Johnny Gargano’s Epic Rivalry With Tommaso Ciampa Comes to a Fitting End

The Week in Wrestling: Johnny Gargano on the conclusion to his story with Tommaso Ciampa, a new artistic wrestling publication and more.
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Johnny Gargano: ‘I think this is going to be something special’

Wednesday night’s edition of NXT will showcase the finale of the longstanding Tommaso Ciampa–Johnny Gargano rivalry, as the two meet in a cinematic display that should be unlike any content ever produced for NXT.

Just like how WrestleMania 36 introduced new concepts to the WWE audience with the “Boneyard” match and the “Firefly Fun House,” the Gargano-Ciampa bout is being advertised as “Blackheart vs. Rebel Heart: One Final Beat” and will present a unique take on the final chapter of their feud.

Already one of the best wrestlers in the world, Gargano is eager to show his versatility in such a cutting-edge match.

“It takes place in an abandoned warehouse picked out by Triple H, and that gives an idea right there that it’s not going to be anything we’ve seen with the empty-arena matches,” says Gargano. “This will have a different vibe, a different tone, and I can say personally it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of before. I’m not going to compare it to the ‘Boneyard’ match or the ‘Firefly Fun House’ match—this is going to be its own unique beast. It’s gritty, it’s dirty, and it’s going to be physical.”

The Gargano-Ciampa match was originally scheduled for TakeOver: Tampa, an event that was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is so much angst and authenticity in this feud, with a number of twists and turns befitting the uncontrollable nature of true emotion.

The history between Gargano and Ciampa dates back to their time together on the indies. They teamed together in NXT in 2015, then wrestled one another in the opening round of WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic in 2016, a fantastic match won by Gargano, but there were no plans for him in the tourney other than to put over eventual winner T.J. Perkins in the next round.

Their tag team, #DIY, won the NXT tag titles in November 2016. They dropped the titles to The Authors of Pain the following January, then main-evented with them at TakeOver: Chicago that May in a ladder match for the belts. This was the night Ciampa turned on Gargano and became “The Blackheart,” but the feud stalled because it was also the night that Ciampa tore his ACL.

Ciampa returned to brutally attack Gargano with a crutch in January 2018. They met in the main event of TakeOver: New Orleans during WrestleMania weekend of that year, with Gargano winning the unsanctioned match. Ciampa returned the favor in June at TakeOver: Chicago II when he closed out the show with a “Chicago Street Fight” victory over Gargano. They were supposed to be part of a triple threat for the NXT title at TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 during SummerSlam weekend, but a groin injury prevented Aleister Black from wrestling—which led to Ciampa's defeating Gargano in a “Last Man Standing” match in the main event.

The story was set to conclude during WrestleMania weekend in 2019 at TakeOver: New York, but Ciampa’s neck surgery made that impossible. Gargano still made the most of that show by defeating Adam Cole to win the vacant NXT title, but the question of “What if?” will persist because it did not take place against Ciampa. 

Now, just as their winding story was set to conclude, plans were derailed once again when the coronavirus caused TakeOver: Tampa to be canceled.

With all of the past uncertainty, Gargano was asked if he is sure that Wednesday’s match is going to happen.

“I’m 99.9 percent sure it’s going to happen,” says Gargano, laughing, as the match was already taped. “But we’ve had quite the story, one you couldn’t predict. That’s been the story for Tommaso and me from the beginning. We’ve made the best of whatever we’ve been given from day one. When we started in NXT, we didn’t have contracts. We were two indie guys trying to make the best of it.

“It’s appropriate that it ends like this. If this took place perfectly, as planned, during a packed house on WrestleMania weekend, it wouldn’t have fit our story. Look back to when Tommaso first turned his back on me, when he turned on me in that ladder match—he tore his ACL, so we had to wait. And waiting made it even better. This fits our story. It couldn’t have ended any other way.”

Gargano dreams of one day headlining WrestleMania, and though this match certainly could have fit on this year’s card, he preferred that it aired on an NXT show.

