”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 do you want from cruiserweight wrestling, a heavier emphasis on personality or unique in-ring action characteristic of smaller wrestlers?
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.
We begin Day 2 of the countdown with one of the pinnacle achievements of the early cruiserweight reboot era in WWE: Neville’s King of the Cruiserweights character. Neville was well-equipped to carry the 205 Live brand in its infancy after holding the NXT Title for most of 2014 when the yellow brand was establishing its reputation to a larger audience via WWE Network. His victory here over Swann to back up his royal claim was rock solid. I commented to Mr. Tito on social media a couple of weeks back that Neville was poised to be the rebooted division’s version of Malenko from the ’90s. The King was not that good in the ring, but he was still great in his role, and this match started his six-month peak in WWE proper. Swann had a solid albeit brief run in his own right, with some great work in the CWC ahead of this match, which proved to be the end of his short peak.
Some may recall my initial handle on LOP, Chad Matthews, Version 1 (CMV1), which was an homage to Mattitude, Matt Hardy’s highly enjoyable mid-card heel persona in 2002/2003. The bottom line on this bout, which some would I think understandably regard as a curious choice, is that I believe it is one of the best sub-six-minute matches ever wrestled. I almost included the match that crowned Mysterio the champion later that year, but I thought that the Mania match was an inspired effort. Considering the farce that was the Cruiserweight Open the following year, I think of this as the only Cruiserweight Title match ever to take place on a WrestleMania card (pre-shows don’t count, ask Austin Aries). The 5-hour Energy of pro wrestling performances makes better use of its five-and-a-half minutes than a lot of matches make of fifteen-plus.
I think that my excitement level for Neville-Tozawa matches was always greater than the actual production from the pair. Tozawa’s run in the CWC had me highly anticipating what he might be able to do in the WWE cruiserweight division, but I wound up feeling like he got watered down by his presentation. He was the consummate bad ass of the CWC through the quarter-finals and, when brought to 205 Live, he seemed to get cast into this ill-fitting role of being in need of guidance from the goofy Titus O’Neill character. Nevertheless, the matches that he had when given a platform to be more himself were of that bordering-on-great-but-never-quite-great variety that, to me at least, is one of the reasons why people dislike WWE’s version of cruiserweight wrestling, in principle. Tozawa (et al): Unchained is what I think people want most. Is a borderline four-star match every month – what we have gotten from 205 Live for 89% of its existence – a bad thing, though? It could be 2005, when the division was such a joke that not even the biggest diehard fans paid much attention to it.
The TJP narrative has been an interesting one to follow since the CWC began in the summer of 2016. He was not a favorite to win, but his charisma shined through in his ultra-dynamic, smooth-as-silk performances during the tournament and he was crowned the champion. Then, the presentation of both him and the division pre-Neville was so bad that he and the division lost all of his and its CWC momentum; the hate for TJP seemed to grow ’round these parts along the way, for some reason, even though his matches, like this one that helped immediately establish Neville, were just flat out joys to watch. Had the same match taken place during the CWC with higher stakes and a better overall presentation, then it would have been remembered as one of the best matches of the tournament. Meanwhile, if I could make one criticism of Neville last year, it would be that his pace was so purposefully deliberate that we never got that all-out, barn-burner that could have produced WCW-levels of awesome cruiserweight action; considering the trade-off would have been that I’d never have known that I could see Neville as anything more than what he had been before he asked us to “bend a knee,” I don’t really care, but matches like this one with Perkins (wrestled at more of a 50-50 pace as was his series with Aries) gave you four-fifths of what it may have looked like in WCW.
Some might have expected to see this a little bit higher, as I know it had its huge fans. I liked it quite a bit myself, but I never really got on board with the upper end of its praise that rated it at the four-star level. I comfortably put it at [*** ½] and I feel the same after a few rewatches throughout the past year, including my most recent one a few weeks ago. What I think about is that it did an excellent job being exactly what it was intended to be. For Neville, it was supposed to be a clean win over a good challenger in shorter-length mid-card title bout; he showcased on pay-per-view the advancements he had made on an already perfectly pitched character and reminded us that the Red Arrow was still in his quiver along the way. For Gallagher, it was proof that he could play a far different role in a bigger spotlight than he had in the CWC, when he was adding a bit of slapstick to the tournament; asked to play the underdog, he excelled and was very easy to get behind as a scrappy grappler with a mean headbutt.
