Sunday, June 2, 2019

Havana Nights and Lights

Since regulations were lifted on visiting and purchasing items from Cuba, I've wanted to go there. It's a sort of forbidden fruit thing. It's something I know 99% of my family and friends will never do. I wanted to be a trailblazer.

I know the irony of pulling up to the island of Cuba via a cruise ship, after eating from two separate buffets that morning, only three days removed from a Disney weekend. I didn't feel great about it, but it seemed like the easiest way to visit.

At 10 am we were allowed to leave the cruise ship to go to Cuba. We waited until closer to 11 am, but still found the entire situation a cluster. It's a bit how I imagined coming to Ellis Island probably once felt. Hundreds of people trying to get through customs, security, exchange money, speak to the employees about where they needed to go.

It was humid. Dozens of taxis and horse carriages screamed for our attention as we left the port. We could see a beautiful church across the street, but could not figure out how to get across the street to get to it. In that moment, it seemed like the solace we needed to get our barrings.

We managed to run across the street at the same time as some locals were coming the other way.

The city was vibrant with color and life, but was in a constant fight with nature. Buildings were beaten and weathered, telling of decades of tropical storms. Hotels were starting to predominantly rise in the skyline as the obvious first buildings to be renovated.

We would turn one corner and have someone asking us for money. We would turn another corner and run into major construction and get pinned between a giant hole in the ground and heavy machinery pushing us closer to the hole.

We broke free, near where a lot of the other tourists had gathered and bee-lined away from the Chaos as soon as we could.

We arrived at the Museum of the Revolution. Formerly the Presidential Palace when the US backed Batistan government was in power. He lived there from what we understand. 50 of Castro's rebels stormed the palace, reaching the third floor, with the goal of executing Batista.

The palace was gorgeous, but in need of some love. Beautiful frescoes were exposed to the humidity of Cuba. Bullet holes from the 1957 raid still riddled the walls of the grand staircase.

Every display was written from a very anti-US view, but we were obviously the bad guys. Castro's rebels just wanted what they thought was best for their people, and they just happen to back the losing team. An island, strangled by the Imperialistic nations, fighting proxy wars and dragging innocent people into them.

We wandered into a bar and ordered some delicious Mojitos while a great local band played us three songs. (And looked incredibly disappointed when we only tipped them $5)

After that, it was back to the boat to cool off and nap. We were going to the world famous Tropicana Club for a four course meal inside of their green house restaurant.

Then we went to the dance club for the show. I have no idea what I witness, but I know everyone was scantily clad, talented, and oh so colorful.

As our taxi driver rushed through the slums of Havana afterwards, I couldn't help but feel terrible for the people of Cuba. They just want what everyone else does, safety and happiness. Houses were crumbling and covered in moss.

And still, standing over everything else in the city was the Russian Embassy (a huge complex stretching full city blocks) and the US Embassy. (A ten story building, for about 20 feet, made to look the building much more impending than it was. It was realistically a two story building that stretched maybe 1000 feet.)

The windows were cracked, the humidity had dropped, the dinnertime rain had washed the staleness off the streets. Cuba was beautiful.

That night, we sat on the ship, overlooking Spanish forts in the port. We drank Hotel Nacionals, laughed about the difficulties we encountered, talked about the things we wish we had time for. And the stars above Havana were the most beautiful that night.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Two Sun-soaked Tombstones

It's been a rough couple of weeks. Like really rough. To the point where Sal and I pass each other in the house like two ghosts. We're on autopilot, just trying to make it to imaginary finish lines.

Grandpa John Hickle passed away a few weeks ago.

He was this weird mythological patriarch of the Hickle family that I never got to know.

I met him about 12 years ago. Sal and I had been dating for about a year and went went to their house for Easter. I don't remember actually having a conversation with John at the time. The Hickle women seemed far more interested in me. (Honestly, the first interaction I remember having with John was Thanksgiving after Sal and I were married when he asked when we were going to give him a grand child. It would not be the last time we were asked this.)

He always tended to enjoy events through the lens of his camera rather than actually attend the event.

When he was engaged with the event, it was often the same questions discussed a previous time, rarely deviating from the script. I'd get that John Hickle smile, he'd say, "Dan, that's some good chili." And I'd see him again at the next event.

