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My instant reaction upon Johnny Gargano’s shocking actions against Tommaso Ciampa in NXT Takeover: Portland’s final moments was one of dread. Here we go again, I groaned. Just when we thought the saga between Gargano and his arch nemesis had exhausted itself entirely, a new wrinkle was added to the tale. A wrinkle that will see us relive their infamous rivalry all over again. The roles may be reversed, but that doesn’t change those playing the parts.
After recalling the events immediately preceding Gargano’s turn, however, it opened up to me a wealth of nuance and callbacks, calling for me to do a complete about-face. After seeing a deluge of criticism online for this new chapter in NXT lore, my opinion is most likely a controversial one. Still, this was, for me, an ingenious addition to the many instances of long term storytelling and character development that NXT has become an expert in executing.
For some reason, though, this achievement seems to have been glossed over. Replaced, instead, with the narrative that Gargano and Ciampa’s story has been done to death. A narrative that I hold my hands up to voicing before the curtain even came down on its first act as 2018 wound down. If such a sentiment is held for this story, though, then why not for other multi-year epics considered as classics by their fans?
Austin and The Rock. HHH and Michaels. Rollins and Ambrose. Even as far off as Okada and Tanahashi, or as long ago as Steamboat and Flair. These are but a portion of wrestling’s rivalries that defined a generation. Defined a company, even. They were sagas that explored tropes such as heartache and betrayal. Jealousy and one upmanship. Revenge and redemption. I wonder, then, why the most current iteration of such a tale is met with disdain when it examines all of the above.
On the surface, Gargano may come across as a one dimensional character due to his cookie cutter, woe is me persona. He is someone I frequently struggled to feel sorry for because, honestly, Gargano does enough of that on his own. Yes, his acumen in the ring is second to none. He’s in the conversation for competing in the best matches ever wrestled under the WWE banner. Many times over, too. The NXT Universe is more than appreciative of the fact. One could argue he deserves that unconditional adoration. However, this worship-like behaviour suits Gargano just fine. For he has the fans in the palm of his hand. Right where he wants them.
This blind love from fans allowed Gargano to throw his wife Candice LeRae’s wishes back in her face as he sought revenge against Ciampa. A revenge that saw him reach such desperate lows as to have his wedding ring spat on and discarded into the crowd. It allowed him to be so hampered with jealousy, and careless with a championship belt, that his recklessness not only cost Aleister Black the title on that infamous television episode, but placed it in the hands of the man who had ruined his life so resolutely. Every time he sought vengeance, it was done so with diminishing returns. To the detriment of the relationship with his wife, his peers, and to that of his grip on all that is good. Just like those returns, so too did my sympathy for Gargano diminish.
Ciampa was undoubtedly a sadistic individual before, during and after all of this. In fact, he may have had one of the more memorable heel runs in WWE history. But you knew where you were with Ciampa. You knew what his mission was and why he was doing it. When all was said and done, Ciampa wore his black heart on his sleeve. So much so, that Gargano was poisoned by Ciampa’s psychological warfare somewhere along the way, to the point where he couldn’t rise above the hate. Rather, he was engulfed within it, smothered by it. It wasn’t until he was revealed as the culprit behind Aleister Black’s assault in the Full Sail car park that everyone saw Gargano for who he really was. A man obsessed. Obsessed not just with winning NXT’s most coveted prize, but with Ciampa himself.
For Gargano to parade around Full Sail not long after these events, still portraying himself to the children in attendance and those at home that he was still the hero of the piece, was a complete break from reality. It showed just how insular he was. He didn’t have the NXT Universe’s best interests at heart. He possibly never did. Gargano was only concerned about his own.
Fast forward a few months, and Gargano had taken advantage of Ciampa’s real life tragedy. It tied in perfectly with the on-screen redemption angle Gargano had initiated when he pulled the wool over Ciampa’s eyes during an unsuccessful Dusty Tag Team Classic campaign. Garagano then entered the history books as the first ever NXT Grand Slam champion. He stood tall at NXT Takeover: New York after an epic and much lauded battle. One which saw him fend off not just the wily Adam Cole, but the rest of the Undisputed Era scrum.
