”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: How do you feel about WWE’s historical aversion to consistently featuring cruiserweight-style wrestling on its airwaves?
Ladies and gentlemen, I have a bit of a problem. Perhaps you can relate to it. You see, I love cruiserweight wrestling. Since the first time I laid eyes on it back in 1992 – Flyin’ Brian Pillman vs. Jushin “Thunder” Liger at SuperBrawl II to be specific – it has quietly been one of my favorite things about professional wrestling at-large. The problem is that I’m a “WWE guy,” and it has only been on rare occasion throughout my thirty-plus year wrestling fandom that I have had either the opportunity or the time to branch my attention out to other promotions beyond Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment empire; and, while the genre has thrived on the outer-rim of my viewership, it has struggled to win over the WWE Chairman, who just doesn’t love cruiserweight wrestling like I do apparently.
For the last twenty-six years, I have been hoping that Mr. McMahon would come to his senses and see what I see in it. If we compared cruiserweight wrestling to food, I would liken it to ice cream; there are all sorts of different types, each sharing the basic quality of being a uniquely delicious treat that may share some attributes of other types of food, but is in and of itself vividly distinct. So, forgive my directness here, but what the hell is wrong with Vinnie Mac? How can he possibly not appreciate the awesomeness of sports entertainment’s version of ice cream?
I remember listening to his commentary of The Great Sasuke vs. Taka Michinoku at In Your House: Canadian Stampede in 1997, and you could tell that he was, at first, a little off-put by it, like he saw how well cruiserweights were drawing in WCW and figured he had to respond with his own brand of lightweight action, but he was doing so begrudgingly; as if, borrowing again from the earlier analogy, his first exposure to ice cream as a child had been of the coffee-flavored variety. However, by the climax, it seemed to dawn on him, if only for a fleeting moment, that these smaller, faster guys were engaging the audience in a highly entertaining manner similar to Shawn Michaels in the Hulkamania Era tag team ranks and in the New Generation main-event scene.
Taka and Sasuke served him standard, store-bought vanilla ice cream. Not so bad, eh Vince? Dean Malenko and Scotty 2 Hotty offered him chocolate custard three years later, then Rey Mysterio and Chavo Guerrero exposed him to cake batter frozen yogurt three years after that. Whenever I thought Vince was coming around – whenever I thought he was getting over his strange aversion to something so great or at least admitting that, while he may not like it, there was money to made from those who did – he would throw in a never-ending Gillberg title reign or put the belt on Jackie Moore; and I swear to you, as I sit here writing this, I am getting flooded by those old annoyed feelings, like I thought we were going to the best ice cream place in town only to pull up instead to my house to put on a pot of black coffee when we’re out of cream and sugar. I have had to actively try not to take it personally, and there are still occasions when I want to throw darts at a picture of Vince McMahon.
Perception shapes reality, so the sad reality of Vince McMahon spreading his borderline-to-outright anti-cruiserweight bias (or at least it has felt that way most of the time) is that there are millions of wrestling fans who only watch WWE and whose perception of cruiserweight wrestling, basically seen through McMahon’s eyes, is that it is generic filler left in the wake of a poorly written TV program’s creative prioritization of everything but it. The overall audience suffers accordingly; those largely unfamiliar with the cruiserweight style are conditioned not to care and those of us who know what cruiserweight wrestling can add to the product end up continually baffled by WWE’s lack of understanding about it.
The Chairman just does not seem to be capable of comprehending the value in such an aesthetically pleasing style of sports entertainment when forced to consider it separately from pioneers like HBK, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Rey Mysterio, who helped usher in an era of cruiserweight influence to the main-event style in WWE now peaking with what you see today. Seth Rollins and AJ Styles perform high risks routinely in each match that nobody had ever dreamed of seeing back in 1992. Moves like the Phoenix Splash and the springboard 450 Splash have become false-finish pop-prompts and, every Monday night, The Architect does back-to-back tope suicidas, lands on his feet both times, and jumps right back in the ring like he had just done something no more physically-exerting than tying his shoes. Call it the cruiserweight addendum to heavyweight in-ring action; it is as if McMahon can wrap his head around integrating cruiserweight wrestling into his “Land of Giants,” but he cannot grasp why people would want to see a part of the show that is solely dedicated to cruiserweight wrestling.
As it stands, the only prominent figure with the capacity to make decisions who ever understood the genre was Eric Bischoff. The infamous WCW icon joined the company the same year that Pillman defeated Ricky Morton in the finals of the inaugural Light Heavyweight Title tournament at Halloween Havoc ’91. He was there when Pillman and Liger tore the house down in the match that was the father of cruiserweight wrestling as many of us know it, so he knew the potential popularity that the genre could bring to the product if given the chance through consistent booking to get over. When he brought back the vacant title, re-branded it with the cruiserweight label in 1996, and made Shinjiro Otani the champion following his classic Starrcade match with Eddie Guerrero, it kick-started about three straight years of absolutely fantastic, must-see matches.