The most human conversation I had with John was actually Thanksgiving 2018. His camera was in the room, but packed away. He sat in the big leather chair (his former chair actually), in the company of a dozen strangers and family members, and he was engaged. He was witty, laughing, smiling, telling us tales of the Navy. Stories that he was pleasantly surprised when people made call backs to them later in the night.

Thanksgiving to today is a tragically long time between seeing John, but I'm glad it's my last memory of him. It matches the stories I heard countless times from his family and friends all weekend. John, this prankster with a sly smile, sometimes with a short fuse, but generally always with good intent.

The day I arrived in Rolla for the funeral, I unfortunately got a text from my brother that a long time family friend has passed away on Friday night.

Jeff Wilson randomly found me on StlPunk late one night, (a precursor to Facebook in the St. Louis area) probably around 2004 or 2005 when I was living in Columbia. I had written a post on the New Speedway Kings band page about my Uncle Mike and how he continued to influence my entire family years beyond his death.

For the next several weeks, Jeff and I sent stories and memories back and forth.

Then one random summer day, I came home to my empty apartment after work and had a package with a ton of New Speedway Kings stickers and patches as well as the unreleased demo that my brother's witnessed the recording of, but never got to hear it.

Jeff became a sort of surrogate cool uncle. He was still friends with a lot of bands my uncle toured with in St. Louis. We'd often get introduced to these 35 year old skater guys that toured Europe with Mike and would tell wild stories that if I didn't hear so often, I would never believe.

Jeff was also an indy comic book artist in the St. Louis area, which in it's own right was a very cool thing. It was what I wanted to do as a kid and was only talked out of it because I was told there's no money in comic books. (I'd love to show my art teachers how much money these Marvel movies are making now) He didn't make a living doing it, but between comics and his odd jobs, he did just fine for himself.

Every time a punk band would come to St. Louis, Jeff would text and ask if I was coming in. If so, we'd meet somewhere (usually with Nick) for some food. He'd regale us with tales of how he talked on the phone with Les Claypool of Primus or passed off a remix of an Against Me! song to the singer. He'd show us new artwork or a preview of the next issue of Sap.

I had Jeff design both my shoulder tattoos.

And life happened.

Jeff always dealt with depression, but he seemed happy. He had a family, a little kid. He would joke about selling out and joining the 9-5 to support them. But he really did seem happy.

The last time I saw him was just sort of a weird and sad state. He and his wife were having issues. He wasn't living with them and was having some sobriety issues. But he was happy to be around us. It felt like maybe we could reconnect, "once he got some of his shit together."

And then life happened.

He'd pop up on my Facebook every now and then, we'd exchange some pleasantries, always talk about how we needed to get together once our schedules sort of opened up.

And then death happened.

I haven't really been able to just think about this yet. We're still in survival mode.

I have a feeling there's going to be a late spring night with that perfect combination of river humidity and brewery smell in the air. My car, with the windows down, will catch the aura just right, and I'll be taken back to Mississippi Nights. Sweaty, and in the pit, with Jeff standing on the edge of the floor, smiling as if he were a proud older brother.

And I'll start uncontrollably crying, completely freaking out the person next to me that has no reference of where my mind went. And I'll swallow hard, gather myself, and just say, "I was thinking of a good time with a friend of mine."

And life will go on.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Romance of a Great Film

I love film. I don't think that's a secret.

I love entering a theater, heavy with the smell of stale popcorn and spilled soda, watching the advertisements in anticipation of the theater jingle and the lights going low. For the next two hours I can't get emails. I can't learn of what our idiot president did. For two hours, outside problems do not exist.

When I'm in hotels, if they have Turner Classic Movies, I watch, full attention on the screen.

Film Struck was a streaming service I wanted to support. It was a streaming service for people that loved cinema, old and new. It wasn't meant to be a conduit for spoon feeding the newest Avengers or Transformers film, it was for people that got excited about the 4k reprint of Night of the Living Dead. People that appreciate Michel Gondry pulling off a 20 minute uncut scene using practical effects. Fans that are in awe by Casablanca having the best written script of all time.

Unfortunately, while I was in Japan last year, Film Struck was shutdown.

Criterion, those film loving people that bring you gorgeous DVDs of older films with documentaries attached to them, is going to launch a streaming service and I signed up to be a part of it from the beginning. I'm incredibly excited to expand my understanding of film based on tightly curated collection for film buffs, from film buffs.

