Ever since WWE announced the Cruiserweight Classic in early 2016 and the speculation grew for the eventual return of the beloved Cruiserweight Division, fans have compared the first wave of WWE Cruiserweights alongside the peak of the WCW Cruiserweight Division – more often than not the cream of WCW Monday Nitro during the early months of the Monday Night Wars. And while it’s a fair comparison and point of discussion, far too often those in favour of WCW’s Cruiserweight Division – arguably one of the best divisions of any weight class in any promotion – used accolades that many of the competitors achieved after leaving the Cruiserweight Division (and in most cases, after leaving WCW), which is undoubtedly an unfair comparison.
There’s no reason to think than many of the Cruiserweights we now see on Monday Night Raw and 205 Live won’t go on to greater success once their “tenure” as being simply a Cruiserweight expires, much like their WCW counterparts did. Neville‘s impressive run as Cruiserweight Champion could springboard into a potential Intercontinental Championship reign or any pair of them could be repackaged as future Tag Team Champions. It would be like comparing Wayne Gretzky after he’d retired up against Joe Sakic in his rookie year. One side is more lopsided in its storytelling and final narrative. The other is still a wide open book with as much potential that it’s competitors will go on to bigger and better things – especially considering there’s far more options than there was in the mid-90’s. Back then, you had WWE, WCW and ECW in the United States and All-Japan (NJPW was nowhere near it’s prestige that it is now in the 90’s). But today, promotions from NJPW, Ring of Honor and Impact to indies like PWG, CHIKARA, EVOLVE and more carry more weight than even ECW did in it’s heyday. The break out UK scene and emerging circuits in other parts of Europe are opening up even greater landscapes for global professional wrestling.
So with that in mind, here’s a look at how WWE’s current Cruiserweight Division ranks against WCW’s top class of Cruiserweights from the mid-90’s peak fare against each other, using only the criteria of the WCW competitors up to their run in the WCW Division (for example, Eddie Guerrero or Chris Jericho‘s World title runs can’t be considered in their consideration). Also, this list will not include any of the wrestlers that were part of WCW’s precursor to the Cruiserweight Division, the ill-fated WCW Light Heavyweight Division that lasted from 1991 to 1992 (featuring Brian Pillman or Jushin Thunder Liger) nor will it include Chris Benoit, simply because despite starting in the Cruiserweight Division when arrived in WCW in 1995, his tenure was incredibly brief and he was soon a Four Horseman. He hardly cut his WCW teeth in the Division.
EDDIE GUERRERO and NEVILLE
Arguably the cornerstones of both divisions, although WCW was stacked at the top. Eddie Guerrero was an 8-year veteran of CMLL, AAA, NJPW and ECW by the time he’d arrived in WCW, winning ECW World Television and AAA Tag Team gold. Neville was a 12-year veteran, four with the WWE prior (three in NXT and one on the main roster), a former NXT Champion, wXw World Light Heavyweight Champion, 2-time NXT Tag Team Champion, PWG World Tag Team Champion and multiple DragonGate Champion. Experience and all around diversity would go to Neville, although Eddie had a fluid athleticism, ring psychology and charisma that were miles ahead of Neville. While Eddie would go on to legendary heights, especially after leaving WCW for the WWE in 2000, finally achieving his first World Championship in 2004.
ULTIMO DRAGON and AUSTIN ARIES
Two veterans that were brought into the Cruiserweight Division to bring stability, leadership and instant appeal, both were already decorated Champions when they debuted. Ultimo Dragon was a 9-year veteran of NJPW, UWA and CMLL and a former NWA (CMLL) World Middleweight Champion, 5-time UWA World Middleweight and one time UWA World Welterweight Champion, as well as 2-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. Austin Aries has been in the business 16-years already and is already a 3-time World Champion (2 in Ring of Honor and one in Impact Wrestling). Ultimo Dragon may have been one of the most innovative wrestlers of his generation, Aries was much the same in the early to mid-2000’s, just with a different approach and style. Aries charisma and ability to rally or irritate a crowd gives “A Double” a slight edge.