The pinnacle of the genre’s entire three decade existence within mainstream consciousness was Guerrero vs. Mysterio from Halloween Havoc ’97 – absolutely one of the greatest matches of all-time, undisputed, no debate. When they met in the Title vs. Mask Match, Eddie was rounding into best-in-the-world form and, to many fans watching back then, Rey had pretty much already locked up the award for greatest cruiserweight of all-time (having been in WCW for just 18 months by then). It reflects back now as a match that could have been to the Cruiserweight Championship the influential, legacy-enhancing masterpiece that Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage was to the Intercontinental Championship – a performance that wrestlers for the world’s largest promotion would still be prominently attempting to equal or better to this day. That it did not work out that way is maybe not something worthy of the label of a travesty (or maybe it is worthy), but surely we could agree that it has been disappointing.
Fans who loved the Pillman-Liger introduction, who lived the WCW Cruiserweight peak, who loathed Vince McMahon’s piddling attempts to properly utilize the style on his canvas, and who longed for WWE to recognize that the success of the X-division in TNA and the Junior Heavyweight division in NJPW could be added to its own product if just handled with care all found themselves rejoicing during the marvelous presentation of the WWE Cruiserweight Classic in 2016. The likes of TJ Perkins, Gran Metalik, Brian Kendrick, Kota Ibushi, Cedric Alexander, Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa, Zack Sabre, Jr., Akira Tozawa, Jack Gallagher, and so many other talented cruiserweights brought back memories of the principle players that had previously brought the genre to the brink of becoming a permanent mainstream fixture in sports entertainment. I hope that they gave people reason enough to go back and celebrate amazing wrestlers like Dean Malenko, Ultimo Dragon, Juventud Guerrera, Billy Kidman, and others who would be looked at so differently today had the expectant quality that they forged in WCW been carried over and across the past twenty years in WWE; the lot of them would potentially be strong candidates for the WWE Hall of Fame by now instead of chronic afterthoughts.
Since the division’s official main roster return seventeen months ago, it has been a newer version of the same roller-coaster, past frustrations almost constantly simmering and at times boiling over; I have nearly given up on it altogether twice during that span. C’mon Vince! We’re talking about a style of wrestling that at worst should, right now, be WWE’s equivalent of the dunk in pro basketball, not the purest embodiment of the game’s natural beauty, but among the most visually stunning and viscerally moving aspects nonetheless; at most, it could be like the recent five-star classic cruiserweight showcase disguised as the NXT Takeover main-event, Cien Almas vs. Johnny Wrestling – a master-class in pro wrestling-psychology so much as it was an exercise in aerial artistry.
205 Live’s on-going WWE Cruiserweight Championship tournament has sparked a bit of hope, if not for the genre’s immediate return to CWC-caliber glory than at least for McMahon passing the baton to Triple H, figuratively handing over the prospect of a lucrative ice cream parlor chain to his saner, semi-frozen dessert aficionado of a son-in-law. Hopefully, The Game has some good ideas in mind. Had he taken the reigns sooner and had Neville still been champion today, I could have seen Hunter using NXT to build a star like Gargano up to finally be the one who dethroned The King of the Cruiserweights; take the same story arc that led to Gargano-Almas last month, then have Johnny Wrestling win the current tournament tweaked to have the #1 contendership on the line and go onto face Neville at WrestleMania for the title, perhaps even having Ciampa cost him the match, and you give the people an emotionally-resonant reason to invest in cruiserweight wrestling.
It is going to take something substantial for the purple brand to gain traction. Ironically, I did agree with Vince that 205 Live needed star power, though I vehemently disagreed with him that Enzo Amore was that star. Neville, Gallagher, Alexander, Itami – they are great supporting acts, award-winning maybe, but I think that the division needs a proven commodity that has carried the NXT that we have known since 2015 as one of its top two or three talents. Just like the rise to prominence of women’s wrestling would never have reached its impressive heights without the revolutionaries from the NXT women’s division coming up to the main roster to inspire the next phase of the evolution, cruiserweight wrestling will eventually need the assist from NXT in the form of someone like Almas or Alestair Black (billed currently as just ten pounds over the weight limit) or maybe even Johnny Wrestling. WWE should also not shy away from considering bold moves like making Finn Balor the face of the division, simultaneously committing to a future strategy that allows someone like him to segue back into the main-event scene after he finished building up 205 Live without carrying back with him a McMahon-induced cruiserweight stigma; or using a part-timer with clout like Rey Mysterio at shows such as Summerslam and WrestleMania to help advance the division’s standing in the eyes of WWE fans.
There is a big part of me that feels as though WWE owes cruiserweight wrestling a debt of gratitude – realize that when Rollins and Styles eventually clash in one of the most anticipated matches of the decade, it is going to look a lot like a modern version of Brian Pillman vs. Jushin Liger in 1992 – and that debt can only be repaid by allowing the genre to thrive on its airwaves like it once did in WCW to immense mainstream promotional success. It is 2018 after all, and a fan like myself who loves cruiserweight wrestling should be able to watch it in well-presented fashion amongst the ten hours of programming that WWE asks me to consume each week; I should be able to eat a steak with steamed vegetables, and then have some ice cream.