(CBSNewYork/CBS Local) — Tommaso Ciampa wasn’t looking for a fight with a behemoth. He had already gotten his fill of working with oversized gladiators in the ring when Karrion Kross came calling.
Ciampa was coming off of the latest — and perhaps final — battle in a long-running feud with former tag team partner Johnny Gargano when all 6 feet 4 inches and 265 pounds of Kross burst onto the NXT stage. Although Ciampa wasn’t eyeing this particular fight, the NXT creative team had different ideas. Now he finds himself in the unenviable position of rolling out the welcome mat for the newest member of the NXT roster. That’s not to say he’s running from a challenge. Quite the opposite, actually.
The new feud is giving Ciampa an opportunity to freshen up his character and hit the reset button after a memorable run against Gargano. Their feud will be used as the measuring stick for anything they do moving forward. Fair or not, no matter who they each wrestle their matches will be compared to the series of five-star clashes they strung together over the years.
Coming off such high acclaim, it’s natural for someone to question whether they still have the same passion for their career as they once did. The good news for Ciampa is that this feud with Kross will provide him that answer.
Their match will be one of the featured attractions on June 7 when NXT breathes new life into a quarter-century-old pay-per-view concept for NXT TakeOver: In Your House. Just being on the card will rejuvenate Ciampa, who grew up watching his idols compete in the original series produced by WWE beginning in 1995.
The In Your House concept is being revived as the company’s loyal fans have been sheltering in place for more than two months as the coronavirus rages outside their doors. The brand has not held a pay-per-view event since February’s NXT TakeOver: Portland where Ciampa unsuccessfully challenged Adam Cole for the NXT Championship. COVID-19 restrictions forced WWE to pull the plug on TakeOver: Tampa that was to take place the night before WrestleMania.
Since then, fans have been chomping at the bit for the return of NXT to pay-per-view and what many consider to be the most exciting action under the WWE umbrella.
But before the next chapter in the TakeOver saga can be written, there is still unfinished business to be taken care of on NXT. This week will see the fallout from another fractured tag team as Matt Riddle faces his short-lived partner Timothy Thatcher in a cage with WWE Hall of Famer Kurt Angle set to referee in what promises to be a bruising contest.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Ciampa to get his thoughts on working with Kross, an update on his health, the changes being made to the Raw and SmackDown television tapings, and whether the same strategy might add a level of excitement to NXT broadcasts.
Kross had made a name for himself prior to coming to NXT and was known among more die-hard fans who watch promotions other than WWE. Is it easier to have a guy who has somewhat of a following coming in, or is it more difficult because there’s a little bit of a backstory that can be challenging to be told?
I’ll tell you that based on his first entrance, I don’t think it matters if you knew who he was. You saw that first entrance, and that presentation, and the ‘wow’ factor is there. The ‘it’ factor is all over the dude, and same with Scarlet. I think in his situation, I don’t know if it mattered. The dude is a monster. He’s got a look. He’s got great music, unbelievable song. I don’t know who came up with that, but it’s great. It reminds me a lot of Aleistar Black, when he made his debut or Shinsuke Nakamura. Immediately I go, ‘Okay. This is the main-event player.’
Is this a guy that you kind of lobbied to work with knowing that he was coming in?
Absolutely not. No, no, no. He’s 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. I had my share with AOP. Fanfare, I think is what led to this more so than anything. When the rumors were that he was headed to NXT, I was getting a lot of tweets and Instagrams and all that. The social media was going crazy about seeing the two of us head-to-head.
I think for him, it’s pretty simple. It’s clear who some of the top guys are in NXT. I’m clearly one of them, and he wanted to make a statement, so he attacks some of the top guys. So I think more so than anything, it was a combination of fans wanting to see it as a pseudo dream match and him wanting to make an immediate impact and name for himself.
Do you think it’s important that you have this ‘pseudo dream match’ coming off of your feud with Johnny Gargano? The whole series with you and Johnny has been incredibly well received, and now you’ve got something else big to move forward to rather than just having two people randomly thrown together.
It feels very organic and natural in some weird sense. I feel like I do my best work when I am put into scenarios where there’s some in-depth story to be told. For instance, when Johnny and I tagged versus Mustache Mountain, it was a super fun time. I loved the match and all that. But one-offs for me is what they are. I like it when you can kind of sink your teeth into something. So in that scenario, it’s great for me, because obviously Kross is a completely different opponent than Johnny. It’s a whole different type of matchup. It’s a whole different style. It’s a whole different presentation. And it’s something that I think people are excited for.
