“Deserves ain’t got nothing to do with it” is how the reformed outlaw William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, replies to Sheriff Little Bill as he pleads for a reprieve moments before shooting him dead in the middle of the rain slick streets of Big Whiskey in the town of Unforgiven. The line delivers the sentiment behind the vengeful acts of the characters.
It’s something I couldn’t help but think about watching NXT TakeOver: Chicago II‘s conclusive final moments, where Johnny Gargano faced off against Tommaso Ciampa in a Chicago Street Fight. As Gargano delivered superkick after superkick to a kneeling, handcuffed Ciampa, one could almost mistake the image of an unrepentant and aggressive Gargano repeatingly punishing with kicks to the head for something out of a Park Chan-Woo film, making the fact that this was presented on a WWE production the night before WWE Money in the Bank 2018 is astonishing. Such a bold match is an outlier to common professional wrestling storyline, leaving many in the wrestling social media sphere confused and disturbed by the ending. Why didn’t he just let Ciampa get dragged away by the EMT if he already had the match won? Why did Ciampa win? What was gained from any of this?
To understand just why Ciampa/Gargano II was such an interesting match, you have to understand what is considered the elements of a “blood feud” in the context of professional wrestling. “Grudge matches” are a wrestling staple dating back to the advent of professional wrestling competitions in the American sideshow and vaudeville events. Over the course of the history, as wrestling became centralized in territories, the most common angle at the top of the card were those involving two wrestlers with personal animosity. Whether they be Dusty Rhodes and Ric Fliar for the NWA World Heavyweight Title, an program that saw Flair’s Four Horsemen attempt to injure Dusty in the parking lot — leading to the legendary “Hard Times” promo — or Greg Valentine breaking Wahoo McDaniels legs, infuriating fans by parading around in a “I Broke Wahoo’s Leg” before losing the NWA Mid-Atlantic title in April ’78.
The idea of a grudge match/blood feud has created many memorable moments, but the structure — at least in North American wrestling — is very classical: The heel betrays or otherwise humiliates the face, the heel then gloats and tortures the face psychologically before the face finally gets their revenge on the dastardly heel, setting the universe right.
The remarkable thing about Gargano/Ciampa is how traditional its presented at first. Gargano is betrayed by Ciampa one year prior at NXT TakeOver: Chicago after their loss to Authors of Pain in an amazing ladder match. For the rest of the year, while Ciampa recovers from a knee injury sustained during the ladder match, Gargano must contended with this loss of identity by himself, finally reforming the broken pieces of his identity into one of NXT’s top stars as he challenges then champion Andrade “Cien” Almas for the title. During a five star match, Gargano is a hair’s breadth from capturing his first singles title in the black and yellow brand but ultimately he came up short. To add injury to injury, Ciampa assaults Gargano after the match, setting up a series of blindsiding attacks and distraction that begin to push Gargano to the edge. After costing Gargano his job during Johnny Wrestling’s second attempt at the NXT Championship, Ciampa bids Gargano adieu by attacking him once more to send him off.
The cheap-shot and callow attitude of Ciampa towards Gargano cemented Ciampa as the top heel of the company, able to generate the kind of heat in the Full Sail audience that many had thought lost. Coming out to a chorus of boos, Ciampa personifies a man poisoned by hate that even his victories are soured. Once Ciampa gets what he wants, he’s still not happy, as the Full Sail crowd assails him with pages bearing the images of the man he thought he had rid himself of. In his dark pursuit of forcing Gargano out of NXT, Ciampa had turned to Johnny Wrestling from a man into an idea.
When the two finally meet at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, the stage is set for an Unsanctioned Match that tells the story of these two forces colliding. For Ciampa, it is a chance to put an end to the idea of Johnny Wrestling once and for all. For Gargano, it’s for a chance to set right what as went so wrong and get his job back in the process. While both men are ruthless during the match, Gargano fights for something greater than his own bloodthirst. He fights for his future and the future of his wife, Candice LeRae (Note: I don’t mean to downplay LeRae’s contributions to this program, as her own arc within this tale as a supporting player could get an article all on it’s own).
In the closing moments of the match, Gargano has a chance to end Ciampa for good, breaking off part of the crutch Ciampa used to torture Gargano over the last few months. Gargano moves as you’d expect Van Helsing might in the presence of his arch enemy Dracula, ready to impale the monster once and for all. But Gargano hesitates. In that moment, Gargano doesn’t see Ciampa, the blackhearted villain who wants to destroy his career, but Ciampa his friend and tag team partner. As Gargano sits next to his opponent, echoing the post-match coda to the Cruiserweight Classic match which saw Ciampa comforting a victorious Gargano, it seems for a moment that Gargano is ready to lay their feud to rest.
