”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: Who is the best cruiserweight of all-time in your opinion?
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.
Jericho really found his character in 1998, and we begin the countdown with one of the handful of his merely “good” matches against The Man of 1,000 Holds, who will be featured – it should be noted – many more times than Y2J on this list, because it exemplifies an important lesson that Vince McMahon and comparable thinkers would be wise to learn about cruiserweight wrestling: it has proven to be a vehicle for all-time greats of the WrestleMania Era to be cultivated early in their careers. Jericho, Guerrero, Mysterio…we cannot ignore the fact that stars of that stature got their starts in a division best known for its distinct in-ring style and, even if this particular match is not the best representative of that style, what it does represent is how entertaining the cruiserweight genre can be from a personality standpoint while concurrently offering in-ring action unique to everything else on the show.
I have always felt that Vinnie Mac underestimated the curiosity people have toward the complexity capable of being featured inside the squared circle. Take someone like Jack Gallagher and the things that he can do in the ring, for instance; why would a crowd not react if they saw a wrestler tie his opponent into a human ball? Obviously, that is not the same thing as the awe inspired by a living, breathing human giant like Big Show, but it is odd and most have never seen it before so therefore it is visually appealing. This was one of the most fun matches of the entire Cruiserweight Classic, which was just a marvelous achievement from top to bottom in 2016. The simplicity that Tozawa brought all the way to the quarter-finals with his primal intensity and bridging German suplex-pin finisher combined with Gallagher’s charm and grappling panache was just a joy to watch.
To some, this might be the first real surprise on the list, as this match is held in somewhat high regard by mostly WWE fans who had never seen anything like it before. To be honest, I have never shared that same resonance with it considering that I was actually an NWA fan before I became a WWE homer and subsequently never stopped keeping my eye on the NWA-turned-WCW product until the dying days of the Monday Night War; though the action in Taka vs. Sasuke deserves to be celebrated, it does not match-up very well against the matches from the WCW division of the same period, and that may just boil down to talent. Sasuke and Taka were great and deserve recognition, but their match against each other in July 1997 was not something that can be compared favorably even to bouts that will also be mentioned today in the #41-#47 section.
Technically, this was for the WCW Television Title, but it was basically a cruiserweight match and I would have felt a little strange not including Wright somewhere on the list. Das Wunderkind was an amusing, dancing, more muscular version of Zack Sabre, Jr. and an underrated performer from WCW’s peak period. Dragon, set to dominate this list much like Malenko, was just an absolutely outstanding wrestler. If all that you remember of him was his disappointing WWE run, which took place after he had lost several steps and after WWE had already down-shifted from its peak interest in the cruiserweight genre of wrestling, then do yourself a favor and make note of every time his name is listed over the next few weeks. Wright was by no means his finest opponent, but Dragon went on such a tear for about a year in WCW that even a really good match compared to his great ones to be mentioned later deserved praise. This was an interesting mix in styles, as Wright did not necessarily fit any particular stylistic category. I admired the simplicity of it amidst my gigantic viewing of about sixty more diverse performances.
My 205 Live viewing habit is to watch right before I go to bed, so I am often drifting into sleepy mode by the time the main-event is wrapping up. The thing that stood out to me about Kendrick vs. Tozawa when I watched it live was its creativity – a level of creativity that kept me awake and engaged a little bit more so last May than on the average. Upon rewatch, however, the creativity on display, while still noteworthy, was not nearly as engaging and, since I was watching it in comparison to other cruiserweight matches that have stood the test of time, I honestly found myself a bit bored by it. Marrying together my original opinion with my most recent one, it was still a very good match, but I get the feeling that if you view it against its peers as I did, you may come to think of it like a great representation of what WWE thinks cruiserweight wrestling should be – a smaller version of their grander main brands – and thus not find it as visually appealing as what cruiserweight wrestling has built its reputation upon these past twenty some-odd years.
It should be clearly noted that the frame of mind in which you watch any wrestling match of any sports entertainment genre is influential to the opinion that you shape of it, and maybe that came into play by ranking Z-Man vs. Pillman ahead of Kendrick-Tozawa, but I honestly think that had little to do with it. Z-Man, who you might better remember as Tom Zenk of the Can-Am Connection that opened the show at WrestleMania III, was a former tag partner of Pillman’s and the story told of their friendship being tested as tempers flared was very engaging to me. I had never seen this match before The WCW Legacy Series on LOP Radio brought it to my attention in their WrestleWar ’92 podcast, but I found myself thoroughly entertained by it both a couple of years ago and just recently. The moves do not compare well with matches even four years later; off-set they are, though, by the escalating drama.
I have a feeling that The WCW Legacy Series co-host and LOP Columns Hall of Famer, Mizfan, is going to be happy to see this make the cut but also maybe a little disappointed to see this so low. I felt like The Japanese Buzzsaw had to make the list. Only the best match that a cruiserweight pairing had together was included to open up room for further exploration of the topic at hand, and I have always been apt to think that Tajiri’s matches with Mysterio were the best of his WWE career. I never felt like they had an amazing match, that they were always instead on the cusp of greatness, but you certainly will find their 12-minutes of action each time out during the final stages of the very brief cruiserweight peak in WWE entertaining.
Rey Rey is obviously going to be among the most frequently talked about talents over the next several weeks, with much of his WCW work getting its rare but more than fair share of the limelight. Most of his work from those days blows the majority of the field out of the water, while his title defense against Super Calo, an interesting looking luchador with a mask that featured sewn in sunglasses and a sewn on hat, more appropriately sits here toward the back of the pack. WCW’s Cruiserweight division was really just starting to get going at that time, with Misterio Jr. one of the few charged with leading the way. Calo was a somewhat random challenger, but he dominated much of the match to set-up a typically thrilling comeback by Rey. The finishing sequence, which made use of the two rings prepared for the War Games main-event, is one of the forgotten all-time highlights of Misterio’s career; it’s worth watching this match just to see it.
Much as was the case nineteen years prior with Jericho vs. Malenko, the strength of the best Ali vs. Gulak match in 2017 was the story behind it. Gulak came across in the CWC in 2016 as a robotic personality who could wrestle good technical matches, almost like a poor man’s Malenko. Then, out of nowhere last year, he started the character that he has maintained to this day, campaigning for a “better 205 Live” by suggesting a “No Fly Zone,” aka placing a limit on the aerial tactics that make someone like Ali exciting to watch in favor of Gulak’s own ground-and-pound approach. Their payoff was smart and understated, the quintessential Gulak match based on the body of work he has amassed in 205 Live’s young history; it was never meant to blow you away aesthetically so much as it was meant to tell a psychologically sound story. The tale of the high-flyer and the technical grappler is age old in cruiserweight wrestling, but has perhaps never quite been so overtly told as in Ali vs. Gulak. If you’re a thinking fan, this one’s for you.
As we wrap up Day 1, this Four Corner’s Match makes apparent something that I want you to understand about my cruiserweight wrestling fandom, which is that my expectations for psychologically-sound wrestling are lower for the cruiserweight genre; I am perfectly fine with a bunch of stunts with a higher degree of difficulty and have a greater proclivity to forgive mistakes in execution accordingly. Therefore, something extraordinarily fun like this one, a popcorn cruiserweight match in a similar vein as stunt-brawl Ladder matches, is what I would choose to watch over the previous match if push came to shove, at least at this stage of the process. Amidst the lapses in logic and the ridiculously telegraphed finish, there were some awesome sequences. Look out for Kidman and Juve to make several splashes on this countdown too.