Tommaso Ciampa stepped inside the storied walls of Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, wrestling his first-ever singles match in an arena synonymous with WWE.
The match was part of WWE’s live holiday tour, a non-televised event that still holds a great deal of significance to those in the locker room.
“Any time I get asked to do the Garden, I’ll always say yes,” said Ciampa. “So many legendary performers have played here. It means a lot to share a piece of that history and it means a lot to represent NXT against Pete Dunne.”
One of the reigning NXT champion’s first loves was the game of basketball. Growing up just outside of Boston, Ciampa came of age at a time when the Celtics were predominantly rebuilding, or, in some cases, just plain bad. So he immersed himself in the Michael Jordan-led era of the NBA, which included a few spectacular performances from Hall of Famer Reggie Miller at Madison Square Garden.
“Stepping through the curtain, I immediately thought about Reggie Miller coming in here and playing the Knicks, scoring eight points in nine seconds [in the 1995 NBA playoffs],” said Ciampa, who has played the role of instigator and agitator in NXT just like Miller did with the Indiana Pacers. “I’m a huge Boston sports fan, so I thought about games between the Celtics and Knicks. It’s just amazing to be at Madison Square Garden.”
Defending the NXT title against Pete Dunne, the two put forth a hard-hitting bout. It also served as a reminder of the talent level in NXT, where the new 2.0 edition features many of the same stars who helped create lasting memories during the black-and-gold era.
The finish came in a sequence where Dunne laid a kick onto Ciampa’s face, then set up his pumphandle vertical suplex powerbomb. But Ciampa countered, catching Dunne with a bare knee to the jaw—“Mouthpiece and all,” Ciampa noted—then hit the Fairytale Ending for the one-two-three.
“Pete Dunne is one of the best professional wrestlers in the world,” said Ciampa. “This was only our second time ever wrestling a singles match, with the first being for his UK title in England. It’s a pleasure to share a ring with him. He’s a world-class person in and out of the ring.”
This marked Ciampa’s second appearance at MSG. His first was three years ago at the very same day-after-Christmas live event when he was part of a 10-man tag that also included Johnny Gargano, Dunne, Ricochet, Aleister Black, Matt Riddle, The Velveteen Dream, The Undisputed Era’s Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly and Roderick Strong. That entire group once appeared to be the future of WWE. But a lot has changed, which was again visible when O’Reilly appeared alongside Cole and Bobby Fish last week in AEW on the same show where Malakai Black was also victorious. It is now even possible free agent Gargano, a staple of NXT over the past five years, will spend his future in a different company.
“I notice it on the TV days,” said Ciampa when asked if weekly NXT tapings have been different since Gargano was seemingly written off the show earlier this month. “We live 10 minutes from each other, so we still see each other in everyday life. That’s the nature of the beast. If I could only tell you the number of people I’ve shared a locker room with over the years. It is what it is. And honestly, we’re so locked in on TV days that you have to stay focused.”
Ciampa is scheduled to be back on television on NXT 2.0 on Tuesday night. He’s building to his next title defense: a rematch against 24-year-old phenom Bron Breakker at New Year’s Evil on Jan. 4—the most important match of Breakker’s young career. With the NXT landscape in a state of transformation, all signs point to Breakker–who is the nephew of Scott Steiner and the son of Rick Steiner–starting his first-ever title run. But the belt still belongs to Ciampa, which is an honor and privilege for the 16-year wrestling veteran.
“I never take this for granted, especially being the face of NXT,” Ciampa said. “It’s hard to come by these opportunities. The competition is through the roof. I have worked real hard to get to this point, so it’s been a fun time for me, one that I’m really enjoying.
“And I know what is staring in front of me. Bron is a freak. He’s young, he’s strong, he’s dynamic. We all know about his family lineage. He’s picked this up so fast, like Kurt [Angle] or Ronda [Rousey]. But there is no replacement for time and experience. Rookies make mistakes, so we’ll see if his confidence bites him in the ass against me at New Year’s Evil.”
With or without the NXT title moving forward, Ciampa would be a perfect fit for next month’s Royal Rumble match. And there is a plethora of matchups that would appeal to him if he were ever brought to a new crew on Raw or SmackDown.
“I know people in WWE dream about wrestling at WrestleMania, but for me, it was always the Royal Rumble,” said Ciampa. “The idea of seeing who would return, the surprise of who would debut, even watching what Edge did last year, that’s always been the Rumble has always meant a lot to me. There are so many people I’d love to have an opportunity to share the ring with. So if that opportunity knocks, I’m answering.”
The future is bright for Ciampa. He has overcome injuries and made the most of every storyline, putting himself in position for a massive stretch whether he is working on Raw, NXT 2.0 or SmackDown.
“I’m healthy and I’m in a good mental state,” Ciampa said. “The stars have aligned, so I’m focused on controlling what I can control.”
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