wrestling / Columns

Musings About The WWE Cruiserweight Classic

September 8, 2016 | Posted by Len Archibald
Kota Ibushi Image Credit: NJPW

Before we start, a short plug…I will be providing LIVE reactions and thoughts during CM Punk’s MMA debut at UFC 203 from the event itself. Join the Suplex Anatomy group on Facebook to follow along (if you care about such things.) Perhaps I will get into this whole podcasting thing…

Who knew they made a T-Shirt with me in mind?

On April 3 of this year, Triple H announced the first seven competitors of a Global Cruiserweight tournament. This event would span a period of several weeks over the summer and fall of 2016 and include 32 of the best professional wrestlers under 205lbs from around the world. The announcement shook the professional wrestling industry; mainly from WWE’s treatment of smaller performers. For every Rey Mysterio and Daniel Bryan climbing the WWE mountaintop, we have been treated to more of our healthy share of Chavo vs Hornswoggle. Could the promotion that boasts Bruno, Hulk and Cena as their standard-bearers possibly organize a compelling and entertaining showcase of grapplers who evoke memories of Kidman?

We are less than a week away from the finals and the consensus is nearly unanimous: the Cruiserweight Classic has been a resounding success, a proven draw for the WWE Network and critical hit amongst fans. The commentary from Daniel Bryan and Mauro Ranallo has provided a beacon of authentic, infectious enthusiasm and respect for both sport and art. The tournaments cues from Ring of Honor, Georgia Championship Wrestling and New Japan has been a revelation for novice fans who has never experienced the styles of Zack Sabre Jr and Akira Tozawa.

The CWC has exploded onto the scene with legitimate MOTYCs and emotional moments. We are down to the final four participants: Kota Ibushi, Japan’s “Golden Star” and favorite to win; Mexico’s high-flying luchaore Gran Metalik; TJ Perkins of the Philippines – a potential spoiler and Cinderella story with upset wins over Tomasso Ciampa and Rich Swann; and the contortionist grappler Zack Sabre Jr. of England. One of these four will make history as the face of WWE’s re-imagining of smaller-sized performers in the “New Era”. There have been several exceptional moments that indicate the promotion may be turning a corner in both presentation, storytelling and star-making capabilities. Leading up to the CWC Final, I will share some thoughts that have flourished from those moments.

THE Brian Kendrick is following the steps of his mentor, beat for beat.

On February 13, 1997, an emotional Shawn Michaels entered a Monday Night Raw ring as WWF Champion, expressing how wrestling was no longer “fun” and he was relinquishing his title because he “lost his smile”. Even though he was considered the best performer on the planet, HBK’s attitude problems and substance abuse caused the then-champion to implode before fans’ eyes. A young Brian Kendrick may have witnessed this, unaware of the path he would take as an in-ring performer.

THE Brian Kendrick’s run in the Cruiserweight Classic is one of the great stories, a redemption tale following a man who was half of one of the longest-reigning tag champs in WWE history and carried a following of mainstream fans – only to lose his opportunity to perform on the big stage due to his own admitted immaturity. The first round victory over Raul Mendoza showed flashes of Kendrick’s athleticism from his younger days, but what was most surprising was his story-telling abilities. Kendrick wrestled the match as a man who was well aware that this could be a final opportunity to make his mark in WWE and was willing to get through any lengths to achieve it. Added to this bit of drama was Daniel Bryan’s obvious favoritism as the two started their pro wrestling careers with the same mentor.

The story continued as Kendrick showed off his skills against a game Tony Nese. Kendrick has taken on the role of grizzled veteran like a well-fitting glove and evolved his style to include counter-holds, timing and ring-awareness to hold off the younger and stronger Nese. Kendrick’s quarterfinal loss to Kota Ibushi was a roller-coaster of emotions as the WWE veteran pulled out everything in his bag of tricks (including a Burning Hammer) but could not slay his foe. The post-match antics with Daniel Bryan after a hard fought loss eschewed genuine emotion between lifelong friends and a deep bond for the art. Is Daniel Bryan living vicariously through Kendrick post-retirement? How has Bryan felt about Kendrick’s heelish antics in light of the verbal spat he had with The Miz on Talking Smack?

