Before They Were Superstars: Johnny Gargano

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Sometimes a wrestler becomes so well known in a certain alignment it’s strange to see them wrestle the other way. Ric Flair was widely known as a heel, but would wrestle as a face periodically. Hulk Hogan, for much of his career, also wrestled as a face — to the point that it was a major shock when he joined the NWO as a heel.

Currently, Johnny Gargano wrestles as a fiery, underdog babyface in NXT, but he had a solid run as a heel in Dragon Gate USA. At the end of 2011, Gargano won the DGUSA Open the Freedom Gate Championship from YAMATO as a face. In the middle of his reign in 2013, he turned heel. Being smaller in stature, he would take cheapshots whenever possible, avoid contenders, and cheat to win. His promos were arrogant and self-important.

This was no different at DGUSA’s Freedom Fight 2013 when he had a “Roast of Johnny Gargano” before his championship defense. At the start, Gargano claimed that he was everyone’s hero. The crowd took exception to this and even his former partners, Chuck Taylor and Rich Swann, appeared to let their feelings of disgust be known. A top contender to Gargano’s title, Ricochet, even showed up to call him a coward before his opponent, Chris Hero, would come out to begin their match.

The following images are screenshots from Club WWN.


This match would be Chris Hero’s first upon returning to the indie wrestling scene after he was released by NXT. He was given, pardon the pun, a hero’s welcome and the crowd was desperate to see him dethrone Gargano.

The match starts with the two jaw jacking in the middle of the ring. Hero finally breaks the standoff by hitting a mafia kick on Gargano and going for a quick pin. Gargano kicks out, but Hero follows it up with a flurry of offense that sends Gargano out to the floor. Hero goes to roll Gargano back inside, but Gargano rolls right back out. Gargano pays for it by getting chopped, punched, and kicked senseless at ringside.


When they get back in the ring, Hero follows things up with a standing senton that nearly gets a three count. Hero goes for a move off the top rope, but Gargano pushes him off and sends Hero to the floor.  Hero takes a nasty bump by falling on his left arm. The referee goes to check on Hero and Gargano follows and starts working on Hero’s arm. Gargano slows down the pace by continuing to work over Hero’s arm and kicking him while he’s down. Hero tries to mount an comeback by trying to throw one of his patented elbows, but Gargano is able to stay out of reach. Gargano goes for a submission, but Hero is able to make it the ropes.

Gargano starts putting the boots to Hero some more, but Hero shrugs them off and throws some wicked chops. Hero goes for another elbow, but Gargano is able to avoid it by taking Hero down to the mat and kicking him in the head. Hero ends up rolling outside and regains the advantage on the floor.

When they get back in the ring Hero finally hits Gargano with an elbow but it doesn’t keep Gargano down. Hero attempts a submission, but isn’t able to lock in the hold since his left arm is still bothering him. Hero hits one of his signature moves, Hero’s Welcome, and follows it up with a multitude of strikes.  Gargano is able to survive the onslaught. When Hero goes for another elbow strike Gargano is able to reverse it into his GargaNo Escape submission.


Hero makes it to the ropes and Gargano takes a while to break the hold. Hero fights back with another series of strikes and goes for a moonsault. Gargano moves out of the way and, like a good indie heel, hits Hero with a Pedigree. Hero kicks out at one.

Gargano hits a Hurts Donut and a super kick as a follow-up before locking in the GargaNo Escape. Gargano starts kneeing Hero in the head, and the referee has no choice but to stop the match due to Hero not being able to fight back.


Gargano quickly flees with his title to a chorus of boos.

This run can be a bit of a surprise if you’ve only seen Gargano wrestle in NXT. While I think his heel work in this match is good, I feel that he works much better as a face. The Johnny Wrestling persona works better when he’s trying to gain sympathy from the crowd before a big comeback. It’s easy to watch Gargano in NXT and wish for him to succeed. I find myself invested in what he’s doing and cringe whenever he takes any kind of damage or punishment.

I think Gargano could wrestle as a heel again, but I think the story has to be right in order for it to happen. The match with Hero took place almost five years ago, and I’m sure Gargano has picked up some new tricks in the interim. For now, I’m perfectly happy rooting for Johnny Wrestling instead of booing him out of the building.

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