Wrestling has a long history of “phantom” title changes. That is, championships that changed hands under murky circumstances don’t necessarily appear in the record books. A memorable example is The Rockers’ WWF Tag Team title victory over The Hart Foundation on a Saturday Night’s Main Event taping in October 1990.

Change of Hart

Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty were due a run with the belts, but the switch never aired on television. The official explanation for keeping the belts on Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart was attributed to the top rope breaking during the match. In fact, Neidhart had already been released from his WWF contract Neidhart prior to the match, hence the Foundation dropping the belts.

When WWF boss Vince McMahon changed his mind and kept Neidhart on board, he scrapped the change and kept the belts on the Foundation, hence the Rockers’ victory never aired. Michaels wrote in his 2006 autobiography of his impression that their rivals had politicked to deprive himself and Jannetty of tag glory.

Finders keepers

Title changes have happened by accident and been ignored. Sometimes, bookers simply changed their minds. And there are other occasions where wrestlers will get handed a championship, whether newly created or defunct, with little storyline explanation. 

This happened a couple of times in the Attitude Era, such as in 1999 when Mideon found the WWF European title in Shane McMahon’s bag when searching for a belt to keep his trousers up. Not to be outdone, WCW went one better the following year and had “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan discover the once-noble WCW Television title in the trash.

Tourney trauma

There’s also wrestling’s tradition of pretending a new champion won their new shiny strap in a tournament that never happened, to bestow a little (unearned) prestige on the incumbent. 

The most famous examples are Buddy Rogers’ fictional tourney victory in 1963 to become the inaugural WWF Champion, and Pat Patterson’s win to be crowned the first WWF Intercontinental title holder 16 years later. Both “took place” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

WCW has a phantom tournament of its own. In true WCW style, however, it could not even get that quite right.

A new idea

When it debuted in 1996, World Championship Wrestling’s Cruiserweight division quickly established itself as one of the hottest innovations the industry had ever seen. Superlative technical workers like Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Dean Malenko cross-pollinated with some of the best high-flyers around, from Rey Misterio Jr to Psychosis, among others.

WCW had an established deal in place with New Japan Pro Wrestling, which smoothed the way for the likes of Jushin Thunder Liger and Ultimo Dragon to contribute to fast-paced matches that the US wrestling audience had never seen before. Mexican mid-carder Konnan, meanwhile, had the connections to get his compatriots booked in the States.

Eric Bischoff was Senior Vice President of WCW at the time and kept a keen eye on the competition, both WWF and ECW. Benoit, Jericho, Guerrero, and Malenko were working for the ultraviolent Philadelphia-based upstart promotion when Bischoff signed the quartet to major deals, with the express intention of them joining his fledgling new division for smaller workers.

If at first…

It was not the first time WCW had promoted a division for the non-giants in its employ. The WCW Light Heavyweight Championship launched in 1991 and lasted all of ten months. Fan interest started to build after a series of outstanding matches before the Atlanta company sabotaged itself, as it often tended to.

The belt was conceived as a showcase for Brian Pillman, the initial titleholder, and Liger, with whom Pillman had a series of incredible matches. Sadly for the pair, and others in the division, such as Brad Armstrong and Scotty (Raven) Flamingo, change was on the horizon.

WCW hired longtime Mid-South promoter Bill Watts as its Executive Vice President in 1992. Thoroughly old school, Watts quickly set about instituting a variety of new rules to keep the in-ring wrestling product grounded and realistic. This included banning moves from top rope, effectively making the Light Heavyweight division redundant. 

Brad Armstrong vacated the title due to injury in September 1992. A tournament to crown a new champion was announced but never took place. With Watts’ new regime underway, it would have been pointless.

Pillman and friends

By October 1994, Pillman was on his way back to television after a hiatus, and WCW bosses started planning for his return. He eventually returned as “California” Brian, a brief experiment that played off Pillman’s (ultimately cut) cameo in an episode of Baywatch. There were alternative plans for the future “Loose Cannon” to headline a new cruiserweight division. 

