In 2010, NXT was born as a terrible concept that nobody, especially not the people involved, enjoyed. As we close out 2019, it’s one of the best things in wrestling and a measuring stick for performance in the largest and most profitable sports-entertainment promotion in the world. How did we get here?
Instead of breaking down a list of the best matches of the decade, we decided to take a different approach. What we’re presenting here is the best match of each year of NXT, from 2010 until 2019, to celebrate the end of a decade with a celebration of the best brand born within it. There are a lot of options and incredible matches left on the table, but I hope you’ll enjoy reading about our choices. There’s no “right” answer here, of course, but we think we came pretty close. Drop down into our comments to let you know your favorites, and let’s spend the final few days of the year remembering our first decade between the yellow ropes.
Chris Jericho vs. Daniel Bryan – February 23, 2010
Before it was the “No B.S.” third brand built around spotlighting independent talent and dynamic new stars with WWE-level storytelling and production, NXT was a game show with the mission statement of, “if we didn’t make you, you’re garbage.” It was a show designed to make you fail. “NXT Rookies” were thrown out onto live TV and asked to do things they were bad at, and anyone good at anything had their wings clipped as quickly as possible. Matt Striker felt less like a host and more like a corporately mandated demon sent to orchestrate an embarrassing Monkey’s Paw situation.
There were moments when the talent still shined through, though. Season 1 of NXT’s defining match for me will always be the main event of the very first episode: former Ring of Honor World Champion Bryan Danielson, now thrust onto the grandest stage as “Daniel Bryan,” versus then-current World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho. The concept was that Danielson couldn’t possibly get over in front of a WWE crowd. He’s too small! He’s got no personality! He’s only ever performed in front of 40 fans at bingo halls, or whatever! But he’s Daniel goddamn Bryan, and he’s in there against a veteran who knows a thing or two about how terrible it feels to be held back for no good reason, and they instantly mesh. Jericho does what he does best in using his star power to give just enough to his opponent to make sure they’re the focus of the match. Somewhere in the middle, when the crowd’s finally starting to get into it, Michael Cole starts yelling into his microphone about how Daniel Bryan’s a nerd who no one will ever love. It’s like you can hear Vince McMahon exploding out of his ear piece, furious that this dumbass game show concept might actually make them a new star.
The remainder of the season (and most of what followed) was used to make sure Bryan was eliminated from the show early with an 0-10 record that never once felt like planning for something bigger or better. But Jericho vs. Bryan is still a highlight, and Bryan suicide dive into the side of the announce table is still the only truly exciting moment of the whole endeavor.
Yoshi Tatsu Action Figure on a Pole Match: Tyson Kidd vs. Yoshi Tatsu – July 26, 2011
I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, who competed on NXT Redemption. He was never eliminated, but he also finished with zero Redemption Points, so did he even compete at all? But yeah, I texted him and asked, “What would you say is the best match that ever happened on Redemption?” His response: “Probably something with Tyson Kidd,” immediately followed by a conversation about how dumb the concept of an “action figure leg on a pole match” is, but how great this action figure leg on a pole match was, and what a testament it was to Tyson Kidd’s ability.
Redemption was the (pardon the phrase) Nexus point between game show NXT and Full Sail. WWE kinda sorta forgot it existed while they worked on reimagining the concept, so for nearly 60 weeks a random group of WWE developmental stars and struggling veterans were given carte blanche to put together their own stories and do whatever they wanted. It resulted in some unforgettable comedic moments — shout-out to the Darren Young loves Tamina and wants to give her a potted plant story, and the episode that randomly opened with a Glee intro parody — and, occasionally, some high quality matches. Yoshi Tatsu and Tyson Kidd’s story involved Yoshi carrying around his own action figure and building a shrine to it a la Jobu in Major League, and, of course, Kidd stealing and breaking it. Kidd started wearing the leg on a chain around his neck, and they had a damn Thing On A Pole match about it.
To give you an example of what a wonderful anomaly this was, here’s a blurb from WWE.com with a tonal shift that puts it into context.
Yoshi, still toting his broken idol, knew there was only one way to regain his honor and pride. He challenged Kidd to put the toy leg on a pole, and whoever retrieved it would keep it. Kidd and Tatsu battled back and forth in what would become one of WWE.com’s Top 25 Matches of 2011.