“I heard from a lot of people that wanted to see me and Tommaso at WrestleMania, and I appreciate that,” said Gargano. “When you grow up a wrestling fan, your dream is to wrestle at WrestleMania, but me and Tommaso are NXT through and through. If this is going to happen anywhere, it needs to happen in NXT. We were both big proponents of moving NXT to the USA Network. We wanted that stage, and now we have a chance to deliver the biggest NXT match yet on USA.

“Everyone is hanging out at home looking for something to watch. I’ve watched everything on WWE Network, I watched everything on Netflix, I watched everything on Hulu and Disney+, so I’m running out of things to watch, but WWE is still providing fresh, new content. It doesn’t get any better than the grand finale of me and Tommaso, and it’s only right that it needs to happen in NXT.”

This story has depth and layers. Ciampa was always the villain, but the roles have reversed. Ciampa is now the fan favorite while Gargano plays the villain. The immediate temptation will be to compare this match with past Gargano-Ciampa classics, but Gargano stressed that, as an artist and performer, he is seeking to create something entirely different.

“You can’t compare this one to any of our prior matches,” said Gargano. “It’s going to live on its own. As a performer, my goal is always to reward the loyal viewers. We have very loyal fans in NXT, and me and Tommaso have so much backstory, and there will be a lot of looking back in this match. If you’ve been along for the ride, you’re going to recognize parts of this match that spark memories.”

No matter the outcome, the finale of Gargano-Ciampa is certain to generate emotion among viewers.

“I’m excited to see everyone’s thoughts after it airs,” said Gargano. “Seeing the reaction to the ‘Boneyard’ match, seeing the reaction to the ‘Firefly Fun House’ match, it’s all unique taste and all unique opinion. In this current climate, you’ve got to be unique to stand out, and I think this is going to be something special.”

Matt Taven unveils Ring of Honor’s new “Word of Honor” project

Matt Taven won the Ring of Honor world title on April 6, 2019 at Madison Square Garden.

A year later, he wrote about the experience for ROH’s “Word of Honor” series, which is an idea created by Kevin Eck, who is a former member of the WWE creative team and now a content writer and editor for ROHWrestling.com.

“I didn’t realize I was going to be the first one, but Kevin trusted me to do it,” says Taven. “I’m always one to push my creative boundaries, but I’ve never really written anything about myself. This was a chance to write about a really meaningful moment, and I hope I set a good standard for the vision of ‘Word of Honor.’”

An enduring image of the MSG show, which was corun with New Japan Pro Wrestling and closed out with Kazuchika Okada regaining the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, is Taven atop his violet-shaded ladder, smiling nefariously after conquering Jay Lethal and “The Villain” Marty Scurll.

Taven reflects on his world title win, providing behind-the-scenes color with details about his 60-minute match with Jay Lethal that led up to MSG, as well as anecdotes with current AEW talent Andy “The Butcher” Williams and even a note about ROH star Jonathan Gresham.

“That’s the wrestling community, we’re all trying to help each other out,” says Taven. “It’s big moments like that where you realize you’re part of this special community. This industry is so special, and I was happy to give credit to a lot of people who helped me achieve what I dreamed of accomplishing.”

Capturing the title marks Taven’s biggest accomplishment in a very successful career, and the chance to share that story makes him even more excited for his return to the ring when Ring of Honor resumes its live shows.

“The day after I wrote this, I was full of adrenaline,” says Taven. “I fixed up my street bike and I rode for what felt like forever. It’s hard to not be itchy to get back in the ring. For me, it’s twofold because I’m rehabbing an ankle injury and we’re on this quarantine break. I haven’t stopped thinking about wrestling and envisioning different things.

“All wrestlers are itchy right now, even the ones who are still performing. They have the itch to get back in front of the crowd, and a return to normalcy is on everyone’s mind. But when you’re writing about the greatest moment in your life, it’s hard not to get that itch to get back in the ring and try to relive it as soon as possible.”

