When you’re around pro wrestling fandom for a long time, you become familiar with various talking points that have, over the years, become groupthink. One, specifically, has bordered on self-parody at times: “Push the cruiserweights.”
In theory, the idea is that smaller wrestlers should be given a division unto themselves, and if they already have one, it should be treated with at least close to the level of respect that the heavyweight division gets. In the process, though, fans often fall too in love with the idea, to the point that heavyweight wrestling is treated as lesser, and bereft of quality performances. Hell, in the 1990s, what was the videotape that every hardcore fan recommended as a gateway to Japanese wrestling? NJPW’s Super J-Cup tournament. This created a scenario where the same fans became dismissive of the promotion’s heavyweights. “You don’t watch NJPW for the heavyweights” became a constant refrain, even though the main events featured incredibly talented and charismatic performers who were drawing the biggest crowds in wrestling at the time. Fans had learned the wrong lessons from WCW, where the cruiserweights were usually the in-ring highlight of each show: WCW’s heavyweight main events didn’t suck because they were heavyweight pro wrestling, they sucked because the main eventers were old, slow, and often unmotivated. But that kind of thinking resulted in terms like “cruiserweight” carrying a certain mystique with the genre’s biggest fans.
Case in point: A few years ago, when WWE was planning the launch of WWE Network, word started to get out that WWE had done a series of pilot tapings in front of college students in Florida that included an all-cruiserweight show. It never made air, but it had CRUISERWEIGHTS(!) and thus there wasn’t too much surprise when, in 2016, WWE announced the Cruiserweight Classic. A limited summer series chronicling a 32-man tournament, it ended with the revival of the Cruiserweight Championship, last held nine years earlier by Hornswoggle, Fit Finlay’s leprechaun mascot.
Aside from the inclusion of less talented wrestlers to get certain countries in the mix—they were quickly bounced in the first round, anyway—the event was about as un-WWE as possible. Some of the most talented independent wrestlers in the United States, like Drew Gulak, Cedric Alexander, and British expat Zack Sabre, Jr., were booked, as were Akira Tozawa and Kota Ibushi from Japan and Mascara Dorada from Mexico. After a largely uneventful first round, the tournament produced great TV for the remainder of its run, with excellent wrestling, strong production that was completely different from what WWE does on its other shows, and the best commentary of the year from the team of Mauro Ranallo and Daniel Bryan. On top of all that, the live special, with the semifinals and final was one of the best shows of the year.
But it was the beginning of the end.
The revived division got a permanent weekly show, 205 Live, named for the division’s (legitimately enforced) weight limit. Even though the show runs after SmackDown each week; even though the voices of the tournament, Ranallo and Bryan, were SmackDown announcers; and even though the tournament shows had a SmackDown feel, the division was placed on Raw. Worse, it was put out there cold, without much explanation of who these new guys were for those who hadn’t watched the past several weeks of streaming-only shows. The cruiserweight presence on Raw has been a mess since, and 205 Live isn’t much better, in part because the live audience consists of fans who were tired out by SmackDown. The result has been a tepid division, one that arguably doesn’t even reach the heights of the previous cruiserweight crop, where at least Rey Mysterio could headline SmackDown with title matches if he was in his hometown.
Where did this all go wrong? How has a vital part of WCW’s success during a prosperous time for pro wrestling in the 1990s always gotten lost in translation on the WWE side, anyway?
Unfortunately, it’s not that complicated.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: WWE has always sucked at utilizing smaller wrestlers, especially in their own division, and is the last company you should ever trust to do this right. It’s been a big man’s territory for its whole existence as a distinct brand, going back to Bruno Sammartino becoming the top star of what was then a northeast-based regional promotion in 1963. Sammartino was fed dragons to slay, and when the current Vince McMahon took over for his namesake father, he developed a distaste for wrestlers who were shorter than him. Former WWE executive Bruce Prichard noted on his podcast last year that when McMahon saw Eddie Guerrero in person for the first time, he was so shocked by the new hire’s stature that he even blurted out something to the effect of “HE’S SO TINY!”
In 1997, when WWE introduced its own light-heavyweight division as a counterpart to the WCW cruiserweight division, the mistakes were numerous from the outset. The “cruiserweight” name, which WCW was the first to use in pro wrestling and accomplished its goal without a diminutive adjective, was absent, but that was the least of their problems. The early light-heavyweight roster felt more like the results of someone having gone through a WWF Rolodex labelled “short dudes” than anything else, with those featured including second-generation musclehead Scott Putski, Memphis mainstay Brian Christopher, 1980s tag team legends Tommy Rogers and Bobby Fulton, long-time jobber Scott Taylor, and anonymous Canadian indie wrestler Eric Shelley. None of them wrestled a style remotely like what fans saw in WCW. Japan’s Taka Michinoku, one of the best young wrestlers in the business, became the inaugural champion, but was badly miscast as a babyface.
