At NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, an event which may go down as the best TakeOver yet, Roderick Strong didn’t just shock the world, but he “shocked the system” when he turned on tag team partner Pete Dunne, to help Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly retain the NXT Tag Team Championships. Following the match, Cole and O’Reilly looked on not sure what to expect from Strong, who had spurned their invitation before. But then, Strong grabbed the armband off of Cole’s wrist and raised the hands of the reigning tag team champions.
Finally, a heel turn that felt like it was seven months in the making occurred, as Strong officially joined Undisputed Era. He celebrated with the new champs who were also crowned winners of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic and no one was prouder than Cole, who exclaimed afterward, “I love you very, very much.”
Since coming to NXT in October of 2016, Roderick Strong had been positioned as one of the company’s top babyfaces. Strong’s story made him an easy guy to root for and his program with Bobby Roode elevated him to a top position in the company. But, Strong, who is now a heel for the first time in his WWE career, never could quite get the one thing he wanted in NXT: championship gold.
That changed on Saturday night, however, as in a memorable and surprising turn that got the crowd to their feet, Strong took his destiny into his own hands, breaking up Dunne’s pinfall attempt on O’Reilly, before hitting his partner with his finisher. Strong then dragged O’Reilly on top of Dunne for the cover, a look of joy and satisfaction on his face the entire time. And since the Ring of Honor reunion stable will be defending under freebird rules, that would mean that Roderick Strong, after a year-plus, finally has his first title in NXT. Just a day later at Wrestlemania Axxess, he got his first successful defense as well, as the team of Strong and O’Reilly defeated Moustache Mountain to retain the belts.
— WWE NXT (@WWENXT) April 8, 2018
Undisputed Era vs. the World
For Roderick Strong, joining Undisputed Era was a culmination of about a seven-month recruiting campaign by Cole, who first approached his former ROH colleague about joining the stable, back in October of 2017. Just a week after Cole himself made his NXT in-ring debut, the leader of Undisputed Era showed up to congratulate Strong on a well-fought match against Drew McIntyre. A few weeks later, Cole tried again, presenting Strong with a t-shirt, which Strong refused. The following week, Cole took advantage of yet another main event loss by Strong, using that to try to entice him to join the faction. Cole presented Strong with the UE wristband, which Strong accepted, but not in the same way as Saturday. Strong seemed hesitant, not proud, to have that object in his hands.
This all led up to the last episode of NXT before TakeOver: War Games. As Undisputed Era beat down Authors of Pain following their tag team match against SAnitY, Strong came out, armband in hand. Much to Cole’s delight, Strong put the armband on and feigned joining the stable, only to turn on them, throwing the armband back at Cole, to side with AOP instead. This set up the War Games match, where Strong teamed with Akam and Rezar against SAnitY and Undisputed Era’s Bobby Fish, Cole and O’Reilly. Rumors had swirled then that the unlikely pairing would result in Roderick Strong turning on AOP to become a member of Undisputed Era but that never happened.
The belief was if Strong wasn’t going to join Undisputed Era then, then he probably never would, so for many, him aligning with the stable was forgotten about and the recruiting angle was largely dropped. This would allow Cole to engage in other singles pursuits while O’Reilly and Fish went on to win the tag team championships. Strong meanwhile, NXT’s nearly-man, seemed to be someone without direction. He teamed up with Aleister Black in a one-off against Fish and O’Reilly for the belts before ending up the #1 contender for Dunne’s United Kingdom Championship. After unsuccessfully challenging for that belt, Strong was announced as a participant in the tournament to crown a new Cruiserweight Champion. He made his 205 Live debut on February 6, defeating Hideo Itami in a first round match-up. Strong picked up another victory over Kalisto before losing to eventual champion, Cedric Alexander, in the semifinals. In the midst of all this, Strong, who made his NXT debut as Austin Aries‘ partner in the 2016 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, teamed up with Dunne for this year’s iteration.
Reunited and it Feels so Good
Roderick Strong had been a great babyface and top-level worker but he had reached that point where the crowd was starting to lose interest, especially once the feud with Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa began. Gargano catapulted to the role of NXT’s top babyface and it left WWE trying to figure out where Strong fit into things. It is likely that Strong would have been headed for 205 Live fulltime following his stellar performance in the cruiserweight championship tournament, if not for Fish’s injury. That opened up a spot where Strong could make the heel turn and finally do what fans had been wanting him to do ever since Cole first tapped him on the shoulder in October, and that was to join Undisputed Era.
It’s really a natural fit as all four of these men have great history and chemistry with one another. Before NXT, Strong and Cole had their fair share of battles in Ring of Honor, starting with a feud over Strong’s ROH World Television Title back in 2012. That led to a world title feud the following year. Cole and Strong teamed up two years later, unsuccessfully challenging the team of Michael Dante and Tommy End for the PROGRESS Tag Team Titles. They teamed up two other times in 2015-16, first as members of Mount Rushmore 2.0 alongside Super Dragon and the Young Bucks, and then again for the ROH Conquest Tour, picking up a victory, ironically over Fish and O’Reilly.
Strong’s history with O’Reilly goes back to 2011, when the two had their first match against one another in ROH. The two teamed up just once, alongside Fish, defeating Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards and Michael Elgin in a six-man tag in 2013. While the two faced each other on-and-off through the years, their most notable feud came in PWG in 2014, after Strong defeated Cole to become the #1 contender to O’Reilly’s PWG Championship. Strong turned heel for the feud, cheating to make the finals of the Battle of Los Angeles tournament and then goading O’Reilly into a match later on, after the champion had just finished a successful title defense against BOLA winner, Ricochet. It marked the first-time Strong, who had been with PWG since 2005, had won the world title.
In Pro Wrestling NOAH from 2011-12, Strong and Fish were tag team partners. The two then proceeded to both come to Ring of Honor where their paths didn’t really cross until 2015. At that point, Fish and Strong engaged in a bitter war over the ROH World Television Championship.
As the indies have shown, Roderick Strong does some of his best work as a heel and that will be the case in NXT as well. While his matches have been consistent, what Strong lacked was depth of character, something working alongside Cole especially, is sure to change now that he is a part of Undisputed Era. And perhaps now that Strong, who is one of the longer tenured NXT guys at this point, is at his cocky best, he will embrace a new version of an all-too-familiar nickname, and begin calling himself “Mr. NXT.”
This is the perfect fresh start that Roderick Strong needs and as a member of one of WWE’s most popular stables, there is no doubt his stock is about to go up. Especially when Strong learns that Dunne is not a man you want to betray and the reunited British Strong Style takes on Undisputed Era in a match for the ages.
We’ll pencil that in for this summer’s TakeOver: Brooklyn.