Since its debut almost exactly one year ago, on November 29, 2016, WWE’s 205 Live has been WWE’s thorn in the internet community’s side. While it’s featured many of the indie scene’s most popular stars of the past several years, such as Cedric Alexander, Rich Swann, Tony Nese, and TJ Perkins, it’s failure to establish coherent storylines and properly develop characters out of the gate caused an immediate backlash, especially after the strong reception to the summer’s previous Cruiserweight Classic that filled the Raw exclusive Cruiserweight Division that provides the principle cast for the program itself. And for the first six months, most of the online complaints were warranted. But much like Impact Wrestling of late, 205 Live has been producing some quality matches, developed some tangible storylines, and showcased some truly incredible talent, but still fall victim to the same naysayers, most of whom haven’t watched an episode in nearly a year.
Building a new brand or program, especially one that falls under the shadow of their two flagship shows like Raw and Smackdown Live, was never going to be an easy or quick endeavour. Even NXT, which is now considered by many fans to be superior to both the Red and Blue brands, took several years to finally sway the audience to it’s now cult like status. NXT’s first year in 2012 was mostly laughed at or ignored (primarily because of it’s name association with the atrocious reality game show that predated it) and it wasn’t until late 2013 and the emergence of Sami Zayn that NXT began to change from whispers of mockery to a growing buzz of coolness – the arrival of Finn Balor and the emergence of the Four Horsewomen (Charlotte Flair, Bayley, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch) in 2014 kicked down the door and NXT has only built in buzz ever since. NXT Takeover events are still the only true “must see” TV that WWE produces on a regular basis. The point being, that it took years for WWE to sort out the building, angling, and casting of NXT to get it to the state we have now. Having gone through that process, in hindsight, it looks like WWE has taken a similar slow build with 205 Live as well. Sometimes you have to endure some growing pains, no matter how public, to get to the end result.
205 LIVE: BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
When 205 Live debuted, it brought with them 10 of the 32 standouts from that summer’s Cruiserweight Classic – tournament winner and new Cruiserweight Champion TJ Perkins, Cedric Alexander, Rich Swann, Noam Dar, “The Premier Athlete” Tony Nese, Drew Gulak, Jack Gallagher, Ariya Daivari, Mustafa Ali and former WWE Superstar THE Brian Kendrick. Over the next several weeks, other CWC participants were added, in Akira Tozawa, Gran Metalik, and Lince Dorado. By letting these thirteen competitors carve out their niche in the WWE Universe – by trial and by error – they were slowly introduced to the WWE Universe. While they were all well known names to indie purists around the world, for many who watch WWE exclusively, this was their first introduction to the starting 13 in the Cruiserweight Division. They rotated in and out of storylines to slowly add some depth to their characters, while at times others were simply put into showcase matches to display their wares to the crowds in the arena. Over time, many of them became over enough to warrant pretty respectable crowd reactions for guys that the majority had no knowledge of even six months previous. To many, it seemed like random posturing, but it was a chance to get all thirteen men recognized on a nearly equal playing field. In essence, they were creating the foundation of the mid-card, with guys like TJP, Brian Kendrick, Akira Tozawa and Rich Swann fighting over the Cruiserweight title that was still fighting for prestige from both the indie and WWE fan bases.
205 LIVE: THE INTEGRATION OF THE MAIN EVENT
In December of 2016, after Rich Swann retained his Cruiserweight title in a triple threat match at Roadblock: End of the Line against TJP and Kendrick, Neville arrived and turned heel on Swann, becoming his “King of the Cruiserweights” character. Arguably his greatest in-ring character of his illustrious career (both pre- and during his WWE stint), Neville would become the cornerstone of the new division and show, the first true main event star for 205 Live and the new mountain that the rest of the division had to climb. With the main event scene of the main roster being dominated by the likes of Roman Reigns, Kevin Owens, John Cena, and Seth Rollins, it’s easy to see why there was simply no room for someone like Neville to enter that stratusphere. It’s not to say that Neville wasn’t talented enough to hang with them (he most certainly is), but he’ll never quite be the merchandise mover that those other people were (at least not in the immediate future). Dominating the Cruiserweight Division, becoming a 2x Cruiserweight Champion, made Neville relevant in the WWE for the first time since holding the NXT Championship in 2013. He was ruthless, captivating and mesmerizing, from his slow, cunning Newcastle drawl to his technical prowess, against men more his size, Neville became far more impressive to watch.
Former WWE Superstar and 3x WWE Cruiserweight Champion (and 1x WWE Light Heavyweight Champion) Tajiri was brought in to add some nostalgic pop and become one of the division’s top stars, but injuries and age made the WWE reconsider and he left to return to Japan in April.
The addition of Austin Aries in early 2017 gave Neville his first legitimate contender for the title (at least in the eyes to many) but sadly, once his feud ended several months later, Aries was released – most likely, according to Aries himself, due to the truth of his own reputation of being a bit of an a-hole backstage. As Aries mentioned this past weekend at House of Hardcore 35, “(t)he truth is, I got let go because I probably deserved to be. They didn’t find anything for me because they didn’t want to find anything for me because I was f****** miserable.” Aries continued to the crowd, saying that he “competed at WrestleMania 33, and I’m telling you, leading up to what should have been the biggest moment of my life, I couldn’t find an ounce of joy. That’s when I realised, there was something wrong with me. In six months, I lost my job. Relationships with people I cared about were tarnished.” The Aries experiment may have failed, but it only made the legend of Neville larger in the 205 Live realm of things.