Hell, about $8,000 of my student loans went to a film studies minor.

I want to try to see every best picture winner in history. Below is the complete list. I bolded films I've seen.

I'm not putting a time limit on when I need to complete this, but I want to make major progress this year.

I've seen 40 of 90 films. It's not a bad start, but there are a lot of films I've never even heard of and that's a problem. I need to round this out better.
  • 2018 - ???
  • 2017 - "The Shape of Water"
  • 2016 - "Moonlight"
  • 2015 - "Spotlight"
  • 2014 - "Birdman"
  • 2013 - "12 Years a Slave"
  • 2012 - "Argo"
  • 2011 - "The Artist"
  • 2010 - "The King's Speech"
  • 2009 - "The Hurt Locker"
  • 2008 - "Slumdog Millionaire"
  • 2007 - "No Country for Old Men"
  • 2006 - "The Departed"
  • 2005 - "Crash"
  • 2004 - "Million Dollar Baby"
  • 2003 - "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
  • 2002 - "Chicago"
  • 2001 - "A Beautiful Mind"
  • 2000 - "Gladiator"

  • 1999 - "American Beauty"
  • 1998 - "Shakespeare in Love"
  • 1997 - "Titanic"
  • 1996 - "The English Patient"
  • 1995 - "Braveheart"
  • 1994 - "Forrest Gump"
  • 1993 - "Schindler’s List"
  • 1992 - "Unforgiven"
  • 1991 - "The Silence of the Lambs"
  • 1990 - "Dances With Wolves"

  • 1989 - "Driving Miss Daisy"
  • 1988 - "Rain Man"
  • 1987 - "The Last Emperor"
  • 1986 - "Platoon"
  • 1985 - "Out of Africa"
  • 1984 - "Amadeus"
  • 1983 - "Terms of Endearment"
  • 1982 - "Gandhi"
  • 1981 - "Chariots of Fire"
  • 1980 - "Ordinary People"
  • 1979 - "Kramer vs. Kramer"
  • 1978 - "The Deer Hunter"
  • 1977 - "Annie Hall"
  • 1976 - "Rocky"
  • 1975 - "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest"
  • 1974 - "The Godfather Part II"
  • 1973 - "The Sting"
  • 1972 - "The Godfather"
  • 1971 - "The French Connection"
  • 1970 - "Patton"

  • 1969 - "Midnight Cowboy"
  • 1968 - "Oliver!"
  • 1967 - "In the Heat of the Night"
  • 1966 - "A Man for All Seasons"
  • 1965 - "The Sound of Music"
  • 1964 - "My Fair Lady"
  • 1963 - "Tom Jones"
  • 1962 - "Lawrence of Arabia"
  • 1961 - "West Side Story"
  • 1960 - "The Apartment"

  • 1959 - "Ben-Hur"
  • 1958 - "Gigi"
  • 1957 - "The Bridge on the River Kwai"
  • 1956 - "Around the World in 80 Days"
  • 1955 - "Marty"
  • 1954 - "On the Waterfront"
  • 1953 - "From Here to Eternity"
  • 1952 - "The Greatest Show on Earth"
  • 1951 - "An American in Paris"
  • 1950 - "All About Eve"

  • 1949 - "All the Kings Men"
  • 1948 - "Hamlet"
  • 1947 - "Gentleman's Agreement"
  • 1946 - "The Best Years of Our Lives"
  • 1945 - "The Lost Weekend"
  • 1944 - "Going My Way"
  • 1943 - "Casablanca"
  • 1942 - "Mrs. Miniver"
  • 1941 - "How Green Was My Valley"
  • 1940 - "Rebecca"

  • 1939 - "Gone with the Wind"
  • 1938 - "You Can't Take It with You"
  • 1937 - "The Life of Emile Zola"
  • 1936 - "The Great Ziegfeld"
  • 1935 - "Mutiny on the Bounty"
  • 1934 - "It Happened One Night"
  • 1932/1933 - "Cavalcade"
  • 1931/1932 - "Grand Hotel"
  • 1930/1931 - "Cimarron"
  • 1929/1930 - "All Quiet on the Western Front"
  • 1928/1929 - "The Broadway Melody"
  • 1927/1928 - "Wings"

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Crowded Lonely Place

In about 32 hours, I will wake in my rented bed at the airport Hilton. I'll sleepily pull my pants on, climb aboard the 24 hour shuttle while the pre-dawn cold burns my face.

