Last week, WWE unveiled the names of those taking part in the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic – featuring guys who qualified courtesy of matches in EVOLVE, PROGRESS and Rev Pro Wrestling… and a few familiar faces to boot.
There had been rumours of numerous guys being involved in the tournament, most of them being true, with some of the false rumours being due to injury – TNA alumn The Amazing Red was pencilled in for the tournament, but was omitted after picking up a knee injury, whilst Hideo Itami’s ongoing shoulder injury looks to have kept him out of a tournament that could have been used to make him a star. Speaking of… the former La Sombra, now Andrade “Cien” Almas, was originally pencilled in to make his debut in this tournament, but is now firmly placed in that folder marked “plans change” after making his debut at Takeover: The End in June.
Starting off with those familiar faces, The Brian Kendrick and Tajiri make their returns to WWE in this summer’s tournament, along with thirty other performers. Let’s take a look at who they are, and how far we reckon they’ll go:
Tajiri – broke into the American scene in late 1998 courtesy of ECW, where he partner with Steve Corino and remain a part of ECW until their closure in 2001. Tajiri made the leap to WWE and played the humourous role of assistant to then-WWE Commissioner William Regal (even if the whole thing was a little racist at times). He would stay in WWE for a little over four years, leaving in 2005 to return to Japan to focus on a new career as a journalist – a career that would see Tajiri return for a few one-off shots with WWE, as well as runs in All Japan, New Japan, HUSTLE, SMASH, Wrestle-1 and even TNA. Tajiri’s addition is certainly curious, but also a smart idea to get eyeballs on this show by bringing back names from the past. I don’t, however, see Tajiri making it beyond the quarter-finals….
Brian Kendrick – trained by Shawn Michaels, is making his latest return to WWE, after runs in 2003-2004, 2005-2009, and briefly between 2014-2015 in NXT. Kendrick’s first run started in 2003 as Spanky, following a run where he wrestled as a masked man, representing local sports teams. Aside from that, his first run did little, and it wasn’t until he left WWE and returned in 2005 where he became an important part of the roster, teaming with Paul London and being a tag team champion for almost a year. After being split by the WWE draft, Kendrick became a heel and became “The Brian Kendrick”, the sole highlight of which was Kendrick’s brief run as a “current WWE champion” during the Championship Scramble at Unforgiven 2008. That character eventually petered out as WWE predictably focussed on Kendrick’s “bodyguard” Ezekiel Jackson instead, and after being released in July 2009, Kendrick had brief runs in TNA, New Japan, and even NXT. Much like Tajiri, Kendrick’s inclusion is likely only designed to draw eyeballs to the product, rather than have him in as a ringer. Quarter-finals as best for the former interim/current WWE champion.
Gran Metalik – an interesting political move, the 27-year-old Mascara Dorada has joined the fray under a revamped version of a gimmick he last used in CMLL in 2008. Still wrestling for CMLL at time of writing, Dorada also featured regularly for New Japan until this past January. A regular champion in Mexico, having held the CMLL World Welterweight Championship four times (last dropping the belt this past May), Dorada’s move to WWE – even if it is just for the tournament – could well be seen as a testing for the waters from the nine-year veteran, whose mini was recently part of WWE, although he too was renamed, as El Torito! I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gran Metalik in the finals, but it would surely need WWE to sign him before that would happen.
Zack Sabre Jr. – renowned as one of, if not the best technical wrestler in the world, Zack Sabre Jr. was the man who broke Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan’s nine-year run of winning the Best Technical Wrestler award in Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s end-of-year awards. ZSJ winning the now-renamed Bryan Danielson Award came during a run in Japan’s Pro Wrestling NOAH, a promotion he left at the end of 2015 to focus on indie dates, and ZSJ has done a LOT of those. Currently the champion in Pro Wrestling Guerilla and Revolution Pro Wrestling, ZSJ comes into this tournament as one of the favourites, given his credentials, even if he “had” to enter the Cruiserweight Classic as a qualifier, beating “Flash” Morgan Webster by submission at PROGRESS’ “Practically Progress In Every Way” event this past April.
Noam Dar – somewhat of a veteran of the UK scene, at only 22, the Israeli-born Dar has done a fair bit in his wrestling career. Dar qualified with a win over Josh Bodom at a Revolution Pro Wrestling event in May, but since debuting at the age of 15, Dar is another of the British crew of wrestlers who’ve appeared for a litany of promotions. Dar’s fame has come a handful of them – namely, Scotland’s Insane Championship Wrestling, Preston City Wrestling, and also PROGRESS. The inaugural winner of ICW’s Zero-G title (similar to TNA’s X-Division belt), and the winner of PROGRESS’ World Cup tournament in 2014, Dar also featured for TNA in 2014/2015 as a part of the second season of British Bootcamp, as well as on the episodes of Impact taped in the UK in 2015.