REY MYSTERIO JR and GRAN METALIK
Rey Mysterio may have been 22 when he debuted with WCW, but he’d already been in the business 7 years. He had tenure in AAA and ECW, where he was already decorated with a National Mexican Welterweight Championship. He was one of the most highly sought after Luchadors in the world when WCW recruited him in 1996. Gran Metalik was also a highly touted young lucha star and as Mascara Dorada, he was an 11-year veteran (he debuted at 17) with stints in CMLL and NJPW, where he tasted plenty of Mexican gold – CMLL World Super Lightweight and four reigns as CMLL World Welterweight Champion. Mysterio was a game changer in Lucha Libre, not just in Mexico but as a someone who introduced the masked athleticism to a grander American audience. While Metalik is currently working Main Event, expect him to make a huge splash on 205 Live once he gets into the rotation.
CHRIS JERICHO and JACK GALLAGHER
Chris Jericho had only been in the business for six years when he arrived in WCW in 1996, but he’d already spent time with Stampede Wrestling, CMLL, Japan’s WAR, Smoky Mountain Wrestling and ECW, not to mention trained by the legendary Hart family. His hardware collection included an ECW World Television Championship, NWA (CMLL) World Middleweight Championship, and WAR Junior Heavyweight Championship. By the time Jack Gallagher made his WWE in last year’s Cruiserweight Classic, he’d been wrestling for 10 years, trained by legendary British wrestlers Alex Shane and Billy Robinson, with two reigns as Futureshock Champion and a budding MMA career (he’s 2-0). Jericho trumps Gallagher in pure athleticism, but Gallagher’s technical prowess outweighs the Hart protege. Both men have the unique ability to get inanimate objects over – be it Jericho’s List (either the WCW version or the current WWE one) or Gallagher’s umbrella, William III – but there are few wrestlers in the history of the sport with as much charisma as Jericho.
DEAN MALENKO and DREW GULAK
Dean Malenko has always been one of the guys that wrestling purists loved and casual fans dismissed. His charisma was nearly non-existent, which to many deterred from the fact that he was one of the best technical wrestlers of the 1990’s. His father Boris Malenko was a trainer of many legends, and Dean (along with his brother, Joe Malenko) have also trained their share, including Molly Holly, Tony Mamaluke and Nick “Eugene” Dinsmore. Malenko was a 16-year veteran of the ring when he joined WCW in 1995, having cut his teeth in regional independents throughout the 80’s (he was briefly a WWE referee in his early years). In 1994, he joined ECW and became “The Shooter”, a cold and calculating character he would carry for most of the rest of his career. He was a 3-time Champion in ECW, winning the World Television twice and the Tag Team titles once. Drew Gulak is the Dean Malenko of this generation in many ways – he himself is a highly respected technician that has trained his fair share of indie stars today. He was a trainer at the CHIKARA/CZW Wrestle Factory for years (as well as WWN’s training facility), and was an 11-year veteran of both promotions when he came to the WWE in 2016, where he’d collected hardware like the CZW World Heavyweight Championship, 2-time CZW Tag Team Champion, CZW Television Champion and EVOLVE Tag Team Champion. And much like Malenko, one of the biggest complaints has been his lack of charisma. But anyone who’s seen some of Drew’s work knows that he can turn it on in droves, like his recent work with Catch Point in EVOLVE. As 205 Live‘s resident “shooter” himself, Gulak is currently trying to return wrestling to its technical roots and eliminate high flying moves.
SYXX and RICH SWANN
Behind the bad press, rumours, sex tapes, “X-Pac heat” and association with The Kliq, people often forget how great a wrestler Sean Waltman really was. As the 1-2-3 Kid in the WWF, he was one of the WWE’s first attempts at the undersized underdog. His high flying athleticism in the early 90’s was still a sight not often seen in North American wrestling and his “fluke” win over Razor Ramon was an enormous moment when it happened. He was one of the WWF’s best storyline buildups during the oft maligned New Generation and just as he was being groomed as a major player in the WWF, he left for WCW to join Hall and Nash in the nWo as Syxx. He quickly became the nWo’s representative in the emerging Cruiserweight Division and captured the title once. He was a 7-year veteran when he joined the Division, and a 4-time WWF World Tag Team Champion. Rich Swann has finally become one of the WWE’s biggest stars on 205 Live after an impressive 7-year career of his own prior to signing in 2015, winning gold in DragonGate, EVOLVE and Revolution Pro in the UK (where he was a Tag Team Champion with Ricochet). He spent much of his first year as enhancement on television for NXT until the Cruiserweight Classic, when he was finally given reign to fly. And much like Syxx, Swann captured the Cruiserweight title early on.
