When it comes to relationships in wrestling, some people are just destined to “Fight Forever.” There are some grudges that can’t be contained, some animosities that can’t be quelled, and some actions that will never be forgiven or forgotten. While distance and time may temporarily heal wounds, some rivalries are just too entrenched to ever fully go away especially when the history and chemistry between the rival wrestlers, is impossible to ignore. Bonded together by their hatred, there are certain rivalries that follow wrestlers their entire careers with all roads leading back to the moment that created the animosities in the first place. And as the past has shown us, when old rivals link back up, magic is inevitably made. In this series, we’ll look at rivals who are destined to fight forever. This installment focuses on one such pair, Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly, who after nearly four years of teaming together, are set to renew a rivalry that began nearly a decade ago and has spanned numerous wrestling promotions.
Two months ago, Adam Cole was Kyle O’Reilly’s biggest champion. Set to receive a rematch at Finn Balor‘s NXT Championship at New Year’s Evil, O’Reilly had the full support of his Undisputed ERA teammates, especially Cole. Leader of the group and former NXT champion himself, Cole praised O’Reilly, noting he had known him since 2009 and every day since then, he had wrestled like a champion all over the world. “You’re not only getting what you asked for, you’re getting what you deserve,” Cole assured his friend, before making him a promise that he would win the NXT Championship in 2021. That all of his career accomplishments would finally be backed up by the hardware to prove just how good he’s always been. It was a rousing speech, but in his praise of his teammate, Cole seemed to forget that O’Reilly already has some career hardware, specifically two world title belts he won off of Cole himself. The most recent came in 2016 in Ring of Honor. Much like in December 2020, Cole had made O’Reilly a promise, and much like in December 2020, he failed to keep that promise. Only this time, the promise wasn’t that O’Reilly would become world champion, it was that he wouldn’t. Not as long as Cole was in ROH anyway. But O’Reilly did become world champion, holding the belt for 33 days before dropping it back to Cole, who went on to become the first-and only-three time world champ in ROH history.
Both Cole and O’Reilly left the company shortly after their final feud, one that was a culmination of the prior seven years. Since coming into ROH together in 2009 as Future Shock, Cole and O’Reilly both enjoyed tremendous success. Cole became a singles star, even joining and leading the ROH Bullet Club contingent, while O’Reilly, alongside Bobby Fish, went on to become a decorated tag team champion, both in ROH and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Their careers seemed to parallel each other with no shortage of intersecting moments in between. The two first wrestled in November 2009 for DGUSA before competing as opponents in CHIKARA‘s Young Lions Cup VIII. The two then debuted in ROH a few months later as Future Shock, taking part in matches not only for the company but also in Fight Club: PRO, IPW: UK, wXw, and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. The two up-and-coming stars made for a great team but success largely alluded them as Future Shock failed to capture tag titles in any promotion they wrestled in. In 2012, Future Shock split as O’Reilly began gravitating toward mentor, Davey Richards, leaving Cole and Richards’ own former tag team partner, Eddie Edwards, to unite in opposition. The two makeshift duos began feuding against their former partners, with O’Reilly and Richards serving as the heels and Cole and Edwards as the babyfaces. Notably, the four wrestled a near 40-minute bout at ROH’s 10th Anniversary Show – Young Wolves Rising. It was a fitting PPV name as Edwards and Richards, the former American Wolves, were center stage alongside two other young and hungry wrestlers in the former Future Shock. Four stars were born that night and so too was the future of ROH.
Cole pinned Richards, then ROH World Champion, to get the win, but before he could even pursue a path toward the championship, Cole had unfinished business with O’Reilly. After never having faced off as opponents in ROH, and having last wrestled against each other in Combat Zone Wrestling, O’Reilly and Cole met for the first time in almost a year. Their battleground was Showdown in the Sun, a match that was won by O’Reilly. It wasn’t until June’s Best in the World – Hostage Crisis PPV however, that the genesis of the feud between these two would be born. In a hybrid rules match, the first and only of its kind in ROH history, Cole and O’Reilly battled to a bloody affair that was won by Cole. The match lasted just over 12 minutes but it was a sprint throughout, one that allowed both men to showcase their skills but perhaps more importantly, show the innate chemistry between them. It was truly a breakout performance for the duo and as Cole said years later in an interview with ESPN when referring to O’Reilly, “I don’t know what it is, I don’t know why we gel so well…But that connection that we have in the ring is something that you don’t have with a lot of people.”