Jack Gallagher – also having qualified in April’s “Practically Progress in Every Way” event, Gallagher is a ten-year veteran, including a stint in Japan for Zero-ONE and NOAH as Jack Anthony in 2013. These days, Gallagher looks more like Nigel Thornberry and plays the Simon Gotch character better than Gotch himself, and is even indulging in a bit of amateur MMA whilst turning out for the likes of PROGRESS, Grand Pro Wrestling and the Scottish Wrestling Alliance. Look out for “The Extraordinary Gentleman” to be something of a sleeper hit in the Cruiserweight Classic, focusing more on his mat skills than high-flying moves.
Drew Gulak – qualifying at the EVOLVE 61 event in May, Drew Gulak made his debut in 2005, just days short of his 18th birthday, and would form an integral part of Combat Zone Wrestling’s tag team division as the company looked to move away from their “blood and guts” format. Teaming with Andy Sumner, the “Team AnDrew” partnership won CZW tag team gold, but it wasn’t until Sumner’s disappearance from wrestling before Gulak broke out of the pack. These days, Gulak is getting most of his spotlight in the EVOLVE promotion, as a part of the Catch Point stable alongside Tracy Williams, Fred Yehi, TJ Perkins and ex-UFC fighter Matt Riddle, whilst also being one of the lead trainers for the EVOLVE/WWN training school.
TJ Perkins – qualifying with a win over Fred Yehi at EVOLVE 61, the 31-year old Perkins has already been wrestling for over seventeen years, in a career that has seen him wrestle for all manner of promotions. He’s been a part of Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and has had runs in TNA, first as Puma, and then as the last incarnation of Suicide before that gimmick was rechristened as Manik. Perkins left TNA at the start of the year, and has since made EVOLVE his home as a part of the Catch Point stable prior to qualifying for the Cruiserweight Classic… and whilst he’s not among the favourites, I’d expect TJP to go far.
Tony Nese – another qualifier from EVOLVE, Nese won a five-way match at June’s EVOLVE 63 event to make it to the tournament. Nese has been a part of the north-east independent scene for a long time, wrestling for the NYWC, FWE and PWS promotions, along with (of course) EVOLVE and their one-time sister group, Dragon Gate: USA. Previously a part of the “Premier Athlete Brand” stable with Caleb Konley (now of TNA), Nese has previous TV experience with TNA, albeit for a very brief run between 2011-2012, but his late addition to the tournament probably indicates that he isn’t likely to go all the way.
Lince Dorado – debuting in February 2007 as a part of CHIKARA’s King of Trios tournament, Dorado’s rookie year almost came to an end when he spiked himself doing a 450 Splash into a senton at a CHIKARA event in November of that year. Dorado left CHIKARA in 2011, and since been largely restricted to the Florida indy scene, where he won a qualifier in late May to make it to the Cruiserweight Classic.
Johnny Gargano – since making his televised WWE debut in NXT last September, Gargano has become an irregular feature of NXT, and has gotten something of a push to boot. Largely involved in tag team action with fellow tournament entrant Tommaso Ciampa, Gargano’s indy history reads like a roll call of top level promotions: ROH, CHIKARA, Dragon Gate, FIP, PWG… TNA haven’t had their hands on him yet, and it’ll be a while before that’s even a possibility. Gargano’s title history includes runs with EVOLVE and Dragon Gate USA titles, and given that he’s one of the faces of the tournament, I’d expect Gargano to make the semi-finals at least!
Tommaso Ciampa – originally debuting in NXT in tandem with Gargano for last year’s Dusty Rhodes Classic tag team tournament, Ciampa is another of the independent stars who’ve gotten WWE deals whilst still being able to work on the indy scene. Ciampa has prior form on WWE TV, appearing on SmackDown in July 2005 as a (gimmick) lawyer for Muhammad Hassan, coming a week after the ultra-controversial Hassan-led attack of the Undertaker that led to that character’s demise. In 2007, Ciampa signed a developmental deal and was part of Ohio Valley Wrestling, but injuries restricted him and he found himself released barely six months into his deal. It wasn’t until 2011 when Ciampa became a name on the indy scene, with his ROH deal seeing him thrust into prominence. A run with the company’s TV title helped, but Ciampa left the company in March 2015, and after going back to the indy scene – and wrestling extremely briefly for TNA – before WWE signed him to a Gargano-like deal with NXT. Again, one of the faces of the tournament, I wouldn’t be too surprised if Ciampa made it to the finals.
