Johnny Gargano will defend the North American title on Wednesday evening in a steel cage match against Bronson Reed.
The only three-time North American champion in NXT history, Gargano is in the midst of a career-defining run as champ. He has worked with a variety of opponents during this stretch, ranging from Damian Priest to Leon Ruff to Kushida, all of whom have left their feud with Gargano in better standing than when they started. He now seeks to place a brighter spotlight on the work of Reed, a versatile big man, in a match that will be far different from their initial encounter last month at NXT TakeOver: Stand & Deliver.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Gargano discussed the totality of his work with The Way, his current run as champion and his history of wrestling in a steel cage.
Sports Illustrated: You were the perfect babyface in NXT, but you are now thriving as a heel, finally have your signature title run. I know you had history earlier in your career on the indies as a heel, but did you know it would work this well in NXT? And how did you come up with “The Way,” which includes your wife Candice LeRae, Indi Hartwell and Austin Theory?
Johnny Gargano: It’s funny you said that. For so long in NXT, people thought I was the consummate underdog babyface. I should put the Michael Jordan meme here, because I took that personally. I really did. I’m always out to prove people wrong. I liken this to my Cleveland underdog mentality. If you tell me I can’t do something, that makes me want to do it more. If you say I can’t do it, I’ll say I definitely can.
People forget that, on the indies, I was always a heel. Sure, in NXT, I was an underdog babyface, but that was new to me. That was something I was learning how to do. From the moment I started on the indies, I was always a heel, and I could not wait to show this side of me. When I was a babyface, nearing the end of my run, after I lost the NXT championship, that was the end of that pure Johnny Wrestling story. That was the top of it for me, and I always imagined turning after that. I was just consumed with constant ideas of what I could do when I turned and when I showed this other side. I wrote ideas for music, gear and stories in these Word documents, and I sent them to Hunter [Paul “Triple H” Levesque], I sent them to Shawn [Michaels], I sent them to everybody.
The idea was always to place Candice with me. We’d really wanted to work together. Knowing how talented she is, I wanted to get her as bright a spotlight of her own—not as Johnny Gargano’s wife, but as Candice freakin’ LeRae, one of the best wrestlers in the world. I always wanted a stable as well. I had the idea of Austin Theory being with me a long time ago. I’m talking a long time ago, like right when he got signed to NXT. I remember saying to Hunter, “He could be like my Randy [Orton].” I felt like I could help mold him into what he can be; he just needed the right platform.
Indi is someone we didn’t know too well, but it was easy to see her potential and we felt like she’d fit in with us really well. Now, to see what we’ve transformed into, this sort of dysfunctional family, it’s completely different than what I imagined. It has a sitcom vibe, and that’s definitely not what I wrote up in those Word documents. But things happened on camera, and we went with it. The dynamic just feels right, and hopefully it helps Indi and Austin in the long way, especially showing off their personalities. The Way came from The Gargano Way. We likened it to Evolution a bit. And that’s the story of how it came together.
SI: Not that there’s anything wrong with a comedy act, but that’s not what this is. The sitcom flavor works because it is balanced out in the ring with outstanding wrestling.
JG: That’s the biggest key to what we do. We need entertainment now more than ever, so we’ll be silly, we’ll be goofy. I’m happy to be silly and goofy, but I’ll also go 30 minutes with Kushida. That’s what makes us believable and not becoming a comedy act. Like you said, there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what we’re doing. I always look to Kurt Angle as my inspiration. Kurt could wear a tiny cowboy hat one minute and make you laugh, but then he could be in the ring having a crazy, classic match. You can be entertaining outside the ring, but as soon as that bell rings, you need to be able to flip the switch and turn it on.
SI: I always think of Kurt’s feud with Shawn Michaels, where he was as fearsome and intimidating as ever, yet he also sang to taunt Michaels.
JG: He sang “Sexy Kurt.” It’s one of my favorites, too.
SI: Kurt was incredibly fun to watch when he was clowning around, but he always made sure you took him seriously.
JG: We have so many conversations about this with Indi and Austin. If we go out and put on a show in the ring, we’ll never be a joke. That’s the key. And it’s fun to show off a different side of my personality. You’re seeing as close to the real Johnny Gargano as I’ve ever shown on camera. Like me trying to bust the door down, or breaking William Regal’s pencils, that’s just me. It’s nothing that was written down or scripted out. I’ve built enough trust that they know I’m going to make my segments memorable. If you give me 30 seconds on camera, I’m going to make it memorable.
SI: One of the qualities that makes your work so special is the way you make others passionate about your passion. That was on display again last week with your Avengers-esque video. How did that come together?
JG: I kind of wrote that, even though that’s not necessarily what I planned to do. They came to me with an idea of an Avengers-esque commercial for Candice and Indi, and I kind of just started riffing the verbiage. Everyone that works in our department is amazing, and they made it come to life. We loved the way it came out.
SI: Candice LeRae is such a tremendously talented professional wrestler. What did her tag team title victory with Indi mean to you?
