History in sight as Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano cap epic trilogy at NXT TakeOver: Toronto


In the history of professional wrestling, great rivalries have often been defined by one of two characteristics. Some are highlighted by two dynamic personalities taking part in an extended angle, which is why legendary programs like Ric Flair-Dusty Rhodes, Hulk Hogan-Roddy Piper, Steve Austin-The Rock and Austin-Vince McMahon are so fondly remembered. The others, however, have more to do with the quality of in-ring performances they have left behind. 

In many ways, the 1989 WCW trilogy between Flair and Ricky Steamboat for the NWA world title -- which took place over a three-month span in high-profile main events -- has been the standard bearer for what technical perfection over an extended series looks like. Despite attempts to best that rivalry by Austin-Bret Hart (1997-98) and AJ Styles-John Cena (2016-17) in WWE and Johnny Gargano-Tomasso Ciampa (2018) in NXT, the only pairing that has ever come close was the four-match program from 2017-18 in New Japan Pro-Wrestling between Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada that essentially rewrote the match-scoring star system. 

Gargano, aptly nicknamed "Johnny Takeover" for his string of five-star classics headlining NXT TakeOver cards in recent years, has an opportunity to join that elite conversation a second time on Saturday in Toronto when he meets NXT champion Adam Cole in their trilogy bout.

Subscribe to our podcast -- State of Combat with Brian Campbell -- and check out our NXT TakeOver: Toronto preview below with Cole (52:45) and Gargano (1:23:35) interviews at the respective timestamps.

The main event of NXT TakeOver: Toronto will see a best-of-three falls match with a different stipulation tied to each fall; Cole chose a standard wrestling match for the first, Gargano chose a street fight for the second and NXT general manager William Regal will choose the third, if necessary. 

"It's almost sort of a three stages of hell scenario if it takes place," NXT patriarch Paul "Triple H" Levesque explained this week on a teleconference. "I think you want to make it unique. You want to have a little bit of an unknown factor to it. I think, for 'Johnny Wrestling,' having one of the falls a wrestling match makes sense and the street fight sort of makes sense for the Undisputed Era and sort of the group warfare thing. 

"A lot of creative thought goes into it and sort of the hows and the whys and how you plan to get to where it's headed afterwards. For talent like Cole and Gargano, it doesn't really matter what stipulation you pick because I think it's going to be spectacular between two of the best in the world, and I can't wait to see it."

Levesque's words echo that of fans and critics whom, not all that far removed from digesting the incredible Gargano-Ciampa feud and the implosion of the former NXT champion's on-screen friendship, now will be left to figure out exactly what to do with Gargano-Cole historically should Saturday produce yet another instant classic.  

In fact, it was Ciampa's neck injury in March that derailed his scheduled TakeOver: New York main event with Gargano during WrestleMania weekend and opened the door for Cole to replace him. In the three months that followed, the drop in quality from Gargano swapping Ciampa for Cole was nonexistent as the two combined for a pair of spectacular TakeOver main events that have left them on the doorstep of history entering Saturday. 

The two feuds have also left Gargano, combined with his January 2018 classic against Andrade, as a pro wrestling folk hero who has become just as synonymous with NXT TakeOver as he has with proving able to author an instant classic with anyone he shares the ring with. 

"That's the beauty of NXT, that we roll with the punches," Gargano told CBS Sports' "State of Combat" podcast this week. "You can talk about me and Tomasso and how he tore his ACL in the ladder match [May 2017 at TakeOver: Chicago] and that made us prolong that story. We made the best of that situation and I wrestled Andrade in Philadelphia and that match would've never happened had Tomasso not tore his ACL, so we got a bonus there. 

"I went from that match to wrestle Tommaso in New Orleans and coming off Andrade, that match was even hotter then. Then going into the Tommaso neck injury, that leads to me and Cole and bumps that up a bunch. There are so many different variables where if this didn't happen, this wouldn't have happened. But in NXT, we roll with the punches and make the best with what we are given. That speaks volumes of the talent and of the office but also the locker room."

While Gargano was quick to mention that an NXT championship feud between himself and Cole was "inevitable" from the moment Cole signed with the brand in 2017, it was their incredible in-ring chemistry that helped them adjust so quickly to being thrown together following Ciampa's injury. 

"The truth is, and I know this and I know [Gargano] will agree, is that we most certainly bring the best out of one another," Cole told "State of Combat" this week. He didn't shy away from admitting there was a certain amount of pressure entering their third bout to produce something that, at worst, is on par with the two matches leading up to it. 

Whether Gargano and Cole can even get there remains to be seen, which isn't a slight as much as a realistic admiration of just how great the first two chapters of their feud actually were. The two wrestlers had the Barclays Center crowd in Brooklyn, New York, eating out of their hand during WrestleMania weekend as Gargano completed his character's impossible dream of claiming the vacant NXT championship in a best-of-three falls match that veteran scribe Dave Meltzer called the best in WWE history. 

"Generally, you are so focused on the task at hand [that you don't realize how great a match is]," Cole said. "But specifically, in the last two minutes of that match, there was a point where I realized this was incredibly special. I remembered the feeling and the emotion in that building. Even jumping out [of the ring] and seeing people in the crowd pushing and jumping on top of each other. I have been in some very cool atmospheres, I have experienced a lot of really, really awesome crowds all over the world but that one was seriously the most fever-pitched I have ever seen an audience in a match."

Subscribe to our podcast -- State of Combat with Brian Campbell -- and check out our NXT TakeOver: Toronto preview below with Cole (52:45) and Gargano (1:23:35) interviews at the respective timestamps.  

