Johnny Gargano on Embracing His Dark Side on WWE NXT
After spending his WWE career as everyone’s favorite good guy of NXT, Johnny Gargano reached a crossroads. The superstar known for doing the right thing felt it was time to dirty up the often squeaky clean on screen image. The result is a disgruntled Johnny Wrestling with a renewed chip on his shoulder, someone willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants.
Gargano and real wife Candice LeRae are now on a mission to rule the black and yellow brand by winning the NXT men’s and women’s championships. A step in the right direction could come against the Undisputed Era member Roderick Strong. Gargano blames Strong for losing a recent triple threat match with Bronson Reed. Following social media trash talking, general manager William Regal made it official.
“We’ve been up and down the road together for a very long time. I worked with Roddy a few times on the indies. Without a shadow of a doubt he is one of the best to ever do it. I will say that with full confidence,” Gargano said. “He is unlike anyone out there. He is fast, agile, strong and one of the quickest guys, and I’ll say one of the most explosive guys I’ve ever been in the ring with. You go back and watch the PWG (Pro Wrestling Guerrilla) stuff when he had that crazy run as PWG champion.
“He always brings it. So when you get in the ring with a guy like that, you have to bring it. And I know on Wednesday night we’re going to bring it. There is a sense of pride because he is a workhorse and I’m a workhorse. People have high expectations for this match. I think people are going to be entertained thoroughly by it.”
Ahead of the anticipated showdown we spoke with Gargano about his character evolution the last few months in NXT.
What we’re seeing from you in WWE is quite a departure from the Gargano of old. What has this transformation been like?
Johnny Gargano: It’s been very interesting. It’s something I’ve been very excited about doing for a very long time. I think with everything if you do something for so long it doesn’t get boring. But you kind of lose that creative luster. You kind of lose that spark. So having this new character and new dynamic is something I’ve really been looking forward to. I’ve put a lot of thought into it for a while.
I believe it was likened to if Luke Skywalker actually shook the Emperor’s hand and joined the dark side. It’s actually a great analogy, made by Triple H by the way. You wouldn’t think he would make a nerdy Star Wars reference, but good on him. It’s something new. It’s something fresh. It gives me a whole new canvas to paint on. And as a performer and creative person and artist, it’s something I’m looking forward to.
You’re so beloved within this NXT audience; is it easier to make the transition while there are no fans? Usually, when someone turns, you’re not sure how the fans will respond, and it might take time for them to accept the change.
I think it’s way different honestly. Just for the fact you don’t get that instant reaction. You’re not really sure if things are working or not. You’re doing things where you’re not sure going back through the curtain if something is working really well. It’s hard to know. With this platform and no fans, you can kind of play around a bit and try things out. There is not the risk of a crowd turning or the crowd liking something.
The professional wrestler in me can’t wait to have this character in front of a crowd. I never got the opportunity as this character to cut a promo in front of a crowd. That’s something I’m really looking forward to because it’s a whole different dynamic to be able to talk in front of a live audience and get those initial reactions. For me, who has been a good guy for so long, I’m just chomping at the bit to get in front of people to be honest with you.
This is happening at the same time as your wife Candice LeRae made a similar persona overhaul. You’re getting the chance to work with each other on a more regular basis in WWE. How has that been?
It has been something we’ve talked about for a while. We’re always kind of paired together, but not really. We kind of had on the indies a little bit, but we were never officially together as an act. I feel like now we’re getting that chance. Just from the real side of things, the fact is eventually we are going to have a child whenever that may be. When it happens, unfortunately the way things work out Candice would not be able to wrestle while she is pregnant. That’s just the way things go. You see what happened with Becky [Lynch] and women in general. I would love if I could get pregnant. Candice could keep wrestling and I’d stay home and it’d be great.
The fact is Candice won’t be able to wrestle for that time period. In all honesty, when Candice becomes a mom she isn’t even sure if she would come back. We’ve discussed this. So we wanted to take the opportunity while we had it to work together, to have one final go for both of us as an act. We wanted to be together side-by-side because who knows if we’re going to again.
One of the memorable segments you two have done is “Dinner at the Garganos.” How did that come together?
It was fun to be able to brand something as our thing. It was pitched as a promo on the couch at our house. Me and Candice thought we could make this more. I think we can make this a little bit bigger. It was a celebration. We were coming off “One Final Beat” where we had a successful night defeating Tommaso Ciampa. Candice brought up that maybe we should have a dinner. That turned into having the cup on the table.
That turned into the guy Dustin who edited the dinner scene to switch the dynamic from color to black and white. It brought a different dynamic because for our characters we are the consummate good guys. You look at us and we’re kind of like the all American couple. We are the quintessential family. We are nice people, but I think even nice people have skeletons in the closet and do have a dark side. I think that switch gave the audience a look into that part of our personas.
Shawn Michaels has been a big inspiration and influence for you. How has he helped with this new phase of your career?
Shawn has been a great help. Shawn is, in my mind and a lot of people’s minds, the best to ever do it. So to have him in your back pocket and side-by-side, he has been such an instrumental part of my career and life really. I was eight years old and fell in love with professional wrestling, but to have him along for this ride with me has been an absolute dream come true. I can’t put enough value and stock into what he brings to the table. We’re all lucky to have him.
It has almost been a year since NXT went to two hours on USA Network. How would you rate how the brand has done? What do you think can be done to take NXT to the next level?
It’s so hard to say right now because the world is so different. The world is so different now than when the show started. The biggest thing about NXT was the environment. The atmosphere. When we had the TakeOvers, you had the electricity of the crowd. You go to Full Sail and see the crowd going nuts. It’s a crazy environment. So when you strip that from professional wrestling—what makes wrestling so amazing, that environment—I think as wrestlers and as a brand now is our chance to try different things out and see what works and see what doesn’t work. Everything is not going to be a home run. Some things may suck. Some things may be great. You just don’t know. I think that is kind of where we’re at as far as wrestling is as a whole right now. Just because you take that factor of a crowd out and it changes everything.
My theory of your and Candice’s recent turn is due to Disney World being closed for so long, somewhere that brings you so much joy and an escape.
We haven’t gone back yet. We haven’t had a chance to go yet. It has always been the place we go to for a release. We go to get away. Candice has said many times it is her happy place. The last time we went was actually right before everything shut down. We were in Galaxy’s Edge and Candice’s parents came to town. We took them . One of the servers told us they were shutting down the next day. They told us the news before anyone really knew. It was a real thing. You don’t hear of Disney shutting down very often. Hopefully, we can go again in the near future. I’m just hoping people are being safe, and they are wearing their masks. Then we’ll be okay.
Did you at least get to ride Rise of the Resistance?
Yes! So I was very lucky. A fan actually worked on Rise of the Resistance, so I got to ride it three times in a row. It is literally the best attraction that has ever been made. Nothing else touches it.
There are a lot of new faces in NXT where guys like yourself and Roddy are good resources. Does your approach change now as a locker room resource to make sure guys like a Bronson Reed get started on the right foot?
I think that it’s very important for guys like us who have been there for a bit and done a lot of things in NXT and carried the NXT flag for a while. It is always important to round out your roster. It’s always important to prepare the next wave. I think there are a lot of talented guys in that locker room, guys who are very capable of carrying that flag along with us for a very long time. So it’s up to us to help them along as best we can. They’re adults and professionals. They know what it takes, but any help we can give we try to.
WWE NXT, Wednesdays, 8/7c, USA Network