Yes, WCW did have much of the best talent either under contract or locked down via working agreements with international promotions, and the American independent scene was not exactly fertile ground yet. But it wasn’t as if WWE had no options, either; they just bungled them. Japan, which had numerous options outside of WCW sister promotion NJPW, was barely explored. Talent brought in from Mexico was either not yet polished enough (Mr. Aguila/Papi Chulo, the only luchador to come in full time) or not used to the best of their abilities (Super Crazy was brought in under a mask). When the best, smoothest wrestlers on the indie scene, like Christopher Daniels, did come in, they weren’t signed, instead being used as occasional cannon fodder for Taka on B-level shows.
Meanwhile, WCW in 1997 was the exact opposite. While Taka was either wrestling other light-heavyweights or being made to look inferior to the heavyweights, in WCW, there were points where all of the singles titles other than the world heavyweight title were held by cruiserweights. Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Alex Wright, and Ultimo Dragon all had opportunities with heavyweight belts, and others, like Syxx (later X-Pac) and Psicosis, were in line as contenders. Hell, Chris Benoit, who is historically remembered as a key link in the cruiserweight division, was never once booked in the weight class by WCW. He was a heavyweight, which did a bit to blur the lines so that nobody batted an eye at, say, Guerrero vs. Big Bubba Rogers.
WWE’s current cruiserweight division, by contrast, others the wrestlers to a comical degree. From the start, there were skits where the whole division took up a single cruiserweight locker room. They weren’t men; they weren’t women; they were just tiny. This helped give the distinct impression that these were not people the audience needed to care about. They didn’t dress with the big boys; they had to get changed among themselves like locals brought in as extras.
(It should go without saying that the cruiserweights have generally interacted among themselves and not branched out with other Raw roster members.)
Another production flourish “helped” make them stand out: To evoke the look of the Cruiserweight Classic, matches in the division would take place in a ring with purple ring ropes and a mat with cruiserweight-specific logos. To fans—especially ones watching live who saw the ring crew rushing to change the ropes and mat—this was a cue that something unimportant was about to happen.
The cruiserweights are not part of a whole. They exist in their own magical world. Maybe that could work, but there’s one other, very big problem: They don’t do anything especially interesting.
Look up and down the WWE roster, and answer this question: Who does the most spectacular shit? Is it A.J. Styles? Maybe Seth Rollins? Perhaps lovable shlub Kevin Owens? Cesaro is always a dark horse, and while they’ve aged, the Hardys are always flying around, too. Don’t forget that New Day and the Usos have some pretty flashy tag team matches on SmackDown, as well. And the women have lots of flash, with Charlotte’s moonsault to the floor being perhaps the most spectacular signature move in the company.
Past that, if a notable cruiserweight-sized wrestler shows up and picks up steam, WWE might even use him as a heavyweight, anyway. They did it with Daniel Bryan. They did it with Finn Balor. They even did it with Rey Mysterio!
Why do we need a cruiserweight division, again?
When the Cruiserweight Classic happened, one of the smartest things done in promoting it was to stress that being a cruiserweight wasn’t about high flying. Instead, the division was framed as similar to lighter weight classes in boxing and MMA: It would feature great athletes with lots of speed and technical precision who could excel at multiple styles. Zack Sabre, Jr. and Jack Gallagher brought their twists on the old-school grappling-heavy British style, and American Drew Gulak was similar. Gran Metalik (the former Mascara Dorada) is a high flyer, but has a more traditional lucha libre flavor. Kota Ibushi had flashy karate kicks and power moves to compliment his flying. And T.J. Perkins? Well, he could literally do everything.
It was a great way to separate the cruiserweights from the very flashy modern WWE style, but it got a bit … complicated. Sabre and Ibushi, the biggest standouts in the tournament, didn’t sign contracts, which resulted in Perkins, who doesn’t quite have the charisma to pull off being the top guy, getting the title. The cruiserweights were soon tiered into those who were in the title picture and got storylines and those who just floated around. Gulak and Metalik were quickly rendered non-entities, with Metalik not even being used on 205 Live, while Gallagher, whom fans actually responded to, was made too much of a comedy wrestler to be used in the top mix with any regularity. So in the championship picture with Perkins were guys like the middle-aged Brian Kendrick, working a very generic WWE style, and Rich Swann, a talented wrestler but one without the unique qualities needed to stand out. Incumbent WWE star Neville returning from an injury to become heel champion was a breath of fresh air, but he and eventual rivals like Austin Aries, a veteran drafted from NXT, were not doing anything you wouldn’t see outside of the division.
It’s now obvious what WWE was doing with the Cruiserweight Classic and subsequent hirings for the new division: It was never about having “cruiserweights,” per se. Instead, the goal was to bring in buzzworthy indie and international talent as well as prospects for developing international markets, and because most of those guys happen to be small, the way to tie it all together was to make them “cruiserweights” in a “cruiserweight” tournament. When the theoretical top stars and most unique talents in the tournament didn’t sign contracts, the whole thing came screeching to a halt.
By the way, where are Sabre and Ibushi, the aforementioned lost top WWE cruiserweight stars, anyway? They’re on tour with NJPW in another tournament, the annual G1 Climax. As heavyweights.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.