If it seems a hair braggadocious that anyone would unironically refer to themselves as a “King of Wrestling,” you’ll have to forgive Claudio Castagnoli for breaching pro wrestling’s unwritten rules of decorum. After all, the title was first imposed upon him nearly 20 years ago during one of the earliest stanzas of his career, when he was an unproven newcomer to the American independent wrestling scene.
As a long-haired standout on the indies, the 24-year-old Castagnoli was drafted into the Kings of Wrestling stable within Mike Quackenbush’s Philadelphia-based indie promotion, Chikara Pro. Primarily known for its tag team and trios matches, Chikara was an ideal location for a future ruler to begin carving out a kingdom alongside his allies, even if the young kings in question might have been rightly discounted as pretenders to the throne at that point in time.
Now nearly two decades removed from his earliest claim to nobility, Castagnoli finds himself in the unlikely role of dual-purpose ruler, where he is both the monarch and the measuring stick of Ring of Honor. Claudio was finally crowned as a world champion outside of the (let’s be honest) far more dubious claims to global supremacy that his possession of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s and Westside Xtreme Wrestling’s top belts granted him. He no longer bears the burden of being a wrestler who seemed destined to be denied what had once appeared to be his by divine right: a world-title reign backed by the market penetration of a globally viewable professional wrestling organization.
Then again, thoughts of ascending to the throne of an international wrestling brand were scarcely the foremost distractions occupying the mind of Castagnoli when he relocated to the United States 20 years ago to pursue a professional wrestling career.
“I just moved to a completely different country with a completely different culture,” Castagnoli told The Ringer. “It was a completely different everything. Where I come from in Switzerland, you can take public transportation, or bike, or walk pretty much anywhere you want. You need a car in the United States. You just do need one. I took my bike to the gym once, and it took me an hour and a half to get there and two hours to get back, and I’m a fast biker. There were just a lot of cultural differences that I didn’t think about. There was a lot of learning involved.”
Castagnoli moved in with Chris Hero, who he credits with mentoring and training him during one of the most critical stages of his early career. With a tightly knit cohort of similarly young and ambitious wrestlers, Castagnoli hit the trail in pursuit of establishing his name on the independent wrestling scene, which is something he was able to accomplish rapidly.
“With the indie wrestling, you needed to network, and you needed to know people,” said Castagnoli. “This was before the internet, when promoters could just look up somebody and decide if they wanted them or not. They had to go by the word of your friend or the recommendation of a friend. Luckily, I got thrown into a pool with a group of guys that were always traveling a lot, and I just tagged along, worked my way in, and worked my way up.”
Over a rather short period of time, Castagnoli became one of the most consistently booked independent wrestlers on the core circuit of wrestling promotions that emerged during the fallout of the dual WCW-ECW collapse. While it was rewarding to find himself in heavy demand, navigating that landscape was no simple task.
“One challenge was definitely the travel,” recalled Castagnoli. “We did the drive where there were about four or five of us from the Philadelphia area heading to Chicago, which is about 15 hours, and we did that three out of four weekends in a month. You just had to travel wherever work was available, and sometimes, that was long drives. And you all had to be crammed into a small car. But that forges bonds for life. That’s a lot of the challenge, along with just staying healthy and making it through those years.”
Staying healthy is something the future world champion learned to master while he was still in a state of relative anonymity. While he was always a follower of a strength-maximizing training protocol undergirded by Olympic-style lifts, Castagnoli took great pains to ensure that culinary temptations on the road would never derail him from his quest to be the absolute best from the outside in.
“I used to travel with a briefcase with all my food that I was eating. I did the P90X diet—that was the first diet I’d ever done—and it made big changes and stuck with me for a long time,” said Castagnoli. “I just brought all the food that I knew I was going to eat with me, and I made it work that way. I’m probably just drawn more to healthier foods. I don’t really like junk food. Back during the indie days, I also ate a lot of Subway because that was one of the few chains that was open late, and they were everywhere, and you could get a healthy sandwich. Nowadays, you can find good, healthy food almost everywhere and at any time, even at gas stations. The times have definitely made it easier because there is more healthy food available in more places, but it was always possible if you set your mind to it.”
