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5-Star Match Reviews: Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas vs. Johnny Gargano – WWE NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia (2018)

The match we’re looking at today is a special one. It’s the first WWE match in almost seven full years to be rated the full 5-stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. And while the opinion of one journalist is definitely not universal, it’s important to consider the implication of this rating.

If we take this rating at face value, then this match is therefore better than every WWE match since John vs. Cena vs. CM Punk at Money in the Bank 2011. That means this match is better than the following great matches: Cena vs. Bryan at SummerSlam 2013, Cena vs. Styles at Royal Rumble 2017, both Undertaker vs. Triple H WrestleMania matches, all of Sami Zayn’s big NXT matches (including Zayn vs. Nakamura), the list goes on. In fact, this rating makes this the best NXT matches of all time, at least up to that point. But was it really that good? Read on to find out.

Today we look back at the singles match between Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas and Johnny Gargano from NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia in 2018.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

After finishing his rivalry with former partner Tommaso Ciampa, Gargano decided it was time for a fresh start. He hoped to break out on his own. But that career path didn’t start off on the right foot. He lost several big singles matches in quick succession, which made him doubt himself. But that too didn’t last long as he soon bounced back and began picking up win after win. Eventually, Gargano won a #1 contender’s match to earn a shot at the NXT Championship, which was then held by Andrade.

Andrade and his manager Zelina Vega were completely unconcerned with Gargano’s sudden momentum. They were convinced that Andrade would not only win against Gargano, but that they’d embarrass him. Needless to say a lot of fans were behind Gargano going into this. They had seen his fall from grace and his struggle to climb back up and had connected and sympathized with him. They wanted to see him reach the top after hitting rock bottom. But could he do it? Could he reach the pinnacle and defeat a wrestler with the experience and pedigree as Andrade? There was only one way to find out.

The match

The match took place on January 27, 2018 in Philadelphia. As mentioned above, Dave Meltzer rated it five stars. It was also reviewed by TJRWrestling’s John Canton, who also raved about the match and gave it five stars out of five.

This is for Andrade’s NXT Championship. The fans chant ‘Johnny Wrestling’ as the bell rings. A great technical exchange ends in a clean standoff as the fans applaud. They lock-up again and trade holds some more until another great technical exchange concludes with another standoff. Andrade knocks Gargano down and avoids a dropkick. Gargano escapes a Hammerlock DDT, Andrade escapes a Crossface and more countering ensues. Great start to the match.

They continue blocking and dodging each other until Gargano lands a running hurricanrana, dropkick and armdrag in quick succession. Gargano starts working over Andrade’s arm but Andrade escapes by backing him into a corner. Gargano goes for the typical flip-over corner escape but Andrade has him scouted, dodges, and slaps him so hard he falls to the mat. Andrade goes for a corner charge but Gargano counters with a diving hurricanrana and a clothesline that sends Andrade out of the ring. Gargano goes for a springboard attack, lands on his feet, dodges a quebrada from Andrade, dodges some trip attempts, kicks Andrade’s face and goes for a cannonball dive, but misses. Andrade tosses him back into the ring and pins for a two-count.

Andrade stomps on Gargano’s back as Gargano tries to fight back. He holds onto the ropes off a counter and applies a dragon sleeper using the top rope for leverage. A basement dropkick to the shoulders gets Andrade another two-count so he applies a chinlock. He keeps it in for a long time until Gargano starts powering up. He goes for a slam, Andrade counters and goes for an inverted DDT, Gargano counters that into a suplex attempt, Andrade counters that counter with his own suplex attempt, and Gargano escapes and lands a seated roundhouse kick. Gargano gets sent into a corner and blocks a charge but Andrade overpowers him and climbs to the top. Gargano is stuck in the tree of woe. Andrade goes for a diving foot stomp. Gargano dodges and suplexes Andrade into the corner.

Both men get up and trade elbows as the fans chant ‘yay/boo’. Gargano gains the upper hand and lands a strike combination but Andrade stays on his feet. He follows with a diving inverted STO that gets a two-count. Andrade goes for a lariat, Gargano ducks and goes for an STO, but Andrade escapes and goes into the ropes. Gargano fakes him out and charges, only to run into a slingshot spear. He pins but Andrade kicks out at two.

Gargano lands a corner enzuigiri and goes for a headscissor takedown but Andrade counters into a facebuster for two. Andrade goes for a moonsault. Gargano rolls out of the way. But Andrade pulls a Kota Ibushi by landing on his feet and then landing a follow-up moonsault splash. Great move. He pins but gets another two-count. Andrade pulls Gargano to his feet and lands Misawa-style elbow smashes. Gargano fires back with forearms and charges, but eats a huge spinning back elbow yet still kicks out at two. Andrade charges again. Gargano answers with a superkick. Now it’s Andrade’s turn to kick out at two. Both men get up and hit each other with lariats and slaps simultaneously.

