While folding his official merchandise T-shirts into neat piles with his fiancee recently, Johnny Gargano had a bittersweet realization.
“She looked at me and said, ‘This is the last time we’re going to do this.’ And it kind of hit me. It is. I don’t have to pack hundreds of T-shirts with me and lug them around everywhere, and order merchandise and make sure I have 8-by-10s [photos] and do all that stuff,” Gargano said of the ways independent pro wrestlers earn extra money hawking products at shows. “But I’m going to miss that.”
Having recently signed with WWE, Gargano, who has been one of the most recognizable names in independent wrestling for a dozen years, is leaving his old life behind — but not before competing in his final singles match for his longtime employer, Evolve Wrestling, on Saturday night in Deer Park.
Evolve 68, dubbed “A Tribute to an Icon,” takes place at the NYWC Sportatorium with an 8 p.m. start time. Gargano will take on another independent star with WWE aspirations, Zack Sabre Jr., in the “Battle of the Aces.”
Gargano, 29, plans to soak up the intimate setting of the event one final time before heading to WWE, where he is expected to be a key player in the newly-created cruiserweight division featured on the company’s flagship cable TV show, "Monday Night Raw."
“It’s not like the mainstream wrestling in WWE where fans are going to sit in a 15,000-seat arena and be 1,000 feet away from me,” Gargano, of Cleveland, said of the independent wrestling scene. “You do make a certain connection with fans. And that’s what I’m going to miss the most.”
Although Gargano recently signed with WWE, his imminent arrival on Raw won’t mark the first time he’s worked with the company. For more than a year, Gargano has been regularly featured in WWE’s minor league, NXT, and competed in the ongoing, inaugural Cruiserweight Classic tournament, which also featured Ridge resident and fellow Evolve standout Tony Nese.
Despite having long established a solid reputation in the wrestling business, Gargano said he didn’t mind having to prove himself in WWE before being offered a full-time job.
“It wasn’t a blow to my ego at all . . . I know what I could do, and I was hoping for the opportunity to show them that,” Gargano said. “I wouldn’t change anything about it. Because, at the end of the day, I earned everything that I was given there.”