Johnny Gargano on becoming North American champ: ‘I’ve never had a true title reign in NXT’

WWE NXT North American Title Credit:
WWE NXT North American Title Credit: /

The brand-new WWE NXT North American champion Johnny Gargano talks to Daily DDT about his title win, the return of Halloween Havoc, his role going forward, NXT being left out of Survivor Series, and more.

Last week’s Halloween Havoc edition of WWE NXT was nothing short of a newsworthy night. That was especially true for Johnny Gargano, who beat Damian Priest to become the first-ever two-time NXT North American champion.

The black-and-gold brand’s inaugural Triple Crown champ had been in hot pursuit of the prestigious prize, failing to regain it on three different occasions in 2020 alone. Thanks to a mysterious hooded figure, however, Gargano was able to secure the victory in his extremely enjoyable Devil’s Playground match with Priest.

Johnny Gargano on the success of Halloween Havoc

What likely angered fans more than his title win was when he popped the inflatable pumpkin at the top of the stage during his entrance. The blow-up pumpkins have been a staple of the Halloween Havoc events for decades, and by destroying it mere minutes into the show, he instantly became the biggest bad guy in the company.

“Did you see that pumpkin? Did you see that look on that pumpkin’s face? It had a stupid look on its face,” Gargano told Daily DDT in an exclusive interview over the phone on Tuesday. “That pumpkin deserved to get popped. As soon as I saw that pumpkin, I said, ‘Screw this pumpkin. This pumpkin’s going down.’”

On a serious note, Gargano couldn’t believe he had the opportunity to wrestle at an event he grew up watching. As a longtime fan, that wasn’t lost on the NXT stalwart, and for him to be able to win a title at the event made it that much more special.

That’s in addition to him competing at In Your House and The Great American Bash earlier in the year. Not only were those shows a part of his childhood, but they were also a prime example of a time when the company would go all out for their pay-per-views with unique sets for each one of them.

Halloween Havoc was no exception, and Gargano hopes the special setups will be done more frequently in the future.

“It’s super cool, man,” he said. “I think anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge wrestling nerd. I got a chance to go to Connecticut and tour the warehouse and tour the headquarters and things like that and I was completely losing my mind because I saw all the old props and sets and things like that. Now to be a part of these events like In Your House and The Great American Bash and Halloween Havoc, the inner wrestling nerd in me is so thrilled.

“Kudos to our prop team and our stage team because I tell them this all the time, that was one of my favorite things as a child: to see the entrances and the sets for something and how they were different for every pay-per-view,” he continued. “I think we kind of lost that for a while, but I’m so happy NXT is bringing that back, bringing back that element of the entrances and how props look. It gives each show a different vibe and I 100 percent believe Halloween Havoc was one of NXT’s best shows we’ve ever done. Just from a pure fun vibe standpoint, I think it was amazing.”

As for what other events from wrestling’s past Gargano would want to see resurrected at some point, he specifically name-dropped Cyber Sunday, which hasn’t been used in over a decade. It was also known as Taboo Tuesday prior to that point, and in 2009, it was discontinued.

“I think a fun concept could be the Cyber Sunday, Taboo Tuesday kind of concept where you can vote on the match types, especially in this day and age with social media being as prevalent as it is. I think that could be a very fun show, a very interactive show for everyone to join in on. I think that’s my main want right now, a Cyber Sunday, Taboo Tuesday sort of vibe.”

Johnny Gargano on becoming NXT North American champion again

Before Halloween Havoc, Gargano hadn’t held the NXT North American Championship since February 2019 when he lost it to Velveteen Dream. The reign lasted all of a few weeks, and his run as NXT champion was also short-lived.

As a heel, however, he promises that this North American title reign of his will be something entirely new compared to what NXT fans have seen from him previously. He’s aiming to elevate the championship to heights it hasn’t reached yet and make it the most coveted prize in the entire organization and beyond.

