Rebel Heart: Wrestling’s Next Great Champion

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Rebel Heart: Wrestling’s Next Great Champion

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Rebel Heart: Wrestling’s Next Great Champion

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In the history of professional wrestling, the character of the underdog babyface is as much an artform as it is the central plot point of the industry. Fans clamor to see their favorite good guys fight against all odds to conquer the dastardly heel champion and finally reign supreme over the industry. We’ve seen this happen dozens of times in the past, with wrestlers like Daniel Bryan, Rey Mysterio and Kofi Kingston, among others, finally winning the top championship after massive support from fans in heartwarming moments under the spotlight. And now, in 2022, the biggest free agent in professional wrestling at the moment has the greatest chance to be that next underdog babyface champion—that next Daniel Bryan or Kofi Kingston.

His name is Johnny Gargano.

Affectionately known by the moniker “Johnny Wrestling ” by fans, Gargano made his debut in 2005 in CAPW, a promotion based in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. After ten years of honing his craft in some of the top promotions in the American independent scene such as Chikara, Evolve and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG), Gargano would try out for WWE in June 2015, eventually signing a deal with the company’s NXT brand in April 2016.

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In the early days of Gargano’s stint with NXT, he would establish himself as one of the brand’s premier technical wrestlers through his tag team matches with partner Tommaso Ciampa. The duo became one of the most beloved and well-renowned teams in not just NXT but the industry as a whole, as they wrestled classics against the likes of The Revival (now AEW’s FTR) and TM61. The rivalry between The Revival and Gargano and Ciampa (now billed as #DIY) became a centerpiece of the revitalization of NXT’s tag team scene. Their two-out-of-three-falls match at 2016’s NXT Takeover: Toronto (within which #DIY won the NXT Tag Team Championships)  being regarded as one of the greatest tag bouts in wrestling history. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa had reached the mountaintop.

And then Tommaso Ciampa turned on Johnny Gargano.

Just after their loss in a tag team title ladder match at 2017’s NXT Takeover: Chicago, Ciampa sent Gargano him careening face first into the entrance LED board and then hitting a White Noise off of the entrance ramp onto a table below.

This marked the beginning of what is, in my personal opinion, both the greatest rivalry and one of the most brilliant storylines in wrestling history. It would be revealed that Ciampa legitimately tore the ACL in his right knee mid-match, leaving him on the shelf for the next eight months. Despite his rival’s injury, Gargano was able to build the feud solely on his own. 

Shortly after NXT Takeover: Chicago, the former tag team champion would enter a feud with Andrade “Cien” Almas, culminating in a match at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn III. Gargano would lose the match after Zelina Vega, Almas’ manager, would throw a #DIY shirt into the ring, distracting Gargano and allowing Almas to pick up the win. In a rematch nearly five months later, Gargano would lose to Almas once again after Vega would arrive at ringside wearing a #DIY shirt, making it evident to all viewers on both occasions that Johnny Gargano was still very much obsessed with the dissolution of his former tag team and the betrayal of his former best friend.

Gargano’s pure determination to succeed in the wake of his betrayal was once again displayed after he became the first person in NXT to pin Aleister Black, advancing to a match for the NXT Championship against Andrade “Cien” Almas at 2018’s NXT Takeover: Philadelphia. In a hard-fought battle, Almas would retain his championship as the crowd gave both competitors a standing ovation. The match would be given a five-star rating by renowned wrestling critic Dave Meltzer, the first match within NXT to receive the honor and the first match with WWE to receive the status since 2011 (John Cena vs. CM Punk at Money in the Bank). As Andrade left the ring, Gargano received a standing ovation from fans, as fellow wrestler and real-life wife Candice LeRae entered the ring to embrace her husband. As the pair left the ring and walked up the ramp, Gargano turned for one last look at the crowd. The camera slowly closed in on his battered, grateful face as the show’s end graphic slowly faded in.

And then Tommaso Ciampa returned for the first time in eight months and smashed a crutch into Gargano’s back, leaving his former partner crumpled on the entrance ramp and LeRae despondent.

It is here that I will close this first chapter on the career of Johnny Gargano. What will happen next? Find out next week, only at The Wrightway Sports Network.

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