System Shocked: What’s Next for NXT, Undisputed ERA, and Adam Cole Upon One Year Title Anniversary

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Undisputed Era NXT
Credit: WWE

When Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, and Bobby Fish arrived in NXT just under three years ago, no one could have anticipated just how much of an impact the three former Ring of Honor stars would have on NXT’s landscape. Dubbing themselves the Undisputed ERA, their faction name also served as a declaration. As Cole made clear from day one, this was their era, their NXT. Undisputed ERA didn’t waste any time putting their imprint on NXT and the success of the trio-turned-quartet upon the addition of fellow ex-ROH’er Roderick Strong in 2018, saw them win every title they possibly could in the company.

None of that was unexpected. In fact, it was undisputed. But what did come as a surprise was just how long this Undisputed ERA has lasted. While NXT careers have lasted much longer than three years in some cases, it’s hard to point to a more prevalent group of stars who have been with the black-and-yellow brand for so long. In most cases, the men and women earmarked for success early on have been moved to Raw or SmackDown within a year or two. But lately, that’s not been the case for many top superstars as one can point to the Undisputed ERA as well as Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa as men, who by the opinions of some, have overstayed their NXT welcome. That’s in part because people were used to the old formula. NXT was always meant to be a stepping stone but now that it is a televised brand, things are different. WWE needs recognizable faces with credibility to draw viewers and the Undisputed ERA have done just that.

For the better part of three years, no faction has been as dominant on any WWE roster and perhaps in any promotion worldwide, as the ERA has been. Heels you love to hate and hate to love, Undisputed ERA counts among their ranks, four reigns with the NXT tag team championships, two with the North American title, one with the world title which just so happens to be the longest such reign in the 18-champion history of the company, one Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic trophy, and countless other accolades. They were the first-ever NXT stable to win all of the men’s gold, holding the belts simultaneously for 126 days. Since then, all but one member has lost his gold as Adam Cole remains the NXT champion, closing in now on a 365-day reign. No other man has held the belt for more than 300 days as Cole has. In that span, he’s defended his title 10 times against the best that NXT has had to offer. He also became the first NXT champion since Kevin Owens in 2015, to defend his belt on the main roster, doing so on SmackDown, Raw, Survivor Series, as well as an EVOLVE show.

Say what you will about Cole’s reign at the top but he’s done everything he set about to accomplish on the day he arrived on the scene. With records broken and just about every top competitor defeated, the question now becomes, “what’s next?”

Adam Cole has accomplished everything and more in NXT. He was the gatekeeper for the brand at a time when NXT was making its biggest transition since it went from a game show to a wrestling show in 2012. Cole and the rest of Undisputed ERA shepherded that transition and helped NXT find success in front of a brand new audience. But the company that Cole for all intents and purposes took over in 2017 is not the same one that stands in 2020. NXT doesn’t need Cole the way it did then. In fact, it’s the opposite. Now dealing with a logjam of sorts at the top, NXT needs to go back to its next man up formula to grow and elevate new stars. Guys like Keith Lee, Dexter Lumis, Dominik Dijakovic, Isaiah Scott, Cameron Grimes, and most prevalently, Karrion Kross. Since day one, Kross has been built like a monster. NXT has a surefire hit on their hands with their newest star, especially if he’s the one to get the rub from taking the title from Cole ending the historic reign.

At this point, given the way he’s being built, it seems more than likely that will be the outcome. Cole will top the one-year milestone as champion and then subsequently put over Kross as the new dominant force on the black-and-yellow brand. So, then what happens? Well, for NXT the answer is simple. Kross will do battle with some of the aforementioned names opening NXT up to new match-ups and new exciting feuds. The brand will have a chance for a much-needed refresh as it adjusts to life under Kross’ NXT and what dynamic that will bring.

As for Cole’s future, well, that is a little more complicated as WWE has a few options.

 

The End of an ERA?

Prior NXT eras ushered in by champions have rarely topped six or seven months given the way the pipeline seemed to work for so long. Someone would win the NXT Championship, promise that this was “their NXT” and then in short order, either debut on the main roster and then drop the title (Seth Rollins, Big E, Kevin Owens), or drop the title only to debut on the main roster a few months later. Almost back to the beginning, this had been the formula. In all, there have been 18 NXT champions, with just six of them enjoying title reigns of over 200 days. Only two men have held the title more than once as Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe traded the belt back and forth over a less than two month period. But otherwise, it’s been a series of one-reign champions, something brought about in large part due to how quickly the transition between dropping the belt and debuting on either Raw or SmackDown took place.

