Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa had the match that was promoted as the finale of their feud this week, the nearly hour-long, cinematically shot “Blackheart vs. Rebel Heart: One Final Beat.” It was supposed to be epic, artistic, and emotionally resonant. It was disorienting, often boring, and unintentionally very funny. That’s not how NXT should let what HHH has dubbed the greatest feud in its history end. After “One Final Beat,” there’s exactly one right way for Gargano and Ciampa to conclude their story, and that’s by doing exactly what it says in the headline: boning down.
Gargano and Ciampa haven’t been explicitly romantic with each other yet, but the groundwork has been laid. DIY were best friends as a tag team and became even more intimate as enemies when, after two years together, Ciampa turned on his partner. The ensuing feud was emotional and intense, spawning a trilogy of acclaimed matches, and orchestrating Gargano’s rise to become NXT’s top babyface and Ciampa’s descent to its most despicable heel.
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The point at which the rivalry jumped the shark is subjective, but I’d say it was when their Last Man Standing match in August 2018 ended with Gargano running directly off the stage and falling on the ground, hurting himself so badly he couldn’t get up. It was a moment of hubris that made sense for his character. It also looked like something you could see on America’s Funniest Home Videos (or in a Vine soundtracked by “Mmm whatcha say,” or turned into a meme with Tiesto and dancing pallbearers.) The Final Beat at least redeemed this from being the most unintentionally hilarious moment of the feud.
For those who had already lost faith in the Gargano-Ciampa rivalry, the setup for their final match was not promising. After DIY had reunited (on the main roster!) and Candice and Ciampa had embraced Johnny and polycule vibes after he won the NXT Championship from Adam Cole, Triple H told the boys that they had one last match to squash their beef or they’d be fired. This probably would have been the main event of NXT TakeOver: Tampa Bay, but because of that worldwide pandemic you might have heard about, the conclusion of this three-year storyline would take place in an empty venue. But WWE had a plan to make up for the lack of always-hot TakeOver crowd. They would make this match different, the most dramatic and even artistic of the feud yet, but producing it as not just another wrestling match, but a Cinematic Wrestling Match.
WWE hyped up the match with press and video packages, but on the April 8, 2020, episode of NXT, “One Final Beat” not only failed to live up to its promotion but failed to capture anything entertaining or worthwhile about cinema or pro wrestling. It was filmed and edited in a way that made it sometimes physically difficult to watch, starting with about ten cuts in the short opening strike exchange. Potentially cool spots (like Gargano’s dive onto Ciampa and some water bottles or Ciampa hitting his finisher off the top rope to the floor) are edited in ways that minimize the viewer’s enjoyment and appreciation of the moves.
These editing choices could be attributed to this wrestling match not really being about its wrestling, but about its drama. But the drama here is presented in the dumbest way possible. Heavy-handed dialogue and ugly, unnecessary close-ups are added as if pro wrestling matches haven’t connected with people in its own way for over a century, usually without any kind of dialogue included, sometimes without even being able to see performers’ faces. The saddest thing about this match isn’t the depths to which our former babyfaces have sunk or whatever; it’s that it was produced with seemingly no faith in the ability of pro wrestlers or pro wrestling to tell stories or connect with audiences.
It was Blackheart vs. Rebel Heart: One Final Beat.
— WWE (@WWE) April 10, 2020
The ending of the match shows that as much as this is presentation of a wrestling match in way that doesn’t appreciate wrestling, it’s equally one that seems to have no awareness of any other kind of human storytelling and its conventions. A guy gets kicked in the balls, another guy gets kicked in the balls, and then the first guy reveals he had been protecting his balls all long, and the viewer is supposed to take this completely seriously. Even excluding the context of every time someone has ever been kicked in the balls in normal TV or cinema, this is a melodramatic version of a wrestling spot most widely associated in WWE with Road Dogg.
But though the Gargano-Ciampa finale was a bad match and a bad feud ending, it contained the seed of what the good, correct, and groundbreaking ending should be. The only way to redeem this storyline and deliver on its promises of artistic brilliance is to take the rampant homoeroticism of “One Final Beat” to its logical extent. DIY need to do each other.
The parts of this match that were remotely interesting were when it got gay, and it got unbelievably gay. “Is that the best you got, daddy?” Johnny asks Ciampa early on. Fast forward about a day, and we see a sweaty Gargano struggle to reach Ciampa, then softly place his hand on top of that of his rival. Tommaso pulls away with the agonized expression of a period piece nobleman who desperately wants to bang another nobleman, but it’s the 1700s and they’re both married and Catholic. Later, after Candice kicks Johnny in the balls, Tommaso crouches, concerned, next to his former friend and Johnny uses one of Tommaso’s thighs for support as he rises to his knees and they both look into each other’s eyes. Not all moments of intimacy between men should be labeled as gay, but these moments were incredibly gay.
At this point, the only way for NXT to redeem this feud and save face after hyping up “One Final Beat” so hard is to allow the seeds of homoeroticism in this match to take root and grow. WWE needs to take a real creative risk (“What if we filmed this hardcore match in a stupid way” doesn’t count) and use this match to turn Gargano and Ciampa’s angst into angsty romance. The company has had male gaze-y queer storylines between women before, but for them to outright embrace that men’s wrestling has the potential to be extremely gay would shock the world.
The only way this romance-turn succeeds (and actually breaks new ground in the whole wide wrestling world, not just WWE) is if it is played as seriously and explicitly as possible. The post-reunion Golden Lovers didn’t even kiss, so if Gargano and Ciampa just make out for like thirty seconds on next week’s NXT, WWE could lap the competition and lord this over everyone forever. The more explicit they get, the more laps they can take. You can do a lot within the TV-14 rating, and there are no laws on the WWE Network.
The evidence is irrefutable and the conclusion is clear: for NXT to stop sucking, Johnny and Tommaso need to start sucking face.