Friday, February 16, 2001

Ringside Shadows #162: Rebirth (The WCW Cruiserweight Legacy, Part III)

Over the last couple weeks, I've taken a look at two very different divisions of, quite honestly, two very different companies. There's no denying the WCW of 1996 is a separate beast from the 2001 incarnation, and the same can be said for the cruiserweights employed therein. I also briefly covered the grey area in between the two competitive divisions, (roughly spanning most of 1999 and 2000) without which we likely wouldn't have even noticed a changing of the guard.

However, there remains little doubt that the cruiserweights as a whole have evolved. That guard most certainly has changed, and though it may be a little early to start playing favorites I'll be damned if I'm not gonna try. I set out on this little excursion with a simple goal in mind; to introduce readers to the cruiserweights they may have missed, (both past and present) to decide which version was the strongest, and to explain why. Perhaps it wasn't such a simple goal after all.

Regardless, in our long, strange journey I've introduced you to the top ten names in each respective version of the storied WCW Cruiserweight division. I've told you what made them special, what made them fail and what they brought to the division as a collective. Now all that's left is the judging.

It's been said that a whole is only as strong as the sum of its parts, and I'll be employing that logic, however flawed, in this instance. I'll take each figurative "part" from each collective, pair them off one against the other, and tell you who's the better man and why. In the end, the division with the most victories gets the nod as the strongest. Straightforward, and right down the middle. So let's get started.

Kidman ('97) v. Shane Helms
I chose to lead off with this one because, quite simply, these two were pegged "the one to watch" for their own respective eras. With Kidman, we had a young man suffering under the crushing mental presence of Raven. It was clear he was holding something back, and the potential that he'd break something out during any particular episode of Nitro brought viewers time and time again. With Helms, the story is a bit different but the theme remains the same. Though Evan Karagias never had any sort of intimidating "mental presence" holding Helms back, he was never given the shot he deserved until the unofficial leader of Three Count was dubiously dumped. There's no question this kid's got potential, and he's only now being given the chance to make it or break it. Fans know these two are going places in a hurry, and I'd be willing to bet Helms undergoes a coming of age similar to Kidman's before this new run of cruisers comes to a close.

With both, you've got absolutely outstanding finishers, though each walks a tightrope between success (and the adoration and respect of the fans) and disaster (and the terrible feeling that a fellow worker's been injured, perhaps severely, because of your own mistake.) Both the shooting star press and the vertebreaker are absolutely breathtaking maneuvers, but carry with them a certain level of danger as well. With both guys you've also got a strong technical basis in the ring and an understanding of how to tell a story and involve the audience over the course of a five or ten minute match. Each knows how to pace a match, not only for themselves but for their opponents, and comes out of an average match looking like gold as a result.

The only thing really setting these two apart is their work on the mic. And while Helms isn't exactly what I'd call an expert in that aspect, he's head and shoulders ahead of the Kidman we saw in 1997. Call it a natural progression, call it the new rules of the game, I call it the deciding factor in this face-off. Helms gets the nod, with a game just a tad more complete than that of the Kidman that frequented ringside with Raven's flock.
Old School: 0   New School: 1

Ultimo Dragon v. Yang
Following up on the neck and neck race of Kidman / Helms, we get something of a no-contest here. In one corner, you've got a man who helped shape the junior/cruiser style, and in the other is an immature, spotty Bruce Lee clone. That's not to say the two aren't without their similarities, however few and far between those might be.

With the Dragon, you had a man that just oozed respect. He managed to maintain his integrity through everything, even one or two vintage Chris Jericho mockeries, and brought a sense of honor and professionalism to the ring every time. Yang, on the other hand, is still in the process of finding himself. His work in the ring has covered everything from a high flying lucha to a kickboxing martial art to a thin comedy act. Though he's slowly gaining experience and growing comfortable with time, (as evidenced by his strong match on Nitro against Lash Leroux) he's still not playing in the same league as the Ultimo Dragon.

