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Y2J: Chris Jericho

The Ultimo Dragon

Eddie 'Latino Heat' Guerrero

Slobberknockers abound
Ringside Shadows #160: Rebirth: The WCW Cruiserweight Legacy (Part I of III)

The WCW Cruiserweight division has come a very long way in its relatively brief history. Once the finest collection of juniors, light heavies, cruisers and luchas in the world, the gold became tarnished in the late '90s. Where the Chris Jerichos, Dean Malenkos and Ultimo Dragons had spent years building, expanding and maturing the division into what many consider the strongest division in wrestling history, it took Vince Russo, Kevin Sullivan and company less than six months to completely destroy any credibility these huge names had mustered with their combined talents.

Granted, the division wasn't exactly at its most healthy when Russo and Ferrara took over in October of '99... many of the big names had either bolted to another promotion or been handed their pink slip in the months before. With the departure of Eric Bischoff, the division was completely at a loss. There's little denying his introduction of a lightweight division was one of the most consecutively worthwhile decisions he'd ever made, and I'm sure its success with audiences owed quite a bit to his work behind the scenes, allotting time for matches and recruiting the biggest names in the business. When Eric was unceremoniously dumped from his seat of power, his pet project, the cruiserweight division, was certainly hit the hardest. Chris Jericho read the writing on the wall and fled to the WWF while the option was still open, but the luchador population was slowly trimmed back to nothing. Still, the cruiserweight gold was far from a premature demise before Madusa, Evan Karagias and Oklahoma gutted it from the inside out.

Now that Bischoff has returned, there's been something of a fire lit under the division once again. New faces have popped up to claim the spots abandoned by their predecessors, while many old ones have returned to breathe in the nostalgia and once more do what they do best.

The cruiserweights of 1996 are completely different than those we're seeing today, and that's a good thing. Without a slight evolution, things wouldn't have been given a chance to even get off the ground. Hey, the audience today is a different beast than that of '96. Gone is the international flair of the original cruisers, but in its place is a heavier emphasis on storytelling, personalities... sports entertainment. As I covered in my last column, the cruisers are no longer nearly as bound to their division as before; crossover between the weight classes is becoming more and more frequent. In many ways it's a whole new world with a whole new set of rules. Chavo Guerrero, Jr. couldn't cut it in the division six years ago, while today he's at the very forefront of the new revolution. For the first time in years, there's the feeling that something's happening in the cruiserweight division, something worth watching.

What I'm going to do with these next three posts is jump to a conclusion. I'm going to compare the potential of the new generation to the legacy of the old. I'm going to put Shane Helms next to Psychosis, tell you who's better and why. I'll compare the positives of the '96 division against the negatives of the new breed and vice versa. More importantly, though, I'll tell you why this new lineup is reason enough to check out WCW's programming once again.

To kick things off, a history lesson. What I've listed below are the names of ten athletes who gave the 1996-'98 division everything they had, advancing it beyond anyone's expectations. Some of these names might not look familiar to you, others you watched on television this past Monday. They're all important, and I'm about to tell you why.

I: The Past

Of all the cruisers, Kidman did the most coming of age during the original lineup's heyday. He went from a dirty, itchy member of Raven's flock to a well rounded contender in white to a cruiserweight champ, developing before the fans' very eyes. He gave us something to grab hold of, a prospect to keep our eyes on. Fans could relate with him, and they erupted when he finally stood on his own two feet and left the flock. In a division that was almost overrun with flashy costumes, bizarre masks and suicide planchas, Kidman stood out because he was everyday. His K-Mart jean shorts and run of the mill white wife beater were of stark contrast to bright neon tights, shoulder pads and a mask with three sets of horns. Add to that a compelling underlying story thread and a heap of talent, and the result is a success story.

In the ring, Kidman could more than keep up with his opponents, which was pretty much essential at the time. During the division's prime, Kidman was probably among the four top workers alongside Rey, Juventud and Eddy. It's of little surprise, then, that he came out victorious in what became the swan song of the old division. That Starrcade '98 match featured a three way for the belt between Kidman, Rey and Juvi that went nearly 20 minutes, followed immediately by a one on one between Kidman and Eddy. Kidman showed a lot of heart, not to mention endurance, by going the whole half hour segment without rest spots. Hell, he even hit an insane shooting star press from the top rope all the way to the floor halfway through the first match. In a way, that match pretty well sums up what Kidman's all about. Properly motivated, as he was in that last great cruiser match, he'll give anything for the success of one match. Definitely somebody I'd like on my team.

