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In Memoriam: The Undisputed Era

Dearly beloved, 

We’re gathered here today to celebrate the life and times of one of the great groups, stables, factions, collections of talent in the history of professional wrestling: The Undisputed Era. 

Let me take you back to the (Sydney) Winter of 2017. I stood in my kitchen, probably fetching a snack. I was 18 at the time, still a growing boy. My laptop on the counter showed Drew McIntyre having just won the NXT Championship from Bobby Roode. This was NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III, a card on which three major independent wrestling stars first appeared on WWE programming in all their glory. After the finish of an earlier tag team title match reDragon made their presence known with the now-all too common post-match beatdown. Former IWGP and ROH Tag Team Champions Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish were here.

Fish and O’Reilly’s presence was felt again when the two ominously stood on the apron as Drew McIntyre celebrated with his freshly-won NXT title. Before McIntyre could even get to them, before he could say, “What are you two blokes doing here?” A roar in the Barclays Center grew louder, and Adam Cole attacked the new champion from behind, and the three debutantes beat down the new black & gold flag-bearer. Cole hit his signature superkick, and would then hold up the belt he’d eventually win. It was here when NXT had changed forever.

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t hot on the name at first, and when I thought hard and deeply about it . . . I still didn’t like it. Undisputed Era. By definition, an “era” is a long,  distinct period of history, while “undisputed” means something is not be called into question. So, these three men were a long and distinct period of history that can’t be called into question. It doesn’t really make sense as a name for a group of wrestlers, but it’s not like it was offensively bad or anything. It’s not as bad as, say, Nightmare Collective, or Aces & Eights. And as the group evolved, and became a staple of not just NXT, but WWE. It just became another part of the wrestling vernacular. 

If we’re talking about the best WWE stables of the 2010s, there’s three at the top: the Shield, the New Day, the Undisputed Era. The Shield had one of the great break-ups in wrestling history, and have a lasting legacy with at least one of the former members in every other WWE pay-per-view main event for the rest of the decade. Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods & Big E were close to fading into singles’ obscurity before they bet on themselves in 2014 and became one of the most consistent groups in wrestling whether it be how entertaining, charismatic they are as well as being great in the ring. These two trios appealed to the WWE audience at large. You could chalk this up to the New Day’s larger than life persona and their positivity, and the Shield’s hotness among other things. The Undisputed Era was the hardcore fan’s favorite group, and for many, their favorite in all of wrestling. 

Cole, Fish & O’Reilly had enough of a resume and reputation coming in that they were automatically the hottest thing in the business as a unit. In just three and a half years, the Undisputed Era built quite the legacy. The Era boys accomplished a lot while wearing the arm-bands, while saying “BOOM” during their entrance.

They won WWE’s first ever WarGames match in November of ‘17. Not long after, Fish & O’Reilly claimed the NXT Tag Team Championships. After chugging along with success, we get the NXT Takeover: New Orleans on the eve of WrestleMania XXXIV, hailed by many as one of the best Takeovers of all time. Bobby Fish was out with an ACL injury, requiring leader Adam Cole to pull double-duty, in maybe one of the best double-duty performances of all time. Cole became the inaugural NXT North American Champion when he won a six-man ladder match, truly one of the last great ladder bouts ever, a stipulation that could perhaps be left in the last decade but that’s not what this is about. 

Cole overcame a real mixed bag in this match (in order from least problematic to the most) Killian Dain, EC3, Ricochet, and I put these two last because it’s hard to say who is worse, Velveteen Dream & Lars Sullivan.

After enduring a match with such danger and some vile humanity, Cole had a match-length rest before he had to trot back out for a BIG triangle tag team match. Both the the Era’s NXT Tag Team Championships and the 2018 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic trophy were up for grabs with Cole & O’Reilly wrestling the Authors of Pain and the makeshift team of Pete Dunne & Roderick Strong. While I normally hate the make-shift/thrown-together teams, I was super into Dunne & Strong. 

It was in the middle of this match where our favorite little family grew by one. When on the verge of victory, Strong turned on his partner, hitting Dunne with a backbreaker and allowing the Undisputed Era to claim the Dusty Cup and retain their title. Strong took the Undisputed armband, put it on his, much to the delight of Cole & O’Reilly. 

Not only did Roderick Strong fill the void that the injured Bobby Fish left, he enhanced the group once they were back to a four-piece, a quad-squad. He fit the mold better than anybody else on the NXT roster, and was floundering as a technically-sound yet charisma-lacking babyface. Roddy proved that the strength was in the numbers and the group was worlds better as four, and he hit his stride as a cocky heel and had some career-matches as a member of the group. It definitely helped that Roddy was added as soon as he was, there may have been more resentment had they waited two years to grow from three to four. 

