It’s WrestleMania on Sunday and I’m planning on doing a post then about the storytelling structure of the WWE and why it can be good fun, but I’ll leave the rest of that for then. WrestleMania weekend has become a huge deal not just for the WWE but for professional wrestling in general, most of travelling promotions in the US, be they large or small, book up venues in or near by to the city that WrestleMania for shows that same week. They all know that a huge number of fans are going to be descending on that city from all over the world and they all almost always sell out. WWE themselves have made a big weekend out of it with fan meet and greets and events held on the Friday, NXT Takeover on the Saturday, Mania itself on the Sunday and then Raw the next night to kind of start the whole thing over again. I’ll go into the last too more at the weekend but I wanted to focus on NXT today.
I was going to talk about a couple of the big storylines away from the main WWE product today but I have chosen to stick to just one, the rivalry of Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano.
The other story line I was going to write about was the implosion of Bullet Club and the feud between Cody Rhodes and Kenny Omega but I feel like that story requires a lot of back story and vague knowledge of multiple promotions to get the full context so I’m going to keep it some what simple instead. Before I get into it you need to understand that wrestling is a TV show performed in front of a live audience. It has story lines and writing like any other but also features improv and athleticism more commonly seen in stand up and the olympics. If you watch it understanding this it can be just as engrossing and enjoyable as Game of Thrones or any other show. I’m going to talk about it as such, unless I specify otherwise everything I talk about is completely kayfabe, the term used for when something is in storyline and by design.
Ciampa and Gargano followed similar paths, both worked the independent circuit while honing their talents, each had done some work for the WWE but only in the periphery and never to much success. They ran in similar circles but didn’t have any matches with or against each other in their early careers. In 2015 they signed contracts with NXT, the ‘developmental’ programme of WWE but were not tied to exclusivity until later in 2016 meaning they could continue to perform at independent shows as well.
By this point NXT had grown in popularity and reputation as not just a place for developing new talent but also as a way in to WWE for a lot of well respected stars from outside the company. When the pair first arrived they were put together as a team and entered into the first Dusty Rhodes Classic tournament. They had some success but ultimately didn’t proceed. They would have a few more tag matches together but were also being tested as singles competitors. It was in the Cruiserweight Classic tournament that the two faced off against each other in a fantastic match. It was hard hitting and the two took it to each other in a way that made you think they were mortal enemies. There was a great line from one of the commentators when he exclaimed “These two are a tag team?!” Just as Ciampa had set Gargano up to strike him hard with a running knee to the face, in that moment though he hesitated and it led to Johnny getting the win.
It seemed as though the team up was short lived but the two sat together in the ring and it was clear their friendship and partnership would endure.
Over the next few months they solidified themselves as tag team wrestlers, now going by the name of DIY they were rolling and worked their way up to a series of title matches against the reigning champions The Revival.
It seemed like no matter how hard they fought and how much they deserved it, The Revival would always have DIY’s number and would win by hook or by crook. When the hero tandem finally won the day it was an amazing moment of catharsis for the audience and seemingly them too. They had always been portrayed as the scrappy go getters, the team that wouldn’t quit despite all odds.
This was one of the best rivalries in wrestling while it lasted, the two teams had great in ring chemistry and battled and forth over the tag team titles in multiple matches until the new guys in town, the ominous Authors Of Pain came and pretty much laid waste to both teams and becoming the dominant new champions.
DIY tried to regain their titles unsuccessfully against the larger AOP but were no match for them under regular rules. Finally a ladder match stipulation was put in place in what would end up being the teams final encounter with each other. Unfortunately a real life injury to Tommaso Ciampa just days before the match threatened his participation and rumours of a replacement partner started swirling. It is unclear if these rumours were cleverly planted by NXT writers or if the team behind the scenes is just very good at adapting and rolling coming up with fantastic storytelling in a short amount of time. Either way the injury would eventually work in everyones favour and Ciampa was able to compete but was clearly limited throughout. In kayfabe they have since said he tore his ACL in the ladder match but it is not clear if it actually happened earlier or if it was just weakened previously and torn when he took a bump off the top of the ladder.
