Johnny Gargano remains one of the cornerstones of NXT, and he looks to deliver one of the best matches of the week this Wednesday when he enters the ring against Roderick Strong.
Gargano and Strong are two of the best pro wrestlers in the world, and a prolonged program has plenty of potential. Neither is currently in the NXT title picture, but they will add a tremendous amount to the product, especially when competing against AEW.
The 32-year-old Gargano had been scheduled to travel this summer and be a featured guest of the San Diego Comic Con, which was instead held virtually. One of NXT’s most passionate performers and a proud ambassador for wrestling, Gargano is best known for his work with Tommaso Ciampa. He is also outspoken about his self-confidence issues, and constantly offers positivity and inspiration to his fan base.
Gargano spoke with Sports Illustrated and discussed working with Strong, his ongoing battle with self-confidence, and even touched on the lasting impact of Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart.
Justin Barrasso: Roderick Strong is a tremendously talented wrestler. Though you two work different styles, you also share a lot of similarities, and both of you arrived in WWE in your own unique manner. How far back does your history with one another date?
Johnny Gargano: I’ve known Roddy for a long time. I was on the EVOLVE side of the indies and he was on more of the ROH side, so we didn’t come about too frequently, but we did lock up a few times in PWG. After he was done with ROH, he came to EVOLVE and we had a few matches there.
For my money, Roddy is the most explosive professional wrestler on the planet. He brings something to the table that very few people have. His athleticism is off the charts, and he has a gas tank that does not quit. He is the definition of a workhorse. Some people consider me a workhorse, too. When you have two workhorses, two guys that are hungry, and want to show the world what they’ve got, you have a great mix for a great professional wrestling match on Wednesday night.
JB: I know there is something special about being champion, but a match between yourself and Roddy needs no enhancements. Personally, what are you looking to prove in the ring?
JG: I was pretty excited after last week’s triple threat match [against Strong and Bronson Reed]. I got to mix it up quite a bit with Roddy, and there were people online talking about how they’d like to see a singles match between myself and Roddy, or even a match at a TakeOver. I read someone say they could watch us wrestle for an hour, and that’s quite a compliment.
I’m looking to prove that I’m still the ace, that I’m still the guy. I may not have the NXT Championship, I may not have the North American Championship, but I still believe I am the face of this brand. I still believe, when you watch NXT, you watch for Johnny Gargano, who can go in the ring like no one else.
JB: Is that a goal down the line–a 60-minute Iron Man match against Roddy?
JG: I’ve yet to have an Iron Match in WWE. I’ve had a few Iron Man matches in my independent career, and one was against Seth Rollins a long, long time ago, but I’ve yet to have one under the WWE umbrella. The Iron Man match, for me, is what made me want to become a professional wrestler. Watching Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart [at WrestleMania XII in 1996], that was the defining moment of my childhood. The boyhood dream came true, Shawn Michaels won the title.
I would love to be able to have an Iron Man match in WWE. Having one against Roderick Strong, that would be trouble. Like I said, he does not get tired.
JB: July is a special month for wrestling, including wrestlers’ birthdays, including Triple H, Shawn Michaels, and Bret Hart. With all of their history, Bret and Shawn will forever be intertwined. I know you have grown close with Shawn over the past few years, but how do you compare the work of those two legends?
JG: First of all, they’re both great. Easily top five of all-time. I have so much respect for both. I loved Bret as a kid, but Shawn is my number one of all-time, even more so now that I have a relationship with him and I’m able to work side-by-side with him. I now have even more respect for him and the way his mind works. I was even just talking with my mom about that. She used to make me Shawn Michaels costumes. I was a kid that used to go to autograph sessions to take a picture with Shawn Michaels, I was a kid that dressed up like him, and now I ask him for advice. It’s a dream come true.
Shawn and Bret, they’re both great. They both influenced a generation of performers. I don’t think I’d be a wrestler today if it weren’t for those two guys. I can’t even imagine what today’s style of wrestling would be like without those two guys. They ushered in the workhorse style. I can’t imagine wrestling without them.
JB: Obviously a fantasy match, but Bret and Shawn tagging together against you and Tommaso Ciampa would have been amazing.