CM Punk and Seth Rollins vs Antonio Cesaro and Kassius Ohno – October 17, 2012
Hoping CM Punk comes out of retirement to face Seth Rollins at some point during 2020? It’s (probably?) not going to happen, but if you need a fix, look no further than NXT’s best match of 2012: then-WWE Champion CM Punk teaming up with then-NXT Champion Seth Rollins against the briefly reformed Kings of Wrestling.
This was a dark match after an NXT TV taping, back when “NXT TV” meant the Internet, Hulu, and select Canadian broadcasts. It was also kinda-sorta the match that determined which direction NXT would go in the future, as it’s more akin to a modern NXT main event than something from 2012. It’s four independent wrestling darlings, three of them already champions on one level of WWE or another, doing what they do best and blowing everyone away. WWE would eventually put the match up on YouTube, then take it down, then put it on the NXT Greatest Matches DVD. It’s hard to find in high quality, but even the low quality version feels like high quality when you’re about halfway through it.
Said William Regal at the time:
“Very proud to be apart of @WWENXT tonight. I’m hoping the dark match is at least put on YouTube (hint,hint) as it was as important a match as the first time Marty Jones faced Mark Rocco in the history of evolving out business for those who know. Thank you @CMPunk @AntonioCesaro @KassiusOhno and Seth Rollins. Good lads.”
Cesaro wouldn’t be done molding WWE’s developmental brand in his own image.
2-out-of-3 Falls Match: Sami Zayn vs. Antonio Cesaro – August 22, 2013
The one that got people talking. The first truly great match in NXT history.
I’ve written about this as much as I’ve written about anything on this website, but Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn, 2 out of 3 falls, was a game changer. I was lucky enough to be live in the crowd for it, attending my first-ever NXT TV taping. To date, with the exception of maybe Kenta Kobashi vs. Samoa Joe in New York in 2005, I’ve never been a part of something more electric. The entire match is masterful, but the finish took an entire building’s breath away, gave it back, and then took it away again. Breathless, mindless cheering at something you can’t believe you’ve just seen, and probably won’t ever see again. Tom Philips’ call of, “oh my God, OH MY GOD,” isn’t a particularly good one, but it’s honest as hell, because what else do you say there? Even the GIF still gives me goosebumps.
Two former independent stars working with varying degrees of “you’ll never make it” — both of whom are somehow STILL dealing with that six-plus years later — shifted the paradigm of an entire brand, brought exactly what made independent wrestling of the era so special to a big stage, and blew off the roof and the doors. Arguably still the best NXT match ever, period, adjusted for inflation.
NXT Championship Match: Adrian Neville vs. Sami Zayn – NXT TakeOver: R Evolution, December 11, 2014
The story that began with Cesaro transferred into the NXT TakeOver era with another killer match at NXT Arrival, and for all intents and purposes ended at the still horribly named NXT TakeOver: R Evolution. Sami Zayn, the guy who could never pull the trigger and rise to the next level due to his refusal to take shortcuts and be a bad person, challenged NXT Champion Adrian Neville, a guy who used to be a hero but had progressively gotten more and more underhanded to win and keep his championship, in the final month of 2014. The match itself earns as many stars as you can give, but the thing everyone remembers and still talks about is the finish.
After everything he’d gone through, Zayn was given the opportunity to take one final shortcut and prove he’s got the “ruthless aggression” (or whatever) to be a top WWE star. The referee is down, he’s holding the NXT Championship, and all he has to do to win it is smash Neville in the face. He wants to. It’s the easy thing to do. Everyone around him as told him it’s the right thing to do, whether it feels right or not. But, in a rare moment of true ethical heroism in WWE, Zayn threw down the championship in a fit of righteous indignation and won the championship the right way. His way. It was, and is, proof that you can condition even a WWE crowd to cheer for a hero making an unpopular but spiritually fulfilling decision in the 2010s. They’d go on to recreate this (in much different terms) with Bayley, also to great success. And then they just kinda forgot about it forever?
Regardless, Neville vs. Zayn still stands up as one of the best NXT Championship matches ever, a major accomplishment considering it happened near the beginning of an era of NXT absolutely littered with great matches. As a bonus, new NXT signee Kevin Owens shows up to help his best friend celebrate a championship victory earned by hard work and doing the right thing, and takes step one of two in earning his own championship victory with no work, doing the worst thing imaginable.