Both work a lot of kicks into their offense, and have no trouble in the area of ingenuity (Dragon with his spectacular kicking combos and Yang with his run up the opponent's body in the corner, for example.) However, it all once again comes back to a matter of professionalism. No matter if he was performing the standard fare or inventing a new maneuver by the seat of his pants, the Ultimo Dragon gave us the sense he was always in control... even when gasping for air in a headlock. Yang, though, makes everything seem spontaneous and rushed. Even his standard fare seems sloppy and unplanned, causing audiences to question his ability. Put simply, without a lot of fine tuning and repackaging, Yang wouldn't have made it in the cruiserweight divison of 1997. The Dragon takes the blowout here.
Old School: 1   New School: 1

Psychosis v. Elix Skipper
Here, I've paired off two of the more overlooked members of their respective divisions, Psychosis in 1997 and Elix Skipper in 2001. While Skipper's been given many of the benefits Psychosis never enjoyed, (membership in the successful Team Canada stable and plenty of camera / mic time) the man in the mask holds a distinctive advantage of his own; two separate reigns as the Cruiserweight champion.

Neither of these guys had really been given their big shot at this point in their career, which actually seems to have fueled the flames a bit. Because they're fighting for the chance they both deserve, each is working twice as hard just for the opportunity. They're putting on stronger and stronger matches, and though it's a shame the bookers have yet to notice, they're strengthening themselves in the process.

Both were members of a stable at one point, though it took them in distinctly different directions. Psychosis joined the ill-fated LWO near the end of the original cruiserweight division, where he lost most of his individuality behind a sea of white, red and green. Though each luchadore got more time on tv and a sense of direction behind their actions, the group was just too large to manage. When Eddy Guerrero was injured in an automobile accident and the LWO was disbanded, many members were worse off than when the angle began. However, with Elix Skipper's Team Canada, the stable is evolving to suit the needs of its individual members. Instead of Fourteen members, Team Canada has four. With the smaller numbers comes the ability to focus on individual needs, advancing both the stable and its members at the same time.

And in the end, that's what it comes down to. In the ring Psychosis had the advantage, but Skipper's name is much more likely to go places because of his association with the Canadians. Psycho's two runs with the belts didn't net him half the exposure Skipper's single reign and run with Lance Storm has. It doesn't matter that Psychosis was doing it better, Skipper's doing it before a larger audience. One more for the young guns.
Old School: 1   New School: 2

Dean Malenko v. Lash Leroux
Boy, if you ever had to pick two opposites, these would be your men. In Malenko you've got an unbelievably sound worker with little to no personality, charisma or storyline advancements. He'd stalk to the ring, tear his opponent to shreds and emotionlessly return to the back. In Leroux, what you see is what you get. He's the embodiment of charisma and personality, but his ringwork leaves a lot to be desired. Leroux would rather dance to the ring, pose in a couple corners, hit his finisher and dance to the locker rooms.

I suppose it comes down to my own personal preference; professional wrestling vs. sports entertainment. Malenko is every bit the old time pro wrestler, a throwback to the days before today's elaborate angles, swerves and smart marks. He'd fit in just as well twenty years ago as he would today, and would actually have flourished in the old market. Leroux is sports entertainment in a shiny new package, complete with sideburns echoing his first and last names. He's heavy on the entertainment and light on the sports, though things could most certainly be different. He has shown fleeting moments of brilliance between the ropes, but those times are few and far between. With a little effort, Lash could become an adept worker in the ring. Granted, not on the level of Malenko, but improved from his current state nonetheless. And, I suppose, something should be said for flexibility in that right. But in my book, pro wrestling beats out sports entertainment every day of the week. I'd rather see Chris Benoit work than Buff Bagwell, a rewind to Flair vs. Steamboat over a fast forward to Kane vs. The Big Show. And, since I'm the one making the final verdict, that gives Malenko the "V" here.
Old School: 2   New School: 2

Syxx v. Billy Kidman ('01)
The tale of the refreshed talents. In the case of Syxx, you had a man that flopped around the ranks of the WWF for years after a big introduction as the 1-2-3 Kid. After that first big feud with Razor Ramon, bookers never really knew what to do with him, and he was eventually released. When WCW picked him up, it sent new enthusiasm rushing through his veins. The Kid became Syxx, and Syxx started to burn things up. He was the division's first absolute heel, and he loved every minute of it. Kidman's story is surprisingly similar. Credited as one of WCW's greatest in-house success stories, he was jetrocketed from the ashes of the cruiser division into a bigtime feud against Hulk Hogan at the head of the "New Blood" storyline. Unfortunately, that feud led to absolutely nothing, and Kidman went into a long, uncharted freefall. Recently, though, with the rebirth of the division that gave him his first opportunity, Kidman's slowly begun to realize what set him ablaze all those years ago. He's relishing the opportunity to walk that path once again, and has begun to warm things up as a result.

