NXT 21/2/2018 Review: THANK YOU JOHNNY

NXT tonight begins with a great video package on the evolution of the NXT career of the current NXT Champion, Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas. This is, of course, ahead of his championship vs NXT career match against Johnny Gargano later in this episode. We certainly have an absolute BLOCKBUSTER NXT ahead of us…

We begin with The Velveteen Dream (you may well be aware but I quite like The Velveteen Dream… A LOT) as he makes his usual provocative, flamboyant entrance, he’s followed by his opponent, another showman, NXT veteran No Way Jose. Should be fun indeed this one. “VEL-VE-TEEN” chants from the crowd as the match begins with The Dream starting with some real hard hitting attacks, he does a dance move where he shakes his hips to mock the moves that No Way Jose usually exhibits. No Way Jose responds with an attack before sending Velveteen over the top rope before flying over to topple his opponent and reclaim control of the match.

Both men are then back in the ring now and Dream hangs Jose on the ropes, hits a neckbreaker and then after going to the top rope he then only runs into a raised foot from his opponent and then a small package that got a 2 count. Dream is hit by multiple shots, he’s slammed down, hit in the corner, slammed down again, tossed into a turnbuckle before he finally comes back with a missile dropkick followed by a rolling Death Valley driver from the Velveteen Dream. He then goes to the top and hits his Purple Rainmaker elbow drop and the Velveteen Dream claims the win. Good little match this, Velveteen’s development continues, he is THE future of NXT and WWE, mark my words! After the match he cuts a promo and (with more “VEL-VE-TEEN” chants from the adoring Atlanta crowd) explains that with all the awards he won at the NXT awards for 2017 that nobody cares about fellow award winners Aleister Black, Asuka or Tyler Bate. And that, acknowledging the crowd chants, that his name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue here tonight and if you can’t see that “I just don’t have time for you”… Velveteen Dream is great. Simple as.

Next Andrade Almas and his associate Zelina Vega are shown in the locker room with Vega giving him a motivational talk. After this NXT GM William Regal announces the return of the ‘Dusty Rhodes Classic’ tag team tournament. This was set up in honour of the NXT founding father that it is named after, and has run twice previously in 2015 and 2016. Regal announces that the winners of the tournament will receive an NXT Tag Team title opportunity at NXT Takeover: New Orleans. I must admit I am surprised they are having the tournament over and done with this quickly BEFORE Takeover, especially given the team I believe will win the Classic have only just arrived in WWE, and therefore I’d be surprised if they got the title opportunity immediately, but saying that I would be PLEASANTLY surprised if that were to be the case.

Random point but I must just comment on how absolutely excellent the NXT commentary team are. Mauro Ranallo may be the best lead announcer in the game, Nigel McGuinness the best colour commentator and Percy Watson has really come into his own in the past few months. Just another reason to watch NXT every week. Anyway on with the rest of the show… Up next is Sanity’s Nikki Cross vs Vanessa Borne (I’ve a feeling I might like this one…). The Mae Young Classic competitor out first followed by one of my absolute favourites, to a big crowd pop; the Glaswegian, twisted sister Nikki Cross. One of the best characters in NXT right now and her commitment to the role is first class, basically she is a psychopath. And her in ring work is sound to say the least (I’d advise watching her last woman standing match with Asuka when you can), and I absolutely love her.

Nikki Cross immediately charges Vanessa Borne and unleashes on her in the corner. The unhinged Cross then climbs the back of Borne before a 360 slam from the former dancer gets her a 2 count. Vanessa hits a strong forearm for another 2 count. She then stomps repeatedly upon Nikki before burying her shin in Cross’ neck following up with a great suplex for another nearfall. Cross tries to get out of a rest hold but Vanessa slams her down to the canvas for yet another 2 count. Nikki Cross, with her signature sadistic smile, is hit repeatedly by Borne, a banshee type scream from Sanity’s leading lady is followed up with a crossbody and a series of forearms from Cross. Cross then finds herself on the top rope and delivers a diving crossbody followed by a swinging neck breaker to give her the win. A typical NXT structure to this match, but it was still good. Nikki got all her stuff in and Vanessa looked good in what she did too. With apologies to Drew McIntyre, Miss Hooley and Amy Macdonald it could well be Nikki Cross who is my favourite person from the Scottish isles. She is really, really, REALLY great!

