'King of Swing' Cesaro moving up WWE ladder

WWE PHOTO Cesaro gives Kofi Kingston a ride on the giant swing.

Antonio Cesaro is the "King of Swing," and if you don't believe it, just ask one of the many WWE performers who have been on the business end of the talented grappler's favorite maneuver.

Cesaro has become one of WWE's fastest-rising stars over the past year, and one of the reasons is his dizzying "giant swing" that, for veteran fans, evokes memories of the legendary Don Leo Jonathan, who popularized the move during the 1950s and '60s.

"I began using the giant swing well before joining WWE," said Cesaro, who has dropped the "Antonio" and now only uses his ring surname. "In WWE, it got such a great reception that I thought I'd keep doing it."

Cesaro, 33, notes that he picked up the hold after watching tapes of Jonathan and observing Japanese stars Hiroshi Hase and Kyoko Inoue executing the move overseas.

"Everybody brings up Don Leo Jonathan," Cesaro laughs. "I'm a huge fan of Don Leo Jonathan. I love that era of wrestling."

Today, Cesaro is considered one of the most promising talents on the WWE roster.

The native of Lucerne, Switzerland, experienced what he considers his breakout moment during a two-day period surrounding last month's Wrestlemania 30 in New Orleans.

At Wrestlemania, he captivated the 75,000 fans in attendance when he eliminated the 500-pound Big Show and won the inaugural Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal.

The next night on Raw, following an endorsement from none other than Hulk Hogan, Cesaro broke away from The Real Americans and introduced Paul Heyman as his new manager.

"That's when everybody in the world reacted to me," says Cesaro, noting those events were witnessed by millions of fans all over the world, making the exposure that much greater.

"It was such a special night. I got quite the reception both nights."

Cesaro, whose real name is Claudio Castagnoli, believes that reaction was validation of the hard work he's put forth in order to reach his current position in the business.

"The fans understood the hard work. To me, it's always about getting better and doing whatever you have to do to get better."

To Cesaro, it represented something even more.

"It was the start of a new generation. It's just a fun time and a great situation. It is a very exciting time, but it's a very exciting time for the fans as well."

Cesaro is mentioned along with other burgeoning WWE talent such as Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt. And although he's not second- or third-generation stars like some of his young cohorts, Cesaro believes he has more than paid his dues.

Cesaro chuckles when his name and "overnight sensation" are mentioned in the same sentence.

"That term is used a lot. All of a sudden people start noticing because they haven't noticed before. What they don't realize is that person has been out there working hard for a long time."

While it's true that Cesaro has become well known to the masses on an international scale in only the past couple of years, he's been in the business for 13 years.

Cesaro, though, has spent only three of those years in WWE and actually made his pro debut in 2001. That makes him far from an overnight sensation.

"To some people, being in the business only starts when you're in the WWE. So I guess for those people, I'm kind of an overnight sensation."

And while Cesaro is highly regarded as a skilled mat technician in a career that has taken him all over the world, he has only recently begun to make some major noise in the business.

Teaming with Jack Swagger as The Real Americans, Cesaro emerged as a tag-team specialist in WWE where, until this past year, established tag teams were few and far between.

But to those who closely follow the business, Cesaro has been on the tag-team radar for years, most notably with longtime friend Chris Hero as The Kings of Wrestling.

Their first run saw them win the Chikara Tag World Grand Prix in 2006. They later won and kept the ROH tag title longer than anyone in company history, wearing the belts from April 3, 2010, to April 1, 2011.

"I've known Chris since 2001," says Cesaro, who used his real name in ROH. "We knew each other pretty well. I enjoyed it because we wrestled everywhere. We both had the same drive at that point. We kind of brought tag-team wrestling back to prominence.

"And the same in WWE when I teamed with Jack Swagger. I would say we were the best team in WWE to have never had the championship. And at that time the tag-team division was on fire. It still is, but we helped elevate it again with guys like The Shield, the Usos, the Rhodes Brothers, the Primetime Players, 3MB. It was really hot."

His partnership with Swagger, which recently dissolved, was made even more entertaining with the addition of longtime wrestler and manager Dutch Mantel, who played the role of Zeb Coulter, a right-wing zealot.

Cesaro enjoyed the association.

"Dutch has been around for decades. He has been through everything and knows everybody. He's quite the character. It's been great to pick up things from him."

Cesaro says he's reluctant to set long-term goals. He firmly believes that every step he takes moves him closer to his next goal. The fact that he has wrestled all over the world has enhanced his versatile style.

