Despite the devastating injury that befell NXT champion Tommaso Ciampa, the show -- NXT TakeOver: New York -- must go on.
In most eras of pro wrestling history, losing half of the main event weeks out from the biggest show of the year would spell disaster. Fortunately for NXT, there were five worthy challengers who each could've stepped up to face Johnny Gargano at TakeOver: New York. With a win and a vote of confidence, Adam Cole seamlessly stepped into the limelight as he claimed his spot in a dream main event.
A little less than two years ago, Cole emerged from the crowd at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 3 at Barclays Center -- the same place where he'll compete for the NXT championship two nights before WrestleMania 35. On that night, Cole laid waste to newly crowned NXT champion Drew McIntyre, with a little help from his friends Bobby Fish and Kyle O'Reilly.
Cole has stolen the show repeatedly at TakeOvers, from becoming the first NXT North American champion in a ladder match for the ages in New Orleans last year to a pair of War Games matches that redefined physicality in the world of NXT. However, with one notable exception, that was the closest Cole came to the NXT championship until he won a fatal five-way match against Aleister Black, Matt Riddle, Ricochet and Velveteen Dream to punch his ticket.
"If I had to pick one word to describe how I'm feeling, it's ready," Cole told ESPN. "I made my debut at TakeOver Brooklyn. I joined forces with Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish, we formed the greatest faction in NXT history -- the Undisputed Era -- and I held the NXT championship above my head. And pretty much since then, I have not been in the forefront of the NXT championship picture.
"It's something I feel like I've been ready for since I got here," Cole continued, "and finally getting that opportunity on the biggest stage in NXT history, it's going to be special."
Losing out on perhaps the finale of the the epic four-year journey of Ciampa and Gargano would seemingly be far beyond anything that could come together in just a couple of weeks, but because of the work put in by Cole, the NXT roster as a whole and the creative team behind NXT, there were many layers of story to be built upon.
While Cole got the nod, and is as ready as anyone on the roster to step up to the plate as the next NXT champion, all five of the participants in the fatal five-way qualifying match could've slotted in with similar ease.
"That, to me, is one of the things that I'm most proud of with this brand," Cole said. "I feel like there's a core group of guys, where you can put [them] in the opening match on the card, you can put them somewhere in the middle or you can put them in the main event. A lot of guys are incredibly interchangeable, and I mean that as a compliment, because this roster is just so stacked. It's the most stacked we've ever been.
"It's incredible how much talent NXT currently has, and that's only continuing to grow as more and more guys are finding themselves or ending up here," Cole continued. "No matter what situation you're put in, you always get exciting, interesting, compelling main-event matches. It's definitely made me better in every way, because when you're in situations where you're competing against guys at the level of the talent on the NXT roster, you can't help but improve. We all bring the absolute best out of one another, and I think that's a big reason TakeOver shows are so successful, [and] NXT as a brand as a whole is so successful, because the audience sees that."
Still, it will be Cole vs. Gargano in a best-of-three falls match for the NXT championship -- and for good reason. Cole was a prize acquisition for NXT in 2017, and he's done a lot to prove his value with each opportunity that's come his way. Paul "Triple H" Levesque, the primary creative force behind NXT and everything going on at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, that feeds into NXT, had no hesitation in pointing out Cole as the right fit for the job at hand.
"As far as Adam Cole goes, man, he's one of the most talented guys in NXT, or any roster," Levesque said. "Complete package, can do all of it. A key player. ... He's had a lot of big moments, he's stolen a lot of shows and he's really cemented himself."
Cole, labeled as a "chosen one" who came into NXT on a wave of momentum, is also the perfect foil for Gargano, who had to scrap to even sign an NXT contract. The matchup between Gargano and Cole also offers the best of both worlds -- a completely fresh match in the world of NXT, with a chemistry and knowledge from a handful of pre-WWE showdowns that foreshadow a tremendous result under the bright lights of Barclays Center.
If the fan reactions from Wednesday's edition of NXT TV are any indication, they might have captured lightning in a bottle. As Gargano stepped into the ring to go face-to-face with Cole for the first time, dueling "Johnny Wrestling" and "Adam Cole" chants carried on for minutes. Even after Cole tried to carelessly dismiss his supporters, the chants began anew.
"For many years, people who've been following both myself and Johnny Gargano, people have compared us quite a bit," Cole said. "Two guys on very similar rises on the independents. A lot of times, we would work for different companies, but we ended up competing against each other. Pretty much from the very first match I had with Johnny, he was a guy that brought out the best in me, and I brought out the best of him."
Cole and Gargano are at a different level at this moment than they were five years ago, when they put on a strong showing in a Pro Wrestling Guerrilla championship match. The prospect of putting those two together at this stage of their careers and NXT progress is an exciting one for fans and those involved alike.
"For us to get the chance on literally the biggest TakeOver that we've ever had, I can promise you won't be disappointed," Cole said of the match. "I know the fans who have followed our careers know they're in for something special. For people who haven't, I could promise you it will be. It will probably be the toughest, most exciting [and] the best match of my entire career. I'm ready to show that to the world in New York."
"I expect it to be hard to follow for the weekend," Levesque said. "I don't mean that as a knock on anybody, it's just the level of talent there and the emotional storytelling component. It's probably two of the guys, if you said to me, 'Name two of the most consistent performers at all levels on any on the rosters that, no matter what, they're going to knock it out of the park,' it would be tough for me to come up with bigger names than Gargano and Adam Cole. I know this is going to be epic. I'm thrilled for both of them, I'm proud of both of them and this is the first of many moments like that for them across WrestleMania weekends, for sure."