Billy Kidman vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. (6/19/99)
Rey Mysterio Jr. vs. Billy Kidman by Stinger1981
In the 90s, WCW built what was perhaps the greatest roster of talent seen in any wrestling promotion at any time. Not only did they have the WWF’s 80s and 90s powerhouses in the persons of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, they were able to keep or resign a significant portion of their own main event talent, like Sting, Lex Luger and Ric Flair, dudes that casual fans liked and might blow a little money on to see them in main event matches on Pay Per View. Add to those guys WCW homegrowns like Diamond Dallas Page and Goldberg (and, to a lesser extent, Booker T and Chris Benoit, who were always on the verge of huge success but also always firmly under the glass ceiling), the sudden rise of “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner as a singles star and the defection of Bret Hart, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a main event scene, regardless of age and the ability of those performers to put on fresh, interesting contests every month.
But where WCW really sunk its hooks into wrestling fans was with its cruiserweight division and its ability to pull in international talent across the card. In 1997, Masahiro Chono and The Great Muta were two of Japan’s biggest drawing cards, but in America, they were having five minute tag team matches against High Voltage on Monday Nitro. The general consensus is that the disparity between 15 minute Hulk Hogan promos celebrating his 1985 cover of Sports Illustrated and five minute matches featuring world class talent like Muta and Chono who should have been getting, say, 10 or 15 minutes a match is partly why people stopped watching WCW, but I’m really only mentioning Chono and Muta as examples of how impressive WCW’s pull was.
WCW’s cruiserweight division during this time was probably the best wrestling you could see on TV at any given week. Just to list a few of the wrestlers who were part of the division from 1996-1998, the period when WCW was at its hottest: Shinjiro Otani (if you don’t know him, you should), Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio Jr., Ultimo Dragon, Chris Jericho, Psychosis, Juventud Guerrera, Eddie Guerrero, La Parka, Chris Benoit (a technicality, since he lost a tournament finals to Otani and never really wrestled in the division again), Syxx (1-2-3 Kid or X-Pac, to you), Chavo Guerrero Jr., and so on. The WCW Cruiserweight Division gave rise to more future WWE Champions (4: Jericho, Mysterio, Guerrero, Benoit) than the purchase of WCW and ECW (1: Rob Van Dam) or the signing of WCW talent who waited out their enormous guaranteed money WCW contracts (3: Hulk Hogan, Goldberg, Mysterio), and considering that the only people who didn’t wind up with a WWE contract sometime after their run in the division from that carefully cultivated list were Otani and La Parka, you get a sense of how positively regarded the division was, overall.
The problem and ultimate death of cruiserweight wrestling in the American mainstream was a combination of piss-poor booking and WCW’s roots, which were all but inescapable. Some of the cruiserweights, for example, the four who eventually won a world title in WWE, were ultimately too special to be kept in the midcard forever, but if you scroll back up and look at the names on the list of WCW main eventers during this time period, it’s pretty obvious that a guy like Lex Luger isn’t giving up his spot to a dude like Chris Jericho, who in 1996 made it a New Year’s resolution to win the United States Championship and, in 2011, has yet to do so. Guys like Eddie Guerrero, who started his WCW run as a United States champion and then seemingly couldn’t get out of the cruiserweight division despite the crazy amount of heat the fans had for him, parlayed their real life frustrations with Eric Bischoff into storylines (Eric Bischoff’s allegedly throwing a cup of coffee at Guerrero led to the formation of the lWo), which, oddly enough, is being mirrored by today’s X Division.
(There’s an Eddie interview where he spills coffee on himself, but I can’t find it at the moment.)
Brian Kendrick has a point: The X Division guys are the most talented guys on the TNA (or Impact Wrestling) roster, and until recently, they have been sitting on their hands. Now they’re losing their title to Abyss, which would be tragic were it not for the fact that Mick Foley said “Wrestling Matters!” before introducing Chyna to a crowd that, unsurprisingly, went crazy for Chyna. But in 1998, cruiserweight wrestling was still special, and the feud between Dean Malenko and Chris Jericho over the cruiserweight title got one of the biggest reactions from a live crowd that I’ve ever heard. In 1999, it was essentially dead, its stars little more than cannon fodder for much bigger, stronger, whiter dudes. And while the Bischoff video above is an angle, it’s partly rooted in history. Not only does he hurl a cup of coffee Kendrick’s way, but he mentions their height and their build, features that led Kevin Nash (who, in 1998, booked WCW to the point of no return) to call the group “vanilla midgets.” What happened in 1998 that was so bad?
