on the periphery of the scene. This break-up could easily become the standout storyline of the year.

Now, let’s talk about the wrestling.

5 – Dakota Kai & Raquel Gonzalez def. Shotzi Blackheart & Ember Moon
(Women’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Finals)

This is one of those scenarios where I have to clarify that even though this match is ranked last, it’s still really good.

As expected these two teams clicked really well in the ring, even if they lacked the polish you’d see in veteran teams. The story was interesting because the faces actually dominated the largest chunk of the match, which you don’t often see in tag matches. It serves an underlying story though because whenever Dakota Kai was in the ring, their team went on the back foot, but as soon as Gonzalez got in, they were back in control. No attention was ever drawn to it, it was very clearly there throughout the match, and it’s going to be interesting to look back on stuff like this when Gonzalez inevitably breaks away from Kai.

It took a while for me a little while to get into this match, as it had a slow start, but that was entirely forgotten by the end as the action really got going into the place that I like. Gonzalez was undoubtedly the star of the show here, getting to show all aspects of her arsenal with explosive & brutal attacks combined with slower, more devious assaults. The faces kept coming back for more though, and they came out of it looking like they’d fought hard for it, they’re both raring to go in terms of going for the women’s title, and I think this was a decent platform for them to get there, even with the loss.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez & Kai are also ready to pop off, and it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with all of these women gunning for Io’s title in the near future. I highly doubt that Gonzalez & Kai will beat Jax & Baszler for the titles, but that’s ok because this tournament felt more like a way to solidify the incredible push Gonzalez has been getting over the past few months. What I do know for sure though, is that NXT’s women’s division is going to have one hell of a year with these talents all over it.

4 – Io Shirai(c) def. Toni Storm & Mercedes Martinez
(NXT Women’s Championship)

Again, this was a really good match that I enjoyed; I’m just a bit disappointed it didn’t go longer. It only got 12 minutes in the end, and I really think it deserved more, especially to kick it up into that higher gear that it should’ve got to.

That complaint aside, there was still plenty to enjoy about this one. As expected, Martinez & Storm ended up focusing too heavily on each other to realise the ferocity at which Shirai was coming at them. Martinez felt like the main star of the show to me, she kicked things off with a bang and seemed to be involved in the action at every single point. It definitely helped re-establish her place in the division after disappearing for a while thanks to Retribution. Similarly, Storm got a lot of momentum on her side, and it doesn’t feel like she’s done with Shirai, it wouldn’t surprise me if a singles match between the two takes place in the near future.

Shirai did what she did best though and tore it up whenever she was on screen. Even if she wasn’t always the main focus of the action, her presence was always felt, doing cool stuff like jumping off of the scaffolding, for example. The match kept up a good pace, as you’d expect with three competitors in the mix, it kept me glued to the screen all the way to the finish. As I said, the only problem was that I felt a little short-changed by the 12-minute runtime. However, I’m confident this will lead to greater things down the line.

3 – MSK def. Grizzled Young Veterans
(Men’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Finals)

Another blinder of a tag match from a division that is heating up in a significant way.

One thing I’ve not given Grizzled Young Veterans (and specifically Zac Gibson) enough credit for is how brilliant they are on the mic. It’s no wonder that they’ve been given promo time before every single one of their matches in this tournament as it’s really where they shine brightest. That’s not to say they don’t shine brightly in the ring though, as they undoubtedly meet the high standards I’ve set for the NXT tag scene.

There wasn’t much complex in the way of the story in this match, both teams got their time to shine and show off just about everything they can do. Thankfully, they didn’t need too much of a story because what they can do is bloody entertaining to watch. There was a lot of fun to be had in this match, and neither team ever looked to have it in the bag. MSK pulled out the high-flying stuff (which we saw surprisingly little of last night) but Gibson & Drake were able to counter that with an extra dose of brutality in their offence.

