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Claudio Castagnoli's Long Road to the Top of Professional Wrestling

WWE missed on a wrestler long seen as a can't-miss star. In two nights, AEW capitalized on everything their competition failed to do.

Over 15 years ago, I remember sitting in the Grand Ballroom at the Manhattan Center in New York City as I took in ROH Final Battle 2006, the show built around Homicide finally winning the ROH Championship from Bryan Danielson. Yet on a show with such a huge main event that CM Punk and Maria Kanellis flew in to be there for Homicide’s big moment, the most newsworthy thing about the show had nothing to do with the main event.

After he and Chris Hero lost to Mark and Jay Briscoe, Claudio Castagnoli cut a promo on the house mic where he announced that he was sticking around in ROH for the time being. That shocked and confused all of the fans in attendance, as it had already been reported that he had signed with WWE and was about to report to Atlanta to serve out his newly-signed developmental contract in Deep South Wrestling.

More Professional Wrestling

As I discussed in this space several weeks ago, Castagnoli, though already being paid by WWE, was cut from his new contract for reasons that have not only never been reported, but have also, according to Claudio in interviews, never even explained to him. Curiously, “sources within WWE” would try to plant the false story that he had misled the company about his immigration status, something that he debunked by showing Figure Four Weekly’s Bryan Alvarez his physical green card at a Fight Sports Midwest show. That was the end of the story until almost five years later, when Claudio signed with WWE again in September 2011, reporting to Florida Championship Wrestling as Antonio Cesaro.

That run came to an end when he let his contract expire in February, taking a few months off before debuting this past week with AEW as an instant main event-level star.

The Curious Fumbling of Cesaro

Having returned to using his real name, Castagnoli was correctly thrust into the spotlight of the injury-plagued promotion, replacing Bryan Danielson against Zack Sabre Jr. at the Forbidden Door event before winning Blood and Guts II for the Blackpool Combat Club contingent three nights later on Dynamite.

After over a decade in WWE, where he had long since proven his utility as a performer and ability to get over organically with the fan base but was never given the push he deserved until the very end, it was striking just how well he fit in as a top guy.

Especially since it should have happened eight years ago.

Throughout the early months of 2014, the man then billed as Cesaro was teasing a split from the Real Americans heel group, along with a babyface turn. In fact, you can even argue that he was already being booked as a babyface, even defeating heel WWE Champion Randy Orton cleanly on SmackDown to a raucous ovation from the crowd.

Since it was a pre-taped SmackDown, it’s entirely possible that the crowd reaction was tinkered with in post-production, but that just bolsters the point: WWE was deliberately presenting Cesaro as a babyface on the road to WrestleMania XXX, seemingly setting up the official turn for that weekend in New Orleans.

There, Cesaro would win the first annual Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal to possibly the biggest pop on the show, and the next night, he dumped the Real Americans in lieu of Paul Heyman, all of which was framed as the actions of a babyface.

Until it wasn’t.

Yes, Heyman had exclusively been a heel in WWE. But Cesaro joining him was explicitly framed as the culmination babyface turn … until WWE left New Orleans to tape SmackDown the next night.

There, Cesaro had new, ill-suited entrance music, both he and Heyman were explicitly heels, and the slow burn babyface turn of the previous few months was ignored. Whatever actually happened, it’s never been explained anywhere.

Personally? It was the moment I completely gave up on WWE creative.

That 2014 was also the year that exposed how the three hour Monday Night Raw format had largely been carried by CM Punk (who walked out in January), Daniel Bryan (who was injured most of the year), A.J. Lee (who took the Spring off), and The Shield (who were split up as an act in June) dominating the shows just made matters worse.

Potential Realized

While Cesaro acquitted himself well while being pushed at a main event level in 2021, it felt like it was too little, too late, particularly since his biggest match, vs. Roman Reigns at Backlash, was at the Thunderdome with no fans present. It feels increasingly likely that huge swaths of no-fans pandemic wrestling will be memory holed precisely because it all felt like such a mirage. Did Cesaro as a pay-per-view main eventer really happen if we’re unlikely to ever talk about it again?

That’s a big part of what makes Claudio stepping into AEW as a clear top guy in the top babyface group in the company so exciting. Yeah, he sort of got a shot at the very end of his WWE run, but it was half-hearted and barely felt like it counted.

In AEW, he’s clearly in the mix as someone who is going to be on TV constantly, has already teased his first singles feud (with Eddie Kingston), and who live crowds so far have gone completely nuts for. He’s a bonafide main event star out of the gate, and that’s exciting before you even get into how AEW is full of all sorts of stylistically diverse opponents for him to shine against in ways he may not have been able to in WWE.

Claudio Castagnoli is finally getting his flowers, even if he always had Vince McMahon’s brass rings yanked out of his reach.

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