Johnny Gargano says farewell to independent wrestling
Sept. 11, 2016. Life is great for Johnny Gargano, though a little hectic, if you listen to him describe his upcoming week.
“I was in Boston on Friday, on Long Island yesterday, and I’m in Queens today,” Gargano begins. “I fly home to Cleveland tomorrow, land at 11:30 and fly back out to Orlando at 3:30. I’m unloading whatever merch I have left, picking up my bag, packing my tuxedo for my wedding and my suit for television.
“On Monday night, I fly to Orlando,” he continues. “Tuesday, I’m at the Performance Center. Wednesday, I’m at the Cruiserweight Classic Live Finale in a Tag Match. Thursday morning, me and Tommaso [Ciampa] fly to California for my wedding. We land and go right to Disneyland, do the rehearsal dinner at 6 and on Friday, I’m getting married at 11:30 in the morning. I’ll only be home for four hours in the next week and a half.”
Yet before he can begin the next chapter of his life and career, Gargano has to say goodbye to the way of life that brought him this far. The Cleveland native is walking into La Boom, a Latin nightclub tucked between a strip of car lots in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., for his final match with EVOLVE Wrestling — the promotion that helped make him a hot commodity on the independent circuit, and put him on WWE’s radar.
As Gargano prepares to embark on a new journey in sports-entertainment, he lets WWE.com behind the scenes as he says farewell to a place he called home.
3:53 p.m. — COMPANY MAN
A silver rental car containing Gargano and friends, including fellow independent wrestlers Ethan Page and DUSTIN, turns off Northern Boulevard onto 57th Street in Queens, searching for a scarce parking spot on the streets of New York City near La Boom. They luck out and find one just a block from the building, then begin the unpacking process.
DUSTIN travels light, slinging a backpack over his shoulders, while Page rolls a small, blue carry-on behind him and tucks a cardboard box of T-shirts under his arm. Gargano could probably fit all of their luggage in the massive red suitcase he lugs out of the trunk, followed by a backpack and a gym bag with the Tapout logo emblazoned on it — a source of humor for the three friends.
“You’re a company man now,” DUSTIN cracks as the trio heads back towards the nightclub.
Though that may become true in the coming days and weeks, Gargano is focused on this special night for himself and the fans of EVOLVE. After stopping to sign a few autographs and take some pictures for fans, Gargano heads into the club for a night he thought might never come.
4:04 p.m. — ONE MAN CORPORATION SETS UP SHOP
Gargano’s first stop isn’t the locker room or the ring. Instead, he heads straight through La Boom’s front doors and into the lobby. With less than 90 minutes before doors open, he and several other members of the EVOLVE roster claim stomach-high tables as their individual makeshift merchandise stands.
“It’s everything,” Gargano says of the merch table. “For the most part, you get paid to wrestle, but the majority of your income is going to come from merchandise. You’ll make way more than you will wrestling. More importantly, it’s a unique opportunity to get personal interaction with a fan. We’re not a hundred rows away. We can be inches apart and talk to each other about anything, like Pokemon Go, movies or pop culture.”
Johnny Wrestling claims two tables for himself, hoists his red suitcase onto a couch behind him, and unzips it to reveal his inventory for the night. The luggage is stuffed to the brim with T-shirts of all sizes. Before he heads out on the road each week, Gargano meticulously packs his suitcase full of shirts, trying to squeeze in as much as he can while coming in under airlines’ 50-pound limit for checked bags. It’s a far cry from the soon-to-be released shirt for he and Tommaso Ciampa on WWEShop.com.
“To go from having to lug around this huge bag of merchandise to being like, ‘Oh, it’s on WWE Shop, they handle that,’ is really weird for me,” he says. “I’m used to doing things myself. I’m a one-man corporation, my own business, but now I’m part of this huge conglomerate where I have nothing to do with that stuff. It’s really weird, but super-cool. My back’s going to feel better, too.”
He has three shirts available on this night, one paying tribute to his fortitude in the squared circle, bearing the words “All Heart”; one with the words “Johnny Wrestling” squeezed into the shape of his home state of Ohio; and a third, limited edition shirt special for this weekend celebrating his time with EVOLVE. He takes one of each and begins setting up shop.