Rich Swann – currently under a full-time WWE developmental deal, Swann made his wrestling debut in 2008 but first came to prominence with Combat Zone Wrestling, before moving to the Dragon Gate USA/EVOLVE promotions in 2010. A good high-flier in the ring, Swann’s biggest gimmick came in his old ring entrance, when he used to sing Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” as his entrance theme. Since joining WWE in October 2015 – largely thanks to a tweet from the rapper Wale – Swann has been firmly part of NXT’s “home team”, staying behind in Florida whenever the stars travelled. He has made TV a few times, albeit in losing efforts to Baron Corbin and Finn Balor, and as he’s only just recovered from injury in time to make the final 32, I wouldn’t be too shocked if Swann didn’t quite last all tournament long…
Kota Ibushi – shown on NXT Takeover: Dallas, 2016 has been quite the year for Kota Ibushi. Having walked away from New Japan in a bid to create his own schedule after being ruled out of action “indefinitely” with a neck injury in November 2015. “Indefinitely” turned out to be a little over six months, as Ibushi returned to the ring in March for the DDT promotion in Japan, before wrestling for Kaiju Big Battel and WWN during their WrestleMania weekend events. Ibushi’s neck injury has led to him working a greatly reduced schedule, and would really make me question him winning this tournament.
Da Mack – based out of Germany’s Westside Xtreme Wrestling promotion, the 29 year old made his debut in 2008, and is the current WXW Shotgun champion (a title formerly held by current NXT talent Alexander Wolfe and one-time TNA jobber “Bad Bones” Jon Klinger). Having never wrestled outside of Germany before, this is the first time that Da Mack has had any real spotlight shone on him, but I wouldn’t expect Da Mack to freeze up.
Clement Petiot – otherwise known as Tristan Archer, the Amiens-born Frenchman has largely remained in mainland Europe, wrestling for groups in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Having debuted in 2009, Petiot has some experience against name talent, taking the fall in matches against Pac (now Neville) and El Ligero in his rookie year, the graduate of the Storm Wrestling Academy should have a good set of basics to work with in the first Cruiserweight Classic.
Fabian Aichner – the the 230-lb Italian is a former heavyweight champion from Alex Wright’s New European Championship Wrestling group. Having wrestled there as Adrian Severe, Aichner has wrestled in England in the past on the All Star Wrestling-promoted Butlins holiday camp shows, but given his weight-limit busting size, I wouldn’t expect Aichner to be leaving the mat too much.
Harv Sihra & Gurv Sihra – much like Mascara Dorada, this too is an interesting move. At the time of their announcement, the Sihra brothers wrestled as the Bollywood Boyz, primarily for the Elite Canadian Championship Wrestling group and also Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling, for whom the Sihras are currently their tag team champions. These Canadian brothers are more reknowned for their work in tag matches, but their addition certainly adds a little international credibility, not least in terms of their gimmick!
Cedric Alexander – a former mainstay of Ring of Honor, Alexander left the promotion earlier this year after being there for almost six years. Originally debuting with Caprice Coleman in a tag team called the C&C Wrestle Factory, Alexander went into singles action and was a memorable – if not successful – part of ROH. Alexander’s final year in ROH saw him work heel, after using a wrench to beat Moose and end the former NFL offensive tackle’s unbeaten run in the company last year; however, after having little success as a heel, Alexander opted to leave ROH and try his luck in pastures new.
Akira Tozawa – a ten-year veteran of the Japanese scene, Tozawa made his name in the Dragon Gate promotion, but has tested the American waters before, with appearances for PWG, CZW, CHIKARA and EVOLVE. Currently one-third of Dragon Gate’s “Open The Triangle Gate” six man champions, Tozawa is by no means done in Japan, but at the age of 30, if he does have aspirations of following Shinsuke Nakamura and the former KENTA into WWE, the time really is now. Tozawa will go far, but I don’t expect him to go all the way.
Ho Ho Lun – an eyebrow raiser when his name was included in the initial press releases for the Cruiserweight Classic, the Hong Kong-born Lun well and truly fits the bill for the tournament, weighing in at 168lbs. The self-proclaimed “Hong Kong Cool Star” is a complete unknown to all but the most ardent of worldwide wrestling fans, save for those who saw his matches in the UK a few years back for 4 Front Wrestling and ATTACK! Pro Wrestling. About to enjoy his first worldwide exposure, Lun will need to embrace the opportunity of a lifetime and hope for everything to fall into place, should this develop into anything more for a handful of bookings.
