Is This WWE's Best Rivalry?
No one will do it for you. The storied history of Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano.
“When it's said and done, people will be talking about it for years to come.” JG
In the glittering world of professional wrestling. Fierce fights between two bitter rivals are a core fundamental in the very foundations of the business.
Throughout wrestling history, we’ve been lucky enough to witness epic encounters between the likes of Ric Flair & Dusty Rhodes who sold out arenas around the US in the 1980s.
Later, children around the world cheered on Hulk Hogan in his battle with long term rival Andre The Giant.
More recently we’ve witnessed iconic moments shared between Kuzichka Okada and Kenny Omega in Japan as they sought to revolutionise what a rivalry could be in pro wrestling in the modern era.
With these wrestlers building stories which revolve around the core idea of building up a feud and maintaining a back and fourth competition which spans months and sometimes even years, all in the aim to attract crowds and generate interest in their matches.
In the current day of WWE there has been no greater rivalry in my opinion, than that shared between the 2 incredible performers, whom are the topic of this video. 2 talented men, who have gone above and beyond to deliver a story. Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa.
“See, I think a lot of people talk about Triple H and Shawn Michaels when they talk about me and Tommaso, which is the ultimate compliment for both of us. It's two guys who are just made to wrestle each other. I think we need to either team, wrestle, or just be paired together because we're just so polar opposite and so different in certain ways. We also have the same mind and the same way of going about things. It's almost like we're a perfect match for one another both in the ring and out. You look at us, and we look like opposite human beings. But as people too, we are opposite human beings. But we have the same wrestling mind. I think that really is the perfect combination there, where we bring out the best in one another whether we're teaming in the ring, telling a story, or a promo.” JG
April 5, 2019 – The closing moments of NXT Takeover New York.
A fan favourite athlete wins a career defining match to gain his first main championship in the promotion he has been fighting in for almost half a decade. His wife and fellow wrestler joins him on the entrance ramp at the brand’s biggest show of the year.
Through the pageantry, the bright-lights and screaming crowds, a momentary break or bravado allows his best friend to join them on the stage and share a heart-felt and emotional celebratory hug.
This moment of real humanity was both simultaneously joy-filled and heart wrenching. A culmination of a decade long story filled with glory, brotherhood and deceit. One of the greatest stories ever told in the wrestling industry.
And this is why…
Two exceptionally gifted entertainers, Johnny Gargano known amongst his fans as ‘ Johnny Wrestling’ an Ohio native with a penchant for all things noble, honest and good.
Tommaso Ciampa, an athlete who’s win at any cost mentality has earned him the moniker of ‘The Sicilian Psychopath’. Both had separate, but equally hard-fought paths through the early years of their careers.
Gargano started his wrestling career in 2005, working for the hometown of Cleveland All–Pro Wrestling (CAPW). Over the following years, Gargano worked for some of the top promotions on the American independent circuit, including Chikara, Dragon Gate USA (DGUSA), Evolve and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG).
Titles Gargano held include the Chikara Campeonatos de Parejas, the Evolve Tag Team Championship and DGUSA's Open the Freedom Gate Championship, which he held twice with his first reign lasting a record 873 days. During his independent days.
Gargano also made appearances for national promotions Ring of Honor (ROH) and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA).
“I was kind of an overweight chubby kid. When you tell your family members that – you know what, I am going to be a professional wrestler when I grow up… You look at pictures of me growing up, obviously, I can see why they doubted me. I get it. I don’t look like a wrestler. I did not look like a professional wrestler. But my mom was such a big supporter. She would just make costumes for me and she would support me 110%. And my Dad used to have independent wrestling shows in the back of his parking lot because he had a catering company. So, that was actually the first I set my foot in the ring. Because he had an independent wrestling show in the back of his catering company. The first time I got into the ring though, I just knew this is what I was made for. So, if it wasn’t for my parents supporting me and backing me 110%, I can honestly tell you I would not be here today.” JG
Tommaso’s career also began in 2005, working locally in Massachusetts, most notably Chaotic Wrestling and Top Rope Promotions. He then got his first recognition in the WWE in late 2005 when he was signed a developmental contract with WWE’s OVW promotion.
After this run with the company, in 2007 Ciampa headed back to the independent circuit with runs in notable companies like PWG and TNA. His most successful period at this point came when he started his illustrious run with ROH in 2011 where he won the ROH World Television Title from Matt Tavern.
The paths of Gargano & Ciampa crossed numerous times on the independent wrestling scene and they struck an immediate connection. Opposites definitely attract and the two men could see the other’s desire to make it to the top as a mirror of their own situations.
By 2015, Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano had both made a name for themselves as highlights of the indies. Both men had enjoyed success in several companies and they began to draw the attention of the biggest brand in all of pro wrestling WWE. Rumours began to spread in the locker room that scouts working for Vince McMahon were surveying the independent wrestling world for new talent for their NXT brand.
