Ringside Shadows #148: The WWF Light-Heavy Division: Can it Work?
When I look back at the '90s and early '00s, years and years from now, one issue is likely to stand head and shoulders over the rest. It isn't the reign of Rocky Maivia as WWF champion, nor is it Rikishi's head-on assault on racism in the sport. We'll likely have forgotten the rumors of WCW's sale, whether it eventually does go onto the auction block or not. No, the single most important progression facing the squared circle today is the little man, the high flyer, the light heavyweight, and his integration into a world formerly dominated by the hulking behemoths and slow movers.
It's blatantly obvious that, despite a notable collection of opposed parties, the smaller athlete will indeed find a spot in the main event of professional wrestling. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of the Dynamite Kid, Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit, the men who wouldn't have had a snowflake's chance in hell twenty years ago will be introduced to a whole new world by the time we're older. A world that's based on a much more even playing field, where your skill, dedication and love for the game have much more to do with your elevation than the body you were given by god. Where Dynamite's smaller frame held him from the chance he deserved as a single in the WWF of the 80s, his heir apparant, Chris Benoit, is reaping the benefits for both today. The smaller man is gaining more and more of a foothold in this sport, with Michaels solidifying that as WWF champion in the late '90s, but one question still remains; why don't they have their own division?
If the WWF hopes to remain on the cutting edge of the industry, they must move soon to create a sort of learning environment for these smaller athletes. The bigger men have the European belt to utilize in this manner, while the lightweights watch their title fading away slowly into the distance for the second time. In a federation that boasts one of the greatest rosters of all time, as well as the most successful booking team in history, to ignore this important part of the formula would be quite a mistake.
It's no secret that WCW's cruiserweight division is to credit for a great deal of the fed's continued success in the late 90s, keeping fans tuned in between the long Hogan promos and nWo sketches. I won't hide the facts, a fast-paced Malenko / Guerrero match during this same time period is what reeled me back into pro wrestling after an absence of several years. In many ways, the division was ahead of its time. Though fans were extremely involved in the matches with little or no necessary storyline, the men in charge weren't taking notice of it. The full impact of Shawn Michaels and his reign over in the WWF hadn't quite reached WCW by this time, and the main event was still dominated by larger men. Little or no effort was put behind elevating the most popular cruiserweights beyond their division, and the tremendous crossover potential was lost as morale between the recruits took a nose dive. Bischoff had the follow-up to his ultra successful nWo angle right under his nose with these guys, but refused to acknowledge it. WCW could have been the innovators, for the very first time.
Still, an upstart cruiser by the name of Chris Jericho was determined to bridge the gap between the organized main event and the oft-ignored cruiserweights. While the heavy hitters were given plenty of mic time, a recognizable plot thread to maintain crowd interest in lengthy feuds and longer matches, Jericho watched as the cruiserweights were given time for a title defense and little else. He saw his opening, stepped up to the plate and hit a home run, successfully creating a perfect blend of drama and action in the division he called home. He gave each cruiserweight a distinct personality, and gave fans even more reason to cheer them. As their heel champion, Jericho was loathed by fans, but gave the division more of a fighting chance than ever before. With his bridge nearly complete, Jericho embarked on what would have been a floodgate-opening feud with Bill Goldberg. He gave it his all, and the crowds had grown full of anticipation over the imminent collision between these two. And then, in what was to have been the division's shining moment, it all fell apart. The feud hit a wall, as Goldberg found himself talked out of it by certain members of the backstage booking committee. The big blowoff never happened, and the cruiser division soon collapsed upon itself as a result.
WCW's folly provides illustration to a relevant point: innovators never hesitate. When Bischoff and his underlings took a moment to think about the possible ramifications of a big cruiserweight elevation, they'd already sealed their own fate. Ditto for the WWF and their first two attempts at a light-heavyweight division. Both were started amidst much fanfare, the right talent and well wishes, but were eventually debated to death behind the scenes. Just as crowds were coming around to Dean Malenko and Scott Taylor's constant show-stealing performances, they were yanked from the rotation. Neither has gone anywhere since. There's a whole new world waiting to be discovered in this division, and once that realization is made, things will never be the same again. The WWF has to be willing to take a risk before they'll reap any benefits, and this is their big chance to shine.
Of course, when talk surfaces about a new division, the point is moot without the names to accompany. With the largest roster in many, many years, the WWF would have no problem providing enough talent to give the division the life it needs to attract more talent in the future. Rattling off the top of my head, I see the fed isn't doing anything with Crash Holly, Dean Malenko, Scott Taylor, Brian Christopher, Taka Michinoku, Essa Rios and, amazingly enough, Chris Jericho. They wouldn't really even miss anything by dragging X-Pac out of his upcoming feud with Billy Gunn and tossing him into the mix here, either. Given free reign to help recreate what made him in WCW, Jericho could attest to both the credibility of the belt and its challengers, as well as come up with a fun feud or two.
When you're presenting names for this division though, bar none the most important of them all is a man that wouldn't find a spot in front of the cameras... Terry Taylor. Responsible for many of WCW's greatest recruitments during the heyday of the cruiserweight division, as well as the bookings of many of its matches, Taylor is one of the greatest minds in the biz. I wouldn't think about starting a serious division without him by my side. Therein lies the problem, though, as he may be bound to his contract at Turner, and wasn't taken seriously by the WWF the last time he was there anyway. Still, I consider Taylor an essential for this division's success.
Almost as important as the matches themselves are their presentation to the common fan. Rather than wheeling these workers out, amidst little or no fanfare or introduction, the fed would have to get serious about boosting them beyond the level in which they reside currently. A perfect seed could have been laid with Taka Michinoku's strong showing against HHH several months ago, nearly stealing the WWF title in the process. This lightweght title should rival the Intercontinental gold in value, with the logical next step from a reign as champion being the main event. With Jericho already there, he could help the division immensely by jobbing the title early to an up and comer like Crash Holly or Essa Rios. Something would then have to be done to reaffirm Jericho's position in the company, along the lines of a big victory over Kane, HHH or the Rock, but the end result would far outweigh the immediate consequences.
These guys need storylines to make them work, promos to establish an identity before the fans, and set heel and face roles both in the division and in the federation as a whole. Cruiserweights should not be limited to the cruiser division, they could be challenging for the IC gold on one evening and the Light Heavy on the next. To deny them access to feuds outside the LHW division would show that nothing was learned from WCW's disaster in late '98. Fans need to take the belt seriously, and to do that they must respect the workers that battle for it. It would require the quick ascention of several men to near main event level, as well as the lowering of one or two that are on the brink of a breakthrough now. It's a hard decision, and one that would certainly piss off more than one worker backstage. It would be a risk.
But then, what was it I was saying about risks earlier...? Without them, you become stagnant, something that would kill the fed's cutting edge attitude with the fans. Audiences recognize when someone is betting all their marbles, and the response is never lukewarm. They either love it or they hate it. With the elimination of their biggest threat on the distant horizon, it would be easy for the WWF to rest on its laurels here. It would appear they can afford to take a breather or two, but in doing so would take themselves out of the flow. It's time for something new, something different. It's time to change the status quo. I'm of the firm belief that the Light Heavy Division could do all that and more... it could shape the future.
until next time, i remain