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Johnny Gargano makes triumphant WWE return


Johnny Gargano returned to WWE.

Johnny Gargano returned to WWE.
Screenshot: WWE

Of course, he’s back under Paul “Triple H” Levesque’s leadership. Any doubt about the future career path of longtime NXT MVP Johnny Gargano turned to hope in the aftermath of Vince McMahon’s resignation from WWE. “Johnny Wrestling” left the company on good terms. He did it to spend time with his then-pregnant wife, fellow NXT alumnus Candice LeRae, and tend to her and their newborn son, born in February.

Gargano joining rival All Elite Wrestling never made sense. They would’ve been dumb to not inquire about his services, but every big free agent isn’t going to sign with Tony Khan. The Cleveland native’s trajectory always made more sense sticking with WWE. Even with Triple H now running the company’s creative and talent-relations efforts, WWE lacks true babyfaces. While fans can turn on any “good guy” in the weird enjoyment of cheering heels, the storyline villains, Gargano has a rare unblemished track record of crowds not turning on him. Every time he was meant to be celebrated, NXT fans made him beloved.

Johnny Gargano’s entrance during his jaw-dropping WWE return: Raw, Aug. 22, 2022

While Gargano’s return to the company on Monday Night Raw was a complete surprise, those in the usually-avid Toronto crowd didn’t give the Cleveland native a deafening roar as “Rebel Heart” played through the loudspeakers. Or maybe the moment just didn’t translate on TV well. Gargano fills a much-needed hole for the company with a main-event level babyface. It’s a role Cody Rhodes occupied until tearing his pec.

In terms of improving WWE’s product, the jury is still out on Triple H. I don’t think it’ll be right to properly judge him until WrestleMania 39 in April. Until you’ve steered the company through its most-important period of the year, it’s not a fair assessment. With how bad the product had gotten under McMahon in recent years, even the small changes “The Game” is making can loom large. In reality, bringing back the likes of Dakota Kai and Gargano were no-brainers. It’s much more difficult to maintain an interest in new talent: A Swerve Strickland-less Hit Row already looks bland, weeks after reappearing on television.

If there’s a talent Triple H knows how to make look like a Triple-H-level star, it’s Gargano. He’s got all the ferocity of “The Cerebral Assassin” post-2001-quad surgery in present-day and without the random heel turns, biker jacket, and odd facial hair. Look at their history in NXT with Triple H pulling the strings, helping elevate Gargano from a freelancer with the company, competing in the Cruiserweight Classic, finding his footing with the tag team DIY, and turning into an absolute stud in his singles run.

Triple H returns from injury – Raw, Jan. 7, 2002

Gargano is mightily talented in his own right and would’ve made whoever NXT’s leader was look good. Whatever dynamic he and Levesque had as squared-circle teacher and pupil worked to make both look smart. Triple H propped up plenty of other talents in his time with “developmental,” where those with the black-and-gold brand usually trumped their main-roster counterparts in terms of star power. Look at Asuka, Andrade, Kevin Owens, Bobby Roode, Bayley, and so many others.

Remember how much the crowds in Philadelphia and Brooklyn loved Gargano during his NXT Championship matches against Andrade and Adam Cole? When’s the last time a main-roster superstar had that much of the crowd in their corner during a championship match? WrestleMania 30’s main event with Daniel Bryan beating Randy Orton and Batista? That was 2014. And who did Bryan best in that show’s opening match? Triple H, who no doubt got to feel an incredible example of what a crowd unison cheering for a top guy looks like. Now his job is to translate that in the present day to Gargano.

As with much of what’s going on in WWE presently, patience is the best response. Triple H has barely been at the talent relations and creative helm for a month. Things look promising and Levesque deserves the benefit of the doubt. Gargano is the long-term outlier because of how his past popularity benefits the company’s fresh future. Anything other than a world championship reign over the next two years for “The Whole Shebang” would be a waste of his potential.

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