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Gargano started his professional wrestling career in 2005, working for the Cleveland All–Pro Wrestling (CAPW) promotion. Over the following years, Gargano worked for some of the top promotions on the American independent circuit, including Chikara, Dragon Gate USA (DGUSA), Evolve and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG). Titles Gargano held include the Chikara Campeonatos de Parejas, the Evolve Tag Team Championship and DGUSA's Open the Freedom Gate Championship, which he held twice with his first reign lasting a record 873 days. During his independent days, Gargano also made appearances for national promotions Ring of Honor (ROH) and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA).
After making sporadic appearances for WWE early in his career, Gargano took part in the company's tryout camp in June 2015. Afterwards, he began appearing regularly for WWE NXT, eventually signing a contract in April 2016.
Gargano was born on August 14, 1987, in Cleveland, Ohio. He entered a professional wrestling ring for the first time at age eight, when Cleveland All–Pro Wrestling owner J.T. Lightning, who ran shows behind John's father's catering business, allowed him to roll around in the ring. While studying in St. Edward High School, Gargano decided to enter CAPW's professional wrestling school in order to become a professional wrestler. At age 16, Gargano began training at the Cleveland All Pro Training Center under J.T. Lightning and Josh Prohibition. Gargano cites Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho and Johnny Saint as his role models.
Early career and tryouts
Gargano made his professional wrestling debut for Cleveland All–Pro Wrestling in 2005. Gargano calls his wrestling style "Lucharesu", a mix of British chain wrestling, lucha libre and puroresu and describes his character as "someone lacking self awareness and living in his own deluded little world". On October 8, 2006, Gargano defeated Josh Prohibition, M-Dogg 20, and Zach Gowen in a four–way match to win his first Championship, the CAPW Junior Heavyweight Championship. He would continue to make appearances for the company until August 5, 2007, teaming up with Prohibition in his CAPW farewell match, where they defeated Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin. On March 27, 2007, Gargano appeared as the Champion of Liechtenstein, Cedrick Von Haussen, on an episode of World Wrestling Entertainment's television program SmackDown, losing to Montel Vontavious Porter. He made another appearance for WWE on the May 25, 2010, edition of NXT, portraying a security guard. On June 24, 2009, Gargano wrestled in a dark match at Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's Impact! television tapings, losing to Jay Lethal. The following day he wrestled in another dark match, this time losing to Eric Young. Gargano has also wrestled in a dark match for Ring of Honor, defeating Sami Callihan on August 15, 2008. After his ROH tryout it was discovered that Gargano had a hairline fracture in his back, caused by his left leg being shorter than his right leg, which led to his doctor advising him to rethink his career choice. Gargano, however, returned to the ring six months later. Gargano wrestled another tryout for WWE, now working under the ring name Joey Gray, at the September 20, 2011, tapings of Superstars, losing to Brodus Clay.
Absolute Intense Wrestling (2006–present)
Gargano made his debut for Cleveland–based Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW) on February 26, 2006, losing to Kano. He would pick up his first victory in the promotion two months later on April 30, defeating future WWE performer Tyrone Evans. On February 24, 2008, Gargano defeated his trainer Josh Prohibition to become the number one contender to the AIW Intense Division Championship. After Gargano's first shot at the title, held by Tyler Black, went to a fifteen-minute time limit draw on March 21, the two were booked in a 30–minute Iron Man match on May 25, where Gargano defeated Black to win the Intense Division Championship for the first time. Gargano held the title for 187 days before he was stripped of it due to an injury on November 28, 2008. On February 28, 2009, Gargano defeated Jimmy DeMarco, who had won the vacant Intense Division Championship in a tournament, to regain the title. He would go on to lose the title to Josh Prohibition on May 15, 2009.
