Q&A: Johnny Gargano on NXT, Video Games, the Browns, Learning From Shawn Michaels and More

“I’m still that indie kid at heart, I’m still that guy who wrestled in front of 15 people and never knew he’d make it to WWE.”
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Johnny Gargano is set to kick off Survivor Series weekend with a featured singles match at Saturday’s NXT TakeOver: War Games.

The 31-year-old Gargano has been prominently involved in an ongoing storyline with former best friend and current NXT champion Tommaso Ciampa. His inability to defeat Ciampa has prompted a violent streak that has caused issues with Aleister Black, who his opponent this Saturday.

Gargano spoke with Sports Illustrated about who he believes are the best wrestlers in the world, his work as an ambassador for 2K’s new Season Five of SuperCard, his love for the Cleveland Browns, and his journey from the indies to NXT.

Justin Barrasso: 2K just announced this week that Season 5 of WWE SuperCard is now available and that you are one of their “ambassadors,” or featured stars. Did you ever think you would reach this point of success when you were so embroiled in the indies?

Johnny Gargano: This was always my goal, to be here, but to be the Season 5 Ambassador for WWE SuperCard and work with 2K blows my mind. I’m still that indie kid at heart, I’m still that guy who wrestled in front of 15 people and never knew he’d make it to WWE. I’m still that person. So now, to be a featured player here and to be in WWE SuperCard and 2K19, it’s amazing.

I’m a huge wrestling video game fan. I grew up on wrestling video games. I played every single one of them, so now to be able to work with 2K, it’s something I’m very passionate about. It’s a dream come true.

JB: Obviously your in-ring work speaks for itself, but how do you compete among the WWE and NXT talent in terms of your skill level in video games?

JG: I am moderate. Wrestling video games have evolved a lot, and given my schedule, I don’t have the chance to play them as much as I used to or as I’d love to. So I’m way better at older games, like the No Mercy for N64. I can hold my own now, but I’m not going to dominate anybody.

I played WWE SuperCard a few days ago, and I went on this run where I was beating everybody and I felt very confident in myself. So when I get on a roll, I’m great. But when I start going down, it’s all downhill for me.

JB: In a winner-take-all setting, what is your go-to game?

JG: I’m a big N64 guy. That was probably my most-played system growing up, so obviously No Mercy. But I also loved Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest and Madden, so I was all over the board. I’m a big sports game and wrestling game, but I can also go all over the map with different games, as well.

JB: Speaking of sports, I know you’re from Cleveland. Is there a certain football team you prefer?

JG: I’m a humungous Browns fan. My 30th birthday was actually at the Browns’ stadium. [My wife] Candice hooked that up for me. I’m a huge Browns fan.

My birthday is in August and the stadium was closed that day, so no one else was there except me, my friends, and family.

JB: The last time the Browns won the league championship was 1964, which was before the modern era of the Super Bowl. Despite the team’s struggles during the majority of your life, is there one Browns game that sticks out as your favorite or reaffirmed your fandom?

JG: Some Browns fans are pessimistic, but I’m very optimistic. Obviously I’m very passionate about the NFL Draft, because that’s kind of our Super Bowl. So every year, whenever the Browns draft somebody, I’m always like, ‘There he is, we got him!’

I didn’t feel that way about Brandon Weeden, but I felt that about Brady Quinn and Johnny Manziel. Obviously now, I’m a huge Baker Mayfield guy. I’ve got a Baker Mayfield jersey, and I feel like he’s going to take us to the promised land.

I love the way Baker Mayfield carried himself in college, I love his confidence. It really resonates with me. I’m kind of a smaller guy in my given profession and people always told me I’m too small, so I know how it feels to have people tell you you’ll never be anything. You kind of get this chip on your shoulder that makes you work harder, and Baker Mayfield has that chip on his shoulder.

JB: Is there a wrestling version of the Cleveland Browns?

JG: Myself. This Browns team is young and hungry with tons of talent, they just need to be guided in the right direction. And Tommaso Ciampa would be Art Modell.

JB: Even as a competitor, you can’t help but admit Ciampa is wildly talented. What makes Ciampa such a compelling character?

JG: For me, the most compelling thing about a lot of different characters, including Tommaso, is the level of intrigue. You never know what’s going to happen next. NXT is unpredictable, and they are not afraid to tell a lot of different stories and compelling stories.

The best part of watching any show is that feeling of being sucked in. If I’m watching Breaking Bad, there is something compelling about Walter White. There is something compelling about every character, and I think that’s what makes NXT so great right now. There are so many compelling characters, and you never know how those characters are going to interact with one another. That’s why I think NXT is must-see TV and why TakeOvers are so special. You get all those stories to come to a head and it creates magic. And TakeOver: War Games this Saturday is going to be magic.

