Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa have been appearing regularly on WWE programming for more than a year but did not officially start working full-time for the promotion until the last couple of months. That gave Gargano and Ciampa an opportunity to continue to take independent dates that, by the past standards of WWE and contracts in wrestling, has been next to unprecedented.
"I feel like that's kind of been why we gained such a following," Gargano said as he and Ciampa took part in an extended interview with ESPN.com. "People feel they can live through us. They're kind of watching us scratch and claw and work our way up the ranks."
After a surprising win in their debut on NXT in the first round of last year's Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic as unseen and unsigned outsiders, Gargano and Ciampa steadily have built a following on NXT, capped by defeating The Revival last month at the NXT Takeover event in Toronto to become NXT Tag Champions.
"I think [becoming] tag team champions, it gives you kind of a moment to hit the reset button and kind of look back at the year and appreciate it," Ciampa said.
Not long after the WWE Cruiserweight Classic, both Gargano and Ciampa announced their farewells on the independent tour were imminent but they knew those exits were coming before that, according to the interview with ESPN.
"When we started with NXT, there were no issues as far as taking independent bookings," Ciampa said. "Then we could kind of sense it was getting to that point, and then once we got confirmation [of going full-time in the WWE] but the news wasn't made public, I think [for] both of us, that was the hardest part. It was four or five weeks of us knowing this is probably our last time in this town for this federation, for this group, but the fans didn't know.
"A lot of times our opponents didn't know. The promoters didn't know. That was a tough four-to-six-week stretch, but once the announcement was made, it was just ... fun. I enjoyed those last eight to 12 independent bookings, just took them and appreciated them for what they were."
Ciampa's farewell tour included a match against Cody Rhodes, competing in PWG's highly-touted Battle of Los Angeles tournament, and facing WWE Cruiserweight Classic semifinalist Zack Sabre, Jr., over in England for PROGRESS Wrestling. Meanwhile, Gargano got to experience farewells for EVOLVE and AIW, which runs regularly in Gargano's hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
"If we're working in front of 50 people or in front of 15,000 people, we're going to perform [as well as] what we get out of the crowd," Gargano said.