There’s an argument to be made that Neville is the best athlete in all of professional wrestling. That’s no doubt why he was signed to NXT, where he thrived and eventually won the NXT championship. Once he made it to the main roster, things got a bit trickier.
The best case scenario for Neville on Raw was probably being a lower-midcard guy. I would safely say for the first year of his Raw stint he was just exactly that. Then the injury bug nailed him right before WrestleMania last year. Fast forward four months and he is back to a roster that now includes cruiserweights.
Now the cruiserweights were on Raw. Neville was on Raw. It only makes perfect sense that Neville join the cruiserweight division. But in WWE’s infinite wisdom, Neville was kept off the purple brand and accomplished absolutely nothing for four months. Most of the time, he wasn’t even making an appearance on a 3 HOUR Raw program, let alone winning a match.
During the Neville-less four months the cruiserweights really struggled. The CWC is one of the greatest things the WWE has ever done (there is no exaggeration in that statement either). So there was mega-hype going into the start of this new division. Unfortunately there were quite a few things working against it. Mainly their time constraints.
The CWC matches were given ample time to do their thing. Five minute Raw matches give you next to nothing to work with. For the casual fans, these guys must look like a Breezango vs. the Shining Stars type of match, with a possibly cool top rope finishing move used in the process. That was their biggest obstacle to overcome.
Secondly was the roster. They had their champion: TJP (hold that thought). His main competitor was Brian Kendrick, who older casual fans may remember from 2008 or earlier. However this was a brand new Kendrick to them. He had a spectacular character arc in the CWC, but he had a rushed heel turn on Raw, and was still working out the kinks of this new disgruntled “win at all costs” gimmick. These two faced each other, and only each other, for what seemed like 16 months. It got really boring really quick.
The only other guys regularly featured during that time were Jack Gallagher, Rich Swann, Drew Gulak, Cedric Alexander, and Tony Nese. Swann and Gallagher both have a natural charisma about them, and seemed to win over a bit of the “universe” in the process. Alexander was put into a love angle with the completely irrelevant Alicia Fox. Nese and Gulak have zero charisma despite being good wrestlers. Isn’t that the knock on most cruiserweights? Things weren’t looking good.
The cruisers everyone wanted to see were Kota Ibushi, the star of the tournament, and Zack Sabre Jr., possibly the most famous indy wrestler today. Both turned down WWE contracts. Big time ouch! Akira Tozawa and Gran Metalik (who was the runner-up in the CWC) both were signed to WWE, but weren’t on TV anywhere (neither would show up until late 2016).
So with the exception of Kendrick and TJP, none of the gentlemen had really any national TV time prior to this new division being formed. Which is probably why they feuded exclusively with each other. But like I said earlier, these two’s rivalry got really stale quickly. And a big reason for that was TJP.
Perkins winning the CWC was a shock to everyone, including TJP himself. I’ve written about it in the past, but the only reason he won it was because Ibushi or Sabre didn’t sign. That being said, Perkins more than held up his end of the bargain in the tournament, and his final two matches were among the best of the bunch. The crowd was stoked, and TJP looked like a sure thing going forward. Except he wasn’t. Like I said, the guy had a lot working against him, but the more we got to see TJP, the more we realized, wow this guy is kind of a douche.
Now I’m sure T.J. Perkins is a really nice guy, but he certainly doesn’t come off as likable on TV. Although I like his theme song in a vaccuum, it doesn’t fit a wrestling character at all. He wears stupid glasses, and he dabs. When he talks, he comes off as an uncomfortable nerd. These qualities don’t scream “top babyface” at least in my eyes.
After a few weeks the belt was flipped to Kendrick, only to be switched again to “outlandish” Rich Swann, who was probably the most over guy at that point in the cruiserweight division. 205 Live debuted around this time, and while it was much more beneficial than the shitty Raw segments, it was missing a knight in shining armor. Dare I say, a king!
After successfully defending the title against Kalisto (another guy getting the shaft) at Survivor Series, Neville came out seemingly to congratulate Swann. Only then to beat the holy hell out of him. There was visible excitement in the crowd (at least a portion of it anyway). This seemed like a changing of the guard, and it was, but it was only the tip of the iceberg.
Neville starting claiming to be the “king of the cruiserweights.” Now if any other guy was saying it, it would have little to no meaning. However when Neville says it, you can see anger in his eyes. He spews venom at anyone who dare stands in his way. Then he kicks their ass. It’s a beautiful thing.
I said earlier that Neville is arguably the best athlete in the world of pro wrestling. What I did not say was that he was a great talker or even a “character” in any sense of the word. When I see Neville now, I see a complete professional wrestler. I see no holes in his game. I believe everything that comes out of his mouth. I don’t know if he’s always had this skill deep inside of him, or if all that pent up anger from being yanked around is being channeled into this phenomenal character. Whatever it is, it’s working.
And it’s not just the promos that revitalized him. He’s upped the aggression. He wears all blacks and greys (aside from WrestleMania). His Red Arrow finisher, which is one of the best high flying moves today, he doesn’t even use except for when it’s absolutely necessary. He’ll even go to the top to tease it, but then hop down and use the Rings of Saturn instead. That’s freaking genius! More guys need to change up their shtick like this when they turn heel. It really works.
So Neville got his title shot at the Royal Rumble and naturally won. He hasn’t been pinned since that November heel turn, and shows no signs of slowing down. Austin Aries (who was recovering from an injury) started doing commentary on 205 Live, and the hints were slowing being dropped that a showdown between the two was inevitable. I was all for it, and even made it one of my “fantasy matches” for my WrestleMania card that I wrote about a while back.
I won’t brag him up too much since I’ve already gushed about him before, but Aries has been probably just as vital to the cruiserweight division as Neville. Neville probably would have held it down for a while (no small feat considering where he had to start), but he needed another well-rounded character to feud with that felt “on his level.” Aries is unquestionably that guy. As they say, “it takes two to tango.”
I was stoked for their WrestleMania match, and I have no qualms about saying it was my favorite match of the night. Their rematch ended in D/Q? Sweet! I’m all for the rubber match. The cruiserweights which became an afterthought almost immediately after debuting, now are easily one of my favorite things on the Roman Reigns show- oops, I mean Monday Night Raw.
Smackdown has been slipping lately, but that’s okay because I’m really enjoying 205 Live. My boy Tozawa has finally debuted and been a success. Gran Metalik debuted and well, it wasn’t quite a success, but he’ll figure it out. Kendrick has been established now and fans know what to expect. Lince Dorado isn’t featured all that much, but usually puts on quite the performance when he does. And although Ariya Daivari got stuck with the racist gimmick, Mustafa Ali didn’t, and isn’t even his tag team partner! In fact, Ali is slowly becoming a cult favorite it seems. He also had a kickass match with Neville a while back, which is starting to be par for the course for Neville. But by now, you already knew that. My point here is that if you’re still a 205 hater, please reconsider. It’s really picking up steam, and by my count has had two different matches that will probably make my match of the year list.
I don’t know if all this would be possible without Neville. Yes the roster getting bigger and more acclimated was probably inevitable, but you need “the guy.” Neville is so fresh, and quite frankly it’s almost shocking how good his character is. The best surprises are the ones that you truly don’t see coming. And Neville as a top flight heel is one I never saw coming.
Logically it seems he would eventually drop the title to Aries. He would be a worthy successor indeed. Whether that be soon, or not for six months, it doesn’t matter at this point. He’s rebuilt the division and himself. He’s truly on the Neville level.
By Victor Parenza