Friday, February 9, 2001

Ringside Shadows #161: Rebirth (The WCW Cruiserweight Legacy, Part II)

Last week I took a look at the cornerstone of the WCW product in the late '90s, the widely-regarded cruiserweight division. We took a peek at the events that eventually spawned the division, the workers who made it extraordinary and the decisions that would eventually cripple it. For over a year, the once-proud cruiserweight gold was passed from mistake to mistake, taking everything the Malenkos and Jerichos had worked to achieve and sending it all back to square one. Everyone from Oklahoma to Madusa had a run with the belt, and when they appeared to have exhausted all their other options, they finally did what should've been done in the first place... they gave a motivated worker a chance.

Though he's only been champion for just over two months now, Chavo Guerrero Junior has done what nobody else had the guts to. He stopped the bleeding, and started things back in the right direction. The result was almost instantaneous. Chomping at the bit for their chance in the spotlight were two handfuls of true cruiserweight potentials, otherwise overlooked and left to rot by the promotion. In some, we'd seen the latent potential months before, while others were almost complete surprises. Every last one of them was dedicated to reviving the forgotten cruiserweight tradition.

Add that to what was left of the old days (a bruised Rey Mysterio, Jr. and a Kidman that had begun to slack off) and you had something. Though I'm sure it was more than coincidence, this re-establishment of the cruisers came about during the same months that one Eric Bischoff was being courted by Turner for a possible buyout of the federation. Almost as soon as his name was mentioned in serious negotiations, Chavo was crowned champion. As the talks became more serious, the division got more air time, a greater chance to get over with the crowd. Now that the sale is official, Bischoff has made a point of returning the cruisers to their former glory. Business is about to pick up... but are the gladiators really ready for their one big shot?

Like I said, for many of these guys it's their first real shot at stardom. They haven't yet had the time to develop into what they could be, but then again neither did their predecessors. Sure, there was the occasional international star; Rey Mysterio, Jr. was quite a name both in Japan and Mexico, as was Psychosis. Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko were both a part of the Super J Cup tournament and ECW before joining the fed. The fact of the matter is this was their first exposure with one of the big two, and they ran the length of the field to score a touchdown. It was one of those all too rare instances of being in the right place at the right time, and WCW couldn't help but run with it. None of the first generation cruisers were even a whisper under the breath of the mainstream world, but with hard work and dedication they overcame that and, in the process, carved their own little niche into the card.

So, what are the chances of a repeat performance? Better than you'd think. While this new lineup may be compiled of names and gimmicks you've never seen anywhere but at the bottom of the card, each one is a veritable diamond in the rough, ready to break out and prove himself worthy of your attention. Whether or not they're worth that attention is, in the end, your call. So let's take a look at the contestants...

The most easily overlooked of the former Jung Dragons, which stood as a pretty highly overlooked group on its own. While that would usually dog ear Yang as the underdog, heralded and praised by the internet as a whole, in this instance I think the label is fitting. Yang's Bruce Lee imitation schtick is good for a laugh the first time you see it, but quickly becomes tedious after repeat viewings. To overcome this, Yang should've done something to train himself as a formidable fighter, so that just as viewers thought they'd seen everything in his arsenal, he could take a step back and really redefine himself. And while he's tried some very innovative things with kicks, combination and whatnot, Yang just hasn't reached the point where he's anything more than a comedy act.

Given a proper training, a little ingenuity and a lot of balls, Yang could yet provide a little diversity to the cruiserweight scene. With the right build, stipulations and workers, a martial artist / pro wrestler clash could work remarkably, and with a little image tweaking, (read: a haircut) Yang could possibly fill that role. As is, he's still quite a ways from making a difference.

Jamie Knoble
Himself a former Jung Dragon, Jamie Knoble was the one most set for a push coming out of their virtually unpublicized breakup. With the momentum of a big face turn and the aforementioned split behind him, Knoble was almost instantly thrust back into a tag team situation with Evan Karagias, formerly of Three Count. Instead of propelling him to a higher slot on the card, Knoble's push landed him in an even worse situation. With the Dragons, Knoble had a rapport. Months on the road together had given the three an unspoken form of communication. Their teamwork was growing more precise as they began to mesh as a unit, and they were beginning to experiment with double team combinations and signature maneuvers. By rushing headfirst into a team with Karagias, Knoble lost the bond he'd formed with his old teammates and was forced to start from scratch with a new one. What's more, he was expected to do so within the framework of a much more emphasized triple threat tag scene (against the remaining members of Three Count and the Dragons, respectively.) Under higher pressure to perform, the Knoble and Karagias team crumbled quickly.

