The role of an underdog is an unusual one for a 6-foot-5 muscle-bound wrestler, but it's a role that Cesaro has been all-too-familiar with over the course of his tenure in the WWE. The 35-year-old "Swiss superman" has seemingly had to fight for every inch and accolade he has achieved on wrestling's biggest stage, but he has faced down each challenge as it has come along -- becoming a popular character in the WWE universe in the process.
This has been especially apparent over the last few weeks on Raw, as Cesaro took on Sheamus in a best-of-seven series between the two European giants. He was once again positioned as the lesser of the two superstars in going down three wins to none against Sheamus. Yet despite his character being backed into a corner with several different parts of his body encased in kinesiology tape, the series is now tied 3-3 with the deciding match set for Sunday at the Clash of Champions on pay-per-view.
Both the concept and the execution have received polarized reactions from fans, but in getting the opportunity to play out on screen the kind of uphill battle he has faced in his career, and getting to do it in a format that hasn't been used in the WWE in upwards of a decade, Cesaro has relished the opportunity.
"I do love this kind of program," Cesaro said during a conference call with several media outlets Monday afternoon, as part of a promotional effort for the WWE's upcoming U.K. tour in early November. "It's not often we get the chance in WWE to do something like that. To me, it's the closest to the old days when it was all about the wrestling, all about me against Sheamus in the ring without anything on the outside. It has this real sports feel. I kind of had my back against the wall, you know, it's best-of-seven. I do definitely love it."
"Well, I feel, from a company standpoint, like there's a lot of trust that goes into this," Sheamus concurred before the start of the series. "Because to have seven matches, or at least a best-of-seven ... there's a lot of confidence bestowed on both of us. People know we can go. People know we hit hard. We bring a lot of realism to our matches."
"I think over my career, if you look at it in WWE, Sheamus has always been one of my biggest adversaries," Cesaro said, "and one of the ones I would like to say I had some very memorable bouts with. It's definitely fun to be in the ring with him."
The winner of the series is set to receive a title opportunity, and it could be another chance to jump-start Cesaro's often promising WWE career. It remains a work in progress, to this point, as the 16-year veteran, who made a name for himself as Claudio Castagnoli on the independent scene in promotions such as Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla before signing for WWE in 2011, tries to break through a ceiling that has kept him from reaching the very top of the wrestling world. Cesaro was seemingly on the cusp of such a breakthrough as a singles star in late 2015 when a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder halted his momentum.
He underwent surgery and returned to action in April, and Cesaro has built a growing fan base which has supported him with entire swaths of the crowd holding up "Cesaro Section" signs -- establishing a persistently visible presence among Raw crowds. The Lucerne, Switzerland, native has already tasted a certain level of success in WWE, winning the United States championship, the tag-team championships with Tyson Kidd and the first Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at Wrestlemania in 2014. But it is not enough for Cesaro, who feels he has what it takes to reach higher.
"I wanted to be [world] champion by now, and I haven't achieved that," Cesaro said, when asked if he felt he had made the progress he wanted to since returning from injury.
Despite the tape he wears on his previously injured left shoulder, and other areas of his body at times, Cesaro is back at full strength and attempting to prove he has what it takes to grab the ball and run with it.
"The journey ahead seems still so long, but I'm happy I came back 100 percent," he continued. "I didn't come back 70 percent or something. I'm getting better every day. I'm just enjoying myself. Trying to approach it a little bit different. Just having more fun, especially in the ring, and letting the fans have fun with me together, from my new entrance to the whole thing."
The 'Swiss superman' character Cesaro has portrayed on WWE programming since returning has been a big positive step for him. His entrance features Cesaro walking out in a suit in front of a TitanTron video that mimics the famous opening credits sequence of James Bond films; he then tears off his Velcro tux and "transforms" into the Swiss superman before walking down to the ring for his match.
Cesaro's tale of frustration was a similar one to Kevin Owens' early this year, as he and his former running buddy on the independent scene languished with the mythical "brass ring" seemingly just out of both men's reach. Their perceived places in the WWE hierarchy were solidified in July during the WWE brand separation draft as Owens was drafted in the fourth round, 18th overall, and Cesaro didn't go until Round 6, 28th overall.
