The feud between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa is a journey of friendship, betrayal, and ghosts that continue to linger in the background.
"Sometimes, the wicked will tell us things just to confuse us–to haunt our thoughts long after we’ve faced them."
– Sarah J. Maas, Throne of Glass
The above quote quite fittingly describes the relationship between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. Just because you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town!
Cruiserweight Classic – Seeds of a Gargano and Ciampa Feud Are Planted
If we’re to discuss the feud of Gargano and Ciampa, we need to go back to late June of 2016 at the first round of the Cruiserweight Classic.
Heading into this match, the story was centered around tag team partners forced to tear each other apart in an effort to advance. Mauro Ranallo even echoed that statement.
The match lasted just over 10 minutes with the really compelling aspect being Ciampa’s unwillingness to pull the trigger as he contemplated landing the running knee from the corner, but ultimately the Psycho Killer had a moment of compassion that cost him the match.
In the end, Gargano rolled up Ciampa to advance to Round 2. To be honest, it was more of survival than a victory.
I adamantly believe this was a moment Ciampa obsessively replayed in this memory in an effort to never abandon his killer instinct again.
The duo continued to team and unsuccessfully challenged The Revival for the tag team championship and also failed to advance in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic against The Authors of Pain.
NXT TakeOver: Toronto
This brings us to NXT Takeover: Toronto on November 19, 2016.
It was a 2-out-of-3 Falls Match again the Revival.
Since I learned to walk, I’ve been watching professional wrestling and this was arguably the greatest tag team match I have ever witnessed. Furthermore, I was fortunate enough to witness it in person at the Air Canada Centre (renamed Scotiabank Arena) at the time.
The Revival won the first fall after hitting Gargano with the Shatter Machine.
DIY came back to win the second fall after performing Meet Me In The Middle on Dawson.
For the third fall, both Dash and Dawson simultaneously tapped out thus making DIY the NEW Tag Team Champions. They reached the pinnacle of their success as a tag team in a Match of the Year performance.
Watch The Revival vs. DIY – NXT Tag Title 2-out-of-3 Falls Match: NXT TakeOver: Toronto 2016
NXT TakeOver: San Antonio
We now jump ahead to NXT TakeOver: San Antonio on January 28th, 2017.
DIY was forced to defend their championships against the dominant Authors of Pain.
As anticipated, DIY took an absolute beating which led Akam and Rezar to become the new NXT Tag Team Champions after landing The Last Chapter.
Ciampa Turns on Gargano at NXT Takeover: Chicago
After a failed attempt at regaining the NXT Tag Team Championships at NXT Takeover: Orlando, DIY FINALLY earned a one-on-one rematch against Authors of Pain in an effort to regain their championships at NXT: Takeover Chicago on May 20, 2017.
Since the stipulation was a ladder match, you would think that the much more agile DIY possessed the advantage, but despite a valiant effort, they fell short.
As they walked up the ramp together during the conclusion of the show, I can only imagine that Ciampa was continuing to replay that moment in memory from the Cruiserweight Classic. Those losses were Johnny’s fault and Tommaso Ciampa wanted to recapture HIS moment.
Ciampa then grabbed Gargano by the back of the head and loudly proclaimed, "This is my moment!"
He proceeded to throw Johnny Gargano into the LED board and then landed multiple running knees. Yes, the same maneuver that he failed to pull the trigger on during the Cruiserweight Classic to seemingly seal the victory.
One of the greatest lasting images that’s still ingrained in my memory is when Ciampa was sitting near the announce table with Gargano attempting to reach up to him as is to ask, "Why?" Ciampa then proceeded to hoist Gargano up and land the Air Raid Siren through the table.
Ciampa stared down as Gargano who was being tended to by referees and medical personnel.
The Psycho Killer had returned and this was indeed HIS MOMENT.
Sadly, Ciampa’s moment was short-lived. Prior to the match, PWInsider reported in May that Ciampa suffered a torn ACL at a live event before NXT TakeOver: Chicago on May 20.
Despite Ciampa gutting it out at TakeOver, the report of the injury was accurate and for storyline purposes, it was revealed this transpired during the ladder match against Authors of Pain.
On the May 31 edition of NXT, Ciampa alluded to his knee injury during his explanation for turning his back on Gargano.
It was later revealed that Ciampa’s timeline for his in-ring return would not be until the spring of 2018 or perhaps even later than that.
In the meantime, Johnny Gargano was now on his own and forced to reflect on a ghost from his past. He also desperately needed to re-discover who he really was since he was clouded with doubt and confusion. The betrayal of Tommaso Ciampa weighed heavily on his mind and clearly impacted his performance.
Johnny went on a losing skid with multiple losses to Almas among others. The most prominent one, having taken place at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III where Zelina Vega threw the trademark blue DIY shirt at Gargano. The distraction was enough for Andrade to take advantage and earn the victory following the Hammerlock DDT from the corner.
Johnny Gargano simply couldn’t escape Ciampa, despite the fact he wasn’t even physically present. One positive was the physical transformation that saw Ciampa get much leaner and put on more muscle.