Of course, the real tragedy of the whole mess is we never got a chance to see if Knoble had what it takes as a singles wrestler. In the tag division, he's just another cookie cutter cruiserweight. He'll throw himself from the top rope to the floor or take a suicide dive between the ropes, but it's missing the unique flair that sets the superstars apart from the also-rans. To make the kind of impact I know he can, Knoble needs to find himself. He needs something that makes fans sit up and take notice, a vehicle similar to Jeff Hardy's Swanton Bomb. Something that's often imitated but never duplicated. Once he discovers that, the rest should fall in line on its own, as he's got the basics down pretty well.

Billy Kidman
Since the end of the first cruiser regime, Kidman's been in a sort of wild freefall, occasionally producing a good match or heartfelt interview, but generally going absolutely nowhere. He's eliminated what was his trademark, the shooting star press, from his arsenal and has limited a lot of the high flying style that thrust him to our attention in the first place. Where Kidman would thrill us by topping himself week after week in the late '90s, today his matches seem uninspired and downright dull. I suppose one can't blame him, as his high profile feud with Hulk Hogan led only to several consecutive jobs and a cheap victory that did absolutely nothing for his credibility. More than anyone else on this list, Kidman needs a boost, a jolt, something to get him going again.

Case in point: the limits he's placed on his style. However understandable his decision to cut back on the high flying may be, the fact of the matter is he hasn't replaced it with anything to keep our attention. When Jushin "Thunder" Lyger was forced to dramatically decrease his own aerial game due to knee problems several years ago, he didn't just cut down his moveset and carry on with business as usual... instead, he took some time off and organized a completely new plan of attack. While his knee recovered, Lyger was developing and mastering a highly technical, psychology-strong assault. When he made his big return to New Japan, fans were watching a new worker. It was his ability to entertain and risk it all that got him where he is today, but it's his adaptability that keeps him there. Kidman could stand to learn a lesson or two from his story.

Lash LeRoux
LeRoux remains one of the untapped talents in WCW, which is more than likely where he'll remain for some time. Though he's got all the personality you could ask for in a worker, (some might say too much) more than a little charisma and better than average skills on the mat, LeRoux just can't seem to get a break. He's floated from a bad gimmick to a bad stable, back to a bad gimmick. His on screen character is uninspiring. His personality is just so goofy, fans can't take him seriously, even when he's whuppin' a little ace in the ring.

I'd say a repackage would be the answer here, but he'd be too easy to recognize. And once the audience makes that recognition, the floodgates have opened and the gimmick's as good as dead. What Lash really needs to do is concentrate on his game. He needs to put on a serious face and just get to the ring, get the job done, and head to the back. Given some time, fans will accept this new attitude and he might just make it out unscathed. If that happens, the sky's the limit. LeRoux has talent, but I'm willing to bet he'll continue to waste it for the rest of his career.

Kaz Hayashi
An absolutely exceptional talent, left out of the loop because he can't speak English. I suppose I could call him the Essa Rios of WCW, except Kaz is about twleve times more talented than Essa on his best day. It's really too bad they won't give Hayashi a shot, because he's proven time and time again how easily he can get a crowd up and on its feet through body language alone. He knows how to build a killer match, bumps extremely well and can make just about anybody look like a million bucks. His only disadvantages are his height and that language barrier thing. Fans want to like this guy, but WCW just won't let them.

Now, if we've learned the right lesson from last week's post, we'll see Hayashi's big shot could be coming right up. Bischoff isn't the stickler Russo was in terms of cutting a promo. If he can tell the story in the ring better than he can on the mic, Eric's cruiserweight division is where he belongs. Barring injury or downright bad luck, Kaz could be getting his turn sooner rather than later.

