One night while working on the Ciampa/Gargano slash project i.e. reading fanfic and luvin it), I realized how all these fanfics are not attempts to recode the Ciampa/Gargano (CG) NXT story (e.g. characters, plot points, facts) but to recode the emotions of the stories as those emotions play a role in how fans decode the stories.
For these fans, their emotional reactions to wrestlers are important, and Ciampa and Gargano have encoded some pretty powerful emotional beats into their NXT story. Even before their break-up, fans had a lot to decode about their bond, and the fanfic pre-break-up explores those emotions. The fanfic post-break-up explores different emotions, but also tries to reconcile the negative feelings between the duo to reunite the pair. Being faithful to the story’s facts doesn’t matter as much as exploring the emotional text and subtext of these wrestlers.
To understand how the fans are decoding and recoding the emotional beats encoded into the story, I decided to go back and chart Ciampa and Gargano’s matches across NXT. I wanted to plot the emotionality of their matches, both as a tag team and as singles, to understand what the fans are reacting to with their stories.* And, as a fan myself, it has been fascinating to go back and watch these matches. Especially for their first matches, I didn’t have the emotional investment in them then that I do now (like, seriously, I haven’t loved a “fictional” character this much since David Tennant’s run as The Doctor). This means I am rewatching matches I only vaguely remember with my complete love for them.
While I do not remember the beats, I do remember the results. And knowing what happened does make it easier to pay attention to peripheral aspects of the match, like how they act on the apron or their facial expressions. Those moments are what I focused on to chart the emotional beats — and boy am I finding out some interesting things, like how much of a hugger Ciampa was!
Because there are so many matches to cover since their debut, I am breaking this timeline over several posts. This first one focuses on their work leading up to their tag team win against the Revival in 2016. Basically these are all the matches to build up the duo and the fans’ love for them.
2015: In the Beginning…
Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano are introduced in backstage segment on September 2, 2015. They appear with GM William Regal to set them up as participants in inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, and to set up the comedy-team of Tyler Breeze and Bull Dempsey. In this segment, neither man displays any real emotions other than intensity — even when Regal mispronounces Ciampa’s last name.
Their emotional bonding starts during the Classic. In their round 1 match on September 9, where they win to advance. There is emotional intensity from Gargano on apron trying to get Ciampa to give him the tag, which interestingly sets up a recurring theme of a hot tag from Ciampa to Gargano — like Ciampa needs to be saved by Gargano. More importantly, they hug after win and keep their arms around each other when facing the hardcam during their post-match celebration. They also get down on their knees on the ramp before exiting, with commentators saying how they cannot believe their luck. There, Gargano hugs Ciampa again, basically cradling Ciampa’s head to his chest. This motif would be a recurring aspect of their hugging, with one (usually Ciampa) cradling the other’s head to his chest (see the example below).
Their next match is in the second round on September 16. In their first promo, they respond to Baron Corbin/Rhyno, again bringing intensity. They receive a decent pop with their entrance, given how new they are, and during the match start to show more teamwork. Both men are definitely playing to the crowd and getting crowd behind them. The commentary positions them as faces and underdogs from the beginning. This match also has their first knee/kick move, which would come to be called the Meet in the Middle, but not as a finisher. Importantly, the commentators talk about their chemistry. The crowd is really into match, hoping CG would win. After losing, Ciampa goes to check on Gargano, who got the End of Days from Corbin, and stays at his side, checking on him until the end of the clip. This show of care and concern would become a motif in their matches.
After losing the tournament, they started doing singles matches. The next time they are on NXT together is October 30, only to be defeated by Chad Gable/Jason Jordan. Once again, CG have loads of crowd support, especially for how Gargano interacts with the crowd and his expressions. The match got “This is Wrestling” and “This is Awesome” (x3) chants. CG show teamwork, but perhaps are also the heels in the match given the types of tandem attacks they performed — as well as the intensity of their expressions. This character works suggests NXT was still trying to figure out who CG were in their roster. After loss, Ciampa rolls in pain in ring, with no sign of Gargano. Then the clip shows Ciampa outside the ring next to Gargano, both in pain. No real sign of emotional bonding between them in the match — which, if the goal was to position them as heels, makes sense.
