This Saturday, NXT Takeover: XXX will feature a six-way ladder match to determine the new NXT North American champion. It’s an extremely poetic decision. The last time such a match took place was January 2018, a champion was being crowned for the very first time. Just as there were six wrestlers in that first match, there have been six North American champions since the belt was introduced. The North American title began its existence as no more or less than the midcard championship NXT desperately needed. And for the last two and half years, it enjoyed an unbroken line of succession, punctuated by the kind of show-stealing classics one expects of a midcard championship. It was the only title in NXT that had never been vacated – until reigning champion Keith Lee won the NXT title and subsequently handed over the North American title to be contested by a (mostly) new generation of NXT up-and-comers.
For all these reasons, this feels like the completion of a cycle, and complete cycles demand revisiting. To that end, I watched all 25 televised matches in which the North American championship was on the line. Ranking them is far from the most creative idea in the world, but the rankings are just a structure. And like all wrestling, they’re entirely subjective, anyway. The real opportunity here is to examine the last two and a half years of NXT’s newest championship, to look back on the first chapter of its young history and put it into context as we approach the start of the next one.
I have ranked these matches on a loose rather than a rigid scale. But some of the main criteria I used to judge them include: quality of physical performance, quality of storytelling, crowd reaction, and historical significance.
I should also mention that more than a third of the matches in this ranking involve at least one wrestler who has been accused of sexual misconduct throughout the #SpeakingOut movement – primarily the Velveteen Dream. Dream had recently returned to NXT television with little to no attention paid to the allegations against him by NXT or WWE. It is impossible to avoid Dream in any discussion of the North American title as he remains the longest-reigning North American champion in history. He has been involved in more North American title matches than anyone except Lee. And he will, controversially, participate in the North American championship ladder match at Takeover: XXX.
And while his talent neither erases the harm he’s done in any way nor impacts how he should be seen moving forward – I believe he should be, at the very least, suspended without pay pending an investigation. He is an extremely talented professional wrestler who has had several undeniably excellent professional wrestling matches. It was difficult to know what to do with him in these rankings, but I ultimately attempted to let the work speak for itself as much as possible. However, as previously mentioned, these are subjective, and it might be difficult to re-watch a match due to the known sex offender(s) on the screen, whether we want it to or not.
With that having been said, let’s get started.
25. Adam Cole vs. Wolfgang, WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament (June 26, 2018)
One thing a number of these lower-ranked matches have in common is that their outcomes were never in doubt. There was simply no way in 2018 that Adam Cole was going to lose the North American title to a UK wrestler before the existence of NXT UK. That fact sucks a lot of the drama out of this match, and there wasn’t much there, to begin with. There was no storyline going into the contest, and not much of one between the bells, either. It was just a match and the closest a North American title match has ever come to being flat-out bad. Wolfgang simply isn’t anything more than average in the ring. And it doesn’t help that he (a) was accused of emotional abuse and inappropriate behavior toward children, and (b) is still employed by WWE and technically still one-half of the NXT UK Tag Team champions. Skip this one.
24. Roderick Strong vs. Austin Theory, NXT (December 25, 2019)
I’m a big fan of Roderick Strong, and I’ve always found it interesting that his two successful defenses of the North American championship were clean victories without Undisputed Era interference. This one, though, was nothing to write home about. It was an open challenge for the Christmas edition of NXT, so there was no story going in. It felt like there was the potential to build the match around the similarities between the two wrestlers, particularly in terms of their stamina. The announcers, particularly Nigel McGuinness, kept bringing it up on commentary. But it never really came together, and as a result, what you have is two guys with very little personality exchanging near falls for 15 minutes. In other words, boring. While technically better executed than the Wolfgang match, this one also suffers from Theory having no chance of winning, and from the fact that Theory has been accused of preying on children, killing any desire I might have had to watch him wrestle. At least he’s still off television, and unlike Wolfgang, not theoretically holding a title.
