Q&A: NXT star Johnny Gargano on WWE 'Halftime Heat,' Royal Rumble, and the Browns

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Anthony Sulla-Heffinger
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NXT North American Champion Johnny Gargano. (Photo Courtesy of WWE)
NXT North American Champion Johnny Gargano. (Photo Courtesy of WWE)

On Sunday, while Maroon 5 takes the stage during halftime of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, some of professional wrestling’s brightest young talents will be reviving WWE’s “Halftime Heat” event.

“Halftime Heat,” which will be streamed on the WWE Network, WWE.com and various internet and social media platforms, will serve as counterprogramming to the Super Bowl halftime show. The event first debuted in 1999, where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson faced Mankind in an empty-arena match during halftime of Super Bowl XXXIII between the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos.

Twenty years later, NXT stars Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa and Adam Cole will face Velveteen Dream, Ricochet and Aleister Black. The 6-person tag-team match comes on the heels of NXT “TakeOver: Phoenix,” where Gargano defeated Ricochet to capture the NXT North American championship and Ciampa defeated Black to retain his NXT championship.

Ahead of “Halftime Heat,” Yahoo Sports spoke with Gargano about his role in reviving the event, last week’s whirlwind weekend in Phoenix and his beloved Cleveland Browns.

Yahoo Sports: Getting to do “Halftime Heat,” what does it say about how you, your peers and the NXT brand are viewed by WWE?

Johnny Gargano: This is such a big deal. I remember when I heard about it, I wasn’t aware of how big it would actually be. I’m a huge wrestling fan so I remember the first “Halftime Heat.” It was 20 years ago, I was 11 years old. I thought it was absolutely amazing. Now to be able to be a part of it and to show the world what NXT is all about and what we do. I believe what we do is put on a show unlike anyone else. I think it’s extremely special and I use that word a lot because I believe that’s what NXT is. I’m so excited for everyone from the non-wrestling fan to the hardcore fan to tune in and say “Wow, this stuff is cool, I have to check it out more.”

YS: Are there any added nerves or pressure knowing just how widely distributed this show will be?

JG: I don’t think so. I think we have the right six guys to do it. Those are six of the best professional wrestlers in the world. If you look at our “TakeOver” events, our live events, our TV show, we always bring it. It doesn’t matter if there are 15 people in the crowd or 15,000, we bring it. I know this Sunday we are going to bring it like only NXT can and we’re going to open up a lot of eyes. We’re hungry, we’re excited and we’re going to put on a show that no one has ever seen before.

YS: Looking at some of the things you’ve been able to do this month, you’ve gone from Evolve to NXT and then, last Sunday, you were featured on the main WWE roster for the Royal Rumble. What’s that been like getting to jump between those three different venues?

JG: It’s such a different world we live in now and it’s so crazy that in 2019 in professional wrestling that that was even possible. To go to Evolve, where I kind of cut my teeth on the indies, to get to wrestle in a small, intimate venue, to go back to my roots basically, it was a cool environment. I love independent wrestling and I will always love independent wrestling. To get to do that and interact with people that watched me grow up basically, that was awesome.

“TakeOver” events speak for themselves. I put them against any show in the world. The fact that it’s just main event after main event after main event, the electricity in the air is extraordinarily special.

Then, as a huge wrestling fan, to get the opportunity to be in the Royal Rumble, it blows my mind. It’s unthinkable. Those were my favorite events and I got a chance out of 30 people in the world to be a part of it this year. That’s pretty wild. I got a chance to share it with [my wife] Candice LeRae, because she was in the women’s Royal Rumble as well. What we do is so cool and I have a hard time believing this is my life, it’s so amazing.

YS: What was this past weekend like for you and your wife?

JG: It was a dream come true, and that’s putting it lightly. It’s so cool to get to share this with my wife [fellow WWE superstar Candice LeRae] because she is such a huge wrestling fan as well. We both know how big this is. What was also cool was that my mom came in for “TakeOver” and I got to tell her she had to stick around for the next day. Candice’s parents also came and watched her perform. To have our family there and get to share it together, it doesn’t feel real at times. It’s super awesome.

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YS: You finally got to capture gold in NXT with your win over Ricochet. What was the match like and the feeling afterward?

JG: I’ve know Ricochet for almost 10 years, we’ve wrestled each other all over the world. We pretty much grew up together. I wrestled him from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania all the way to Beijing, China. I’ve known him for a very long time. Everyone in the NXT locker room, we kind of all came up together, a lot of the guys are very similar and we all kind of look around at times and think, “This is pretty cool,” because we all get to live our dreams together after fighting, scratching and clawing to make a name for ourselves on the indies, lugging t-shirts around, wrestling in front of 50 people, it’s so cool to do this with your friends.

To go out there at “TakeOver: Phoenix” and perform with Ricochet, who is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, to go out there and do that with him, a year after me and Andrade had the match of the year, I’m at a loss for words. To win the North American title, that locker room is so amazing and to be considered one of the top guys is an honor. To hold a singles title, knowing how good everybody is in NXT, that’s really cool.

YS: As a Cleveland guy, what did you think about the Browns’ season this year and their prospects to maybe be playing on Super Bowl Sunday next year?

JG: I feel really good, and that’s not just the eternal Cleveland fan optimism. This is the “I can’t believe we have a real NFL team” fan side of me. For so many years, I just kind of wondered what it would be like to watch real NFL football. I had to watch some of my friends who were Patriots fans and they get to watch Tom Brady play. For me that was like “Oh, this is what it looks like when people actually score? That’s crazy.”

I’ve been a Browns fan my whole life so I’ve been through the whole drought, I’ve been along for the ride. I’ve been through every quarterback thinking “Oh this guy could be good.” I’ve been around for Brandon Weeden, Charlie Frye, I’ve been around for everyone. Now we have Baker and I’ve been such a big Baker Mayfield fan. I was looking at old text messages I sent fellow Browns fan Vic Joseph years ago and I said, “We suck, we need to draft Baker Mayfield.” I saved that text message because it was from like three years ago when he was at Oklahoma.

I’ve always been a Baker Mayfield guy and I’m so pumped to have him on the Browns because he’s exactly who we need. He’s a culture changer, he brings so much electricity and excitement to the Browns. He’s what the organization needs. I’m extremely excited to see him in his second year. I think he’s going to do amazing things and I think with the amount of young talent that we have, I think the sky is the limit.

YS: I think I know your pick for who is going to win Sunday during “Halftime Heat,” but who is going to win the Super Bowl?

JG: It’s hard to bet against Tom Brady. As much as everyone hates him, and everyone hates him because he’s a winner, I’ve got to go with Tom Brady. If I’m going with my brain, I have to pick Tom Brady and the Patriots.

WWE “Halftime Heat” airs Sunday at halftime of Super Bowl LIII on the WWE Network, WWE.com, WWE App, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.