She’s known for her legendary work on pro wrestling’s independent circuit, as one half of “The World’s Cutest Tag Team,” the wife of NXT Superstar Johnny Gargano and her willingness to take on any man or woman inside the squared circle but after WWE’s Mae Young Classic, Candice LeRae’s star will shine brighter than ever before.
After all…she’s one tough cupcake.
LeRae’s tenure in Pro Wrestling Guerilla has been fruitful and has been storied. The fact that the little blonde brawler has taken on anything and anyone even the likes of former WWE Universal Champion Kevin Owens, has made her beloved on the wrestling scene. It comes as no surprise that WWE saw her as one of the top talents in the world to invite for the 32-woman tournament.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is going to fall through. I can’t be this lucky. There’s no way,” LeRae said. “When I finally got the email about the Mae Young Classic, honestly, until I was physically there, I didn’t believe everything was happening. I can’t tell you how happy I am and how lucky I feel that this is the first time that fans are getting to see me. This tournament is such a big deal. “
If LeRae’s initial doubt shines through, it’s only because she has been chasing the dream for a long time and it’s natural to be hesitant to embrace the revelation of what is occurring. She worked as a baker at Universal Studios in California, juggling two careers and two passions. The head chef worked around her schedule to make it work until LeRae came to a crossroads of sorts.
“There was a whole month during the summer, a peak season for us and I was looking to see what weekends I could work. I gave them my schedule so they could approve everything and I had so many bookings that month offered to me so when they didn’t give me the days off, I went ‘I feel like things are getting busier with wrestling and I understood they couldn’t give me the time off,” LeRae said. “I realized this was a pick and choose time for me and had to choose between something I wanted to do since I was six and something I’m passionate about.”
How LeRae’s inclusion into the tournament came to be, dates back to when LeRae attended a PWG show a year ago. William Regal and Canyon were both at the show but she thought they had got there too late for her match.
“I knew they were kind of scouting and then I had gone to an EVOLVE show with my husband [Johnny Gargano] cause it was our anniversary that weekend so I went there with him and I guess it was a reminder to Canyon that I was there and he asked Johnny how to get a hold of me,” LeRae said. “So it has been kind of a yearlong process of going back and forth with them and getting to the point that he mentioned there may be something for me in the future but I wouldn’t know until they knew more.”
When WWE brought out all 32 participants to introduce to the Full Sail crowd this summer, LeRae didn’t know what the reaction would be. She didn’t know how far her reach actually was. Still, her parents flew from California to Florida to experience it with her.
Just being in WWE hadn’t sunk in until she was about to go out to the ring and then it started to click. When her name was called, it removed any doubt LeRae may have had. This WWE crowd absolutely knew who she was and she got the loudest pop of the night.
“I said to myself, ‘All these girls are getting cheers. It’s going to be okay if there’s crickets when they say your name. When I got in the ring, I was like ‘What is happening?” LeRae said. “I’m really hard on myself. I told myself that nobody here knows who I am. Any show I ever do, before I go out to the ring, I always go into the mindset that this is the first time that any of those people have ever seen me. I got to work so hard to show them what I can do.”
Her husband and fellow WWE star, Johnny Gargano has been supportive every step of the way and helped ease her mind when she started to wonder if the WWE thing would fall through. Their bond is very clear and unique. How many spouses have matches inside the ring against each other? LeRae and Gargano have. His assurance calmed remaining nerves.“I thought with all of the women currently in wrestling that are so good, how could I possibly be a top 32-person on this list? There’s no way,” LeRae said. “He was so good at telling me that ‘They’re going to want you. Don’t worry.’ He’s been helping me stay focused of the task at hand, which has been getting to WWE period and this has been the coolest way to come in that I could ever ask for.”
Making a marriage work in the sports entertainment industry can be chaotic with the lifestyle and travel that comes with it. Recently, LeRae was in the UK for 10 days straight and came home to have a day and a half together before Gargano jumped on a plane to do the NXT loop in California. According to LeRae, it helps that they both understand the business and are constantly supporting each other. The industry that brought them together has also brought other positives as well.