Not long after their formation, Arik Cannon fell away from the Kings of Wrestling, and in the absence of their departed comrade, Castagnoli and Hero began to inject sufficient meaning into their Kings of Wrestling appellation to instill it with an essence of legitimacy. Everywhere they performed, championship coronations and rave reviews seemed to follow them like rats following the Pied Piper … just as long as the rats were all dragging an assortment of championship belts behind them.
“I think there was a time where we held the Ring of Honor, Combat Zone Wrestling, and Chikara tag team championships at the same time, and we were truly the Kings of Wrestling because we were everywhere in all the major indies, and we were very successful at it,” said Castagnoli. “For me, it was a cool nickname, and it resonated with the fans, which was very important.”
After a decade of putting in consistent work in wrestling rings all across the globe, Castagnoli found himself in the Sunshine State and appearing in the ring for Florida Championship Wrestling, the onetime developmental territory of World Wrestling Entertainment. At that point, he fell into the hands of head trainer and FCW CEO Steve Keirn, who was blown away with what he saw.
“Claudio was in the top five of people I ever dealt with in FCW so far as all-around talent is concerned,” said Keirn. “When I mean all-around talent, it goes way past whether or not he could wrestle or just be a competent performer in the business. Wrestling had lost its sense of mystique over the years. I blame that partially on the appearances of guys. Too many guys didn’t look like men. They didn’t look like they could beat someone up. They didn’t look like athletes. Claudio was a man. He brought believability to any shows I ran. People might look at the other matches and make a joke out of them. They never made a joke out of his match.”
Accompanying Castagnoli’s immersion into the WWE system was a requisite name change that would result in him bidding adieu to his real name, which he had utilized throughout his tenure on the independent scene. Fortuitously, Castagnoli’s resulting pseudonym would add a phonetic hint of imperialism—even if it ironically translated into “head of hair”—that might have otherwise been permanently lost due to the abolition of the Kings of Wrestling tandem.
“When I came to the WWE, everybody had to change their name,” Castagnoli stated. “They just asked me to submit a couple of names. I submitted four first names and four last names, and I told them any combination of names works for me. ‘Antonio Cesaro’ is the combination they picked. I wanted something that had a similar feel to my real name, and I felt like ‘Antonio Cesaro’ did that.”
In addition to a new name, Castagnoli also had to be inculcated with the stylistic requirements mandated for performers within the WWE system, which tended to be far more rigid and prescriptive than the amorphous, laissez-faire procedures that typified the indies at the time.
“I didn’t do anything to make him better,” said Keirn. “All I did was suggest some things he should do to change the way he worked in front of Vince McMahon. Athletically, they didn’t come any better. He was as close to Curt Hennig as you could get. Maybe from him being European, there was a bit of a gap in knowing how to present yourself verbally and get over that way, but that was going to be the only thing I could see that might hold him back.”
Sporting a new name, Claudio was permanently called up to the WWE’s main roster in April 2012, and he rapidly captured gold in the form of the United States Championship. Night in and night out, he continued to astonish fans and wrestlers alike with the same deceptive strength that had impressed WWE officials since the very first time he displayed it.
“[Claudio’s] physical strength was phenomenal,” recalled Keirn, who is a former powerlifter in his own right. “I witnessed him do stuff physically that was very difficult. He had the total package of power, balance, and control. He could pick guys up in ways that seemed impossible to do. He could move you if he wanted to move you. His strength was a cross between Bob Backlund and the Iron Sheik in their prime. Bobby was my tag team partner. He was one of those guys whose strength you didn’t realize until you witnessed him firsthand doing something that seemed incredible. I watched him deadlift 270-pound Bob Roop with one arm and carry him around the ring. Roop just looked at me after and said, ‘Yeah, he’s strong.’ Claudio had the same type of strength.”
That strength was born of many years of adhering to the compound lifts of powerlifting and Olympic-style weight lifting, which enabled Claudio to regularly unveil feats of strength rarely demonstrated by wrestlers of any size and stature, let alone any weighing less than 250 pounds. When not hoisting his opponents clean over his head, Claudio could always be relied on to rotate his opponents’ bodies with what became a staple of his matches: his giant swing.