23. Adam Cole vs. Oney Lorcan, NXT (April 25, 2018)
The very first defense of the North American championship was far more about the fully realized foursome of the Undisputed Era than it was about Oney Lorcan, but there are a few things that elevate it. First, Oney Lorcan is just delightful to watch wrestle and always makes you think he has a chance at winning even when you know he doesn’t. When Lorcan comes alive late in the match and starts hitting big moves on Cole, it’s legitimately exciting. What’s more, Cole doesn’t even win his first title defense cleanly, relying on what would become the typical Era distraction and interference tactics. This made Lorcan look like a threat, though it admittedly wasn’t the best look for Cole, who took more time than anyone would have expected to find his footing as a top star in NXT. Still, the story of the match was the Undisputed Era, finally whole and ready to start weaseling their way into shady victories. That was how the North American championship began.
22. Ricochet vs. Tyler Breeze, NXT (December 12, 2018)
Ricochet’s last successful title defense was similar in many ways to the match between Strong and Theory – a highly competitive open challenge at the end of the year without much going on in the way of a story. It is, however, several orders of magnitude more fun to watch. Part of this surely has something to do with the fact that neither man is an accused sex offender – though Ricochet needs to stay away from Chasyn Rance’s gym. But mostly it’s because Ricochet and Breeze are colorful, flamboyant characters who play well against each other and wrestle a more exciting style. From a historic standpoint, this was an NXT return match for Breeze, who hadn’t been seen in the promotion since 2015 and was widely beloved in Full Sail. The reaction of the crowd, and, for that matter, of Ricochet when Breeze’s music hits is a wonderful moment and the match that follows is, if not a five-star classic, at least a hell of a good time.
21. Keith Lee vs. Dominik Dijakovic vs. Damien Priest, NXT (April 1, 2020)
It’s extremely difficult to judge NXT’s post-COVID shows, particularly the ones where there’s no crowd whatsoever because a live audience is so fundamentally important to a wrestling match. Even though you’re watching the same moves and sequences you would have been if the crowd were there, they don’t provoke the same kind of connection that a good wrestling match does when the crowd is invested. This Wrestlemania weekend triple threat is by far the worst North American title match that took place under quarantine. Not because the wrestlers didn’t perform well, but because it’s depressingly clear that this match would have been breathtaking had it taken place at a regular Takeover as originally planned. The objective quality of the performance elevates it above the lower entries, but the total absence of crowd noise, even the rough facsimile of crowd noise NXT has cobbled together more recently, can’t help but bring it down. You can only rank a match so high when it has Sam Roberts on commentary.
20. Keith Lee vs. Damien Priest, NXT (April 29, 2020)
Sam Roberts would thankfully not return for the next North American title match. But this match still suffered from the total absence of crowd noise. However, it’s ultimately better than its predecessor, largely for being the payoff to the story that the would-be Takeover match began. Though it’s not much of a story. Priest has been hitting Lee and Dijakovic with a nightstick, and that’s pretty much it. But the story is competently told, with the nightstick coming into play late in the match and Lee managing to counter it for the win. Lee’s expressions during the contest are one of the most notable things about it, since we rarely see him so angry right from the jump, and it helps sell the idea that the feud between he and Priest has gotten personal. In the end, while it still stings to imagine the reaction this match would have gotten in front of an audience, it’s well-performed and narratively sound. And again, because this can’t be stressed enough, it doesn’t have Sam Roberts on commentary.
19. Keith Lee vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT Takeover: In Your House
Johnny Takeover’s first appearance on this list is also the lowest ranking of a Takeover match, and it’ll be a while before either shows up again. Gargano has been one of NXT’s most reliable performers for years now and has become one of the defining stars of the brand. And yet, despite being from the only actual Takeover event to take place under quarantine, this match doesn’t suffer from a crowd noise problem so much as it suffers from a Johnny Gargano problem. There just isn’t much of a story here, and Gargano is a performer who needs a story. His best work in NXT is character-driven and takes advantage of his expressiveness. Unfortunately, since his Wrestlemania weekend heel turn, Gargano’s character has been largely been a garden variety villain, and his match with Lee is largely a garden variety match – not bad by any means, but mostly composed of slow, grinding rest holds from Johnny sandwiched between Keith Lee offense.
There’s a minor storyline about Gargano going after Lee’s hand. But it doesn’t seem to matter much, existing primarily to justify Gargano having the advantage over Lee for most of the contest, as these two dynamic and adaptive performers are forced into the typical face/heel formula. The most interesting part of the match is the brief appearance of Candice LeRae and Mia Yim, who were also part of the running story here and whose match to open In Your House was significantly better. Still, at least the substitute crowd is finally here, so the match doesn’t take place in silence. It also features the birth of Lee’s “pounce through the plexiglass” spot, which will recur throughout his reign and symbolizes the creativity wrestlers have displayed in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic. Bonus points for Lee’s Black Lives Matter trunks.
