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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Johnny Gargano vs. Ricochet – WWE NXT TakeOver: Phoenix (Jan. 26, 2019)

wwe nxt gargano ricochet

This review came as a request from one of our many readers here at TJRWrestling. I’ve heard many stories about how Johnny Gargano is the guy that defined the NXT TakeOver era. I’ve heard countless fans sing his praises and tell me that he’s arguably the best wrestler active today.

Naturally, I’m skeptical of such hyperbole, especially since Hiroshi Tanahashi is still wrestling. So to see if the Gargano hype is more than just hype, I figured I’d take a look at one of Gargano’s best matches and decide for myself.

Thus we revisit Gargano’s big match with Ricochet from NXT TakeOver: Phoenix.

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

Johnny Gargano started changing sometime in late 2018. He won a big cage match thanks to help from Tommaso Ciampa, who was his enemy throughout that year. Ciampa planted an idea in Gargano’s head that Gargano should become NXT North American champion and Gargano went with this. Ricochet, the champion, questioned Gargano’s honor by asking if Gargano would take his title man to man or by attacking him from behind like a coward. Gargano responded by transforming into (his own interpretation of) Shawn Michaels and superkicked Ricochet out of nowhere.

And so the stage was set for a big encounter. On one side was Gargano, who was embracing his newfound villainy and loved being Michaels. On the other was Ricochet, who defined himself as being a one-of-a-kind wrestler that flies like a superhero, which is laughable nonsense considering guys like AJ Styles, Will Ospreay, Kota Ibushi and even Rey Mysterio did Ricochet’s stuff before him and in some cases did it better. Ricochet had speed and explosive offense on his side while Gargano was the more balanced wrestler. With that in mind, which of them would come out on top?

The match

This match originally took place on January 26th, 2019 at NXT TakeOver: Phoenix. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer while TJRWrestling’s John Canton rated it the full five stars.

This is for Ricochet’s NXT North American Championship. The crowd is split between both wrestlers as the match begins. They start with a technical chain grappling sequence that ends with Gargano rolling into a crucifix pin for an early two-count. Gargano out-grapples Ricochet to block his escape and teases a superkick but Ricochet avoids it. They chain wrestle some more until Gargano gets a side headlock in but Ricochet rolls into a pin for a one-count of his own. Gargano knocks Ricochet down but Ricochet bounces right back up. That leads into a highly-choreographed-looking sequence that includes another rolling crucifix attempt. But this time Ricochet powers out and they do another elaborate sequence of moves that concludes with a standoff and loud applause.

Ricochet extends his hand to a seated Gargano and Gargano takes advantage with a cheapshot elbow. Gargano wins a corner strike exchange and that leads to yet another complex gymnastics sequence. Gargano gets dropkicked and rolls to the floor and Ricochet teases a dive. But Gargano sidesteps so Ricochet skins the cat instead. He hops over Ricochet, runs to the ringpost, and lands a jumping moonsault to the floor.

Back in the ring, Ricochet goes for a corner attack but Gargano elbows him first. Gargano teases a dive but Ricochet rolls into a palm thrust and goes for some top-rope move but it appears to be too laborious to execute. Ricochet tries again and teases a top-rope Frankensteiner but Gargano counters with a faceplant into the turnbuckle. Gargano takes advantage with some mounted punching and a dropkick to the back of Ricochet’s head for a two-count. He locks in a standing neck crank but Ricochet elbows out. Ricochet counters an Irish whip and goes for a standing moonsault but Gargano kicks him aside. Gargano lands a nasty high-angle backbreaker for another two-count. Gargano wrestles into another crucifix pin but only gets two and then switches into a grounded octopus hold. He tries to stretch as many different body parts as possible but Ricochet counters into a pin of his own for yet another two-count.

Gargano starts hitting more aggressively as he chops Ricochet’s chest. Ricochet counter’s an Irish whip but Gargano blocks his attempt at a body drop with a sunset flip. Then Ricochet blocks the pin and deadlifts Gargano into a vertical suplex. Gargano blocks and sends Ricochet into a corner and then ends up on the apron. He goes for a slingshot attack through the ropes but Ricochet dodges and Gargano faceplants. He follows with a standing moonsault to Gargano’s back. Both men go down.

