WWE: Embrace their Darkside by Marc Madison

One of the most successful movie franchises in history is the Star Wars series. For those that follow the franchise, the themes of the films don’t really need an explanation. However, for those that do not, the films are at their core a battle between forces of good and evil. Arguably the most significant character in the franchise’s history is Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. This character was at different times aligned with both sides of the force. He was a Jedi that could have been a Master, and then was a leader of evil forces when he turned to the dark side, and throughout the character was unforgettable. He was a man that had his original path changed when something was promised to him if he switched his allegiances. Before he came to the dark side he was a promising young apprentice with the highest of hopes. Skywalker is far from the only example of a character that switched after being a key good guy in the history of entertainment.

Today in WWE, two men who were arguably the two most popular good guys in the company’s recent history made recent switches in character. Daniel Bryan and Johnny Gargano were two of the most beloved characters in the WWE. Over the course of the last year, Johnny Gargano was embroiled in a feud with his personal ghost, Tommaso Ciampa, in one of the most heated rivalries of 2018. Gargano’s rise in popularity was because of his heart, determination, and dedication to his craft. He was heralded for his matches against the likes of AndradeCien’ Almas and Pete Dunne, during which fans were witness to a talent that is not just an incredible ring technician but someone that is capable of telling a story in the ring better than most of his contemporaries.

During Gargano and Ciampa’s rivalry, fans felt for Gargano. They watched him suffer a losing streak because of Ciampa and the memories of the betrayal by his former friend. During his journey he took fans along with him, experiencing the highest of highs such as when he competed for the NXT championship against Almas.

While this was taking place, Daniel Bryan was once again given an opportunity to do what he loves to do, in a company that has been his home for that last eight years. He received a clean bill of health, allowing for his in-ring return, and fans couldn’t have been happier. He teamed with Shane McMahon and defeated Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens at Wrestlemania in his first match back since retirement. Bryan has stated that he wants to leave on his own terms, rather than to be forced to do so. He then joined forces with his former Team Hell No tag team partner Kane and contended for the Smackdown Live tag team championship against champions The Bludgeon Brothers. After that, he resumed a long-standing rivalry with The Miz.

It was during this rivalry that we began to see a somewhat different side of Bryan. His anger towards The Miz clouded his judgment and cause him to make more mistakes than one would have ever thought. After a run that saw them battle each other time and time again in a variety of different scenarios, Bryan at first seemed to come up short. However, in their last match against one another to decide the #1 contender for the WWE championship, we saw Bryan victorious.

It appeared that Bryan was in a sour mood in his subsequent confrontation with AJ Styles, as something seemed uncharacteristically off. One could have speculated on a number of different reason as to why that was, but the truth was that a turn was on the horizon for him. Later that same night, when the referee was distracted by incidental contact against Styles, Bryan kicked Styles low in an unimaginable act, as all of his pent-up frustration and aggravation finally came to a head. After his title win through these underhanded means, fans saw Bryan change. He revealed qualities that may have been similar to some that fans saw from him many years ago, but after his rise as easily one of the biggest faces in the company they had been forgotten.

Fans will recall that Bryan had tapped out to AJ Styles when the two had faced one another previously. It was a shock at the time, as that wasn’t normally his character’s course of action considering the heart his character had shown over the years. He was a man that had persevered and overcame the odds to get back in the ring, so seeing him tap was, in retrospect, another sign that things weren’t completely as they should have been with Daniel Bryan. He needed to go in a new direction, and it was one many not too many saw coming.

In comparison, for weeks leading up to his match at NXT Takeover against Aleister Black, Johnny Gargano was the heel, but with one factor always preventing him from completely going full-tilt: there was a conflict within him that always seemed to hold him back. Was a win worth putting someone into a state of unconsciousness? That reserve cost him matches in the past, and it seemed as though it would cost him in the future. When he recently faced Ricochet for the NXT North American Championship, he was once again faced with the challenge of deciding whether or not to go that dark place in his mind, where success is more important than having a highly competitive match. At one point, he was poised to drop Ricochet’s head onto the concrete on the outside, only to reconsider. However, that nearly cost Gargano the matchup. As the match progressed, fans could see the wheels turning in the mind of Gargano, and ultimately he hoisted Ricochet up and hit him with a brainbuster on the concrete. The move incapacitated Ricochet, and Gargano followed by picking up the fallen champion, rolled him into the ring, looked at his groggy and seemingly injured champion and said the words ‘I win’. Gargano hit his outside to inside DDT, completely wiping out the champion.

As he covered Ricochet for the count of three, it appeared as though a huge weight was lifted off the shoulders of Johnny Gargano. His transition was complete; he went from beloved babyface to a heel, not unlike his sworn enemy and current NXT champion Tommaso Ciampa. As NXT Takeover drew to a close, Gargano came out, stood next to Ciampa and held his newly won NXT North American Championship high in the air. That one act made fans realize that in order for Gargano to prove he isn’t Johnny Loser, but rather a winner and a champion, he needed to be pushed to a point where he saw first-hand that if he didn’t go to a dark place that he likely would not have become a champion.

Fans that have seen Gargano on the independent circuit prior to joining WWE saw how he can be the dastardly heel. He was once part of a faction known as Fourth Gunn, alongside current WWE NXT and 205 Live talents Drew Gulak and Oney Lorcan (known as Biff Busick at the time). During that time he would boast that he was a ‘big television star,’ as he was fulfilling his independent bookings while still being seen on NXT TV weekly.

Gargano’s turn was the culmination of weeks and months of facing disappointment time and time again. He had been vengeful in his pursuit of Ciampa but lost sight of what his intention was, which ultimately was to win. Fans will recall that time and time again Gargano was faced with a scenario where he could have finished off Ciampa, but each time he relented, whether it was in their championship match at NXT Takeover Brooklyn or their street fight at NXT Takeover Chicago. The seeds were planted, as Johnny could see what happened if he let his emotions get the better of him.

Daniel Bryan dumps WWE Championship for eco-friendly title: SmackDown LIVE, Jan. 29, 2019

Both Bryan and Gargano have embraced qualities that have resulted in fundamental changes to whom they are, which has made their turns so shocking. In both cases, they were committed to the greater good. Now their acts are blurred between fanatical, in the case of Bryan, and succeeding by whatever means necessary in the case of Gargano. In the case of Bryan, he has now enlisted the aid of a henchman, Rowan, whereas Gargano may ultimately end up accompanied by the one person that his greatest enemy. We have yet to hear what Rowan’s role will ultimately be as he walks alongside the champion, but that will become clear in due time, we are sure.

Where does this leave both characters now? In the case of both Gargano and Bryan, it seems their current embrace of hate for those around them has become obvious. Both men have faced the challenges of coming up short time and time again, and their new direction was exactly what is needed to, keep them sharp and focused. Fans have witnessed that Gargano is now willing to go in a direction that they aren’t familiar with. In both cases, these two men are bound by a change. In some ways, they needed to embrace a part of them that may be uncomfortable for the fans that cheered them in order to feel self-worth and purpose.

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