”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: What is your favorite WWE-hosted cruiserweight match, including the original run of the Light Heavyweight Title through the more recent Cruiserweight Classic and 205 Live era?
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 few weeks 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 few 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.
It’s funny. I covered every round of the CWC for LOP in 2016 and I did not remember what I had written about this match before I watched it again a few weeks ago. I found my comments about it then fascinating to review after re-watching. In 2016, I called it “difficult to process after a single viewing” and “vastly different to any other match in the tournament”; I compared it to Benoit vs. Regal; I also said that I both leaned toward giving it a great deal of affection and found it to be a mixed bag. I thought my comments were so interesting because, in 2018, only one other CWC match replay left me feeling like “Holy crap, I didn’t remember this being that good” more than Dar vs. ZSJ. Part of that optimism probably comes from having grown more appreciative of Dar’s skill and style through 205 Live; he’s one of my Top 10 of the brand’s 15 month history to date. The most significant part of my optimism, though, comes from how unique the match is compared to everything else on this list. So many cruiserweight matches are the equivalents of light saber duels from the Star Wars prequel trilogy – beautifully sophisticated – whereas Dar vs. ZSJ was like a knife fight from a Rated-R movie by comparison – decidedly more dangerous and visceral. I love that match.
The hallmark achievement of the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship Era was especially noteworthy in its day and maintained its status as arguably the best cruiserweight match WWE ever produced until the Cruiserweight Classic in 2016. When viewed against its more recent peers and against WCW’s finest, it watches as a very good match, but does not belong on any sort of pedestal. Nevertheless, it is a top notch Dean Malenko performance that uses the psychology that he so often brought to his bouts with Rey Mysterio in WCW; and, let’s face it, wrestling fans at large could use a steady dose of Malenko psychology in their wider knowledge base (P.S. I loved Malenko). The Iceman probably dominates 80% of the action, allowing in little bursts of Scotty offense to keep the audience fully engaged; S2H, to his credit, responds with gusto in what I think most would claim his career best match. Also noteworthy about this one is that it is one of the 101 WWE Matches that Samuel ‘Plan suggests that you see before you die…
If you have never seen this match before, then I think once you do you might agree that it watches like something that WWE could execute really well in its own cruiserweight division. Eddie, on the outside attempting to influence his nephew, added a layer of value to the presentation that you could imagine Vince McMahon appreciating. Chavo and Ultimo, meanwhile, perform at that sort of steadily escalating, 50-50 pace that the modern WWE product in general has tended to adore; not only was the give and take fluid and visually appealing, but the action was highly varied, with technical wrestling mixed in with striking and the eventual use of more intricate sequencing and high risks characteristic of the genre. It’s sports entertainment, and a really good version of it at that. Chavo will not be on this list often but, when he is, you can bet your old Lie, Cheat, and Steal t-shirt that his matches are as sharp as anything else featured.
I’ll be honest in saying that I didn’t fully appreciate Gran Metalik during the CWC as much in 2016 as I have after rewatching recently his work all the way to the final. I mentioned last week that I didn’t love the final with TJP, but I thought his matches with Tozawa and ZSJ were very engaging in hindsight. I did my best to stay spoiler free and rumor free during that tournament, hoping to absorb it more purely as a fan while reviewing – call it me channeling here on LOP what Daniel Bryan was doing for WWE Network viewers on commentary. When you watch all of these matches throughout history in fairly rapid succession like I have, I think you can’t help but see some of the things that Metalik is capable of doing with relative ease and mentally catalogue it as the evolution of what Mysterio, Juve, Kidman, Ultimo, and others were doing in WCW twenty years ago. I don’t feel quite that strongly one way or another about Sabre Jr, but I get the sense that if he were around every week on 205 Live, I’d be clamoring for him to be champion by now; he’s the liberal version of Regal’s style and it’s just damn fun to watch. This match was a really unique mix of their styles and personalities, I thought.
Before we get to the top half of the list, I want to mention that I’m not the biggest fan of Jericho’s cruiserweight run. I loved that he was one of the few who went from Cruiserweight Champion to WWE World Champion and I appreciate the character that he built during his time in the division, but I’m just of the opinion that the in-ring quality that I came to expect from his peers was just not something I ever grew to expect from him, which reflects on Y2J as not being consistently on their level (I’m sure that will be a discussion piece and I welcome it). So, be advised that Jericho was only featured four total times on this list, including one very aggressively stretched Top 10 pick that many may not believe deserves to be on this list since it was for another title (the other his absolute best WCW match). As for this match, it had to make the list. Guerrero was one month away from his greatest match ever and his personality was just jumping off the screen; Jericho was not yet the overall wrestler that he would be in the early 2000s, but his move-set and charm opposite Eddie’s other-worldly talents in ’97 along with his world-class charisma? That was worth the time spent revisiting it, trust me.
