As Vince McMahon prepares to kill and gut the mighty sea monster that was once the NXT we knew and loved, I’ve decided to have a look back at what I consider to be the “Golden Era” (not to be confused with the England Golden Generation) of NXT. In 2014, the first NXT Takeover was the first show live on the WWE Network. Adrian Neville won the NXT Championship in a ladder match vs Bo Dallas, but it would be Sami Zayn who he would create magic with in the ring.
NXT Championship – Sami Zayn vs Adrian Neville
Adrian Neville was an up and coming wrestler in NXT Developmental. He was a high flyer, who could hit moves most wrestling fans had never seen. His finisher, the “Red Arrow”, was a corkscrew shooting star press that was a guaranteed victory once hit.
He was the first man to be both NXT Champion and Tag Team Champion. He held the tag belts with former partner Oliver Grey. Adrian Neville looked to be one of the best British wrestlers in the world, with his ceiling seemingly limitless with the amount of talent he possessed.
Sami Zayn was the fan favourite of the yellow brand. His happy dancing toward the ring made the crowd smile, while his never say die attitude endeared him to the vocal NXT crowd. Fans regularly sang his “Ole Ole Ole” chant, left over from his spell on the independent scene as the masked luchador “El Generico”.
Zayn himself was also a savant in the ring. He could pull out top class matches with anyone who stepped into the ring with him. His fun move set combined with his top class selling made him an indispensable part of early NXT.
“The British Rey Mysterio”
Sami Zayn worked his way up in NXT, to become the number one contender. He had blockbuster matches against Antonio Cesaro in NXT. His two out of three falls match where he lost to the Swiss Superman is one of the greatest matches in NXT still to this day.
Zayn earned himself a shot at Dallas NXT Championship, competing under a mask as “El Local” to earn the opportunity. He lost his title match on NXT, however, and shuffled back into the NXT midcard for Adrian Neville to take his opportunity.
Adrian Neville was the first man to be in contention for Bo Dallas’ NXT Championship. He beat the aforementioned Sami Zayn to earn the title shot, with the pair having previously drawn in a “Beat the Clock” challenge. Neville would go on to face the NXT Champion, but defeated Bo Dallas only by count out.
In standard wrestling rules, the title cannot change hands by via count out or disqualification. Bo Dallas remained NXT Champion, but it would not long until Neville had another crack at Dallas.
That shot came at the inaugural NXT Takeover. The event was the first to be shown live on the WWE Network, and was the test pilot for the upcoming Wrestlemania XXX. The stream was largely smooth with some slight errors, but the show was of such high quality they were largely overlooked.
Sami Zayn took on supermodel wrestler Tyler Breeze in a number one contenders match. Breeze was successful in the match, to great surprise from fans.
Zayn seemed poised to be next in line to face Neville, but so far NXT booking had always pleased the fans. They vocal Full Sail crowd were loud, but always along for the ride Triple H had them on.
NXT Fatal 4 Way
Zayn’s first attempted against Neville was in a Fatal 4 Way match at the aptly named “NXT Takeover Fatal 4 Way” event. The matched pitted the NXT Champion Adrian Neville against the top 3 contenders for his Championship.
Sami Zayn was joined by Tyler Breeze, the supermodel who beat him to become the number one contender at the first NXT Takeover, and Tyson Kidd. Kidd was a former tag team champion and graduate of the famous Hart dungeon.
He had been sent down to NXT as the main roster had nothing for him, and quickly reinvented himself as a smarmy heel that the fans couldn’t help but hate. Couple with his brilliant work rate and incredible in ring work, he quickly became a key part of the main event scene in NXT.
The match was a fast paced, all action bout. All men brought their A-Game and the match was brilliant. Each of the four men could reasonably win, keeping you on the edge of your seat.
Sami Zayn looked have won the match at one point, hitting Breeze with his “Helluva Kick” and pinning him in the middle of the ring. Breeze never kicked out, but out of desperation Adrian Neville dragged the referee out of the ring, just as he was about to count to three and award Zayn the Championship.
Zayn was confused and disappointed. Neville had been a man he had called his friend, and did not expect him to sink to such depths to keep his title. In Zayn’s mind, he had to be the champion to show he was the best, and once he resorted to cheat to keep it, he no longer could claim that.
The First Title Match
Sami Zayn did find himself in a singles Championship match with Adrian Neville. On the NXT Episode on November 13, 2014, the pair competed in the main event for Neville’s coveted Championship.
It was finally time for Zayn to show that he could perform on the big stage, and end Neville’s near year-long reign as NXT Championship.
The match was a wonderful encounter, filled with a litany of amazing counters and incredible feats of agility and strength. However, the emotional and psychological aspects of the match were the most important.
Sami Zayn was setting out to prove he could be the NXT Champion. But, he was doing so showing that he could win it fairly without taking any shortcuts.
He didn’t cheat or try to go behind the referees back. Sami Zayn simply wanted to show he was the best. Sportsmanship was a big part of his character.
Adrian Neville took advantage of this. Toward the end of the match, Neville attempted to his the Red Arrow on Zayn, who moved out the way. After the impact on the mat, Neville began to clutch his knee with the referee looking very concerned, even throwing up the “X” symbol, used to signify when a real injury occurred.
Sami Zayn, concerned for his opponent, went over to check on the flailing champion. Here is where Neville pounced, rolling up the Canadian Superstar in a small package and stealing the win off of him.
Zayn’s own caring nature and sense of fair play had cost him the one thing he wanted. It made him question his whole belief system. Made him question that maybe the Sami Zayn he knew just wasn’t enough.
NXT Championship – Sami Zayn vs Adrian Neville
Sami Zayn finally reached the top of the mountain when he faced Adrian Neville at NXT R-Evolution. The match was another fantastic bout, with fast paced, high flying action mixed with excellent storytelling.
The story of the match was Sami Zayn wanting to win the title fairly, while Adrian Neville wanted to retain the title by any means necessary.
Zayn’s fair play was almost taken advantage of near the end, where Neville once again faked an injury and tried to catch him out with a small package. Zayn kicked out, but the ending to the match was even more incredible.
Zayn attempted to hit the Helluva Kick on Neville, but he pulled the referee in front of him. This knocked out the referee, and gave Neville the chance to cheat to win. Neville grabbed his title belt, but was stopped by Zayn.
Zayn contemplated for a while. He could use the belt to hit Adrian Neville and win the title, but it would go against everything he stood for.
As he was thinking, Neville tried to roll him up for the win. Somehow Zayn managed to kick out. it looked for a second like Zayn’s own morals had cost him again. Luckily, he kept his morals in tact, and managed to hit the helluva kick and win the match, and the NXT title.
It was an epic end to an incredible feud, in my mind NXT’s best. Zayn’s reign would end at the first hurdle, when Kevin Owens would turn on his friend and take his title. Neville would win the Cruiserweight Championship twice, but eventually leave for AEW and wrestle under the name PAC.
Sadly both men were ultimately wasted on the main roster.
Neville and Zayn would never become world champion in WWE, as was prophecised. They are two of the biggest NXT stars wasted on the main roster.