Probably the most overlooked of the luchadores, many have forgotten Psychosis was a two time cruiserweight champ. With very little English in his vocabulary, he wasn't the most talkative of workers, but where his language put up a barrier his wrestling would tear it back down again. Possibly the most important aspect of Psychosis' involvement with the cruiser scene never came to pass, though. As Rey and Kidman were distancing themselves from the division in favor of more mainstream feuds, bookers were starting to look toward Psych as the leader of the next wave. They gave him a trial run as champ, which gathered a decent response from fans, then put him in a hair vs. mask match against Kidman that was to serve as a sort of torch passing. He lost the mask and soon thereafter gained the belt in its place.

Announcers started the hype machine rolling, but only a few short weeks later the cruiserweight title was nowhere to be found. Psychosis watched his chance sail out the window as the rug was literally pulled out from under the whole division in the wake of the Bischoff departure. It's a shame too, as Psychosis was ready, willing and able to pick up where the last crew had left off.

Dean Malenko
As strong an example of what made the original roster function as you're ever gonna see, Dean Malenko was, is, and always will be a man of little words and pure technical proficiency. Malenko, as well as the majority of the early roster in the cruiserweight division, was all business in the ring and rarely bothered involving himself in the goings-on outside. Fans at the time were quick to pick up on this particular trait and embraced them all the same, paying as much attention to cruiser matches as they did the latest nWo segment.

Like I mentioned, Malenko was the be-all, end-all of technical wizardry between the ropes. You name the body part and he could instantly call up two dozen different holds affecting the area and string them together with uncanny fluidity. He was compatible with just about anyone, but worked particularly well with the faster, smaller cruisers. His matches were the kind that would leave you open mouthed through the duration, and his finisher was just about perfect for the character he was portraying. The Texas cloverleaf remains one of my personal favorite finishers to this day, and building towards it in a cruiserweight match made all the sense in the world. Think about it; if somebody's dominating you with their speed and high flying maneuvers, the most efficient way to destroy their offense is to ground them with a systematic deconstruction of their legs. Malenko scattered little tidbits like this throughout each of his matches, giving the impression that he always planned ahead and knew exactly what he was doing.

Ultimo Dragon
When the cruiserweight division was still in its youth, the one thing it arguably lacked was someone with a real reputation, somebody to give it prestige. When they landed the Ultimo Dragon, Yoshihiro Asai, that slot was almost instantly filled. For those who knew of his incredible legacy, the arrival of the Ultimo Dragon was all the proof they needed as to WCW's legitimacy in the game. For those who didn't, they need only take a look at the man, the way he presented himself, and the eight belts he carried to the ring with him. It wasn't long before he captured the cruiserweight gold as well, bringing his total to nine and arriving front and center at the top of the division.

Of course, his ability in the ring needs no explanation. Asai was a trendsetter of the style, and many of the men he was competing against in WCW owed much of their development and inspiration to him. Indeed, the same holds true of almost all cruisers still active today, from Taka Michinoku to Evan Karagias. Asai was a tremendously important worker, and he knew it, but never let it go to his head. When the time was right for him to job, he jobbed in such a fashion that it made the man who topped him look great. His head was always in the right place, and that's probably why his influence has been so long-reaching, even now that he's been retired for several years. With the Ultimo Dragon, the cruiserweight division really arrived in the eyes of the critics.

For those who weren't with us in the years before Wrestlemania 14, Syxx is also known as Sean Waltman, the WWF's X-Pac. During his tenure in WCW, Syxx made the link, however brief, between the cruisers and the hottest angle in wrestling, the nWo. What's really important is that this link was established before the faction grew too large and unwieldy for its own good. WCW thought the division was deserving of such attention, and that alone speaks volumes. Also worth mentioning is Syxx's stance as a heel. Up until this point, the cruiserweights were all tweeners, with little or no alignment one way or the other. Pulling in his associative heat as a member of the nWo, Syxx rode the wave for all it was worth, cementing himself as the resident heel champ of the division and setting the standard that Eddy Guerrero would follow in the years after his departure.

Oh, and incidentally, Waltman was just on a tear during his WCW tenure. He burned the house down in feuds with Chris Jericho and Eddy Guerrero, earning the reputation that precedes him even today. Though he's slowed down considerably and has become something of a shadow of his former self in the WWF, the X-Pac that ran with the WCW wolves was in his prime.

Foreign Stars
For his cruiserweight empire, Eric Bischoff actively pursued the biggest names in the industry, be they from the north, south, east or west. He formed an agreement with New Japan Pro Wrestling, securing Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit and Eddy Guerrero along the way. He brought in the biggest names in Mexico's lucha libre hierarchy and toured Japan's hottest juniors with WCW. With Turner's money to spend, he had clout anywhere in the world and athletes were eager to showcase their skills in the hottest division on Earth. Thus, Eric created what's considered by many to be the first true international title, with defenses and title changes occurring all over the world. A quick point of reference, Shinjiro Ohtani was the very first cruiserweight champion... winning the title in a tournament held in Nagoya, Japan. The man he defeated in the finals, Wild Pegasus, went on to wrestle under his real name in America: Chris Benoit.

