Kota Ibushi will step into a WWE ring for the first time on Wednesday night, and for wrestling heads that means it's appointment viewing. The three-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion will go toe-to-toe with Sean Maluta in the first of 31 unique and completely original-to-WWE matches as part of The Cruiserweight Classic, the WWE's latest grand digital content experiment. It's one of the most exciting developments in recent wrestling history, and not just because it will allow Ibushi to kick the hell out of someone where everyone can see it.
The Classic, a 32-man, single-elimination tournament that will air on the WWE Network over 10 episodes, with a two-hour live finale on September 14, will pit some of the most heralded up-and-coming wrestlers under 205 pounds—a limit WWE will enforce, in reality, at every taping—against some well-known veteran names. The field is a terrific mix of different styles, nationalities, experience levels, and characters. It's unlike anything WWE's ever tried before and, if only for that reason, it's worth getting excited about.
For too long, WWE has been built on the idea that large, musclebound Adonises are the archetype that sells. When you employ Brock Lesnar and John Cena, that's the easy way out, but leaning on heroic beefcake that much has led to an oversimplification that has sometimes made WWE look archaic. TNA still exists to this day perhaps only because of the early success of their X-Division, and WCW's cruiserweight division was one of their biggest advantages during the Monday Night Wars. Ring of Honor, PWG, and a host of other prominent independent promotions have survived and thrived by offering an alternative style of wrestling, and as such have become de facto feeder systems when WWE's own talent pool needed supplementing.
These alternatives are not "competitors," because WWE machine is too large to have those, but with the Cruiserweight Classic, WWE is taking yet another step to house those alternatives under their own umbrella. It's an attempt to not only improve their product, but also make WWE an eventual one-stop-shop for wrestling fans of any type. Strange as it sounds for WWE to want to compete with itself, the thinking seems to be that if there are fans who want something other than the usual meaty gigantism, WWE should be where they go for that, too.
"Not everyone fits the mold of the historical WWE wrestler," said Canyon Ceman, WWE's vice president of talent development. "That mold has evolved." It's more accurate, probably, to say that it's still evolving. But the Cruiserweight Classic is a part of that process.
This is the vision of Triple H, who is a villain on-screen but the executive vice president of talent, live events, and creative in real life. Triple H's impact on the product began with the introduction of NXT, the company's own on-air development system, which created an alternative offering to WWE's Raw and Smackdown. NXT has a different presentation style, with a greater focus on in-ring action and slow, well-told stories; it also has become immensely popular in a short amount of time and provided the big league club with a robust pipeline of superstars.
The Classic is pushing this even further. Vince McMahon's long-apparent distaste for undersized grapplers is being pushed aside, as is his desire for larger-than-life characters. If last week's introductory episode revealing the brackets is any indication, the presentation will be very unlike what McMahon's current No. 2, Kevin Dunn, likes to put forth. WWE is treating the Cruiserweight Classic like serious sport, more kumite than King of the Ring. Fans are in for an entirely unique experience, one that likely stands as a testing ground for WWE to not only make cruiserweight wrestling a more prominent focus, but which will also make for more unique digital content moving forward.
"Coming in here for that first time, walking in here with over 30 guys that probably never thought in a million years they'd have an opportunity like this with the WWE," Triple H said on the preview special. "The hunger in their eyes, the passion in which they were in here going at it. Man, I walked in here and within five minutes, I was like, 'Oh my god, this is great.'"
There are more reasons the Classic is piquing interest beyond WWE going outside of their comfort zone. Ibushi serves as a nice avatar for some of the more intriguing aspects of the series.
Ibushi is 5-foot-11 and 189 pounds. More often than not, an undersized wrestler—like CWC lead analyst Daniel Bryan, one of the greatest David stories in modern wrestling history—has to stake his claim in WWE by sheer force of fan support if he's to make it up the card. It's telling that when the WWE quietly removed its Cruiserweight Title from existence in 2008, its final champion was Hornswoggle, a 4-foot-4 kayfabe leprechaun who had won and retained the title in a comedy feud. With the CWC, the WWE is recognizing that there's a market for more athletic and acrobatic battles, even if they don't end up going as far as New Japan's famously over-the-top Ricochet-Ospreay match when it comes to wrestling-as-art.
