The Professional: How Cesaro grabbed the brass ring (again) and why he isn't letting go this time
In Swiss: Vollprofi
“Here’s a story,” William Regal said.
“Dave Taylor, who was my tag partner in WWE, had a wrestling school close to where we both lived in Georgia for a while. And it was for people who were already wrestling, it was like a finishing school [where you would] come for a week at a time. Dave gets a call, I believe it was 2001 or 2002, and he comes round to my house and says, ‘I’ve got this fellow coming on Monday from Switzerland.’”
“The school opened at 10 o'clock on Monday morning,” Regal continued. “Dave gets there about just after nine and there’s Cesaro standing outside with a bag, arms folded, bolt upright. Dave looks around the car park, there’s no car there. He said, ‘How did you get here?’ and Cesaro said, ‘I walked.’ He said, ‘Walked? From the hotel?’ Because there’s a few hotels a few miles away. He said, ‘No, from the airport.’”
“He had landed the night before at 6 o'clock from Switzerland. He’d got a map out, knew he couldn’t walk along the highways, so he found the long way round which was about 20-odd miles or so from where he was to where we were, and walked, and was waiting outside at 9:30 in the morning ready to start lessons with Dave, an intense course for the week.”
Regal paused for effect. Let the story sink in.
I'm living proof that the WWE Universe wants to see wrestling.
“That’s when you know you’ve got somebody special on your hands, right?”
“Special” seems something of an understatement when it comes to Cesaro. To describe his in-ring ability, his personal decorum, or simply state the facts of his life is to invite a raised eyebrow, a cynical laugh, or an outright dismissal. A guy who speaks five languages, dresses like James Bond, wrestles four-to-five days a week, is an international ambassador for his company, and doesn’t brag about it at all, doesn’t sound possible, especially that last part. Humility isn’t always the strongest suit of a global entertainer. But for Cesaro, superlative-worthy performances in the ring are all in a day’s work, and the only reaction that really matters to him is the one from the crowd.
“I don’t go out of my way to get the handshake and the congratulations and beg for the attention,” he said. “If I do my job well, I’ll hear it out there. If I perform well, I’ll hear it out there. The crowd is loud and they’ll let you know what they think.”
Generally speaking, they think he’s awesome. And they thought he was awesome on a muggy Friday night in Newark, N.J.’s Prudential Center, where WWE.com cornered him for a conversation. Sitting backstage with his diver’s frame encased in a form-fitting polo and dress pants, impeccably-selected socks peeking out between the hem of the leg and his faultlessly shined shoes as he stirred his protein shake (gentleman that he is, he’d later apologize for the noise it made on the recorder), Cesaro talked about the thunderous U.S. Title Match he’d had with John Cena. Days earlier, the bout closed out Raw and sparked an almost instant social-media consensus that this was “The Moment” for Cesaro. After years of ramming full-bore against the dreaded glass ceiling, The King of Swing had finally smashed through the pane and fulfilled Mr. McMahon’s famous directive: Grab the brass ring.
For Cesaro’s part, the reaction was unsurprising.
“I’m the living proof that the WWE Universe wants to see wrestling. They want to see in-ring action,” Cesaro said of the night where he showcased everything that makes him special, including the fact that he didn’t need 20 minutes on the microphone to justify the idea that he could beat up John Cena. He just went out, told a lurking Kevin Owens to scram, and fought like hell.
Do [other Superstars] have catchphrases and T-shirts and everything? Yes. But my calling card is what I do in the ring.
“Do I think I can stand in the ring with each and every [main-eventer]? Yeah. Do I think I can beat ’em? Yeah,” Cesaro said. “And that’s the allure of my style. I can beat anybody on any given day, and I don’t compromise. Do they have catchphrases and T-shirts and everything? Yes. But my calling card is what I do in the ring, and that’s something I’m very proud of. I produce the most exciting matches with pretty much any person on the roster. Pick any guy on the roster and I can tell you a match I had with them that people can still remember.”
However, what the WWE Universe comes to see is a many-faceted thing. It’s hard to sell a modern audience on a straight-up wrestler when the most transcendent Superstars have all had larger-than-life personalities to supplement their work in the ring. Cesaro, who places emphasis on his physical abilities above anything else, has sometimes struggled to find his place in a landscape populated by performers who all but leap off the screen. But the one constant of his WWE career has been the most important: He’s really good. In fact, he’s always been really good, and if you don’t realize that, then professionalism aside, even he’ll admit you probably haven’t been paying attention.