“When we were both on the independents, we were lucky enough that we got to travel to a lot of the same places together,” LeRae said. “That was the pros of both being in wrestling and traveling together. People were flying us all over the world and we got to see the Eiffel Tower together and it didn’t cost us anything.”
LeRae and Gargano are also big Disney freaks and food enthusiasts. When she moved from California, home of Disneyland, to Gargano’s home city of Cleveland, she had no way to appease her love for theme parks. So when Gargano went to NXT, the couple moved to Orlando and the first thing they did was get passes for Disneyworld and Universal Studios, which also caters to their obsession with food.
“I love that Disney and Universal have so much in the way of food,” LeRae said. “Johnny and I are food crazy people to the point he looks things up online and will be showing me pictures and videos so our cheat days are well thought out days to say the least. We have itineraries for our cheat days because they’re that serious.”
The Mae Young Classic has provided the setting for LeRae’s transition to the mainstream. With as successful as the WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament and Cruiserweight Classic were in bringing talent from the independents to the forefront, this is bound to do the same for LeRae and other women.One of the challenges in her transition to WWE’s tournament is her ring style. LeRae is a high-flyer but also very physical as she routinely worked intergender matches. She even took a superkick with thumbtacks once in a match with The Young Bucks where she and Joey Ryan became the PWG Tag Team Champions and was lauded with chants of, “You’re hardcore!” With the Mae Young Classic, she was forced to prepare for a number of styles and opponents.
“When I was learning how to wrestle, I was advised to be as well-rounded as I could,” LeRae said. “I could be in the ring with a high-flyer and then go ‘This person understands a study more like what I do on a regular basis so maybe I need to change things up with them.’ In this tournament, there are some girls that were big, strong powerful women and I’m going, ‘I can wrestle this woman as though I’m wrestling a man because she could very well beat me up as much as a man could [laughs]. I always go into it looking at who my opponent is going to be and try to prepare for that person specifically.”
To LeRae, the Mae Young Classic is not just about winning it all, it’s about sending a message to young girls and women who have grown up loving the sport. As a child, LeRae was always more drawn to the male competitors because they were constantly on and there weren’t many women like you can regularly see today.
“I didn’t have that ‘Oh, I want to be this girl.’ It was always like, ‘I’m going to be like Shawn Michaels when I grow up. It’s cool because all of us girls that are doing this tournament all have similar stories,” LeRae said. “This tournament is going to give young girls the opportunity to have people they can look up to and admire and give them something that says, ‘You know what? When I grow up I can do this too.”
The women’s revolution is making women in wrestling a pretty cool thing. LeRae would go as far to say that they may eventually be cooler than the guys. Regardless, it is setting the stage and the tone for a younger generation who will experience what LeRae and her peers wanted to experience as children but couldn’t.
“They can look at women like Bayley, Sasha [Banks] and Charlotte and go these are who I want to be like when I grow up and other kids aren’t going to pick on them or make fun of them,” LeRae said. “They’re going to say, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ I mean, little boys are going to be walking around with women wrestling figures and thinking this is cool.”
The Mae Young Classic may become a cornerstone of LeRae’s evolving career but the work isn’t done. Life on the independent scene makes wrestlers wary of what’s next and not to get too comfortable. LeRae’s journey may have started back when she was also working as a baker but now that she got to this level, it won’t cause her to take her foot of the pedal.
“I don’t want to take things lightly,” LeRae said. “I have high expectations for myself. I never want to feel safe. I don’t want to slack off. I want to keep pushing and getting better.”
Joshua Caudill is the co-founder of Dirtfork and spent over five years with CraveOnline as a sports writer. He’s also a husband, a father, a Kentucky native, a Long Beach State alum, a pro wrestling enthusiast, a surfer and an expert on all things Patrick Swayze. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaCaudill85.
Photos courtesy of WWE and Candice LeRae