The date was January 27th 2018. The stage, NXT TakeOver Philadelphia. Aleister Black had just had his hand raised after a captivating and brutal Extreme Rules match against Adam Cole. The two men essentially said ‘follow that’, the WWE Universe agreed and we were not disappointed. The following match was scheduled to be Johnny Gargano trying to prize away the NXT Championship from Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas in the main event, and we had started to fear the worst. The main event of any show is expected to be the best match on the card but on paper this seemed somewhat uninspiring all of a sudden. How could they possibly follow such a frantic and entertaining spot-fest? The answer was – easily. The match we were treated to was hands down one of the greatest wrestling matches I have ever seen and nudged TLC2 off the top my spot on my all-time favourites list.
What really made the match special wasn’t what happened in the ring, it was how much everyone in attendance and watching at home was desperately rooting for Gargano. I can’t remember the last time I found myself so invested in a match and actually caring about the guys involved. The match itself was phenomenal from bell to bell, non-stop heart-racing action, but sometimes the story is so much more important than the physical performance. The way the fans get behind him, the quality of the match itself, the character and the story behind the man all lead to striking similarities between Johnny and the Planets Champion Daniel Bryan. .
It’s very easy to see why fans clamour for Gargano to succeed in the business. He’s charismatic, he can cut an impassioned and believable promo, his in-ring ability is up there with the best and he regularly gives us match of the year contenders. What appeals to Johnny’s fans most of all though is that we see a lot of ourselves in him – he is an everyman wrestler who has scratched and clawed for every opportunity despite being told he isn’t good enough. He is relatable. He isn’t big in stature or physique, he isn’t the kind of guy you would find on the cover of magazines and he doesn’t need a flashy gimmick, character or entrance to get himself over… week in and week out he leaves it all in the ring and we respect the hell out of him for it. Who does that remind you of? I may as well be describing Daniel Bryan right now, specifically during his anti-authority years. The question we find ourselves asking now is, what is there left for Johnny to achieve in NXT?
Since losing that match to Andrade, Johnny went on to have more incredible rivalries. The rivalry he entered into with his former DIY partner Tomasso Ciampa was the single greatest rivalry since Stone Cold vs Mr McMahon. The two produced a series of matches where they somehow managed to raise the bar every time. I was in attendance at NXT TakeOver Brooklyn 4 and I was genuinely speechless for most of the match, in awe at the commitment and passion I was experiencing. His next major rivalry was with Adam Cole over the vacant NXT Championship which saw Johnny finally reaching the top of the mountain, only for it to be a short-lived reign. These two rivalries treated us to even more MOTY candidates and 5-star matches. Johnny Gargano is exactly what he says he is – MVP of NXT.
The similarities between Johnny and D-Bry are almost endless, so it is more than mere coincidence that the crowd erupted into Bryan’s iconic YES! chant following yet another Gargano near fall against Almas. When they finally pulled the trigger on Bryan, WWE struck 24 carat gold with Bryan. His merchandise sales were through the roof, they unearthed a chant which will last a lifetime, created one of the most memorable WrestleMania moments in history. Finally listening to the best creative minds in professional wrestling and making them feel like they matter… the fans. Now look at Johnny in NXT. Look around the Full Sail faithful and you’ll often find a sea of Johnny merchandise, they break out into various Johnny Wrestling or Johnny TakeOver chants and lost their minds when Johnny experienced his very own mini WrestleMania moment by winning the NXT Championship. Aside from the potential chants and possible merch opportunities, the similarities in ring are just as striking. Both men wrestle with reckless abandon, throwing their bodies in harms way to entertain the masses. They both wrestle a similar technical mat based style but can pull off dives as clean as any 205 Live competitor. They are also two of the best sellers and storytellers in the business today, able to make us feel and care about their hardships with just a series of simple facial expressions.
WWE simply cannot afford to make the same mistake twice. It took far too long to push Bryan to the top of the pile. I mean sure, the company is still in a great financial position despite stock values recently falling, but it isn’t worth taking the risk again when the company finally has legitimate competition. AEW have made a point of taking disgruntled ex WWE employees and giving them a platform to be themselves with Dean Ambrose, Cody Rhodes, Tye Dillinger and very soon Luke Harper all undergoing a career resurgence. The fans for years now have made their feelings very clear towards WWE for consistently pushing the likes of Roman Reigns, John Cena and Brock Lesnar over more deserving guys. A call up and subsequent push for somebody like Gargano would go a long way towards making up for some ‘questionable’ booking choices, especially when you consider the likes of Jinder Mahal have held the WWE Championship for about 6 months longer than they should. There is no doubt that Gargano is more than ready for his shot at the big leagues in terms of his talent and persona, the worrying thing is how poorly NXT talent has been utilized in the last couple of years.
