In September 2019, NXT made the leap from a WWE Network exclusive show to broadcast television in the USA – two hours per week on the USA Network to be precise.
Since that time, WWE’s black and gold brand has been engaged in something of a cold war with AEW Dynamite to grab the attention of wrestling fans on Wednesday nights. Whilst Dynamite has consistently outperformed NXT, the competition has driven both programmes to produce consistently exciting and well-planned television.
Tonight marks the end of that ‘war’ as NXT moves to a new home on Tuesday nights. Whilst this is likely to lead to more eyeballs for both AEW and WWE, us fans hope that the lack of competition doesn’t blunt the quality of each programme now they have a night to themselves.
To mark the move, we have taken a look back at NXT’s ‘Wednesday Night Era’ to pick out the 10 highlights of the roughly 18 months of NXT on USA Network. Some of these will be moments, some matches, maybe even entire shows. What they all have in common is that they represented WWE’s most fan-friendly brand at its very best.
10) The First Rule Of Fight Pit: Everyone Should Talk About Fight Pit!
You have to feel a significant amount of sympathy for creatives in wrestling. How do they continue to innovate? It’s a loaded question in a way because the reality is that there is very little that hasn’t been seen before in wrestling. Instead, the real skill seems to be in taking what has come before, tweaking it, bending it and attempting to make the fresh out of the familiar.
There is no better example of this than the Fight Pit match between Matt Riddle and Timothy Thatcher back in May 2020. After Thatcher had viciously turned on his temporary tag team partner, the two men were set to settle their differences in the newly minted Fight Pit. Essentially, it’s a cage match with I Quit rules. That’s the bones. But what made this stand out is just how it was presented. Starting with the obvious legitimate images and backgrounds of the two competitors, the NXT creative team built up the feel of an underground fight of the type immortalised in so many 1980s action movies. The stark, crowd-free atmosphere actually helped add legitimacy to the set-up, as did the presence of Kurt Angle as an enforcer, watching the action from a platform circling the top of the cage. This felt real, visceral, brutal and absolutely awesome. In essence, it was everything the laughable Raw Underground should (and could!) have been. Keep this protected in terms of scarcity of use and legitimacy of the competitors, and NXT have a bonafide all-time great gimmick match on their hands.
9) Pete Dunne vs. Kyle O’Reilly, December 16th 2020
Sometimes these entries just speak for themselves. NXT didn’t feel like any garnish was needed for this sublime match in December 2020 and therefore we won’t add any to this write up either. Two utterly believable characters with a wonderfully compatible and brutal style clashed with the simple goal of deciding who would be the number one contender for the NXT Championship. In truth, we could have picked their pre-War Games ladder match from the month prior just as easily but the simplicity of this match and the amazing work by both men give it the edge. Surely one of these two, if not both, will get to hold that championship aloft before 2021 comes to a close?
8) The Revival’s Last NXT match vs ReDragon
Oh The Revival! Why on earth could we not have kept them on NXT forever? Their absolute mastery of their throwback style was the lynchpin that put NXT’s constantly evolving tag team division on the map. Their NXT run saw them engage in all-time classic tag team bouts with American Alpha and DIY amongst others, and it is fair to say that NXT’s loss has been AEW’s gain.
Long after their ‘promotion’ to the main roster and as they were readying to pack their bags for Jacksonville, Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson had the opportunity to head back to Full Sail University for one last dream match against The Undisputed Era’s Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish. This was the very first, and as of time of writing the last, meeting between The Revival and the team formerly known as ReDragon, and oh my goodness was it everything we wanted it to be.
These two teams put on an absolute clinic of doubles wrestling that left the NXT crowd salivating whilst seemingly willing Wilder and Dawson back to NXT full time. Of course, it wasn’t to be and the duo looked at the lights for O’Reilly and Fish in the tried and tested fashion. This is ‘Show the Grandkids’ level wrestling, it truly is.
7) Halloween Havoc
The bulk of this feature is made up of individual matches and moments but here we nominate an entire event – October’s Haloween Havoc.
Themed versions of the weekly shows have been an absolute mainstay of both NXT and AEW Dynamite since both shows started going head to head, and both brands have far more hits than misses with their efforts. In terms of hits, none were more effective than this revival of a beloved WCW PPV brand.