18. Keith Lee vs. Cameron Grimes, NXT (March 11, 2020)
The last North American title match in a pre-COVID world didn’t have much setup, nor was there any concern over who was coming out on top. But unlike lesser matches of its kind, it absolutely made the most of these conditions. The match is shockingly well-paced, coming in at just under 12 minutes. The first half seems like a fairly typical minor title defense in the vein of Cole vs. Lorcan or Ricochet vs Breeze, but the moment it seems like it’s time for Grimes to stay down, he doesn’t. The match continues, becoming a surprisingly competitive back-and-forth that makes both wrestlers look good in the process. Grimes doesn’t have the greatest character in the world, but a match like this really shows off his considerable ability, and the match quality elevates both Lee and the championship. A perfect example of how this kind of low-stakes contest should be done.
17. Ricochet vs. Adam Cole vs. Pete Dunne, NXT (October 10, 2018)
It might surprise people to see this match so low; it surprised me to rank it. It’s entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about it that rings hollow. I think the biggest problem is that it’s the culmination of a feud between Ricochet and Dunne that ultimately never gets resolved. Here’s the entire thing: they tag together against Undisputed Era, but aren’t on the same page and lose, leading to an amazing match between them that ends in a no-contest when Era interferes. That leads to this match, which ends when Ricochet hits a springboard 450 splash on Dunne immediately after Dunne has hit the Bitter End on Cole. That doesn’t exactly resolve the question of whether Ricochet is better than Dunne. But instead of paying it off, they end up on the same team opposite Era in War Games, and that’s it. That’s the end of the feud.
And yes, this triple threat provides several impressive moments of athleticism, but Cole’s presence doesn’t add anything to the combination of Ricochet and Dunne. As we’ll see later, their singles match was much better, despite the lack of a finish. And since there’s no cohesive story being told, it ends up being the kind of directionless spotfest that emboldens Jim Cornette fans to complain on Twitter. And nobody wants that.
16. Velveteen Dream vs. Buddy Murphy, NXT (April 17, 2019)
Regardless of how you feel about him now (and I have many feelings), it can’t be denied that in early 2019, the Velveteen Dream was having a moment. Dream was at the height of his popularity, riding a mile-high wave of goodwill stemming from the combination of his mesmerizing character and his spectacular in-ring performances. And he wasn’t the only one. Buddy Murphy had reinvented himself as 205 Live’s hottest performer, and coming off his Cruiserweight championship loss at Wrestlemania 35, there was excitement in the air about what he would do next. Pairing them up for a midcard championship contest was almost too obvious to be brilliant, and if you had to describe this match in one word, it would be fluid. It’s not the greatest wrestling you’ve ever seen, and there was little to no chance of Murphy winning, but it’s rare to see a match in which everything goes right and every spot is executed perfectly. The fact that this is Dream’s worst North American title match speaks volumes. Though again, it must be remembered as we move forward and encounter Dream more often that the accusations against him speak louder.
15. Velveteen Dream vs. Tyler Breeze, NXT Takeover: XXV
It’s not often that an NXT performer gets the chance to wrestle their direct ancestor, but when Tyler Breeze returned from main roster obscurity to the fans that knew and loved him, the dream match was on.
Breeze was the proto-Dream in an absurd number of ways: a developmental prospect who debuted with a generic character that almost sank him before he had begun, but who then stumbled into NXT stardom with a new, provocative character that shouldn’t have worked, but did. Breeze was less overtly sexual than Dream as the character always seemed too completely self-absorbed to care about anybody else. But both gimmicks looked like they could have been teleported into wrestling straight from a music video, and they both immersed themselves so completely in these colorful personas that, despite their heelish arrogance, it wasn’t long before the audience was more interested in cheering them than their opponents. And the fact that Dream was North American champion added an entirely new dimension because if there had been a North American title when Breeze was coming up through NXT, he would have been a natural pick to hold it. Breeze has never held a championship in NXT or WWE.