While I certainly wouldn’t have complained if Grizzled Young Veterans had won, I think MSK to get the win was the right decision. It solidifies their place as feature players in the tag division, even though they’re not going to win the titles just yet, and it gives GYV another chip on their shoulder, which I’ve no doubt they’ll spin into promo-gold.

2 – Johnny Gargano(c) def. Kushida
(North American Championship)

So you know the match that you pictured in your head when someone said Gargano vs Kushida? Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what this match was, and it was brilliant.

The fast-paced opening immediately grabbed my attention and kept me in the match for the entire runtime. That extended sequence of the two of them continually trading blows and counters without missing a beat ‘action too quick to call’ as I’ve heard it referred to is just the sauce I like. While I’d love for it to carry a whole match, I know that’s quite the ask when these two guys have to go 20 minutes, so an extended sequence right at the start is more than enough to satisfy me.

The match didn’t lose me when it slowed down though, as it shifted the focus from impressive offence to a clear story where both men were focusing on each other’s weak spots and trying to get one over on each other at every opportunity. Gargano is brilliant at adapting his heel style depending on his opponent and his tactic against Kushida of striking the neck little and often was a very engaging one. Kushida was never really on the back foot though, he took it to Gargano’s arm at every opportunity, and the two men were able to match each other beat-for-beat. I loved that feeling of both men feeling like they were on an altogether even playing field.

While I wouldn’t have booked Gargano to retain, I can’t complain about the decision. Kushida will undoubtedly bounce back from this loss and Gargano’s title reign is really turning into something special, with both of his major stories so far being winners.

1 – Finn Balor(c) def. Pete Dunne
(NXT Championship)

In the intro, I mentioned that this list was hard to rank, but the number 1 spot was never in any doubt. This match was incredible and an early contender for match of the year.

In my predictions, I speculated over whether Balor would slow his pace to match Dunne, or whether Dunne would accelerate his pace to meet Balor. As it turns out, the answer was both of those things would happen. The first half of the match was a slow, mat-based affair that was full of tension. Dunne controlled the majority of it, with Balor on the back foot in a way we haven’t really seen from his title reign just yet. However, the story progressed, and Balor started to adapt, he started to match Dunne’s holds and bite back here and there, as the match’s pace slowly picked up.

Towards the latter third of the match is where things really got going, as Balor broke free from Dunne’s holds and went balls-to-the-walls with his offence. What was brilliant though, was that Dunne immediately snapped into that style and could match Balor. It gave me the impression that this was Dunne’s gameplan all along and from here the match because of a brilliant back-and-forth affair that had me on the hook with every near fall. The flow between every hold and every move was damn-near flawless, and both guys felt like they were an inch away from victory at any given moment.

As much as I wanted Dunne to win, I can’t deny that Balor earned the victory in this one and Dunne looked great for it. I don’t think this is the last of Dunne in the title scene, and I can’t wait to see what else he and Balor can do, potentially with Undisputed Era in the mix too.

NXT Takeover: Vengeance Day: Predictions & Analysis

Feel that warm breeze in the air? That must mean it’s time for the first NXT Takeover of the year. I didn’t enjoy the 2020 lineup of Takeovers as much as previous years, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I’m coming into 2021 ready to fall back in love with the yellow brand like I was in 2017/18/19. I seem to have picked a good show to fall in love with as well because this card is full of matches that I’m very excited to see and promises to be a top-notch night of action, but who’s going to win. I’ll tell you who, which a roughly 60% accuracy rate.

MSK vs Grizzled Young Veterans
(Men’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Finals)

The NXT tag titles have been in a bit of a weird situation since the pandemic started. Travel restrictions prevented one-half of current champs, Pete Dunne, from making it into the country to defend the title. So then Riddle teamed with Timothy Thatcher, then they IMMEDIATELY lost the titles to Imperium. Then Imperium…didn’t defend the titles for most of their reign. Then they lost the titles to Breezango in a reign so inconsequential I honestly forgot it happened until I checked Wikipedia, and now Burch & Lorcan have the titles and are yet to do anything of note with them.