Johnny Wrestling Is Back
Johnny Gargano defeated Kassius Ohno to quality for a number one contender’s fatal four-way match for the NXT Championship.
In the fatal four-way, Johnny Gargano took advantage of an Adam Cole distraction on Aleister Black to earn a Championship match against Almas at NXT: Takeover Philadelphia.
NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia
In a modern classic that was rated 5-stars by Wrestling Observer Newsletter journalist Dave Meltzer along with voted Match of the Year in the 2018 NXT year-end poll, Johnny Gargano came up short in a very competitive match that featured some of the best near falls in recent memory.
Johnny’s wife Candice even got involved to even the odds after Zelina Vega interfered.
Despite an incredible effort from Johnny, he walked up the ramp with his head held high and his wife by his side as the crowd chanted, “Thank You, Johnny.”
While giving his final goodbye, a ghost from Johnny’s past appeared out of nowhere, Tommaso Ciampa.
He was physically more imposing than before and had a noticeably much longer beard. Visually, it was even obvious that evil and bitterness had consumed him.
Ciampa smashed Johnny with a crutch in front of Candice.
This lasting image concluded NXT: Takeover Philadelphia.
Johnny Gargano Gets Fired
Following their match at NXT: Takeover Philadelphia, Johnny Gargano had a rematch with Andrade on NXT television. The stipulation was that if Johnny loses the match, he must voluntarily leave NXT forever.
After Tommaso Ciampa emerged from the audience causing interference, Johnny Gargano lost to Almas for the fourth time and was forced to leave NXT.
Ciampa was proud of this accomplishment as he likely assumed that Johnny leaving for good would lead to a downward spiral of misery and despair in Gargano’s life.
But Johnny Gargano received the last laugh attacking Ciampa at the Performance Center and becoming obsessed with getting even.
Eventually, William Regal granted Gargano an Unsanctioned Match against Ciampa at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. If Gargano wins, he gets reinstated.
Gargano vs. Ciampa at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans – A Match Nearly One Year in the Making
This match headlined the card on April 7th, 2018’s NXT TakeOver: New Orleans show during WrestleMania weekend – and deservingly so.
In a brutal bout that saw both men tear apart and take advantage of all available weapons at ringside, it was the final sequence that still vividly stands out.
Ciampa removed his knee brace to expose his knee. As he ran in to hit Gargano, Johnny smashed Ciampa’s exposed knee with a brace.
Gargano broke apart the crutch but hesitated on hitting a pleading Ciampa with it. As they sat down, Ciampa went for a cheap shot, but Gargano countered into the Garga-No-Escape with the knee brace wrapped around Ciampa’s face and mouth. Ciampa tapped out and Batman had just defeated the Joker.
A sense of relief was very apparent on Johnny’s face. Candice LeRae embraced her husband to conclude the show.
A legitimate 5-star match. But much like the Joker said in the Dark Knight, I have a feeling we’re destined to do this forever.
We fast forward a few weeks later to the April 25th episode of NXT where Gargano was once again attacked by Ciampa while he was making his entrance for his NXT Championship match against Aleister Black. This feud was far from over.
In the following weeks, Candice slapped Ciampa and Gargano inadvertently knocked over Candice following a brawl with Ciampa.
Tensions reached a definitive peak. Johnny was not only fighting for revenge but for his family.
Gargano vs Ciampa – NXT TakeOver: Chicago II Chicago Street Fight
As expected, both men beat the holy hell out of each other with Johnny eventually dominating the later portion of the match. It also featured several memorable moments such as when Tommaso Ciampa pulled off Gargano’s wedding ring and then spat on it.
Perhaps the greatest line of the match which would lay the groundwork for months to come was courtesy of Nigel McGuinness when he asked out loud if "Gargano has become what he despised."
Gargano forced Ciampa to tap out, but there was no referee available to call it. Eventually, Gargano locked Ciampa in handcuffs and continued to land superkick after superkick.
When officials pulled Gargano off of him, Ciampa somehow mustered up the strength to nail Gargano with a DDT onto the wooden floorboards. This was all while wearing handcuffs.
If you’re keeping score, it’s now 1-1.
Throughout the summer of 2018, we witnessed a much more aggressive side to Johnny Gargano. But Johnny’s obsession with exacting revenge on Tomasso Ciampa backfired.
During the July 5th episode of NXT, Gargano interfered in the Tomasso Ciampa and Aleister Black match by accidentally hitting Black with the NXT Championship causing Ciampa to take advantage and become the NEW NXT Champion.
A triple-threat match was scheduled for all three men at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, but following a parking lot attack that left Black unconscious, he was deemed unable to compete. The attacker was never identified, which led to many weeks worth of speculation.
NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 4
Nevertheless, Johnny Gargano faced Tommaso Ciampa in the Last Man Standing match at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4 on August 18th, 2018.
The two fought all over the arena until eventually making their way to the stage, where Gargano appeared to be in control until he made one fatal mistake.