Any match would have had a hard time living up to that set-up, but the finished product was at the very least, good. The storyline gets slightly muddled at the end, with Dream using some shady tactics to retain the belt, and Breeze asking for a “respect selfie” in a post-match moment that would have played better after a clean finish. Still, the very fact that we got Dream vs. Breeze at Takeover deserves recognition and appreciation.
14. Roderick Strong vs. Velveteen Dream, NXT (September 8, 2019)
At this point, we’ve reached a stretch of the ranking where historical significance takes a certain degree of precedence over match quality and storytelling. Take, for example, Dream’s last North American title match against Roderick Strong. It’s very competently wrestled, as you might expect from performers of this caliber, but the bell-to-bell action isn’t terribly memorable. The Dream/Strong feud had its moments, like Strong lighting Dream’s couch on fire, but was cringeworthy far more often. But despite these lackluster qualities, this match is objectively more important than anything on the list so far. It’s the first instance of a challenger winning the title, for one thing, and the crowning of a new champion is always noteworthy. But it’s also the match that “fulfilled the prophecy” of the Undisputed Era, who helped Strong win in typical Era fashion, and in the process, laid claim to every championship in NXT for which they were eligible to compete (I still think it was a missed opportunity to not add a woman to the group and give her the women’s title, but oh well).
This wasn’t just the ushering in of the era of the Era. NXT had just arrived on USA Network, and these were the preliminary shots in what would become the Wednesday Night Wars. Giving Strong the title at this specific time was a public declaration that the USA version of NXT would revolve around the Undisputed Era, and for that alone, this match is worth watching again.
13. Keith Lee vs. Roderick Strong, NXT (January 22, 2020)
Strong was the last member of Undisputed Era to win his part of the prophecy, and he was also the first to lose it. At the time, it didn’t seem like the most obvious decision in the world. The match was sandwiched between Keith Lee’s epic performance at Survivor Series and subsequent appearance in the Royal Rumble, meaning that the North American title already seemed like small potatoes for him. However, when viewed in light of the long-term storytelling of the Era’s fall from grace, it makes perfect sense. Lee kicked the tires on the end of the prophecy, and he would ultimately finish the job. Like most Keith Lee matches, it was good, but it was also an important statement by NXT and WWE that they were ready to truly commit to Lee, who had taken a while to find his footing and had only recently made his first Takeover card as part of a babyface War Games team. Tying the entire promotion to Lee’s unbelievable prowess and natural charisma was a no-brainer, and this contest was an important first step.
12. Keith Lee vs. Johnny Gargano vs. Finn Balor, NXT (June 24, 2020)
Speaking of the ascension of Keith Lee, this match was another vital step in what would be his rise to the top of the entire brand. Despite the lack of fans, it took place with masked wrestlers behind plexiglass, and it turned out to be a very entertaining triple threat that called back to the previous relationships between all three wrestlers. And it wasn’t just a North American title match. The winner of this contest would also go on to an NXT Championship match against Adam Cole. That gives it historical significance, but it also gives Lee’s victory over Balor and Gargano more weight.
Balor was a former NXT Champion who had held the record for longest reign with the title until Cole broke it, and while he had been on fire since returning to NXT and turning heel (by attacking Gargano, appropriately) he had seemed somewhat directionless in the months since. Gargano was also a former NXT Champion with a long history with Cole, and despite his rock-solid status as one of NXT’s top stars, his own heel turn had left him without a clear direction as well. Lee, meanwhile, was already the second-longest reigning North American champion in history and had already broken the record for most successful defenses, suggesting that his reign was close to its end.
Lee was popular and successful enough to be a contender for the NXT title. And within the old model of NXT, neither Balor nor Gargano would have been in his path; Balor would have stayed on Raw or Smackdown, and Gargano would inevitably have been called up. But with NXT now presented as a third brand, with its own two hours on television in direct competition with AEW, the big stars were sticking around or even coming back. Therefore a newcomer to the WWE spotlight like Lee faced a much more difficult path to stardom. For all these reasons, it was easy to imagine him dropping the North American title and the NXT title opportunity to either of his two opponents.
He didn’t, though. He won, and it paved the way for everything that came next. The in-ring work was impressive, but it’s the significance for Lee’s career that puts this match so high.