So when at Pro Wrestling Gorilla’s Vortex 3 show in June, as the two men came face to face, they agreed to leave it all in the ring, in the hopes that they may stand out amongst an unbelievably talented roster.
The start of the PWG match was one of a slow methodical tempo, with the build up to the contest consisting of both wrestlers acknowledging one another’s skill. As the crowd began to buy into the story that these 2 performers where equally matched, both men began to increase not only the speed at which they performed their slams and dives, but also the ferocity with which their attacks were landing.
As both men were allowed a chance to perform as host of technical suplexs and well-choreographed reversals, we really got an opportunity to see what these experts could deliver when given an opportunity.
The bout ended after Tommaso delivered a trio of finishers and was declared the victor. A truly great match, which not only showed the quality on display generally away from WWE, but also that Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano really could do it all.
They fought as both rivals and team-mates across the states. Earning reputations as some of the hottest property not signed to WWE contracts.
This all changed in 2015 when the 2 men reportedly signed what is knows as the illusive ‘Tier 2’ contract. Meaning unlike most of the roster, they could perform on both WWE productions aswell as independent shows around the world, allowing Gargano & Ciampa to fulfil their pre-arranged indy dates.
Ciampa & Gargano were paired together in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament, ( a tournament created in honour of NXT’s ‘father figure’ and head trainers.
One of the greatest wrestling icons of all time. Dusty Rhodes, arguably the greatest on the microphone in the business’ history & undoubtably one of the most influencial figures ever in wrestling, both as a wrestler & promoter in WCW)
Gargano & Ciampa defeated the team of Bull Dempsey and Tyler Breeze in their first round match. & lost in an intense yet short match to Rhyno and then everyone squasher Baron Corbin (the fans would count the seconds it took for Corbin to win his matches each week on NXT at this time)
The pair were united in defeated and used the loss as a way to re-focus and improve.
On of their last truly indy showing as a tag-team, on December 11, 2015, Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa unsuccessfully challenged The Young Bucks for the PWG World Tag Team Championship.
A classic multi-man match filled with excellent performances from all involved.
Outrageously inventive reversals and plentiful near pin-falls.
It’s available online, if you haven’t it’s worth checking out.
Aside from the obvious and much lauded exploits of the Young Bucks. You can really see the chemistry between Tommaso & Johnny. The smooth double-moves, their fluidity in and around the ring – it’s clear that there is something special between the two at this point.
Their new employers seemingly agreed.
“When I did my try-out, I was told no. But then a few weeks later, me and Tommaso were contacted for the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classics. So, literally, it was a whirlwind of – I did a try-out, and a dark match in NXT. Then, I was told no and then we did the Dusty Rhodes Classics. But it was one of those things where we did not have a contract. We were just brought in on a random basis. We never knew whether we were going to be on the television or not. We never knew where we were going to show up. But I think that made things even more exciting. And it made fans wanna see us even more because they knew they played a big part in our success. Every time you cheered, every time you chanted “Johnny wrestling,” every time you changed for me or Tommaso, you were playing a big part in getting us a contract.” JG
I have a theory, that the harder your job. The most unpleasant your tasks. The worse your pay. The more gruelling the schedule and the more tired you are. The more you bond with you peers. You understand each other’s pain, the struggles and the problems that you are all facing moving forward.
In many ways, professional wrestling is a dream job for many. But the brutal travel schedules, the injuries and the notoriously competitive industry makes wrestling one of the careers that takes the biggest toles on it’s workers.
I only say this because it helps me to truly appreciate the friendships and bonds that wrestler’s can gain whilst out travelling around the world. Sometimes for years at a time. Missing their families and in cities where they don’t speak the language.
Over the years many athlete’s have commented on having a closer connection with their team mates, more time spent each week with their colleagues, than their families at home.
"I don't know how many times we've all been in the locker room and said we can't believe we're all here doing this thing," Gargano said. "We've all supported one another; some of us have known each other for 10 years and been around the world together. In a sense, we've grown up together, and to be a part of the NXT team together is truly special." JG
They did just that gaining more popularity with the Full Sail fans and rising quickly to receive a tag-team title match at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 2. Against The Revival, known back then as ‘The Mechanics’.
In my opinion, match of the night. This tag match stole the spotlight and deservedly so. All four men put on an absolute clinic. A perfectly laid out break down of the tropes and preconceptions of tag matches.
The perfect ebb and flow with the crowd simultaneously nervous and excited throughout the whole match. The Mechanics played there part in the use of clever ring psychology, with a mixture of back-to-basics style ‘no flips just fists’ and dastardly old fashion heel work.
