(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Johnny Gargano vs. KUSHIDA – NXT TakeOver: Vengeance Day 2021
When one of our readers recommended this match to me, I had mixed feelings about it.
You couldn’t have picked two more polar wrestlers in NXT if you tried. Anyone that has followed this review series knows I really don’t like Johnny Gargano. Nothing about him screams “believable pro-wrestler” no matter how much he tries. And even when he does the “real stuff”, he comes across as a pretender.
Then there’s KUSHIDA. The last KUSHIDA match I reviewed was, to put it mildly, one of the best matches I’ve ever seen in my life. He isn’t just another Japanese high-flyer; he’s an actual sound wrestler. Sure, he has his high-spots like everyone else these days, but he’s more grounded in realism and traditional wrestling than pretty much everyone else, especially those in Triple H’s NXT.
So what happened when the most realistic grappler in NXT took on the king of high-spots? They had a pretty damn great match. How great? Read on to find out.
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.
Sometime in late 2020, Gargano underwent a drastic character change. As if trying to copy everyone from The Miz to Seth Rollins, Gargano formed his own stable of villains, which include Candice LeRae, Indi Hartwell, and Austin Theory. This new direction, Gargano finally broke his championship bad luck streak with a successful title defense against Leon Ruff. No more struggles, no more title followed by title losses immediately afterwards. Gargano was finally beginning to be a proper champion with a long reign.
But then along came a new challenge: KUSHIDA, a revered and highly-respected junior heavyweight from New Japan Pro-Wrestling. But he wasn’t like the others that just did flips and dives; he had genuine MMA experience and was dangerous on the mat. He also loved to go for his opponents’ arms and had a mean cross armbreaker.
KUSHIDA represented a new threat to Gargano, one that not even his numbers advantage could overcome. Could KUSHIDA parlay his skills and end Gargano’s title reign? Or would “Johnny Wrestling” live up to his reputation and outlast another foe?
This match originally took place on February 14th, 2021. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is for Gargano’s NXT North American Championship. The bell rings and the two wrestlers lock up immediately. Gargano starts one of his typical bog standard sequences but KUSHIDA jumps onto him with a Hoverboard Lock (kimura). Gargano rushes to the ropes to break the hold. They go to the mat trading holds as Gargano goes for KUSHIDA’s leg. KUSHIDA shows some excellent mat wrestling skills as he transitions from one hold to another and Gargano can’t do anything about it. That is, until he counters into a wristlock. But then KUSHIDA counters back with more technical maneuvers until he has Gargano trapped in a grounded headlock.
After a struggle, Gargano escapes but KUSHIDA knocks him down with a shoulderblock. The match shifts into a routine with lots of dodges, ducks, and missed strikes. KUSHIDA goes for a hiptoss. Gargano counters with a roll-through cradle. He looks like hes going for his Garga-no Escape finisher but then surprises KUSHIDA with a crucifix pin instead, only for KUSHIDA to lock in Gargano’s finisher instead. Gargano crawls to the ropes, forcing a break.
They trade elbows until Gargano dumps KUDHIDA to ringside. Gargano avoids a running kick and lands a superkick from the apron. Then Gargano throws KUSHIDA into the ringsteps and goes for a suplex, when suddenly, KUSHIDA counters with a Falcon Arrow into an armbar. He lets go to break the referee’s ring-out count and lands a chickenwing suplex. Back in the ring, KUSHIDA dropkicks Gargano’s arm and then starts working it over more thoroughly. Gargano blocks another arm-targeting move and sends KUSHIDA to the apron and hits a swinging neckbreaker through the ropes. Gargano basement dropkicks KUSHIDA to ringside and starts targeting KUSHIDA’s neck.
In the ring, Gargano hits a suplex but KUSHIDA kicks out before the one-count. he goes for another neckbreaker but KUSHIDA counters with a backside attempt. Gargano powers out and hits a forward faceplant suplex, followed by a soccer kick to KUSHIDA’s arm. He does a short camel clutch using the bottom rope and then locks in a standing neck crank of sorts, but KUSHIDA counters that with an Octopus Stretch. Gargano tries to power out. KUSHIDA counters that with a sunset flip. Then the two trade one-and-two-count near-falls. More Oklahoma rolls and small packages all lead to kick-outs. A double clothesline spot sends both men down.
A short strike battle ensues until KUSHIDA lands a Manhattan drop followed by a hiptoss/cartwheel dropkick combo. KUSHIDA follows with a big punch and then a double-arm stretch with stomps to Gargano’s shoulders. He goes for another chickenwing suplex but Gargano blocks and lands a forearm and stops a slugfest from starting with an enzuigiri. The two ducks more kicks to each other’s heads and KUSHIDA applies an ankle lock. Gargano gets to the ropes. KUSHIDA hits a German suplex/head kick combo. One, two, Gargano narrowly kicks out.
KUSHIDA attempts an over-the-shoulder armbreaker but Gargano counters with a lariat to the back of his neck. KUSHIDA dodges a charge and sends Gargano to the floor. He teases and then does a handspring to avoid a kick. Gargano goes for a sliungshot spear but KUSHHIDA catches him. KUSHIDA hits a roll-through into a bridging chickenwing suplex. One, two, no, Gargano survives again.
KUSHIDA tries pulling Gargano up on the apron but Gargano hits first with an enzuigiri. He goes for a springboard but KUSHIDA lands another big punch. KUSHIDA follows by ramming Gargano’s weakened arm into a corner and then tries another kimura. Gargano knocks him down but KUSHIDA charges back with a handspring kick to Gargano as he’s perched on the top turnbuckle. KUSHIDA tries yet another kimura/chickenwing and transitions into a superplex attempt. Gargano counters with a diving swinging neckbreaker. Gargano still has KUSHIDA’s neck hooked as he lands a rope-assisted tornado DDT for a two-count.
