Young Lion Kings: Johnny Gargano and Cesaro Bringing CHIKARA Roots to SmackDown Live

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Johnny Gargano vs Cesaro
Credit: WWE

Over the weekend it was announced that following the newly reunited #DIY‘s (Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa) victory over The Bar (Sheamus and Cesaro) on their SmackDown Live debuts, that Gargano and Cesaro would face off in a singles match with Ciampa and Sheamus in their respective corners.

As is often the case when NXT stars move from the black-and-yellow brand to the main roster, dream matches abound, both in the first time in WWE and first-time ever varieties. And while Gargano and Cesaro both rose through somewhat similar indie wrestling paths, both wrestling for several of the same companies at the same time, prior to last week’s tag team match, they had only met once in the ring. In the hallowed grounds of CHIKARA, the two wrestled alongside 28 other men and women, including Delirious, Eddie Kingston, Brodie Lee (WWE’s Harper), Colin Delaney, Sara Del Rey (WWE’s Sara Amato), Shane Matthews, Soldier Ant (WWE’s Drew Gulak) and more. The 30 Man Royal Rumble as it was called, was won by Gargano and both he and Cesaro, then Claudio Castagnoli, reached the final four.

While these two did share a ring for the rumble, it wasn’t until the February 19th edition of SmackDown Live that fans really got to see these two work one on one with each other early on in the Bar’s match with #DIY. As one may have expected, the second these two locked up, it was pure magic. While Ciampa and Sheamus kicked off the match, just a few minutes in, Cesaro made the tag and demanded Ciampa do the same. The two technicians quickly went to work with Cesaro showing off his athleticism and finesse, reminding anyone watching just how good he is in the ring. This is especially the case when he’s in the ring with someone equally as talented such as the case with Gargano. While Sheamus also worked Gargano and Ciampa worked Cesaro, the match was primarily focused on Gargano and Cesaro’s interactions. Ciampa ultimately got the pin on Cesaro at the end of the near 17-minute match, but fans were left wanting more.

Trained initially by fellow Swiss wrestler, SigMasta Rappo, the 38-year-old Cesaro began his wrestling career 18+ years ago when he made a Christmas Eve debut for Germany’s Westside Xtreme Wrestling. Cesaro received further training from Dave Taylor in England and wrestled primarily in Europe for the next two years, winning his first career championship in 2001 alongside Ares as the tag team Swiss Money Holding. While wrestling for his native Switzerland in the Swiss Wrestling Federation, Cesaro was introduced to Chris Hero (WWE’s Kassius Ohno) and Mike Quackenbush, who personally invited himself and Ares to wrestle in the U.S. For two years, while under the tutelage of Hero, Cesaro and Ares wrestled for IWA: Mid South and CHIKARA. In 2004, Cesaro applied for and was granted fulltime residency in the U.S., at which point he began to wrestle regularly for IWA: MS, CHIKARA, Combat Zone Wrestling, International Wrestling Cartel, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Ring of Honor.

After winning the wXw tag team titles thrice, the SWF Powerhouse Championship twice, the German Stampede Wrestling tag team titles once and the wXw World Heavyweight Championship twice, in 2006, Cesaro won his first title in the U.S., when his tag team with Chris Hero, the Kings of Wrestling, defeated Tough Crazy Bastards (Necro Butcher and Toby Klein) to win the CZW Tag Team Championship. The Kings of Wrestling would go on to win six tag team titles in all, including two reigns in CZW, two reigns in ROH and one each in Juggalo Championship Wrestling and CHIKARA, where the team also won the Tag World Grand Prix in 2006 (Cesaro also won the grand prix the year prior with Arik Cannon). By the mid-2000s, the duo was synonymous with each other and the Kings of Wrestling were one of the most well-known teams on the indies. In addition to the U.S., the two traveled to Japan together in 2008 for an excursion at Pro Wrestling NOAH, competing against the likes of KENTA (FKA WWE’s Hideo Itami), Taiji Ishimori, Jun Akiyama, Naomichi Marufuji, Takeshi Morishima and Mitsuharu Misawa. It was their first of four years in a row of wrestling for NOAH, which included taking part in the Global Tag League twice and competing for the GHC tag team titles.

By this point, WWE had become well aware of who Cesaro was and had shown interest on multiple occasions. After a successful 12-year career in independent wrestling, complete with 19 titles including the PWG World Championship, which he held for 287 days, Cesaro signed a developmental contract with WWE and began working in Florida Championship Wrestling. In FCW, Cesaro went on a four-month singles winning streak, later receiving opportunities for the FCW 15 Championship, Florida Tag Team Championship and took part in a tournament to crown a #1 contender to the Florida Heavyweight Championship. Cesaro’s time in FCW was short-lived as less than a year after his debut, he was promoted to the main roster as a member of SmackDown.