Ciampa, however, recoils as if to say “I refuse to be forgiven” and in that moment their fates are sealed. Ciampa takes a swing with his knee brace and Gargano reverse, ending the match with a modified Garga No-Escape, the brace imprisoning Ciampa in a crossface. Gargano wins and the fairy tale ends with the demon slayed and the warrior making the Jungian journey back to the Shire.
But wrestling never ends.
The bad guys come back for more and the good guys must battle the forces of darkness constantly, because, unlike in fairy tales, there are few happy endings in pro wrestling that are final.
With the edifice of NXT TakeOver: New Orleans behind us, Gargano turns his attention to title gold that thus far has eluded him in the next episode of NXT. With this, we turn our begin our second act of our Saga. Gargano has refused the call, answered the call, cross the threshold and now he finds himself consumed by the whale. Blindsided once again by his foe, Gargano is carted out of the ambulance while Ciampa mocks him, dashing his ambition while simultaneously reminding him that like a specter he plans to haunt Gargano’s every waking moment. The next few weeks unravel with Ciampa pushing Gargano further and further, causing him to injure LeRae when she tries to intercede during an altercation, forcing NXT general manager William Regal to suspend both competitors for a week. Gargano agrees to a Chicago Street Fight and eagerly the two set the stage for a brutal confrontation.
Now the match: After a brutal championship match, where in NXT Champion and professional human buzzsaw Aleister Black kicked a living block of granite in Lars Sullivan to death, Gargano and Ciampa enters stage. This match works as a shadow to the Unsanctioned Match, following a similar structure but ultimately darker and more intense. More plunder is thrown in: A stop signed disguised in a Johnny Wrestling sign, steel chairs are tossed around, a garbage can sees used when Gargano stuffs Ciampa in it and kicks him in the head, the steel steps are positioned against the side of the ring for an apron spot that is incredibly brutal to witness. Ciampa and Gargano brawl into the audience, creating a sense of a roaming dust-cloud fight from a Warner Brothers cartoon, one that pulls people in and deposits them leaving bruised and confused as it passes by.
The crowd roars as Ciampa and Gargano battle towards the “bullpen”, an area commonly reserve for tech setups and the occasional “thrown off the stage” spot. This match is all about perfect symmetry, as neither man gets the advantage for long before they find themselves at the receiving end of their opponent onslaught. Ciampa, gaining control of the match for a moment, drags Gargano up an elevated structure. Here he plans to put the final poetic touches of his masterpiece. Evoking his initial heel turn from the year prior, Ciampa seeks to lock Gargano in an backpack Air-Raid Crash and drive him through a set of tables. In a moment of cruelty, however, Ciampa peels Gargano’s wedding ring off, spits on it and throws it into the audience eliciting a wave of newfound jeers. Ciampa, in his need to inflict cruelty on Gargano, took his eyes off the ball and Gargano made him pay for it by driving Gargano off the structure and into the tables himself.
Ciampa is taken out of the match equally by his own hubris as much as Gargano. As Ciampa is stretchered out, it seems like we have come to a final resolution. This is where, for me, the match is made. The moment where Gargano, trauma-stricken and glass-eyed, notices his missing ring. The shift from a blank faced, wounded but triumphant hero, to a creature of pure vindictive rage, happens in seconds, as Gargano realizes what Ciampa has done to him. Gargano lost the minute he let Ciampa dominate his life, when he refused to walk away from Ciampa once and for all. Agreeing to this Street Fight was giving Ciampa exactly what he wanted and Gargano knew that there was no going back to being plain ol’ Johnny Wrestling. Ciampa would never stop coming for him unless Gargano stopped him once and for all.
Gargano unleashes a brutal assault on Ciampa over several minutes, dragging him from the stretcher, to the ring and handcuffing his hands behind his back. With Ciampa helpless, Gargano superkicks Ciampa repeatedly, hoping to stomp out the monster that has ruined his life before placing Ciampa in the GARGA-NO ESCAPE. When ring officials come into the ring, hoping to pry Gargano off Ciampa, they create enough separation for Ciampa to roll on to his feet. As Gargano enters the ring, Ciampa is able to lock Gargano into a DDT and fall back onto the exposed wooden boards, knocking Gargano out cold (an incredible sell job here as Gargano hand twitches during the three count). NXT TakeOver: Chicago II ends with the image of a broken, bruised, battered but triumphant waving goodbye to Johnny Wrestling as Gargano stares up dazed at the lights.
A beautiful story well told that examines the dangerous precedent set by seeking revenge instead of justice. The climatic moment of NXT TakeOver: Chicago II illustrates just how to create an amazing in-ring story that is couched in the familiar but ultimately presents us with something new. This is the story and tragedy of Johnny Gargano, a man who sought vengeance instead of justice and the doom that befell him. This is the story of wrestling and what it says about revenge: While pursuing vengeance… dig two graves.