“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
There are many ways to rile up a wrestling audience, and it’s often the most fun exchange of the night. A bad guy picks up a microphone and gets time to throw whatever they want at us fans, and the crowd is free to give it right back – because that’s our job! Boos, chants, the infamous “WHAT?!,” it’s all on the table. Of course, that goes both ways. The variety of approaches to insulting the average joes in the building have grown over time and can be just as unique as the man delivering them.
Rick Rude told each of us just how fat, dumb, and ugly we were, while Ric Flair flaunted his rolexes and gold to breed envy. But the heels that have consistently cut us the deepest have been the ones that told the undeniable truth. The Miz going on Talking Smack, calling out our then-fallen hero Daniel Bryan for putting himself at risk, while pointing out how wrong it was that Miz himself was thought of as less-than despite being the active Intercontinental Champion. It drove us crazy, to the point of wanting anyone to knock some sense into him. Going back further, The Rock returned from Hollywood and reminded an adoring Toronto crowd that they’d chosen the evil NWO over him, so he’d gone elsewhere and become bigger than life without needing them, the rest of us, or even WWE. Immediately cheers turned into chants of “Ass-hole!”
Times like these stand out because we fans had no comeback – no “you sold out” would explain away their perspective, no tailor-made retort would disprove their words. This lets them get under our skin even more because we know we’re at fault, that they’re right. How dare they make us feel this way?! This draws the truth-teller more hate, more jeers, but it also makes them more compelling. It’s the same today with the longtime standard bearer of NXT, Johnny Gargano. He is more incisive, more insightful, and more powerfully on-message now than he has ever been as a WWE Superstar. His every word burns off the tv screen, even as he reaches this pinnacle in an odd way. He’s done it largely by disparaging us, the viewers.
Ever since Takeover: Portland, Gargano has let us know in no uncertain terms that we walked away from him, not the other way around. Now, he has committed to maximize his newfound freedom of not having to care about our standards or feelings anymore, and soars ever higher just to spite us. He has always had incredible talent in the ring, but now that he has gone from a universal underdog we believe in, to a man who knows who he is, what he wants, and exactly why he no longer believes in us, I cannot take my eyes or ears away from him.
Johnny Gargano made his name in NXT as the ultimate babyface underdog made good. He’s outweighed by most everyone he wrestles, and often finds himself outnumbered at the hands of crafty, villainous factions in NXT. Nonetheless, he always kept his head up and fought on – most importantly, he always fought clean. What you saw with “Johnny Wrestling” was what you got: the kind of positivity, fire, and true ability that was easy to root for and see yourself in. Gargano fed off of us in the crowd, and in turn he faithfully represented what we’d like to think we’d do in the ring, and the person we would be. This relationship led to gold at every level of NXT – his success was our success, and it felt good. That bond was the most reliable thing on the brand and seemed it always would be.
Then, on October 2, 2019, former NXT Champion Tommaso Ciampa returned from injury and confronted Adam Cole, who held the title Ciampa’d never lost. He received a hero’s welcome, with a giant pop and singalong to his theme song’s refrain that “No one will survive” his coming. Ciampa’s remark that “Daddy’s home” to the belt he affectionately named “Goldie”, led to those words echoing throughout the Full Sail crowd each following week when he appeared. A fallen performer returning to a warm reception seemed natural, except when you tried to square it with the memories of what we’d last seen him do in becoming and staying champion.
Johnny Gargano never lost those memories. At the time there hadn’t been any apology, no blowoff match, no resolution of who was the better man. Ciampa was supposed to be Johnny’s evil opposition, the measuring stick that Gargano’s sincerity and positivity were supposed to take him past to get to the top of the mountain. Then he was just…gone. Gargano was still there, as he always was, the ever-constant force for good that anchored NXT through years of roster change and new title pictures. Except now that Ciampa was back, everyone around Gargano acted like this was some new person, some new situation, and never acknowledged that it had ever been different. It had to feel like he had jumped to another dimension. And he let it show.
This reaction was perfect because it was 100% human, and it made sense. Johnny Gargano didn’t “turn heel.” He didn’t need to. All he had to do was point out, without flinching, how we had turned on him. Each week he started to do so, calling out all of us who’d cheered him on to put his body on the line, but then started chanting “Daddy’s home” at a moment’s notice for a man who hadn’t even been around for the months in which Johnny still fought on behalf of the people. Calling out how we now cheered and supported the man who had tormented him, sucker punched him with a crutch, and repeatedly tried to cripple him.
Johnny pointed out that we rode the wave of his own blood, sweat, tears, and broken bones when it suited us, but now when he needed a boost the most we weren’t sure who we’d back. We weren’t sure we were invested in getting back to the top as part of Johnny Wrestling anymore. As he’d list each of these off, and it became crystal clear just how easily he saw us – the real us – I felt personally attacked. And I needed more.
Why was it so effective? Gargano’s message was real and jarring because of its scarcity. It’s incredibly rare that someone will be good enough, last long enough, and have a valid enough point to stand up for themselves and speak the truth, but still have it make them the “bad guy.” What else is wrestling itself if not a search for truth? For seeing who is the strongest/fastest/best/most successful and will prevail? Bad guys are supposed to lie, cheat, and steal to get there. A bad guy who speaks the truth and has the in-ring goods inherently stands out and challenges our notions of how things work. That is the most direct way to get us on the edge of our seats, eagerly hoping things turn out the way we have always trusted.
But with that hope comes the inkling that this version of Johnny Gargano is still the man driven by righteousness. Getting there through different shades of gray, even a little darkness, just makes it more interesting, and makes us all truly and sincerely invested in the journey. Johnny Gargano has stayed alive in NXT long enough to become the villain.
The best thing, for him and for us, is that the very role itself allows him not to care. All he cares about is using that fierce honesty, the new Johnny Gargano Way, to get to the promised land on his own – the best way to stick it everyone. He cemented that by following it to a climactic pin on Ciampa, and I will follow Johnny wherever this new path leads, whether he needs me to or not, because it’s so different he has me dying to see where it goes. No matter what sounds may greet his entrances over these coming months, I know I’m not alone.