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Match Of The Week: Johnny Gargano Vs. Tommaso Ciampa

The second act is always the darkest...

Last weekend's NXT TakeOver was very good. Not the best TakeOver ever - that's a ridiculous bar to live up to, given their remarkably consistent quality - but fully enjoyable nonetheless.

The show had three unmistakable highlights. There was the frantic, hard-hitting tag title bout between the Undisputed Era, Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch. Ricochet and Velveteen Dream put on a truly audacious match, one which aped Rock vs. Hogan, of all things. But the abiding memory of NXT TakeOver: Chicago II will surely revolve around its main event.

Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa would probably have scooped Feud of the Year if the rivalry had ended back in April. Instead, wonderfully, it looks set to continue.

Their second match of 2018 - an HBO drama of a street fight - has divided opinion slightly more than its New Orleans predecessor. The first clash was universally praised, but the sequel has received a slightly more muted reception. Everyone is still in agreement that it was, overall, an excellent match - but words like 'contrived' and 'over-the-top' have been banded about a little too recklessly for my liking.

It's an understandable reaction. After all, Gargano and Ciampa's unsanctioned match was truly groundbreaking - and the main event of what probably is the best TakeOver of all.

However, I can't help but wonder if last weekend's bout has been sold a little short. Let's take a look at why it's even better than many are claiming.

Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa - Street Fight
NXT TakeOver: Chicago II
Allstate Arena - Rosemont, Illinois

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Background: Many tag team break-ups can be seen a mile off, and DIY's collapse was no different. It was unique, however, because the drama wasn't diluted by its predictability. In fact, you could even argue that it was enhanced as a result.

When the eventual implosion rolled around, it was a real triumph of foreshadowing and suspense.

Tag partners Gargano and Ciampa met in the first round of 2016's Cruiserweight Classic tournament, a match Johnny won despite taking an almighty battering from his more imposing friend. The seeds of the feud can be traced back to this match and its aftermath, where Ciampa finally embraced Gargano after an excruciating pause.

From that moment, it seemed only a matter of time until their friendship came crashing down. DIY won the NXT Tag Team Championship in a euphoric match at TakeOver: Toronto, a result which only delayed the inevitable. Still, it was delayed a lot longer than most of us thought - each tease only raising the tension another unbearable notch.

They lost the titles to the Authors of Pain at TakeOver: San Antonio. Nothing happened.

They failed to regain the belts at WrestleMania weekend, and still nothing happened.

Again, they lost to the Authors at TakeOver: Chicago, but stood together at the top of the ramp - exhausted and broken, but together. Then Ciampa threw Gargano into the set behind them.

A vicious assault followed, soundtracked by wave upon wave of boos from the crowd. There were none of the smarky cheers that often accompany a heel turn - a testament to the character work of both men.

Ciampa took time off to undergo surgery, but the feud was escalated via a fantastic social media campaign by the pair, taking the rivalry outside of the traditional realms of kayfabe. After an eternity, the blow-off took place at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans - an unsanctioned match rife with callbacks to the various stages of their story.

Defying the expectations of many, who believed the bout to be his NXT send-off, Johnny avenged himself, forcing his former friend to tap out to the Gargano Escape. The feud seemed over, but was reignited almost immediately as Ciampa continued to make Johnny's life a misery - now dragging his wife into the mix.

A sequel was scheduled for TakeOver: Chicago II - the scene of Tommaso's betrayal one year prior - and promised to feature a far more unhinged and vindictive Gargano. Would it cost him?

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The Match: Even before the first entrance of the match, we see our first important instance of storytelling - Candice rushing to her husband backstage, handing him the broken crutch from New Orleans, and telling him to kick Ciampa's ass. It's a feelgood prelude designed to hype us up and make Johnny's task seem entirely possible - which makes the events of the match itself all the more heartbreaking.

The pair brawl from the off and waste little time heading into the crowd. Plants have been used liberally throughout the feud, and we see a couple more examples here (one definite, the other questionable). As Tommaso stalks past a row of fans, one repeatedly tells him that he's the devil. A little later, a man in a Gargano t-shirt hands him a sign. Johnny blasts Ciampa across the back, and he goes down - a result of the stop sign hidden inside of the poster.

