Talking about his first experience with WWE, Gargano has fond memories dressing as an elf against former WWE United States Champion Montel Vontavious Porter.
"I was an extra almost every time they came to Cleveland," Gargano said. "I had my first extra role when I was 19 or 20 years old and I was Cedrick Von Haussen where I faced MVP; you can find that clip on YouTube.
"That first time being there was crazy too. I got a call at like 5 pm, but I was asleep so didn't hear it. I woke up to my mom running down the steps because my phone was on vibrate, saying Johnny, Johnny, they called the house, you're going to be on SmackDown. I head down to The Gund Arena and I don't know where to go. Eventually, I get my producer and he introduces me to MVP and we talk a little bit and then they said that they are going to take me to the wardrobe area. I said that it is weird because I have my own gear, I don't need anything. They take me to the wardrobe area and they said to me here is my gear and it's an elf costume. They tell me my name is Cedrick Von Haussen. I didn't even go to the locker room either. I'm changing in the makeup area and all these girls are looking at me like what the heck is this guy doing? They then took me in to see Vince McMahon.
"We walk into Vince McMahon's office and it's like a movie, Vince is like in a villain chair with his back turned and all of a sudden the chair turns around, he has a newspaper up and slowly lowers it and there he is and he looks at me and says, you look, good kid. Thank you for doing this and I said, thank you, sir and I left. The show starts, and for some reason, this part is the most I remember from that moment, Steve Austin had a movie coming out, I think it was The Condemned, so there was a trailer playing before my match and I was standing in Gorilla watching The Condemned trailer with Stephanie and Vince McMahon.
"I'm thinking how freaking weird it is, and so I go out and do my thing, I get a bloody nose because he [MVP] kicked me really hard, but I came to the back and Vince and Stephanie say that I did a great job."
Further opportunities came for Gargano, who most specifically recalls a time where he was an extra with popular independent talent and Lucha Underground star "M-Dogg" Matt Cross.
"I was probably like 24 or 25 and it was me and M-Dogg Matt Cross. They used to do rehearsal matches before the shows, and me and Matt thought, hey, let's just talk about our match before we get to this building just in case we get paired together we can have this crazy match and are ready to go. We get there and William Regal sees us and is like, Johnny and Matt, go out there and put on a match because he knew we have worked together before. We had this match and people are going crazy and nuts and we are putting on a great match. We are doing our trademark stuff. I have been around long enough where they're doing these very basic headlocks, but we're saying screw it, what's the worst that can happen?
"I remember afterwards we were getting ready to do a promo and all of a sudden I feel a hand slap me in the back and it was John Cena and he was like, hey, I saw your guys match, you did great, keep it up. I said, oh, that was so nice of him, he definitely didn't have to do that. As the night went on we did this promo and we saw John after the dark match and thought, let's go up afterward and thank him for saying stuff so we go up and thank him and he's like, hey guys, I just wanted to tell you that I don't have any power over here but you guys should definitely be signed.
"The next day we do a SmackDown show and we get to the building and Regal, who is trying very hard to get us, says that there may be ae cruiserweight thing in the future. He went and grabbed The Usos and asked if me and Matt can be a tag team and we said, sure, so we had this on the fly match against The Usos and after the match with The Usos they tell us that it was great and that we should be brought up from developmental, and we were like, we're not even signed in developmental and they were surprised.
"Me and Matt did this tag team promo in front of everyone and it went great, and afterwards Matt is like, dude, we're going to get signed, because we were acing every test they were giving us, but we never heard anything."
It took an extra three years for Gargano to gain an actual tryout with the company. Believing he would always get to WWE eventually, Gargano heaps praise on Gabe Sapolsky, who he worked closely with at Evolve - the promotion where the former NXT Champion made his name.
"I always believed in my heart I would end up in WWE," Gargano explained. "Gabe Sapolsky gave me great advice that he once told Daniel Bryan and CM Punk. He said being on the indies is like being a doctor. You can't just start operating on people and be successful at it. You need to go to school, you need to learn, which is how the indies are. I wanted to do as much as I could do.
"I feel like that kind of worked out for me not getting signed for those three years - it helped me so much. If I would have been signed at 20 or 23 I don't think I would have had this type of success.
"Being told no made me work harder, being told no made me want it more. They [WWE] would only sign a certain amount of guys at a certain time. At my tryout, it was me, Tommaso Ciampa, Oney Lorcan, Ember Moon, TM61, Chuck Taylor and Drew Gulak, so it was a pretty indie-heavy. Matt Riddle was there but he wasn't even an indie guy, he was a random guy from UFC and they brought him in. They brought us in to do this tryout but they said they could only sign one of us.
"I was looked at and told that if I was 6'7 it would be a no-brainer, but I wasn't. The stigma was still alive in 2015 where I was too small and didn't have what it took to be here, I was directly told that there wasn't a spot for me in NXT. I wasn't good enough to be in NXT. I was told that there might be a spot for me here and there, now and then, but there isn't a set spot. I still have my 'no' rejection email."
It was the WWE Cruiserweight Classic which changed everything for Gargano and the company as a whole which started to embrace the independent talents and those who were previously ruled out for being too small.
"I definitely believe the Cruiserweight Classic played a big role in changing this place," Gargano explained. "I also believe in my heart that me and Tommaso played a big part in changing this place. We were two guys who weren't under contract. We were told that we were going to get special deals that we can still do indies but we can still work in NXT. That was what we wanted, we wanted a contract with this company. We wanted a chance to work for this company. We believed in it.
"We watched the TakeOver's and thought it was pretty good, we wanted to work for NXT. At that tryout, me and Tommaso were friends and had worked with each other before, but at this tryout, we were paired together. We shared a rental car, we shared a hotel room, by happenstance. We had a match at the tryout purely happenstance, but the numbers worked out that way.
"We were told no together. Then, a few weeks later William Regal called us and said, we think we have a spot in this Dusty Rhodes Classic for you two as a tag team, just an off spot, and we were like, ok great, he tried really hard for us to be seen.
"We got nervous together. I don't get that nervous in wrestling anymore, but during that time period coming in as indie guys in this environment, it was just a bad climate, people looked down on you as indie guys. A lot of the people here were here for a long time and they see these indie guys trying to get their spots. We weren't at the Performance Center, we were just two indie guys coming in and they're looking at us like who are these two enhancement guys coming in? It didn't matter what names we had on the indies, in their heads, we are enhancement guys and it was up to us to try and change their minds."
When asked what he believes changed everyone's mindset Gargano looks toward the classic encounter that he and Ciampa had against The Revival, Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder.
"I think we got that shot against The Revival where we blew it out of the park," Gargano said. "I think that was where people were like, oh, these indie guys can go. I think that really opened the door to what NXT has become now. It has become a part of an all-star roster mindset to tear it up and NXT has really grown from there.
"I know me and Tommaso weren't around NXT since day one but I feel like in this new incarnation of NXT, me and Tommaso are The Godfathers."
If you use any of the quotes in this article, please credit Chasing Glory with a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.
Peter Bahi contributed to this article.