WWE brings new guard to Baltimore for Raw

WWE Superstar Cesaro swings his opponent, Kofi Kingston, during a recent match.
WWE Superstar Cesaro swings his opponent, Kofi Kingston, during a recent match. (Photo courtesy of WWE, Carroll County Times)

The last time World Wrestling Entertainment brought its act to the Baltimore Arena, it was a special "Old School" edition of its signature television show, Monday Night Raw, complete with a 1990s-style set and ring ropes and plenty of WWE Legends such as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Jake "The Snake" Roberts on hand. But when the WWE invades the arena for another live broadcast of Raw on Monday, coming off the heels of its biggest event of the year, WrestleMania, it will have a decidedly new-school feel.

Fans and WWE Superstars agree, there was a changing of the guard at WrestleMania XXX, which saw underdog fan favorite Daniel Bryan win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship for the first time, the culmination of a storyline that began in August for the bearded grappler being held down by the on-screen characters The Authority, who represented both the old guard of wrestlers as well as the current regime of backstage decision-makers - Triple H and his wife, Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of company Chairman Vince McMahon.

In addition to Bryan, a 32-year-old who has been wrestling since the age of 18 on the independent circuit before joining WWE in 2010, the event was a watershed moment for several other young talents, but perhaps none more so than Cesaro, a powerhouse from Switzerland who looks an awful lot like actor Jason Statham in spandex.

Cesaro, whose real name is Claudio Castagnoli, traveled a similar path to the WWE as Bryan, having worked all over the world on the independent scene, wrestling in front of small crowds before finally breaking into the WWE, making his television debut exactly two years ago Sunday. At WrestleMania, in front of a crowd of 70,000-plus in the New Orleans Superdome, Cesaro won the inaugural Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, outlasting 30 other wrestlers.

While he became a wrestling fan after Andre's prime, Cesaro said in an interview with the Times this week that winning the battle royal named for the French-born "Eighth Wonder of the World" was a spotlight moment in his WrestleMania debut.

"Every wrestling fan knows about Andre the Giant, especially growing up in Europe," Cesaro said. "He was such a huge icon, and it was an honor to be the first Andre the Giant battle royal winner."

Cesaro is often touted as the strongest man, pound-for-pound, in the WWE. He certainly proved that in waning moments of the battle royal, body slamming the mammoth 7-foot, 400-pound Big Show - this generation's Andre, according to Cesaro - over the top rope to win the contest, invoking memories of Hulk Hogan slamming the Giant 27 years earlier at WrestleMania III.

"I think it was a nice way to pay tribute to Andre," Cesaro said.

Like most WWE Superstars, Cesaro spends his off hours between traveling to gigs and performing in the ring at the gym. Despite his strongman persona - one of his many nicknames is the Swiss Superman - Cesaro says he's not concerned with being able to lift the most weight at the gym; rather, he lifts for functionality.

"If someone can bench press more than me, so what?" he said. "I don't care. How does that help me to be better in the ring?"

Being a standout in the ring is exactly what's got Cesaro rocketing to the top of WWE as one of its featured attractions. With a unique moveset that includes vicious variations of uppercuts and his signature Cesaro Swing, his style has positioned him well on the card moving forward.

He notes that the swing, which he's performed on behemoths like the Great Khali and Big E Langston, helped get him noticed by the fans after a few years toiling with gimmicks that included speaking five different languages and even yodeling his way to the ring.

"It's one of those things, you see it in movies, you see it in comic books, it's something a superhero would do," Cesaro said of the swing. "I'm like a real life superhero."

And while like comic books, the WWE has always been about larger-than-life characters, the new generation of grapplers are often smaller and wrestle with a little more flash than the lumbering giants in the company's past like Hogan and Andre.

Some, often condescendingly, refer to the flashier ringwork as the "indy style" of wrestling, particularly as it relates to Ring of Honor, a promotion now owned by Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcasting.

For years, it's been thought that wrestlers who competed for ROH and other smaller independent promotions would never be pushed to the top in WWE. The company instead preferred to promote characters it created. Cesaro, Bryan and other ROH alumni like Seth Rollins, of the Shield, are shattering those perceptions.

However, Cesaro said he's never felt like he's been held down because of his past wrestling on the independent circuit, and compared the indies to the territories of the 1980s, which operated in different parts of the U.S. before Vince McMahon and WWE began gobbling them up to create a global monopoly on the business.

"No one ever said, 'Oh, you're a territory guy,'" Cesaro explained.

While Cesaro technically plays a villain on television, emphasized by his on-screen partnership with nefarious manager Paul Heyman, he still receives adulation from the crowd and likely will in Baltimore Monday, when he's scheduled to compete with Rob Van Dam in the second round of a tournament to determine a No. 1 contender for the Intercontinental Championship.

That's because of the respect the fans have for his in-ring work.

"I'm like the mailman," he said. "I always deliver."

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