The saga of Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa has been mostly excellent for over a year, which is a remarkable feat. The characters have been clear, their motivations easy to relate to and understand, and they haven’t been the least bit boring. Even when dealing with unforeseen injuries, the twists and turns of the plot itself have kept us at the edge of our seats for a long time. But now that TakeOver: Phoenix has come and gone, it’s time to address the elephant in the room – the writing has gotten very sloppy this past month. Not in the whole show – the women’s and tag team divisions are still written well – but the Gargano vs. Ciampa saga has now taken up so much space that it needs to be addressed at large.
Has The Gargano & Ciampa Saga Ran It’s Course?
So what’s the problem? Let’s go back to the days when #DIY was officially a tag team. They were known, and beloved, for their resilience, their athletic style, and their lack of size. This made them the perfect foils for their two biggest rivals: The “No Flips Just Fists” Revival and the giant powerhouse Authors of Pain. The matches they had with each other were outstanding, not just because of the performances, but also because of the intrigue of the matchups themselves which built the platform for the in-ring narrative to be told by highlighting the contrasts in style. This best manifested itself in the moment where The Revival organically teamed up with #DIY mid-match to take down AOP – an act that was both shocking and perfectly sensible.
After Ciampa turned on Gargano and broke up #DIY, this continued. The reasons for the matches’ conceptions were organic, and the matchups were consistently intriguing. Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas presented an ultra-babyface finding his way as a singles star up against a heel champ’s constant interferences. Gargano vs. Ciampa gave us a sentimental, broken man becoming desperate to score a win against a jealous, weapon-wielding sadist. Aleister Black vs. Tommaso Ciampa pitted a people’s champ with a few reliable moves against a reviled cheater with an arsenal of tactics. And each matchup gave us a payoff to the narratives as well, with an added twist which allowed the stories to progress to the next stage. Can Gargano overcome Zelina Vega’s interferences? Yes! But only to succumb to Ciampa’s interference. Can Gargano find redemption after being driven out of NXT? Yes! But only by being driven to become as obsessed as Ciampa is. The first Ciampa vs. Black title match even saw an in-match progression of the character, as Ciampa’s mind-games pushed Black deviate from his usual strong, silent, strike-based character and break out a bridging German suplex while giving Ciampa a verbal browbeating in the ring. It was all great storytelling.
But when TakeOver: War Games II came to a close, the narratives got more convoluted and the problems started. Black had just beaten Gargano, in retaliation for jumping him from behind, in a match that showed us two main things, narratively: One, Gargano’s embrace of the dark side doesn’t fit quite right on him, and he probably won’t win this way unless he embraces it fully. And two, Black has successfully put Gargano behind him and can now refocus on getting the NXT Championship. These two things make a lot of sense, and the story that should naturally materialize from here would require Black to move on, and Gargano to explore his dark side on a different opponent. Both stories would be more than interesting enough on any TakeOver. Instead, Gargano simply demanded a redo against Black. And, with Ciampa’s goading, Black decided to accept the rematch in a steel cage for no good reason.
Of course, good characters sometimes do senseless things that even they don’t understand. And when the story justifies those events later, it’s not a bad thing. Suppose, for instance, that Black accepted because, deep down, he didn’t feel he fully absolved Gargano’s sins. This could be a great chance to debut an attempt at a sin-absolving move even more devastating than the Black Mass. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t do that. Black enters the match without reason, then almost leaves the cage, then changes his mind, then fights the same as usual. This betrays the fact that this match is purposeless for him. Unlike Gargano and Ciampa’s aforementioned matches, this match doesn’t have a real narrative to its conception, or to its in-ring action. We don’t see anywhere near the contrast of styles that made the first Black vs. Gargano match such a joy to watch. The steel cage match only exists for its spectacle… and for its ending.
We see in the end that Ciampa instigated the steel cage match was so that he could give Gargano a win, and then pitch the idea of Gargano deserving a North American title shot. Again, this makes a lot of sense. Ciampa has always wanted to be seen as the primary member of #DIY, with Gargano behind him. The problem is that, just as Black had no reason to agree to fight Gargano, Ricochet had no reason to accept Gargano’s challenge. The conception of the match was very thin, as it was really only there, once again, to create an avenue for the eventual ending.
