Ever since it was announced in early 2016, fans around the globe have been excited for the WWE Cruiserweight Classic (CWC). Combining the power and machine of the WWE with the showcasing of some of the indie circuits top breakout stars – plus exposing a few unknowns – was almost too good to be true.
WWE had tried to capitalize on the cruiserweight buzz in the late 90’s after WCW’s own Cruiserweight division before, and with less than stellar success. Although their Light Heavyweight title featured a few decent matches, even after the unification with WCW’s Cruiserweight title following the Invasion angle, it failed to capture any of WCW’s glory. But when the first competitors were named, including recent NXT signees Rich Swann, Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, plus international stars like Akira Tozawa, Noam Dar and the UK’s current breakout sensation Zack Sabre Jr., it seemed that the WWE was finally taking the Cruiserweight scene – a scene that has taken over indie wrestling and effectively forced out the hardcore fad of the 90’s – seriously.
THE CRUISERWEIGHT DIVISION
Apart from the nWo, WCW’s biggest unique factor that helped build itself a fan base of “pure” wrestling fans was the Cruiserweight division. They, much like the WWE now, tried to bring in many of the world’s top stars to help attract a larger global audience. After all, it was trying to pull itself from the ashes of Southern America’s favourite hoss, the NWA. But they found that most of Japan and Mexico’s best unsigned talent were smaller wrestlers. They were students of the legendary Mexican skill set Lucha Libre. Also, due to the success of WWE’s smaller guys, like Bret “Hitman” Hart and Shawn Michaels; North Americans of a smaller stature were entering the workforce in larger numbers. Smaller wrestlers were seeing a legitimate opportunity to enter the world of the Big Boys.
WCW Light Heavyweights
In 1991, they introduced the WCW Light Heavyweight championship, just as the NWA was being rebranded as WCW. The first champion was the former NFL player who captivated the WCW audience with his high strung personality and his high octane ability – “Flyin'” Brian Pillman. It exploded, instantly creating a sub-story in WCW’s reality, that had it’s own Main Event, mid-card and enhancement brackets, where smaller more talented wrestlers of equal size (the weight limit was 215 lbs.) could better showcase their remarkable abilities against similar frames, rather than looking ridiculous or improbable when attempted on the usual 6’5″ muscle types. WCW’s Cruiserweight featured some of the top talent from Japan, Mexico and North American indies, guys who had been wrestling for up to a decade prior at the top level but were unable to crack the NWA or WWF due to their smaller size.
International Talent and Cruiserweight Belt
With WWE still hesitant to have too many smaller guys on their roster, WCW snapped them all up, even picking up wrestlers like Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio Jr. from ECW. In 1996, the WCW Light Heavyweight title was rebranded the WCW Cruiserweight title, with Japan’s Shinjiro Otani winning the inaugural belt in a tournament against Wild Pegasus (a young Chris Benoit). The list of WCW Cruiserweight champions is like a who’s who of some of the most exciting performers of the 1990’s and early 2000’s – apart from most of the aforementioned (only Benoit didn’t carry the belt), the list included Japanese legend Jushin Thunder Liger, Ultimo Dragon, X-Pac, Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis, Billy Kidman, Chris Candido and Lance Storm.
Every title match was a clinic in the ring and with reasonable proper storylines. The personalities were able to shine without going the “Giant Killer” route. Some of Jericho’s finest moments came from his time in the Cruiserweight division (his feud with Dean Malenko as the “Man of a 1004 Holds” is legendary). Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. also provided highlights (often while feuding with each other).
The Death of WCW
It’s no coincidence that WCW began to falter when they removed the individual reality of the Cruiserweight division and began integrating them into the big boys’ storylines – like Guerrero’s Latino World Order, Jericho vs. Goldberg, or Rey Mysterio’s original Giant Killer program – that WCW’s ratings began to plateau and taper. Suddenly the fan base that came more for the Cruiserweights than the Heavyweights left the show and helped build up ECW (and later helped popularize Chikara, PWG and Ring of Honor). By the time WCW was purchased by WWE and integrated with their Light Heavyweight championship, it had lost it’s lustre and WWE failed to realize what it was that made the Cruiserweight division the jewel in WCW’s Crown as King of Monday Night: it’s own reality.
An Alternative to the Big Boys
If the nWo was The Avengers film franchose, if Sting was Captain America, then the Cruiserweights were Netflix‘s Daredevil. They were smaller in mainstream recognition, but they worked better WITHIN the same Universe with it’s own rabid fan base (and to help boost the Big Guys numbers), but it needed to work away from the reality of them. No matter what happened, the Cruiserweights never interacted with the nWo or The Four Horsemen or Sting and vice versa. But they’d cross over in vignettes, sharing a common reality in the arena and working for WCW, but their storylines were independent. It was a mini-soap opera within a big one. It was brilliant, unique and one of the most progressive (but underappreciated) things WCW has done.