Tomasso & Johnny put in ever drop of effort that they had but still fell short, when The Mechanics cheated to win – they loss the match, but gained even more determination as their bond had never been stronger.
“I have said the word “dream come true” a lot. But you dream of winning a title in WWE. A lot of people when they grow up watching WWE, they say that I want that to be me who wins the title. And to be able to win the titles against Revival – especially coming after our match at Takeover: Brooklyn. Especially like how well received that match was. I honestly believe that if that match at Takeover: Brooklyn didn’t go the way it did, if it wasn’t so overwhelmingly praised, if people didn’t love that so much, I don’t think the tag title win would not have happened. So many things that went into this moment, that went into that particular night – especially for me, my mum was able to come. Candice was there. Tommaso’s wife was there. We had our family there. And get them to enjoy that moment with us. They have been a part of this as much as I have. So, to do all that and to win the titles, you can’t play it any better.” JG
Their new attitudes as a team led Gargano & Ciampa to proclaim themselves as #DIY, with the motto: “Do It Yourself. No one will do it for you.”
The reversed their unlucky loss at the next Takeover event in a NXT Tag title match in Toronto. Ciampa & Gargano’s crowning moment came in what could be considered match of the year for 2016 in any wrestling company. A 2/3 falls match with the still dominant champions Scott Dawson & Dash Wilder, their rematch against ‘The Mechanics’.
The emotion of this night still stands out, even amongst the plethora of amazing Takeover moments in recent years. The two teams somehow managed to top their previous performances and fought in a near-perfect display of just what the future of Tag-Team matches could be in WWE.
Innovation. Brutality & emotion. Made this one of my all time favourite multi-man matches and put all four teams on the map with a much bigger audience. They showed that the last Takeover’s much-appreciated clash was no fluke and more of a solidification that both teams deserve the attention they were receiving.
At San Antonio’s Takeover, in January of 2017 Gargano & Ciampa’s dream was cut short, when their confidence got the better of them. Understandable, when you see just how well the two of them had been wrestling over the last few months. They had taken their feet off the pedal slightly and were in for a rude and painful awakening at the hands of newcomers Authors of Pain.
These two big lads, Akam & Razar ran a mock over their competitors at the previous year’s Dusty Rhodes Classic Tag Tournament & easily earned there shot at NXT’s biggest event of the year. When they turned up in Texas, they were focused, dedicated & most importantly two absolute ham hocks.
They ran through #DIY in a brutal squash and ended their run as champions.
Tomasso & Johnny were hurt. They were embarrassed. But they weren’t defeated.
DIY tried to recapture the titles in 3-Way Elimination Match at TakeOver: Orlando where Author’s of Pain retained over both DIY & The Mechanics, which would be their last match in NXT before going up to the main roster.
With AOP on top for the next few months & The Mechanics out of the way. The story was set.
For the first Tag Team Main Event in NXT history. A ladder match at TakeOver: Chicago. DIY vs AOP.
A brutal match which saw Gargano & Ciampa seemingly taking the victory – when they performed their patented ‘Meet in The Middle’ with AOP caught in a ladder in the middle of the ring. Both men climbed the ladders & clambered for the belts held high above the ring – but Akam & Rezar proved yet again they were too much to be taken down by the pairing.
Executing double powerbombs onto both members of DIY and retaining their championship belts.
After the drawn at battle, with the bruises and welts evident on both Gargano & Ciampa’s bodies. Ciampa snapped. He took his disappointment out on his best friend. Smashing him around the ring and collapsing him through a table, leaving Gargano completely broken, both physically and emotionally – he was visibly saddened and confused by the action of a man, who up until that point he had treated like a brother.
Ciampa was a groomsman at Gargano’s wedding, they shared a rare and close bond.
So how did this all happen?
THE FALLOUT OF A FRIENDSHIP
Merely a week before the show Tommaso tore his ACL in a random house-show match, and some sites imagined who can replace him in a marquee match at TakeOver. He pulled through and went to the show.
During this brief spell of uncertainty fan’s discussed online who could possible replace Ciampa in DIY if he was unable to perform. Talk of dream match ups that complimented Gargano’s heroic outlook and gave him even better odds and winning NXT gold once again.
But Ciampa persevered and fought through injury at Takeover.
After the event and the aforementioned beatdown of Gargano, he took to the weekly NXT show to confront the audience and explain that he “wasn’t an afterthought” – Ciampa was angry that they had been so quick to side-line him and move on, just 24 hours after hearing rumours of his injury.
He only wanted the same things as Johnny Gargano. He had put in the same amount of hard work and travelled up and down the road, fighting in bingo halls and school gyms just like his former compatriot had.
So why had the fans sided with Johnny Wrestling over him?