Writing in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that month, Dave Meltzer noted:

“WCW is going to do a cruiserweight division tournament as a vehicle to give Brian Pillman a new push, on television (Saturday mornings and Sunday Main Event tournament) either starting in November or January, with the idea being to bring in wrestlers from Japan and Mexico as his opponents.”

The “Cruiserweight” name is a boxing term, which then-booker Kevin Sullivan has taken credit for lifting. The idea of bringing in foreign talent is exactly what transpired, but not in 1994. The following January, newsletters reported that the tournament would be delayed due to general disorganization. A few names for the new division were floated – Shinjiro Otani and Chris Benoit, and a verbal deal with AAA to bring in Eddy Guerrero and Jerry Estrada.

Delays plagued the planning stages of the inaugural Cruiserweight title tournament throughout 1995. WCW struggled to do deals with other promotions to share their talent, with Paul Heyman adamant that Sabu would not take part in a tournament that was at various points scheduled for February, March, April, and May, getting postponed internally each time.

WCW went as far to commission a Cruiserweight belt to be created during 1995. Bizarrely, it was used on TV more than once by Renegade during his reign as the company’s television champion.

Other names circulated for WCW’s new division during this period included Hiroshi Hase, Latin Lover, Koko B Ware, and Brad Armstrong. By June 1995, all talk of the new title had stopped, and did not restart until Bischoff brought it up on commentary for WCW Monday Nitro at the end of the year – during a scintillating match between Benoit and Guerrero.

To summarise rumored participants at various points throughout 1995:

  • Brian Pillman
  • Sabu
  • Shinjiro Otani 
  • Chris Benoit
  • Eddy Guerrero 
  • Jerry Estrada
  • Hiroshi Hase
  • Latin Lover
  • Koko B Ware
  • Brad Armstrong

Pillman and Armstrong were both former Light-Heavyweight champions, so it would have made some sense. The “Loose Cannon” was gone from WCW by the time the tournament eventually started.

Sabu had a brief WCW career towards the end of 1995 but was quickly back in ECW.

Estrada and Latin Lover never worked for WCW, although they did show up at the 1997 Royal Rumble as a result of the WWF’s short-lived cooperation with AAA.

Hase worked a couple of WCW/NJPW co-promoted matches in 1992 but otherwise never worked for WCW, and nor did Koko B Ware.

Finally…finals?

By the spring of 1996, WCW had Benoit, Guerrero, and Malenko firmly on board, and Bischoff finally had all the pieces he needed to make the Cruiserweight division a reality. 

On the February 19 episode of WCW Monday Nitro, the WCW boss officially announced the tournament, with the following announced as entrants during an unrelated match between Brad Armstrong and the Belfast Bruiser (Dave Finlay): Armstrong, Liger, Benoit, Guerrero, Malenko, Johnny B. Badd, and Shinjiro Otani.

Bischoff also noted the tournament would take place across two continents, with a “WCW contingent” traveling to Japan in “late April.” He also acknowledged ongoing negotiations with AAA in Mexico while co-commentator Bobby Heenan ironically suggested Finlay may be part of the action.

On March 20, 1996, after nearly 18 months of dither and delay, the WCW Cruiserweight title tournament started at long last.

Or did it?

That was the day NJPW star Otani defeated Benoit at New Japan’s Hyper Battle show in Nagoya, to become the first-ever titleholder. 

You read that correctly. After all that planning, WCW bypassed an elimination tournament and jumped straight to the decider, a one-on-one match between Benoit and Otani, with the non-WCW contracted wrestler the victor. Of course, he was since this was WCW.  

Simple enough, you might think. After going through with this formality, WCW could claim a fictional tournament had taken place and present Otani to its fanbase as champion safe in the knowledge that in those largely pre-internet days, few would know any different.

It would be just another example of a promotion being economical with the truth and only giving its audience a portion of the necessary information, but it would make at least some sense if you adhere to wrestling’s twisted logic.

None of which explains what came next.

How? What? Why?

Immediately after Otani’s victory, WCW kicked off what was essentially a “back-dated” tournament, with a random selection of matches, retrospectively fitting in the required framework to lead to the overall winner (Otani), who had already been crowned. These proceedings ignored the fact that Otani was already the champion, and the titleholder was not even featured in a single match. 