That was in 2012, the same year that Gargano was in the midst of the peak of his wrestling career, which had begun seven years prior, in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The 31-year-old former NXT North American Champion spent his first two years on the scene primarily wrestling for Cleveland All Pro Wrestling, where he first got his training at their school and where he won his first title in 2007 as their junior heavyweight champion. A year prior, Cesaro had also won a title in CAPW, when he defeated Adam Cage to win the Unified Heavyweight Championship. In those first few years, Gargano also wrestled for Absolute Intense Wrestling, where is a two-time Intense Champion and one-time Absolute Champion, a title he held for 364 days, the second longest in history.

In 2007, under the name, Cedric von Haussen, Gargano made his WWE debut as a local enhancement talent. It was the same year he began wrestling for IWC, where he is a former Super Indy and tag team champion. Both he and Cesaro worked for IWC in 2007 where they shared the same show card once, for Revengeance 4. A year later, they shared the same show card once more in ROH at Age of Insanity, where Gargano wrestled the first and only Ring of Honor match in his career. As Cesaro was establishing himself as a regular on the East Coast, Gargano was doing the same in the Midwest. But their paths did cross on several more occasions, all of which came in CHIKARA.

Gargano made his CHIKARA debut in 2008 much like Cesaro did five years prior, as part of a tournament. Only it was a singles tournament, CHIKARA’s most well known, the Young Lions Cup. Gargano lost his first match but returned in 2010 as a regular, taking part in another Young Lions Cup and the King of Trios tournament, which was won that year by Cesaro, Ares and Tursas. As Gargano’s trio lost in the first round, the two never faced each other. Their first in-ring meeting didn’t come until later that year in the rumble. Both Cesaro and Gargano wrestled significantly in CHIKARA in 2010 with Cesaro taking part in 19 matches and Gargano 10. They shared cards at Faded Scars and Lines, Young Lions Cup VIII – Tag 3, Eye to Eye, Through the Savage Progress Cuts the Jungle Line, The Dark Ciberknetico and Terror in the Neighborhood.

As Cesaro made his way to WWE in 2012, Gargano continued to wrestle for CHIKARA where alongside Chuck Taylor as Team FIST, he is a two-time Campeonatos de Parejas Champion. He had also begun to wrestle two years prior, for EVOLVE, and three years prior for Dragon Gate USA, (where he is a one-time Open the United Gate Champion alongside Rich Swann, and a two-time, including the longest reigning Open the Freedom Gate Champion at 873 days) both promotions that are among the ones he is most known for during his run in the independent circuit.

Gargano began wrestling for EVOLVE a year after it was founded, becoming one of the promotion’s most notable alumni and really helping to put it on the map. Alongside Drew Galloway (WWE’s Drew McIntyre), he is a former tag team champion and has taken part in several marquee feuds including against Chuck Taylor, which headlined EVOLVE 9, AR Fox which headlined EVOLVE 13, Sami Callihan which headlined EVOLVE 18, Samuray del Sol (WWE’s Kalisto) which headlined EVOLVE 22, Uhaa Nation (WWE’s Apollo Crews) which headlined EVOLVE 27 and Rich Swann which headlined EVOLVE 33. Gargano was even celebrated with an EVOLVE iPPV and mini-doc, both entitled A Farewell to An Icon,” in his last match with the company before departing for NXT full-time.

By 2016, both Gargano and Cesaro were in WWE, but they were representing different brands. His fifth year with the company, Cesaro was a main roster mainstay, having claimed his first tag team championship alongside Tyson Kidd and his only United States Championship, his first title with the company.

Gargano meanwhile had joined forces with Ciampa, where the two etched their names into the NXT history books thanks to their classic feud with the Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder). With both Gargano and Ciampa’s independent commitments completed, the two were thrust into the tag title picture, winning the titles, their first and only with the promotion, in 2016. It just so happened that a month after #DIY’s win, that Cesaro had found a new and unlikely partnership with Sheamus yielding huge dividends. Known as the Bar, the two won their first of six tag team titles (5x Raw, one-time SmackDown) to close out 2016.

Entering the new year in 2017, both Gargano and Cesaro were tag team champions in their first reigns with their current partners. A month later, both lost the titles, doing so a day apart from the other at TakeOver: San Antonio and the Royal Rumble respectively. The Bar recaptured their titles that summer, but Gargano’s path went a little differently as 15 days prior to Sheamus and Cesaro’s second tag title victory, Ciampa turned on his partner, setting into motion perhaps the greatest feud in NXT history.

But now, sensing the great opportunity put in front of them, Ciampa and Gargano have teamed back up, prepared to own WWE the way they did NXT. And after defeating the Revival in their only match so far on Raw, it would seem their first real feud will be against the Bar.

Gargano vs Cesaro is sure to ignite SmackDown and the Bar vs #DIY is a feud worthy of a spot on Fastlane‘s PPV card. And knowing Cesaro and Gargano, two incredibly talented wrestlers whose paths never quite intersected, give them ample time, and alongside Sheamus and Ciampa, they will be sure to put on what could easily be Fastlane’s match of the night. But first, singles action, between two guys who alone always provide a good match, but together will put on something magical.

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