NXT turned 10 years old last month and it’s about time that we all look back fondly on the incredible journey the brand has been on since its inception a decade ago. From its humble beginnings as a terrible gameshow, where NXT rookies were partnered up with a main roster pro and be made to complete obstacle courses and cut a promo on inanimate objects, to the spectacle of sold-out TakeOver events that often outshine even the biggest WWE pay-per-views. NXT has become quite the beast under the WWE umbrella, often lauded as better than either main roster show.
Now being featured on the USA Network and spawning its own sister-show in NXT UK, NXT has developed into something truly incredible, something that has been able to re-ignite the passion for pro-wrestling in many of the alienated WWE fans. With so many incredible, era-defining performances already in the bag, it’s a difficult task to narrow down my favourite NXT matches to just a list of 10, but I'm up for the task.
In this list, I will be celebrating the best of the underdogs and the castaways, those that are not the same kind as the superstars of the main roster. Today, we celebrate the black and gold brand. We celebrate NXT.
Sidenote - These are my favourite matches, not a list of what I deem to be the greatest ever. Purely subjective and purely based on personal preference.
10. Johnny Gargano Vs. Tomasso Ciampa- NXT Takeover New Orleans
Drama makes for the best wrestling matches, and this contest between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa was overflowing with drama. The feud between former the NXT Tag Team Champions brewed and then boiled over without Ciampa even setting foot in the ring for the better part of a year. While fans were ready to boo him for attacking Johnny Wrestling at TakeOver Brooklyn III, Ciampa's use of social media built even more heat and earned him the title of "Blackheart."
Ciampa and Gargano's "unsanctioned" match at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans was a clear highlight of WrestleMania weekend and one of only three NXT matches to have ever earned 5 stars from Dave Meltzer. The moment when Gargano went to clock Ciampa with his broken crutch and stopped was one of the most heartfelt and emotional moments many fans ever witnessed inside of a ring. Ciampa turned down that moment of mercy, leading to a epic finish with Gargano using the Blackheart's own knee brace to lock in the Gargano Escape and submit the heel.
9. Adam Cole Vs. Ricochet Vs. Lars Sullivan Vs. Killian Dain Vs. EC3 Vs. Velveteen Dream - NXT TakeOver: New Orleans
Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon put the ladder match on the map at WrestleMania X. The Hardy Boyz, The Dudleys, Edge and Christian combined to redefine it at WrestleMania 17 in TLC2. The six men involved in the ladder match at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans turned the ladder match into a work of art by blending contrasting styles into a symphony of devastation.
The awe inspiring aerial brilliance of Ricochet, the brute force of both Lars Sullivan and Killian Dain, the fearlessness of Velveteen Dream, the veteran ring awareness of EC3 and the never knowing when to quit attitude of Adam Cole created a perfect storm for what might well be the greatest ladder match of all-time. This one had it all - drama, massive spots, brutality, danger and even featured a couple of debuts. Incredible, simply incredible.
8. Sami Zayn Vs. Cesaro - NXT Arrival
Many NXT historians look back on this match as a true game-changer. Sami Zayn and Cesaro put NXT on the map for a lot of fans with their insane 2 out of 3 Falls match at NXT: Arrival. Not only was this NXT’s first big exhibition on the WWE Network, but it also helped forge the rest of Sami Zayn’s headlining babyface run and also push Cesaro to new heights in his singles career.
This was a work of art from start to finish, and is a standard-bearer for all NXT matches past, present and future. Sami Zayn might be wasting away on the main roster, but he can forever look back on this particular match as a legacy very few superstars will be able to match up to.
Watch. This. Match.
7. Bayely VS Sasha Banks – NXT Takeover: Brooklyn
A match that helped kickstart an evolution in all of professional wrestling, Bayley vs. Sasha Banks became another instance where superstars across the board would struggle to follow. Women’s wrestling had never been so electric until this match came around in Brooklyn.
