5-Star Match Reviews: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa – NXT TakeOver: New Orleans 2018
According to Wikipedia, this WWE NXT TakeOver New Orleans 2018 event during WrestleMania weekend received “universal acclaim.” Critics, pundits and wrestling journalists hailed it as one of the best wrestling shows ever. Online databases and wrestling discussion forums have it listed as one of the highest-rated shows ever.
TJR’s John Canton rated the show ten out of ten, which is a rating he also gave to WrestleMania X-Seven. It seems like everyone in wrestling loved this show, from its historic opening ladder match to its legendary main event. I’ve already reviewed that opener and it was pretty damn great. Now we turn to the show-closing match, the match that many have called the best match in NXT history. It’s been over four years since this match happened so I think it’s a good time to review it without the hoopla and emotion clouding one’s mind.
It’s time to revisit the Unsanctioned Match between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa from NXT TakeOver: New Orleans.
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.
This is a long one but a good one. Gargano and Ciampa had a long history together going as far back as fall 2015. They made it to the quarterfinal round of the 2015 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic but failed to advance any further, mainly since Ciampa wasn’t signed with WWE. Ciampa did sign in April 2016, but the two had to face each other one more time before becoming an official tag team. Gargano beat Ciampa in the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic but that would be the last time the two would face each other for some time.
After failing to win the NXT tag titles from The Revival at TakeOver: Brooklyn II, they earned one more shot at TakeOver: Toronto in November 2016 (my review for that match is here). Gargano and Ciampa remained tag team champions for only a few months as they lost the titles to The Authors of Pain in January 2017.
While #DIY’s quest to win tag team gold was very much a fairytale, their quest to reclaim it wasn’t. Throughout the first half of 2017, Gargano and Ciampa kept losing tag title shots. Eventually, Ciampa had enough of losing and in a shocking twist, turned on and savagely beat up his now-former friend and partner. Ciampa became a villain and Gargano was cast as the symathetic hero seeking justice for this undeserving beating.
But Gargano’s revenge would have to wait. Shortly after his betrayal, Ciampa was sidelined with a ruptured ACL and required surgery. And while Ciampa was recovering, Gargano began pursuing singles glory. Gargano gradually worked his way up the NXT card by beating such wrestlers as Andrade (before he became champion), Kassius Ohno, and Aleister Black (he was the first person to pin Black in NXT). With the latter victory, Gargano earned a shot at the NXT title. At TakeOver: Philadelphia, Gargano failed to beat now-champion Andrade (but it was a damn good match), and after it was over Ciampa reemerged and attacked Gargano from behind. But Ciampa wasn’t done as he did the same thing a few weeks later in a title vs. career match against Andrade. With Gargano losing, he was forced out of NXT.
Ciampa was completely and utterly consumed by the notion of beating Gargano and went to extreme lengths to do so. He attacked Gargano outside WWE’s Performance Centre and tried to break into his house. Both wrestlers needed to resolve this once and for all, so then-NXT GM William Regal made the call for a match between them for TakeOver: New Orleans. But this wouldn’t be just any match; since Gargano no longer had an NXT contract but still wanted to wrestle in an NXT ring, this had to be an Unsanctioned Match. With this stipulation, WWE (for story purposes) wouldn’t be held responsible if something happened to Gargano, which was an added benefit for Ciampa. But to sweeten the deal for Gargano, he’d regain his NXT contract if he beat Ciampa here.
This feud had clear Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vibes but with smaller wrestlers. One was obsessed with beating the other, whom the fans considered the superior wrestler. It was a tale of revenge, jealousy, and the desire for superiority. But would Ciampa’s desires come true, or would Johnny ‘mini-HBK’ pull out a miraculous victory?
Here’s an incredible video package about the match.
This match took place on April 7th, 2018. Like the ladder match opener, this was rated 5-Stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. This was the first North American wrestling show to get two 5-Star matches on the same night, and the first show of anywhere to get that since the December 10th, 1993 AJW show. TJR’s John Canton also rated the match five stars.
This is an unsanctioned match. If Gargano wins, he gets his NXT contract back. If Ciampa wins, Gargano’s out of his life for good.
Ciampa enters first to a chorus of boos and chants of “you suck”, “asshole”, and “f**k you Ciampa”. Gargano enters next, actually gets entrance music (even though technically at this point in time he’s not employed) and is cheered like crazy. After an icy stare-down, the two wrestlers trade punches until Gargano takes control. Ciampa throws Gargano to the floor but Gargano lands on the apron and hits a slingshot spear. Gargano overpowers Ciampa with tons of punches and stomps, leading to a standing ovation from the crowd. There’s some double corner whip reversals and Ciampa does the Bret bump into the turnbuckle. Gargano clotheslines Ciampa to ringside and hits dives through the ropes with a topé suicida.
