Adam Cole: My year as NXT champion

One of the highlights of Adam Cole's NXT title reign was his match against Tommaso Ciampa at NXT TakeOver: Portland in February. WWE

Adam Cole won the NXT championship on June 1, 2019 at NXT TakeOver XXV in Bridgeport, Connecticut. By the time he steps into the ring to defend that title against Velveteen Dream on Sunday at TakeOver: In Your House, Cole will have been champion for 372 days -- the longest stretch and total number of days anyone has held that belt.

In light of crossing the one-year mark, Cole takes a look back at the moments that altered his career and ultimately define his reign as NXT champion so far.

The trilogy of matches with Johnny Gargano was pivotal for me in my wrestling career. I'd been in NXT for almost two years at that point, and I'd made quite an impact from the beginning, when Kyle O'Reilly, Bobby Fish and I jumped Drew McIntyre, who had just won the NXT title, in Brooklyn. There were other big moments -- winning the first NXT North American championship match, the first WarGames match in NXT -- and those were all really, really cool. But I had never really been in line to be the guy. I challenged once or twice for the NXT Championship but never on a major show like a TakeOver.

As everything was building toward Johnny Gargano versus Tommaso Ciampa in New York -- the feud of the year, and everyone loved the story that these guys were telling and the matches these guys were having -- Tommaso was injured and they needed a main event match for TakeOver. They decided to go with Johnny and me, and we were excited because we've known each other for a decade and we knew that if we were given the chance we could do something really special. The stars aligned, we had a really hot crowd and we went out there with something to prove. I had something to prove. It was my first singles main event at a TakeOver, for the NXT championship, and we exceeded all expectations. I lost, but that was only the beginning.

Going into June 1, TakeOver XXV, there was so much pressure on me for so many different reasons. I'm in the main event of a TakeOver again, which is huge in its own right, but second and more importantly, there was a tremendous amount of pressure for us to live up to the wild expectations set in that first match. Even with more time to build for the match, it was daunting. It was awesome that so many people loved the first one, but we had so much to prove and a lot riding on us.

To have another match with Johnny, one that I'm equally, if not more proud of, and winning the championship, that was special. I've seen so many of my friends, colleagues and some of the best wrestlers in the world hold the NXT championship. For me to get it, and to do it against a guy like Johnny, whom I respect so much, was really cool. Being able to look at my stepfather, my mother and my girlfriend all in the front row -- and none of them knew that I was winning the championship -- to see their reactions in that moment made it even cooler.

I knew that was the start of something really, really special for me. I had no idea I would take it this far, but I knew that the NXT championship was the most important thing in the world to me at the time. I wanted to make sure that the run that I was going to have, I was going to maximize on it to the best of my ability. Then, to have my first title defense and end the trilogy with myself and Johnny, that was just a crazy match in Toronto. Looking back on that trilogy with Johnny, it was a highlight of my career not only because of the matches we had, but because it laid this tremendous foundation for what has now become more than a yearlong reign as NXT champion.

I think winning the NXT championship was when I proved to the hardcore fans that I deserved to be in that spot, but as with anything, there were still some fans who were unsure of me, or on the fence, or hadn't heard about me.

If you jump forward a few months, though, November and the whole month around Survivor Series was everything to me. We get a lot of eyes on us at NXT, but it's still something entirely different when I'm main-eventing SmackDown against Daniel Bryan. Then I main-event Raw against Seth Rollins. By the end of the month, I'm falling off the top of the cage in a WarGames match, and then, less than 24 hours later, I defend the NXT championship against Pete Dunne in what some people called the match of the night at Survivor Series.

It was happening so fast that I almost didn't have time to be nervous. For anybody who knows me, I take this job and everything that comes with it incredibly seriously, and as part of that, serious nerves come along with it. Normally I'm really tense and I feel a lot of pressure, and while I felt some of that, I got dropped into that situation with almost no notice at the beginning, and then that month felt as if it just absolutely flew by. I had an unbelievable time.

