”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 decision to run with Cedric Alexander vs. Mustafa Ali to crown the next Cruiserweight Champion?
Though I wrote about it sparingly in 2017, 205 Live was my favorite WWE wrestling show up until the point that Enzo Amore became the face of the brand. I loved its simplicity and how it seemed to have no problem taking the long road to building an audience through intelligent weekly character booking and roster positioning. When it became just another main roster show, fluctuating creatively somewhere between monotonous and uncomfortably melodramatic, I turned in my viewership card. To me, Enzo and, more importantly, the show formatting that he brought with him, were a reminder that Vince McMahon and his non-Triple H closest confidants just did not understand the genre. Equally, the announcement of the Cruiserweight Championship tournament set to culminate at WrestleMania 34 was a reminder that at least someone with a prominent voice does, indeed, get it.
I have loved 205 Live the past two months since the tournament began. After the opening contests in Week 1 of proceedings, I found myself not only renewing my weekly viewership, but desiring to inspire others to get on-board too. WWE has not inspired much in the way of trust when it comes to its historical handling of the division, but there have been some really strong, simple feuds and some outstanding matches from WWE’s cruiserweight division since it was brought back through the Cruiserweight Classic in 2016, many which blow out of the water the majority of the work produced from the cruiserweight and light heavyweight divisions of old in WWF/E lore (not a challenge) and some of which even hold up well against the best cruiserweight matches from the WCW division that famously filled Ted Turner’s airwaves with action unique to the major North American wrestling scene in the ’90s (a considerable challenge).
So, over the next two weeks leading up to the Cruiserweight Championship tournament final on the WrestleMania Kickoff Show, I will be taking a look back at how the modern division, including the groundwork laid in the CWC, fairs against the best from the WrestleMania Era as produced by WCW and WWE. The following Top 50 ranking is a celebration of mainstream cruiserweight wrestling over the past twenty-five years and an acknowledgment that, even if it is not perhaps the type of cruiserweight action everyone in the diehard fan camp might have hoped for and it has not been as popular as WWE would like it to be, the contemporary cruiserweights since the summer of 2016 have put together a very impressive, historically relevant body of work.
When it comes to cruiserweight wrestling, I still generally tend to think of WCW, which utilized the genre to quite historically relevant levels in the late ’90s, over every other promotion. Misterio, to answer my own question from week one of this countdown regarding the greatest all-time cruiserweight, is without a doubt the first wrestler that I think of from the WCW cruiserweight division when I reflect back; and Guerrera certainly makes my Top 5. This match between Misterio and Juve was the very last match that I watched in preparation for writing this series and I have only ever seen it just twice, each viewing happening in the past month, once on a grainy DailyMotion and the next earlier this week when WWE finally put the Thunder backlog on the Network (I never watched Thunder back in the day). Because of the amount of fun that I had revisiting Juve and Rey Rey’s matches recently, their Cruiserweight Championship clash on Thunder basically watched like a hindsight dream match to me. If this tells you anything, I enjoyed it more than I did the Kidman-Mysterio match ranked 22nd on this countdown last week, when I made you aware of the pedestal I had placed it on as among the top sub-ten-minute bouts of all-time.
Smooth, fluid, and as aesthetically pleasing as many of the following matches, this particular bout was not. Nevertheless, it is a great representation of the in-ring innovations that cruiserweights are prone to exhibit. This was like a Money in the Bank Ladder Match without money in the bank or ladders, all the big spots competing to out-do the sequences of stunts in rapid succession from previous stunt-brawls like it. A demolition derby involving smaller wrestlers is essentially what this was and, while I typically prefer my in-ring quality to be of an overall higher standard, I can accept the variation among twenty more typical matches of the genre that a match like this Fatal 4-Way brings. Plus, it features a unique mix of the era’s hallmark stars; Mysterio without the mask of course, Juve at the peak of his powers, Blitzkrieg in the midst of bursting onto the scene, and Psychosis on the night that would stand out as one of his career highlights. Much like the stunt-brawl Ladder Match, the foursome assaulted the senses with a barrage of hardcore visual artistry the likes of which professional wrestling in the mainstream had rarely seen, including Blitzkrieg pulling off the first Phoenix Splash that I had ever personally witnessed.