On April 9, 2010, Gargano teamed up with Aeroform (Flip Kendrick and Louis Lyndon) to form Team Oreo for the Jack of All Trios tournament, a tournament held for sixteen teams of three. After defeating Psycho Sexual Panic (Corvis Fear, Michael Facade and Shiima Xion) on night one of the tournament, Gargano and Aeroform advanced to night two, where they defeated Team Beyond Wrestling (Chase Burnett, Davey Vega and Zane Silver), Da Soul Touchaz (Acid Jaz, Marshe Rockett and Willie Richardson) and finally the Young Studs (Bobby Beverly, Eric Ryan and T.J. Dynamite) to win the tournament. As a result of winning the tournament, Gargano and Aeroform earned the right to represent AIW in Chikara's 2010 King of Trios tournament. On June 27 Gargano defeated Facade, Sterling James Keenan and Tommy Mercer in a four–way match to win AIW's top singles title, the vacant AIW Absolute Championship, for the first time. Later that same night Gargano retained his brand new title by wrestling Bryan Danielson to a 30–minute time limit draw. He would go on to lose the title to Shiima Xion on June 26, 2011. On March 3, 2012, Gargano won a 30-man Gauntlet for the Gold, last eliminating Tim Donst, to earn a shot at Xion and the AIW Absolute Championship.
Pro Wrestling Ohio / Prime Wrestling (2007–present)
Gargano appeared on the very first episode of Pro Wrestling Ohio on Sports Time Ohio on November 20, 2007. He would lose his debut, in what many called an upset, to Gregory Iron, a wrestler with a disability known as cerebral palsy. Gargano went on to team with his trainer Josh Prohibition, defeating several teams in the first year of PWO, including Matt Cross and John McChesney, Marion Fontaine and Josh Abercrombie, The Olsen Twins (Jimmy Olsen and Colin Delaney), among others. During this time, Iron issued several challenges to Gargano, claiming he could beat him in another match. Meanwhile, Gargano remained in denial of the original defeat from Iron, and continued to mock Iron's disability, his history of concussions, and rough upbringing. At the February 2008 PWO TV tapings, Gargano brutally attacked Iron, busting him open, assaulting him with a chair, and bashing his head into the ringside barricades. Gargano's attack put Iron on the shelf for three months, until he returned to challenge Gargano to a Last Man Standing match, at the inaugural Wrestlelution event. On August 1, 2008, Gargano defeated Iron, in front of over 1,000 fans in Cleveland, Ohio to end their feud.
Gargano suffered a hairline fracture in his vertebrae during the Last Man Standing match and did not return to active competition until March 2009, when he faced off against Mike Tolar and Jason Bane in a three–way match to become number one contender for the PWO Heavyweight Championship, in which he was victorious. Gargano went on to unsuccessfully challenge Matt Cross for the PWO Heavyweight Championship on April 18, 2009. After Gargano's loss, Josh Prohibition capitalized on a worn down Cross, and defeated him for the PWO Championship. Due to Prohibition's deceiving ways, the nearly three-year relationship between Prohibition and Gargano was broken. On August 9, 2009, at Wrestlelution 2: A Coming of Age Gargano defeated Prohibition in his final match, for the PWO Championship. In the 2009/2010 season of PWO TV, Gargano defended his title against all challengers, and had seemingly changed his ways. However, a string of attacks occurred, of which Gargano was thought to be the culpret of. It was revealed in June 2010 that the true attacker was Matt Cross, who thought he deserved a chance to regain the PWO Heavyweight Championship. On August 1, 2010, at Wrestlelution 3: A Defining Moment, Gargano defeated Cross to retain the PWO Heavyweight Championship. On March 20, 2011, Gargano lost the PWO Heavyweight Championship to Marion Fontaine in a three–way match, which also included Jason Bane, after getting hit with a nightstick. After Pro Wrestling Ohio was renamed Prime Wrestling in early 2012, Gargano regained the PWO Heavyweight Championship, now known as the Prime Heavyweight Championship, by defeating Jimmy Jacobs on August 19, 2012. He lost the title to Krimson on February 16, 2013.
