Desire. Dedication. Hard work. Those were the words that 40-year-old Claudio Castagnoli, WWE‘s Cesaro, used to write on his wrist tape during his time in the independents.
Well, it’s pretty clear to any fan of his work the last decade in WWE, that no one has shown more desire, put in more dedication, and committed to more hard work than Cesaro. Yet, despite all of this, the Swiss Superman continues to be overlooked for a world title run, undervalued for his incredible ring work, and underappreciated for what he brings to the table. There is a reason why he’s largely considered one of the most underrated performers in WWE, not just of the last decade, but if you ask his former tag team partner, Sheamus, in the history of the company. It’s a sentiment that you’d be hard-pressed to find many in disagreement.
For the better part of the last decade, Cesaro, who has garnered the moniker of being, “pound-for-pound the strongest superstar in WWE,” has shown moments of brilliance in a way that it would seem impossible for the company to ignore. But instead of pushing their workhorse, someone who consistently wrestles more matches than most, to the top of the food chain, WWE has placed him in a comfortable spot, fluctuating between the lower and upper midcard as the need has arisen. This has kept Cesaro formidable enough that a win over him is treated as important for someone on their way to the actual top but not so formidable that he’s been seen as a true world title competitor. In fact, in what feels like a statistical misprint on Cagematch, but sadly isn’t, in his nine-year WWE career, Cesaro has NEVER had a singles feud – let alone a one-off match – for the world title. He’s had just two world title bouts overall, both in multi-man matches in 2014. When you look at the list of WWE champions and challengers over that same nine-year period, there are names on that list that truly make you question how Cesaro hasn’t so much as gotten a chance.
But as Cody Rhodes revealed was said to him prior to his departure from WWE, wrestling is like a play where everyone has their roles. Not everyone, Rhodes was told, is meant to be the star quarterback. Some are better off coming off the bench or being part of the ensemble if we’re mixing metaphors. It would seem that Cesaro’s spot has been much of the same as Rhodes’ own. His role has been treated as that of a good hand, a guy who can be relied upon to put on a good match whenever his number has been called, yet not good enough to so much as sniff the world title. He’s been treated as a tag team specialist, one of the best WWE has ever had, finding success with not one, not two, but three different partners. That should come as no surprise though as Cesaro came to the WWE with no shortage of tag team accolades, titles in seven different promotions to be exact. But to pigeonhole Cesaro, the former PWG World Champion, as a tag team guy and nothing else, has been nothing short of a missed opportunity on WWE’s part. Especially given the way Cesaro debuted on the main roster.
Recruited from ROH following a largely successful career there, full of tag team gold and high-profile singles victories, Cesaro seemed poised to be a top star in WWE almost from the getgo. After less than 30 matches spent in the developmental territory of Florida Championship Wrestling, much of which saw him enjoy a four-month-long winning streak, Cesaro was fast-tracked to the main roster in April 2012. Just four months later, he won his first singles title. At the time, it seemed it would be the first of many. No one knew then, that some eight years later, it would be the ONLY singles title of Cesaro’s WWE career. Cesaro held the United States Championship for a nice period of 239 days, defending against the likes of Tyson Kidd, Justin Gabriel, R-Truth, Adrian Neville, Great Khali, Zack Rider, and most notably a three-match series against the Miz. Cesaro finally lost the title a year after he first debuted on the main roster, against Kofi Kingston. Cesaro and Kingston battled in a near 20-minute rematch on Main Event a few weeks later, but after that, it wasn’t until February 2014 when Cesaro was back in a singles title scene, this time in the Elimination Chamber match as Randy Orton defended his world championship. Again, it seemed this was a promising sign of more to come, but instead of keeping Cesaro in the main event picture, he returned to the tag team scene that he had started to occupy following his loss of the U.S. title.
After separating from the Real Americans, his team with Jack Swagger, Cesaro began competing on-and-off for both the U.S. and Intercontinental championships. In June 2014, he competed in a ladder match to crown the vacant world heavyweight championship which was won by John Cena. It was the last time in his WWE career that Cesaro would compete in a world title match. For much of the rest of the year, Cesaro continued vying for another midcard title win, competing in memorable feuds with Sheamus for the U.S. title and Dolph Ziggler for the IC title. By December 2014, Cesaro was back in the tag title picture, this time with a new partner, in Kidd. Dubbed the New Hart Foundation, clearly, WWE saw something in this pairing as in just their second title match as a duo, Cesaro and Kidd won the tag team titles, their first in WWE. With Kidd, Cesaro played the role of the heavy, the strong man of the team. Managed by Kidd’s wife and Hart family member, Natalya, the New Hart Foundation found success, despite having a short reign. Once again, it was Kingston, this time with his tag team partner, Big E, who dethroned Cesaro for the title.