I'll groggily turn my bags over to the Delta rep, point out that my digital ticket once again does not have my Global Entry stamp, take my new printed ticket.

I'm now on auto-pilot as I navigate through TSA, gawking at everyone that didn't pay $100 for Global Entry pulling out their laptops and taking off their belts. I wander up and down terminal one, trying to get steps until I board my plane at 5:35 AM.

I will listen to a podcast for the 1 hour and 47 minute flight to Minnesota. The family of five in front of me will annoy me as they unload dozens of carry-on bags, holding up the back 2/3rds of the plane from departing.

I will then spend the next 5 hours trying to stay awake, wandering the massive Minnesota airport. I'll pass by the massage stand a half dozen times thinking, "that could be nice." I'll pass by the 24 hour bar, looking at the taps thinking, "that could be nice." But ultimately, I won't stop. Comfort means sleep, I have to torture myself until a very specific time.

Messages start going off on my phone. The plane from Madison must have arrived with my three teammates. They are starting their 3 hour layover. I ignore the messages coming from them, wondering if I want to meet up before the flight. I don't. I will be spending a week huddled next to you on subways, in small rooms, in taxis, in alleyway tempura joints. This is my time and I need it.

About 3 hours in, I'm sitting in the Chipotle in Minneapolis airport, taking in my last moments of solitude. I've ordered the largest burrito I can, with a side of chips. My plan is to eat as large of a meal now and attempt to make it through the 13 hour flight without eating the airline food. The salted and dairy filled microwave food wrecks my body more than a night of binge drinking. I've turned my podcasts off, instead ease-dropping on the last English conversations I will hear that do not involve work somehow. This burrito is my food, these conversations are my nutrition.

I get an alert from the Delta app saying my plane is boarding. It'll take nearly an hour to load all 291 passengers into the Boeing 777-200. I gather my jacket and my backpack and meet up with my comrades.

We make small talk. Everyone looks miserable. Everyone is tired and pissed they are losing a weekend with their families. But next time we're asked to come, we'll do it again, because this is professional America for my generation and we're stuck in perpetual hell.

I board the plane. We wait for the announcements in English first, then Japanese. There are constant interruptions. People wanting to get into the middle seat. People hovering over you while stacking bags in the overhead bin. I read.

An hour into the flight, we're brought drinks. I take a Sprite just in case air sickness hits me. It's doesn't usually on planes this size. I wash down a Melatonin, turn on my noise machine to Calming Creek, drift into a light and uncomfortable sleep for a few hours, wake up, go to the rest room, wash down a second Melatonin and sleep for another 90 minutes. I've burned 4-5 hours of the flight at best.

I watch several billion dollar Hollywood blockbusters on the five inch screen in the back of the seat in front of me. I get up and stretch every hour or so and look over the people unlucky enough to fly economy class, crammed into their seats like cattle because some number cruncher found if you eliminated another 2.3 inches of leg room from each each, you can fit one more row into the insanely crowded plane. It's seems so much desperately worse when a third of the passengers are wearing masks for health reasons. This is the apocalypse and I want out. 

I swallow a panic attack wanting to leave the plane about 11 hours in. We're flying over the very eastern part of Russia according to the map.

We land. I left on a Saturday morning and I'm on the ground Sunday afternoon. It's not fair is it? Time, that is.

I have travel grim on me. And again, I'm blocked by people that somehow seem calm and slow getting off the plane.

I stand in a tight line until finally it's my turn to get a stamp on my passport. I answer a few questions, give my thumb prints, and take a picture. I meet up with my teammates while waiting for our luggage. We then stand in another line where when asked who I'm working with, I mimic a zipper to represent the thing my Japanese peers are known for.

It's then a 45 minute taxi ride to our hotel. I check in, and set my suitcase down in the only spot barely large enough to fit it. For the next few weeks, I live in a fish tank.

I shower, I iron my clothes, I stay awake, I meet up with my co-workers, we debate where to eat, I try to stay awake. We eat ramen. It's very good ramen. The best I've had. I try to stay awake. We walk the neighborhood, stop for a beer, I try to stay awake.

We're handed a hand written receipt filled with kanji. I'm the only one that doesn't read the language. Someone will hand over a credit card, it will be denied as we are told this is cash only, and then we'll all reach into our pockets until we can combine enough yen to pay for the meal.