11. Velveteen Dream vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT (February 20, 2019)
This is probably a good time to mention that the company with a terrible track record of elevating Black talent, has had three Black North American champions who have had the three longest reigns with the title. Of the 836 days that the North American title has existed, it was held by a Black man for 552 – two-thirds of its lifespan. In this, it is unique in WWE history, and indeed, mainstream wrestling history in general. And a big part of that is the 209-day reign of the Velveteen Dream, which began when he defeated Johnny Gargano in Gargano’s very first defense.
By the time Gargano won the North American title, he was already well beyond needing it. His feud with Tommaso Ciampa had seen him main event four Takeovers in a row, and his brief title reign was simply an extension of that storyline, as Ciampa had gotten in Gargano’s head and driven him toward the North American title in order to keep him from challenging for Ciampa’s NXT Championship. It was a necessary part of the story, but he didn’t need to keep it long, and Dream’s popularity made him the ideal person to take it.
The match was too long – a harbinger of Gargano’s 40-minute main events with Adam Cole. But it was also extremely compelling, finishing with a beautiful sequence that saw Dream counter Gargano into a pair of Dream Valley Drivers, followed by the Purple Rainmaker for the victory. More importantly, it was Dream’s coronation – though, like Keith Lee, many fans at the time questioned the idea of saddling Dream with the midcard title when he clearly belonged in NXT Championship contention. Looking back, it actually makes revisiting Dream’s career slightly more palatable to know that he still hasn’t won the NXT title. But in early 2019, coming off Halftime Heat in the Superbowl, it was a big moment for one of the audience’s favorite rising stars. And it kicked off the longest North American title reign in NXT history to date.
10. Keith Lee vs. Dominik Dijakovic, NXT (July 15, 2020)
These two will show up again in a higher echelon of the rankings, but despite the fact that it’s objectively not as good as their earlier efforts, there’s something special about this match. For one thing, both the North American and NXT championships were on the line – something that has only happened twice. After winning the NXT title from Adam Cole, Lee’s first act as champion was to publicly recognize that he wouldn’t have gotten to where he is today without Dijakovic and their celebrated rivalry, and he offered his “frenemy” the first shot at both belts. True, there was never any chance of Dijakovic winning, and the narrative of the match itself made it clear that Lee had surpassed his former rival. The contest lasted less than 12 minutes and wasn’t even the main event of that week’s episode of NXT.
But it’s a beautiful denouement to the story of Dijakovic and Lee, calling back to their previous matches in a way that emphasizes their friendship over their conflict. It’s a match composed almost entirely of handshakes, knowing smiles, and other gestures of mutual respect. At one point, Lee teases a handshake before locking on a side headlock, instead, telling Dijakovic, “You remember when you did that to me? I remember!” But there’s no anger in his words, and the heelish maneuver doesn’t even feel that heelish. It’s just playful banter between two wrestlers who love going up against each other, and who are probably doing it for the last time for a while (Dijakovic was fridged by Karrion Kross shortly thereafter as part of Kross’ feud with Lee, and is widely rumored to be main roster bound). It’s a small, sweet match that puts a cap on one of NXT’s best and most organic feuds, and it’s top ten material for Lee’s pre-match promo work alone.
9. Velveteen Dream vs. Roderick Strong vs. Pete Dunne, NXT Takeover: Toronto
Of the five North American championship matches that have been contested under triple threat rules, only two of them have featured a heel taking advantage of the rivalry between the other two wrestlers to steal the victory. It’s a time-honored wrestling trope, and when done properly, it can be an extremely effective means of extending a heel champion’s reign. Interestingly, it’s not entirely clear whether or not the Velveteen Dream was meant to be a heel in this match. Strong was the more clear-cut villain, and Dream’s crowd reactions at the time certainly would have made him a fan favorite in the eyes of an impartial observer. But Dream had never explicitly passed out of “tweener” territory, and his actions in defense of the North American championship had grown increasingly shadier.
