The ballad of Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, one of the greatest rivalries in contemporary wrestling history, comes to an end Wednesday night on NXT.
The former tag team partners, best friends turned bitter rivals, have spent nearly three years battling back and forth trying to prove something—to themselves, each other and the world.
On orders from WWE executive Triple H, they will determine once and for all who is the better man in an Empty Arena brawl on the USA Network.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden sat down with Ciampa to talk about the feud that will likely define not only his own career, but also the early history of NXT.
Jonathan Snowden: Johnny recently compared this rivalry to a movie. And it certainly does have its emotional ups and downs. Do you picture it in cinematic terms like that?
Tomasso Ciampa: Yeah. A lot of that comes from the fact that for years we were best friends and lived together. I think we view wrestling in a very similar way, through the same lens.
We have a similar idea of what we want wrestling to be, as far as integrating an immense amount of story into the performance. Whether the saga is a movie or each bit is a movie, and it ends up being a trilogy, or in this case, I guess we're at five chapters now.
JS: Based on what Triple H said, if this is a movie, it's the final scene.
Ciampa: This is it, man.
JS: How do you make it special? Will the fact that it's going to be held in front of no one help make it memorable and different? Maybe that's the right tone for what this has become. What do you think?
Ciampa: Yeah, I 100 percent agree with that. As far as what's going on in the world right now, and the situation that we've been put in as far as how it affects our industry. That brawl we had around the Performance Center had really good reviews from everybody. Everyone was very excited after that.
It's crazy to think that that was the last wrestling to happen in front of a live audience. That was it. From that point forward, there's been no crowds anywhere in the world.
To go from the high that we had on that night where we were saying, 'Oh man, TakeOver Tampa feels as special as TakeOver New Orleans did a couple of years back.' Man, you can't predict anything that's happened since then. What a whirlwind. Only in our story could this happen.
When I found out we're going forth with the match, my initial thought was like, 'All right, cool. Let's hit a home run here.' I don't know. We're both that type of performer, too. We really like the pressure. We really like to have the odds stacked against us.
JS: Most people would be uncomfortable with that feeling. Have the odds always felt stacked against you for whatever reason? It's an interesting mentality.
Ciampa: I remember doing DIY and just badly wanting to steal the show at TakeOvers and badly wanting it to be our turn. We want to be the main event. Guys would get taken over to Raw or SmackDown. You're like, 'Man, we're close.'
TakeOver New Orleans was the first time we main-evented, and the mentality every TakeOver was to hit a freaking home run.
Now this is a whole different set of circumstances. It's a whole different situation. I know, for me, when I'm told, 'all right, we're going to be doing these shows with no crowds,' I'm very competitive. Because I hear that, and I'm like, 'we're going to have the best freaking no-crowd match that anyone has ever seen in their lives.' That's what I want for all of them. You know what I mean? Like the Performance Center brawl, I want this to be remembered with all the best brawls of all time.
I know that there's got to be people out there worried or thinking 'is it the right call or not?' When people watch the final product, they're going to be 'damn it, they pulled it off.'
The room was empty aside from a couple of cameramen, myself and Johnny. But the passion's going to freaking come through on camera because we just gave it everything. We gave it our bodies, we gave it heart, soul, the whole thing and it's five years.
This is a proper payoff. I'll stand by it forever. This is a proper payoff for five years, crowd, no crowd. The people who watch this at home, they're going to be captivated. They're going to be sucked in, and I think they'll feel like they were part of something special.
JS: You talked about the wrestling philosophy you share with Johnny. It does feel like you guys are delivering a different kind of wrestling, one with all the action of independent wrestling and also the big storytelling moments that come with sports entertainment. Do you feel like the two of you guys are pushing the boundaries of what wrestling can be?
Ciampa: Yeah, and it's the team. That goes all the way to the top with Hunter (Triple H) and Shawn (Michaels), to the producers and the agents. It's everybody.
It is a different vibe in NXT. There's an us-against-the-world thing, and it's such an interesting dynamic because we're owned by WWE, Vince McMahon, the whole thing. But you lose sight of that once you're in the locker room.
It genuinely feels like this independent group who's out to prove something constantly. We're not developmental anymore, we are their third brand. Being on USA Network, we could be seen in the same amount of homes as Raw and SmackDown. We've just got to be patient and do our due diligence and tell our stories. We could, at some point, be the No. 1 show in ratings. I see what Raw does, I see what SmackDown does. I see us there, too.
And I'm sure that people could easily laugh at that. But for me it's like, well, five years ago, we were on the WWE Network and TakeOvers were hard to come by. Five years later, we're on USA and TakeOvers happen four, five, six times a year. Sometimes you just have to be patient and see the big picture.
We have a lot of that in our locker room, myself and Johnny and guys like Adam Cole and Roderick Strong. There's a lot of big-picture guys who are in this for the long haul, and we all grew up on the same wrestling product too, that late-80s/early-90s, where there were only four or five pay-per-views a year.
