In Part One, we looked at the NXT Champions of the brand’s early days. The men who helped make NXT the hottest brand in pro wrestling, for part two, we pick things up with NXT as a fully established brand. Without further ado, let us continue our look at each of the former NXT Champions (in chronological order) as we ask the age-old question of “Where Are They Now?”
(To make things simple, dates of championship reigns are in line with WWE‘s. Therefore, dates match the airing of shows/events, as opposed to their filming)
10. Bobby Roode (January 28, 2017 – August 19, 2017)
Bobby Roode remains the oldest holder of the NXT Championship, having captured the title at 39 years and 262 days. The “Glorious One” was a big star in NXT, which is perhaps largely down to his name recognition, with Roode having been a large part of that “Golden Age” of TNA Wrestling. Unfortunately, Roode has been mishandled since moving up to the main roster in July of 2017. Right off the bat, Roode was turned into a babyface, something long-time viewers of Roode were unaccustomed to. He works best as a heel and his face run felt forced and largely flat, especially when compared to his NXT run.
However, he has had a quietly successful run on the main roster, having captured the SmackDown Tag Team Championship (with Dolph Ziggler), the RAW Tag Team Championship two times (with Chad Gable and again with Ziggler), and the United States Championship. It does seem increasingly unlikely that Roode will ever capture a WWE or Universal Championship now that he is almost 44. Regardless, though his run has at times felt like a letdown, it has not been entirely unrewarded as he is currently one-half of the SmackDown Tag Team Champions.
11. Drew McIntyre (August 19, 2017 – November 18, 2017)
The story of Drew McIntyre is perhaps one of the best stories of the former NXT Champions. Released from the WWE on June 12, 2014 – after having been a part of 3MB with Heath Slater and Jinder Mahal – no one knew what was next for the star famously dubbed “The Chosen One” by Vince McMahon after his signing to the WWE in 2007 as a mere twenty-two-year-old kid from Scotland. Instead of falling off the face of the earth, as many released stars do, McIntyre honed his craft on the independent circuit and in IMPACT, regularly wowing audiences with the quality of his matches. The “Scottish Warrior” who returned to the WWE in 2017 was not the same one who had left in 2014.
Looking physically impressive, with a beard and with a renewed hunger in his eyes, McIntyre was back to prove his worth. He did just that, capturing not only the NXT Championship but winning the 2020 Royal Rumble. This led to McIntyre becoming the arguable face of the company, capturing two WWE Championships in the process. Drew is also a two-time RAW Tag Team Champion (once with Cody Rhodes, and once with Dolph Ziggler) and a one-time Intercontinental Champion, which makes him the thirty-first ever triple crown champion. He also won two Slammy Awards in 2020 (Superstar of the Year and Male Superstar of the Year). His storied WWE career will undoubtedly continue, as Drew McIntyre is here to stay, as a future Hall of Fame headliner.
12. Andrade (November 18, 2017 – April 7, 2018)
The man formerly known as Andrade “Cien” Almas is a certified superstar of professional wrestling. He is genuinely one of the most talented performers in the entire business and NXT quickly recognized this after signing the former La Sombra – who had wowed audiences in CMLL and NJPW. Alongside valet Zelina Vega, Andrade was destined for great things in the WWE. Alas, it was not meant to be. Despite WWE’s constant insistence that it is trying to find its next big Mexican star, it failed Andrade, never giving him a proper chance to showcase himself on the main roster. This led to Andrade only ever holding the United States Championship (1x). For someone of Andrade’s ability and potential, this was a criminal misuse of him. In March of 2021, he was granted his release, months after Zelina Vega’s own WWE release. Still just 31 years of age, the world is Andrade’s for the taking. He might just have a very big 2021.
13. Aleister Black (April 7, 2018 – July 18, 2018)
Speaking of criminally underused, we arrive at Aleister Black. Similar to Andrade, Black’s main roster run has been a complete misuse of talent. The former Tommy End is another international superstar, this time hailing from Alkmaar, Netherlands. A European talent with an excellent grasp of the English language (as do almost all Dutch people), he sports a great look and an excellent character to boot. Oh, and he is a phenomenally gifted pro wrestler in the ring. Yet, he has been involved in meaningless feuds, among them one which saw him lose an eye (in storyline, of course). To add to this, despite having been a member of the main roster for a few years now, Black has never once won gold since his NXT days. Black hasn’t even appeared on WWE TV now for over half a year. He remains under WWE contract (at least for now) and therefore we can only hope 2021 sees a resurgence of Aleister Black. His talent demands it. However, with his real-life wife, Zelina Vega, having already moved on, maybe Black will also.
14. Tommaso Ciampa (July 18, 2018 – March 20, 2019)
One of the most enjoyable reigns in NXT history is without a doubt the reign of Tommaso Ciampa between July ’18 and March ’19. Similar to Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, Ciampa’s NXT career is bound to Johnny Gargano‘s. Like the former, both men have captured the NXT Championship, with the feud escalating the significance of the belt Ciampa affectionately dubbed “Goldie.” Ciampa is, also, one of the few men considered to be an “NXT Lifer”, that being a superstar who will never go to the main roster. Not because he isn’t good enough – far from it.
