For more on Johnny Curtis' past and the Fandango character, read our feature article "Hitting the Floor with Fandango, WWE's Latest Craze-Inducing Sensation."
Correct me if I'm wrong: One of the main sources that got you into wrestling as a child was World Championship Wrestling, right?
Yeah, I was a huge WCW fan. I was a huge fan of the lucha libre, the lightweight division, the Cruiserweights. Juventud Guerrera, at the time Chris Jericho but we all know how that worked out, Chavo Guerrero, Dean Malenko, the whole Cruiserweight division.
Was there any one match, feud or wrestler in particular that caught your eye in the first place to get you hooked on it?
I think for me obviously, being 14, 15 in 1997, '98 was a great time because that's when the Monday Night Wars were really starting to get really hot. At 14, 15, as a young man, you're really into the NWO and you're switching over to USA to see the New Age Outlaws and Stone Cold and stuff like that. For me, though, like you just mentioned, I was really into the high flying. The Rey Mysterio and Dean Malenko matches really hooked me into WCW. On the other side, it was more the story lines that got me into the WWF or WWE.
I was listening to your episode of Colt Cabana's The Art of Wrestling podcast and I really enjoyed the part where you talked about your connection to MTV's True Life and setting up rings at 14 or 15 in 1998 or so.
Yeah, I'm living in Maine right now actually. Yeah, there was actually MTV True Life, 'I Want To Be a Professional Wrestler.' You've seen the show.
With Tony Atlas.
Yeah, Tony Atlas. That came out in '98, '99. I was very eager to get into the business. At that time, I couldn't watch enough wrestling. [I'd watch] anything that came across TV. I went out and bought a satellite dish to get MSG Network to watch ECW and old IWF. At the time, my friends and I couldn't get enough wrestling. We saw that show [True Life] and were like, 'Wow, there's local wrestling that's not WWF?' So we sought out the EWA, which was Eastern Wrestling Alliance at the time that Tony was running with a guy named James St. Jean up here in Jay, Maine. I kind of weaseled my way in. 'Hey, can I just be a part of the show somehow in any capacity?' [Gruff voice] 'Alright, yeah, you can set up the ring, set up the chairs.' A couple of friends and myself kind of just followed the company around New England while we were 14, 15, 16, setting up tables. Started refereeing and then eventually getting trained and starting to have matches.
I'm going to fast-forward ahead to when you finally got on the main roster in WWE after NXT. When you were doing the idioms gimmick with the spilled milk before Fandango came along, where'd you think your career in WWE was going?
I wasn't really exactly sure where they were going with those vignettes. I was willing to do anything to get on TV. Obviously, I wouldn't disagree or argue with any verbiage they're going to give me for talking. Wasn't exactly sure where that was going to go. I don't if necessarily that was the way they wanted the vignettes to go. Obviously, they scratched it, and then I went back on the shelf for a little while [until] the Fandango thing.
Before you actually appeared on-screen as Fandango, there was a very early vignette that showed you in silhouette and had your name misspelled as “Fandangoo.” What was the story behind that? Was that a weird typo or something?
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes, when people debut, it takes about a day to really change the idea they had. I remember when Big Show debuted. He debuted in 1998 at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre [Note: He's thinking of 1999]. His first name was the Big Nasty. I remember the next night on Raw they switched it. Sometimes, they see something—the writing on the wall—and they don't like the way it looks so they kind of change it up. I remember seeing that [vignette] as well, and I totally forgot about it until you mentioned it. I think it was supposed to be a play off the way I say my name. It definitely looked like “Fandangoo,” which would be confusing.
The huge story with you nowadays is the phenomenon of everybody singing the theme music. What was your initial thoughts when it first happened when you were in the ring on that post-WrestleMania Raw in early April?
I almost started smiling when they were doing it just because that Monday Night Raw was unbelievable. For me being a wrestling fan, that was one of those crowds that kind of reminds me of the old ECW [Extreme Championship Wrestling] arena where the fans became part of the show. Anyone that got to go out there that Monday night after 'Mania got to enjoy that crowd. First thought in my head was, 'Oh, can we make some money off of this?' That's all I thought about honestly. We did the Europe tour right after that. The Raw after 'Mania we went to Europe for two weeks on tour, and just the crowd reaction over there was unbelievable, so maybe I'm like the new Hasselhoff where I'm just big over in Europe. [Laughs]
You had those moments two nights in a row with WrestleMania one night and then the huge Raw the next. Which one was personally more important to you? Which one do you think is going to have a bigger impact on your career?
'Mania was definitely more important to me. The night after 'Mania might have more of a pivotal impact on my career in terms of crowd and interaction and connecting with them. The day after 'Mania [in 2012] for Daniel Bryan really was huge. You can write story lines where you try to help guys get over, but sometimes, it's those weird things that you never expect. Steve Austin's cutting a promo with Michael Hayes and says, '3:16.' You don't bank on that one promo. 'This is going to be the promo that's going to make me millions of dollars and get me over.' It's the organic things that kind of just happen. I would say the Monday Night Raw after 'Mania was just one of those organic things. Right place, right time, right crowd. The stars aligned for me that night. It was a good night business-wise.
It was such a big thing that this character was going to make his in-ring debut at WrestleMania. What was the dominating feeling for you: excitement, nervousness, sheer terror of what to expect?
