Wrestle Review Wednesday: One Year After Cruiserweight Classic

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Opening rounds of the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic first aired on WWE Network one year ago this Thursday. One spin of the Earth around the sun later, the Chicago Cubs won a World Series; a former WrestleMania co-headliner is in the White House (for now); and the division spawned from the Cruiserweight Classic is already in dire straits.

Conceptually, the Cruiserweight Classic proved downright revolutionary. The 32-man tournament provided the WWE Network exclusive content that might entice new subscribers to join, and introduced the audience to several talents they may have never seen before. Some came in well-established among hardcore fans, namely semifinalists Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. Others already signed to WWE’s NXT, like Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano and Rich Swann, were given more opportunity to flourish. And others still emerged from relative obscurity, like Mustafa Ali and tournament winner T.J. Perkins.

So successful was the idea behind and execution of the Cruiserweight Classic, it spawned two similar events in the 12 months since: January’s United Kingdom Championship Tournament, and the upcoming Mae Young Classic.

Follow-through, on the other hand, falls well short.

The finale of the Cruiserweight Classic pit T.J. Perkins against Gran Metalik, previously known as lucha libre sensation Mascara Dorada. That particular matchup alone was an indication that something was amiss, as consensus heading into the tournament suggested a dream-match pairing of international stars Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. was inevitable.

Content on globetrotting and continuing to work in their own, unique styles, ZSJ and Ibushi spurned full-time WWE contracts. That led to our finale, and Perkins’ win. WWE needed a full-timer under contract to close out the Cruiserweight Classic, as the tournament launched not only some new names, but an entire division with the introduction of a Cruiserweight Championship.

Now, giving a wrestler a championship and ostensibly making him the face of an entire division is a helluva way to make a new star. But while he had some great matches throughout the tournament — including a semifinal against Ibushi that flirts with five stars by my own standards — Perkins may not have been the right choice to serve as de facto pillar of the upstart division.

Then again, there may not have been any right choice. Presentation of the division in the year since suggests the Cruiserweights were doomed from the outside, regardless.

Cruiserweights are designated as the new intermission, a realization made painfully obvious with the changing of the ropes from red to purple. This practice felt silly as a broadcast viewer, but the de facto implication became abundantly clear when I attended January’s Royal Rumble in San Antonio.

Ring crews beginning the few-minute process of changing the ropes gave the crowd indication it was time to use the restroom, visit the concession stands or hit the merch stands. The scene as thousands milled around the Alamodome while Neville and Rich Swann delivered on a 4-star match was rather surreal. A 50,000-seat venue was dead for a tremendous match.

Such is the atmosphere emanating from WWE Network for each episode of 205 Live. Giving the Cruiserweights their own show is a great idea in theory, allowing more time to flesh out characters. 205 Live has given rise to one of my favorite heel characters in any promotion, Drew Gulak, as well as babyface foil Mustafa Ali. However, the lackluster atmosphere from the venues — the result of 205 Live airing after dark matches and two hours of Smackdown Live — takes away from the presentation.

205 Live lacks the energy the Cruiserweight Classic exuded with its telecasts from the NXT venue at Full Sail University.

Moreover, the home audience is given little reason to invest their time in 205 Live during WWE’s flagship show, RAW. The implied intermission takes away from the television product. New Japan received mild criticism for holding an intermission during its televised G1 Special presentation, and yet, I personally prefer a designated intermission to one that coincides with great matches.

The Cruiserweights are also hamstrung facing only each other. While the division’s helped showcase talents like Jack Gallagher, and presented Neville as a vicious, dominating bad guy, the insular nature greatly limits these stars potential.

Gallagher may not be a main-event performer, but his unique character is perfect as a mid-card comedy act — and, he’s a comedic performer with the ability to deliver in the ring.

Neville has upper-midcard ability. To call it potential would be incorrect, since he’s already demonstrated he’s a convincing addition near the top of the card, delivering a legit 41/2-star World Heavyweight Championship match against Seth Rollins and an attraction match at SummerSlam with Stephen Amell.

Neville dominating the Cruiserweight Championship as he has, while also battling established stars like Dean Ambrose would benefit all parties.

The same can certainly be said of Austin Aries, whose departure last week was the most buzz the division’s generated since the Cruiserweight Classic.

Aries’ relegation strictly to the Cruiserweight division rendered a talent who last year had tremendous NXT matches with heavyweights Baron Corbin and Shinsuke Nakamura as little more than enhancement talent for Neville. As The Miz defended his Intercontinental Championship for roughly the 7,000th time this year against Ambrose last Sunday, just two days earlier, WWE released a prime candidate to freshen up that part of the card.

I’ll remember the Cruiserweight Classic fondly. It’s one of the most creative and best-executed concepts WWE Network’s introduced; it provided my first exposure to remarkable talents, and sold me on others like Gargano. Nevertheless, I can’t help but lament the disappointing follow-through since.