I’m going to begin this interview with Dominic Garrini as if this was a personal essay, because in some ways it is. The two of us come from the same territory, so to speak, Cleveland’s Absolute Intense Wrestling, and while I consider myself a critic capable of expressing displeasure in a match or promo or whatever, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was rooting for guys like Garrini, Britt Baker, Ruby Soho, Veda Scott, Mia Yim, Allysin Kay, Eddie Kingston, and a dozen other wrestlers, referees, and announcers I’ve worked with in some capacity or just seen come up through the scene before and after I came and went.
Garrini is someone I saw come up through Cleveland, someone whose love of independent wrestling is beyond question, whose drive to compete, to better himself, led to his becoming the de facto ace of AIW in the years since Johnny Gargano’s departure for NXT. It was years ago now, but this started with AIW’s decision to book a still-young Garrini against Zack Sabre Jr. in ZSJ’s only appearance for the company, a decision that went against the microera’s tendency to book a guest star in a kind of super indie dream match. In a lot of ways, it’s not unlike the time Sabre wrestled Bryan Danielson.
This Thursday, Garrini wrestles another dream match, but at an entirely different point in his career. Older and more experienced, he travels to Fargo, North Dakota to wrestle Minoru Suzuki.
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When the match was announced, I bought a ticket. I resigned myself to driving from Athens, Georgia to Fargo, North Dakota. I also stupidly thought, wow, it’s cool that Dom gets to wrestle Minoru Suzuki.
It is weird, I’ll admit, to see Suzuki wrestle so often on so many indie shows, but there is no “gets to” about any of the matches he’s signed. Nobody “gets to” have their face smashed in with an elbow, their arm worked over, their body completely punished by a man who seems to find pleasure in giving and receiving pain. Everybody on Suzuki’s tour has earned their shot at The King, often through their ridiculous proficiency at different facets of technical wrestling, the “dream match” aspect of these contests indicative of how much the indie wrestling landscape has changed to suit a more nuanced style.
Garrini is one of the best grapplers in the United States. What makes him different is that he, like Suzuki, is a ruthless brawler who sometimes seems to find no distinction between hurting someone and getting hurt. In other words, as will become clear in this interview, a perfect matchup.
Let’s start from the beginning: how did this match come together?
I’ve always called Minoru Suzuki one of my dream matches. For awhile, some of those just weren’t possible due to location or timing or contractual obligation. There was no greater sinking feeling for me than when I announced my back injury, when I was out with it, and Suzuki’s tour got announced. It sucked.
Then I started seeing who he was wrestling and I got really excited for them. Guys like Anthony Henry and Daniel Garcia, who are very good friends of mine. I was very excited for those guys. But it was definitely a little bitter for me. My heart was like, man, I want this to happen. And it just so happened that Eric, the booker of Timebomb Pro, reached out to me and said that he was reaching out to New Japan about Suzuki, about doing me versus him if I was okay with it.
How easy was the decision?
I had to think about it for a little bit! It was tough because I haven’t wrestled for five months for the most part. So the question was, can I come back and wrestle Suzuki straight up after missing that time? So I thought about it a lot before saying that if he could get Suzuki, I’d love to be the guy to wrestle him.
It’s a once in a lifetime thing, you have to figure.
This is one of the guys who, when I got into professional wrestling in 2015, I probably watched every single match he had because our styles are so similar. A lot of my moves and mannerisms are influenced by him. You don’t get a chance to meet your heroes very often, so to get the chance to wrestle and compete against one of them? It’s insane.
Have you been watching the matches on this tour?
Yeah, I’ve been watching. Like I said, I’m good friends with a lot of the guys Suzuki has wrestled. My favorite from the tour so far has been the one against Davey Richards. And it’s been fun to keep up with. Between the AEW and indie stuff, it’s been so cool. Like a really awkward tour of America where he’s been everywhere—Vegas, St. Louis, Atlantic City, Miami, North Carolina, and Fargo to face me. Over this tour, he’s traveled more than most independent wrestlers do in their career.
Minoru Suzuki is one of the smartest wrestlers in the world, and almost certainly one of the most sadistic. Are you worried that he’s going to take advantage of your back injury?
I’m worried about it, but I’ve also thought about it a lot while training. I’ve really been hitting my ju-jitsu roots a lot, getting ready to use the ground game in this match. And I’ve got some people in common who have wrestled Suzuki, guys like Tom Lawler that I’ve reached out to for advice to guide me on my path. And I really think that even if he tries to exploit my weakness, I can exploit some of the weaknesses he has, you know? Unlike Suzuki, I don’t have 40-plus MMA fights where a lot of them were lost by KO or TKO. There’s a reason he had to stop doing MMA, because if you get caught on the jaw, you get caught on the jaw. So it’s one of those things.
