A few months ago Antonio Cesaro was toiling away on WWE's undercard, a beloved star from the independent scene who couldn't quite catch a break. Articulate, good-looking and a genius between the ropes, Cesaro seemed to have all the tools to succeed. But it just wasn't happening.
Enter the giant swing.
Suddenly, one Cesaro Swing at a time, a star was being born. And though it's impossible to predict what will catch the WWE Universe's fancy, when something does, it's important to grasp on with both hands and ride that rocket ship all the way to the top.
That's Cesaro's mission on Earth these days—to go from WWE Superstar to superstar in more than name only. Bleacher Report caught up with the rising star to talk about wrestling, workouts and whether or not he has the best European uppercut in the history of the business.
Bleacher Report: I'm the typically myopic American and only know my own history, so I don't know much about wrestling in Europe. Growing up in Switzerland, how did you come to fall in love with wrestling? I know the WWE came to Europe quite a bit in the early 1990s. Was that your entry point? Or was there some passing familiarity with Otto Wanz and the German Catch Wrestling Association?
Antonio Cesaro: In the '90s there was a big wrestling boom in Switzerland with Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior and all those guys. It was on television in Switzerland on a German TV station for a year or so. That's when I saw wrestling for the first time. I was in the fifth or sixth grade and was a fan of it right away.
It went away but I kept following wrestling. We had other shows, like New Japan on Eurosport. So I got to see all kinds of different wrestling. I had a great introduction to wrestling and fell in love with it right away.
B/R: That's interesting that your wrestling experience was so diverse from the get-go. One of the things I've noticed about your career is a willingness to learn and incorporate new ideas and concepts based on your travels. Who are some of the wrestlers who helped you most along the way, in Mexico, England and the U.S., toward becoming the performer you are today? Who really informed who you are as a wrestler?
Cesaro: It's true. I grew up with WWE and New Japan, but when I started traveling to Germany, I had the chance to train with people like Christian Eckstein and Tony St. Clair. They were two of the cornerstones of the German "beer tent" wrestling era, when they'd have 30-day tournaments in the same town.
Then Chris Hero, now Kassius Ohno, had a hand in helping me out early in my career. Together we went to Mexico and I trained with the trainer of Toryumon and Dragon's Gate. He was known then as Skayde and now Jorge Rivera. I trained with him for about four years in the lucha libre style and developed a hybrid style of American wrestling mixed with lucha libre mixed with whatever else you could find like amateur wrestling. I incorporated it all.
Then I traveled to Japan and incorporated some of the Japanese style. I think that's what makes you the wrestler you are. You can't just copy someone. There are so many different styles that you can just kind of pick and choose whatever it is you'd like to do.
B/R: You can see that every time you're in the ring and I think it's great. As a long time wrestling fan, I think 20 years ago you would have been working in Japan full time. In the old days those were a few choices if you wanted to wrestle full time for a living—but it's kind of always boiled down to WWE and Japan. Does that potential even still exist in Japan? Or is it WWE or bust these days for promising professional wrestlers?
Cesaro: There's a few guys who can still make a living in Japan but to me, it came to the point of wanting to take the next step in my career. And that next logical step was WWE. That's where all the best wrestlers in the world are and that's where I wanted to be.
That's where I think I belong and I think I'm proving to everybody that I belong in this place.
B/R: There's an interesting scenario that has now played itself out several times in the last few years. We've seen experienced pros from the Indy scene like yourself, Chris Hero and Daniel Bryan come into the WWE developmental system, often after having been trainers yourself. Is it a humbling experience? Or is it just another opportunity to learn?
Cesaro: I never considered myself a trainer in any way, shape or form. I never thought I was experienced enough to do that. I helped some people out I would say.
I'm always learning. I'm always trying to get better, always studying. If you don't do that, you're doing something wrong. If you don't want to get better you should just stop.
To me it's the beauty of our business. In professional wrestling there's always something to learn. There's always a new aspect to master or a part of your game you can improve. That, to me, is the challenge. To find that and to, every day, get better.
B/R: That's a really positive mindset and I think it shows exactly why you've been so successful. Now, when you were looking to master these new aspects, what kind of skills did you feel you needed to build in order to make it to that next level as a WWE Superstar? And who were some of the people who helped you on that journey?
