Doctor’s Orders: The Top 50 Cruiserweight Matches in WCW and WWE History (#1-#10)

”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is the greatest Cruiserweight Match in WWE and WCW history in your opinion?

Though I wrote about it sparingly in 2017, 205 Live was my favorite WWE wrestling show up until the point that Enzo Amore became the face of the brand. I loved its simplicity and how it seemed to have no problem taking the long road to building an audience through intelligent weekly character booking and roster positioning. When it became just another main roster show, fluctuating creatively somewhere between monotonous and uncomfortably melodramatic, I turned in my viewership card. To me, Enzo and, more importantly, the show formatting that he brought with him, were a reminder that Vince McMahon and his non- Triple H closest confidants just did not understand the genre. Equally, the announcement of the Cruiserweight Championship tournament set to culminate at WrestleMania 34 was a reminder that at least someone with a prominent voice does, indeed, get it.

I have loved 205 Live the past two months since the tournament began. After the opening contests in Week 1 of proceedings, I found myself not only renewing my weekly viewership, but desiring to inspire others to get on-board too. WWE has not inspired much in the way of trust when it comes to its historical handling of the division, but there have been some really strong, simple feuds and some outstanding matches from WWE’s cruiserweight division since it was brought back through the Cruiserweight Classic in 2016, many which blow out of the water the majority of the work produced from the cruiserweight and light heavyweight divisions of old in WWF/E lore (not a challenge) and some of which even hold up well against the best cruiserweight matches from the WCW division that famously filled Ted Turner’s airwaves with action unique to the major North American wrestling scene in the ’90s (a considerable challenge).

So, ahead of next weekend’s Cruiserweight Championship tournament final on the WrestleMania Kickoff Show, I will be taking a look back at how the modern division, including the groundwork laid in the CWC, fairs against the best from the WrestleMania Era as produced by WCW and WWE. This Top 50 ranking has been a celebration of mainstream cruiserweight wrestling over the past twenty-five years and an acknowledgment that, even if it is not perhaps the type of cruiserweight action everyone in the diehard fan camp might have hoped for and it has not been as popular as WWE would like it to be, the contemporary cruiserweights since the summer of 2016 have put together a very impressive, historically relevant body of work.

#10 – Rey Misterio Jr. vs. Psychosis at Bash at the Beach ’96

It is crazy to me that this match does not seem to get talked about more often, considering that it was the show-stealing performance that opened one of the most famous wrestling shows of all-time (Hogan, N.W.O. for clarity). I guess it just boils down to the general response to cruiserweight history being muted on account of WWE’s historical treatment of it; you know, since they own the historical vision that shapes the way that a huge portion of the worldwide wrestling fanbase views everything from the past. I think I have tended to underrate it too. The four other WCW division’s contributions to the Top 10 honestly just all resonate with me more when I reflect back on that era, and this one as a by-product has gotten relegated to a lesser position even though it is 97% as good as those other matches in my opinion; I just don’t think I realized how much I liked it until I watched it closer in proximity to my viewings of the other contenders. I had it sitting originally at close to #25 and it ends up all the way at the Top 10. Cheers to Psychosis, but can we take a second to just marvel at the sheer number of times that Rey Misterio Jr is on this list? That is not an accident. This is not one of those instances of old codger Doc, whose been watching since the ’80s, telling his “in my day story” – Mysterio was just flat out unbelievable during the prime of his career, which is one of the reasons why it always bugs me when people hate on his main-event run in WWE; hell, who cares about the creative, that guy earned every inch of the coverage he out-kicked in his career.

