5-Star Match Reviews: Adam Cole vs. Johnny Gargano vs. – WWE NXT TakeOver XXV (June 1, 2019)
Today we revisit the NXT title match between Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole from WWE NXT TakeOver XXV in June 2019.
Some people really want to believe in superheroes. They really want to see someone come along that defies reality and go above the limits of human possibility. And for many wrestling fans, wrestlers are superheroes and supervillains.
It stands to reason. Wrestlers put themselves and their opponents through incredible pain and damage for others’ amusement. Sometimes this idea of wrestlers as ‘superheroes’ is blatant and overt, like with Hulk Hogan, John Cena, and Roman Reigns. In other cases, it’s less obvious, as seen with the match we’re looking at today.
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.
There’s no story here; a rematch between the two was simply announced a few weeks before the show. The company wanted to re-capture the “magic” and “passion” from both these wrestlers and the fans that were on display in their match in April, so here we go. Gargano vs. Cole, Round Two.
This match originally took place on June 1st, 2019. It was rated *****1/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and ***** by TJR’s John Canton. Let’s see how well it holds up.
This is for Gargano’s NXT Championship. The two lock-up and jockey for control against the ropes. The fans chant for both guys as Gargano tackles Cole down. Cole ducks down, blocks a crossface, runs to the ropes, and tackles Gargano again. Gargano tries a leapfrog but Cole catches him on his shoulders. Gargano escapes into a sunset flip but Cole counters, rolls Gargano over, and misses a Last Shot knee strike. Gargano rolls Cole over into another crossface attempt but Cole escapes the ring. Interesting match so far.
Gargano backons Cole into the ring and once he returns the chain grappling begins. Gargano works over both of Cole’s arms and also starts cranking his neck. Cole escapes but Gargano has him scouted and rolls into a crucifix pin for a one-count. Cole blocks another Garga-no Escape and escapes Gargano’s arm control with an elbow smash. Both wrestlers elbow each other until Cole goes low with a kick to Gargano’s knee. Cole lands some kneelifts and sends Gargano into a corner. Gargano blocks, sends Cole into the ropes, and lands a running hurricanrana. He jumps onto the apron and hops up to avoid getting clotheslined from below. Cole misses a Gargano dive, misses a bicycle kick, and blocks a superkick. Gargano jumps back onto the apron (as Cole watches) and lands a senton onto Cole.
Gargano rolls Cole into the ring but Cole rolls back out on the opposite side. Gargano reaches through to grab Cole but then avoids a sudden enzuigiri attempt by Cole. Cole tries hitting another clothesline but Gargano kicks his right arm and then double stomps his left arm. Still not done, Gargano smashes Cole’s arm into the side of the ring, lands an over-the-shoulder armbreaker, drops a leg on it, traps it as he covers for some quick one-counts, and then locks in a clever arm-trap Texas cloverleaf. Cole escapes that hold so Gargano splashes onto his arm but then Cole breaks free with another kick to Gargano’s leg. Cole goes to the top rope but Gargano cuts him off with an enzuigiri. Gargano tries a standing armbar in the corner but Cole escapes and superkicks Gargano’s right calf.
Now it’s Cole’s turn to do some limbwork as he wraps Gargano’s leg through the ropes and kicks his knee. Cole follows with a leg DDT and a modified kneebar. Gargano kicks him off and tries fighting back but Cole drops him with another kick to the knee. Cole follows with a diving dropkick to the knee and a dragon screw leg whip. Again Cole wraps Gargano in a corner and stomps on him. Gargano hits some forearms to block another dragon screw but Cole simply sweeps him down. Cole tries a Figure-4 but Gargano counters with a small package for a two-count. Cole kicks the bad knee and goes for his Panama Sunrise finisher. He jumps off the second rope…and into a Ligerbomb! Great counter by Gargano.
They trade forearms until Gargano dodges a kick to his leg. Gargano gets sent into a corner but bounces out with some clotheslines and an overhead belly-to-belly. Gargano lands a cradle roll-through kick, a corner enzuigiri, and a diving flatliner for a two-count. Cole lifts Gargano onto his shoulders but Gargano lands safely on the apron. He goes for a spear through the ropes but anticipates Cole’s superkick and stops himself. Cole charges and blocks another enzuigiri. He charges but Gargano hits the slingshot spear. One, two, Cole kicks out.
Despite still having a weakened leg, Gargano goes for a superplex only for Cole to block it. Cole tries a diving sunset powerbomb but Gargano powers out and tries countering into an air raid crash. Gargano holds onto the ropes and kicks Cole before Cole can kick his leg again. Gargano goes for a springboard crossbody but Cole counters with a jumping backstabber. Cole covers but only gets a two-count.
Cole goes for a suplex but Gargano blocks with a knee to the head. Gargano blocks a corner charge but ends up on Cole’s shoulders. Gargano elbows out and lands on his feet. He blocks two lariats but can’t block a huge enzuigiri. Cole follows with a torture rack into a single knee facecrusher. One, two, Gargano survives. Cole goes for the Panama Sunrise. Gargano holds onto the ropes to avoid it. Cole dives for his finisher. Gargano dodges and both guys clothesline and elbow each other. Both fake each other out with superkicks but then Cole connects with one. Gargano superkicks back, as does Cole following another fake-out. Cole goes for the Panama Sunrise again (even though Gargano’s out of range) and Gargano superkicks him in midair. Both guys roll to the floor on opposite sides as the crowd applauds loudly.