“I was just starting to get the hang of this,” Gargano laments as he folds the shirts and chats with fellow CWC competitor T.J. Perkins, waiting for the doors to open and fans to make their way in.
5:46 p.m. — “YOU’VE MADE IT”
Doors at La Boom open at 5:30 p.m., one hour before bell time. Several wrestlers on the card have lined up along the walls of the venue’s lobby, which transforms into a makeshift market with the performers standing behind tables, their shirts neatly folded in front of them and stacks of 8x10s at the ready to autograph nearby. Gargano is set up at the far end of the lobby, across from a tiny stand selling trios of tacos to hungry fans, staff and wrestlers alike.
The lobby is quickly jam-packed from end to end. Fans squeeze into rough lines and shuffle down the hall, chowing down on pizza procured by former WWE Superstar Cody Rhodes to celebrate Gargano.
Over the next hour and ten minutes, Gargano is the center of attention; it appears like every fan in the building has visited his table to pick up a shirt, get an autograph or picture (or all three), and make the most of one of Johnny Wrestling’s last stops on the indies. The significance isn’t lost on Gargano.
“Since I’ve been doing more with WWE, fans have been a little more in awe of me, which is amazing,” Gargano says. “I think I’m just a dude and try to be as approachable as possible. If someone comes up to me and says, ‘My friend is really shy, they don’t want to come up and talk to you.’ I make it a point to go find those people. We’re all human beings. The only difference is I’m a kid that gets to go out and live his dream every night. You get these small, intimate moments of interaction. It’s the coolest thing in the world.”
One fan, Mike Alcutt, goes out of his way to express his gratitude for Gargano, presenting him with a gift. Gargano tears away the white wrapping paper to reveal a painting of the emoji-like symbol that adorns Johnny Wrestling’s gear, along with one of his nicknames: “The Whole Shebang.”
“It was the least I could do to show my appreciation for him, for what he does for the fans and wrestling,” Alcutt says. “He puts his heart, soul and body on the line every night, whether he’s on an indie show or in front of a nationwide audience. He’s got passion. When you invest so much as a fan, and you see the athletes invest just as much, it’s hard not to connect with them.”
An inscription on the back of the canvas reads, “Welcome to Raw! Hard work absolutely pays off. Congratulations, Johnny Wrestling, you’ve made it!” The connection that leads to moments and mementos like this isn’t lost on Gargano.
“I have so much stuff made by fans at my house,” he says. “I put it in a special place to display. It means the world that someone took the time to make something for me. That’s a connection I’ll have with them forever.”
8:09 p.m. — A DAY YOU’LL NEVER FORGET
The line to see Gargano is so long that some fans opt to forego the show’s first match to greet Johnny Wrestling. By the start of the second match, the suitcase that was just recently packed to the brim is nearly barren, a scant few T-shirts remaining near an empty folder that was loaded with 8x10s only an hour ago.
“That’s the goal,” he says, looking over his remaining stock.
Gargano leaves his table and navigates through the crowd, bobbing and weaving between fans and club staff as he makes his way to the locker room to prepare for his match. La Boom’s back room is tight, with wrestlers happy to get an arm’s length of space to slip into their gear. Around them, La Boom employees are already preparing for the wrestling show to end and nightclub operations to begin. Gargano finds a side room and begins to put his gear on – black trunks with yellow trim and “Johnny Wrestling” emblazoned across the left side, with kickpads to match.
EVOLVE shows are fast-paced, frantic affairs with no intermissions. The shows fly by, leaving little time for wrestlers to socialize during the show. Still, many realize that this could be the last time they see Gargano for a while, and they try to squeeze in a few minutes of time with their friend.
As Johnny Wrestling straps on his wrist guards and tapes up the knee injured by The Revival at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, one of the show’s referees comes to chat him up. The man in the striped shirt isn’t inquiring about the CWC, NXT or prospects of Monday Night Raw. He’s more interested in checking in on Gargano’s wedding to independent women’s wrestling star Candice LeRae, just days away at this point.
