From Panama City to The Undisputed Era, Adam Cole Talks Being On Top, Staying On Top… and Video Games

LaToya Ferguson

The longest-reigning CZW World Junior Heavyweight Champion. The longest-reigning PWG World Champion. The first-ever three-time ROH Champion. The first-ever NXT North American Champion. The first-ever double champion in NXT history. The longest-reigning NXT Champion. The second-ever NXT Triple Crown Champion. Name an accolade in any company he has been in, and Adam Cole (BAYBAY) has achieved it.

And those are just his individual accomplishments. (After all, this is a man who has gone from PWG’s Mount Rushmore—original recipe and 2.0—to NJPW’s Bullet Club and now to NXT’s The Undisputed Era.)

RondaRousey.com spoke with Adam Cole about his role as a top guy throughout his professional wrestling career, as well as his three great loves: video games, his girlfriend, and The Undisputed Era.

This interview—which was conducted approximately a year ago—has been edited for clarity.


Before we get into talking all about work, I always have to ask: Adam, How do you unwind from work mode? Or are you always in work mode?

For me, it’s funny because early on, I’d never unwind. I was always 24/7 work. Even before I started in the business, that was my hobby and my passion, what I loved. And then when it became my job, it was the same thing. It was just, I would come home and I would watch it. All I did was want to talk about it. Then as I got older, I did realize, “Oh man, I do need something to unwind.” Something to kind of step away from it. Creatively, I feel like that’s helped me quite a bit to kind of step away from it every now and then.

But yeah, my big thing other than standard watching TV shows or watching movies and stuff like that—I recently got really crazy into video games. I casually played them kind of my whole life. But then, about five years ago, I bought my first console. And just that, to me, is like the ultimate escape. I really like the ones that are very story-driven. So the ones that are almost like television shows—where you just get so wrapped up into these characters and watching their journey but playing a part of it as well.

So my all-time favorite thing to do to unwind—if I’m just relaxing and not thinking about wrestling—is definitely video games. My favorite thing.

And that’s recent? Because I’ve been watching some UpUpDownDown videos and you just seem like you’ve been into video games for a long time. That’s how it comes across, at least.

Yeah, so I really did enjoy them when I was younger. I played them, I started with the Sega Genesis when I was three years old. And I really liked them, but once I got bitten by the WWE bug, it was all about that. So I was just so focused on that. But as far as becoming absolutely consumed by it, like in the hobby sense of it, where now I have my own game room and things like that…

Now I’ve turned it into a passion of mine where I collect them and I play them, and I have all the new consoles and the older ones and I have an arcade cabinet in my game room. It’s cool. It’s really turned into this passionate hobby of mine. But yeah, I’ve been playing them pretty much my whole life.

I’d been really enjoying the Until Dawn series you guys were doing.

Oh, that’s awesome. It’s so much fun.

Yeah, those games where you pick the choices and things like that and multiple endings, that’s really fun. My girlfriend Britt, she likes video games too, but not a tenth as much as I do. But we had kind of played through that game together before too and she thought that was really cool. She’s like, “Oh my god, this is like a movie where you decide the ending and what happens and you don’t know what your choices are going to do.” So it’s a really fun couch co-op game. Or playing it by yourself, that’s fun too.

Any other games that you’ve gotten really into lately?

First of all, I’m really excited about games that are coming out this year, I’m really excited to play. But I think the most recent game that I’ve been like, “Oh my god, this is amazing,” has been Borderlands 3. I’m a really, really big Borderlands fan. So Borderlands 3, when that came out, I put a lot of time into that. That series is like my top five favorite video series of all time.

The new Star Wars game, the Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, that one was really great. And then, Red Dead Redemption 2—I know that came out a little bit ago, but that one I was really, really into.

I’m currently playing this game called The Outer Worlds, which is like a RPG-style game. It’s kind of similar to Fallout: New Vegas, in that it’s really fun decision-making. Like, your decisions then reflect on the world and the people around you. That one I’m really enjoying.

But then I also really like to play independent titles, as well. Very similar to pro wrestling—you can feel all the love and the passion and the heart that goes into an independent game. There’s this one game, Hollow Knight, which I love. It’s kind of like a Metroidvania—really cool art style, really cool music. It was like three people that made the game, but it has more content than some AAA games. Just the story and the art style is so, so cool.

So yeah, really I’m playing as much as I can.

Since you love the storytelling in video games that kind of make them similar to TV and movies, are you watching any new TV or movies now? Or have the games taken over that role?