Tomasso took this moment to double down on his wrestling ethos of win at all costs. He explained how he had tried to fit into Johnny Gargano’s mould and avoided using cheap tactics to win. He had been caring and considered in their thrown together match in the first Cruiserweight Classic tournament.
At that time both men took the honourable decision to ‘kick to hurt, not to injure’. Ciampa had done everything that we’ve come to understand as right and good within wrestling.
At the end of the match Tommaso had a chance to win, when Gargano was seemingly injured, he had a chance to be more brutal, a chance to potentially injure his friend and most likely win the title. But he didn’t take it. He did the honourable thing and lost to Johnny.
Ciampa explained that “being nice in the eyes of society” cost him “the cruiserweight classic”.
And even in defeat after all that, still the fans rejected him. He was now off for his unavoidable surgery but promised to come back as “the baddest son of a bitch” to reclaim his rightful spot on the roster.
Johnny Gargano took this opportunity to put DIY behind him and whilst Ciampa was away, made strides towards success in his singles career in NXT.
His first real test was against Andrade Cien Almas in a great opening match at Takeover: Brooklyn 3.
Where Gargano seemingly wasn’t willing to take a step towards the dark side. He proved that even with the betrayal from Ciampa previously, he wasn;t willing to continue the chain of evil.
Andrade certainly was, his manager Zelina Vega through a DIY shirt at Gargano in the closing moments of the match allowing Almas the Hammerlock DDT to win the match.
The memory of DIY still clearly haunting him, Johnny Gargano seemingly lost his determination. The attribute he had shown in abundance and that had up until this point held him in good stead throughout his wrestling journey.
He lost again to Andrade again in a match where he was clearly second best.
“My match with Andrade, people went into it with tempered expectations. They knew it was good, they knew I was good, but I don’t know if they knew that I could hit that main event level. I really wanted that opportunity.” JG
Suffered a defeat at the hands of then UK NXT champ Pete Dunne and started to slip into a terrible run of loses, to the likes of Fabian Aichner, someone he would have routinely beaten not months prior.
Gargano was dropping quickly towards the bottom runs of NXT.
He wasn’t even considered for a number 1 contenders match, for the NXT Championship when the opportunity rose. It was only when Velveteen pulled out of his match with Kassius Ohno through injury, that Gargano was allowed a slim chance at redemption.
Johnny won the match which propelled him into the number 1 contenders fatal four-way match with Killian Daine, Aleister Black & Lars Sullivan which through all the chaos and confusion managed to get the win when Black was distracted by the Undisputed Era.
Grabbing the opportunity with both hands Johnny didn’t give up. He did it for himself and he got a shot at the NXT Championship at the upcoming Takeover.
Philadelphia hosted one of NXT’s greatest matches when Johnny Gargano faced Andrade Cien Almas for a third time at Takeover. A modern day 5 star classic. Even if you are only a casual or passing wrestling fan, you may have heard of this match.
If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend searching it out and watching it. If you’ve already seen it, go and watch it again. It’s a moment of true beauty when Andrade & Gargano put on a masterpiece of wrestling magic that had fans and critic around the internet buzzing in delight.
Both men left it all in the ring and even though Johnny tried his best, even when Almas didn’t cheat, he still beat Mr. Wrestling. Who was left laying on the ramp defeated, as his nemesis, the man who had promised to come back and change it all, returned with fury and vengeance to beat down Gargano.
This was it. For Johnny Gargano he had given everything. He had stayed true to his beliefs of being good and honourable and it had failed him. He had lost his closest friend and every title shot afforded to him. He had come up short and was victim to his own honest spirit.
Broken and with nothing to lose, Gargano offered to put his career on the line, in exchange for one last title shot against Aleister Black in a steel cage match. Claiming that if he can’t win this then his is undeserving of his NXT contract and should give up his space for someone else to have a chance.
Gargano’s demeanour had changed and he could not afford another loss. On NXT as the steel cage was lowered and Aleister Black made his entrance Johnny attacked him before entering the ring. Igniting a fast paced and aggressive brawl around the ring before finally entering the cage.
Gargano wasn’t here to be friendly, to win admirers, he was desperate and you can see that when he clambers straight away to exit the cage for the cheap victory on several occasions aswell as trying to escape via the cage door. Acting in every way as brutally and dishonest as those he had previously fought against, grating Black’s face against the cage and cheap shotting him from behind when he got the chance.
The match progressed until Black was crawling towards the cage door and Gargano had climbed over the top and was ready to drop down to victory.
As Black attempted to make his last escape, a returning Tomasso Ciampa appeared and slammed the cell door closed in his face.
He then entered the ring and drew the attention of Gargano as he climbed back over the cage.
Johnny Gargano had lost his mind; he was as low as he thought that his career could go and he had rid himself of any morals.
