Back in the day, the world of professional wrestling was surrounded by bigger guys compared to the smaller sized, who rarely got a chance to show what they were all about. World Championship Wrestling (WCW for short) decided to give the little guys a chance, giving them their own division called the Cruiserweight Division. The division comprised of guys under […]
Back in the day, the world of professional wrestling was surrounded by bigger guys compared to the smaller sized, who rarely got a chance to show what they were all about. World Championship Wrestling (WCW for short) decided to give the little guys a chance, giving them their own division called the Cruiserweight Division. The division comprised of guys under 225lbs and it was a chance to showcase their own wrestling ability as high flyers. the division had so much success that when WWE eventually purchased WCW, the cruiserweight title transfer over.
From 2002-2007 the cruiserweights competed on SmackDown and saw a lot of success with guys like Rey Mysterio, Billy Kidman, and Tajiri being the top guys. 2007 saw the end of the division when Hornswoggle won the title and it was quietly retired.
WWE gave it another chance back in 2016 with a network special called the “Cruiserweight Classic” where WWE brought in 32 superstars from all over the world to compete for the now new Cruiserweight Championship. The numerous amount of positive reviews led to the division being born where the competed on Raw while also getting their own show called 205 Live (with the required weight drop from 225 to 205lbs). Sadly, WWE dropped the ball right out of the gate, with poor planning and lack of advertising from the division.
Now, with newly crowned champion Lio Rush, WWE changed the title name to the NXT Cruiserweight Championship where it will be mainly defended on the NXT brand. Still, during that three stint in WWE, we have seen a lot of great champions for the purple belt, while also some bad.
Excluding Rush, the cruiserweight title changed hands 13 times with 11 different superstars holding the belt. So for this list, I decided to rank all the cruiserweight champions during the WWE era from 2016 to 2019. The rankings were determined by the length and mainly, how they did as champion. With Rush’s title being under the NXT umbrella, he did not qualify for the list.
11. Akira Tozawa
- Days Recognized as Champion: 5
- Where: Raw (August 14, 2017)
- Opponent Defeated: Neville
WWE had an idea where Titus O’Neil and his “Titus Brand” (along with Apollo Crews) would manage Tozawa and I believe it had a lot of potential. O’Neil would have been a solid manager and it clicked early on. He won the Cruiserweight Championship the week before SummerSlam 2017 with a huge reaction from the crowd due to the fact he defeated Neville, who at the time, was one of the best cruiserweights in the division (more on him later).
The reign did not last long unfortunately as Towaza dropped the title in his first defense against Neville on the SummerSlam 2017 kickoff show. It was a questionable decision, as Tozawa was getting over with the crowd and there was a lot of potential with that reign. Instead, he has the shortest reign in the modern era, without ever getting pushed to the top again.
There was hope that he would join the division once the brand merged with NXT but ended up getting drafted to Raw in 2019 WWE Draft.
- Days Recognized as Champion: 12
- Where: Raw (October 9, 2017)
- Opponent Defeated: Enzo Amore
Back when the division was getting started in 2016, fans were hoping to see the masked superstar in the purple brand. Instead, we saw Kalisto in the mid-card picture for both Raw and SmackDown. WWE finally moved him to 205 Live, when he was announced as the newest signee after then-champion Enzo Amore declared that no one of the roster was allowed to challenge him for the title.
He won the title during the main event of Raw in 2017 in a Lumberjack match with the other cruiserweights surrounding the ring. The win got a huge reaction from the crowd but nothing else after. He ended up dropping the title to Amore at the 2017 edition of TLC. He has his various attempts after but looks to be out of the title picture for a while now that he is part of the Lucha House Party stable on the main roster.
9. The Brian Kendrick
- Days Recognized as Champion: 30
- Where: Hell in a Cell (October 30, 2016)
- Opponent Defeated: T.J. Perkins
The veteran in Kendrick is the oldest superstar to hold the title (37 at the time). Kendrick returned to WWE at the Cruiserweight Classic after nearly a decade away from the company. He re-joined the main roster as one of the first cruiserweights and won the title only a few months after the title debuted.