Chikara (2008, 2010–2013)
Gargano made his debut for Philadelphia–based Chikara on June 14, 2008, taking part in the sixth Young Lions Cup tournament, only to be eliminated in his first round match against Marshe Rockett. Gargano would return to the company almost two years later on April 23, 2010, taking part in the 2010 King of Trios tournament, teaming with Aeroform. However, once again Gargano failed to make it past the first round as his team suffered a loss in their opening round match against The Colony (Fire Ant, Green Ant and Soldier Ant). On the second night of the tournament Gargano came out during a quarter-final match between F.I.S.T. (Icarus, Gran Akuma and Chuck Taylor) and Team Osaka Pro (Atsushi Kotoge, Daisuke Harada and Tadasuke), wearing a F.I.S.T. shirt and witnessed how Icarus, Akuma and Taylor were eliminated from the tournament. After the event Gargano wrote on his Facebook page that he liked F.I.S.T., but thought that the team might have a weak link, which led to the stable's members pointing fingers at each other. On June 27 at Faded Scars and Lines Gargano defeated Player Uno in his hometown of Cleveland to earn a spot in the eighth Young Lions Cup tournament. On July 26 at Chikarasaurus Rex: King of Show F.I.S.T. was defeated in a six-man tag team match by CIMA, Masaaki Mochizuki and Super Shenglong, when CIMA pinned Akuma. After the match Icarus and Taylor turned on Akuma, kicked him out of both F.I.S.T. and Chikara and gave his spot in the stable to Gargano. On August 27, 2010, Gargano entered his second Young Lions Cup tournament, defeating Andy Ridge in his first round match. However, later that same night he was eliminated from the tournament, when he got disqualified in the six–way elimination semi final match. On August 29, the final night of the tournament, Gargano defeated 29 other men to win The Countdown Showdown match and earn a "Golden Opportunity". With Gargano as a member, the new F.I.S.T. ended their losing streak by defeating Da Soul Touchaz (Acid Jaz, Marshe Rockett and Willie Richardson) and 3.0 (Scott Parker and Shane Matthews) and Soldier Ant in six-man tag team matches on September 18 and 19. On October 23 Gargano cashed in his "Golden Opportunity" for a Young Lions Cup title match against Frightmare, but was unsuccessful in his attempt to win the Cup. On April 15, 2011, F.I.S.T. entered the 2011 King of Trios, defeating Team Australia (Kabel, Percy T and Tama Williams) in their first round match. The following day F.I.S.T. defeated Team Osaka Pro (Atsushi Kotoge, Daisuke Harada and Ultimate Spider Jr.) to advance to the semifinals of the tournament. On April 17, F.I.S.T. scored a major upset in the semifinals of the King of Trios tournament by defeating Team Michinoku Pro (Dick Togo, Great Sasuke and Jinsei Shinzaki), when Icarus rolled up Sasuke for the win, after Taylor had blinded him with powder. Later that same day, F.I.S.T. was defeated in the finals of the tournament by The Colony (Fire Ant, Green Ant and Soldier Ant).
In June and July, Gargano and Taylor gained three points and the right to challenge for the Chikara Campeonatos de Parejas with victories over the teams of The Colony (Green Ant and Soldier Ant), Incoherence (Frightmare and Hallowicked) and Atlantis and Rey Bucanero. On September 18, Gargano and Taylor defeated Jigsaw and Mike Quackenbush to win the Chikara Campeonatos de Parejas for the first time. Gargano and Taylor made their first title defense on October 7, defeating Momo no Seishun Tag (Atsushi Kotoge and Daisuke Harada) with help from Icarus in the third match between F.I.S.T. and the Osaka Pro Wrestling representatives. On October 7, Icarus replaced Gargano, who was unable to attend the event due to travel issues, and teamed with Taylor to successfully defend the Campeonatos de Parejas against the Throwbacks (Dasher Hatfield and Sugar Dunkerton), after which Gargano and Taylor defended the title on December 2, during Chikara's special post-season JoshiMania weekend, defeating The Colony. While Gargano was sidelined with a back injury, Icarus replaced him and together with Chuck Taylor successfully defended the Campeonatos de Parejas on February 25, 2012, against the Spectral Envoy (Hallowicked and UltraMantis Black), before losing the title to 3.0 on March 24. After earning three points in a four-way elimination match on April 14, Gargano and Taylor defeated 3.0 in a rematch on April 29 to regain the title and become the first two-time Campeones de Parejas. On June 2 at Chikarasaurus Rex: How to Hatch a Dinosaur, F.I.S.T. lost the title to The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) in their first title defense.
