Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano’s squared-circle odyssey

Tommaso Ciampa is seconds away from taking back his life.

This is it — the moment he thought about endlessly since neck surgery one year earlier forced him to surrender his precious NXT Championship, a prize he had become obsessed with and affectionately referred to as “Goldie.”

After hitting reigning champion Adam Cole with his finishing maneuver, the Fairytale Ending, in the main event of NXT TakeOver: Portland, it seems Ciampa would finally do it. But when he pins Cole, the referee can’t count, incapacitated outside the ring after Ciampa inadvertently collided with him moments earlier.

Mentally and physically spent, Ciampa collapses to the mat. He already survived interference from Cole’s Undisputed ERA cohorts and his vaunted Last Shot — a running knee targeting the head and neck, potent against anyone, but especially devastating given Ciampa’s history.

Salvation arrives at ringside in the form of Johnny Gargano, wearing a #DIY shirt that represents his recently reunited tag team partnership with Ciampa. 

Slapping the mat, Gargano wills Ciampa toward the NXT Title, lying in the ring because of The Undisputed ERA. Having battled Cole for more than 30 minutes, Ciampa uses every last bit of strength to crawl, grasping the championship with his right hand.

But Gargano rips it away.

The crowd gasps collectively.

Confusion in Ciampa’s eyes fades to bitter acceptance – but his resignation doesn’t prepare him to be smashed in the face with the title. Gargano watches him flop backward like an accordion. A barely conscious Cole slithers over Ciampa for the three-count, further delaying his final step toward reclaiming his life — maybe indefinitely.

And it’s because of Gargano, Ciampa’s former best friend and roommate. A man whose wedding saw Ciampa as a groomsman. The man who he came with to NXT, where they reached the pinnacle of their careers together.

How did we get here?

This is a tale of brotherhood. This is also a story of betrayal, and whether its price can ever be repaid.

This is Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano’s squared-circle odyssey.

The rise of #DIY

It’s June 23, 2016, and Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano are facing off in the Cruiserweight Classic — a tournament featuring 32 of the world’s best competitors 205 pounds or lighter. The winner will be crowned WWE Cruiserweight Champion.

With all matchups randomly selected, the bout between teammates is the most anticipated of the first round.

Ciampa and Gargano are still free agents, but they’ve captured attention together in NXT for nearly a year, debuting with a first-round win in the 2015 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. Well-traveled veterans on the independent scene, Ciampa is most synonymous with Ring of Honor, Gargano with Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE.

They fought to a time-limit draw in their first singles match in England’s Southside Wrestling Entertainment in 2014 — a meeting that even then is called an “international dream match” on commentary.

“There was a hush when the crowd realized it was going to be Johnny and Tommaso. When we heard that hush we just thought, ‘This is gonna be special.’ And it was.”

– Johnny Gargano

Their humble histories with WWE date back years. Gargano competed on SmackDown at the age of 19 as “The Champion of Liechtenstein” Cedrick Von Haussen, on a 2011 edition of Superstars as “Joey Gray” and also appeared as a security guard on NXT.

Ciampa’s ties go back to being Chokeslammed by The Undertaker on SmackDown in 2005. He spent six months under a developmental contract in Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW) before his release.

Both also understand the pain of being turned down after WWE tryouts, and they refuse to let this chance slip away.

All the ingredients were in place to create something unforgettable.

“There was a hush when the crowd realized it was going to be Johnny and Tommaso,” Ciampa told WWE.com on Dec. 29, 2016. “When we heard that hush we just thought, ‘This is gonna be special.’ And it was.”

After a hesitant opening handshake, Ciampa dominates with a battery of elbows and knees. Eight minutes in, he slides down the pad covering his right knee, ready to put Gargano away.

But he hesitates, unable to commit the brutality of an unprotected knee strike.

Moments later, Gargano rolls out of Ciampa’s armbar, pinning his shoulders down for three.

Realizing his mercy cost him, Ciampa fumes, initially refusing a handshake. But moments later he’s sitting next to Gargano in the middle of the ring, hugging him before raising his hand.