This feeling them out also explains the singles work they did, that were pretty unspectacular, which is why I am not interested in discussing them here. The goal here is to understand how these two men interacted with each other on NXT, and their evolution as a tag team demonstrated that their strength was going to be through their relationship in and out of the ring. Once NXT realized that as well, CG would light up the arena.
2016: Becoming Official…
Ciampa and Gargano signed their Tier 2 WWE contracts on April 2nd, 2016, meaning that they could still go on indie dates. And they did so through summer 2016, which was great for me, as I got to see them a couple more times at AAW.
On April 13, 2016 they take on the Vaudevillains, and the commentators said they are reunited. By then the Vaudevillains had already appeared on SmackDown, so of course they were leaving. While waiting in the ring to start, Ciampa pats Gargano’s back, which is a move he does a lot over the year. The commentators said Ciampa had seemed out of his mind but seems relaxed now, and that they both seem relaxed together, being more confident and comfortable. Gargano demonstrates how very skilled he is at showing pain, and got a power-up chant from the crowd. Otherwise the crowd is so quiet I can hear Ciampa trying to encourage Gargano. Hot tag to Ciampa. CG wins, but they just do their cornerpost poses, with no other interaction in the clip.
On May 25 they faced TM-61. When they pose together in corner, Ciampa pats Gargano’s back. Commentators in this match describe how TM-61 are people who really know each other because of wrestling together for so long. This positioning helps establish the relationship for CG: if they can defeat established teams after recently reuniting, then it means they are great. Ciampa calls for crowd support for Gargano. Miscommunication leads to CG collision in ring — they are still new to this, after all. First time they use their finisher as the finisher for a win. High-five after win, then sign of respect to opponents, clapping for them.
Their June 1 is their first match against The Revival. The Revival starts the episode by cutting a promo in-ring against Gable/Jordan (aka American Alpha), the current tag-team champions, but CG come out to support American Alpha and push themselves. Ciampa and Gargano show their mic and burn skills. CG kick Revival out of ring, leading to a match. CG poses together in corner when they come out in a show of unity. The crowd is behind CG, who often call for support, with Revival as the clear heels. A hot tag to Gargano and a quick cover by Gargano to win. Then Revival attacks both separately, with Ciampa attacked more, but saved by American Alpha. No sight of CG after the champions arrives.
At this point it is clear that CG are very good technical wrestlers and able to create matches that are unlike anything seen on Raw or SmackDown, especially for tag-team matches. Their emotional relationship is really just starting, and it would take the next two big matches featuring them both to cement their relationship as central to their NXT story.
CWC and TakeOver II…
In 2016, the WWE produced the Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), which led to reinvigorating the cruiserweight division on the main roster. On June 23, during the first round of the CWC, Ciampa and Gargano created an instant classic.
Now, leading up to it, the WWE produced a package for the match that questioned if their friendship survive. Gargano talks about being thrust into the tag team with Ciampa, but how something clicked instantly. Commentators say CG has chemistry. Ciampa talks about the past year of traveling and rooming together and depending on each other, which has led to their bond growing. He even mentions being in Gargano’s upcoming wedding party, saying “we’re as good of friends as you can get at this point.” The package shows them hugging on the ramp from their first win. Gargano confesses how he perhaps talks to Ciampa more than his fiance. Ciampa discusses how sometimes you hit family harder than others. Overall, the package does a great job summing up the relationship CG has been building and really foregrounds that aspect of the duo to create tension for the match: will they still be friends after one loses to the other?