This call's a close one. Both are absolutely tremendous workers, both have the recognizability factor behind them all the way and both have clearly defined roles and motivations within the division. Neither's unwilling to take one for the team, lending a sense of unpredictability to their matches. They both know what goes into a good match, and have the right tools to bring it to fruition. Syxx has something of an advantage thanks to his association with the red hot nWo, but Kidman balances it back out with his experience, both within the original cruiser division and elsewhere on the card.

To be honest, this one could've just as well been decided by the toss of a coin. These two are extremely well balanced head to head, but for the purposes of this column I've got to choose a winner. For my dollar, that winner is Kidman because his supporting roster was a bit weaker than Syxx's. While it's relatively easy to produce a great match against the likes of a peaking Eddy Guerrero or Chris Jericho, the same cannot be said of the "coming of age" roster backing Billy Kidman. The great majority of his opponents haven't really hit full stride yet, but Kidman's carried on great matches with the lot all the same. It takes just a little bit more to put on a great show against Elix Skipper than it does against the Ultimo Dragon, and that little bit is what puts Kidman over here.
Old School: 2   New School: 3

Eddy Guerrero v. Shannon Moore
I don't think I'd be completely off base in comparing this to the Ultimo Dragon / Yang face-off from earlier in the column. Though Shannon Moore brings a much more refined style to the ring than Yang, his opposition is one of the all time greats worldwide in the style. While Moore is willing to take great liberties with his body to entertain the fans, Guerrero does so with style. There was just so much substance to Eddy at this point, so many ways he could beat you, that I don't think there's a man on the list who could hold a torch to him.

In this instance, it's just another case of experience overshadowing the youth. Shannon Moore is a tremendous risk taker, but he's still miles away from the Eddy Guerrero that dominated that cruiserweight division in the mid '90s. There isn't really much more that can be said here... Guerrero sweeps all the categories. He was the total package, and Moore is not.
Old School: 3   New School: 3

Juventud Guerrera v. Kaz Hayashi
Here we've got two men, held back to an extent because of the language barrier, but ultimately overcoming that by doing what they do best. In Guerrera, the division had a little ball of charisma. His ring entrance alone was enough to interest most fans, and that's saying a lot since he was one of the few on the roster without pyro thrown in for added effect. Guerrera was just that exciting on his own. While Kaz may be lacking a bit in this department, he makes up all that lost ground when the bell tolls and the match gets underway.

Guerrera gave his division much of its spunk, and Kaz is to thank for the depth of his. Both men are rather underspoken in the grand theme of things, though the feel of their particular eras would have been quite different without them. Head to head, the two are once again (and not surprisingly) very evenly matched. Though Juvi was given more than a couple big breaks and chances, something always managed to go wrong and he kept ending up no better off than before. Sometimes WCW was to blame, sometimes it was "The Juice" himself. For Kaz, though, the story is just a little bit different... he never got the chance to screw up his big shot. He's always been stuck at the bottom of the card, overshadowing the workers forced to follow him with a tremendous curtain jerker, before vanishing for a while.

That little tidbit, though, is what puts Kaz ahead in my book. While they're both outstanding at what they do, Juventud's had the blessing of the men in charge more than once and nothing's come of it. Once Hayashi blows his first big run, things may be a bit different.
Old School: 3   New School: 4

Rey Mysterio, Jr. ('97) v. Rey Mysterio, Jr. ('01)
An interesting comparison, to say the least. Mysterio's changed a lot more than his wardrobe in four short years, and not all of it's been for the better. Allow me to expand.

