In every epic love story, there must always be three things. A beginning, a middle and unfortunately, an end. Romeo and Juliet. Tony and Maria. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham to name but a few have all experienced that same pattern. The same logic can be applied in wrestling too.
Like most things in life, we feel like we’ve seen it all before. Those brief exchanged glances and titillating encounters that pique the interest of both parties. The meatier middle, packed with memories both good and bad that would make a Nicholas Sparks montage blush. Before the eventual and inescapable demise that can only end one way…heartbreak.
After a six-and-a-half-year relationship, Johnny Gargano, aka Johnny Wrestling, aka Johnny Takeover aka…you get the point, walked away from NXT following the expiration of his contract with WWE.
But while Gargano’s tryst with the former black and gold brand is a tale for the ages, it also took the road less travelled. Here, our King Of The Ring, Andy Spoors, pays tribute to an underdog that changed the game for NXT forever…
April 5 2019. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn is packed to the rafters. WrestleMania weekend is in full swing and the boisterous international crowd that only the ‘The Granddaddy Of Them All’ can bring to town means there’s a certain kind of magic in the air.
“Be yourself, can’t be no one else. Another day, gotta give’em hell.” Johnny Gargano’s entrance music, Rebel Heart, blares through the PA system. “Can’t break what I’ve been building up this far. Yeah, you’ll never tear me apart.”
The lyrics may be slightly on the nose but there’s no denying they perfectly encapsulate the attitude and journey Gargano has traversed to reach this, the summit of his career so far. The perennial good guy and underdog, Johnny Wrestling is moments away from facing Adam Cole for the vacant NXT Championship in a 2 Out Of 3 Falls match.
Bouncing expectantly on his toes and stretching against a turnbuckle, the Cleveland native was in a different zone. New York often provides a somewhat bizarre atmosphere, cheering heels and viciously booing faces. Tonight is no exception.
As the inimitable opening to the Undisputed Era’s entrance theme reverberates around Barclays, Adam Cole is afforded a hero’s welcome. The leader of UE had to go through his own rollercoaster ride to reach this stage.
When Tommaso Ciampa was cruelly denied the opportunity to defend his NXT Championship due to a serious neck injury, Cole punched his ticket to Takeover by overcoming four other opponents in a fatal five-way match.
As the bout begins, duelling chants for both Superstars fill the air creating a cacophony of noise. The match not only lives up to expectations, but completely surpasses them. False finishes, interferences and ear-splitting gasps of delight from the crowd combine to make the clash one of the matches of the year and certainly in the conversation for all time.
It was to be Gargano’s night, single-handedly overcoming all the members of Undisputed Era and coming back from a one fall deficit. Raising the NXT Championship high his wife, Candice LeRae, joins the celebrations. Retreating to the top of the entrance ramp for one last photo opportunity, unbeknown to Johnny, he is joined by one more Superstar. One that has been both friend and foe from the very beginning of his journey in NXT.
Rewind to June 23 2016. A fresh-faced Gargano finds himself across the ring from best friend and other half of their tag team #DIY, Tommaso Ciampa. The match would not only plant the seeds for NXT’s greatest rivalry but also showcase Johnny Wrestling’s never say die attitude. Ciampa dishes out brutal open hand chops to the face of Gargano, as well as a deadly air raid crash to the ring apron.
Claiming victory via a rolling crucifix pin, Gargano progressed to the next round of the Cruiserweight Classic Tournament. Being knocked out in the next round seemed immaterial because Gargano had already won the hearts of the NXT faithful. The pair had featured in a handful of episodes including matches in The Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic but after signing full time NXT contracts, #DIY’s popularity skyrocketed.
A few months later the popular tag team challenged for the NXT Tag Team Championships at Takeover: Toronto against champions The Revival in yet another 2 Out Of 3 Falls Match and yet another all-time classic.
A handful of successful retentions further cemented both men’s legacy but after dropping the titles to The Authors Of Pain, it would be their pursuit to regain the gold that would create the hottest angle in the industry.
A devastating loss at Takeover: Chicago in a ladder match saw an emotional Gargano and Ciampa looking ruefully back towards the ring as AOP celebrated. As the usual closing credit graphic signalled the final seconds of the PPV, Ciampa stunned the world and systematically destroyed a confused Gargano.