Andrade scores two kicks to the face as Gargano charges into a corner. He goes for a second-rope Hammerlock DDT but Gargano escapes and lands an Ospreay-style superkick to Andrade’s head through his legs. Gargano goes for a diving sunset flip powerbomb. Andrade lands on his feet and drives his knees into Gargano’s face. He charges at full speed for a second knee strike. Gargano dodges and goes for another slingshot spear. Andrade catches him, drops his face into his knee and then to the mat and then lands an inverted tornado DDT. One, two, no, Gargano kicks out. Both men collapse. The audience is giving them a standing ovation.

Both men end up on the same apron and Andrade goes for a Hammerlock DDT. Gargano escapes so Andrade hoists him onto his shoulders. But Gargano escapes that as well and they start brawling again. Gargano gains the upper hand with an enzuigiri. Then he springboards…and DDTs Andrade onto the apron. Great move. Gargano pins but only gets two.

Gargano goes for his Garga-no Escape crossface finisher but Andrade fights out and gets to his feet. They continue countering each other until Andrade lands another back elbow. He sees Gargano on the mat and charges for the knee strike again, but Gargano cuts him off with a big clothesline. That’s followed by a Lawn Dart. Andrade gets tosses head-first into the turnbuckles. Gargano prepares for a superkick. Zelina Vega distracts him long enough for Andrade to land a huge running dropkick. He goes for the Hammerlock DDT again. Gargano counters into a small packagfe. One, two, no, Andrade kicks out. Andrade braces for a superkick. Gargano fakes him out and kicks his gut, then lands a proper superkick. He pins. Andrade kicks out yet again.

Gargano climbs the turnbuckle but Gargano cuts him off with a clothesline to the leg. Gargano ends up tied up in the corner as Andrade climbs over him…and lands a double stomp. Gargano hit the apron hard and then falls to the floor. Brutal. Gargano has a dazed look in his eyes as Andrade tosses him back into the ring. Andrade charges and connects with the double knees. One, two, no, Gargano kicks out yet again.

Gargano tries to get up as Andrade slaps him around. He starts fighting back and lands a sudden superkick and then lands a poisoned hurricanrana out of nowhere. That move always looks awesome. Gargano starts powering up. He charges, lands a tilt-a-whirl headscissor, and locks in the Garga-no Escape. The fans explode in cheers as Andrade squirms, trying to find safety. He tries and tries, but Gargano rolls over and keeps the submission hold locked in. Zelina Vega reaches under the ropes to grab Andrade’s hand. How is that not a DQ? She’s not in the match and she touched someone that is. Anyway, Andrade takes advantage and rakes Gargano’s eyes. He goes for the Hammerlock DDT again but Gargano drives him into a corner and then flips him over the rope and to the floor. Gargano follows with a suicide dive through the ropes. He tosses Andrade into the ring. But here comes Vega with a running hurricanrana onto Gargano. Vega drives Gargano face-first into the steel ring steps. The referee never saw it because he was paying attention to Andrade. Andrade lands the Hammerlock DDT in the ring! It’s over! One, two, thre – no, Gargano kicks out. Somehow Gargano survives. The crowd explodes in cheers and chants for Gargano.

Both men are down as Vega argues with the referee. She sees Gargano slump out of the ring and goes to attack him. But out of nowhere comes Candace LeRae, Gargano’s wife, who cuts Vega off. LeRae chases Vega to the back. No more interference. Gargano takes advantage with an enzuigiri and a slingshot DDT. One, two, Andrade kicks out. Garga-no Escape gets applied once again. Andrade gets his foot on the ropes. Great sequence right there.

Gargano drags Andrade onto the apron for another DDT but Andrade pushes him backward and he hits the ringpost hard. Andrade follows with the running double knees using the ringpost. Gargano’s head gets crushed between the ringpost and Andrade’s knees. Gargano has that glazed-over look in his eyes again. The referee checks on him but he insists on continuing. Andrade drags him over the rope and hooks the arm. Draping Hammerlock DDT connects. One, two, three! There’s the match! The champion retains!

Winner and STILL NXT Champion after 32:19: Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas

 

Review

What an outstanding match. It was a great clash of characters and motivations: champion vs. challenger, arrogance vs. humility, deceit vs. determination, underhandedness vs. honor. I can see why so many people have praised it and continue to do so now. At the same time, I’m not completely sold on the idea of this being the greatest match in NXT history, much less anything greater than that.

