How Ciampa and Gargano crafted the perfect NXT rivalry

Johnny Gargano faces Tomasso Ciampa in a street fight at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II Courtesy WWE

There's no way you could have possibly crafted all the twists and turns that have made Johnny Gargano the hero of the longest, most intricate and best-told story in NXT history.

Forget about what's likely to be Gargano's third straight NXT TakeOver main event in Chicago on Saturday, following two consecutive five-star matches. Take away all the NXT championship matches, not to mention Gargano's impossible NXT tag team championship reign as part of #DIY with Tommaso Ciampa and the trio of matches against The Revival (in Brooklyn, Toronto and Orlando) that will also go down in the annals of NXT history. Go all the way back, past the inaugural WWE Cruiserweight Classic and the first time Gargano and Ciampa locked horns -- a moment that sealed their status as two of the Full Sail crowd's favorites well before Ciampa broke everyone's hearts as Gargano's mortal enemy. Back to August 2015, when they came out of nowhere as uncontracted guest stars in the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic and made enough of an impression in a couple matches to get invited back.

The legend of Gargano vs. Ciampa has stretched to almost three years -- even longer if we consider their pre-WWE clashes -- and represents everything that NXT fans and wrestling fans in general love about WWE's unique "third" brand. In an era where the lines between good and evil are lost in a million shades of gray, Gargano and Ciampa is the purest example of good vs. evil working as a storytelling device as you'll see in 2018, and that's because they've earned it with fantastic wrestling, patience and a couple of unforeseen events that added even more layers to the story.

It all works because there's a measure of truth that's been mixed into the story along the way, and that's one of the many reasons that fans have bought into Gargano. What's more, billed at 5-foot-10, he is as close to a proxy for most WWE fans that they've gotten since Daniel Bryan, albeit with dynamic wrestling skills and impossible abs.

It's incredible how much has changed over the course of just three years. It wasn't all that long ago that Gargano and Ciampa first walked down the ramp at Full Sail. Even then, there was an asterisk attached as neither had a WWE contract in that moment. The Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic was simply a one-off chance, an opportunity to prove that they could perhaps hold some longer-term value.

In a pair of tag team matches that lasted less than a combined 15 minutes, Gargano and Ciampa got to state their case. First in a victory over Tyler Breeze and Bull Dempsey, and then in a loss to Rhyno and Baron Corbin, they quickly captured the minds and hearts of the NXT universe. They popped up again a month later in another fun match against American Alpha, and then a battle royal, but for the first of several instances, Gargano and Ciampa returned to the independents.

But something had changed.

After the buzz they drew in NXT, they began to tag together outside the boundaries of WWE and further carve out names for themselves for a variety of major independent wrestling companies like EVOLVE, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and AAW. Gargano popped back up in NXT in January 2016, in losses to Samoa Joe and Baron Corbin, and then that April, Gargano and Ciampa started appearing together regularly on NXT programming. They haven't slowed down since.

Even as they signed WWE contracts, Gargano and Ciampa temporarily blazed a path in NXT as two of the earliest stars to straddle the line between WWE and the independents. It allowed Gargano, one of the names most closely tied to independent wrestling for the better part of the decade, to bounce between #DIY's first big match against The Revival in Brooklyn and a proper goodbye that also included a series of farewell matches alongside (and against) Candice LeRae, now his wife.

When he became a WWE-dedicated superstar that fall, he was ready.

"I just wanted to accomplish everything I possibly could on the indies," said Gargano to ESPN.com. "Following guys like Daniel Bryan -- in their footsteps -- where they did everything they possibly could, and when they were brought into WWE they were ready to be stars."

Gargano and Ciampa experienced a snowball effect in their early TakeOver matches as fan reactions fueled their popularity, and their performances on the big stage justified those reactions and further fueled their growth. They won the NXT tag team championships at NXT TakeOver: Toronto in November 2016, and then battled The Revival and the Authors of Pain through mid-2017.

Just over a year ago, at the first NXT TakeOver: Chicago event, #DIY had one of their most memorable performances in a losing effort against the Authors of Pain. The reality of a Ciampa knee injury, which would require surgery and extensive rehab, was inevitably going to set Gargano on the path of singles action for the time being, but no one could have anticipated Ciampa's dramatic betrayal to close out the show as the driving force that made Gargano an even bigger sympathetic hero for the common man.

It led to a whirlwind year for Gargano, who put together an almost completely unprecedented series of matches including multiple shots at the NXT championship, another memorable rivalry against Andrade "Cien" Almas and Zelina Vega and the NXT debut of LeRae at his side along the way. It was an impossibility turned reality, and as Gargano suffered heartbreaks and setbacks on his quest to become NXT champion, fans felt like they got to know him more each time he stepped into the ring.

"I know I've said in interviews countless times, but honestly, this is the truest thing I can ever say. I would not be [here] if it wasn't for the fans supporting me," he said. "It was that Johnny Wrestling chant -- those reactions that made them see this [might be] something here. They made this story possible."

