When Shawn Michaels moved to Orlando to take an active role in WWE’s NXT developmental brand in early 2018, there was a noticeable shift in the style of the big matches. The first TakeOver special of the Michaels era was in New Orleans during WrestleMania weekend, and was headlined by the first match between Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa since Ciampa turned heel on Gargano. Immediately, the legendary wrestler’s fingerprints were visible. The most memorable moment of the main event was a relatively drawn-out sequence where Ciampa tried to bait Gargano into thinking he had seen the error of his ways, only for Gargano to eventually see through it and get the win. The connection was obvious, resembling the kind of melodrama that was a constant in Michaels’ biggest late career matches. And as a one-off, it was fine.
Then it kept happening. Over and over. Especially in matches featuring some combination of Gargano, Ciampa, or Adam Cole, climaxing with the empty arena Gargano-Ciampa match early in the pandemic that was, as his been described here in the past, full of seemingly unintentional sexual tension. And though the overwrought, capital A “AC-TING!” could rear its head in a style similar to that of Michaels famous WrestleMania 24 match where he “retired” Ric Flair by superkicking him after mouthing “I’m sorry; I love you,” that wasn’t the only way it manifested. Wrestlers in NXT increasingly reacted to near falls with bug-eyed shock, sometimes complimented by staring at their hands in horror if they did anything particularly violent. (This resulted in the fan nickname for the spot being “WHY AM I SO VIOLENT?”) It didn’t take long for this to reach meme status, complete with Joey Janela mocking the “why am I so violent?” shtick on an ICW show a week before AEW ran its first card in May 2019.
If you’re like me and found the Michaelsization of NXT distracting and frustrating, then it started to cloud your opinions of the biggest offenders. At the beginning of 2018, for example, I was raving about Johnny Gargano being the best wrestler in the world after his TakeOver match with Andrade. That started changing with a quickness as the Gargano-Ciampa feud ramped up, and suddenly, one of my favorite wrestlers just…wan’t that anymore. It was a situation where you couldn’t really blame these guys for both listening to their superiors and eating up everything that their hero was serving up in the process of mentoring them, but couldn’t help but become frustrated at what their big matches had turned into. The melodrama of “I’m sorry; I love you” was great for Ric Flair’s retirement, but very few things are Ric Flair’s retirement.
Which brings us to Adam Cole in AEW.
Going into Sunday’s Revolution pay-per-view, Cole had plenty of singles matches on TV. But they hadn’t been the kind of pay-per-view level showcase matches that the likes of Adam Page, Bryan Danielson, Kenny Omega, MJF, and CM Punk have gotten to have during the six months since Cole debuted. It looked like he had shaken off most of the “bad habits” from NXT—though not all, since he still does a version of the “NXT face” on some false finishes—but we couldn’t really be sure until he got a big showcase match. If nothing else, his main event title shot at AEW World Heavyweight Champion Adam Page on Sunday was, in fact, a big showcase match.
And though the Adam vs. Adam battle on Sunday was markedly different from Page’s very bloody previous title defenses, it still looked a lot more like what we’re coming to recognize as an Adam Page main event. They beat the shit out of each other in a match that was noticeably harder hitting than what we’re used to from Cole. If you’re predisposed to dislike Cole, then the match still had some of his more annoying habits, both WWE-related (mild to moderate “NXT face” on some late near falls, albeit not at the level of the Ruby Soho example that got memed) and otherwise (the little bunny hop off the second rope before the Panama Sunrise that nobody ever explains the utility of). But aside from the toned down kickout reactions being closer to the NXT shock than the more conventional anger, this was not what we had come to expect of an Adam Cole main event in WWE.
It’s not quite Bryan Danielson’s seamless transition back into being the American Dragon, as their styles are pretty different. But Cole has still shown himself to be someone who didn’t need much of the deprogramming out of the WWE house style that some wrestlers have to go through after departing the industry leader.
But where does that leave Johnny Gargano, who embraced the Michael flourishes more than anyone else? He continues to be coy about his career plans while taking a pseudo (as in he let his WWE contract expire and isn’t doing anything else other than stream on Twitch) paternity leave, even if he’s kind of expected to end up in AEW. If that—or even an indie run before returning to WWE—is what ends up happening, which Johnny Gargano will we see? The “WHY AM I SO VIOLENT?” guy or the guy who scrapped his way to being the heart of NXT after initially being hired as a veteran presence who could still work indies? Is he going to take the path of someone like Ruby Soho, who appears to have had a hard time of letting go of WWE style wrestling since starting in AEW, or is he going to be more of an Adam Cole, Christian Cage, or Miro type who shed their previous employer’s house style?
As someone who’s grown increasingly frustrated with the modern TV wrestling version melodrama, both the Shawn Michaels version and then Adam Page vs. Kenny Omega version, here’s to hoping that Gargano will join Cole in the latter category.