The two wrestlers brawl to their feet until Ricochet lands a clothesline. He follows with a running headscissor and some corner strikes. That’s follows by a 619 and a springboard European uppercut. Ricochet continues his onslaught with a northern lights suplex/Brainbuster combination. He pins but only gets a two-count. Ricochet goes for a Regal-plex but Gargano blocks with palm strikes. Ricochet ends up on the apron again but this time Gargano avoids the attack and charges into a corner. Ricochet kicks him back and goes for a rolling Codebreaker. But Gargano counters with a powerbomb for another two-count. Crossface locked in. Ricochet reaches for the ropes but Gargano rolls them both away. Ricochet blocks a Garga-No Escape hold so Gargano switches to a roll-up. Ricochet counters that with a Majistral cradle but only gets two. Ricochet ducks a kick and sends Gargano to the apron. Gargano hits an enzuigiri and goes for his slingshot DDT but Ricochet blocks. Ricochet powerlifts Gargano up and dumps him to the floor. Gargano hits his ribs on the apron on his way down. But Ricochet isn’t done. He soars through the air with a Fosbury Flop dive to the floor.

Back in the ring, Gargano blocks a Ricochet charge but then runs into an uppercut. Ricochet rolls out of a roll-up attempt and lands a standing shooting star/second-rope moonsault combination. One, two, Gargano kicks out. Ricochet goes back to the corner but Gargano tries stopping him by grabbing onto his foot. Gargano hits some elbows and goes for another top-rope move but Ricochet blocks. Ricochet goes for his own top-rope move but Gargano avoids that. Gargano tries the super Frankensteiner. Ricochet blocks and goes for a superbomb. Ricochet flies off. Gargano counters in midair with a Frankensteiner and – no wait, Ricochet lands on his feet. He just stole Ospreay’s gimmick from a few months earlier!

Gargano charges but runs into an elbow. He follows with an enzuigiri and then runs into another European uppercut. Ricochet ducks a discus lariat and Gargano avoids a flipping headscissor. Ricochet avoids one superkick but can’t dodge the next one. Yet he still has the wherewithal to duck another discus attack and land a Pélé kick. Handspring back el – no, Gargano counters into the Garga-No Escape! Great counter. Ricochet counters with a deadlift and then reverse Exploder throws him into the corner. He goes to the top rope for a dive but Gargano rolls out of range and then to the floor. He thinks he’s safe. He’s not. Ricochet flies over the ringpost and takes Gargano out. That’s followed by a springboard 450 Splash. One, two, Gargano kicks out. Shooting star press connects…with Gargano’s knees. Gargano floats over into a cradle pin. One, two, Ricochet kicks out. Gargano lands a massive superkick that sends Ricochet to the floor. Gargano dives through the ropes…and onto Ricochet’s shoulders. Gargano counters that into a Poisoned Frankensteiner on the floor. Ricochet gets spiked on the floor and then gets thrown into the ring. Gargano connects with a slingshot DDT. One, two, thr – no, Ricochet survives again.

Frustrated, Gargano rolls to the floor and pulls off some of the mats to expose the concrete beneath. He begins channeling Randy Orton and teases a DDT onto the concrete from the apron, but then has a crisis of conscience and decides against it. He goes back into the ring…and walks into a small package from Ricochet. One, two, Gargano escapes. Ricochet blocks a superkick and hits a massive discus clothesline. Ricochet goes for a Phoenix Splash. Gargano rolls to the side and Ricochet rolls to his feet without crashing and burning. Ricochet charges and runs into another superkick. Gargano goes for a running satellite DDT. Ricochet blocks and applies Garga-No escape on Gargano. Gargano crawls to the ropes for safety.

Both wrestlers end up on the apron and Gargano shoves Ricochet into the ringpost. He then glances at the exposed floor from earlier and a lightbulb goes off. Gargano drags Ricochet off the apron and hits a Brainbuster onto the concrete! Both men hit with a sickening thud. Gargano gets up first and tells Ricochet “I win” and connects with another slingshot DDT. One, two, and three! There’s the match! A new champion has been crowned!

