Friday 3 October 2014

Missed Opportunity: The WWF Light Heavyweight Division

Anyone watching WWF programming during the Attitude Era may have a few hazy memories of the light heavyweight championship. Christian winning it in his debut match, perhaps. Or Gillberg’s 453 day reign. Maybe even a particularly enjoyable match between Dean Malenko and Scotty 2 Hotty at Backlash 2000.

The chances are that anyone who does remember the light heavyweight championship won’t remember much more than that because it wasn’t a title that was really featured too often. It was seen very rarely after 1998. Pay-per-view appearances for the championship were practically non-existent once 1999 hit. For that matter they weren’t all that common before then.

Some may wonder why the company had a light heavyweight championship in the first place. It’s a well-known fact that the Fed was the home of the big men, with Vince McMahon having little time for smaller guys. The answer’s obvious though. The light heavyweight title was introduced to combat the cruiserweights on the other channel.

World Championship Wrestling had had a great deal of success with its cruiserweight division. They’d discovered that the smaller guys put on great matches that excited viewers, the ideal thing for an opening match, and that they didn’t need an abundance of storyline. Two guys could just be put into the ring, leaving the booking team more time to focus on writing for the more important (read “higher paid”)guys like the nWo and Goldberg.

The WWF put on a light heavyweight tournament, crowned a champion, and booked a few defences on RAW and pay-per-view. When they didn’t see ratings spike in these light heavyweight segments they took it as a sign that their fans weren’t interested in smaller guys having high quality matches and demoted the championship. Within a year of its official debut as a title (it had been floating around Japan and Mexico for sixteen years prior to the crowning of the first in-house champ) it was practically meaningless. It would enjoy a brief resurgence in the first half of 2000 when Malenko joined the promotion but it wouldn’t last. The WWF light heavyweight championship was ultimately always destined for oblivion.

This needn’t have been the case. Had a greater effort been put into the light heavyweight division in the summer of 1998 it could have been established as a highlight of the period along with Austin, DX, Mick Foley, The Rock, and a heavy-on-storylines mid-card.

There are six combinations for singles matches amongst these four guys alone.
And that's discounting Yamaguchi-San.
The company had the talent, it was just a matter of utilising it. In June of 1998, around the time the company seemed to decide the light heavyweight division was a waste of time, Kaientai were at full strength. That’s Taka Michinoku, Sho Funaki, Men's Teioh and Dick Togo, four guys who could have had great singles matches with one another had they just been split up. A number of Mexican wrestlers were being used on an infrequent basis. Aguila, who would later be signed and win the championship as Essa Rios, had challenged for the gold at WrestleMania XIV. Pantera had done the same the month before, at the amusingly named No Way Out of Texas pay-per-view. Super Crazy, as Super Loco, had wrestled a single tournament match the previous November and would appear again later in 1998.

Also affiliated with the company at this point were the Hardy brothers. In the summer of ’98 the Hardys were still a year away from becoming TV regulars with full contracts but they’d been working as enhancement talent for years. Both were good enough to work in low-card matches where the focus was on match quality as opposed to promos and storylines. They’d have been an ideal fit for the light heavyweight division. Well, Jeff would have been. Matt wouldn’t have been ideal, but he’d have been a solid addition.

Under contract at this point were Scott Taylor and Brian Christopher. They’d been put together as a team earlier in the year (peculiarly, they had debuted as a pairing at WrestleMania XIV) but they were still a while off of becoming Too Cool. They were well placed to work as the lead heels of a light heavyweight division. Christopher, being thicker than most of the men mentioned here, would have been a good fit as the bruiser of the division.

They had Sean ‘X Pac’ Waltman too, of course. He would go on to hold the light heavyweight championship in 2001 but was nowhere near it in 1998. I suspect that was because he was presented as a high profile signing and was associated with the ultra-hip, super-cool D-Generation X. It’s likely that the feeling was that the light heavyweight championship was beneath the gang. Plus X Pac was injured for a significant portion of the year and when he was healthy he was competing for the European strap.

Dean Malenko, perhaps  thinking about what could have been.
Splitting Kaientai and signing the guys they were already sporadically using would have provided a solid roster. Granting the guys one match a week on RAW would have been enough exposure for the division to be taken seriously and would have provided ideal opening match material. Carrying the approach over into 1999 and signing one or two new names would have kept things fresh and the division alive for the signing of Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero in January 2000.

The division would not have lasted long term, of course. The average size of WWE wrestlers has significantly reduced since the Attitude Era came to a close. The light heavyweight scene would have been faded out as this become more apparent. WWE wouldn’t have wanted guys going from the light heavyweight championship to the WWE championship because it would have highlighted the shift away from larger guys.

But they could have gotten far more mileage out of the concept than they did. It’s depressing to think how close the WWF came to having a really good light heavyweight division. Just a bit of effort would have allowed them to play WCW at their own game. But it wasn’t to be. It’s just one of many things on the long list of WWF and WWE missed opportunities.

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