Countless hours have been spent critically analyzing the most iconic matches in WrestleMania history: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin, Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar. Since WrestleMania 32 is right around the corner, I thought I would get in on the action as well.
The date was March 14, 2004. WrestleMania XX. It was the first WrestleMania I ever saw, packed with plenty of memorable moments and matches: John Cena winning his first championship in WWE; Molly Holly getting her head shaved bald; The Rock ’n’ Sock Connection teaming up for one last time against Evolution; Brock Lesnar and Goldberg having that match; The Undertaker returning in his Phenom persona to fight Kane; and last, but certainly not least, Chris Benoit & Eddie Guerrero—two best friends—celebrating in the ring at the end of the night, standing tall amidst the falling confetti as World Heavyweight and WWE Champion respectively.
But I don’t want to talk about all that. The match I want to talk about is the Cruiserweight Open.
What’s that? You don’t remember the Cruiserweight Open? Let me explain. Chavo Guerrero defeated Rey Mysterio the month prior at No Way Out to win the WWE Cruiserweight Championship. A few weeks later, a fatal four-way match was scheduled to determine the #1 contender for Chavo’s title at WrestleMania: Rey Mysterio vs. Billy Kidman vs. Nunzio vs. Jamie Noble. Rey won the match, but SmackDown General Manager Paul Heyman nullified the victory. Tajiri had complained to Heyman backstage that the #1 contendership match lacked Japanese representation. Heyman decided that at WrestleMania, Chavo would defend the WWE Cruiserweight Championship against not one, not two, but nine other men. It would the first ever *trumpet sounds* Cruiserweight Open!
As a young fan, I loved the cruiserweights. Fast-paced, exciting action. Colorful characters from all over the world. Flips and dives galore. And as someone who has always been smaller in stature (I currently stand at an imposing 5’5”, thank you very much), seeing wrestlers who were not goliath musclemen was a welcome and relatable addition to Thursday nights on UPN.
Since the Cruiserweight Open featured ten wrestlers, it served as a nice snapshot of what the division had to offer. The ten competitors were Chavo Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Tajiri, Jamie Noble, Ultimo Dragon, Billy Kidman, Akio, Nunzio, Shannon Moore, and Funaki.
It’s incredible to think of where these wrestlers were at this point in history. Chavo was fresh off his split with Eddie. His manager was his father Chavo Guerrero Sr. (or Chavo Classic, as WWE called him). Akio was Tajiri’s henchman, instead of the Asian redneck Jimmy Wang Yang that he would later become. And the thought of Jamie Noble as ROH World Champion was never a possibility in my mind (probably because I didn’t even know ROH existed at the time).
What’s also incredible is my own perception of those wrestlers during this period. 11-year-old me thought Billy Kidman’s Shooting Star Press was the coolest move ever. Oh, what a sweet, naive young lad I was. 630 sentons? Corkscrew 450 splashes? I couldn’t even dream of those. I also didn’t think much of Ultimo Dragon. I liked him, but not to the level of, say, Rey Mysterio. To me, Dragon was just another guy on the roster. But nowadays, I know he’s one of the best.
I don’t want to get caught up on nostalgia too much, though. Like I said, this is just as much about critical analysis as it is about memory lane.
There are two areas of criticism on which I want to focus. The first deals with the multi-man nature of the match. The Cruiserweight Open was a fancy way of calling it a gauntlet match. WWE has a longstanding WrestleMania tradition of setting up huge multi-man matches to get as many guys on the card as they can: Battle royals, multi-man tag matches, Money in the Bank ladder matches, lumberjack matches. WrestleMania XX was no exception. On top of the Cruiserweight Open, there were two fatal four-way tag team matches: One was contested for the World Tag Team Championship, the other for the WWE Tag Team Championship.