I’ll start with the positives. This match was as intense and wild as they get. It started off fast and never really slowed down. Andrade and Gargano were evenly matched from the beginning and it was anyone’s game down to the very end. They had solid chemistry with each other as seen with their many counters and reversals. And even though one of them was the villain in this match – at least on paper – both men showed such tremendous tenacity and incredible athleticism that it was impossible not to be excited by what they were doing.

Gargano was clearly the star here. No matter what Gargano (and Vega) did to him, he kept pushing forward. He refused to lie down and die and kept taking punishment without faltering. It reached the point where the referee had to check on him to see if he even had the wherewithal to get to his feet. He was the perfect babyface for people to rally behind. And rally behind him they did. The crowd was white hot for Gargano and supported him from bell to bell. He connected with them enough for them to stay behind him until the very end, which helped make this match feel like a much bigger deal. When he lost, there was a clear sense of dejection in the arena. People were so enamored with Gargano and wanted to see him succeed so badly. They believed in him, which made his loss sting so much more.

That’s not to say Andrade was an afterthought, far from it. He did a great job as the arrogant champion with a size advantage over his challenger. He seemed to have an answer for everything Gargano threw at him which made Gargano’s struggle more exciting. But most importantly, Andrade did something that you don’t see very often in this ‘modern indy-style’ matches: he went for his finisher as early and as often as possible.

You might see that strategy in shorter main roster matches with guys like Brock Lesnar or John Cena, but not in most of these wilder big NXT matches. That’s because there’s this…philosophy, if you want to call it that…these days where a wrestler has to use every move in his arsenal before so much as teasing their finisher. People tend to get entranced in that approach because they get to see different cool moves. But what lost in that is the common sense logic that Andrade applied here. He knew his Hammerlock DDT had won him big matches before and he knew it would work here no matter how tough or determined Gargano was. He teased that move several times to remind fans that it was deadly efficient. And lo and behold, when he finally landed it and Gargano kicked out, it was perhaps the best example of a real false finish seen in years. It was common sense wrestling psychology at its finest and it was refreshing to see.

Now onto the negatives. First, the wrestling, while impressive, didn’t fit the storyline. Gargano was clearly the underdog babyface and Andrade was the arrogant heel. But Andrade didn’t wrestle in a way that fit that role. He wrestled in a way that changed the entire dynamic and story of the match for the worse. It wasn’t a ‘face vs. heel’ match, but a ‘face vs. lesser face’ match. Andrade hit dives, high-impact bombs, crazy counters, and had his own element of fighting spirit that made him less a villain than what the match’s story required. The only overt villain in the match was Zelina Vega. She did a much better job of getting the crowd to rally behind Gargano than Andrade did, even though she was merely in a support role.

The whole point of a heel in a match is to get the fans to rally behind the babyface hero, and in this match I didn’t get the impression that Andrade did that convincingly aside from towards the end when he really turned on the viciousness. In fact, based on how he wrestled, I started supporting him more than Gargano a bit. But I think that was also due to how Gargano wrestled as well.

Don’t get me wrong; Gargano was on fire here. But there was something…off…about him here. He showed great babyface fire and was easy to rally behind. He showed incredible tenacity in the face of his challenge and did his best to try and overcome the odds. He hit explosive move after explosive move and brought the fans to their feet. And yet, he never really looked hurt. He looked exhausted, but not hurt. I could believe the exhaustion because he was pulling off these incredible daredevil moves like his life depended on it. But when it came to selling damage, he was a tad inconsistent. The only times I got the impression that he was in danger was when the camera zoomed in on him and he had that dazed look on his face. That only happened twice in the match. Beyond those moments, there was little in the way of selling from Gargano. Andrade had targeted his neck so badly and with such focus, but Gargano never really sold it.

Lastly, this match was a bit too contrived for me. I think that the match peaked when Gargano had Andrade in the Garga-no Escape. That should’ve been the finish. Andrade should’ve either tapped out or used some kind of underhanded shenanigans to score a fluke win. Everything that happened afterwards came across as excessive, which led to a rather deflating finish. I understand the need to make Gargano look almost superhuman with the beating he took, but still, it just went on a bit too long. It was one of those cases where they put too much thought into the match and should’ve finished it sooner when it reached its actual dramatic peak.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Despite being one of the best matches in NXT history, I don’t think this match was at that elite level of historic greatness. It had some tremendous in-ring action and lots of excitement, but one can only go so far with those things alone. In terms of great NXT matches, it’s definitely in the top five somewhere, but beneath some earlier classics. To this day I think that the match between Sami Zayn and Shinsuke Nakamura is the best match in NXT history (not including NXT UK, because they have WALTER), and I can’t say that this match is better than that one.

It is a classic? Maybe a modern one, but it falls short compared to many matches that took place before it. There’s a lot to enjoy in it though, so I would recommend re-watching it when you can.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.

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