Ciampa is one of the best in the world. He remains in NXT to help build the brand and to elevate talent, as he recently did for WALTER at TakeOver: Stand and Deliver. Ciampa is in NXT to stay and there is no doubt that when he finally hangs up his boots, his contribution to the brand will reward him with a nice backstage role and WWE Hall of Fame spot. In addition to his NXT Championship run, which was brought to a premature end by a career-threatening injury, Ciampa is a one-time NXT Tag Team Champion as one-half of DIY (with Johnny Gargano).
15. Johnny Gargano (April 5, 2019 – June 1, 2019)
Like Ciampa, Johnny Gargano is an “NXT Lifer”. He has been there in some form since 2015, whether as a part of DIY, the brand’s ultimate underdog babyface, or the weasely heel. Regardless, he has been a big part of NXT for a large part of its existence. So much so, that he was NXT’s first-ever triple crown champion, having won the NXT Championship, the NXT Tag Team Championships (with Ciampa), and the NXT North American Championship (3x). Therefore, he is one of the most successful NXT stars to date. His feuds with Ciampa are sketched in NXT folklore. His matches with Andrade are considered among some of the finest examples of professional wrestling done right. With his villainous faction The Way, with real-life wife Candice LeRae, Indi Hartwell, and Austin Theory, there is no doubt that he will remain a crucial part of the brand for years to come.
16. Adam Cole (June 1, 2019 – July 1, 2020)
Another one of the most recognizable NXT Champions is Adam Cole. This is largely because Cole remains the longest-reigning NXT Champion in history, holding the title for a WWE-recognized (because of taping schedules) 403 days. Cole, as the leader of the now-defunct Undisputed Era (with Roderick Strong, Kyle O’Reilly, and Bobby Fish), dominated the NXT brand for well over a year; seeing off threats to his reign from the likes of Gargano, Ciampa, Balor, and more. He also held the NXT Tag Team Championships (with the Undisputed Era) and the NXT North American Championship, making Cole the second-ever triple crown champion in NXT.
Cole also won the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic in 2018 (with O’Reilly), meaning Cole has achieved everything there is to achieve for a male competitor in NXT. With his recent defeat to Kyle O’Reilly at Night 2 of NXT TakeOver: Stand & Deliver, Cole’s future is very much up for debate. With the recent track record of NXT Champion on the main roster, he may choose to stay in NXT. With a large portion of his friends (and wife) now in AEW, there are some murmurings of Cole moving to TNT. Whatever happens, Cole will continue to Shock the System.
17. Keith Lee (July 8, 2020 – August 22, 2020)
“Limitless” Keith Lee is one of the best stars in the world today. This was reflected in NXT, where he won the NXT Championship and the NXT North American Championship. In fact, he was even the first-ever dual champion on the brand. He was, without a doubt, limitless and one of the most promising NXT Champions. Very shortly after his NXT Championship run, Lee jumped up to the main roster and since then, the momentum has come to a grinding halt. His awesome NXT entrance theme was scrapped. He began working in a singlet. For whatever reason, everything that helped make Lee so great in NXT was taken away from him.
Yes, Lee’s size and phenomenal in-ring ability remained, but too many defeats and the aforementioned stripping away of his identity turned him from a must-see competitor into just another guy on the roster. Lee remains one of the top prospects in the company, despite being 36. Someone of that talent simply cannot be held down for too long. With Lee having been off WWE TV for a couple of months now, we can only hope that he returns with a vengeance, with his identity regained. Watch this space.
18. Karrion Kross (August 22, 2020 – August 26, 2020; April 8, 2021 – Present)
We finally arrive at the current NXT Champion, Karrion Kross. He has all the makings of becoming a big star in the WWE. He is a solid worker in the ring, stands well over six feet tall, and has that entrance. With real-life girlfriend, Scarlett Bordeaux, Kross is one-half of a double act that can achieve plenty in the WWE. For the foreseeable future, Kross will dominate NXT with a despotic iron fist and we can only assume that – to make up for his prematurely-ended previous reign – he will go on to have a lengthy title reign. So for now, Kross is in NXT to stay and his future is very much in his own hands.
So there we have it. Eighteen different NXT Champions spread across twenty-two different reigns. Some former NXT Champions moved onto greener pastures, some are floundering on the main roster, few have moved onto superstardom, and some remain in NXT to this day. The NXT brand, which started as a talent show and then moved onto a development system, is now very much a third brand to RAW and SmackDown. Therefore, it might well be that we see more two-time and three-time champions in the future, as stars stay to avoid the fate that has befallen some of the former champions. Which of these NXT Champions do you think has gone on to have the most success? Which one has underachieved the most? Feel free to discuss!
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