In the wrong hands, these little touches could make the feud feel overly-contrived. Instead, these set pieces actually make it seem more real. The action feels unhinged and wild, almost as if it's jumping out of the screen.

The pair return to ringside and the weapons come out. Gargano has a steel chair wrapped around his neck, and is hurled edge-first into a set of ring steps. It's the first uniquely dangerous spot of the match, and contributes to the bout's out-of-control atmosphere. Ciampa compounds this by simply chucking a garbage can into Johnny's head from point-blank range.

Seeking to ramp up the sadism, Tommaso fetches a pair of handcuffs, but Gargano drills him down with a signature spear through the middle rope. It's a little moment of triumph, reminding us of Johnny's wrestling ability in the midst of an ugly war - but one which is immediately contradicted, as he takes off his belt and uses it to whip Ciampa.

The 'devil' regains control with Project Ciampa, and a sickening Air Raid Crash from the apron onto the ring steps. He grabs a pair of bolt cutters and uses them to dismantle part of the ring, exposing the wooden boards underneath the canvas. I may be reaching a little here, but it seems like a metaphor for the transcendent nature of their feud. This isn't normal wrestling, so why should the ring look like a normal one?

Gargano gets the upper hand one more, and goes crazy with a chair, hammering Ciampa's weak knee with shot after shot. Ciampa returns the brutality, incapacitating Johnny with a savage blow from the broken crutch. This represents the match's message in a nutshell: the more Gargano stoops to his opponent's level, the more it comes back to bite him. We'll see a far more overt example towards the end.

My favourite part of the bout follows, as Ciampa grabs Johnny and drags him up the ramp, forcing him into a sick recreation of DIY's split from the year prior. It even took place in the same arena. Just as he did in 2017, he hurls Gargano into the set, blasts him with a running knee, and looks to throw him off an elevated platform into the production area. Before he does so, he takes Johnny's wedding ring, spits on it, and throws it away. It's over-the-top supervillainy, but then Ciampa is the closest thing modern wrestling has to a supervillain.

Gargano reverses the momentum, hurling both himself and Tommaso from their platform with a devastating Air Raid Crash, completely wiping out his opponent and basically ending the match as a contest. It should be over. A medical team straps Ciampa to a gurney and begins to carry him away. Then Gargano notices that his wedding ring is missing...

In the bout's build-up, Johnny promised to send Tommaso away in an ambulance. That almost happens here, but rather than let his own premonition come true, Gargano attacks his foe with an unforeseen vengeance - battering EMTs, officials, and (crucially) the referee in the process.

Johnny drags Ciampa back to the ring, handcuffs him, and pummels him with Superkick after Superkick. He slaps on submission holds and wrenches back, and Tommaso taps - twice! - but of course the referee is still recovering at the top of the ramp. It's all very foreboding.

The officials drag Gargano to the outside, but again he fights them off and re-enters the ring - only for Ciampa to drill him with a flash DDT onto the exposed part of the ring. 1, 2, 3.

Utter devastation.

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Aftermath: Everything seems to have calmed down since the bout, in a desolate sense rather than a soothing one. Neither Gargano nor Ciampa showed up on this week's NXT, but the latter called out NXT Champion Aleister Black on Twitter.

On social media, dozens of fans have laid out their desired booking plans. They all follow pretty much the same path. Ciampa should take the title from Black, only for Johnny to return and finally defeat him once and for all.

It's a predictable way for the next chapter of the feud to unfold - but that doesn't mean it shouldn't happen. A storyline can be both obvious and compelling, as DIY's original split proved.

Then again, NXT occasionally delight in surprising us - and more often than not, those swerves pay off. There's no way of telling how the next (and final?) chapter of Gargano vs. Ciampa will be written, but they've given themselves the best chance of making it a magnificent one.

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Jack G. King

Written by Jack G. King

Head of News at Cultaholic.com | [email protected]