World Wrestling Entertainment’s second bite at the brand split apple has thus far produced mixed, yet entertaining, results. While the much-ballyhooed draft yielded more questions than answers, WWE at least on the surface appears committed to pursuing the quaint notion that they can create their own competition if they only try hard enough. While nobody would argue that the decisions to push NXT standout Finn Balor and ill-used talent Dolph Ziggler as number one contenders to the “Universal” and World Titles aren’t potential game changers, the scent of largesse still reeks large for the galaxy’s best-known pro wrestling company. WWE has had a bigger is better mantra, spoken or sub rosa, since its inception. Rosters have swooned, checks for part-time performers have resulted in a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy for most of the promotion’s flimsy rulebook, and ideas seemingly drawn up on Wile E. Coyote’s Acme brand chalkboard (Shaq versus The Big Show? book it!) are spearheaded straight into the execution stage.
Remarkable, then, that one of the efforts to showcase the “new” feeling viewers are supposed to have in regards to said split is the reintroduction of the cruiserweight division, which is to feature an unknown amount of combatants and be exclusive to the Monday Night Raw brand. Cruiserweight has become a bit of a dirty word in certain wrestling circles, which might go a long way toward explain the very varied reaction to this news. Many fans, fed a steady diet of smaller performers achieving their dreams on the main roster, reacted with excitement toward the idea that recognition would be bestowed around a segment of wrestlers that are often times derided and overlooked. On the opposite side of the coin, no less a wrestling legend than Ric Flair himself remarked casually on his podcast that someone the size of Finn Balor would never headline WrestleMania. The segment was a discussion of the current product wherein Flair was more obviously trying to compliment Roman Reigns, but the point nonetheless stood and caught social media fire to the point where the Nature Boy himself was making light of it.
I’m not going to critique Flair’s opinion in this space, per se, as I prefer to let the readers determine for themselves whether a guy under 200 pounds can in fact headline wrestling’s biggest event. Major inroads have been made in this regard, but wrestling is still behind the times in general in eliminating some of the old territorial streams of thought that don’t fit today’s contemporary clientele. It’s also a worked sport, so the promoters involved will always have more of a say in who any major players are in their respective promotions than we fans will. One of the more critical misses of WWE product has been failing to capitalize on the popularity of a “movement” before it’s already jumped the shark, and it’s happened time and time again, from not feeling Daniel Bryan was a guy to build your company around to not really getting the whole CM Punk movement to not accepting the idea that Roman Reigns, as “handsome” and “well-spoken” as he may be (to quote Ric), isn’t garnering the mega-face reaction among the mass movement that you were hoping for on paper. While we could no doubt cycle through any amount of reasons as to the reason for this, I prefer to shave with Occam’s razor and deduce that Vince McMahon and his inner circle still have trouble believing that something makes sense that they didn’t come up with. In a strange way, I sort of get that logic. When your job ostensibly consists of creating content, it’s a bitter pill to swallow when someone else does it better or more effectively. It’s an even tougher dose of medication when the person or persons who do it are the audience you’re seeking to entertain. It doesn’t make the crowd always right, of course, but ignore them at your peril.
One example of this flawed thinking was the cruiserweight movement the first time around. By the time the WWE got into the party, it was hosted by someone else, as Eric Bischoff leveraged his ability to get cheaper talent from ECW and overseas to put together an impressive roster of overseas names to kick off his weekly programs and hit Titan Tower where it hurt. As Bischoff himself has since explained, the intention was to present entertaining product at the top of the first hour while simultaneously offering an option that WWE was not. If you wanted to see cruiserweight talent on this side of the shore, you had to watch WCW, and plenty of people did. Lest you think this a late-breaking development, keep in mind that Nitro’s first televised match on September 4, 1995, featured Brian Pillman waging war with Japanese superstar Jushin Thunder Liger. While Liger was known to American audiences for his battles with Pillman over the Light Heavyweight Championship in 1991-92 (that story in itself a classic tale of old-school bookers pushing their agendas), his following was minimal compared with his immense popularity in Japan. That marked a significant departure from the classic WWE method of bigger is better, building their shows around the muscle men and reducing everything else to supporting cast.