After months of highs and lows on his journey, with Ciampa's betrayal haunting him along the way Gargano walked out of NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia empty-handed, but with his head held high following his performance. As uncertainty surrounded his future, Gargano stood at the top of the ramp alongside LeRae and thanked the Philadelphia crowd, Ciampa came charging back into his life and attacked him once again, reigniting the rivalry at full bore.

The tale of a tag team partner betraying his compatriot is a tale as old as wrestling, but the inner workings of Ciampa and Gargano's relationship made it all the better. They bonded over being teamed up for NXT, and as fans embraced them on-screen, they formed a very real bond away from the cameras as they traveled the world together and even became roommates. As LeRae made her own push for the WWE, she was right in the middle of it all.

"At the end of the day, Tommaso was in our wedding, we lived with Tommaso -- he was our roommate for two years," said Gargano. "When we got married, we moved in together, and the first time we had our own place, Tommaso moved in with us. We were all together."

It's one thing to have all of those circumstances line up, but it still takes the right creative forces and opportunities to make it all happen. Though Gargano and Ciampa weren't initially brought in as top-tier, A-list recruits, once the creative forces behind NXT realized what they had on their hands, they allowed Gargano and Ciampa the opportunity and the space to let the story play out in an organic way.

"It's so unique. This whole story we've been able to tell, it's just different," said Gargano. I give credit for the freedom we're allowed to have. It's so amazing."

After the blindside attack in Philadelphia, Ciampa further enhanced his villainous stature by costing Gargano the NXT championship and his job in another swing of his crutch. For weeks on end, Ciampa walked out to address the Full Sail crowd and they drowned him out with boos without letting him get a word in edgewise. They so fully bought into the story that Ciampa started earning Roman Reigns-level heat, only in his case it was exactly what he wanted.

Gargano ultimately pushed Ciampa over the edge, and the result was an "unsanctioned" match at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans that was so personal it trumped the NXT championship match to become the main event.

"And I think that speaks volumes to how deep this story goes, and how emotionally connected people are to me and to Tommaso, and just everything we stand for, and the history." Johnny Gargano

Before he had ever stepped into the ring, it became clear to Gargano that this match and this story would play out unlike anything he'd ever done before in wrestling. Throughout the week in New Orleans, from the airport, to AXXESS and even on Bourbon Street, fans had a universal message to deliver.

"I can't count the number of people that walked up to me and said, 'I can't wait to see you punch Tommaso Ciampa in the face.' That's never happened before, and every single time I was like, You know what, I'm definitely going to.'"

After a card chock full of great matches, including the NXT North American championship ladder match and Aleister Black's NXT championship victory against Almas, the expectations could not have been higher heading into the main event. What fans got was a match unlike anything ever seen in NXT. Action got intensely physical, with the mats outside the ring getting pulled up and multiple weapons, but it was also intensely emotional as Gargano and Ciampa revisited a few of their famous spots and moves as part of the narrative.

The vibe within the Smoothie King Center was unusual throughout, and Gargano could feel it as much as anyone else.

"It was a really different atmosphere than any match I've ever been a part of. The crowd was so rowdy, but at certain points they were just watching," said Gargano. "I can attribute it to [being like] watching a movie. At points things get somber, things get sad. At points you get excited, you get rowdy, you get crazy.

"You don't get that very often in professional wrestling. [Most of the time] it's like oh, we're going to make noise, we're going to chant and do things like that. And I think that speaks volumes to how deep this story goes, and how emotionally connected people are to me and to Tommaso, and just everything we stand for, and the history."

With Gargano firmly back in NXT, he turned his attentions back to the NXT championship and Aleister Black. He had seemingly vanquished his demons and looked poised to resume his journey to the top, but Ciampa was having none of it. He short-circuited Gargano's title shot before it started, starting the emotional roller coaster all over again. In Gargano's absence, LeRae attacked Ciampa verbally and physically, and when Gargano came back, Ciampa manipulated the situation and led Gargano to crash from the ring apron onto LeRae on the floor.

Gargano ultimately returned a couple weeks later and decimated Ciampa, attacking him all over the Full Sail arena. With a Chicago Street Fight set for Saturday, they've reached what once again seems to be the culmination of a story three years in the making, but it would be foolish at this point to think that this means the narrative between the two men is coming to an end.

Truth can be stranger than fiction, and circumstance has been kind in pushing and prodding the story of Ciampa and Gargano in just the right direction. Just over a year after Ciampa betrayed Gargano and dissolved #DIY to close out NXT TakeOver: Chicago, they return to the very same building to (likely) close out another TakeOver show and bring things full circle.

"Really, that's where this whole thing started. Right? It's very appropriate that it's going back to Chicago, going back to the scene of the crime," said Gargano. "And we're able to tell another layer of this story there. You don't get the chance to get to do that very often. It's just amazing that the universe is kind of working so we're able to do that."