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‘The Tiny People’: A look at WWE’s fledgling cruiserweight division

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During the height of the Monday Night Wars, Raw and Nitro regularly pulled out all the stops to ensure ratings supremacy. It wasn’t just a matter of booking a hot opening and teasing a must-see main-event, both Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff poured over the ratings, analyzing their respective shows with a fine-toothed comb to determine exactly what didn’t work, what did, and where the best place would be to feature each popular act. The two companies didn’t just look at the final ratings tally, they examined quarter-hour breakdowns, and even segment by segment ratings ebbs and flows, looking for any edge over their competitor. Like a pro football coach desperate to find any advantage over next week’s opponent, if there was something they had they could exploit, they would.

It’s remarkable how much the product has changed in the past twenty years. Today, Raw is much more slowly-paced. Once upon a time there was a sense of urgency that drove the program. It existed during the desperate days of 1997 (when the storytelling was getting better every week but Nitro was still crushing them) and the monster days of 2000 (when Raw was the most must-see show in all of television every Monday Night, football or no, and Nitro was little more than a three hour fiasco every week). But back in the day, during that tiny little sliver of time when both Monday Night wrestling shows were must-see, both the WWF and WCW were willing to do and try anything to get ahead.

Dragon Mysterio WW3 96

One thing that Monday Nitro had over its WWF rival was more variety in its matches. At the top of the card you had the big names that drove the viewers to stay for the final segment: Hogan, Nash, Goldberg, Savage, Flair. But those names were mostly older and were losing their appeal with younger fans; it didn’t help that they were pushed over the younger talent that many fans were taking a liking to (Jericho, Guerrero, Benoit, Kidman, Disco Inferno). I think most would agree that the WWF in the mid-to-late-90’s offered a better roster from top to bottom, but what the WWF didn’t have was Nitro’s cruiserweight division.

Unlike the WWF and today’s WWE, wrestlers in WCW were mostly free to work their own style in their own way, and received little to no input from higher-ups. That’s mostly because those higher-ups booked and built the show as a “TV show” first and foremost, whereas Vince booked Raw as a “wrestling show” (albeit with his “sports entertainment” style). No one in WCW cared if you were a lucha libre talent from Mexico City or a mat-based technical wrestler from Saskatchewan, as long as you knew what you were doing, they’d send you out there. Because of that freedom, the cruiserweight division, which frequently dominated the opening hour of Nitro, gave WCW an edge over the WWF.

Of course the difference in style between the old school main-eventers and the high-flying cruiserweights contributed to the division’s popularity. You didn’t see Hollywood Hogan hitting so much as a crossbody, much less a summersault plancha. But if you tuned into the first hour of Nitro you were likely to see something special between Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko.

It was also the case that, since no one in WCW’s front office (if there even was one in that kangaroo establishment) cared about anything other than the main-event superstars, the cruiserweights often had more freedom to develop their stories and tell them in their own way. That’s not something you have in Vince McMahon’s world; even talents he trusts still run their ideas through his filter and hardly anything is put on screen that he hasn’t “okay’d.” One of the best stories in the history of Nitro cruiserweights was the long-running feud between Dean Malenko and Chris Jericho. Despite having all the talent in the world, Malenko was pretty famously stiff as a board when it came to on-screen personality. Yet Malenko’s chemistry with Jericho (who, from second-one in his career, has been golden on the mic) helped him blossom into a beloved babyface. Malenko’s surprise return at Slamboree 1998 brought an ovation from the crowd louder than has probably ever been heard before in a WWF/E show for any cruiserweight match ever.

The WWF tried to replicate Nitro’s success by introducing the “Light Heavyweight Championship” in late 1997, but it was clear from the outset that no one in WWF (and really, it’s an audience of one anyway) really believed in the venture. The title danced around on Sunday Night Heat and the occasional throwaway Raw segment, but little ever came of it before it was retired. By then Raw was blowing away Nitro and WCW was soon to be sold to Vince for less than a pair of his shoes, so there wasn’t really a need to keep trying.

During the invasion era, the WCW cruiserweights competed against WWF’s light-heavyweights (though by then that designation was all but dead) and eventually the two championships merged into one “WWE Cruiserweight Title.” Soon after it was added to the SmackDown brand as an exclusive championship. There, on the show Vince paid less attention to, the division blossomed. Superstars like The Hurricane and Tajiri carried the torch early on, and later Matt Hardy and Rey Mysterio made it an integral part of Thursday nights.

By The Badder in the World - originally posted to Flickr as Hornswoggle, CC BY-SA 2.0

But, as with most things in WWE, it was only a matter of time before it grew stale, and in its final days it was little more than a prop carried around by Hornswoggle. It’s not like there wasn’t still potential in the division; there was still a wide disconnect between the kinds of matches the main-event talent were having and what was being done by the cruisers, but that wide gap was closing fast.

