How Adam Cole went from main event substitute to clear choice for 2019 Wrestler of the Year

Ever the professional wrestling boy scout, Adam Cole looks no further than the simple concept of always being prepared as the secret for his career-defining calendar year. Cole, the 30-year-old NXT champion, combined the fortunes of great opportunity and outstanding performance to author a 12-month campaign that was overflowing with "match of the year" contenders. From an NXT TakeOver trilogy with Johnny Gargano that quickly entered the pantheon of greatest feuds in wrestling history to his role in helping to usher NXT's move to live cable television, nearly everything Cole touched in 2019 seemed to turn to a shade of Undisputed Era gold. 

For his efforts in an insanely crowded field given pro wrestling's rapid worldwide expansion, Cole was named the 2019 CBS Sports Wrestler of the Year ahead of such standout contemporaries as Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan, Becky Lynch, Kofi Kingston, Jon Moxley and Will Ospreay.

"It's really cool when you think back on all the cool stuff that has gone on for me this year, and you reflect back on all the big matches and moments," Cole told the CBS Sports "State of Combat" podcast (listen below and subscribe) on Tuesday. "To close it out with something like this and being announced the wrestler of the year, that's about as cool as it gets."

Cole said he entered 2019 with his sole focus on becoming NXT champion. "If I don't this year, I'm never going to do it. I need to," he recalled thinking to himself. It's a feat he accomplished in June at NXT TakeOver: XXV, yet the journey to get there was anything but planned. 

A last-minute injury to Tommaso Ciampa elevated Cole to main event status opposite Gargano at NXT TakeOver: New York over WrestleMania weekend in April. Cole proceeded to co-author a best-of-three-falls match that was so great that longtime wrestling scribe Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer dubbed it the best in WWE history. (The Cole-Gargano bout also won our award for 2019 Match of the Year. Check out the rest of our awards at the end of the story.)

The feud with Gargano escalated to a legendary trilogy and the aforementioned start of Cole's NXT title reign, and it was the aforementioned concept idea of staying ready that saw Cole capitalize once more in November when travel delays kept most of the WWE roster in Saudi Arabia after Crown Jewel. Cole was given 90 minutes notice to jump on a plane and wrestle Daniel Bryan on an episode of SmackDown that went on to usher an NXT invasion ahead of Survivor Series.

"You hear people who have done it and were in great situations in their career, they always say, 'Make sure you stay ready, that's the No. 1 thing,'" Cole said. "I really, finally felt what that feels like this year being in a situation constantly where you never know when you are going to be thrown in. WrestleMania weekend and the Daniel Bryan match on SmackDown, that's the epitome of 'stay ready.' That has been my mindset throughout 2019. I've stayed ready and that has been the key for me."

Cole's ability to maximize unforeseen opportunity has mirrored that of NXT itself as a brand. The former developmental territory that aired exclusively on the WWE Network came into full bloom in 2019, transitioning to cable on USA Network and beginning a push entering Survivor Series that saw it presented as an equal to Raw and SmackDown.

NXT and Cole got their first close up during a show that aired at halftime of Super Bowl LIII; the six-man tag team match showcased the pure wrestling of the brand. The momentum carried into September when NXT moved off the WWE Network and expanded to two hours. Two months later at Survivor Series, NXT was given the strongest push of WWE's three brands. 

It was during that same November weekend outside of Chicago that Cole once again showcased his incredible talent by helping to steal the show during the NXT TakeOver: WarGames main event only to come back one night later at Survivor Series to wrestle Pete Dunne in a mini-classic. 

The more casual fans begin to take NXT seriously as a legitimate third brand, the more the mainstream has accepted a smaller technician like Cole as a verifiable selection for best wrestler of the year. 

"I think [NXT's expansion] played a huge role, absolutely," Cole said. "NXT had a hardcore fan base that people were very supportive of. But finally with that move to television to the USA Network, that for people who were unsure about checking out NXT or whether it truly was a third brand for WWE, those doubters were silenced. That was vital. And seeing NXT as a brand not changed, we got moved to a higher pressure situation two hours live on USA but NXT the show has not changed and it's still bell to bell two hours of wrestling."

Cole's final tally of standout matches in 2019 could rival a full career of many legends who performed before him. In addition to the incredible Gargano trilogy and his standout role at WarGames, he also defeated Seth Rollins in a featured title match on Raw in November before beating Finn Balor in December on NXT, teasing at the possibilities of an equally strong 2020 to come for the current face of NXT. 

"It's crazy where circumstances can bring you," Cole said. "When I wrestled Johnny in that 2-out-of-3 falls match; that wasn't supposed to be me. That was supposed to be Tomasso. The fact that I filled in so last minute and that started this epic trilogy that people love so much is so insane to me. Did I think that was the way it was going to go? No.

"All of that has been happening so quick and now to reflect back on the year, I can't believe it. To me, I was just doing my job and it was really awesome to have these matches and moments but to be recognized this heavily is something I did not expect. It is incredibly humbling."

Subscribe to the State of Combat with Brian Campbell podcast where we break down the world of professional wrestling each week, and be sure to check out our 2019 year-end awards episode below!

2019 CBS Sports Wrestling Awards

  • Wrestler of the Year: Adam Cole (NXT)
  • Match of the Year: Johnny Gargano def. Adam Cole in a 2-out-of-3 falls match (NXT TakeOver: New York)
  • Best Moment/Angle of the Year: Kofi Kingston wins the WWE title at WrestleMania 35 (WWE)
  • Worst Moment/Angle of the Year: Wild Card Rule (WWE)
  • Comeback Wrestler of the Year: Bray Wyatt (WWE)
  • Breakthrough Wrestler of the Year: Rhea Ripley (NXT)
  • Rookie of the Year: MJF (AEW)
  • Tag Team of the Year: Lucha Bros. (AEW)
  • Commentator of the Year: Mauro Ranallo (NXT)
  • Feud of the Year: Adam Cole vs. Johnny Gargano (NXT)
  • Best Pay-Per-View of the Year: WrestleKingdom 13 (NJPW)
  • Promo of the Year: Cody "silver spoon" (AEW)
  • Smack Talker of the Year: Cody (AEW)
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Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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