JS: How does that inform what you do in the ring?
Ciampa: Stories were really drawn out and people could get invested and captivated. And now we're being allowed to do that, what we grew up on, but also take in all the stuff we learned over the last 10 years for in-ring action.
It's a quicker pace. It's harder hitting. It's more crazy things, jumping off cages. But if we can mix that with the storytelling, I just think it's special, and I just feel like we've only been on TV now for what, six months? Just let this thing breathe. Let's just give it time.
I'm not a huge reader, but every book I ever read, I hardly ever get sucked in on the first chapter or two. It was usually midway through where I was like, 'oh damn, this book's good.' All of a sudden I'm reading 30 pages instead of 10 at a time. It's the same concept. It's like you have to give the viewer at home time to get sucked into the characters and the storylines. But I think if we just keep doing what we're doing hopefully, separately, Johnny and I get to continue to be a part of that.
Man, it's something special. There was something special about ECW when they were doing what they were doing. There's something special about NXT doing what we're doing.
JS: That's an awesome comparison. You talked about how new all of this is and the fact it will take some time to introduce the characters and storylines to a new audience. But one of the names you mentioned needs no introduction: Shawn Michaels. How is he helping you guys behind the scenes to put together these fantastic matches?
Ciampa: Luckily for us, the guy running the show is best friends with Shawn Michaels. And Hunter is up there in the conversation for best in-ring performer of all time, too. I think Shawn might just happen to be the best. It's not a bad duo to have helping out.
I don't know how Shawn got involved exactly. I think it's just once the wrestling bug bites you, it bites you forever. He was doing his own thing and happily retired, and he came down to the Performance Center once because he lives not far away. It's that wrestling bug, he sees a bunch of guys who have the same passion he has, and it's hard for him not to get sucked in.
That turned into him coaching and taking on a class, and the class has guys like myself and Johnny and Adam Cole and others in it. That ends up developing into "Shawn's kids," and once he has that investment, now he's hooked.
Shawn's an incredible dude. He's not just into the match. He's hooked into your life, your career, your home life, all of it. He ends up becoming this life coach-mentor dude, and he's just invested.
JS: It must be nice to have that kind of experience around, someone who has seen everything there is to see both in the ring and behind the scenes.
Ciampa: NXT has changed quite a bit since it started. It's gone from us doing stuff on the WWE Network to now being on USA and live TV. So many things have changed, but behind the scenes, he's still there for all the television shows.
He's a storyteller, man. He's the guy we all grew up on. It's a crazy thing for any of us who are performers. I grew up watching Hunter and Shawn, and now these guys are coaching and helping us, and we're bouncing ideas off them and it's bonkers. It's crazy.
You're really doing yourself no service if you're not taking full advantage of that. And I've taken full advantage of it. Shawn's that behind-the-scenes coach who just wants this thing to thrive and succeed for the betterment of everybody, for the betterment of the business.
JS: The first time I saw you live was in Chicago in 2017. You turned on Johnny that night to start all of this. And a real-life injury occurred. You had worked for so long to finally get this opportunity, and life slapped you in the face. Were you worried it was going to be over before it started?
Ciampa: A few years earlier, I had torn my left ACL, so the second it happened in the match in Chicago, I knew my right ACL was torn. There was no doubt in my mind. But I also knew that when I tore my left ACL, I wrestled for 20 minutes after. I was like, 'OK, I know I can wrestle, I can keep this going, I'm OK. I just have to work around it.'
I never had a woe-is-me attitude, for a multitude of reasons. One, I needed both my shoulders repaired. This opened up a window. 'Oh, he needs to take nine months off to fix his knee. Great, we'll fix his shoulders.' I knew that was going to help me going forward: longevity, career, being in pain, all that.
Two, I knew that we accomplished something that night. You could feel the energy in the crowd, man. When I turned on Johnny, it was just this visceral hatred, and I was like, 'oh.'
Plus for me, I am 100 percent more comfortable as a heel, that is my bread and butter. I'd worked for two or three years in NXT as an underdog, babyface tag team guy, and I knew, 'oh, they haven't seen anything yet. Wait until they see what's coming.'
I knew that Johnny Gargano is the best in-ring performer today. There's no one who touches him, and so I don't have to worry about that because he's going to do his job. He's now the babyface. His partner turned on him, now he's got to find himself, find his way. He's perfect for that.
I know he's going to do his job. All I've got to do is go do my job. And my job was just to work my butt off, get in the gym and train and get ready. I don't know, man, I felt as confident as somebody could possibly feel in that situation.
For me, the whole time doing rehab, I knew what was waiting for me. I just had to deliver. I just felt like, 'oh yeah, we're going to do this. We're fine.'
JS: That's a very inspiring outlook. It's amazing to me, looking at Wikipedia, which we know is always accurate...