During the heyday of the first cruiserweight division, Rey Mysterio, Jr. was the most innovative, inventive and downright suicidal cruiserweight in the business. He'd hit every spot, come up with a few new ones, throw in a twist and turn the whole thing into a hurricanrana pinning combo. He could worm his way out of just about anything, and his size allowed him blistering speed and an almost weightless ability to take flight. Somewhere along the line though, all this torture took a great toll on his knee. Noticing the problem, Rey took the necessary time off for an operation. In his absence, the division was in the capable hands of Chris Jericho, Juventud Guerrera and Dean Malenko, but still Mysterio longed to be back into the mix of things. Unfortunately, the call of the competition was too great. Rey rushed back too quickly and promptly reinjured his knee. He'd never be the same again.

Now maskless and outfitted in devil horns, camo, jeans, a gas mask or whatever else is lying about backstage, Mysterio is a changed man. His high flying days are over, and though he still maintains a lot of the speed that made him such a thrill to watch, he's put it to use in a different way. Rey's become a man of method, very rarely shifting from his strict moveset and sticking to what he knows is safe. He'll hit the swing between the top and middle rope once a match, and will usually manage to hit his bronco buster. Quite a change from the man that rarely performed the same combo twice not half a decade earlier. Like Kidman, Rey's become more mat oriented in recent years... but that's not to say he never climbs to the top of the ropes.

He's just a different man. The new Mysterio is lacking many of the qualities that attracted us to him in the years gone by. In many ways, he's taken the "mystery" out of Mysterio.
Old School: 4   New School: 4

Chris Jericho v. Chavo Guerrero, Jr.
Finally, we get to the two that arguably led the pack. In every sense of the word, Chris Jericho gave personality to the cruiserweight division of the mid '90s. He lent it meaning, and it gave him stardom. Alternately, Chavo Guerrero, Jr. was just what the division needed in 2001 to steer it out of the nosedive in which it had been stuck.

Both started their WCW careers as watered down faces, piling victories under their belts and slowly gaining attention from fans along the way. They were good in the ring, but it was going to take something more... in both cases, a heel turn was just what the doctor ordered. In their newly discovered personalities, both wasted no time in shedding their image(s) as just another face rookie and shattered any preconceived notions fans may have had about their integrity. Jericho threw temper tantrums, destroying several David Penzer suits along the way. Chavo deserted his fellow MIA comrades, and tempted his former teammates to follow in his footsteps.

Along with their turns came a renewed interest in their matches. Jericho became more fierce, absolutely obliterating any who stood in his way and running from those that managed to sneak in a little offense. Chavo embraced the old style, relying on cheap tricks and low blows to net him an extended run with the cruiserweight title. These were two outstanding young men, doing what they did best in the right forum and getting all the right kind of attention along the way. They were similar in every category but one... and that one was Jericho's specialty.

When it came to building lasting, believable feuds, there were two categories in the mid '90s: Chris Jericho and... not... Chris Jericho. The "Lyin' Heart" was truly in a class of his own when it came to draining every last drop of rage out of the crowds that gathered to watch him work. Whether he was wearing Juventud Guerrera's mask or tearing up his fans' signs in the crowd, Jericho could find a way to turn anyone against him in the blink of an eye. Probably the pinnacle of his run in WCW came during the very first Nitro in Canada, when he thanked the wildly cheering fans for all their support... and promptly turned them on him in less than twenty seconds. In this respect, Jericho remains unmatched. He was the greatest, and I'm sorry to say Chavo can't hold a torch to that.
Old School: 5   New School: 4

(Left off the list were the "Foreign Stars" and Jamie Knoble, as it really wouldn't be fair to compare Japan, Mexico and America's absolute finest against a talent that hasn't yet gained the chance to prove himself in today's market.)

So there you have it. For my money, the old school is still the greatest. Still, that the battle was this close really says a lot for the new cruiserweights, and everything they represent. In many ways, this is still a work in progress, as the new boys are just now coming into their moment in the sun. Age is always very kind to the memory, and I'm sure quite a bit of that factored into my evaluation. But I wonder... when it's all said and done will this new generation have proven me wrong? Honestly, I'd love to see it. The matches we've been treated to on Nitro have been steadily increasing in quality for months now. Given a couple more, we could be seeing a new renaissance for the cruiserweights. It's gonna be an interesting time for these guys. Do yourself a favor and tune in once in a while... you'll be glad that you did.
until then, i remain

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