Winner and NEW NXT North American Champion after 24:34: Johnny Gargano

 

Review

I disagree with many people about this match. While the general consensus has been that this is some kind of amazing epic, I just don’t see it that way. This was fine from a purely athletic perspective but very disappointing from a wrestling perspective. This was another example of the difference between wrestling and wrestling moves being on display. The former has a central theme of competition in it while the other is more about performance and self-indulgence. This match was definitely an example of the latter.

From the very beginning, I could see where this match would go. Gargano tried to keep things grounded in realism by actually wrestling at first, which was nice. But his attempts were rendered pointless not long after because Ricochet’s wrestling style didn’t mesh well with Gargano’s. Ricochet has a very rigid style that emphasizes style over substance and a lot of what he does looks phony, convoluted, and telegraphed. Here, Ricochet was all about showing off and by doing so he exposed the holes in his wrestling style. He did these needless rolls into moves that do nothing, creating some very obvious wasted motion and energy. He didn’t sell for Gargano at all until the last five minutes or so as he ‘had to get his moves in’ and show everything he can do in one single match. And above all else, Ricochet showed a marked lack of urgency. He was in a big title match yet he felt the need to show off and do a lot of pointless things in the match. Because of that, it was hard for me to believe the story they were trying to tell here.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s definitely cool seeing Ricochet pull off his various flips and dives out of nowhere. But using so many high-risk moves only makes sense when they actually lead to something in the match. Ricochet hit so many dives, splashes and other aerial maneuvers yet none of them moved the match forward in a meaningful way. Gargano never really slowed down and moved with more or less the same speed and agility twenty minutes into the match as he did two minutes in. As a result, Ricochet’s match psychology (if you could really call it that) came across as an exercise in futility.

As for Gargano, he was a bit better than Ricochet here but not by much. He managed to keep pace with Ricochet and actually did more than just spam moves. In fact, the best part of Gargano’s work here was how he used Ricochet’s own offense against him. Ricochet was in control for around 75% of the match while Gargano hit far fewer but more efficient moves. He took advantage of Ricochet’s penchant for flips, dives, and springboards and used those to do most of his damage. But when all that failed, Gargano did a bit of different storytelling by teasing and then later using the exposed concrete floor as a weapon. And while I found his little story of personal conflict shoehorned and not convincing, at least he tried to infuse some personality and emotion into this match.

That said, I had much higher expectations for the guy that wasn’t just billed as NXT’s Shawn Michaels but was basically copying Michaels in this match. Gargano didn’t show that much charisma in this match. He didn’t feed off the crowd’s reactions one way or another. What little psychology he applied during the first half of the match became meaningless once Ricochet started doing his dives. His didn’t sell pain or emotion, the latter of which being Michaels’ calling card in WWE. Gargano was supposed to be in this dark place but he didn’t really tell that story here. But most of all, there was no distinction between Gargano wrestling as a hero and as a villain. If one were to watch this match without seeing the pre-match hype video first, there’d be no way of telling that Gargano was supposed to be booed here.

Final Rating: ***3/4

If I could describe this match in one word it would be ‘superficial’. It was eye candy instead of eye protein. It was the wrestling version of a commercial geared towards small children with lots of bright colors and flashiness. Even though it had some fleeting moments of impressive athleticism, it had no soul. It was 25 minutes of dazzling move after dazzling move with little structure and less emotion. I know some people adore these PWG-style nonstop spot-fests but for me these matches are VERY hit-or-miss and this one missed. Both wrestlers here were so wrapped up in their desire to bedazzle that they failed to tell a convincing story. So while the action looked good on the surface, there was nothing of value beneath it.

This isn’t a match that’s worth seeing in its entirety. You can watch a five-minute highlights video of it on YouTube and get everything you need out of it without having to spend either your money on a Network subscription or 40 minutes watching the pre-match hype promo, the match itself, and the post-match celebration.

Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.