The reign was forgettable as he dropped the title to Rich Swann a month later in the debut episode of 205 Live. A transitional champion here but the veteran is still in the title picture today, moving down to NXT with the rest of the cruiserweights.
8. T.J. Perkins
- Days Recognized as Champion: 45
- Where: Cruiserweight Classic Finale (September 14, 2016)
- Opponent Defeated: Gran Metalik in the Inaugural Tournament
The Cruiserweight Classic featured the likes of Kota Ibushi, Zack Sabre Jr., The Brian Kendrick, Cedric Alexander, and Tajiri, for example, who were among the familiar faces fans have seen around the world and some of the favorites to win the entire thing. Not knocking Perkins here as he did put on an excellent performance (including the final against Gran Metalik) but he was mainly unknown to the modern wrestling fan.
For your first champion, you mainly want a recognizable face, especially when you debut a brand new division on Monday Night Raw the following month. Fans never got behind the champion and lost the title to Kendrick to little fanfare. He stuck around in the division for a few years after before getting released by the company in February 2019.
7. Enzo Amore
- Days Recognized as Champion: 107
- Where: No Mercy (September 24, 2017 – First Reign), TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs (October 22, 2017 – Second Reign)
- Opponent Defeated: Neville – First Reign, Kalisto – Second Reign
If talking just pure wrestling, Amore would be lower on the list but the bump is credit for what he able to do with no just the title but the division as a whole.
Amore and then tag partner Big Cass formed one of the more popular tag teams in WWE’s recent years and the move to separate them back in 2017 was a headscratcher. It was more of a strange move to send Amore down the purple brand. Outside of the ring, he developed a lot of backstage heat with the other superstars but he was still popular with the fans and brought a spark to the show that was missing for quite some time. The fact that he was able to main event Raw for three weeks straight was impressive. Still, in the ring, his matches were not up to par and the same antics eventually lost its touch.
His release in January 2019 ultimately had him vacant the title and bringing 205 Live back to a pure wrestling show and some impressive Cruiserweight Champions after.
6. Tony Nese
- Days Recognized as Champion: 77
- Where: WrestleMania 35 Kickoff (April 7, 2019)
- Opponent Defeated: Buddy Murphy
For the first few years, Nese was looked at as just an extra on 205 Live where he was 50/50 when it came to wins and losses. During the start of 2019, he started to win matches and eventually became the number one contender to challenge Buddy Murphy was the title.
Fans started to get behind him the more he won and the two of them put on an excellent match at the WrestleMania 35 kickoff show. His reign was solid and he did improve after each title defense but eventually lost the title to Drew Gulak during the kickoff show of Stomping Grounds.
5. Rich Swann
- Days Recognized as Champion: 60
- Where: 205 Live (November 29, 2016)
- Opponent Defeated: The Brian Kendrick
Swann won the Cruiserweight Championship on the debut episode on 205 Live. During his time in WWE, he was one of the more popular babyfaces in the company. He did not go far in the inaugural tournament, losing to Lince Dorado in the Round of 16 and never developed a run in NXT but his popularity on the purple brand got him over quickly and earned the title right away as the brand was getting started.
Three weeks later after successfully defending the title at Roadblock: End of the Line, he was attacked by a returning and repackage Neville. They had a very good feud and he ended up dropping the title to Neville at Royal Rumble 2017 in a great match (seriously, I suggest you watch it). It was a shorter reign that I wish lasted longer but at the time it made sense, with Neville’s new character really taking off. Swann could have been a mainstay in the division but a suspension and release in late 2017 due to a domestic abuse incident ended his WWE run.
Now, Swann is having a nice revival to his career, becoming a mainstay in Impact Wrestling’s X-Divison, including a 194-day reign as X-Division Champion.