Both guys superkick each other at the same time at ringside. It takes them both a long time to re-enter the ring and although Cole gets in first, Gargano surprises him with a slingshot DDT. One, two, Cole kicks out. Cole blocks a full nelson with a ropebreak but Gargano kicks his bad arm. Cole blocks another armbreaker and Gargano avoids a knee clip and double stomps on Cole’s head. Cole bails to ringside to avoid a superkick and Gargano teases a dive. He hesitates and starts exiting the ring but Cole takes advantage of that with an enzuigiri to Gargano’s bad leg. Cole follows with two suplexes-into-neckbreakers to the knee, one on the outside and one in the ring. He covers but Gargano kicks out at 2.6. Cole tries the Sunrise again. He sees Gargano going for an enzuigiri of his own and traps the leg. But Gargano takes advantage with an overhead arm wrench takedown. Gargano charges and lands a tilt-a-whirl headscissor into the Garga-no Escape. Cole counters into a Figure-4 leglock. Gargano’s forced to stay sitting lest he be pinned for a three-count. But despite the added pressure (and pain) Gargano twists Cole’s weakened arm and uses it to turn his whole body over to reverse the Figure-4 onto Cole. Cole grabs the ropes immediately, forcing a break.
Both wrestlers make it to one knee and Cole dives for Gargano’s leg. Gargano blocks it and elbows Cole’s bad arm. the two trade punches and kicks as Gargano maintains control over Cole’s arm. Cole hits a knee smashes out of nowhere, pulls off Gargano’s kneepad, and kicks the exposed knee. Cole tries another Figure-4 but Gargano uses his free leg to kick Cole to the floor. Cole rushes back in but Gargano cuts him off with a draping DDT. Cole rolls to the floor again and Gargano decides to throw caution to the wind and cosplay as Superman. He staggers (not runs) for a dive through the ropes…and flies into a superkick right to the face!
Cole follows with a Panama Sunrise flipping piledriver from the apron to the floor! Cole rolls Gargano into the ring and covers. One…two…thr – NO, Gargano survives.
Cole trash-talks Gargano and removes his kneepad. He charges for the Last Shot…and Gargano ducks it. Cole ducks another Garga-no Escape and locks Gargano in his own finisher. Gargano escapes and hits Cole with his Last Shot finisher. Gargano pins but Cole still kicks out. “Fight Forever” chants emerge as both wrestlers trade forearms from a kneeling position. Surprisingly, the exchange leads to a yay/boo sequence with Gargano being booed. Gargano goes for a discus forearm but Cole hits first with a pump kick. Gargano tries another one off the ropes but Cole kicks him again. That’s followed by a third kick to the back of Gargano’s head. Gargano answers with a rebound lariat out of nowhere. Gargano goes for a superkick. Cole hits his own first. Cole runs the ropes and gets superkicked and a poisoned Frankensteiner. Cole somehow turns that into a Last Shot knee to the back of Gargano’s head. One, two…and Gargano kicks out again.
Frustrated, Cole grabs a chair and argues with the ref at ringside. Gargano tries capitalizing but he takes out the ref instead of Cole. Why doesn’t another one come out immediately? Anyway, Gargano ducks a chair-shot and superkicks the chair into Cole’s face.
He covers Cole in the ring and gets a visual seven-count but there’s no ref to call it. Gargano rolls the referee into the ring as Cole motions for someone to come out. Gargano expects Cole’s UE buddies to attack him from behind so he waits at ringside with the chair to get them first. But it’s all a ruse! Cole’s only pretending and is using those crucial seconds to recover. Gargano realizes this and rushes back into the ring. But Cole cuts him off with a jumping piledriver through the ropes. Cole covers but Gargano kicks out yet again. Cole charges for the Last Shot but Gargano sinks down. If Gargano’s so exhausted then why doesn’t Cole pin him right then and there? Cole starts lifting Gargano up…but Gargano counters into yet another Garga-no Escape. Oh, that’s why. Gargano tightens the hold as much as possible. But Cole elbows Gargano’s bad knee and then superkicks that leg again. Panama – no, Gargano cradles Cole for yet another close two-count. Gargano tries getting up but his leg gives out. Panama Sunrise followed by a successful Last Shot! One…two…three! There’s the match! We have a new champion!
Winner and NEW NXT Champion after 32:00: Adam Cole
That was better than their 2-out-of-3 falls match in April, but mainly because that earlier match was an overrated piece of self-indulgent hot garbage. This one had many of the same elements and flaws as that match but they weren’t as obvious or harmful here. This match had way better wrestling, denser psychology, more logic, better storytelling, and much less wasted motion and self-indulgence. It was way more serious and airtight. It had more drama due to an overabundance of near-falls and finisher kick-out spots. It would’ve been a 5-star classic…had it not fallen victim to the same problems that seem common to both Gargano and Cole whenever they wrestle big indy-style epic MOVEZ matches.