Yeah, so I definitely make sure I watch TV shows as well, because obviously, the video game thing has turned into my own solo thing. But then when I’m with my girlfriend, we really like to watch TV shows together. So we love the Stranger Things series. The TV series You, we really, really enjoyed. I convinced her to watch The Witcher with me on Netflix, because that’s also a game and a book series, and she really enjoyed that too. So, yeah, Netflix is a big one for us. Sitting down and just relaxing, because she works insanely hard as well.

So we’re both kinda of the understanding, “Hey, if we have one day this week where we’re going to see each other, and it’s been a really, really long six days, let’s just veg out on the couch, order some food, and watch some Netflix.”

Did you finish Season Two of You?

I did. I did.

That was crazy.

It was crazy. It was, oh my god. Look, so the first season was really great. And I remember thinking, “How possibly are they going to be able to top this?” Or, “Where are they going to go?” And just from the first episode of Season Two, I was like, “Oh, I’m hooked already. I have to finish this season.” It’s so, so good. I don’t know what they’re going to do for Season Three, but I felt the same way about Season One and this season. Yeah, it was excellent. Really, really good.

And what about The Witcher? Did you enjoy that?

I did, I did. I was incredibly biased in the beginning because The Witcher 3 is the best video game I’ve ever played in my life. To this day, I don’t think that’s a… I promise I’ll bring it back to the show. But the storytelling—I put 150 to 200 hours in that game. The world is so alive, every character you talk to is so alive, it was amazing. So my expectations for the show were very high, as I was already attached to the characters.

But again, Britt, my girlfriend, she has not played the game, so she was so confused the first few episodes. So she’s like, “What is going on? I don’t understand any of this.” And I was like, “Oh, just bear with it, stick with it.” But at the same time, I was also confused. But I didn’t want to tell her that I was confused because she’d want to give up on the show. I was like, “Oh yeah, you’ll get it, trust me.” But at the same time, I’m like, “What’s going on?” I’m researching stuff, looking stuff up. So to me, that show laid the groundwork for a lot of the characters in the beginning, but as far as understanding the timeline, it was super confusing.

So, to give hope to someone who hasn’t finished it, I really do feel like the last two episodes are the aha moment. You’re like, “Oh, this is what’s going on. That’s what they meant by this.” Because it is really, really hard to follow. But I did really enjoy it. I think they are working on a Season Two, so I’m excited for that. The Witcher felt like a much smaller thing than I realized. So when I watched the show, I was like, “Oh my god, I hope this does well. I really hope this does well.” And then I realized how big not only Netflix was but how big The Witcher was. I was like, “Oh my god, great.” It was like when it first dropped, everyone was talking about. It was a major, major hit.

And now I guess we have to talk about your career.

Of course. I’m happy to. I love that too.

Honestly, I want you to talk about everything you love, if that’s okay with you.

Of course.

Working in NXT, with all the new and established talent at the Performance Center, as well as in WWE as whole, what do you prefer? Do you prefer to get in the ring with those people you’ve competed against hundreds of times before? Or do you really like the experience of working with a new competitor, a fresh face altogether to the business?

So, and not to give a crappy answer, I really love both. But I just love both for totally different reasons. Johnny Gargano is a really good example for me. I’ve known Gargano for 10 years. And then when we got to NXT, we literally never performed one-on-one for the longest time. And then our first big match was WrestleMania weekend at TakeOver: New York.

Yeah. I was at the Barclays Center for that match, actually.

Oh, awesome. Very cool.

And it was, like, a replacement last minute—we knew we needed to have this big match, but we don’t know what to do.

So we were so confident, excited, because we were like, “Oh, great, we’re going to give the show a whole new crew of people what we could do together.” So you have that trust and being familiar with that person and trusting that person to get to wrestle them on like—NXT is the biggest stage for a lot of us, so to get to do that with people you’ve known for a really long time, it’s this cool special moment walking to the back afterward being like, “Hey, that was really cool we just did that. To think, we performed together in front of 30 people 10 years ago in this really small building.” So that’s really, really cool.

But at the same time, oh my god, yeah, I love performing with people I’ve never worked with before. Because everybody’s different. Everybody performs different and thinks a little bit different. So, selfishly, it just improves your skillset to compete against a bunch of different people who all have different outlooks and perspectives on the way things are and the way things go. It just makes you a more well-rounded performer, especially when it’s someone I watch and I’m entertained by or think they’re really talented and I’ve never worked with them before. I always really look forward to getting the chance to get in the ring with them.

So I really do think both. Both of them are very positive just for different reasons.

Speaking of how different people see performing differently in general, what would you say is your philosophy? How do you see sports entertainment as a whole?