Throughout all this, Kendrick has discovered a voice in WWE and has been rewarded for it, as one of the first names to join Monday Night Raw’s new Cruiserweight Division. Just like the mentor he met in San Antonio, Kendrick is at the cusp of a career resurgence after being written off for so long.

Cedric Alexander proves in-ring performance makes superstars.

There may not be a more compelling story in the Cruiserweight Classic than that of Cedric Alexander. Upon introduction, the hybrid-styled competitor declared that he wanted his career to invoke memories of his idol and fellow Carolinian, Ric Flair. To say that you want to be as good as one of the greatest of all time was a bold introduction to WWE – and was probably sure to put a smile on Triple H’s face.

Alexander is one of the very few CWC competitors that has arrived as a complete package: a good-looking, charismatic wrestler that can engage hardcore fans with mat work, wow casuals with his aerobatics and elicit true empathy from both. Cedric’s entrance is a polished stamp of his personality, flipping towards the audience to have his hoodie land perfectly on his head at the crescendo of his entrance theme.

Cedric’s first-round opponent, France’s Clement Petiot was a quick-burst, six minute showcase of some of what he could do. Cedric arrived to the bright lights of WWE from Ring of Honor, considered misused by some fans and got a chance to show what he is capable of…but not everything.

Alexander arrived as a near virtual unknown to the world of professional wrestling compared to his next opponent, Kota Ibushi. The Golden Star has been considered the heavy favorite upon his name being revealed as one of the CWC Participants. How would Alexander respond to one of the best pound-for-pound athletes in pro wrestling? Simply, with the match of his life.

Alexander impressed critics, going hold for hold with Ibushi in the opening moments. He then impressed himself upon Ibushi, responding to Ibushi’s high-flying with aerials of his own. He survived some of the stiffest kicks, including a dropkick that sounded like a canon firing. Somehow, Alexander found the wherewithal to obtain his own “Fighting Spirit” that is known on the East, and fired back with chops, forearm shots and a Michinoku Driver. The Brainbuster-nearfall/superkick-nearfall from Alexander is probably the best 60 seconds of wrestling all year, an absolutely ingenious spin on how to handle a shocking two-count. Alexander’s reaction to Ibushi’s kickout was some of the best pure emotion seen in the ring this year. Take into account that most WWE fans, including some at Full Sail had never heard of Cedric Alexander before the Cruiserweight Classic and he had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand.

While the entire presentation, and each of the competitors in their own way have been a breath of fresh air, Cedric Alexander is pitch-perfect, visual and audible proof that no matter how we feel about the antics and politics of professional wrestling or what we may believe about the McMahon dynasty, in this universe – superstars are made in the ring. After a heartbreaking loss, a teary-eyed wrestler who looked up to The Nature Boy soaked up chants of fans pleading with the largest promotion in the world to provide him employment and an ample opportunity to make his mark on the industry. That should have been good enough. Imagine being in Alexander’s shoes at the top of the ramp, completely unaware that the COO of said promotion is right behind you, nodding his head in approval before giving a massive pat on your back. Alexander is now one of the ten announced competitors of RAW’s Cruiserweight division, passing the most insane job interview in history.

Johnny Gargano is with Sami Zayn and Bayley as the best pure face in WWE.

In the current WWE landscape where face/heel lines are as blurred as they have ever been, it is difficult for performers to find that “sweet spot” between manipulating genuine empathy from fans and being considered too perfect of a hero. It is the dillemma that has plagued John Cena and Roman Reigns. How can someone who is presented as an embodiment of virtue and positive values be villified so much?

There are a few that has been able to escape the backlash: Cesaro seems to always have the crowd cheering for him, even at the recieving end of a losing streak. Bayley is redefining what it is to be a hero to fans of all ages. She and Sami Zayn are perhaps the best pure babyfaces in WWE. Or so they were, I thought. Then Johnny Gargano entered the limelight.

The Ohio native and tag partner with Tomasso Ciampa has been a revelation in his two-match output during the CWC. Johnny Wrestling’s first opponent – his very own tag partner – was a masterclass of storytelling and nuance. Gargano used speed to keep the stronger Ciampa down, and needed several impact strikes to hold his own, while the Sicilian Psychopath only needed one. The match layout was simple: Gargano was outmatched in size and strength, but not heart and character.

