For 238 days, Tommaso Ciampa was on top of NXT. For the 34-year-old WWE star, it was a position he had always envisioned himself in and he was on the cusp of heading into WrestleMania weekend at his pinnacle.
He just needed 30 more.
“It was literally just four more weeks we had to get through,” Ciampa (real name Tommaso Whitney) told Yahoo Sports. “It was tough to accept that and digest that. I wanted so badly to walk into WrestleMania weekend as the NXT champion and headline TakeOver. It’s still on my bucket list, it’s still something I want to do.”
For Ciampa, another career-defining moment would have to be put on hold due to a neck injury that required surgery. WWE confirmed Ciampa would need surgery on March 6. A day later he had the procedure done.
On the severity spectrum when it comes to injuries, neck is one of the more serious ones a professional wrestler can deal with. In recent memory, neck issues have either prematurely ended or severely limited the careers of Tyson Kidd, Paige and Nikki Bella, to name a few. For Ciampa, a 15-year veteran in the wrestling industry, his future in WWE was quite uncertain.
But, as quickly as everything was turned upside down, the air of uncertainty disappeared.
“When you have the surgery, the biggest question mark is how quickly are you going to get strength and feeling back in your arms and hands,” Ciampa said. “For me, the second I woke up, it was like snapping your fingers. I could open and close my hand again, strength wasn’t at 100 percent, but movement, mobility, control, all of that was there. Feeling and sensation came back immediately, which was a very good sign. [Any uncertainty I had] was more hesitation going into the procedure, me hoping that it worked as well as we thought it would since we caught it early. As soon as I woke up and all of those boxes were checked, there wasn’t much doubt about me returning.”
Still, Ciampa was forced to relinquish the NXT championship and step away from arguably the best feud in professional wrestling — not just WWE — in recent memory. WrestleMania weekend was set up to be the culmination of Ciampa’s ongoing feud with Johnny Gargano. It was also another chance to raise the profile of NXT and its top title.
His obsession with “Goldie” wasn’t just an act.
“That NXT title, in character and out of character, it means the world to me,” Ciampa said. “I think that’s the most prestigious title right now, the most coveted one, the work-rate title. It’s everything that I have always dreamt it to be. It sucked to legitimately just hand it over to someone.”
As he set out on his road to recovery, Ciampa admits there were some positives about having to step away from NXT and WWE. Although NXT is primarily filmed at Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla., the brand’s stars still perform live shows around the country and several times a year, major TakeOver pay-per-view events. Right before his surgery, Ciampa was pulling triple duty, appearing on Raw, Smackdown Live and NXT.
“Things happen for a reason sometimes,” Ciampa admitted. “I had a baby who was six months old at the time who I’ve been home with for all of her firsts — first foods, first steps, first night in the crib. The amount I got to experience in my home life really did outweigh what I was missing in wrestling. It was a blessing in disguise.”
Getting to spend time with his family wasn’t the only thing Ciampa was able to do during his recovery. Unfortunately, the neck injury was the second major one Ciampa had suffered since re-joining WWE in 2015. An ACL tear in 2017 provided a key blueprint for what Ciampa needed to do to get back and — somewhat accidentally — what he needed to change.
As he made progress, he opened up to the world through his social media.
“At first, there wasn’t too much thought put into it, I’ll be honest,” Ciampa said. “I just knew that after the ACL surgery a couple of years prior, I kind of disappeared from social. This time, knowing the [WWE] Network was releasing these pieces on YouTube and stuff that looked into my personal life, I felt less closed off and felt that I could let people in a little.
“After I posted the first video, seeing the response, it told me, OK, this is affecting people in a different way. My Instagram took on a life of its own and became very different from my Twitter. I never used Instagram to post. I’m into fitness, I used it to follow a few people in the fitness world to see exercise ideas and or nutrition ideas. All of a sudden I felt like I was a part of that community. I was letting people into different baby-step methods of rehab and training by sharing my experience. It took on a life of its own. It’s really a blessing. It’s been cool to see people from all parts of the world reach out.”
Even without one of its biggest stars in Ciampa, NXT was undergoing significant changes of its own, especially in the eyes of the casual wrestling fan. Once WWE’s best-kept secret, NXT continued to emerge from the shadow that had traditionally been cast by Raw and Smackdown — the company’s flagship shows. In August, WWE announced that NXT was moving from the WWE Network, where it had aired for several years every Wednesday, to national cable television. The move echoed something Ciampa and the NXT roster had been saying for years.
“When I won the NXT title I got a lot of buzz for continuously calling NXT the “A” show and the “main” roster,” Ciampa said. “None of it was character driven, it was as real as real could be. We had one of the best rosters in professional wrestling and we still do. To me, the biggest difference now is that the outside viewer is seeing us as a third brand, there is no “moving up,” they are all lateral steps. I guess it’s different in the public eye, but from the locker room perspective, people have been waiting patiently and working their butts off for this opportunity. To us, there never was a difference in brands.”
Finally, on October 2, a healthy, re-invigorated Ciampa was finally able to return to the brand he helped elevate.
“To be at my peak when [the surgery] happened, in some weird way, it helped me,” Ciampa said. “It gives me this refresh button and allowed me to be missed. Coming back, it’s the freshest I’ve ever felt physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. I never felt this prepared in my life to step on a stage and perform. It’s something about that time away that has helped me feel the most confident that I ever have.”
While Ciampa has been back for over a month now, his next major hurdle comes this Saturday, when he competes in a “WarGames” match at the appropriately named “TakeOver: WarGames” pay-per-view. Although he has wrestled since his return, a TakeOver match — especially one of this magnitude — is an entirely different beast.
“Physically, [I’ve felt] good. Luckily, I’ve had a fairly light schedule since returning,” Ciampa said. “I think medical, myself, and everyone involved is on board with taking our time and playing this on the cautious side. We have the green light, everything is go, go, go but at the same time we don’t want to get too many reps in too quick. Knock on wood, so far there have been zero setbacks since the surgery so it’s been a very good experience — as good of a neck surgery experience as possible.”
Despite the positive experience, Ciampa acknowledges that his injury and surgery will leave somewhat of a cloud hanging over him every time he steps into the ring. As an elite athlete and entertainer, Ciampa understands that it’s his job to help eliminate any concerns that people may have about his well-being when he performs for WWE.
“It’s more for me understanding that there’s a bump count or that I’m on borrowed time, whatever you want to label it as,” Ciampa said. “Yeah, of course I have a surgically repaired neck now, so maybe my window is smaller. It’s getting the most out of the time I have left and elongating things to the best of my ability. That means being smart with everything going forward, from my training to my warm ups and everything after.”
For now though, there’s work to be done, and not just at “TakeOver: WarGames 3.” Ciampa has a vision for himself — as NXT champion, of course — and for the brand as a whole. Call it his 5-year plan.
“We are equal, NXT is legit,” Ciampa said. “I think some people knew that but now we’re reaching a bigger audience. I joked about it when we got the USA deal, that I couldn’t wait until 5 or 10 years down the road when it’s WrestleMania weekend and NXT is drawing the bigger house. I stand by that. You give us 5 to 10 years on TV, every week on USA, I think NXT is going to become in everyone’s eyes the No. 1 brand in professional wrestling.”
And the black (and yellow) heart of NXT plans on being there for all of it.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Ciampa said.
“This is my home and will be my home for the rest of my career.”
NXT “TakeOver: WarGames 3” will stream live on Saturday, November 23 starting at 7 pm ET on the WWE Network.
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