Tommaso Ciampa focused on legacy ahead of final WWE NXT match with rival Johnny Gargano

The long and twisting saga between Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano in NXT dates back to 2015, the two first breaking through as a tag team that endeared themselves to the fans in a manner befitting their team name of #DIY. A dramatic heel turn when Ciampa launched Gargano into the LED boards at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2017 would change the landscape forever as the ensuing rivalry between the friends-turned-bitter enemies has served as one of the defining storylines in the current run of NXT.

Wednesday night, the two will face off for what NXT promises to be their final battle. Unforeseen circumstances, however, have upended the expected path of the story for a third time. First, Ciampa was forced to the sidelines by a knee injury right on the heels of the 2017 heel turn, then he was sidelined again to undergo neck fusion surgery as the two were set to headline the NXT TakeOver: New York event during WrestleMania 35 weekend in 2019. Now, the final match, originally planned for what was to be the NXT TakeOver: Tampa event this past WrestleMania 36 weekend, will take place in an empty WWE Performance Center due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

These circumstances, though, only seem fitting for Ciampa.

“It kind of feels like it almost fits in some weird way,” Ciampa told CBS Sports. “For the last five years, if you take the story back to Johnny and I debuting in NXT as a tag team, the amount of obstacles that have been put in our way and creative’s way and everybody’s way in terms of making this story work and keeping fans interested and keeping us on our toes. I think it’s one of the parts I like most about wresting, the improv.

“This has taken that to a whole different level from in-ring improv to behind-the-scenes improv. Whether it was me having the ACL injury in Chicago a few years back, or when we were building up to Johnny and myself against Aleister Black in a three-way and Black gets injured and I have the title and we’re building to our biggest WrestleMania moment at TakeOver last year and I find out neck surgery can no longer be put off. It ends up becoming one of those things where you either give up entirely on it or you find a way to make it work. We have a way, in WWE, of making things work.”

Ciampa and Gargano’s connection to the fans helped build the rivalry into something special, but their dramatic matches at past TakeOver events have turned it into something of NXT legend. With the change of location from TakeOver at Tampa to NXT’s weekly TV show, Ciampa said he saw no reason to deliver anything less than a match that met the lofty expectations set by their previous meetings.

“You just keep getting up to the plate and keep hitting home runs,” Ciampa said. “I know my take when we were discovering how things were going down and we were’t going to be in front of a live crowd but were still going to go through with the TakeOver match; typically, when we’re on TakeOvers, we put in a lot of time and there’s a lot that you rely on the crowd for as far as that energy and that adrenaline rush. So, when we found out we were going to go do this thing, I know my mindset was 100 percent, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it. Let’s hit a home run.’ And I think we hit a home run. I think people are going to appreciate the effort put into what they’re going to see.”

It’s hard to imagine a future in NXT where Gargano and Ciampa aren’t tied to each other in some form. From teaming to feuding, their legacies are intertwined and their characters seem to almost need that relationship. To Ciampa, that’s all the more reason for the two to split from each other and gain the ability to move forward, respectively — whether that happens in NXT or elsewhere.

“It feels more to me than anything like it just needs to be done,” Ciampa said. “It needs a sense of closure for everybody. That’s for me, for Johnny, for the fans and even for the programming. I think everybody is ready to just take a step back, hit the reset button and do it on our terms and the way we want it to be told. 

“There was a bit there where it felt like we couldn’t exist in the same place without being tied to each other. Whether that means one of us goes elsewhere or one of us takes a break altogether, whatever it is, circumstances and what is going on right now forced our hand to shuffle the deck, and I think the right call has been made to have this final encounter. Let’s put it all on the line and have a winner at the end of this thing with a gentlemen’s agreement to coexist and create our own next chapter. That’s essential to a career, too. It’s very important for both of us and our legacy and what we’re remembered for 10 years from now or 15 years from now.”

Ciampa did leave an opening for the two to return to their standard state of existence, just somewhere down the road, a reality he compared to wrestlers who claim they’ve retired but can never truly manage to have that one final match.

But for now, Ciampa sees establishing his legacy as the most important thing in his immediate future, admitting that goal plays into larger things than championships or WrestleMania glory. Being the driving force behind NXT’s growth is key in how Ciampa builds that legacy.

“The big picture goal is legacy,” Ciampa said. “It’s knowing that when I’m done, what I’ve done has changed the industry in some way and made an impact in some way. For me, Tommy Dreamer is ECW. There are other guys who did stuff there and other guys who made their careers there and made a name there, but Tommy Dreamer is ECW. That’s how I feel about NXT, I’m just all in. I’m very committed to the brand. It’s not about getting WrestleMania moments for me, it’s about making TakeOver moments bigger and bigger and bigger. I want badly to fill an arena, stadium, like a baseball stadium for TakeOver. I badly want that. If I’m headlining that with a title or without a title, it’s more important to me that we just accomplished the goal.”

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