5-Star Match Reviews: Johnny Gargano vs. Adam Cole – WWE NXT TakeOver: New York 2019
This is the best match in WWE history according to at least one popular wrestling reviewer.
As of July 2022, this is the highest-rated WWE match ever based on match ratings by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer. When it happened three years ago, it was praised to the moon as an instant classic. And it cemented both wrestlers as two of the best workers in the entire company.
But was this match really that fantastic and historic? Read on to find out.
Today we revisit the NXT title match between Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano from NXT TakeOver: New York in 2019.
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.
Tommaso Ciampa won the NXT title back in July 2018 but had to vacate it in March 2019 due to a neck injury. That neck injury happened while Ciampa and Gargano were teaming together in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, having put their differences aside. With Ciampa sidelined, the title was vacated but Gargano was still scheduled to compete for it per Triple H’s instructions.
Meanwhile, Adam Cole won a Fatal-5-way match to become the other participant in this match. And to make sure that there would be no shenanigans and that the match would have a definitive winner, HHH announced that this match would be decided under a 2-out-of-3 falls stipulation.
This match originally took place on April 5th, 2019. It was rated *****1/2 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. This is the highest rating Meltzer has ever given to a WWF/E match, making this the (allegedly) single greatest match in WWE history. Let’s see if that reputation was, and is, well-deserved. TJRWrestling’s John Canton rated it five stars, which is as high as his match rating scale goes.
This is a 2-out-of-3 falls match for the vacant NXT Championship. The crowd is overwhelmingly behind Cole, even though neither he nor Gargano do anything whatsoever for the first minute. Gargano takes Cole down and maintains control with some technical holds. Cole applies a deep headlock but Gargano grapples out and into a double arm submission hold on the mat. Gargano gets a bridging one-count and Cole manages to reapply the headlock. Gargano handstands out of a corner but turns around and takes a headlock takeover. Gargano escapes and Cole lands a shoulder tackle off the ropes. They crisscross and trade rear waistlocks until Cole blocks an attempt at a roll-up. Gargano ducks a running kick and gets a one-count off a roll-up. They avoid each other’s kicks and Gargano lands an armdrag into an armlock. Cole tries countering but Gargano counters back. Cole tries escaping the armlock but Gargano counters with, of all things, a head-butt to the hand. Cole reverses an Irish whip and ducks down but Gargano catches this and goes for a crossface. Cole gets a ropebreak and then hits a big elbow. They go back-and-forth in a strike exchange until Cole sends Gargano into a corner. Gargano escapes and lands a running headscissor and a dropkick, and then clotheslines Cole to the floor. Cole avoids an apron running kick so Gargano hits a running dropkick through the ropes. He tosses Cole back into the ring but Cole wisely escapes on the other side and hits a jump kick when Gargano grabs him.
Back in the ring, Cole hits some chops followed by a cravate hold and then a rear chinlock. Gargano fights to his feet and hits an elbow, but then charges and runs into a big back elbow from Cole. Gargano kicks out at one so Cole applies a dragon sleeper. Gargano fights out and then both guys hit simultaneous running crossbody blocks. Gargano hits more elbows and begins a comeback with clotheslines and a belly-to-belly. A roll-up by Gargano gets a two-count. Cole reverses into his own roll-up for another two-count. Gargano blocks a roll-up and hits a rolling kick that sends Cole to the floor. Gargano teases a pescado but lands on the apron instead. He sees Cole charging and hits a slingshot spear for a two-count. Gargano hits a corner chop and then kicks Cole to escape a corner charge. Cole anticipates a dive and goes for a superkick but Gargano feints, waits for Cole’s leg to drop, and hits a diving flatliner for another two-count. The two trade suplex attempts and continue dodging big attacks. Cole gets another two-count off a rope-hung backstabber. Cole goes for a suplex but Gargano counters into an inside cradle for a one-count. They trade one-counts back-and-forth until Cole gets a two-count. Cole hits a back elbow and charges at Gargano in a corner but Gargano dodges and goes for the roll-up rolling kick. Cole avoids this and a few other moves and then lands a jumping enzuigiri. Cole pulls down his kneepad and prepares for his Last Shot finisher. But Gargano gets him in another roll-up for another two-count. Cole rolls over and gets his own two-count. Both guys tease superkicks. Gargano hits first with one to Cole’s leg. Cole ducks the next one and kicks Gargano’s leg. More kick dodging. Another roll-up by Gargano yields yet another two-count. Gargano counters a back body drop with a sunset flip. Cole escapes, rolls Gargano over, and connects with the Last Shot! One, two, and three! Cole gets the first fall.
Winner of the First Fall after 13:55: Adam Cole
Cole: 1; Gargano: 0
After a brief reprieve, Gargano gets up and the second fall begins.
