They may have been last to the dance in the promotion of the indie style of wrestling, but WWE has been helping to showcase it on a global scale of late, first with the creation of NXT and the introduction of such indie Superstars as Finn Balor, AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, Kalisto, Hideo Itami and many more into the WWE Universe. Following the steamrolling momentum and growth of the “developmental” brand, it was followed earlier this year with the announcement of the Global Cruiserweight Series, a 32-man tournament featuring indie stars from around the world, mixed with some of their own NXT talent. After a strong buzz on social media, the GCS was followed by the rumblings that Stephanie McMahon was going to start a Women’s indie tournament, and that the Dusty Rhodes Classic in NXT would be restructured as a global indie tag team tournament. In a move that would indicate at least the latter is true, the GCS was renamed the WWE Cruiserweight Classic, which would make sense in aligning the tournaments with a brand identity.
With the latest of three indie promotion qualifying matches completed this weekend, with three in London, England – one pair held at Progress 29 and a single match at Revolution Pro – and the other pair in Queens, New York at EVOLVE 61, the WWE Cruiserweight Classic now has it’s first eleven entrants unveiled. And so far, it’s definitely lived up to it’s original “Global” namesake, featuring a solid international cast of wrestlers.
USA, 5’8”, 165 lbs., 25 yrs old
Baltimore’s Rich Swann was one of the indie circuits most incredible aerialists, starting out in Combat Zone Wrestling in 2009. Successful stints in Dragon Gate USA, Chikara, EVOLVE, Full Impact Pro, Germany’s wXw and California’s Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG) created a solid buzz around Swann. He even found tag team success in Britain alongside Ricochet/Prince Puma. Legend has it that rapper Wales was a huge fan and tweeted that both Swann and Uhaa Nation (now Apollo Crews) were the future of wrestling. This was seen by WWE Superstar Mark Henry, who helped secure Swann a WWE tryout in late 2014. A year later, he was signed to NXT, making his on TV debut back in January. Still primarily an enhancement talent (although he lost to Finn Balor and Baron Corbin), this tournament will be an essential proving ground for Swann to the WWE Universe.
Notable titles: DGUSA King of the Gate (2013), FIP Tag (w/ Roderick Strong), FIP World Heavyweight x2, RevPro British Tag (w/ Ricochet)
USA, 5’10”, 190 lbs., 28 yrs old
“Johnny Wrestling” has had a solid mid-card rise in NXT since he debuted alongside Tommaso Ciampa last year. Another Ohio star in the making for WWE (following Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler and The Miz), Cleveland’s Gargano debuted in 2005 with his hometown promotion Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW) as well as Pro Wrestling Ohio. In 2008, he hit Chikara, followed by solid runs in Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE (where he still wrestles), and a Tag Team run in PWG with Chikara running mate Chuck Taylor. He began as enhancement initially in NXT, but the past few months have seen Gargano emerge as a contender, beginning with his victory over “The Drifter” Elias Sampson in March. He’s already got the crowd behind him with the chants, so this is a huge opportunity for Gargano to expand his brand in NXT.
Notable titles: AIW Absolute Championship, Chikara Campeonatos de Parejas (w/ Chuck Taylor) x2, EVOLVE Tag (w/ Drew Galloway), PWO Heavyweight x3
USA, 5’11”, 210 lbs., 31 yrs old
Boston’s Ciampa was trained by WWE Hall of Famer Killer Kowalski, debuting in 2005 in Massachusetts indies Chaotic Wrestling and Top Rope Promotions. He spent a year in WWE developmental before, down in Ohio Valley Wrestling, before returning to the indie circuit in 2007. He blossomed when he went to Ring of Honor in 2011 and spent four years with ROH, winning the ROH World Television title before losing it to Jay Lethal in an outstanding feud series. He left ROH in 2015 and developed a more comedic style to his wrestling (YouTube Ciampa’s “thumbs” spot), but continued to exercise great technical wrestling. He was a star in PWG and ECWA as well, before a successful debut in NXT later in the year. This is Ciampa’s second attempt in WWE developmental, but he’s learned so much since 2007 that he’ll be a hungry man hoping to impress with this tournament.