This is the second to last match on the list from 205 Live, so allow me the opportunity to say that 205 Live was one of my favorite things about 2017 through the first seven months of the year and that 205 Live has been one of my favorite things about 2018 since the Cruiserweight Title tournament began. I was so jaded by then that I didn’t realize it at the time, but Neville’s reign ending so that Enzo Amore could take over and begin the failed three month experiment with Vince McMahon’s weird vision for the purple brand was a nail in the coffin for my enthusiasm toward WWE last year. Nevertheless, I look back at early 2017 when Neville was reigning supreme and 205 Live was building its brand slowly and steadily with a forest-through-the-trees approach and feel like it was quietly one of the five best things about WWE all year. This match well represented many of the good things about the brand, with its clear roster positioning, swiftly mobile cycling of the characters in and out of the division’s title scene, and sharp enough use of 45-55 minute runtimes each week (after Smackdown no less) that five guys that a few months prior were nobodies to most of the audience could take one of those same previously disengaged audiences and inspire them to unleash the signature chant that has become the universal wrestling fan seal of approval from the live crowd: “This is Awesome!”
God, how relevant is this match right now as a fan of the NXT product (and, at this point, who doesn’t love NXT, if for nothing else than the Takeover specials?)? They’re going to wrestle at Takeover: New Orleans for the first time since DIY abruptly ended last year, which was followed swiftly by Ciampa going on the shelf for a year. DIY’s incredible run of all-time classic tag team matches during their eight months atop the NXT scene began right around the time that the CWC was going on and they clashed in a heated first round match that left an indelible impression on the audience in its own right. Gargano and Ciampa didn’t have the best wrestling match of the CWC, but they did indeed tell the best in-ring story. Put all of those elements in a blender and why wouldn’t you be stoked to see them face off with all the history in the rearview mirror now and tear the house down at Takeover? Surely that is one of the most anticipated matches of WrestleMania Weekend 2018…
The pacing of Neville’s best work last year was reminiscent of Malenko’s back in the day, which is one of the aspects of the King of the Cruiserweights character that I enjoyed so much. Neville was never in any hurry; he relied on his underrated technical prowess to set-up the Rings of Saturn submission, allowing his rarer instances (by comparison to his babyface run) of taking high risks to be more impactful. The WrestleMania Kick-Off match with Aries was the best match of his title tenure, as even though it was on the pre-show, it felt like the biggest Cruiserweight match in the rebooted division’s history; I would venture to say that it maintains that distinction to present day. It doubled as the best match that Aries had in NXT or WWE. There were several excellent sequences throughout, but none better than the finish; a fork in the road comes in each championship reign when it seems that a promotion can choose to make a switch or invest in a lengthier reign for the champion and, this being that fork in the road for Neville, his victory felt like confirmation that he really was going to be the King for the foreseeable future. So ends the purple brand’s participation on this countdown, which to me speaks clearly to the fact that the still-to-be-prominently-featured CWC offered the caliber of action that should serve as the template for 205 Live moving forward (as I think the recent Cruiserweight Title tournament attests).
There is an achievement in this match that stands out not just among its cruiserweight peers of the WrestleMania Era, but also all of the rest of its peers at large regardless of weight class. Kidman and Mysterio wrestle one of the best ever matches of less than ten minutes in length. It was unmasked Mysterio back then, and he lost a big part of his aura because of it, so this match watches to me as more an example of how good Kidman was at his peak. I feel like Kidman has become a bit underappreciated in hindsight, despite the fact that he was one of the few top cruiserweights from WCW to actually have a pretty decent run in WWE’s final, honest attempt at a viable division prior to the 2016 reboot. WCW gave him far more opportunities and he had a hell of a career there. Kidman was one of the most polished in-ring performers of his generation, and there was a bit more fluidity to his brand of high risks. So, if this list is serving as somewhat of a cruiserweight re-introduction for you, then do not forget about white tank top and black jorts Kidman; you will be missing a key piece of history if you do.
Billy Kidman in his prime WCW years might be a good historical comparison for TJP, frankly. He had a really slick move-set and a cool, calm delivery in the ring that toned down the frenzy that some of the lucha-libre-versed talents brought to the presentation. Kidman’s narrative is similarly interesting too, as I personally can recall few cruiserweights from WCW that I enjoyed more than him, but I feel as though history severely underrates what he contributed to the Monday Night War and just how good he was in the late ’90s. This particular match with Guerrera stands out as one of the finest sub-ten-minute matches ever as well, in terms of the amount of content that they packed into it. Juve is another one of the WCW cruiserweights that history has largely forgotten. Neither man’s time in WWE did much to aid their long-term cause for greater legacies, but when they stepped foot in the ring together throughout 1998, magic happened in a neat package that made 10-12 minutes feel like at least a quarter-hour; such a feat requires great timing, which requires great chemistry, and I am of the opinion that very few duos shared more chemistry together than Juve and Kidman. Their match on the November 16, 1998 Nitro is also worth checking out.