“I think this one’s going to be different,” Gargano said. “I think before when I was the old Johnny, I was more worried about the climb than he was the view from the mountaintop. It was more about the chase for me before. That was always the big deal for me being the babyface good guy that I was. It was always about the chase and finally getting the title and then I would also lose it immediately (laughs).

“I’ve never had a true title reign in NXT,” he added. “A true chance to take a title and elevate it. I’ve never had a chance to have that title and make it mean more than it already does. That’s where my head’s at here. I’m going to take the North American title and make it the most important title in professional wrestling. I’m going to defend that title and do everything I can to make it more important than it already is. That’s my goal. That’s a very exciting premise for me.”

Gargano has gone on the record before in saying that his ultimate dream match at an NXT TakeOver would be against Kyle O’Reilly. Now that the former three-time NXT Tag Team champion is branching off into singles competition, there’s a very real possibility of that bout coming to fruition for the North American title sooner rather than later.

As for other opponents he’d like to square off against at some point, Gargano singled out Kushida, who has been on the rise in recent months and will likely have his sights set on championship gold before long.

“There’s another guy I think is breaking out now as well. We’ve never faced one-on-one but I think we could match up very well and that’s Kushida,” he revealed. “I think me and Kushida one-on-one could also be something very special.”

Johnny Gargano on Candice’s championship aspirations and forming a faction

Although Gargano reigned supreme to start off Halloween Havoc, his wife Candice LeRae wasn’t as fortunate as she came up short of becoming NXT Women’s champion at the end of the evening. Rather, Io Shirai barely managed to put her away and keep her title reign intact.

Despite LeRae’s latest failure to secure the championship, NXT’s resident power couple remains determined to make history and become dual champions eventually.

“I said this a while ago, but that is our destiny, and destiny is still on the way,” Gargano said. “You can hold it off as long as you want, but destiny will still happen. I still believe Candice and I will be the first married couple in NXT to hold gold together. That will happen. That is our destiny and I’m sticking by that.”

It’s worth noting that the Garganos have expressed interest lately in recruiting newcomer Indi Hartwell into their ranks after Hartwell bought them a new TV and aided LeRae to victory against Shotzi Blackheart last month. Austin Theory was another person who was speculated as being a potential member of a Gargano faction coming off his strong showing against the former heart and soul of the brand.

If the two were to form their own faction, it’d be a first for Gargano, who admits that he’s largely flown solo throughout his NXT career and might be interested in leading a couple of rookies to superstardom.

“I’ve always been by myself in NXT. I’ve always been kind of a lone wolf, but it would have be right place, right time,” he explained. “I think I appreciate talent and I also appreciate loyalty. I think that among everything is the Gargano Way. If you stay loyal to those who stay loyal to you, and Indi Hartwell, she gave us a great present. She gave us a great TV. Just like wheels, I’ve never said a bad thing about Indi Hartwell ever. I always liked her. Always thought she was great. Always thought she had a bright future. I guess you never know. It could be something on the docket. You just might have to tune into NXT to find out.”

Johnny Gargano on The Mandalorian

On the subject of the brand-new TV the Garganos were gifted by Hartwell, Johnny revealed that one of the first shows he watched on it was the Season 2 premiere of The Mandalorian last weekend. He praised the episode and can’t wait for what’s to come in the remainder of the season.

“It’s so hard to tell [what’s next] because Boba obviously wants his armor back, but obviously, you kind of want to see a Boba Fett-Mandalorian face-off at some point or make it’s like a team-up, I don’t know,” he said. “I think they’re going to go against each other for a bit. I think the ultimate thing at the end could possibly be… because obviously people want to see Ahsoka. People want to see characters from Clone Wars, characters from Rebels popping up here and there. I would love for The Mandalorian to finally wield the dark saber. I think that’d be cool. It’s tough to say, I’m just going along for the ride. I’m super excited. I’m not one of those jaded Star Wars fans. I’m just along for the idea. It’s like with wrestling. I think Star Wars and wrestling have the craziest and most passionate fans in the world.”