He was past the point of wanting to win and as he and Ciampa stood either side of the ring, with Aleister Black kneeling in the middle. Gargano made his final steps towards the dark side of his character, combining for one of the most sickening ‘Meet in the middle’ knees ever.
He had managed to save his career, but at what expense?
GOOD. EVIL. MEET IN THE MIDDLE
“For story reasons, my match with Tommaso Ciampa at TakeOver New Orleans. I don’t think I will ever be part of an atmosphere like that, like ever. Just because I have never heard another crowd react to Tommaso, or a crowd react to another wrestler, like they reacted to Tommaso that night. Everyone in the building, literally everyone, from the front row to the tippy tippy top, everyone hated that man that night. During that era it was insane. I remember sitting in gorilla and watching his entrance and being like, Oh my god, I have never experienced something like this before.” So that is up there for me.” JG
All of the animosity all of the hatred and jealousy led to this point.
These two men who’s journeys had taken them to NXT Takeover in New Orleans. A match with too much hatred, too high of a risk for WWE to insure as they assumed the two men would stop at nothing to see the other destroyed.
The only fitting solution being an Unsanctioned Match. No rules, no limits and no room for second guessing.
I know I’ve said this a lot in this video, but this match really is a must-see. & if like me you are sick of taking my word for it. Here is internet wrestling community overlord Dave Meltzer’s take on the match…
“5 stars. One of the best storylines in the history of NXT. Fans finally got to see Gargano and Ciampa face off after a year full of betrayal and injuries. This had a lot of hype coming in and boy did it ever deliver. This match was special. You could feel the hate between Ciampa and Gargano throughout the match. They told an awesome story and it will go down as one of the best NXT matches in history.” Dave Meltzer.
The end of the match was an emotional rollercoaster. With Johnny proving that he was willing to give into his darker side, using straps and a crutch to batter and beat Ciampa before submitting him with Ciampa’s own knee brace contorted around his face.
Tommaso himself had been edging his way back to the honourable side of his character. In the match he begged and he pleaded, he reminded Gargano of everything that the two had been through together and recreated the scene where both men sat in the ring, a throwback to their match in the cruiserweight classic.
Throughout the match, Johnny was noticeably undecided, he held back on several occasions and was uncertain of whether he had what it took to defeat his greatest foe. Putting to bed his personal demands when he defeated Ciampa.
But this wasn’t the end. At least not from Ciampa’s perspective. He was still on a mission to get to the top and he desperately wanted his success to be at the expense of Gargano. He challenged him to a street-fight to settle the score once and for all. The winner going on to face Aleister Black for his NXT championship.
At Takeover Chicago 2, the two men fought in a gritty and aggressive battle.
Ciampa’s return and attacks had pushed his former ally over the edge and in a sick way through his cutting, honest promos and devious manipulation had made Gargano more like himself.
The two men now completely changed – This wasn’t about grappling or technique, they wanted nothing other than to injure, there was no respect and no sportsmanship. & the progression from the cruiserweight classic had come full circle.
Gargano got Ciampa’s hand-cuffed, he was defenceless and left at the mercy of Johnny’s kicks and strangle hold. It took officials and security to break up the pair, fearing serious injury or worse if Gargano was allowed to continue his path of retribution.
Gargano was pulled from the ring and separated from Ciampa, but as he entered back in between the ropes, Tommaso grabbed his head a slammed it full force into the previously exposed wooden ring boards.
Showing that because Gargano had given into his demons, because he had allowed himself to be consumed with hatred he had lost.
Granting Tomasso a shot at the title belt at the following Takeover and his eventual first title reign.
The story was continued between Ciampa and Gargano as in the Takeover main event, Gargano accidentally struck the champion Aleister Black with the title and allowed Ciampa to gain the pinfall and victory.
A point of complete opposites in the saga of DIY. This was simultaneously the crowning moment of Tommaso Ciampa’s career, coming back from an awful injury to realise his dream of becoming NXT Champion & also the lowest point of Gargano’s story so far – handing the title to a man who’s ethics he disagreed with on a fundamental level.
Even worse, he’d done so by behaving in the manner in which Ciampa would, through interference in the match and cheating.
General Manager of NXT William Regal had had enough. He had tried to let the animosity between these men play out.
Commenting that he thought the rivalry made gripping television for his brand. But the violence was too much, he wanted a way to put an end to all of the match interruptions and backstabbing, which in Regal’s eyes was ruining his NXT brand.
With Aleister Black in the mix things only got more complicated when he demanded his rematch at his recently lost championship belt. Per the rules of WWE back then, William Regal granted Black his rematch and at the same time made it a triple threat injecting Gargano into the match.
But, as always, nothing is straight forward in wrestling. Aleister Black, just days before Takeover was brutally attacked in the arena car park and left injured and side-lined for a projected 2 months, meaning he would have zero chance of competing in a three way in the days to follow.
