We continue our special on the WWE and their past and current championships with one of the most underutilized titles to ever appear on WWE television, the WWE Light Heavyweight Championship. Talk about wasted potential, To give some of my readers a little backstory, during the Monday Night Wars between WWE’s RAW and WCW’s Nitro, WCW had a new and exciting division known as the Cruiserweight division. Some of the greatest stars from Mexico and Japan as well as wrestlers from the USA came to WCW to show off some amazing and innovative moves. The division was a smashing success and wrestlers the likes of Rey Mysterio, Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis, Chris Jericho, Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger, Ultimo Dragon, Dean Malenko, and many more made their mark in the division.
Naturally by weight limit rules, the Cruiserweight division was a set of smaller wrestlers, a break away from the norm that was the ‘land of giants’ in the early 1990’s. In the late 90’s WCW was dominating WWE in the ratings and a large part of it had to do with the young Cruiserweight division. So in order to compete, the WWE created their own division, the WWE Light Heavyweight division… This ended up being a colossal failure for a number of reasons. For one, Vince McMahon has a thing about wrestlers. He likes them big and he likes them mean. WWE is for big wrestlers where the little ones just need to suck it up and deal with the status quo. So with a couple of questionable champions and the fact that the title was not even close to ever being relevant in the promotion lead to its ultimate dismissal. However there were a handful of redeeming reigns that made an attempt to bring the title some prestige while others helped bury it further and further into the ground.
So today we will be looking at the top 3 worst and best wrestlers to hold the Light Heavyweight Championship. Keep in mind this is my own personal list, if you dislike or disagree with the list, please comment. I would love a good debate. With that being said let’s get a start with the more infamous wrestlers on this list.
3. Jerry Lynn
Tragically Jerry Lynn did not have the most stellar WWE career. I was never the biggest fan of Lynn. He was a decent ring technician but he just didn’t have the look or the charisma to truly be the face of a company… Though granted that never stopped countless promotions which includes ECW, ROH, AAW, and GCW from putting the big belt around his waist so who am I to say otherwise. But what I can say is that when Lynn came into the WWE from the belly up ECW in 2001, it was obvious that WWE did not have a big plan for the guy. In his first match in the WWE, he won the Light Heavyweight belt from Crash Holly on the third tier program of Sunday Night Heat and after holding the title for about a month, dropped it to Jeff Hardy on SmackDown. After that he was quickly released from his contract and never seen on WWE programming again.
Jerry Lynn just came into the WWE too old to get any major push from the company and he did not have the biggest crowd draw as some of the other ECW alumni like Raven, Tazz, Tommy Dreamer, Sandman, and others would bring. He was handed the Light Heavyweight belt in an effort to make something out of him and keep him on television for a little while but none of it panned out and he quickly fell down into the indie leagues where he remains to this day.
2. Essa Rios
When I first got into wrestling, I was quick to find DVDs and VHS tapes as a kid to see wrestlers of the past. Out of my constant watching of the Attitude Era and study on the internet, I came across a wrestler named Essa Rios in the Light Heavyweight Title Reign history. Who in the hell was this guy? I had no idea, I never even heard of him and it took me a while to realize who he was. He was a decently accomplished Luchador wrestler who has the distinction of two things during his short tenure in the WWE. A) He held the Light Heavyweight title for a month and being the one who finally dethroned Gillberg on Sunday Night Heat no less (more on him in just one second) and B) He was the gimmick that WWE saddled Lita with before she went on to actually make a name for herself with Matt and Jeff Hardy.
It is clear that WWE wanted to at least make an attempt to bring back the Light Heavyweight division by finally removing that damn belt from the hands of Duane Gill and make it somewhat competitive again with some of the wrestlers on the roster and Rios was first in line. However he just didn’t have the stay power and after losing the title to wrestling specialist Dean Malenko quickly disappeared from WWE. A forgettable reign for the most forgettable wrestler on this list.
