In what will almost certainly be the best Raw match of 2015, Cesaro answered John Cena’s U.S. Title Open Challenge Monday night and took the champion to the limit in a 20-minute classic. The ending of the match, which saw Cesaro’s Sharpshooter being broken up by Kevin Owens seemingly moments away from victory, left the distinct impression that Cesaro is on the verge of being a major player in WWE. Cesaro’s history since debuting on the main roster in 2012 might suggest otherwise.
As anyone who has followed Cesaro since his days in CHIKARA and Ring of Honor can attest, he possesses the tools necessary to be a top star in WWE. He very well still can be just that. But in order for this to happen, WWE needs to pull the trigger right now.
Flirting With Stardom
After debuting on Smackdown in April 2012, Cesaro embarked on a fairly substantial winning streak and eventually captured the United States Championship in a little under four months’ time. He held the belt for 239 days, but by the time he dropped the belt to Kofi Kingston, he had already been diminished to a comedy role thanks to a ridiculous yodeling gimmick that lasted all of a few weeks.
Cesaro was then inexplicably paired with anti-immigration cartoon character Zeb Colter, an incongruous situation hand-waved with his status as a legal immigrant from Switzerland. He would be paired up with Jack Swagger as “The Real Americans,” and they would do next to nothing of note as a tag-team for the next nine months. Meanwhile, Cesaro was simultaneously working in a feud with then-NXT-newcomer Sami Zayn that resulted in a series of exceedingly great matches between 2013 and 2014. Cesaro would also score a big win on the February 14, 2014, Smackdown with a clean pinfall victory over WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton. Nothing further ever came from it.
At WrestleMania XXX, Cesaro split from Swagger after an unsuccessful attempt at winning the WWE Tag Team Championship, putting his former partner in the Cesaro Swing. He would appear in the inaugural André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal later in the show, which he ultimately won by body-slamming Big Show out of the ring in a fashion reminiscent of Hogan slamming André at WrestleMania 3. To further establish the connection, Hogan himself presented Cesaro with the trophy the next night on Raw and gave him an endorsement. To cap off the segment, Cesaro announced that he was dumping Colter for a new manager—Paul Heyman. The idea, it seemed, would be to accentuate Cesaro’s incredible in-ring acumen with Heyman’s mic work to elevate him as a true top-tier star.
While these elements combined should have vaulted Cesaro into a role as an emerging babyface, Cesaro was kept as a heel, made to drop the swing that had just begun to get over with crowds, and given some truly horrendous entrance music that Cesaro himself has admitted is awful. To make sure that he had almost no chance of succeeding further, Cesaro was also booked to lose consistently to mid-card talent like Sheamus, Kofi Kingston, and Big E.
Cesaro and Heyman ended their partnership in July, and a five-month slog filled with countless mid-card losses followed. This all but guaranteed that whatever juice Cesaro had left from his big win at WrestleMania would dry up.
The Missing “It Factor”
The handling of Cesaro was so baffling that it caught the attention of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who took the occasion of his podcast interview with Vince McMahon in December to ask what Cesaro needed in order to become a top-level superstar. McMahon responded by faulting Cesaro for everything from a perceived lack of an “it factor” and charisma to an inability to establish a connection with the audience because of his nationality and European-influenced in-ring style. Austin noted Cesaro’s inconsistent booking since the split from Swagger and Colter, stating that he believed it had negatively impacted his organic growth at a time where he was beginning to get over, and he asked how McMahon felt that he could be booked to regain that momentum that he had lost. McMahon’s response: “I’m not certain.”
This led to a segment on the December 29 Raw where Cesaro sat in a corner of the ring ala Raven and addressed criticism from “WWE decision-makers” who claimed that he didn’t connect with the audience. His response: “I don’t connect; I deliver.” This was immediately overshadowed when Cesaro flubbed a line, referring to the ring’s “four ropes.” Despite recovering quickly and correcting himself, he was buried on commentary on the way to a loss to the returning Wade Barrett (who also knows a thing or two about stop-start pushes).
By this point, Cesaro had already begun his tag-team partnership with Tyson Kidd, another immensely talented and underutilized performer. They quickly took to calling themselves “The Brass Ring Club”—a knock on McMahon’s claim that Millennials like Cesaro and Kidd were unambitious and unwilling to grab the brass ring—but the name didn’t stick. The team thrived, however, winning the WWE Tag Team Championship at Fastlane in February and defending the belts at WrestleMania 31.
Kidd and Cesaro dropped the championship to The New Day at Extreme Rules, and they came up short in a two-out-of-three falls match at Payback and a six-team Elimination Chamber match. On June 7, WWE announced that Kidd had been injured during a dark match with Samoa Joe, and spinal fusion surgery spelled the end of the team.
Why Now is the Time for Cesaro
In the wake of Kidd’s injury, the question of what would come next for Cesaro arose. After a week off of TV, Cesaro returned to the ring in a highly-competitive match with NXT Champion Kevin Owens on the June 18 Smackdown. After another week off TV, Cesaro appeared on Monday to challenge John Cena for the United States Championship. Their match is almost guaranteed to be the best match on Raw this year, and it’s certainly one of the best Raw matches of the past several years.