Johnny handcuffed Ciampa, but in an effort to perform the running knee, Gargano fell from the stage and landed onto equipment.
As the referee counted to 9, Ciampa managed to roll off the stage while the handcuffs kept him elevated on his feet. Ciampa won and remained the NXT Champion.
Johnny Gargano Revealed as the Mystery Attacker
Several months pass by and during the October 24, 2018 episode of NXT, Johnny Gargano attacked Aleister Black and it was officially revealed that it was indeed Johnny Wrestling who laid out Black months earlier in the parking lot.
Why? Johnny turned to the dark side in an effort to earn a shot against Ciampa. His obsession with Ciampa really threw away his morals and ethics that lead him to be so incredibly admired.
WATCH: Gargano turns to the dark side and attacks Aleister Black
NXT TakeOver: War Games
At NXT War Games on November 17th, 2018, Black absolved Gargano of his sins with two Black Masses and Ciampa retained his championship against the Velveteen Dream.
Throughout December, Ciampa was enamored with Johnny’s dark side and wanted to further expose it. Perhaps, he believed that he finally broke Johnny Wrestling once and for all, though he always publicly said that Johnny finally came to his senses.
Ciampa even interfered in a match between Black and Johnny Gargano in a steel cage. For the first time since their days in DIY, this showed true unity between the two former friends.
NXT TakeOver: Phoenix
At, NXT TakeOver: Phoenix on January 26th, 2019, Johnny Gargano defeated Ricochet to become the new NXT North American Champion while Tommaso Ciampa retained his NXT Championship over Aleister Black.
As the show concluded, Johnny Gargano appeared on stage beside Ciampa. They both hoisted their championship gold in the air as we fade to black. At this point, there remained two questions:
Has Johnny been fully corrupted or is he just keeping his mortal enemy closer than ever?
Another question, does Ciampa really believe any of this? Surely, he would never let anyone IN.
Johnny Gargano Loses his Championship
During the February 20th, 2019 edition of NXT, Johnny lost his North American Championship to the Velveteen Dream. In an effort to avoid spoilers, NXT taped two alternate endings to keep fans guessing until the episode aired.
Oddly, Ciampa almost displayed a sense of pity during Johnny’s loss.
Gargano and Ciampa Team Again
Gargano and Ciampa debuted on the main roster competing in tag team matches against the likes of The Revival and The Bar remaining undefeated.
The two then joined forces to compete as a team in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. Understandably, Candice questioned Johnny’s logic. Rightfully so, Tommaso is the scorpion and Johnny could be the frog.
The newly reformed DIY faced Undisputed Era in the opening round and even eventually walked down to their own theme music. They advanced to the second round and faced Aleister Black and Ricochet. This time around, they came out to the DIY theme song with matching gear and the now-famous DIY blue shirt.
In an ode to their NXT TakeOver: Chicago match against AOP, Johnny was nursing an injury while a frustrated Ciampa attempted to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately, it backfired and one well placed Black Mass followed by a 630 splash forced DIY out of the tournament.
Candice LeRae ran down to check on her husband and Tommaso Ciampa uncharacteristically put down “Goldie” (his NXT Championship) to check on Johnny. This misaligned sympathy was unlike anything we had seen from Ciampa in months.
What was going through Ciampa’s head at the time? I suspect, the scorpion was always ready to sting the frog but was just waiting for the perfect opportunity. After all, it is Ciampa’s nature.
As the two walked up the stage together, Ciampa briefly stared at the Dusty Rhodes trophy and then attempted to throw Johnny into the LED stage. Cleverly, Johnny knew how this scenario would play out, so he faked the injured and then reversed it by throwing Ciampa into the stage. He followed up with a superkick while Candice cheered in approval.
For months, Johnny Gargano devised a plan to grow closer to Tommaso Ciampa, only to see the champion let his guard down and become more trusting.
Gargano and Ciampa – The Aftermath
It was revealed that Tommaso Ciampa had injured his neck and required immediate surgery and as a result, was stripped of his NXT Championship. Johnny Gargano will now compete for this vacant championship at NXT TakeOver: New York.
Johnny Gargano went on to defeat Adam Cole in a 2-out-of-3 falls match to claim the vacant NXT Championship at NXT TakeOver: New York. It was a career-defining performance for both men involved.
Following the conclusion of the match, an emotional Johnny Gargano celebrated with his wife Candice. As they made their way up the ramp to conclude the show, a familiar face emerged from the back, Tomasso Ciampa. Instead of attacking Johnny, the three embraced in one of the most emotional moments in recent memory. For a split second, fans saw the real Ciampa celebrate with his best friend.
As you can imagine, Ciampa will likely still directly blame Johnny Gargano for losing his precious Goldie and it’s only a matter of time before the Psycho Killer emerges again in an effort to claim “His Moment” one final time.
While this feud may not have reached the heights of Austin vs McMahon or Austin vs The Rock, given the layers, genuine emotion, continuity, and quality of matches, the Gargano and Ciampa feud will eventually be revered and studied as the greatest feud of the modern era.
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