205 LIVE: STOCKING THE TOP
With Neville now the true “King of the Cruiserweights”, it was obvious that they now needed to begin adding more established stars – either with WWE history or indie buzz – to help flesh out the top of the card. The mid-card was suitably filled with 13 great talents, many of which had the potential to ascend to the main event with more grooming and match-ups with more seasoned WWE-style performers. And they started by addressing one of the biggest concerns with the Cruiserweight Division – the lack of people with bombastic personalities or above average mic skills. Sure, Neville was emerging from his shell and delivering his best promos ever, and Drew Gulak was being given the green light to re-create his former “Gulak For A Better Combat Zone” gimmick from CZW in the WWE, but there was no one yet on 205 Live that could incite a crowd, until August of this year when “The Certified G” Enzo Amore showed up. It may have been the only roster move in history that caused a heel turn, as the once revered comedic babyface was instantly lauded for joining a division that was seemingly built on being the best of the indie style. Amore was neither the most gifted in-ring performer, nor did he have any indie experience on his resume. Somehow the very people who decried 205 Live and never watched anyway were even more insulted that the show was lessened by his addition. But Enzo embraced his heel role, incorporating most of his tabloid gossip rumours of his backstage heat into an arrogant worm of a heel that made you want to see someone punch him in the mouth. 205 Live got its first bona fide Mega Heel, and the perfect adversary for the more athletically superior Neville.
Shortly after Enzo’s debut, the division was joined by former 2x WWE United States Champion and NXT Tag Team Champion Kalisto, a wrestler who many of the detractors had been screaming for to join the division almost since its inception. Formerly the indie wrestling star Samuray de Sol, Kalisto has had a steady run in the WWE since he arrived in 2013 – while he’s never been a major impact player, he’s always been relatively over and well loved by the audience. When Neville walked out of the company, unfortunately Kalisto was suddenly thrust into a position he was never supposed to undertake – that of being the face of the division. He was a solid back-up as a number 2 or number 3, but being the top face was not something that was going to ultimately take the division to the next level. But with the recent news that Neville and the WWE had had major talks (in the good way) and could be returning to the WWE shortly, Kalisto will get more room to breathe than being counted on as 205 Live‘s savior.
Finally, NXT secured its fourth major component in the building of the top level by announcing this past Tuesday that former NXT Superstar Hideo Itami (formerly known as KENTA in Pro Wrestling NOAH and Ring of Honor) would be joining the brand soon. Itami – who according to his Twitter will be continuing his “demand RESPECT” character from his last few months in NXT – would provide another top level heel for the brand and one that would most likely be rogue from joining the ZO Train that other 205 Live heels like Gulak, Nese, Dar and Davairi have succumbed to. A top four that includes Neville, Itami, Enzo Amore and Kalisto is a lot more promising for growth than the one that started with Brian Kendrick, TJ Perkins, Cedric Alexander and Noam Dar. The entire division will now have less pressure to lead the division and more time and effort to work on their own characters and matches.
205 LIVE: WHO’S NEXT?
NXT is in a bit of a house cleaning mode as it prepares to restock with many of it’s own bright new stars, many of which whom have been riding the NXT Live Event circuit without appearing on TV (or appearing with any regularity). While we’ve seen several of the women make the jump this week on both Raw and Smackdown Live, it’s only a matter of time before a few more NXT names are called up, to make way for the likes of indie stars Lio Rush, Donovan Dijak, Axel Dieter Jr., Fabian Aichner, and the emerging tag team of Danny Burch (Martin Stone) and Oney Lorcan (Bif Busick). Several names that could easily enhance the Cruiserweight Division would be the likes of Johnny Gargano, Tomassa Ciampa, and potentially even Aleister Black or current NXT Champion Andrade “Cien” Almas. Even two of those names would bolster a strengthening main event picture and create many potential indie dream matches in a WWE ring. And while many of the critics lament that they’re “too good” for 205 Live, we’re pretty sure most of us would rather see Johnny Gargano vs. Hideo Itami, Aleister Black vs. Neville, or Andrade Almas vs. Cedric Alexander in a stunning Cruiserweight title match than seeing any of them being used as enhancement to Jason Jordan, Kane or Mojo Rawley on the main roster. And no matter what people tell you, no one from the WWE has ever said that being in the Cruiserweight Division is a permanent glass ceiling – it’s simply a higher profile way to showcase more of the smaller talent without relegating them to simply being used as enhancement to the more established names on either of the main brands. WWE is well aware of the legends that emerged from WCW’s Cruiserweight Division, like Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Rey Mysterio – but they also know that for every Y2J there was a Silver King, Psicosis or Ciclope. They may have been talented, but they were never destined to be the same calibre as the chosen few.
Is 205 Live perfect? Hardly. But is it as bad as it was when it debuted on November 29th of last year. Not even close. It’s miles better than it was even six months ago. The foundation is more comfortable in their new skins and the new additions have all done their part in elevating the action both in the ring and on the mic. While crowds for 205 Live are still smaller than their Smackdown Live counterparts, they’re noticeably larger than they’ve ever been and the crowd has never been louder. The shift is starting.
So if you haven’t given 205 Live a chance in the past six months, perhaps it’s time to give it another shot. The entire crew has been working on making something better and they’ve achieved that. It’s still got some growing pains, to be sure, but they’re on a pretty good pace to turn the corner in 2018 and finally give the WWE the Cruiserweight Division that both the company and the fans deserve.