Shane Helms
I'll put this bluntly; Shane Helms could be the future. It's little secret how much I like this guy, and if you watched his performance in the Cruiserweight gauntlet match on Thunder a couple weeks ago, you know why. His pseudo-finisher, the vertebreaker, is one of the most vicious moves in American wrestling today. He wrestles a balanced game in the ring, never relying too heavily on spots and giving his opponents a straightforward pace they have no problem keeping up with. Polishing off the whole mess is his quickly developing mic presence, and the gimmick he and Shannon have absolutely nailed since Karagias was dumped.

Helms is just about perfect for the cruiserweight division. He's not too big to keep up with the little guys, but he's also not small enough to rule out a future run into the upper midcard or main event. But that's looking quite a ways down the line.

What makes Shane so great is his ability to work a consistently good match with just about anyone, be it Chavo Guerrero, Jr or that fat woman who accompanied Mike Awesome to the ring many moons ago. Because he understands pacing, the crowd isn't left to suffer through extended rest holds and boring splotches. They're instead treated to an entertaining matchup from start to finish, and respond accordingly. While he's still just a tad green, Helms is on his way to big things in a hurry. Here's hoping the experience of a couple cruiser veterans rubs off on him.

Elix Skipper
A nice hybrid of styles, though I couldn't tell you which ones. Elix is relatively unrefined, and with a little extra training / tightening up, could go places. Teaming him with Lance Storm was one of the wisest decisions WCW has made in the last six months, as the two have great chemistry together and lift each other to heights otherwise unreachable as singles. With the "Team Canada" gimmick working for him, Skipper has the most heat of all the new cruisers and he hasn't exploited it. He doesn't flaunt the gimmick, like Kevin Nash or Hollywood Hogan would the nWo, we know he's affiliated with Storm's Canadians, and he doesn't have to keep reminding us about it.

Between the ropes, Skipper's solid but not extraordinary. He's got some inventive stuff and a spot or two, he knows how to get back and forth, but the opponent selection has a lot to do with how his matches turn up when push comes to shove. His personality is strong, though borderline annoying, and his promos get the point across. Skipper runs par for the course for the new generation.

Rey Mysterio, Jr.
Mysterio's transformed quite a bit over the last couple years. From the most inventive flyer in the game to a more well rounded, however gimmicky, small fighter. I don't like some of what he's done with his ringwork (notably, the devil horns and the bronco buster), but the basic intrigue is still there. He remains the eternal face, both due to his size and his anything-but-sinister face, and he'll still fly if the situation calls for it. A lot of what Rey does has fallen into repetition, which is a bad thing. For example; every match he manages to slip in that "swing between the middle and top ropes" snapmare reversal. He's slowly being overtaken by the same disease that made X-Pac no fun.

Shannon Moore
The spottier of the two remaining members of Three Count, Shannon Moore is also the biggest risk-taker. I don't think I'd be going too far in calling him Jeff Hardy to Shane's Matt. While Shannon hasn't developed nearly as much as his teammate, he's making up for it by trying things with his body that Shane wouldn't even dream of. Add to that the nice, fluid teamwork the two have stitched together and you've got a winning combination. Shannon's got potential, but I fear he may be overshadowed by Shane in the longrun.

Chavo Guerrero, Jr.
Hands down, the centerpiece of the division. For some time, Chavo was stuck in the same trap that's snared his former MIA teammate, Lash LeRoux. Remember the "Eddy Guerrero is my favorite wrestler" gimmick? Pepe the toy horse? Chavo's been through some utterly disturbing gimmicks in his time, but after a couple months' worth of serious work and character redefinition, he's a Cruiserweight champion. Not to mention his outstanding heel turn. Chavo Jr. has come a long way since his days playing the inept, lovable face, and it took a dynamic heel run for me to realize that. Everything he does screams "old school heel," from his adapted style in the ring to his attacks from behind after a match, and I'm loving every minute of it. Chavo's been taking notes from his Uncle Eddy, and the result is a thing of beauty.

His continued angle with Ric Flair's group has ensured that the cruiserweight division will remain in the spotlight for the foreseeable future, at least long enough to establish itself, and that's all it really needed. Chavo's the most worthy champion in WCW (which, admittedly, isn't saying much), and his reign at the top bodes quite well for the future of the cruiserweight division.

Check back next week for the final chapter, and head to head comparison. Which division was the most entertaining? Which held the most potential? Which walks out the better of the two? I'll answer all of your questions, plus a couple more when I wrap things up this same time next week.
until then, i remain

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