Tokyo is the only place where I've been surrounded by millions of people and have felt so alone at the same time. I'm already tired of feeling inadequate. Pointing at pictures, spouting off one of three Japanese phrases I know, unable to read street signs, unable to sit comfortably in any furniture. I'm a toddler here. I'm already homesick, and I've only been here four hours.

I've made it, it's 8:30 PM. I go to the hotel room, already desperate to hear something comfortable. I put on the Office on Netflix and slide into a coma somewhere into the first episode.

I have somewhere between 7 and 12 days left in this country. It's up to the Japanese if they will have mercy on me and allow me to return on my wedding anniversary. I will likely miss it and stay the full 12 days. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


Japan... a place I never thought I would go... it was the most challenging and difficult week of my professional career.

I worked 12 hour days every day, I did about 45 hours of travel in a week, and the heat index was 115 degrees while I was there.

I want to focus on the positive things as much as I can.


Akihabara is a part of Tokyo built for nerds the world over. After World War II, it became known as Japan's electronic mecca. Now it's a place to buy old videogames and statues of your favorite Anime characters.

I was on the hunt for some weird videogame items... and had too many choices and froze. So I didn't buy anything. But it was fun digging through the stacks of all of these hole in the wall stores and look at these old Japanese video games.

The awkward part of Akihabara are these popular places called Maid Cafes. 

Essentially 20 something women dress up like cats and 8th grade school girls and call you master and serve you food and drinks.

I did not go into a Maid Cafe, but I did accidentally end up in an alleyway where there were a dozen of them and had to run a gauntlet of dodging young pirate ladies trying to hand me fliers for their club.

The Food

The food was amazing. Every building in downtown Tokyo has 6 restaurants in it and every one of them is packed with a line out the door.

I had the best ramen of my life, I had conveyor belt sushi, I ate octopus, squid, swordfish, and eel (by far the best of the 4).

We ate at a place where I had to take my shoes off and sit on the floor (but not really, there was a hole in the floor to put your feet)

The Vending Machine Life

Vending machines are everywhere, but instead of getting sodas from them, you get everything. Iced coffee, energy drinks, water, mineral water, sandwiches, tempura ... everything. And it's good... everything is so good.

The Respect and Order

Everything in Japan was about respect. It was draining on my mind sometimes, but I liked it.

You don't just toss your credit card across the counter at the cashier. You hold both corners of the card and present it to them.

You don't cross the cross walk unless you have a green light, even if there are no cars coming.

You stand on the left side, you walk on the right of the escalator.

No one smokes outside. Instead, you go into smoking rooms that are always separated by at least a hallway so you don't have to smell it.

Penguin Bar

The absolute highlight of the trip was going to the Penguin Bar. You make a reservation, sit at your table, order a drink, and then go meet the 5 penguins they have in a habitat in the back of the bar.

Then at 9:30 PM, table by table you are ushered to the back of the bar... to feed... the freaking... penguins.

Friday, June 8, 2018

My idols are dead and my enemies in power

I always feel a little fake, overly emotional, when a celebrity death affects me. I can count on one hand the celebrity deaths that have hit me hard. This was one of them.

I went to bed last night having watched the Washington Capitals win their first cup. Ovechkin, who has more than earned a cup, lifting the heavy trophy with a happiness rarely seen. Oshie, who will forever be the babyfaced Blue that took down Russia almost singlehandedly in the Olympics, choking as he talks about his Alzheimer riddled father remembering this event. It was a high note to go to bed on.

I woke up this morning with my Twitter feed exploded with condolences for Anthony Bourdain. I had that sinking feeling in my stomach and I've not been able to shake it since. Just been in a funk all day.

When Sal and I moved to Myrtle Beach, I lost a lot of drive. I was ready to sink into middle management in retail and just live out my days watching my big screen TV and eating my mediocre pasta dinners until retirement.

It wasn't until I read Kitchen Confidential that I felt inspired to cook again. I felt the pain of loss that my college education had priced me out of doing what I actually loved doing for a living, cooking.

I started challenging myself to find out where my food came from. How do you make BBQ sauce? How do you make bread and unleash the deep flavors from the fermentation? I love beer and I want to make it.

