Golden Gauntlet #1 – Round 1 – Sami Zayn vs. Samoa Joe

Ultimate David vs. Goliath!

Seed #5 – Sami Zayn

For my money, Sami Zayn was the original true blue top babyface of NXT. He made a big splash in his debut on the black and gold brand in May of 2013, defeating Curt Hawkins and then, stunningly, Antonio Cesaro back-to-back. In doing so, he immediately began one of the four feuds that not only defined his tenure in NXT, but did a lot to define NXT itself. His 2 out of 3 Falls rematch with Cesaro was the first taste of NXT for many, due to the buzz it garnered and even with the lofty standards of today’s NXT, it still holds up quite nicely today.

Sami Zayn’s rivalry with Cesaro would raise the bar in NXT in terms of pure match quality. His betrayal at the hands of Kevin Owens set the tempo for how heated the show’s feuds could get. But it was in many ways the angle with Bo Dallas that would create the blueprint for NXT’s long-term storytelling. Bo was by far the most hated heel they had at the time, and Sami, by far the most beloved face. So it was only natural that a lengthy angle would ensue between the two.

Sami was relentless in his pursuit of Bo’s title, and the two battled wits just as much as they wrestled. To any watching, it seemed like the only natural conclusion was for Sami to one day finally unseat him as champion. He would be the one, without question, to take down Bo Dallas and wipe that unnaturally huge smile off his insincere face once and for all. It was the era-defining feud and it needed it’s era-defining ending.

But then… it never happened.

Ultimately Sami lost his last shot at Bo. Adrian Neville would go on to defeat him instead, and while he was popular, he wasn’t really close to being the same level of star. It felt… wrong, somehow. Neville would go on to have a record-breaking long reign on top of that, with Sami desperately struggling to claw his way back into title contention all the while. He got closer and closer everytime and at one point even pushed Neville into pulling out a few dirty tricks to keep his reign intact. Until finally, the night came where he took him down, in perhaps the best match in the brand’s history up to that point.

The celebration was uproarious… but short-lived. Sami’s best friend Kevin Owens, who debuted earlier that night, turned on him in shocking fashion, powerbombing him into the apron. This was in many ways the first true shockwave moment NXT had ever seen. And it made Owens a prime villain, especially when he went on to defeat Sami in brutal fashion to take the title mere months later.

Like Gargano, the brevity of the reign kept Sami from being any higher on our seeding. But also like Gargano, he’s much too important to the title and brand’s identity to be any lower.

#12 Seed – Samoa Joe

Samoa Joe had a curious run in NXT. He debuted in big-time fashion, confronting Kevin Owens at TakeOver: Unstoppable after he’d mercilessly beaten the legit injured Sami Zayn. This seemingly set up the next big angle, but it… kinda didn’t. Himself and Owens only squared off once, on a regular NXT episode and that bout ended in a No Contest. We were seemingly building towards a huge title showdown between the two but the story just sorta faded away. Finn Balor beat Owens for the title instead whilst Joe mostly hung around fighting other bruisers.

This would actually pay off a bit later, as Joe and Balor would go on to win the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag Classic together, only for Joe to turn on him soon after, angry at not receiving a title shot in spite of his successes. He would go on to have a very, very long feud with Finn and actually lost two straight TakeOver main event title shots, only to surprisingly take the gold at a seemingly random house show in Lowell, Massachusetts. One can only surmise this was done so as to allow Finn to just barely beat the record for longest reign before taking him out, but it certainly took something away from Joe’s crowning. Nobody saw it happen!

After finally finishing Balor at the next TakeOver, he went on to drop it to Shinsuke Nakamura a couple months later. The two then traded it back and forth to become the only men to hold the title twice. That’s cool, but Joe really seemed more like the type to hold the thing for a long time without any breaks.

I have a lot of respect for Joe, but I personally find his NXT run disappointing.

When he came to NXT, he was 36 years old and he’d already been wrestling for 16 years. For a 280lber, putting that weight on his knees for that long, it’s hard to stay at the same level of athleticism. Big dudes get that wear and tear at a faster rate than others, generally speaking. He’s still a good big man, but from watching his major NXT matches, I always felt that his best work was behind him. Seeing him on the main roster has never really changed my mind. And that’s okay, it happens to everyone eventually. He’s still very effective in 10-minute bouts. But to me, he wasn’t really at the level of 20 minute headlining TakeOver bouts anymore. He’s just a guy who came in too late, from my perspective.

It’s cool that he was there, it’s cool that he held the NXT title. And it’s cool that he feuded with the likes of Finn and Shinsuke, but I never thought his matches with either were ever that great. The most sad example was at TakeOver: Dallas where they started off hot and for a moment it looked like he was finally ready to change that. But he suffered a cut minutes into the match that caused it to be constantly stopped and slowed down, much to his and the crowd’s frustration. So this too ended up being nowhere as good as it could’ve been on paper.

But hey, that’s all just one guy’s opinion. Joe’s legacy will always be that of being perhaps the most talented super heavyweight of all time, and rightfully so. And he’ll always bring a legitimacy to everything that he does.

And now… our Tale Of The Tape!

Assuming everyone’s firing on all cylinders here, this would be a lights out match. Needless to say, Sami would be playing his Underdog From The Underground role to quite the advantage here. Joe would bully him and throw him around but Sami would keep getting back up, showing the damage slowly mounting in that way only he can but never once backing down. It’d be a great opportunity for Sami to show his rarely seen hard-hitting strikes, as you’d need to bring all you can to really hurt Joe.

The two of them could even trade submissions if they wanted. See if we could get a Coquina Clutch countered into a Koji Clutch. The two have had big matches before and they went over quite well so this would certainly be interesting to see. Who wins this time around? That’s up to you!

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NXTSami ZaynSamoa JoeWWE NXT
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