It's funny. No matter how many people you put out there, there's still that 20 by 20 ring that you're about to go and perform in. I've been wrestling for 13, 14 years, so I'm pretty at home and comfortable in the ring. The hardest part for me was I was more nervous [about] the whole dance routine with all the girls and stuff like that. Obviously, I've been dancing for a while, but I didn't want to mess that up too much.
When the Fandango character was first pitched to you, what terms was it pitched under? After a few weeks, a few months getting used to it, did it turn out to be what you expected or what was pitched to you in the first place?
Initially, Vince [McMahon] had an idea of a male stripper. We kind of did that in a few dark matches as simply Johnny Curtis. It was like a Dirty Dancing, kind of Swayze deal. I think they saw it and realized real quick that it's a little risky. It was Fandango a little more sexy, a little not quite PG. Vince had an idea to do the ballroom thing, and I embraced it, man. Thing is, if you can play a hard character, a real complicated character like this or the Undertaker — anything that's really far out there — I think you can make money with it if you really embrace it, you know what I'm saying? If you just go into it not really into it, people are going to see right through it and see just a guy playing a character [and] not really into it. I'm like, 'This is an opportunity I've been waiting for for 13, 14 years. I either gotta really embrace this thing or just go back to working for EWA in Maine making 50 bucks a night.'
Or Applebee's, and I'm not doing that, bro. [Laughs]
What kind of ideas do you have for the character? A friend floated me the idea of you having an all-entertainment faction with 3MB. Do you have any ambitions or ideas in mind for the character at this point besides what you're doing right now with Chris Jericho?
Initially, when you get a little hot character started — I remember when [Ken] Kennedy started — you get that initial buzz. With wrestling, people only remember last week or two weeks ago. Their memory is really short-term. You've got to stay fresh, you've got to stay always evolving. If you go out there with the same gear, the same look, the same promo, the same kind of shtick every night, people are going to get stale with it because it's entertainment, man. You go the movies and you don't want to see Johnny Depp [in] the same movie over and over again. For me, I would like to add a little more dimension to the character in terms of being more aggressive, more of a butt kicker in the ring, not just a flamboyant, light on his feet kind of thing. Maybe put a little bit more wrestling into the character down the road, whether it's going for the Intercontinental Title with Wade Barrett or having some good matches with the Miz or something like that, [I'm into] definitely evolving more into a wrestler while keeping the character.
How about crucial inspirations for the character? Was there anybody in pop culture or you know in real-life or some wrestler that's come before that's shaped the mold for Fandango?
Yeah. I watched a lot of old Shawn Michaels stuff from the early '90s right after him and Marty [Jannetty] broke up and just the ridiculous outfits that that guy wore.
He had a pseudo-stripper thing going on, too.
Yeah. I look at him and I'm like, 'Man, I just want to punch that guy in the face, but at the same time, he's pretty cool and he's awesome in the ring.' You want to really hate the guy because he's saying he's really good and he gets the girls, and it's all true, which makes you hate him even more. I took a little bit of Shawn, [Rick] Martel, guys like Adrian Adonis. You can't totally mimic one guy — then you're just a rip-off — but you can steal mannerisms from guys that you look up to and watched over the years. The good thing about being a wrestling fan and growing up a wrestling fan is subliminally, you do things that you watched your whole life. It's a lot harder for some guys that haven't really watched the product that get into the business 'cause in the back of their head, they're not strutting to the ring like Shawn Michaels because they never really watched him before when they were younger. That's not a knock on them; I'm just saying that these are the kind of things that I'm thinking about. 'Wow, I've always wanted to be like some of these guys that were my heroes growing up. Now, it's a chance to go out in front of 87,000 people and be that cocky guy.'
Tell me a bit about you personally. What do you in your downtime? What are you a big fan of? What are your hobbies? And who do you travel with on the road?
When I first went on NXT, I was like 250 pounds and I wasn't really into lifting weights. I mean, I was, but that was more casual. Over the last probably year since I've been pitched this idea to do this character, I've been really toning in it [and] been training a lot more at the gym, eating right. It became one of the passions for me: nutrition, cardio, really preserving my body for a career 'cause you got to take care of your body and prevent injuries with our road schedule and how many matches we're doing a week. That's kind of growing up and maturing, too: starting to realize you've got to invest in your body. As generic as it sounds, [I'm into] the gym and stuff like that.
When I'm home, man, I'm only home a day or two. I just like to chill, and I'm a big movie guy. Red Sox fan, Bruins, stuff like that. Who do I travel with on the road? [Pauses] I travel with a bunch of different people. Jinder Mahal, I travel with him, and [Curt] Hawkins. I like Hawkins. I drive with McGillicu — well, Curtis Axel. Axel and I were a tag team, and we started tagging together over the past summer. We were just younger guys coming off the NXT show, and then the NXT show kind of ended, and we were in no man's land kind of floating. I think Triple H or [William] Regal saw us tag one time just randomly and they liked the way we looked together. They started tagging us on house shows and live events. Arn Anderson helped us out a lot. I really feel like [Michael] McGillicutty and Curtis tagging broke us through that stagnant no man's land of getting a look. That's what got me in a position where they had enough faith in me to pitch that [Fandango] idea to me, and obviously, they liked [Joe] Hennig enough to keep him around and give him this huge push that he's getting right now over the last week. So yeah, Hennig is a real close friend of mine. I've got all the respect in the world for him. I think he's one of the best performers and best athletes and in-ring workers we got on the whole roster. He just needs a good opportunity to show it off.
June 3, doors 6:30 p.m., XL Center, One Civic Center Plaza, Hartford, xlcenter.com, $15-$95.