JG: Candice earned that moment. She’s earned it for everything she’s done inside the ring for NXT, but outside the ring as well. She deserved that moment. I tweeted that I’ve been there for all the blood, sweat and tears she’s endured, and that’s real. I thought it should have happened a long, long time ago, but I can take extra pride in seeing her accomplish this with Indi, someone we genuinely love. Indi has such a bright future. For Candice to share that moment with Indi, it’s super cool. It’s so well deserved and well earned. We wrestled for so long on the indies, and these moments are validation for all that hard work. What she accomplished, that’s a moment you dream about.
SI: Working with a variety of opponents is one of your strongest attributes. In this title run, in addition to Bronson Reed, you have had programs with Damian Priest, Leon Ruff and Kushida. To me, this run has been your defining moment as champion, placing you in an even higher caliber of performer.
JG: I was very open about having a run with the title, and it’s my chance to make other guys, too. Now Leon goes into something with Swerve, and he’s taken more seriously. He can do so much; he’s so talented. Having a 24-minute TakeOver match with Kushida and being able to show the world what he’s capable of doing, that’s something I take very seriously. He’d shown that all around the world, but this was his chance to show it here, so I really wanted that match with him. He works incredibly hard and deserves that spotlight. And Priest is amazing. He’s incredibly talented, and he’s a guy that takes opportunities and runs with them. He’s gone to new heights, and everything he did with Bad Bunny at WrestleMania was next-level.
Like you said, I do think this is my best run. I take pride in the fact that I can give certain spotlight to guys and bring others up. I can make other guys along the way, and I think that’s my role now. We have such a talented locker room, so that’s incredibly easy for me to do.
SI: You and Bronson share more similarities than people realize. What do you respect most about him and his work?
JG: Bronson is a guy who scratched and clawed on the indies for a very long time. Now for him to be here and have this opportunity, it means a lot. He’s someone who is immensely talented, and he’s a very, very big boy who is capable of doing some athletic feats that someone his size should not be able to do. That is very cool to see, and he’s a throwback. I liken him to someone that is Vader-esque: He can do a backflip; he can maul you. You’re going to see him step into the cage and step up to the moment, and it’s going to be incredible to see him do what he’s capable of doing.
SI: What is your history in cage matches? I remember covering a Kurt Angle–Cody Rhodes cage match on the indies, which was the main event of the show, and it took roughly 45 minutes for the cage to be set up. Do you have any similar memories?
JG: I had the cage match with Aleister Black on NXT television, and I was in one a long, long time ago on the indies. It was a really bad, makeshift cage. We had guys outside the ring holding up the cage.
SI: Was that in Ohio?
JG: It was in Cleveland at Turner’s Hall, with guys literally outside the ring with their hands pressed against the cage to make sure it didn’t collapse and fall onto fans, which happened once at a cage match I was watching. The cage fell and hit the whole first row. That’s indie wrestling. It’s raw, it’s rugged and it’s organic, all of which makes it so beautiful.
SI: Do you remember if you won?
JG: It’s been so long, but it was a WarGames-type match, and I believe we did win. So I haven’t had too much experience in steel cages, but I’m confident in the way WWE will set up this cage.
SI: We shouldn’t go into an interview without discussing the Cleveland Browns. This was a phenomenal season for the team, which ended in a tight playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. But the Browns beat the Steelers in the playoffs and were only two games away from making the Super Bowl.
JG: When Patrick Mahomes went down in the second half, it seemed like that was our chance. And then Chad Henne broke our hearts.
SI: And that was a risky call by Andy Reid to end the game on a pass, but it worked. And though that was heartbreaking, the future looks extremely promising for the Browns.
JG: We made the playoffs for the first time in forever, then beat the Steelers and beat them bad, which was the best game I’ve ever watched in my life. Then the game with the Chiefs was heartbreaking, but I feel pretty good about this upcoming season.
Our reloaded team is stacked. The way [general manager] Andrew Berry was able to construct this team is mind-blowing to me. You’ve got Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney on the same line, not to mention our whole defensive backfield has completely changed. We have John Johnson III, Grant Delpit, Greg Newsome II and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, my favorite pick of the entire NFL draft. Everyone in Cleveland is finally thinking Super Bowl, and that feels attainable. Me and Vic Joseph were talking about putting down a bet, betting that Baker Mayfield wins MVP. We’re that confident in the Cleveland Browns.
SI: Shifting back to the cage match, while this likely won’t pull from the Bret-Owen cage match from SummerSlam 1994, you could use some interesting callbacks from the In Your House: Mind Games match from ’96 pitting Shawn Michaels against Mankind, though that didn’t take place in a cage. What will you watch beforehand to prepare? And what can people expect to see in this match?
JG: The one match I will watch is Rikishi–Val Venis. I keep hearing that Bronson Reed is going to come off the top of the cage with a splash and squish me, so I’ll make sure to watch that and see how Val Venis did that without moving, even though I plan on moving out of the way.
And you don’t see a cage match very often in NXT. It is a special occurrence in our brand. It’s something that is important, and this is a match with two completely different styles and dynamics. Bronson Reed is 300 pounds, but he can fly off the top rope and do backflips, and now he’ll be inside of a steel cage with me. It’s must-see viewing.
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.