Obviously one thing that I think he’d probably try to take advantage of would be a seeming lack of cardio since I haven’t had a match in five months, but I’ve had a great cast of characters behind me, the AIW Academy helped prepare me for this match as well as my ju-jitsu gym, Team East Coast Brazillian Ju-Jitsu. So I feel prepared. I feel ready for it.
Let’s stick with styles for a moment. You’re a fan of Suzuki, you’ve been influenced by him. Your style of wrestling frequently strikes me as pretty similar. There’s obviously the MMA stuff, with you being ju-jitsu focused. But one of the more underrated elements of your style is that you’re an extremely capable brawler who seems to do this because you take pleasure in causing pain, if I can say that.
So you’re pretty ruthless. And I I think that Suzuki’s been brought to the fore in his work lately, particularly in that Bryan Danielson match. But forget my eye: is there anything that you see in his work, after observing it it, that other people, other wrestlers maybe don’t?
There are a few things I see in Minoru’s body of work and what he does in the ring that’s different. One thing you’ll see, and I think Gran Akuma tweeted about on Friday, is just the amount of time that he takes in-between things. He doesn’t rush anything; he’s slow. He knows how to play to the crowd, the cameras, everybody in attendance. I really notice all of that when it comes to his striking; he makes every strike count. Sometimes you see guys throw strikes just to throw strikes. It’s like a Kobashi thing. He throws every machine gun chop he can, whereas you look at a guy that’s like Suzuki, he takes his time. He wants his strikes to be more impactful as well. He wants to see the pain off of one hard strike, not ten small strikes that might mean less.
To me, Suzuki is one of the perfect wrestlers. I have my holy trinity of wrestlers—a lot of wrestlers have their trinity and it’s guys like Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi, but to me my top two are Suzuki and Shibata. So I don’t talk about the King’s Road style, but [Kevin] Ku and I always talk about the NEVER style. We talk about the NEVER Openweight style. For me, I want to have NEVER Openweight 12-minute, strong stype, kick the shit out of each other because we enjoy a tight match. That’s what I like. My holy trinity, the third is Ishii. Suzuki and Shibata fit that. Obviously Shibata is a match I can never have. But I can have this, you know? I can have my NEVER Openweight Championship match.
That title is the best championship ever, in history.
Yeah. And the best thing for me is that I’m definitely an ADD type person. An hour long Kawada and Kobashi match is awesome, but it’s also an hour long. Give me 18-minutes of Shibata and Ishii or Shibata and Suzuki just kicking the tar out of each other and it gets me a lot further.
So that means that what you’re going for in this match is closer to the NEVER Openweight style? Knockout strikes and tight submissions?
Yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want to test myself. To me, part of pro wrestling, especially with my style, is to see where I’m at compared to others. That’s going to be an even bigger test, obviously, with my time off, but I want to see that. I want to see how my grappling is against someone who people consider to be one of the greatest grapplers in professional wrestling history. How can I hang on the ground with Suzuki? Can my 31 year old, younger self hang with this murder grandpa on the mat? The guy who helped start Pancrase? This guy who is really the godfather of modern day MMA, who got me into ju-jitsu and things like that?
Going for the NEVER style is interesting to me. On this tour it’s like people have almost been stretching out their time in the ring with Suzuki, like everyone knows this is their one shot, so they’re taking as much ring time with him as they can. Is there something more pleasurable to going for a faster pace? A 30 minute match against Suzuki would be amazing, but 12-15 sounds perfectly acceptable to you.
For me, wrestling can fit certain sweet spots. And I really feel like anywhere between 12 to 20 is the perfect sweet spot, unless you have a long history behind the match that needs an hour or 45 minutes behind it. I’ve done those 30 minute matches, and it’s a chore. This match is hot in its own right, based on the names involved. It’s a hot match, but it’s not a hot match that’s been building for a year that needs the big 35, 45 minute blowoff. I don’t think any of the matches on this tour fit that, and that if you watch Suzuki’s best stuff, it’s down in that 12 to 20 minute range. So that’s what I hope to hit.
On this tour, Suzuki has a record of 11 wins and three losses. Is that at all intimidating, or is that something you push out of your mind when the bell rings?