That all changed with Owens' shocking Universal-title victory on Raw in late August.
"Kevin was drafted higher than me, and he was frustrated. I'm even more frustrated than him," Cesaro said. "He had quite the run. If you look at it, he's been in WWE for a little over two years. The things he achieved in a very short period of time -- it might be unprecedented. As a fellow colleague of his, who's been on the independents with him -- I've known him for over 10 years -- I'm very happy with his success. He definitely deserves it."
As Cesaro pursues similar levels of success, it's clear he realizes that his path to the WWE's top championships will have to be different.
"For me it's a little bit of a different road," Cesaro said. "But if there are mountains to climb, I think as a Swiss man you're the proper mountaineer to do it. So that's something I'm looking forward to."
When you pursue the level of success that Cesaro seeks in the WWE, it's hard not to second guess yourself sometimes. There's no real sense of self-doubt with Cesaro, but he does acknowledge that his approach to the business and low-key demeanor don't lend themselves to self-promotion.
"I feel like I've been working magic for the past four years in WWE," Cesaro said, "and maybe it's the European in me, or the Swiss in me, that I'm not at the forefront bragging and constantly boasting about my achievements. I let my actions do the talking, and that might take a little bit longer for people to see."
During his WWE tenure, Cesaro has had to deal with the added pressure of trying to be as entertaining on a microphone as he is in the ring, but feels he's undeservedly stereotyped as being a poor talker.
"I actually can talk if you let me," he said. "That's always funny, because people always say that I can't, but the thing is, you haven't seen me on the mic a lot. I don't really get that many chances. And if I do, it's usually pretty good.
"Certain people get maybe a reputation, and people keep repeating it, and that just becomes their stigma," Cesaro continued. "I'm not saying I'm 'Mr. Microphone' over here, but I can certainly hold my own. I've been fortunate enough to get the chance to prove it lately, and I'm looking forward to getting to prove it some more going forward. The guys who talk are a select few, and I'm working my way to get there."
One person Cesaro has seemingly struggled to fully win over is Vince McMahon. The WWE owner told Steve Austin on an edition of the Stone Cold Podcast in December 2014 that Cesaro was lacking in charisma, verbal skills and the "it factor," and Austin said he did not know what Cesaro needed to do to raise his game.
WWE legends including Austin, Ric Flair and Mick Foley have all previously criticized WWE for not pushing Cesaro as a main-event talent, given his natural ability in the ring.
"I feel like I'm connecting pretty good," Cesaro said, however. "If you see the 'Cesaro section,' when I go out there, it is definitely not silent, and I have a huge fan base all over the world. Of course, there's always room for improvement. I'm the first one to always criticize myself, and I'm trying to find ways to get better. If people say stuff like that, that I maybe not agree with, I'm doing my best and working my hardest to prove them wrong."
Again, the timing of his injury couldn't have been much worse. He was part of a tournament to crown a new WWE world heavyweight champion, with several high-profile showdowns with true main-event talent just before going down in November.
"I got hurt when I was starting to really take off," Cesaro said. "Now I feel like I have to start from scratch again, which I have [had] to do so often. But it definitely felt like I was on a roll. And I'm still on a roll. It's just definitely being in the right place at the right time or being the right person. It's kind of hard sometimes, but I feel like if I'm consistently delivering, which is what I do, sooner or later it can't be denied."
Whatever the future holds for Cesaro in WWE, he is still humble.
"Sometimes I have to kind of stop and take it in," he said. "To me, I don't like to look back, I just like to look forward. It's such a long journey still ahead for me. Every now and then I see a picture of when I started, or I go to an arena -- we were just at the O2 [Arena in London] last week, and that's where I made my WWE debut on WWE TV. It's just crazy to think that that was over four years ago. If I look back on when I was on the indies in the U.S., and ever further when I was in Europe, it's just kind of amazing how I made it this far."