By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Senior Staffer (@itswilltime)
I’ve spent the majority of my time as a wrestling fan hoping, wishing, and begging for WWE to tell an intricate long term story with twists and turns that surprise me and keep me engaged. I know other promotions have done this, but as a WWE-centric critic, I’ve always wanted the promotion I’ve watched since I was nine years old to do it. Last night at NXT Takeover: Phoenix, it dawned on me: I am watching the epic I’ve always hoped for play out between Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa.
What started as a thrown together tag team I figured was meant to lose often and turn these two back out to the indies has become one of the great wrestling stories of my life. More than that, this feud has delivered on every level. The matches it has encompassed have never been anything less than good, most have been great.
The storytelling twists and turns have been there every step of the way. From Ciampa not turning on Gargano at the Cruiserweight Classic, to the epic Ladder Match that saw Ciampa finally snap and kill Gargano after, to tonight where Gargano and Ciampa seemed to reunite at the end of the show without interruption from Gargano’s logical and (likely to be) ultimately correct wife, Candice LaRae.
It was not just the electric closing moments of this show, but the entirety that demonstrated the greatness of this story.
First, let’s talk about the Johnny Gargano vs. Tomasso Ciampa NXT North American Championship match. This was the first major match of the year contender for me. These two took a spot-fest format, added solid storytelling and fundamentals, great crowd work, and believable near falls to create something special. In a large arena, it’s rare to see the entire building moved to a standing ovation, but that’s exactly what happened in the middle of Gargano vs. Ricochet.
It was a remarkable effort that ultimately burned the crowd out for the matches to follow.
Later in the show, Ciampa had a tall task ahead of him in defending the NXT Championship against Aleister Black. This match couldn’t reach the heights we saw earlier in the show, but it captured the imagination of the crowd. The ever-resilient Ciampa could not be held down as Black threw everything possible at him. In the end, the antagonist of NXT won without resorting to many underhanded tactics. He was just better.
For the show closing moment, Gargano joined Ciampa onstage, their loose alliance no longer a friendship, but a bond between two men who realized they had to do whatever it took to win. The idea of “Do It Yourself” when they began was that no one would do anything for them. Now circumstance and competition have forced them to go beyond right and wrong, beyond what is fair, and do what they must. Winning has become more their dominant philosophy. It’s all that matters to Ciampa and Gargano now and their next chapter will see them as more dangerous than ever.
Elsewhere on the show:
– After the show went off the air, Gargano and Ciampa were confronted by Velveteen Dream, who in limited appearances might have been in the most beloved wrestler on this show. Adam Cole came out to join the staredown, which brought Ricochet out. Aleister Black made his way up the ramp and we had a stare down and subsequent pull-apart brawl featuring Velveteen, Black, and Ricochet against Ciampa, Gargano, and Cole.
After they fought backstage, Velveteen Dream lead Ricochet and Aleister Black out to pose in the ring. The fans overwhelmingly chanted for Dream until this pose-down concluded.
– As Paul Levesque said in his post-show conference call, “If you have access to vikings, you use the vikings.” The War Raiders’ entrance was a fun display of WWE production making a couple wrestlers seem larger than life.
– I will never tire of watching Kyle O’Reilly play air guitar on a championship belt. Hopefully he wins another one in the near future, so he can keep jamming. It is art.
– Has a Takeover-opening tag team championship match ever disappointed? War Raiders vs. Undisputed Era was a fantastic showcase of what Ray Rowe and Hanson are capable of. They left the crowd more electric than they found it, which is amazing.
– There was a lack of drama concerning Matt Riddle vs. Kassius Ohno. I get why the match was featured here, but in an evening of unknown outcomes, this match felt out of place. Riddle ending the match with a major submission via strikes was something new and interesting. He has a ton of established ways to finish a match now and will feel more dangerous going forward because of it.
– I can’t be the only one nervous about Matt Riddle wrestling barefoot, right? It’s frightening. Let’s not even get into the foot-biting featured in this match…
– What more can be said about Gargano vs. Ricochet? I was shocked to see Ricochet break out his over-the-ringpost flip in WWE and delighted that many fans didn’t know it was happening until it had happened. This was a great place to showcase this athletic feat.
— Will! (@itswilltime) January 27, 2019
– Shayna Baszler and Bianca Belair had a tough task ahead of them having to follow Gargano vs. Ricochet. They did an admirable job. We could dissect NXT’s card structure for days, but I appreciate the attempt to have their top women follow this match. Levesque talked about card structure a little bit on the post-show conference call and said it’s about setting the talent up for success. To me, you don’t set women up for success if you don’t let them follow major matches. NXT doesn’t do “buffer” matches like WWE sometimes does. It’s something I’m grateful for.
– The goal of Bianca Belair vs. Shayna Baszler was to turn Bianca into one of NXT’s top babyfaces and it succeeded. She was able to score the visual pinfall, fight out of Shayna’s finished multiple times, and bring the crowd to their feet with her fighting spirit. It was fantastic.
– I know there is a desire for Bianca Belair to win. As a fan in the arena, I felt this desire myself. When she stood up in Baszler’s choke for the second time, I was on my feet applauding. It felt like the perfect time. This was a match about making fans want her ultimate triumph more than ever. It gave us all a reason to buy into the story and invest.
– I’m glad WWE found a way to end Belair’s undefeated streak before it got in the way of other storytelling. This seems like a lesson learned from Asuka’s long and unending streak in NXT.
– Marina Shafir and Jessamyn Duke are the lamest random goons in wrestling today.
– Tomasso Ciampa vs. Aleister Black for the NXT Championship was a suitable main event, but more than the women’s match, it felt hurt by the unbelievable effort from Gargano and Ricochet earlier in the show.
– I doubt it will happen, but pulling Black out of NXT sooner rather than later would be a wise move. He was a weak NXT Champion, has lost quite a few times, and could use a main roster debut to gain more momentum. Heck, I’d put him in the Rumble tonight and give him a key elimination to begin a feud.
– I feel for the stage hands who re-taped the padding at ringside after Gargano pulled it up. Why did Ciampa have to undo all their hard work?
– The post-show press availability from Paul “Triple H” Levesque is a nice touch. It’s a great PR move to gain NXT support in wrestling media and a nice little bit of transparency. It feels like a new era in WWE is starting where they are a more industry-media friendly place. Heck, Paul even asked Dave Meltzer how his finger was doing.
– Speaking of WWE’s PR future, I have to compliment how great Paul is at answering these questions. He isn’t completely forthcoming, but he gives decent answers and is always friendly. His sense of humor works well in this environment. He’s genuinely affable, even after a long day. If this is his training wheels-esque project for eventually taking over all of WWE, he’s doing exceptionally well.
This was a great show and a great start to a long wrestling weekend. Kudos to everyone involved in this for making it a great night of wrestling. I’ll be onsite at the Rumble and Raw on Monday as well. Happy Royal Rumble weekend, friends!
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To see his video content subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.