Nothing makes me prouder than being NXT champion, representing everything NXT stands for and bringing as much attention to it as I can. But in many ways, having the trust of Triple H and everyone in NXT as a whole is almost more rewarding, just because of the respect that I have for those guys and the amount of talent that they've worked with over the years. Of course you want the fans' respect, you want to become champion, you want to main-event, you want to go to pay-per-views, but having the respect of your peers is incredibly important.

Triple H is a boss that I obviously really respect. For him to put me in that position without blinking an eye and saying, "Yeah, this is exactly what we're going to do, and I'm not worried one bit. I know he's going to deliver," is really, really cool. When you're trusted that way, it gives you this sense of confidence that you can do anything.

Then, as 2019 is coming to a close, Finn Balor comes back to NXT and challenges for the NXT championship. A big reason that was so cool, beyond us having been a part of some of the same circles at different times before joining WWE, is that I actually had been in the ring with Finn once before -- in his farewell match before he came to NXT. I had flown to the U.K., and it was the main event of that show. It was the first time I had met Finn, and that was the first time we wrestled.

I remember really enjoying the match. We had a very good competitive back-and-forth match that a lot of people enjoyed, and we kind of became friends from there. But we hadn't crossed paths directly before or since. For a lot of people, I knew this was a dream match. Finn had one of the greatest NXT championship runs of all time, and I was in the middle of mine. Finn Balor is a guy who I respect tremendously. I loved wrestling him, and I think we could do it again at a TakeOver. I think there's a lot more in the tank with Adam Cole versus Finn Balor.

Having the support of the three guys with me in The Undisputed Era has made it all sweeter. These guys have been friends for a decade. I've been at their weddings, we talk every single day. Whether it's the matches we've had together or traveling to the next show together, or just talking in general, Kyle, Bobby and Roderick Strong have completely had my back the whole way through it.

Even if they're not there at the beginning of a match, they usually end up coming out by the end. On the rare occasion they're not, one of them will be the first people that I talk to once I get to the back, one of the first people to give me a hug, one of the first people to say, "Good job," one of the first people to give me input or advice. It is a real brotherhood, and whether you have successes or failures, it's always better to share it with people that you're closest to.

We had our moment with all of the gold, and that lasted all the way until TakeOver: Portland. From the very start of becoming NXT champion and the matches I had with Gargano, there was this constant talk, almost this assumption that eventually it was going to be Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa for the NXT championship in a triple threat to bring it full circle. But for me to have that match with Tommaso one-on-one, it felt like closure on a few different levels. Tommaso is a guy I've known for a very, very long time, and we'd had matches in the past that I'm very proud of. He's a guy I respect tremendously. The story was right there -- I was deep into my title run, and for Tommaso to come back from injury -- we couldn't have done anything else other than myself versus Tommaso.

The guy's run with the NXT championship was so impressive, and it was such a bummer that it got cut short. He was absolutely ready to put it all out there, and the end result is another match that I'm very proud of. When I think of special matches I've had in NXT, the one with Tommaso is certainly up there, and it happened in front of a really, really great crowd.

Obviously I miss that part of it, performing for the fans. Everything being at the Performance Center feels different, and with the protocols in place, I don't even really see the Raw and SmackDown crews while they're in town. It's a different feeling, but it's still really rewarding at a tough time like this, because randomly I'll get tweets or Instagram comments or whatever it is, hearing people say, "Hey, this is a really rough time. Thanks for the entertainment. I appreciate you guys still performing and still wrestling."

So it's an interesting time to celebrate a year as champion, but now it's on to TakeOver. I am very, very excited to dig into this Backlot Brawl against Velveteen Dream. One of the things that I've really enjoyed lately are these matches or these special situation or special types of matches. I loved The Undertaker versus AJ Styles in Boneyard match. That was so cool and so different, and it was just a different viewpoint on what we do -- a different viewpoint on pro wrestling.

Ever since I've seen these different matches unfold, selfishly I've said, "Oh my God, I want to be a part of something like that." I'm so excited at the idea of getting to do something different. Of course, there's nothing better than a classic, traditional one-on-one pro wrestling match -- I totally understand that -- but in this day and age, for me creatively to get to kind of sink my teeth into something different and something new has me really, really excited for this Sunday.