As the NXT TakeOver: In Your House pay-per-view event approaches this weekend, Adam Cole has hit a major milestone by reaching one full year as NXT champion. Standing at over 370 days, Cole is the longest-reigning NXT champion in history, which is an incredible accomplishment and one that has come during the most unique year in the brand's history. Cole has held the title during NXT's transition to a weekly cable TV show while also navigating through an industry-altering global pandemic.
Cole spoke to CBS Sports about the transition from winning the championship to the pressure that came with it during those combined circumstances.
"Winning the championship was a really huge night," Cole said. "It was really important just knowing the champions who had held it before, knowing who I was representing, knowing the brand I was representing. At this point, NXT has proven that, bell-to-bell, there's no better brand, no better company in the world. That's a lot of pressure.
"On top of it, the move to television was a huge jump. A huge, huge jump. There were so many more eyes on us, so much more pressure on us; for me to be the guy to represent the brand was really important. And now, yes, all the craziness going on in the world and trying to represent the company to the best of my ability, that's been a challenge. The one constant for me is, again, I'm so proud to be the NXT champion. I know, first and foremost, my priority is to represent NXT to the best of my ability and I think I've done that."
This year's NXT TakeOver: Tampa, originally scheduled for WrestleMania weekend, was scratched due to the pandemic, leading to a series of matches across weeks of NXT television. Now, WWE is getting back on track with Sunday's TakeOver: In Your House. There are always high expectations for TakeOver events on the WWE Network, as they are some of the most anticipated dates on the wrestling calendar.
The pandemic has caused WWE to hold events inside the Performance Center in Orlando without fans. The promotion has started to place talent from the PC in the crowd to provide some added atmosphere, but the show will lack the usually wild NXT crowd that has become a staple of the TakeOver specials. Between the expectations and change in atmosphere, it would be fair to expect that there could be a letdown. That, Cole said, will not happen.
"Surprisingly enough, it's actually not as different as I think you might picture, as far as performing and wrestling not in front of a really, really giant audience," Cole said. "It's definitely strange and I really miss our fans because our fans are some of the best wrestling fans in the entire world, especially at TakeOver. You've seen it, they're just absolutely insane the entire show. They're unbelievable. But so much of where that pressure comes from is internal, and that internal pressure does not go away just because there's not an audience there. There's an expectation we have for ourselves and for our own performances that is so incredibly high that regardless of nobody being there, that pressure still stays.
"On top of that, we have a lot of people backstage or who are there watching, who we either idolized growing up or really respect. At the end of the day, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, we want to impress them to and make them go, 'Oh wow, that was great.' I think the fans make the crazy, wild performances so much easier because their energy and their passion shine through and make us perform at an even higher level. It definitely helps, but you are going to see that, at TakeOver: In Your House, you're going to get a TakeOver. You're absolutely going to get a TakeOver because that's what we expect from ourselves."
At In Your House, Cole will defend the NXT Championship against Velveteen Dream, an old rival who could not be more different in many ways. One of the main differences between Cole and Dream are the differing paths the two have taken in the wrestling business. Cole's story of making his way to NXT is much more traditional, with a decade of grinding for independent and international promotions before getting his break in NXT.
Dream, on the other hand, is just 24 years old and spent relatively little time plying his trade on the regional scene before competing on WWE reality competition "Tough Enough" and signing a developmental deal with the company. Dream has made good on the opportunities presented to him, and Cole said the lack of the "traditional" path to the big show has not made his opponent any less of a talent.
"He really, really stands out in a positive way because, again, you bring up his age, Cole said. "He is incredibly young. That's insane. To think of where I was at 24 years old and where he is, it's unbelievable. The guy has a ton of gifts. He has a very good understanding of who he is at a very young age, which often times is the most challenging thing to find. Lots of people, like myself, you have to travel all over the world and wrestle for countless different organizations and figure out what works for you and what doesn't. He has a very good understanding of who he is at such a young age.
"And he's been around the right people, which also really helps. I think sometimes people forget -- again, I wouldn't trade my career on the independents for anything. A big reason I am who I am today is because of getting to wrestle all around the globe for a decade. But, for him to be able to be around some of the greatest performers of all time, that definitely helps him. It's incredibly impressive. He's confident in himself, as he should be. And he brings an amazingly different aspect to NXT, and that's what NXT is all about."
Cole has also been at the forefront of the rumor mill lately, with some claiming he will be moved to Raw or SmackDown in the near future while others are reporting his WWE contract is coming to an end over the summer and anticipating a potential jump to rival All Elite Wrestling. Cole has longstanding relationships with many of the top individuals in AEW and his girlfriend, Britt Baker, is one of the top female stars in the company. When he was pictured appearing at a Memorial Day cookout with AEW talent, that led to those rumors continuing to build.
Cole said he is not thinking about the next step in his career, but instead is looking to stretch his championship reign out as long as possible, setting an unbreakable record.
"Right now, and I mean this because a lot of people say, 'Oh, what's next? What are you going to do next? You're NXT champion, what's your next goal?' My goal is to keep the NXT championship," Cole said. "At the end of the day, right now I just broke a full year as NXT champion, I love NXT, I'm proud of what this brand represents and I'm proud of what I've done and the Undisputed Era has done. I see no reason why we have to skip over to the next goal or next thing. I think holding onto the NXT championship for as long as possible and making sure this record can and will never be broken is my end-game goal.
"One of the coolest parts about being in NXT through this transition period is seeing the brand grow and how far it has come even from when I joined in 2017. The brand has grown tremendously. I think, oftentimes, about what NXT is going to be like six months from now or a year from now or two years from now. It's going to keep growing and growing and getting bigger and bigger. I'm very proud to be a part of that. I just want to continue trying to solidify myself as being the greatest NXT champion of all-time."