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.