This Friday (yes, Friday), a new NXT champion will be named as Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole (Bay Bay) face off in a 2 out of 3 falls match to close out NXT Takeover: New York. Though there’s plenty to like about this matchup, as Cole and Gargano are two of the best performers on the black and gold brand, it isn’t the match that we all wanted to see. Sadly, the realities of pro wrestling robbed us of the satisfying conclusion to the blood feud between Gargano and his forever frenemy Tommaso Ciampa. Ciampa’s 273-day reign of terror as the NXT Champion was a masterclass in heel work, with amazing matches, a killer storyline and fantastic characterization that transcended the medium to create a perverse, malevolent character that helped to define NXT as better than “a developmental” brand.
It’s a distinction that not many of the 14 men who have held the top belt in NXT can claim, and given that we are set to crown a new NXT Champion this weekend, now’s the perfect time to rank all of the previous NXT Champions from worst to best.
14). Bobby Roode
Won the title: TakeOver: San Antonio, January 28, 2017
Length of reign: 202 days
Memorable matches: vs. Hideo Itami (TakeOver: Chicago); vs. Roderick Strong (NXT, June 7, 2016)
It feels kind of mean to rank Bobby Roode as the worst NXT Champion of all time, but let’s be real: his win felt the most unearned and actively detrimental to the brand. It’s not like Roode’s a bad wrestler or character, it’s just that NXT is bigger than Bobby Roode as a performer. You see, Bob Roo’s a throwback wrestler, but not in the way that people like. While guys like the Revival gain favorable comparisons to Rock N Roll Express or the Brain Busters, or brawlers like Danny Burch and Oney Lorcan are cheerfully mentioned in the same breath as Dick the Bruiser, Bobby is more akin to a 2004 Triple H wishing desperately to be 2001 Triple H. His slow, plodding and frankly generic in-ring style made for poor matchups with the brand’s uniquely talented roster, and the fact that he scored two clean victories over a peak (for WWE) Shinsuke Nakamura started what has been an unfortunate but pronounced decline for the Japanese Superstar. Furthermore, Roode kicked off a string of what felt like transitional champions, leaving the brand in a worse place than when he left it. Considering the character assassination that Roode would undergo upon his debut on the main roster, perhaps Papa H decided to sink his tethered self for what he did to his beloved pet project.
13). Bo Dallas
Won the title: NXT, May 23, 2013
Length of reign: 260 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Cesaro (NXT, September 5, 2013)
Bo Dallas was the NXT Champion when I started to watch the show, and though that does earn him a special place in my heart, I’d be lying if I said he stood up against the rest of the heavy hitters on this list. Yes I ranked Bobby Roode last on this list because he damaged the brand more, but when you look at the names on this list, my man Bo sticks out like a sore thumb. As a deluded and cowardly heel, Bo wasn’t half bad, and the moments when he allowed his more vicious side to bust through his self-help guru shtick produced some genuinely compelling character work. It’s sort of a shame that his ring work was never more than adequate, because I’d love to put him higher on this list…I just can’t in good conscience say he was a better champion than even his shlubbiest contemporary…
12). Sami Zayn
Won the title: TakeOver: R Evolution, December 11, 2014
Length of reign: 62 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Neville (NXT, January 14, 2014); vs. Kevin Owens (TakeOver: Rival)
I hated putting Bo so low, but MAN I hate putting Sami down here alongside him. The former El Generico slots above Dallas based on the story that brought him to the title. Much like Bayley’s path to gold the following year, Sami’s ascent was the story of the ultimate underdog finally rising above the odds stacked against them and winning the top title in the company on their own terms. His series with (Adrian) Neville alone is enough to earn him some points, but sadly, the coming of his lifetime frenemy Kevin Owens (more on him much later) brought a swift end to his reign during only his second title defense. A freak injury during his main roster debut would sadly put Sami on the shelf for nearly a year, and derail any momentum he had on the yellow brand. When he did eventually return he stuck around long enough to give Shinsuke Nakamura his best match in WWE (more on him later too) but would not do much till he got to the main roster. Where he has also, sadly, not done much.
11). Big E Langston
Won the title: NXT (December 6, 2012)
Length of reign: 153 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Corey Graves (NXT)
It’s hard to remember a time when WWE invested in Big E as a solo act, but the man was the second NXT Champion and there’s no taking that away from him. Sure, the brand was in its nascent stage and mostly populated my main roster cast-offs and a handful of would-be midcarders (He seriously had a competitive title defense against Konnor from the Ascension), but his run in NXT (and more specifically as champion) gave us brief glimpses of the personality that would make the big man so beloved during his run with the New Day a few years later. Combine that with the fact that his “I need 5” gimmick was the jam, and Big E gets a bit of a nudge past the scrubs on this list.