The rest of 2018 was big for the Undisputed Era There were classic tag matches where Strong & O’Reilly traded wins with Tyler Bate & Trent Seven and the latter even took the U.E.’s belts, but at the fourth annual NXT Takeover: Brooklyn Strong & O’Reilly became the second ever two-time NXT Tag Team Champions, and Adam Cole lost his North American Championship to Ricochet. 

The Era in full form competed in but lost their second consecutive WarGames to Pete Dunne, Ricochet & the War Raiders. It would be just a few months later that the U.E., holding the tag titles under freebird rules, that they’d lose them to the War Raiders in Phoenix. Insert Andy Bernards “I wish there was a way to know you’re in ‘the good old days,’ before you’ve actually left them.”

In my opinion, the greatest NXT Takeover of all time was New York in 2019, two nights before WrestleMania XXXV. However, it wasn’t the greatest for the Era. Adam Cole was the only representative of the group on the card, and lost the match of the night (and even the year) to Johnny Gargano in a best two of three falls match for the vacant NXT Championship. Cole & Gargano had the best match on a card that also had Pete Dunne, WALTER, Aleister Black, Ricochet. The undisputed highlight of this match did, however, involve the whole group.

I call it the greatest near-fall of all time. I’m not going to do a play-by-play, but just go to the NXT Takeover: New York show on the WWE Network and go to this timestamp: 3:04:01. This among the many things I have mentioned should be a significant part of the U.E.’s legacy.  

The next, and 25th Takeover in June 2019 was a better one, but not the best, not as good as New York or New Orleans . Roderick Strong had a brilliant wrestling match with Matt Riddle, back when I liked both guys. Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish had a ladder match for the NXT Tag Titles, if you like ladder matches, it was really good, but our boys didn’t win, but Adam Cole won. He won the big one. In another great match, not as good as New York (very high bar), Cole took the NXT Championship from Johnny Gargano and would hold the belt until July 1, 2020. 

As the final year of the 2010s went on, Kyle O’Reilly & Bobby Fish won back the NXT Tag Team Championships to become the first ever three-time champs, and Roderick Strong won the North American Championship, this was the prophecy fulfilled, a very happy time. NXT was good, maybe the best wrestling show on T.V., there was no pandemic yet, and the top group held all the gold. Again, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in ‘the good old days’ before you’ve actually left them.”

But like all good things, like this group, or Wrestling Society X, the all-gold Era came to an end. A few days before the doozy of an eight-man turned four-on-three handicap match against Imperium at the Worlds Collide show in January 2020 on the eve of the Royal Rumble, Strong lost his North American Championship to Keith Lee, then Fish and O’Reilly would drop the NXT Tag Championships to the Bro-sierweights at Takeover: Portland, and then bam: Pandemic. Virus. Quarantine. Lockdown. Face masks. Hand sanitizer. Sold out toilet paper. 

I kind of  just want to block out the pandemic-era NXT. Forever. Kyle O’Reilly was absent, which I understood, but was still sad about. Strong & Fish were just . . . there. And after a dreadful feud with Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole lost his NXT Championship to Keith Lee. Roderick Strong had a putrid feud with Dexter Lumis. I could care less about the Era at this point. It was dark. 

But there were rays of sunshine in this very dark, stormy, sucky stretch of NXT, which as of this writing is still sort of happening. One of the best Undisputed Era-related occurrences of pandemic era wrestling didn’t even happen in a wrestling ring, or in a WWE facility but in Indianapolis on the Pat McAfee show 2.0. Jesus. 

Pat McAfee and Adam Cole had somewhat of a checkered past before the latter appeared on the former All-Pro punter’s YouTube/SiriusXM show for an interview. Things got tense as the show went on, with McAfee needling Cole until a comment about Cole’s size caused the Era leader to blow a gasket, swipe his microphone out of the way and curse out McAfee. This was fucking great. It was one of my favorite angles of 2020. 

There’d been recent talk about Adam Cole being “undersized” prior to the McAfee angle, a notable comment came from “Road Dogg” on Corey Graves’ After The Bell podcast, basically saying the only reason Cole isn’t Universal Champion is because he isn’t the size of Karrion Kross. All it took was McAfee to say “because you know, you’re kinda small . . .” and Cole just fucking clicks it. It’s awesome. A lot of people thought this was a shoot, and to me that’s credit to the consummate professional that Adam Cole is, and how much of a naturally great speaker Pat McAfee is. 