Their pre-match interview adds to the package when the interviewer asks how being partners affects the match. Gargano says it matter if Ciampa is his partner or like a brother, and Ciampa is upset on how all he ever hears is people talking about “Johnny Wrestling.” They both posture about who is going to win, with Ciampa saying he will hurt the other, to which Gargano says “You do what you gotta do.” This exchange basically foreshadows Ciampa’s heel turn in 2017.
The match itself — is simply amazing. It is their first time fighting each other in the WWE, and is the main event of the episode. Being the main event also foreshadows the one-on-one matches they would have in 2018. Interestingly they are wearing the same colors: black, white, yellow. At the start, Ciampa is reluctant to shake hands and is intense, according to commentators, who call his attacks on Gargano vicious. Tommaso mockingly chants Johnny Wrestling to the crowd (again, foreshadowing his heel turn). The commentators play up Ciampa’s Psycho Killer history and position Johnny as the underdog, under assault, weaker, less intense. The commentators are worried about Gargano getting so many shots to the head, and are surprised he is taking so much violent punishment from the brutal Ciampa.
Ciampa routinely performs violent moves on Gargano, who keeps kicking out, making Ciampa frustrated. Commentator worried about the glassiness of Gargano’s eyes while Ciampa takes down knee pad to knee the other in head. But Ciampa pauses as commentator says these two are a tag team. Gargano looks back just in time to see Ciampa hesitate and question what he is doing, potentially to his friend, allowing Gargano to rest and then superkick him.
Ciampa comes back with vicious lungblower, but Gargano again kicks out of pin, making Ciampa scramble away with shocked look and leaving Gargano completely dazed. This leads to a “This is Awesome” chant as Gargano struggles to get up and an annoyed Ciampa questions what to do. Gargano legit looks like a wounded deer as he reaches out for Ciampa as both men lay on the mat — and Ciampa looks like a mountain lion. Commentator says how much it means to win this CWC if two friends are willing to beat each other up. They are also getting a “Fight Forever” chant.
Ciampa chops Gargano, spits in his hand to chop the other again. Gargano gets angry. Ciampa grabs Gargano’s jaw to force him to stand, as Gargano just stares at Ciampa. Ciampa shakes his head in disappointment, giving Gargano the opening to slap his face. Then Gargano has the opening for the pin.
Immediately after the match, Ciampa is visibly upset in the middle of the ring, while Gargano has retreated to corner. Ciampa still upset when referee raises Gargano’s arm in victory. After the referee leaves, both men are still in the ring, with Gargano kneeling and Ciampa standing. Gargano gets up, looks at the other, who doesn’t make eye contact with him. Gargano extends his hand for a handshake of respect, looking at the other who still won’t make eye contact. Ciampa walks away, shaking his head, and goes to leave the ring as Gargano sits on the mat.
Ciampa stands on ring, hits his own head, then goes back in. All the while the crowd is chanting to try to get him to go back to Gargano. Ciampa sits next to Gargano, grabs the other’s head and pulls Gargano to his chest in a hug as the crowd cheers. Ciampa then raises Gargano’s hand, and it is then that he makes eye contact with Gargano as they nod at each other. Then Gargano hugs Ciampa, who is visibly still upset about his loss. They shake hands as they get up, and then they hug again. Gargano then raises Ciampa’s hand.
In their official post-match interview, Gargano is asked what his victory means for their partnership. Ciampa comes into the interview when Gargano starts talking about him as a best friend. They just make eye contact. Gargano asks if he had to hit so hard, to which Ciampa responds with just “Johnny Wrestling” and walks off, to which Gargano laughs and says “that means he loves me” and says he considers Ciampa like a brother. Fraternal love cannot be easily broken.
Then, on August 20, the duo would make their first NXT TakeOver appearance at TakeOver: Brooklyn II versus The Revival for the tag-team championship. This match would go on to be voted as one of the best matches of the year.