There’s then a brief recap of the Aleister Black – Killian Dain confrontation from last week. I’m all for everything to do with this. Johnny Gargano is then shown with Candice LeRae backstage looking very focussed ahead of his big match tonight. They’re my favourite wresting couple, so much love for them both. A tweet from TM61’s Shane Thorne is then shown in relation to the Dusty Rhodes Classic. TM61 actually got to the final of the last rendition, and it was after that match TM61 were off TV for over a year due to injury. Another brief recap then shows the Ember Moon – Shayna Baszler match from last week and the intervention of Kairi Sane. It’s announced following this that the Queen of Spades will next week go one on one with The Pirate Princess as Baszler will face Sane in a rematch of the Mae Young Classic final (YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES!!!).

Well here we go then; out comes the NXT champion Andrade Almas with Zelina Vega by his side (these two just ooze star power). They are then followed out by Mr AND Mrs Wrestling as Candice LeRae accompanies her husband Johnny Gargano to the ring, Candice sporting a ‘Mrs Johnny Wrestling’ t shirt (this was too many levels of adorable). The match begins with Almas trying to win quickly and failing. Almas then kneeing Gargano, before Gargano hits a step-up inziguiri in the corner, a lariat and a clothesline then sends Almas to the outside, Johnny then goes to perform his signature Tope Suiceda move but instead it is Vega who is stood in Almas’ previous position which causes Gargano to pause. In frustration Candice then chases after Vega to the back of the arena. Finally Almas doesn’t have his trusted aide by his side.

Johnny hits a flurry of punches to Andrade on the outside, he throws him back in the ring but Almas eventually slams him down on the ring apron. Back in the ring and ‘El Idolo’ gets a 2 count. He then delivers a brutal-looking armbar using the ring ropes for leverage, followed up with another flurry of punches. Almas then shows some good foresight with a hammerlock submission move and then driving Gargano’s shoulder into the turnbuckle, the commentary team noting this damage to his shoulder will make it more difficult for Gargano to lock in his Gargano Escape submission later in the match. Another Almas nearfall is greeted with a chorus of “JOHHNY WRESTLING” chants from the crowd, much to the champion’s annoyance although he is well in control now.

Almas then has an armlock locked in, but Gargano counters with knees to Almas’ mid-section, a suplex and a kick from Gargano, he chops away at Almas in the corner, then the same in another corner, a hurricanrana and then a beautiful Slingshot Spear, all of which ONLY gets Gargano a 2 count. Both men exchange strikes, Johnny goes for a superkick but it is countered as Almas powers up and hits a Bucklebomb followed up with his running knees in the corner but Mr Wrestling is somehow able to kick out of the pin attempt (all terrific stuff from Almas whilst on offence here). Almas goes for his finisher but Gargano drives Andrade into the corner, only for that to be reversed and Gargano’s shoulder again taking more damage. With both men on the ring apron they exchange strikes before Gargano, having put Almas back into the ring, attempts a slingshot DDT that is caught and turned into a wonderful-looking Fujiwara armbar from Almas. Gargano only escapes this by rolling Andrade up for a nearfall pin attempt.

Johnny Wrestling himself then goes for a hammerlock ddt of his own that is turned into a small package from Almas, Gargano then does one of his own with both getting 2 counts. Almas then does his double knees in the corner move again for another nearfall. Unsuccessful with this, Andrade then places Gargano on the top ropes, but Gargano responds with headbutts to knock Almas down, Gargano then performs an exquisite Tope Suiceda into a tornado DDT followed by a slingshot DDT on Almas in the ring, but this still only gets a 2 count.

With both men on their knees inside the ring exchanging strikes, this continues when both men return to their feet. Gargano then finds himself on Almas shoulders but escapes, and as Almas charges at him to retaliate he instead charges and knocks down the referee. With the authority figure in the match down Gargano locks in the Gargano Escape looking on the verge of the NXT Championship… but then…

TOMASSO CIAMPA (Gargano’s former tag team partner, see my Johnny Gargano blog for the back story here) is in the ring. He hits Gargano with a crutch before escaping through the crowd. Almas then hits a Hammerlock DDT and with the ref back up, much to the verbal horror of Mauro Ranallo on commentary, Almas wins the match. Johnny Gargano’s NXT career is OVER!