Finn Balor is a prime example. His call up came completely from left field with this amazing guy from the indies being given a much deserved shot, and despite being crowned the first ever Universal Champion, one bad injury halted his momentum and he never recovered, recently returning to NXT and finding the best form of his career. The Vaudevillains were used as jobbers. Enzo & Cass were split up too soon and both moved on. American Alpha were split up and now we have a Shorty G. The Ascension were turned in a comedy act and have moved on. Baron Corbin and Nia Jax were both called up too soon and proved it in ring. Tye Dillinger left for AEW after abysmal booking. Apollo Crews, Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, EC3, sAnitY… I could name another 20. The WWE Universe simply wouldn’t forgive the company if this happened with Gargano, or any of the top stars in NXT for that matter. The company has definitely started to listen to the fans recently, evident from for Drew McIntyre’s push, but the momentum needs to carry forward so that we have a ready made list of top guys for when the likes of Lesnar and Cena eventually hang up their boots.
Gargano can come in and break straight into that list. He is ready at this very moment to put on outstanding matches with anybody on the main roster. He hasn’t just used NXT to improve or hone his skills, he has become the finished article in a very short time and could walk onto either show as a white-hot babyface without needing to prove himself to anyone. Although we have seen this type of babyface before, he has achieved it in such a natural and organic way when compared to someone like Roman Reigns. Sure, Roman has come a long way and is a much better wrestler than people give him credit for but the issue with him is we know how desperately WWE want us to like him and accept him as our champion. The trouble for Roman is he didn’t establish himself as a credible singles competitor first, he had 3 televised matches in NXT before becoming the muscle of The Shield. While The Shield was great fun, we all knew that Seth Rollins was the most talented and was main event bound, with Dean Ambrose destined to be a great mid card champion. They weren’t forced on us though, it all happened naturally or through great storylines. They had credible runs in the indies beforehand and Seth was the first ever NXT Champion. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels are two of the all time greatest to ever compete in WWE, both multi time-time champions despite their physical stature, who reached the top through talent and charisma. We don’t want Goldberg’s and Lesnar’s anymore. The big guys time is over. Gargano is this generations Bret. Adam Cole is the next Michaels.
I don’t tend to hold much resentment for WWE, I like to give them the chance to change, but one thing I will never forgive them for is the way they handled Kevin Owens until recently. KO became Universal Champion completely out of nowhere and truly unexpectedly. An entertaining run as champion followed, until the company decided to feed him to Goldberg to further a storyline with Lesnar. WWE need to stop treating us like idiots, you can throw any number of faces at us and call them the top guy or the face of the company, but we will only sit by and ride the nostalgia train for so long. The Rock, Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold, John Cena and now Roman Reigns have all become victims of their own success, whereas guys like Bryan and Gargano have put the work in and travelled the world on the independents to earn their spots… if Bryan hadn’t have been forced to retire, before triumphantly returning, he could have been a 10 time champion by now and that would be just fine, because it was never handed to him.
Someone like Gargano would get so many eyes on the company, stop existing fans from turning away and even convince the most die-hard NXT fan to come back. AEW, Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling all offer a great alternative product, where talent gets you everywhere. Kenny Omega vs Okada was possibly the greatest series in wrestling history and it was literally because two super talented guys were given free roam to do whatever they want, tell a story in the ring and show us things we had never seen before in a WWE ring. Gargano and his NXT friends have made their brand so must-see that even the first ever Universal Champion Finn Balor chose to go back there after a disappointing main roster run. Gargano meets Finn this weekend at NXT Takeover Portland and the outcome of this match could go a long way to forging the next step in Johnny’s career.
Johnny Gargano can be every bit of what Daniel Bryan was, and take it to a whole new level as long as WWE wake up and see what they have before it’s too late. They have another red hot babyface, incredibly talented in the ring ad incredibly charismatic with a microphone in his hands, ready to go. It just takes a change in mindset from an incredibly stubborn Vince McMahon and an undying determination from the WWE Universe to get behind their guy. People power brought us the Yes movement. KofiMania would never have existed if it wasn’t for passionate fans getting behind the hardest working guy in the company. Give it a few months of JOHNNY WRESTLING echoing around arenas and the top brass in WWE will have to listen.
Every single week, Mauro Ranello gushes about how NXT is the place to be and tells us that ‘this is what the black and gold brand is all about’. Hopefully it is only a matter of time before either RAW or SDLive follow suit and give us what we want. Listening to the fans, giving us the entertainment we deserve and the showcasing the best in wrestling… Johnny Wrestling