Anthony Bennett – a product of the New Jersey-based Monster Factory wrestling school, Bennett is extremely small at 5’6” and 150lbs – the kind of wrestler that Vince would never let appear on Raw – but could well be a surprise hit, depending on how kind the draw is to him.
Tyson Dux – a former veteran of WWE’s Velocity and Heat shows (albeit as enhancement talent), the 37 year old Dux has been places, even if luck hasn’t been on his side. A knee injury in a 2004 Velocity match against Mark Jindrak seemed to prevent WWE from following up interest in him, but Dux kept on going, and is now in his 19th year in wrestling. At 200lbs, Dux just sneaks under the weight limit, but his entry in the tournament is seen as a reward for a long and respected career.
Sean Maluta – the latest in the ever-growing line of Samoans, the 27-year-old Maluta has wrestled the bulk of his career in the World Xtreme Wrestling promotion, owned by Afa. Having debuted in 2008, this is again Maluta’s first big break in the wrestling world – and depending on how he performs in the tournament, having a famous uncle could well bode well for his future, but I don’t see Maluta progressing far in the tournament.
Raul Mendoza – better known as Jinzo to those who closely follow the Mexican scene, the 24 year old Mendoza made his debut in 2009, and has wrestled for AAA, Pro Wrestling NOAH and the DTU promotion out of Mexico. Billed by WWE at 155lbs, Mendoza at least fits the bill when it comes to “generic, non-masked luchadores” for this tournament. Keep a close eye on this one – he could yet be the next guy WWE tries to make “the next Rey Mysterio”…
Kenneth Johnson – billed by WWE at 5’11 and 180lbs, this Detroit native is better known on the Texas independent scene as Weazy Woo. Undoubtedly this is Johnson’s big break, and coming from relative wrestling obscurity should mean that he’ll arrive unburdened – and without the pressure to live up to the hype that would otherwise follow them.
Alejando Saez – based out of Chile, Saez – aka XL or Xtra Large – does not look a cruiserweight in his WWE-released photo… and you can probably guess why just by his Chilean gimmicks! The 29 year old has been wrestling for over a decade, and has a few tours of Pro Wrestling NOAH under his belt from back in 2014….
Damian Slater – heading out of Adelaide, the 29 year old Slater has spent the vast majority of his career in his native Australia, and is the current Wrestle Rampage champion. Trained by fellow tournament entrant TJ Perkins, Slater has already had encounters with Masato Tanaka and the Young Bucks… as well as current NXT stars Shinsuke Nakamura, Shane Haste and Mikey Nicholls (now Shane Thorn and Nick Miller of TM61). Despite not leaving Australia, he’s got the experience – but will he be able to make it count?
Jason Lee – another Hong Kong-born wrestler, Lee has wrestled a lot for the Zero-ONE promotion out of Japan, and appeared on the same UK tour as Ho Ho Lun did in 2013. Having held Zero-ONE’s World Junior Heavyweight and International Junior Heavyweight titles, Lee comes into the Cruiserweight Classic with some credentials, but will have to overcome the bright lights of the WWE in order to make the most of his big shot.
Arya Daivari – best known as the brother of former WWE star Shawn Daivari, Arya has largely wrestled around the midwest for promotions like F1RST Wrestling, DreamWave and AAW. Having been in the business for ten years, Arya would do well to shed any semblance of the stereotypical anti-American gimmick that his brother portrayed, especially given recent events. As for how far he’d progress, I don’t see Arya going far in this tournament.
Prince Mustafa Ali – a late replacement for Zumbi, Prince Mustafa Ali is a thirteen-year veteran, having spent most of his career in the mid-west. In terms of mainstream, prior to this, his biggest moment would have been in CHIKARA’s Young Lion’s Cup in 2009, and a dark match battle royal win at a ROH event in 2010. As a late replacement, you’d wager that Ali isn’t going to go far.
Zumbi – (removed from the tournament due to visa issues, but here’s his profile anyway!) like Da Mack, this is the first time that this 31 year old Brazilian has had any mainstream attention, in spite of a lengthy career in Mexico which has seen him appear briefly in AAA and the Perros del Mal promotions. Having never even heard of Zumbi before, I looked up a match of his from YouTube – albeit from 2013 – and I don’t have high hopes. Some of his strikes looked like they’d been inspired by that Cage Tyler/Kris Sprules match, and barring a massive improvement, Zumbi looks like he’ll be one of the first eliminations.
The WWE Cruiserweight Classic starts taping at Full Sail University on June 23, with further tapings on July 14 and August 26 ahead of the live finals on September 14, with the series set to debut on July 13 at 9pm ET on the WWE Network.