Some light brawling ensues and Gargano sends Ciampa over the barricade and into the fans. Gargano follows with an Undertaker-style suicide dive onto Ciampa. Ciampa fights back moments later by shoving Gargano back-first into the barricade. Ciampa follows by suplexing Gargano sternum-first onto the barricade and then hammering his back with forearms. Ciampa lands a backbreaker and then removes some of the ringside padding. Gargano tries fighting back but Ciampa boots him down. Ciampa tries suplexing Gargano onto the exposed concrete floor but Gargano escapes and jumps onto the apron. Gargano superkicks Ciampa’s face and throws him over the commentary table. Gargano teases a powerbomb onto the table but Ciampa blocks and hits him with a monitor. Then Ciampa suplexes Gargano off the table and onto the ringside mats. But he appears to hurt himself in the process as well.
The crowd boos as Ciampa lands more punches and a back suplex into the wooden commentary table cover. They chant “f**k you Ciampa” again as doctors check on Gargano to see if he can continue. Gargano starts moving so Ciampa punts his spine and smashes his sternum into the edge of the ring apron. Back in the ring, Ciampa drops an elbow on Gargano’s chest and stomps on his face. After a pause, Gargano tries fighting back again with punches and a discus lariat but Ciampa ducks and hits a sort of Olympic Slam for a one-count. Ciampa tries a Texas Cloverleaf hold but Gargano blocks by grabbing Ciampa’s beard. Ciampa tries the hold again and locks it in successfully. Gargano slowly crawls to and reaches the ropes. But there’s no ropebreaks in this unsanctioned match. Knowing that, why doesn’t Ciampa just sit there in the cloverleaf hold forever until Gargano’s spine snaps? Anyways, Gargano pulls himself out of the ring so Ciampa stomps on the back of his neck. Ciampa fails to find some weapon from under the ring so he lands a running kneelift to Gargano’s head. Ciampa sees a fan (read: plant) on crutches and steals them from him to use as weapons. Ciampa takes a LONG time setting up a crutch shot but Gargano ducks it several times as he lands some punches. Gargano reaches for the crutch but Ciampa kicks him first. Gargano blocks yet another crutch shot and lands a take-down into a rolling kick. Gargano punches Ciampa as he dangles on the apron but Ciampa counters by pulling Gargano down by his leg. Ciampa tries suplexing Gargano over the top rope but Gargano blocks and hits an enzuigiri. Gargano goes for a slingshot DDT onto the ring apron. Ciampa blocks and tries an Air Raid Crash onto the exposed concrete. Gargano escapes and powerbombs Ciampa from the apron onto that same concrete spot. F**king OUCH!
The fans chant “you deserve it” at Ciampa as both wrestlers lay on the mat. It takes at least a minute for both of them to return to the ring. The two stare daggers at each other from opposite corners and then reach out to grab the same crutch. Gargano wins the ensuing tug-of-war and hits various parts of Ciampa’s body with it. He charges for another big strike but Ciampa dumps him to ringside. Ciampa goes after Gargano but Gargano cracks him in the head with the crutch! Gargano follows with a slingshot DDT but only gets a two-count.
Gargano removes a turnbuckle pad and lifts Ciampa up for a lawn dart toss. Ciampa escapes and then blocks an enzuigiri from the apron and elbows Gargano down. Gargano tries another slingshot spear…but this time Ciampa answers with a kneelift to Ciampa’s face. Ciampa follows with a spinning rack bomb but only manages a two-count. After another long pause, Ciampa hits a running knee to the back of Gargano’s head for yet another two-count. Ciampa tries a powerbomb but Gargano escapes and hits a trio of clotheslines .he slaps Ciampa, bounces off the ropes, and ends up taking a lariat from Ciampa. Gargano avoids another powerbomb and botches a poisoned Frankensteiner attempt, causing both guys to land a bit awkwardly. Gargano fires up and does a tilt-a-whirl into the Garga-No Escape submission hold. Ciampa drags them both over and grabs the ropes, but why bother when there’s no ropebreaks in the match? Gargano smartly kicks Ciampa’s hand away and rolls them both back to the middle of the ring. Ciampa escapes by digging into Gargano’s eyes.
Ciampa pulls off some of his wrist tape and uses it as a garrote to try and choke Gargano. But Gargano grabs it instead, leading to the NXT version of ‘Okada maintaining wrist control’. A Yay/boo punch exchange ensues and Gargano gains the upper hand…until Ciampa kicks him in the groin. Ciampa follows up with a crutch shot to the back and a powerbomb into a double-knee lungblower. One, two, and Gargano kicks out again. Ciampa trash-talks but Gargano fights to his feet. Ciampa goes for a discus punch but Gargano hits first with a superkick, followed by a rebound lariat. Lawn dart into the exposed turnbuckle. That’s followed by two more superkicks. Gargano covers but Ciampa kicks out at 2.7.
Gargano goes to the top rope but Ciampa cuts him off with a kneelift. Ciampa tries an avalanche Air Raid Crash but Gargano blocks with punches. But Ciampa retaliates with a diving powerbomb/lungblower. He covers and Gargano kicks out once more. Ciampa pulls off his knee brace, exposing his weakened/injured/surgically-repaired knee in the process. Then he pulls off his padding and goes for a full-power running knee strike. Ciampa charges…and Gargano hits him with his own knee brace.
