In 2018, the previously unthinkable continues to become reality in WWE.
With a few notable exceptions in the 1990s, the thought of a champion under the WWE banner defending a WWE-branded title outside the boundaries of a WWE event was basically unheard of. As WWE outlasted all of its challengers and competitors to become the undeniable, singular giant in the world of pro wrestling, it saw no real benefit to giving other promotions the boost or credibility of lending out its talent.
But over the past 17 years (and counting) without another serious contender to speak of, that thinking shifted as WWE considered the future. As NXT picked up steam, tournament concepts like the Cruiserweight Classic, United Kingdom Championship Tournament and Mae Young Classic allowed for stars from the outside to be brought into the WWE fold. Not everyone who participated in those events ended up staying in the WWE long term, but relationships were forged with promotions like PROGRESS, EVOLVE and Insane Championship Wrestling along the way.
Even as the WWE began to shift its focus toward establishing more in-house brands worldwide, those relationships persisted and grew. As the U.K. brand tried to find its way, stars like Pete Dunne, Mark Andrews and Tyler Bate performed all over the world -- bouncing in and out of NXT and 205 Live along the way -- and Kassius Ohno took part in PROGRESS' Super Strong Style 16 tournament. Non-contracted talent performed alongside NXT, U.K. and 205 Live stars at AXXESS, and a handful of WWE stars took part in a U.S.-based show that PROGRESS ran in 2017.
But until Sunday, in front of a near-capacity EVOLVE crowd at the Melrose Memorial Hall just north of Boston, there was a threshold that hadn't yet been crossed: an NXT championship defended on U.S. soil, for a non-WWE promotion. That all changed in the most dramatic of ways as Adam Cole, one of the most popular NXT stars in the world, walked into EVOLVE and defended his NXT North American championship against one of the biggest independent wrestling names in the world: Walter.
"To me, the independent wrestling scene is like the lifeblood of professional wrestling," Cole said shortly after stepping out of the ring Sunday night. "Getting the chance to come back here, especially for a company like EVOLVE where there's so many fresh, young, hungry talent, some of the most passionate wrestling fans in the world and wrestling a guy as big and as strong and as talented as Walter, it keeps me on my toes, you know what I mean? Just an excellent experience overall."
Cole walked away with his NXT North American title reign intact, though he took at least his fair share of physicality along the way. Even after walking into big arenas like Barclays Center and having tens of thousands of fans scream, "Adam Cole, Bay Bay!" along with him, Cole was back in his element and happy to get a similarly enthusiastic reaction from the Boston crowd.
"Anybody who's followed my career in any capacity knows that my heart and soul belongs in the independents," Cole said. "Who Adam Cole was, and who Adam Cole is, [came together] on the independent wrestling scene, traveling up and down the coast, traveling all over the world."
As for his opponent, Walter, you couldn't have found a more enticing dream match for fans and performers alike. A former PROGRESS Atlas champion and wXw champion, Walter currently holds the Pro Wrestling Guerrilla world championship -- a title Cole himself used to hold, and one that helped him ascend to his current spot in NXT.
The giant, 300-plus-pound Austrian offered a much different kind of match to those Cole has had of late, and it had the added bonus of being something of a long-awaited reunion.
Shortly after his successful NXT North American championship defense at EVOLVE, Adam Cole reflects on what stepping into the ring with WALTER was like and what those famous chops really feel like.
"Did he exceed my expectations? Absolutely," Cole said. "I've known Walter for eight or nine years now. I met him a long time ago, when we were two very different performers, so to meet him here tonight, in the main event of EVOLVE for the North American championship was really cool -- not just to see how far he's come, but being able to look at him in comparison to myself, to see how far I've come.
"I knew he was talented eight years ago, but to see the absolute beast he's become now -- I've felt that firsthand -- is pretty awesome," Cole continued. "Anyone who follows the independent wrestling scene knows that Walter's one of the top talents in the entire world right now, so to me, it was only fitting that I got the chance to go toe-to-toe with him."
Walter is known for one move in particular: his devastating, knife-edged chops to the chest that have, at times, left opponents purple, black and bruised. While Cole was fortunate enough to escape without quite so much damage, his chest was still bright red and stung once all was said and done.
"He backs up all of his hype. He hits really hard, he's way faster than he should be and just a monster of a man who's also immensely talented," Cole said. "He definitely pushed me to my limits tonight."
This show was the culmination of a wild couple of weeks in Cole's life and career. He flew back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean over the course of a couple of days, went to Florida for NXT events and then, just for Sunday's show, found his way to Boston.
Although he often dreamed of living the busy life of a WWE superstar traveling the world, Cole had no idea he'd be this busy while still being a part of NXT -- but he's embracing every second of it.
"I did not expect to be this busy, but this is what I was hoping for," Cole said. "I love being busy. I love being on the road. I love performing, so the more chances I get to do that, the happier I am as a human being. These last two weeks have, by far, been the craziest, with going to London, back and forth, to Chicago with Takeover, and now here in Boston for EVOLVE, it's been nutty -- but it's why I love this job.
"I love seeing fans from all across the world. I love seeing other wrestlers from all across the world, and to me, it tests you," Cole continued. "For me, personally, I feel sharper now than I did a month ago, just because I've been wrestling so much, and on the road so much. Of course you cherish your days off, but I definitely could not be happier being on the road, and being in the position I'm in right now."
One might expect that the challenges of reaching a crowd at the Allstate Arena would be different from Royal Albert Hall, Full Sail Live or the Melrose Memorial Hall, for that matter. While there are certainly adaptions to be made depending on the size of the crowd and what fans react to, there are key throughlines each time out.
It come with establishing what works over an extended period, and knowing how to read a crowd and a moment.
"The one thing I've noticed, consistently, though, with all these fans, is how much they love to be entertained," Cole said. "If you show them that you're working hard, and you show them that you're trying to give them the best bang for their buck, they definitely let you hear it with their applause, with their boos, or just overall noise in general."
The Boston crowd was absolutely invested in Adam Cole vs. Walter, and the energy in the room felt as though fans wouldn't have been all too shocked by a monumental victory by Walter at a few different points.
The match and the reaction were everything Cole had hoped for in this opportunity, and given the chance with the right opponent and the right setting, he'd like the chance to make this more than a one-off.
"This is absolutely something I would love to do again, because it's all part of my journey of making this championship as important as it should be," Cole said. "I want the NXT North American championship to be the most important championship in all of NXT, and I think part of that process is doing what I did here tonight. I think it's literally [about] going all over the world -- not just competing for WWE, but competing in other wrestling organizations, defending this championship, and showing that it's worthy of being called a North American championship.
"I'd love to make this a global championship and defend it in Japan, and Europe, and Australia and Mexico," said Cole. "You name it, I want to go there and I want to fight the best.