A lot has changed since last summer’s historic Cruiserweight Classic. The 32-man bracket reached its finale on September 14th, when TJ Perkins won the inaugural tournament by defeating Gran Metalik in a memorable encounter. Earlier on that same night Perkins had put on a thrilling match with Kota Ibushi and it seemed that a star had been born. Now the brand new Cruiserweight division would head to RAW with Perkins at the helm, the division’s champion and figurehead. On September 19th, the division would finally arrive as Cedric Alexander, Rich Swann, Brian Kendrick and the aforementioned Metalik battled in a fatal 4-way for number one contender status.
The initial crowd reactions weren’t thunderous, but inside the ring all four men delivered, putting on an exciting match that captured the crowd’s attention in the end. Eventually, the returning veteran Kendrick would come out the victor, setting up a title match with Perkins for that Sunday at Clash of Champions. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t catch fire as hoped. The crowd just didn’t seem interested and it ended up being a rather flat affair. On a show featuring multiple stars, Perkins and Kendrick hadn’t built a connection with the crowd yet and suffered because of it. The feud would continue regardless with the story being that Kendrick was once a mentor to Perkins and now felt forgotten. On paper it seemed a good direction but it just never seemed to click with the audience.
The next time the pair wrestled Kendrick would take the title, ending Perkins’ time as champion in late October. Its shame that after such a dramatic coming out party in the CWC, Perkins’ reign will ultimately go down in history as an underwhelming one. For all of his superb technical skill, Perkins seemed unable to really find himself as a character and personality on the main roster product. That’s not a critique of him either, sometimes it just takes performers time to hit their stride on the grandest stage. In Full Sail I’m sure Kendrick and Perkins could’ve made magic but it just never seemed to garner a response from the bigger crowd and it was time for a new direction.
That direction came in the form of the charismatic Rich Swann, who was gaining momentum due to his engaging and endearing personality. After Kendrick kept the division on RAW by retaining against SmackDown’s Kalisto, a title defense against Swann was booked for the premiere episode of 205 Live. The brand new Tuesday night show would air after SmackDown as a one hour broadcast completely exclusive to the Cruiserweight division. It wasn’t a perfect first showing but on a whole, a couple of key moments occurred. Firstly, Austin Aries made his commentary debut and immediately shined. More on that later but also, Rich Swann’s story was told in detail and when he took the title from Kendrick, it felt like a legitimate feel-good moment.
It was on December 18th though that things would really change in the Cruiserweight division. Following a successful Swann defense over both Kendrick and Perkins, the recently absent Neville would return, attacking the champion and turning heel. Tired of being treated as an underdog loser, Neville felt disrespected and the character development transferred beautifully to Neville’s in-ring performance. It was clear that the now self-proclaimed ‘King of the Cruiserweights’ was more motivated than ever, showing aggression and tenacity in strong matches with Perkins and Alexander to earn the spot as Swann’s challenger at the Royal Rumble. It was refreshing to see Neville given the chance to change his style and he thrived almost immediately.
There was never any doubts about the Englishman’s in-ring performance but this turn had allowed him to showcase other areas of his skill-set as he’d almost become the division’s powerhouse by default. Neville was no longer pigeonholed as the high flying babyface but instead a hybrid of multiple styles and the Cruiserweight title would again change hands as he defeated Swann at the Rumble. The match itself was good but was sandwiched between marquee matches and did struggle to get much of a crowd response at times. It wasn’t surprising unfortunately either, for all of Neville’s great work the crowds were still inconsistent in their response. One consistent was a trend of ‘Austin Aries’ chants though, the former TNA champion had been brilliant every week on commentary and it wasn’t going unnoticed. Once again though, more on that later.
On the same night as Neville’s title triumph, countryman Jack Gallagher would be the only Cruiserweight to appear in the Royal Rumble match itself and was briefly spotlighted in some fun comedy spots. ‘The Extraordinary Gentleman’ had been getting over due to his personality and character and was a natural fit as Neville’s next challenger. In what felt like a landmark moment for the Cruiserweight division, Neville and Gallagher put on an excellent match at Fast Lane, winning the crowd over and putting them firmly on the edge of their seats. It wasn’t just all flash either, it was hard hitting and dramatic, a match almost more in the style of a celebrated NJPW Junior Heavyweight title clash.
It had been a star making showing for Gallagher but Neville came out still champion nonetheless and the following night on RAW would put on another thriller, successfully defending the belt against Swann. Suddenly the division had momentum on its side and that would only be multiplied by what came next. In the ring to interview the victorious Neville, Austin Aries would prod the champion with questions as the crowd booed and jeered the villainous champion. Neville’s claim that there was no one left brought an immediate ‘Austin Aries’ chant and ‘A Double’ responded with a smug grin. Insulted by the interview, Neville began to insult the inactive Aries and even threatened to re-break his previously injured orbital socket.
The crowd’s anticipation for Aries rebuttal was growing and when it came in the form of a left hand, the Chicago crowd erupted. It had been a wildly successful night for the Cruiserweights and it was refreshing to see them go the organic route with Aries as a babyface. He was already more popular than the rest of the division and a heel run only would’ve gone against the grain. Aries’ prior NXT run had gone under the radar as he was often overshadowed by more prioritized talents but ironically, it was his personality on commentary that really connected him with the WWE audience. Now with momentum on his side, Aries heads into WrestleMania to take on ‘The King of the Cruiserweights’ in a match that could be pivotal in this division’s future.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of work to be done in this division and that’s shown in some ways by this match’s spot on the kickoff show instead of the main card. However, I think it’s important that we celebrate what Neville has done to ignite this division and enjoy that after all these years, Aries has finally made it to WrestleMania. In a division originally filled with young talent, its two men that have plied their trade across the globe for well over a decade that have given this division the shot in the arm that it so desperately needed. It's been and up and down journey thus far but pre-show or not, if everything comes together this Sunday night in Orlando, Austin Aries and Neville could very well steal the show.