Let’s start with what was good here. The actual wrestling was sound for the most part with both Gargano and Cole moving with urgency and seriousness. They told an interesting story in which both guys knew each other well enough to dodge and avoid their biggest moves as much as possible. Both guys had each other scouted and came up with clever counters. There was plenty of tension as both guys were so keen on avoiding ending up eating a big move (except the superkicks, those were handed out like candy on Halloween and were thus rendered inconsequential). And for a good 2/3 of the match, it seemed like they were actually building towards some big payoff or major crescendo with all the limbwork, counters, teases, and reversals.
But that payoff came and went. Once the finishing stretch began, it really became a finishing STRETCH. These guys just spammed so many big moves over and over to the point that the match went from ‘these guys have killed each other, this’ll end any minute now’ to ‘we get it, you’re both tough, now end this match already’.
The only breather in that overly frenetic closing stretch was that clever ‘distraction’ tease by Cole. It was refreshing to see something different out of Cole with the teased interference. It was a nice callback to their previous match, it gave the match a new method of creating tension and suspense (will they come out or not?) and it made psychological sense because it gave Cole time to recover. In a way, Gargano screwed himself in the end because of this moment. he fell for Cole’s trap (though to be fair, he had good reason to expect interference) and his own hesitance and indecision allowed Cole to recover enough to make a decisive comeback.
But despite having some great components, this match still had many of the same flaws that plagued other Gargano matches and Cole matches. The limbwork was given importance early on but it wasn’t followed on as much as it could’ve been. Gargano did a good job of remembering his weakened leg, but he still did things that were a tad stupid. He got his face kicked in because he was too slow on the running dive. It made no sense for him to be so wary of Cole’s offense earlier in the match and wrestle cautiously only to do a 180 and dive head-first into clear and present danger without any concern for his own safety. Stuff like that – doing senseless flips and dives for the sake of spectacle at the expense of already-established logic, story, and character traits – is why so many modern matches don’t hold up too well.
Gargano’s selling was inconsistent for most of the match while Cole’s was largely nonexistent by the end. Gargano sold the leg only at critical junctures in the match and at other times it was largely a non-issue. Though at least he incorporated it into the finish and this time it actually meant something since he couldn’t avoid Cole’s finishers any further. Meanwhile, Cole’s arm was largely neglected once the ‘EPIC MOVEZ’ portion of the match began. He never really went back to it and it wasn’t given enough importance to the match’s story as Gargano’s leg. On one hand, Cole smartly responded by relying on kicks, flips, and other big moves that rely more on his legs than his arms. On the other hand, his weakened arm could’ve been made into a much more important part of the match’s story. Instead of Gargano going after that limb relentlessly, Gargano was somehow shoehorned into being the underdog fighting from beneath while also trying to convince everyone he was indestructible.
And once again, the match went into overkill territory. But this time, it was done because the story had a false setup. Cole basically had no choice but to murder-death-kill Gargano because, well, Gargano was Superman. Or at least, that was his gimmick. Except that he was totally miscast in that role. Much like Randy Orton failing as a white-meat babyface, Hangman Page sucking as a badass, and the Young Bucks failing to come across as likeable, Johnny Gargano cannot play Superman convincingly, no matter how hard he tries. Cole threw so much at Gargano yet Gargano kept kicking out like he was John Cena or Roman Reigns. But something about Gargano – be it his look, his size, his facial expressions, his selling (or lack thereof), his movements, his transitions, his personality, or any combination of these factors – makes him come across as a pretender. He simply wasn’t convincing in his role.
Because of this, it was hard to really suspend disbelief here. Gargano surviving so much of Cole’s offense and still kicking out until the very end just wasn’t believable or compelling. Cole tried everything he could to adhere to the story’s requirements, but it was too daunting of a task, even for him. Maybe that’s why the crowd turned on Gargano at the end; only after thirty minutes of over-the-top surrealism did they realize that Johnny Gargano was being given ‘Super-Cena’ booking in his match, only without the added benefit of looking the part.
Final Rating: ****1/4
I’ll give credit where it’s due: this match did have some solid action. It seemed like it was going in the right direction at first with some solid wrestling and psychology. Then Gargano did a random forward roll and that basically served as the starting marker for the craziness that would follow for the rest of the match.
While I’m generally not a fan of wrestlers being reigned in or restricted in what they could do, there are exceptions to every rule. Someone should’ve approached these guys after TakeOver: New York and told them to tone down the excess in their inevitable rematch. At first it seemed like that lesson was learned, but then these two abandoned any sense of structure or adherence to the ‘less is more’ philosophy in favor of the tired indy cliché of ‘SPAM EVERY MOVE POSSIBLE’! That sort of craziness would’ve been a bit better twenty years ago when it was still fresh and interesting; but since everyone’s been doing that for over a decade now, such matches are a dime a dozen and lack anything truly eye-catching or captivating.
If you must choose one Gargano/Cole match to watch, pick this one. It’s better and doesn’t have as many glaring flaws as its predecessor.
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.