The blood boiled again as Tomasso & Johnny quickly forgot the misfortune of Black and treated the now one on one as the death match that is had become. The story stayed the same and Johnny Gargano spent most of the match torn between doing the right thing and defeating his mortal enemy.
“Sometimes you have to give in to the darkness in hopes of becoming something more.. Anger. Suffering. Rage. Hate.” JG
In the aftermath of the match fans and wrestlers alike were left wondering who attacked Aleister Black and cost him his title opportunity.
Throughout the summer clues came to light, all of which hinted at Ciampa being the culprit. It would have made most sense, nothing personal, just Tommaso’s will to win at all costs rearing it’s head once again. Surely, it’s easier for him to retain his title with one less man in the match.
Months later and Black’s return led him to enter NXT determined to find out who attacked him and get retribution. As he was about to call for Ciampa’s head and proclaimed “I will find out who did this” – Johnny Gargano, alongside him in the ring replied “I’m right here”
In this second – Gargano revealed just how far he had gone. Just how much he had changed and that he now had been fully converted by his actions and the actions of Ciampa. He has lost the light and now lost himself. He was not regretful or filled with sorrow, but happy that he could now reveal his true self to the world and finally reach his potential.
The first true test of this new outlook came in the following match where Aleister Black sought retribution for his ambush at NXT Takeover War Games 2. Gargano started off from the bell with no regard for the rules. He wanted to show that his new approach to life was going to let him win and for most of the match, his already obvious in-ring skills, mixed with his new win at all costs persona nearly had it in the bag.
Maybe he was wrong all along and he should have given up on the people a long time ago, it all seemed to be working out for him. At one point even countering a deadly ‘black-mass’ from Black.
Until he realised – you must face the consequences of your actions. One way or another. Just as Johnny was about to win. Ciampa interjects and creates havoc at the end of the bout.
A little down the line and Johnny got his first North American title match against Ricochet.
While in the build up even reluctantly tagging with Ciampa against Black & Ricochet to promote the matches at the upcoming PPV. becoming more and more confused and seemingly directionless as we still struggled to come to terms with Ciampa.
At TakeOver: Phoenix Ciampa beats Black and Gargano beats Ricochet while using similar evil means to achieving success.
Tommaso feels that his has Gargano under his control in the the ultimate “Johnny not being himself” moment.
Shortly after this, Velveteen Dream defeated Gargano on NXT for the North American title proving that his past would come back to haunt him and that the evil deeds Johnny had been committing over the previous weeks would have a knock on effect. Here is where Gargano finally starts to realise his wrong-doing and starts to actively show signs of regret, with a clearer eye he could see how he’d changed in the past and veered away from his core of being honourable.
Tommaso realised now that if he let Gargano relinquish his evil and return to his former ways that he’d be in his way. In this moment Tommaso proved that he thought Johnny was better than him, he showed that he was worried about losing to Gargano worried about the possibility of him losing the NXT Championship again if good guy Johnny was in his way.
Ever the master manipulator, Ciampa pleaded for forgiveness, he implored Gargano to see how much he’d changed, he played the pity card and wanted sympathy for all the injuries and suffering he had been through whilst Gargano made his rise to the top.
Ciampa played on the emotions of Gargano and persuaded him to reform their tag-team for the upcoming Dusty Rhodes Classic.
What better way to rekindle their friendship than in the tournament that first brought them together in WWE. A truly fitting way for the pair to move on from all the hatred and reconcile.
All the while Ciampa playing the puppeteer and managing to keep Gargano’s mind off the NXT championship.
The reformed DIY were knocked out by eventual winners Ricochet & Black on the way to their Wrestlemania debuts.
At the end of the match Gargano realised that he was being used, realised the plan that had been unfolding all around it and withdrew from the tournament. Promising to enact his revenge, Gargano swore to never trust Ciampa again. The stage was finally set. Years of friendship, torn apart by greed and ambition. Violence leading to the destruction of a brotherhood created over a decade. All brought us to one final match.
THE FINAL SHOWDOWN (PART 1)
Johnny Gargano Vs Tommaso Ciampa at NXT Takeover New York. The biggest match of either man’s career up to this point and the definitive moment in NXT Championship history. Once and for all we’d all know who was the greater man. Which force, good or evil would triumph and which of these two athlete’s intertwined paths would lead them to the ultimate glory.
"We've been able to make this a movie, a comic book come to life," Gargano said. "People have been very invested in the twists and turns and we want to keep them guessing. All of us involved in telling that story are very proud of that. We've taken people on a great ride." JG
Then the devastating new came in.
Ciampa must undergo life-threatening surgery on his spine.
His wrestling career, for now. Is over.
Tommaso Ciampa a man who named himself ‘the master puppeteer’ took pride in his ability to control those around him, to control the outcome of his match and to control the trajectory of his wrestling career.