Everyone else is on their feet, having witnessed what would be ranked by WWE.com as the 11th-best match of 2016 — the first of three consecutive years with at least one match involving both Ciampa and Gargano on the list.

“I just went through a war. A war with a guy who may be one of my best friends,” Gargano said. “To be in there with a guy I consider like a brother — we’ve been through so much together — it was an honor. We created something special in that ring tonight. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa made a moment.”

They both sign full-time NXT contracts a month later and wrap up their independent careers. They move to Orlando, Ciampa living with both Gargano and his wife, future fellow NXT Superstar Candice LeRae. Ciampa is a groomsman in their wedding that September and even joins the newlyweds in trips to Disney World.

Ciampa and Gargano’s in-ring magic isn’t limited to one night in the Cruiserweight Classic, and they become fan favorites teaming as #DIY — Do It Yourself. They tear the house down against NXT Tag Team Champions The Revival at TakeOver: Brooklyn II in August but fail to dethrone them. They prevail three months later, becoming champions at TakeOver: Toronto after a 2-out-of-3 Falls Match — WWE.com’s Match of the Year. 

Their triumph validates everything from the last decade-plus of work — the tortuous grind, the tolls on their bodies, the psychological anguish, doubt and everything in between.

“This is every ‘no,’” Ciampa says backstage afterward. “Every time you’re told you don’t have it. You don’t have enough charisma. You’re not talented enough. You’re not big enough. You’re not tall enough. This tells every single one of them they’re wrong.”

“I love this guy,” he adds, tears in his eyes.

“I love you too,” Gargano answers. “It doesn’t feel real. But it is. We did it.”

They ride the high as champions together until they’re knocked off by AOP, mastodons named Akam & Rezar who weigh a combined 620 pounds — 200-plus more than Ciampa & Gargano. They come up short of regaining the titles in a thriller against AOP and The Revival at TakeOver: Orlando.

#DIY receives one last opportunity to take back the titles at TakeOver: Chicago in a Ladder Match that promises to change their bodies forever.

Everything else would change too.

“This is my moment”

Tommaso Ciampa is now among NXT’s most revered Superstars, but he was once the most despised man in sports-entertainment. There’s a reason he’s known as The Blackheart — and it can all be traced back to that night in Chicago — May 20, 2017.

In their first TakeOver main event, #DIY take early control with creative ladder use and their trademark grit against the much larger opposition.  

Six minutes in, they’re pushed off a ladder by AOP, and Ciampa’s right knee buckles, tearing his ACL.

Ciampa not only completes the 20-minute bout, he shows little regard for his own well-being, using the same knee to batter a ladder into Akam’s head and launch himself off an oversized ladder.

“I never thought the guy I’d be willing to take a bullet for would be the one to pull the trigger on me.”

– Johnny Gargano

Later, AOP prop Ciampa up for a ladder blast to the face — but Gargano shoves him out of the way, absorbing the punishment and sparing his teammate.

Akam & Rezar prevail, but the crowd showers Ciampa & Gargano with “DIY” chants and a standing ovation. Ciampa’s arm is around Gargano’s head as they soak it in together on stage.

Then Ciampa turns to his partner and says, “Tonight wasn’t our moment.

“This is my moment.”

He sends Gargano face-first into the entrance LED board. Ciampa pummels him with punches before slowly backing away — measuring him up for a running knee strike. He delivers a second with the knee pad pulled down, eschewing the mercy he showed in the Cruiserweight Classic.

Gargano’s arms flail weakly. His face shows dazed confusion, both his body and his heart broken.

Ciampa drags him atop the announce desk on the stage, leaping to drive him through a pair of tables with an Air Raid Crash.

He sits back atop the desk, looking down with a soulless expression at Gargano, who lies in a heap of wreckage, tended to by EMTs and officials. In mere moments, Tommaso Ciampa becomes The Scourge of NXT.