4. Drew Gulak
- Days Recognized as Champion: 108
- Where: Stomping Grounds Kickoff (June 23, 2019)
- Opponent Defeated: Tony Nese
Much like Nese, Gulak during the early part of his 205 Live days was viewed as more of an extra on the brand. He did have a political gimmick where he presented powerpoints for “a better 205 Live” which was actually very entertaining but was never viewed as a legit top guy for the company.
Once guys like Ali, Buddy Murphy, and Cedric Alexander moved on the main roster, Gulak stepped up big time. Moving away from the powerpoints, he changed up to a tough guy that was a submission specialist, similar to his days on the independent circuit. He won the title at the Stomping Ground kickoff and continued to put on excellent matches, despite the popularity of 205 Live was starting to go down.
He dropped the title to current champion Lio Rush and is now the last ever cruiserweight champion under the WWE umbrella. It would have been nice to see him move down to NXT to continue to work with the cruiserweights but was drafted to SmackDown during the 2019 WWE Draft. Now, his only main roster “highlights” was him getting jobbed out to Braun Strowman in seconds.
3. Buddy Murphy
- Days Recognized as Champion: 183
- Where: Super Show-Down (October 6, 2018)
- Opponent Defeated: Cedric Alexander
Long were the days of Murphy teaming up with Wesley Blake in the NXT tag division where the team disbanded in late 2017. The “Best Kept Secret” made his way to 205 Live and immediately made a huge impact. He quickly moved up the ranks, having excellent matches with everyone on the roster.
He continued his momentum towards the end of 2018 with a great feud with Cedric Alexander, ultimately capturing the title at Super Show-Down. The Australian crowd gave Murphy a nice cheer when he pinned Alexander for three in one of the best moments in WWE during that time.
Once he won the title, his momentum only kept going up, putting on many great title defense matches before dropping the title to Tony Nese during the kickoff show of WrestleMania 35. Now, Murphy is on the main roster and has 205 Live to thank for helping him get there.
2. Cedric Alexander
- Days Recognized as Champion: 180
- Where: WrestleMania 34 Kickoff (April 8, 2018)
- Opponent Defeated: Mustafa Ali in a Tournament for the Vacant Title
Alexander put on a great showing at the Cruiserweight Classic and instantly became a fan favorite, helping him sign a deal with WWE. During the first few years, he never had a legit shot for the title, rather putting him in lower level feuds. He was originally supposed to face Enzo Amore for the title at Royal Rumble 2018 but the sudden release stated earlier had WWE start from scratch.
It was a blessing in disguise as the lost opportunity worked in his favor as he won the vacant title during the kickoff show of WrestleMania 34 against Mustafa Ali. He put on great matches and climbed up the tournament to earn the title and received a great reaction for fighting his way to the top.
Alexander continued to put on excellent title matches thereafter and even in his loss against Buddy Murphy was a great performance. And much like Murphy, Alexander can thank 205 Live for being to showcase his skills now that he is a full-time member of the main roster.
- Days Recognized as Champion: 231
- Where: Royal Rumble (January 29, 2017 – First Reign), SummerSlam Kickoff (August 20, 2017) – Second Reign)
- Opponent Defeated: Rich Swann – First Reign, Akira Tozawa – Second Reign
The King of the Cruiserweights, who else would top this list?
Neville (formally Adrian Neville) had an excellent run down at NXT and looked to make a huge splash in WWE after his post WrestleMania 31 call-up but ended up in the mid-to-lower card on the main roster. After a long absence, he returned to WWE (this time as a heel and on 205 Live) and attacked Rich Swann after his title match at Roadblock: End of the Line.
Only a month after his debut, he defeated Swann at Royal Rumble 2017 and took down every challenger one by one, showing us all why he was the self-proclaimed King of the Cruiserweights. He made the brand matter and every week people tuned in to see what he would do next. He was unstoppable but a questionable decision for him to drop the title to Enzo Amore stopped all momentum for 205 Live but Neville’s WWE run. He requested his release and is now back as PAC where he is putting on excellent matches at All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
Despite the end, we should not forget his run as Cruiserweight Champion. Looking back at his matches, it only questions how WWE managed to misuse the Man that Gravity Forgot.