Editor's note: There are NXT spoilers in this story.
How do you recover from losing the heart of NXT, just weeks before the biggest show of the year?
Granted, the heart of NXT champion Tommaso Ciampa, the character, is as black as a moonless night, but his otherworldly ability to embody everything that is evil has carried the main event picture of NXT for much of the past year, since his return to action during WrestleMania weekend.
WWE confirmed Wednesday that he has a serious neck injury and needs surgery, which he is having Thursday. That scuttles a TakeOver main event that would have put a bow on a rivalry with Johnny Gargano that's four years in the making and stands as an era-defining conflict for NXT.
So what is Ciampa facing? It's hard to say exactly, without knowing the extent of his issues or the specific vertebrae in question, but given the details released we can begin to understand the major challenge ahead. The procedure he is set to undergo is an anterior cervical fusion, which means surgeons will approach the spine from the front surgically and fuse two vertebrae together. There will be a bone graft involved, in order to help maintain spinal alignment and spacing, and recovery averages six months but could vary widely depending on multiple factors, including healing of the fusion itself, range of motion, strength, and neurological status.
It's no exaggeration to say that Ciampa has been the most effective bad guy in the world of WWE since returning. From his music-less entrance that drew obscenities and unbridled anger from fans, to corrupting the purest of the pure characters in Gargano, Ciampa made the absolute most of his return from a serious knee injury and his subsequent NXT championship reign.
Injuries are a reality of the world of professional wrestling, but the timing of this one couldn't be much worse. Not only were Ciampa and Gargano headed down another twist in their path, which to this point has seen the pair go from thick as thieves to bitter adversaries, to back to a cautious friendship (and destined to brawl again). They also enjoyed the biggest moments of their careers together over the last month. After taking part in the reinvented Halftime Heat during the Super Bowl, they made their main roster debuts (fittingly) together in back-to-back appearances on Raw (against longtime rivals The Revival) and SmackDown (in a dream match of sorts against The Bar) a few weeks ago.
The stage was set for a fourth one-on-one TakeOver battle between Gargano and Ciampa, with Gargano having the potential to either finally break through as NXT champion or be broken entirely by Ciampa. From street fights, to last man standing matches to everything they accomplished as a team as a constant presence in each other's stories since before they were even officially signed to WWE and the NXT brand, Gargano and Ciampa are officially tied together forever, if there was ever any doubt.
For better, and often for worse, injuries have played a critical part in their story, the longest and most complex tale in NXT's history. Ciampa went down with a devastating knee injury in May 2017 and spent the better part of a year recovering and rehabbing. Ciampa's betrayal hung over Gargano for the better part of a year with a persistent storyline regarding Gargano's failures to thrive on his own. Upon his return, Ciampa was a perpetually devastating force that simply destroyed his counterpart, both physically and mentally. After taking everything Gargano had, Ciampa was essentially handed the NXT championship on a silver platter by Gargano, whose anger and frustration gave Ciampa -- his most bitter enemy -- everything that he wanted.
Injuries again altered the storyline when Aleister Black went down before a scheduled triple threat match last August in Brooklyn. Instead of a potential culmination to this story, Ciampa's run continued and cemented him as an undeniable champion, all the while forcing Gargano to snap and embrace his dark side.
Gargano became NXT North American champion the night before the Royal Rumble and then lost the title shortly after by failing to find his killer instinct to finish the Velveteen Dream. Ciampa recruited Gargano for a reunion of DIY that will play out in the coming weeks of NXT TV, but in the most critical of moments, Gargano sniffed out another betrayal and took out Ciampa.
So what's next? The focus in this moment should be on the hope that Ciampa gets through his surgery successfully and recovers fully on the way to a happy life (and hopefully a resumption of his career down the line). Upon his return, whether it's in NXT or somewhere on the main roster (likely wherever Gargano ends up in the long term), there's a home run of a story to come back to.
In the meantime, with the perpetual motion machine that is WWE, the show must go on, and the final NXT tapings ahead of WrestleMania week and TakeOver: New York are on March 13. There's enough of a narrative in play and a deep enough roster of big-name players that a solid contingency plan can be made. Because he slayed the ultimate villain and took Ciampa out of play (within the storyline at hand), Gargano has two paths he can travel: He can either be the conquering hero or fully embrace the dark side as the new top villain.
Whichever direction Gargano chooses, should the plans to include him in an NXT championship match move forward, two likely opponents stand out. Matt Riddle has been on a meteoric rise in NXT, and putting him into the title picture in short order doesn't feel wrong. Adam Cole has been a punching bag and taking quite a few losses of late, but he's among the most charismatic performers that NXT has to offer and could step into the role of champion or challenger pretty easily.
Beyond those two options, who are both also in the running for a match against North American champion Velveteen Dream, most other members of the NXT roster seem otherwise occupied or longer shots to make sense.
The frustration and pain in this moment are fresh and real -- most of all for Ciampa himself, of course. Injuries have previously come with a silver lining for Ciampa, although neck injuries are an entirely different matter, but provided he can come back at or near full strength, there's still many stories left for Ciampa to tell.