Notable titles: Chaotic Heavyweight, ROH World Television
Scotland, 5’10”, 185 lbs., 22 yrs old
Though he’s only 22, he’s already a ring veteran of 7 years, starting out in the UK indies at the age of fifteen. He was barely out of puberty by the time he was wrestling for Dragon Gate in Europe and Zero1. He became a star in his home country with Glasgow’s Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW), as well as Progress, where he beat Josh Bodom in a WWE Cruiserweight Classic qualifying match in last week. He had tryouts with TNA in 2014 and 2015 but never managed to click, but now that he’s on the WWE radar and about to showcased to the world on the WWE Network, expect this gifted technical youngster to pull out the stops on a grander platform.
Notable titles: ICW Zero-G Championship x2, Preston City Cruiserweight
Japan, 5’7”, 205 lbs., 30 yrs old
One of the oldest wrestlers in the tournament, Tozawa continues the WWE’s recent Japanese influx, following Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka and Hideo Itami. The third graduate of Ultimo Dragon‘s Dragon Gate dojo, Tozawa was a mainstay for the Japanese promotion for five years, before heading to the United States in 2010 for a one year tour. He first debuted with Dragon Gate’s sister company, Dragon Gate USA, and then exploded following appearances in Chikara’s Young Lions Cup and PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles in the same year. During his time in PWG, he was part of a tag team with WWE Superstar Kevin Owens, known as the Nightmare Violence Connection, scoring huge upset wins over the Briscoe Brothers and the Kings of Wrestling (then ROH World Tag champions). He returned home to Dragon Gate in Japan where he’s remained loyal to this day – where he’s currently the Open the Triangle Gate Trios champion – with brief appearances still in PWG. He was one in the first round of names announced when the WWE Cruiserweight Classic revealed the first wave of entrants.
Notable titles: DG Open the Brave Gate (under 83kg), Open the Owarai Gate, Open the Triangle Gate (Trios) x2 (current), Open the Twin Gate Championship (tag) x3
Ho Ho Lun
Hong Kong, 5’10”, 162 lbs., 28 yrs old
Probably one of the least known entrants in the tournament (so far), is Hong Kong’s Ho Ho Lun. He’s wrestled for various indies from regional Hong Kong to 4FW in the UK, plus stints on tours with Zero1 in Japan, as well as regional promotions in China and Singapore. A flamboyant and quick grappler, he was also one of the first names announced for the tournament.
Puerto Rico, 5’7”, 170 lbs., 28 yrs old
A Luchadore from Puerto Rico, Dorado was trained in Mexico by three-time CMLL World Welterweight champion El Pantera in 2007, debuting in Chikara alongside his mentor in the 2007 King of Trios tournament. He became a mainstay in Chikara for nearly five years, before leaving in 2011 to work in the Florida indie circuit, including Dragon Gate USA. He had a couple unsuccessful tryouts with TNA in 2012 and 2013, but he’s expected to tackle the Lucha Libre fanbase with his addition to the WWE Cruiserweight Classic.
Notable titles: Dreamwave Alternative, FIP Florida Heritage, NWA Florida Underground Flash x2, SCW Florida Cruiserweight, SCW Florida Heavyweight
Zack Sabre Jr.
England, 6’0”, 185 lbs., 28 yrs old
Perhaps one of the favourites to win the entire tournament, Sabre Jr. is arguably one of the top independent wrestlers in the world, who is likely to be the face of NXT in 2017. WWE has been very interested in Sabre for a while now – he was perhaps the first indie wrestler to ever get profiled on WWE’s website when he was featured in a piece after WWE announced their involvement with Gabe Sapolsky‘s EVOLVE. A Superstar in the UK whose indie popularity is comparable if not greater than UK predecessor’s Finn Balor (as Prince Devitt) and Neville (as PAC) where in their local days, he debuted in 2005 – at the age of 17 – with NWA UK Hammersmith before starting a lengthy partnership with International Pro Wrestling UK a year later. Since then he’s caused waves with his athleticism and technical style, appearing in Japan with Pro Wrestling NOAH, Germany with wXw, the USA with PWG (where he’s the current PWG World champion and the reigning 2015 Battle of Los Angeles winner), and elsewhere in the UK with Progress and Revolution Pro. He’s recently committed to more time in EVOLVE, which has many speculating it’s to learn more of the North American style before being brought in to NXT. In the meantime, he continues to wrestle all the greats in wrestling, including a recent match against AJ Styles and an upcoming June match vs. Kurt Angle, following great matches versus Daniel Bryan, Finn Balor, Sami Zayn, Adam Cole, Will Ospreay, Pentagon Jr., Richochet…yes, this guy is a Superstar in the making. He cemented his entry into the tournament with recent qualifying match victory at Progress 29 over “Flash” Morgan Webster.