NXT Women’s Championship Match: Sasha Banks vs. Bayley – NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, August 22, 2015
The only match on the list I’ve written about more than Zayn vs. Cesaro, and with good reason.
No discussion of the best matches from the first decade of NXT, or the best WWE matches of 2010 (or possibly the best WWE matches ever, period), is complete without Sasha Banks vs. Bayley from NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn. It did for women’s wrestling in WWE what Zayn and Cesaro did for spotlighting great wrestling with NXT. It’s the game-changer of the decade, with two of NXT’s best characters ever producing 18 minutes of five-star wrestling built on a foundation of passion and complex history. It’s the culmination of Bayley’s story as an underdog. It’s the christening of the Four Horsewomen of NXT. It’s everything good about professional wrestling, capped off with one of the best and most adrenaline-pumping finishes I can remember. If you don’t get hype when Bayley murders Sasha with that poisoned rana, angrily throws her wristband into the crowd, adjusts her ponytail, and hits the Bayley-to-belly, you might be legally dead.
To better illustrate how beautiful this and everything that built to it was, here’s that video I like to share too often. Still chokes me up.
That one-two punch of Sami Zayn’s championship win followed by Bayley’s championship win while the promotion develops into a high-quality wrestling juggernaut is an unmatched period for quality WWE television.
2-out-of-3 Falls Match For The NXT Tag Team Championship: The Revival vs. DIY – NXT TakeOver: Toronto, November 19, 2016
NXT had given new life to the idea that good people can be cheered in modern WWE, and followed that by bringing women’s wrestling in the company up to the level it should’ve been years ago. Up next: tag team wrestling.
We’re officially in the Johnny Gargano Era now, as 2016 gets stolen forever by the epic 2-out-of-3 falls match between The Revival and Do It Yourself. Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson had brought up the NXT tag team division from its low quality existence dominated by teams like The Ascension and reminded a generation of fans how goddamn exceptional “southern style” tag team wrestling is, and can be. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa had scratched and clawed for everything they were given in the company, showing up as jobber extras, getting afterthought spots in the Cruiserweight Classic, and earning a spot by just working a lot harder than everybody else. They were sponges, soaking up style and talent like they hadn’t already been wrestling for a decade. The Revival were coming off a critically acclaimed series against American Alpha back before that team’s identities were Kurt Angle’s disappearing son and “Shorty G,” and DIY were hungry to top it. They did. They did.
I probably like this match more than most people — it got a ton of critical acclaim and was on most people’s match of the year list, so it’s not like I was completely alone or anything — but I grew up loving southern tag team wrestling, and thought I was never going to get to see it performed on a big stage again. The Revival literally revived it, heart and soul, and handed the torch to Gargano and Ciampa. This match is brilliant, and like a house built brick by brick with timing and thoughtfulness. To date, this it the only time I’ve ever popped out-loud for someone cutting off a hot tag by simply putting themselves between their opponents. It’s like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and the Midnight Express returned to us in the primes of their careers.
Gargano and Ciampa would use the southern wrestling torch they were given to work on a DIFFERENT southern wrestling trope — the forever escalating blood feud that causes both men to lose their minds — but that’s another story.
United Kingdom Championship Match: Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne – NXT TakeOver Chicago, May 20, 2017
Another underrated thing NXT does is allow American wrestling fans to understand, accept, and embrace wrestling cultures from around the world. Champions can come from any walk of life, any nationality, any race. Stars can speak foreign languages without getting “what” chants. People can work different styles and be judged for who they are as characters and performers and what they can do in the ring, instead of being instantly written off due to some godless combination of low standards and xenophobia.
Take, for example, the British wrestling scene coming to NXT. It’s become its own thing now, sure, but it became a thing in WWE with this match: Tyler Bate defending his United Kingdom Championship (a championship of a division with like, three people in it total) against Pete Dunne. If you’ve seen them wrestle before you knew the beats, but watching an arena full of NXT fans discover and react to each and everyone one of them was something special. Bate and Dunne are preternaturally talented, and truly shined in one of the best one-on-one matches two guys could possibly put together. They’d go on to top it, sure — both against WALTER, funny enough — but it’s a performance landmark, and another in an endless string of matches in the middle of TakeOvers stealing the show and completely overshadowing the NXT Championship matches and main events.
