Lee, Gargano, Or Balor – The Battle For The NXT North American Championship

And who would stand a chance against Adam Cole?

Keith Lee North American Champion
Source: WWE

Having grown up in the heyday of Commissioner Foley marching down to ringside to lay down the law upon wrestlers beefing with one another, there are few individuals that please me more in wrestling than William Regal. As the General Manager of NXT, Regal has become the standard bearer of a successful authority figure who makes decisions based on creating the best show possible for the fans. With classic moments such as the announcement of the first ever Women’s WarGames or booking Sami Zayn against Shinsuke Nakamura at TakeOver: Dallas, he has gained a reputation for making big decisions, and last week, he did it again.

It began with Adam Cole dismissing Karrion Kross’ right to challenge for the NXT Championship, and focused on Keith Lee’s desire for a championship match. To the surprise of many, Cole would reveal that he wanted a shot at Lee’s North American Championship to win back the championship he once held, to become NXT’s first-dual champion. This would bring out not only Lee, but also Johnny Gargano, declaring that as the first ever NXT Triple Crown Champion, he wants to win both as well. As Lee and Gargano would argue back and forth, out came the Demon Prince, Finn Balor, who declared he was jumping straight to the front of the queue to challenge first Lee, and then Cole, for both their championships.

Unsurprisingly, William Regal felt inspired and announced his plan: Keith Lee will defend the NXT North American Championship against both Balor and Gargano, with the winner going on to face Cole the following week in a Winner Take All match. Even though it won’t be the first time this year a major organisation has had a Winner Take All match (NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom in January this year did something similar with the IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight Championships), it will undoubtedly be an exciting occasion for fans. But which of these three challengers would be best suited to challenge Adam Cole?

 

Finn Balor

Finn Balor
Finn Balor

Prior to Cole’s current reign, Balor was the longest reigning NXT Champion in history, with a 292 day reign that began after defeating Kevin Owens in Japan’s The Beast In The East special, and was ended the following year in April at a live show by Samoa Joe. Just three months later, he was drafted to the Raw brand as the fifth overall pick, going on to become the inaugural Universal Champion at SummerSlam 2016. At the time, it seemed Balor had all the momentum in the world, but just twenty-four hours later, he would have to vacate the championship due to a shoulder injury, and despite two reigns as Intercontinental Champion, would struggle to regain his momentum.

It was in October of last year that Balor shocked the WWE Universe by returning to NXT full time, turning heel in the process, and exhibiting an extra viciousness to his character and offense. He’s actually already challenged Cole for the championship in December of last year but lost after a distraction from Gargano.

Most of Balor’s best work has occurred on the NXT brand, which explains his decision to return to the place he considered home, and there did seem to be a program developing with Lee recently. However, while it makes sense to keep Balor involved in the main event scene, the original plans seemed to be developing to a feud with Walter for the NXT UK Championship instead. The match between Balor and Walter seemed planned for either TakeOver: Tampa Bay, until it was cancelled from its original date of April 5th, or TakeOver: Dublin, until its postponement from April 26th to later this year in October.

With the prospect of a huge match against Walter in his home country of Ireland, trying to fit in title reigns as NXT Champion and/or NXT North American Champion would seem quite rushed. This doesn’t even consider the fact that Balor may not be the best option to end Cole’s reign, as he doesn’t need the rub of such a big victory. Most likely, Balor will not win the NXT North American Championship, and by proxy, take on Adam Cole for the NXT Championship.

 

Johnny Gargano

johnny gargano
Source: WWE

For the last five years, Gargano has grown from a fan favourite of NXT to a cornerstone of the brand, even revealing that he considers NXT to be “his home”. He was the first ever Triple Crown Champion in NXT, having had title reigns as Tag Team Champion with Tommaso Ciampa, North American Champion at the beginning of January last year, and NXT Champion a few months later. He’s been involved in some absolute wrestling classics, featuring in four matches rated 5 or more stars by wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, and even refers to himself as ‘Johnny TakeOver’. With his recent heel turn alongside his wife Candice LeRae and his reveal that they plan to be the first ever married couple to both hold NXT championships, it makes complete sense for him to challenge for both the North American Championship and the NXT Championship.

However, despite the fact it might make sense for Gargano to challenge for both championships, it doesn’t necessarily mean he should win. The truth is, Gargano is the one out of all four who needs the championships the least, and his original NXT Championship reign began by defeating Cole. It would be a needless repeat in history with the only difference being that both men are now heels, not just Cole. Heel champions have become commonplace in NXT, compounding the repetitiveness.