Yeah, so to me, it’s like—and I know I’m biased—it’s the greatest performance in the entire world. At the end of the day, it’s good versus evil. It’s someone you want to see win and someone you want to see lose. And kind of as time has gone on, it’s evolved even more into this—I want to say—shades of gray type of scenario. Where lots of times too, if you see a villain on a television show—again, to use a TV show as an example—there is a bad guy and you may really, really dislike them, but then they’ll show the backstory to that bad guy. And then you kind of understand why he is the way he is, and why he feels the way that he does. You still don’t agree with him, but maybe you respect him a little bit more.

Then there’s the good guy having all these different peaks and valleys, or these mountains to climb and things like that. So it’s just this neverending book with constant new chapters and those chapters being the performers.

The coolest thing in the world is watching two guys in the center of the ring trying to outdo one another and the fans just being on the edge of their seats just glued to the ring. Or if you’re watching at home glued to the television screen, just so excited by the action. Really wanting someone to win, really wanting someone to lose. So, at the end of the day, like I said, I think it’s a really cool way of doing good versus evil.

And when you first fell in love with all of this, who were the talents or what were the matches that specifically inspired you?

So as far as being a fan, the first match that I ever saw where I was like, “Cool, I’m a fan of this, I love it.” was the first “Stone Cold” Steve Austin versus The Rock match at WrestleMania 15. It was in Philadelphia. I remember watching that and being like, “Oh my god, these guys are so cool. I want to start watching this.” But I never really thought about wanting to be a competitor until about two years later, where it was The Rock versus “Stone Cold” Steve Austin II. It was WrestleMania 17 in the Houston Astrodome, and I’ll never forget it. I get goosebumps when I think of it now, still to this day.

When they played this Limp Bizkit “My Way” music video to pump up The Rock versus Steve Austin. And Austin’s coming back to Texas and Howard Finkel gets on the microphone and says, “This match will be No Disqualification.” And J.R. goes, “No Disqualification, when was that added?” And then there’s this one second silence where everyone’s just anticipating. And the glass breaks and 67,000 people just lose their minds as Steve Austin walks down to the ring. And I remember that was the first time that I ever got goosebumps in my life. I didn’t know what was happening. I was like, “Why is my body doing this? I’m really happy. I really like this, but why do I have goosebumps?”

At that moment I was like, “I need to do this. This is all I want to do.” So I was probably about 11 years old seeing that match for the first time, where it made sense for the first time that I needed to be in that ring.

WWE Hall of Famer (and NXT producer) Shawn Michaels and Adam Cole chat post-inaugural North American Championship match at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans (source: WWE)
WWE Hall of Famer (and NXT producer) Shawn Michaels and Adam Cole chat post-inaugural North American Championship match at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans (source: WWE)

So how does it feel now to technically have those men—and legends like them—be your peers now?

Yeah, it’s surreal on so many different levels, because I’ve met so many of them. Speaking of Steve Austin, I was pretty deep into my independent career at this point. And I remember going to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s house and meeting him and doing his podcast and just talking to him, just us having a conversation. And that was something that didn’t hit me until much later, but I’m like, nine-year-old me would have just absolutely lost my mind. And even adult me really appreciates it for what it is just because he’s a big reason I decided to get into the industry.

And then fast forward a little bit to me coming to NXT. Now I work with Shawn Michaels every single week, which—in my opinion—Shawn Michaels is the best of all time, the best to ever do it. So to have him as a mentor, to have him as someone to talk to about wrestling and ping pong ideas back and forth, to be able to walk through the curtain after a really big match and him be the first one there to give me a big hug and tell me how proud he is of me, it’s surreal. Yeah, it’s something that I’m never going to lose sight of, I’m always going to appreciate it. One of the coolest things right now about the job.

So when I talked to Mia Yim, she had nothing but nice things to say about you.

Oh, good. Same here.

We talked about training at CZW and how the promotion gets a bad rep, despite the fact that a lot of great talent have come out of it. Could you talk about your personal experience training at CZW?

Sure. So, as far as how I decided to train, I remember—I think it was at 17 or 18—that’s when I started going to independent shows. I was kind of starting to think of what wrestling school I wanted to go to. I remember there was another school called CHIKARA Pro. When I went there, my dad actually drove me down to watch a practice, just to see what all it entails. I was kind of hard-set on going there. But I was going to wait ‘til I was done with high school. I was going to graduate high school first and then go.

I went to a CZW event, and I was waiting afterwards out back to kind of meet some of the guys. And the head trainer there, DJ Hyde, he walked over and I introduced myself. And for some reason, I built up the nerve to tell him someday I wanted to be a sports entertainer. He just looked at me right in the face and he goes, “Why don’t you want to do it now?” I said, “Well, I would love to, but I don’t have all the tuition money and I still have high school and all this stuff.” And he goes, “Listen, just to start, okay, if you want to come one day a week you can. And don’t worry about money. You’ll owe it to me eventually. But if you want to come and check it out, come check it out.”

