After Johnny Gargano stepped away from NXT last year to focus on becoming a new parent with wife Candice LeRae, every time a wrestling company stopped in Gargano’s beloved hometown of Cleveland, speculation started about Johnny Wrestling’s return to the ring.
When Raw was at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Aug. 8, a lot of fans circled the date. Of course that was where new head of creative & talent Triple H would re-debut one of his black-and-gold era favorites. But that show came and went. Gargano would show up, but not until Aug. 22 in Toronto.
Why? To hear Gargano tell it, as he did to Corey Graves & fellow Clevelander Vic Joseph on WWE’s After The Bell, it was almost a test of his popularity:
“A big part of me didn’t want to come back in Cleveland because I knew if I would have came back in Cleveland it would have gotten an amazing reaction but people would have been like, ‘Oh you know, he’s this little kid from NXT and he got the reaction because it’s his hometown.’
“So, to come back in Toronto in an arena, I think, like, 16,000 people might have been in that arena. It was really cool because a commercial break happened, we came back from commercial break and then my music started playing. The reaction was such a cool reaction to experience because it was like, the music hit and everyone was like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s familiar, what is this?’ And then my name came across the Tron and everyone was like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on right now? What’s happening? And then I walked out and everyone lost their minds, and then the Johnny Wrestling chants started, and everyone was super fun to play with.
“That, for me, is going to be one of the lasting memories for me is that gradual pop and that gradual reaction when people realized what was happening.”
It was also the challenge of actually surprising fans in the 21st century:
“That was the most important thing to me for this secret, for this return was to make it a complete surprise. Obviously, I could have came back two weeks prior in Cleveland but everyone believed that, everyone thought that was going to happen. That’s probably why it didn’t happen... It was really important for me to just keep this whole thing under wraps as much as possible. The fact that we were able to do that, the fact that I flew into Buffalo and I was snuck across the border.
“Snuck legally across the border. We’re not getting in trouble here — snuck across the border into Toronto.”
The surprise was nice, and seeing how a crowd in a big city without a vested interest in Gargano reacted to him was probably useful for Johnny & decision makers backstage at WWE.
Johnny also says signing with a company other than WWE did “cross his mind,” but the latest season of Netflix’s Stranger Things and the 40 year old song it returned to the charts (Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”) helped him decide what to do:
“This is when I knew what I wanted to do. I was watching Stranger Things and the song came on and the first thing that popped into my head was, ‘Wait a minute, that’s Shawn vs. The Undertaker’s song from WrestleMania.’ Placebo did a cover of it.
“I watched the hype video for Shawn and Taker from ‘Mania and I sat there in the kitchen, Candice was right there she can tell you this, I sat there in the kitchen and I watched this hype video as she’s doing baby stuff, and it just hit me watching this video, I was, like, this is what I want to do, this is where I want to be and this is what I want to do. This is why I got into this, to have videos like this about me but also to have these WrestleMania stories and matches and I haven’t had that yet. I haven’t had that WrestleMania moment, I haven’t had that WrestleMania match.”
We’ll see how Gargano’s first match as a member of the main roster goes in Portland, Oregon tonight (Sept. 12)? Will it lead to him becoming Johnny WrestleMania in the next few years?
Let us know what you think below, and check out Corey & Vic’s entire conversation with Gargano here.