10). Drew McIntyre
Won the title: TakeOver: Brooklyn III, August 19, 2017
Length of reign: 91 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Roderick Strong (NXT, October 5, 2017); vs. Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas (TakeOver: WarGames)
The second in a line of placeholder champions, Drew McIntyre proved to be quite an underwhelming champion, though it isn’t really his fault — the man was destined for bigger things. Big Mac won the strap by besting Bobby Roode, which was an obvious upgrade, but short of a quick dalliance with one Roderick Strong, dude did nothing of interest with it. As such, it was sort of a mercy when Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas beat him for the title at WarGames, as it clearly signaled Drew’s inevitable call up to WWE’s main roster…or it would have, if the Scotsman hadn’t torn his bicep in the same match in which he dropped the belt. Thankfully his time on the shelf gave him time to rebrand his character from the relatively bland babyface he was in NXT into the Scottish Psychopath who…teamed with Dolph Ziggler…okay, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a step up. Drew’s a natural heel, and it’s why his run on the yellow brand felt a touch undercooked, even as the champion.
9). Andrade “Cien” Almas
Won the title: TakeOver: WarGames, November 18, 2017
Length of reign: 139 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Johnny Gargano (TakeOver: Philadelphia); vs. Aleister Black (TakeOver: New Orleans)
Like the man he took the title from, Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas was a man destined for greater things. Also like McIntyre, the former La Sombra also had a fairly underwhelming run with NXT’s top title. Unlike Big Mac, however, Andrade proved to be something of a “best bout machine” by putting on show stealer after show stealer with Johnny Gargano in early 2018 (earning NXT’s first ever 5-star rating at TakeOver: Philadelphia), which built enough mystique around him to earn my man Almas a spot in the Royal Rumble, and soon thereafter, a place on the main roster. Admittedly, WWE hasn’t done a great job of using the Mexican superstar to his full potential, but given the man’s natural talents and several eye-opening tilts with one Rey Mysterio, it seems only a matter of time before Andrade is wearing gold again.
8). Aleister Black
Won the title: TakeOver: New Orleans, April 7, 2018
Length of reign: 108 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas (TakeOver: New Orleans)
Capping off our a run of underwhelming champions that spanned about two years is the Dutch Destroyer, Aleister Black — a man whose run was cut short not by his own hand, nor an injury, nor a main roster call up, but a better story. Much like another tattooed wrestler in WWE’s past, Black’s time with the belt saw the kickboxing occultist relegated to second fiddle behind the epic Gargano/Ciampa saga. Black’s matches were still exciting and he carried himself well as champion, but the limited spotlight did prevent the former Tommy End from making much of an impact on the yellow brand. Fortunately, the metal man from Amsterdam is leaving NXT with a ton of momentum (and possibly the NXT Tag titles) thanks to his newfound partnership with Ricochet — a partnership that could earn him the Raw Tag titles soon enough as well.
7). Seth Rollins
Won the title: NXT, July 26, 2012
Length of reign: 133 Days
Memorable matches: Uh…
You always remember your first, and as far as inaugural champions go you could certainly do worse than Seth Freaking Rollins. The Architect won the title in a tournament that featured Drew McIntyre and a panoply of future jobbers like Curtis Axel and Jinder Mahal, the latter of which he defeated in the finals. Unfortunately, Seth was a big fish in a small pond, leaving his title reign (like that of Big E) bereft of memorable moments for the most part — barring a team up with the best in the world and then-WWE Champion, CM Punk. Still, Seth’s name at the top of the list of champions adds considerable weight and value to the belt’s legacy, even if there are other men who have done more to build the prestige of the title itself.
6). Shinsuke Nakamura
Won the title: TakeOver: Brooklyn II, August 20, 2016; NXT, December 3, 2016
Length of reign: 147 Days (Combined)
Memorable matches: vs. Samoa Joe, (TakeOver: Brooklyn II)
I had originally ranked Shinsuke a bit higher on this list, but in doing a bit of research I realized a lot of the esteem he holds may be attributed to rose-colored glasses. Don’t get me wrong, Nak was a damn fine NXT champion, and his series with Samoa Joe was the highlight of the yellow brand for several months running. It’s just that there wasn’t a whole lot more to his title reign, unfortunately. If there was an undeniable upside to the King of Strong Style’s time at the top, it was his unique charisma. He always felt like a star, something perhaps most evident during his wild and enthralling entrances. Still, for all of Nak’s upsides, he’s still not quite ready for the upper echelon of NXT champs.
5). Adrian Neville
Won the title: NXT Arrival, February 27, 2014
Length of reign: 286 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Bo Dallas (NXT Arrival); vs. Tyson Kidd (NXT TakeOver); vs. Sami Zayn, Tyler Breeze, Tyson Kidd (TakeOver: Fatal 4-way)
Seth Rollins may have been the first NXT champion, but Neville was the first great NXT champion. The former ‘Adrian’ Neville combined the best parts of all the champions before him. He had the over-the-top in-ring acumen of Seth Rollins, the deceptive power of Big E and the understated cunning of Bo Dallas — but he was so much more. Neville was (and as that bastard Pac, still is) a best bout machine who could talk on the mic, had the swagger befitting a champion and possessed an undeniable “it” factor that proved he was destined for great things. Those things may not be with WWE, sadly, but Neville’s time as champion was never dull, and as he helped to usher in the TakeOver era, he also helped define the network special as the benchmark for WWE PPV quality.
