Sometimes life just falls into place. From time to time, that can happen a little too literally for the tastes of some pro wrestlers, but it can still work out in the end.
For Cleveland’s Johnny Gargano, he could never have known that a career threatening injury could possibly turn into a big career break a few months later. But it did.
“I had a Ring of Honor tryout back in August 2008, and that was when Gabe Sapolsky was still there, and I woke up the next morning and I literally could not walk,” Gargano told SLAM! Wrestling.
Oddly enough, Gargano had no inkling he was injured after the tryout: “I felt fine after the match but woke up the next morning and couldn’t move,” he said, adding he tried to continue wrestling every weekend for the next month.
The pain, however, was just too excruciating to continue — “It was probably the worst pain I felt in my life” — and reluctantly, Gargano sought the opinion of a doctor, who only had bad news to offer him.
“It turns out I had a hairline fracture in my lower back, and the doctor pretty much told me I had to rethink my sport. Which means, ‘You should quit wrestling.’ That sucks to hear at 21 years old. But I went through physical therapy; luckily enough, I went to a new doctor who helped me out even more. Six months later, I got to return.”
He discovered his injury stemmed from his left leg being shorter than his right, which affected his pelvis and spine. Now, he wears a lift in his footwear, in the ring and out, as a preventative measure.
During Gargano’s convalescence, Sapolsky would leave ROH and go on to Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE. While wrestling for Chicago promotion All American Wrestling (AAW), Gargano said he ran into Colt Cabana, who suggested he get in touch with Sapolsky and “tell him I sent you.”
“I thought Johnny would be a perfect fit for his upstart promotion in which Gabe was looking for young and hungry wrestlers who had yet to break out of their ‘local’ towns,” said Cabana, remembering Gargano’s hard work, crisp footwork and manoeuvring. “I’m more than happy to help out a random young talent for the sake of wrestling. I love to see it. I remember how hungry CM Punk, Chris Hero, BJ Whitmer and I were to get our ‘names out there.’ When I see someone with the same attitude nowadays, I want to be able to lend a helping hand.”
Gargano wisely followed Cabana’s advice, and Sapolsky told him he wanted to use him on the initial Dragon Gate USA show.
“When we were looking for new talent for both DGUSA and EVOLVE, we came across Johnny Gargano and he immediately stood out,” said Sapolsky. “We gave him an opportunity to be in FRAY! [a battle royal-like match] on the first DGUSA event. He made the most of it.”
Saplosky said he gradually gave Gargano bigger and bigger opportunities and that he delivered on each of them, leading them to eventually sign him.
“And from then on, I’ve been on pretty much every show Gabe has done with EVOLVE and Dragon Gate USA,” Gargano said.
This coming weekend, Gargano will appear on both shows, wrestling Adam Cole on the 23rd for EVOLVE, and possibly CIMA the next night on DGUSA.
“I have challenged CIMA, who is pretty much one of the founding fathers of Dragon Gate. We’ll see if he accepts,” Gargano said.
Considering his age, you might think the 22-year-old Gargano is still something of a greenhorn in the business, but you’d be wrong.
Back when he was eight, Gargano first got into a wrestling ring when wrestler and promoter J.T. Lightning was running a show behind Gargano’s father’s catering business.
“It was his promotion, he let me get in the ring and mess around and showed me a little bit,” Gargano said.
That relationship with Lightning helped Gargano get his foot in the door at the Cleveland All Pro Training Center at the very tender age of 14.
Ironically, both Gargano and Nick Nemeth (Dolph Ziggler) would attend St. Edward High School. But unlike the older Nemeth, who became a highly accomplish amateur wrestler before joining the WWE, Gargano focused all his athletic endeavours on becoming a pro wrestler.
“I started working with Johnny when he was about 16,” remembered trainer Josh Prohibition, who chose to take on Gargano in his last wrestling match. “In an interview heading into my last match between myself and Johnny I talked about how years before I saw a ‘fat little shy kid’ walk into the training center and I ‘took him under my wing.’ In reality there was a lot of truth in that statement.”
But Gargano was also a kid who loved wrestling, was willing to work hard, and was extremely coachable, Prohibition stressed. As a football and baseball coach at the varsity level, Prohibition ranked coachability as one of the most important attributes an athlete can have when he evaluates who will attain success.
Another is heart.
“A number of 16 to 18 year-olds had popped their heads into the training center talking about wrestling being ‘their dream,’ but that dream always seemed to end soon after taking a few bumps; Johnny was different,” said Prohibition.
He added Gargano also demonstrated a good deal of athletic talent, so he began giving him extra lessons, going to the gym on off days to work further with his young charge.
“He was a student of the game. He was always watching tapes and bringing stuff with him to the training sessions. I ended up learning a number of things from Johnny. He reminded me of a young Alex Shelley, and I was beginning to see he was going to be something special in the world of wrestling.”
One area Gargano really excelled in and was able to pass along was chain wrestling.
