"People often think of WWE as this close-minded...'This is how it's going to be' and that's not how it is at all. We're open to a lot of things but it takes time to make changes and it takes time to open those doors and there's a lot of business components that have to be in place for it all to happen. This is one of those things. It took a long time to come but now here we are. I am excited about it for these guys to have the platform. I am also excited about it for some of the organizations that they work for now, getting exposure through WWE and the WWE Network. That kind of helps them as well. It's just good for the health of the business overall." - Paul "Triple H" Levesque, February 16th, 2016
Size has always been a premium in professional wrestling.
After all, this is genre that has witnessed names like Andre the Giant and The Undertaker reign supreme as some of the greatest attractions ever and a business where one of the most iconic moments of all time is Andre being bodyslammed at Wrestlemania III.
However, one of those other moments that make wrestling fans, historians and performers alike smile is the memory of the classic Intercontinental championship match at that same Wrestlemania, where Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage waged war. When you trace back the history of great Wrestlemania moments and performers, that was the original watershed moment - the big splash that can pointed to as the origin of so many when it came to the passion that moved them when it came to this unique genre.
Savage vs. Steamboat was not just a work of art in March 1987 but also a force of nature. Threatened with being lost under the shadow of the giants and monsters who walked the halls of the Pontiac Silverdome, together, they forged their way into the light with only work ethic, speed, finesse and an obsession for great storytelling as their weapons. While many classic matches would come after them, this was the first time that two stars became immortal on the Wrestlemania stage for overachieving.
Size didn't matter. Heart did.
In the years and decades that followed, WWE's characters have changed sizes and shapes. The monsters still roam the hallway - just ask the Wyatt Family, but also roaming are generations who were inspired by the likes of Steamboat and Savage as well as other similar performers who had their own work ethic and utilized their own finesse and speed and skill and passion to carve their own path - Jushin Liger, The Dynamite Kid, Brian Pillman, Rey Mysterio, Brad Armstrong, and Dean Malenko, among others.
Indeed, within a decade of Wrestlemania III, New Japan Pro Wrestling was producing the Best of the Super Juniors tournament. Dave "Fit" Finlay was tearing up European rings. AAA was forging a new generation of amazing high-flyers with the trio of Mysterio, Psicosis and Juventud Guerrera, among others. Michinoku Pro was blazing a trail with a lucha libre-inspired style that saw The Great Sasuke and TAKA Michinoku blow people away. ECW was utilizing smaller talents like Sabu, Eddie Guerrero and Malenko, each of them laying down the foundation for their own unique legend. Jim Kettner's ECWA in Delaware began holding their annual Super 8 tournament, where winning or even having the performance with the most heart meant you had a one-way ticket to next level and potential stardom in professional wrestling.
In 1995, the advent of the Monday Night Wars meant that the lighter, faster wrestlers were now in high demand in the United States for the first time. They weren't just a sideshow attraction or something delegated to a niche promotion anymore. Indeed, Eric Bischoff hired a crew from around the world designed to set WCW Nitro and its roster apart from their mortal enemy over on the USA Network, Monday Night Raw. There was an arms race for talent and those who might have been ignored in the past were now hot commodities.
The rules had changed.
In the ensuing years, Cruisers like Chris Jericho graduated to main events and even World championships, although in many cases, it would take those former mid-carders leaving WCW for WWE. As irony would have it, WWE's own attempts at replicating the Cruiser Division, whether it be the forgotten Smackdown Minis division or the far underrated Super Astros lucha libre series, paled in comparison to what other entities were producing. When WCW finally fell, as all Empires eventually do, WWE absorbed the assets. Whether they used them all wisely or not will be debated to the end of time, but one debate would be short and sweet - what had been the Cruiserweight division suffered. The division, which had already lost much of what made it unique as WCW deteriorated, never found it's voice again under the WWE umbrella and in the end, Hornswoggle was the final champion when the belt was retired in 2008.