Notable titles: IPW Unified Tag x2 (w/ Marty Scurll), PWG World champ (current), PWG Battle of Los Angeles (2015), GHC (NOAH) Jnr. Heavyweight Tag x2 (w/ Yoshinari Ogawa), RevPro British Heavyweight (current), wXw World champion, wXw World Lightweight, wXw World Tag, Wrestling Observer Newsletter Bryan Danielson Award x2 (2014, 2015)
England, 5’8”, 190 lbs., 26 yrs old
Trained out of UK indie promotion Futureshock, he debuted in 2006 at sixteen years old as Jack Toxic. He spent seven years in British indies, from Futureshock to Grand Pro Wrestling, before travelling to Japan as Jack Anthony, where he still wrestles for Pro Wrestling NOAH. Wrestling under as Jack Gallagher most elsewhere in 2010, he qualified for the WWE Cruiserweight Classic last month at a qualifying match held at Progress 29 in London, England.
Notable titles: FSW Champion x2, FSW Tag, GPW British Champion
USA, 6’0”, 200 lbs., 29 yrs old
A product of the 2004 merger of the CZW Wrestling Academy and Chikara Wrestle Factory, Gulak was trained by Mike Quackenbush and Chris Hero before debuting in Combat Zone Wrestling later that year. Gulak had a stunning 429 day reign as CZW Wired TV Champion starting in 2010, defeating the such names as CZW icon Nick Gage, and fellow Cruiserweight Classic participants Zack Sabre Jr. and Rich Swann. Although still a regular with CZW, he’s also made a name with his appearances for Dragon Gate USA, EVOLVE, PWG and Chikara. Gulak was one of the most recent announcements, after defeating his current tag team championship partner Tracy Williams in a qualifying match at EVOLVE 61 in Queens, New York this weekend.
Notable titles: CZW World champion, CZW World Tag Team x2 (w/ Andy Sumner), CZW Wired TV, EVOLVE Tag (current) w/ Tracy Williams
USA, 5’10”, 200 lbs., 31 yrs old
Arguably one of the more well known names in the tournament, although perhaps not as TJP. The oldest competitor in the tournament so far, Perkins began wrestling at 13, trained in Lucha Libre in his hometown of Los Angeles. He wrestled in local promotions as before training at NJPW‘s LA dojo, in a class that featured Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan), Roppongi Vice‘s Rocky Romero and Lucha Underground‘s Ricky Reyes. He still holds the NJPW record for youngest non-Japanese born wrestler to compete for the promotion. He’s made a name for himself in Mexico in CMLL, as well as over a decade of work with PWG, and nearly ten years of appearances in Ring of Honor. In 2013, he joined TNA and took over the masked character Suicide (taking over from past incarnations that included Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian and Austin Aries). After a couple months, he changed his name to Manik and in late 2014 joined “Cowboy” James Storm‘s faction, The Revolution. He was released from TNA in January of this year and has since returned to the indies, where he also won a qualifying match at EVOLVE 61, beating Fred Yehi. Perkins has an advantage in years, and this is a great opportunity for him to take his craft to a wider audience.
There’s still 21 more competitors yet to be named by the WWE for this tournament, although most speculate that 33-year old NJPW veteran Kota Ibushi being shown at NXT: Takeover Dallas was the WWE’s way of subtly hinting that he’s going to be coming in after his recent series with EVOLVE and his participation in the upcoming Kaiju Big Battel. If he’s announced, he’s surely to be one of the names along with Sabre Jr. to be favoured to win it and possibly head to NXT. Ring of Honor’s Cedric Alexander has been working per appearance of late and following a recent WWE tryout, some are reporting that it was actually an audition for this very tournament. And these same reports suggest that 26-year old from Charlotte, North Carolina impressed them enough to earn a spot. He’s got the swagger and bravado that should translate well in the WWE Universe and this could be a great opportunity to wiggle into NXT. Two of the other rumoured combatants – Ricochet/Prince Puma and King Cuerno – have both been disproved recently (or have they?), but there’s still an outstanding amount of talent out there to choose from, despite the weight class limitations.
And with the possibility of a women’s and tag team indie tournament in the think tank stages, here’s hoping the WWE Cruiserweight Classic is a success to guarantee them moving beyond that realm. You may be late to the dance, WWE, but you’re sure making up for lost time.