Cole rushes Gargano with elbows but Gargano hits back. Cole ducks a rolling elbow and lands a German suplex followed by another Last Shot kick. Cole pins but only gets a two-count. That’s the first time anyone has ever kicked out of Cole’s Last Shot. Gargano escapes a fireman’s carry and Cole blocks an enzuigiri. Cole hits an elbow and meets Gargano on the apron but Gargano hits him with a spear. Gargano follows with a senton and then goes for his slingshot DDT back in the ring. But Cole catches Gargano on his shoulders. Ushigorishi connects for a two-count. Cole pulls Gargano to the corner and teases a diving powerbomb. Gargano counters with an avalanche Air Raid Crash for a two-count. Gargano goes for the slingshot DDT again but Cole slumps down. You know your finisher is too convoluted when something as simple as your opponent lying down ruins your setup. Gargano pulls Cole to the apron but Cole lifts him up in the foreman’s carry. Gargano escapes via enzuigiri and hits his slingshot DDT over the top rope and onto the apron.
Gargano gets up first and breaks the ref’s count to toss Cole into the ring but Cole surprises him and shoves him into the ringpost. He smashes Gargano into another ringpost and then pulls his kneepad down but Gargano pulls him in for the crossface. Cole elbows out so Gargano rolls over into a bridging armbar. Cole counters that into a crufucix attempt. Gargano counter the counter with a Garga-No Escape. Cole taps instantaneously! There’s the second fall.
Winner of the second fall after 20:50: Johnny Gargano
Cole: 1; Gargano: 1
The third fall starts with some brawling. Gargano eats two pump kicks but he turns around with a discus clothesline. Cole ducks a superkick, Gargano ducks an enzuigiri and hits a thrust kick to the side of Cole’s head. Cole blocks a satellite DDT and counters a suplex into a Brainbuster to the knee. Cole covers but only gets a two-count. The crowd cheers for both guys as Gargano moves out of the way to escape a Panama Sunrise but Cole pulls him back. Gargano hits an enzuigiri and then launches Cole into the opposite corner with a lawn dart. Full nelson flatliner. Two-count for Gargano. Elbow exchange. Both guys block superkicks and then Gargano hits another enzuigiri. Cole hits one as well. Double lariats and simultaneous superkicks. Both men collapse.
Cole goes for a Rainmaker but Gargano hits an elbow first. Gargano goes for a leapfrog but Cole superkicks him from behind. Bridging arm-trap German suplex. Two-count for Cole. Cole goes for a lifting Pedigree. Gargano escapes and tries his submission finisher again. Cole counters with a Backdrop suplex. Gargano blocks a Panama Sunrise and hits a superkick. Poisoned Frankensteiner/superkick combo by Gargano. Cole rolls to the floor so that he doesn’t get pinned. Cole catches Gargano’s legs and lands a wheelbarrow suplex into the edge of ring apron. Cole tosses Gargano into the ring as the crowd chants ‘this is awesome’. Suddenly, Gargano gets a burst of energy and lands a draping DDT. That’s followed by a slingshot DDT for yet another two-count. Cole rolls to the floor again. Gargano lands a tope suicida and throws Cole back into the ring. He jumps for the spear through the ropes…and gets siperkicked in the face. Panama Sunrise flipping piledriver connect…for a two-count!
Gargano falls to ringside and Cole starts trash-talking him. That fires Gargano up and he hits an elbow and throws Cole over the Spanish commentary table. The ref isn’t even counting as Gargano sets up some big move on the table. But Cole hits first and lands a lifting Pedigree onto the table and the table doesn’t break. The ref only starts counting once Cole re-enters the ring. So much for consistent rules. Gargano somehow reenters the ring at the count of 9.75 and walks into a superkick. Cole covers but only gets a two-count. Cole tries the Last Shot. Gargano anticipates it and hits a backwards superkick. Cole hits one of his own right to Gargano’s face and tries another Panama Sunrise. Gargano counters with another Garga-No Escape submission hold. But before he can lock it in fully, Cole’s buddy Roderick Strong appears on the apron. Gargano elbows him down and turns around to find Cole charging at him. Gargano blocks an elbow and locks in his submission finisher. Cole taps but the ref doesn’t see it because he’s distracted by Roderick Strong. Meanwhile, Kyle O’Reilly rakes Gargano’s eyes and Cole kicks Gargano into the referee. Two more members of the Undisputed ERA hit a double-team finish on Gargano as another one throws the ref back in. Cole covers…and gets a two-count. Cole charges but Gargano ducks down and Cole wipes out his UE allies at ringside. Gargano acts as a one-man wrecking crew, demolishing everyone in UE at ringside before turning his attention back onto Cole in the ring. But when he returns, Cole hits two more superkicks followed by another Last Shot…for a TWO-COUNT! Cole trash-talks some more and charges for another Last Shot. Gargano ducks and applies the Garga-No Escape. Cole reaches for the ropes but Gargano rolls them both to the middle of the ring. Cole taps! Gargano wins the third fall and the title!
Winner and NEW WWE NXT Champion after 38:25: Johnny Gargano
I’m so glad I watched that match because now I don’t ever have to see it again. I went into this match with an open mind, hoping to be as impressed with it on this repeat viewing as most people were when it first took place. But I’ll be blunt: this match sucked. This is, in my opinion, THE most overrated match in WWE history.