#9 – Cedric Alexander vs. Kota Ibushi in the Second Round of the Cruiserweight Classic

I remember that, when asking readers to contextualize the CWC in its entirety shortly after the finale special in September 2016, several messaged me that they thought Alexander vs. Ibushi was the Match of the Tournament. Surely, in part, that sort of opinion was influenced by the moment that Alexander experienced on camera after he was defeated; I’d go so far as to say that the memory of the CWC would not be the same without the organic crowd adulation that he received, culminating in the “Please Sign Cedric” chant, and Triple H coming out from the backstage area, shaking Alexander’s hand, and making sure that everyone caught him saying, “Alright, done.” The match itself was, like Gargano-TJP, a great example of what a modern cruiserweight match looks like and, by extension, a great example of what a critically-acclaimed professional wrestling match often looks like in this day and age, given the cruiserweight influence on the general indy wrestling style that has permeated WWE’s main-event. I really did think, at times throughout this process, that there were a few other CWC matches that could crack the Top 10 besides this one and the semi-final not yet mentioned, but the added degree of athleticism in Ibushi-Alexander combined with its post-match presentation put it over the top for me without a doubt.

#8 – Flyin’ Brian Pillman vs. Jushin Liger at SuperBrawl 2

I have another book coming out later this year that takes five years of research and turns it into the most comprehensive analysis of the greatest match of all-time argument you will ever read. Three cruiserweight title matches made the cut from among the 50 honorable mentions and 100 greatest and this was one of them. Here is what I wrote in the book:

The cruiserweight wrestling genre did not become a viable commodity among either of the two mainstream promotions until 1996, when WCW brought back and re-branded their short-lived Light Heavyweight Championship most prominently held by Brian Pillman during the title’s ten month original run from 1991-1992. Though not the foundational showpiece that was its successor, the WCW Light Heavyweight division did offer one truly outstanding performance in Pillman vs. Liger that laid the groundwork for all that followed. Featuring somersault planchas off the top rope to the outside, aerial assaults galore, and simultaneous attempts at dropkicks, spinning wheel kicks, and even a dropkick counter to a top rope missile dropkick, it was basically the first high profile match of its kind to WCW or WWE fans. It is the father of cruiserweight wrestling as we know it and holds up well against its more popular peers from later years.

#7 – Rey Mysterio vs. Chavo Guerrero at No Way Out ’04

I am of the opinion that, of all the non-CWC action in WWE cruiserweight division history, the best matches have come from the combination of Mysterio vs. Chavo, particularly their feature-length title bout from the same night that Eddie won the WWE Championship. I’ll never forget that match because, to that point, you could almost guarantee that anytime cruiserweight gold was on the line, the maximum length was going to be about 12-minutes. No Way Out ’04, though, was a notoriously slim card beyond its top three matches and, for the first and only time in WWE lore, the Cruiserweight Championship bout was undoubtedly among them. “Maybe Chavo and Rey would get more time,” I wondered. When they reached the fifteen-minute mark, I remember feeling like I would just assume that they, to borrow a more modern fan adage, “fight forever.” They wrestled for 17 minutes and 21 seconds and I loved it.

In hindsight, it was not just my sentiment toward the run-time that made it special; it was a match that featured Mysterio and Chavo in their primes, busting out of innovation and intricacy in bulk within the confines of the WWE style of more careful pre-match planning. Chavo, as I have talked about in past columns years ago, really was a poor man’s Owen Hart, taking into account his Guerrero heritage and how much it had a tendency to put him in the shadow of his more famous kin. I’m going pay a compliment to Dean Malenko here and describe Chavo also a Malenko-esque, exceptionally intelligent grappler built to work with guys like Mysterio, whose comebacks and offense in general were just made to look that much better by talents like him.

#6 – Chris Jericho vs. Ultimo Dragon at Bash at the Beach ’97

Something I noticed when replaying this match within the context of this project was that I enjoyed it about 25% more than I ever had before. In my first book, I wrote about it among the ten most significant matches of Jericho’s career, but I cannot say that I ever was so blown away by it that it left an all-time level impression. I am not prepared to heap too much hyperbole on it because I have not viewed it while binge-watching anything but similarly stylized performances; that said, I am not sure that there was a match I had more fun seeing again during the course of my cruiserweight marathon.

