Rebel Heart

“Dammit Johnny, you’ve made me cry again.”

I knew it was likely to happen, Johnny Gargano’s post NXT War Games speech was approaching. It had been rumoured Gargano was going to say goodbye, or at least adieu, as his contract was expiring. The emotion was written on his face as he made his way down to the ring, the speech itself was almost perfect – until the attack by Grayson Waller. Seeing pictures from the arena of him embracing Tommaso Ciampa and Candice LeRae post-show only made me more emotional.

Credit: WWE

Battling the Odds

When Ciampa and Gargano first appeared in NXT it started innocuously, debuting in the 2015 Dusty Classic. I was familiar with them individually from Ring of Honor and Evolve, but didn’t see them following the likes of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn to the top of the NXT card. A few appearances as DIY on NXT TV followed, ahead of a match between them in the first round of the Cruiserweight Classic. Tag team competitors facing each other in one on one action always creates for an interesting storyline and this was no different.

A competitively fought match and several hard hitting moments left you wondering how they could team together afterwards. The ending teased dissention between the two teammates which had me believing they would continue fighting after the match. Instead of a premature break up, to my relief, they sat on the floor and embraced in the ring. “Dammit Johnny, you almost made me cry.”

At the following Dusty Classic they reached the semi-finals, moving themselves into contention for an opportunity at the tag titles. A month later, their crowning moment came at NXT TakeOver Toronto following an incredible two out of three falls match against The Revival.

This title change felt special. DIY were not high profile signings, they didn’t get the treatment of being filmed in the audience of a TakeOver. They were underdogs put together by fate, and they outworked everyone else. It was a story every fan could get behind. The finish of the match saw an impassioned celebration, and a tear formed in the corner of my eye. “Dammit Johnny, you’ve made me cry.”

Credit: WWE


The DIY title reign didn’t last, and at the next TakeOver they were dethroned by Authors of Pain. Not to be deterred, they remained in contention and earned a rematch; an exhilarating ladder match at TakeOver Chicago. Another valiant losing effort saw DIY sitting in the ring with their arms around each other once more. It was a moving moment, the pair defeated but still brothers made their way up the ramp to close the show. Without warning, Ciampa attacked Johnny and drove him through the announce table. After everything that’d been through, going from relative obscurity to crowd favourites and NXT stars, how could Ciampa do this to his best friend? It was too much for me, seeing Johnny prone on the ground amidst the rubble of betrayal, and I cried. “Dammit Johnny, you’ve made me cry again.”

After the break up, Johnny focused on gold whilst Ciampa recovered from an injury. At TakeOver Philadelphia Johnny challenged Andrade for the NXT title, a match widely regarded as one of the best in WWE history. Johnny was such a great performer, I was fully behind his title challenge. An instant classic, it was not to be Johnny’s moment as Andrade retained following a Hammerlock DDT.

Following the match, the embittered Ciampa made his return by attacking Johnny with his crutch. Impassioned by coming so close to the title and the fire of being attacked yet again by his former best friend, Gargano put everything he could on the line for one more shot at the coveted title; Gargano’s career for Andrade’s title.

I foolishly believed that the stars finally were aligning for Johnny’s triumphant moment, only for Ciampa to once again be the perfect villain. Using his crutch, Ciampa cost Johnny the match, and I found myself slumped into my chair. How could Ciampa continue to cost Johnny everything he’d worked so hard for?! Wrestling is at its best when you organically get behind a performer and so badly want them to be successful, and all I wanted was to see Johnny holding the title he so immensely deserved. “Dammit Johnny, you’ve made me cry again.”

Credit: WWE

Revenge is a Dish Best Served with a Brace

Ciampa continued to taunt the now departed Johnny, inevitably leading to an unsanctioned match for TakeOver New Orleans. It was a chance for Johnny to finally get his righteous revenge, my most anticipated moment of WrestleMania weekend. Heading to the Smoothie King Center I felt tense and angry – I desperately wanted Johnny to win.

The match itself didn’t disappoint. A brutal brawl throughout the arena ended poetically, Johnny getting the victory with a knee brace assisted STF to earn his job back. This led to one of my favourite moments as a fan; Candice came to the ring to celebrate with Johnny to an outpouring of emotion from the sold-out crowd, and tears once again rolled down my cheek, only this time they were tears of joy. “Dammit Johnny, you’ve made me cry again.”

Credit: WWE

Stay Gold

An element of revenge over Ciampa didn’t address the lack of gold around Johnny’s waist. The following year at TakeOver Brooklyn, by fortune, an injury to Ciampa led to Johnny getting another championship opportunity, this time against Adam Cole in a two out of three falls match. A match with impressive potential, I was of course excited for the possibility of Johnny’s big moment, although not quite as much as the unsanctioned Ciampa match. I liked the Undisputed Era, so whilst I still wanted Johnny to win, I was also marking out the Adam Cole’s entrance.

As often happens with this stipulation, it wasn’t until the third and deciding fall that the excitement ramped up. The other members of the Undisputed Era tried to interfere and it looked as if there was no way Johnny would be victorious. Four on one odds naturally draws sympathy for the underdog, but the way Johnny took O’Reilly, Strong and Fish out was calculated and importantly believable.

Johnny survived a second Last Shot from Cole and then locked in the Gargano Escape. Cole tapped! I jumped out of my seat! The joy overtook me amongst a Barclays Center crowd that was largely pro Cole, but I didn’t care. This was years in the making, after coming so close, so many times, Johnny Gargano had finally done it. When Johnny climbed the turnbuckles and held the title aloft, I was still jumping up and down. Once again (you guessed it), I had tears running down my face, much to the bewilderment of the nearby Adam Cole fans. “Dammit Johnny, you made me cry again.”

Credit: WWE

The Way Ahead

After a brief title reign, Johnny turned to the dark side before forming The Way along with Candice. This period saw Johnny take part in some fantastic matches, but they lacked some of the emotion of his previous battles, it proved difficult for fans to hate given all the previous love. There were some memorable and hilarious moments though, which really showed his versatility both inside and outside of the ring. I loved Johnny’s reaction when Indi Hartwell bought them a new television. Austin Theory nicknaming Johnny ‘Papa John’. Johnny hiding in Dexter Lumis and Indi’s hotel room. Johnny pretending to be a member of staff in the restaurant. The InDex wedding, with Johnny grinning with joy and pride sitting beside the aisle as the proud father.

The Way drifted away with Candice’s pregnancy and Austin getting drafted to RAW. Johnny had started to hear the cheers of the fans again as newer members of the NXT 2.0 roster, such as Carmello Hayes, were intent on making a name for themselves against the proven veterans.

Heading into War Games it was rumoured that Johnny’s contract had ended but he had signed a one week extension specifically to do the match. It didn’t take much; Johnny reverting to his old entrance song, Rebel Heart, brought back so many memories and I couldn’t take the emotion. I knew this could be the last time Johnny performed in an NXT ring and it could also mean the end of my wish for Johnny to headline a WrestleMania. But I’ll always have the memories of his journey, and be firmly behind him in the future. “Dammit Johnny, you’ve made me cry again.”