Sleeping that night, the 30-year-old Cole said, was just about impossible because of how "jazzed up" he still was with so much adrenaline still pumping through his body and an almost instant realization that this was the highlight, up to this point, in his already decorated career. 

"It's such an indescribable feeling to walk back through the curtain and you are surrounded by your peers and people you admire and that environment and energy in the room is so positive," Cole said. "I can't describe it, it's so hard, but it's the best feeling in the world."

Cole said wrestlers are kidding themselves in 2019 to say things like match ratings or fan perspective doesn't matter to them. Although he claims it's important not to obsess over, it's not as if he was unaware that Meltzer graded the first Gargano match 5.5 stars before giving their rematch, at NXT TakeOver: XXV in June, a 5.25 grade. 

But unlike Cole, who has come to terms with the pressure facing him entering Saturday and how much it drives him to be better, Gargano is feeling anything but. 

"See, I don't know if this is a good or bad thing but I don't really ever feel pressure," Gargano said. "I get very excited and maybe it's just because I have done so many of these TakeOver main events where I feel like they kind of give me the ball because they see the way I handle the situation. It isn't too big for me. I've always thought of myself as a big match wrestler and there is no bigger match for me than in the main event of NXT TakeOver."

While Gargano credits his Cleveland upbringing, in part, for the workhorse mentality he applies to the job, the main reason for his lack of pressure ahead of such a highly scrutinized match is his unique perspective of his own abilities. Simply put -- Gargano is not a fan of his own work. 

This isn't false humility or a pessimistically critical eye. This is Gargano, a self-proclaimed "chubby kid" growing up, who still carries himself as a someone who was never supposed to get to this point and he still carries the chip on his shoulder as proof of his underdog mentality.

"I think I'm just weird. I think that's the best way to describe myself. I'm a weird guy in the sense that I never feel that anything I'm doing is special," Gargano said. "Even though I have abs now, I am still a chubby kid at heart so I always feel that it wasn't good enough. When I walk through the curtain, I never really know and I don't feel it.

"Guys like me, I was never pegged to be the top guy. I was told 'no' at my tryouts. None of this was supposed to happen, and I just take it in stride. Going into this match, with our first two matches both over five stars, if there was any pressure I would be feeling it insurmountably but I'm just really excited. I know how special this is and I know how cool this would be so just putting a bit bow on this would be a really cool occurrence." 

Luckily for Gargano, he has a trio of cheerleaders in his corner who know how good he is Levesque and NXT trainer Shawn Michaels, who just so happens to be Gargano's childhood wrestling idol. In fact, Gargano has fallen so much in love with the system and culture of NXT that it has altered his original dream of one day going on to main event WrestleMania. 

Gargano had a brief main roster call-up ahead of WrestleMania but it was one that was ultimately aborted following Ciampa's injury. It ultimately got him thinking. 

"Everyone's dream when they get into wrestling is to be on Raw and SmackDown. To get that opportunity to do that for a bit was super cool and something I look back on fondly, but the deal is basically that dreams can change and goals can change. For me, I think it's really important that I carry the flag for NXT. I love NXT, and that's not a company answer. It's the truth. I pour my heart into NXT, and I love absolutely everything about it. I love the Performance Center, I love the locker room, and I love the office. 

"I want to do what I can to carry that flag and keep growing the brand to that next level and I want to be apart of it. I have said it before that there is nothing on this planet -- nothing, nothing, nothing whatsoever -- that compares to NXT TakeOver. Whether it's the opening match or mopping the restroom, I want to be there to help NXT get to where it needs to be."


If you're wondering whether Gargano has heard the rumors that NXT could be moving to television on FS1 this fall after SmackDown moves to Fox, he has indeed. To Gargano, it's nothing short of exciting. Cole shared equal sentiments about his pride in the brand.

"I don't want to speak for a lot of guys in NXT, but I will. A lot of us are incredibly proud of the growth of the brand," Cole said. "I've only been here for two years, but just to see the growth that NXT has gone through is amazing to me. We are very proud of what we produce week after week, the team and the roster and our fans and our relationship. You can't put a price on it. To us, bell to bell, NXT is the best wrestling show in the world, and we are incredibly proud of that." 

Should NXT TakeOver go on to outshine the main roster PPV that follows it the next night -- in this case, WWE SummerSlam -- it wouldn't be a rare occurrence. A common thread in that reality has been Gargano and his ability to perform when the lights are the brightest on a level that belies the 31-year-old's slight frame, seemingly average athleticism and white-meat babyface innocence. 

Gargano might not have the look of the greatest pro wrestler in the word, but one would be kidding themselves not to put his name in the discussion after the string of classics he has authored over the past two years. He has the right dance partner in Cole on Saturday to deliver yet another match that carries with it the almost impossible expectations of five stars or bust. 

"I'm very big on moments but every match also needs to be different," Gargano said. "Me and Andrade was universally praised for the athleticism. Me and Tomasso was very much story based and built on emotion. Then me and Adam Cole has been a mix and a blend of both. It has been action but has also been emotion.

"For me, I think you kind of just need to throw the playbook out the window. I think a good wrestling match is like watching a movie. It's about putting certain beats in there, having certain moments and doing things that evoke certain emotions. I'm a big fan of Marvel, everyone knows that and I like to make movies at TakeOver. And we are going to make a pretty good movie on Saturday in Toronto." 


Watch our complete WWE SummerSlam preview on YouTube.  

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Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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