In an Unsanctioned Match that stripped away all the pomp and circumstances of a WWE main event — the house lights were dimmed, a Hold Harmless agreement was signed that indemnified the company, and referee Drake Wuertz’s only two responsibilities were to count a pinfall or record a submission — Johnny Gargano reclaimed his life and his livelihood by defeating Tommaso Ciampa, the teammate and friend who betrayed him 10 months ago and cost him a match in which Gargano had put his career on the line.
Gargano’s long-brewing, emotional and ultimately epic payback doubled as his last-ditch effort to keep his childhood dream alive and compete in WWE, though in the beginning he seemed to particularly relish the idea of whaling on Ciampa as much as humanly possible. Ten months of waiting erupted in a wild-eyed fury from Gargano; his fanciest move in the early goings was a slingshot spear and a suicide dive, the rest were just fists and kicks that sent The Blackheart reeling. At one point, he fastballed Ciampa over the commentary table, leaving Mauro Ranallo and Percy Watson scrambling for cover while the NXT Universe chimed in with a “Mamma Mia!” chant.
Ciampa, on the other hand, decided to embrace the ferocity that has come to define him over the last year or so. He exposed the concrete floor of the Smoothie King Center, nearly snapped the cover of the commentary table in two by dropping Gargano onto it, and nearly stomped his former partner into unconsciousness with a series of boots to the back of the head. In one of the match’s many symbolic moments, Ciampa stole the crutches from a fan with a knee brace and began to swing them wildly at Gargano in an effort to land the finishing blow.
Johnny Wrestling ducked the crutches with surprising efficiency given how badly he’d been victimized at that point. He ended up turning Ciampa’s own ruthlessness against him by powerbombing The Sicilian Psychopath onto the exposed patch of concrete with a vile splat. (The NXT Universe chimed in once again, this time with a “You deserve it” chant.) Gargano also began to embrace the match’s lawlessness by exposing a turnbuckle, and it seemed, as the battle wore on, as though he might sacrifice his humanity in his pursuit of regaining his career.
Ciampa remained one step ahead of him on that front. When a rope break could not stop the Gargano Escape, he gouged Johnny’s eyes instead. During a punch-off that ensued after the two found themselves attached to each other thanks to the tape on Ciampa’s wrist, Johnny began to roll and Ciampa answered with a Pat McAfee boot to the nether regions.
Ciampa did employ some of his own maneuvers as well, particularly the powerbomb-lungblower combo that ended up causing more harm than good when he hit it off the top rope — the impact aggravated his surgically repaired knee so much that he had to remove the brace entirely. Of course, he turned that to his advantage as well, attempting to knee Gargano in the face with it.
Johnny Wrestling was ready, whacking Ciampa with the discarded brace to stop him cold and snapping the fallen crutch in two. Gargano stalked toward his cowering partner with punishment on his mind, though the sight of Ciampa cowering and teary-eyed, his face swelling tighter by the second, seemed to sap Gargano of his ruthlessness. Johnny paused his attack and sat down next to his former partner, much in the same way they had done after their then-friendly contest during 2016’s Cruiserweight Classic.
Quick as a flash, Ciampa swung the brace in Johnny’s direction and Gargano dodged it, wrapping his old partner first in the Gargano Escape and then a furious STF with the brace stretched across Ciampa’s face. The tapout was instantaneous. The reaction was jubilant. The arrival of Candice LeRae in her husband’s arms was emotional. And for Johnny Gargano, the future is his once again. Welcome home.