Before the match, backstage, Ciampa gives Gargano the #DIY shirt, says its because they do things their way. This announces them as being finalized as a tag team, and sets up their relationship as being foundational to their story and success. In a pre-match package, when they meet with Regal after the CWC, he says he hopes the CWC match won’t prevent them from acting as a team. Ciampa said that most teams don’t get to chose, but they do, and that he chooses Gargano every day. Saying this just drives home the point they are not brothers, but are not just friends. They seem to be something more, and they are going to tell their NXT story their way.
They come out in their new shirts and Ciampa puts his arm around Gargano, pulling him in, as they take in the scope of where they are and what they are about to do. Throughout the match, the crowd is loudly behind them, chanting “Let’s go Ciampa” and “Johnny Wrestling.” At one point in the match, both Revival guys are chasing after Gargano but Ciampa jumps into the ring to stand by his side and face down the Revival. The commentators say CG are long time friends who know each other very well, billing CG as they have done for past tag teams, thereby cementing them as officially working together as partners.
And then it seems like Johnny has pinned Dash Wilder after a Meet in the Middle, but Dawson puts Wilder’s foot on the rope and the referee calls it a two-count. Meanwhile Ciampa hugs Gargano to celebrate, so before they are made aware, CG are hugging in the middle of the ring as the crowd goes crazy over the supposed win. CG are holding each other in celebration when the referee informs them they didn’t win.
The Revival goes on to hurt Gargano’s knee, which was injured from the CWC. The Crowd tells him not to tap to Dawson’s figure four submission hold, but Johnny, in agony, does. As the Revival celebrates, CG sit in the middle of the ring, heartbroken. Ciampa gets up as Gargano’s hands are over his eyes, despondent. Ciampa then leans down and hugs Gargano, helps the other up, and keeps his hand on Gargano’s back as they thank the crowd. He then helps Gargano walk out of the ring. Outside the ring, Gargano says I’m sorry, and Ciampa pulls him back in for another hug, with his head to Ciampa’s chest. Ciampa keeps his hand on Gargano as he leads the other up the ramp.
— 👩🏫 CarrieLynn D. Reinhard, PhD 👩💻 (@MediaOracle) February 22, 2019
With the CWC and TakeOver II matches, CG cement their abilities as in-ring storytellers, able to create emotional moments as they react to their opponents — even when those opponents are each other. In moments of loss, they are able to show their love for each other by being concerned for how each other is doing. Ciampa, in particular, demonstrates a level of tenderness that seems contradictory to his Psycho Killer persona. Ciampa seems to legit care for Gargano, so much so that he is willing to risk not winning the CWC match, and he is not going to hold Gargano responsible for losing the titles. The relationship between the men is becoming more important than winning.
Dusty Rhodes Redux…
The last couple matches to note in this post are not terribly noteworthy as they do not do much to build the emotionality of their story. In the 2016 Dusty Rhodes Classic, CG have a first round match versus Tian Bing/Ho-Ho Lun on October 26, which is really only important for noting it as the first time they came out to #DIY entrance theme. After winning, they moved on to the second round on November 2 versus the Revival; but the match never happens as Dawson came out on crutches, claiming a severe knee injury, and the Revival forfeited so they don’t have to face DIY in the match. The third round on November 9 was against the Authors of Pain. In one interesting moment, as both AOP are about to attack Gargano, Ciampa comes in to stop that double teaming, just like he did in TakeOver II. At the end, DIY has AOP beaten when The Revival shows up from underneath the ring and attack Johnny, but the referee didn’t see it, leaving Tommaso to be pinned.
Essentially this string of matches was just meant to further the rivalry between The Revival and #DIY, which led to the championship match between them at NXT TakeOver: Toronto. That match began #DIY’s championship reign, which would then lead to their breaking up, and the darkness that followed. Those matches will be covered next, in part two of this series.
*One thing I also need to chart is the transmedia nature of this story, as both Ciampa and Gargano did a lot on Twitter to build up their characters and relationship. They posted about living together, for example, and their work with Bobby Roode and the Glorious Bombs created a meme that still plays out today. What I have in these posts are just the NXT tapings, but these online appearances are definitely a part of this emotionality timeline.