On August 2, Chikara's Director of Fun, Wink Vavasseur, named Sugar Dunkerton, who had announced his wish to join a stable, the fourth member of F.I.S.T. The other members, however, refused to accept Dunkerton as a full-fledged member, instead referring to him as their "water boy".On September 14, F.I.S.T., represented by Gargano, Icarus and Taylor, entered the 2012 King of Trios tournament, defeating Team Osaka Pro (Ebessan, Kikutaro and Takoyakida) in their first round match. The following day, F.I.S.T. defeated the all-female Team JWP (Command Bolshoi, Kaori Yoneyama and Tsubasa Kuragaki) to advance to the semifinals of the tournament. On the third and final day of the tournament, F.I.S.T. was eliminated from the tournament in the semifinals by the Spectral Envoy (Frightmare, Hallowicked and UltraMantis Black), who went on to win the entire tournament. In early 2013, the members of F.I.S.T. began having problems with each other, leading to Icarus turning on Gargano on May 3 over his treatment of Sugar Dunkerton. Following the turn, Gargano announced that he was quitting F.I.S.T., which was followed by Chikara removing his profile from the promotion's official roster page.
Dragon Gate USA and Evolve (2009–present)
While wrestling for Chicago–based All American Wrestling (AAW), Gargano ran into Colt Cabana, who suggested he get in touch with former Ring of Honor booker Gabe Sapolsky, who was looking for talent for the Dragon Gate USA and Evolve Wrestling promotions, and tell him that Cabana sent him. Gargano received a tryout match for Dragon Gate USA on July 25, 2009, at the tapings of the Enter the Dragon pay-per-view, wrestling in an eight–way elimination dark match, which was won by Lince Dorado. On September 6 Gargano wrestled in another dark match at tapings of Untouchable, where he defeated Arik Cannon, Flip Kendrick, Hallowicked, Louis Lyndon, Prince Mustafa Ali, Shiima Xion and the Great Malaki in an eight–way elimination match. On November 28 at Freedom Fight, Gargano made his pay-per-view debut by entering the tournament to crown the first Open the Freedom Gate Champion, but was eliminated in the first round in a six–way match with Hallowicked, Lince Dorado, Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson and the winner of the match, Gran Akuma. On January 16, 2010, Gargano participated in Evolve Wrestling's first show, defeating Chris Dickinson in a singles match. Seven days later at Dragon Gate USA's fourth PPV, Fearless, Gargano wrestled in another dark match, losing to Kyle O'Reilly in a six–way match. In May 2010 it was announced that Gargano had signed a contract with Dragon Gate USA. On July 24, 2010, at Enter the Dragon 2010, Gargano wrestled his first singles match in Dragon Gate USA, losing to CIMA, a founding father of Dragon Gate, the parent company of Dragon Gate USA. At the following event on September 25, Gargano was defeated by Chuck Taylor in a four–way match, which also included Drake Younger and Rich Swann. The following day Gargano offered himself to CIMA's Warriors International stable, before defeating Drake Younger in a singles match. On October 29 at Dragon Gate USA's first live pay-per-view, Bushido: Code of the Warrior, Gargano wrestled in a four–way match, which was won by Chuck Taylor and also included Arik Cannon and Ricochet. After Taylor turned down an offer from CIMA to join his Warriors International stable, Gargano offered himself to CIMA, but was turned down. Gargano confronted CIMA again after his match, offering himself to Warriors International, before attacking him and his stablemate Ricochet, along with Chuck Taylor and Rich Swann. Taylor then announced that the three of them were forming their own stable called Ronin. At the following day's tapings of Freedom Fight 2010, Ronin defeated Austin Aries, Genki Horiguchi and Ricochet in a six-man tag team match.