It seems secondary given the quality of the story being told but the match itself was really good. Almas and Vega go to the back as they celebrate, as Candice LeRae returns to the ring to console her despondent husband. Crowd seems in shock. Standing ovation for maybe the finest wrestler we have ever had in NXT. “NO NO NO” chants the crowd as the ring announcer proclaims, per the match stipulation, that Gargano must indeed leave NXT. “THANK YOU JOHNNY” they chant as Gargano and LeRae make their exit. The final shot of the show is of a content looking Ciampa waving his former friend goodbye. What this all means and where it all goes remains to be seen, but this storytelling has been first class.

And that was yet another fantastic episode of NXT.

Key points to take home:

– Velveteen is a Dream

– Nikki Cross would be fine on her own if it came to it, she’s that good

– War Machine… that is all

– What now for Gargano?

– What now for Ciampa?

Conclusion

The people who run and write Smackdown should watch NXT. That’s how you tell compelling stories utilising all your top talents whilst not even having to have them appear on TV every week. NXT does this beautifully. It really does fill me with joy every time I watch it. I’ll always be grateful for you NXT, you’re the best!

Josh.

Johnny Gargano; aka Mr Wrestling.

Shawn Michaels performances were so consistently excellent at Wrestlemania he became ‘Mr Wrestlemania’, The Rock was once called ‘the Babe Ruth of sports entertainment’ for like Ruth to baseball being so aligned with it’s growth and success. But nobody has ever to my knowledge been so good at something that they are named after it; no Mr Football, Mr Boxing or Mr Science. But there IS that person for professional wrestling, that man is Johnny Gargano aka Johnny Wrestling.

Broadcast on the 3rd August 2016 Johnny Gargano faced Tommaso Ciampa in the 1st round of the inaugural WWE Cruiserweight Classic tournament. And with that the standard of the in-ring product of the company reached a whole new level. The match itself pitted 2 tag team partners facing eachother, and the natural chemistry was clear to see from the opening bell. A classic battle of the technical master vs the aggressive striker. But the emotion that both put into this match and all the build up that saw 2 best friends battle for singles supremacy meant that from the very beginning the match the crowd were in the palms of the oh so skilled hands of the competitors. The intensity between the both of them was incredible. It was truly a masterclass of professional wrestling.

The best commentator in the game rn Mauro Ranallo and one of the all time greats Daniel Bryan (more on him later) calling the action, it could hardly have been a more perfect environment for these 2 to display their talent to the worldwide masses. But as good and as talented as Tommaso Ciampa is/was in this match, the winner of the match and the true star in terms of potential was the ultra babyface of Johnny Wrestling who after a career that has seen him wow crowds in PWG and all over the American independent wrestling scene had finally his “coming out” showcase on the biggest stage of all, Mr Wrestling had arrived in THE wrestling company. (You should match this match).

So off the back of their incredible contest in the CWC the popularity of the newly named ‘DIY’ tag team amongst the NXT audience grew and grew to a point where a climb towards the NXT tag team Championship was inevitable. Unfortunately for them, standing in their way at the time just so happened to be the only 2 time tag team champions in NXT history, Scott Dawson & Dash Wilder aka The Revival.

After a wondeful back and forth feud between the 2 teams (which included a heartbreaking loss for DIY in Brooklyn and then the champions would feign an injury to avoid a rematch between the 2 sides before then helping their replacement defeat DIY anyway) the much anticipated showdown was made for NXT Takeover in Toronto the night before Survivor Series on November 19th 2016. Oh and it was made a 2 out of 3 falls match. Had it not been for a man called Bill doing something which absolutely nobody predicted 24 hours later this match would have dominated the wrestling headlines for weeks after. Those of us lucky enough to watch the event live got to witness an absolute classic contest.

2 of the most over tag teams in NXT there ever has been, 4 absolutely fabulous wrestlers in front of a fanatical Toronto crowd. We all thought it would be good, it was in fact excellent. To put this into context that same night I was attending a Ring Of Honour house show, all I was thinking about was this match, my friend was the same, his brother was the same and at least 10 other people I saw at the show were wearing DIY shirts. In short, and so I can get on with telling you more about Mr Wrestling I’ll just say… watch this match!

*SPOILER ALERT* DIY won. But sadly their much celebrated title run would be stopped conclusively by the monsters that are The Authors of Pain; Akam & Rezar. But don’t forget about The Revival. They were not done in the NXT tag title scene just yet. And so for NXT Takeover Orlando a triple threat tag team match was made. I’ll just say… yeah you know it… WATCH THIS MATCH (it was a little bit good).