Main-event guys, many of whom either came from the cruiserweight ranks (Edge) or who were freaks of nature with remarkable God-given athletic ability (Angle, Lesnar) were taking bigger and bigger risks in the ring, while at the same time many cruiserweights were being encouraged to tone down the crazy to prolong their career and ensure they didn’t hurt themselves on a throwaway TV match of little importance.

Around the same time, over in TNA, the so-called “X-Divison” had offered a new spin on the formula, by making its division not about size and weight, but about the athleticism on display. During the flash of time where TNA was almost relevant, the X-Divison was the best reason to watch, as guys smaller guys like Chris Sabin and AJ Styles and even bigger talents like Samoa Joe put on match of the year contenders repeatedly. The feuds had developed-storylines with stakes and implications and the matches pushed the limits of what you would have thought possible in a ring. As with everything in TNA, the failure in leadership eventually doomed it, but the recipe was there for how to have success in the modern wrestling world where almost everyone can bust out a high-flying move.

For years, WWE’s smaller talents were either paired up into tag teams, pushed as mid-card talents, or worse, treated as jobbers for main-event superstars. Then came the WWE Network and the need to attract subscribers. Last year’s “Cruiserweight Classic” tournament was designed to appeal to the hardcore element of the fanbase who remembered the glory days of Nitro and longed for the fast-paced action of days gone by. After the tournament’s success, the WWE relaunched the cruiserweight division and even started a new show to highlight them—205Live— as well as a weekly segment or two on Monday Night Raw. With incredible talents like Noam Dar, big personalities like Jack Gallagher, and a true superstar to build the brand around like Neville, WWE’s latest attempt to make a cruiserweight division work looks like their best effort yet.

So why is the division on life support?

Why is it the fans largely sit on their hands? Why is it the appearance of those purple ropes (or, lately, the purple lighting) the pavlov’s dog cue for the audience to hit the concession stand? How did a division whose sole existence is built around the word “exciting” become the next generation “WWE Divas/bathroom break” segment every week? Most importantly, what can WWE do to fix it?

For one thing, the WWE is going to have to relax their policy about what their performers are allowed to do in the ring. It’s understandable that they don’t want to be responsible for someone’s broken neck, but in all the episodes of Nitro where Psicosis and Rey Mysterio and others would go balls to the wall, how many times did someone snap their arm in two? People got hurt, sure, just like it happens today; it’s a dangerous job, but that’s why they’re pros. Turn them loose and let them go. Let them work whatever style they are comforable with, because no one it’s bad enough watching a couple 300lb guys play armbar and headlock in the opening ten minutes of a match, no one wants to the the cruisers do it too.

Another problem is that there’s nothing that stands out about the actual performers. Yes, they can do some amazing things from time to time, but they’re not given the on-screen time outside of the ring to develop into characters fans care about. At best they are two-dimensional caricatures, and many aren’t even that. As a result, the casual fan mostly sees them as “just spot-monkeys.” And since most of the main-event talent (who fans have spent time getting to know and caring about) can do many of the same crazy moves, it makes the presence of the cruisers redundant.

Not only is the brand under-developed, it’s also over-exposed and stupidly-managed. Why have a show dedicated to the division if you’re going to show them on Raw anyway, and usually in such a brain-dead and pointless segment that it drags down the whole division as a result? Why force the cruiserweight talent to film their segment or two every Monday night and then travel with SmackDown’s crew the next day to film 205Live after the blue show ends? Why not just add the cruiserweight division to SmackDown and leave them off of Raw entirely (where they’re never given a fair shake by “creative” or fans anyway)?

Or better yet, why not take the entire third hour of Raw (which is always the least-watched anyway) and convert it into 205Live. One of the biggest problems with Raw these days is how slow everything is and how much the show spins its wheels because there’s simply more hours of film to get through than there is story to tell. Why not bring the show back to two hours and make it a faster-paced program like SmackDown usually is? If USA wants a three-hour wrestling show they can have it: Raw for two hours, then 205Live after that.

Right now the most exciting thing that has ever happened to the revived cruiserweight division has been the addition of Enzo Amore, a guy whose personality is as remarkable as his in-ring talent is not. Enzo has been a spark, but it’s more of a flash than a fire. As with many things in today’s WWE there are big structural changes that are needed if the division is going to survive and thrive. Hopefully this time the powers that be will work to help it reach its potential.

As always, I’m Matthew Martin: I love WWE but everything sucks and I’m never watching it again.

See you next Monday.

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