It’s not been a great year for the tag division at large in NXT, despite having plenty of talent on hand. However, this Dusty Classic definitely feels like it’s revitalized the scene a bunch. Even the teams that felt a bit thrown together for this tournament impressed, and the competitors that have risen to the top are a great reminder of the depth of talent NXT can pull from.

Personally, I thought Ciampa & Tatcher were going all the way, as I’ve loved their rivalry turned partnership, but Grizzled Young Veterans beating them this Wednesday threw a lot of confusion in the mix as to who I think is going to win. I knew very little about MSK (formerly The Rascalz) before joining NXT, but they definitely fit right in with all the other great teams in NXT right now. They seem like the favourites to win, but I’m not entirely sure. Grizzled Young Veterans were last year’s runners up, and it would seem weird for them to come second place again. Plus, it’s not like it’d hurt MSK too much as I’m sure the match will be great.

It’s a tough call, but I’m going with MSK, they have all the momentum right now, and although I don’t think they’ll win the titles, it’s the perfect way to establish them as main-stays in the division.

Ember Moon & Shotzi Blackheart vs Dakota Kai & Raquel Gonzalez
(Women’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Finals)

While the women’s tournament was smaller, it was by no means any less stacked, and I think it’d been an extremely enjoyable tournament this past month, and one that’s been quite hard to predict as well.

Dakota Kai had a bit of a cooling-off period towards the end of last year, but I’m glad NXT is still interested in investing in her because she absolutely deserves it. Moon & Blackheart meanwhile feel like they’re on top of the world. Blackheart is the next big thing in the division and Moon feels so different to her 2016/17 run in NXT in a good way. Everything about how they’ve been treated together has made them into quite the package, and one I want to see more of past the end of this tournament.

I think there’s no question that this one will be great. Raquel Gonzalez has absolutely proved she can be in the top spot of the NXT women’s division with talents like the rest in the match and it’s going to make for one hell of a match. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one descended into chaos quite quickly and held a fast pace for the majority of it’s run time.

As for picking a winner, I’m a bit torn. Gonzalez has been getting many big wins like that at Wargames, and against Rhea Ripley, so it would certainly make sense to keep that going. Dakota Kai could also do with a big win like this after her cooling-off period last year. I know she was also in that Wargames match, but she didn’t really feature in it very heavily in my opinion. That said, Shotzi & Moon fell like they also need a big win, as while they have undeniably been presented as big stars, they haven’t got many wins as of late.

Then there’s the additional factor of the winners getting a shot at the women’s tag titles (which they won’t win), and I think WWE would rather showcase two of their top faces to a bigger stage than the heels. Plus, Baszler & Nia Jax are the current champions, and heel vs heel doesn’t really work. Considering all of that, I think it’s got to be Ember Moon & Shotzi Blackheart in a move that will hopefully launch one or both of them into the title scene.

Johnny Gargano(c) vs Kushida
(North American Championship)

Much like Keith Lee when he first signed with the brand, it feels like we’ve been waiting for ages for NXT to actually do something with Kushida. You could argue it’s a positive thing that they don’t shove stars into the limelight until they’re actually ready to go somewhere with them, but it does feel odd to have these stars on the back burner for ages. Either way, that’s changed now, and Kushida is ready to take off.

Gargano’s heel run has had me going back and forth. On the one hand, I’ve never really felt all that convinced by it. He’s such a natural babyface, and he didn’t take that much of a different angle like Sami Zayn did when he turned. That said, he’s still very skilled in the ring and on the mic. I thought his segment on NXT this past Wednesday was excellent and balanced the comedy and drama really well, but it’s not all been like that. Conversely, Kushida hasn’t had that much to sink his teeth into in terms of story. Not every story needs to be wildly complicated, but I was hoping this story would have a bit more to it than Gargano being a bit of a jerk.

