The recent addition of the Cruiserweight division to the WWE has resurrected the company’s interest in light heavyweight superstars. But this is certainly not the first time Vince McMahon’s company has attempted to focus on this type of action. Today we had back to the previous attempts to build a light heavyweight division.
With the reemergence of the WWE’s cruiserweight division, we take a look back at the company’s first real crack at pushing a smaller division of wrestlers. Surprisingly, this story doesn’t begin in 1997 but in 1981. Before its global expansion into a billion dollar corporation, the then World Wrestling Federation run by Vince McMahon Sr. (Vince McMahon’s father) had several handshake working agreements with international promotions. Two of which were the UWA (Universal Wrestling Association) based out of Mexico and NJPW (New Japan Pro Wrestling) based in Tokyo, Japan. In a gesture of good will, a title was created that would be owned by the WWF and defended overseas. It was to be known as the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship.
The first ever WWF Light Heavyweight champion was crowned in 1981 by the name of Perro Aguayo. The title was mainly defended in both Mexico and Japan for over 16 years before the World Wrestling Federation came calling. By 1997, the WWF was seeing the success of its main competitor WCW and their Cruiserweight division. Vince Jr. decided it was time to compete with WCW and decided to start the Light Heavyweight division. There was only one problem, the WWF already had a light heavyweight title that was actively being defended in Japan. As a matter of fact, the title was a part of New Japan’s J-Crown which was the ultimate prize for any and all cruiserweights around the world.
The J-Crown consisted of 8 titles from around the world and was defended by smaller, light weight wrestlers. One of the most iconic photos of the J-Crown was taken of the Ultimo Dragon when he was not only the J-Crown champion, but also WCW cruiserweight champion. The WWF realizing that New Japan had possession of its physical title, they demanded the title be returned to them ASAP. The title last held by Shinjiro Otani was indeed returned to the WWF and in essence ended the brief existence of the J-Crown.
To really compete with WCW’s cruiserweights, McMahon needed to get wrestlers that were smaller, faster and had the ability to do aerial manoeuvres. Something that the WWF had shied away from for years. The WWF brought in wrestlers from the USWA and signed a working agreement with the Japanese promotion Michinoku Pro founded by wrestler the Great Sasuke. The Great Sasuke was pegged to win the tournament and become the WWF’s “first” Light Heavyweight champion, a title that Sasuke won twice previously in Japan. The problem was, however, Sasuke was a bit of a loose cannon and that would forever change the course of the light Heavyweight championship.
The Great Sasuke began talking to the Japanese press before he was scheduled to win the title. He bragged how he was going to win the belt and only defend it in his native Japan. When the WWF got wind of this, the company cut ties with both Sasuke and Michinoku Pro Wrestling. That wasn’t the only issue that the WWF would have to deal with their newly created division. Someone who the company planned big things for, 2nd generation star Scott Putski (Son of Ivan Putski), suffered a serious knee injury in September of 1997. The injury subsequently ended his WWF career.
A left over from Michinoku Pro was Taka Michinoku, who the WWF crowned the first ever WWF Light Heavyweight champion by defeating Brian Christopher in the tournament finals in late 1997. Despite Taka’s nearly year-long reign, the Light Heavyweight division never quite lived up to its expectations with quality of matches and fan interest.
It was further damaged when the title changed hands to a perennial jobber named Duane Gill who transformed himself into a parody of Goldberg named Gillberg. Gillberg would hold on to the title for close to a year and a half with barely any title defences. The light heavyweight title was used more as a prop than an actual championship.
The title ultimately died in 2001 after the WWE purchased WCW and now owned the rights to the much more valuable cruiserweight title. A title for title unification match was scheduled between Tajiri and X-Pac, but due to injuries the match was scrapped, as was the light heavyweight title. While the championship never had much of a rich history in the WWF/E, it was also marred by backstage drama, unfortunate injuries and a lack of vision for the smaller, more athletic competitors.