- Mexican cruiserweights started losing their masks. It didn’t hurt Juventud Guerrera, who looked fine without his semi-ghetto mask, but take a look at Rey Mysterio Jr. in the above clip and ask yourself what seems more marketable: A slick high-flyer in an iconic mask, or a 12-year-old boy wrestling in coveralls. WWE certainly knew the answer to that one.
- Jericho and Malenko “graduated” from the cruiserweight division to their respective roles in the TV Title division and the Four Horsemen. Malenko was never going to be a megastar on his own, but having him team up with Chris Benoit again was nothing new, even if the matches that came about as a result of that team were one of tag team wrestling’s brief glimmers of post-80s hope. Jericho continued to reach new heights in the TV Title division, teasing a feud with Bill Goldberg, but once that didn’t pan out, Jericho was gone.
- Guerrero got into a car accident, which significantly shortened the lWo’s lifespan. That being said, it’s ultimately questionable that an angle based on a worker’s legit hatred of his boss and a stable that included Hector Garza and El Dandy was set up for anything more than failure.
- Divisions suddenly stopped mattering in 1998. After the abortion that was Hogan-Sting at Starrcade 1997, WCW started looking at ways they could lazily copy WWF attitude, so the 10 minute TV Title time limit went out the window, the Tag Team Titles started being won by teams like Sting/The Giant and Rick Steiner/Kenny Kaos and cruiserweights started jobbing en masse to Kevin Nash and other big dudes as a way to break up the lWo. Rey Mysterio and Kevin Nash had a pretty good feud I admit, and while seeing Rey Mysterio get a win over Nash and get a shot against Flair for the WCW Heavyweight Title was certainly exciting, that Rey’s mask was on the line against Miss Elizabeth’s hair in the feud clincher with Nash and that Mysterio’s only non-cruiserweight championships came in the tag team division (with three different partners) tells you everything you need to know about WCW’s plans for Rey’s career advancement.
- WCW’s search for a white face of the cruiserweight division never really panned out. Kidman was a great wrestler, but as you can tell from this video, he was terrible on the microphone. When WCW really started spiraling, they brought in dudes like Air Paris and pushed old jobbers like Evan Karagias, who were capable of backflips and somersaults but didn’t know when it was best to do that stuff. WCW’s most heralded cruiserweight matches from 2000-2001 are unwatchable spotfests compared to the bulk of work done between 1996 and 1998, and cruiserweight wrestling went from the beautifully over-the-top lucha stuff to illogical backyard wrestling pretty damn quick, even if a few of the guys in the division were really good.
- Post-mask Rey, post-Flock Kidman, post-giving-a-damn Eddie, post-prime Konnan, and post-sanity Juvi were constantly smashed together in ridiculously terrible stables/gimmicks. At the beginning of this video, you hear mention of Rey hanging out with Master P. Master P started a stable in WCW called the No Limit Soldiers, and Rey Mysterio was involved (as well as Brad Armstrong, which is curious, and a legion of untalented Master P associates). WCW fans, a deeply southern contingent, turned on Rey and Kidman and Eddie and Juvi, not only because southerners didn’t really like rap back then, but because Master P brought exactly nothing to the table (while being paid upwards of six figures to bring it). These mainstream associations were supposed to be COOL and EDGY, but fans who wanted COOL and EDGY had long since turned the dial to Raw and fans who stuck to WCW and wanted WCW’s brand of wrestling were left to side with Curt Hennig and Barry Windham (and the six or so jobbers who joined them) in singing “Rap is Crap,” which was probably the best part of the horrible West Texas Rednecks vs. No Limit Soldiers feud.
There was also a Konnan rap video, but I’ll spare you.
So what you’ve got way at the beginning of this article, beyond the solid minute of spinning headscissors before the West Texas Rednecks assert themselves on Mysterio and Kidman, is a microcosm of what killed a very unique, very enjoyable facet of mainstream wrestling. There’ve been flashes, like WWE’s brief flirtation with a legit cruiserweight division on SmackDown! (the less said about their attempt in 1998, the better (unless we’re talking Gillberg)), and the bi-monthly wrestling website blurbs about a coming focus on TNA’s X Division, but just when there seems to be hope, Daffney and Crowbar become co-holders of the WCW Cruiserweight Title or Hornswoggle ends the WWE Cruiserweight division, giving future signees like Evan Bourne and Yoshi Tatsu nothing to shoot for. The problem persists, as Abyss’ reign over TNA’s (or Impact Wrestling’s) X Division will illustrate, but don’t blame the Eric Bischoff of today. Blame the Eric Bischoff of 1998.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.