How the Cruiserweight Title changed the game

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May 02, 2012

Chris Jericho as WCW Cruiserweight Champion

Sixteen years ago in the Japanese metropolis of Nagoya, a respected Yamaguchi City native by the name of Shinjiro Otani won a tournament to be declared the first WCW Cruiserweight Champion. A relative unknown stateside, Otani quietly began what would become a revolution in sports-entertainment.

Over the course of the next three years, the championship, defended exclusively by competitors weighing 215 lbs. or less, would pass through the possession of Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio and Chris Jericho — four of the most talented young wrestlers in the world in the late mid-90s. Of this group, three would become WWE Champions, while one would find a key role as a behind-the-scenes player for WWE.

Their insights and output would shape the future of sports-entertainment, but in 1997, all that was expected of these competitors was an exciting 10 minutes on WCW’s weekly shows and monthly pay-per-view events. (PHOTOS | WATCH)

“The pay-per-views would always open with the cruiserweights,” WWE Superstar Tyson Kidd remembered. “I started to realize they were the ones setting the tone for the whole night. Of course, The nWo would be the main event.”

At the height of the heated “Monday Night Wars,” Hulk Hogan and his New World Order cronies were getting much of the credit for the record television ratings of WCW’s flagship program, Nitro. And they deserved it. But fans tuning into TNT to see exciting matches weren’t getting it from guys like The Disciple and Scott Norton, who spent the majority of their time mugging for the cameras. The show needed innovative, entertaining bouts to hold viewer attention, and WCW President Eric Bischoff was sharp enough to realize this.

Ultimo Dragon was a great cruiserweight

Through the crumbling of WCW and his own shameless self-promotion, Bischoff has become somewhat of a sports-entertainment punchline. It’s not a totally unfair assessment of the guy who once challenged Mr. McMahon to a karate fight live on pay-per-view, but the truth is the slick salesman had more than a few good ideas hiding beneath his Ken doll hair and, more importantly, had the nerve to pull them off. So, with Ted Turner’s blank checks in his pocket, Bischoff set out to amass the single greatest lightweight roster in sports-entertainment history.

By 1996, when the title debuted, the WCW locker room was overflowing with top international talent like one of those old kung fu movies from the ’70s where an eccentric billionaire summons the globe’s greatest competitors to his island compound to fight for his enjoyment. There was Ultimo Dragon from Japan, Alex Wright from Germany, Juventud Guerrera from Mexico and even Billy Kidman from Allentown, Pa.

And then there were the four men who would make up the cornerstones of the division — Jericho, Malenko, Guerrero and Mysterio. Four of the best wrestlers on the planet at the time, the men came from different parts of North America, but their careers followed similar trajectories. Sons of noted grapplers, Malenko and Guerrero were trained by their fathers before honing their skills in the rough rings of Japan. Jericho got his start in Canada before bouncing around the mat everywhere from Tennessee to Mexico, where he became a teen heartthrob under the name “Corazon de Leon.”  Mysterio was only a teenager when he took on his uncle’s persona of the “King of Mystery.” By the time he arrived in WCW, though, he was rightly considered the top high flyer around.

For the next three years, these men stole the show every night as they traded the WCW Cruiserweight Championship back and forth in bouts that highlighted Mexican lucha libre, Japanese strong style and Hart-style submission techniques all at once. These men were changing sports-entertainment in front of everyone’s eyes. The only problem was few could see it.

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