Orange Crush connects pro wrestling and visual art

The intersection of pro wrestling and visual art is on display like never before in the inaugural issue of Orange Crush: The Journal of Art & Wrestling.

Adam Abdalla’s vision led to the reality of the 100-page publication, which views pro wrestling through an exceptionally creative lens.

Cover of wrestling magazine 'Orange Crush'

Abdalla is incredibly knowledgeable about the pro wrestling profession. His travels have included live shows in Arena México, Tokyo for the G1 Climax and Wrestle Kingdom, as well as various other Japanese promotions at Korakuen Hall.

The 34-year-old is the president of Cultural Counsel, a communications and creative agency in New York City, which has blessed him with the opportunity to work with phenomenally talented artists, galleries and museums. An avid art collector, Abdalla had always envisioned intertwining his dual passions of art and wrestling.

“I’ve always kept track of these threads of pro wrestling in popular culture and how it transcends,” said Abdalla. “Whether it’s New Jack and Johnny Grunge being mentioned in a Weezer song, or Offset rapping about Ric Flair, or even in philosophy—Roland Barthes’s ‘The World of Wrestling’ essay talking about wrestling as a performance.”

Abdalla has attended all of Joey Janela’s “Spring Break” shows, and it was last year at “Spring Break 3” where he was hit with an epiphany.

“I was really blown away by Joey Janela and [GCW owner] Brett Lauderdale’s ability to push wrestling to its limit in terms of concept, almost to the point where it is a conceptual art. I started thinking about creating something like this last year, and it happens that my wife is a very talented graphic designer, so we took this on as a family project on nights and weekends.

“I’ve also launched art publications in the past, and one that I own is Affidavit, where we publish critical essays about culture. The editor-in-chief of that publication, Hunter Braithwaite, who wrote the Nick Gage essay in Orange Crush, helped us edit a really tight book.”

The magazine features an interview with Janela, who also graces the cover, as well as a 22-page mixed-media review of “Spring Break 3.” Abdalla was set to have the launch party for Orange Crush at this year’s “Spring Break” show, but those plans were canceled along with all of the events surrounding this year’s WrestleMania.

“We’ll still have a launch this summer,” says Abdalla, whose publication is available for purchase at orangecrush.art. “The process for this has been fun, too. When you shine the light on professional wrestling through a different lens, and in this context, through the lens of its relationship to aesthetics and visual art, people who have never given professional wrestling a second thought are now considering it differently.”

Incredible thought, work and effort went into the creation of Orange Crush, which features a plethora of insightful writing and powerful art, including a special artist commission by Nicolas Lobo featuring Nick Gage, an exploration of GCW’s Tennessee retro W.O.M.B.A.T. promotion featuring the photography of Aaron Hardin and Eric Shorey’s in-depth analysis of wrestling and gender.

“My goal is for this to be an annual publication,” says Abdalla. “We’re hoping to develop more by commissioning projects with artists you never expected to use wrestling as a subject matter.

“If you love professional wrestling and you want something beautiful on your coffee table, or something to share with a loved one who may not be interested in wrestling, this will pique the interest of people who may not want to sit through a three-hour telecast but may want to create a connection with you on a different level, and this is a good tool to do that.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Vince McMahon should know better than to have his good guy champion refuse a challenge. Despite being put in that difficult situation, Drew McIntyre made the most of his post-WrestleMania match against the Big Show, which aired this past Monday on Raw
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the “Boneyard” match at WrestleMania, but would have much preferred a match—even in an empty arena—instead of the “Firefly Fun House” that featured John Cena and Bray Wyatt. The highlight of the “Firefly” match, at least for me, has been the manner in which people have analyzed the story. The best I’ve read is this outstanding piece by Brandon Stroud. 
  • The impact of Matt Hardy’s “Broken Universe” and Lucha Underground were both on display in the AJ Styles–Undertaker match, as Jeremy Borash, who was a producer who worked directly with Hardy in Impact, was a big factor in the production of the “Boneyard” match. Chris DeJoseph, who was the head of creative for Lucha Underground, is also back working for WWE. 
  • There are in-ring debuts, and there are in-ring debuts. Lance Archer’s performance last Wednesday on Dynamite was outstanding, punctuated by his chokeslam of Marko Stunt out of the ring. 

