Cesaro: The Next Big Thing in Wrestling?

The Stone Cold-approved WWE superstar talks green cards and strength

"I don't know how much I can bench press, but I know I can throw around human beings pretty good." WWE superstar Cesaro drops by the Erwin Center this week.

Modern pro-wrestling is all about the glitz and glamour, the big entrances and over-the-top theatrics. By contrast, WWE superstar Cesaro is definitely more substance over style. But when that substance means he can pick up 500 pound wrestlers like infants, or deliver a devastating European upper cut without even looking, that's style enough.

Before he was a household name in the world's biggest wrestling promotion, the Swiss native, born Claudio Castagnoli, was one of the top men on the American indies. Built like a rugby player, lean and mean, rather than a Hulk Hogan-style muscle man, he became infamous as pound-for-pound the strongest man on the circuit.

Cesaro will be part of Tuesday's WWE Smackdown recording at the Frank Erwin Center. Currently, he's one half of the Masters of the Universe tag team, with Canadian high-flier Tyson Kidd, who learned to grapple in wrestling legend Stu Hart's infamous Dungeon. Cesaro said, "He's effectively part of the Hart family, and I trained in Europe, where it's more important to learn to do a wrist lock than do a crazy entrance. So when you put us together, it just immediately clicks."

In recent months, two WWE hall of famers have tipped the Swiss Superman as the company's next big thing. Stone Cold Steve Austin has publicly said he deserves "a green light push", while seven time world heavyweight champion Edge wore a Cesaro shirt to the ring - the ultimate quiet nod between wrestlers. "It's very flattering," said Cesaro, "especially guys like them who I liked watching when I was younger, and who had a similar path. They broke their way in and worked extremely hard. It's definitely a very nice compliment, and I take that as motivation to get even better."

He's even had what every wrestler dreams of: That standout Wrestlemania moment. In his case, it was last year, when he picked up the 425lb Big Show and dumped him over the top rope like a sack of potatoes. With the WWE's Royal Rumble Pay-Per-View scheduled for Jan. 25, and a place in the Wrestlemania main event on the line, Cesaro talked to the Chronicle about being his philosophy of wrestling, life on the road, and how a Swiss grappler becomes a US prime time star.

Austin Chronicle: The Austin Smackdown recording next Tuesday is the go-home show for the Royal Rumble, and the start of the road to Wrestlemania. With Smackdown moving back from Friday to Thursday, and a hope of bigger audience, does that combination put extra pressure on you to really shine?

Cesaro: We always try to shine or deliver. That just gives us an extra opportunity, so everyone's going to be extra motivated. Austin's a great wrestling town, there's a lot of WWE fans when we get there, and they're always really loud. So you want to show everyone what you've got.

AC: The WWE is an American company, but there are a lot of European guys – yourself, Wade Barrett, Sheamus – on the roster. Is it different working with them, just because they come from that tradition?

C: We all come from Europe, so we all appreciate what it is to come work in the United States – the culture shock – and we still talk about what's going on in Europe. But most of the guys did just WWE right away. I didn't, which I think is a big difference. I didn't come over with a comfy sponsor that took care of my visa and paid me a good amount of money right away. I came over here with nothing, the little bit of money that I had saved up, and it was struggle and plight to get some recognition, and then finally make it to the WWE. But I definitely like hanging out with my European friends.

AC: Why did you come over to the US in the first place? And was it hard to get a visa, working as an independent wrestler?

C: One of my friends, Kassius Ohno (better known as indie star Chris Hero), said why don't you come over for a bit? I said, well, I'll need a visa for that, so I applied for the green card lottery. I was lucky enough to win, and as soon as I found out and I filled all the criteria and months of paperwork, I quit my job and moved to the United States. I just left everything behind and followed my dream.

AC: Was it hard to make the transition from the European, catch-as-catch-can style, to the more high-impact, big spot, WWE style?

C: I've always had to be very versatile. I started in Germany, and pretty soon I was working in France and Italy and England. All those places, every country has a little bit of a different style, and a different kind of opponent, so you have to learn to adapt. I made a little name for myself in Europe, but when I moved to the United States I had to start all over again. You work your way up all over again, and then I went to Japan, and I had to start all over again, and then I moved to Mexico, and then FCW (Florida Championship Wrestling, WWE's former 'farm league'), and you meet all kinds of guys with all these different styles, and then you go to WWE and it's another restart. So there's been a lot of times when other people would have given up, but for me, that's what I've been doing all my life – proving people wrong.

AC: The obvious change from traveling on the indies and working with lots of people in different promotions is that, in the WWE, you're working with one roster, and you'll fight the same people repeatedly. How do you keep those bouts fresh for you?

C: That's never been a problem for me, because I consider myself extremely creative. I like to try new stuff and experiment. That's why I think it's entertaining to watch my matches, because you never know what I'm going to do, and you see things that you've never seen before. Other people just rely on the same old tricks, and I like to bust out new things all the time. While other people are more worried about their entrance or their gear, what's important to me is what you can deliver inside that ring.

AC: You're known for being far stronger than you look. So how do you fit workouts in that schedule?

C: To me, it's always been about being strong, not looking strong. There are plenty of people who look strong but can't necessarily back it up. To me, it was always very important to be functional, to be strong and fast and explosive. If you want to work out, you'll always find time to work out. Even if you land at 2 o'clock and go to the gym for two hours, there's always time if you really want it, and if you're at a certain level, you just do it. I always saw myself as a professional, so that's just what you do.

AC: One of the standout feuds of last year was you versus Sami Zayn, which got a lot of eyes on NXT (the WWE's new farm league). Where did the idea for that come from, especially since you're probably busy enough with just the main roster?

C: There was no NXT when I started on the main roster, but when it started, I started going to the shows because I still lived in the area, and I decided I'd do NXT too. I'm a workaholic, I love wrestling, and the more, the better. I still to this day go to all the NXT tapings, just to work and see. The feud was great, because me and Sami had the first ever match on the first ever live event on the WWE network, NXT Arrival. That's a match that people still talk about, and I'm very proud of that. Again, it's one thing looking strong, and another, is it useful in the ring? I don't know how much I can bench press, but I know I can throw around human beings pretty good. That's more important to me.

WWE SmackDown, Tue., Jan. 20, 7:30pm. $15-100. Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River. 512/471-7744. www.uterwincenter.com.

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