In French: Professionnel
Like any gentleman badass, Cesaro’s story is one that spans numerous continents, incarnations and aliases. Having toiled in the trenches of the European wrestling scene under his birth name of Claudio Castagnoli, Cesaro came to the United States under some truly incredible circumstances — he won a green card lottery — and worked his way through the independent circuit, battling in promotions like Chikara and Ring of Honor. Even then, a noticeable trend of professionalism was apparent, manifesting itself through constant improvement and reinvention. Over the years, he evolved from a skinny, cheap suit-wearing grappler to a bald beast in tights who could (and did) send a guy flying for a 100-rotation Giant Swing. Those leaps didn’t go unnoticed among Cesaro’s peers, some of whom harbored aspirations of making it to WWE themselves.
I have only put my reputation on the line three times with people, Cesaro being one of them. That's the kind of human being that he is.
“[For] a lot of guys who were on the independents with us, [getting here] was a long shot,” said Sami Zayn, who battled Cesaro across the independents. “But with Cesaro, even back then you knew this guy would end up here. He looked great, he spoke different languages, he was good in the ring. He always had the tools to be a success on this level.”
All along, Cesaro had eyes on him from some well-placed friends in Titan Tower, as Regal had been keeping tabs on the ascendant competitor since meeting him at Taylor’s school. Specifically, he’d been marking Cesaro’s progress and waiting for him to gather enough of what Regal calls “real-world experience.” Regal knew that Cesaro would be a natural fit for WWE once he was ready — and, more importantly, he trusted Cesaro to only call in that favor once he was mature enough to make the leap.
“I have only put my reputation on the line three times with people, Cesaro being one of them,” Regal said. “When he finally got a hold of me and said he wanted to come here, that was it. He didn’t have to go through a tryout or any other stuff. That’s how much he means to me as a person, and the kind of human being that he is.”
Regal’s cosign bumped The King of Swing to the front of the line and, after marinating briefly in Florida Championship Wrestling (formerly WWE's developmental territory), Cesaro made his SmackDown debut in 2012 as a multilingual ladies’ man. He immediately proved his bad-guy bona fides by winning the U.S. Title from the waist of Santino Marella and stealing Askana from the arm of SmackDown GM Teddy Long. ( “I did steal Aksana,” he admitted. “It must have been my natural ruggedness as a Swiss rugby player.”) In the meantime, he also developed what has been the most enduring personality hook of his WWE career thus far: Repeating a phrase across each of the five languages he speaks.
“It was a road and I took it. I think I made the best of it,” Cesaro said. “I had fun with it, I had fun with the five languages, the five words, which is something people still talk about me to this day — which is something I really do, I do speak five languages — and it was fun. As somebody would say, it was a body of work.”
In German: Profi
The rugged lady-killer shtick gave The Swiss Superman something to hang his hat on, but it didn’t quite shoot him into the stratosphere. That began something of a trend with Cesaro — each persona he shuffled through seemed designed to build a larger-than-life character, rather than focus on his true calling card of in-ring ability. It’s the standard path to success in WWE, but with Cesaro, nothing seemed to click in the vein of, say, Cena’s fire-spitting Doctor of Thuganomics or Chris Jericho’s megalomaniacal Best in the World.
“Cesaro has always been the proverbial square peg WWE tries to fit into the round hole,” Paul Heyman said of The King of Swing’s early attempts at a persona. By the time Cesaro landed on The Mad Scientist’s radar, he was coming into his own as a physical powerhouse in Zeb Colter’s Real American stable, and was on the verge of what Cesaro called his “career highlight”: Winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 30.
“I viewed Cesaro as an athlete with extraordinary strength and power, and one who was vastly under-noticed and underappreciated by management,” Heyman said. “As he rounded the corner in terms of getting noticed by winning the very first Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, I felt it was a tremendous opportunity for him to step into the spotlight.”
The pairing was an odd one — WWE fans were frothing for a reason to cheer Cesaro, and thanks to his advocacy for the Streak-conquering Brock Lesnar, Heyman was the most hated man in WWE at that point — but it made an undeniable kind of sense in that it allowed Cesaro to hew closer to his speak-softly-carry-a-big-stick personality.
Cesaro has always been the proverbial square peg WWE tries to fit into the round hole.
Cesaro’s entire background is based on a work ethic that defines him as a personality. And in a strange way, his upbringing led him to the mindset that bragging about his ability would be inappropriate or rude,” Heyman said. “By having me with him, Cesaro could keep true to himself and not have to brag about his abilities because I was there to do it for him.”
