Orange Cassidy is the unlikely breakout star of 2020, while barely even trying

Orange Cassidy has made the laziest, low-energy character in pro wrestling one of the surprising breakout acts of 2020. Courtesy of AEW

Chris Jericho, a 30-year veteran, five-time world champion and arguably one of the greatest performers in wrestling history is standing in the ring, staring down his opponent. It's the main event on a nationally televised broadcast, a match which is the culmination of a literal blood feud with months of buildup.

After 12 minutes of being beaten and battered by the villainous Jericho, Orange Cassidy (real name Jim Cipperly) starts to make his comeback. This is traditionally where most wrestlers representing the underdog hero rise up, fire up, run riot across every inch of the ring and go into a sprint of offense.

But Orange Cassidy is nothing like most wrestlers. He has that opening and the momentum, but instead of going on the attack, he puts his hands up in the air, then down into his pockets. He lethargically taps Jericho's legs with his feet. Calling these strikes kicks would be the equivalent of calling a paper cut a life-threatening gash.

Jericho stands there, more annoyed than hurt, and Orange Cassidy backpedals to deliver one final blow. Except this time, instead of another tap to the shin, it's a thundering superkick to Jericho's chin.

This is Orange Cassidy. This is his essence: A wrestler who lulls detractors into a false sense of security (or disdain) with comedy and apathy, and when their guard is fully down, he kicks them in the face.

This is wrestling's male breakout star of 2020.

Orange Cassidy's career trajectory never appeared to land at "superstar." Cassidy has been in the business for 16 years, working under a variety of names, including J.C. Ryder, in independent promotions across America. He's worked under a mask, he's wrestled with various lengths of hair, and he's seen some of the finest high school gyms and armories in America. It wasn't until 2010 that he became "Freshly Squeezed" Orange Cassidy -- a sunglasses and all-denim wearing slacker who walked, and definitely didn't run.

"I guess it was like 2005 or 2006 when I really tried to start to wrestle, and it didn't matter, like, you know -- I was wrestling as another guy that sucked with long hair," said Cassidy to ESPN. "It was one of those things where you like wrestling, so you build a ring in your backyard, and you start to wrestle, and then, you know, no one likes you because you're a skinny white kid who doesn't do anything great."

Cassidy turned to his "Freshly Squeezed" persona as an attempt to stand out. In an independent scene in which performers played a never-ending game of "Can you top this?" with their flips and athleticism, Cassidy flipped the blueprint on its head. Instead of trying to come up with the most insane and innovative move on each show, Cassidy rolled the dice on an alternative approach: Doing as little as humanly possible.

"If I have to wrestle, I'll wrestle. It's not my fault that I'm good at wrestling," Cassidy said, explaining his character's motivations. "It's like one of those things, you have a job, you're good at it, but you know, do you really wanna?"

The gamble didn't pay off immediately. The gimmick, much like its approach to life, took its time to find success.

"This has been happening for legit 10 years now," Cassidy's trios partner Chuck Taylor said. "And my favorite part of it is having been shows with him this long and watching crowds hate him and be very confused by him... and not in a good way."

Orange Cassidy spent the decade refining the persona, working out the kinks, and building grassroots popularity in notable American independent promotions like Beyond Wrestling, Game Changer Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.

With the insistence of AEW's executive vice presidents The Young Bucks, Orange Cassidy officially debuted in All Elite Wrestling on at the promotion's first "All Out" pay-per-view in August 2019. With hands in his pockets, he joined tag team Best Friends (Taylor and WWE veteran Trent [Beretta]) as AEW's resident comedic trio.

"The Young Bucks were the people that were like, 'We need to get Orange here,'" Orange Cassidy said. "Because my character is a giant middle finger to professional wrestling, so they were like, 'Of course, let's get him in.'"

AEW president Tony Khan wasn't too familiar with Orange Cassidy as the company approached its inaugural show Double or Nothing in 2019, but as the organization searched for additional talent, Khan quickly realized that there was something unique that could intrigue the masses.

