Aug. 19, 2017 was a monumental night in the history of NXT. Asuka and Bobby Roode walked in as champions and each competed for the last time on an NXT TakeOver show. Drew McIntyre and SAnitY both walked away as new champions, but the reason neither walked out in celebratory fashion might well be the most important thing that happened that night at the Barclays Center.
That's because after Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish reunited to decimate the new NXT tag team champions, they returned later in the night to send a message to McIntyre, the newly crowned NXT champion. On their second appearance, they didn't come alone.
In the closing moments of NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III, Adam Cole slipped from backstage and weaved his way through the crowd, inciting a three-on-one attack on McIntyre and sending the crowd into an absolute frenzy.
It was an atypical NXT debut, even for a performer of Cole's magnitude, with most big free agent signees to NXT first appearing on camera in the crowd during a TakeOver special before getting involved in the brands ongoing storylines. That Cole, Fish and O'Reilly were given this kind of opportunity on their first night together under the WWE banner speaks to the confidence that Triple H and the WWE in general had in them.
That confidence has paid off ever since, as the trio, now known as the Undisputed Era, has spent the last seven-plus months making special moments and shaping the trajectory of NXT on a weekly basis. At the center of it all stands Cole, the de facto leader, who projects endless confidence and swagger that's consistently bolstered by ever-enthusiastic crowd support.
Beneath the cocky exterior of the man he portrays in the ring, Cole, 28, radiates confidence in a calmer, less bombastic way away from the bright lights and cameras of the WWE and NXT. His polished charisma comes from the 10 years of experience Cole brought with him when he signed the contract that he'd always dreamed would be placed in front of him, and from how hard he's had to fight to get as far as he has.
"When I was 9 years old I decided that I wanted to wrestle for WWE, and specifically WWE, so to know that I was gonna be debuting for this company with NXT had me obviously elated beyond words," Cole recalled of that night, during a recent interview with ESPN.com. "To be able to do it in New York, when so many big things have happened for me in my wrestling career in New York City, was really awesome."
Whether it was a career-defining match in 2012 against long-time friend and foe O'Reilly, or the moment when Cole was unceremoniously booted out of the Bullet Club and started the wind-down to his independent career, New York has done as much as any city to shape his journey in professional wrestling.
"You just trust the situation, and trust that it's gonna be a memorable moment that people talk about. When we put ourselves in situations like that, [it's] because we want to make moments for our fans that they can remember, [and] talk about, for years to come." Adam Cole
Still, stepping into an arena with more than 15,000 fans, there was no way for Cole to know how many of them were familiar with who he was.
"I was so nervous," said Cole. "Not nervous in the sense of the job that I had to do, but nervous as in -- I hoped the people cared, because I had never been in front of that audience before."
The die-hard NXT fans wasted little time in assuaging any doubts that may have crept into Cole's mind. As he, Fish and O'Reilly laid the boots to McIntyre, there was no doubting that Cole carried an invaluable tool with him into the WWE -- the power to compel an audience, and the ability to wield said power at will.
What fans watching at home on the WWE Network saw spanned less than two minutes. After an initial roar from the section of the crowd that immediately spotted Cole walking through the crowd, a secondary wave of energy rolled through the crowd. They chanted "Adam Cole!" loudly as he nailed a superkick, and then the trio stood over the fallen champion as the broadcast faded to black.
But the moment that brought it all home happened after the show was officially over. As Cole, Fish and O'Reilly reached the top of the ramp, Cole felt the energy of the moment and took one final leap. In a move he honed over his last few years before signing with the WWE, Cole threw his hands up in the air and yelled, "Adam Cole, Bay Bay!" -- and almost everyone in the crowd shouted in time.
- WWE (@WWE) August 20, 2017
"Under no circumstances had I planned to get at the top of that ramp and do 'Adam Cole, Bay Bay'," Cole admitted. "That was not in my brain at all. I knew the job that I had to do, I knew that the point me, Bobby, and Kyle were trying to make. But the energy I felt from them was so positive, and so behind what was going on that when I get to the top of the ramp, I was like, 'I think if I do this, they're gonna do it with me, and I really hope they do. '
"For them to know exactly who I was, and exactly what my shtick was -- who I am as a performer from out of the gate -- just had me so, so excited."
That reaction was something Cole earned well before he stepped foot in a WWE ring. It started in front of small die-hard crowds for independent promotions like Combat Zone Wrestling and radiated out from there. His infectious charisma, in-ring style and connection with the fans brought Cole to a point where he eventually became a three-time Ring of Honor world champion, fit right in as a vital part of the uber-popular Bullet Club and ultimately earned street cred as a cornerstone of Pro Wrestling Guerilla.
He succeeded at scaling up his approach at every step along the way, and once he walked into NXT Cole was able to channel that support and those experiences into making special moments for fans from day one. The passion with which Cole commits to everything he does in the ring, from promos, to matches, to things as small as a single look is for the benefit of the audience.
"At the end of the day, we're performing for the fans, so anytime the fans are behind the character or performer, it's easier to put them in situations where maybe they are in bigger spots or bigger situations kind of right out of the gate," said Cole. "For me to come in, and [for] people to be aware of who I was and what I brought to the table, I think that certainly put me at an advantage of being in some really cool situations and some really cool opportunities."
