Johnny Gargano on returning “home” to EVOLVE, humbling Austin Theory and wanting “it all” in 2019
As the new year opens the door to new opportunities, Johnny Gargano is obsessed with two goals: wins and championships. Beyond a New Year’s Resolution or declaration, these words stick to the NXT fixture like batteries fueling a “2019” marquee light. He made that vehemently clear during his standoff with NXT North American Champion Ricochet on the Jan. 9 edition of NXT and come this weekend, he’ll assuredly relay the message when he makes his hugely anticipated return to EVOLVE Wrestling for one weekend only.
Gargano is set for action at EVOLVE 119 this Friday, Jan. 18, inside the Saint Finbar Catholic Church Gym in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he’ll team up with AR Fox to take on EVOLVE Champion Austin Theory and Josh Briggs. From there, he’s off to EVOLVE 120 on Saturday, Jan. 19, at La Boom in Woodside, N.Y., where he’ll compete in a non-title match against the braggadocious new EVOLVE Champion Austin Theory, who’s been baiting the beloved EVOLVE legend on social media all week with insult after insult. When asked about his upcoming opponent’s tactic and returning to his home away from home, Gargano had much to tell WWE.com, but not far behind his responses were the words “wins and championships.”
As the countdown clock to his EVOLVE comeback nears zero-hour, Johnny Wrestling explained the sentimental value behind his return, humbling Austin Theory “the hard way,” and why 2019 is his year to capture “it all.”
WWE.COM: What does it mean to be coming back to EVOLVE?
JOHNNY GARGANO: Yeah, it’s crazy to think that I get the chance to do this. When I had my last EVOLVE match, I thought that I was closing this book forever. But with the landscape of the way everything’s going, I’m able to come back and that’s awesome. It’s great that I get a chance to go back to a place that is very important to me. I’ve said time and time again that I don’t think I’d be the wrestler I am today, probably wouldn’t be the person I am today, if it wasn’t for my experiences and my time at EVOLVE Wrestling.
I don’t think I’d be in WWE, and I wouldn’t be in NXT, if it wasn’t for my time in EVOLVE and Dragon Gate USA and things like that. So, to get a chance to come back and just perform in La Boom again, perform in the place where I had my last match, I think it’s pretty cool. It goes to show how awesome wrestling is in 2019.
WWE.COM: What better way to start the new year.
GARGANO: Yeah, it was crazy, I left my last EVOLVE match in 2016 and that was kind of the start of my life completely changing. I had that match, then me and Candice [LeRae] got married, I moved to Orlando from Cleveland and I started working with WWE officially. That was very much the moment where I was like, “Okay my independent wrestling career is pretty much officially over.”
WWE.COM: So, everything has come full circle?
GARGANO: Yeah, it has come full circle. It’s amazing, because independent wrestling has always been special to me. There is nothing quite like it, and nothing quite like performing in that sort of [intimate] arena [and] atmosphere. You get more one-on-one time with the fans. People are literally right there. For the people who have watched me from all these years ago – I always compare it to like seeing your favorite band move on, have a hit and become mainstream. You saw them when they were nobody. A lot of those fans saw me when I was nobody. To go back as somebody now, I guess, it’s pretty cool to be able to do that.
WWE.COM: Now your opponent this weekend is Austin Theory, whose Twitter fingers have been pretty busy these past few days. What do you make of his remarks, and what exactly is your relationship with him at this point?
GARGANO: So, I don’t even know Austin Theory. I don’t think I ever met him. I’ve never been on a show with him and if I have, I don’t remember him. It’s funny to me. I’ve seen all the “Johnny Failure Facts” and it’s amazing because I’m pretty sure he was still in diapers when I was the Dragon Gate USA Open the Freedom Gate Champion for over two years. I know what he’s doing, I get it. He’s only 21 years old, he’s super young. He’s super talented. I mean, he’s EVOLVE Champion, that speaks for itself. I don’t know much about his attitude, but according to his Twitter he’s not very clever. His grammar is kind of lacking. Other than that, I’m looking forward to meeting him for the first time, because I’ve heard a lot of hype about him. I’ve heard how good he is, and I’m excited for him to show me that when we step in the ring together.