An injury to Kidd pushed Cesaro back into singles competition in a big way in June 2015. Cesaro was one of many to answer John Cena’s open challenges and his match against the all-time great, was arguably one of the best of those challenges. Cena and Cesaro fought for over 20 minutes with the Swiss Superman firmly re-establishing just how good a wrestler he was and always had been. For those fans still on the fence, that match made many a doubter into a believer. Cesaro’s match with Cena was interrupted by Kevin Owens, but because the match was so good, Cena gave Cesaro another shot. The second match wowed even more than the first. Cesaro and Cena battled for 30 minutes, with Cesaro getting every bit the chance to show all of the weapons in his tool kit. Very much a Swiss Army Knife wrestler if there ever was one, Cesaro shined under the lights like he always did, like he always does. The problem has never been his ability to put on big matches in the spotlight, it’s that he’s never gotten enough chances to do so. But when he does, the world watches, much like they did those two Monday nights on Raw. Cesaro and Cena’s second clash wasn’t just the greatest of the U.S. open challenges though, it was a match of the year caliber bout. And yet, with a new section firmly behind him, one that offered similarities to Daniel Bryan‘s own rise through the Yes! Movement, WWE failed to capitalize on Cesaro’s rising star. He remained in the world title adjacent picture for a few months, losing two #1 contendership matches and losing in the quarterfinals of the world title tournament to Roman Reigns.
Cesaro returned to the title picture, in April 2016, once again teetering back and forth between competing for the WWE’s two midcard belts, and once again, failing to win either. This led Cesaro into his best-of-seven with Sheamus. Both men found a career resurgence following their classic series, which ultimately ended in their union as a tag team. Later christened, The Bar, Cesaro and Sheamus enjoyed a three-year partnership that saw them win five tag team championships. The Bar was one of the hottest acts on television and their tag title feuds with the New Day, The Club, the Hardy Boyz, and the Shield, to name a few, helped re-establish the days of top-tier tag team wrestling in WWE. The Bar’s final run as champs ended in January 2019 at the hands of the Miz and Shane McMahon. A draft saw Sheamus and Cesaro end up on different brands but it didn’t take long for Cesaro to find his fourth different tag team partner since joining WWE. Cesaro united with Shinsuke Nakamura under the mentorship of Sami Zayn in the Artist Collective and together, the two won the SmackDown tag titles and held them until October 2020. “You see his fighting spirit when he’s in the ring,” Nakamura told SI’s Justin Barrasso about his partner. “I have a lot of respect for Cesaro. He has power, speed, experience, he knows how to focus on his opponent. He can do everything.”
Cesaro and Nakamura never formally split after they lost the titles, but the two began to go their separate ways, both enjoying singles pushes to start off 2021. But it was Cesaro’s push, in particular, that has people once again, taking notice.
Not all pushes are created equally of course and we’ve been down this road before with Cesaro. So, why should fans accept that this time is anything different? Well, it’s simple really. They have to because this could well be his last shot. Now 40, Cesaro’s window to be the guy in WWE is ever so slightly closing and there is a feeling of now or never to his recent rise to the main event scene once more. Cesaro has continued to dazzle in his matches, putting on classics with Daniel Bryan, and heading toward a collision with Seth Rollins. It’s not unlike all those years ago when Cesaro was going toe-to-toe with the company’s top stars in Cena and Orton. But this time, the stars may just be aligning in Cesaro’s favor. Both Rollins and Bryan are advocates of the Swiss Superman, having known him from their days together in ROH. Teaming with Bryan helped Cesaro get his opportunity to enter the Elimination Chamber, a match where Cesaro unsurprisingly excelled. Even before that, on Talking Smack, Bryan went on record praising Cesaro’s talent, heart, passion, and more. “One of the things that I love about him and I admire about him…do you know how many opportunities he’s gotten here? I bet we can count them on one hand. And do you know how many years he’s wrestled more matches than anyone in WWE? At least five of the years that I’ve been here.”
Then, following Bryan’s own ringing endorsement, Cesaro took the mic, and unscripted, cut the heartfelt, honest promo of a lifetime.
“I can’t remember the last time I had a chance at the Universal Championship or any title in WWE, and I’m still going because I believe that hard work pays off,” Cesaro said, later adding, “your word matters, your actions matter, every single thing that you do matters. No matter what everyone else says about you, no matter what everyone else feels about you…what you feel in here and what you believe in is what matters. And that’s why you need to believe in yourself and you’re gonna be successful. And that’s why I am going to be Universal Champion given the chance.”
— Ryan Satin (@ryansatin) February 13, 2021
In the past, Cesaro has managed to wow people with his in-ring charisma and skillset, but perhaps for the first time, that promo showed that he is capable of doing so on the mic as well. One of the knocks against Cesaro has always been his accent and his less-than-average mic skills. But on Talking Smack, that all seemed to change. Whether or not WWE rides this push to fruition remains to be seen but Cesaro sees a pathway to success, much the way the fans have. In fact, despite being overlooked so many times in the past and despite pushes that have stopped as quickly as they’ve started, Cesaro’s optimism toward the future and belief in himself isn’t wavering. As he told Barrasso about his likely upcoming match with Rollins, “The universal title match is currently spoken for, but this will start the road to next year’s WrestleMania for me.”
It is at WrestleMania 38, that Cesaro hopes to be competing for or perhaps defending, the Universal Championship, and he’s not alone in wanting to see that outcome.
When 2021 began, Cesaro was occupying the role he had spent the better part of the last four years in, as one-half of a successful tag team. But when the year ends, he may do so as much more than that because, over the past two-plus months, no one has appeared more primed, more committed, and more focused on grabbing that nonsensical, proverbial brass ring than Cesaro, one that has alluded him in the past. After nearly 10 years in WWE, it’s time for management to take notice the way the WWE Universe did years ago. It’s time to stop sleeping on Cesaro.
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