At the previous Takeover, Dream had used heel tactics to fend off the challenge of Tyler Breeze, and the trend continued in Toronto. While the primary feud going into this match was between Dream and Strong, Strong and Dunne had a longstanding rivalry going back to Takeover: New Orleans, when Strong turned on Dunne about an hour after Cole had become the first NXT North American champion. Adding Dunne to the match allowed for a story in which Dream took advantage of the issues between his two opponents, the Purple Rainmaker crashing in on Dunne as he was poised to defeat Strong. Not only did this extend Dream’s title reign for another month (as previously mentioned, NXT wanted to delay Undisputed Era’s official taking of all the gold for their debut on USA) but it set up the rematch with Strong, who hadn’t been pinned. In direct contrast to Dunne vs. Cole vs. Ricochet a year earlier, the strong structure of the match helped the spots feel more meaningful and less random, and it’s a classic example of what can be achieved with the triple threat format.
8. Ricochet vs. Pete Dunne, NXT (September 19, 2018)
This is perhaps a controversial top ten pick, seeing as it’s the only North American championship match to ever end in a no contest. But even with the unsatisfactory finish, it’s a breathtaking display of professional wrestling. It was only their second match as opponents, and the first on a national platform and they made every one of their 21 minutes count. Both Ricochet’s newly-won North American title and Dunne’s United Kingdom title were on the line, and as part of a story that had seen the egos of the two champions collide in a tag team match against Undisputed Era, they delivered a match that was simply about each wrestler trying to one-up the other. The creativity and athleticism of both were on full display, and the audience reacted accordingly. Watching this match again provides a feeling of infectious enthusiasm, largely because the crowd is so incredibly hyped to see Dunne and Ricochet pull out all the stops. Neither wrestler had ever looked quite like this before in NXT.
Yes, Undisputed Era interferes and the match is thrown out, but even that is justifiable. NXT clearly didn’t want either wrestler holding both titles, and while that corner is certainly the fault of their own booking, it makes sense if you’re drawing out the question of who is actually better. Unfortunately, that question was never resolved, which is why the follow-up triple threat involving Cole is comparatively low in these rankings. Still, that first, never-concluded clash between Ricochet and Dunne is undeniably magical.
7. Keith Lee vs. Adam Cole, NXT (July 1, 2020)
I remember being ever-so-slightly disappointed at the overall quality of this match when I saw it for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, when the bell rang, I was thrilled. I had zero confidence that NXT would actually pull the trigger and give Keith Lee both the North American and NXT championships, particularly after word of the finish leaked online with plenty of time for them to re-shoot it out of spite. But while I loved the result, I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the journey.
Watching it again, I think there are two reasons. First, the match suffers from the same booking flaw as Lee’s match with Gargano from In Your House in that it’s simply not a ton of fun to watch a guy like Lee get grounded and worked over by a heel for large portions of ring time. You don’t come to Keith Lee matches for the underdog story; you come to watch him do incredible things. Second, I think I was expecting a more typical Adam Cole NXT championship match, with lots of last-second kickouts and multiple finishers, and seeing Lee win with a single Big Bang Catastrophe was slightly anti-climactic. Upon rewatch, however, I actually like this decision. It differentiates Lee from Cole’s other title opponents in exactly the way that having Lee play the underdog doesn’t, and while this has never been a sticking point for me, it’s nice to see a protected finisher in modern NXT.
More importantly, though, is simply the moment of Lee becoming a double champion. If there had been fans present, this match would almost certainly be ranked even higher. As it stands, the wrestlers behind the glass end up being enough to convey the emotion. And it’s just a wonderful experience to watch Lee, who at one point seemed like he wasn’t going anywhere in NXT and beat the odds, both real and fictional, to become the second-ever Black NXT champion and the first since 2013. It’s all well and good to quibble over the details of narrative structure, but the heart wants what it wants, and my heart had wanted Keith Lee as NXT champion for a long time.
6. Velveteen Dream vs. Matt Riddle, NXT Takeover: New York
It hurts to have this ranked so high. Not only are the Velveteen Dream and Matt Riddle both accused sexual predators, but they have both been blatantly pardoned by WWE and continue to appear on television to this day. Watching the match again was difficult, it can’t be denied. But unfortunately, it also can’t be denied that this match is spectacular, the brilliantly told story of a legitimate mixed martial artist being frustrated and ultimately defeated by the decidedly not legitimate artifice of professional wrestling. It’s the conflict between wrestling and MMA in a nutshell – Riddle is clearly the better fighter throughout the entire match, consistently countering everything Dream tries to throw at him and totally dominating the popular North American champion.