KUSHIDA avoids a Lawn Dart toss but Gargano traps KUSHDA’s arm. KUSHIDA grapples out and the two of them trade running headscissors. Both fall to the mat and start countering crossface attempts until KUSHIDA gets another armbar. He tries floating over into a cross armbreaker but Gargano counters into a pin for a two-count. both guys collapse following another double clothesline as the crowd goes wild.
Both wrestlers to the New Japan kneeling forearm exchange until KUSHIDA gets up first and lands some kicks. KUSHIDA counters an Irish whip into a handspring elbow attempt. Gargano counters with a Russian leg sweep into hia Garga-no Escape finisher. Despite the bad arm, Gargano manages to lock in his finsishing hold. KUSHIDA counters by peeling Gargano’s bad arm off and rolling into his Hoverboard Lock. Gargano starts crawling towards the ropes. KUSHIDA pulls him back. The two trade more technical pin attempts. KUSHIDA gets a bridging European clutch for a two-count. Superkick. Stiff right punch. KUSHIDA goes for a headscissor into an armbar. But despite this, Gargano connects with a Lawn Dart into a turnbuckle.
After a short pause, Gargano blocks a reverse STO into a corner. They trade elbows until KUSHIDA hits a chockenwing suplex into the turnbuckles. The crowd chants KUSHIDA’s name as he lands a top-rope superplex into a cross armbreaker. Gargano clasps his arms together to avoid being trapped in the hold. But his efforts fail as KUSHIDA locks in the armbreaker. Gargano writhes in pain and starts rolling towards the ropes. he tries and tries and then he manages to reach the ropes with his foot, breaking the hold. KUSHIDA relaxes his grip somewhat but not entirely as he and Gargano fall to ringside. Gargano tries escaping but KUSIHDA continues to squeeze and stretch the arm. Gargano counters another chickenwing by driing KUSHIDA into the side of the ring. KUSHIDA lets go, but only for a few seconds. Gargano repeats the same move and KUSHIDA’s finally forced to let go.
Gargano starts crawling up the entrance ramp when he sees KUSHIDA ahead of him. KUSHIDA channels his inner Muta, gets a big running start, and punts Gargano’s damaged arm. Hoverboard Lock applied. Gargano walks over to the ropes and catapults KUSHIDA’s neck into the top rope like a guillotine. Slingshot DDT onto the entrance ramp. That’s followed by a second slingshot DDT in the ring. The referee counts one, two, and three! Gargano retains his title!
Winner and STILL NXT North American Champion after 24:51: Johnny Gargano
I’ve had reservations about Johnny Gargano several times before but not here. This was easily the best Gargano match in years. Not since that fabled #DIY vs. The Revival match in Toronto has he wrestled so well. Though, a big part of that came from KUSHIDA. He was on such a completely different level that he pulled Gargano up and made him look as great as he did long ago.
The last time I saw a highly-rated Gargano match I was sorely disappointed because Gargano had such a blatant phoniness and choreography to everything he did. Here, KUDHIDA led the match and in doing so made Gargano change his style. Gargano wrestled KUSHIDA’s way, which meant more on-the-spot counters, more fluid exchanges, and less blatant and copy-and-paste circus routines. In other words, this was psychology-driven wrestling with a handful of high-spots instead of an acrobatic spot-fest with tiny bits of wrestling psychology sprinkled in.
The match was built around limbwork, which started early and continued all the way until the final seconds. Elements that were introduced early weren’t abandoned but served as key part of the match’s story. Gargano had trouble with his arm as KUSHIDA tore it apart with brutal efficiency. And while Gargano’s selling of the arm wasn’t the most realistic or consistent, it was solid enough to create the idea that Gargano was truly in danger. It did get a bit unrealistic when Gargano spent so much time in various armlocks and still didn’t submit; but at the same time it built the drama up to the point that the finish could truly come out of nowhere.
And while many NXT matches featured wild counters, reversals, and nail-biting tension, this match took all of those elements one step further. KUSHIDA and Gargano worked this match like a struggle. Whether they were on the mat, on the top rope, or on the floor, both of them weren’t just moving from one spot to the next in sequence. Each big move had to be fought for and earned. There was a much stronger emphasis on realism that made this match smoother and helped its pacing. It lacked the rollercoaster-style peak-valley-peak-valley structure that can make a match jarring and unpleasant to watch; it had a gradual build that concluded in a truly exciting final stretch. There was catharsis in the final moments as KUSHIDA came incredibly close to winning, only for Gargano to use the ropes to his advantage to steal the win from a deserving KUSHIDA.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Maybe I’m out of touch with most modern wrestling fans, but when I think of ‘wrestling’ I think of actual grappling as a combat sports with story on top. Gargano has long been praised for his in-ring skill, yet for the longest time I just didn’t get it. He was a performer and not a competitor. Something about him just didn’t resonate with me and make me see him as being on the same level as Rey Mysterio, Kurt Angle, Shawn Michaels, or Bryan Danielson. Luckily, KUSHIDA brought out the best in Gargano by, well, making this something other than a typical Gargano match.
Most NXT matches from the past decade (i.e. the Triple H era) have been overpraised and have featured so many of the same elements that they blend together like some sort of abstract art piece with an amorphous shape found somewhere within. This match was different. It was exceptional because it featured an actual structure, story, psychological depth, and a focus on common sense. It would’ve been even better with slightly better selling and a different winner given the match’s flow (KUSHIDA earned a win here while Gargano didn’t), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this was fantastic.
This is definitely one of the most must-see NXT matches of the past ten years. It stands head-and-shoulders above so many alleged classics because it’s so different compared to everything else. Truly worth watching at least once.
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.