Welcome to the Juve section, by the way! When we started this journey a couple of weeks back, I asked who everyone thought was the greatest cruiserweight ever and I was quite happy to see a few people nominate The Juice, who was just an incredibly memorable part of the WCW cruiserweight revolution during the Monday Night War. After he lost his mask, he very interestingly got a lot a better, expressing his youthful exuberance through his very youthful appearance; and good Lord could he go. Equally fascinating perhaps, though, is the lightning in a bottle that was the period of 1999 when Blitzkrieg was part of the division. Masked and oddly attired, the kid from Southern California was an amazing athlete and a natural pro who just understood how to work. He was like a comet, however, ramping up a ton of momentum in April 1999 through this match and the previous entry but, by the end of that year, actually retiring from the ring. Never can I remember a situation like that in my years as a fan, when someone burst onto the scene and excelled to the extent that he did, only to disappear as quickly as he became relevant. This was just a tremendous match…
Of all the matches that I rewatched during this journey, this is the one that rose in stature the most. My original rating for it – 3 ½ stars (or really good) – seemed to undersell it quite frankly, because it was a great match, period. In terms of modern cruiserweight action in WWE, this is one of the shining examples. WCW cruiserweight action watches a bit more chaotic by comparison to the CWC’s finest, with Gargano vs. TJP watching like a cleaner production. If the preceding match on the countdown was like vodka, getting its point across by raising the hair on your arms, then Gargano-TJP was more like a chenin blanc (white wine), progressing its story in such a palatably agreeable fashion. Perhaps my original viewing was skewed by the next match on the countdown combined with my desire while reviewing the CWC for LOP not to be too hyperbolic with my ratings, but I watched one of the two CWC matches to make the Top 10 back-to-back with this one and felt that the only thing that truly separated their quality was the overall presentational boost afforded the other bout in question during the post-match happenings. By all accounts, Johnny Wrestling vs. Wrestling’s Yoda should be on your shortlist for CWC replays.
TJP has been on this countdown quite a bit, which I honestly think reflects less my personal enjoyment of his work and more why we should collectively question the reasoning behind his inability to gain a tremendous amount of traction since the CWC ended. He was the most diverse character in the 2016 tournament, regularly exhibiting confidence bordering on cockiness, occasionally crossing his tweening line to an extreme but then endearing himself via sportsmanship and a sort of “man of the world” personic edge. His performances were punctuated by those moments when the crowd would react rather surprisingly to his victories, as if the part of the fanbase more familiar with the various participants were exhibiting a bias against Perkins while the Phil-Am Flash was busy tearing down the house and quite easily winning over fans like myself who knew very little about the field. People would say to me, “So and so put over him!?,” to which I would respond, “Dude, this guy is clearly the star of this tournament.” TJP and Rich Swann killed it in their Round of 8 clash, delivering the kind of engaging friend vs. friend elements in their match that Ciampa and Gargano did so well in the first round. I said back then that it was slightly off the pace of the two quarterfinals to be mentioned shortly; in rewatching, I confirmed that opinion, but simultaneously felt like all three matches deserved to be bumped up to the near-highest echelon.
