Ciampa and Gargano seize opportunity and create own path to stardom

After so many near-falls in the two TakeOver showdowns between #DIY and The Revival, a duel submission finally earned Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano the NXT tag team championships. Vaughn Ridley for ESPN

At NXT TakeOver Toronto, #DIY defeated The Revival to win the NXT tag team championships. It was the second consecutive TakeOver special in which those four men stole the show among heavy competition, and the looks of pure joy on the faces of the new champions was undeniable.

It was never supposed to happen this way.

When Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano made their first appearance together on NXT programming, as part of the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, few expected them to pull off a shocking first-round victory as unsigned outsiders. After they pushed Baron Corbin and Rhyno to the brink in the second round and won over the Full Sail University crowd for the first time, they could've disappeared like any number of other independent wrestlers getting a brief look. Instead, they stuck around and made a number of appearances on subsequent episodes of NXT, split their time between the WWE and the independents, and continued to amass a larger and larger audience.

As a pairing, Gargano and Ciampa used their underdog status as their calling card, and with each step they've taken, the crowd has bought in more.

"I feel like that's kind of been why we gained such a following," Gargano said. "People feel they can live through us. They're kind of watching us scratch and claw and work our way up the ranks."

After a tag team championship win, a pair of instant classics with The Revival, two Dusty Classics and an unbelievable match against one another in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic, Gargano and Ciampa have run the full spectrum in just over a year in NXT. If they stopped to process just how much they've accomplished in that time, it might overwhelm them, but another key to their success has been their ability to both appreciate the sentiment and compartmentalize it.

"It just doesn't seem real yet," Gargano said. "I don't think we live in the moment like some people do. [But I think] we're going to look back at how we got here and our story and everything that went into it, and we're going to think it's pretty cool."

Both men agreed on that point, but Ciampa pointed to the NXT tag team championship match as a defining line between everything they've done in the previous year and all that lies before them.

"I think [becoming] tag team champions, it gives you kind of a moment to hit the reset button and kind of look back at the year and appreciate it," Ciampa said.

#DIY isn't just a gimmick that was slapped onto this pair when they started their ascent through NXT. Each man forged his unique path before they converged for the first time at the start of this storybook NXT run.

Ciampa, 31, was trained in Massachusetts by the legendary Killer Kowalski (the man who trained Triple H and a lengthy list of big names in the wrestling industry) and began his career with independent companies in that region. After a brief stint in WWE developmental, most of his biggest pre-WWE moments came in Ring of Honor, where he spent the better part of five years as one of the top competitors. He had memorable feuds with former world champion Jay Lethal and several others and was a one-time ROH television champion, but he also had a devastating ACL injury that cost him more than a year of his career. He left the company in March 2015.

Gargano, a Cleveland native, got his start with local promotion Absolute Intense Wrestling in 2008 and continued to appear for them for the next nine years. He also served as the head trainer for the company's wrestling school. The 29-year-old made his name all over the country but truly rose to prominence as one of the top guys for two World Wrestling Network companies: Dragon Gate USA and Evolve.

The opportunity each man received was earned through years of sweat equity, and when they got their chance, they clung to it and did the most with it every time out.

"Very surreal," Gargano said when asked to summarize his experience. "I think it's something that we both wanted. You talk to any wrestler, and they want to be in this spot. NXT is the hottest thing going right now."

The men had the chance to slowly wind down their independent wrestling careers, and neither took that rare opportunity for granted. As they continued to gain traction, though, each could sense the writing on the wall, and while both Gargano and Ciampa relished the opportunity to ply their craft on wrestling's biggest stage, it came at the cost of a way of life that each had come to love.

"When we started with NXT, there were no issues as far as taking independent bookings," Ciampa said. "Then we could kind of sense it was getting to that point, and then once we got confirmation [of going full-time in the WWE] but the news wasn't made public, I think [for] both of us, that was the hardest part. It was four or five weeks of us knowing this is probably our last time in this town for this federation, for this group, but the fans didn't know.

"A lot of times our opponents didn't know. The promoters didn't know. That was a tough four-to-six-week stretch, but once the announcement was made, it was just ... fun. I enjoyed those last eight to 12 independent bookings, just took them and appreciated them for what they were."

Ciampa had one heckuva wind-down to his independent career, with his final match on U.S. soil coming against Cody Rhodes, and he enjoyed an unexpected final opportunity to participate in Pro Wrestling Guerilla's Battle of Los Angeles. That wrapped up with Ciampa taking on Zack Sabre Jr. in a two-out-of-three falls match for England's Progress wrestling.

Gargano got his sendoff in multiple parts as well. He said goodbye to his WWN compatriots in a tag team match that also, interestingly enough, involved Rhodes. Gargano's finale with AIW came in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, in a show dedicated specifically to him. He got to wrestle his wife, independent star Candace LeRae, in a two-out-of-three falls match and then join her in a tag team match.

"We've watched guys throughout the years having their final indie moments," Gargano said. "To be able to have a [farewell] tour was pretty cool."

This all happened after Gargano and Ciampa tore the house down at Barclays Center at NXT: TakeOver Brooklyn II. In a match that had more near-falls then most could count -- each one bringing the audience to another level of fervor -- #DIY found themselves on the losing side of the match, but they were perhaps the biggest net winners as far as recognition and appreciation, as far as the crowd was concerned.

"Seeing that turnout was mind-blowing, and as an independent wrestler, this is where you want to be. This is your goal," Gargano said. "I think my favorite moment working at Barclays Center was when we walked in and saw the [empty] building for the first time. We both looked at each other and looked up, and we're like, 'There are going to be people up there?'"

As reverent as they are about the experience of the walk out to the ring, once they stepped between the ropes and started the match, it was like every other match they've had (albeit with a slightly louder crowd reaction).

"Honestly, it didn't feel any different," Gargano said.

"Energy is energy," Ciampa echoed.

"If we're working in front of 50 people or in front of 15,000 people, we're going to perform [as well as] what we get out of the crowd," Gargano said.

The results and the reactions (from the live crowd and fans at home alike) speak for themselves. Veteran wrestling writer Dave Meltzer gave both the Brooklyn match with The Revival and the Toronto rematch 4.5 stars, and fans have been overwhelmingly positive in touting those performances. As Gargano and Ciampa move forward with their NXT tag team championship reign and everything that lies ahead, they hope that kind of good will and fan support will continue.

"The reactions are amazing, but we don't take that for granted," Gargano said. "We don't walk through the curtain being like, 'We're going to get cheered through the roof tonight.' It's unexpected every single time we come through the curtain."

The spirit of what they do -- their never-ending desire to prove themselves, to have fun in the ring and to provide the fans with an unforgettable moment -- is clear every time they step foot into an NXT ring. No matter what the future holds -- a lengthy title reign, a run in the WWE, a chance to perform as singles wrestlers in the cruiserweight division or whatever else might happen -- their connection to the fans is simple and undeniably pure.

"We're two independent kids who just loved wrestling," Ciampa said. "All we ever wanted to do is wrestle."