The Cruiserweight division is doomed.
Don’t think so? A look into the history of the lightweights inside a WWE ring and the events that took place so far will give an indication of a rather lackluster direction in the future.
First, it’s well-known that the WWE will always be considered a “big man territory” and as long as Vince McMahon chooses the philosophy for the promotion, that’s just a matter of fact. Granted, there were exceptions, mostly notably Daniel Bryan a few years ago, but we all know how long it took before the machine got behind him.
After the Cruiserweight division gained popularity on Nitro in WCW, the WWF’s answer was a light heavyweight tournament in 1997. Through a working agreement with Michinoku Pro, Taka and a few others participated in the tournament, as well as various luchadors from Mexico. Taka, one of the young stars in Japan at the time, won the title, but the emphasis on smaller competitors was relatively brief during the Attitude era. Following that, the belt didn’t get much of the spotlight with the exception of when it was used as an introduction for Rey Mysterio when he debuted in 2002.
After the CWC on the WWE Network garnered rave reviews earlier this year, the full-fledged return of the division was announced for September. In the two months that CWs have performed on WWE TV, it became clear that the division isn’t a priority for WWE brass. When TJ Perkins won the CWC, he was awarded the championship, but dropped it shortly after that to Brian Kendrick. When Kendrick won the title at the HIAC pay-per-view, the bout was sandwiched in an odd spot on the card and thus received a lukewarm crowd reaction at best, which made it sound as if the audience couldn’t care less during the broadcast.
In my opinion, this was the first pivotal mistake that was made and switching the title so quickly essentially didn’t give Perkins the amount of time necessary to establish himself as a star. Keep in mind, the network has 1.5 million subscribers while Raw draws roughly three million viewers so at least half of Raw viewers aren’t familiar with the CWC. When TJ dropped the belt, he basically became just another crusierweight. At the same time, Kendrick kept the title for a short time and then dropped it so while the fans know him, it’s not as though Brian Kendrick had an opportunity to reestablish himself either. That predicament summarizes the CW division as a whole, it’s a collection of tremendous athletes that is virtually unknown to the majority of the WWE audience.
This is where it’s important to present a specific character for each competitor in the division because when everyone wrestles a similar style, competitors will often become interchangeable without anyone standing out as unique and thus being viewed as generic. Cedric Alexander is a great athlete, but what sets him apart from the other CWs? Drew Gulak is a tremendously skilled technician, but what does the fan base know about him besides that he’s a technical wrestler? TJ Perkins’ video game based entrance could be used to enhance his popularity, especially within the PG product, but he didn’t get the spotlight long enough to become a star to a new audience.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a jab at anyone in the division, but a TV product is viewed differently by a different demographic than an independent show or even a WWE network show geared toward the diehard fans. Alexander and Gulak as great in-ring workers in their respective styles are enough to win over the crowd at an Evolve show because that demographic is there specifically for the in-ring product, but when they are on the same show as Roman Reigns or Kevin Owens, what makes them stand out?
Truthfully, aside from a few video packages, WWE brass haven’t done much on Raw to truly establish the characters of the CW division and believe it or not, adding 205 Live to the network schedule will only complicate the problem. As mentioned, roughly half of the WWE TV audience subscribes to the network so if a storyline starts on the 205 show and continues on Raw, most of the viewing audience won’t be familiar with what took place. In theory giving the CWs their own show would help them, but unless the division is exclusive to that show, it will create confusion when storylines progress to Raw.
Another aspect to take into consideration is that the WWE will obviously have some restrictions on what their performers can do in the ring as a safety precaution so the CW division isn’t exactly a translation of an indy match on Raw. That being said, the crusierweight style that was unique twenty years ago is much more common place now and isn’t just used by lightweights so it doesn’t stand out as much as it did previously. For example, Dean Ambrose and Luke Harper both do dives through the ropes so some maneuvers that were once performed almost exclusively by lightweights won’t get the same reaction in the CW division now. Plus, you have to take into account that there are generally more risks on WWE programming now than in years prior so the CW aerial moves won’t get the same reaction either. That might not be a wise direction for the business considering the amount of injuries that occur, but the point is, the audience watches high risk spots in a variety of matches on the card so establishing CW characters will give the division a chance for longevity instead of a short term project.
There’s no doubt that the CW division has the talent to get over with the causal WWE fans, but it’s a matter of how it’s booked and presented to the audience. So far, nobody has been the champion long enough to make themselves a star, and the matches on Raw usually seem like throw together matches of random wrestlers without any continuity. As mentioned, there’s also the 205 Live situation where angles could get lost in translate to the Raw audience. The current champion Rich Swann is a tremendously talented and an extremely charismatic athlete with a unique background so he could get over as a major baby face. The problem is, what heels are in the division that generate heat? Again, it goes back to establishing different personas among the CWs.
It’s booking 101 that a heel that gets heat can help a baby face get over with the crowd, and right now the lightweights don’t have that dynamic to progress angles.
For all of WCW’s mistakes, the Cruiserweight division was given an the amount of time to establish itself, mostly because it provided the bell-to-bell action that some of the older talent on the roster couldn’t deliver. While WCW had a different and arguably ineffective long-term business model as a promotion, at least the time necessary to get the CW division over was invested on Nitro. Assuming Rich Swann or any other cruiserweight for that matter, gets over as a major star, where would they go from there? Are they pigeonholed in the CW division or is the potential of a main event run a possibility? If there’s a glass ceiling for anyone competing at 205 then the chances of the project being successful are already limited.
Obviously, it remains to be seen how the prospect of the 205 division develops, but if the past few months are any indication, I would say it will flounder because of the lack of proper time to establish it. The talent of the CWs is undeniable so it has nothing to do with a particular wrestler, but more to do with the decision making for the division. The WWE is a global entity, and the company has to use its resources to promote and maintain various revenue streams so it’s possible that an entirely new division with a possibly limited demographic isn’t the top priority for them. That’s not to say Vince McMahon is sitting behind his desk plotting ways to bury the CWs either, just more the fact that historically, lightweights aren’t usually booked in a prominent role on WWE TV.
So, the CWs will probably get lost in the shuffle of the WWE landscape on Raw, but they might have a better chance of success if their matches were showcased exclusively on the WWE network, both because of the demographic of the subscribers to the streaming service and for the continuity of the angles. Regardless, I hope the Cruiserweights get a chance because there are several talented competitors in the division.
Until next week
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