Besides his torn ACL, he also has an ankle injury and two torn labrums. Ciampa undergoes three surgeries that summer and does not appear on TV again in 2017.

Gargano is seen two months later.  

“I never thought the guy I’d be willing to take a bullet for would be the one to pull the trigger on me,” Gargano said. “I’ve sat back, and I’ve tried to rationalize the decisions that were made. And I’ve thought over and over again, and I’ve asked myself why. And I don’t get it. And I just don’t understand.

“And I don’t think I ever will.”

Gargano resolves to become “Johnny Wrestling” again. He faces Andrade “Cien” Almas at TakeOver: Brooklyn III but can’t shake his demons.

With Gargano seconds away from likely victory, Almas’ business associate, Zelina Vega, tosses a #DIY shirt into his hands. Gargano is paralyzed. Almas capitalizes with a dropkick and Hammerlock DDT, pinning him.

Stumbling through the rest of 2017, Gargano loses again to Almas and is defeated by Pete Dunne and Fabian Aichner.

He is becoming famous for great performances in losses, unable to win the big one — until he does. Gargano deals the previously undefeated Aleister Black his first pinfall loss in a Fatal 4-Way, earning an NXT Title Match.  

The champion is now Almas, however, and he still has Gargano’s number, beating him in a 32-minute classic voted by the NXT Universe as the brand’s best match of 2018.

Ciampa resurfaces during Gargano’s post-match standing ovation, striking him in the back with a crutch, wearing a shirt that reads, “This is my moment.”

Gargano gets another chance to knock off Almas for the NXT Championship — under the condition that he leaves NXT if he fails — and thanks to Ciampa’s interference, that’s exactly what happens. 

But it doesn’t keep him away. Disguised as a fan wearing a lucha libre mask, Gargano attacks Ciampa on the March 21 NXT until he’s pried away by security.

Ciampa is granted a non-sanctioned match with Gargano, who will be banished from NXT forever if he loses.

The trilogy

Ciampa is calculating and deliberate with a distinct purpose behind his every word and action. High-spirited and affable, Gargano harvests the crowd’s energy into fuel.

That contrast extends to the ring.

With an unapologetic, smash-mouth in-ring style, Ciampa draws from brawlers like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Triple H — who trained under the same man, the late Killer Kowalski.

“You’re not going to find two guys that work harder than [Tommaso] and Johnny.”

– Shawn Michaels

Boasting a deep repertoire of holds, Gargano is “Johnny Wrestling,” though he’s also known for high-flying, drawing comparisons to Shawn Michaels.

They create another instant classic at TakeOver: New Orleans on April 7, 2018.

With Gargano looking to finish him off with a broken crutch, Ciampa cowers, begging for forgiveness — perhaps for the same mercy he granted Gargano in the Cruiserweight Classic nearly two years earlier. Gargano drops the weapon and sits next to his former best friend in the middle of the ring for a strikingly familiar scene.

But seeing through the charade, Gargano ducks a swing of Ciampa’s own knee brace. He locks in the Gargano Escape, transitioning to an STF with the brace wrapped around Ciampa’s face for increased pain. Ciampa taps out, and NXT’s Heart and Soul is reinstated. It makes for an emotional celebration with wife Candice LeRae in the ring.

The win propels Gargano to challenge NXT Champion Aleister Black on April 25, but it’s taken away before he even steps in the ring. Ciampa, in a “Johnny Wrestling” shirt, assaults him in savage fashion. Gargano is stretchered out, LeRae with him.

A rematch is agreed upon under Street Fight rules for TakeOver: Chicago II in June.

“He blindsided me and turned my world upside-down in Chicago,” Gargano says. “I left the Allstate Arena in an ambulance. I woke up in a hospital bed and had no idea what happened or who put me there.

“This time around, I have the very rare opportunity to return the favor. I want him to take that same ambulance ride and wake up in that same hospital bed alone and afraid. I want Ciampa to feel every ounce of pain and horror I did, except he’s going to know deep down inside exactly who put him there.”