Khan's first taste of Orange Cassidy came in the preshow Casino Battle Royale, a match that served to introduce the audience to some of AEW's future stars, like MJF, Jungle Boy and "Hangman" Adam Page while giving a tryout on live pay-per-view to popular independent talent. Cassidy's involvement was short and sweet, but the little that he did drew a large reaction from the sold out MGM Grand.

"He clearly had a following, but he wasn't somebody, when we started, that I was really particularly aware of or had real big plans for," said Khan. "[After Double or Nothing,] I spent a lot of time with Orange Cassidy and got to know him a lot better, and also talked to him about ideas, and that opened a lot of doors for both of us. ... I had no idea what an intelligent person Orange Cassidy is, and he is very, very smart. And really, I had no idea how well-thought-out this all was."

"He's multitalented, he's a team player, he's tried to make other people look good as much as possible, and the most important thing above all else is his work is phenomenal. He's a great wrestler."

AEW bills itself as sports-based -- it keeps track of win-loss records and prides itself on hard-hitting, fast-paced action. Cassidy immediately stood out as he sauntered in to throw slow-motion kicks, using minimum effort wherever he went.

But Orange Cassidy is so much more than a few GIFs of light kicks or a half-hearted thumbs-up. When it's time to "go," Orange Cassidy is one of the most exciting in-ring performers in the world. His aerial attacks are breathtaking. His comebacks are perfectly timed. His energy, pent up from spending 90 percent of the time doing nothing, is unmatched. And when he does certain high-risk moves like a suicide dive without removing his hands from his jeans pockets, it somehow looks even more impressive.

Cassidy's success isn't just based on his in-ring performance. Before he ever had an official match in AEW, an inexplicable phenomenon began to grow. On a television show with former WWE champions Jon Moxley (FKA Dean Ambrose), Jake Hager (FKA Jack Swagger), and even Jericho, Orange Cassidy began to draw the loudest crowd reactions every week.

Fans started to show up to events dressed as Cassidy, children and adults alike. And as AEW crushed initial performance expectations with their audience as an upstart wrestling promotion, the first person to crossover into the mainstream and get their own TNT commercial wasn't any of the former WWE stars, or core AEW performers like Cody, Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks or Hangman Page.

It was Orange Cassidy.

"He's become, organically, a big merchandise mover, and he's been in some very high-rated television segments," said Khan. "It's not inaccurate at all to say that TNT loves him."

Orange Cassidy is becoming, by every definition -- crowd reception, entertainment value, and most importantly, converting fans into paying customers -- a pro wrestling megastar. And he's doing it the old-school way, by getting the absolute most out of the absolute least.

Despite this, he's still one of the most polarizing characters in the business, especially among wrestling's old guard. The older generation defined greatness by the same qualities Cassidy uses to get himself over. He does small things that get big reactions. He tells smart stories in the ring.

Lead AEW commentator Jim Ross, a veteran of decades in WWE and one of the sharpest minds in the history of wrestling, admitted on his "Grilling JR" podcast that it took some time to understand the act.

"I have to admit, when I first saw Orange Cassidy, my old-school self said, 'Well, that kid's never going to get over. That's too bad. He seems like a nice young man,'" Ross said. "I was wrong on Orange Cassidy. He's a fine guy. He's a good pro. And he's got a different act."

Ross was far from Cassidy's only doubter when he debuted in AEW. There are still old-school wrestling personalities who call Cassidy a "cosplay wrestler" (a slang term for someone who doesn't take wrestling seriously enough) and consider his act a disgrace to the business.

"I think the people that are still mad are the ones that still want to work with him and I guess further on out, us," Taylor said in response to critics. "If you're not willing to evolve, like, get out of the way."

That criticism will always be there for a character like Cassidy's, but Khan is fully supportive of the dynamic he brings to the ring.

"He earned a position," Khan said. "He started out in small roles, and he would knock it out of the park over-and-over-and-over again, and constantly over-index and outperform the amount of time or the position on the card we gave him."

