WWE NXT: Is Johnny Gargano the New Heart and Soul?


With Sami Zayn and Bayley gone from NXT, the brand is without a relatable underdog character for the first time in a long while. Unless Johnny Gargano is that new underdog babyface?

From NXT Takeover: Brooklyn to Takeover: Brooklyn II, the Developmental Promotion that Could morphed from a brand telling compelling, slow-burn stories with emotional payoffs to a DREAM MATCH EXTRAVAGANZA.

In 2014, NXT viewers agonized through every speed bump on the road to Sami Zayn’s redemption as he slowly found the killer instinct needed to dethrone Neville at TakeOver: R Evolution, and in 2015 Bayley followed a similar path, making her way through her fellow Horsewomen Charlotte and Becky Lynch on the way to one of the most emotional title wins of the last decade–her classic Takeover: Brooklyn Women’s Title victory over Sasha Banks.

But since then, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that NXT programming has struggled to reach those emotional heights.

Certainly, we’ve seen compelling stories. Samoa Joe’s heel turn and clashes with Finn Balor–and general manager William Regal–produced plenty of drama. And obviously NXT has produced loads of Match of the Year candidates in 2016, including Zayn’s farewell match against the new Face of the Brand, Shinsuke Nakamura, and about 6 dozen transcendent tag team title matches featuring the world’s greatest tag team, The Revival. But it had been some time since NXT managed to hit an emotional home run on the level of Zayn vs. Neville or Bayley vs. Sasha. This combined a satisfying long-term build with five-star wrestling, until Takeover: Brooklyn II’s epic Tag Title tilt between The Revival and challengers Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano.

More wwe: Wrestling's Greatest Tag Teams

More from NXT

NXT (with an assist from its sister show, the Cruiserweight Classic tournament) has embarked on its next great slow burn, and its centerpiece is none other than Johnny Wrestling himself–although the heavy lifting is coming from both Gargano and his “Psycho Killer” partner. After a year as per-appearance part-timers in Developmental, the indie stalwarts have begun to build off their sporadic appearances and are cashing in on their indie cred as WWE begins to use them as full-timers. And right off the bat, they’re getting handed one of the classic tales in the pro wrestling storybook: the will-they-or-won’t-they tag team partnership/feud. And it’s started in gangbuster fashion with a riveting first-round contest in the CWC where Gargano eliminated his #DIY tag partner from the prestigious tournament. Ciampa’s initial reluctance to shake his partner’s hand planted seeds we’ve seen germinating in every side-eye Tommaso’s shot his “brother” since.

At the conclusion of the Revival/#DIY title match in Brooklyn, the camera stayed on the challengers for an uncomfortably long stretch as Gargano apologized to his partner for having his knee shredded into pulled pork by the ruthless champs. The Psycho Killer dished out plenty of forgiving hugs as he helped Johnny Wrestling to the back, but in a brilliant dash of subtle acting, his eyes told a different story than his arms. It continued in last Wednesday’s edition of the CWC, as Gargano closed out the second round with a courageous effort against TJ Perkins.

As Johnny’s knee was taped during his pre-match interview, Tommaso stood behind his partner with an almost unreadable expression, again begging the viewer to speculate on what was going through his head. As Gargano’s knee eventually cost him the tournament, forcing him to tap out to yet another leg lock courtesy Mr. Perkins, it’s anyone’s guess as to what his partner must be thinking. Had Ciampa beaten Gargano is round one, would he and his two good knees taken out Perkins and advanced to the quarterfinals? Just how bitter is the Psycho Killer right now?

If NXT handles this storyline correctly, this could be huge money and catapult both Gargano and Ciampa to Full Sail’s main event picture. Gargano is entering the prime of his career at 29, has loads of upside (including some classic babyfaced good looks), and has now established himself, thanks to some dramatically close defeats, as a sympathetic underdog that’s nearly impossible to root against.

More from Daily DDT

Meanwhile, Ciampa’s work in Ring of Honor has already shown that when he lets his “Psycho Killer” side run wild, he can be a fearsome heel. If Ciampa does eventually turn on Gargano, the ensuing feud could make both men buckets of WWE cash for years. Ciampa would get absolute nuclear heat by blaming his partner for costing him the CWC and the NXT Tag belts. And that betrayal could rally the fans behind the already-beloved Johnny Wrestling to a degree that could catapult him past a white-hot feud with his partner and into a program with the NXT champion, be it Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode–you name it.

Sure, Shinsuke Nakamura is massively over and is a no-brainer choice to represent the company as the current NXT champion. But the undefeated King of Strong Style, who won the brand’s top prize in his first go, is hardly the plucky underdog that Sami Zayn or Bayley–both the unquestioned heart and soul of NXT during their tenures–turned their characters into. If NXT ever wants to recapture the magic of late 2014 or Summer 2015, a great way to do it would be to once again bring the fans on a journey of redemption up a seemingly insurmountable mountain of long odds, brutal heels, and seemingly-unbeatable champions.

The groundwork is being laid for Johnny Gargano to step into the currently-vacant role of NXT’s Heart and Soul. Three matches in to this story, it’s already the most compelling character drama in all of WWE.