Recently, there have been a large number of talent releases in WWE. No show has been harder hit than 205 Live, with the releases of Tony Nese, Ariya Daivari, Asher Hale, Ari Sterling, Jake Atlas, Bollywood Boyz, Ever Rise, August Grey, and Curt Stallion.
205 Live came into existence following the Cruiserweight Classic, which saw competitors from all over the world compete in a 32-man tournament. The mixture of different styles from across the world made it a must-see. The tournament was eventually won by T.J. Perkins (TJP – pictured above receiving the trophy from Triple H and William Regal) after defeating Gran Metalik in the final. Looking back at 32 competitors, a number have overcome challenges and exceeded expectations in the last five years.
Mustafa Ali was not meant to be in the tournament. He was an alternate and entered after one of the other competitors had visa issues. Ali took his opportunity with both hands putting in an impressive performance and earning a WWE contract.
Ali’s work ethic and ability in the ring soon got fans behind him and he progressed towards the top of 205 Live. When he was drafted to SmackDown it was feared he would be limited by his size. At times on Smackdown and Raw this has been the case, but there have been moments where he has showed his full potential.
Ali is an inspirational character, having served on the Chicago police force and being a positive role model for fans. Towards the end of 2018 and early 2019 he really gained momentum and was due to compete in the 2019 Elimination Chamber before injury struck. Kofi Kingston took his place in the match and Kofi Mania was born. Ali’s return from injury saw him earn a spot in the Money in the Bank match and he looked set for victory before the mystery entrant Brock Lesnar threw him off the ladder.
If the injury had not have happened, it is we could have seen Ali Mania and a title victory over Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 35. A title run would have cemented Ali as a main event level competitor for years to come. Fans will hope he can still get to this level despite an ill fated run as leader of Retribution. Retribution didn’t really work as a faction, due to the lack of a storyline reason why the group were together.
Ali is great as a likeable underdog and his big moment is likely to come in this role. Imagine Ali challenging Roman Reigns, constantly getting beaten down but coming back and fighting. Fans would really get behind the chase and it would be such a feel good moment if Ali finally took the title from the Head of the Table.
“Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. sign long term WWE contracts.” This was almost a headline from 2016 after both made it to the semi finals of the Cruiserweight Classic. In the end both decided their future lay elsewhere.
What would have happened to both if they had signed? It is likely WWE would have built 205 Live around Kota and he would have shone as champion. A call up to RAW or SmackDown may have followed and a number of dream matches could have taken place against the likes of Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns plus rematches against AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura.
We would not, however, have seen the reuniting of the Golden Lovers or the formation of the Golden Elite. Would Kota be where Shinsuke wasn’t and have successfully become a main event player? History suggests this is unlikely, and instead we would likely have seen a situation similar to Hideo Itami (KENTA) whereby Kota would have left the WWE for new opportunities.
Turning down the WWE contract and going back to New Japan was a great decision by Kota. After winning the G1 Climax tournaments in 2019 and 2020 he finally achieved his goal of becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion at Wrestle Kingdom 15. His title reign was shorter than expected after a defeat to Will Ospreay, but he surely has more world titles in his future if he can avoid the serious injury his risk taking style often threatens.
Zack Sabre Jr. is widely regarded as one of the best technical wrestlers of recent years, a multiple time winner of this category in the Wrestling Observer end of year awards. His different style really added something to Cruiserweight Classic.
If he had joined WWE, after a good run in 205 Live it is likely he would have been promoted as the face of NXT UK. Feuds with Pete Dunne, Tyler Bate, and Walter would have been amazing. After stealing the show at a TakeOver he would now, like Pete, be a cornerstone of NXT.
In New Japan, Zack is in contention for the IWGP Tag Team Championships with Taichi, the pair the focus of the tag division for the past year. Minoru Suzuki cannot wrestle forever (at least his opponents hope not!) and Zack could lead Suzuki-Gun or his own version of the faction. He undoubtedly has the ability to win one of the major singles titles in New Japan in the future – perhaps one day from his fellow Cruiserweight Classic semi-finalist, Ibushi.
Raul Mendoza lost in the first round of the Cruiserweight Classic. For a few years afterwards he made occasional appearances on NXT and 205 Live. He usually lost in these appearances (to the likes of Dan Matha, Brennan Williams and Kona Reeves) and was someone used to put other emerging talents over. The last year has seen an incredible transformation in his fortunes and he has gone from being someone likely to be released to part of one of the hottest factions in WWE.
It all started with a kidnapping in the car park on an episode of NXT. This led to the formation of Legado Del Fantasma. It initially seemed the purpose was for Raul, and the also kidnapped Joaquin Wilde, to just run interference for Santos Escobar. Instead Raul and Joaquin Wilde gelled well as a tag team and have had some amazing matches with Grizzled Young Veterans and MSK.
The tag team division in NXT is thriving and Legado Del Fantasma are in a prime position for more title opportunities. At only 30 years old, Raul has his best years ahead of him.
The standout match in the first round of the Cruiserweight Classic involved two men who would go on to have the feud of the year in 2018: Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. They were independent wrestlers put together as a team named DIY, for the inaugural Dusty Classic, where they formed a strong bond. The luck of the draw saw them go head-to-head to advance to round two. Johnny got the hard fought win, but at the end tension was teased. We’d seen this with tag teams before and surely they were going to come to blows. Instead they embraced and sat side by side in the ring.
The ending of this match was really important in the growth of NXT. Over a year later, Ciampa got frustrated after a loss in a title match and their DIY tag team imploded. If this had happened at the end of the Cruiserweight Classic, fans would not have been as invested.
Normally, when a tag team splits up, one of the team gets labelled as the Shawn Michaels and the other as the Marty Jannetty. In the case of DIY, they both became Shawn Michaels following an incredible feud over the NXT title.
Both Gargano and Ciampa have an incredible ability to invoke emotion. You can tell they really love the business. Two of the big stars of the NXT brand, they will be targeting more title reigns in the near future. In a few years time we may see a reunion of DIY, guaranteed to be a memorable moment – especially if they embraced and sat side by side in the ring once again.
We have seen Cruiserweights come and go in WWE since the Classic. There have been some amazing matches on 205 Live but it has never quite captured the success of the Cruiserweight division in WCW during the 1990’s.
The 205 Live brand is weaker following the recent releases but perhaps there is still hope for a Cruiserweight renaissance? Current champion KUSHIDA (pictured above) is one of the best wrestlers in the world and there are a number of strong challengers who fit the 205lbs and under weight limit. Perhaps we will see stars from the Cruiserweight Classic such as Cedric Alexander, Gran Metalik, or Drew Gulak back in the division. Equally, a number of new competitors such as Trey Baxter, Carmelo Hayes and Ikemen Jiro have been impressive in recent weeks.
It is also quite possible that with over 100 WWE releases in the last year, we are seeing the end of the Cruiserweight division in the WWE. There is still much to be excited about for fans of Cruiserweight wrestling with New Japan having an exciting new champion in Robbie Eagles and Josh Alexander being a stand out in Impact’s X division.