Cesaro: Everything is a on a bigger stage. You have HD cameras, seven of them, all the time on you. So there's no place for any wasted movement. No place for any mistakes. So you just have to up your whole game.
I came here and I realized that you can't just do what you did before. You have to up that times a hundred. You have to be on-point every single time. There was a point that between SmackDown, Raw, Superstars, Main Event, Saturday Morning Slam, we were taping five TV shows in two days. And there's no room for error. You have to deliver every single time.
There's a lot of people who helped me out with this. For example, when I started in the developmental system, Joey Mercury really helped me out a lot. Norman Smiley. There's a lot of guys who I'll probably forget to mention who have helped me out. I think you can learn from pretty much everybody if you just open your eyes.
B/R: You mentioned some of the other WWE programming. A lot of fans may only watch Raw or SmackDown. If so, they've missed some of your best stuff. You've been used as a showcase performer on NXT and Main Event, getting lots of in ring time on both shows and producing some excellent matches along the way. Is it nice to have those opportunities to stretch your performance muscles a bit?
Cesaro: For me, I just love being in the ring. I want to be in the ring as long, and as often, as possible. If I get to work on Main Event, that's great. Because, as you say, I get a lot of time to work my matches and there's a different focus on it. It's a different focus than Monday Night Raw. You'll do different things for a slightly different audience.
To me, the challenge is to do something different and something interesting in every single match. And if you watch the matches, you can see they are never the same. It's always something different.
I pride myself on that. It's my style. I always try to brig new moves and throws and stuff like that and be exciting for the fans.
B/R: That's part of what makes you so popular with the hardcore fans. How much does it mean to you that a certain subset of hardcore fans, and wrestling reporters like Dave Meltzer, who recognize you as one of the best in-ring talents in the world? Is that gratifying?
Cesaro: You can't worry about that stuff, because if you're just performing for a few people you can leave out all the rest. I perform because I love what I do and I want to be the best. I don't perform to impress anybody.
That's the key. I perform because that's what I love to do and I want to be as good as humanly possible. I think that shows and that's why people like me and enjoy watching me. If I just did it for the money and the fame—I think people can see right through that.
There's a certain something you cannot fake. If you look at the generation that's breaking through now, they all have that. I can't describe it. But when you see them in the ring, you know that they mean, and they can, handle business.
Is it gratifying that critics like you? I think it's more gratifying when you have the whole crowd standing on their feet.
B/R: It's probably best when you put your hands together and have both. That's when you know it's really special. I've seen a lot of wrestling matches in my lifetime, my wife would say too many. But I've never seen a move you use that kind of combines a press slam and a European uppercut. Is that your creation?
Cesaro: I think, actually, Kassius Ohno asked me "Why don't you uppercut somebody after you throw them in the air?" And I thought "sure, I'll try that!" (Laughs). It's one of those things—I'm never content with what I do. I'm always looking for something new and something different.
That was one of those moves. I was given the idea and it worked out pretty good. I get that a lot, when people see me in the ring. They say "Oh, I've never seen that before." To me, that's what hooks people, what hooks the audience.
It's completely different, and I think that's really important to have your own style. I think I have that. And my European uppercut is second to none. I'd say the best ever. (Laughs).
B/R: That's a hot topic and a bold statement. You think this, once and for all, establishes you over Dory Funk Jr. as king of the uppercut?
Cesaro: (Laughs) Actually, I saw Dory Funk Jr. He comes to the WWE events when we are in Florida. And he actually told me he enjoys my European uppercut. And to get recognition from him means a lot to me, because everyone knows he had a great European uppercut too.
B/R: We're talking about the European uppercut, but it was another move that has really lifted you to the next level. Sometimes it's the little things that help a wrestler catch fire. For you, it was the giant swing. Whose idea was it for you to use it on progressively bigger guys?
Cesaro: That's a good question. The giant swing is a move I've been doing for a while, but before the WWE. I just thought it was time for something new. To me the giant swing is one of the most traditional moves in professional wrestling and still one of the most entertaining ones. I'm really proud to be able to introduce it, or reintroduce it, to a completely new generation.