How painfully ironic that the story comes to a close with an event that was completely out of his control.
He was forced to vacate the belt and it was fought for at Wrestlemania weekend by Johnny Gargano & Adam Cole (Bay-Bee)
In the last chapter of this epic saga. Gargano pledged to not let Ciampa down, he wanted to prove that through everything he realised that Ciampa was just like him. That they were still brothers in arms and though their ambitions had led them astray, now all was sad and done and Gargano no longer needed to be held back by Ciampa’s demons.
Johnny Wrestling came to the floor that night. Through integrity and self-respect.
Through his ability to recognise the good within himself and to rise above the hatred of Adam Cole & The Undisputed Era. Gargano defeated not only them but that night he also defeated any evil left within him. He won his first NXT Championship and stood proudly on the ramp with his wife Candice LeRae. This leads us back to the scene I described at the beginning of the video.
When Ciampa comes out to give Gargano the recognition he deserves, he is admitted that he was wrong all along. He showed that Gargano & LeRae were his extended family and that he regretted the way that he had betrayed them.
Ciampa had stated from the start that the plan was for both members of DIY to become huge stars in WWE. He always wanted to do it together. His greed had blinded him and after he lost Johnny as a friend and the NXT title, he realised that his evil actions had left him with nothing.
His career ending injury, his new family at home – all reasons for him to reassess his life and try and make a change. He understands that for Ciampa to win the NXT belt he had to lose his morals and respect he had to go to the dark side. But that Gargano was able to do it without cheating was a signal that it could have been possible for him too all along. He was proud that even though he couldn’t get what he wanted, he could stand aside whilst Gargano got what he deserved instead.
I see this more as Ciampa putting his family back together. He lived with Candice and Johnny, they were his NXT family. As far as Ciampa knows, he has a surgery that may shelf him forever, and puts him on borrowed time. He’s had time to spend with his child, who he treasures more than the belt.
In character this could give him perspective that he's sacrificed two of the most important people to him on this journey, and the goal was always for both members of DIY to be huge stars. That dream came true for him in NXT at a questionable cost.
Now there's a chance for it to come true for someone who used to mean a lot to him.
He was happy to see that with everything they had been through – Gargano was enough of a good person deep down to overcome it all. This gives Ciampa & hopefully all of us a little hope.
“Not bad for a fat kid with a dream” JG
After many months of recovery and rehabilitation. By October 2nd 2019 Ciampa made his long awaited return in front of an expectant NXT crowd. What a jubilant feeling for Tommaso, who had suffered from horrendous luck with injuries and still managed to stay a fan favourite in his absence.
With Adam Cole the then NXT Champion, it only made sense for Ciampa to jump right back on track to a title shot, for a belt which he was never beaten for. However, he was only one man and Adam Cole had the full force of the Undisputed Era behind him, Ciampa’s only hope was to find an ally or two.
The next week, Tommaso Ciampa reached out to his old nemesis Gargano who agreed to aid in Ciampa’s conquest for gold. The 2 men were surprisingly joined by a returning Finn Balor. As it just about seemed that the Undisputed Era had met their match. Balor turned to attack Gargano injuring him in the process of delivering a brutal assault on the entrance ramp.
Ciampa was left to fend for himself and suffered a beat down at the hands of Adam Cole and his all-powerful faction.
Gargano received a neck injury which would see him out for a few months and the long-awaited reunion of DIY on hold.
A moment which at the time seemed so indicative of the way in which this now historic feud played out. It seemed that just when these two men began to gather momentum, whether it be as a tag-team or as bitter enemies, somehow something unforeseen would happen and rip the carpet out from underneath them.
I appreciate that both Gargano and Ciampa had no control over these horrific injuries. And the fact they have both been forced out of the storyline at crucial moments. And that must feel disappointing for two men who in my opinion deserved for this entire rivalry to play out in the orchestrated fashion which they initially planned. But that isn’t the case.
And for me, this brutal reality, that everything doesn’t always play out the way you want it to. That nobody will give you and advantage in life and that you must work for everything you earn. Have been the key concepts of the DIY team, right from the very start. It’s poetic in both it’s rhythm and it’s tragedy.
In January of 2020, with the future of DIY now hanging in the balance. As Tommaso Ciampa continued his feud with Adam Cole and The Undisputed Era, he once again found himself at their mercy in the middle of the ring.
At a moment when he needed it most, Gargano came in to make the save and fend off Ciampa’s attackers. The two men making a clear showing that after all that they’d been through, they didn’t want to fight anymore as foes and would continue on their path to tag-team glory.
"One more time for old time's sake" became the message of the match as, at the World’s Collide event, the pair faced off against Moustache Mountain who were representing NXT UK in a fantastic effort. DIY stood victorious at the end of what was a stellar display of multi-man wrestling. Before embracing in a touching moment which signified the teams newly rekindled unity. Or so it seemed.