As long as The Child a.k.a. Baby Yoda isn’t killed off, he added, then he’ll be content with whatever the show produces. He’s been a longtime Star Wars fanatic and finds he relates the most to Anakin Skywalker, specifically for the similar character arcs the two of them share.

“I will say Anakin Skywalker, especially given my current arc on NXT to go from the pure, innocent, chosen one babyface to the dark, demented heel. Anakin Skywalker is one of my favorite Star Wars characters of all-time just given his journey.”

Johnny Gargano on NXT being left out of Survivor Series this year

Having just won the North American Championship, Gargano should be representing NXT at Survivor Series in a Triple Threat match against the company’s other two secondary champions, Bobby Lashley and Sami Zayn. However, the black-and-gold brand was removed from the brand supremacy storyline this year and won’t be present at the pay-per-view in any form or fashion as of now.

Their absence from the event is definitely disappointing for fans who were hoping for a repeat of their dominant performance at last year’s installment. Gargano isn’t excluded that as he was forced to sit on the sidelines for Survivor Series 2019 due to being injured at the time.

“It’s a little disheartening just because I wasn’t a part of it last year,” he said. “I didn’t get that opportunity to do that different thing, but I’m totally fine with NXT doing its own thing and living in its own world and being on its own island. I’ve done so many interviews and said it so many times that NXT is a third brand and I truly do believe that. I truly do believe that NXT is some of the best content out there for people to watch.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I’m a little bummed I’m not taking on Sami Zayn,” he continued. “I think a lot of people would love to see Johnny Gargano vs. Sami Zayn, especially in our new forms. It’s just a different departure from where we were before. I’m a little disappointed but totally fine with it because I’m totally cool with what NXT is doing by itself.”

Johnny Gargano on his role in NXT going forward

No one has been more synonymous with the NXT initials over the years than Gargano. From winning every title to having multiple Match of the Year candidates, he’s virtually done it all since debuting for NXT in September 2015.

At this stage of his career, he’s adopting the role of locker room leader and taking every opportunity available to elevate the talent of tomorrow. He’s also enjoying being a heel and more importantly being himself, a crucial component to the success of any Superstar.

“I think you earn a certain level of trust. Obviously, when I first started, I didn’t have a contract. I had to scratch, fight and claw for everything I was given, to earn every opportunity I got. Now, I’m a little more trusted. If you look at the vignettes and things like that that I’ve been doing, I have… I don’t want to say heavy say but they listen to my feedback, which is awesome. That makes for a great work environment. It makes a great product as well. If you’re forcing your talent to do something and they don’t feel it, if they don’t believe it, it’s going to come off as fake.

“What you’re seeing on TV right now,” he added, “honestly what you’re seeing is… I know everyone sees me as Johnny Gargano and sees me as the true, white-meat babyface, but what you’re seeing on TV with the wheels and things like that, that is the most Johnny Gargano you will ever see on television. It’s the real me. If you ask anyone who knows me, you’re seeing the real me (laughs). It’s weird to say, but that’s what you’re getting.”

There was a brief period following Gargano’s loss of the NXT Championship last year that it felt like he was treading water and wasn’t compelling as a character. That’s completely changed with the way he’s reinvented himself in 2020 and made the most of everything he’s been involved in.

dark. Next. Ranking The 10 Best Wrestlers In WWE NXT History

“It’s fun, it’s so much fun to be able to play a character like this, and for me, I love the opportunity to be able to do something different,” he said. “If you do something for so long, it gets boring. It gets stagnant. And I was bored, I was stagnant. Now, I’m having fun again and I’m enjoying things. I’m able to do goofy things with wheels. I made the joke that, if you give me an inanimate object, you give me a TV, you give me a wheel, I will get it over. That’s kind of my goal now, to get other things over and get other things that rub whether it be people or objects. I want to make it where anything Johnny Gargano touches it’s important on the show. That’s my role now: to take what I was given and pay it forward and pass it along however I can.”

Catch NXT North American champion Johnny Gargano every Wednesday night on WWE NXT at 8/7c, only on USA Network.