When you think of professional wrestling you think of an elbow drop and swinging people by their feet. If you could do any move in a fight, you'd probably do the giant swing on somebody. It's such a show of strength and you see variations of it in movies and cartoons. Most people think it's impossible to do. Obviously not—if you're Antonio Cesaro.
B/R: And is there a limit for you? Could you swing a rhino? A small German car? How far can you take it?
Cesaro: I've had bigger and bigger opponents and figured "Yeah, why not?" There is a limit to it. People with certain proportions can handle the swing better than others. But I guess we'll find out.
B/R: You mentioned that you've done it before WWE. I saw you on YouTube swinging a guy for 100 revolutions. Which begs the question—how many times could you swing Hornswaggle around?
Cesaro: A whole lot. I would have set a new record if Santino hadn't broken it up. Hopefully I'll get that chance again.
B/R: (Laughs) That's right. You've got to do better than a hundred. That would be an amazing Raw moment, to have all the people counting along as you did it.
Cesaro: Yeah. If I get my hands on El Torito we'll probably see a new record.
B/R: There you go. Hornswoggle was the wrong reference point. The real target is El Torito. This may actually be a real thing that happens. That's pretty awesome.
Now, it's probably too early in your career to think of legacy and things like that. But do you see yourself as the "heir" of European wrestlers like Dave Finlay and Dave Taylor who were known as tough guys who worked snug, or do you identify more closely with the modern indie scene, the Daniel Bryans and the CM Punks...or both?
Cesaro: I think that's probably more a question for whoever writes the history, so to speak. I do see myself as one of those European exports. Very physical, a very real style like the Fit Finlays and the William Regals. That's what I pride myself on.
But I also came up in the generation with Daniel Bryan and CM Punk during the time I was on the American independent circuit. I'd say it's kind of like my in-ring style—a mix of both.
B/R: We've talked a lot about your performance in the ring. I'm also curious how you went about building yourself up for these athletic performances. You've put some of your workouts up online and do some interesting things like the one-armed barbell snatch. Do you tailor your workouts for your work in the ring? Or for building musculature?
Cesaro: To me it all comes down to being the best in the ring. Because that's what it's all about for me. I don't really care about my bicep definition or whether or not my abs are showing.
I don't go work out so I look good in a tank top. I go and work out so that I can do maximum damage in the ring and do all my moves at any point in the match. It doesn't do me any good if I can only do the Cesaro Swing in the first two minutes of a match. I need to be able to do it against any guy after 20, 25, 30 minutes of action.
That's how I tailor my workouts. They all need to be functional and they all need to help me get bigger, stronger and faster. That's an important key and I think you see it way more in WWE these days. People work for functionality way more because the in-ring style is a lot faster and action-based. And it's a very important part of preventing injuries.
B/R: I had a chance to go to the WWE Performance Center, and it looks like they are set up for the same kind of thing. Real functional workouts for real athletes and not just guys setting up to bench as much as they can. It looks like a paradigm shift and WWE is behind it all the way. Do you see the future filled with men and women who have built their bodies specifically for wrestling and not just for appearance?
Cesaro: One of the beautiful things about the WWE is that there are all different body types. It makes it interesting. If everybody looked the same, it would be pretty boring.
That workout is what works—for me. It wouldn't maybe work for somebody else. WWE guys are bigger, taller, shorter. So other people's workouts may require different movements.
B/R: What's next for you? To me there's a tier of WWE Superstar who isn't constantly fighting for their spot on television. Who always has a storyline and a focus. How do you take this opportunity and become one of those guys? What's the key to success?
Cesaro: There isn't just one key to success. There are so many. If there was one key to success, everybody would do it. It's different from person to person. If you look at who has been WWE champion or world champion, and to me that's the top of the ladder, there's all kinds of different attributes.
What's important is finding what makes you different and highlight those strengths. And then work hard and be consistent. We wrestle 250 days a year. You have to be consistent and reliable. We don't have an offseason. You can watch us year-round.
The most important thing is entertaining the fans, in whichever way you do that. And that's different for every WWE Superstar. So there's many keys to success—you just have to find yours. Hopefully I've found mine.