And soon my will to not just settle into a 9-5 existence was strong. My cooking was not enough.

Bourdain then had several travel shows where he would pick a destination, and food was the glue that held it together, but it was more about experiencing other people's cultures and getting to know them on a personal level.

I always liked this quote from him:

Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself
He made me want to travel, something I never thought about. He's the reason Sal and I went to Detroit and started chatting up random people in downtown bars. He's why I shoved that fear of being in a foreign place down and allowed me to go to Germany. He's the reason I look ahead a month with excitement about going to Japan.

He wasn't like other cooking personalities where it was just about cooking or just about getting into people's kitchens or challenging himself to eat a 50 inch pizza.

Anthony wanted to hang out with you and your friends on the beach during the pig roast and get to know your family and share a bottle of wine in Italy or cook for the staff when locked down during a civil war erupting outside of his hotel.

He was just this punk rock, down to Earth guy that could find good in everything. One of the first rock stars of the cooking world.

Dammit Bourdain... just dammit... we need you.

My internet feeds have been filled with stories of Anthony's grace, warmth, and his hunger to be in touch with humanity.

RIP chef, hang your apron up, you are already missed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Greatest Stories Told by Professional Wrestling

Sal and I went to WrestleMania this weekend in New Orleans. There will probably be a followup post about the extravaganza that was WrestleMania, but I want to spend today instead telling you a story, a wrestling story.

You see, the reason we watch wrestling isn't because of the acrobatics, the pageantry, and it sure as hell isn't for the sport. Sure, all of those things feed into the greater overall package that is professional wrestling, but you watch wrestling for the stories.

We see stuntmen and women tell classic myths of good vs evil, haves vs have-nots, privileged vs underprivileged while accomplishing extraordinary feats of the human body and will.

Nine times out of ten, those stories aren't anything special. Bad guy causes grief to the good guy, the underdog is constantly beat up by the big bad bully, and the payoff is relatively standard and you move on to the next story. But that one time out of ten you see something special. Wrestling is a medium that can bring you to tears or make you laugh.

This weekend, we saw the conclusion of one of those one out of ten stories, this is the story of the fall of DIY, best friends torn apart.

In September of 2015, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa entered the minor leagues of the WWE as a tag team called DIY. For months they had equal amounts of wins and losses, but they started building a fan base with their incredibly entertaining wrestling style that both looks brutal and heavy hitting, but graceful and acrobatic.

Throughout the spring of 2016 DIY started beating all of the major tag teams such as the Revival, the Vaudevillians, and TM-61. After a win against the Revival on June 1st of 2016, DIY were attacked after the bell. As a foreshadowing of events to come, the Revival focused on wrecking Ciampa's knee.

Besides the abilities of both wrestlers, people latched onto DIY because Gagano and Ciampa are best friends in real life. Ciampa was in Gargano's wedding. They traveled together. They posted selfies together. These guys legit spent five out of seven days a week together.

In June, the two men entered the WWE Cruiseweight Classic. It's a tournament where the smaller, acrobatic guys fight for the Cruiseweight title. The members of DIY drew each other in the first round of the tournament. (This was the highlight of the tournament)

You can watch the full 15  minute match here if you want to. It's a barn burner and well worth it.

The story these two are able to tell with subtle little nods to their friendship is incredible.

The two men start facing each other, both obviously emotional. Gargano is nervously twitching his hand, playing with his fingers. They shake, locking eyes, but there's no malice. There's this emotion of longing. They both want what's best for each other, but find only one of them truly can.

Gargano tries to go easier at first, performing various grapples, looking into the crowd with a far off stare and it's Ciampa that hits him with a hard elbow first. And as if the adrenaline takes over, both men give into animal instincts for survival and start pounding each other for the next 15 minutes.

Finally Ciampa seems to take the upperhand and looks as if he's going to win this first round. He pulls his knee brace down ready to hit Gargano with an exposed knee to the face, and after lining up the shot, sort of shakes his head and pulls his knee brace back up.

Gargano reverses a pin for the win. He goes to the center of the ring, looking Ciampa in the eye with his hand extended, hoping that his friend is still in his corner. Ciampa, feeling he was on top the entire match, frustrated he lost, starts to leave the ring. Then Gargano, exhausted, sits in the middle of the ring, emotionally spent, conflicted because he might have ended his friendship. Ciampa sees him, comes back in the ring, sits next to Gargano, cradles his friend's head, and consoles him.

