When I was but a wee wrestling fan growing up it in the late 90s, in what is now known as one of the few great eras of pro wrestling, one of the newest and most innovative ideas was WCW’s Cruiserweight Division. Monday Nitro would typically start a few minutes before WWF’s Monday Night Raw (a tactical decision in the Monday Night War) and the fans would be given a spectacle of international talent never seen before on US television. It was brilliant of Eric Bischoff at the time to recognize how different this was from the WWF model and the necessity to have a high flying and expert technical bout early in the show to grab the attention of the viewers at home.
Many consider this to be a blatant ripoff of what Paul Heyman accomplished, as much of the talent used in WCW’s Cruiserweight Division was only brought to American tastes by way of ECW. Wrestlers who would go on to be great WWE Superstars years later; like Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Jericho, who all went through ECW for a short period before getting that Ted Turner guaranteed contract in WCW. These were smaller, faster, more athletic entertainers the likes of which the US was mostly unfamiliar with. WCW also included talent like Ultimo Dragon, Psicosis, Jushin Liger, Billy Kidman, and Juventud Guerrera who dazzled young wrestling fans and brought a whole new world and move set to the table.
Shooting Star Oppressed
Of course, as little guys were to be treated in the pro wrestling business at the time, even those who were at the top of their game in the Cruiserweight Division were still promoted as being in a lower weight class, and rarely broke out into the regular roster. Chris Jericho had tried to have a strong feud with Goldberg at one point, only to get squashed and used as another piece of meat for his unstoppable and legendary push. As good as it was, there was a glass ceiling in the WCW Cruiserweight Division, and they would never reach the main event status of Kevin Nash, Hulk Hogan, and Sting. So, they did what any disgruntled employee would do and jumped ship to the promised land of WWF, where they wouldn’t be treated as second class citizens.
And yes, the grass was greener on the other side, but this was only after WWF had experimented and failed with their own Lightweight Division. In direct competition, Monday Night Raw produced such great lightweight talents as Taka Michinoku….and really, that’s about it. So, the Lightweight Division was scrapped and by the time guys like Jericho, Mysterio, and Guerrero got to WWF, they were free to jump in with the Heavyweights in an all inclusive roster.
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The Purple Rope of Cairo
But now we once again have a Cruiserweight Division in WWE. The Cruiserweight Classic tournament two summers ago was an undeniable success and jumpstarted the careers of some great talents like Akira Tozawa, Cedric Alexander, Jack Gallagher, Rich Swann, and the returning ring veteran, Brian Kendrick. The list goes on and on, and they are each unique and worthy of airtime in their own right. Specifically, the latest incarnation of Drew Gulak has hit it out of the park as the lame dad of the WWE, and I consider him to be one of the most entertaining characters in all of WWE. Unfortunately for these Cruiserweights, they’re finding out the problem with their own division. While their talents are being showcased on a weekly basis on the WWE Network’s 205 Live and on some segments on Raw, they’re still just seen as Cruiserweights. Surely, it’s still a great opportunity and more of one that they may have ever received otherwise, but it still feels as though there’s a minimal amount of respect placed over the whole weight class. The fact that Raw still changes the entire ring to purple ropes and apron just to accommodate the “lesser thans” is an indicator that they’re different and not real superstars.
It feels like halftime at a football game and suddenly the local peewee team takes the field to throw around the old pigskin. The purple ring is symbolic of this not being a part of the real show. But what can be done? How are they supposed to step out of the movie screen and into reality? The idea of this division is excellent and their matches are always among the most exciting on the show. The only problem is that we don’t care about the characters. The writing on 205 Live is lazy at best, and we don’t see these characters involved in anything more than basic grudge matches. So WWE does the best they can and donates some of the regular talent who meet the weight requirements to 205 Live, and see if they can spruce things up a bit.
Enter The Mad King and The Greatest man Who Ever Lived
And in comes Neville, the King of the Cruiserweights. This is a great example of a guy taking lemons and making a damn margarita. On Raw, Neville’s exposure had been minimal and was straddling the border of jobber territory. However, becoming a big fish in a small pond on 205 Live transformed him into an evil, sadistic, mad with power, heel of a champion. The Neville character got over huge and showed just how good of a performer he could be, on top of his already exemplary in-ring skill. So, the experiment worked, right? Formula: Send some established smaller talent to 205 Live and get eyes on the product. This would also be the case of Austin Aries being called up (or laterally, depending on how you look at it) to the 205 Live roster from NXT, once he recovered from his injury. Neville and Aries put on an early and unexpected match of the night contender at this past year’s WrestleMania.
However, according to Aries, WWE recently parted ways with him with the old “Creative has nothing for you” excuse; which is beyond me, considering Aries is one of the best men on the mic the WWE had. On commentary alone Aries was killing it, but alas, we hope to see him back on WWE television in the future. So, as he leaves, in comes Enzo Amore. Similar to Aries, Enzo is an accomplished talker, but that just so happens to be all he’s good at. A feud with Neville and Enzo quickly build, and Amore does succeed to bring more attention to the 205 brand. But shortly thereafter, Neville reportedly walks away from the show and he hasn’t been seen since. This could be nothing, or it could be out of frustration.
Neville could have realized the bitter truth that there may be no way out of the Cruiserweight Division. As a well established character and truly one of the best personas on WWE television, you’d think Neville would be given a shot at the Heavyweights and the rest of the main roster once again. While 205 Live made Neville what he is today, how long must he stay at the top of a division before getting back to where he was?
Unfortunately, this could be the start of a trend. While 205 Live is becoming a great place to hone one’s skills and build one’s character, it may be more of a curse than a blessing for great talent. Recently, Kalisto was also thrown into the mix, and on this past week’s show, they announced that NXT’s Hideo Itami would be joining the roster. For many fans of Itami’s work in Japan, this may feel like sacrilege, and that he was destined for bigger things on the main roster. But, frankly, due to the series of injuries Hideo has suffered in NXT, he’ll need to take what he can get. The main concern is that any smaller talent will begin to be automatically placed in 205 Live and never get a shot at any of the major titles. If this is also the fate of a strong NXT talent like Adam Cole remains to be seen. So while the Cruiserweight Division and its talents thrive, they’re still held at arm's length and considered a separate entity. For these cruiserweights, the safe haven they’ve been longing for to finally be showcased and to grow as performers may slowly become their prison. And upon reaching what appears to be an oasis from afar will turn to quicksand.
Nathan Burke is a standup comedian based in Boston and can be found on Twitter @IamNathanBurke