This all led to further confrontations and eventually a bout on NXT Takeover: XXX between Cole and McAfee, where Cole carried the Punter of the Decade to one of the better celebrity WWE in-ring debuts in wrestling history. The following Takeover saw Kyle O’Reilly unsuccessfully challenge Finn Balor for the NXT Championship in a match-of-the-pandemic contender, and one of my favourite matches of both 2020 and each wrestlers’ career. 

When Kyle O’Reilly won the gauntlet match to qualify for the Balor match, thus swiftly arising to NXT’s main-event scene as a babyface, fans immediately speculated an eventual turn/split/rift in the group centered around Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly. It was late September when O’Reilly ascended to this spot on the card, and fans have been waiting for it ever since. 

The group stayed together for their fourth WarGames match, defeating Team McAfee featuring the former Colt, Pete Dunne, Danny Burch and Oney Lorcan, however Bobby Fish suffered an injury in the process and has been off NXT ever since. I have my own problems with the WWE incarnation of the match beyond, be it not having a roof, or sometimes giving the babyfaces the advantage. My main problem with the UE vs Team McAfee edition was being long-as-fuck at 45 minutes, but it still solidifed by decision to vote McAfee for WON’s Rookie of the Year). Either way, in retrospect this was the, *wipes away tear* last stand of the Undisputed Era.

I hate repeating clichés that even I amsick of, but while 2020 was the worst year of a lot of people’s life, 2021 has been worse for the most important group in NXT history. Kyle O’Reilly posted yet another unsuccessful challenge to Finn Balor’s NXT title in another great match, and the tandem of Adam Cole and Roderick Strong suffered an early exit in the ‘21 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. 

That pretty much brings us to where we currently are, coming off the latest NXT Takeover. After yet another successful NXT Championship defense in another stellar main event where Finn Balor beat Pete Dunne, we had the far too common modern wrestling trope of a post-match beatdown. However, unlike the ones that happen multiple times a week, this one will actually be memorable for years to come. 

Enter Oney Lorcan & Danny Burch to beat down Balor. Enter the Era sans Fish to make the save. As NXT do their classic “All Rights Reserved” visual pump-fake in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Balor poses with the UE in solidarity, before Adam Cole superkicks Finn, then after O’Reilly shoves him and gets in his face, and they have a screaming match. Cole would superkick O’Reilly too. The 33rd Takeover went off the air with Adam Cole a clear heel, Kyle O’Reilly the babyface, and Roderick Strong unsure of what his future held.

As of this writing, the latest episode of NXT to air was the fallout from Takeover. That show went off the air with Adam Cole slamming Kyle O’Reilly onto the steps (and a worked seizure), superkicking Finn Balor and Roderick Strong away from the action. Roderick Strong wants to know what to do, Bobby Fish wants to get back in the ring, Adam Cole wants the NXT Championship and Kyle O’Reilly wants Adam Cole. 

The final nail in the coffin came on the February 24 NXT when the ambiguity of Roderick Strong’s position in the group, or what was left of it, was ambiguous no more. After an accidental clothesline from Strong to Adam Cole, Cole would hit Strong with a low blow and a superick, making an emphatic statement that this era of each Era member’s career is finished.

We don’t know what the future holds for these four guys, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be operating as that legendary four-piece again anytime soon. It’s impossible to determine where the Undisputed Era is on the all-time stable rankings. It’s a tall task to determine where they stand amongst groups like the Four Horsemen, the Hart Foundation, the Freebirds, Evolution, the nWo before it turned to dirt, the New Day, the Spirit Squ—just kidding.

All I know is that I had so much fun watching this group over the past few years. Four wrestlers as talented as each other, probably pound-for-pound one of the richest groups when it comes to in-ring talent. Bobby Fish was unfortunately plagued by injuries throughout the run but never had a bad match, and has been one of the best tag team wrestlers of the last decade. Roderick Strong hit his stride as a personality on TV as well being one of the most solid workers in all of WWE. Kyle O’Reilly went from being the “hidden gem” of the Undisputed Era to being a proven main-event guy in NXT. Adam Cole became a superstar that should be a super-duper star as the leader of this group. Cole has had some of the best matches in both NXT and WWE history, and is one of the best talkers on the roster. I would go as far to say that Adam Cole somewhat filled a void that Edge left when he retired in ‘11. This isn’t to say that these guys can’t or won’t keep doing what they’re doing. It just won’t be with the arm bands, the t-shirts, the dog tag chains. It won’t be together. 

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. 

Kyle was always my favorite. 

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