Maybe I’m the lone inhabitant of “Alexander-Dar Island,” but I loved that 205 Live gave their never more than third to fourth biggest feud throughout the first half of 2017 a chance to pay off in a gimmick match typically reserved for members of the heavyweight main-event scene. It was such a creative version of the “I Quit,” not wrestled in any sort of cruiserweight style really but featuring the kind of ingenuity that you would expect of cruiserweight wrestlers nonetheless. Thus, it stands out so much on this list; there is nothing else that I can recall being quite like it in the history of the division in WWE or WCW. As an avid 205 Live viewer, I was blown away by it at the time, conceptually that it was even happening and by the presentation itself. Out of context, I can see how this would be a tough sell ahead of some of the previous matches. In the sense that it is something I think is truly impressive and noteworthy but that others deem “nothing special,” it’s sort of like JBL vs. Guerrero is to me from WWE main-event lore. I actually rated this my July 2017 Match of the Month, namely ahead of New Day vs. Usos at Battleground.
Watched in the context of this project, this is also a match that stands out from the pack due to the novelty of it. Six-man tag team matches are a staple of lucha libre and, for a period of time in WCW, that staple and its rules from Mexico were brought to WCW’s airwaves. I always admired how hard WCW worked to make the cruiserweight brand of pro wrestling part of their show so prominently in those early days of the Monday Night War. It’s not a coincidence that the peak of the Cruiserweight Title corresponded with the dominant ratings streak that WCW went on from 1996 to 1998. Matches like this six-man tag were assaults on the senses, with their requisite barrages of offense – literally one “Holy Sh%!” moment after another – offering something that largely disregarded the way that many of us had been taught to think wrestling was formatted. It was just awesome to witness.
Get ready for some CWC on this list, folks. Putting the final in this spot admittedly feels a little bit weird to me considering how much I enjoyed it on the night, but when I re-watched the entire tournament right after diving head-first into WCW history, so many of the CWC bouts held up incredibly well against what has generally been considered the best crop of mainstream cruiserweight matches ever, but Perkins vs. Metalik really didn’t to me. It was by no means unsatisfying on rewatch, which I think is important to point out, but I just think both guys had so many other memorable performances in the CWC that, for whatever reason, their match against each other to close it out just felt like 80-85% of the truly great quality from both that tournament and the genre overall. I sometimes wonder what the division would have looked like post-CWC if the finalists and others who starred in the tournament would have simply been unleashed like Malenko, Misterio Jr., Ultimo, and others were in 1996 WCW. This list might have been 85% more difficult to put together.
I’m the type in real life that honestly just enjoys the process of things, defying the instant gratification craze that has otherwise gripped the world around me. Call me old school; I think it’s quite applicable. 205 Live’s booking approach is old school, man. If it wants to get someone over quickly, it doesn’t struggle (see Neville), but it otherwise takes its time, and I dig that. One of the examples of the value of the 205 Live brand’s original modus operandi was the success of Mustafa Ali. It takes time to build an audience for a wrestling show, especially when essentially starting from scratch without any big stars; careful, coherent, thoughtful booking is a requirement from the main-event slots each week to the rotation of undercard wrestlers in the opening segments. Ali, by the time 205 Live had existed for about eight months, sort of reminded me of Chris Jericho during his early days in WCW; he was that lower-tier babyface that was seemingly given the “we need to fill ten minutes tonight” spot, but who always took full advantage of that opportunity and used each chance given to prove he deserved more chances. Neville, of course, had been on a tear for months by the weeks leading up to WrestleMania 33, so Ali’s opportunity to translate what he had been quietly doing in the undercard to the 205 Live main-event against The King of the Cruiserweights was considerable; unsurprisingly, Ali made the most of it and delivered a powerhouse underdog performance that could be seen as the genesis point for the spot he has occupied on the purple brand for much of the last year.
When I was in college, downloading a bunch of matches on Limewire was the equivalent of what YouTube ended up being before WWE Network; I actually downloaded the entire WCW Sin pay-per-view back then for some reason. I thought it was awful, with the exception of this match. Dying days WCW wasn’t pretty, but there were some awesome cruiserweights back then, these four among them. Obviously, you recognize Noble, who had a respectable run in the WWE cruiserweight division with a lot of rock solid matches; Yang, as in Jimmy Wang (Akio), was a decent utility player for WWE in the mid-2000s as well. This was my pick for the best tag team match involving cruiserweights, as I primarily wanted this list to focus on singles wrestling; it narrowly edged out the finals of the Cruiserweight Tag Team Championship tournament at the very last WCW PPV, Greed, mainly because I thought it was a blast that never took itself too seriously, using the “let’s just go nuts out there” approach to getting noticed. Google the history between these guys in WCW and you’ll get a kick out of it.