Being the King of Swing was a bit of a demotion from being a King of Wrestling, but at least it provided an outline to a kingdom that could be expanded upon.
“I always thought it was important to be able to pull off my moves no matter what, and I kind of developed a style that required me to pull off all my major strength moves at the ends of matches, which is usually 10 to 15 minutes in, or sometimes 20 to 30 minutes in,” said Castagnoli. “So you need to have the stamina to still be strong later on. That’s why functional fitness has always been so important to me. To me, functionality comes first. I don’t really work out for looks; I’d rather work out for functionality. Of course, the looks are a nice side effect, but I would rather be functionally strong than to simply look strong.”
While Castagnoli appeared to be gaining momentum, there were rumblings that a glass ceiling posed by a lack of some intrinsic trait had preempted his progression into WWE’s main event scene. This backroom belief was disclosed to the public in late 2014, when Steve Austin asked WWE CEO and chairman Vince McMahon what absent attribute might be holding Castagnoli back from reaching the pinnacle of the company’s title picture.
“He’s not connecting yet, and we hope he will,” answered McMahon, just moments after lamenting the inundation of the WWE locker room with unambitious millennials who seemed incapable of grabbing the proverbial brass ring. “He doesn’t quite have the charisma. He doesn’t quite have the verbal skills as well, and maybe because he’s Swiss—I don’t know—in terms of the European style. But those are the big things that he’s lacking. The audience needs to care about you. They need to be able to feel your presence. You need to be able to project that. He’s an extraordinary physical talent. Extraordinary. But at the moment—and hopefully he’ll get it—he lacks it.”
Whatever criteria the WWE chairman felt Castagnoli might have been lacking, there were several indications that wrestling fans disagreed with the boss’s assessment. For four consecutive years, from 2013 to 2016, voters of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter—a group of fans often categorized as being among wrestling’s most educated—voted Castagnoli to be the most underrated wrestler in the world. It was something that the Swiss Cyborg was very much aware of.
“I appreciate that the fans voted me to that honor because I felt like I always had the fans on my side,” professed Castagnoli. “To me, they are the true barometer of what’s good and what’s working.”
And then there was the matter of the “Cesaro Section.”
“There was one point, it was in San Jose, it was a Miz TV segment, and it was me, Kevin Owens, and Miz [in the ring],” Castagnoli began. “I don’t know the exact number, but I’d guess there were well over 1,000 ‘Cesaro Section’ signs.”
With Cesaro Sections organically sprouting up at every stop, the public displays of fan support seemingly confirmed what many of those fans had been affirming with their private ballots: Claudio Castagnoli deserved to be positioned better than where the WWE had slotted him.
“Whatever the WWE did with Claudio, they did it out of their own thoughts of what would work,” insisted Keirn. “Given the right scenario, given the right application of this guy, he was the guy you could always depend on. If you wanted to hang a title on somebody and make it realistic and believable, Claudio would be the guy. That’s a high pedestal for me, but I can’t put him up high enough.”
In Castagnoli’s mind, that same dependability may have been what ultimately worked against him and prevented him from ever attaining world championship gold as a solo WWE performer (or a King of the Ring crown or Royal Rumble victory, for those tracking aristocratic accomplishments). He concluded a decade as a surefire King of Wrestling who had inexplicably gone uncrowned. It seemed as if the Swiss Superman was destined to become the Swiss Miss—as in a missed opportunity.
“I would like to think I was appreciated, and I would like to think I was used well to a certain degree because I feel like they knew they could always count on me to deliver no matter what position I got put in,” said Castagnoli. “But sometimes if you are always dependable and you always make everything work, that can sometimes cause you to be taken for granted.”
When Castagnoli ultimately left WWE in early 2022 without ever grazing the ceiling of what many thought his peak creative potential might have been, his onetime coach and trainer was not surprised that WWE had dropped the ball on him.
“I always worried about WWE not being able to utilize Claudio properly because they didn’t see a colorful character,” said Keirn. “He’s one of those guys that is a diamond in the rough. He wasn’t Macho Man or Ric Flair, but if he was used right, he could be Lou Thesz or Danny Hodge. They commanded respect from the guys in the dressing room and the audience. Nobody tested Danny Hodge, and nobody was going to pick on Claudio to see if he was the real deal or not.”
