Johnny Gargano chats with Daily DDT about facing Roderick Strong on Wednesday’s WWE NXT, wanting Kyle O’Reilly at TakeOver XXX, working with his wife Candice LeRae and why they’re the Starlord and Gamora of the black-and-gold brand, and more.
Johnny Gargano has long been viewed by many to be the face of WWE NXT for the longevity and outstanding success he’s had there, and despite his lack of luck lately in Triple Threat matches on the show, that likely isn’t going to change any time soon.
He’s hoping to turn his luck around on tonight’s episode of NXT on USA Network at 8/7c when he goes one-on-one with Undisputed Era’s Roderick Strong. Gargano called out Strong on Twitter earlier this week for getting pinned by Bronson Reed in last Wednesday’s Triple Threat match, which cost Gargano a spot in the NXT North American Championship Ladder matchup at TakeOver XXX on August 23.
Strong and Gargano are no strangers to one another, as the former NXT champion spent a majority of 2019 feuding with Strong, Adam Cole and the rest of Undisputed Era. They also clashed on the April 24, 2019 edition of NXT in an outing that ended in a win for Gargano.
Going into their highly-anticipated rematch this Wednesday night, Gargano feels that even though it’s an entirely different story this time around with where both men are in their respective careers and journeys at the moment, it’s bound to be a barn burner, nonetheless.
“I’m doing a whole different dynamic, a whole different character and he’s on the other swing of that as well,” he said in an interview conducted over the phone on Tuesday. “I think that’s what’s going to make this match different, but the one thing that won’t be different is whenever me and Roderick Strong get in the ring together, it is guaranteed to be a barn-burner. It’s guaranteed to be something you won’t want to miss. There’s two workhorses. A guy like Roddy, one of the most explosive professional wrestlers I have ever been in the ring with and I’ve been in the ring with him a lot. I can guarantee you that when you step in the ring with a guy like Roddy, you got to bring your A-game and that’s what we plan to do on Wednesday.”
Gargano hasn’t given up on his pursuit of the NXT North American Champion, a title he held briefly at the onset of 2019. He failed to regain the gold from Keith Lee at TakeOver: In Your House and again in a Triple Threat match against Finn Balor and Lee later that month.
Haven’t not been beaten in that Triple Threat or last week’s against Strong and Reed, Gargano has a legitimate claim for being involved in the match at TakeOver XXX that will determine the new North American champ. A win over Strong could be what convinces NXT general manager William Regal to give another chance to quality.
“Obviously, I need to rethink my Triple Threat strategy because it is not going well for me currently,” he said. “But you would think that if I beat Roderick Strong, the same way Bronson Reed beat Roderick Strong, that would put me in line to be put into the NXT North American Championship Ladder match, so you never know. I’m sure Mr. Regal will be watching. Hopefully he’s taking notes, and when I beat Roderick Strong, he just pencils my name in there.”
It isn’t a stretch to say Gargano has virtually done it all in NXT. In his five years on the black-and-gold brand, he’s won all of the titles and has faced almost every notable name that has come through.
That makes it all the more difficult to decide what bout would be best for him to have at the 30th installment of TakeOver next month, assuming he isn’t vying for the North American title. He’s gone on record in saying he’d love to have a “dream match” against either Triple H or Shawn Michaels, who are both heavily involved with the brand behind the scenes, but as far as active competitors go, Kyle O’Reilly leads his list of opponents he wants to wage war with on a TakeOver stage.
“One guy I haven’t had a singles match with in NXT who I’ve worked with a few times on the indies, I’m going to say Kyle O’Reilly,” Gargano said. “I think me and Kyle O’Reilly could have a heck of a one-on-one contest, so I’ll say that one right off the top of my head. I’ll go Kyle O’Reilly. Anyone from Raw or SmackDown? I have also said, and I’ve said this on record, if Edge would like to grab his significant other, me and Candice would love a mixed tag match against Edge and Beth Phoenix. I’ll throw that one out there. I’ll also throw out Seth Rollins, I’ll throw out AJ Styles, and I’ll throw out Daniel Bryan. Those are my dream matches if I had a choice to take place in NXT or anywhere for that matter. I’ll say those three right there.”
No one knows more about competing (and thriving) on a TakeOver stage than Johnny Gargano. He’s been a part of more than anyone else since 2016 and has produced a slew of instant classics with the likes of Adam Cole, Tommaso Ciampa and Andrade, just to name a few.