The WWF Light Heavyweight Division
And yes, you read that right. The WWE had their own Light Heavyweight division. Despite being inaugurated ten years earlier that WCW’s Cruiserweight title in 1981, it wasn’t even defended in North America until 1997 when WWE tried to imitate WCW’s success with limited results. The storylines overlapped more frequently and the talent base wasn’t nearly as strong (or international). When WWE won the Invasion angle after purchasing WCW, WWE simply renamed their title after WCW’s in hopes of capturing the buzz and carrying it on. Unfortunately, WCW had damaged the brand name long before it was sold to WWE, and WWE spent time trying to re-polish a turd in hopes that it would shine as bright as it was. But that steak wasn’t there anymore. It had been chewed up, swallowed, digested and excreted. You can polish up a turd, but in the end, it’s still a turd.
THE CRUISERWEIGHT CLASSIC
Over the past year, WWE has gone out of it’s way to acknowledge something that it hadn’t done since those days in the ’90’s. Admit that other promotions actually existed. For most of the 2000’s, WWE was it’s own panic roomed Universe, seemingly oblivious or part of an alternate universe where other promotions other than the WWE actually existed. What had worked so well in the 90’s – creating and prolonging the illusion that the industry itself was the central character in a kayfabe universe that had different TV shows (which oddly enough is actually the reality) – had been nixed altogether. With WCW and ECW gone from the narrative, WWE was the sole survivor.
Except they weren’t.
Following the end of the Monday Night Wars, other promotions began to pick up where ECW and WCW had left off. Primarily in becoming the primary avenue of the smaller, more athletic aerialists – the Cruiserweights. Ring of Honor, Chikara, PWG and TNA all built their rosters on wrestlers who were deemed too small for television, and in the process, drew back all the disgruntled WCW fans who had tuned in for that very reason.
Perhaps one of TNA’s biggest impacts (no pun intended) of their entire run was the advent of the X Division. The division was streamlined. The main idea was to showcase the emerging new aerial styles coming out of the indie circuit. The style was indeed unique, as these wrestlers – no longer with the option for WCW or ECW – were now taking more bookings in Japan and Mexico. The aerialist style they’d seen from the 90’s was now being merged with Japan’s Strong Style and Mexico’s Lucha Libre. This created moves and chains that resembled more aggressive ballet than a Mankind vs. The Rock match.
WWE’s Latest Generation
With the success of past indie stars like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins, it was apparent that WWE couldn’t ignore the talent that was being groomed in these independent promotions, nor could they ignore the fact that in order to make sure that the talent pool was continued, they would all need to survive. So in early 2016, WWE announced it would be airing a special event that would showcase 32 of the world’s best cruiserweights, called the CWC, and feature mostly stars not under contract with the WWE.
They also announced a partnership with former ROH founder Gabe Sapolsky‘s World Wrestling Network (WWN), who oversaw such promotions as Evolve and Shine. In essence, they became a subsidiary developmental and talent scout network. WWE could send Performance Center trainees there prior to NXT. It has a rich assortment of performers coming in from every promotion. WWN also features a solid scouting combine overseen by Sapolsky himself. And who better? Looking at a list of Superstars that were signed by Sapolsky in ROH prior to his leaving in 2008 shows a veritable list of Superstars who have all had huge runs in the WWE or are doing incredibly well in NXT – Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles, Cesaro, Sami Zayn, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens…clearly he has an eye for talent.
Making it Official
On June 13, WWE officially announced all 32 competitors on their website. This followed a series of Qualifying Matches held at indie promotions Evolve, Progress, Revolution Pro and American Combat Wrestling. Amongst the names included were Japanese Superstar Kota Ibushi; as well as former WWE Superstars Tajiri and THE Brian Kendrick. It also included indie notables Cedric Alexander, Mascara Dorada (renamed Gran Metalik), Drew Gulak, and Tony Nese.
The WWE followed that up on June 22 with the announcement that the tournament would be hosted by lead Smackdown announcer Mauro Ranallo and recently retired former WWE World Champion Daniel Bryan. If you’re going to push this tournament with any legitimacy, you’d be hard pressed to find two better announcers. Ranallo has won over the internet with his MMA and NJPW announce work. His refreshing passion and knowledge has revitalized Smackdown. And having perhaps the undisputed King of the Indies for the past 15 years, who also happens to be one of the most beloved WWE Superstars of the past five, Daniel Bryan, as co-host, will only help to keep casual fans glued to their sets as well.
According to the WWE’s press release from June 22, “the WWE Cruiserweight Classic will premiere Wednesday, July 13 at 9 PM ET exclusively on WWE Network. The 10-week tournament will air every Wednesday night and culminate with a live two-hour special on Wednesday, September 14… WWE Network will also air an exclusive Cruiserweight Classic special entitled CWC: Bracketology on Wednesday, July 6 at 9 PM ET.”
(Main Photo: WWE.com)