Despite being commonly referred to as the "minor leagues" of the WWE, the NXT brand has shown time after time that their star power and in-ring prowess can match, if not surpass, those on the main stage. You don't have to look any further than the lineage of the NXT Championship to see that.
One of the most prestigious titles in the WWE has earned that accolade thanks to the level of performers that have held the belt and the quality of the matches and stories that they have managed to put on our screens. From the first-ever NXT Champion, Seth Rollins, to Tommaso Ciampa and everyone in between, there's no doubt that whoever wins the belt next has a lot to live up to.
For Sami Zayn, the story in NXT was always about the chase. Whether he was chasing to prove that he even belonged among men like Antonio Cesaro, or if he was chasing the NXT Championship. The problem with Zayn in NXT was that once he accomplished what he was after, no matter how great the story was to get there, he seemed to fall back down to where he came from.
After his very emotional title win over Adrian Neville, Sami defended his title once against the former champion before dropping the belt in brutal fashion to his former best friend in his second defense totaling only 62 days with the title.
When Drew McIntyre re-debuted with the WWE, under the NXT banner, it was clear that he was a different man than the one that left several years earlier. With a new physique and a new focus, McIntyre wasted little time getting to the top of the brand with his debut in April and challenging for the title in August at Takeover: Brooklyn III.
After winning the title, Drew was attacked by the newly formed Undisputed Era in a story that ended up going nowhere. McIntyre managed one successful title defense on NXT TV, against Roderick Strong, before dropping the strap only three months later at Takeover: War Games.
Bobby Roode certainly came in with plenty of fan fare, and lived up to the hype with his entrance music alone captivating the audience to this day. What wasn't nearly as captivating however was his run as NXT Champion. After winning the belt off Shinsuke Nakamura, Roode faced a plethora of forgettable challengers mainly on NXT TV.
Fending off the likes of Kassius Ohno, Hideo Itami, and Roderick Strong, three competitors sure to deliver quality matches in the ring but all had trouble getting fans invested into the contests leading into it. While Roode held the title for a rather lengthy amount of time with a few defenses, none if it is worth remembering.
One of the two NXT Champions from before Takeovers began, Big E Langston didn't have the opportunity to showcase himself like most others on this list. Even with that handicap, Big E managed to leave an impact on the title with his impressive size, agility, and gimmick of having the ref count to five to show his dominance.
Unfortunately, the list of defenses does leave a lot lacking, only having to defeat the likes of Connor, Corey Graves, Brad Maddox, and Damien Sandow before dropping the title.
As the first-ever NXT Champion, Seth Rollins was seen as the torch bearer for the new brand, leading by example and showing the world what NXT was capable of. Formerly known as Florida Championship Wrestling, the territory was re-branded as NXT in 2012 and needed to find a champion, leading to a "Gold Rush" Tournament to take place weekly on NXT TV.
Seth Rollins defeated Drew McIntyre, Curtis Axel, and Jinder Mahal to win the tournament and be crowned champion, but unfortunately, it was downhill for Seth from then on in NXT. Rollins defended the crown against Axel, Mahal, and Corey Graves in forgettable matches before dropping the title a few months after winning it.
Following a tremendous run in New Japan, fans were at a fever pitch to finally be able to see "The King of Strong Style", Shinsuke Nakamura in a WWE ring. The anticipation was proven to be for good reason as Nakamura put on a match of the year contender on his very first night with the brand when he went one on one with Sami Zayn at Takeover: Dallas.
Shinsuke worked his way up the ladder from there defeating NXT Title hopeful Austin Aries, before scoring a victory against former champion Finn Balor. Nakamura won the title from Samoa Joe at Takeover: Brooklyn II but lost it shortly after back to Joe. Shinsuke would re-gain the gold in Japan before defending it successfully against Joe in a vicious steel cage match. Unfortunately, this reign would be short-lived as well, dropping the belt shortly after.
While he certainly didn't have the instant rise to success that most of the others on this list had, Andrade earned his spot at the top without a doubt. After lounging around in the mid card for seemingly an eternity, Almas finally found his footing when he was paired up with his fiery manager, Zelina Vega.