THE FINAL SHOWDOWN (PART 2)
At NXT Take Over Portland in February Ciampa was offered a chance to challenge for his much beloved NXT title against Adam Cole. As per usual, during the encounter, Undisputed Era were ever present ring-side and began with their old routine of interfering and giving Cole the unfair advantage.
Just as Ciampa looked to be overwhelmed, yet again his closest ally made his way to the ring and helped fend off The UE. This could be it. This could be the moment of redemption for Ciampa and his chance at a deserved moment of personal glory.
With his best friend at his side, nothing could stop him. Except his best friend.
Gargano grabbed the title belt and swung it wildly towards Ciampa sending him crashing to the ground. Mere months after the pair had reconciled, once again the pair’s friendship was left in tatters.
A moment of betrayal towards Ciampa which was only made worse by the fact that moments later he was pinned and lost the match and his chance at the NXT belt.
“Yeah. A lot of that comes from the fact that for years we were best friends and lived together. I think we view wrestling in a very similar way, through the same lens. We have a similar idea of what we want wrestling to be, as far as integrating an immense amount of story into the performance. Whether the saga is a movie or each bit is a movie, and it ends up being a trilogy, or in this case, I guess we're at five chapters now.” TC
As the world began to lockdown at the start of the pandemic in 2020, the wrestling world was still starting to adapt.
Before the Thunderdome and all the clever tricks and tools WWE would go on to use in order to keep the show running. Triple H sanctioned an empty arena match as one final chance for these two men to settle the score.
Ciampa and Gargano had been attacking each other and destroyed parts of the performance centre as their rivalry boiled over.
The story was clear.
As almost a mirror of their entire story so far, now Ciampa found himself as the betrayed friend and Gargano was once again the ruthless manipulator.
As the match was set it became clear that the action would be pre-recorded and presented in a more cinematic style than the usual NXT in-ring work.
There was a slow and methodical start to the match, akin to their very first bout way back in 2015. The pair brawled around the performance centre and delivered a stunning set of moves including a brutal looking Willow’s Bell onto the exposed wooden boarding beneath the mat.
Gargano’s wife and long time conspirator interjected into the proceedings and betrayed her husband with a low blow which seemingly took him out of the match.
However, in what can only be described as an unsatisfying ending, it became clear that Gargano was in cahoots with his wife the whole time, prepared for the groin shot by wearing a protective cup, this momentary confusion caused by Le Rae allowing for a victory for Johnny Gargano. The instance felt almost surreal as the entire feud was promised to end at this moment.
In front of no fans, with no reaction. The match flickered out like a puff of smoke. Just as this great rivalry in began, unexpectedly and in an instant it was over.
“I don't know if I’m happy with how it ended. I’m happy it did and I'm happy we were able to move on. I think we needed that. I think NXT needed it. I think the fans needed it. I was really looking forward to the dynamic between Johnny and I in the final match because I had no clue where the crowd was going to lay. I just didn't know who they were going to cheer and boo and I feel like that that noise and that energy adds so much to it that I wish we had that part.” TC
In almost a century of pro wrestling, an entertainment filled to the brim with memorable and expertly executed rivalries. There is something so special about the story which Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano managed to tell.
An exhilarating rollercoaster ride full of emotionally powerful peaks and heart-breakingly unfortunate troughs.
The modern world of WWE has many a detractor and a countless amount of online commenters willing to relay just what it is about the current product which they find so unappealing.
However, one thing is undeniable. The unscripted, live nature of many of the interactions which occur on WWE’s NXT programming and the unpredictable nature of life, culminates in moments which once captures by the studio cameras and relayed to us as fans at home, can live long in the memory of many a grappling fan such as myself.
Before Gargano and Ciampa joined WWE they were never known for being a tag-team, their individual successes prove that.
Nobody could have planned or predicted the chemistry which these two contrasting individuals would go on to share. Yes the scheduling and outcomes of each and every interaction between the pair would be heavily scripted by those behind the scenes. But nobody could have expected for the feud to be ground to a hault do to so many untimely injuries.
This has meant that now that all is said and done. And the sun has set for the final time on this turmultuous story.
We are left with the knowledge that we have witnessed one of the most engrossing stories ever told within a pro wrestling ring. And a story which because of the very nature of WWE may only ever have been possible, within a wrestling ring.
One thing is for certain. I feel privileged to have been watching NXT for this entire run, to be able to say that I saw these 2 men’s narrative play out week after week for years is something myself and many other wrestling fans around the world must rejoice in.
Because when pro wrestling is bad, it sometimes leaves us questioning why we even tune in. But then this kind of story comes along and answers that question for us.