The pair engaged in a vicious feud, which included Gargano losing his job and title opportunities before a superb Unsanctioned Match in New Orleans and Street Fight in Chicago.
Intertwined for years, the names Ciampa and Gargano will always be synonymous with NXT. Away from the shining lights of Raw and SmackDown, the pair were given the opportunity to create magic and delivered every single time. It takes more than just great matches to write yourself into wrestling history — the story and commitment both members of #DIY produced showed that the passion for their craft and industry is undeniable.
Where do you go after piecing together one of the greatest rivalries a promotion has ever seen? Which path do you take after becoming a triple crown champion? After multiple match of the year contenders? Well in the case of Johnny Gargano you give back to the industry and work with the future.
Creating new faction, The Way, with wife Candice LeRae, rising stars Indi Hartwell, Austin Theory and at times Dexter Lumis, Gargano displayed a new side to his persona. Comedic chops and portraying an over-zealous father figure may have moved Johnny into new territory but as his beloved promotion began to transition to NXT 2.0 his experience would prove invaluable.
Shining a spotlight on the Superstars of tomorrow while providing much needed TV time to do so, the black and gold of years gone by was quite literally given a fresh lick of paint and a new roster of sports entertainers was introduced.
Previous NXT favourites were moved to the main roster, let go or simply moved on as the golden era of the brand came to an abrupt end. Previous champions such as Adam Cole, Karrion Kross and Finn Balor were replaced with developmental talent Bron Breakker, Carmelo Hayes and Grayson Waller.
Dirtsheet rumours of Gargano’s contractual status began to swirl in November as the three-time North American champion continued to work and put over new talent. Following a loss inside the WarGames cage to a team of NXT 2.0 Superstars, the whispers were confirmed as Johnny Wrestling bid an emotional farewell to the brand he helped put on the map.
Even on the way out, Gargano put over Waller and helped create a potential Superstar. So, what’s next for not only the ultimate underdog but NXT itself?
It’s clear the direction NXT 2.0 has decided to take and in many respects, it is a brave one. At the height of its popularity the brand acted as a true alternative to the often watered-down product of Raw and SmackDown. During media calls, creator Triple H would often correct reporters who referred to NXT as developmental.
It would appear this is no longer the case and the short-term loss of viewers combined with a less than lukewarm reception on social media, will be somewhat concerning to the powers that be. Wrestling fans have often levelled criticism at WWE for a failure to invest in the future and an over reliance on Superstars of years gone by. To now scorn the company for doing the very thing they asked for is hypocritical in the highest order.
Should this view to the future come at the expense of what was arguably the most consistent and exciting brand? Perhaps not, but NXT was originally designed with this very notion in mind. Of course, this comes as little comfort to fans that were loyal and loud during one of the greatest runs of TakeOver events in the brand’s history.
There is a sense of irony that as Gargano departs, it is Ciampa who sits on the throne as champion of NXT. Among the green rookies and fledgling characters emerging, there are still some diamonds in the rough. Cameron Grimes continues to elicit strong crowd reactions, the aforementioned Breakker and Hayes are held in high regard and that’s before considering the burgeoning women’s division that still remains stacked with talent throughout.
For Johnny Wrestling a different challenge altogether awaits and one that may test his skills to the limit. In February, the Garganos will welcome their first child to the world. It seems likely that after wrestling non-stop for just over 15 years, Gargano will take some time to not only plot his next move but enjoy being a father.
But when wrestling is part of your nickname, it would take a brave man to bet against a surprise appearance sooner rather than later. With AEW’s roster seemingly growing by the week, Johnny’s immediate opportunities could be limited in at least the short term. Ring Of Honor finds themselves on a hiatus, so realistically Impact or a call up to Raw or SmackDown seem the most likely destinations Stateside.
The alluring option of testing his technical skills in Japan for NJPW can’t be discounted, especially for someone with as much love for the industry as Gargano. His run in Dragon Gate USA lends credence to that particular option.
Wherever he decides to go, NXT fans will forever be grateful for the memories Johnny Gargano has supplied. Easily part of the conversation for the brand’s Mount Rushmore, there will be very few who can claim to be the embodiment of what NXT has always stood for.
As the saying goes, don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened. Or if you love someone set them free. Whichever cliched romantic saying you abide by, Gargano and NXT will go down as one of the best relationships the wrestling industry has ever seen.