On January 29, 2011, Gargano and Taylor entered a three-day-long tournament to determine the first ever Open the United Gate Champions. In their first tournament match, Gargano and Taylor defeated Blood Warriors representatives Naruki Doi and Ricochet and followed that up by defeating another Blood Warriors team of CIMA and Dragon Kid the following day. On January 30 Gargano and Taylor were defeated in the finals of the tournament by World–1 representatives Masato Yoshino and PAC. On April 1 at Open the Southern Gate, Gargano had a rematch with CIMA, with Ronin now working as a babyface group against CIMA's Blood Warriors, but was defeated just like in the previous singles match between the two. The following day at the Mercury Rising 2011 pay-per-view, Ronin was defeated in the main event six-man tag team match by the Blood Warriors team of CIMA, Naruki Doi and Ricochet. On April 3 at Open the Ultimate Gate, Austin Aries, who had just lost a match, where he had put his Dragon Gate USA career on the line, feigned passing the torch to his former rivals in Ronin, but instead ended up turning on them and joining Blood Warriors. After picking up Evolve wins over Ricochet, Frightmare, and Jimmy Jacobs, Gargano defeated Jon Davis on April 19 at Evolve's first live internet pay-per-view. Later that same night, he defeated Chuck Taylor in a tiebreaker match to become Evolve's new wins leader with a record of 6–2. On June 3 at Dragon Gate USA's Fearless 2011, Gargano faced Aries in a losing effort, but came back two days later at Enter The Dragon 2011 to force both CIMA and Aries to submit in a six-man elimination tag team match, where he teamed with Rich Swann and Masato Yoshino with Brodie Lee being the third member of Blood Warriors.
On September 10 at Untouchable 2011, Gargano was defeated in a singles match by Blood Warriors member Akira Tozawa. The following day at Way of the Ronin 2011, Gargano picked up a major singles win over Naruki Doi, before announcing his intention of going for the Open the Freedom Gate Championship. On November 13 at Freedom Fight 2011, Gargano defeated YAMATO to win the Open the Freedom Gate Championship. On January 14, 2012, Gargano successfully defended the title against Ricochet in the final official professional wrestling match in the Asylum Arena. Following the match, Gargano had to be helped backstage and rushed to a hospital with an apparent back injury. He was released the following day. Gargano returned to the ring on March 3. On March 30, Gargano returned to Dragon Gate USA, when he and Chuck Taylor faced Masato Yoshino and Ricochet for the vacant Open the United Gate Championship. After Ronin had lost the match, Taylor turned on Gargano and broke away the stable. The following day, Gargano successfully defended the Open the Freedom Gate Championship against Masato Yoshino, but was afterwards attacked by Chuck Taylor. Following the merger of Dragon Gate USA and Evolve, Gargano successfully defended the Open the Freedom Gate Championship against Taylor on June 29 at Evolve 15. On July 28 at Untouchable 2012, Gargano made another successful title defense against Akira Tozawa. Prior to the event it had been reported that Gargano had been offered a developmental contract with WWE, however, following his win, Gargano announced that he had signed a two-year contract extension with Dragon Gate USA/Evolve. The following day at Enter the Dragon 2012, Dragon Gate USA's third anniversary event, Gargano defeated Chuck Taylor in a non-title "I Quit" match to win the rivalry between the two former stablemates. Gargano made another successful defense of the Open the Freedom Gate Championship on September 8, defeating Jon Davis at Evolve 17. On November 4 at Freedom Fight 2012, despite a pre-match assault by Jon Davis, Gargano defeated Akira Tozawa, AR Fox and Ricochet in a four-way elimination match to retain the Open the Freedom Gate Championship and, as a result, made it to full year as the champion. On December 8 at Evolve 18, Gargano defeated Sami Callihan for his tenth successful defense of the Open the Freedom Gate Championship. On January 26, 2013, Gargano defeated Jon Davis in a grudge match to retain the Open the Freedom Gate Championship. The following day, Gargano defeated Brian Kendrick for his twelfth successful title defense. On April 6 at Open the Ultimate Gate 2013, Gargano successfully defended the Open the Freedom Gate Championship against Shingo, after hitting him with a low blow and a chain, turning villainous in the process. Gargano's streak of successful title defenses continued on June 2 at Evolve 22, where he defeated Samuray del Sol via submission, after unmasking him.
