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Love in the Time of Collar-and-Elbow

Cesaro is your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler. Here’s why.

WWE/Ringer illustration

Who is your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler? This question attempts to identify the masters of the art of wrestling, the ones that the people who know the craft consider most worthy of respect. The answers are, of course, many and varied, but among currently active wrestlers, one name is going to appear regularly: Cesaro. Through his two-decades-plus career, Cesaro (formerly known as Claudio Castagnoli, which is also his real name) has wrestled around the world and in dozens of promotions. He is one of the finest all-around wrestlers on the planet, admired for his strength, agility, and charisma.

Yet in a decade in WWE, he’s had only one title run, as the United States champion in 2012-13. He’s had exactly one shot at a top WWE title: Elimination Chamber 2014, a match with five other men in it. This Sunday’s WrestleMania: Backlash will be his first singles match for a top WWE belt, as he faces Roman Reigns for the Universal title.

It’s time to take a closer look at your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler and to explore how he’s so perpetually and criminally underrated.

Cesaro’s move set … well, there’s not enough time or space to detail it like it deserves. If you search YouTube to learn more about a wrestler’s repertoire, you usually see videos labeled “top 10 moves” for individual wrestlers. Sometimes you’ll find videos that claim to showcase their “top 50 moves.” Often I’ll raise a skeptical eyebrow at the higher numbers—just because someone did a move once doesn’t mean it’s one of their top moves. But Cesaro’s prowess is such that I came across a video claiming to detail his top 140 moves and did not bat an eyelash: Of course Cesaro can do that many moves regularly and well. He’s even stronger than he looks, and more agile than he has any right to be.

The base of his repertoire is the European uppercut, which he can deliver in a bewildering variety of ways to rock his opponent backward with its impact. He can deliver it while standing in place or while running for extra-dramatic effect.

He can add a springboard spinning leap to it, combining agility, precision, and power in a way that dazzles the eye.

Or he can simply hurl his opponent toward the ceiling—possibly into space, it sometimes seems—before knocking him out of the air.

He has an array of suplexes at his command, perhaps the most impressive being a deadlift gut-wrench suplex. There’s no covert help from the opponent, no momentum to use: All the heavy lifting has to be done by Cesaro, who will often pause to demonstrate his total control over the dead weight of his foe before tossing him to the mat. It’s so legitimately impressive—like so much that he does—that it can sometimes get lost among the choreographed superheroics of WWE television.

His backbreaker gets an extra spin to it, making it a tilt-a-whirl variant, disorienting as well as agonizing. High flyers face an extra risk, as he’s been known to catch them out of midair and whisk them around before slamming them onto his knee.

And of course there’s the Cesaro Swing, which was highlighted in his feud with Seth Rollins leading up to their WrestleMania match this year. It’s a showcase of power, balance, and control designed to leave his opponent dizzy and staggering. More to the point, it’s designed to be an irresistible crowd-pleaser (wrestling fans can never pass up the chance to count out loud), so much so that it mostly dropped out of his repertoire when he was a heel, and one of the first signs that he was turning babyface again last year was its reappearance. He’s been doing it for decades now, and here he is swinging a pirate-themed wrestler named Jolly Roger around a Chikara ring, back when he dressed in homemade suits to play an evil Swiss banker and still had hair:

His finish in WWE is a belly-to-back inverted mat slam he calls the Neutralizer (because Switzerland, of course), which looks deadly against a small opponent and inhumanly impressive against a large one, like when he hoisted up all 7 feet of the Great Khali.

His strength, his grace, and his showmanship—and, let’s be honest, his urbane good looks—have made him a perennial fan favorite. For a few years, there was a grassroots fan movement that printed out signs marked “Cesaro Section,” and seas of supporters would greet Cesaro at his entrance.

Yet somehow, May 16 will be his first one-on-one singles match for a top title in the promotion. He hasn’t held a singles title in eight years. Cesaro being underrated has become a well-worn cliché in the wrestling world. Wrestling Observer awarded him “Most Underrated Wrestler” a record four years in a row, from 2013 to 2016, and I suspect he stopped winning only because it got too depressing to keep voting for him.

This isn’t a trend that began in WWE. Even before he was Cesaro, Claudio Castagnoli never held a singles title in Ring of Honor. Pre-WWE, Castagnoli held only two singles titles in the United States: one in the ever-discerning PWG and one in Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling. Why are his world title shots so few and far between? For all the backstage talk about the metaphorical brass ring, a key part of the answer lies, ironically, in one of Cesaro’s greatest strengths.

