A soap opera for men, ballet for blokes; whatever you want to call it, pro wrestling is unique as a storytelling medium. It blends performance, sport and narrative in a way that no other form of entertainment manages, telling ongoing, sometimes multi-year stories involving multiple characters across a number of weekly shows.
The year is drawing to a close and as it winds up I want to revisit and reflect on the five in ring-stories that I feel defined pro wrestling in 2018. It was a roller coaster year of some great highs and low lows but I have chosen to focus on the five wrestling stories that I believe define the year in a positive light.
On to this week though and we venture to NXT for one of the most unexpected stories of the year.
This column went through a number of different titles, Johnny Gargano Loses His Smile, Johnny Gargano Breaks Bad, in a Star Wars fueld moment I even called it NXT Wars: Tommaso Ciampa Strikes Back. In the end though I went with Johnny Gargano Learns To #DIY because ultimately this is a story about a good man who through his own actions taught himself a terrible lesson, a lesson that would cost him his goal, his popularity and a small part of his soul.
Johnny Gargano came into the 2018 as possibly the most beloved hero in all of the WWE Universe. He possessed every characteristic a hero in the WWE could ask for, audience sympathy from the breakup of his tag team DIY, a positively exuberant in ring style and a way of emoting in the ring that connects with even the furthest back of the nosebleeds. In a world where very few wrestlers can generate a universally positive reaction, Gargano stood with mountains of goodwill amongst even the most hard to please fans.
By the end of the year though he would be a broken man. Stripped of his redeeming qualities, his ugly ambition, envy and anger would be revealed for the world to see and yet he would still call himself a hero writing his own story, doing things for himself.
Of course Johnny Gargano didn’t even start the year close to the feud that would so define his year. Instead he was pursuing his goal of the NXT Championship, fighting two classic matches against Andrade Cien Almas. It is easy to look at his first TakeOver match of the year as separate from the rest of Gargano’s character arc for 2018 however on reflection it is essential.
The contrast in the matchup between the two could not have been clearer. Both were ambitious but while Gargano went about his work with an infectious and upbeat enthusiasm Almas would take any shortcut he could find despite possessing skills and athleticism on par with anyone in the division. Against Almas, Gargano wrestled cleanly and crisply, trying to out manouver his sneakier opponent and he wrestled with, heart, so much heart. This was Gargano at his purist with a year full of promise ahead of him. However this was also Johnny Gargano losing on the biggest stage he had wrestled on, for the most prestigious belt he had wrestled for.
In a parallel universe somewhere Johnny Gargano managed to outwit Almas and Zelina Vega, achieved his goal of winning the NXT Championship with clear eyes and a full heart and was never dragged down into his own personal heart of darkness by Tommaso Ciampa. The two failures against Almas would come back to haunt Gargano later in the year as his life began to unravel and his rival started to work his way into his head.
“While seeking revenge dig two graves – one for yourself”
Johnny Gargano’s fall didn’t happen straight away, those kind of massive changes in character rarely ever do. In reality changes like that are instead the culmination of a series of small choices that end with someone in a place they never expected. That is not to say Gargano’s slide doesn’t have a starting point and in this case his slide starts where many thought he had reached his peak.
At TakeOver New Orleans Gargano faced off with Tommaso Ciampa, his former tag team partner, room mate and even best man who a year earlier had turned on him. After Ciampa effectively ended their tag team partnership he had to spend time on the shelf injured but when he did return, he came on like a tsunami, viciously beating Gargano to rub salt into the wounds after Gargano lost to Almas at TakeOver Philadelphia and then costing him a second NXT Championship match by interference.
At TakeOver New Orleans Gargano would walk out to a sea of admirers waving his sign and chanting his name. While the match would be a celebration of Johnny Wrestling, the action in the ring would not reflect that positive nature. After everything Gargano and Ciampa had been through they could hardly have a standard wrestling match however the way they tore into each other was slightly unsettling even to the biggest fan. No act of violence was ever enough and even though Gargano won, he had to go to a dark place to overcome the mind games of his former friend
The problem with revenge is it is a beast that both feeds off and constantly creates anger. While it may seem create a sense of personal justice and catharsis, what it becomes is a self fulfilling cycle of animosity. The only way it can ever be satisfied is if the other party admits they were wrong and ask forgiveness but in this case the loss and beating only made Tommaso Ciampa more resolute in his direction.
Sensing emotional and mental weakness after the New Orleans fight, Ciampa would do everything he could to get into his former tag partners head, slowly dragging the once noble man into a world where he was blinded by anger.
The darkness around Johnny Wrestling only got worse as Gargano and Ciampa built to their second match, a Chicago Street Fight that would mark the one year anniversary of Ciampa’s first attack. Even before the match Gargano’s wife Candace LeRae could see warning signs and while she ultimately gave him her blessing she could see a change in the heart of her man.