JUVENTUD GUERRERA and MUSTAFA ALI
Prior to his unmasking and calling himself “The Juice” and horribly mimicking The Rock, Juventud Guerrera was one of the most exciting cruiserweights in WCW. He was 22-years old and only in the game for four years when he arrived in WCW from Mexico, a 3-time Mexico National Tag Team Champion from AAA. His athleticism and innovative aerialist moves were jaw dropping at the time and he soon became one of the must-see talents in the Division. Chicago’s Mustafa Ali has taken a longer route to get to the WWE, having began wrestling in his teens and working the indies like AAW, DreamWave and more for 13 years before appearing in the Cruiserweight Classic last year. An impressive performance in his first round loss, he became enhancement in NXT until 205 Live began. His hometown match on the show last December was an absolute barnburner and was the loudest reaction at the time for any performer on the fledgling Cruiserweight show. Much like Juvie, he was never planned on being one of the Division’s biggest stars, but he’s sure developing into one of them.
BILLY KIDMAN and TJ PERKINS
Bright eyed 22-year old Billy Kidman was only a pro for two years when he joined WCW in 1996 and spent the first year as a directionless jobber. But when he joined Raven’s Flock and became their Cruiserweight specialist, people began to take notice. His Shooting Star Press was a thing of majesty and his eventual “clean up” and departure from The Flock only made him a bigger star. TJ Perkins on the other hand has been wrestling professionally for 18 years. He was trained in the NJPW Dojo (alongside Rocky Romero, Daniel Bryan and Ricky Reyes), spent time in CMLL in Mexico, while having solid runs in Ring of Honor, EVOLVE and PWG. He spent the past few years bouncing around under masks in Impact Wrestling (first as Suicide IV then Manik) before leaving to join the WWE for last year’s Cruiserweight Classic, which he ultimately won. And although Perkins was once a homeless person in real life, Kidman did portray one in WCW.
PSICOSIS and CEDRIC ALEXANDER
Much like Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis was a filler Luchador who ended up gaining quite the fanbase in WCW, only to lose it all when they decided to unmask him. A 7-year veteran of Mexico’s CMLL and AAA, Psicosis was often the losing end of matches against more established Cruiserweights like Mysterio, Eddie or Jericho. But he always performed and was a solid hand in the Division. Similarly, Cedric Alexander is often at the end of another person’s advancement in the Division, but he’s still been an outstanding performer. Also a 7-year veteran, Cedric cut his teeth for most of those years in Ring of Honor, before jumping to EVOLVE in early 2016. At last year’s Cruiserweight Classic, Alexander had one of the Matches of the Tourney against Kota Ibushi, that many think singlehandedly got him a WWE contract. Just as he was starting to get a push on 205 Live he suffered an injury, but hopefully he gets to pick back up where he left off.
CHAVO GUERRERO JR and BRIAN KENDRICK
Every division needs their floaters. These are the guys who are often the most talented, who can seamless transfer from title matches to helping new stars develop. Chavo Guerrero Jr. was one of those performers – not just in WCW, but later on in WWE as well. He could be the comedy bit riding a horse or he could be winning the Cruiserweight title. He was the greenest of the Guerreros at the time (he’d only been wrestling a couple years when he joined his uncle Eddie in WCW), but prior to WCW he was wrestling in Mexico and with NJPW. Brian Kendrick returned to the WWE after 7 years away and became the “feel good” story of the CWC. A 17-year veteran when he joined the new WWE Cruiserweight Division, Kendrick was chosen to push Perkins and is now helping get Akira Tozawa over with the WWE Universe, all while still being in great ring shape himself.