The backbone of this success was just how much NXT embraced the theme and the inherent silliness. No (grave)stone was left unturned with a show featuring Scream killers, zombies, giant pumpkins and deranged stalkers. It was just utterly, utterly fun. Let’s not sleep on the action either. Johnny Gargano’s Ghostface assisted North American Championship victory over Damian Priest was all kinds of fun, as was Io Shirai’s title defence against Candice LeRae. While the Cameron Grimes and Dexter Lumis match was played strictly for laughs, it was enormous, campy fun. Let’s not sleep also on the Pete Dunne surprise heel turn that was a classic pro-wrestling angle and put the finishing touch to Pat McAfee’s new heel group.
As an aside, it is almost criminal that we haven’t found space for Pat McAfee’s brilliant confrontation with Adam Cole on this list. It just speaks for how high the quality bar is, and frankly we had to omit something to stop this just being ‘The Greatest Hits Of Adam Cole’ list….
6) Drake Maverick’s Redemption
Whilst not everyone agrees with using a very real swathe of talent releases to fuel an on-screen storyline (and that is a very fair opinion to hold), there is no doubting the magic that was created by weaving the news of Maverick’s release into his ongoing crusade for the vacant Cruiserweight Championship, and his eventual signing of a full-time NXT contract. It was incredibly emotional and like many entries on this list, it felt incredibly real.
One thing that most have long-appreciated is the staggering level of talent of Drake Maverick. In terms of natural comedy he has few peers in WWE history and when he wants to make you feel sympathy as a fighting, determined underdog babyface, the guy is going to grab you by the heartstrings and force you to root for him. Look back at his TNA feud with EC3 for proof of that. This saga started with a tear-filled promo filmed in his bedroom reflecting on his release and alluding to him needing to win the Cruiser tournament to retain the job he has coveted with every ounce of his being his whole life. Was the promo genuine and became a story? Or was it planned all along? Most of us will never know but if you put a gun to our head we would say it was a work from the start. A magnificent, totally credible work. As Maverick went from loss to victory, to ultimate loss in the round-robin tournament, we were with him every step of the way. Cheering every desperation move, wincing with every blow he took. He had us right in the palm of his hand.
In the end, his best wasn’t enough and he succumbed to the devious tactics of the heel-turning El Hijo del Fantasma. Of course, the story had a happy ending as Triple H personally (and wordlessly) bestowed an NXT contract on NXT’s smallest warrior. Once in a generation, wrestling absolutely nails an underdog narrative and this was the absolute best example of that in years. It was proof that something doesn’t have to be right at the top of the card to grab the attention of the entire fanbase.
5) Finn Balor And Adam Cole Go To War
I’m not going to beat around the bush on this. I had never really ‘got’ Finn Balor prior to his return to NXT. His WWE run to this point had been bland, paint by the numbers babyface stuff and there is no doubt that the former Prince Devitt was in need of a kickstart. Well, he got one with bells on when he returned to NXT, ditched the Demon/social justice champion persona and went full-on Prince with one swift kick to the temple of Johnny Gargano as the NXT brand made their leap to network television with a new/old star leading the charge.
Not too many months later, with Karrion Kross having to vacate his title due to injury just hours after winning it, Finn Balor and Adam Cole were slated to face off for the vacant belt after a four-way Iron Man match the week before had left these two tied on the same number of falls.
It was a fascinating dynamic. Essentially it was babyface vs. babyface but with both men finding themselves arriving in that role from very different starting positions. Cole had not long transitioned from being a slimy, despised heel and fans had finally been given permission to embrace the leader of The Undisputed Era. Balor had for so long been a bland babyface who had come into NXT and immediately displayed a more heelish side to his persona. By the time this match came around he had very much settled into a face role, albeit one with an arrogance and confidence that had previously not been a part of his persona.
With this set up, and with talent of this calibre involved, a classic was always on the cards and of course the two delivered. The technical excellence was a given, but what really captivated the watching fans was the sheer emotion that ebbed from the screen. Both men were desperate to win the match and win back the belt and left absolutely everything in the ring in order to achieve their goal. The win could have gone either way, but in the end Balor managed to edge a hair’s breadth ahead of his opponent and secure his second NXT Championship. The stakes were high in this match and the work of the two men involved made it feel like they had never been higher. Breathtaking.
4) The Past vs. Present Dream Match
When NXT first became THE thing in wrestling back in 2015, a huge part of that was the work of the fabled Four Horsewomen. Charlotte Flair, Bayley, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks didn’t just raise the bar when it came to the place of women in the North American wrestling scene – they completely and utterly redefined their entire place in the industry. The incredible work the four did in NXT has continued on to the main roster, to the point where two of the four main-evented WrestleMania. An unimaginable accomplishment when these four made their debuts in Full Sail all those years ago.