And – here comes the hard part – as exciting as the Ricochet vs. Gargano match was, the in-ring action was narratively weak. There wasn’t really a contrast of styles or tactics in this match. It was essentially Ricochet throwing every move in the book at Gargano, and Gargano just taking it. Johnny Gargano was just taking move after move, without getting any offense in. This isn’t his character – we’ve always seen him try hard to dish out as much punishment as he takes. And the thing is, he wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by Ricochet’s blitz, either. If he was, that would have been an interesting storyline; imagine if we saw Gargano take so many moves that he was pushed to take frequent breaks to the outside gasping for breath, or resort to dirty tactics and fake an injury, or some other character shift. Instead, aside from a few good counters, he simply endured the offensive onslaught until it was time for the end.
Compare this to Ricochet’s previous matches against Adam Cole and Velveteen Dream. Velveteen Dream talked Ricochet into a match because they both wanted to show that their gimmicks were not all hype. Adam Cole was out to prove that Ricochet was not special in-ring and that his craftiness could outdo Ricochet’s acrobatics. The NXT of a few months ago gave both participants a reason to truly want to fight, instead of having Ricochet say “sure, I’ll have a match against Gargano, because why not?” And like most NXT rivalries before it, both of these matchups manifested in specific, carefully selected moments which played to those characters’ narratives and made the matches great. From little moments like Velveteen Dream styling on Ricochet by whipping off his hat while escaping a hold, to big moments like Adam Cole’s upside down superkick counter. There are many such moments that could have been part of the Gargano vs. Ricochet match, to show the personalities of two very interesting characters. Instead, we were simply given a moves-fest.
And it was a moves-fest with little story, as well. When #DIY stole the Shatter Machine, it was a culmination of a reversal of fortune after the cocky heels tried to steal the Meeting in the Middle. This paid off the story of #DIY growing to know both each other and their opponents while giving The Revival their comeuppance. But when Ricochet stole the Gargano Escape, it showed us nothing about either character, and it didn’t go with anything in the match – it was just a “wouldn’t that be a cool thing to happen?” moment. The one moment that did go towards advancing their characters was the finishing sequence, and… well… it’s probably the worst part of the match.
That night, Gargano was wearing ring gear inspired by Dark Phoenix, a comic book character who goes from being a big hero to an absolutely devastating supervillain. Seeing this, one would expect that Gargano would have to truly embrace his dark side in order to win the match. Not just because of the ring gear, but because of the narrative preceding this match where Johnny spent weeks refusing to accept that he was truly a bad guy even though he jumped Aleister Black. Also, because Ricochet – already a strong opponent – was putting on the performance of his life. And so when Johnny snapped and tore up the mat to set Ricochet up for a DDT onto concrete, it made perfect narrative sense that this would be the moment he really embraced the darkness. But instead of going through with the move, Gargano backs out, then wrestles some more, and then does a suplex onto the concrete instead…. before finishing the match with his trademark slingshot DDT in the ring. In other words, the story set us up to see Dark Johnny, and then decided to withhold the payoff and go Muted Gray Johnny instead.
The most troubling thing is: going only halfway dark still won Gargano the match. Where does this leave Ricochet? Ricochet did his best and still couldn’t beat Gargano even before Gargano hit his final form, so there doesn’t seem to be room for progress. Is he going to have to triple moonsault in the next match to get his title back? Likewise, Ciampa won his match against Aleister Black that night, not by exhibiting the strengths of his character or being pushed in a new direction, but by, basically, just being a better wrestler than Black. Where does that leave Black? In a typical story, his narrative is over now. He had his run at the top, got screwed, got a chance at redemption, and still lost. In the NXT of a few months ago, one would think that this signals the time for a call-up and a big main roster debut. But strangely, when Black had a chance to have just that by participating in the Royal Rumble, he only got one elimination. Even more strangely, he was also part of the post-TakeOver spat between the six biggest names on the show (Black, Cole, Dream, Ricochet, Gargano, Ciampa) who all started arguing over, seemingly, who deserved the next NXT title shots.
This all suggests that NXT has taken a turn. Instead of writing towards each character’s personalities and motivations, the show is now writing towards moments. It’s focusing on one idea: “Heel #DIY champs would be an awesome story,” and then forcing it to happen without setting it up well, paying it off, or dealing with the collateral damage. And although this is – for now – mostly contained to the Gargano vs. Ciampa storyline, that storyline threatens to suck in the entire roster. To some people, this may not matter (especially since it only got bad recently), but well-constructed narratives are a large part of the appeal to others. And it is worth bringing up that it wasn’t always like this. NXT was great at telling stories well all the way through in a manner that progressed naturally and benefited every wrestler. With a better commitment to characters and attention to detail, it can be great again.