Let’s look at this decision here from WWE. You are competing with the WCW which has two big attractions, the first one being the Cruiserweight division and the second one being Bill Goldberg a wrestler who is synonymous with the 1990’s, the Monday Night Wars, and the Undefeated Streak that remains unmatched to this day. You now have two options. A) Create a substantial and entertaining Light Heavyweight division using Mexican and Japanese wrestlers as well as underutilized American talent… Or you can create a childish gimmick that pokes fun at the Goldberg gimmick and slap a title belt on him, completely turning the title into absolute garbage for a cheap pop that even the crowd didn’t get behind. Well you can take a crack at what the WWE went with.
God love Duane Gill, he really did take it all in stride making the gimmick his own and as a one off joke, it could have slid as a ‘haha okay we had our laugh now let’s get on with the program.’ But this loser and I use the term in the literal sense, the man didn’t win matches which was part of the gimmick, held the title for 453 days until WWE decided they had had their fun and actually attempt to turn the belt into something that wasn’t a complete joke. The Light Heavyweight division just couldn’t stand the test of time against the Cruiserweights of WCW but it still could have been a moderate success. But tragically that was not meant to be as WWE just couldn’t help but poke fun at their competition and turn make a title belt have as much value as a regular belt you buy at Target.
3. Crash Holly
Just as Crash Holly made his way onto the list of best Hardcore Champions, he also graces the list of best Light Heavyweight champions… Granted this pond has a lot less fish in it and it was a toss up in this category with him and Jeff Hardy so there was some slim pickings going on. Mike Lockwood, the man who would dethrone the near year long title reign of Dean Malenko and as I said before one of the most underrated wrestlers in WWE history.
Crash’s title reign as Light Heavyweight Champion may not have been anything to write home to mom about (which kind of shows how small the title was since he is still on the list of three best) but it was quite a win for Crash to get one over on Malenko and gave him a push as well as another notch in his belt and for that his 47 days as champions remains as one of the best in this belt’s short history.
2. Dean Malenko
The one of two wrestlers in the reign history that could have brought some credibility to the championship, the man of a thousand holds Dean Malenko, fed up with the way WCW was ran jumped ship with fellow wrestlers Perry Saturn, Chris Benoit, and Eddie Guerrero. Each of those four are extraordinarily talented in their own right. Benoit and Guerrero were the two more successful of the four with Malenko and Saturn not making the largest push for varying reasons, mainly that they just didn’t have the charisma to push as a major talent. They were still top mid card talent and gave the WWE fans some great matches. When Malenko came into the WWE he was quickly handed the Light Heavyweight title as part of his initial push and was able to bring some decent matches in the Light Heavyweight division with excellent in ring technicians that would lead him to holding the belt for 322 days.
Post the initial run of the inaugural champion, which we will get to at number one, Malenko was the only wrestler who could have brought any credibility to the title and undo the damage that was done by Gillberg and WWE’s childish humor. The man of a thousand holds now works as a producer in the WWE and maintains a strong backstage presence but this is his claim staked in the WWE.
Easily one of the most underrated wrestlers in WWE history, Taka Michinoku was WWE’s attempt at catching lightning in a bottle that the WCW did with the Cruiserweight division before ruining it with Gillberg. The inaugural Light Heavyweight champion and combined with a 315 day title reign, Taka Michinoku attempted to blaze a path for a little man to make it in the WWE… It didn’t work but the man gave us some amazing matches when he was in the ring. A Japanese style wrestler through and through Michinoku brought something to the WWE that American audiences had rarely seen before.
I often sit and wonder when I think of wrestling just how much Taka Michinoku’s career would have been different if he had signed with WCW instead of WWE. In WWE he had no competition with the exception of Brian ‘Grandmaster Sexay’ Lawler who wrestled as Brian Christopher at the time and didn’t do much after he lost the title to Christian. If he had wrestled as a Cruiserweight in WCW his career would have gone in a much different and much more prestigious path while tenured with American wrestling promotions.
Thank you for reading and as always if you enjoyed this list please like and subscribe for more. Next week on WWE specials we will cover the Best and Worst European Champions.