Tonight’s Raw may not shake the wrestling world to its core, but it will likely alter the future significantly. The Cruiserweight division has returned and already crowned a new champion: The winner of the Cruiserweight Classic, T.J. Perkins. With a shiny new belt, Perkins will be walking down the ramp on his first Monday Night Raw. The only other people I can think of who have debuted on Raw while already holding a championship title would be Kevin Owens (as NXT champ) and Ric Flair way back when he brought the NWA championship to WWF.
Hopefully, the fact that T.J. Perkins will be holding and possibly defending the new Cruiserweight championship on his first Raw will inspire a certain level of prestige and attention from the audience. Not that the cruiserweights don’t command the respect of any wrestling fan; they do. But cruiserweights and lightweights have always had a tough time getting over in WWE. This, however, is a whole new breed of skilled performers.
Zack Sabre Jr. and Kota Ibushi were the two big favorites going into the tournament and were expected to be facing off in the finals. They were defeated in the semifinals, possibly due to the fact that WWE wanted to put over a champion without an established global reputation. T.J. Perkins is perfect for WWE since he’s a well seasoned vet while still being so young and marketable. Sabre Jr. and Ibushi, along with Gran Metalik have made their names elsewhere, while Perkins is still a relative unknown with underdog appeal.
WWE is always interested in creating new superstars, and the Cruiserweight division is a great place to mine talent. The original Cruiserweight division in WCW was one of the reasons why Nitro started to beat Raw in the rating of the Monday Night War. Opening the show with the most exciting wrestlers in the world gave WCW an overwhelming edge. While Paul Heyman and ECW may have been the first to recognize this brand of wrestling in the states, WCW took notice and gave them a larger platform. However, some of those wrestlers wouldn’t have gone on to be some of the biggest names in wrestling history had they not jumped ship to WWE. Guys like Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Jericho all started out (on Network television at least) in WCW’s Cruiserweight division. They were considered “vanilla midgets” by guys like Kevin Nash in WCW and not suited to break out of their own division into Heavyweight title contention. To WWE’s credit, they saw a higher calling for the Cruiserweights, having success with other past small guys like Shawn Michaels.
Ironically, WWE is known for holding down wrestlers with a smaller build, where WCW was known for showcasing them. The catch is that in WCW there seemed to be a glass ceiling for the Cruiserweights; while in WWE, the sky was the limit… but there was no jumping off point. Now that WWE is going to be actively promoting and investing in the Cruiserweights, there’s no telling what kind of potential is lying dormant somewhere in the world and will finally get their opportunity to be on WWE’s flagship show.
Though for some people it would have made more sense to put the Cruiserweights on Smackdown with Daniel Bryan as GM and Mauro Ranallo on commentary, Raw has the extra hour to really make the most of it. It’s also refreshing to see that the new title belt is at least a little bit different from the new cookie cutter uniform belts. But still...where is my eagle? Where is my world atlas? Where is my happy ending? Where have all the cowboys gone?
But I digress. Now is not a time for nitpicking. A lot of wrestling fans are too cynical to enjoy the moment and will focus on who in the wrestling world ISN’T in the new division. If the Cruiserweight Classic was any indicator, Raw is going to be a hell of a lot more entertaining. There’s an added bonus that there doesn’t seem to be anything “vanilla” about some of these new Cruiserweights. A guy like Jack Gallagher has a built in character and is sure to thrive in the storytelling environment of WWE. It will be interesting to see who WWE will keep in NXT and who they’ll bring on Raw, or if they’ll be interchangeable. Either way, the Cruiserweight division gives fans a consistent reason to watch Raw. No matter what the storylines are at any given moment, you know you’ll be able to turn on Raw and be entertained by at least one match as long as the Cruiserweight division is featured. In this day and age where wrestling fans are smarkier than ever, the tale of the tape from the CWC was a nice addition. It’s fun to see how styles will match up between Japanese strong style, Lucha Libre, and so on. And for all the surrealism that cruiserweight wrestling brings with it, there’s something legitimate about bringing attention to various pro wrestling techniques.
We could even see current Raw talent wrestling in the Cruiserweight division. A guy like Enzo Amore may not have the in-ring acumen to hang with the likes of Gran Metalik, but he could bring some welcome promo work to a division which is usually starved for mic skills, just like Chris Jericho did in WCW. One day maybe Enzo and Cass will hold the Tag Titles, Cruiserweight Title, and the US Title between them. At least briefly, for the novelty of it.
I’m personally very hopeful that WWE won’t squander this opportunity like they did with their Lightweight Division in the Taka Michinoku days. The Cruiserweights add a whole new dimension and influence to the show. Traditional wrestling fans may say they don’t like some of the fantastical aspects of this kind of in-ring work, but just try to watch the creative bombardment of never-before-seen maneuvers and otherworldly athleticism that these performers bring to the table and not get a big, dumb, childish smile on your mark face.