Khan purposely held off on letting Orange Cassidy have his first singles match, knowing he had an ace in the hole when the time was right. While fans clamored to see Cassidy in the ring, Khan made them wait all the way up until AEW's Feb. 29 Revolution pay-per-view against PAC (FKA Neville). In the lead-in to the match, Best Friends warned PAC that while he might think of Cassidy as a joke, the joke was actually on PAC, because Orange Cassidy was going to try.

That line, and the reaction to it, would be a pivotal moment in Cassidy's career.

"The phrase, 'He's gonna try,' [it] was actually Tony [Khan] that said that to me," Taylor said. "He's like, 'People are gonna love it.' If nobody reacts to this, then they're never gonna let me talk again."

The line worked to perfection, leading to an entire arena in the chant "He's gonna try," and giving Cassidy fans a battle cry from that point forward.

"To see people care about what I'm doing is very surreal, because it's like, it only worked in front of 50 people," said Cassidy. "To hear giant crowds react to it, it's like I can't explain it."

In his debut at Revolution, announced only four days in advance, Orange Cassidy garnered the loudest crowd reactions of the night. He lost the match, but solidified himself as an in-ring marvel, a unique blend of speed, creativity and desperation. For those who followed his journey throughout the independents, the moment felt like a culmination of a decade of sticking to this character.

"We were out there ringside, and so many times during the match, especially when he started doing his comeback, I'm supposed to be reacting excited, but I'm so emotional about it for some reason," Beretta said. "I had to wipe tears from my eyes, because I was crying because my friend was getting such crazy reactions."

While watching Cassidy in the ring felt like a culmination for Best Friends, it represented a coronation for the wrestling world.

"He was probably already a star in many ways, but nobody knew in the big picture of AEW what an important person Orange Cassidy was for us," said Khan. "I definitely think that match at Revolution was very important, and that was something we were building up to for a really long time."

One singles match into his AEW career, Orange Cassidy began breaking through like nobody else in wrestling in 2020. He emerged as AEW's first homegrown crossover star into the mainstream, and was even booked to appear on Always Late with Katie Nolan.

Then, the pandemic hit and the fruits of a decade-and-a-half of hard work looked in serious jeopardy. The Always Late booking got canceled, the country began to lock down, and Orange Cassidy lost his most important tool: The live audience.

"Obviously, if there's no fans around, for me, it's a nightmare, and I hate it," Cassidy said. "But I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do."

AEW kept the show running without fans while most of the sports world stopped. For any wrestler, competing without fans makes the job incredibly difficult. For Orange Cassidy, arenas full of fans living and dying by every sloth-like kick he throws infuses each movement with energy and excitement.

"Unfortunately, so much of his character is based on, for anyone who's never seen it, the reaction he gets," Taylor explained. "Obviously at first it's confusion ... But then you hear the crowd reaction and you start to get it. So it's almost like, could it come at a worse time for him?"

Against the grain of his character, who never wants to wrestle, Cassidy continued to show up to AEW tapings, entertaining fans at home during a period where they desperately needed a distraction. In the aftermath of his match against Jericho, a loss only in the record books, Cassidy even had the chance to shower Jericho and his compatriots in a Carrie-esque shower of orange juice.

After "not trying" for so long, a little bit of effort and a lot of skill has carried Cassidy through another difficult moment in his career.

"It's challenging for him in some ways without the live audience, because his act interacts so well with live crowds, and I think that's where his wrestling skills have come to the forefront," said Khan. "It's been so great that he can go bell-to-bell and have a 20-minute classic with Jericho, where it's not comedy, it's just great wrestling, because the pandemic is really forcing people to show their skills."

Now, Orange Cassidy is an established main event player in AEW. He won over the die-hard fans by doing nothing. He won over the skeptics by trying. And now, he's won over the front office by going above and beyond outside of the ring in unprecedented times.

The ball has officially been given to Orange Cassidy.

Will he run with it? No, he says. "I'll walk."