“I’ve always been a fan of chain wrestling; it’s been one of the things I’ve studied and I studied immensely. I’ve always thought if you want to be good at what you do, you’ve got to look at as much wrestling as possible. And a guy by the name of Johnny Saint really caught my eye when I was 15, 16, and he was one of the guys I wanted to mould my style after.”
Prohibition, however, noted Gargano was making a mistake common to many aspiring wrestlers, namely taking unnecessary risks, and he took him aside to explain about picking and choosing one’s spots.
“An idea that Jerry Lynn shared with me is that our bodies only have so many ‘bumps’ in them. You can only take so many falls before you aren’t going to be able to get up anymore. I shared a lot of these same ideas with Johnny and he took it to heart. He started making wiser decisions in the ring. He began progressing as a wrestler at an incredibly quick speed.”
Gargano has since developed what he calls a “Lucharesu” hybrid style: “It’s a mix of British chain wrestling, lucha libre, Japan style. I don’t want to be confined to one style. It’s a real grab bag when you watch me wrestle and I try to be as different and unique as possible.”
Combined with that is a rather unique wrestling persona he developed, one Gargano likened to that of Chris Jericho’s WCW character, mixed with Michael Scott from The Office. In other words, someone lacking self awareness and living in his own deluded little world. Throw in a bit of a Will Farrell-type flavour, and you get a pretty clear picture. Obviously, not the silent type.
“I enjoy talking on the microphone. I think it’s a big part of professional wrestling. A lot of guys try to focus on just wrestling, but I try to be as multifaceted as possible, what with entertaining outside and in the ring. It’s important — you’ve got to have a certain level of charisma to keep the fans’ interest and get them emotionally attached to your character.”
WWE & TNA
In 2007, Gargano, who has gone on to work for indy promotions all over the U.S., made a surprise appearance on SmackDown in his hometown.
“I was 20 at the time and I was training people, and SmackDown was in town in Cleveland. All the students went to the show so no one came to training that day, except me. I was in the ring waiting for people to show up and I actually fell asleep. Then all of a sudden I hear my mother running down the steps calling, ‘Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, you’re going to be on SmackDown!’”
Gargano, groggy, thought he was still dreaming and asked his mom what she was talking about.
“Turns out they called my house and my mom picked up and they told her I had to get there in a half hour.”
Gargano ran home, grabbed his gear, and hustled to the arena. But where to go from there? he wondered.
“I didn’t even know how to get in the building. I went through the front door, which is not really a good idea — you should not go through the front door if you’re trying to go wrestle for WWE,” he cautioned.
When he managed to convince somebody he wasn’t just some nut or mark looking for an autograph, he was shuffled off to the wardrobe department.
“I was like, ‘Wha’? Wardrobe? That’s weird.’ Then they give me this elf costume.”
Although baffled, he put on his outfit all the same. This is the biggest league of them all, right? Keep quiet and do what you’re told.
“I’m standing there and everyone’s laughing. Then they’re, ‘Okay, we‘re gonna take you to go show Vince.’”
Once more on the move, Gargano was escorted to Vince McMahon’s office. McMahon thought the costume looked great, thanked Gargano for doing it, and Gargano was off to take on Montel Vontavious Porter as the “Liechtenstein Heavyweight Champion” Cedrick Von Haussen. (This was in the midst of MVP wrestling a string of obscure alleged champions during a program with Chris Benoit.)
WWE would come calling again, this time last May, when Gargano appeared on NXT and posed as Michael Cole’s security guard to protect him from Daniel Bryan (a.k.a. Bryan Danielson). That role proved extremely appropriate for Gargano, as he wrestled Danielson in one of his last matches before he went to WWE, and again shortly after his release.
Online dirt sheets exploded with speculation shortly afterward, as following the episode’s airing, Sapolsky wrote on DGUSA’s Twitter, “Congrats to Johnny Gargano for signing his contract.”
“The WWE thing was just people taking things out of context. I actually signed a deal with Dragon Gate USA. I appeared on NXT the night before so people took it as me signing with WWE. It was hectic,” Gargano said.
As much as he’d like to wrestle for WWE, Gargano has also strongly considered the competition. In June 2009, he tried out for TNA, getting in the ring and working with Jay Lethal and Eric Young.
“Everyone there was awesome!” Gargano exclaimed. “I got a lot of positive feedback. Everyone was amazing. You never know, I’d love to work there at some point in the future.”
Both his boss and ex-trainer beamed about Gargano and what may lie ahead of him.
“Johnny Gargano is a very dedicated, intelligent, hard-working and gifted talent. He also has an astute understanding of the business, especially for someone of his young age,” said Sapolsky. “He has that extra drive, which separates the good ones from the great ones. I am not saying he’s a star today, but I am sure we will all see him develop into a star right before our eyes.”
Prohibition felt proud of his former student, calling him an “elite independent professional wrestler” who stands out on every show he’s on and can do what few others can, and that is hold his own with talents like Danielson. He said he was happy to see Gargano finally getting the attention he deserved.
“He is still very young and I really think the sky is the limit with Johnny. I hope I’m watching him on WWE television in a few years telling my buddies that I know that guy, and they will just shake their heads at me and say, ‘Yeah right.’”