I was like, “Oh, here we go. Alright, I’m going to do it.” So I started training while I was a senior in high school. I would go to school, drive two hours to Philadelphia, train, and then drive two hours back a couple times a week. And I just absolutely loved it.

As far as the actual training, it was really difficult. I know a lot of wrestling schools are really, really difficult. But these guys really tested our willpower and our toughness of how badly we wanted it. I remember they would just put us through the wringer, just to really make sure that we really wanted to do it. It was this old school mentality. You know, I’ll never forget the first Thanksgiving I had when I started training. My chest was purple and looked like hamburger meat from training. And I had to hide it from my mom and my family. But my chest hurt so bad, so every time I walked around, I made sure I wasn’t shirtless. I was going to the bathroom to check, make sure it was okay, and then come back out. And I hid it from them because I didn’t want them to see that and go, “What the heck are you doing? We don’t want you doing this anymore.”

But I say that and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Because being put in that situation now, I feel I could tackle anything. I’m not afraid of anything physically anymore, except for heights—that still freaks me out. But as far as the physicality, I’m not. The biggest thing too, in addition to the training—and then I’ll stop rambling about it—is that DJ Hyde was really great about taking me to shows. So he’d go, “Hey, I’m booked on these shows Friday, Saturday, Sunday. If anyone wants to come, you can come and I’ll drive you.”

So I would go—I was one of the only people—but I would go every single weekend with him. I would stay at his house, I would stay in the hotel he was staying in. And I would just come to the show, he would introduce me to the promoter, I would help set up the ring. I would help with the music. I would help ring the bell, whatever he needed. So by the time I was experienced enough to start, I had all these connections already and I was working pretty consistently pretty early. But I owe that to him. He’s the one who kind of got my foot in the door and gave me that chance. So yeah, both him and Jon Dahmer were really good trainers.

And then when you started, Mia ended up becoming your manager.

So yeah, that was a situation where Mia had come into CZW too. I had just recently turned heel. So I’m this young guy—I used to call myself “The Panama City Playboy.” That was my name. I was just covered in palm trees on my tights and would come out with aviators and a muscle shirt on and I would bite the muscle shirt and count my abs on my stomach, really obnoxious. But we wanted to really make that as lethal and as effective as possible. So part of that, we thought, was Mia being with me. And I love Mia. I’ve known her literally my whole wrestling career. So it’s so cool to see us going from there to where we are now. But that entire time, I look back on that time in CZW with her—I had some of the most fond, fun times of my entire career.

Because that CZW crowd was very judgmental. They were really hard on a lot of guys, especially if you didn’t do the crazy, violent, hardcore wrestling type of stuff. And me and Mia didn’t really do that. But that act, the act of us together with our entrances and the way that we were and the way that we would cut promos was just something that those fans kind of caught on to and they accepted it, and they really liked it. And I don’t know if the Adam Cole “Panama City Playboy” character would have worked as well without Mia Yim. I actually am confident it wouldn’t have worked as well. So, I had so much fun with her. It was a blast, and I look back on that time as a lot of fun.

So, I know the story of how you became “The Panama City Playboy,” despite not being from Florida. But do you think in your heart of hearts, you are still “The Panama City Playboy”?

You know what? Yes and no. Maybe a little bit less playboy, since I’m in a very serious and loving relationship right now. But I’m still a Panama City boy, even if I’m not from there. I’m still a Panama City boy.

Originally, I wanted to be from Hollywood, California. I really wanted to be from Hollywood. And my trainer said, “You can’t be from Hollywood. Everyone’s from Hollywood. Pick somewhere else.” And I didn’t know what to do. And then I watched the final [WCW] Nitro that night, and the final Nitro was from Panama City, Florida. And I was like, “That sounds cool. And I’m kind of like a playboy. I’ll be from Panama City, Florida and be the ‘Panama City Playboy’.” Just got it just from watching a tape the night before.

I’m realizing now, I actually have no idea: In NXT, are you finally billed as from Pennsylvania or are you still from Panama City?

I am still from Panama City. And I’m convinced that I will be from Panama City, Florida as long as I’m wrestling, unless someone decides they want to change it.

I hope they never change it.

I hope so too. From my very first match on April 6th, 2008, I was “Adam Cole from Panama City, Florida” and my goal is to retire being “Adam Cole from Panama City, Florida.”

Hopefully your final match is in Panama City, Florida.

How amazing would that be? Oh my god, that would be the most full circle moment of all time. I’ll get the hometown hero reception. That would be great.

