This summer’s Global Cruiserweight Series marks the first time in almost twenty years that WWE has held a tournament focussing on the high flyers. In the midst of a ratings war with WCW, WWE attempted to do a copy-and-paste job from WCW’s successful cruiserweight group, but with the expected results from a company that was long considered to be the “Land of the Giants”.
In late 1997, WWE held an eight-man tournament to crown a new Light Heavyweight champion. Although the company technically already had a Light Heavyweight champion, in the sixteen-year history of that title, the belt never once appeared on WWE television, with the championship instead floating around the Universal Wrestling Association promotion in Mexico, before New Japan took ownership of the title for a few years.
During those two years in Japan, the WWE Light Heavyweight title was a part of the famed J-Crown collection of titles, which also featured belts from New Japan, the NWA, Michinoku Pro, and CMLL, amongst others. This led to the rather unique situation where the WWE-owned belt appeared on their US rival’s television, back when Ultimo Dragon appeared in WCW whilst also being holder of the J-Crown.
In November 1997, the J-Crown was split up, and the WWE got the belt back under their control, after it had been held by the likes of Perro Aguayo (father of the late Perro Aguayo Jr.), Gran Hamada, Chris Benoit (as Pegasus Kid), Jushin “Thunder” Liger and of course, Ultimo Dragon. So, who would WWE throw into their tournament to follow in their footsteps? To put it mildly – it was a rather mixed bag!
Out of the 8 men, you had the international stars of the present (and future) who were clearly ringers – with Taka Michinoku, Aguila (who would later have a slightly larger push in WWE as Essa Rios) and Super Loco (better known to American fans as Super Crazy). The rest of the tournament was filled with guys who fit WWE’s mould of “light heavyweight”, as opposed to the high-flying image of “cruiserweights” from WCW, with Devon Storm (the future Crowbar), OVW mainstay Flash Flanagan, the future Too Cool team of Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor… and an unknown by the name of Eric Shelley. If you’re wondering “who’s he?”, you’re not alone, and the fact that this tournament seemed to be the highlight of Shelley’s career pretty much says it all.
The bracketing for the tournament was messed up from the start – although it’s clear that WWE wanted to kick off the arrival of the light heavyweights with a bang, but when week one of the tournament featured Aguila vs. Loco, week two had Taka vs. Storm, and week three had Taylor vs. Shelley, you knew that the company was running thin on talent to keep such a division alive. In the weeks ahead of the tournament, WWE tried to whet the fans’ appetites for the Light Heavyweight division… with a match between Fantastics team-mates Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers, whilst WWE tried to sell the fans on Scott Putski as a light heavyweight. One quick Google search for Scott Putski will show you just how ridiculous that was, especially as he was later billed at the 275lb mark!
In defence of WWE, the tournament started in November 1997 – just days before the events of Montreal gave the company a major kicking, which would be a somewhat justifiable reason for panicking and losing focus. Sadly, the warning signs were there from the start…
Week one saw Aguila defeat Super Loco in a solid, but short match – a trend that largely summarised the entire division. At just 19, Aguila was being groomed for a starring role in the light heavyweight division, but was prone to the odd slip-up which are probably featured in a Botchamania somewhere. The following week, we had another five-minute match, with Taka Michinoku advancing over Devon Storm. Another five minute outing came the week after, with a basic match between Scott Taylor and Eric Shelley serving as window dressing for an angle involving Jeff Jarrett. Brian Christopher’s win over Flash Flanagan in week four was the shortest, and the worst, of the opening round matches, as WWE rushed the tournament’s semi finals into the Raw before the In Your House: D-Generation X pay-per-view.
In a shade over six minutes, Taka Michinoku vs. Aguila was effectively the company trolling the fans in hindsight, as this was a great teaser for what the division could have been… as opposed to what we saw in the other semi-final, when Brian Christopher gained his place in the final against Taka by forfeit after his opponent, Scott Taylor, was wiped out by Kane before the match. We hadn’t even crowned the first WWE-decided Light Heavyweight champion, and already the division was being used as a way to provide the big boys with easy targets.
Although Taka Michinoku won the final, and the title, his appearances on Raw were limited as WWE’s weekend shows quickly became Taka’s hunting grounds. By the end of 1998, the Light Heavyweight title was reduced to a prop for Gillberg – WWE’s attempt at mocking WCW’s runaway star Bill Goldberg, by tweaking long-time enhancement talent Duane Gill.
As WWE entered the new millennium, more focus was placed on the Light Heavyweight division, particularly following the arrival of Dean Malenko in January 2000, followed by the acquisition of WCW the following year. Whilst matches between Malenko and Scott Taylor won rave reviews, it wasn’t too long before the smaller guys were firmly pushed to the back burner, forcing fans who were more interested in watching high-flying talent to seek out alternatives, such as TNA (well, before their X-Division was forgotten about!)
The WWE’s division saw a brief revival in the mid 2000s, as the rebranded Cruiserweight title became a staple of SmackDown during Brand Split days, but once Hornswoggle defeated Chavo Guerrero for the title in July 2007, the final nail was being hammered into the cruiserweight coffin.
There has been much debate over whether the word “cruiserweight” should even feature in the title of WWE’s latest Network show, with some citing that the later years of WWE’s Cruiserweight division has tainted the brand entirely. However, it all depends on how the new brand is portrayed. If the Global Cruiserweight Series is nothing but cruiserweights, then it has a chance – but the second there’s even a hint of cross-pollination with established heavyweight performers, then we can all be cynical. And as soon as we see the Big Show in the ring at the same time as any of the GCS competitors, then we may as well call the whole thing off!
- In the weeks leading up to the Global Cruiserweight Series, we’ll be covering some of WWE’s best – and worst – Light Heavyweight and Cruiserweight matches as part of our Random Reviews articles.