JG: If we can still make that happen, I’ll still do it. That would be so great. Me and Tommaso have pushed in the past to wrestle Shawn and Hunter, and that is something that could potentially happen, or maybe something we’re just dreaming. But me and Tommaso against Shawn and Bret would be amazing. That would have been a really fun dynamic.
JB: You had a run with the NXT Championship, giving you a unique perspective on the pressures and opportunities present when serving as one of the company’s top stars. Why is Keith Lee the right person for this role? And what has impressed you most about his journey in NXT?
JG: Keith is one of those guys that is just so special. A lot of people bring up the ‘It’ factor. Keith has that. He is immensely talented, and he can move like no big man can. As a big guy, at over 300 pounds, he’s more athletic and more agile than me. Winning that title, it’s a special moment.
For him to become NXT Champion, and make history by having the North American title at the same time, it validates everything he has worked for. I’ve had conversations with Keith about this–you doubt yourself when you get here. You question how good you really are, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get that opportunity. When you actually achieve that goal, that lifelong dream, it’s indescribable. I’m very happy that Keith, a genuinely good person, was able to accomplish and experience that.
JB: You and your wife Candice LeRae were scheduled to be at the famed San Diego Comic Con this summer, which instead was held virtually. What was the highlight of the event? And would you like to be there in-person next summer?
JG: The San Diego Comic Con is a bucket list item of mine. I’ve never gone. This year was supposed to be my first time, but that obviously did not happen. In the future, fingers crossed, I am going to be there. I would plan my flight right now if I could.
For me, being able to take part in the San Diego Comic Con from home and be involved in different events, I loved talking about stuff that I’m passionate about–nerd stuff, geek stuff, all the stuff that I like. A highlight for me was being a part of the Mattel Elite Squad and those reveals.
When we were filming that, Candice and I would actually close our eyes as they were scrolling through the reveals. We wanted to be surprised. And to officially announce that Candice is getting a figure is so cool. One day, our child is going to be able to get an action figure of his mom and dad. That’s pretty frigging awesome.
The funny part about that is only I’d read the script where it said, ‘Candice announces her figure.’ She hadn’t read the script, and that was my most memorable moment–telling Candice she was getting her first action figure.
JB: You recently discussed your self-confidence issues on social media. Coming from you, someone near the top of your industry, that seems surprising, but people forget there is a person inside the character. You have a wonderful support system, including your wife, to deal with negativity. What advice can you share with people who may not have those same resources?
JG: I do have a great support system, but I will also say that I’m still human. I still read things that affect me, I still see things that affect me. People see us as these characters, and they see us on social media, and maybe it feels like we’re not real. But I can promise you, we’re all very real. I look at my phone, other people look at their phones, and we see it.
I’m very on record about my self-confidence issues. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t watch my matches. I don’t want to watch something that I’ll harp on and will consume me and be all I think about for weeks. I grew up as a chubby kid, and I still deal with that today. I still look in the mirror and I still have issues with my body. There are still times I only see imperfection.
I know there is merit to criticism when you’re in the spotlight, and you need thick skin. But I am very lucky that I have my wife and I am very lucky that I have a very loving family. My mom actually handles Twitter worse than I do. She’ll search my name and she’ll take it way more personally. And I’ll say, ‘Mom, everyone is mean on Twitter.’
In order to deal with the negativity, you have to find what makes you happy. And you need to be OK being yourself. That’s my biggest message. I know it gets tough, I know it gets hard when all you see is imperfection, but you need to be able to look at the mirror smile at what you see.
JB: This week’s match with Roddy Strong is must-see viewing, but you also have competition airing at the same time as AEW constantly puts out an entertaining show on Wednesday nights. Why should viewers make sure they are watching your match this Wednesday night?
JG: I am very much a wrestling fan and very much of the belief that competition makes everyone better. I think both shows are great in their own ways, and I’m super happy that there is so much great content out there. As a wrestling fan, it’s a cool thing to be part of.
I know a lot of people are very excited to see me and Roddy one-on-one. We are two guys that have been scratching and clawing for a very long time, and competition is going to bring out the best in us. We’re not tone-deaf, we know the stakes. We want to put out the best product possible, I want to put out the best product possible, and we’re going to go out there and put on a match you want to see.