Regardless of who he’s up against at TakeOver XXX, the match is guaranteed to be great. It’s those TakeOver specials, Gargano believes, that set the brand apart from everything else in WWE and in the world of wrestling on the whole.
“It’s so hard now given this current era of professional wrestling with no fans because obviously the atmosphere and the electricity and the environment are what TakeOvers a TakeOver,” he said. “It’s the crazy, rowdy fans. We don’t have that, but to have an In Your House, that was awesome. The ’90s kid in me thought it was the coolest thing ever. Luckily my pitch went through to come out of the In Your House house. Me and Candice’s dinner table is located in the In Your House house, which is pretty cool. I got to set the temperature to 69 degrees and give a thumbs-up to the handsome Doc Hendrix, the picture of him in the In Your House house. All that stuff, the TakeOvers in general, it’s super special to be a part of and I think they’re all different and special in their own ways.”
Leading into TakeOver: In Your House, the NXT Universe finally got to see Gargano work alongside his wife Candice LeRae for the first time in a regular role on TV. Both turned to the dark side during their latest feud with Ciampa earlier this year and have been one of the best parts of NXT since then.
Candice originally joined her husband in NXT in January 2018, so this current incarnation of their act has been years in the making. The timing couldn’t have been better, either, as Gargano realizes anything could happen and that LeRae could’ve gotten pregnant before they had a chance to work together.
“We have wanted to work together for a very, very long time. We were never officially together as an act. It’s always been one of those wink-wink, nudge-nudge, like ‘Johnny and Candice are married, we’ll mention Johnny during Candice’s matches, Candice will come out after Johnny’s matches,’ one of those things. In my head, we were never officially an act and we both thought it would be really cool if we were able to be on-screen together as this sort of power couple liken to Triple H and Stephanie, or someone like that. It gives such a different dynamic to both of our characters and for both of us, you never know how things go.
“We’ve both been on record talking about how we want to have children in the future and for that to happen, Candice isn’t going to be able to wrestle during that time period,” Gargano continued. “We want to take that opportunity while we have it still to be able to work together because you never know what might happen. Candice might be like, ‘Being a mom is great! I’m never coming back!’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I’m by myself now, cool.’ That could totally happen and I don’t blame her at all because our kids could be awesome. We wanted to take every opportunity we could to be able to work together and it’s literally a dream come true to work alongside your wife, my best friend. It’s great. We’re able to bounce ideas off each other, work together in tag matches on the biggest stage possible. It’s pretty cool.”
From Triple H and Stephanie McMahon to Shawn Michaels and Sensational Sherri, Johnny and Candice have drawn inspiration from several power couples of pro wrestling’s past. He’s also noticed similarities to Star-Lord and Gamora of Guardians of the Galaxy fame.
“There’s so many different ones, but you kind of also take things from different walks of life and different eras of entertainment and being us in general,” he said. “You can’t really replicate our real-life dynamic because sometimes what you see on the screen is actually what you get. We kind of stumbled into this, we kind of have this weird Star-Lord and Gamora vibe going on, which we didn’t really mean to do, but I saw it one day on TV. I’m kind of goofy now, but she’s tough, so we stumbled into that one.”
Gargano’s gear for his huge NXT Championship match against Andrade at TakeOver: Philadelphia in January 2018 was, in fact, inspired by Star-Lord. That marked the beginning of his Marvel-themed gears, and at TakeOver: New York, he channeled his inner Iron Man when he won the NXT title for the first time.
For TakeOver: In Your House, he went with something a bit different by paying tribute to The Mandalorian with the jacket he wore to the ring that night. When asked about whether he may be going with a Star Wars theme for his TakeOver gears going forward, he revealed that his attires entirely depend on whatever story he’s trying to tell that night.
“I’m going off of what I think is fitting for that match,” he said. “I’m not going to lean into any particular genre, I’m going to see what comes and what goes. Honestly, I think toy-makers will be much happier for copyright purposes and trying to make action figures for all my different gears. These are going to be more inspired on whatever I think is cool at the time, so we’ll see what happens.”
Also on the Marvel front, Gargano backed up what every other Marvel fan has been feeling in regards to the lack of movies that have been released since July 2019 due to the current circumstances. He’s excited as anyone for what’s next in the MCU, but thankfully, he’s been keeping busy with Disney+ and television in general.
