Looking back at 2020 and how these five superstars helped shape the year for the black and yellow brand.
The year 2020 is FINALLY over with, the year-end awards have been rewarded, and we’re gearing up for a big New Year’s Evil show. It’s time to look back at the year NXT had as a whole. The global pandemic hit the brand hard with multiple Covid outbreaks, the switching of venues, and of course the absence of fans. However, the show continued and NXT still survived and in moments thrived amidst the chaos. Largely in part to these five superstars that helped carry the load all year. Here are NXT’s five most impactful superstars of 2020.
Absolutely no one entered the year hotter than Ripley. Riding her title win after dethroning Shayna Baszler, her future looked extremely bright with all eyes on a possible main roster push. Then Covid happened and plans slightly changed. Rhea’s 2020 is defined in two separate acts, her first act as champion was a dominant one. Defeating Bianca Belair and facing Charlotte Flair who won the Royal Rumble. It can be argued Ripley put the NXT women’s division on the map with multiple main roster appearances with the NXT women’s title. Of course, she dropped the title to Flair and has yet to recapture that early 2020 magic.
That’s where Ripley’s second act comes in, which can be argued is more important than her first. Even with losing the title her star never dimmed. Her presence alone has made feuds and matches on NXT more prominent. Ripley also elevated a ton of women’s division’s talent under the radar. Lending more credibility to the likes of Dakota Kai, Raquel Gonzalez, and more recently Toni Storm by taking losses. There’s no doubt Ripley’s time will come again as a champion, in the same instance, she has shown she’s just as valuable without a title.
Johnny is a pillar of NXT and 2020 showcased why he’s so important at any part of the card. Nobody thought starting the year with a DIY reunion would lead to such a character shift, and now possibly the most entertaining heel in NXT. While it feels ages ago, 2020 gave fans a cinematic thriller that was the final chapter of Gargano and Ciampa. The cheap tactics in that match led to the Johnny Wrestling that exists today. After that chapter was written, it seemed there was no place for Gargano on the card. Yet he found new life in the mid-card scene and helped elevate a cast of budding performers. In the process he made history becoming the first three-time North American champion.
Looking back, Gargano was a part of many meaningful rivalries and championship matches. Superstars such as Damien Priest, Bronson Reed, Leon Ruff, and even Keith Lee owe a big thanks to Gargano for his work in 2020. Arguably now the most entertaining character in NXT, Johnny has also shown his range with promo work from “Dinner with the Gargano’s,” and a “Gargano Christmas.” Now with a stable featuring his wife (Candice LeRae), Austing Theory, and Indi Hartwell the new year looks bright for what can be accomplished.
Adam Cole may be the greatest NXT superstar of all time. Winner of two NXT year-end awards for best rivalry and the best male competitor speaks to his importance. Cole worked his tail off for the black and yellow brand all year. Having memorable matches any time he stepped foot in the squared circle. Cole simply put is the main event in NXT. From Worlds Collide versus Imperium to more recently War Games, his fingerprints all over 2020. This is clear judging by having four matches nominated for a match of the year. Even when Cole lost a little momentum dropping the title to Keith Lee in a history-making match, he bounced back by giving us a feud we didn’t know we needed.
Adam Cole and Pat Mcafee won rivalry of the year and rightfully so. The feud felt fresh and real which drew everyone in and gave Cole a babyface turn under the table. Cole put Mcafee over and made him the most hated man in NXT and had a match that exceeded expectations. NXT is certainly still undisputed and the faction is set to thrive. With the Dusty Classic on the horizon for Cole, WWE should dig back in the archives and build towards another UE versus Imperium rivalry. Hopefully culminating at this year’s War Games.
Talk about picking up the ball and running with it, no one did that better than Santos Escobar. COVID-19 put a halt on the Jordan Devlin Cruiserweight tour, and Santos took that and turned lemons to lemonade. Starting as El Hijo Del Fantasma, he would win the interim title and swerve us all attacking a then internet favorite Drake Maverick. Then everything came together as to why the NXT parking lot was so dangerous, creating a faction with forgotten stars in Raul Medoza and Joaquin Wilde. The trio has been dominant and has given life to a dying Cruiserweight division.
Escobar has defeated all contenders and brought the main event feel to the division. Giving the title the distinction of being defended at a Takeover for the first time in 2020. Now after essentially cleaning out the division, new challengers have emerged. Escobar will defend against Gran Metalik at New Year’s Evil. One could only hope this leads to a larger Lucha House Party versus Legado Del Fantasma feud over the legacy of Lucha Libre.
Io Shirai is arguably the best wrestler in the company and her accolades speak for themself. Not only the winner of the best female competitor, but she was also the competitor of the year in 2020. Shirai ruled the women’s division with an iron fist, and this was long before gaining the title at Takeover: In Your House. It’s amazing all that she accomplished after beginning the year with an injury. Shirai owns her division and has wins against Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks to boast. She simply does not have bad matches and that trend will continue in 2021.
With new challenges ahead in Toni Storm, Ember Moon, Mercedes Martinez, and Raquel Gonzalez the women’s division is in great hands. The genius of the sky hadn’t been pinned in over a year up until War Games which is a testament to her greatness. Shirai was virtually untouchable in 2020 and something tells me her run of dominance is just getting started.