The night that changed NXT forever

Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa changed NXT forever with the first of their three battles at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans WWE

Wednesday night marks a historic moment for NXT, as it moves from a pretaped, one-hour show to a live two-hour window on the USA Network. It's the culmination of more than five years of work from an ever-growing list of creative forces and a group of wrestlers that have embraced an "us against the world" mentality. That feeling was on clear display at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, when more than a dozen NXT superstars made a statement that continues to resonate: Pay attention, or you'll miss out on something special.

April 7, 2018, was the third time NXT got to take the stage just before the WWE's biggest showcase of the year, WrestleMania, and expectations were as high as they'd ever been for WWE's third brand. There was the long-awaited return of Tommaso Ciampa, in an "unsanctioned" match against bitter rival Johnny Gargano, a six-way ladder match to crown the first NXT North American champion, and NXT's top three titles on the line in matches featuring some of the fastest-rising stars in the company.

That night NXT eclipsed even the loftiest of projections. ESPN spoke to four of the key players at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans about their memories of that transformative night.

NXT North American championship: Six-man ladder match

"There are times where they'll show like a video package, and you can hear in the building them just rumbling," Adam Cole said. "You're like, 'OK, this has a very good chance of being something special.'"

Cole was one of six wrestlers in the opening match to determine the first NXT North American champion. He was joined by Ricochet and EC3, both making their NXT in-ring debuts, a rapidly rising young star in Velveteen Dream, and a pair of giants in Lars Sullivan and Killian Dain.

There was palpable excitement in the air to see how Ricochet, whose pre-WWE reputation preceded him, would utilize the spectacle and format of a ladder match, and he didn't disappoint. In the opening moments of the contest, he hit a springboard shooting star press to the outside. That set a tone for a match that would rarely slow down while giving each of the six participants a chance to shine.

Ladders were used as weapons and platforms, two ladders were broken with three wrestlers involved in each move, Velveteen Dream hit a particularly memorably flying elbow from the top of an extra-tall ladder, and each participant seemingly had a moment in which it seemed they could win.

"To watch them go out there and steal the show, that's what we're all striving to do; that's healthy competition," said Gargano. "We're all going out there, we're trying to top each other. And you kind of got to have that chip on your shoulder and saying, 'OK, you going to do that? OK, well, if the crowd reacts that way, well, I'll see what I can do.'

Once everyone else had fallen to the wayside, Cole was left as the last one standing, and he began to climb the ladder.

"Of course the No. 1 thought is, 'Don't fall,'" said Cole. "Another thought is, 'I hate heights.' It's scary to be climbing a ladder or a cage or whatever it is that you happen to be climbing. I'm not someone like a Ricochet who is super comfortable up [in] high places. I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I hope this ladder doesn't tip over.'

"I remember climbing that ladder and the vibe. The audience was saying something -- it was almost a collective, 'Oh my god, he is going to win,'" recalled Cole. "That was such a cool feeling to be a part of, to be climbing that ladder and to know that I am going to pull that championship down -- that the crowd's going to erupt -- and they were just thrilled and so excited."

Cole had made history, but his night wasn't over just yet. Because of an injury to Bobby Fish, his compatriot in the Undisputed Era, Cole had to join Kyle O'Reilly and pull double duty with a tag team title match still to come.

In the interim, he had a few moments to catch his breath during the NXT women's championship match.

NXT women's championship: Shayna Baszler vs. Ember Moon

In September 2019, Shayna Baszler is in the midst of her second reign as women's champion and rapidly approaching Asuka's record for most days spent with the belt. But in April 2018, Baszler was still just starting to establish herself in NXT. Her rivalry with Kairi Sane, which began in the finals of the inaugural Mae Young Classic and resumed shortly after this match, entrenched Baszler as NXT's resident villain, but her matches against Ember Moon came at a crucial point in her career and development.

"I was really blessed to work with really experienced and talented girls at a time where I didn't have that experience yet," said Baszler. "It really helped me. It's easier to learn when you have people that are better than you. ... Ember and Kairi both being such lovable babyfaces, it's easy to be the person that's hated."

Moon and Baszler had the unenviable task of having to follow the ladder match, but by the end the fans were plugged in and ready to absorb the gut punch of Baszler, the villain, triumphing.

"I just remember being so full of emotion that all I could do was just scream at the top of my lungs," said Baszler. "There's probably pictures out there somewhere that you can see it. I won the NXT women's championship, and I think every person that wins any sort of championship in anything would say that it's a big kind of stick it to the people who said you wouldn't, or couldn't."

NXT tag team title match (also the finals of the 2018 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic)

Former champions The Authors of Pain were joined by a new pairing of Pete Dunne and Roderick Strong in challenging Cole and O'Reilly for the belts.

Cole did everything he could to prepare himself for the strain of a second match so soon after his first.

"It was incredibly important that I stayed physically active," said Cole. "A ladder match is very taxing on your body, so of course naturally you might think, 'OK, I have 20, 30 minutes, I'm just going to not move.' That's when you start to cramp up, or you get a little bit sore. When I got backstage, I just stayed as active as I possibly could."

All three teams continued the run of stellar performances, but the key to the night came in the closing moments. Strong turned on Dunne and joined forces with Cole, O'Reilly and Fish -- making the Undisputed Era the four-man unit we know today.

NXT Championship: Aleister Black vs. Andrade 'Cien' Almas

From that point, there was the matter of settling a bitter title rivalry between reigning NXT champion Andrade and challenger Aleister Black. It's not often that the brand's signature title gets passed over in favor of another match; in fact, only six out of 26 NXT TakeOvers to this point haven't closed with an NXT championship match, and Gargano and Ciampa were involved in three of those six main events.