“Enjoy it,” he tells Gargano. “You’ll never forget that day.”
Gargano and LeRae aren’t quite like most couples. The unique schedule of independent wrestlers often leads to them being apart for most of the week, making the trips where they’re booked on shows together all the more special.
“It’s nice,” Gargano says. “When you travel with someone, especially internationally, it feels like you’re not really away from home.”
Although the two are tying the knot in just a few days, Gargano knows trips and moments like that are fleeting as he gets ready to join WWE full-time.
“That’s another thing I’m going to miss: Not being able to do shows with her,” he admits. “But, she understands. She knows this is my dream and [she] has the same dream. She’s 100-percent supportive of me going out, doing whatever I need to do to support me and now, my family.”
8:42 p.m. — TIME TO SAY GOODBYE
As the second to last match rages on in front of the Queens crowd, Gargano looks for enough space in the cramped locker room to warm up. He finds room between a floor-to-ceiling wall crafted out of cases of beer and employee lockers. The Cleveland native gets on the cold cement floor and does a set of pushups as wrestlers tip-toe around him in the tight space. After stretching out his back and lower body one last time, Johnny Wrestling is ready for battle, though the significance of the match hasn’t set in yet.
“It doesn’t feel any different,” he says. “It still feels like a regular EVOLVE show. When I’m here, it’s so busy and things are fluid. It’s a normal day, I’m used to it. It’s different once the show’s over and I realize I’m not coming back to a place. When I think back on the night and what I’ve done, then I start to get emotional.”
A slight hint of that emotion crosses Gargano’s face as he walks through the curtain for EVOLVE one last time. Chants of “Johnny Wrestling” drown out Gargano’s entrance music as he slowly makes his way around ringside, taking in the moment. When the ring announcer presents him to the crowd, streamers litter the canvas in celebration of his final EVOLVE match, a tag team bout that has Johnny Wrestling joining forces with former WWE Superstar Cody Rhodes.
The crowd hangs on Gargano’s every move, groaning with every strike he absorbs from former WWE Intercontinental Champion Drew McIntyre and former NXT grappler Chris Hero as though they were being hit themselves, rallying behind him when things look dire. Johnny Wrestling feeds off their energy and ends his last EVOLVE match with a victory, earning the win by getting Hero to submit to his trademark Gargano Escape hold.
9:41 p.m. — “EVERYTHING I COULD HAVE HOPED FOR”
With his match and career in EVOLVE over, a battle-worn Gargano heads back through the curtain for a few minutes, then walks out to his merchandise table. Eeven more fans have crammed into the lobby, hoping for one last moment with the fan favorite, while La Boom employees urge EVOLVE staff to clear out ASAP so they can begin cleaning up for a concert scheduled to start in less than 20 minutes.
By the time the last fans exit the lobby, Gargano’s suitcase is completely empty, giving him room to condense his luggage for the trip home. The gravity of the moment still hasn’t set in for Johnny Wrestling.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Gargano says. “When I get back to the hotel and decompress, when I’m not in the moment so much, I’ll look back and be like, ‘I’ll never wrestle in an EVOLVE ring again.’ The reception I got was crazy, the fans were amazing … It’s everything I could have hoped for. Tomorrow morning, when I’m on an airplane — I get really emotional on airplanes — I’ll start crying at something random.”
Gargano heads back to the locker room to change out of his gear and leave EVOLVE behind. As one door closes for him, another one is opening. Johnny Wrestling may be unsure of what awaits him behind it, but he’s more hopeful than ever about his future.
“I have one last date in my hometown,” he says, “then I’m done with the indies. It’s the right time to move on.”
Gargano is about to embark on a journey that could lead him to the NXT Tag Team Title, Raw’s WWE Cruiserweight Championship or something completely unexpected, and Johnny Wrestling is fully prepared for the ride.
“I’m ready for anything and confident in my abilities,” he says. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Things turn out best for people who make the best out of the way things turn out.’ That’s what I plan on doing: Making the best out of whatever happens.”