Professional wrestling is built on the stories told in and out of the ring. These often come in the form of rivalries, pitting opposing forces against one another in pursuit of bragging rights, championships, and success. Our latest entry into the Rivalry Rewind series takes a look at two former best friends and tag team champions, turned bitter enemies. This is the story of Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano.
WWE NXT has been the ultimate stage for some of the very best talents from across the globe. Back in 2014, the black-and-gold brand brought a fresh breeze to WWE’s somewhat orthodox wrestling pattern. Bucking the trend of executing pale, lifeless storylines, NXT exhibited the perfect use of wrestlers in richly detailed feuds, bulging with intense back-and-forth action.
For a brand that valued the essence of using lesser-known talents from the indy scene, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa seemed to be the perfect fit. Within months of their signing, they had proved their potential through phenomenal matches and sensational promos, both as teammates and enemies. The storied rivalry between them added a spark to their legacy. While their tag team was important in the annals of NXT’s library of great tag duos, it was their defining rivalry that helped write the legacy that reinvigorated the black-and-gold brand all those years ago.
As we gear up for this month’s NXT TakeOver 36 at the Capitol Wrestling Center, let’s look back at the highly exhilarating Last Man Standing encounter between Ciampa and Gargano and the feud that led to it three years ago.
Gargano and Ciampa Form Team #DIY
Before he made his NXT debut, Johnny Gargano had well established his name on the independent circuit. Over the years, Gargano had worked for some of the top American independent promotions, including CHIKARA, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG), and Evolve. Besides this, he also made appearances for national promotions like TNA and Ring of Honor.
Likewise, Tommaso Ciampa dominated the indie circuit during the early phases of his career. In addition to his short stints at Beyond Wrestling, Chaotic Wrestling, and PWG, Ciampa had also been a part of WWE’s developmental program. During his time at ROH, he won the ROH World Championship and later worked for TNA.
September 2015’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic marked the debut of #DIY–the tag team of Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano. Gaining a victory in the first round, #DIY failed to gain the upper hand over the team of Baron Corbin and Rhyno, thus getting eliminated. The following year brought various trials for the team, though the two managed to sign a contract with the company.
The Cruiserweight Classic Confrontation
WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic Tournament in 2016 was a one-off deal. 32 wrestlers, restricted within a weight category, battled to become the inaugural WWE Cruiserweight Champion. The first round of this epic tournament saw the first of many encounters between our beloved stars. Although the match delivered as an emotionally driving clash, it was forgotten underneath the glory of its successors.
However, it sowed the initial seeds of dissension among Ciampa and Gargano. This contest resulted in the emergence of doubt and resentment as to who would be a better singles wrestler. Gargano defeated his partner, only to be beaten by T.J. Perkins in the next round. As a result, the two continued testing their luck as a team.
Tag Team Gold
After failing in their respective singles experiments, Gargano and Ciampa decided to pursue tag team gold. At NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, #DIY stood as contenders against long-time rivals and the current NXT Tag Team Champions–The Revival. Unfortunately, the former couldn’t bring home the gold that night.
However, that didn’t stop them from signing up for the 2016 edition of the Dusty Rhodes Classic, where they would gradually reach the semi-finals through exceptional performance. #DIY’s elimination from the tournament came up against The Authors of Pain, thanks to interference from the Revival.
Finally, in a Two out of Three falls clash at NXT TakeOver: Toronto, Team #DIY were destined for gold. In an outstanding struggle for supremacy, Ciampa and Gargano succeeded in capturing the Tag Team Championship. The harmony and cohesion with which they fought exhibited the brotherhood that they had eventually developed. The two were inseparable, best friends in and outside of the ring. Until tragedy struck.
The jubilation of capturing the tag team titles didn’t last for long. After a couple of notable defenses in Japan and Australia, Gargano and Ciampa headed to NXT TakeOver: San Antonio. Despite trying, The Authors of Pain dethroned them in the title match, putting a stop to their championship reign.
Losing their titles in merely two months marked the beginning of a strained friendship. #DIY continued to fight to win back their titles, but every single time they would return empty-handed. The misery of these unsuccessful attempts completely crushed the previous joy of winning the titles. Following their defeat in a Triple Threat Tag Team match, Gargano and Ciampa were offered a last chance in the form of a first-ever NXT Ladder match against The Authors of Pain.
This was the match that turned the tables. Unlike the earlier bouts, it broke all limits, bringing us to the next chapter of this epic rivalry.
The Snapping Point
Ahead of their ladder match at NXT TakeOver: Chicago, Tommaso Ciampa was suffering from a serious ACL injury. Throughout their previous encounters, Ciampa was the one on the rack. Being eliminated from the Cruiserweight Classic by Gargano and losing the tag team titles infuriated him. The incessant losses that ensued did no good to his partnership with Gargano.
Nevertheless, he suppressed the agony and fought alongside his partner in the ladder match. The Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar) were not a duo to be understated. But Team #DIY battled until the very last second until they could fight no more and fell short of the defending champs.
