While heel/face turns are more common than the grocery store checkout lane closing just as you arrive, I can’t – for the life of me – recall a wrestler with as many evolutions than Claudio Castagnoli, or the WWE’s Cesaro. I’m reminded of this every time I pop in High Spots DVDs of the Swiss Superman.
F0r some perspective, Claudio broke into pro wrestling at the young age of 20…toiling through the Euro circuit before arriving at the extreme footsteps of CZW. In addition to more follicles and strange wool-like leggings, Cesaro was a skinny, tall figure obsessed with Euro uppercuts and corner squashes. His matches were almost on auto-pilot, accompanied by an occasional ‘heeeeey!’ (to which the crowd returned back) chant.
Chikara provided Castagnoli with a much needed spotlight to attract WWE decisionmakers. Despite claims he couldn’t connect with the crowd, the WWE expressed interest in now Cesaro back in 2006. Not enough, apparently as he was soon cut by developmental.
These early years coincided with a dramatic shift in Castagnoli’s wrestling style and appearance. The once skinny kid from Lucerne firmed up, likewise adopted a nice grappling game and counter-strike repertoire.
In his early ROH days (2007), Castagnoli worked well with Nigel McGuinness, one of the best at fusing extreme wrestling style with technical movements. His Kings of Wrestling partner? Chris Hero, a renowned power wrestler with terrific ring presence. Castagnoli clearly learned from these individuals, where early stages of higher risk rope maneuvers and power slams eeked into his game. Also mic work where accent/language barriers started to dissipate.
2009-2010 saw Castagnoli emerging into a man beast. A barreled chest, enormous front kick, and a better than ever swing joined his burgeoning move set. His pacing also improved significantly, witnessed by dramatic improvements during a slew of contests against El Generico. Castagnoli was getting stronger AND faster.
NXT transformed Castagnoli into ‘Antonio Cesaro,’ where he maintained his ‘Very European’ character from ROH. He adapted to the slower, camera-friendly NXT pace by inserting more overhead power moves into his matches. Backbreakers, long hold suplexes, and flying clotheslines were born.
The Cesaro we see today is a far cry from NXT, however, As a ‘Real American’ (pairing with Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter), submissions, dirty outside the ring work, and heel camera proficiency emerged. The Paul Heyman led Andre the Giant Battle Royal win ushered in deadlifting as one of his main finishers. Again, he packed on more muscle to make this happen. It’s safe to say Cesaro is now one of the largest wrestles in WWE.
A recent partnership with now injured Tyson Kidd produced incredible rope bouncing, tandem moves to Cesaro’s toolbox. Kidd (and Natalya, for that matter)’s influence on Cesaro is obvious. Cesaro borrowed from Kidd’s technique of using rope rebounds to counter moves also shift match momentum. He likewise inserted airborne tactics toward the outer ring apron area. While submissions are few and far between, they’re clearly Hart derived (half crab, sharpshooter, figure four) when there. Standing grappling also emerged in his game, as a strength.
For those keeping score, the evolution of Cesaro:
1. Puncher/corner attack. (Euro leagues, Chikara, NXT test)
2. Size increase, extreme wrestling (CZE, early ROH)
3. Grappling (ground)
4. Off rope attacks, mic work
5. Power lifter, quicker pace (luchador) (end ROH)
6. Overhead emphasis, flying clotheseline (NXT)
7. Submission (intro) (WWE early)
8. Deadlift (larger opponents), heel camera (Real Americans, Andre the Giant)
9. Rope rebounds, outside leaping (WWE Tag Team Champions)
10. Grappling (standing)
Swiss Superman, indeed.