But Dream has something more powerful than MMA moves: he’s got that Pro Wrestling Bullshit on his side. No matter how many holds Riddle knows, wrestling is a scripted sport, and he has to bow to the fictional force of attacks that he would laugh off in real life. This is most prominent during the sequence when Dream directly channels Hulk Hogan, the single greatest purveyor of Pro Wrestling Bullshit. But it’s most poignant when Dream rolls Riddle up from out of nowhere for the victory, and the expression on Riddle’s face is one of pure, disbelieving resignation. If you can stand to watch this one again, it’s one of the greatest wrestling stories ever told, confined almost entirely to the time between bells. But it’s completely understandable if you can’t.
5. Roderick Strong vs. Keith Lee vs. Dominik Dijavokic, NXT (October 23, 2019)
Everything said about the triple threat in Toronto applies doubly to this match. It is perhaps the greatest example (in NXT, at least) of the heel barely escaping with his life and his championship. Roderick Strong knew he didn’t want to face Dominik Dijakovic or Keith Lee for his North American title, so he interfered in their #1 contender’s match to prevent there being a winner. But of course, that resulted only in him having to face both of them at the same time. What did Roddy do? He waited until Lee had incapacitated his arch-rival, then flew in with a kick to the face and retained his championship. Strong, unlike Dream in Toronto, was a full-on heel, and the narrative was executed to perfection.
What really puts this match over the top and into the top five, though, was the wrestling stacked on top of that narrative. Any match involving Lee and Dijakovic is going to involve some big, creative, crowd-pleasing spots (assuming the presence of a crowd) and Strong’s power and ability to apply leverage is the perfect ingredient to add to that mix. The final product is a wildly entertaining monster truck rally of a contest that manages at once to continue Strong’s reign (on obviously borrowed time) and continue the rivalry between Dijakovic and Lee, a feud that, unlike Ricochet vs. Pete Dunne, would eventually come to a satisfying conclusion. Quite simply one of the best triple threat matches I’ve ever seen, and unlike every other match in the top five, it didn’t even happen at Takeover.
4. Adam Cole vs. Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. EC3, NXT Takeover: New Orleans
The first thing that sticks out about the very first North American championship match is some of the names involved. While Cole, Dream, and Ricochet have been discussed in this ranking at length, Dain has largely faded into obscurity. Sullivan turned out to be a terrible person who also suffered from crippling anxiety that completely derailed his career. And EC3, after getting an unfortunately quick call-up to the main roster, ended up somehow flaming out and leaving the company (again) despite being one of Vince McMahon’s wet dreams come to life. At the time, though, all three of them felt like they belonged in the match, and the match itself was an absolute marvel.
It would take too much time and too many words to list all the incredible moments from this six-way ladder match. Suffice it to say that everyone gets multiple chances to shine, everyone comes out looking like a million bucks, and the North American title receives instant credibility for being a prize worthy of so much carnage. Cole’s victory was the right call, as he desperately needed some sort of championship to carry around while he ran his mouth. His NXT debut, attacking newly-crowned NXT champion Drew McIntyre alongside Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, was the final image of Takeover: Brooklyn III. But since then, Cole had lost momentum and languished in the undercard. His title reign didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but it was an important first step in a teetering NXT career. Beyond that, this is one of the most rewatchable matches in NXT history, and one of the best ones to foist upon casual fans, recovering fans, or anyone who has never been a fan, if the goal is simply to get them excited about professional wrestling.
3. Ricochet vs. Adam Cole, NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4
Aside from the inaugural one, this is the first great North American championship match, an occurrence that had felt like destiny since the moment Cole pushed Ricochet off a ladder at the last second to claim the title in New Orleans. More than anything else, the feeling engendered by Ricochet’s victory here was that of the righting of an injustice, a feeling that was clearly the intent of the two wrestlers involved.
The storyline going in was nothing to write home about. The world had reached a consensus that Ricochet was something special, and Cole, to the surprise of no one, disagreed. But that attitude didn’t just make Cole a contrarian, it made him a hypocrite. The only thing in this match that wasn’t special was Cole’s title reign going into it. In his four months as champion, he had defended the belt twice, and both those matches are in the bottom three of this ranking. He had required Undisputed Era’s help to defeat Oney Lorcan, and instead of defending the title at Takeover: Chicago II, he had chosen merely to accompany Roderick Strong and Kyle O’Reilly to the ring for their tag team title defense against Lorcan and Burch. Cole had, effectively, remained in the tag team division while bragging about holding a singles title.