A match like this generally would favour the quicker and more nimble team but it didn’t stop the larger duo dominating for much of it and beating down both Johnny Gargano and Ciampa. They were able to fight back and Johnny almost had the match won until there was some foul play from AOP’s manager. It looked like once again DIY were going to get cheated out of a title win but Ciampa got the team back in the fight until he was demolished by both members of Authors Of Pain.
In one fateful moment he was on his knees and about to be struck in the face by the ladder, the parallel to when he hesitated to strike his partner in the Cruiserweight Classic was clear, only this time Gargano made the save, pushing his best friend out of the way and taking the blow himself. After that it was AOP who got the win and left the ring leaving Johnny and Tommaso lifting each other up and supporting each other fully while the entire crowd cheered them on. Modern audiences are tuned into what is going on and were aware that it was likely the team were going away for a while due to the injury.
Just as we thought the show was over Ciampa leans into Gargano and says “This wasn’t our moment… this was my moment.” And proceeds to viscously attack his tag team partner. The announce team did a really good job of selling the confusion and the expressions on both members of DIYs faces as the show came to a close were perfect. Ciampa, sat calmly on the edge of the stage with cold dead eyes and no emotion on his face looking down at Gargano who has been put through a table and looks not just physically but emotionally betrayed and destroyed.
The following week Tommaso Ciampa comes out to explain his actions, stating that he felt betrayed by Johnny and all the fans when news broke that he was hurt. The idea that he was replaceable made him snap and he decided that if he was going to be going away for a while then he was going to make sure Johnny was too. It would have been schlocky heel wrestler talk from a lesser performer but he was very convincing and turned instantly from a fan favourite to the most hated bad guy on the roster, perfect.
It was months before either man was seen again and when Johnny Wrestling made his return the fans were elated, he came back with vigour, new music, fresh attitude and a fighting spirit. Unfortunately he failed to win any matches for some time and seemed phased. A few times he was distracted by DIY shirts in the crowd and such, it seemed he needed to remember how to be a singles wrestler again.
It didn’t slow him down though, he rebuilt his momentum and ended up having some really great matches and eventually beat three bigger and stronger competitors in a fatal four way to determine a new number one contender for the NXT title, currently held by a cocky bad guy character, Andre Almas and his manager, Zelina Vega.
During that match it appeared as though Johnny Gargano was about to become champion when Vega threw a DIY shirt in his face distracting him long enough for Almas to beat him, as he was leaving the ring Tommaso Ciampa reemerged for the first time in months and struck Johnny with his crutch.
When Johnny requested a rematch for the title the heels agreed as long as the stipulation was made that if they won Gargano would leave NXT. A fired up Johnny Wrestling agreed and once again almost had that match won. This time though, while the referee was distracted Ciampa came through the crowd and again surprise attacked Johnny costing him the match and his place on the NXT roster.
That almost brings us up to date. Since then Ciampa made appearances at shows and came to the ring with a microphone but was getting booed down by the crowd every time, it was a fantastic bit of fan interaction and it literally went on for weeks. I was expecting after the first time that it would die down and he would address the situation but credit to not just the crowd but to the creative team for once again leaning into the situation and what the audience is giving them, Ciampa didn’t ever get to say his piece but his frustrations were visibly growing, he started getting in the crowds faces and shouting at them and teating their Johnny Gargano signs. One such encounter, clearly staged but cleverly set up over a few weeks involved him grabbing a sign from a hooded audience member who then revealed himself to be Johnny who went on the offensive before being removed by ‘security.’
The pair have been cleverly using social media platforms such as instagram to further the rivalry since then with Gargano apparently stalking Ciampa and harassing him at his home and on his way to and from the NXT training facility. All of this has led to the general manager giving the two an ‘unsanctioned match’ at this Saturday’s big Takeover event, almost exactly a year since their split. The match will be no holds barred and will probably be extremely over the top but the two individuals have proven to be so good in the ring together that I can’t wait to see what they do. I’m more invested and interested in this story than most others on TV right now and I hope I’ve done it some justice.
This was the longest post I’ve written in a while! Tomorrows will be nice and short.
See ya then.