Heyman’s endorsement has typically been seen as a way to heighten a Superstar’s stock. By allowing Cesaro to go to work while Heyman handled the crowing, it was a foolproof way to move The King of Swing into the orbit of the main-event scene. Right?
Almost. The (dangerous?) alliance did get Cesaro within spitting distance of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WWE Money in the Bank. But once the focus began to shift back to the returning Lesnar, who was challenging Cena for the title in his first match since conquering The Streak, Cesaro and Heyman did not stay paired for very long. Cesaro, for his part, placed the burden on himself because that’s what a professional does.
“I couldn’t hold the momentum,” Cesaro said of the abandoned pairing. He parted ways amicably with Heyman and continued to soldier along in search of whatever came next. He didn’t have to wait long. Cesaro's name would soon be on the lips of Mr. McMahon himself, though not in the way that anybody could ever expect, and all the talk would soon be of Cesaro’s future in the company — if he even had one.
In Italian: Professiona
“The infamous podcast,” Cesaro said as soon as he heard the question. That’d be the “Stone Cold” Podcast from last winter where Mr. McMahon calmly refuted host “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s breathless praise for The King of Swing, mused aloud on whether or not Cesaro struggled to connect with the crowd because his Swiss heritage made him unrelatable, and finally landed on the deduction that Cesaro simply lacked the ever-elusive “it” factor that makes a star a Superstar.
Cesaro took a minute to form his answer to that charge.
"You can’t really reason or explain something, because once people get a certain impression, that’s really hard to change. With anything,” he said. “It’s kind of similar here, in that the only way to respond to such an outlandish comment is to prove it wrong, and that’s what I’m doing.”
How he’s doing it is the interesting part. Unsurprisingly, it involves putting on a show and racking up a lot of hardware to go with it.
“Usually when people ask me about [the podcast], the way I respond is that two months and 22 days after that podcast, me and Tyson Kidd won the WWE Tag Team Championships. That’s my response to that,” Cesaro said. “And that’s a pretty good response.”
Surprisingly, Cesaro and Kidd were originally paired up as an afterthought. (“We found out later [that WWE] needed a tag team because Heath Slater got hurt and Slater-Gator couldn’t be in the tag gauntlet,” Cesaro said. “So they threw me and Tyson in there.”) Still, the team finally gave Cesaro a chance to display his personality, thanks to the duo’s shared use of the “fact” catchphrase that Kidd honed during a sojourn in NXT. But more importantly, it showed that two guys who weren’t known for their talking could, in fact, spit some fire on the mic – Cesaro’s quick to point out they did just fine on the stick opposite John Cena and Daniel Bryan – or achieve widespread appeal without compromising their personal emphasis on in-ring excellence.
“We kept going with it and from nothing, we made history and became tag champs. That was our pride, and that’s what we pride ourselves on — being not just entertaining in the ring, but also outside of the ring. Whatever we did, we were very entertaining. And we were just getting going.”
Kidd’s injury just a few months into their stint as a team clearly hit Cesaro hard. It’s the one thing he declined to go into further detail on, though he did explain the significance of wearing Kidd’s name around his arm.
“We were the only ones that successfully defended our titles at WrestleMania, and I’m extremely proud of that. We really, in my opinion, were the best tag team ever. And friendship is something I’m very traditional with,” said Cesaro. “That’s another thing that’s just important to me. That’s part of being a professional, a Renaissance man so to speak. Older values of older times, that are not as much around anymore, are still very important to me.”
If those values aren’t starting to become more and more important to everyone else, the type of human they’ve molded Cesaro into certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. The King of Swing isn’t just turning heads toward himself; he’s bringing out the best of everywhere he goes.
He's such a professional that you could send him anywhere in the world ... and those people would become fans of our industry by the time he left.
“[Wrestling him] did a lot for me personally, that goes without saying,” Zayn said of his two-year, four-match series against The King of Swing, highlighted by a 2-out-of-3 Falls Match in 2013. “It did a lot for him, too, and I think above all else it did a lot for NXT. I firmly believe that was the turning point for NXT that took it from this developmental sort of territory to a brand with a buzz. The matches we were having were really a pivotal point in that transformation.”
Regal is also quick to point out that some of Cesaro’s most significant contributions haven’t taken place in the ring.
“He’s such a professional that you could send him anywhere in the world to represent WWE, into a completely hostile environment where people don’t want to like WWE or anybody or anything about it,” said Regal. “He could go in with the way he conducts himself and the way he dresses, and those people would become fans of our industry by the time he left.”