We’ve talked a little bit about it, but your girlfriend Britt is also in the business. How do you two balance the personal time with your busy professional schedules?

Yeah, we’re very, very busy. Right now, I am so excited, because in a couple of hours I’m going to see her for the first time in 10 days. I haven’t seen her for 10 days—it’s been nuts for me, it’s been nuts for her. So yeah, it’s a blessing and a curse as far as dating another performer, and I think she’ll agree with me here. So the good part, obviously, is dating someone who’s in the business, they’re a lot more understanding of your time being precious and you’re not always going to be around. She totally understands that, “Hey, I got booked for this tour.” or “Hey, I’m doing media.” or “Hey, I have these live events this weekend.” And she gets that I’m not going to be available all the time. And I understand the same with her.

The negative is, because lots of times both of us are so busy, it’s not like you know one person is just going to be waiting for you at home. Because she may be on the road or I may be on the road. But I’ll take this any day of the week where you know, and there’s an understanding of our schedules, and kind of the way that it works.

Actually, initially, when we first started dating, we were a long-distance relationship couple. So we kind of had the big advantage there where even as we get busy, when we first started dating, we saw each other maybe once a month. So it was really hard. I was living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she was living in Pittsburgh, and that’s about a four-hour drive. So between my schedule and her schedule, she was finishing up going to school full-time, and I was still working all over the country. So we wouldn’t see each other a ton. And now that I live here in Orlando, and she moved in with me, we actually see each other more than we used to when we first started dating. Obviously, we want to see each other a bunch, but I think it’s definitely in some ways it’s harder, in some ways it’s easier. Living together makes it a lot better, but then at the same time, Britt is a maniac. Britt works Monday and Tuesday as a dentist in a dental practice, then flies to whatever town she’s going to Tuesday night.

She works on television Wednesday, and on Thursday morning, she flies back to Orlando and drives right to the office to work Thursday, and then she works Friday as a dentist. But she’s working full-time as a dentist, and then wrestling every week too. So she’s incredibly busy every single week. But yeah, we make it work as best as we can.

And all those years of grinding on the indies, all around the world, how did they prepare you for NXT and WWE as a whole?

First of all, it helped a lot. Especially with the travel. It gave me the framework for what it would take to succeed and prepared me for the grind.

I would drive sometimes—for Ring or Honor or other independents—16 hours to Chicago, work the show. And I didn’t have enough money to get a hotel, so I would drive 16 hours back through the night. And there was one or two other people and we were trying to keep each other awake and taking turns, stuff like that. So we were used to the grind and the travel and being all over the place. We’re working in LA on Friday, New York on Saturday, back to LA on Sunday. It’s just, it’s crazy.

So I think that that time on the independents really, really prepared me for the busy, hectic schedule of NXT. So I’m glad that I had that time to travel all over the place. Not only that, but I’ve said this before too, just the fact of learning how to wrestle before you get to WWE is, to me, so beneficial. Obviously, there are situations where people get hired and they haven’t learned how to perform yet and then they’re learning how to work while they’re in WWE. And the stress that that must cause, of learning your craft and then learning how to do it on TV, all those things, all the things that I thought encompass what we do—I can’t imagine how difficult and stressful that must be. So I’m also thankful for the independents of also kind of at least getting the groundwork before I got to WWE.

You’ve essentially been a top guy or the top guy in every promotion you’ve been in. And I imagine there’s so much weight that goes with that, while also being an honor to be given the ball to run with so many times. What has that been like for you? And honestly, what do you think it is that you do that makes you stand out to be given said ball?

So as far as the pressure, I’m glad you brought that up, because to me, anyone who succeeds in anything puts a lot of pressure on themselves. And I’m certainly someone who puts a ton of pressure on myself. And that’s in any scenario like you had said, like being in Ring of Honor and being given the ball, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in LA and being given the ball, just being in situations where you’re kind of looked at as the flag-bearer and the guy who’s leading the charge, that’s a lot of pressure. And that’s added pressure to the pressure I already put on myself.

But I always remind myself that this is what I signed up for. When I decided I wanted to be a performer, I didn’t just want to do okay at it. I didn’t just want to do it every now and then, I wanted it not only to be my full-time job but I wanted to be looked at as one of the best. And I think anyone who loves this so much feels the same way, they want to be looked at as one of the best, so obviously, that comes with a lot of pressure. You’ve got to not get in your own head too much as well. That can be a dangerous thing where you start second guessing everything.

Because there are times too with me where, obviously, I can be very insecure, I can very much second guess things. But that just comes with how tough that pressure can be on your brain. But I’m very honored and thankful again that they’ve given me this chance.