“All of us have been waiting now [for another Marvel movie],” Gargano said. “It feels like we’re all in a holding pattern and we’re like, ‘It’s coming soon, oh wait, no, it’s not. It’s coming soon, oh wait, no, it’s not.’ I try not to get my hopes up, but even the Disney+ stuff, I’m super excited for that as well. It’s just very exciting. I think a lot of us are waiting for X-Men, so I can’t wait to see what the future holds once it starts again. I don’t know when it’s going to start again, but hopefully it starts again soon.
“I got really into the cooking show hosted by Angela called Be Our Guest, as far as Disney+ goes. We got really into that,” he said about what he’s watching on Disney+ and beyond during quarantine. “We got into Star Wars Gallery, The Mandalorian behind-the-scenes, that was great. You can go into the old shows. I’m a big Spider-Man the animated series guy, I’m a big X-Men the animated series guy. That’s all on Disney+, so that’s great. Obviously The Clone Wars, one of the best things ever. Outside of Disney+, I got really into competition game shows. That’s my new thing now. I love Ultimate Tag. I love The Titan Games hosted by The Rock. Thursday nights is one of my favorite blocks of television because Holey Moeley is on, I love Holey Moley. Rob Riggie is next level, he’s great. That’s a block of Holey Moley and then Don’t, then the To Tell the Truth show. Those three hours are just great television. The Floor is Lava on Netflix, too, but yeah, I’ve been really into competition game shows lately.”
In an attempt to distance himself from his former persona and to fully establish himself as a heel, Gargano went to great lengths to get new entrance music made that reflected his new smarmy character. It’s significantly different than what he was using before, including its name, “Coming Back for You”.
NXT’s first Triple Crown winner admitted that it was a conscious decision to move on from the “heart” theme in the title of his entrance themes.
“Originally, it was ‘Chrome Heart’, that was me and Tommaso,” Gargano said. “Then it was ‘From the Heart’, which was my incremental version for the Cruiserweight Classic. Then it was ‘Rebel Heart’, which people really liked a lot. Now, we have ‘Coming Back for You’, which was a process. I’m very particular of my theme song and people in my music department may hate me for it. ‘I like this, I like this, maybe this, maybe that.’ It’s also hard for me to make decisions. I thought we landed on a good in between of a cool-sounding song and a different-sounding theme. People now put it over ‘Rebel Heart’, which is cool.
“You do have, and I don’t know if this has been said publicly, but you do have the beginning of ‘Rebel Heart’ at the start of my new theme,” he continued. There is a tie-in there. I love this about the Marvel movies and all things I enjoy in general but the Easter egg sort of things. I really love little Easter eggs and little tie-ins in stories. I think the little things really matter and I put a lot of thought into those sort of things. If you listen to the lyrics in general, I did have a hand in describing what this new character would be and the lyrics coming out of that. It was a process, but thankfully we landed on that.”
From hosting segments at their dinner table to teaming up in mixed tag action, the Garganos’ act is constantly growing and evolving. The only thing left to complete the package is the on-screen addition of Pawdme, a pup they adopted over Easter weekend named after the Star Wars princess of the same name (albeit spelled slightly differently).
If Sasha Banks can get her dog Ryu on NXT at The Great American Bash, then Johnny sees no reason why Pawdme can’t soon make her television debut as well.
“We’re continually trying to get her on the show in some capacity and we’re trying to make it happen,” he said. “You better believe I was really upset when Ryu drove up in Sasha Banks’ car at The Great American Bash. I was thinking, ‘Oh man, Pawdme is going to be so jealous.’ We are in constant development of that and we are trying to make it happen. I’ve also pitched to Mattel that once I saw there was a bulldog with The British Bulldog in his newest figure, I said, ‘If dogs are on the table, I think a Johnny Gargano and a Candice LeRae two-pack with Pawdme is just a gimmie.’ I sent them a head-scan to do already. We’re going to get Mattel working on that, so yes, I’m very much so going to get her involved in some capacity.”
If their recent string of wins in singles competition have been any indication, Johnny and Candice are well on their way to cementing their place atop the totem in NXT. It’s been years since a legitimately married couple last held gold together under the WWE banner, and once he overcomes Roderick Strong on NXT, it’ll merely be a matter of time before he re-enters the North American title picture and gets closer to achieving that feat.
Watch Johnny Gargano battle Roderick Strong tonight on WWE NXT at 8/7c, only on USA Network.