“No one can drive us crazy unless we give them the keys”
There is a moment in the Street Fight when Johnny Gargano lost himself, where he makes one of those fateful decisions that would send his world spiraling out of control. Before he inadvertently helped Ciampa win the NXT Title, before he would attack Aliester Black and before would cost himself the title match in Brooklyn his future trajectory and mental turmoil would expose themselves plainly.
Sitting atop of the production boxes he had just launched himself and Ciampa off, looking down on the EMT’s working to put the unconscious Ciampa on a stretcher, Gargano sat at a crossroads. He had already won their first match and for all intents and purposes this fight was over. He could have taken the high road of having the match called off with Ciampa unfit to continue. He could have put the bitterness of the the rivalry behind him and set his sights on other things; with the two straight high profile wins he would most likely be next in line for a NXT Title match and could continue to work towards what he said was his goal at the start of the year. Instead he decided that crippling his former tag team partner to the point of debilitation was not enough.
Johnny Gargano’s downfall entered a state of free fall the minute he jumped off those boxes and went to pick the carcass of his former friend. In an eerie moment of foreshadowing what was to come, Gargano’s actions would directly cost him the match after he slapped handcuffs on his unconscious rival but was outwitted as his rage and rush to deal out vengeance upon vengeance blinded him. A crowd that had earlier been chanting ‘fight forever’ was audibly taken aback by Gargano’s blood thirst towards Ciampa and muted in their response to the finish.
All of it was because Gargano had allowed Tommaso Ciampa to embedded himself so completely in his mind, blinding him to the bigger picture of his family, his former goals and what he once stood for.
From that decision onward Gargano’s life began to truly unravel. In an effort to stop his enemy, the man who originally stood for everything that was good in NXT would interfere in a title match he wasn’t involved in and his actions would inadvertently lead to Ciampa becoming NXT Champion.
This wasn’t how the story was meant to be though. In Gargano’s mind he was the hero of the story, a man on a quest to correct the injustice that had been done to him and win the prize that had been kept from him. When everything fell down around him, instead of reflecting on himself Gargano decided he would have to scrap the script and take matters into his own hands. Gargano decided he would have to do it himself.
“If the destination is heaven, why do we scramble to be first in line for hell?”
The quotes in this piece come from early 20th century preacher Douglas Horton, a man who pleaded with people to flee their worst selves or face their own personal hell. In 2018 Johnny Gargano made decisions that sent him towards his darkest self: continuing his assault on his former tag team partner, getting involved in a match he had no right to be in and attacking Aliester Black. Through those decisions he wrought terrible consequences however the year ended for Johnny Gargano with a glimmer of light in the darkness.
Gargano’s spiral of self destruction would be complete at TakeOver Brooklyn 4 when in his zeal to create the justice he felt he had been denied he would once again cost himself a match he had won. By then a crowd that had been cheering for him to win the NXT Title at the start of the year were audibly split in their support.
Gargano’s final TakeOver match for the year would be against the man he attacked backstage, Aliester Black. In an incredibly physical match, the closest thing NXT has to a spiritual being would come to the the ring dressed as the embodiment of Gargano’s demons. Black firstly made Gargano pay for his sins with a ferocious series of strikes and then in the final act of the match declare Gargano’s sins ‘absolved’ in between hitting him with two Black Masses.
Unfortunately by then Gargano was a man who was beyond saving. He had become a man who convinced himself that no matter what he was the hero of this story and therefore any act in service of his warped hero’s journey to the NXT Title was justified. In his final match of the year we would learn just how far Gargano was willing to compromise himself when he teamed back up the Black Heart of NXT, his bitter rival for most of the year, to take out Aliester Black again.
Which brings us back to the title of this piece. In 2018 Johnny Gargano made the choice that no matter what he did he was the hero of his own journey, he learnt to truly Do It Yourself. Whether Johnny Gargano finally does win the title in 2019 is almost elementary at this point as his journey towards it has stripped him of everything the crowd once loved about him. The guy who pushed Tommaso Ciampa out of the way and took a ladder shot to the face for his best friend in 2016 is gone, replaced by a man who would throw anyone in front of that ladder if it meant stepping closer to what he believes is his destiny.
In 2019 Johnny Gargano doesn’t need a championship, he needs redemption.
Thanks for reading LOP, what did you think of Johnny Gargano’s journey in 2018? Let me know in the comments below, on twitter @Sir_Samuel or you could even write about it yourself in the LOP Columns Forum where we are always looking for new writers. If you want to register just let me know so I can make sure your registration goes through smoothly (we are currently under siege from Russian bots). You can sign up here.
Also make sure you keep an eye out for Part 4 of the series where I look at AJ Styles year at the top of the WWE.