Records mean nothing. If I learned anything during my time competing in ju-jitsu or during my time coaching amateur wrestling, it’s that records mean nothing because upsets happen. Guys have bad days in the ring, on the mat, things like that. And I’ll always remember what a certain ju-jitsu blackbelt said. Mackenzie Dern has a lot of fame in the UFC right now. Her father is a guy named Wellington “Megaton” Dias. Megaton is in his late 50s, early 60s. When I was competing, he was in his early 50s. And he would always do the adult vision because the way ju-jitsu is broken down is there’s age divisions. 18-29 is adults. Master one is, I think, 30-34. Then they go up every five years. So ideally Megaton is like a master six. He could roll against guys his own age, but he refused. He would always go to every big tournament and say that he was going to do the adult division. My coach asked him why he did that when he could win the old man division, and Megaton said he didn’t see a lot of pleasure in winning that division. He goes, I want to test myself in all facets. I might not win the adult division, but I can go out there and fuck someone’s day up.
I’ve always looked at that as a strategy in pro wrestling and in ju-jitsu. For awhile, I had it in my head that I was going to be a ju-jitsu world champion. Then I kind of figured it out after I went up against some world champions and got absolutely smoked. I was like, maybe I can’t be a word champion, but every time I think that it’s like, well, maybe I can go out and fuck up someone’s day. I think about that in the ring and in life.
So there’s an underdog mentality about this match.
There’s no doubt that I’m the underdog here. The time off mixed with the history of Suzuki; when you look at his grappling credentials, on paper he’s better than everyone else, and that’s why he’s won the rest of his matches. But that’s why we do it, you know? Just to see what’s going to happen. And you know what? At the end of the night, no matter what Suzuki does or says, he’ll know that he’s been in a fight. And my goal is to make him realize that this was one of the toughest fights he’s been in during his whole time over here.
As a wrestler and a grappler, what is there to Suzuki’s game that you see that other people might not? What are you bringing to the table that he may not be expecting?
I don’t really think he’s gone against anybody that’s got a new school ju-jitsu mindset grappling-wise that other people do. Suzuki comes from an older generation of ju-jitsu and catch wrestling, he doesn’t necessarily have the innovations from the past 10 years, where it’s evolved into a completely different sport in terms of inversions and heel hooks and things like that. Second, he might not be ready for the stuff that I have, that I can give him that look because, you know, Suzuki trains, but I don’t think he trains like he used to. I don’t think he’s like me who is training weekly in ju-jitsu. That’s a bit plus. He’s been here for a month and has had to travel a lot, so he’s not getting the same on the mat training that he did.
I also think that sometimes not expecting somebody is big. He’s got to be ready, but he might underestimate me. Everyone else he’s wrestled has had a kind of cache to them. John Gresham, ROH Pure Champion. Homicide, absolute legend. Anthony Henry. Daniel Garcia, who is quite possibly the hottest independent wrestler in the world today. Davey Richards, who is an ROH Legend and possible comeback wrestler of the year. Then you come back to me and it’s like, oh, it’s a match on Thursday. It’s a trap game, to use the sports analogy. He’s getting ready to finish this tour up. He’s got Dickinson at Bloodsport on Friday, Gage on Saturday. I am the trap game in there that nobody is seeing. Is he ready to go, or is he looking down on me because he has two matches the two days following?
Minoru Suzuki was trained by Karl Gotch, and in him you have a wrestling bloodline that extends back generations. In wrestling him, do you see yourself as becoming part of that lineage?
When you’re a catch wrestling type or a grappler-shooter type, you look up to people who are different than the normal amateur or normal pro wrestler who comes into wrestling. You cite different people. Lots of guys are like, “I want to be like The Rock” or “I want to be Hogan.” For catch wrestlers and shooters, it’s a different kind of animal. We say we want to be like Suzuki. We want to be like Karl Gotch, like Billy Robinson. And to be able to have a match that traces that lineage all the way back means a lot, it validates a lot of it.
I remember when I first started training and [AIW co-owners] Chandler Biggins and John Thorne found out about my history, then he found out that [AIW regular] Little Guido was in the UWF, so he’d send me matches. Thorne always said that I came around about 15 or 20 years too late, and he was a little right except that shoot style wrestling, catch wrestling, all of that is making a nice comeback. To me, this is almost the culmination of that comeback and the path that I’ve been on. I’ve been doing it. I did the first two Bloodsports, I’ve done the UWF-I shows at Paradigm. But to me, this is my magnum opus. When it comes down to it, this is the end of the dance when it comes to the shoot style revolution. It doesn’t get more shoot style than a guy directly trained by Karl Gotch, and it just helps that that guy is Minoru Suzuki.