Gargano grabs the crutch and teases hitting Ciampa with it. Ciampa braces for impact…but Gargano doesn’t hit him. Gargano’s conflicted. Even though the crowd’s cheering him on he doesn’t want to become like Ciampa. Gargano stops trembling and slowly sits down next to his former (is it still former?) friend. But Ciampa swings with the knee brace. Gargano ducks and locks in the Garga-no Escape again. Then he switches to an STF and uses the brace on Ciampa’s head. Ciampa taps out almost immediately. Gargano wins!
Winner after 37:00: Johnny Gargano
I wanted to like this match, I really did. I wanted to believe in the hype, love the story, and tell you that it’s still great after over four years. But it isn’t. The match didn’t live up to expectations. For such a great story, the resulting match was such a letdown. I know some people really adored the Gargano vs. Ciampa feud, but this was NOT a good payoff. Wrestling stories and the matches they produce are supposed to be entertaining. Unfortunately, for anyone that might not have seen this match yet, this wasn’t entertaining; it was a chore.
The storytelling was there (threadbare as it was; where was the hatred in this so-called blood-feud?), the wrestling was alright, and the big spots were pretty good as well. And yet, this match had one glaring problem that overshadowed all of its positives: its GLACIAL pacing. This was one of the slowest supposed 5-Star matches I’ve ever seen. It had so many moments of dead air, stalling, and stretching out of simple sequences. I had to check to make sure I hadn’t accidentally pressed the wrong playback speed, only to realize that the WWE Network only has one speed.
You’d think that such a deep and personal war that began with such an unconscionable betrayal would begin with both guys bursting at the seams, itching to kill each other (as seen in this match’s opening few minutes). But no, it took thirty seconds for anything to happen. Things did pick up for the next few minutes, but once Ciampa dropped Gargano on the barricade, the match slowed down significantly and never really recovered. There was no sense of urgency from either wrestler. I know part of it was to sell the concrete powerbomb spot, but that did just as much damage to the match as it did to Ciampa’s back. That should’ve been a match-ending spot or something saved for the final five minutes. Instead, it happened around the halfway point, leading to a slow-as-molasses second half. Worse, there was precious little in terms of anticipation or tension. Everything was built up so slowly and the payoffs weren’t as cathartic as expected of such a high-profile match. The only time things actually got really exciting were the final few minutes after Gargano’s first submission sequence. Things improved quite a bit at that point relative to what took place before it, but not enough to really make up for such a draining and lethargic first thirty minutes.
For a match that was built more on story and striking an emotional chord, I got the feeling that once the asses were in the seats, giving the story a proper conclusion was no longer important. The story was the draw here, not the match. But the way they told the story here left a lot to be desired. Yes, there were moments of brutality, aggression, arrogance, and personal hostility. But none of it felt real or even realistic. For whatever reason, I didn’t get the impression that Gargano really wanted revenge. Ciampa was great in his role; Gargano…not so much. I’ve seen plenty of matches where two wrestlers do a way better job of selling tickets by convincing viewers that two sides absolutely loathe each other.
Take this one for example. It’s only twelve minutes long but both wrestlers brawl with each other, hit each other without remorse, and cheap-shot each other. On more than one occasion the match turns into the kind of ugly fight you’d see in a back alley or in a schoolyard. And at one specific point, one of the wrestlers literally leaves a handprint on his opponent’s bloody face. That’s personal warfare. You could tell these two hated each other to the point that it may as well have been real (or at the very least, genuine personal hatred added to a professional match to ‘blur the lines’). But none of that intensity was in this match between Gargano and Ciampa. The pre-match video package hyped this up as a real and deeply personal war with the highest stakes possible. But the action didn’t tell that story well enough.
At least there was a refreshing twist at the end with the whole ‘Gargano questioning his morals’ spot. He had a moment of doubt, a pang of conscience, right when he was about to get the revenge he so needed. It was cool seeing Gargano play mind games with Ciampa by pretending to succumb to his sense of righteousness, only to anticipate Ciampa’s backstabbing and make him regret his decision to attack Gargano with the knee brace. That moment gave the match a mild bit of catharsis and closure, but still not enough to really make this into the epic it was originally described as.
Final Rating: ***1/2
This isn’t a bad match but an underwhelming one. It was hyped up so much and given so much attention, only to barely give viewers the closure they wanted. This match reminded me of when I saw Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens. There was so much hype and anticipation over this movie. Everyone was talking about it and expectations were so incredibly high. Then I saw it and thought to myself…that’s it? Sure it had some good moments and the nostalgia factor was alright. But it wasn’t anything even close to any of the previous entries, much less better than any of them.
If you like the story between Gargano and Ciampa, then this match makes for required viewing since it’s an integral part of it. But don’t expect something mind-blowing or groundbreaking. These are two talented superstars, yet for whatever reason they didn’t reach their peak in this match. If you DO want to see Gargano and Ciampa at their best, then I strongly recommend their tag match with The Revival from TakeOver: Toronto. That match is WAY better than this one in every respect.
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.