Dragon Gate (2011, 2012)
On March 1, 2011, Gargano made his Japanese debut, when his Dragon Gate USA stable Ronin started their first three–week long tour of Dragon Gate. In their first match of the tour, Gargano, Chuck Taylor and Rich Swann defeated Blood Warriors representatives CIMA, Naruki Doi and Naoki Tanisaki in a six-man tag team match.
Gargano returned to Dragon Gate in October 2012, now aligned with the World-1 International stable. In his first match of the tour on October 6, Gargano teamed with Masato Yoshino and Naruki Doi to defeat Kaettekita Veteran-gun representatives Don Fujii, Gamma and Masaaki Mochizuki in a six-man tag team main event. The following day, Gargano defeated Ryo "Jimmy" Saito for his eighth successful defense of the Open the Freedom Gate Championship.
Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (2013)
On March 22, 2013, Gargano made his debut for Southern California-based Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG) during the promotion's All Star Weekend 9, teaming with Chuck Taylor in a non-title tag team match, where they were defeated by the reigning PWG World Tag Team Champions, The Young Bucks. During the following night, Gargano and Taylor defeated the RockNES Monsters (Johnny Goodtime and Johnny Yuma) in another tag team match. Gargano returned to PWG on June 15, when he and Taylor were defeated in a tag team match by the Dojo Bros. (Eddie Edwards and Roderick Strong).
WWE NXT (2015–present)
In June 2015, Gargano took part in a WWE tryout camp, and also wrestled at the June 18 NXT tapings, losing to Uhaa Nation. Though he did not sign with WWE, Gargano continued making appearances for NXT over the next months. Most notably, he teamed with Tommaso Ciampa in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament, defeating the team of Bull Dempsey and Tyler Breeze in their first round match on the September 9 episode. They were eliminated from the tournament by Baron Corbin and Rhyno on the September 16 episode. Gargano continued working for NXT in early 2016, losing to Samoa Joe in the main event of the January 20 episode. On the March 23 NXT, Gargano got his first win over Elias Samson in a quick fashion via roll up. On April 2, it was confirmed that Gargano had signed with WWE earlier in the week. Gargano's NXT contract was a so-called "Tier 2" contract, which allowed him to continue working independent dates alongside his now regular NXT bookings. On June 23, Gargano entered the Cruiserweight Classic tournament, defeating his tag team partner Tommaso Ciampa in his first round match. On July 14, Gargano was eliminated from the tournament by T.J. Perkins. On July 21, it was reported that Gargano was signing a new full-time NXT deal, which would prevent him from taking further independent bookings. On August 20 at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, Gargano and Ciampa unsuccessfully challenged The Revival (Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson) for the NXT Tag Team Championship.
Gargano has a relative named Walter Klasinski who owns Pro Wrestling Ohio, based in Cleveland.
- Finishing moves
- Crosston Crab (Cross-legged Boston crab)
- Gargano Escape / Garga-No-Escape (Chickenwing over the shoulder crossface, sometimes with a stepover toehold)
- Hurts Donut / Uniquely You (Full nelson lifted and spun into a reverse STO)
- Swinging reverse STO
- Signature moves
- Baby Ace Crusher (Running cutter to a kneeling opponent)
- Double knee strike to a cornered opponent
- Double knee backbreaker to an opponent seated on the top rope
- Multiple kick variations
- Springboard drop
- Spear, sometimes while slingshotting
- You're Dead / Lawn Dart (Running throwing snake eyes)
- ""(The Bee's Knees, The Cat's Pajamas and) The Whole Shebang"
- "All Heart"
- "Johnny Wrestling"
- "John Boy"
- Entrance themes
Championships and accomplishments
- Absolute Intense Wrestling
- Championship Wrestling Experience
- CWE Undisputed Championship (1 time)
- Chikara Campeonatos de Parejas (2 times) – with Chuck Taylor
- The Countdown Showdown (2010)
Cleveland All–Pro Wrestling
- CAPW Junior Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- Dragon Gate USA
- Open the Freedom Gate Championship (1 time)
- International Wrestling Cartel
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated
- PWI ranked him #59 of the top 500 singles wrestlers in the PWI 500 in 2012
- Pro Wrestling Ohio / Prime Wrestling PWO
- Prime Heavyweight Championship (2 times)