It's a match that often gets overlooked because of the matches at the open and close of the show, but Andrade and Black at the peak of their powers in NXT made for a tremendously physical and impressive match. Zelina Vega added tension throughout the match by getting physically involved and riling the audience up by keeping Andrade in the match on multiple occasions.

Black ultimately walked out as the new champion after nearly 20 minutes, marking just the third time in NXT history that a new NXT champion and NXT women's champion were crowned in the same night.

Unsanctioned match: Gargano vs. Ciampa

Even if Gargano and Ciampa hadn't lived up to expectations, TakeOver: New Orleans would've been a monumental night in NXT history.

"It's a very easy place to go back to and have that 'Aha!' moment," said Ciampa. "Whether it was the Roddy turning on Pete Dunne and joining Undisputed Era. Or it was Aleister and Andrade just tearing the roof down, or the ladder match that was just a star-making performance for all six guys involved. Shayna, it was the beginning of this insane reign that she's had. ...[It was] a monumental moment."

This match was almost a year in the making, after their run as a tag team came to an end with a Ciampa injury and a betrayal that no one saw coming.

Ciampa had returned to haunt Gargano and cost him both the NXT championship and, in storyline, his job, lining everything up for a monumental payoff in New Orleans.

There was only one problem: Ciampa hadn't had a match in almost a year, and couldn't risk giving anything way in an untelevised match on NXT's local touring events.

"When you can take that level of authentic feel and passion and storytelling and wrap it around what we do, that's magic. To me, this was one of those things that I love, because it was the classic bad guy-good guy story. That's the art of what we do. It just worked. Sometimes you hit magic." Triple H on Gargano-Ciampa

"Whether it be a televised match or even a live event match, in this day and age, the internet is so accessible and everybody sees everything," said Ciampa. "Even if I did a live show in Florida, that footage would have hit Twitter and social media within seconds. It was kind of a collective decision to protect it. Let's keep it special, let's leave it for New Orleans.

"I think if it wasn't Johnny as an opponent, I think I would've been a little bit more hesitant."

Gargano was fresh off his star-making turn as a singles star in NXT in January, and despite all of Ciampa's time on the shelf, he put an incredible amount of pressure on himself to shine in New Orleans.

"I wanted so badly to hit a home run that night, especially with Johnny coming off of TakeOver: Philadelphia when he wrestled Andrade," said Ciampa. "I'm coming in trying to prove that I can go toe to toe with him. In my own mind, I don't want to be the weak link of the team. I didn't want it to be viewed like Johnny carried me in #DIY, or Johnny went on to stardom and then Ciampa didn't."

Gargano seemed equally up to the task -- one of many reasons he and Ciampa seem to have so much chemistry both as a team and as opponents.

"I want that pressure," said Gargano. "If there's ever a time where I don't want to be the main event, I don't think I should do wrestling anymore. I've always liked the spotlight. When the lights are bright, I do my best work."

There was a different feel to this match, though. From the moment Ciampa was introduced and stepped onto the ramp, there was a well-crafted, concerted effort to toe the line between keeping everyone off balance and engaged.

"Making the call to come out with no entrance music," said Ciampa, "which I'm sure it's been done at some point in WWE, but on such a big stage, and for it to go so alarmingly well as far as the crowd just understanding what was happening -- being so boisterous and so loud and so responsive.

"That was my first match back after three surgeries and being on the sideline for 10 months," Ciampa continued. "In your time away, you visualize how you want everything to go, and there's a lot of anticipation and a little bit of nerves and anxiety that go into it. To come out and just take my time on that walk to the ring and just take in every moment of that. I feel like that's probably the most memorable entrance I've ever had as a performer."

"I remember standing outside with Gorilla after Tommaso made his entrance, and just hearing the crowd," said Gargano. "I'd never heard anything like that before, to where the boos just rained down on him, and then there were huge 'Johnny Wrestling' chants."

The unsanctioned match broke a lot of established WWE norms throughout, including peeling up the ringside mats and doing moves on the exposed concrete floor. Fans were so engaged that they grew silent at several stages of the match.

"There were moments in that match where I could hear Mauro Ranallo doing commentary, which is just so uncommon during bigger shows with big venues like a TakeOver," Ciampa recalled. "Going out we knew to expect the unexpected. We were trying to bring the audience on this ride. It wasn't so much of a concern that every second of the match had to have noise."

Gargano, the character, was seemingly in a position to throw aside all of his predisposed notions of good and evil and deliver everything he felt Ciampa had coming.

"I think the moment when Tommaso was sitting there, looking up at me, and I have the broken crutch, you can just feel people are emotionally invested," said Gargano.

Gargano laid down the crutch, seemingly willing to give Ciampa one more chance at apology and redemption, but when Ciampa tried to swing his knee brace, there was no sympathy left. Gargano used the knee brace to earn a submission win, and the crowd erupted in pure, raw emotion.

"When it came to those final closing moments, we badly wanted them to feel like, 'I was part of something special here' -- for people to be lost in the match and then all of a sudden that bell rings, and they kind of have this awakening moment of like, 'Holy crap, what did I just witness?'

"When you can take that level of authentic feel and passion and storytelling and wrap it around what we do, that's magic," said Paul "Triple H" Levesque, the lead creative force of NXT, in a news conference shortly after the event. "To me, this was one of those things that I love, because it was the classic bad guy-good guy story. That's the art of what we do. It just worked. Sometimes you hit magic."

It was a fitting ending to a show that shaped NXT and the careers of those performers in a significant way. All but three of the wrestlers on that show have won at least one title in WWE, and everyone on that show either remains as part of the core of NXT as they make their move to the USA Network or has moved on to Raw or SmackDown.

"New Orleans was just special," said Ciampa. "I think, forever, anybody who was part of that show is going to remember that they were part of that show."