And then as far as why I’ve been given the opportunity to be the guy to kind of lead everything, I honestly— part of me, I don’t know. I mean, the thing that I knew when I first broke in, I knew that I wasn’t a big guy. I’m not, by no means. I’m not 6’4”, I’m not 265 pounds. So, I told myself very early on and my trainers did too, they said, “If you want to succeed in this, you’re going to need to be pretty damn good at everything. Because your dad wasn’t in the business, you don’t have a crazy sports background, and you’re not a big guy.” So, while I focused on being as good as I could in the ring, I focused just as much on promos.

I wanted to make sure that I was reliable. Anytime they asked me to do something or be somewhere I want to be there. I want to be able to talk to media all day if they want me to, I want them to know they can count on me. That was the biggest thing. I wanted to make sure that the company I was working for knew that they could count on me.

Fortunately, the thing I take the most pride in is, I feel like anyone I’ve worked for, no one would say that I wasn’t accountable. No one would say that I wasn’t going to be there when they needed me and stuff like that. So I think in turn, because I’m someone that they could count on, because I’m someone that a lot of the fans have connected with—they’ve seen my journey for a really, really long time and so they feel like they’re part of the journey as well—I think just a combination of all those things and right place, right time, that I’ve fallen into this really fortunate spot of being the guy.

In my opinion, you’ve had so many classic matches in your career, as a whole. But what would you say has been your favorite match you’ve had in NXT and WWE so far?

Yeah, that’s a tough one.

Maybe do a top three if you can’t narrow it down.

I think I can give you my number one, I think it’s kind of a tie. So me and Johnny Gargano had that trilogy of matches, the first one in New York, the second one TakeOver: XXV, and then the third one TakeOver: Toronto. I’m really proud of our second one, in Stamford. And that’s not just because that night I won the NXT Championship and my family was there and my girlfriend was there. I remember the first one being so loved and people really enjoyed it. And that was such an overwhelming, cool thing how people were saying, “That was one have the best matches I’ve ever seen. That was one of the best matches in WWE history.”

And we were just talking about pressure, when it comes to pressure, me and Johnny knew we had another match at TakeOver: XXV a few months later. So in our brains we’re like, “What the heck are we going to do to live up to that first one?” So, going in with that pressure on us and trying to make it as exciting as possible. But then to be able to do that, and for people to love that one just as much, some people liked it even more, it was a really rewarding and cool feeling for me. Because any sort of trilogy is really challenging to keep it fresh and interesting. But yeah, that one’s really special.

Working Pete Dunne at Survivor Series was another one that was really cool to me. And mainly the biggest reason is, our NXT crowd, they know us and they love us, and they appreciate our style of wrestling. But Survivor Series is almost a different audience, it’s not people who have religiously watched NXT or religiously followed our careers. So me and Pete went out there in the beginning, we didn’t totally have them with us. They were respectfully paying attention, but they weren’t invested in the match. And then as time went on, we got them invested. And that’s such a rewarding, cool feeling. To go, “Hey, let’s stick with this. We’re not going to let this discourage us. We’re going to grab them, we’re going to get them.”

And then as that happened, and the crowd started having an ovation and being more invested in us… It’s one thing to have the fans invested in you from the beginning, and that, of course, is always the best. But to get them through your actions in the ring, that’s a whole other victory. So that one was really special to me too.

And I want to talk about a particular War Games moment real quick. How did it feel to have your buddy Kevin Owens betray you like that?

It broke my heart. Absolutely broke my heart. Me and Kevin go way back. And that he had the nerve to go in there and turn on me is unbelievable.

And he beat me up bad too, real bad. What a jerk.

Did you guys talk about it afterwards?

I did. I did, I said, “How could you do this to me?” And he just smiled at me and walked away. We haven’t talked since.

Wow.

It was bad. The friendship of Adam Cole and Kevin Owens has been on the rocks.

He knows how to burn his bridges, that’s for sure.

He sure does. He sure does.

But it must have been really cool to get to work with him even though it was on opposite sides.

It was awesome. I feel like I keep saying that but it’s true. He’s one of my really, really good buddies. He helped me out so much in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. He really helped kickstart me to that main event level in those companies. I owe him a lot. So to see his success in WWE, and then he was so excited when I made it here.

When we talk about moments, being in the ring and his music hitting and the people not knowing and the people going crazy when he’d come out in his old KO garb, was just so, so cool. So it was special because it was the first time I really got to get in there with Kevin in a WWE ring. It was awesome. I’m really glad it happened at that TakeOver.

I’ve been following both of your careers for years. I live in LA, so I went to a lot of those PWG shows—and it truly broke my heart to see Kevin go after you like he did.