I watched it in between the highest ranked versions of Misterio-Dragon and Malenko-Dragon and I did a bit of a double-take that prompted me to sit back and re-evaluate my opinion of it, and my main takeaway was that the 50-50 split in the action combined with the degree of difficulty in the move sequencing allowed it stand out so much. The timing was not perfect on everything, but I ended up feeling like I had to judge it like I was watching gymnastics, meaning that their run of counters and spots was so incredibly challenging to pull off by comparison to other Ultimo matches that even an instance or two of mistiming merely brought the match’s total score down to around the level of its peers. So, quite frankly, if you are a Jericho fan and you have not seen this match, you need to put it on your to-do list.

#5 – Kota Ibushi vs. TJ Perkins in the Semi-Finals of the WWE Cruiserweight Classic

Obviously you can judge by its ranking that I have a tremendous amount of love for this performance, especially when I judge it by my initial viewing. Sometimes, I think it’s important to really make note of how you felt about a match right when you first saw it. I no longer do that enough, so intent as I have become on the importance of rewatchability when judging wrestling matches against each other. Do not misconstrue that diatribe as reflecting poorly on the Ibushi vs. Perkins semi-final – it does hold up well on replay (as well as any other match from the tournament so long as you do your best to remember TJP from back then instead of the TJP that has been on display for much of the time since). The pure quality of the action is the most starkly recognizable thing about it when you watch against its peers; arguably not even #1 on the list was that smoothly wrestled (maybe #3 was though – might be a WWE thing, speaking of pre-match planning specifically). When I watched it live…going back to that night in September 2016…that was magic, ladies and gentlemen. I really became fond of TJP during that tournament and was rooting for him to win in a rare instance of a more pure statement of fandom, and it seemed highly unlikely that he had a snowball’s chance in hell against Ibushi. They crafted a magnificent short-story and knocked it out of the park in what I maintain to this day was one of the Top 10 matches in a year loaded with classics of all different sorts.

#4 – Dean Malenko vs. Ultimo Dragon at Starrcade ’96

Ultimo came to WCW, as I recall, with an incredible amount of quiet hype from diehard fans, amplified by the commentary of Mike Tenay. Malenko had an awesome run in 1996, building the reputation of the WCW Cruiserweight Championship in matches against Rey Misterio, Jr. So, when Malenko and Dragon faced each other with nine different titles from across the globe on the line, it felt like the most significant cruiserweight match since Pillman and Liger put the genre on the mainstream North American promotional map in 1992. We lack today the kind of long-term historical context for it often established for other wrestling matters via WWE-produced documentaries, but watching it back only confirms my memory of it.

The action is paced by Malenko, whose deliberate, psychologically-sound, grounded game you ought to be aware of ahead of time if you are not overly familiar with his work. Malenko was at his best when given at least a quarter-hour, bell-to-bell, allowing him to put his “1,000 holds” on display and set the stage for flurries of the sort of eye-popping offense characteristic of smaller, faster wrestlers. Ultimo offered him an interesting clash of styles. I love full-on barrages of offense as much as anyone, especially from the cruiserweight genre, but what I always loved about watching these two work together was that Malenko brought out the technical side of Ultimo’s game. I’m unsure what the historical impression that people relatively unfamiliar with Dragon have, but I would liken him at his peak to a perfect blend between what made the mid-’90s versions of Rey Misterio and Chris Jericho special; he could fly with the best of them and he could grapple with the best of them and, if that reads as pretty awesome, then that is because Ultimo Dragon was pretty awesome. Malenko, of course, was a phenomenal grappler, inarguably one of the greatest technicians ever. Their rematch a few weeks later at Clash of the Champions might have been even better, as any kinks from their high profile Starrcade encounter gave way to a dazzling display of chemistry.