WWE.COM: You have two matches against him this weekend. Now, considering all the mind games that he’s been playing, how do you prepare to battle him in the ring?
GARGANO: He thinks he’s playing mind games [and] getting under my skin, but this is a new Johnny Gargano. This isn’t the same Johnny Gargano that is going to overreact to things and let his emotions get the best of him. In 2019, I’m a little calmer and more collected. I’m just trying to enjoy this weekend. I understand he’s the young guy and he’s trying to use me and my name to make a name for himself – I was there, too. I was in my early 20s and used guys who were more well known than me to try to piggyback off their names and make more of a name for myself. I’ve done that, been there and I get it. Is it the right move? Absolutely not. I learned that the hard way, and I think he’s gonna learn that the hard way when he gets in the ring with Johnny Wrestling at EVOLVE.
WWE.COM: On social media and on NXT TV, you’ve mentioned 2019 being your year for “wins and championships.” What do “wins and championships” mean for Johnny Gargano? Also, how do you plan to implement that effectively?
GARGANO: I sat back and reflected. I had a great 2018. You look at the NXT Year-End Awards, I’m nominated for a lot of those. But a lot of those [moments], I came up on the losing end. A lot of those matches and moments were, “Oh, Johnny had a great effort.” “Johnny did a good job.” “Johnny had a great match.” But it’s never, “Johnny won.” I didn’t win, I lost. I lost, a lot. That changes in 2019.
As you can see with Austin Theory calling me “Johnny Failure,” and some members of the NXT Universe calling me “Johnny Failure.” Success around here is measured by wins and championships. If you don’t have either one of those, you’re considered a failure. I’m not a failure. In 2019, I’m going to prove that. If I have to win, and get a championship to do that, that’s what I’m gonna do.
WWE.COM: That seems to be the very message you sent NXT North American Champion Ricochet last week on NXT TV. Are you eyeing his championship?
GARGANO: Wins and championships, I want it all. I want there to be no doubt who I am. I want there to be no doubt that I’m a winner. And if Ricochet is offering an NXT North American Championship Match, I’ll gladly take it. I’m going to become the North American Champion. I am going to win. I am going to succeed. I’m not a failure, I’m a winner.
I saw a thing on Instagram lately and it said, “Who is Mr. TakeOver?” [and] was it Johnny Gargano or was it Ricochet? And that offended me very deeply because Ricochet’s had, what, four TakeOver matches? I’ve had the most in NXT history. I’ve main-evented the most matches in NXT history. I think TakeOver is synonymous with my name. Unfortunately, TakeOver is [also] synonymous with me losing. But from now on, TakeOver is going to be synonymous with me winning and Johnny Gargano becoming champion.
WWE.COM: Speaking of awards, you’re nominated for quite a few NXT Year-End Awards. Which of those nominations mean that most to you?
GARGANO: Man, so I want the NXT Overall Competitor of the Year. For everything I’ve been through this past year, I think that is the No. 1 award. But, [laughs] I also want Male Competitor of the Year, I want the NXT Match of the Year, I want the Rivalry of the Year, I want every single one of them. Like I said, wins and championships. I want it all.
The humble side of me is just very appreciative that I had such a cool year, and that I’m able to be nominated. But, the other side of me says I want every single freaking award that I could get. When the award winners are announced, I want it to be another complete Johnny TakeOver.
WWE.COM: Billed as “one weekend only,” what should fans expect from your EVOLVE return this weekend?
GARGANO: They should expect Johnny Gargano. They should expect that I’m not going to be the same guy that they knew over two years ago, because I have evolved – pardon that pun – I have changed. But the one part of me that hasn’t changed is I will give you your money’s worth. I will leave my heart in the ring, no matter what. It’s always been my mission statement [and] something I’m very proud of, no matter how I’m feeling or what I’m going through. When I step in the ring, you will get every drop of Johnny Gargano.