The four-man, 60-minute Iron Man match on NXT last week failed to bring the title picture into focus, as Adam Cole scored a fall at the last second to draw even with Finn Bálor at two falls apiece.
Bálor, Cole, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa were the four men chosen to compete for the title after a shoulder injury forced Karrion Kross to relinquish the belt. And the four choices were certainly appropriate. Given the current makeup of the roster, no four other individuals better represent the past and present of NXT. But as indispensable as Ciampa and Gargano are to the brand, the essence of their stories is with each other.
Since Bálor and Cole ended last week’s match tied in the lead, they will wrestle this Tuesday for the NXT title. Each competitor has already held the NXT championship once, and each can claim that his previous run as champion elevated NXT during a pivotal stretch for the company.
Bálor left Japan in 2014 and put a bright spotlight on NXT the moment he arrived. He won the title from Kevin Owens on a WWE Network special in Tokyo on the Fourth of July five years ago, then put in a remarkable 292-day run as champ that remains NXT’s signature title reign. With Bálor as champ, NXT possessed buzz as one of the top wrestling destinations in the world.
Cole held the title for over a year, winning the belt at NXT TakeOver XXV in June 2019 before dropping it 13 months later. Cole’s time atop NXT coincided with the brand’s move to live television every week on USA Network, competing head-to-head against All Elite Wrestling’s Dynamite on TNT.
The plan is now to turn reality into story line, as Cole looks to finally put an end to chasing Bálor’s legacy as the two square off to crown the new NXT champion.
“I have compared myself to Finn Bálor for a long time,” Cole says. “It was always tough to match up, especially the first time we were in the ring together.”
Before his entry into NXT, Bálor met Cole at a RevPro show in the summer of 2014.
“I traveled to England to wrestle him at York Hall during his farewell tour before he came to NXT,” says Cole, who is 31-year-old Austin Jenkins. “That was the first time we’d ever met, the first time we’d ever wrestled, and it was a ruckus and rowdy audience. This was the point where Bálor was Prince Devitt, and he was doing the different characters and different entrances. He’d done a phase where he was the Joker, and for this one, he was Bane. I’d seen him wrestle before, but seeing his entrance in person, I began to see what made him so special.”
At the time of that first meeting, Cole was establishing himself as one of the hottest independent wrestling acts. He already had a run as Ring of Honor champ and was the longest-reigning Pro Wrestling Guerrilla champion, but his body of work did not yet match up with Bálor’s. It was his 13-month run as NXT champ when he transitioned into a bona fide television star, with so much of the early live shows built around him and the Undisputed Era. Cole put on excellent matches as champion, particularly thriving in November 2019, when he had standout matches on Raw, SmackDown, TakeOver, and Survivor Series.
During Cole’s run with the NXT title, the roles reversed for Cole and Bálor. Ever since Bálor’s return to NXT in October, Cole was the one in the main event. He still made a point to watch Bálor work, especially in standout TakeOver singles matches against Matt Riddle, Damian Priest and Timothy Thatcher.
“The thing that impresses me so most about Bálor is the way he is such an all-around performer,” Cole says. “There are so many styles in pro wrestling—a high-flying style, a striking style, a technical-based style, brawling—and he possesses everything that encompasses an exciting pro wrestler, with an entrance and presence, too. Bálor has every single tool. But I believe I do, too.”
Last week’s Iron Man match ended with Bálor and Cole each winning two falls, with Gargano and Ciampa at only one. Bálor picked up his second pinfall with the 60-minute clock expiring, then Cole hustled into the ring, hit Bálor with a Last Shot and pinned him before time ran out. The symbolism of chasing Bálor was not lost on Cole.
“For me, the chase of Finn Bálor is something that is absolutely real,” Cole says. “Even in my 403-day reign as NXT champion, I heard a constant comparison to Bálor. That was something brought up consistently. Now we’re finally getting the chance to compete with one another for the vacant title, I can’t think of a bigger match right now in NXT.”
Cole was asked whether the program with Bálor will provide the closure necessary for his run in NXT before moving to Monday Night Raw or SmackDown.
“I know some people want to see that, but to be part of a brand that is constantly growing, evolving and getting bigger, to be involved in that rise, it’s such an amazing feeling,” Cole says. “I am involved in the growth of a brand I really believe in, and there is so much left for me to do with young talent in NXT. With all that said, of course I think that the Undisputed Era would make an incredible impact on Raw or SmackDown.”
For now, a trip to the main roster will wait for Cole. His focus is on delivering a Match of the Year candidate with Bálor, bringing eyes to NXT on a Tuesday night and showcasing some of the best wrestling in the world.
“All my hard work paid off as NXT champion,” Cole says. “That is the proudest I’ve ever been in wrestling. I’m still hungry and driven to continue leading this company. I can do that better than anyone, including Finn Bálor, and I plan on proving that on Tuesday.”