Sure, there was great wrestling in WWE and elsewhere but on a national level, the idea of Cruiserweights in pro wrestling as an attraction that could add a different dimension to the product seemingly disappeared. That, however, was only on the national scene as the next generation of independent, revolutionary promotions began building their promotion around the smaller competitors that, like those initially inspired by Steamboat vs. Randy Savage, were finding their own inspiration in Mysterio and Guerrero and Malenko...and like all those who came before them, were breaking new ground, pushing the barriers of what it mean to be a great professional wrestler.
Whether it be the CZW Best of the Best tournament, the X-Division or the fledgling days of Ring of Honor, rules continued to be broken and stars continued to evolve, perform and inspire their fans and peers alike. The European wrestling scene experienced an amazing resurgence with names like Zack Sabre Jr. and Will Ospreay leading the way.. Japan saw a new generation of stars, including Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi capturing the hearts and minds of fans the way Jushin Liger and Ultimo Dragon once did. Dragon Gate. CHIKARA. DDT. EVOLVE. The alphabet soup of promotions that began using the talents who would have once been christened Cruisers and began to build their own foundation around those talents was endless. The landscape of the business changed thanks to their independent spirit.
Of course, I need not remind you of what the journey of Daniel Bryan has meant to fans across the globe and his style certainly would have fallen under the Cruiserweight Wrestling umbrella.
The heart and soul of wrestling still existed.
Truth be told, WWE never gave up on the Cruiserweights, especially once Triple H began gaining power in the company. In 2011, PWInsider.com reported that one of the discussed goals and hopes Triple H had brought to the table was a way to bring back the Cruiserweight division in some fashion. The company considered using their old WWE Livewire series as the umbrella for a proposed Cruiserweight series but were unable to figure out how exactly to make it work and while the idea never died, it was certainly placed in the back of the filing cabinet for future reference. Instead, WWE went to work on some of Triple H's other ideas, like rebuilding the tag team division and reworking WWE developmental.
The WWE developmental evolution into what is now known as NXT changed the game again, but this time, it raged within the machine, as opposed to screaming at it from the outside. What had once been a dirty word inside the WWE system was now a fledgling third brand that could easily sell out the same Barclays Center that hosted Summerslam in Brooklyn, NY. As the walls that once held the older WWE ideals began to come down and newer concepts, some from within, some from the past and some from today's wrestling landscape, were used to enrich where before they might have been rejected. The timing was right to create a companion series for NXT.
Premiering on Wednesday 7/13 on the WWE Network at 9 PM will be the WWE Global Cruiserweight Series, planned as a ten week series that will follow 32 Cruiserweight competitors striving to prove they are the best Cruiserweight in the world. The tournament will be populated by 32 competitors from all over the world seeking not just the chance to perform and win but to do what every pro wrestler dreams of doing - getting themselves over in the eyes of WWE as well as making a name for themselves in front of the biggest audience possible.
"I'm excited about this, " said WWE's Paul "Triple H" Levesque, the WWE champion Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events & Creative of WWE via telephone earlier today. "I really am. It's a really great opportunity for us to tap into what's a really exciting talent pool. I believe, sort of an underutilized talent pool. There are just numerous, numerous, numerous Cruiserweights around the world that are great performers that have not fully had the opportunity to be seen around the world and that's something that hopefully, WWE can give them."
Unlike previous Cruiserweight divisions and generations, the plan is provide a platform for professional wrestlers who are 205 lbs. or less, which means WWE, in a major step against tradition, is placing a massive premium on smaller competitors who are more likely to use their finesse as in-ring performers, their artistry in the ring, their versatility to create and their courage to fly.
A global search is currently underway to fill the tournament.
"I would say the vast majority [of talents on the series] will be non-contracted or long-term contracted WWE talents, " explains Levesque. "We haven't finalized the selection process, watching tapes and seeing who we want to work with and all of that. It's going to be a discovery process. Look, I want to have the best in the world. I don't want to negate anyone from that process because they are under contract to us. At the same time, I'm looking for the best in the world and the brightest around to give them a platform that they've never had. I'm certainly looking at the vast majority from being from the outside [of WWE.] When I say Global, I mean Global. We are recruiting from everywhere. UK, Japan, China, to find the best talent. That doesn't mean we are going to find someone everywhere, but we are really trying to turn things over and really find someone from every part of the globe to be part of this and show the world who they are and what they can do."