Despite not being a massive, prototypical "big guy" wrestler, Cole slid into NXT and fit perfectly. It was something that Paul "Triple H" Levesque, who created and helped nurture NXT to make it what is today, noticed right away. Triple H has seen a lot of people come and go, both during his time as a wrestler and as a WWE executive in charge of talent and creative, but even among the talent-rich roster that is NXT, Triple H sees big things ahead for Cole.
"I think he plays a very big role, probably, in what WWE will be over the [next few] years," said Triple H. "He's a very talented young man, lot of charisma. That's the thing that I would say first. Talented in-ring performer, absolutely, but the charisma and the character, that's there. Great human being, too. Those are the things that make me happy about his success, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does with all the things that are coming his way, and how he takes advantage of them.
"The truth is, we can put the opportunity out there, but what's done with it and where it goes is on the talent," Triple H continued. "I say that all the time. We just set the table, and you can say whether it was set right or it was set wrong, but we set the table, and they get the opportunity. Everybody has the chance to knock that opportunity out of the park, and to run with it. He, so far, has. Hopefully he will continue to."
Over the course of his first seven months with NXT, Cole's connection with fans has only grown stronger despite his character's villainous tendencies. Those connections made him an ideal candidate for some wild opportunities, and everything continued to snowball from there.
In November, for example, Cole got to live out two dream-like scenarios in the matter of a couple of days. At an NXT event in San Antonio, Cole challenged McIntyre for the NXT championship and WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels served as the guest referee.
It was a moment where everything came full circle -- for Cole, the young fan who fell in love with wrestling, and Cole, the in-ring performer always looking to step up his game.
"Shawn Michaels, to me and to so many people, is just the greatest in-ring performer of all time," said Cole. "He's a big reason I decided to pursue pro-wrestling myself. I saw him, and I was so amazed and captivated by what he did that I said, 'Oh, someday I want to do that.' To be able to share a ring with him in any capacity was huge, and for him to be the guest referee in that match was so awesome.
"Shawn Michaels is Shawn Michaels, and he doesn't have to do anything. For him to choose to want to do that and be involved in that as a special guest referee, and to be able to be in the ring with him and watch the relationship he has with our audience, is magical and so cool. There's little things that he does, little mannerisms that he has, little ways that he carries himself, where you can learn so much just watching Shawn as a special guest referee."
The very next night, everything that Cole has learned along the way and his willingness to put everything on the line for the entertainment of the fans converged in a single moment at NXT TakeOver: WarGames. During the first ever War Games match within the WWE, the Undisputed Era was up against SAnitY and a team composed of Roderick Strong and the Authors of Pain.
In a clip that will find its way into WWE highlight reels for a long time, Cole stood perched atop the WarGames cage and Strong followed him up; the Toyota Center crowd grew silent in anticipation, and from up on high, Strong superplexed Cole down onto what became a pile of human wreckage.
It was the kind of moment all his training and hard work had been leading up to, but it was also something he could've never truly prepared for until it happened. Cole had accumulated the right tools and enough confidence to believe it would work, and then threw himself in head-first.
"To really sit back and actually think about what's going on can be terrifying, and almost overwhelming," Cole said of that moment. "But the advantage of being a performer and getting to wrestle in front of the best audience in the world is [that] you have so much adrenaline where, with what's happening in that moment, my mind was blank. It was completely blank.
"You just trust the situation, and trust that it's gonna be a memorable moment that people talk about. When we put ourselves in situations like that, [it's] because we want to make moments for our fans that they can remember, [and] talk about, for years to come."
Cole continues to rack up big moments at a dizzying pace, and Royal Rumble weekend in his old back yard was no exception. He faced Aleister Black at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia that Saturday night, and then on Sunday, inside the same building where he saw his first live WWE show, Cole was a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble match. He got a reaction as good as any of the main roster stars, and got to work in the ring with legends like Rey Mysterio, Jr.
You'd think that having so many big moments might take some of the shine off after a little while, but not for Cole.
He takes each opportunity as it comes, experiences it, synthesizes it down to something he can use moving forward and then gets right back up for the next challenge.
The next stop on that train comes on Saturday at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. Cole is part of a six-way ladder match to crown the first ever NXT North American champion, and faces a daunting responsibility with sky-high expectations heading into the show. It doesn't faze Cole in the slightest.
"NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is specifically so exciting, not just because it's a TakeOver, but because it's WrestleMania weekend," said Cole. "It'll be a lot of our first WrestleMania weekends, a lot of the guys from this match."
In going up against the likes of EC3, Killian Dain, Lars Sullivan, Ricochet and Velveteen Dream, Cole is ready to step up and take another big shot. With so many guys in a similar mindset, there could be something really special in play.
"A lot of people have already said they're convinced that this match is gonna steal the weekend," said Cole. "And it absolutely has the potential to, considering the talent that's in there, and the craziness that NXT brings. You've got six really, really hungry guys -- six guys who are really excited for this weekend, and six guys who are just ready to steal the show."
It gets even crazier when you consider Cole might have to do double duty that night. You see, his Undisputed Era compatriot Fish, one-half of the NXT tag team champions, went down with a knee injury. There are several possibilities in play, but the odds point towards Cole filling his spot and making an even bigger leap of faith on Saturday.
"That night is gonna be very, very special on every level. But that's the best part about NXT," said Cole. "Everyone on that show wants to steal it."
If history is any indication, no matter the result of those two matches, Adam Cole will leave a lasting memory.