Tomorrow night is NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 4. It looks set to be a fantastic show, with all of the matches having so much potential. But as always with my Spotlight columns, I only pick one to look at in depth, and to be honest I’m a little surprised looking back on it that I haven’t written about Johnny Gargano vs Tommaso Ciampa before.
I think the reason for that may lie in the beauty of this rivalry – it writes itself.
For all the complaints that are strewn across the internet about WWE’s creative team, NXT delivers 90% of the time. Even on those rare instances where it feels like something didn’t quite go the way it should have it tends to be leading to something bigger and better, or when a build feels a bit lackluster the match delivers to make you forget about the weeks gone by in the end.
And this Gargano vs Ciampa arc has been masterful. From becoming a beloved tag team quite out of nowhere upon their debuts, any split was always going to be heartbreaking, and at TakeOver: Chicago it certainly was that.
Any split was also inevitably going to lead to an intense personal feud between the two men. We saw that they could deliver big on matches when they had what was my match of the first round in the Cruiserweight Classic two years ago, and that was with the story of being friends fighting. The prospect of actually having a grudge to battle over made their matches an enthralling prospect.
But Ciampa got hurt. He was out of action on NXT TV for almost a year. That could have been the death of the rivalry if Gargano moved on to other stories.
Actually it couldn’t have been, because Ciampa wasn’t going to let him. What could have been the end of a potentially spectacular series of matches before they had even begun ended up being the best thing that could have happened for the story, as we got character development that was far more fleshed out that I could ever have dreamed when Ciampa took his moment for his own.
We saw Gargano struggle to move on from the memories of Ciampa that haunted him. He lost match after match, he missed opportunity after opportunity. It was six months before things started looking up for him again, when an undisclosed injury to Velveteen Dream took him out of the running to become the number one contender for the NXT Championship, Gargano received what could have been his last chance, but he grabbed it with both hands and refused to let go.
He earned a championship match, only for his crowning moment to be denied by the returning Ciampa who it seemed only showed up with the purpose of reminding Gargano of what happened in Chicago.
Others have gone into the nuances of what has happened since. Ciampa recreated his moment to drill it into Gargano’s mind time and time again. Ciampa would not let Gargano move on and forget, because that was the only thing that kept Ciampa in relevance while he was injured too. Both men felt betrayed by the other, and both men were determined to rid themselves of the burden that was their former best friend.
And so we came to TakeOver: New Orleans. The match a year in the making. Passions and tensions running high. And Gargano triumphed. He was able to overcome his nagging nightmare, and should have been able to move on to his other main focus: becoming NXT Champion. But Ciampa wouldn’t let him.
Ciampa wouldn’t lie down after the loss and let him be. In his own words, Gargano won the battle, but it would be Ciampa that would win the war. Gargano ended up in the hospital again. Candice LeRae got involved, and would get hurt herself. Gargano had two wins over Ciampa, but it was the Psycho Killer that was winning the mental conflict at every turn.
At TakeOver: Chicago II, in the same building that DIY split up, Gargano and Ciampa put each other through hell. Only this time, Ciampa found a way to walk away – however battered and bruised – able to call himself a winner.
That’s all he wanted, to prove that he was better than the man he believed was about to replace him.
He had suckered Gargano into letting emotions get the better of him. Ciampa had forced Gargano into becoming more like him to try and destroy him, knowing that it would tear Gargano apart having to sink to those depths that he had despised for over a year. Ciampa took advantage, and won.
And so Ciampa then did exactly what Gargano had tried to do after the first match. He set his sights on the NXT Championship. And Gargano tried not to let him, but he would instead assist him and Ciampa would become the top champion on Wednesday nights. It’s possible that Ciampa doesn’t even care about being champion. But Gargano does, and Ciampa knows that it hurts Gargano to see him hold the title and call himself the best, especially knowing that Gargano is the reason he can.
Gargano has to deal with knowing that Ciampa has bested him – both in the mind games and in the ring. But now Johnny Wrestling has seen the light.
He realises that he has to fight his own fight. He realises that in trying to make the diabolical, conniving Ciampa atone for his sins, Ciampa will always have the better of him. He has to do things his way, and prove that his ways and means are better than Ciampa’s, more effective than Ciampa’s, and that he really is the better man. Even better, because of Aleister Black being taken out of the equation, Gargano can finally capture the elusive NXT Championship by doing so.
Only it’s a Last Man Standing match. Which means that under normal circumstances Gargano would have to employ some Ciampa-like tactics to keep his opponent down for a count of 10.
This is a battle of wills. This is neither man willing to let the other have success. This isn’t going to be about who can inflict the most devastating punishment on the other, this is going to be about who has the stronger capability to keep coming back for more when they’ve already been pushed beyond their limit. This is a war. This is a masterpiece.
Regardless of the outcome, this is storytelling. This is a storyline that has run from the minute the Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa set foot in NXT. Gargano will be a much bigger face coming out of this than he was a year ago, and Ciampa will be a much bigger heel than he was a year ago. Storylines and matches should leave all the superstars involved in a better place than when they started, and this feud has accomplished that and then some.
What worries me to an extent is that they have to try and top last time. They had a spectacular match, full of violence with moves onto the exposed ring panels, on to the concrete and on the stage. With the title on the line and the Last Man Standing stipulation, it feels like the stakes are that much bigger, and the ante of the match has to be well and truly upped. What more can they do? We’ll have to wait and see.
As for the result, I think it’s Gargano’s time. Three matches over a four and a half month span is extremely rare in any of WWE’s brands today, and I think it feels right to end the feud here. Gargano can’t come up short to end the feud. I wonder if Gargano will win the NXT Championship, but Ciampa will get called up to the main roster. That way both men have something to brag about.
Either way, this is a feud that can always be revisited down the line and feel special because of the work of everyone involved. If this is the end of this chapter, whenever these two come face to face down the line there will be guaranteed electricity. And that is what professional wrestling is all about.