As I mentioned, the best of the best were chomping at the bit to tour with the cruiserweights in WCW, both for the competition and for the big payday, and Bischoff wasn't about to say no. Everyone from the Mexican sensation (and my personal favorite luchador) La Parka to the legendary Japanese junior, Jushin "Thunder" Lyger toured America from within WCW's ranks. It was the first time anything of this broad a scale had gone down on our continent, and it remains a high water mark for wrestling in the west.

Eddy Guerrero
What I said about Syxx's stance as the resident cruiser heel a couple paragraphs above? Guerrero took all that and amplified it a hundred times over. When he first entered the federation, Eddy was the virtuous face, adored by the public and never really desiring any sort of personality on his own. When Syxx was sent to the sidelines with a neck injury, (and later fired for taking too long in the recuperation process) Eddy took over his spot relatively quickly. However much fans had loved him as a face, they hated him that much more when he turned heel. Guerrero was absolutely flawless in this respect. His slightly larger build gave him the appearance of a bully, competing in a division of smaller athletes just to look tough. His slightly modified moveset gave fans even more reason to despise him, and the arrogant, cocky, dickhead personality he busted out was just icing on the cake.

On top of all that, he was almost unstoppable in the ring. His European uppercuts were lethal, and his frog splash was a thing of beauty. You couldn't deny it, he was damn good... and it made you hate him that much more. Though he later ran into tough luck with injuries, there's little denying Guerrero could've rode the momentum of his run as the monster heel of the cruiserweights all the way to the main event, perhaps even farther. Instead, some poor decisions in the WCW hierarchy have given him reason to take his act elsewhere. There's little question in my mind he'll be main eventing WWF pay per views in only a few years' time, and it all started building in the WCW cruiser division.

Juventud Guerrera
Like Kidman, Juventud came of age during the cruiserweight heyday. With the mask, Guerrera was your standard, run of the mill luchadore. He had an strong repertoire of high risk maneuvers, some basic mat skills and more than a few big spots. Once Jericho took the cloth from his face, though, he unveiled a facet of his character that had gone unnoticed in the months before. This guy was incredibly charismatic! Pessimists were silenced the evening after his PPV loss to the man now known as Y2J, as he came out with the same intensity, a new attitude and a whole new grasp of the game's psychology. It's like there was a whole different person waiting to come out from under the mask, and all he was waiting for was an excuse to make his presence known. Jericho gave him that excuse, and Juventud hasn't been the same since.

Rey Mysterio, Jr.
In many ways, Rey Mysterio Jr. has been the heart and soul of the cruiserweight division since its very inception. He's been with it every step of the way, and continues to support it even today. While he's always been somewhat spotty, Rey's more than made up for that with an ingenuity that's second to none. Most of his early spots were too extraordinary to describe with words, you truly had to see them to believe them. Everything was a David vs. Goliath battle with Mysterio, and fans embraced him as a result. It's a natural tendency to cheer for the smaller guy, the underdog, and Rey exploited that tendency every time he came out to work. There really isn't much more I can say about the man. If you've seen him work, you know what I mean. Rey Mysterio, Jr. is a cruiserweight's cruiserweight, plain and simple. The straightforward definition of the term.

Chris Jericho
Jericho's story runs almost parallel to that of Guerrero, except there's no doubt in my mind he wouldn't be anywhere if he hadn't made the jump to the WWF exactly when he did. With the cruisers, Jericho was at his very greatest. There's no denying the fact he was over the weight limit for the division, so he had that "bully" thing going for him, but he managed to succeed in the one area that Guerrero had trouble with; telling a good story with the mic. It seemed no matter who WCW decided to throw at him next, Jericho could come up with an unbelievable set of promos in the weeks leading up to the big showdown that had audiences screaming for his blood. He destroyed Rey Mysterio, Jr.'s leg on the way to his first title reign as a heel. He mocked Dean Malenko's heritage and managed to get the most boring personality in the fed over like the second coming of Christ. And, in what's probably the highlight of the first cruiserweight division's heyday, he took Juventud Guerrera's mask.

In the ring, Jericho was a mastermind. It seemed any maneuver could be reversed into the Liontamer, and once he had it locked in there was nowhere to go. Though he was heavier than his opponents, Jericho had no problem keeping up with them. He would even manage to beat them at their own game, going over the top rope to the floor or landing a lionsault right in the middle of the ring. Without the work of Chris Jericho, the cruiserweight division would have likely slipped right by many casual viewers. He was the cornerstone, around which the entire division was crafted and he more than lived up to the expectations. For my dollar, Chris Jericho was the biggest name in the first cruiserweight revolution, and he's just what today's lineup is in need of.

Check in next week for part II, covering the present cruiserweight lineup, then again in two weeks for the head to head comparison and verdict. It's going to be a long, strange journey and I hope to see you around for the rest of it!

until next time, i remain


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