There's a lot to unpack following Wednesday night's NXT championship match, with Johnny Gargano losing his final attempt for the title against Andrade "Cien" Almas and forfeiting his NXT career as a result. Tommaso Ciampa seemingly sent away his long-time partner, Gargano fell to 0-4 in his prolific series against Almas and the future theoretically became very unclear for Gargano at a time when his stock in WWE couldn't be much higher.
But before we get too deep into Wednesday night, or the road to NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, let's take a moment to appreciate the last six months between Gargano and Almas. Has there ever been a series of matches between two NXT superstars as electric and wonderfully executed as their recent classics?
The only series that immediately comes to mind is Samoa Joe vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, who had some intense battles back in 2016, but even their performances pale in comparison to the combined in-ring efforts of Almas and Gargano in four stellar battles.
It all began in August at TakeOver: Brooklyn III, when they put together a show-stealing opening match. They followed that up with a gem on NXT TV in October, and took it to a whole new level last month at TakeOver: Philadelphia with a match of the year candidate.
There were two constants in those three matches. First, they were all excellent. Secondly, Almas won all of them and retained the NXT championship in their most recent encounter. But the stakes were at an all-time high for Gargano entering Wednesday night, who put his NXT career on the line to have one final shot at Almas and the title.
Gargano's journey to this stage of his NXT career has been the brand's most compelling storyline in recent memory, and this closing chapter was flooded with drama. Not only did Gargano have to deal with a man that he had yet to beat, with an associate in Vega who loves to get involved in matches, but he had Ciampa, his vengeful, crazed former tag team partner lurking in the shadows.
It would have been a tall task to exceed the quality of their masterpiece at TakeOver: Philadelphia, but they pushed each other to their limits once again in front of an electric crowd at Atlanta's Center Stage Theater.
Just minutes into the match, Vega attempted to get involved yet again, but Gargano's wife, Candice LeRae, unleashed a fury of offense on Vega and chased her backstage. That left us with a legitimate one-on-one encounter between the two rivals -- but of course, that would only be temporary.
- WWE (@WWE) February 22, 2018
After some high octane sequences and a referee bump, Gargano had Almas in the middle of the ring with his patented Gargano Escape submission hold locked in, seemingly seconds away from winning the championship. But with the referee down, just as he did as TakeOver: Philadelphia went off the air last month, Ciampa appeared out of nowhere and cracked his crutch across Gargano's back. That opened up the door for Almas to nail his hammerlock DDT and secure the victory.
As the crowd gave Gargano a standing ovation, Ciampa watched from a distance and sinisterly waved goodbye.
And with that, the NXT career of one of its most beloved superstars has ended. Or has it? Yes, the stipulation indicates that Gargano's NXT run is officially over, but this is professional wrestling, after all. Anything can happen, and the circumstances leave plenty of room to maneuver in terms of a temporary reprieve.
At this point, Gargano vs. Ciampa is bigger than any other match NXT could make including any NXT championship match to come, and whether it has to happen at TakeOver: New Orleans, outside the venue or up and down Bourbon Street, their conflict will be resolved in the months to come.
The Velveteen Dream picks up another win
While one NXT career is seemingly ending, another continued to rise. Velveteen Dream took NXT by storm in 2017, and he has as good a chance as anyone to end up being their 2018 superstar of the year if that trajectory continues. His talent is unmistakable, full of charisma and athleticism.
Though his first TakeOver bout at War Games last November was a loss to Aleister Black, Dream's performance was critically acclaimed. He followed that up with another impressive showing against Gargano, followed by his first TakeOver win in Philadelphia last month against Kassius Ohno.
He kept that momentum going on Wednesday night, immersed in "Velveteen" chants from the Atlanta crowd, when he defeated a returning No Way Jose. Dream delivered another message afterward.
"And the NXT male competitor of the year: The Velveteen Dream," Dream proclaimed. "Overall competitor of the year: The Velveteen Dream. Match of the year: The Velveteen Dream! Aleister Black, Asuka, Tyler Bate? No one cares," Dream continued. "As you can see, the Dream's name is clearly on the tip of everyone's tongue here tonight. And if you can't see, then I just don't have time for you."
Tyler Bate, who Dream has mentioned multiple times over the past couple of weeks, figures to be next on Dream's radar -- especially after a backstage confrontation -- but as we near TakeOver: New Orleans, Dream deserves to be factored into a premier match on the card. He is on his way to becoming one of the cornerstones of the next wave of NXT, and showcasing him at the highest possible level on the biggest stage of the year would be a wise move.
The talented Nikki Cross, who has flown under the radar as of late, scored a pinfall victory over Vanessa Borne.
We'll get a rematch of the Mae Young Classic finale next week as Kairi Sane will battle Shayna Baszler.
General Manager William Regal announced that the third annual Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic will begin in two weeks. The winner of this year's tournament will receive an NXT tag team championship match at TakeOver: New Orleans.