In other words, he may not be retweeting all his compliments, but all the signifiers a company would want in its standard-bearer are right there. That they’re only just now beginning to surface is something of a coincidence, but if the last few months are any indication, Cesaro may have always had the brass ring clutched in his palm, just nobody thought to ask him to open his hand and show it to them.
In English: Professional
He’s showing it now. And what used to be seen as contradictions or shortcomings now seem like more of the total package. Cesaro didn’t stay silent because he couldn’t talk. He stayed silent because talking himself up was redundant. Though now, at least, Cesaro’s starting to let some light in on his philosophy.
“You have to be a professional in every single thing you do,” Cesaro said. “You see the way I’m dressed. I feel you need to represent a certain something, and I represent European class and Swiss superiority. They usually say you shouldn’t throw stones if you’re sitting in a glass house. The thing is, I can throw stones because I’m not sitting in a glass house. I do what I’m talking about.”
To me, this is how I grab the brass ring. This is what I do. I wrestle.
Hence, the two matches with Cena, which opened a lot of eyes, but depending whom you ask, they should have been paying attention all along.
“It’s not the first time Cesaro has worked with John Cena, it’s not the first time Cesaro worked with John Cena on Monday Night Raw, it’s not the first time Cesaro tore the house down on Monday Night Raw!” Heyman exclaimed. “I wasn’t surprised, nor should anybody else have been.”
He's been everywhere since then. First, a Triple Threat Match with Rusev and Kevin Owens that might have been even better than the second Cena match. After that, a SmackDown confrontation that saw Cesaro pin The Bulgarian Brute fair and square — only the second Superstar to do so. Then, a primo spot in a six-man main event on Raw where he slingshot Rusev into an RKO to end the show, and a match on SmackDown with the WWE World Heavyweight Champion himself, Seth Rollins.
“That’s what I do every single time, I deliver. I’m very confident in my abilities,” Cesaro said. “That’s why me and Tyson won the Tag Team Championships. That’s why I was able to put on such a show with Cena, twice. When the spotlight is on, I deliver. And that’s what people want to see.”
Admittedly, part of this upswing (pun intended) is the cyclical nature of Superstardom, and this is just Cesaro getting his turn to see if he can, at last, hold the momentum. But part of it is also that he’s finally gotten free reign to be himself — a silent but deadly European wrestling machine who speaks in the language of flailing uppercuts and broken bodies — and he’s claiming his due in the process.
“He’s got everything you could possibly wish for,” Regal said. “He’s had nothing but a great career in WWE. A lot of people like to believe in all this nonsense about whether he’s not doing this or he’s not doing that. If you’re out there on all the Live Events showing the world how good you are, which is what he does, that’s how you get a career in WWE.”
“And he’s going to get better!” Regal continued. “He’s going to get better. Every day he gets better and there’s not a backwards step. Never. Not one time. Every single day he gets better and better in some form.”
Talking is silver, silence is gold.
Most apparent is that Cesaro is starting talk a little bit. Mostly it’s just quick, one-minute Facebook or WWE.com interviews, but any early struggles with his speech appear to be gone. He’s crisp, impactful, to the point, and he’s even dropped a nice sign-off line ( “Thanks for asking”) that is much more badass than it has the right to be. It doesn’t even seem like a compromise, like Cesaro finally got so many complaints about his speaking skills that he finally caved. It seems like an evolution.
In the most memorable of these interviews, he quotes a saying from his home country: “Talking is silver, silence is gold.” When asked to elaborate, to talk himself up just one time, he agreed, because that’s what a professional does. In fact, he had a response ready to go, though fittingly enough, it came from someone else, via Twitter.
“Talking is silver, silence is gold,” he said, quoting the tweet, “Cesaro in the ring is a sight to behold.”
Couldn’t — and wouldn’t — have said it better himself. Except a few minutes later, he does. In fact, after the interview is done, he asked to turn the recorder back on. Something about the podcast, a true-blue response, has occurred to him, and he’d like to share it.
“To me, this is how I grab the brass ring,” he said. “This is what I do. I wrestle. And I wrestle my heart out. That’s what I leave in the ring every single night. That’s my heart. Fighting spirit. If you like it, you like it.”
He shrugged quietly.
“That’s what I do.”
With that, the interview ends. The job is complete. He answered the question everyone wanted to hear, and then, a few minutes later, he answered it again, and he did it even better than anyone could have imagined or expected, because that’s what a professional does. Whether it’s over two weeks or 20 minutes, he just gets better.