The match, as well Gargano himself, gained all the plaudits one could imagine. His commitment to NXT and its grandiose Takeover ethos saw mountains of praise heaped upon his shoulders. The event even holds that bit more legend, what with it all culminating on the same weekend as a milestone thirty-fifth Wrestlemania. What followed with Adam Cole was the next chapter in Gargano’s career. A rivalry that was similarly excessive in style and build to that of his war with Ciampa. The series itself seemed to bloat until the ultimate pay off occurred in what can only be described as a match inside an Acme warehouse. Overblown, comical and, for some, egregious.
Gargano left this feud the loser. His future in NXT was up in the air, and he left that Toronto Takeover without the one thing he claimed to have pursued for well over a year. His reaction to what should have been a crushing loss? A shrug of the shoulders and an “oh well” for the crowd, as he lapped up a standing ovation. A questionable response from where I sat.
Things had simmered down for Gargano after that. NXT’s first few months as a two hour television show saw him make fleeting appearances, before becoming unfortunately injured as the roster waged war with each other, as well as Raw and Smackdown. It was only as the new decade began that Gargano came back into the fold to reignite a program with Finn Balor.
During this time, however? Tommaso Ciampa had defied medicine itself. Only months after being warned that one more bump could paralyse him, Ciampa returned to Full Sail and immediately set sights on the NXT Championship. He threw caution to the wind and his body into battles that clearly stated what his sole mission was upon his return. To get his life back. Ciampa did not take no for an answer at any point, as he scratched and clawed his way back into the title picture. So driven was Ciampa heading into Takeover: Portland, his desperation set an uneasy tone. One that suggested he would never be the same if Goldie didn’t come home. And, so, the stage was set.
We may never know what Gargano was thinking as the match from this past Sunday rolled on. Gargano may have made peace with Ciampa once and for all. We were at least led to believe this was the case, following the camaraderie on display during DIY’s match with Moustache Mountain at Worlds Collide. Gargano may have even been minding his own business backstage, quietly licking his wounds following a valiant but unsuccessful effort against Finn Balor earlier in the evening.
Be that as it may, one thing is for certain in my eyes. When O’Reilly, Strong, and Fish rushed the ring towards the end, all those memories of the biggest night of Gargano’s career all came flooding back. Not, however, for the right reasons.
The scene was playing out as a carbon copy of when Gargano overcame such insurmountable odds this past April. ‘Era members coming at Ciampa from all angles, only for Ciampa to eliminate each threat with the same resolve and determination as that of Gargano in New York. Ciampa was, as he had repeatedly proclaimed in the lead up to the event, about to get his life back. Daddy was indeed coming home. And all Gargano could see was that it was at his expense.
Ciampa had his life previously, and it was the downfall of Gargano’s then, too. He wasn’t willing to let Ciampa become the king again, and took matters into his own hands. Gargano will have felt such a poetic justice in stealing Ciampa’s life away from him with that belt shot to the head. An action identical in almost every way to how Ciampa won the title the first time around. At the time of writing, Gargano’s reasons for this betrayal haven’t been made clear. Suffice it to say, though, that I would not be surprised if Gargano is retelling his story based on the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth model.
Whether by accident or design, this story has layers, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. Wrestling’s greatest rivalries have had countless articles, audio, and video poured over in tribute to them. Gargano and Ciampa are developing a career arc worthy of the same appreciation and attention to detail. Especially now without a clear endgame in sight.
With the roles of hero and villain reversed between the two, what we initially thought was the beginning, middle, and end was only the first half. This time, Gargano is the one looking to make Ciampa’s life a living hell. This time, Ciampa is the one desperate and self-destructive enough to lose himself both mentally and physically on his quest for revenge. Just like the aforementioned rivalries, many twists and turns are still to unfold. So, before we write Gargano and Ciampa 2.0 off as played out and self indulgent, let the story be told. Let it become the HHH and Michaels, or the Cena and Orton of our generation. Let it become the rivalry that ultimately defines NXT.
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