Adam Cole has spent the past 372 days as NXT Champion, a run that has solidified his place on a list as one of wrestling’s most complete in-ring performers.
Cole defends his NXT title tonight against Velveteen Dream in a “Last Chance Backlot Brawl” match at TakeOver: In Your House, another cinematic take on pro wrestling. And whether he extends his run as champ or drops the belt, Cole has built something far more meaningful during his title reign.
“The greatest thing I’ve ever done in wrestling is my work with The Undisputed Era,” said Cole, who is 30-year-old Austin Jenkins. “It’s even bigger than the championship. The reason why my run with the NXT Championship has been so special is because of The Undisputed Era.”
A modern-day Four Horsemen, Cole’s faction also includes Roderick Strong, Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly. They are all tremendous pro wrestlers, but the special ingredient is the innate chemistry from their years working and traveling together in Ring of Honor. There is a legitimate edge to the group, as they all repeatedly have heard some insult or caveat hurled their way–primarily, a lack of size or personality–explaining why each could be good but not quite great.
Given the freedom to be themselves in NXT, The Undisputed Era has proven that their talent is undeniable. And if Cole is eventually moved to SmackDown or Raw, a three-hour show that would benefit tremendously from his arrival, he refuses to go without Strong, Fish and O’Reilly.
“Wherever one of us goes, we all follow,” said Cole. “If I go to SmackDown, then Roddy, Bobby and Kyle will be by my side. Same exact thing for Raw. I know Roddy would love to be NXT champ someday, but I also know Roddy can win championships on SmackDown and Raw. It’s the same for Bobby and Kyle. If I go elsewhere, they’re coming, too.”
Rumors have been circulating that Cole can opt out of his contract this upcoming August. While Cole did not discuss his contract status, sources close to WWE have confirmed to Sports Illustrated that he signed a long-term extension before NXT began airing weekly on the USA Network this past fall. But word has a way of spreading, and fuel was added to the fire when pictures surfaced of Cole attending an AEW party during Memorial Day weekend.
Cole is dating AEW star Britt Baker and has longstanding friendships with many of the talents within the company, which explains his presence at the gathering, but he did share that competing against Dynamite every Wednesday brings out the best in both NXT and AEW.
“Knowing you’re competing against another show certainly helps motivate,” said Cole. “Competition is always good, it’s always beneficial. For me personally, there is so much going on during an NXT television day, between interviews and preparation, or I’m working with the guys from The Undisputed Era. But knowing that pressure is looming, it always makes me better.”
Despite his status as one of the most talented wrestlers in the industry, Cole also revealed that he battled confidence issues early in his title reign, which began as soon as he defeated Gargano at NXT TakeOver: XXV in June of last year.
“I wanted so badly to make sure I deserved to be champion, so yes, there were confidence issues right away,” said Cole. “Even though people around me believed that I should be champion, I had so much to prove to myself. The Johnny Gargano trilogy solidified me in a lot of eyes as someone who is, bell-to-bell, one of the best in NXT. That’s really important to me. There is this crazy amount of pressure being the NXT Champion, especially when you look back on all the guys who’ve held it.
“But it was the Survivor Series month in November when I realized no one deserves to have the NXT belt more than me. Flying to SmackDown and wrestling Daniel Bryan in a 20-minute main event, getting my boots almost immediately when I got there. And a lot of people don’t know this, but when I wrestled Seth Rollins on Raw, I didn’t find out about that until late Sunday night. Then there was WarGames and Survivor Series. That month was everything I needed to prove I deserved to be NXT Champion.”
Tonight’s NXT TakeOver is WWE’s first In Your House-branded show since 1999, and the Cole-Dream match is a contemporary take on the “Hollywood Backlot Brawl” first introduced to wrestling at WrestleMania XXII in 1996. This match has all the makings for a memorable encounter, as Cole is a technical wrestler and Dream is one of the most entertaining performers in NXT. That combination should lead to the production of something special, especially with the benefit of the match being taped and edited before airing.
“The match will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before in NXT,” said Cole. “I’m so excited for people to see it. I’ve proven myself in bell-to-bell matches, but this will be very different. This is going to be something you don’t want to miss, and it is my chance to show everyone why I’m the total package.”