Ibushi wrestles a high-flying "strong style," and WWE is embracing that. One of the best parts of the preview show was Bryan and play-by-play commentator Mauro Ranallo discussing each match-up as a legitimate competition. Ibushi's approach in the ring involves a willingness to take extreme punishment in order to dish it out, and that contrasts markedly with some of his potential competitors, like Zach Sabre Jr. or T.J. Perkins. The commentary on each match promises to be far superior to the bellowing peanut gallery on Monday Night Raw, and it should serve to make the in-ring action that much more compelling. Casuals watching may see high-flying they're familiar with, but there's going to be a strong undercurrent of strategy and psychology throughout.
Ibushi is going by the name Ibushi, and he's not an exclusive WWE-contracted talent. From a business standpoint, this may be the most interesting part of the CWC approach. While WWE has, on occasion, allowed wrestlers to negotiate for the rights to their name (CM Punk, for example), WWE prefers to re-brand a wrestler so they can own the copyrights to the names and characters. That has been changing of late, with WWE allowing those with built-in credibility like A.J. Styles, Samoa Joe, and Bobby Roode to keep their names for instant cache. That loosened even further when NXT began trotting out Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa—tag-team partners who square off in what might be the best match of Round One—under those names, without the benefit of having them on exclusive deals. The CWC has a handful of wrestlers who are wrestling under their existing names, and without being under a WWE or WWE developmental deal. It's a smart piece of business—WWE gets to promote established names with a short-term commitment while feeling out their connection to fans; the wrestlers get the exposure and credibility a stint with WWE provides.
"This is a really big deal," WWE superstar Sami Zayn says. "Seven or eight years ago, I would have killed for an opportunity like this, to get a chance to be featured as a part of WWE as an outsider looking in."
Ibushi is Japanese. Ibushi is one of 23 international wrestlers in the tournament, and the field as a whole spans 18 countries and five continents, which is no small point considering the WWE Network's global subscription availability.
Ibushi in WWE is a dream scenario. Not that long ago, dream matches between WWE wrestlers and the elite of the Japanese wrestling scene seemed far-fetched, or at least unlikely. With Shinsuke Nakamura now headlining NXT shows with his unique brand of Swagsuke charisma, the path's been paved for other stars to cross over; it doesn't hurt that the WWE Network is now available in Japan, either. Ibushi against most anyone in the field should be a 3.5-star match at worst, and if he sticks around beyond the tournament, the list of potential WWE superfights is mouth-watering. WWE is making the allure of Ibushi a big part of the story here.
"Honestly, since the day I got hired in the WWE, the second I felt I had people's ears, I was telling them Kota Ibushi is one of the guys you have to go after," Zayn says.
Ibushi isn't the only one with their real-life narrative being told. Former cruiserweight standout Brian Kendrick is on a path to redemption after squandering his earlier WWE run. Jessy Sorensen, an alternate for the tournament, is back in the ring just a few years after breaking his neck and fearing he'd never wrestle again. Alejandro Saez had to drop 30 pounds in two weeks to qualify. Rich Swann, perhaps the most naturally affable wrestler in the tournament, lost both of his parents as a teenager and leaned on wrestling to cope, to the extent that he says "wrestling saved my life."
Ibushi will probably do quite well. This is still wrestling, which means the outcomes of these matches are predetermined. But one of the biggest weaknesses of WWE creative is 50-50 booking, where wins and losses are traded so frequently that results barely matter. In a single-elimination tournament, every pinfall or submission matters a great deal, even if some of the first-round pairings seem pretty obvious at first blush. The later parts of the tournament should have edge-of-your-seat false finishes.
Ibushi may not win. He enters as the favorite, and the tournament as a whole has a few names most expect to make a deep run. WWE surely knows, though, that upsets will make for good TV, and they could sacrifice established name value to help build a star or tell a better story. How the tournament plays out should also give an idea of which wrestlers WWE is high on and looking to keep on their roster when the tournament concludes. If someone connects with the crowd at the early tapings, a deep Cinderella run is entirely possible.
Final Four picks: Kota Ibushi, Rich Swann, Zach Sabre Jr., Gran Metalik. Winner: Zach Sabre Jr.
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