Instead, Gargano doesn’t need the championship until Candice wins the NXT Women’s Title, which might not be for several months yet. Therefore, the NXT North American Championship will not be won by Gargano, meaning he will not take on Adam Cole for the NXT Championship.

 

Keith Lee

Keith Lee
Keith Lee

Debuting for NXT in 2018, Lee has had the shortest and least prestigious career in NXT, having suffered injuries previously. However, it was in 2019 that he began to be utilised properly, first with an inspired feud against fellow big man Dominik Dijakovic, before having two impressive performances in November. The first would be teaming alongside Dijakovic, Kevin Owens and Tommaso Ciampa in a victory over The Undisputed Era at WarGames, following it up the next night with a show stealing performance at Survivor Series. Not only would Lee be in the final three for the SmackDown vs Raw vs NXT elimination match, he would eliminate Raw’s Seth Rollins before succumbing to sole survivor Roman Reigns.

This would gain him the momentum to defeat Roderick Strong for the NXT North American Championship in January this year, becoming a proud defending champion with victories over Dijakovic, Damian Priest and Gargano. With his recent victory over Gargano at TakeOver: In Your House, he followed it up on the most recent episode of NXT by declaring his intention for Cole’s championship, which inspired this entire scenario.

With his charismatic allure and tremendous chemistry in the ring, Lee has been wasted much more than he deserved in his first twelve months but has been making up for it since September last year. With the momentum he has gathered to become North American Champion, he has also become a huge fan favourite, with his appearance in this year’s Royal Rumble eliciting great excitement.

What Lee offers is something different, in that he’s a popular babyface who fans buy as a credible threat and hasn’t yet been used to his maximum potential. Also, he hasn’t yet challenged for the NXT Championship, so not only would it give him a tremendous rub to successfully defend his NXT North American Championship against two former NXT Champions in Gargano and Balor, but he’s a fresh option.

Ever since the GIFtastic image of Lee sending Cole flying into the audience with his Pounce, the prospect of Lee against Cole has been deemed an enticing possibility. It also helps that with the nickname ‘Limitless’, it would be wonderfully appropriate to see Lee go on to face Cole in a Winner Takes All match. Because of that, I believe Lee will successfully defend the NXT North American Championship against both Balor and Gargano. Whether Lee will go on to win the NXT Championship or not, well, that’s a different question all together.

 

Will Adam Cole Retain Or Lose The NXT Championship?

Adam Cole
Source: WWE

Even though Lee would be entering the match against Cole with all the momentum in the world, the champion has already faced many odds during his reign. This match will occur with Cole just a few days short of 400 days as champion, having defeated names such as Gargano, Balor, Matt Riddle, Daniel Bryan, Pete Dunne, Tommaso Ciampa and Velveteen Dream. With the Undisputed Era often at his side and a willingness to do whatever it takes to survive, surely Cole is guaranteed to not only retain his beloved title, but also regain Lee’s own North American Championship. The ‘Panana City Playboy’ would be perfectly suited as the first ever double champion in NXT history, suiting his smarmy arrogance.

However, would it make sense for Lee to successfully defeat two former NXT Champions, only to lose when he gets his opportunity? He has been booked very strongly in the last few months and seems primed to take the next step into the main event, and deservedly so. Lee often refers to himself as being ‘Limitless’, so being the first ever double champion would back up his confidence and also open up the opportunity for Undisputed Era to change brands. It could be a huge moment on NXT television for Lee to defeat Cole to gain both championships, in a possible attempt to defeat AEW Dynamite in the ratings.

Although, would NXT really want to waste a big moment on an average episode of NXT, when they could use it for a huge TakeOver event? Since the implementation of TakeOver, there has only been one title change on NXT television, which was Ciampa defeating Aleister Black after interference from Gargano. This also doesn’t consider the elephant in the room, Karrion Kross, who not only set his sights on Cole, but was even mentioned by Cole during the segment where Regal announced the matches. While Raw and Smackdown would often drop tangents without following up on it, NXT has proven itself to be more careful with its planning, which would negate the possibility that Kross wouldn’t get involved.

I believe that when Lee and Cole face one another, Kross will vindictively interfere and destroy both men, ending in a no-contest. The follow-up to this would likely build to the NXT TakeOver: Boston currently booked for 22nd August (Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has recently suspended all large-scale gatherings until September 7th, so it may be moved elsewhere by WWE), with a massive Triple Threat between Cole, Lee, and Kross as the main event, with both titles on the line. In comparison to the rushed manner of booking NXT has done with the two championships, this offers a lot more prestige, attention, and anticipation for what could be the biggest match in NXT history.

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