— WWE NXT (@WWENXT) August 19, 2018
“I feel like you and I are destined to do this forever.”
You wanna know how good Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa are wrestling each other? They were able to make a Last Man Standing match great! AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura couldn’t make a Last Man Standing match great even before we got to that insipid bullshit finish, but Gargano and Ciampa found a way to make it work even with the continuing off-putting overzealousness of modern WWE officials who see fit to start 10-counts if one of the wrestlers doesn’t immediately kip up from a simple clothesline.
This feud, you guys. This goddamn feud. I could write a full 2,000-word essay on this feud alone. It has been, without exaggeration, my favourite thing of the whole year. Ciampa and Gargano have been utilising their wars across the last several TakeOvers to paint some utopian vision of what storytelling is possible in modern professional wrestling, where each and every single encounter across their years-long narrative – from scrappy underdog besties to deserving Tag Team Champions to the ultimate betrayal and now this blood feud – builds upon one another with such wounded bleeding heart that the result feels like watching a grand tragic opera unfold in real-time. These were two men who would die for each other, and now they are going to kill each other. And I don’t mean in the sense when fans and commentators say that wrestlers are “killing each other for our entertainment.” I mean that, by this point, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa are going to kill each other and they will not stop until one or both of them are literally dead and/or buried. If you think I am exaggerating, then you obviously didn’t watch this match where they both tried to do exactly that… and it’s gut-wrenching. Properly genuinely heart-breaking.
Ciampa vs. Gargano for the NXT Championship in a Last Man Standing match is the weakest of their official trilogy for me only because of that stipulation and accompanying smothering-parent refereeing. It took a while to pick up a full head of steam in contrast to their prior two encounters which hit the ground running and did not stop until the tolling of the bell, some of that being intentional and some of it coming from the referee completely failing to read the room and starting counts despite one of the two guys clearly not being done with the other yet. Other than that, it’s yet another masterpiece in a series that is seemingly incapable of delivering anything less than. Ciampa delivering two straight running knees and declaring that “we’re not done by a longshot” to Gargano’s face before being blasted by the chair he’d set up, Gargano hitting Ciampa with his own finisher onto the exposed wood of the ring, Ciampa wiping out a random production member and then literally burying Gargano with stage debris, equipment, padding, and said wiped-out production member… this was not a match lacking in memorable moments of its own right.
But, as this story naturally does, it always comes back to that stage. To that crutch. To those handcuffs. To that exposed concrete. Gargano and Ciampa want to kill each other, but Ciampa also wants to trap Gargano in an endless loop of their shared worst moment: the moment Ciampa broke up #DIY back at TakeOver: Chicago. The moment he killed friendship out of a paranoid delusion that Gargano would do the same thing to him whilst out on injury by flinging him into the Titantron and then crashing them both off of the stage. He’s forcing them both to relive their lowest point over and over again as a way to torment Gargano, yes, but also because it’s the one moment that was inarguably Ciampa’s. The one moment where everyone talked about him and only him, the lowest point that was also his highest point prior to winning the NXT Title – achieving Johnny Gargano’s biggest dream before Gargano himself could and even then only because Gargano inadvertently helped.
Meanwhile, Ciampa is also corrupting Gargano, turning the purest babyface in NXT into a vicious, obsessed bundle of rage whose vendetta against Ciampa is costing him his friends, his marriage, his principles, and his self-worth. Ciampa has corrupted Gargano to such an extent that Gargano is willing to kill the both of them so long as it means that Ciampa doesn’t win. And that’s why, at the match’s end, after kicking that broken crutch away into the crowd, after handcuffing Ciampa to the stage, and after hearing and rejecting Ciampa’s pleas for mercy and tearful remorse, Gargano pulls down his kneepad and sprints towards Ciampa with the running knee, hitting Ciampa… but also launching himself and his knee off the stage and into various production equipment, dislocating the knee and being unable to answer the 10-count, whilst Ciampa lucks his way into doing so.
It’s an ending that probably divides people because logically it’s super-dumb. But emotionally? It’s perfect. It is absolutely perfect because it fits the narrative totally. Gargano succumbed to the hate, to the corrupting influence of Ciampa and the trauma of his betrayal, and effectively tried to pull a murder-suicide because he just doesn’t care anymore. In the process, he gave Ciampa exactly what the latter wanted: Tommaso Ciampa won, completely. But even in victory, Ciampa seems defeated. He doesn’t lord his victory over the crowd or Gargano like in previous instances. He just slinks off to the back, broken. Even when he comes out at the very end of the show to pose with the title whilst Gargano is being tended to by medics, it feels hollow and wracked with fatigue and sorrow. Maybe his cries of “I’m sorry” whilst at the mercy of Gargano were genuine? Maybe they were as hollow as when he tried the same trick at TakeOver: Philadelphia? Who can say. All we can know is that it’s all just so sad. It never had to be this way, that’s the worst part of all, but now it is and they are going to do this dance forever until one of them literally kills the other a la Lucha Underground, yet even if they did I doubt it would bring them any comfort.
God bless these two absolute geniuses and emotional torturers. I swear that you could pen full dissertations around this feud by now. Theoretically, Gargano’s been written out for the time being, but there is absolutely one final chapter to go in the future. I don’t know when it will be – the pipe-dreamer in me hopes we can delay it until at least after TakeOver: War Games II because this feud has benefitted immensely from taking its sweet time – but I already know that my heart will not be emotionally prepared for it. Goddamn, I love wrestling.