The problem with having a gauntlet match, or a fatal four-way tag team match, or any big multi-man match specifically for a championship is that it becomes harder to justify the sheer number of challengers in the match. The feud coming out of No Way Out was Chavo vs. Rey. Chavo cheated to win the title; now Rey wants to win it back. If the match at WrestleMania was just that, Chavo Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio for the WWE Cruiserweight Championship, it would have been perfectly fine. But with the Cruiserweight Open, Funaki is challenging for the title. Nunzio is challenging for the title. Shannon Moore is challenging for the title. Why are those guys in the match? What have they done to earn a shot at the gold? Not only does it clog up the feud between Rey and Chavo, but it devalues the prestige of the WWE Cruiserweight Championship. If anyone can get a title match on a whim, then what makes the belt so special?
It’s a problem that persists in WWE to this very day. Just think of how amazing a Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn match would be at WrestleMania 32 for the WWE Intercontinental Championship. Then add Dolph Ziggler, Zack Ryder, Stardust, Sin Cara, and The Miz to the match. Kinda mucks up the whole Owens-Zayn feud, doesn’t it?
This isn’t to say that it’s true for all multi-man title matches. There are plenty of examples that say otherwise. Look at the main event of WrestleMania XX: Triple H vs. Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels for the World Heavyweight Championship. Benoit won the Royal Rumble, so he’s challenging Triple H for the belt. Shawn Michaels wrestled Triple H to a draw in a brutal Last Man Standing match, so he feels entitled to one more title shot. Benoit is mad at Michaels for butting into his title match at Mania and making it about HBK. Michaels is mad at Benoit for jumping ship to Raw from SmackDown! They both hate Triple H. Meanwhile Triple H just wants to keep his belt. It’s a compelling feud where all sides feel justified for being in the match and where the championship seems like it means something.
The other area of criticism is about the quality of the match. The Cruiserweight Open was not a bad match. It was what it was: a gauntlet match with limited time. From bell to bell, the Crusierweight Open lasted about eleven minutes. That means that the average length of the eight individual matches within the Open was around 90 seconds. It was supposed to be nine individual matches, but Akio ended up forfeiting because Tajiri accidentally misted him in the face.
Here was the match: Two guys wrestled for a minute. One guy hit a big move and pinned the other one. The next guy came in. They wrestled for a minute until one guy hit a big move and pinned the other one. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s the same faulty match structure that hampers a lot of elimination tag matches. Hit a move, pin. Hit a move, pin. Just like multi-man matches can devalue a belt, this type of match structure can devalue a wrestler. How is anyone supposed to look like a legitimate fighter if they can’t even last two minutes? Funaki was pinned in nine seconds for crying out loud!
I understand why the Cruiserweight Open was given the time it was allotted. There were twelve matches to get through at WrestleMania XX. When you add in all the entrances, the promo videos, the Hall of Fame stage ceremony, the backstage segments, and everything else WWE does to fill up WrestleMania, match time becomes precious. And with big matches like Eddie Guerrero vs. Kurt Angle, Triple H vs. Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker vs. Kane, Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg, and Evolution vs. The Rock ’n’ Sock Connection, an undercard match like the Cruiserweight Open is going to get the short end of the stick.
Perhaps this would be the perfect opportunity to go on a massive rant about how WWE mistreated the cruiserweights; to write a long diatribe about Vince McMahon’s antiquated opinion on what makes a star. But again, I don’t want to talk about all that. Lord knows it’s been done to death.
I want to look towards the future. In a few months, a little tournament called the WWE Global Cruiserweight Series is going to begin. Cruiserweight wrestlers from all over the world will compete to see who is the best of the best. With the sheer amount of talent that is permeating the independent scene right now, I can’t wait to see who will be part of it. I have my list of guys I personally want to see compete: AR Fox, Marty Scurll, Jigsaw, Gran Akuma, T.J. Perkins, Johnny Gargano, and Chuck Taylor, just to name a few. The obvious downside is that there are only so many slots to fill.
This feels special. This feels fresh. Fingers crossed, this could be the spark that not only reignites the cruiserweight division in WWE, but allows it to excel to its fullest potential.