To celebrate the upcoming WrestleMania Weekend, Voices of Wrestling contributors were encouraged to write about a past WrestleMania Weekend match.

The goal of the project was to find, discover and write about matches that resonated with our contributors for whatever reason, whether it be a great match, a memorable live experience, a personal connection or, even frustration. 

Please enjoy this series and all of Voices of Wrestling’s WrestleMania Weekend coverage

-Rich Kraetsch

“Did you enjoy the show this evening, everybody?”

Eight years ago at the Meadowlands Expo Center in lovely (okay, not really) Secaucus, New Jersey, Dragon Gate USA Open the Freedom Gate champion Johnny Gargano was on the verge of his demise.

After appearing on the very first Dragon Gate USA (DGUSA) show in the dark match, in a multi-man scramble, the still-young career of Gargano had seen numerous ups and downs but at this moment in the spring of 2013, Gargano was at the top of his game.

Gone were the jean jackets, the scrunchies, the unfortunate longhair, in its place was a new Gargano, a new Gargano brimming with confidence and swagger, a man who was in the midst of a 500+ day reign as DGUSA’s top champion.

The confidence because he could back it up Gargano made a challenge to any native Dragon Gate wrestler to appear in New Jersey for WrestleMania Weekend 2013 and face him for the Open the Freedom Gate championship at DGUSA Open The Ultimate Gate 2013.

Shingo Takagi, who had last appeared in DGUSA in the fall of 2010, answered the call.

While Gargano had beaten some of pro wrestling best and brightest over his reign as Open the Freedom Gate champion, wrestlers like YAMATO, Ricochet, Masato Yoshino, Jon Davis, Sami Callihan and Brain Kendrick — he hadn’t faced anyone quite like Takagi.

By April 2013, Takagi had accomplished a ton in his pro wrestling career: he was a four-time Open the Twin Gate Champion, a five-time Open the Triangle Gate Champion, a former GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion, an ROH World Tag Team Champion and he had spent over 150 days with Dragon Gate’s top prize, the Open the Dream Gate Championship.

Gargano figured his 13th defense of the Open the Freedom Gate Championship was a mere formality. Another WrestleMania Weekend win for “The Whole Shebang.”

A funny thing happened along the way though. The bravado, the confidence, the swagger, all of it was gone. Days before the event Gargano, clutching his title tightly, seems nervous, unfocused and worried.

Shingo entered the ring at the Meadowlands Expo Center hell-bent on showing Gargano that he was still a boy in a men’s world. For 33 minutes, Shingo slapped, chopped and pounded Gargano in the ring, out of the ring, through the crowd, into the barricade, into the ring post. Gargano may have gotten a few shots in but at no point did it ever feel like Gargano was in control.

Suddenly, Gargano—whose story of blossoming from the opening match to prove all your haters wrong and become the top champion in the company—was vulnerable. Gargano had been as uber babyface as a babyface could be during this title reign, after turning on CIMA and forming DGUSA’s Ronin stable, Gargano had left behind the world of cheapshots and edge-cutting and embrace his role as a representative of believing in yourself and hard work.

Shingo lifted Gargano up in a Death Valley Drive and Gargano flailed his legs in the direction of referee Brandon Tolle. What appeared to be your run-of-the-mill pro wrestling referee ref bump, ended up being… well, nothing. Tolle just popped right back up, Gargano’s foot may have grazed him but not enough to lay him out for a comically long time like most ref bumps. Did Johnny do it on purpose? Surely he wouldn’t have.

The match continued.

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Gargano finally in control hit a series of moves and his patented Gargano Escape submission. 13th defense, over and done with.

Or not.

Shingo got to the ropes. Gargano had done everything in his arsenal, he had survived the 33-minute assault from Shingo and got him in the middle of the ring with his submission. That should have been it. But it wasn’t. The action continued.

With Gargano holding onto the top rope, Shingo walked up behind Gargano presumably to set up for another soul-crushing move. Gargano reared back for an elbow and another. Tolle walked over to break up the action, Gargano looked behind his back, noticed Tolle and reared back for a huge elbow that clocked Tolle and sent him to the ground.

Gargano for a brief moment appears to walk in Tolle’s direction, presumably to check on the fallen official, Shingo stops a moment to surmise the situation.

It was in this instant: the career of Gargano changed and one of DGUSA’s greatest moments occurred.

Without skipping a beat, Gargano turned to Shingo’s direction and reared back for a huge low blow. With Shingo now on his knees, Gargano unloaded a superkick, reached into his trunks, pulled out the strap in his tights, then proceeded to choke Shingo, lock in his Gargano Escape and hide the tape from the referee.

Tolle’s body came back to life and raised Shingo’s hands one, two, three times.

It was over.

After spending the last 500 days as DGUSA’s face of the company and champion you can believe in, Gargano threw it all away in his most vulnerable moment. When he no longer believed in himself, he stooped to the lowest low.

Shingo vs. Gargano is absolutely incredible. I rewatched it days before I embarked on my very first WrestleMania Weekend in 2019 and it held up then. It held up today and it will hold up forever.

Two of my all-time favorite wrestlers in an absolute war for 33 minutes with a coherent story told from beginning to end, heart-racing kickouts, Shingo being god damn Shingo and this, one of the best heel turns in history.

The Meadowlands Expo Center crowd immediately turned on Gargano. In a stroke of genius, instead of grabbing the microphone and screaming about killing his prey, telling people how evil he is while he strokes his hair and uncurls his mustache, Gargano takes the most infuriating route: business as usual.

Gargano grabs the mic and gives the customary DGUSA sign-off asking the crowd if they enjoyed the show. Gargano thanks them for supporting him and coming to the show, he says he and the rest of the locker room appreciate the love as more and more boos reign down from one of DGUSA’s largest crowds ever.

DGUSA commentator Lenny Leonard does a masterful job asking what is wrong with Gargano and why he’s acting as if nothing happened. The nerve of this guy. How. How can you act like nothing happened? How can you act like you didn’t just throw away years of goodwill in an instant?

It’s frustrating, maddening, irritating and fucking perfect.

There are WrestleMania Weekend matches I may have enjoyed more than this but nothing has been able to recreate the feeling, the buzz and the excitement of watching this match and this masterful heel turn in real-time.