CLEVELAND — Johnny Gargano wanted to become a professional wrestler since he was eight years old, and after nearly 15 years of working on the independent circuit and developmental territory, NXT, he made his main roster debut for World Wrestling Entertainment.
Just weeks before WWE’s biggest pay-per-view event of the year, WrestleMania, Gargano and his longtime friend/NXT rival Tommaso Ciampa debuted on Monday Night Raw and beat the reigning tag team champions, The Revival, in a non-title contest, and followed it up the next night with a win over multi-time champs, The Bar, on Smackdown Live.
“I was actually in Cleveland when I got the call that I was going to be on Raw and Smackdown,” Gargano recalled to WKYC.com in an exclusive interview ahead of Saturday’s NXT show at The Agora Theatre in Cleveland. “I was at my mom’s house and it was in the morning. They said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be on Raw and Smackdown in a couple days,’ which is pretty crazy.
“It seems like all of my biggest life events happen when I’m actually at home in Cleveland, around my family. I was there for my dad’s 77th birthday party, so I got to go to his party later that night and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be on Raw and Smackdown in a couple days.’ It’s super cool, man. I know I’ve used the word, ‘cool’ a lot, but I’m still just a kid from Cleveland, and life is just cool.”
Gargano’s successful main-roster debut came nearly a month after he made his first-ever appearance in the Royal Rumble match and competed for the opportunity to main-event WrestleMania 35.
Gargano entered the Royal Rumble at No. 6 and eliminated former WWE Champion Jinder Mahal before being knocked out by an in-state rival. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Gargano was eliminated by Cincinnati’s Dean Ambrose.
On the same night Gargano made his first Royal Rumble appearance, his wife, Candice LeRae, made her debut entry into the 30-woman over-the-top-rope battle royale.
“Everything is so mind-blowing,” Gargano said. “I kind of take one day at a time because you never know what the next day brings, and I found out I was going to be in the Royal Rumble the night before. Luckily enough, my mom was there for TakeOver, so I kind of had to tell her, ‘Hey, I think you have to stay now.’
“Candice’s parents were there, so they got to see me and Candice in the Royal Rumble. For her to appear in the Women’s Royal Rumble and me to appear in the Men’s Royal Rumble, it’s just so cool.”
There was a bit of irony in Gargano’s entrance number into the Royal Rumble.
A lifelong fan of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, Gargano realized only after the match that his entry slot was the jersey number of rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, who like him, was counted out only to prove wrong the doubters.
“To be No. 6 in the Royal Rumble, too, holds a special place, I guess, in the hearts of Cleveland fans, I didn’t think about this at the time, but I was wearing a Baker Mayfield shirt like all day,” Gargano said.
“I didn’t realize until after the fact, ‘Oh, I’m No. 6 in the Royal Rumble,’ and I’m wearing a Baker Mayfield shirt that says ‘Undraftable’ on it.”
And Gargano plans to cherish every moment while living out his dream as a professional wrestler, including Saturday night's homecoming show, where he will face the Undisputed Era's Adam Cole in one of the feature bouts.
“I’ve got a similar mindset,” Gargano said. “We’re just guys who’ve been scratching and clawing and proving people wrong their whole lives. Everything is just such a blessing, man. I’m really honored to be able to do this.”