Consistent with the premise of Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge, Cesaro was given a platform to show the audience what he can do, and he delivered to a magnificent degree. The match was every bit an offensive showcase for Cesaro, and he and Cena both had the crowd completely into the match for the full 20 minutes.
In McMahon’s interview with Austin, it was said that one of the things inhibiting Cesaro’s progress is that the audience seems incapable of feeling him; that he is unable to project in such a way that the audience cares about him. The audience on Monday night sounded very receptive of Cesaro, and he carried himself like a superstar should. One has to wonder if Vince McMahon finally saw the “it” that he’s been looking for for so long. “It” was most certainly there, but the question is whether Vince McMahon is capable of seeing it or not.
During a sequence wherein Cesaro cuts Cena down to his knees with a flurry of European uppercuts, the camera cuts suddenly to black. Here, Cesaro had allegedly given Cena a double middle finger salute. Upon closer inspection, Cesaro appears to have flashed Cena his ring fingers, perhaps suggesting to Vince that this is where the much-discussed brass ring belongs.
If WWE has any hope of elevating Cesaro to the next level, there is no better time to start than now. Not tomorrow. Today. This wouldn’t even require a monster push along the lines of what Kevin Owens has received since his main roster debut. It would be as simple as gradual, consistent upward trajectory—something from which Cesaro has never benefitted in the WWE. Cesaro has something resembling forward momentum for the first time in more than a year, and it would be foolish to squander it.
If there’s one thing that the past few years have proven, it’s that manufacturing the energy necessary to propel a superstar into the fans’ good graces is an incredibly difficult task for WWE to undertake. Cesaro’s match with Cena provides him with the best spotlight he’s had since his segment with Hulk Hogan, and the fact that he visually had the champion beaten solidifies that he is a contender for Cena’s U.S. Championship. So keep him there at that level.
John Cena is in a unique position on the card where he ostensibly acts as the Cerberus guarding the gates to the main event picture. If you do not make it past Cena, you are stuck in the hell that is the WWE mid-card, an infernal place occupied by the likes of Dolph Ziggler and R-Truth. Cesaro has been in this hell long enough to know this, and he should be hanging around the gates looking to break through as long as possible.
Kevin Owens’ meteoric rise could be for naught if he regresses once his feud with John Cena ends. Thus, it stands to reason that Owens should continue working with Cena as long as possible until he is ready to ascend into the WWE World Heavyweight Championship picture. At the very least, we would all be guaranteed a few more fantastic matches along the way.
A great way to extend this feud and, by extension, continue building both Kevin Owens’ star power and the importance of the United States Championship is to incorporate additional variables into the mix. This is where Cesaro should fit in.
Cesaro had his match with Owens, and he came up just short in a way that didn’t make him appear weak. In his match with Cena, Owens got involved by breaking up the Sharpshooter, stating after the fact that he is the only one who gets the beat Cena for the title. This not only leaves the viewer with the image of Cena on the verge of defeat in a submission hold in the middle of the ring, but it establishes the idea that even Owens felt that Cesaro had the title won.
This leaves Cesaro with a legitimate case for a rematch. It’s a position not terribly dissimilar from when Neville presumably had Cena beat with a Red Arrow before Rusev crashed the ring and caused the disqualification. Neville immediately slid back down the card and into a feud with Bo Dallas, which has cooled him off considerably. In order to capitalize on Cesaro’s sudden momentum, this cannot happen.
If Cesaro were to remain involved in the United States Championship picture and the ongoing Owens/Cena storyline, he could benefit immensely. It would also serve the dual purpose of keeping Owens and Cena together and building a pool of opponents for both men to work with in the months ahead. Keeping Cesaro buoyed to the United States Championship picture could very well prevent him from treading water.
If Owens drops the NXT Championship to Finn Balor at the WWE Network special in Japan this Saturday—and it’s very likely that he will—this gives Balor an almost automatic springboard to make the leap from developmental to main roster, assuming that Owens walks away with the U.S. Title at Battleground. Keeping Owens, Balor, Cesaro, and possibly another up-and-coming talent or two orbiting around Cena allows them an opportunity to harness his star to build their own.
Cesaro is also booked for the Tokyo show—in a match against Diego of Los Matadores. WWE is pushing the special hard, and they’re pushing it on two factors entirely: Balor vs. Owens for the NXT Championship and a Brock Lesnar match. Kofi Kingston has been listed as Brock’s opponent since the show was announced, but this fact has gone conspicuously unmentioned on television. This leaves open the possibility that WWE could slot in somebody else to wrestle Brock.
So why not Cesaro? Why not use the venue to establish him as being at least someone in the vicinity of Brock Lesnar’s level? There’s a certain sadistic joy in imagining Brock rag-dolling Kofi around the ring, but just imagine how the audience would respond if Cesaro were able to manhandle Brock with a couple of power moves. It would most certainly make for another great showcase for Cesaro, and it would be a great way of maintaining the progress that seems to have been made in a single night.
There are a number of directions that WWE can go with Cesaro’s star seemingly back on the rise, but the only wrong way is backwards. For the first time since WrestleMania XXX, that natural momentum that Austin mentioned seems to have returned. After a phenomenal match that had fans eating out of the palm of his hand, Cesaro has shown that he can connect. Now it’s time for WWE to deliver.