I know. Well, maybe we can work it out. And at some point we can get on the same page again. So you never say never.

I believe in you. I believe in you guys.

Thank you. Thank you.

Right now, you’re already at the top of NXT, but in general, what are your goals in all of WWE?

Yeah, so I’ve always been someone, since I started—or at least early into my career—who used to think really, really big picture. The first month I started training I had a list of all that I wanted to accomplish someday. And that’s so insanely overwhelming. First of all, of course, that’s a great goal, but I got a lot of work to do before then. And second of all, some things that you can’t control. I agree—you can be the best wrestler, the best talker, the best whatever, but sometimes the cards just don’t line up and you’re just not the guy, at least right now, that’s just the way it is.

So for me, I’ve always focused on directly what’s right in front of me, not only because I think that’s the best for creativity and motivation and stuff, but also it’s just a lot less overwhelming. So for me, because I get asked this question a lot too, “Oh, you’ve done pretty much all you can in NXT, are you ready to move to RAW or SmackDown?” And I’m really in no rush to go anywhere. One of the coolest things that I really enjoyed about Ring of Honor when I was there was I felt like I was part of something that was innovative and at the forefront.

This really empowering, cool feeling when all these people are behind this product and this brand and this idea of like, “We’re going to make this bigger.” And that’s absolutely what’s happening right now in NXT. It is so, so, so cool to see—I got into NXT two and a half years ago—and to see the brand that NXT has turned into from taping weekly television on the WWE Network to now we’re live on the USA Network to doing standalone TakeOver events. We’re traveling more and more and doing more live events and more stuff overseas. It’s the best.

And I’m really proud of our crew. I’m proud of what NXT has done. So really, my goal is to stay in NXT. I want to become the longest-reigning NXT World Champion [Ed. Note: Mission Accomplished!], and I want to continue to watch this brand grow into what it deserves to grow into it, and that’s like an absolutely mega, mega brand of sports entertainment.

Even being at the top of NXT, there’s still so much talent in NXT right now.

So much. In both the men and women’s divisions. There’s infinite possibilities for the match-ups really. There’s so many guys that I haven’t wrestled or faced yet and so many different scenarios and situations. You’re right, there’s just limitless possibility.

Is there anyone specifically, if you can pick one guy that you’d want to defend your title against, that you haven’t gone against yet?

So, I’ll tell you, because I faced him before, but he’s never challenged me for the NXT Championship, but just based on these past few months that he’s gone through, I would really, really love to defend my title against Keith Lee. [Ed. note: Well, he got his wish…]  I would love to do an NXT Champion versus North American Champion match against Keith. Even though The Undisputed Era doesn’t like him, I’m not going to lie and say that he’s not incredibly talented, and I got to get back at him for pouncing me into the crowd. I mean, that was one of the worst days of my life. I’ve got to get back at this guy.

But there’s so many, oh my gosh. A lot of guys I have faced before, but they’re just insanely, insanely talented dudes.

And what was it like being sent flying by Keith Lee?

Horrifying. Absolutely horrifying. That was such a crazy situation in and of itself. Which, I think this was pretty obvious when it was happening on television. But there was a change in the match-up where Roderick Strong needed to get involved. And him and Kyle [O’Reilly] teamed against Keith and [Dominik Dijakovic].

And then I’m coming down there, and I know I’m going to get hit. I’ve been Pounced before, I know I’ll go flying. To just so easily go soaring over the barricade… And then watching it back, I didn’t realize how crazy it looked. But yeah, literally looks like someone pulls me with a string. I just go fly like it’s a movie effect. It was just, it was wild. He’s a very, very strong individual.

Speaking of strong individuals, what was it like being lifted by Bianca Belair?

It was great!. Bianca’s the best. She’s the fastest, she’s the quickest, she’s the strongest, all that stuff. That’s all real. Yeah, so me and Bianca were on a little media tour promoting TakeOver: Portland. And obviously, when we’re on the news, they always want some sort of explanation or example and just a fun situation for the news or whatever.

And yeah, Bianca—no problem at all, just picks me up, starts doing squats. She’s very strong. She’s very strong. “The EST” is a very appropriate name for her.

A lot of people always fantasy book, “If there was a woman in The Undisputed Era who would it be?”

Right.

Do you ever think about that at all?

And this is the truth, because the four of us have talked about this: Not only would we not have a woman, we would never add another man. We are very adamant. I remember when it first started, it was me Kyle and Bobby [Fish]. And initially, we did have that very protective, “Okay, it’s the three of us.” And then as kind of the group was unfolding there was this idea of Roderick Strong being involved. And all three of us instantly looked at each other and were like, “Yeah, that’s perfect. That’s the missing piece. That’s what we need.”