To offer a quick lesson in WCW Cruiserweight Championship lore, there is a match that will be discussed in the Top 10 that established the reputation of the title and the style nearly four years prior to this match, but it seems worth noting that the Light Heavyweight Title, as it was known then, was retired just four months after the first classic in its library, while Guerrero-Otani was so good that the championship was brought out of retirement and thrust into its heyday three months later. The WCW vs. NJPW clash (how about a WWE Network special featuring WWE’s best against NJPW’s someday!?) was spectacular for its time and it remains great to this day, old school for sure but full of the type of fluid, hard-hitting, innovative offense that watermarked any Eddie performance (and Otani was certainly great too). If this had taken place at WrestleMania XI instead of Starrcade from the same year, we would be talking about it prominently to this day. I remain adamant based on the success of such a mid-card gem from WCW’s preeminent PPV franchise that the ceiling for WWE’s division is similar; all it needs is the kind of chance that Guerrero and Otani got (and probably an other-worldly caliber talent in his formative stages like Latinio Heat).
Though a little disjointed at times due to the nature of the WCW style of putting a match together, this is a borderline classic and surely a four-star performance that strung together several absolutely fantastic sequences. Not only did the action exemplify every flattering thing that I have been saying about Kidman (such a stud back then with his silky-smooth aesthetic that brought a sense of calm to the chaos that the cruiserweight division could often be otherwise) and everything that I have been saying about Juventud (his aforementioned boyish enthusiasm for what he was doing was infectious here) and in so much as it also exemplified everything you know about Rey, the match had a good story to it. Misterio had recently broken free of the Latino World Order and its leader, Eddie Guerrero, who charged Juve with the task of taking both the title from Kidman and the thrill of victory from Rey, all in the name of the LWO. It’s a top-ten candidate, frankly, the match that draws the line distinguishing everything mentioned before now from everything mentioned from here on.
Gran Metalik vs. Akira Tozawa in the Quarterfinals of the Cruiserweight Classic
Truthfully, as good as these two matches were, I saw no reason to try and tell you why one was better than the other just for the sake of it. For me, it’s a tie. If I could only pick one match to rewatch from the entire CWC tournament for fun only, I would strongly consider Metalik vs. Tozawa right alongside the second round’s top performance; if asked to repeat the exercise more for the purpose of being emotionally engaged, Ibushi vs. Kendrick would get the nod on account of the veteran WWE wrestler’s “last chance” story and Daniel Bryan’s ability to sell it on commentary (with all due respect to Gargano vs. Ciampa, TBK vs. Ibushi was the CWC’s most engrossing story). These were both tremendous matches. I said back in 2016 that Tozawa vs. Metalik was the tournament match that best featured the variety that many have come to associate with the cruiserweight label; I also mentioned that it exemplified why the face-heel dynamic does not so much matter, so long as both characters are well-defined and something is at stake when they wrestle – I think Tozawa was supposed to be the heel, but you could just as easily relate to his determination and grit as you could Metalik’s fluidity and high flying grace. That said, from a storytelling standpoint, Kendrick’s desperation was so palpable that, especially when pitted against the dominance and athletic superiority of The Golden Star, you to this day on replay cannot help but get emotionally wrapped up in the fiction. So, there’s not a wrong choice here; do yourself a favor and just watch that entire Quarterfinal episode of the CWC.
Being of the opinion that the pay-per-view match is always of the highest profile when comparing bouts in a body of work between two wrestlers, I would be remiss not to mention that the World War 3 match in November 1996 between Mysterio and Ultimo was very good in its own right, but compared to this one it was more a display of dominance that upped the historical ante for when Dragon took his eight other worldwide Cruiserweight Titles to Starrcade the next month to face WCW Cruiserweight Champion, Dean Malenko. This particular Mysterio-Ultimo match was still largely a showcase for what made Dragon such an awesome performer, but there was a bit more of the tit-for-tat that I prefer in cruiserweight style matches. If your preference is for story-driven work and you’ve not seen the aforementioned World War 3 bout, that is the one for you compared to this one. Either way, back then or in hindsight, these two facing each other was a dream scenario; in WCW’s cruiserweight division Top 5 ranking profile from the ’90s, Mysterio was #1 and Ultimo might have been #3 and undoubtedly was in the Top 5. This match, to me, was everything we could ever wanted from an Ultimo vs. Mysterio match.