There's a lot to look forward to heading into the biggest weekend on the WWE calendar in New Orleans. Raw and SmackDown have produced some fine television and built up some tremendous must-see matches on the WrestleMania 34 card: The build to Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar has been better than expected; Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka feels like a dream match, and that's just the beginning.
But with all of the time that's been put into telling the story, you'd be hard-pressed to find a conflict that looks more likely to be settled that weekend than the one between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa.
This teammates-turned-enemies story has helped to solidify Gargano as the heart and soul of NXT, capped by a performance at TakeOver: Philadelphia that will stand the test of time. But from that night on, when Ciampa returned from months away, he's refused to allow Gargano to succeed as a singles star.
Ciampa broke up the tag team formerly known as #DIY by blindsiding Gargano after their loss at NXT TakeOver: Chicago last May. He was out for eight months, and Gargano took a long time to mentally recover and build his way up to the top. But Ciampa refused to let Gargano go, and after the latter's heartbreaking loss to Andrade "Cien" Almas in Philadelphia, Ciampa executed his return and second sneak-attack to perfection.
As Gargano appeared poised to win the NXT championship a few weeks later, with his career on the line, Ciampa stepped in again with another crutch shot to the back. Gargano lost and was seemingly exiled from NXT, and Ciampa has been gloating about his evil deeds ever since. Each heinous action established Gargano as the ultimate sympathetic babyface and, in turn, made Ciampa an entirely irredeemable villain.
An irate @JohnnyGargano has a surprise for @ProjectCiampa...
...and the #NXTUniverse just wants to "LET THEM FIGHT!" #WWENXT pic.twitter.com/dIdda8Wiaj
- WWE (@WWE) March 22, 2018
Before this week, we'd yet to hear any form of an explanation by Ciampa. He certainly tried over the past two weeks, as he twice entered the ring with a microphone in hand. But Ciampa refused to speak a word until the boos from the crowd, which held up hundreds of Gargano signs, subsided. They never did. In his third week of attempting to address the crowd, Ciampa broke his silence on Wednesday night as Full Sail chanted as loud as ever for Gargano.
"He's gone! Gone!" exclaimed Ciampa. "News flash. He's not walking down that damn aisle. He's gone."
As Ciampa made his exit, he took a few Gargano posters from fans standing in the front row and tore them up. There were a couple of giant signs in particular that caught his attention, and Ciampa didn't get a good look at the person holding the last one when he snatched it away. Gargano, wearing a mask that he'd ultimately rip off, exacted a brief moment of revenge by assaulting Ciampa, to the Full Sail crowd's delight. It was only a brief taste, though, as security dragged him off and out of the building.
Two weeks to go, and still something left to be told before TakeOver: New Orleans. Should be one heck of a ride.
Moon and Baszler intensifies despite no contact
The magnificent job Shayna Baszler has done since arriving in NXT earlier in the year cannot be overstated. In a matter of mere months, Baszler has become the most successful villain in present-day NXT, contending with the likes of Sasha Banks at her peak in terms of sheer villainy. Taking on the bully persona, Baszler has wreaked havoc on a number of superstars within the division, including its champion, Ember Moon.
Prior to Baszler's arrival to NXT, the women's division never truly had a premier, domineering heel. Sure, Asuka displayed some heelish tendencies, but she was revered no matter what she did. Banks had a solid run as a heel NXT women's champion back in 2015, but her attacks were of the psychological type -- and even then, she never reached the level of maliciousness that Baszler has shown over the past three months.
No matter who her opponent is, @QoSBaszler says the only way to stop her is to TAP, NAP, or SNAP! #WWENXT pic.twitter.com/bLBh1D6KKz
- WWE (@WWE) March 22, 2018
Baszler has the perfect amount of arrogance, and every action has been cold-blooded and calculated. Her numerous backstage attacks on various superstars and her commitment to injuring the arm of the champ, Moon, has had her at the top of the heap from the moment she joined NXT. The only direct parallel in NXT history is Kevin Owens and the way he blindsided Sami Zayn with a vicious attack on night one -- and we know how that story turned out.
Baszler, who lost to a fluke roll-up against Moon in Philadelphia, suffered her first setback in her attacks last week when good timing allowed Dakota Kai and Ember Moon to fight her off. Baszler even tasted Moon's Eclipse for the first time. But she had a statement to make on commentary while Moon took on Aliyah Wednesday night.
"I just want to make it known," Baszler began. "Ember, she might be the champion, but everyone should know by now that I'm the one who's running this division."
After Moon claimed victory, she and Baszler glared at each other as the tensions continue to rise, less than three weeks out from their championship rematch at TakeOver: New Orleans.
The outcome of this match is tough to predict. Moon is still living in the massive shadow of Asuka's historic, record-setting championship reign, and a loss might seem premature. However, the experienced Moon, who appeared in the inaugural women's Royal Rumble match in January, could make a push for a main roster run at any point now. It would be a good reminder that reigns like Asuka's are once in a generation and could start things off fresh for the NXT women's division.
Baszler, on the other hand, looks to be the future of the NXT women's division. She has made a significant impact already and continues to improve. The only knock against her capturing the gold is her lack of experience and in-ring polish, but as we've seen on many occasions before, experience doesn't always dictate success.
-- Fuming over Aleister Black's actions at last week's NXT championship contract signing, during which Black insulted his business associate Zelina Vega and ultimately enlisted the services of Candice LeRae to ambush Vega, Andrade "Cien" Almas had a message of his own to send. He attacked Raul Mendoza from behind as he made his way to the ring for a match and angrily addressed Black. In a combination of English and Spanish, expletives included, he called Black out -- and they'll meet in the ring next week.
-- Adam Cole picked up a victory this week in a wonderfully worked match when he defeated Kassius Ohno. Despite all of the times their careers crossed paths, the two hadn't met one-on-one since a quartet of high-stakes independent matches between December 2013 and March 2014 -- and as a main event on NXT TV, it was a real treat.
-- As the first round of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic wrapped up, the team of Tyler Bate and Trent Seven, known as Moustache Mountain, was forced to withdraw due to an injury to Bate. In their place, Roderick Strong got to pick a surprise tag team partner. He went with a rival turned tentative ally in U.K. champion Pete Dunne, and they defeated the duo of Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch. Strong and Dunne will face off with SAnitY in the semifinals next week. The other semifinal match features the Street Profits going up against the Authors of Pain.