Despite that two-month feud between the former Future Shock teammates and despite O’Reilly leaving Cole a bloody mess in the match in New York, Cole ended the night with an offer of a handshake, seemingly willing to put their past behind them. What O’Reilly did next, however, really set the tone for what would define the on-again/off-again rivalry of the next five years for the two men. Instead of shake Cole’s hand, O’Reilly slapped the man’s already bloodied mouth, clearly making his position on a reconciliation known. O’Reilly got his win back at September’s Caged Hostility before losing to Cole in a match for Cole’s World Television Championship in November. A few months later, the seemingly final Future Shock chapter was written as Cole and O’Reilly wrapped up their run as a team in PWG, before bringing their ROH hostilities to the brand, continuing the feud they began a year prior. In the fall of 2013 – spring 2014, Cole and O’Reilly wrestled two matches for Cole’s PWG World Championship. Cole won the first in October before losing to O’Reilly in a match built for the challenger. In May 2014, O’Reilly defeated Cole in a submission or knockout only match, in the process, ending Cole’s record-long 538-day run as champ. It was the first, but not the last time, O’Reilly would end one of Cole’s title reigns. Over the next year, ROH did a good job of keeping Cole and O’Reilly away from each other as the two pursued separate championships. There were several occasions, however, notably the Champions vs All Stars match in 2014, where O’Reilly and Cole shared opposite sides of the ring. In short run-ins with each other, it was clear the chemistry was still there. And within it, lay the ultimate moment of the rivalry that ROH was going to pay off.
But first, Cole and O’Reilly tried teaming once again in the summer of 2015, even getting a shot at the Addiction‘s ROH World Tag Team Championships. The chemistry was still there but the partnership was short-lived. See, the reunion was a mere plot device, building to what would happen three months later. At All Star Extravaganza VII, O’Reilly received just his third ever shot at the ROH World Championship and the odds were in his favor. Earlier that same night, world and world television champion, Jay Lethal, defended the first of his two belts against Fish. While Fish was unsuccessful in his own championship pursuit, he certainly softened Lethal up for his reDRagon teammate. O’Reilly and Lethal wrestled for nearly 14 minutes before the chaos began to break out. A ref bump led to Lethal using the title belt to attack O’Reilly before Fish and House of Truth member, Donovan Dijak got into things on the outside. Much to the delight of fans, that’s when Cole made his run-in for what people were expecting would be to save O’Reilly from Lethal…Wrong. Cole ensured that O’Reilly lost the match, and then adding injury to insult, engaged in a lengthy beatdown of his former friend turned rival. Perhaps it was Cole’s way of returning the favor for when O’Reilly turned on him four years prior.
Shortly after, that’s when Cole made his promise, that so long as he was in ROH, O’Reilly would never be world champion. Cole had a direct impact on being able to keep that promise when he joined O’Reilly in a triple threat match for Lethal’s title. Lethal won, but O’Reilly, who hadn’t been pinned or submitted and who had a few months later defeated Cole in a brutal and lengthy no holds barred match at Supercard of Honor X, received another one-on-one rematch for the title. Once again, Cole made his presence felt. Only this time, he didn’t wait until the end of the match. Cole and his Bullet Club running mates, the Young Bucks, attacked O’Reilly prior to his match, injuring his shoulder. When O’Reilly insisted the match take place anyway, Bullet Club was banned from the arena. O’Reilly gave it his all but ultimately his injury was too much to overcome against Lethal. But again, Cole couldn’t let things rest and once again, he attacked O’Reilly attempting to further injure him. To sell the injury, O’Reilly missed two months before returning with a bullseye on Cole, the brand new ROH world champion. After all the build-up, it only made sense that the two men who years prior were heralded as the future of the company, would feud over the world title. Over the next three months, O’Reilly went on a 13-match winning streak, making clear his case to challenge for the world title. He finally got his match at the year-end Final Battle and on December 2nd, 2016, O’Reilly claimed his first ROH world title. His reign was short-lived as O’Reilly announced his intent to leave the company at the end of the year. He dropped the title back to Cole at WrestleKingdom 11 and finished up with ROH a day later. Six months later, O’Reilly debuted in NXT, and two months after that, Cole joined him and Undisputed ERA was born. Cole and O’Reilly, alongside Fish, wrestled their first match together in September, a mere eight months following O’Reilly and Cole’s ROH feud coming to an end.