While the long-term future of this concept remains to be seen - Levesque is hopeful of the tournament becoming a recurring event on the WWE Network and perhaps sparking a bigger role for Cruisers within the company - for 10 weeks this summer and fall, WWE is going to throw caution out the window in order to attempt to create something unique. The Cruiserweights, like a Phoenix streaking across the night sky, will fly once more and this time, they'll have their own WWE Network series...and the focus is going be on the battles they create inside the squared circle.
"This will be in-ring [series]", said Levesque, "But there will be a lot of....if you just take talent that you don't know anything about and it's someone no one has heard of before, they can do anything they want in the ring, but it's just not as exciting. You aren't as emotionally invested into who they are as characters as performers, as people, as performers, as where they are trying to go in their careers. I want people to learn about these talents and learn about who these talents are. This is not just me saying I'm giving you a platform and you have eight minutes in the ring and 'Go get 'em, kid.' This is, 'I'm going to tell the world who you are. I'm going to tell them what you do. I'm going to tell you bits and pieces about your journey so far in your career and I'm going to give you an opportunity with someone else to really shine in the ring and show everyone who you are and what you can do' and really allow you to learn about these guys in this tournament."
WWE intends to leverage it's massive online audience to promote the talents involved and make their audience familiar with them via WWE.com and the company's associated social media platform.
"When that first [episode] airs, you will have already seen a lot about these talents on WWE.com and through that digital space, you'll be able to learn about these performers before they get into WWE and into this tournament for us."
Of course that process means that independent and international talents as well as the promotions they are working for will receive a boost from WWE in something of a trickle-down effect. With WWE building a relationship with EVOLVE and WWE NXT helping to bring some lapsed fans back into professional wrestling at all levels, WWE is enriching the independent scene. So has that been a purposeful move or just a lucky by-product of WWE creating new, unique content for their audience? Has the world changed?
"There's different ways at looking at things but the world changes on a daily basis and if you aren't willing to grow, then it passes you by. I think we all have to grow and the look changes and the approach changes, " said Levesque. "The guy that taught me that is the guy that everyone says can't do that and that's Vince [McMahon]. People don't know him and they don't know what they are talking about when it comes to him. We are...to do this business and to do it very well takes a long time and there's a lot of reps. To have guys go and have places to go and have reps and show what they can do. It's a wonderful opportunity. I'm selective as to who we want to associate with....I don't even want to say 'associate with'...who we promote and who we define things with. I know that if I go to certain groups, there are talents there working a certain style and genre and that's what we are looking for and that's what I'm going to gravitate towards. It's good for the health of the business and the more people that are excited about the business, the more people want to get into it and the more people that want to work hard to excel at the business, the better the business is going to be as a whole. I've said this about NXT. Without college football, the NFL loses it's feeder system and its a similar thing for us. I want that feeder system to be there and I want it to be healthy. I want them to have places to work and when they are ready, if its the right fit for them, if its their passion, and they are the right talent and right performer, we can give them that bigger global platform to get them to do what they do in front of the entire world. If that means making the independent undercurrent healthier, then that's what we do. I just look at it as helping the business to succeed long-term."
Still as noted before, Cruisers have not always been treated kindly under the WWE umbrella. So, why has Levesque been passionate about putting the spotlight back on them?
"At the end of the day, I was just having this conversation with my wife. I kind of approach this as I'm just a huge fan. I started out that way and I will be that way my whole life. I kind of do what I think I'm going to dig and that I'm going to like and that's the way I approach it. There's this talent that I like and I'd like to go and see what they can do. So, I push for going to see what I can do with that. I think it's important for everything to always grow and become bigger. I've looked for a long time at that population of talent in that under 205 lb. category, the Cruiserweight category and thought, 'Man, there's a lot of really talented performers' and I don't mean guys that can just do flips. Really talented performers that have characters and can speak are really good. They are underutilized to me and they don't have the platform to show what they can do. I feel like that's a miss. Not intentionally a miss, but just something that we've left sitting on the table, and I don't want to leave stuff sitting there on the table."