Two well-devised characters put on a masterclass for all wrestlers of any gender, this was something that fans are still discussing today as one of the greatest matches of all time.
The NXT Women’s Championship has since been involved in some phenomenal matches: Asuka, Ember Moon, Rhea Ripley and Shayna Baszler have all kept the standards high for women’s wrestling in NXT, but the foundations for such an impressive movement were set by ‘The Boss’ and ‘The Hugger’. Who knows if we’ll ever see this match repeated to the same standard on the main roster? Part of me doesn’t want to, purely because it’ll never top their Brooklyn brawl.
6. Sami Zayn Vs. Adrian Neville – NXT Takeover: R-Evolution
An exceptional example of NXT bringing together two world-class performers for a mat-classic like only they can. Adrian Neville (aka PAC) was a popular champion in NXT, but soon turned into a tremendous obstacle for the up and coming Sami Zayn, who had recently stunned the world with the aforementioned 2 out of 3 Falls match with Cesaro. Zayn was poised to be the next ‘guy’ in NXT, but could never quite get the job done when the title was on the line.
This was an expertly told story in an expertly worked match. Neville played the heel to perfection and Zayn battled with his inner-demons who tempted him into taking ‘the easy way’ to winning the NXT title. It was a fantastic display of character building and kept the NXT fans on the edge of their seats throughout the entire affair.
Zayn would of course go on to win the match, only to be betrayed by his BFF Kevin Owens moments after celebrating together. It was a night NXT fans hold very dearly in their hearts, perhaps the first TakeOver special that started NXT on its road to prevalence in today’s landscape.
5. The Undisputed Era Vs. Ricochet, Pete Dunne & War Raiders – NXT Takeover: WarGames
The Undisputed Era have literally taken over NXT, fulfilling their prophecy of holding all of the championships at once and truly becoming the face of the brand. Even though their success is slowly being picked apart here in 2020, UE have easily become NXT’s definitive feature and potentially their greatest creation of all time.
Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish came in to a lot of hype after attacking Drew McIntyre after his big NXT title win, they then went on to enter the revived WarGames in a huge three-way faction collision against SAnitY and The Authors of Pain. Needless to say they were destined for great things.
WarGames has since become an annual tradition for the black and gold brand, even recently being adapted to involve the women’s roster too. But quite possibly the best instalment of the revived match-type was the WarGames sequel featuring The Undisputed Era, Ricochet, Pete Dunne and The War Raiders. The match was everything a WarGames match should be — absolute chaos. It helped showcase what all 8 competitors could do in a big-match situation, and has since benefited them all in their respective careers on either the main roster or as part of NXT.
This was the gold standard of ‘hardcore’ wrestling.
4. Tyler Bate Vs. Walter - NXT UK Takeover - Cardiff
NXT UK has been a very low-key aspect of WWE programming that has only just started to generate some traction outside of the BritWres community. The current NXT UK Champion Walter has managed to bring some new eyes to the product thanks to his brief run on the US indie scene as well as his incredible 8-man tag match against The Undisputed Era at the 2020 Worlds Collide event. NXT UK is slowly starting to come into its own.
Before this turn of events, NXT UK had a few ‘Match of the Year’ candidates that never truly received the credit they deserved. Walter’s first big title defence against Tyler Bate was an instant classic, mixing the British and European styles of wrestling together in an incredible 30 minute contest. The NXT UK championship has often been in the middle of ferocious bouts, another of which we’ll be delving into later on in this list, making it an integral part of NXT’s history as a whole.
This match should definitely be on everyone’s watchlist
3. Pete Dunne Vs. Tyler Bate - NXT Takeover - Chicago
British Strong Style was given its first big bit of exposure in mainstream wrestling as part of the first WWE UK Championship match on a TakeOver event. Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate laid it all on the line in their first encounter outside of the UK, putting the UK title and British wrestling on the map.