The match is as barbaric as any in WWE history. Chairs, trash cans, a stop sign are used — there’s even biting. They dismantle the ring, exposing the wooden boards underneath the mat.

In his most despicable act yet, Ciampa removes a dazed Gargano’s wedding ring, spits on it and lobs it into the crowd.

But he pays for their previous visit to Chicago as Gargano uses Ciampa’s own Air Raid Crash through a table. Ciampa is loaded onto a stretcher before the match ends, but Gargano suddenly notices that his wedding ring is missing and puts the pieces together. Gargano isn’t satisfied, fighting off the referee, medics and other officials, carting Ciampa back to the ring.

Gargano handcuffs Ciampa, pouring on the punishment. Officials eventually tear him away before he frees himself. The respite is enough for Ciampa to stand, catch Gargano’s head under his arm and spike him head-first into the ring’s wooden boards. Ciampa pins Gargano, stealing victory.

It’s only the beginning of a worsening nightmare for Gargano. Interfering in Ciampa’s NXT Title match against Aleister Black the next month, Gargano’s actions backfire, and The Blackheart is the new NXT Champion.

A Triple Threat Match is scheduled for TakeOver: Brooklyn IV, but Black is attacked by an unseen assailant in the parking lot weeks before the event. Gargano and Ciampa instead meet in a Last Man Standing Match, and again, Ciampa wins narrowly.  

The Chicago Street Fight is named WWE.com’s second-best match of the year. In total, Ciampa and Gargano’s 2018 trilogy spans almost two hours of some of the most thrilling action in NXT history.

“You’re not going to find two guys that work harder than [Tommaso] and Johnny,” said WWE Hall of Famer and NXT coach Shawn Michaels, regarded by many as the best in-ring performer ever. “They went out there for the last year and absolutely tore it down every time they went out there.”

But the attrition costs Gargano more than just the NXT Title, more than his tag team partner and best friend — it costs part of his soul.

After proclaiming earlier in the summer that “Johnny Wrestling is gone,” Gargano later reveals himself as the man who took out Black in the parking lot. Ciampa even helps Gargano defeat him in a Steel Cage Match weeks before his own championship defense against Black.

Gargano’s transformation toward darkness accelerates — and brings him success. He knocks off Ricochet at TakeOver: Phoenix in January 2019 for the North American Title. Gargano appears at Ciampa’s side at the end of the event, both raising their championships atop the stage.

They win tag team matches in their Raw and SmackDown debuts together. They even join forces for the 2019 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament, hearkening back to their NXT origins. Advancing to the semifinals, #DIY is back and seemingly stronger than ever.

“I had to think to myself: What if I couldn’t do this anymore?”

– Tommaso Ciampa

Then Gargano injures his leg in a loss to Black & Ricochet on March 13. Ciampa and LeRae have to help him exit up the ramp.

Ciampa tries to send him into the LED board like he did two years earlier in Chicago — but Gargano plants his “injured” leg ahead of him to block the ambush, grinning.

This time, Gargano launches Ciampa into the LED board before hitting a superkick. Reforming #DIY was a ruse all along — a ploy for Ciampa’s trust.

They’re again on a collision course for the NXT Championship. But Ciampa has dealt with weakness and pain in his arms for weeks. He learns he has a serious neck injury, requiring anterior cervical fusion surgery.

He relinquishes his title after a 237-day reign, leaving the future of his career in doubt.

A reunion, ruined

Ciampa is in Brooklyn the night before WrestleMania 35, but not for the reason he was supposed to be.

“I put 15 long damn years into professional wrestling, and to think that I finally caught a break, I finally climbed my way to the very top,” he said. “I was about to walk into TakeOver: New York,  WrestleMania weekend, and that was my WrestleMania moment. It wasn’t just about winning a title. It was about being the face of this brand, walking out from that curtain — that meant the world to me.

“And to think not only did I lose that, I had to think to myself: What if I couldn’t do this anymore?”