So as it seemed AOP would continue to dominate the NXT tag team division for the foreseeable future DIY were granted one final chance to reclaim the titles…. IN A LADDER MATCH! At NXT Takeover Chicago one of the best NXT events there has ever been was main evented by a classic good vs evil, faces vs heels contest which had everyone grimacing and gasping as Gargano & Ciampa guided their still relatively inexperienced opponents to an epic.

Sadly for the Chi-town crowd AOP won the match. As DIY were left devastated at the result as we all were watching at home. The build up to this match had been dominated by rumours Tomasso Ciampa was hurt and the match would be called off, some even suggested a replacement for Ciampa be placed in the match instead. But the fact Tomasso Ciampa overcame these to take part and risk his body for this match made this result all the more heartbreaking, as was what followed after the match ended.

As both Gargano and Ciampa were stood on the entrance ramp soaking in the standing ovation from the crowd, the WWE logos would appear on the screen as the show appeared to be ending… until to the horror of the crowd Ciampa would launch Gargano into the titantron and eventually through the nearby announce table. In this day and age most “bad guy” stuff is cheered because people think it is cool, this was one of the most depsised heel turns of modern times. The crowd were calling Ciampa an asshole, Gargano looked close to tears and the appropriately nicknamed ‘Psycho Killer’ looked on like a man possessed with not even a minor sense of remorse. It was one of the most well booked heel turns you will ever see.

It would soon be revealed that Ciampa had suffered a very serious legitimate injury which would keep him out of action for 6 months plus. So an anticipated rematch of two former best friends would sadly have to wait. And so Johnny Gargano was left to find his own path in NXT without being able to properly put behind him the betrayal he had suffered. He would go on some what of a plucky, underdog losing streak as he seemed to be still mentally scared by all that he had gone through. After the end of DIY Johnny Gargano was seemingly struggling to… DIY.

He would eventually find himself with an opportunity to face off with another NXT star who was in equally great need for a kickstart to their career, Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas. The former mexican wrestling megastar had gone from technical, high flying master to somewhat of a party boy. His newfound fondness for a good time would be the given reason for his sudden fall from grace.

That all changed upon the sudden arrival of his ‘associate’ (manager to you and me) the ravishing Zelina Vega. Vega’s goal with Almas was to turn him into a ruthless, unforgiving competitor and so a match with the hard-working technical wizard Johnny Gargano was an easy one to make. And so 2 of NXT’s most naturally gifted talents would open NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 3 (NXT’s equivalent of Wrestlemania).

It was a wise move from WWE putting this on first and my oh MY did it kick (what would turn out to be the best NXT show ever produced) off the show with an almighty bang! The finish of the match was wondeful also, with Gargano looking like he would claim a timely victory on NXT’s grandest stage it was Zelina Vega who would throw a DIY t shirt into Gargano’s face! And before Johhny had time to digest this latest reminder of the painful betrayal he was trying to now put behind him, the cunning Almas would claim the win. Another crushing loss for someone whose crowd reactions were getting to almost ungodly levels of noise and volume.

So Gargano would once again face Almas in a later episode of NXT with the Mexican again coming out on top. El Idolo’s re-birth since the arrival of the elusive Zelina Vega by his side would reach the ultimate high when he shocked the wrestling world when he claimed the NXT Championship in November of 2017 from Drew McIntyre. Meanwhile Gargano was continuing to have fantastic matches agisnt fellow indie darlings such as Pete Dunne and Kassuis Ohno (the later of which was particularly special). The win over Ohno would earn Johhny Wrestling a spot in a fatal 4 way match to crown a number 1 contender for Andrade Almas’ NXT Championship. Oh and just to emphasise how absolutely incredible the roster was becoming he would need to get the better of monsters like Lars Sullivan and Killian Dain as well as the incomparable Aleister Black.

But once again Gargano would wow and delight the NXT universe by sealing victory and an opportunity to once again face Almas, only this time with the stakes raised to the highest possible level. 2 men who opened the show for NXT in August would main event for the championship less than 6 months later. And for the remarkable work from both men in recent months it was overwhelmingly and richly deserved.