With a new partner in crime, Andrade started climbing towards the top with two big victories over Johnny Gargano before finally winning NXT gold at Takeover: Wargames when he defeated Drew McIntyre. While holding the strap Almas put on one of the greatest matches in NXT history defending the title against Johnny Gargano the night before an impressive showing in the Royal Rumble. While his reign wasn't the longest Andrade made up for it with his incredible matches and overall presence he brought to the table.
There hasn't been an NXT superstar before that was able to create an aura quite like Aleister Black. Everywhere he went all eyes were on him as he dominated the NXT roster like never before, charging his way towards the NXT Championship. After rolling past some of the top stars NXT had to offer, Black finally had his chance at Takeover: New Orleans against Andrade "Cien" Almas.
With the title firmly in his grasp, it seemed like no one would be able to pry it away from Aleister, not even the monstrous Lars Sullivan whom Black would bring to the best one on one contest Lars has had to date. Black's reign was short lived however as he got tangled in the Gargano vs Ciampa storyline, with Aleister dropping the belt to Ciampa after interference from Gargano.
As the NXT Champion going into the first ever NXT Takeover event, there was a lot of weight on Bo Dallas' shoulders. While he didn't leave that show with the title the work he did before that was next level. Originally playing a straight up white meat babyface, Dallas slowly turned more and more arrogant while keeping a cheesy smile and positive personality throughout while more and more fans turned on him every week.
Eventually, it got to the point where those in attendance would turn their backs on the champion and boo him mercilessly no matter who he was up against. There was nothing NXT fans wanted more than to see Dallas lose the NXT Championship he managed to keep his hands on through any means necessary, setting up the first ever main event at a Takeover to be a major success.
There's possibly no one else on this list that put the NXT Championship in as bright a spotlight as Kevin Owens once did. The same night as Kevin's first Takeover contest it was clear what he was after when he attacked newly crowned champion, and Kevin's best friend, Sami Zayn.
The two engaged in a hate-filled feud that showcased Owens vicious side, winning the title in a technical knockout by power bombing Zayn over and over until the referee stopped the match. What made Owens run so special though was what he did while holding the belt, answering an open challenge from John Cena on an episode of Monday Night Raw and later defeating the US Champion at Elimination Chamber proving to the whole audience that NXT was more than the minor leagues of the WWE.
After years and years of hoping, and patiently waiting, Samoa Joe finally made his way to WWE under the NXT brand back in 2015. Joe didn't take his time to leave a mark as he defeated Baron Corbin at Joe's first Takeover event before entering the Dusty Rhodes Classic with then NXT Champion, Finn Balor.
After running through the tournament, Joe decided to set his sights even higher when he turned on Finn and started gunning for the NXT Title. After winning the championship from Balor, Joe found himself face to face with Shinsuke Nakamura. While Shinsuke managed to defeat him, Samoa Joe quickly won the championship back becoming the first ever two-time NXT Champion.
Coming in as one of the most hyped NXT prospects in history, there wasn't a question of if Balor was going to win the title, but more a question of when. After an early run in the tag teaming with Hideo Itami, Finn entered into a number one contenders tournament for the NXT Championship, winning and earning a shot at Kevin Owens.
After an unsuccessful first shot at the title, Balor worked his way back to Owens, getting another shot in Japan where he managed to secure the victory. Balor held the title for a still-standing record of 292 days while constantly having to fend off the Samoan Machine Machine, Samoa Joe.
As easy as Ciampa is to hate for his in-ring actions, it's hard to not feel bad for the guy when it comes to injury luck. First having to sit out a year right when he and Johnny Gargano were kick-starting their rivalry, to now having to go back to the sidelines for an undetermined amount of time while Tommaso was on his way to setting the new record for title reign length.
What he accomplished while holding the title still earns him a spot as one of the top champions defending against three of the biggest stars NXT has seen in Gargano (in the first NXT last man standing match), Velveteen Dream, and Aleister Black in classic after classic after classic
The bar for NXT Championship matches at Takeover was truly set by one man, Adrian Neville. At the very first iteration of the semi-annual event, Neville was one of the headliners going against reigning champion, Bo Dallas in a ladder match.
Neville showcased his other-worldly athleticism and charisma as he had every fan in attendance on his side, not just for this main event but for nearly everyone going forward. With consistently remarkable defenses against Tyson Kidd, Tyler Breeze, Sami Zayn, and all three in a fatal four-way, Neville pushed the NXT brand into the spotlight