The light history of the WWE Light Heavyweight Championship
The widely lauded and infamous Attitude Era produced controversial moments that pushed the envelope and legendary rivalries that redefined ring competition. It saw the rise of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock and D-Generation X. The period even revolutionized extreme brawling with the advent of the Hardcore Championship. But one lesser-known aspect of WWE’s late ’90s boom period was the Light Heavyweight Championship. ( VIEW PHOTOS | WATCH TITLE BOUTS)
Perhaps it is fitting the title for competitors who weighed less than 215 pounds had a relatively light history in WWE. Only 11 Superstars became lucky enough to hold the championship during its less than four-year lifespan, during which the lineage developed consistent patterns. The title created stars and gave smaller competitors a goal in the chaotic landscape of The Attitude Era. ( FULL LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE HISTORY)
Although it was officially established in WWE 15 years ago on Dec. 7, 1997, the title’s spiritual history actually goes back much further. In 1981, WWE created the title in partnership with Mexico’s Universal Wrestling Association. UWA went out of business in 1995 and the title moved to New Japan Pro Wrestling, where it became part of the J-Crown — a unified championship consisting of eight different organization’s lightweight titles. In a unique piece of sports-entertainment history, Ultimo Dragon defended the J-Crown on WCW programming as champion. That means in the heart of the Monday Night War, one of WWE’s titles unofficially appeared in its rival’s ring. ( WATCH)
Due to the success of WCW’s Cruiserweight division, WWE began inviting lightweight stars to compete in preparation of their own sect of high-flying stars. In 1997, Japanese Superstars The Great Sasuke, the first-ever J-Crown Champion, and Taka Michinoku competed against each other in their WWE debuts at In Your House: Canadian Stampede in a spectacular match. ( WATCH) They wrestled each other again the following night on Raw in another fantastic contest, giving tremendous promise to the burgeoning division. ( WATCH) Over the following months, more light heavyweight battles were held, including Taka battling a young Tajiri. ( WATCH)
Later that year, WWE announced the formation of the new Light Heavyweight Championship, with the winner to be crowned via an eight-man tournament to be held on Raw through the course of five weeks. The action featured young competitors not often seen on WWE programming — some of whom later experienced greater sports-entertainment prominence. Taka, Aguila, Super Loco, Devon Storm, Eric Shelley, Scott Taylor, Brian Christopher and Flash Flanagan all threw their hats (or masks) into the ring. Aguila later re-emerged as Essa Rios, Super Loco gained fame in ECW as the now-translated Super Crazy and Devon Storm formed unique tandems with both David Flair and Daffney as Crowbar in WCW. Christopher and Taylor became a wildly popular pairing when they evolved into the dancing duo Too Cool. ( WATCH THE FULL TOURNAMENT)
Christopher, the cocky and brash son of Jerry Lawler, faced off with Taka in the final at D-Generation X: In Your House. The young Japanese competitor emerged victorious and was crowned the first Light Heavyweight Champion. A rivalry developed between Taka and the Superstar who dubbed himself “Too Sexy,” but the champion consistently came out on top. A change of heart led Taka to betray his fans and join the villainous Kaientai while holding the title, but he remained champion for nearly a full year.
In what would become something of a pattern for the Light Heavyweight Championship, Taka’s very long reign was ended with a WWE debut. At Judgment Day 1998, Taka finally lost the title to Christian in the future World Heavyweight Champion’s first-ever televised WWE match. The man Christian eventually lost it to, Duane Gill, held the title even longer than Taka.
Gill morphed into the absurd Gillberg, a parody of WCW heavyweight Goldberg ( WATCH GILLBERG'S DEBUT), and remained Light Heavyweight Champion for 15 months before losing the title to another debuting competitor, Essa Rios. The impressive luchador had previously competed as both Aguila and Papi Chulo, but took on a new persona and new valet in the form of the moonsaulting Lita. If nothing else, the Light Heavyweight Championship is responsible for bringing Lita into WWE fans’ lives.
Jerry Lynn, a former ECW Champion, also won the title in his debut match. And while not their WWE debuts, Dean Malenko and Tajiri captured the championship soon after their first WWE appearances. Malenko, considered by many to be one of the ring’s most underrated greats, once held the title for a nearly a full year. In an era where frequent changes were the norm, the Light Heavyweight Championship owned three reigns of more than 300 days each in only four years of activity.
When WWE purchased WCW in 2001, it acquired that organization’s Cruiserweight Championship. X-Pac unified the Light Heavyweight and Cruiserweight Titles on two occasions. A third unification bout was scheduled for that year’s Survivor Series, but when X-Pac became unable to compete due to injury, the match was canceled.
The Cruiserweight Championship had been one of the signature attractions in WCW, and with its significantly richer lineage, WWE chose to adopt it as its own. The Light Heavyweight Title was never seen again and for all we know, X-Pac still has it stuffed in a duffle bag right next to a DX T-shirt and the boots he wore when he pinned Razor Ramon. ( READ MORE)
The Light Heavyweight Title launched the WWE careers of exciting and talented competitors, while at the same time remaining a beacon of stability in a chaotic sports-entertainment landscape. Each of its champions achieved significant success beyond the Light Heavyweight Title, but the championship remains a significant accolade, and a reminder of lightweight athleticism that has since been passed by.