One thing that has marked McMahon’s tenure is his inability to successfully present cruiserweights. With the success of Lucha Underground and the increasing ways wrestling fans can watch Japanese promotions, it makes complete sense to get back into the mix and offer cruiser options to the discerning wrestling fan. It’s also a good time to do so, as the Network’s Cruiserweight Classic has managed some rave reviews and allowed folks you frankly would never imagine in a WWE ring to display their talents in front of an approving audience. It’s a great start, but is it enough to change the minds of wrestling’s traditionalists? That question is much tougher to answer, and remarks like Flair’s, whether in jest or not, show that bias in its true form.
That’s not to suggest that Flair is totally off base in what he’s saying. As with anything, you generally only get out of it what you’re willing to put into it, and Balor won’t succeed without WWE’s sausage making machine in full production mode. It’s a bit of a marriage of convenience for both parties. Guys like Balor lose their counterculture street credentials by getting their checks paid by the mass market palaver of WWE, and the creative team scratches their heads while wondering how to market a guy who has already marketed himself for years. We are truly living in a different and exciting team to be a mainstream wrestling fan, as names like Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe seemed poised for lengthy runs in World Wrestling Entertainment, providing indy dream matchups heretofore unimaginable in a Vince McMahon ring. That being said, true success can only be measured by both the commitment to the method and the result, and the jury remains out. Is this a kneejerk reaction to fleeting popularity, an event so frequent in the WWE as to be almost routine, the ends to a mean, a toe dip in the swimming pool before deciding the water’s too cold and heading back to the hotel? Or is this another example of the changing of the guard in Connecticut, a hat tip to the next generation of booker who understands that tastes have changed and there’s money to be made by guys that look more like the matador than the bull? Past history suggests the answer to be complicated, but not without a dose of optimism.
Much of WWE’s cruiser plans remain shrouded in mystery, and that’s frankly not a good start. Daniel Bryan has offered solid commentary from his vast experience while announcing the CWC, but his promotion to Smackdown on-camera authority figure eliminates any possibility that he’ll be involved in this, and that’s a damn shame. Smackdown is the show that would benefit more strongly from the appearance of something different and special that the cruiserweights allow, but the company’s push to make Raw fantastic has rendered that point moot. There’s clearly plenty of talent available, but mass audiences at the tentpoles of North America touring are a far cry from “insider” type fans attending a Full Sail show. At the end of the day, Balor’s success won’t come from his build alone but from his presentation and charisma, and those are intangibles that rely on both employee and employer to cultivate. Pushing him hard as an upstart heir apparent to Seth Rollins’s throne is a ballsy move, even on paper, but it gets the pressure off the Roman Reigns marketing machine and the reaction to Finn in NXT speaks for itself. Booking him over Reigns checked another item off the bucket list of things most of us never imagined happening, but the emergence of AJ Styles as a true marquee player has caused WWE to recheck their critical thinking. Putting the biggest title on the company around his waist no longer seems like the ridiculous pipe dream it once may have.
More importantly, though, the presentation of the cruiserweights this time around would answer the lingering questions of whether WWE truly and fundamentally is willing to change the way they do business to capitalize on a movement a significant portion of their audience is invested in. That’s an area where even Bischoff and WCW didn’t succeed, as their glass ceiling and reliance on names from the past resulted in a mass exodus of talent like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and others that proved one of the death blows for their organization. Proving that a cruiserweight can main event WrestleMania is at its heart an easy task: all one has to do is book the match and provide the standard underdog story. The crowd and emotion can do the rest. But convincing wrestling’s old-school backbone that the larger than life presentation which has accompanied pro wrestling since its earliest carnival days is passe? That’s a battle that no fighter of any size can likely win. Coexistence is not the end game here. The simple truth is that there is a hell of a lot riding on Finn Balor’s shoulders going into his SummerSlam match, and many of those implications are not his own creation. This is about as big of a deal as you can have in wrestling. For once, the overtones and creative angles are reduced to a tittering backstory compared to the utter reality of the event itself. To be sure, we all stand on the potential precipice of wrestling history. It’s dramatic, but it’s not overstatement. Will WWE take the plunge? Will they perform the sort of daredevil move from a strategic sense that the cruisers do inside the squared circle? Time will tell.