Exclusive interview: Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa on receiving the opportunity of a lifetime in NXT
NXT General Manager William Regal shocked the wrestling world when he introduced Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa as the latest duo to enter the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. The two have made names for themselves with high-profile stints in buzzworthy independent promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Evolve, but most people wouldn’t have expected them to show up in an NXT ring.
The two free agents have been presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, as they will face Tyler Breeze & Bull Dempsey in the tournament’s first round. The magnitude of this match isn’t lost on the pair of well-traveled grapplers. WWE.com caught up with Gargano and Ciampa to learn more about them, the unique roads that brought them to NXT and what they plan on doing with this golden opportunity.
WWE.COM: Can you tell us a little about your in-ring styles and inspirations?
JOHNNY GARGANO: I try to be very current. I try to take something from everywhere I’ve been. I’ve wrestled in Japan, Singapore, China, Germany and England. I try to bring a mix of different styles to the table. When I was younger, my favorite wrestlers were Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho. I relate to them. I don’t know what it was. Shawn Michaels really spoke to me. My mom made me a Shawn Michaels costume when I was a kid. I wore it every day and ran around the house dancing like him. There was something about those two that really spoke to me. They’re probably the guys I try to emulate most today.
TOMMASO CIAMPA: My style has evolved a bit, probably over the last five years or so. It’s more smash-mouth and in-your-face. The word I tend to use is unapologetic. It’s developed in part because it’s what works for me on the independent scene and created buzz. I’ve never been the most blessed guy when it comes to the more gymnastic aspects of professional wrestling, like backflips and 450s. I’ve never been comfortable on the top rope or launched myself into dives. I avoid my weaknesses and play to my strengths.
The people who I watched the most and idolized, I don’t know if I’ve taken anything from them. Maybe subconsciously. The guys I actually like the most don’t mimic my style at all. I love “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Shawn Michaels and Eddie Guerrero. The stuff that drew me to wrestling as a kid ended up not being what I was good at in the ring, so I went in my own direction. I draw from guys like Steve Austin now.
WWE.COM: What motivated you while reinventing yourself?
CIAMPA: A combination of things. I was signed to WWE developmental when I was 21. When [then-developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling] shut down, I was part of the casualties there. One of the things they told me was, “Go find who you are, create a buzz and you’ll be welcomed back.” For the last nine years or so, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. The first couple of years was me doing self-evaluation. What is that I’m really good at? Who am I as a person?
As a kid, playing sports, I was never the best athlete on my teams, but I was always the guy people looked at as the workhorse. I was my high school football team’s captain, not because I was the guy who scored the most touchdowns, but the guy who was in the midst of every play. I thought, “What got me to where I am today?” It was always hard work. So, I took that, along with my intensity and my natural talents and intensified those, made them larger than life.
WWE.COM: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen you in a WWE ring, Johnny. You appeared on SmackDown in 2007 under the name Cedric Von Haussen. How have you changed since wrestling MVP while wearing lederhosen?
GARGANO: When I was Cedrick Von Haussen, the champion of Liechtenstein, I was only 18 years old. I was super, duper young. I started traveling around for wrestling when I was 16, so I had only been wrestling a few years at that point. I was the champion of Liechtenstein, I was a security guard, I wrestled Brodus Clay. All of those experiences and all of those moments have been leading up to this.
I feel like I was able to go out and travel around the world to hone my craft. Every little taste I had, whether it was as Cedric Von Haussen, or a security guard, left me wanting more. I wanted the whole dinner. I felt if I was able to be myself, I could bring something very unique to the table. I think I’m more than ready to bring that to the table in NXT.
WWE.COM: You’re in different locker rooms every week on the independent scene. What is the impression that NXT is making on you and your colleagues?
GARGANO: Right now, I feel that NXT is the hottest thing in wrestling. There’s no doubt about that. The guys that they’re utilizing are some of the best talent in the world. I know a lot of those guys. I’ve been in the ring with Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens numerous times. You look at a guy like me, I’m not 6-foot-8, 300 pounds, but from what I’ve been able to do with my talent around the world, I can come to NXT and show the world what I have. Based on the past, that wouldn’t happen. NXT gives guys like me that opportunity, to do what we love to do and show the world what we’re capable of.