In the years since, the torch has been passed to a whole new generation of NXT women, most notably Asuka, and more recently Io Shirai – the woman who has held that title for the majority of the Wednesday Night War era to date. Whilst Shirai cut a new path in NXT, Sasha Banks and Bayley in particular were proving themselves as the genuine MVPs of pandemic era WWE with their incredible heel work on Raw and SmackDown. The Golden Role Models monopolised the main roster belts and when they set their sights on further gold on their old stomping ground, fans immediately sensed something truly special.
Acting as the main event of the first part of the two-night NXT Great American Bash special on 1st July 2020, the Sasha Banks vs. Io Shirai dream match saw NXT’s glorious past come back to challenge its present and future. It goes without saying with the women involved that the results were explosive. A truly epic-feeling match benefited from the notion that either woman would have made sense winning, giving the bout a welcome sense of uncertainty. In the end, Shirai took the win that would define her title reign after Raw Women’s Champion Asuka also returned to her old home to thwart the shenanigans of her rivals Banks and BFF Bayley, and allow her countrywoman to take the victory on a level playing field.
3) The Undisputed Greatest Promo
The most recent addition on our list comes from just a few weeks ago and is, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest promo segment in the history of NXT.
The set up was a contract signing for the Unsanctioned Match between Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly at NXT TakeOver: Stand & Deliver. These two brothers in arms turned fierce rivals faced off in a confrontation so volatile that the presence of guards around them felt wholly appropriate rather than a cheesy distraction. Both men conveyed very clearly why they are on a collison course and Cole did what all the very best heels do – framed his betrayal of his closest friend in such a way that you almost found yourself nodding along agreeing with his reasoning and justification. Almost.
Adam Cole is the absolute biggest talent that has passed through the NXT roster, and Kyle O’Reilly has recently been given the platform he needs to stake his claim for the same honour. On the strength of this remarkable segment, who would argue against him?
2) Bask In THEIR Glory
Our second entry from NXT’s Great American Bash double header this time focuses on the main event of night two. In a match billed (rightly) as the biggest match in NXT television history, NXT Champion Adam Cole faced North American Champion Keith Lee with both titles on the line.
Cole was coming in to the match as long-time champion, the longest reigning in NXT history in fact. By hook or by crook he had retained his title for over a year, putting in classic match after classic match. Lee, for his part, had the proverbial rocket up his backside coming into the bout. After initial struggles on NXT, he had finally been allowed to show the charisma and skills that marked him out as one of the greatest talents on the indie scene in the years prior to signing with WWE. This accomplished an awful lot of goals. Firstly, it was ‘a moment’. A true feel good finish that saw fans get exactly what they wanted as Lee won the big belt in a hail of red, white and blue. Cole, meanwhile, was allowed to transfer the equity built up in his fantastic title reign into cementing a new star right at the top of NXT. It also freed Cole from the ‘burden’ of being the top champion on the brand, allowing him and his Undisputed Era buddies to switch to babyface roles and finally give the fans permission to cheer the quartet after years of being dying to do so.
This was a rare moment in wrestling that benefited absolutely every party involved. The only slight disappointment is the thought of picturing it with a frantic NXT Full Sail crowd in attendance almost brings a tear to our eye. Just imagine…
1) Rhea Ripley Slays The Terminator Of NXT
Like Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was one word to describe Rhea Ripley after her arrival in NXT – Inevitable.
From the moment she touched down on the brand as a badass babyface, fresh off a heel run as NXT UK Women’s Champion, she felt like a can’t miss star. The fans knew it and WWE brass clearly did too.
It was no surprise then to see her plough her way up the card throughout the back half of 2019 as she loomed ominously for the dominant NXT Champion Shayna Baszler. All the capital invested in Ripley began to pay off in November as she emerged as the star of her victorious War Games team at the NXT TakeOver held the night before Survivor Series. Then, at the main roster PPV, she again shone above all others when she led her NXT team to victory in a three-way Survivor Series match. Candice LeRae and Io Shirai also joined Ripley standing tall at the end.
The ultimate payoff came a week before Christmas when Ripley was granted a shot at Baszler’s championship on the weekly NXT show, where she emerged victorious in the one-on-one encounter with the previously unstoppable champion.
The title win was capped with the incredible visual of NXT fans flooding the ring to celebrate with the Australian, which gave the whole thing a feeling of even greater importance. This was a long-term plan executed flawlessly, and built a megastar that will go on to be one of the true flag-bearers in the next golden age of women’s wrestling.