Daniel Bryan may be a better worker, and he might have a better connection to the crowd, but unless you like cheering for a lame horse because you appreciate its struggle, your money should be on Antonio Cesaro. Tall, built and works a deliberately-paced WWE main event-style match, who can be funny as either a babyface or a heel: Cesaro is great in all the ways that smart wrestling fans and the WWE likes.
Antonio Cesaro, nee Claudio Castagnoli, might be the most successful wrestler to ever come out of Chikara Pro. He embodies the (probably defunct) promotion’s fast-paced, high energy, and often comedic style. However, Claudio achieved what no other full-time wrestler in the history of Chikara ever did: he stood out. Claudio wasn’t just a pretty good worker under a silly mask who could have good matches with other pretty good workers under silly masks, he was a main event-sized, boots and trunks wrestler who could still work a style designed by and for men a fraction of his size. Here he is (with a shocking amount of hair) wrestling his “Good Friends, Better Enemies” cohort Chris Hero (more on that later):
As with seemingly every important independent star of the mid 2000s, Claudio had his fair share of “Man, these guys can really work, why aren’t they on live TV?” matches with Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan). Any Danielson vs. not-an-actual-scarecrow match of the era speaks for itself, but throughout this match, you can see the skills that would eventually bring both men to the big time. They work holds on the mat in a way that would make Jushin Liger blush, but when the time is right they build to an absolutely breakneck-paced exchange of high-impact moves. The result is the crowd eating out of the palm of their hand — the ultimate testament to a well-worked match.
Unlike some top heels who need to constantly be portrayed as the smartest and cleverest man in the room (cough), Cesaro has no issue being the puffed-up buffoon who slips on the banana when the time comes. Check out this match against the Clown Prince of Wrestling, Colt Cabana. Cesaro might play the arrogant, joyless heel who can barely tolerate Cabana, but he also knows just how to bump, sell, and manage the crowd to get Colt’s act over huge.
Whether goofy babyface or bully heel, he can also play the overly jocular, clueless guy very well. This speaks well to his future in WWE: if you can get through the ridiculous storylines they put you through with a smile on your face and an eye focused towards getting fans to laugh with you, you’ll go far (see: Mark Henry). In this backstage segment (if you can call a high school gym “backstage”), the then-Claudio builds up his involvement in ROH’s Survival of the Fittest tournament by bullying unsuspecting ring crew members into telling him how fit he is. When met with an overly-brave Davey Richards fan no-selling the gimmick, Castagnoli rolls with it, quipping, “Alright, that’s obviously going to get cut.” The brilliance of the bit is that it doesn’t, though, and the result is Claudio looking every bit a bully, but also a bully you can laugh at (This is another thing currently missing in the WWE. Another cough.).
A tremendous tag team wrestler in addition to his singles credentials, Cesaro broke out on the U.S. indy scene partnering with the similarly Swiss Ares, but gained tag team acclaim alongside Chris Hero (Kassius Ohno) as the immodestly-named Kings of Wrestling. During any one of their on again-off again runs, the Kings were a legitimate main event on any independent fed’s card. Precious few big man tag teams have ever pushed the pace and been unafraid to show off their technical skill the way the Kings did. They were the anti-Road Warriors: a big main event team that could wrestle an exciting match against anybody and not make their opponents look like particularly weak pieces of garbage. Here they are, working very fast and quite stiff against GHC (Pro Wrestling Noah) Tag Team Champions Yoshihiro Takayama and Takuma Sano. Watch for Claudio’s Giant Swing into Hero’s dropkick to the head. No thanks.
So far in the WWE, he’s already had ups and downs of looking to get pushed hard followed by periods of jobbing out and missing consecutive TV shows. With that said, Castagnoli is only in his early thirties, and has his best years ahead of him by WWE standards. Even in a WWE environment that has made so many independent (see: Scotty Goldman) and international (see: Sin Cara) legends seem like bumbling dullards, Cesaro has changed just enough to be the same guy he always was — just better. His recent barnburner on NXT against Sami Zayn (El Generico) goes to show that Cesaro’s WWE look and modified independent style could make him the next big thing. So here’s to Cesaro/Claudio Castagnoli: the past, the present, and the future.