"Every promotion in the world - in some way, shape or form - has different audiences. If you look at my WWE career until now, I did a lot of different things as well."

The United States served as a training ground for the skilled mat technician. Among the scores of independent promotions Cesaro worked for were ROH, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Chikara and Combat Zone Wrestling.

With his Swiss background, the innovative Cesaro incorporates a distinctive no-nonsense, European style into his ring repertoire.

"I was trained to be more technical in Europe because that's the audience. They enjoy a more technical style. To me it's very important to be different. My style is different from everybody else's because I've traveled so much and wrestled in so many places. I took something from everywhere I went, and I think that WWE's most accomplished superstars have also done that in the past. They've been able to focus and call upon everything they've been through."

After dropping Coulter as his manager, Cesaro revealed himself to be a "Paul Heyman Guy," a lofty distinction that he now shares with former WWE champion Brock Lesnar, who ended The Undertaker's streak at Wrestlemania.

In addition to the instant rub Cesaro got, he is just as appreciative of the knowledge he has been able to glean from the ringwise Heyman.

This is in stark contrast to his days in Europe where, says Cesaro, there was little time for veterans to share lessons with young talent.

"When I started there, it was almost nobody around. Paul has been an unbelievably great asset. He has always been very generous with his advice."

WWE hopes Cesaro's high-profile association with Heyman helps catapult him into main-event territory. A new entrance theme is in the works, and officials are even handing out "Cesaro Section" signs to the crowd even though Cesaro is clearly on the heel side of the ledger.

"I'm hoping to see a lot of fans in the Cesaro Section in Greenville," says the Swiss sensation, who will be appearing on next week's Monday Night Raw at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Much like how current WWE champion Daniel Bryan was booked, Cesaro is being positioned for a babyface turn in the near future, with his main target most likely being Lesnar.

No less than John Cena sang Cesaro's praises late last year while on a tour of Germany.

"This man has the makings of a future champion," Cena told fans after calling Cesaro out to the ring.

Strongest on the mat

Pound for pound, the 6-5, 230-pound Cesaro is regarded as the strongest man in WWE.

You'll get no argument from him.

"In the ring, I'm probably the strongest WWE superstar," he said bluntly.

A combination of athleticism and power, Cesaro stresses that it's not how much weight you can lift. It is, rather, how you manipulate that weight.

"My weight training regimen changed all the time. I think that's very, very important. To me, it's not all about how much weight you can lift in the weight room. It's how you can manipulate weight in the ring. To me, there's nobody better at manipulating body weight than I am. I can bench press 500 pounds and that doesn't mean anything to me. But if I can neutralize Big Show, that means everything."

The well-spoken wrestler realizes that screen presence is just as important as ring ability in today's brand of sports entertainment.

And that he speaks five different languages makes him even more attractive to a worldwide audience and a marketable commodity for WWE.

Language, said Cesaro, is "pretty."

It also helps him adapt to his surroundings while traveling the globe.

"Growing up in Switzerland, you learn German pretty much from Day 1 in school. You learn French and Italian as well. I took English as an extra language because I figured that was the language of the world. When I go to different countries, I want to know how to at least say hello and thank you. Language is a great hobby.

"We went to Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago. We were the first American act that had come there in a long time. The fans there were so excited to see us, and it was such a good atmosphere. It was proof of just how good a family-friendly show WWE is."

While his real name of Claudio Castagnoli has a nice ring to it, "Cesaro" is now the name the majority of wrestling fans identify him with.

"That's what the world knows me as," he said. "I've had the pleasure of traveling to so many different countries, and everybody knows the name Cesaro. That's very inspiring and makes you want to work even harder."

Cesaro's potential is unlimited and his future in WWE is bright. He enjoyed a 239-day reign as U.S. heavyweight champion during 2012-13. Even bigger gold is now in his sights.

"I just try to get better every single day. When I came to the United States, my goal was just to do this full-time, and to get as good as I could. I got to the point in my career where my next goal was to go to the WWE."

When he achieved that first step by securing a contract with WWE's developmental territory at NXT (then FCW), his next goal was to make it to WWE TV and become a character.

Mission accomplished.

He made his debut on the main roster just months after signing his developmental deal.

From there it was Wrestlemania, "which took me a good two years," says Cesaro, who credits William Regal with helping him land in WWE. "The next goal was just to get better and get some singles gold again."

Fortunately, said Cesaro, he's been relatively injury-free to this point.

"I hope I have at least another good 10 years in me."

For now, Cesaro is just happy swinging his way to fame.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at (843) 937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.