Three days after Otani’s victory, WCW Saturday Night aired a lengthy vignette listing off an array of participants in the tournament:

  • Dean Malenko
  • JL
  • Disco Inferno
  • Koji Kanemoto
  • Shinjiro Otani (misspelled “Ootani”)
  • Akira Nogami
  • Jushin Liger
  • Rey Misterio Jr
  • Psychosis
  • Alex Wright
  • Devon Storm
  • Chris Benoit
  • Eddie Guerrero
  • And many more!

Many of the above became standouts of WCW’s Cruiserweight department and went on to hold the title. Several came nowhere near it. Devon Storm, the future Crowbar, wrestled four matches in WCW in the spring of 1996, none of them part of the tournament. 

If he had done so, Storm would have been the only wrestler in both this and the WWF’s Light Heavyweight title tourney, which took place in 1997. Jerry “JL” Lynn could also claim that accolade if not for his place in the WWF tournament being taken by Scott Taylor.

Akira Nogami wrestled for WCW once in his career (aside from a few shows co-promoted with New Japan), and that was at the Clash of the Champions 19 in 1992. Kanemoto and Otani were part of the Japanese troupe that featured in the brief crossover with WCW in late 1995, but neither wrestled for the Atlanta group in ‘96 (except for when Otani dropped the belt).

Mysterio and Psychosis were certainly on their way into WCW, but that did not happen until June and July, respectively.

Bischoff’s February mention of Johnny B Badd may have seen him included, if not for the fact he jumped to the WWF shortly after being name-checked.

Occasional, partial updates were given on WCW television, but no brackets were ever created, and it was never clear if certain matches were qualifiers, first-round, semi-finals, or part of some kind of round-robin style table. Updates came largely via off-hand remarks made from commentators Eric Bischoff and Tony Schiavone on episodes of WCW’s television programs.

Guerrero beat Steve Doll on WCW Saturday Night immediately after the vignette aired and, in true WCW fashion, no mention whatsoever was made of the significant new development or Guerrero’s involvement. A week later, Guerrero defeated Devon Storm on the same show. This time, the tourney was referenced on commentary, albeit with Schiavone noting that this particular match was not part of the proceedings!

A tournament begins

The following night, the tournament officially kicked off. JL (Jerry Lynn) scored an upset win over Malenko on the live episode of The Main Event that preceded WCW’s Uncensored ’96 pay-per-view. 

Proceedings (and updates) then largely shifted over to WCW Saturday Night. On the April 13, 1996 episode, the company was clearly keen to make up for lost time, with two tournament matches and more detail offered in the form of a vignette. 

Viewers were told the action was, in fact, a “double elimination” tournament. This meant you have to lose twice to get eliminated, possibly a manipulation to allow Benoit or Malenko (or both) back into the running after early defeats. Schiavone and Dusty Rhodes vaguely explained the rules while admitting they had never come across such a thing before. (Which they wouldn’t have given WCW concocted the nonsensical state of affairs, and the “rules” were never mentioned again.

Guerrero defeated JL, and Armstrong pinned Malenko, giving the “Man of 1,000 Holds” his second defeat and putting him out of the tournament.

Who knows, maybe Malenko’s terrible showing is what made him Otani’s number-one contender the following month. 

At one point, Schiavone noted that JL needed to beat Guerrero to continue in the proceedings and promised the final for May’s Slamboree pay-per-view. He again rattled off Liger and Otani as participants. According to the Wrestling Observer around this time, the tournament finals were indeed planned for the May PPV, with Otani facing either Malenko or Armstrong, or the two Americans facing each other, with Otani’s victory ignored.

On April 27, 1996, two more matches took place, plus another update vignette. This recapped the matches of two weeks earlier and finally presented a look at the structure. The winner of two further matches, it was claimed, would travel to Japan alongside previous winners Guerrero and Armstrong to face Psychosis, Mysterio, Liger, and Otani (again misspelled).