4). Tommaso Ciampa
Won the title: NXT, July 18, 2018
Length of reign: 237 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Aleister Black (TakeOver: Phoenix); vs. Johnny Gargano (TakeOver: Brooklyn IV); vs. Velveteen Dream (TakeOver: WarGames)
Tommaso Ciampa’s heel turn at the end of TakeOver: Chicago turned a good tag team competitor into the greatest working villain in pro wrestling today (all apologies to Marty Scurll). By the time he claimed the title, Ciampa was in the middle of a career renaissance that saw the Sicilian Psychopath headline three consecutive TakeOvers with his blood rival Johnny Gargano in the most celebrated and engrossing storyline that the yellow brand has ever produced. Through it all, Ciampa remained the most delightfully detestable scumbag in the industry, going several months with a literal chorus of boos serving as his theme song. His skills in the ring and on the mic brought him to the top of the card, but his unending swagger and smarmy demeanor have elevated his act to near mythic levels. It’s a shame that his run had to end so suddenly, but “this ain’t ballet” as the saying goes. Hopefully Tommy Sports Entertainment is back making babyfaces miserable in no time at all, whether that be down in NXT or on the main roster.
3). Samoa Joe
Won the title: House show, April 21, 2016; TakeOver: Toronto, November 19, 2016
Length of reign: 134 Days (Combined)
Memorable matches: vs. Finn Balor (TakeOver: The End); vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (TakeOver:Brooklyn II; TakeOver: Toronto)
The key to a great heel champion is that feeling that the buck stops there. They are the final boss; the mountain to climb, and a lot of what made Ciampa such a great heel is so effortlessly pulled off by Joe that it’s almost unfair to compare them. Before moving to the main roster (where questionable booking has made him feel considerably less effective) Joe was a menace, a literal terror just running through the competition in the NXT locker room. While Ciampa’s size has forced him to play the cowardly heel at moments, Joe was a literal monster. I mean s--t, do you remember Dan Matha? Just look at this sh*t! Admittedly, that was between his two runs with the belt (oh yeah, he was also the first two-time champion), but I’m counting it because it literally murdered Matha’s career. The NXT title felt prestigious when it was on Joe’s shoulder, because who was going to take it from him? Something weaker heels on this list can’t say for themselves.
2). Kevin Owens
Won the title: TakeOver: Rival, February 11, 2015
Length of reign: 142 Days
Memorable matches: vs. Sami Zayn (TakeOver: Rival); vs. John Cena (Elimination Chamber 2015); vs. Finn Balor (Beast in the East); vs. Samoa Joe (NXT, June 17)
In writing this list I’ve realized that there are a lot of parallels between the title reigns of Tommaso Ciampa and Kevin Owens. Both made their name on publically betraying their best friends, reigned as a sort of overconfident cowardly heel who can back up their smack talk when necessary, and debuted on the main roster while still holding Goldie. The thing is, no matter how great Ciampa’s story has been, it’s hard to deny that KO did it better. The man strolled out on Monday Night Raw to answer John Cena’s US Title Open Challenge, beat the man down, then stomped on the US title, hoisting the NXT strap above his head. As far as iconic images go, the NXT title has never had a better one. Owens proved to be beyond prepared for life in the spotlight, so it wasn’t long before big Kev was on the main roster. Still, his time on the yellow brand was special, and he opened the eyes of the common WWE fan to the wealth of talent in NXT. Really, only one man served as a better representative of WWE’s surging “developmental” brand: the man who succeeded him for the belt.
1). Finn Balor
Won the title: Beast in the East, July 4, 2015
Length of reign: 292 days
Memorable matches: vs. Kevin Owens (TakeOver: Brooklyn); vs. Samoa Joe (TakeOver: London); vs. Apollo Crews (NXT, November 4)
It factor. If you ever wondered what it factor looks like, look no further than Finn Balor. Amazing in the ring, a natural storyteller, and just one of the coolest packaged performers in all of wrestling, Balor was the man that made NXT cool. From the moment the man burst onto the scene, he captivated audiences in a way that most Superstars could only dream, and the first time he whipped out his Demon persona at TakeOver: R Evolution, there was no denying that this man was going to be huge. The Demon entrance grew and evolved over time, with each TakeOver special seemingly outdoing the last. When not painted up like Venom, Balor also proved to be one of the more affable and fun personalities in all of wrestling, staying after the final match of the brand’s house shows to do silly things like switch outfits with Bayley or play to the crowd. Here was a guy who could do the stone-serious badass role one minute, then be a LEGO-loving goof the next. He helmed the ship during NXT’s growth in the ratings as well as its promotion to a touring brand, proving a marketable star so ready for primetime that he won the promotion’s biggest title within 27 days of debuting on the main roster. Admittedly an injury has lessened his presence on the main roster just a touch, but the fans who love him will never forget his run atop the brand he made famous. An extraordinary man indeed.