Of course, there are going to be doubters out there, quick to point out the sillier Minis division of the past and similar excursions WWE have gone on. What does Levesque say to those critical of this new Cruiserweight undertaking?
"I'm shocked to hear you say fans would be critical of everything, " Levesque joked. "The WWE Network, and this is one of the things that I was most excited about: it's our platform. It's our ability to change how we do business and showcase things in a way that we've never showcased them before. Whether that be the main WWE roster and live specials. Whether that be the creation and explosion of WWE NXT or whether it be something like this, The Cruiserweight series; It just allows a certain genre of wrestler a certain platform that they've never had before, rather than being just a small subsection of the company or whatever this is."
So, are we looking at a return for The Cruiserweight division? Is the goal to bring back the Cruiserweight championship that once shined as a cornerstone of WCW?
"I think it is slightly the cart before the horse," warns Levesque. "I think..I want this to be something that is repetitive. I would like this tournament to be a recurring thing where we take the best talent from around the world and let them do their thing. Does that morph directly into a Cruiserweight division right away? I don't know about right away...and it might...but we're clearly looking at all the guys in this tournament and saying, 'who do we want to work with long-term? Maybe we give this guy a year and we'll work with him long-term next year' and who are all these talents. I think where it lands is sort of a work in progress. If you look at this tournament, it's going to be a platform where somebody and it could be more than one person, is going to be seen as one of the best Cruiserweights in the world or the best Cruiserweight in the world. It's a hell of a platform and it's going to get bigger and better but just not sure 100% what that is.""
As I noted before, size has always been a premium in professional wrestling...but so has been heart. Heart is why Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage became immortal against all odds at Wrestlemania III. Heart is why Rey Mysterio, Jushin Liger, Eddie Guerrero, Dynamite Kid and others have forged legendary careers and worldwide acclaim. This July, heart may very well result in a star being born and potentially, in the rules for professional wrestling on a major league level being changed yet again.
The rules have changed. So has the landscape. So, what should we be looking to, from the past, to preview what the Global Cruiserweight Series will bring us this summer?
"It's hard to say what [one match fans should look to as a preview] because when you think of Cruiserweights, people look to Neville and Kalisto who have that amazing aerial control but that's not what being 205 and under means to me, " said Levesque. "When you start to scour all of these different places, like the U.K., there's all these amazing technical talents, just well rounded wrestlers who are mat technicians, who are amazing at what they do, who are just as exciting as someone performing a corkscrew moonsault. So, I don't want to say, watch Rey Mysterio from WCW...I feel like that's limiting. I feel like the best has yet to come for the Cruiserweights and like NXT, the thing that makes any match great is the differences in style. We're going to put that opportunity out there for these guys. It may be a bit smaller, a big faster, maybe a bit more aggressive, the pace is different. We're going to give them that platform whether they are mat-based or it's something a little different. We're not going to limit things. We're going to give you something like you've never seen before. That's what it's going to be."
While there are no concrete plans beyond the initial series, Levesque is optimistic about what The Global Cruiserweight Series will mean not just for fans or the WWE Network, but for the Cruiserweights who certainly have the skill, the heart and the passion.
"Hopefully, this expands to be more within the WWE. I'm certainly looking at it as an opportunity to see the best and brightest Cruiserweights from around the world and hopefully give them an opportunity with WWE in a bigger way, but if nothing else, just being a part of this, those 32 talents that are selected to be in this from around the world, you are opening yourself up to a platform that most of these guys have never only dreamed of doing. I'm excited about that opportunity for them and WWE, but mostly for our fans."
Different, exciting times begin this July...and perhaps, like Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat, this new breed of talents will inspire yet another generation of performers yet to come.
Mike Johnson can be reached at MikeJohnsonPWInsider@gmail.com.
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