That said, it’s still two of the best technical wrestlers on the planet clashing with each other in what is sure to be a match of the year contender very early on in 2021. I feel reasonably confident with picking Kushida to win the title here. My main thought being that, if he’s not going to win the title, then what on Earth is he going to do? However, Gargano does seem to keep winning that title when I don’t think he will, so I can’t entirely rule out the possibility he retains. Ultimately, Kushida having the title is far better for him that it would be for Gargano to retain. His reign wouldn’t even have to be all that long as long as he got a bunch of high-quality defences in there.

Io Shirai(c) vs Toni Storm vs Mercedes Martinez
(NXT Women’s Championship)

Let’s see here, we’ve got one of the coolest female superstars currently in WWE with Io Shirai. A powerful heel character in Toni Storm with an in-ring style to match. And finally, an in-ring veteran in Mercedes Martinez, who is looking to re-establish herself as a force to be reckoned with. Yup, that definitely checks all of my ‘match of the year’ boxes.

Much like the Gargano/Kushida storyline, this one has been relatively simple, but unlike the Gargano/Kushida storyline, I don’t think it needs to be much more. It’s three women with an incredible amount of in-ring talent, who all really want the title and don’t like each other very much. What more could you ask for? Any combination of these women in singles matches would be amazing, but the triple threat nature should hopefully kick it up a notch into a non-stop fast-paced affair to blow us all away, much like the triple threat match where Shirai won the title.

As for a winner, I think the odds lie with Io Shirai. While Toni Storm would be a great choice for champion, I don’t feel like she’s been built enough and her winning the championship now would feel quite sudden. That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy it, I’m just saying it’s not the most sensible move. I actually think there’s an outside chance Martinez could win this. I think there’s a good story to be told in her jumping back to NXT and immediately winning the title. Plus, I think she could straddle the tweener line very well as opponents like Shotzi Blackheart, Ember Moon & Raquel Gonzalez sit on the horizon.

As I said though, Io Shirai makes the most sense. This really doesn’t feel like there’s going to be a title change, and it would be a rather sudden end to Shirai’s excellent reign as champion. I think this is just going to boost her stock as champion moving into her next big singles feud.

Finn Balor(c) vs Pete Dunne
(NXT Championship)

Now here’s the match I’m the most excited for. I’ve always loved Dunne, and I’ve said it many times over the years, but he makes the more grounded, mat-based style his own in a way I don’t think anyone else can right now. As for Balor, while I’m often critical of him, I can’t deny that his current run as NXT champion has been bloody brilliant. His matches with O’Reilly were both barn-burners and the intensity with which he carries himself has made him feel like such an unbelievably colossal star. He’s an entirely different person from who he was in his first reign as champion, and I think that’s brilliant.

I’ll be interested to see how these two mesh their styles here. I’m expecting it to be a much slower, hard-hitting affair than what we’re used to for NXT main events, but I’m hoping that will be in a good way. While Balor’s style has always been more flashy & fast, his recent work has definitely focused on the impact of his moves, rather than how they look, and I think it’s improved his in-ring work significantly. Alternatively, if they instead go the other way, and Dunne accelerates his style, I still think we’ll be in for a hell of a ride. Of course, the truth is almost always in the middle when it comes to these things, and I’m excited about it.

Picking a winner has been a tricky affair. I was initially wondering what Kross was going to do when he came back, but now it’s become clear he’s going for the Cruiserweight title, that’s out of the picture. So with no other outside factors like that to consider, I think there’s a genuine chance we could see a title change. Dunne has had such a head of steam since returning, and while Balor has been an excellent champion, I feel like it’s Dunne’s time. Granted, I’m not entirely sure what Balor will do if he drops the title now, but I could say the same for Dunne. Dunne’s been in NXT for ages, and if he’s not going to move upwards in the brand anytime soon, then why is he still here?

I think I’ve talked myself into it. I’m going with Pete Dunne to win the title.

And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know who you think is going to win on Sunday, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time on Monday, where I’ll be reviewing the show, and next Saturday, where I’ll be running through my favourite board games!

Every NXT Men’s & Women’s Champions Ranked – Part 2

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!