This is when wrestling is at it's best. This story is getting to breath and these two men were bringing us along for the journey. We felt the emotion of these competitors. They weren't the emotionless comicbook heroes of the 80s. These were two men, leaving it all out in the ring. This heartfelt image would play an important part in the story, almost two years later.

Gargano would be eliminated from the tournament in the next round and DIY started competing in the tag team division again. They kept climbing the ladder to the title picture, but ultimately kept losing.

After losing in NXT Takeover Chicago against the Authors of Pain, Ciampa finally snaps, throwing Gargano into the stage, turning on his best friend. The crowd is left to believe that Ciampa is the bad guy.

Ciampa tells a different story from what we have been witnessing since 2015. He tells of a teammate holding back the team because Johnny Gargano has only ever cared of himself. His self preservation and ultimately his selfishness wasted some of Ciampa's best years.

Right as this betrayal was heating up, Ciampa was sidelined with a torn ACL, and was out of action until January 27th, 2018 at NXT Takeover Philadelphia.

Johnny Gargano created a successful singles career while Ciampa was out, eventually challenging Andrade "Cien" Almas for the NXT championship in the first 5 star rated NXT match in history.

Gargano, with a heartbreaking loss, exhausted, turns to face the crowd and wave one more time. His former friend Ciampa sneaks up behind him and beats him with his crutch. 

This video package catches you up on the weeks leading up to Wrestlemania. The bad blood between the two best friends grows. The crowd is becoming blood thirsty for revenge on Ciampa.

That brings us to April 7th, 2018, NXT Takeover New Orleans. In front of a sold out crowd, Ciampa and Gargano finally got closure on their feud in the man event.

Ciampa came out first with no music. Instead, the crowd's booes rained down on him and became the soundtrack for Ciampa's villainous reign.

What happens next is one of the all time classic matches. It's a ballet of emotion. Both men so in sync you would believe this was a choreographed fight in any film. But they did it live, with no editing, no sound effects. The entire crowd sat at the edge of their seats, knowing they were seeing a match that would be discussed a decade from now.

If you have 40 minutes, watch this match. It's one of the purest examples of why wrestling is so great. (The quality gets better a minute or two in)

Gargano shakes his hand, not nervously like with their Cruiseweight match, but with intention. The bell rings, Gargano strikes first. Ciampa throws Gargano through a table, Gargano powerbombs Ciampa on exposed concrete, Ciampa steals crutches from a fan ring side and belts Gargano with it. Both recover. Both showing visible bruises. We are seeing the visual representation of the movements of a symphony.

Ciampa is sitting in the ring, pain across his face, fighting back tears. You can see there's conflict in him, you can see that he still cares for his friend, but he has to end this. Ciampa takes off his plastic medical knee brace in order to deliver an exposed knee to Gargano's head. Unlike the Cruiserweight, there is no hesitation. Ciampa wants to knee his former friends head off.

Instead, Gargano rolls out of the way, swinging the discarded knee brace into Ciampa's bad leg. Taken by the same rage that Ciampa had in the Cruiserweight match, Gargano breaks the crutch into a stabbing implement and goes to ram it into Ciampa's forehead.

He stops though. Gargano still sees his friend behind Ciampa's bruised and swollen face. You can see the years on the road flashing through Gargano's mind. Ciampa is nothing but a broken man with flaws. and Gargano is ready to forgive him.

And this is why wrestling is so great. When a story is given the space to breath over two years, we are told a story of friendship and betrayal rarely seen in any other medium. To bring the storyline full circle, Gargano puts the broken crutch down and goes to sit next to his friend and comfort him. Gargano only wants his closest companion back. He wants to tear his Darth Vader from the dark side. He sits next to his partner, just like in the Cruiserweight Classic two years before in the center of the ring. Gargano goes to comfort his friend, just as his friend did to him two years before...

But Ciampa is too far gone. He reaches for his discarded knee brace, swinging as hard as he can at Gargano's face. Johnny Wrestling ducks just in time for the swing to completely miss and roll his former friend into a submission move using the same leg brace.

And the crowd celebrates with Gargano for ten minutes after the match. Gargano's wife enters the ring and they embrace. And although Gargano can claim victory, you can see the pain still in his eyes as he mouths, "I love all of you" to the crowd.