NXT Championship Match: Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas vs. Johnny Gargano – NXT TakeOver Philadelphia, January 27, 2018
NXT’s match of the year came early in 2018, as a guy who busted his ass for his entire career against all odds and rational thinking to be seen as one of the best in his field challenged for the NXT Championship against a man born into greatness. Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas versus Johnny Gargano looked good enough on paper, but in practice … holy shit.
These two worked an incredible, 32-minute championship main event that became the first NXT match to earn five stars from the Observer (somehow … what have you been watching, Dave?) and was WWE’s first official “five-star match” since 2011. I don’t know, either. But it deserved it, man. Even the missteps are brilliant. There’s a moment where Gargano’s supposed to be swinging around Almas to counter into the Gargano Escape, but he starts to slip. Instead of just going through the motions of the move, Gargano bends his arm to hook Andrade’s leg, adding believability to why he’d stumble to the ground and get caught in the move in the first place. The only thing I can really compare it to is Dynamite Kid vs. Tiger Mask, where two guys are so ahead of their time that even the stuff they don’t do right feels like a revelation.
I believe this was the moment when we all agreed to accept Gargano as a top level singles guy, and not just a top level tag team wrestler. It set the tone for the next two years of TV, and remains a highlight in every definition of the word.
2-out-of-3 Falls Match for the NXT Championship: Johnny Gargano vs. Adam Cole – NXT TakeOver: New York, April 5, 2019
The 2-out-of-3 falls match stipulation strikes again. It’s NXT’s signature match for a reason, and I love that their equivalent to like, Hell in a Cell, is just “everybody wrestles more.” I’ll take it.
This was supposed to be the epic, WrestleMania weekend blow-off for the years-long grudge between Johnny Gargnao and Tommaso Ciampa. When Ciampa got injured and couldn’t make the match, the championship was held up, and Gargano ended up in a match against Adam Cole without a lot of story or even that much time to prepare. They ended up formulating a classic that not only validated Gargano’s rise to the top, but felt like the intended and organic ending to the story. Plus, it put everybody’s eyes on Adam Cole, which would inform the remainder of 2019. This is a banger from beginning to end, and right on the edge of being too much while still telling a cohesive, believable story, and having a champion “do the right thing” and overcome the odds to finally win. They’d try to top it later in the year at NXT TakeOver Toronto and do way too much, which I think makes this 2-out-of-3 falls match even better. It’s proof that it’s about quality, not quantity.
And while we’re at it, how about an honorable mention?
Into The 2020s
You know, it’s hard to pick just one NXT match from each year to represent the entire brand. This year ended its live TV with a legit match of the year contender between Shayna Baszler and Rhea Ripley for the NXT Women’s Championship. I didn’t mention either of them here, but the match was the logical end point of basically a two-year championship run from Baszler, who is a master in-ring storyteller who combines pro wrestling know-how with MMA bad-assery whether people realize how good she is or not, and Ripley is a bonafide future megastar who developed in the ring and as a character as fast as anyone we’ve ever seen. It was a high stakes championship match built on months of storytelling, paid off with great wrestling in front of a molten hot crowd, that ended decisively. It could’ve easily been the pick for 2019. It’s a good indication that NXT will be just as strong in the 2020s as it was in the 2010s, and might even continue to grow.
And there’s still so much left to talk about. Asuka, Kairi Sane, all those great Gargano and Ciampa matches, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair. VELVETEEN DREAM, for God’s sake. Matt Riddle, Ricochet, KEITH LEE, the tag team division, the women’s division, Roderick Strong’s rebirth as a dick-headed stamina monster, the whole thing. Being a pro wrestling fan is a nightmare sometimes, and so much of the product we’re given is low quality and low effort to appeal to the lowest possible common denominator, but when it’s good, it’s better than anything in the world. And when it comes to WWE content, nothing is even in the ballpark of NXT. Years of stories that make sense. Payoffs that satisfy. Beginnings, middles, and ends. A reverence for the past, and hope for the future. And Keith Lee.
See you in the next decade. Yellow ropes forever.