I enjoyed the AEW commentary team of Tony Schiavone and Cody Rhodes on Dynamite, which had some extra meaning since Schiavone also called shows with the late Dusty Rhodes. This week has even more potential, as Chris Jericho joins the broadcast booth. He is an incredible villain, which he’ll show during the broadcast, but Jericho is also skilled at subtly putting over the good guys, too. 

  • Tuesday night’s edition of Dark Side of the Ring covered WWE’s infamous “Brawl for All” tournament, and it was another outstanding documentary from the show. 
  • Kylie Rae is a really important addition to the Impact Wrestling roster. 
  • Despite taking place as an empty-arena show at the Performance Center, there were still plenty of redeeming moments for WrestleMania 36. 
  • If you’re searching for some kind of positive news, WWE ice cream bars are finally back. 

Good Humor’s WWE cookie sandwiches are available in select markets, bringing back memories of the old-school ice cream bars. All these years later, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan’s cameo in this commercial still makes me laugh.

  • And for readers over the age of 21, MobCraft Brewery has launched a Lucha Libre–inspired beer line, Mondo Lucha, that features a Snapchat lens that allows people to wear the mask on the can they’re drinking. 
  • Pro Wrestling Tees owner Ryan Barkan provided his recommendation for turning an old wrestling T-shirt into a mask. 
  • If you haven’t already watched, the new WWE Network special on Edge’s return is phenomenal. 

Conrad Thompson previews this week’s edition of ‘Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard’

A new episode of Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard is set for this Friday, as Prichard and cohost Conrad Thompson take an in-depth look at the career of Paul Bearer.

Born William Moody, Bearer broke into the wrestling business in 1974. He picked up the name Percy Pringle III, and for the remainder of his career, would always be known as Percy. His shot at fame did not come until he arrived in the WWE in 1991 as Paul Bearer, becoming a household name in wrestling by managing the Undertaker.

“I’ve got 16 pages of notes, and I can’t wait to talk about his Alabama roots,” says Thompson. “He got his first big break in terms of exposure in World Class [Championship Wrestling], and Bruce can speak to that. And we’ll go into detail about what everybody wants to hear—how we transition Brother Love from managing the Undertaker into Paul Bearer. We’ll talk about the creation of the character, the way he looked, and some personal challenges with his weight struggles.”

Moody had prior experience working in the funeral industry, which was a perfect fit for his character. He was the definition of an overnight success that took 17 years to achieve it. Visions of him carrying the urn and echoes of his signature “Ohhhh yessss, my Undertaker!” catchphrase still permeate the wrestling landscape whenever the Undertaker appears on screen.

“Managers in professional wrestling are really a dying art, and he was the last of a dying breed. Paul Bearer made quite an impression. It’s fascinating to look back at his relationship with the Undertaker, and once they were finally together, it felt like they were meant to be together. That was the role of a lifetime for him and the one he needed all along.”

The Undertaker is a pro wrestling legend, but after a series of failed gimmicks in other promotions, he certainly benefited from the presence and voice of Paul Bearer as he grew comfortable with the new character. Moody passed away young, suffering a heart attack at the age of only 58 in 2013. Had he still been alive, a cameo from him in the “Boneyard” match at WrestleMania could have been very meaningful to the audience.

“One of the things we’ll explore is how he is the companion piece for an evolving character,” says Thompson. “Paul Bearer became the Robin to The Undertaker’s Batman. And we’ll look at how that changed when Undertaker evolved, as Percy managed guys like Mankind and Vader. It just felt to me, watching as a fan, like someone who was right-handed writing with their left hand.”

“He’s a bona fide Hall of Famer. Paul Bearer made such a mark on the business. He wasn’t always everybody’s favorite, but he was still a part of the WWE family. We’ll break down the character and a man that passed away way, way too young.”

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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.