Only two men have remained in NXT over six months after dropping the belt with about a third of the total champions lasting just three months. Both of the men who remained in NXT for a duration after their title reigns ended happen to be the most recent former champions in Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. However, that doesn’t quite tell the full story because as many know, both men made their Raw and SmackDown debuts in what amounted to a month after Gargano lost the title. In the case of Ciampa, he was the first NXT champion to be stripped of his title due to injury, which happened in March 2019. Plans at the time had been for Gargano and Ciampa to come up to the main roster together but the injury changed everything. In a lot of ways that then puts Cole in a different category than anyone else who held the belt prior.

 

Cole will drop the title after having held it for a year and after having been the focal point of NXT for even longer than that. Even though there were mitigating circumstances for Gargano and Ciampa, at the end of the day, both have remained in NXT long after the end of their title reigns. That being said, the end of Cole’s title reign may not necessarily mean the end of his time in NXT. It’s certainly possible that WWE may opt to keep Cole around, though it’s hard to reason why. As mentioned above, he’s done everything there is to do, and once he puts over his successor, short of having a title rematch to help that person establish his reign, there really isn’t anything left for Cole in NXT.

The more likely option is that Cole will go the way of NXT’s other champions, receiving his SmackDown/Raw call-up just a few months, if even that long, after his title reign ends. Bobby Roode debuted less than a week after he dropped the belt and Drew McIntyre, while it took several months, didn’t wrestle for NXT after he first lost the belt and in between his Raw return. Given Cole’s name recognition and relative popularity, plus his star quality and exceptional mic skills, it seems a lock that he is bound for the main roster sooner rather than later.

 

While Cole’s future seems all but set in stone at this point, what is less clear is what will happen with his band of brothers. Three of the four men in Undisputed ERA have been together since day one, essentially debuting on NXT as a unit. Strong joined a year later but has been as much a part of the group as anyone else.

So what to do with Undisputed ERA?

Again, there are several options, all of which have at least some merit.

The least satisfying outcome but perhaps the most likely is the group will fracture in some way. It’s hard to imagine WWE bringing all four up at the same time just to put them on the same brand. Though, that kind of promotion could leave a huge opening in NXT for new stars to emerge at the tag, mid-card, and top level. With Seth Rollins’ Messianic mission playing out on Raw, it could work to have the ERA running the shots opposite him on SmackDown with both shows then being dominated by strong factions. There’s a case of course for keeping the four men together as they have found success as a unit. It’s also fair to argue that Cole or more likely Strong would get lost if presented as a solo act. Together, the WWE may be able to just continue printing money as they have over these past few years.

If WWE opted to separate Undisputed ERA, there are two ways it could be done. Fish and O’Reilly are a natural tag team and have been united as such for years now. It’s easy to see a scenario where the former ReDRagon debut on the main roster as a duo, positioned to help the largely failing Raw tag team division. That would leave Cole and Strong as the ERA’s lone representatives and it’s easy to see how egos would prevail there. Assuming this means the ERA entirely splits up there could be a scenario where Cole goes to SmackDown and Strong stays in NXT.

It’s possible all four will go their separate ways but perhaps the most likely split scenario would see either Cole or Strong stay aligned with Fish and O’Reilly. This could manifest as Cole being ousted from the group upon his title loss, allowing him to go up to either Raw or SmackDown as a babyface for the first time in his WWE career, and allowing the rest of the Undisputed ERA to stay in NXT under Strong’s leadership. Or Cole could decide that Strong was never a good fit and opt to bring just his original faction mates to either Raw or SmackDown with him.

No matter what direction WWE opts to take the ERA in from this point onward, the group’s place in history can’t be denied. Four men with a shared goal and shared bond came together and dominated for the better part of three years. Undisputed ERA achieved unprecedented success and at a time where NXT needed an anchor to the ship, the group provided just that. But like all good things, even this ERA has to come to an end at some point. It may continue on SmackDown or Raw, or it may not. Either way, Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish, and Roderick Strong officially shocked the system and that much will never change.

More From LWOPW

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. WWE fan? You can check out an almost unlimited array of WWE content on the WWE Network. Catch NXT every Wednesday night at 8 PM ET on USA Network.

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