And it kind of freshens me up in a little bit of a way too. It forces me to… Not that I was losing any sort of passion or losing any drive, but it definitely — when you see the new guy come in and he’s hungry — it does force you to look in the mirror and say, ‘Okay, am I what I was two, three, four years ago? Do I still have that same itch that he has?’ Because you make it to the top of the NXT mountain, and now here’s a guy who hasn’t sniffed it, but boy does he hunger for it. So it’s a very different dynamic that has… Yeah I could feel people are excited for it, and it’s forced my hand, to dig down deep a little bit.
Is it fair that people are going to judge basically your entire body of work moving forward against what you had with Johnny?
I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of that. I don’t know if that’s the thing though. And the only reason I say this is because when I think of [Triple H] and [Shawn Michaels], I never watched Hunter versus Taker, or Shawn versus Taker, or them versus any of their other opponents and thought like, ‘Oh yeah, but it’s not Hunter and Shawn.’ I think it’s what starts to create a legacy in a way. It’s how a guy adapts and how a guy gets into all these different situations and performs and continues to build his resume.
So that’s the challenge that I have. That’s the test that I put myself through is that I just don’t want people to ever say, ‘Oh yeah, he had these great matches with Johnny Gargano.’ I want them to be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, then there was that double team dream match. There was that Adam Cole match. That Aleister Black match. That Karrion Kross match.’ I just want them to be able to rattle off that he went through the best of the best and found ways to have chemistry with all of them, or bring out their best or bring out a different side of them.
As you’re stepping forward into this new challenge, how are you feeling health-wise? How’s the neck?
I feel great because I don’t wrestle anymore. It sounds so crazy, but sometimes I have trouble remembering. I think the match with Johnny was my last match. I’m pretty sure. It feels like that was forever ago. I think it was over two months ago now.
I feel physically like the best I’ve ever felt. … All I’m doing is training at home. I’m sleeping in my own bed. I’m not traveling. So physically I feel on top of the world, but with that said, I’m sure Karrion Kross does too. You know, when he wrestles, he wrestles for 30 seconds, so I don’t know that that’s going to be an advantage unfortunately.
Your next match, is at TakeOver: In Your House. What was your initial reaction when you learned that that old pay-per-view concept was being pulled off of the shelf, and dusted off, and being given new life?
It’s the best, right? It’s one of my favorite parts of this whole NXT thing. I always tell people, when I was a kid, there was four pay-per-views a year, and everything had three-month builds, and it was just the best thing ever. That’s my wrestling. It was like, if there was a way for it to go back to that, oh my God, I would be so happy. And that’s what NXT has provided. It’s this slower storytelling and these big four TakeOvers.
When In Your House became a thing when I was a kid, it was just the coolest ever and people are winning houses. … So when NXT is bringing out the old-school graphics, the only thing I’m wondering is if somehow we could have that old In Your House set. That’s all just the fan in me. I’m literally doing what, 10 or 12-year-old me was watching, and going crazy about on the couch. So that is very, very cool.
I don’t know why, but something about wrestling Karrion Kross is perfect for it. It’s very strange because, not that he is a mid-90’s character, but he’s definitely not your typical five-star indie guy. He is more of the throwback. He’s a big dude who passes the airport test, and everybody sees him and knows [he’s someone].
You mentioned the crowds not being there. On Raw we saw things being changed up a little bit and some trainees filling up ringside, and we saw the plastic dividers. How do you think that just even having that type of crowd there affects the overall feel of the show? Does it kind of give it some more life to it?
I was visiting my brother in North Carolina and driving home, so I didn’t see it. The plastic divider sounds a lot like NHL to me. I don’t know. I just feel like there’s no rights and wrongs. It doesn’t feel like there’s any right or wrong to anything. Everybody’s just trying. We’re just trying to give the best product we can give while abiding by guidelines, and keeping people safe and healthy, and giving people the next thing in entertainment. So I don’t know what’s right or wrong.
You know, cinematic sounds really cool. Too much cinematic seems bad. It’s crazy to me. It’s just like, they don’t have really long matches. It’s just, there’s so many directions, and there’s just, at the end of the day, it’s exactly what wrestling is. It’s flavors and ice cream and opinions. And I think some people are going to be like, ‘oh yeah, this is great.’ And other people that are going to be like, ‘oh no, I don’t like this because I saw Shotzi [Blackheart], and she shouldn’t be there.’
I don’t know that I have a strong enough opinion either way. I get what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to provide people with some sort of entertainment, and live content, and escape from what’s going on. … Having people who are on NXT, if I’m being completely honest with you, I don’t think that sounds like a good idea. I wouldn’t expect to see people from Raw or SmackDown in the NXT crowd come Wednesday night. And I don’t think you should see any NXT talent in the crowd come Monday night or Friday night. It doesn’t seem right.
[Performance Center] guys, people who are students trying to figure this out? Sure. That makes perfect sense to me. You want to put them through the COVID test and all that, and give them that experience? That’s great. But people who we’re trying to build as Superstars, maybe we just keep them in front of the camera.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.