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Johnny Gargano takes turn towards the darkness in return to NXT action against EC3

In his first appearance since his NXT TakeOver: Chicago II loss to Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano returned to in-ring action with a far more aggressive approach -- prompting questions about the direction of his long-running rivalry against Ciampa. Courtesy of WWE

Over the last three months and a pair of NXT TakeOver specials, we've seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the journey of Johnny Gargano's NXT career.

In one of the greatest matches in NXT history at TakeOver: New Orleans, Gargano righted the biggest wrong of his career and exacted revenge on former tag partner Tommaso Ciampa, who turned on him a year earlier, by winning an unsanctioned match. It was brilliant storytelling.

However, the comedown from that high was severe. At TakeOver: Chicago II last month, Gargano and Ciampa took part in a vicious, and at times even disturbing, street fight. Towards the end of the bout, Ciampa continued to push the envelope when he removed Gargano's wedding ring, spit on it and tossed it away like a piece of trash. Minutes later, he caught Gargano with a DDT amidst some chaos on an exposed portion of the wrestling ring, with the padding removed leaving just planks of plywood, and squeaked out a victory -- essentially eradicating all of the progress Gargano had made.

Even though Gargano had inflicted tremendous amounts of punishment on Ciampa that night, he lost. So where could it possibly go from there? Will there be a rubber match? In a promo last week, Gargano certainly indicated that he wanted another shot at Ciampa, but on the same show, Ciampa set his sights on Aleister Black and the NXT championship. It was announced this week that Ciampa will get his opportunity at the title, in three weeks' time on NXT TV.

There are a whirlwind of different directions this can be booked. The Ciampa-Black showdown could be a fa├žade or a window into the final chapter of Gargano and Ciampa's story, no matter the outcome. Ciampa and Gargano could both find themselves in the NXT championship picture at that point, or out of it completely. We'll have to wait and see, but in the meantime, Gargano found himself standing across the ring from another of the ever-growing list of premier talents NXT currently offers on its roster -- EC3 -- on Wednesday night's edition of NXT.

Though this was the first meeting between Gargano and EC3 in NXT, they squared off previously for independent promotions EVOLVE and AIW and had a few breadcrumbs leading up to it. A couple months ago, during one of EC3's first NXT TV matches, Gargano interrupted the bout when he emerged ringside mid-match to announce that he had signed the contract for his street fight against Ciampa at TakeOver: Chicago II. EC3 brushed the situation off in an interview afterwards, but this was his opportunity for payback despite it being a somewhat trivial slight.

Gargano and EC3 put on a show, thrilling the Full Sail crowd as a more unhinged version of Gargano picked up the win. While there was a minimal build to this match, it was an important victory for Gargano. Coming off the heartbreaking loss to Ciampa in Chicago, Gargano rebounded nicely by defeating a credible opponent and reestablishing himself as one of, if not the, premier pieces of the brand. That he's allowing himself to embrace a more aggressive overall approach is another piece of the puzzle in Gargano's story that should be a key factor moving forward.

As for EC3, we've yet to get a feel for his direction in NXT. He has picked up some wins on NXT TV, but in his three biggest matches -- the North American championship ladder match at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, a tag team bout alongside the Velveteen Dream at the United Kingdom Championship Tournament event and this battle with Gargano -- have all ended in losses. The talent is there and he is full of charisma, but EC3's NXT journey remains a question mark.

We may learn a lot in the weeks to come, as it looks as though the Velveteen Dream could be his next challenge, based on some issues they had as teammates at the aforementioned United Kingdom tournament. Their evolving conflict escalated this week when EC3 interrupted Dream's celebration of a win over Christopher Dijak -- another strong match on this show -- to make his own entrance ahead of his match with Gargano.

The NXT Women's Division is wide open

To this point, no one in the NXT women's division has really pushed Shanyna Baszler since she beat Ember Moon to become NXT women's champion. Nikki Cross had a few moments, as did Toni Storm, but neither felt as though they had a real chance of dethroning the "Queen of Spades."

"It doesn't matter who they are, where they're from or what they've done," Baszler declared in an in-ring promo this week. "The answer will always be the same. I will put them to sleep and you will hear, 'And still, your NXT champion.'"

So who's next? Four women stand out as the likeliest challengers to step up next.

Kairi Sane: Sane, who will take on Vanessa Borne next week, is the only woman on the roster who can claim a victory over Baszler. Sane defeated Baszler in the finals of the inaugural Mae Young Classic, and she would be a logical choice to get a crack at the gold.

Dakota Kai: Kai hasn't had much luck against Baszler, but her story is far from over. After being victimized by Baszler's bullying tactics for months, a plausible next step would be for her character to continue building courage and ultimately face her fears. She found the win column this week against Santana Garrett, who would be a fine addition to the NXT women's division in her own right.

Candice LeRae: While the beginning of LeRae's NXT career revolved around the conflict between her husband, Johnny Gargano, and Tommaso Ciampa -- a situation she was directly involved in -- she has shifted gears lately and put the focus back on her own in-ring career. She is coming off a big win over Lacey Evans last week, and her momentum seems to be swinging upwards.

Bianca Belair: Other than Baszler, no one within the NXT women's division has been as consistently impressive as Belair. Her strength and athleticism are otherworldly, and she has gotten a chance to display her personality in recent weeks. While it might be a bit early to shift Belair into title contention, it would be shocking if she didn't hold championship gold at some point in the future.

Other notes

- The Mighty defeated half of Heavy Machinery, Otis Dozovic in a handicap match. Dozovic's tag team partner, Tucker Knight, was absent due to an attack he suffered at the hands of The Mighty in the weight room earlier in the day. We'll call the birth of his child that same day a happy coincidence.

- Kyle O'Reilly and Roderick Strong of the Undisputed Era will invoke their NXT tag team championship rematch clause next week when they take on the team that beat them, Moustache Mountain. Adam Cole will battle Danny Burch one on one.