Ladies and Gentlemen, Royal Rumble weekend is nearly here! As has become the custom for the biggest shows of the year, the Rumble will be preceded by NXT TakeOver tomorrow night. And for this TakeOver Spotlight, I’m looking at none other than the NXT Championship match between the challenger, Johnny Gargano, and the champion, Andrade “Cien” Almas.
What I really like about this match is that it’s a pairing of two superstars who have had long-term storylines of personal growth and redemption. And they even crossed paths when they were at different stages of their journeys, something that could add so much to this match if they call back to it tomorrow night.Let’s start with the defending champion. Almas debuted in NXT at TakeOver: The End in June 2016. That’s not just me going back to the very start for Almas, that would be the night that would set the tone for the first 12 months of his NXT career. He was supposed to be the fresh new face on the scene, shutting up the annoying Tye Dillinger. But unfortunately for Almas, this was just when the crowd started backing Dillinger in a big way, and the “10” schtick was incredibly over.
From there, the crowd never really got behind Almas as a face, despite his victories over Dillinger. And it was clear that Almas wasn’t connecting with the fans, to the point that he was fed to the debuting Bobby Roode just a couple of months later. So, a heel turn quickly beckoned, in the form of attacking his partner after elimination from the 2016 Dusty Rhodes Classic.
But as happens so often, if the fans don’t care about you as a face, they won’t care about you as a heel either. At least not to start with, and Almas was spinning his wheels unable to move up the card. He was clearly capable, but that disconnect was so obvious that he was no longer pushed as a top star. He lost to Roderick Strong last January, and there were rumours he was bound for a return to Mexico before starting the storyline that would save his NXT run.
He became the party animal of the yellow brand, focusing more on the girls, the alcohol and the clubs than his matches. That was until Zelina Vega got her hands on him. She refocused him, admonishing him when he would taunt his opponent during matches, and lo and behold Almas went on a winning streak. The run would see a revitalised Almas earn an NXT Championship shot at TakeOver: WarGames against Drew McIntyre, which Almas won to become the new champion.
Johnny Gargano was one half of possibly the most popular tag team in NXT history: DIY. But at TakeOver: Chicago in May, Gargano was betrayed by his partner, Tommaso Ciampa, in one of the greatest moments in NXT history. But that started a downward spiral for Gargano, as Ciampa needed surgery to repair his ACL, so instead of getting revenge, Gargano was left to be haunted by what happened.
Gargano returned to action in time for TakeOver: Brooklyn III, where he squared off against a resurgent Andrade “Cien” Almas. The two put on arguably the best match of the night, ending when Vega threw a DIY shirt at Gargano. Gargano froze, allowing Almas to take advantage and score the win.
And much like Almas on his debut, that match would set the precedent for the coming months. Gargano would be a part of some great matches, but would never come out on top. That run included a United Kingdom Championship match against Pete Dunne last November. Gargano’s standing in NXT “fell” so much that he wasn’t one of the names included in the 8 man tournament to crown a new challenger to Andrade Almas’ newly won NXT Championship.
But an injury took The Velveteen Dream out of the tournament, so Gargano was drafted in as a replacement. He would defeat Kassius Ohno in the opening round, and would win a fatal-4-way match against Killian Dain, Lars Sullivan and Aleister Black to earn his title shot tomorrow night. Even then it wasn’t smooth sailing though, as Velveteen Dream would return to claim Gargano didn’t deserve to be in the match – so Johnny Wrestling successfully defended his shot against Dream just a couple of days ago.
So now we know how we got to this point the question remains – where do we go from here? I wouldn’t have thought Almas’ title reign would end this quickly, but I said the same thing about Drew McIntyre going into TakeOver: WarGames. And Johnny Gargano is the kind of superstar that can define NXT in 2018, much like Sami Zayn and Finn Balor before him. But, there are two wildcards going in to this match that could dictate how it goes.
Last week, WWE announced the signing of Candice LeRae, who is Johnny Gargano’s wife. They haven’t exactly tried to hide that either, as Gargano was shown in the crowd during LeRae’s matches in the Mae Young Classic, and he has been publicly commenting on LeRae’s signing. So, with that in mind, could LeRae make her official debut by coming down to the ring to negate Zelina Vega? It would be an easy story to tell. You would have to imagine that if this happens, it would be difficult to have Gargano lose in the process, and I like the aesthetic of Gargano celebrating in the ring with his newly won NXT Championship and his wife.
But the other potential wildcard would not bode so well for Gargano. That would be the return of his former partner: Tommaso Ciampa. Ciampa underwent surgery for his ACL injury in May last year, so it’s been around 8 months. He has been pictured by Bobby Roode in the gym, so he’s at least training for a return, if he hasn’t already been cleared. It is inevitable that we will see Gargano vs Ciampa this year, so if Ciampa is ready why not do it on Wrestlemania weekend? It could all be kick-started tomorrow night.
There have been rumours for a while of Almas being moved up to the main roster. To be honest, I’m not sure how that plays into the result, if it will at all, because any call up likely won’t happen until post-Wrestlemania at this stage. So either they can get the title off Almas, so that there are no loose ends to tie up come Wrestlemania season, or he can keep the championship to build his credibility ahead of moving up.
Either way, I think this is a sleeper candidate for match of the night. I think the expectation to have a blow away match will be on Black vs Cole, but I think the lack of expectation – not that people are expecting a stinker – could actually help these two in a reversal of how I think it hurt McIntyre’s NXT Title reign. Gargano and Almas have already proven they can put on a match that can hang with anything NXT has to offer. Now they just have to do it one more time.