For the next four years, Cole, O’Reilly, Fish, and later Roderick Strong, ran roughshod over NXT as the best faction WWE had seen since the days of the SHIELD. The quartet was unstoppable, winning gold after gold after gold. With Fish injured, Cole and O’Reilly wrestled their first tag team match (not trios match), in three years when they teamed up for an NXT live event in March 2018. And yes, the chemistry was still there. This reunion led into Cole replacing the injured Fish in order to aid O’Reilly in defending the tag team titles at the finals of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. In doing so, Cole and O’Reilly did something they never had as a Future Shock: defended tag team championships. O’Reilly and Cole continued to intermittently represent the ERA as the main tag team of the group over the next two years, though it was primarily in trios matches that the former Future Shock continued to work together. This included taking part in all four of NXT’s War Games matches and winning two of them. As O’Reilly and Fish served as the group’s tag team specialists, Cole, the leader of the ERA, specifically made his mark as a singles star, spending 396 days as NXT Champion, the longest such reign of all-time.
Cole lost his title in July 2020 but the ERA would only have to wait another two-plus months before another member of the group would be elevated into the top title picture as by late September of that same year, O’Reilly had ascended as the singles star ready to challenge the new champ. And to his credit, Cole took a backseat as it happened. And while universal kayfabe doesn’t formally exist from promotion to promotion, this was Cole we are talking about. It was only a matter of time until jealousy would rear its ugly head and Cole, would want the spotlight back for himself. He never was good at sharing it, especially when it came to O’Reilly. Seeing as the two came up together, there was always an element of competition as they each traveled their own paths. As much as they developed and grew together, helping each other become better wrestlers, there was always friendly or in some cases, not-so-friendly competition. Even when not facing each other, the desire to be the better of the broken tag team, was no doubt there. As Cole may have seen it, O’Reilly had his chances at the NXT title and he blew both of them. While Cole’s motivations haven’t been outlined yet and while the status of the ERA isn’t fully confirmed as a break-up, the writing seems to be on the wall. The ERA had reached their peak in NXT and short of bringing all four of them up to the main roster as a unit, there really wasn’t anything left for them to do together. But apart? No matter where Fish and Strong fall in the middle of their now likely to be feuding teammates, Cole is once again in the position to prevent O’Reilly from winning the top title in the company. It was a promise he couldn’t keep in ROH, but perhaps now, Cole will look to deliver a new promise with a different outcome.
It was only a matter of time until Cole would do what he had done five years prior, turn on O’Reilly in favor of chasing gold himself. At TakeOver: Vengeance Day, he did just that.
— WWE NXT (@WWENXT) February 15, 2021
“Our paths are intertwined, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” O’Reilly said in an interview in 2016. “We were talking after watching Payback, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn having a match at WrestleMania, and their feud goes back to their indy days. You can’t help but to think we’re on the same path, and if we are, we’re very lucky.”
Lucky indeed. It remains to be seen what will happen next with Undisputed ERA, but one thing is for certain. Much like Sami Zayn/El Generico and Kevin Owens/Kevin Steen before them, Cole and O’Reilly look primed to bring their near decade long ROH rivalry to NXT. And NXT will be all the better for it.
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