Legacy of the WCW cruiserweights

Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko were centerpieces of the WCW cruiserweight division, and each proved that cruiserweight wrestling didn't have to be all about high-flying, death-defying top rope moves. Courtesy of WWE

The new WWE cruiserweight division debuted Sept. 19 on Raw, with hopes it could carry on the momentum and buzz generated by the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic. After 32 wrestlers put on a spectacle unlike anything ever constructed under the WWE banner over 10 weeks on the WWE Network, the interest was palpable and a number of former independent stars now find themselves with brand new WWE contracts.

With breakout stars such as TJ Perkins, Cedric Alexander and Rich Swann, the veteran talents of Brian Kendrick and a host of others who've either recently debuted or stand ready to join the fray, Monday Night Raw has a chance to reinvigorate the show with a high-flying spectacle that should get fans out of their seats and change some perceptions as to what wrestling can be.

Sound familiar?

If you were a wrestling fan in the mid-1990s, you may have watched the cruiserweight division in World Championship Wrestling. Like the WWE's new division, most of the featured names were unfamiliar to all but the most hardcore of wrestling fans, and for a mainstream American audience, it provided action that was a stark alternative to a world plodding giants with massive physiques and limited movement that dominated the squared circle at that time.

While the gap in physicality between the cruiserweights and the rest of the roster is smaller in the modern era, their appearance was a complete shift in the landscape and the "Monday Night Wars" of the 1990s between WWE and WCW. Not only did WCW have the revolutionary anti-establishment, superstar-laden New World Order, but it further distanced its product by bringing in the best cruiserweights from Japan, Mexico and seemingly every other corner of the globe -- innovation that WWE programming sorely lacked at the time.

It was a part of the fabric of WCW from the very beginning, in fact, and while they lost their most prolific performers to the WWE in the chaos and downward spiral that ultimately brought the company down, they had a presence at every stage of its existence. In fact, the first match on the first episode of Monday Nitro was a cruiserweight contest, as Brian Pillman and Jushin Thunder Liger squared off in the Mall of America in Minnesota.

Pillman and Liger were just two of the future stars of the wrestling world who were among WCW's earliest cruiserweights. Three future WWE world champions came from that crop of groundbreaking wrestlers as well, and laid some of the groundwork for smaller guys to get their shots down the line. Each of their styles were unique, and each holds a prominent position in the annals of wrestling history.

  • Rey Mysterio Jr.'s WCW debut came in a WCW cruiserweight title match against Dean Malenko in 1996. Although he didn't come away successful in that match, Mysterio would become champion about a month later. He'd ultimately hold that title five times in WCW, and added another three reigns when the belt shifted over to WWE. Mysterio eventually became a three-time WWE world champion, a two-time Intercontinental champion and a four-time WWE tag team champion, along with winning the 2006 Royal Rumble

  • Chris Jericho debuted as a fairly vanilla babyface in WCW, but hit his stride when he morphed into a whiny heel -- a run that peaked with his list of 1,004 holds and a run with the WCW world television championship. Jericho was a four-time cruiserweight champion, and also had some of the finest feuds in the cruiserweight division, highlighted by his bouts with Malenko and Juventud Guerrera. He went on to far greater success in WWE as a six-time WWE world champion, a nine-time Intercontinental champion and a seven-time WWE tag team champion. Jericho's career continues to this day.

  • Eddie Guerrero ended Jericho's second reign as cruiserweight champion. He had previously won the United States championship by winning a tournament during his earliest days in WCW. Guerrero had a pair of reigns as cruiserweight champion overall, but his feud with Eric Bischoff gave the division's Hispanic wrestlers a more prominent position in the promotion. He famously defeated Brock Lesnar to win the WWE world heavyweight championship, and successfully defended that title at Wrestlemania 20. Guerrero also held both the Intercontinental and European championships twice each, and was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.

While it helped revolutionize wrestling and helped drive interest, the cruiserweight division as a whole was underutilized in WCW. When intermingled with the heavyweights and main eventers, they were made to look out of their league almost every time -- essentially putting them all on a second tier of the roster, lesser than the primary product.

WWE, which had all but struck out with its own version of the division, was able to scoop up WCW's underused cruiserweight talent. They gave Jericho a major debut, with a weeks-long countdown clock leading to a promo interrupting The Rock. Guerrero and Malenko debuted as part of The Radicalz, and immediately jumped into a feud with the hottest faction of the Attitude Era, D-Generation X.

WWE has an opportunity to take this cautionary tale as it launches this new cruiserweight division. In WCW, the cruiserweights were allowed to tell their stories in the ring, but weren't given the chances to develop characters like those at the top of the card (though Jericho was a notable exception). WWE told the stories of those who competed in the Cruiserweight Classic in the ring and through brief pre-taped video packages, but now that they're under the bright lights of Raw, there are more steps to take to ensure these new competitors don't simply get lost in the shuffle.

WWE seems to have decided to keep their cruiserweights separate from the rest of the roster to start their run. When they ultimately do venture out and interact with other stars on the roster, it will be important to avoid the pitfalls of WCW, referring to the wrestlers as "just cruiserweights" or pointing out the size differential -- giving them little chance to emerge victorious when they find themselves opposite these main eventers.

If you missed the Cruiserweight Classic, the Fatal 4-Way that opened up the cruiserweight division's debut episode on Raw and the tag team match the following week gave you a taste of what wrestlers like Kendrick, Swann, Alexander and Gran Metalik can do -- showcasing a range of styles from high-flying to striking to a technical submission style. Reactions from a lackluster Cincinnati crowd notwithstanding, the match between Perkins and Anthony Nese did the same.

Some 20 years removed from WCW's cruiserweights, this new generation has a chance to stand out as a special and significant part of the Raw product for years to come.