The match between he and Ricochet is a study in wrestling precision. Of course, the image that comes to mind the moment you think about this match is Cole superkicking Ricochet in the throat while Ricochet hangs upside down in midair after attempting a quebrada. And the indelible nature of that image is one reason it ranks so high. But the entire affair is punctuated by sequences that require uncanny accuracy, and Cole and Ricochet executed at an extremely high level. Cole, in particular, excelled at playing into the story of the match by countering Ricochet’s offense again and again, constantly reminding him that “you’re not special.”
In the end, of course, Ricochet shows Cole just how special he actually is, but the match wasn’t just Ricochet’s coronation. He had already been accepted as a star by the NXT audience. It was also an important moment of legitimacy for Cole, who had finally put on a great Takeover match without relying on a hardcore stipulation, and who would go on to become the longest-reigning NXT champion of all time. In short, everybody comes out a winner in this contest, particularly the people watching it.
2. Johnny Gargano vs. Ricochet, NXT Takeover: Phoenix
Sometimes a wrestling match becomes good, or even great, for simply one reason: you were there live. I was in the crowd for NXT Takeover: Phoenix, and it’s entirely possible that fact is skewing my judgment here. But after watching this one again, I feel fairly confident in my ranking. It’s a legitimately great wrestling match, composed primarily of two of my favorite things about this era of NXT: Ricochet being an insane physical specimen who shouldn’t exist, and Johnny Gargano’s slow descent into madness (as opposed to his later, more rapid descent into madness).
This is really the only intersection between the North American championship and the 5-year-long epic of Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. Gargano’s subsequent match with Dream, where he loses the title, is primarily about Dream, while this match with Ricochet is very much about Johnny. The question the entire match is structured around is asked by Ricochet himself: “Which Johnny Gargano are we going to see?” By the end, we have our answer: Gargano passes up his first opportunity to use the exposed floor as a weapon – a recurring motif in the Ciampa feud, but doesn’t hesitate the second time, giving in to the darkness inside him and taking the title after chillingly murmuring one of Ciampa’s favorite phrases: “I win.” There are few things in the world better than a jaw-dropping wrestling match with a rock-solid story behind it, and this is exactly that.
1. Keith Lee vs. Dominik Dijavokic, NXT Takeover: Portland
You have an amazing storyline that stretches multiple years and involves incredible nuance of character, like Gargano vs. Ciampa. But because this is pro wrestling, there are no guarantees. For all the praise that feud rightfully receives, the sad fact of the matter is that thanks to injuries and the coronavirus, it never got a proper ending. The rivalry between Keith Lee and Dominik Dijakovic is almost the opposite. It wasn’t intended to be a feud for the ages, and it doesn’t involve an intricately planned series of plot and character beats. Gargano and Ciampa got three Takeover main events, and fate cheated them out of a fourth. But for the longest time, it didn’t look like Lee and Dijakovic were ever going to get a Takeover match, period. When it finally happened, and they clashed over the North American title in the opening contest of Takeover: Portland and it felt like something that had happened organically. Something that had grown and grown until it was unstoppable. Not because there was some longstanding plan, but because the two wrestlers involved make magic together in the ring.
It’s debatable whether or not this is even the best of the Lee/Dijakovic series, but it’s representative of the whole. It is, fundamentally, what Lee vs. Dijakovic will always be: two men who simply have no business being able to do the things they can do, crashing into and over and down on each other with the audience screaming in adulation at every turn. This was the last Takeover prior to COVID-19 shutting down the presence of fans in pro wrestling, and watching it now is a ridiculously cathartic experience. It doesn’t have the depths of the Gargano/Ciampa storyline, but it doesn’t need to. Lee vs. Dijakovic is awe and wonder and triumph, the final realization and celebration of something that wasn’t even supposed to be a thing. It’s similar in tone, if not in impact, to Daniel Bryan’s championship victory at Wrestlemania XXX, and you can hear it in every roar of the crowd as they take pure, innocent delight in watching a match they thought might never occur. And of course, in watching the two wrestlers push the limits of everything we think is possible. This match is professional wrestling. Plain and simple.