Although Castagnoli admitted to feeling frustrated by the booking decisions that were made during his WWE tenure, he said he refused to let them get the better of him or detract from the quality of his performance.
“Even if you get frustrated, you have to use that frustration to move forward and do something positive with it,” Castagnoli contended. “Otherwise, you end up going to a place that’s not good. I used that as motivation to try to work harder and get better, and I still do today. I appreciate every single person that supported me and wanted me to do better. I did whatever I could, and I still do.”
Once again wrestling under his real name, Castagnoli made his All Elite Wrestling debut on June 26, 2022, at AEW and New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Forbidden Door pay-per-view by annihilating Zack Sabre Jr. Then, in a booking decision that served the triple purpose of being an award for past services rendered, a correction of a historic injustice, and a golden opportunity for an inbound talent, Castagnoli dethroned Jonathan Gresham for the Ring of Honor World Championship during only his fourth match under the AEW banner.
The title change was the first transition of Ring of Honor’s top title following the acquisition of ROH by AEW, making Castagnoli the first Ring of Honor titleholder selected for elevation after the brand had finally and inarguably gained access to a global audience. Finally, the once and future King of Wrestling was a recipient of some royal treatment.
“It felt tremendous. It was kind of a full circle moment,” Castagnoli confirmed. “I’m not taking this lightly. I’m very proud of it. I want to be a great representative for Ring of Honor. I think any championship adds pressure, but especially the world championship because you are ‘the guy.’ You are the one that goes on last, and you are the person who is most associated with that company. You are the one that every single person is gunning for, and you are in the position that every other person on the roster should want to be in. I feel like you have to conduct yourself in a certain way if you’re going to represent that company nationally, internationally, and globally. There is a lot of pressure, but I feel like pressure makes diamonds.”
Keirn, for one, was not surprised that significant world championship gold—white gold, in the case of the ROH belt—would eventually land around Castagnoli’s waist, no matter how long it took.
“I can’t put him over strong enough,” said Keirn. “He was so respectful. He listened. He paid attention. He asked questions. He was always trying to improve. When most guys get to the point where they can formulate matches, they feel like they know it all. With Claudio, you knew he was going to try to continually learn his whole career. You could tell he would learn from everything.”
So now that Castagnoli has captured—and then recaptured—a world championship as the standard-bearer for a top national brand, does that mean he has fully checked off his bucket list as he progresses into his 40s? Is he finally ready to lay claim to the title of King of Wrestling all on his own?
“In one way, yes, but in another way, I feel like the fans decide who the king is, and as long as you get the reaction, and as long as the fans support you, you’re always a King of Wrestling,” Castagnoli declared. “To me, that never left: that chip on the shoulder, that desire to outperform every single person on the card or on the roster. It’s a challenge. All the friends that I surrounded myself with, even to this day, if they’re in different companies, we always wanted to outperform each other. I feel that creates the best product and the best outcome for the fans. It all comes from that competitive spirit. We still support each other, but if somebody had a good match, you looked at it and said, ‘Alright, I’d better step it up.’ I’ll always have that competitive spirit, so I will never stop trying to be a King of Wrestling.”
His present claim to wrestling royalty may not be in dispute, but what does Castagnoli want his legacy to be? That question was considerably more challenging for him to answer.
“The legacy question is really hard because I feel like that’s something for the fans to decide in terms of what my legacy is,” confessed Castagnoli. “If you just keep that high level of performance up for a long time, I feel like that’s what people will remember. Every time I go to the ring, I want to prove to people that I’m the best. If you do that enough times, that’s what people remember, and if that’s my legacy, I’ll be happy about it.”
If captivating contests, momentous moments, and flabbergasting feats are components in the calculation of a legacy, Claudio Castagnoli is undoubtedly one ruler whose wrestling career retooled the units of measurement.
Ian Douglass is a journalist and historian who is originally from Southfield, Michigan. He is the coauthor of several pro wrestling autobiographies and is the author of Bahamian Rhapsody, a book about the history of professional wrestling in the Bahamas, which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter (@StreamGlass) and read more of his work at iandouglass.net.