CIAMPA: It has an indie, underground vibe to it, but the production value and expertise of WWE leading it. It’s the best of both worlds. From the first live special they did, I think that was the first time that the masses saw that this was something special and the place to be. From that point on, seeing things like Sami Zayn and Cesaro’s 2-out-of-3 Falls Match, seeing Kevin Owens do so well, it’s seeing guys who were the top of the independent world going to NXT and getting a bigger platform to show themselves on. Seeing how well they’re doing gives you this drive to want to be a part of it.
I just watched TakeOver: Brooklyn a couple days ago. When Triple H was in the ring introducing the show and it was dark, all you could hear was his voice. When he says, “You told us the future is now!” and throws his arms up and the cameras go wide [to show the crowd], you could feel this energy. I told my wife, “I want that. I need to be a part of that.”
WWE.COM: When William Regal invited you to be a part of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, what was going through your mind?
CIAMPA: “Make the most of the opportunity.” Getting a phone call from William Regal was surreal, hearing his voice on the opposite end of the line. Him asking me if I was interested was, to me, an interesting approach, because of course I was interested. How could I not be?
We didn’t know right away what we would be doing. Getting to the building and slowly finding out more and more information and then hearing that we’re going to be a part of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic was cool. I never worked under Dusty myself, but you hear so many stories and you know the respect he has in this business. To be a part of something that’s going to go down in history, it’s a cool feeling. The door’s being cracked open. It’s our job to push through and make the most of it.
GARGANO: It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. When I was younger, I watched WWE. If you get into this business, your main goal is to wrestle for WWE. To be able to do that and perform for NXT, which is the hottest thing going, is a dream come true. I’m extremely excited about it. I’ve been very, very lucky to do a lot of cool things in my career, but this is the pinnacle. Everything has led up to this match. I know that opportunities like this come around once in a lifetime. I’m not going to let it slip by me.
WWE.COM: You two have faced each other plenty of times, but have never teamed up. Does that help or hurt you?
GARGANO: Most would say we have very different styles. Tommaso’s more in-your-face, hard-nosed and aggressive. He’s going to come right at you, while I take a different approach. I think our styles will mesh very well. I’m interested to see how we can grow as a team, because of how different we actually are. They say opposites attract. We’ll see if that’s the case.
CIAMPA: It’s funny, the first time we ever met, I had to pick him up from the train station to take him to a show where he was one of the top guys and I was trying to get on the roster. We didn’t meet up again for two years, when we were in England. We both created a buzz around our names, and had our first ever match. The chemistry was instant. That’s when our relationship started to form. When you have an opponent who brings out the best in you, that brings out a different level of respect for them. We did that with each other. We’ve wrestled each other for the biggest independent companies in the country, and every time we got better, the matches were a little tougher.
We’ve never tagged together, but we know each other really well inside the ring and outside. That helps us a lot.
WWE.COM: What can the NXT Universe, Tyler Breeze and Bull Dempsey expect from you on Wednesday?
CIAMPA: Expect the unexpected. The thing Johnny and I have on our side is that we both have over 10 years of experience, but neither one of us is in a rush to show our hand the first time out. I don’t view this as a one-and-done opportunity. I’m looking at the big picture. I’d like to be able to show more and more as time progresses. I don’t want to show everything the first time I come out of the curtain. There’s a lot of levels to me. That’s going to evolve and be seen by the NXT Universe in time.
GARGANO: They can expect someone that’s going to leave it all in the ring and knows how big this opportunity is. They’ve been in NXT for a while. This is my first taste. I’m not going to let that slip through my hands. I’ve been working for almost 13 years for this. It’s been my dream since I was 8 years old. Once I step foot in that ring, I’m going to leave it all on the table. Some people like to call me “All Heart,” because I wrestle with all the heart in the world. I can guarantee you that I’m going to leave my heart in the NXT ring.
Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa compete against Tyler Breeze & Bull Dempsey in the first round of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic this Wednesday at 8/7 C on WWE NXT, only on the award-winning WWE Network. Click here to start your WWE Network free trial today.