The match was riddled with problems big and small from start to finish. For starters, it went WAY too long. It was padded out with slow and plodding action, lots of dead moments, and plenty of wasted motion. Gargano once again did a lot of his unnecessary rolls and flips that added nothing to the action while Cole did several long and laborious setup spots for moves that didn’t justify their work. It was as if these two were bitten by the same bug that has infected New Japan that’s causing everyone to pad out their matches under the false pretense that longer = better. Because of that, this match really dragged at several points and got downright boring during the first two falls.
Sadly, those problems were compounded by way too much phony action and clearly choreographed sequencing. This didn’t come across as a personal fight or a combat sports contest. Both Cole and Gargano executed moves and put together sequences that looked horribly fake and unrealistic. They didn’t hide the fact that this match was scripted and pre-planned; most if not all of the action looked pre-planned and unrealistic. The ducking was obvious and over-the-top. The constant running into the ropes made the match look more like a dance routine than a competitive contest. Both guys’ selling ranged from terrible to nonexistent. And because both guys hit so much in a single match, the moves they did use didn’t come across as believable or important. Gargano and Cole were both guilty of wrestling in this phony way but I think Gargano was guiltier. There’s something about Gargano’s facial expressions, selling (or lack thereof), transitions, movements, and overall execution that makes him so off-putting. He doesn’t come across as believable or as a competitor, but as a guy that’s being paid to execute overly-complex maneuvers. In other words, he lacks that special something that makes one a wrestler and he himself comes across as a guy pretending to be a wrestler. I know I’m not the first person to make that argument, but after watching this match that argument really does ring true.
Of course, the match could’ve been salvaged had it included a better structure. This was another notorious super-indy-style MOVEZ match featuring very little build-up to big spots and too much ‘out of nowhere’ spamming. There seemed to be no logic behind moves and everything was done with a ‘sudden turn out of nowhere’ mentality instead of building things up organically. As I’ve mentioned in previous match reviews, teasing a big move and then either landing or countering it is a much better way of getting a reaction than hitting moves out of nowhere. Here, the majority of moves were just hit without rhyme or reason. And while some might argue that gives the match a more chaotic feel, in truth it made the match come across as sloppy and self-indulgent. Things got really silly towards the end with all the superkick spam, overabundance of unbelievable kick-outs, and wacky ‘indy’ style nonsense.
Worse, these guys didn’t do a good job of pacing the match at all. The first fall was so boring. I had to fast forward through so many parts. There was nothing exciting going on. There was no tension for most of the first fall, and then the second fall was just as underwhelming. The only saving grace out of the entire second fall was Cole’s smart decision to tap out of Gargano’s finisher immediately to avoid hurting himself further. He knew the moment was lost so he saved himself the trouble of needing to recover more than he needed to. So at least there were some good moments during those earlier moments.
But the match did get more ridiculous the longer it went. That big moment when Gargano kicked out of the Last Shot wasn’t used at the end, but at a random moment of filler. Things got way too over the top and silly with constant kick-outs and interference by the end. Gargano was booked as this unrealistic Superman that survived everything, yet it was very hard to believe that he was surviving so much. Towards the end he endured, among other things:
- A nasty wheelbarrow suplex into the edge of the apron that could’ve broken his neck;
- A full-power double-team finisher from two fresh outsiders;
- A full-power Last Shot;
- A flipping piledriver; and
- Countless superkicks to the face and the back of his head
Yet Gargano still survived all of this. This was no different than the sort of ‘Superman’ booking that main roster guys like John Cena and Roman Reigns went through for years. And yet the same people that would’ve lambasted Cena and Reigns for wrestling that way would in all likelihood cheer Gargano for going through the same. Except the biggest difference between them is that Reigns and Cena are WAY more believable as ‘supermen’ compared to Gargano.
I also can’t help but compare this to another famous 2-out-of-3 falls match, Okada vs. Omega IV. That one also had many of the same problems as this one, but there were major differences as well. Both Okada and Omega were much more convincing and less phony in what they were doing. The action was more airtight in their match. There was logic behind what they were doing. The unpredictability of what caused the falls in that match had reasoning behind it whereas this match’s unpredictability was built on chaos and a complete lack of reason. And both Okada and Omega put the competitiveness of the match above being showy and self-indulgent whereas in this match Gargano and Cole did the opposite. Sure, both Okada and Omega still did more performance than competing and their selling was, like in this match, inconsistent. Yet in their match, these issues weren’t as blatant or obvious as what was displayed by Gargano and Cole here.
Final Rating: ***1/2
It’s clear the fans in attendance were excited, enthralled, happy, and entertained. Watching this match I was bored, disinterested, apathetic, and then annoyed. I wanted to like this match too but it was so hard to enjoy. I thought that this was just a matter of personal taste, but as the match progressed I realized that this match’s reputation had more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese.
This was less a serious match and more of a silly one. It went too long and had too much stuff in it. And nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, was made to be important. It was an over-indulgent MOVEZ match with a crowd of Pavlov’s dogs that were more interested in getting their chants recorded on camera than they were making this into something important.
Originally, I was going to change things up with this review by making a drinking game out of it. But then I changed my mind because I don’t want to send so many readers to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Then again, maybe watching this match completely hammered is the only way someone can watch this match and praise it so much.
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.