That didn’t happen, but at least it was something approaching a plan, and it also matched Bischoff’s original pronouncement about a WCW contingent traveling to Japan in late April. In some ways, if you ignore the initial JL/Malenko match, and Otani’s victory in March, this structure would have come close to delivering what was promised (minus the likes of Kanemoto, Nogami, Inferno, or Storm).

Eaton defeated former WWF jobber Steve Doll (despite neither name being previously mentioned as part of the tournament), and Benoit went over Alex Wright, to give a “WCW contingent” of Guerrero, Armstrong, Eaton and Benoit. Sadly for Doll and Wright, no mention of “double elimination” rules here. 

Those results once again:

ParticipantsAirdateEvent
Shinjiro Otani defeated Chris BenoitMarch 20, 1996NJPW Hyper Battle
JL defeated Dean MalenkoMarch 24, 1996WCW The Main Event
Eddie Guerrero defeated JLApril 13, 1996WCW Saturday Night
Brad Armstrong defeated MalenkoApril 13, 1996WCW Saturday Night
Earl Robert Eaton defeated Steve DollApril 27, 1996WCW Saturday Night
Chris Benoit defeated Alex WrightApril 27, 1996WCW Saturday Night

 

So, the eight wrestlers that actually took part were:

  • Dean Malenko
  • JL
  • Chris Benoit
  • Eddie Guerrero
  • Brad Armstrong
  • Alex Wright
  • Bobby Eaton
  • Steve Doll

The irony of it all being that WCW had enough talent in the above alone to host a traditional eight-man bracket if they had wanted to. Instead, there was an insistence on claiming the thing was being held in collaboration with New Japan when this was clearly not the case.

The little details

If ever WCW needed a continuity editor (and there were countless times), the Cruiserweight tournament was it. Occasional comments about proceedings were made throughout April and May during unrelated matches on WCW television. 

On the April 22, 1996 episode of WCW Monday Nitro, as Guerrero wrestled Benoit in a non-tournament match, Bischoff (on commentary) finally acknowledged that Benoit had lost in Japan to Otani. The minor detail about Otani winning the title in said match was omitted, and instead it was noted Otani would represent Japan as a result of his victory while Benoit was out. Potential opponents? Guerrero, Armstrong, and Bobby Eaton (who did not face Steve Doll until five days later).

Two weeks later, on the May 6, 1996 Nitro, Malenko beat Liger in another non-tournament bout. Without fanfare, Bischoff, on commentary, announced Otani as the first-ever WCW Cruiserweight Champion and confirmed he would defend the strap on WCW television on May 18.

That did happen, as it was on that date on an episode of WCW Worldwide (taped on May 2) that Malenko took the belt off Otani, and things finally got rolling.

Once again, some bizarre claims were made by Schiavone and Rhodes on commentary. Otani, they claimed, defeated Armstrong in the tournament final for the title (not Benoit), something they repeated later in the show when Armstrong beat Liger.

Pure WCW

The WCW Cruiserweight division turned out to be one of the great success stories in WCW’s history. As is clear from the above, that was not down to any careful strategy or meticulous planning. Rather, the division’s triumph came from bringing together some of the most technically gifted wrestlers ever to compete and allowing them to express themselves.

WCW struck gold with Malenko, Guerrero, Benoit, Mysterio, Jericho, Psychosis, and others who later joined them, such as Ultimo Dragon, Juventud Guerrera, Blitzkrieg, and Billy Kidman. The Cruiserweights made themselves must-see. All WCW management needed to do was get out of their way – and they very nearly messed that up.

What does all this teach us?

The WCW Cruiserweight title tournament of 1996 is a microcosm of many wrestling realities, as true then as they are now nearly 30 years later. Firstly, WCW was a chaotic mess, with no one really in charge or keeping tracking of anything. The group certainly had some good ideas among the morass of confusion but lacked the focus to see much through to any satisfying end.

Respect for the audience in developing support for any endeavor is vital, and in wrestling, this is why common sense and continuity are so important and why WWE has seen success with the Bloodline in recent years. WCW’s half-hearted attempt at a tournament nearly torpedoed the likes of Malenko, Guerrero, and others before they had even started.

Lastly, it shows that – sometimes – brilliant professional wrestling can win people over, in spite of itself.

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