Gargano took all he could from Ciampa, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with high-octane offense that included a Liger Bomb, Slingshot DDT and Suicide Dives. Every time Ciampa was able to cut off Gargano’s momentum, the air was sucked out of the arena. The final moments saw two men spent at dishing out heinous punishment towards each other. It seemed as if Ciampa had the match won; Gargano’s expression that of a man who had expunged every ounce of energy but would not surrender. A slight hesitation for his friend spelled doom for Ciampa.

That moment of weakness from Ciampa would not have been believable without Johnny Gargano’s selling of the first-class beating handed to him by his tag partner. Gargano’s run continued as he competed in Quarterfinal action against TJ Perkins; surviving with a bum leg damaged in his NXT TakeOver tag Title match against The Revival. Immediately, Gargano’s leg was viewed as a target and Johnny Wrestling battled valiantly before being bested by Perkins in what was considered an upset. The match itself was another feather in the cap for Gargano, who was able to showcase further layers of his babyfaced fighting spirit. I have not been this impressed with a performer eliciting such empathy in the ring since a certain masked performer who is now working for orphanages in South America.

Kota Ibushi is worth all the hype.

Let’s have a moment of honesty: anyone who has been in some way made aware of Kota Ibushi’s existence know how good he is. Those who have recently invested in Ibushi’s rise among the ranks of the best wrestlers in the world know how great he is. Those who have followed his career from the start are aware of Ibushi’s potential to be one of the top talents that ever lived. Ibushi arrived like a force to mainstream audiences in his MOTYC against Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 9, reeling new fans with “WHAT DID I JUST SEE?!” moments like his rope-assisted, Springboard German Suplex. As soon as the Cruiserweight Classic was announced, Ibushi’s name shot out the mouths of salivating fans as a potential participant. Once Ibushi was officially announced, he shot to the top of the favorites list. Ibushi received one of the loudest reactions upon his arrival for his first match against Sean Maluta. And in less than ten minutes, Kota Ibushi did not disappoint.

Ibushi claims that all he wants to do with his otherworldly talent is make people happy. His mere presence evoke emotions that turn grown men into childish fanboys. Ibushi is one of the few Cruiserweight competitors walking today that shows size is not a factor. If you have “IT”, Chris Jericho knows, and the crowd will see it too. Kota Ibushi represents the future of what great, serious-minded professional wrestling can look like if the talent is simply allowed to be themselves.

Ibushi’s style is not pinned down: a sharp mat technique with strikes and kicks explode like atoms colliding, combined with some of the most jaw-dropping aerial assaults in the business. Ibushi reminds audiences of a young Ricky Steamboat as he is able to gain empathy from the simplest of gestures. His kickouts are shadows of Kurt Angle’s most dramatic. And somehow, taking all the punishment he can take – from Maluta’s Samoan-based ground and pound, to Cedric Alexander’s hybrid style and a BURNING FN HAMMER from THE Brian Kendrick, Ibushi somehow manages to make a comeback look as believable as Bret Hart on his best day, walk out the victor and convince audiences the other competitor put up just as great of a fight. Ibushi has that rare talent of looking good while making others look great. Only a few understand this magic amongst even the most cynical of fans to suspend disbelief so heavily.

Kota Ibushi is the legit goods. He’s reaching his peak age in the ring and he is not slowing down. Kota is so good that he may not sign with WWE, break the hearts of millions and somehow still come up roses because he is that amazing in the ring. Ibushi is strangely enough, not viewed as a Cruiserweight in terms of his size. This is a World Champion. Maybe Ibushi won’t sign with WWE until he can show that he is as good as Nakamura…or AJ Styles and defeat them on a grand North American stage. But first, he must do the expected and win the CWC. Don’t be surprised if he does. He is called The Golden Star for a reason.

There are several other bits of the CWC that I will be commenting on in the future, namely what Zack Sabre JR’s involvement means for the future of WWE and if Gran Metalik is the Latin-based star WWE has been searching for all this time, but that is for next week. What moments or performers have stood out to you? Jack Gallagher? TJ Perkins’ making it to the final four? Rich Swann’s personal story of tragedy to make it to WWE? Share your thoughts below!

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