Simply put, Cesaro is one of the most outstanding singles wrestlers in the world who is also a truly sublime tag team wrestler. Cesaro is the equivalent of tag team salt: quietly and unobtrusively, he makes any tag division more exciting, more dynamic, and more gripping. He’s got the titles to show for it. There are his two runs in Ring of Honor with Chris Hero as the Kings of Wrestling; his second run is to this day, still the longest reign in Ring of Honor history:

His first tag championship in WWE was with Tyson Kidd. It was a team so random they found out they were paired together on Twitter, but they became wildly popular in their six months together before Kidd’s career was cut short by injury:

After an intense feud, he and Sheamus combined to make the Bar (because they didn’t set the Bar, they were the Bar) and won tag team gold five times in WWE.

Most recently, Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura won the SmackDown tag championships as part of The Artist Collective, connecting through their shared passion for excellence.

Cesaro excels as a singles wrestler, but in some ways, tag team wrestling is his natural habitat. Some of that is because his moveset is so adaptable, and he can combine with just about any other wrestler to create spectacular tandem offense. The Swing, for example, works perfectly with any kick attack to bring a brutal stop to the dizzying ordeal.

His strength and precision makes him a reliable base for just about any move, and he’s able to hoist anyone and put them into the right place to take his partner’s attack.

He’s agile and skilled enough to work from the top rope to add some extra panache to a tandem move.

Cesaro has the physical ability to bring whatever’s needed to a tag team and to elevate an entire division.

Another reason he’s so often found in tag teams is also exactly why Cesaro is such a favorite, why other wrestlers admire him, and why so many people want to see him beat Roman Reigns. It can be summed up in a single word as hokey as it is true: love.

Cesaro loves his tag team partners and loves wrestling with a pure, clear intensity that shines through everything he does. When he’s in a tag team, he gives himself completely to that team. Is Cesaro known for throwing elbows? No, but he and Chris Hero will come to the ring with their arms linked into an uppercut and elbow strike, their strengths combined into one.

His affection for Tyson Kidd was so over the top that it became a running gag on Total Divas that Natalie was jealous of their rapport (see the GIF above that shows her competing for Kidd’s affection with Cesaro), and when Kidd suffered his career-ending injury, Cesaro added the sharpshooter to his arsenal as a permanent tribute to the Hart family member.

And it was probably no coincidence that when he and Sheamus parted ways, Cesaro’s entrance display turned brilliant green as a reminder of his Irish tag team partner. A recent Day Of documentary followed Sheamus through a grueling match against Drew McIntyre at Fastlane. After Drew’s victory, Cesaro showed up to give his former tag partner a hug and Sheamus, exhausted and battered, broke into tears in his arms. “I love you, bro,” he sobbed as Cesaro murmured to him that it was a great match, that he was the man. “I love you. I miss you.”

Love defines Cesaro. Years ago, when talking about how he and Tyson Kidd worked out so well despite being thrown together, Cesaro explained that even though they come from different countries, they have something in common: a shared love.

His face twisted with intensity as he stammered that “this,” as if he was struggling somehow to encompass the whole wild chaotic art of wrestling, the vaudeville and the athletics, the melodrama and the blood. That moment—the way Cesaro packed so much passion into that one word, “this,” stayed with me for years, and because of it I always privately called Cesaro the True Lover: of his craft, of other wrestlers, of the fans, and of the way they all knit together into the huge, messy globe-sprawling thing we call professional wrestling. So I was thrilled to my core to hear him openly embrace that defining concept of love in a recent Talking Smack.

He also returned to the theme just last week after SmackDown. Cesaro is the wrestler that loves with all his heart.

We know, of course, that despite what Cesaro says, love doesn’t always succeed. It certainly doesn’t always win wrestling matches. But it can win things more important than any piece of leather and metal. Things like acclaim. Devotion. Pride. Respect. So I don’t know what will happen in the Universal title match at Backlash. I don’t know what the result will be. But I do know one thing:

Your favorite wrestler will probably be cheering for Cesaro.

J.J. McGee teaches and attends wrestling shows in Japan when not posting GIFs and commentary on Twitter as @Mithgifs.