Exclusive interview: Johnny Gargano on his father’s recent health scare, the importance of family and the title that means the most to him
Titles are everything in sports-entertainment. They are the physical rewards that justify the sacrifices Superstars make to perfect their craft. They embody the time, effort and sweat that athletes invest, all in the goal of achieving greatness. For Johnny Gargano, who challenges Andrade “Cien” Almas for the NXT Championship this Saturday night at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia, his very first title — a childhood gift from his father — is the one that still inspires him to this day. Johnny Wrestling spoke with WWE.com about how that gift changed his outlook forever, why his family’s support has been vital to his success both in and out of the ring and why a recent health scare experienced by his father underscored what’s truly important in life.
Oh, and spoiler alert, if you didn’t think it was possible to like ultimate good guy Gargano any more than you already do … well, just read on.
WWE.COM: How are you feeling heading into your NXT Championship Match at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia? Would you say this is one of the biggest matches of your career?
JOHNNY GARGANO: Yeah, it feels that way. Right now, I’m pretty even-keeled. TakeOver week is always really busy. This one just feels like normal, but as it gets closer, it will probably start to feel a little different.
WWE.COM: Does the fact that the match is taking place in Philadelphia, one of the most iconic sports-entertainment cities in the world, add an extra layer of significance to the contest?
GARGANO: It’s super cool. For me, Philadelphia was always kind of that city you traveled to as an independent wrestler. I traveled there once or twice a month, doing that seven-to-eight-hour drive from Cleveland to Philly just to try and make a name for myself. That was for no money — just doing what I could to try and get people to know the name Johnny Gargano. I got a chance to main event the ECW Arena, and now I’m gonna main event the Wells Fargo Arena. That’s pretty wild to me.
I’d go home and always be happy because I’d play with my wrestling title, and I’d defend it against my stuffed animals ... it was a ray of hope.
WWE.COM: You recently made an incredibly touching post on Instagram about your relationship with your father and a custom-made title he gifted to you as a child. What does that title mean to you, and what is your connection to it today?
GARGANO: It’s at my house in Cleveland, hanging right by my TV. When I was little, I was kind of a chubby, shy, socially awkward kid, and to have that title, even though it didn’t “technically” mean anything, it meant a lot to me. It made me feel important, it made me feel special. That title meant a lot to me during a real difficult time for myself. I was just trying to figure out who I was and fit in with other kids. I was that kid who would go to school and just think about wrestling, and, back in that time period, that wasn’t really the coolest thing to do. Wrestling wasn’t really that cool to talk about, but that’s who I was, that’s what I liked, and I tried to stay true to myself. So, no matter what went down at school, whether I got picked on or somebody said something to me, I’d always go home and I’d always be happy because I’d play with my wrestling title, and I’d defend it against my stuffed animals or the friends I did have. Back then, for me, it was a ray of hope.
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When I was 8 years old.. "replica belts" didn't exist yet but I was OBSESSED with Championship Titles and being a Champion. So much so.. my Dad got this made for me as a present at a trophy shop. My first Championship. My Dad went in for open heart surgery on Christmas day. He's doing everything in his power to be able to travel to Philadelphia to attend #NXTTakeOver with the rest of my family. I'm going to do everything in my power to bring home a new Championship to share with him.
WWE.COM: In the Instagram post, you mentioned that your father went in for open-heart surgery on Christmas Day. Can you take us through that experience and update the WWE Universe on how he is feeling now?
GARGANO: It was very scary for a little bit. My dad’s been sick for a while, and he’s very stubborn. He runs a catering company in Cleveland, and he’s the “I gotta go to work, no matter what, first and foremost”-type of guy. [Maybe] that’s where I get it my attitude, that no matter what’s going on, I’m gonna go to work and do what I can to get the job done. He put off having surgery for a while and then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, he was rushed to the hospital and told, “You need this surgery.” It was kind of a whirlwind from there.
WWE.COM: What was the diagnosis?
GARGANO: He needed quadruple bypass surgery and a heart-valve replacement because his heart wasn’t operating that well. He’s 75 years old, so he’s a tad older. So, we found out he needed that surgery, and he still put it off. He wanted to have Christmas with us, just because you never know what can happen. I mean, in this day and age, open-heart surgery is somewhat common, but you still never know. All of Christmas Day, it was very stressful and tense because you could tell he just wasn’t himself and it was very touch-and-go. From his son, who has known him my whole life, it was like he was a different person. After we left that night, he got rushed to the hospital, and then they did the surgery two days later. Everything turned out well, everything is very positive. He just has to rest and recover.
My Dad went in for open heart surgery on Christmas Day. He's doing everything in his power to be able to travel to Philadelphia to attend #NXTTakeOver with the rest of my family.— Johnny Gargano (@JohnnyGargano) January 15, 2018
I'm going to do everything in my power to bring home a new Championship to share with him. pic.twitter.com/WH7nCIFjzw
WWE.COM: You also mentioned in your post that you hope to have him in the crowd at TakeOver: Philadelphia this Saturday. Does that look like it could still happen?
GARGANO: Because of the way things worked out timeline-wise, he’s still not able to drive or travel that much, but we’re gonna see how things go the next couple of days. It’s gonna be a last-minute call to see if he can make it. If he can’t make it, I did buy him a subscription to WWE Network, and before I left Cleveland, I set up his little player and WWE Network on his TV, so he knows how to use it. He is 75 years old, so he isn’t very good at technology, and I had to explain to him how to toggle between TV and WWE Network. It was a big thing [laughs], but yeah, he is trying very hard to make it. But, no matter what, my mom will be there, my wife will be there, and a few other family and friends are making the drive up from Cleveland. I hope my dad can be there, and I understand if he can’t, but I’m gonna do everything I can in my power to make him proud and hopefully bring another title home to Cleveland to share with him.
I can say that I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without the support from my parents. I was extraordinarily lucky in that sense.
WWE.COM: Your family seems as though they were unwavering in supporting your ambitions to make it in sports-entertainment, even when you were very young. What have they meant to your career?
GARGANO: I can say that I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without the support from my parents. I was extraordinarily lucky in that sense. When I was younger, I actually stepped foot in a ring for the first time at 8 years old because of my dad. He knew I was such a big wrestling fan, and a local independent company asked him if they could run a show in the parking lot of his catering company. So, he was like, “Yeah, of course,” and before the show even started, they let me and my friend get in the ring and put on a match. So, I was 8 years old and I was able to get into the ring. For that match, my mom made me a costume that said “Italian Stallion JAG” on the vest, which is crazy to look back on that now because the “Italian Stallion” is, of course, Rocky Balboa, and we’re gonna be in Philadelphia [on Saturday], and everything is coming full circle. But yeah, they were incredibly supportive, and many, many times I put on shows in my living room where I would wrestle my stuffed elephant for that World Kid’s Championship. I give them a lot of credit because they sat there, and they watched it. They watched me beat up and have ladder matches with a stuffed elephant for that title, and they never complained once.
WWE.COM: You also shared an incredibly sweet video on social media of you giving your first official action figure to your parents on Christmas Day. Tell us a little bit more of what that was like; it seemed like a special moment.
GARGANO: Yeah, that was really cool. [My parents] used to go to tons of different places and search for wrestling toys for me. To be able to say, “Hey, I know you bought me a lot of wrestling toys as a kid, but here, because of your hard work and everything you sacrificed for me, I am able to give you an action figure of your son.” And, basically, that is just saying that you let my dream come true, and I can’t thank you enough for that. So, it’s super cool that I am able to do little things like that now and am hoping for one more in Philly.