A successful surgery caps a year of extreme personal and professional highs and lows. Ciampa’s wife Jessie gave birth to the couple’s first child, Willow, with one embryo left during in vitro fertilization.

Instead of taking part in what should be the biggest moment of his career, Ciampa watches Gargano face Adam Cole for the vacant NXT Title.

Gargano makes Cole tap out, cementing his reputation as “Johnny TakeOver.” He has competed 16 times at NXT’s showcase event, including eight main events. Both are records.

Ciampa embraces the new NXT Champion on stage, the moment transcending the past two years.

He will be sidelined for six months. But in his absence absence, the fans’ spiteful respect transforms to yearning.

The Blackheart returns in surprise fashion to a hero’s welcome in October, staring a hole into Cole and the NXT Title, which Cole won from Gargano in June.

Ciampa captains an unlikely alliance of Superstars against Cole’s Undisputed ERA. Team Ciampa prevails in a hellacious WarGames Match after he sends Cole crashing through two tables with an awe-inspiring Air Raid Crash off the top of a steel cage.

“I didn’t forget what you did to me … Tommaso Ciampa is the worst person in NXT history.”

– Johnny Gargano

Bonded by mutual enemies, Ciampa and Gargano stand side-by-side on the Jan. 15 edition of NXT, fighting off The Undisputed ERA. They even reform #DIY for one night, beating NXT UK’s Tyler Bate & Trent Seven at Worlds Collide.

But while Ciampa locked his sights on Cole and the title he never lost, Gargano’s attention is on Finn Bálor. Recently returned to NXT — where he was the brand’s standard-bearer years earlier before heading to Raw — Bálor is darker and more dangerous than ever.

Their issue emerged from deceit. With Gargano, Bálor and Ciampa aligned in a standoff with Cole and The Undisputed ERA, Bálor stunningly attacked Gargano, putting him out of action for nearly two months.

Gargano fails to gain retribution upon his return, losing to Bálor at TakeOver: Portland. Maybe more painfully for Gargano — one of the most adored Superstars in NXT history — many fans are behind Bálor.

Less than two hours later, Gargano costs Ciampa the NXT Championship against Cole.

Blackheart vs. Rebel Heart: One Final Beat

Would we have ever seen this side of Johnny Gargano if Tommaso Ciampa hadn’t done what he did in Chicago three years ago? It’s an impossible question to answer.

But one thing is for certain — some wounds never heal.

Having inflicted his fair share, Ciampa understands. He should have seen it all coming, Ciampa says, but he ignored his surroundings, fixating on “Goldie.”

And it’s Gargano who now must explain himself.

“I didn’t forget what you did to me … Tommaso Ciampa is the worst person in NXT history,” Gargano says from a conference room in the WWE Performance Center on the March 11 NXT, addressing Ciampa in the ring. “You’re gone for six months. You come back, and all of a sudden, all is forgiven. Everyone loves Tommaso Ciampa now, right? Did I miss an apology? Why is this man redeemed?”

While Gargano continues his diatribe, Ciampa hunts him down. An all-out war ensues with unprecedented hostility — even for these two.

Gargano throws Ciampa head-first through a glass window. Ciampa hurls a massive weight plate at Gargano, barely missing and shattering workout mirrors.

They leave carnage throughout the Performance Center, only stopping when neither man can stand after Ciampa’s Air Raid Crash from the stage perch through the broadcast table below.

WWE COO Triple H orders one more match, set for this Wednesday night on NXT in a vacant building with only a ring and a referee.

“This has gone on long enough between the two of you,” Triple H said. “Two of you will walk into the building. One of you will walk out. And it’s done.”

But even that forecast may be overly optimistic. After all they’ve been through, Ciampa and Gargano might only conclude their story with mutual destruction.

Instead, the harrowing words of Ciampa’s theme music might better articulate what we should expect: “No one will survive.”

“I’m not asking myself ‘Why, Johnny, why?’ I know why. Johnny knows why,” Ciampa said.

“If one thing is very clear — in order to get my life back, there can be no Johnny Gargano in NXT.”