I wont go into great detail about the match itself, I’ll just say it was the best match I’ve seen in NXT history, the best I’ve seen in WWE for many, many years and only the 6th match in WWE history to receive Dave Meltzer’s illustrious 5 star rating. (Main event of NXT Takeover: Phildelphia, if you’re going to watch 1 match today choose this one). The crowd and everyone watching at home were on the edge of their seat throughout as Gargano tried with all the heart and willing of a true-ultra babyface crowd favourite. As the incredible contest drew to a close the NXT Champion Andrade Almas appeared to be struggling with the never say die attitude of the challenger, enter Zelina Vega in to the match. With attentions diverted elsewhere Vega delivered a Hurricanrana to Gargano and laterly followed that up by attempting to confront him again. What followed was one of those moments where if you know the backstory of those involved you lose your mind. I did.

Shown before the match and also sat ringside just so happened to be someone who before recently signing a WWE contract was one of the most popular acts in all of wrestling outside of the big time, oh and SHE also happens to be one of the most talented and entertaining characters and in-ring performers you will ever see…

Oh and she also happens to be Johhny Gargano’s wife…

So with Vega approaching Gargano to give him a piece of her mind, jumping over the barricade to deliver her some much-deserved come-up-pence was Mrs Wrestling herself, Candice LeRae (When you get some time next put her into your preferred search engine and watch any of her past work in PWG or any other promotion that has been lucky enough to have her perform for them, you will be wowed trust me).

To the joy of the Philly crowd (and myself who at this point was jumping up and down at the prospect of a feud between Candice and Zelina, TAKE ALL MY MONEY NOW WWE) LeRae’s beatdown of Vega led them both to the inner parts of the arena leaving the two fighting warriors to settle this amazing contest once and for all. They did this by exhibiting one of the finest examples of back and forth exchanges of moves and nearfalls I have ever seen. Nobody had any idea the result of this epic until the finish. Which saw El Idolo finally put away the spirited Gargano to retain his gold. But in the immediate aftermath of the match it was clear to see the night was not a total loss for Mr Wrestling, and as Candice consoled her husband the Phildelphia crowd gave him the reception their crestfallen hero so richly deserved.

We had just witnessed one of the best wrestling matches in WWE history. The heroic Gargano was soaking in the crowd but still visibly upset he was unable to capture the prestigious championship title. And as the show-closing graphic appeared on the screen Gargano would once again be hit where it hurts… his heart. One shot to the back with a supportive crutch and Gargano’s former ally Tommaso Ciampa had made his return, picking up where he left off.

This was something which was widely anticipated to happen in some form leading up to the event but giving we were all recovering still mentally from the epic we had just seen, it still caught me at least by suprise. In one night Gargano has lost a match for the NXT Championship and then whilst having his rightly deserved time to soak in the adulation for his efforts , his former tag team partner ruined his moment. One of the most anticipated showdowns and personal stories in WWE and NXT history had re started.

So that there was the rundown of the recent story of the career of Johhny Gargano. You know the story and now I’ll explain why it’s main character is such a blessing to modern wrestling and to WWE and NXT. I could tell you about his incredible in-ring style of hard hitting techincal offences with high flying athleticism mixed in for days and days, but I hope I’ll be forgiven for using someone else to illustrate my points.

Daniel Bryan. Someone who made his name outisde of WWE, a man whose popularity with the audience once he arrived simply grew and grew, someone who had to overcome so many obstacles to reach the top, someone with an incredible mix of technical and high flying offences, and someone who was simply very good at what they did…… remind you of anyone????? I haven’t seen anyone like Daniel Bryan in WWE until Johhny Wrestling made it his home. His popularity with the hardest parts of the audience to please is unlimited. Daniel Bryan’s popularity and determination and above all else his talent led him to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Wrestlemania. Often people say that ‘the sky is the limit’, in WWE Daniel Bryan touched the sky and Johhny Gargano’s potential can reach similar heights.

I’ll conclude with a very personal message to Johhny Gargano himself;

In 2013/2014 the story of Daniel Bryan in WWE made me fall in love with wrestling again and since Bryan sadly retired I have been looking for a new beacon of light and hope to follow. Johhny Gargano is that. Thank you for your incredible in ring style, your never say die attitude and amazing commitment to thrill everyone watching you every time you step into a ring. I don’t know where this amazing story will go or end up but what I do know is this NXT fanboy will be watching every step of the way!

Keep up the good work Mr Wrestling and thank you.

“JOHNNY WRESTLING, *CLAP,CLAP,CLAP,CLAP,CLAP* JOHHNY WRESTLING…” (Repeat as loudly and for as long as humanly possible)

Josh.