The much-lauded unsanctioned contest between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is something that I simply cannot get out of my head. Ever since that fateful special for the yellow brand concluded, I’ve been poring over why this blood feud has felt so special. NXT has pulled off long-term booking in the past, so while the slow build contributed towards the payoff, it wasn’t the sole reason why it was so spellbinding.
Johnny Gargano has been on a hot streak as of late. He’s scored two five-star match ratings from Dave Meltzer since January, ending an almost seven-year drought of perfect scores for the WWE. Ciampa, meanwhile, put on a career-defining performance in his first match in almost a year. To come back from a torn ACL and be part of a wrestling clinic with your best friend must be an elating feeling for the man.
It’s all good and well having such a captivating story, but it’s the execution that matters. Components such as Ciampa’s injury and subsequent heel turn, as well as Gargano’s quest for validation in the eyes of the fans would be rendered moot if the match didn’t work. That’s where the fans came in.
Whether we want to admit it or not, crowd reaction can make or break a match. Go back and watch Rock vs. Hogan at WrestleMania 18 on mute and tell me that it’s an all-time great bout. The relationship between the wrestlers and the crowd shaped that match. Hogan has even said that he and Rock switched the heel and face roles not long into it to cater towards the unexpected groundswell of support for Hulk.
WWE know about the importance of a crowd, the opening of Gargano vs. Ciampa proves this. Tommaso was the first to come out and did so with no music. This kept in line with the established NXT continuity of him entering the ring to cut a promo, only to let the crowd do the talking for him. With very few words, he managed to get over as one of the most hated villains in the entire wrestling industry. Through taking advantage of the symbiotic relationship between performer and spectator, very little needed to be done to sell people on despising the bad guy.
That’s why Ciampa’s entrance was so clever. It’s not that he didn’t come out to theme music, the crowd booing him was his theme music. When you can elicit that kind of reaction without making a sound, why bother? Ciampa could have entered to a new heel tune by CFO$, they had nearly a year to come up with something. If you don’t have to do something heading into a match, not doing it is the best course of action.
So, we have our villain of the piece, but he’s nothing without a beloved hero. Johnny Gargano needs little work in that department. His compelling journey from being broken down by betrayal to coming within touching distance of championship glory is a classic tale to tell. Everything about Johnny draws you to him. He’s a handsome guy with a cute, almost dorky charm to him. He has an eye-catching moveset that pops the crowd and, almost diametrically opposed to his mortal enemy, he has a theme song that is catchy and upbeat.
What has just been described is wrestling at its very core. A detestable heel who relies on sneak attacks and picking the bones like a vulture and a plucky underdog babyface who has been done a great injustice. Wrestling doesn’t have to be complex. A storyline doesn’t need five key players, branching subplots and a bevy of face/heel turns. All you need is to know who you’re supposed to cheer and who you’re supposed to boo.
That’s the crux of this encounter. You could show the match to anybody without context and they’d be able to adequately explain to you who was good and who was bad. Wrestling has always been about the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. Small touches such as Gargano hesitating to finish Ciampa and giving him one last chance at redemption, only to be prepared for betrayal don’t insult our intelligence, they reward it. The finale of Ciampa’s own hubris and the knee brace that he used as an excuse for so long being used to defeat him heightened the drama to its natural conclusion.
It’s so rare in WWE for a story to get everything right from beginning to end. NXT have achieved both a legitimately over babyface and a heel that the crowd are ready to jump the barricade and attack themselves. In a world where fans cheer who they want, regardless of their alignment, it’s refreshing to see things being brought back to basics. The blend of old school wrestling storytelling and new school athleticism was a welcome change. If NXT continues in this direction, then we can all be safe in the knowledge that strong storytelling in WWE is alive and well.
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