Monday, November 21, 2016

The Cruiserweights Were Dead on Arrival

In all truth, this match last night never had a chance
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The Cruiserweight Classic was an unmitigated critical success for WWE, perhaps the most resounding critical success the company has ever had for a prolonged series of shows. Granted, limited event series in wrestling are rare, and most companies, WWE or otherwise, have almost never gone into such a venture with a solid end date in mind1, so comparing it to single shows or timeframes of longer-running shows like RAW seems disingenuous. Still the point is, the CWC ran for ten weeks, and in those ten weeks, the fruit that grew upon its branches was sweet and substantial. Every show was a hit, at least with the fans in attendance at Full Sail and those who took the time out to watch on The Network at home. The plan all along seemed to parlay the tournament into a division on RAW, which I had always been skeptical about.

As it turns out, and I hate gloating about this because I'd rather be wrong and happy to watch great wrestling than right in my grizzled cynicism, well, I was right in my grizzled cynicism. The goodwill from the Cruiserweight Classic evaporated into the aether as RAW writers thought it best to build a division, not by letting guys throw down as they had for ten magical weeks in the summer, but by saddling them with clunky stories and stilted dialogue. The crowd reactions grew more erratic and ultimately dimmer until last night at Survivor Series, when Kalisto and Brian Kendrick couldn't even get an arena-wide pop for a Spanish Fly spot from the apron to the floor. Baron Corbin went all NIMBY on the "little pests'" asses, and now, the division feels more tenuous than an Elizabeth Taylor marriage2.

However, what if I were to be the memed version of Morpheus to your Neo and told you that the terrible booking had nothing to do with the death of the cruiserweight division? What if I were to tell you that landing on Smackdown with its more nurturing support structure and better storytelling may not have helped either? What if I were to tell you that the cruiserweight division was doomed from the moment that WWE officials had the bright idea to parlay the tournament into a separate division on one of its flagship shows? The stillbirth of the 205 revolution was easier to predict than the conservative response to Vice Fascist-elect Mike Pence getting booed at a showing of Hamilton. The cruiserweights were doomed to fail because it wasn't something the audience hadn't seen before, and in fact, the spirit of the original cruiserweight division was already embedded in WWE's current DNA.

To understand why lighter, smaller wrestlers got to be such a big deal, one has to go back to the '80s, when one had to be larger than life to get a serious look from most wrestling promoters. Even "smaller" wrestlers like Ric Flair or Bret Hart checked in at robust weights over 230 lbs. Long story short, it took "Dynamite Kid" Tom Billington and the first Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama, to start doing relatively crazy shit for their time to get people to notice the smaller wrestlers. Their feud kickstarted a revolution that turned into the New Japan Pro Wrestling junior heavyweight division that turned eventually into the World Championship Wrestling cruiserweight division.

WCW's take on light-heavyweight wrestling was a refreshing kick in that company's ass, and in American mainstream wrestling's ass in general, because the main event scene was littered with plodding big men or more "technical" wrestlers who worked a more grounded style. So when guys like Rey Misterio, Jr., Psicosis, Ultimo Dragon, Eddy Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Juventud Guerrera, [REDACTED], and Dean Malenko started having bomb-ass matches every week that involved flips, dives, and enhanced workrate, it became the change of pace that Monday Nitro needed, the citrus that cuts through the richness, or the Darren Sproles that flips the pace of a LaDanian Tomlinson if you will.

Their influence was so great, however, that they transcended their weight class. [REDACTED] got so big that he jumped weight classes while still in WCW, but when he and Jericho and Guerrero and eventually Misterio (who became Mysterio) went to WWE, they for the most part weren't shoehorned into the cruiserweight (or in WWE nomenclature, light heavyweight) division, or if they were, they transcended it right quickly. All four of those wrestlers ended up holding some form of the Heavyweight Championship. Mysterio won a Royal Rumble, for crying out loud. The crescendo of the smaller guy working in the land of giants came when Daniel Bryan was tasked with carrying the workload on RAW every week, which culminated in him closing perhaps the most memorable and best quality WrestleMania in the event's history.

By the time the nostalgia-drunk suits at Titan Towers got the idea to run this tournament to lead into a division, WWE had already absorbed the fast-paced, high-workrate style into its bloodstream. Not only were smaller wrestlers getting equal time with the giants, but even the giants started doing the visually impressive moves that were the domain of only cruiserweights in 1998. John Cena was out there busting out Yoshi Tonics in big matches. Cesaro was doing springboard corkscrew European uppercuts. Everyone from Neville to Roman Reigns did a dive to the outside. Having a separate division was superfluous; Jericho, Mysterio, and the rest won the culture war.

So when WWE decides to build upon the CWC and turn it into a division, what is it actually providing to the crowd at large? The answer is "Not a whole fucking lot" to be honest. These cruiserweights were introduced into an environment where everyone else was doing the things they were supposedly known for. The brand name "cruiserweight" held positive cache only for hardcore fans with long memories; for the rest, it probably brought up connotations of inferiority. Much like the supposed feelings of brand loyalty during the split or any kind of story kickstarted by an authority figure like Mick Foley, Stephanie McMahon, or Bryan right now, the entire oeuvre of the cruiserweight division has felt and will continue to feel hollow.

The big boys, the ones who are competing for the big boy belts, they can survive hollow. But something new, or in this case, something revived from a corpse that needed to die so that the biz could live and evolve, cannot survive hollow. Anyone associated with the division was going to be dead on arrival from a standpoint of longterm viability, at least if they were continued to be tied to that anchor of a label. Obviously, since pro wrestling is such a dynamic business and heat is mostly elastic, individual wrestlers can and will survive. Rich Swann, Cedric Alexander, Brian Kendrick, and eventually Gran Metalik, Jack Gallagher, and Akira Tozawa all have a certain "it" factor that will allow them to thrive away from the cruiserweight label. It's already happening in NXT. Alexander is getting big reactions, and the two most over wrestlers on the entire roster not named Shinsuke Nakamura are Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, both alumni of the CWC, but both embedded in other narratives.

The key words are "other narratives" here. The Cruiserweight Classic was fine because it was a niche product for a niche audience that was produced with the utmost of care by management and with the strongest desire to produce great results from the competitors. But in the grander scheme of things in WWE, the cruiserweight division was a flower too delicate to thrive, dependent on too many variables that had the slimmest of margins to all come together. When you drink from the pool of nostalgia too much, you lose focus of what the real landscape looks like, and if the last 20 years of WWE history have shown anything, it's that Vince McMahon and his cronies wish that they could party like it's 1999 every single day of the rest of humanity's sorry existence on this watery rock. If WWE really wants all these new signees to make a difference, it has to scratch this cruiserweight division and let these wrestlers do what is best with everyone else within the greater, integrated narratives. This group of wrestlers is far too talented to be shackled to the expectations of the past.

1 - Chikara had the aptly named Journey into Chikara last year running on its streaming service and YouTube channel for a markedly limited run. Other than this and the Cruiserweight Classic, I can't think of any other limited-by-design run in wrestling history.

2 - Be careful with that reference; it's an antique!