What followed next was a drastic turn from an obviously enraged Ciampa. While the battered duo received an overwhelming response from the crowd, Ciampa launched Gargano face-first into the entrance stage. In one of the most unexpected betrayals in NXT history, Team #DIY succumbed to their end and ignited an intense feud.
The Bitter Rivalry of Ciampa and Gargano
Following their exhausting ladder match, Ciampa suffered a ruptured ACL in his right knee, for which he had to undergo surgery. Meanwhile, Gargano, who was shaken by the betrayal, had to get a grip on himself. He worked on his flourishing singles career and soon found himself contending for the NXT Championship. Unfortunately, at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia, he came up short against a dominant Andrade “Cien” Almas.
As he walked up the ramp disheartened, the crowds gave him a standing ovation for his incredible match-winning effort. But adding to his despair was a recovered Ciampa, who welcomed him with a swinging crutch to the back. With a firm statement made, Gargano had another opponent to deal with.
Some weeks later, Gargano got a rematch against Andrade with a stipulation that demanded that he leave NXT on losing. With these high stakes, Gargano tried to pull out all stops for the win. Maybe he would’ve won; had it not been for interference from Ciampa. Consequently, Gargano left the brand with a powerful lesson learned–Ciampa had to be stopped.
From New Orleans To Chicago
NXT TakeOver: New Orleans brought a new opportunity for Gargano. A chance at getting reinstated in the company; and all it took was a win over Ciampa in an unsanctioned match. The latter purely embraced a booing crowd and portrayed – to the best extent – his gimmick of the Sicilian Psychopath. Gargano, on the other hand, endured all the brutality from his sadistic rival. From the announce table to the bare concrete floor, these two truly fought in an unsanctioned matchup. In this vicious spectacle, Gargano got the better of Ciampa and returned to NXT. But the threat was not over yet.
After several surprise attacks and heated face-offs that ensued, both parties agreed to a second match. Ciampa was determined to prove his worth against Gargano at TakeOver: Chicago II. They battled in a street fight of epic proportions, using the surroundings to their advantage. A couple of spots like the Air Raid Crash off the production boxes and through some tables still haunt NXT fans. Fans even got to witness the slow transformation of Gargano to his darker side. But with nothing to lose in this remorseless street fight, a calculated Ciampa settled the score.
A Crucial Third Wheel
Before the two could ask for another rematch, things took a turn. Ciampa earned a shot at the NXT Championship against then-champion, Aleister Black. The two created absolute mayhem, making the fans sit on the edge of their seats. An abundance of near falls shifted the momentum now and then.
When seemingly nothing could keep down The Dutch Destroyer, Ciampa decided to cheat. Clinging tightly to the championship belt, he was stopped dead in his tracks by an interfering Gargano, who didn’t want him to win the title. However, Gargano accidentally hit Black with the belt, making him unconscious and a subsequent loser. With a monumental win, Ciampa stood his ground with the NXT Championship around his waist, waiting to strike Gargano again.
To add fuel to the fire, Black joined this bitter rivalry as well. Not only did he want to avenge his wrongful title match loss against Ciampa, but also punish Gargano for his blunder. What seemed to be a one-on-one storyline soon turned into a triple threat title match planned for NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV.
Last Man Standing – Gargano vs Ciampa
Something that should be appreciated is that Black never felt like a burden in this storyline. His presence in the promos and brawls added a whole new level of atrocity within the feud. And at TakeOver: Brooklyn IV, he had his hands full for the triple threat encounter.
But the former #DIY partners hated the existence of a third wheel; they wanted to go at each other until they proved who the better man was. Gargano, who had adopted a darker version of himself after his loss at Chicago, attacked Black and knocked him out before their title match in Brooklyn, thus rendering the title match as a one-on-one affair.
This left just Ciampa and Gargano to meet in a Last Man Standing match, destined to find the better fighter. Gargano pounced at Ciampa even before the introductions were done with, depicting the harshness that had grown between them. The match stipulation stood true; as they literally wanted to kill each other until one of them didn’t get to his feet within ten seconds. It was an emotionally battering encounter that showed how the ruthless Gargano allowed Ciampa to get into his head, and how he sabotaged himself. In a running-knee attempt at a handcuffed Ciampa, Gargano lost his balance and fell off the stage, subsequently losing the match.
The Last Man Standing match between these two was not the end of their feud, but it certainly was the best of their bouts so far. Their animosity peaked at Brooklyn, and the storyline shaped into one of the most fascinating feuds of all time. For Gargano and Ciampa, it helped build them into the future stars of NXT. What made it more special was the connection that these two had built with the fans. Even Johnny’s wife Candice LeRae dedicated herself completely to the storyline. In addition to several remarkable matches and fiery promos, the constant emotional rush kept this storyline engaging. No wonder these two will become future champs on the main roster as well, with all of their unmatched potentials.