Roderick Strong joins The Undisputed Era (source: WWE)
Roderick Strong joins forces with The Undisputed Era (source: WWE)

So I really do feel like The Undisputed Era started when Roddy joined, and from that point on yeah, we’ve been very adamant about it. I mean, never say never in pro wrestling. Of course, there could be a woman who’s added or another guy who’s added. But we’re really adamant about keeping this a four-man group that just stays a four-man group. So, never say never, but I think Undisputed Era is cool the way it is.

And one thing I think that makes Undisputed Era work so well is that you get a different dynamic depending on the combination. Can you talk more about your relationship with each member? We know a lot about all your work together in Ring of Honor and PWG, but what about your individual relationships and collectively?

Well, truth be told first, as far as the group, we’re all legitimate best buds. We’re in a group chat where we talk every single day. Every single day, we talk to each other. And I think that’s a big reason that people kind of dig The Undisputed Era—can tell it’s not just an onscreen chemistry. It’s a very, very real friendship. I think that comes through on the screen. Roderick Strong is one of my absolute best friends. Similar to Kevin Owens, he was a guy that really, really helped me early on.

I remember when I was in Ring of Honor, and I would have a match and I would come to the back, he was always—every single time—the first guy there to tell me what I did good and what I needed to work on. For nothing, just because. Because he was trying to help me, and I’ll never forget that. I really do think he played a big part in my development and me getting better and improving on certain things. He’s just the best. I was at his wedding. I’ve known him for a really, really long time. Absolutely one of my best friends.

Same can be said for Kyle O’Reilly. I was in Kyle O’Reilly’s wedding. I feel like I’ve been married to Kyle my whole wrestling career. My first major breakout independent match when I was a year into wrestling, me and Kyle wrestled each other in a pre-show match on a Dragon Gate USA pay-per-view in Philadelphia. That was the first time we met. It was just six minutes. But we got the crowd. They were totally invested, they were totally into it. And then it was put on the internet, and that was the first time that I ever experienced any sort of real internet buzz for a match of mine. So that was really, really cool.

And then obviously, we both got signed to Ring of Honor, and the rest is history. But Kyle, he’s a guy I’ve been with my whole career and I love him to death. And the same can be said for Bobby Fish. I met Bobby a little bit later, more so when we were in Ring of Honor, I think I’d met him in EVOLVE, but we didn’t become buddies until ROH when him and Kyle started teaming. And obviously, because I was so close with Kyle, I got close with Bobby. And he’s just another one—the fact that I get to be friends with this guy is something I’m really appreciative of, because those three dudes are three of my favorite people in the entire world. So I wouldn’t want to team up in The Undisputed Era with anybody else.

Bobby Fish is someone where my mother and I discuss this constantly, we don’t think people realize just how good he is.

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I totally agree. His promo work is amazing. His in-ring skill and technique and psychology is amazing. You’re right. I do think I mean, Bobby’s appreciated in the sense of the tag team run he’s had with Kyle O’Reilly. But I agree, I totally agree. Yeah, he often doesn’t get as appreciated as he should.

So now is the time when I ask the most important question: If you were to have a profession gimmick like the ones back in the early ’90s, like The Goon, what would yours be?

Oh, man. That’s such a good question.

I think I would like to be a really over-the-top motivational speaker. But also very offensive, but unintentionally. A guy who thinks he’s a good motivational speaker, but really, he’s terrible and just degrades people and just makes me feel worse about themselves. I think that could be a really, really fun gimmick.

Who in NXT would be your motivational project? Who would you want to improve and you just slowly ruin?

I would want to try to be the motivational speaker for Kushida. And him being so annoyed and confused with me and ticked off, and then eventually he’s just beating the crap out of me. But me being the motivational speaker for Kushida, I think would be amazing television.

I feel like that might be gimmick infringement on Malcolm Bivens…

I dump on him quite a bit, but you know what, for the sake of it, I got to say: What an incredibly talented young man. I mean, seriously, his ability to speak and the way he presents himself and how entertaining he is, it’s just absolutely through the roof.

I mean, I would still tear him apart if he was here to his face and tell him how terrible he is and to get away from me. But what a talented young guy. I think he’s great.

You know once this interview drops, he’s only going to copy and paste the nice part and just show everyone how much you love him, right?

100%, and I got to throw him a bone here: He works really hard.

That’s one of nicest things anyone’s ever said about him.

Well, that’s the one. Because every other interview from here I’m going to talk about how annoying he is and how I wish I never had to see him again and he’s a thorn in my side. So he can have this one.

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