The date was January 27th. The stage was NXT TakeOver Philadelphia. Aleister Black had just had his hand raised after a captivating Extreme Rules match against Adam Cole. The two men essentially said ‘follow that’ and the WWE Universe agreed. The following match was scheduled to be Johnny Gargano trying to prize away the NXT Championship from Andrade Almas in the main event, and we all feared the worst… you want the main event to be the best match on the card but on paper this seemed somewhat… uninspiring. How could it possibly follow such a frantic and entertaining spot-fest? With great ease apparently! The match we were treated to was hands down one of the best matches of the last 10 years in any wrestling promotion.
The match itself was impossible to take your eyes off, with non stop heart racing action, more near falls than my nerves could take, outside interference and even a post match ambush keeping us on the edge of our seats. But 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 cared about the guys involved. There is no doubt in my mind that with the right booking he can quite easily and effectively become Daniel Bryan 2.0, maybe even surpassing the bearded one’s accomplishments.
When the referee’s hand hit the mat for the third and final time, the entire arena and everybody watching was stunned into silence. Gargano had put on one of the bravest, most believable and ultimately heart-breaking performances in recent memory which more than deserved to land him the title. Hell even Dave Meltzer, so famously anti-WWE, gave it his fabled 5 star rating, which had become somewhat of a mythical creature talked about in legends, not seen in the WWE since 2011. You have to give a huge amount of credit to Almas too, its safe to say he surprised everyone with his in ring performance, but it was Gargano who really told the story during the match. NXT managed to once again do something sorely lacking on the main roster shows… great storytelling and creative booking.
It’s very easy to see why fans clamour for Gargano to succeed in the business. He’s charismatic, he can cut a good and believable promo, his in-ring ability is up there with the best as he regularly pulls off unique and innovative moves to leave us breathless. He is very much what the majority of WWE fans see in themselves, 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 or entrance to get himself over.. Week in and week out he leaves it all in the ring. The big question which remains is whether or not the trigger will finally be pulled on an NXT Championship reign before he steps up to RAW or SDLive. We know he will almost certainly be feuding with his former tag team partner turned bitter enemy Tomasso Ciampa in the near future which will undoubtedly be a captivating rivalry regardless of championship gold being involved… but then what? Where will he go from there?
The main roster shows have desperately been lacking something since Bryan’s heart-breaking early retirement. Bryan was a universally loved babyface, and as much as great faces will come and go none of them could even dream of reaching the heights that he did. The similarities between the two ultimate underdogs 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. The real kick in the teeth for Bryan was that he wasn’t actually due to be part of the title scene at that time, he was never more than a mid carder in the companies eyes and it was only the WWE Universe who convinced the company to take a chance on ol’ goatface. What happened afterwards? WWE struck 24 carat gold with merchandise sales, unearthed a chant which will last a lifetime, created the ultimate WrestleMania moment and finally… FINALLY listened to the best creative minds in professional wrestling and made them feel like they mattered… the fans.
WWE simply cannot afford to make the same mistake twice. I mean sure, the company is in the best financial shape it has seen in a good few years, but is it really worth taking the risk again? The fans for years now have made their feelings very clear towards WWE for consistently pushing the likes of Roman Reigns, John Cena and Batista, and it almost always ends with shows and PPV’s going off air to a chorus of boo’s. A push for Gargano would go a long way towards making up for some ‘questionable’ booking choices, most notably the utterly mind boggling championship reign of Jinder Mahal which lasted roughly 6 months too long. 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 the prime example. His call up was somewhat of a revelation in WWE, the amazing indy guy being given a much deserved shot, and he was immediately pushed to the moon by becoming the first ever Universal Champion, but one bad injury later and he has found himself lingering around the mid card only recently being pushed back into the fray. The Vaudevillains were used poorly and jobbed out most weeks. Enzo & Cass split up too soon. American Alpha a similar story although at least they captured gold along the way. The Ascension find themselves playing a comedy role. Baron Corbin and Nia Jax both called up way too soon and proved it in the ring. Tye Dillinger was called up while he was at peak popularity but you can barely even call him a jobber at this point on SDLive. The WWE Universe simply wouldn’t forgive the company if this happened with Gargano and we would likely see a similar backlash to what we have seen recently with Roman Reigns.
This is where Gargano can come in and break the mould. He is ready right now to be the next Daniel Bryan. He hasn’t just used NXT to improve or hone his skills, he has become the finished article in a very short time. He can 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 him is he didn’t establish himself as a credible singles competitor first, he literally had 3 televised matches in NXT before becoming the muscle of the Shield. While The Shield were great fun, we all knew that Seth Rollins was the most talented of the trio and was main event bound, with Dean Ambrose destined to be a great mid card champion. But they didn’t look like your typical steroid loving WWE big guy, so although they had their time to shine and did it very well they were never going to be mainstay champions in the way that Roman has been forced to be. That doesn’t need to be done with Gargano… he already is our champion.
I grew up as a huge fan of The Rock and then in later years John Cena. So why is it that when Rocky returns every now and then I feel nauseous? Why is it that I can’t stand the guys I used to love? Because fantastic wrestlers and charismatic entertainers were, and still are, being held down to add another zero to WWE’s bank balance and give part timers a bit of cash when they’re not busy in Hollywood. 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 Indy scene to EARN their spots… if Bryan was still medically capable of wrestling in WWE today the fans would not have turned on him even if he became a 10 time champion because it was never handed to him.
As much as Roman has certainly improved both in ring and on the mic, the fact remains that he finds himself in an untouchable position because of his family ties and the top brass’ fixation on big guys. He was given a slap on the wrist for violating the wellness policy where most guys would have been fired for less. Jinder Mahal was thrust into the limelight and, quite rightly, questions were immediately raised about his sudden crazy body transformation. Was he investigated? Was he heck! He was given a championship reign because WWE wanted to crack the Indian market. Money makes the world go round, I get that, and WWE is a business at the end of the day which needs to make money to survive. But for every 1 new Indian fan they gained, just think how many fans they alienated by again giving someone undeserving an opportunity despite visible fan protest. Someone like Gargano would get so many eyes on the company and keep existing ones interested rather than them switching to Ring of Honor or New japan Pro Wrestling where they can see those smaller guys putting on phenomenal, exciting matches. At the end of the day we want entertainment for our money, not a muscly freak who can barely string two words together.
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. 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. 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 show us that they are all about the fans, the entertainment and the wrestling… Johnny Wrestling.