JB: Your TakeOver match against Aleister Black is another reminder to show you as one of, if not the single, best wrestler in the world. In terms of storyline, is this match part of the larger plan for Johnny Gargano to become NXT champion, even at all costs?

JG: In my head, I made a mistake. The reason Tommaso Ciampa is NXT champion is because of me. I admitted that, and it’s my mistake to fix. So this is between me and Ciampa. I am the one to beat Tommaso Ciampa. I’ve said time and time again that if there is a hero at the end of the story, I’m the one to do it. I have to do it.

Aleister Black, unfortunately, got in the way. I have nothing personal against Aleister Black. I have no problem against the guy, but he got in the way. The end justifies the means, and the end is going to be Johnny Gargano defeating Tommaso Ciampa for the NXT championship. That will fulfill a promise, little kids will be happy, everyone will be going nuts. If one guy in Black needed to be jumped for that to happen, then I’m sorry. It had to happen.

JB: Shawn Michaels’s class at the WWE Performance Center is allegedly for only the most exclusive talent. Are you part of the class? And what has Michaels taught you?

JG: Yes. Shawn Michaels has always been a hero of mine, he was painted on my wall growing up. To be able to work with him and pick his brain is truly the best-case scenario.

When I moved to Orlando, it was my first time moving from Cleveland. You never know what to expect. But to be able to go and work with Shawn Michaels and learn from him, it’s just mind-blowing. And not just Shawn, but also Triple H, as well. Their minds work on a different level, and you can tell why NXT is as hot as it is and why stories are so compelling. They are running the show. It’s a dream come true. If you told me when I was eight years old that one day I’d work for WWE with an action figure and work as an ambassador for a video game, and also work side-by-side with Shawn Michaels and Triple H, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy!’ But here we are, and it’s amazing.

JB: What is the primary characteristic Triple H instills in his students?

JG: Hunger. Never be complacent. You have to want to be the best. He has that in him. If you don’t have it, I don’t know if he can bring it out of you. But if you have it deep inside of you, he’ll get it out of there. He wants you to do what you can to steal the show.

JB: The quality of wrestling in NXT is incredibly high. Does the roster take pride in comparing itself to the main roster’s Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, or New Japan’s Kenny Omega?

JG: It’s always somewhere in the back of my mind because I am a competitive person at heart. I always want to be the best. It genuinely pains me when I don’t have the best match on the show. That’s something that eats me alive.

But professional wrestling is very opinion-based. If you love my work, you may not like Adam Cole’s work. If you love Adam Cole’s work, you may not like Aleister Black’s work. It’s all about personal preference. I don’t think there is ever making one set audience happy. It’s just finding the happy medium to put your best foot forward and play your song. If people dig it, cool. If someone likes what I do, awesome, I’m super pumped about it. If they don’t, sorry, but I’m going to keep being me.

JB: I completely agree that wrestling is very opinion-based. With that being said, who, in your opinion, are the best three wrestlers in the world?

JG: The best wrestler I’ve ever been in the ring with is Daniel Bryan. People ask me all the time, ‘What makes him the best wrestler in the world?’ You don’t know until you’re in the ring with him. He just has something about him.

I’ll also say AJ Styles. AJ is amazing. And strictly WWE-based, I’ll go Seth Rollins, as well. Seth Rollins is putting on amazing performances and I give him credit because their schedule is not easy. They go in, night in and night out, and he brings it every time. Those are also my three dream matches: Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles, and Seth Rollins.

JB: You may be far too immersed in the moment to appreciate accolades, but do moments like the recognition by 2K for Supercard remind you of how far you have progressed in pro wrestling? Or, in some ways, does it remind you of how far you still need to go?

JG: I take things one day at a time. I still think back to being that dude who used to have to pack t-shirts in his rolling bag, go to a merch table, and sell t-shirts for $20. That’s how I made the majority of my money. I would travel ten hours in a car for $100. I never want to get complacent now that I’ve got to this point, and I think the sky is the limit. That’s the beautiful thing about WWE and this industry. You can take things as far as you want to go. I want to go as far as I possibly can. I love this business, I’m very passionate about this business, and these things are super cool for me. So whatever I can do—whether it’s work with 2K, be the ambassador for SuperCard, main event TakeOvers—that’s what I’m going to do and I’m going to keep doing it. This is something I’m very passionate about and I love very deeply.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.