“SUGAR” SHANE HELMS and NOAM DAR
There will always be a spot for guys who are serious wrestlers but can interject some comedy into their routines and pull it off. Shane Helms debuted in WCW as part of the boy band trio 3 Count, but quickly became the star of the comedic dancing group with his athleticism. He would go on to become a greater star in the WWE as The Hurricane, but in the dying embers of WCW’s Cruiserweight Division in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Helms was one of the brightest. “The Scottish Super Nova” Noam Dar has been one of the Division’s most entertaining elements since 205 Live began – and mostly because of the innuendo way his Glasgow accent makes Alicia Fox‘s last name sound when he drawls it out. But he was a superstar on the indie circuit, like Helms himself, an 8-year veteran. Dar won championships all over the UK and was one of PROGRESS’ bright young stars when he joined the WWE for last year’s CWC. He’s got more in his arsenal than we’ve seen and when he’s allowed to move past the comedy a bit in the future, we could be seeing a future Cruiserweight Champion.
ALEX WRIGHT and TONY NESE
The hardbody dancing son of UK wrestler Steve Wright, Alex Wright grew up in Germany and was a top German indie talent, who also worked in Japan, when he caught WCW’s eye in 1994 (just three years after he entered the business). As a baby face, he never truly caught on (his first feud was against Jean-Paul Levesque, aka Triple H), although he competed in the prestigious Best of the Super Juniors in NJPW in 1995. He found greater success when he turned heel as the Euro electro-dancing, leather clad primadonna – he beat Chris Jericho for the Cruiserweight title in 1997. A solid worker, he just never found the right gimmick (or booker) in WCW to truly show off his true potential. Tony Nese was an 11-year veteran when he finally joined the WWE last summer for the CWC, after stints with Impact Wrestling (briefly), EVOLVE, DragonGate and others. Much like Alex Wright, his physique makes him a prime candidate to leave the Cruiserweight Division for other titles (although Nese is considerably shorter than Wright is). But also like Wright, his current company isn’t entirely sure what to do with all that talent. He’s shown some real good signs the past few months, so hopefully he gets a solid look and doesn’t just became a middle of the road enhancement.
CICLOPE and ARIYA DAIVARI
Ciclope was a 6-year veteran from Mexico – where he wrestled (and still does) as Halloween – when he joined WCW and was rebranded as Ciclope. His run was short lived and he was mostly used as enhancement. His greatest moment wasn’t even his own – Dean Malenko won a battle royale to face Chris Jericho for the Cruiserweight title, secretly dressed in Ciclope’s costume. Hopefully the future ends up brighter for Ariya Daivari during his own Cruiserweight Division run. A 10-year indie vet, Daivari garnered some attention during his first feud against Jack Gallagher, despite being on the losing end. But since then, his involvement has decreased significantly and he’s on par with Ciclope’s trajectory.
SILVER KING and LINCE DORADO
Silver King is a second generation grappler (son of Dr. Wagner and brother of Dr. Wagner Jr.) who began in Mexico’s UWA in the mid-80’s. He won UWA World Light Heavyweight gold and paired El Texano (father of Lucha Underground‘s El Texano Jr.) to win the UWA Tag Team titles as well. When he joined WCW in 1997, he was a 12-year veteran in the ring. He never quite found the success of the other Luchadors who went to WCW, but rode it out until 2000, when he returned to Mexico and joined AAA. Puerto Rican superstar Lince Dorado has been wrestling since 2007, starting his US journey with CHIKARA, he would also compete in Full Impact Pro, IGNITE and others, including a forgettable stint with Impact Wrestling. Dorado is still young – he’s not quite 30 – so he’s still got lots in his tank to make a splash on the WWE roster.
While there’s no denying that many of the WCW Cruiserweights have gone on to legendary Hall of Fame worthy careers – Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Rey Mysterio Jr. are some of the biggest names in the industry. But they weren’t when they first started in the WCW Cruiserweight Division – to most American viewers, they were as unknown as Drew Gulak or Akira Tozawa. So while it’s easy in hindsight to say that WCW’s Cruiserweight Division blows WWE’s current one out of the water, if you compare the talent level and projection of WCW’s talent at the time to what WWE has to offer, the rosters look nearly comparable. There’s a lot of great untapped talent in WWE’s line-up – while WCW may have had three purer stars in Jericho, Rey and Eddie, WWE’s line-up is a far more pedigreed collection top to bottom, with nearly all of them capable of getting a solid push at any given time. So while 205 Live is still far from perfect, they’ve at least got a pretty amazing cast to work with.