#3 – Rey Mysterio vs. Chris Jericho in a Title vs. Mask Match at The Bash ’09

The fact that this was for the Intercontinental Championship aside, this is one of the greatest cruiserweight matches ever, right? It won’t immediately enter the discussion because of the title for which it was wrestled, but Jericho morphed back into 1997 pre-Y2J mode when he worked one-on-one with Mysterio, rendering the IC strap immaterial to the style featured throughout their series in 2009. I know, I know, I had a hard time with it too, but I had just watched Jericho-Mysterio for the fun of it right before I started binging all of these cruiserweight matches and, I swear to you, it watches exactly like the rest of them, just one notch shy of the upcoming two matches on account of Mysterio having already athletically diminished, doing excellent work nevertheless, but nowhere near as captivating as he had been in his younger days. What made the performance captivating was Jericho. When I was watching him against Juventud, Eddie, Malenko, and others, I never found myself feeling anything less than like the Jericho we saw in WCW never fully realized his overall potential. Considering the timing of my replay for Jericho-Mysterio at the ’09 Bash, I could not help but see the unbelievable peak of that incredible character that he developed at the tail end of last decade and the seasoned, polished pace and style at which he wrestled and think to myself, “That’s cruiserweight Jericho fully realized right there.” Hence, perhaps you might argue unfairly, Jericho-Mysterio makes the top of the countdown because I really do just think it’s a cruiserweight title match wrestled for a different gold belt.

#2 – Rey Misterio, Jr. vs. Dean Malenko at Halloween Havoc ’96

Dead serious when I write this: the only thing better about Eddie vs. Rey in ’97 was that Latino Heat was peaking as a personality. Other than that aspect, which admittedly is a pretty big aspect, Misterio vs. Malenko was every bit as good; it was certainly every bit as good aesthetically, maybe even better. The formats are eerily similar, with the heels dominating the diminutive grappler to the point that they made us believe he was legitimately out-matched; there aren’t two better games of cat vs. mouse in professional wrestling history as far as I’m concerned. The difference becomes from the personalities possessed by Malenko and Guerrero, the former the Ice Man (the Terminator if Arnold was a technical wrestler and weighed about one hundred pounds lighter) and the latter a flamboyant master of the same brand of awesome that earned Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair their Hall of Fame rings. If you quietly felt like Malenko vs. Mysterio was superior for all these years and you just didn’t want to get thumbed down in the comments section for saying so, then I encourage you to come out with it and I will defend you, even if I disagree. Here’s one thing that I know for sure: I would not have ever cared about Misterio’s match with Guerrero had I not seen Misterio’s match with Malenko first, and that opinion has been, continually reinforced across twenty years worth of replaying their jaunt at Halloween Havoc ’96.

#1 – Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Misterio, Jr. in a Title vs. Mask Match at Halloween Havoc ’97

Of course this was #1, and if you sense a hint of arrogance behind those words than I think that they earned it, didn’t they? First and foremost, for a match to be so innovative and characterful that it was not stupid to suggest back in 1997 that it belonged in the conversation with HBK vs. Taker and Austin vs. Bret in the Match of the Year conversation…I mean, folks, that is just a statement that places this match head and shoulders above its peers when you start factoring in some of its intangible qualities to reinforce its stellar resume as a wrestling match and story. Then, when you take into consideration that there are knowledgeable fans who truly believe that it is a candidate for one of the greatest matches of all-time, it escalates the performance to the next highest level historically. I meant it 100% when I claimed weeks ago in the column that stimulated my interest in this project that it could have been to the Cruiserweight Championship what Steamboat vs. Savage has been to the Intercontinental Championship had WWE accepted a greater historical responsibility for the overall industry during the WrestleMania Era and had WWE, of course, recognized the value in the cruiserweight division and style based on, if nothing else, its success stories for their greatest competitor. Some conversations just have an obvious answer and the intrigue lies for many in how the rest of the list will be shaped; Mysterio vs. Guerrero was the obvious answer from the word “go” here and it is the gold standard for the genre for good reason.
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