Ciampa: 100 percent accurate.
JS: It says you were working for years in a fitness studio and made the decision well into your career to go for it and do this wrestling thing full-time. You had come to a point where you had to decide whether wrestling was going to be your life. How did you make that choice? Was it difficult?
Ciampa: When I was in Ring of Honor, I was still doing the fitness studio and it was taking a toll. I have the Facebook deal where it will share these old pictures with you. Sometimes a memory will pop up from years ago: It might be a status that talks about waking up at 4 a.m. for work. I was waking up at 4 a.m., opening the club, doing the training, and I was doing that nonstop.
Then going on the road for the Friday and Saturday, coming back Sunday, and going back to it. I was going stretches where I was going like 30, 40 days without a day off. I was just burnt out on both ends, and the decision had to be made. I was doing really good in the fitness industry, and while the wrestling was going pretty good, it wasn't paying the bills.
The decision initially was to do the fitness thing, but let me give it the old college try, one more year. I just happened to get my first tour overseas at that point, and I got to go to England and Germany and finally made a bit of money. I came back to the States and back home, and I just remember having that conversation with my wife, 'I was overseas for three weeks and all I had to do is wrestle and I felt great.
I was eating good, I was just training hard, I didn't feel deprived of sleep and burnt out. Then I came home, and it was right back to the trenches. They called and said 'hey, come back for two weeks.' But if I came back, I had to leave my job because there's no way I could keep it.
The decision was presented to us in that way, and I ended up just kind of going all-in. We had just got married and now we wanted to get a house and start a family and all that. It was very much like, 'hey, we'll give this two years and just put in the work.' But if it didn't work, the fitness thing was my fallback.
Luckily, it worked. I started doing a lot of stuff overseas. I ended up voluntarily leaving Ring of Honor when my contract was up because I was making so much more money on the independent scene. And within a year of leaving, Johnny and I started doing stuff at NXT and it just snowballed from there.
Fortunately, it was the best decision I ever made. And the driving reason behind it was getting that first tour, and being like, 'oh man, when all I have to do is focus on wrestling, I actually can do it a lot better.' It just kind of became this thing where it was 'all right, shoot, let's see what happens when that's my only thing I have to focus on.'
JS: In 2018, all that work and focus paid off. You guys had feud of the year, black and white in a world of gray. There was a clear hero and a clear villain. Now, not so much. Do you like the fact that the roles have reversed a bit? Does it give you a new story to tell?
Ciampa: Yeah, it opens up different windows. I love good versus evil. I love it. Again, it's what I grew up on. I knew Hulk Hogan was a good guy and the guy going against him was a bad guy. I love good versus evil. It always works. Even when you look at superhero movies, the action is really cool and all that, but what sucks you in is good trying to overcome evil.
But it's one of them things that once you do it, and especially if you do it and kind of hit a home run with it, it's like, 'OK, that that was as good as it's going to likely get.' Plus now that we're live weekly, it's a television show and every character needs layers.
If I'm always pissed at the world, eventually the viewer needs to know why I'm pissed at the world. It's got to keep you captivated, so you can only tell the story for so long until you have to give the guys layers.
For me, my layer came so organically, 'oh, he went and got neck surgery,' and you see a bit of real life with the baby, my wife and home life. It opened up this whole new insight into me for the viewer.
Now there are a crazy amount of layers to both Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa. The viewer can argue 'Johnny's a good guy.' And the guy next to him could say 'no, no, he's the bad guy. This is why.' And you can do the same for me. I love that now.
I loved the black and white before, and I love what's going on right now because it's just two human beings out there who genuinely believe that they are fighting for the right reasons.
JS: And it all comes down to this final match.
Ciampa: Everything that we've done over the last five years literally boils down to both of us saying, 'I want to be the face of NXT.' If you break everything down, it's two dudes who came in without a contract, worked their butts off, got all the way to the tag team titles, to the main event scene, to the NXT title. And after all of that, it wasn't enough.
The face of NXT. That's what Johnny Gargano wants. That's what Tomasso Ciampa wants. It's captivating stuff to me. I think when people look back at this years from now, that's what people are going to feel. Like, 'oh man, we've watched this thing unfold, and there's just so many story points to it, so many nuances to it.'
We try really hard to never forget anything. I'd never want a fan who is completely invested to feel like I dismissed his thoughts or how they feel. I always want them to appreciate that we care enough, that we're putting in the thought process and all the effort forth to make sure nothing's forgotten.
What happens Wednesday night, it's so freaking heartfelt. It's so much. It's intense. It was physical. A couple of weeks removed, I'm still healing, still recovering. We tried really hard.
If this is the final chapter of a five-year story that a lot of people have been invested in, we did not want to let them down, and I don't think anyone's going to feel let down at the end of Wednesday night.
Tommaso Ciampa will face Johnny Gargano Wednesday night on NXT at 8 p.m. ET on USA Network.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.