Bate and Dunne have an unnaturally good chemistry for two superstars their age, but having performed together as both a tag team and as opponents since they were barely in their teens, they couldn’t help but put on a 5* classic.
This title match was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the potential that NXT UK would eventually have. Their match in Chicago set the tone for the rest of the UK title’s lifespan, which is still living up to the quality that Dunne and Bate produced that night. A remarkable display of BritWres.
2. DIY VS The Revival – NXT Takeover: Toronto
Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa have written one of NXT’s most definitive chapters together. Of course many fans will remember them for their bitter rivalry that spanned well over two years, which I have already mentioned, but personally I will always remember and love their time together as DIY and the road to the NXT Tag Team Championships.
Tag team wrestling can be pure magic when executed well. DIY and The Revival were two tag teams that understood the nuances of producing a fantastic two-on-two contest, and redefined the genre in their 2 out of 3 Falls match in Toronto. All four men deserve all the credit in the world for exceeding expectations in this match; to shift the attention of the wrestling world onto the tag division is something that very few teams have managed to do over the years, but they truly deserved the praise.
DIY and Revival called back to the Southern style of tag wrestling, often found in matches involving The Rock n’ Roll Express, The Legion of Doom and The Four Horsemen. It was a very old-school style of wrestling that was given a new-school makeover. Honestly, I think this match was the closest NXT has ever been to going full-indie in their approach to pay-per-view matches and the furthest they’ve ever come from the ‘WWE style’ of wrestling that should always be used as an example of how amazing NXT can be.
NXT has always had a knack for putting together great tag teams for the Full Sail audience: American Alpha, The Lucha Dragons, The Broserweights, all teams that I’m sure will benefit from going back and studying this masterclass on tag team competition. There are few tag teams in the world that could deliver a match as well-constructed as this. Whether you’re a fan of tag wrestling or not, you’ve got to admit you had your head turned by this contest.
1. Johnny Gargano VS Andrade 'Cien' Almas - NXT Takeover: Philadelphia
Ah, the good old days before superstars had half of their names removed.
On paper, we expected this match to be good. However, nobody expected it to be the first WWE match to get five stars from Dave Meltzer since Punk Vs. Cena at Money In The Bank 2011.
This isn't just my favourite match in NXT history, it is my favourite match of all time. It was always going to take something special to usurp TLC2 from Wrestlemania 17 at the top of my personal list... and boy was this special. Really special.
The match itself was just phenomenal. Heart racing action, a tonne of near falls, dangerous spots, a typical MOTY performance from Johnny, Andrade on top form as usual, Zelina Vega's amazing turn as the caniving manager, Candice ramping up the intensity and popping the crowd by attacking Andrade's business partner after she got a bit too involved... this match had it all. In terms of the physical, in-ring action this match was quite simply perfection.
The ending sequence where Almas hit his double knees into a prone Gargano slumped against the ring post was vicious, and his final hanging top-rope DDT not only earned a standing ovation from the crowd, but cemented him as a bright star in WWE. However, the storytelling in this match went way beyond the result.
In one of the most stunning post match attacks ever, Tomasso Ciampa came back to wipe out his former DIY partner. This ambush would lay the foundation for NXT's greatest rivalry ever which, two years later, still rages on. The pair have contested in multiple MOTY candidates, including brutal street fights and vicious last man standing bouts. The brilliance of the rivalry comes down to not only great booking, but the ability of both men to tell a believable and engaging story.
This is what fans have cried out for over the last 5 years on the main roster. You want long term storytelling? There is no better place than NXT.
Womens War Games Match - NXT Takeover: WarGames 3
Aleister Black vs Velveteen Dream – NXT TakeOver: WarGames
Johnny Gargano vs Adam Cole – NXT TakeOver: New York
Asuka vs Ember Moon – NXT TakeOver: Orlando
Matt Riddle vs Adam Cole – NXT 2/10/19
Finn Balor vs Kevin Owens – NXT: TakeOver Brooklyn