The announcement of the Cruiserweight Classic in March brought a lot of curiosity and interest from wrestling fans around the world, but once the full field of 32 competitors was locked in, the bar of expectation was raised to a near unrealistic level. One big question loomed over everything: Which of these elite-level talents would ultimately be crowned the first CWC winner?
After 10 weeks of matches that, at times, far exceeded those lofty expectations, Wednesday night's two-hour finale capped the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic with three matches to be remembered. After dispatching his third consecutive heavy fan favorite in Kota Ibushi in the semifinals, T.J. Perkins completed his run to victory by defeating Gran Metalik.
"This is probably the best representation, I think, of our division, that we've ever had," said Perkins of the Cruiserweight Classic. "I grew up watching Super J Cups and other tournaments like that -- they had a mystique about them, but they were few and far between. I was so thrilled with how everything that came about, and then to be a part of it, it's insane."
Perkins, who recently turned 32, is a California native who represented the Philippines in the CWC. During the course of the 10-week tournament, Perkins defeated Da Mack, Johnny Gargano and Rich Swann to earn his spot in the semifinals.
In addition to the custom-made CWC trophy, Perkins was also crowned with the WWE cruiserweight championship, with Triple H walking out to the ring just prior to the CWC finals to reveal the brand new title.
"From the moment the bell rang at the end, all I could think about was everything I went through to get here," Perkins said. "Collecting coins in the parking lot when I was homeless, being evicted and all these different things. I think it was at that moment, with Triple H and Mr. Regal [raising my hand] that I started thinking about all my heroes, and when they got their moments."
Perkins will compete with Metalik, as well as a number of other CWC competitors including Gargano, Swann, Tommaso Ciampa, Cedric Alexander and Brian Kendrick in Raw's cruiserweight division starting Monday, Sept. 19.
Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr., the fourth semifinalist, both appear destined to continue their wrestling careers elsewhere for the time being, however. Although, Sabre Jr. has indicated a certain level of interest in joining WWE and NXT in particular in the future.
As the curtain drops on this groundbreaking tournament, let's take a look back at three matches that wrapped up the action Wednesday night.
Semifinal: Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Gran Metalik
The opening match of the semifinals started off with a bang, as Gran Metalik hit a running dropkick that sent Zack Sabre Jr. out of the ring. He followed it up with a tope con hilo and, after tossing Sabre Jr. back into the ring, finished it off with a springboard senton to get an early two-count.
Because of this introduction, and Metalik's in-ring style, there was an immediate intensity, pace and sense of the stakes to this match. Each competitor looked to impose their in-ring style, and when Sabre Jr. took control, he brought the pace way down and wrestled his kind of match up close and tight, with submissions and strikes. Metalik picked the pace back up as he hit some more of his signature offense, and he benefited whenever there was separation, as highlighted in the moment by Daniel Bryan on commentary.
Sabre Jr. showed off his incredible repertoire of submissions, even more so than in his previous three matches, but Metalik pulled out quite a few of his own to build a nice balance in the match. The match wasn't simply about death-defying top-rope moves from Metalik, or gruesome-looking submissions from Sabre Jr., though. There were brutal kicks, violent open-handed chops and European uppercuts, not to mention two different sequences of exchanging strikes while both were on their knees.
A springboard head scissors from Metalik as Sabre Jr. straddled the top rope proved to be the spot of the match. The momentum shifted back and forth several times in the late stages, and at two different points it looked as though Sabre Jr. had submissions locked in with Metalik nearly finished. One of Sabre's Jr.'s numerous variations of the Octopus stretch ended only as Metalik dove for the ropes, and a triangle with an additional arm submission had to be rolled over into a pinfall attempt.
The match ended suddenly and dramatically, as Metalik caught Sabre Jr. as he ran for a yet another European uppercut and quickly struck with his patented Metalik driver to swiftly secure his spot in the final. His run ended in this tournament, and with WWE-related programming for the time being, but with the shows he put on during his four-match stretch in the CWC, it would be a shame if we don't get to see a full-time run in NXT or the WWE in some fashion from Zack Sabre Jr. in the near-future.
Semifinal: Kota Ibushi vs. T.J. Perkins
There was a decidedly slower pace to start the second semifinal match, with Perkins grabbing the ropes several times as he sought relief from Ibushi's attacks. Each time Ibushi was backed off, he fired off a kick that Perkins responded to by lifting his own leg and checking the blow. Perkins got in a fair bit of offense early on, but the vast majority of it came as a counter-measure as Perkins used Ibushi's own momentum and offense against him, targeting the neck early on.
After failing the first time he tried it, Ibushi hit his "Golden Triangle" springboard moonsault to the outside and added a seemingly countless series of dropkicks for good measure. Perkins got his leg up to kick a charging Ibushi in the corner, triggered the first major sequence of the match. Perkins charged back and got a powerslam for his troubles; Ibushi quickly did a front roll and hopped up onto the second rope for a moonsault, but Perkins got his knees up and immediately slapped on a kneebar. Ibushi broke things up by scrambling to the ropes.
Unlike the pace of the first match, which was a hot and cold style that worked for Sabre Jr. and Gran Metalik, this match was all about building momentum toward a finish that would pay off for all of the patience that fans had to invest over the course of nearly 20 minutes. Things took a definitive step towards raising the level of energy as Ibushi's "Golden star" powerbomb was reversed into a DDT by Perkins, followed immediately by a chicken-wing gutbuster that got a two-and-three-quarters count for Perkins.
A second kneebar attempt by Perkins saw Ibushi roll it over into a cover, and with that Ibushi made his push for victory. They went punch-for-punch and kick-for-kick, and after gaining a slight edge, Ibushi swiftly picked up and planted Perkins with the same "Golden Star" powerbomb that had ended the tournament runs of Sean Maluta, Alexander and Kendrick. 1... 2... No!
The crowd and Ibushi alike stood stunned at Perkins kicked out in a spot in which nobody had previously survived. Ibushi climbed once more to the top rope, but missed a phoenix splash with Perkins crawling over for a near-fall. Perkins nearly locked in the kneebar for a third time, with Ibushi countering a roll-through attempt into a crazy looking wheelbarrow sitdown. A sharp kick to Perkins' head and a final attempt at hitting another "Golden Star" powerbomb led to a successful roll-through and a kneebar, with an added twist. Perkins reached forward and wrenched Ibushi's neck back with the knee already barred up, eventually forcing a submission.
"I was a really big fan of Kota Ibushi prior to this [tournament]," said Perkins. "I traveled a little bit with him, and I'm even more of a fan after the fact. He's every bit as elite and world-class as he's perceived to be -- especially after getting in there with him. It's like when you see two boxers getting into the ring for the first time and they wonder what it's like to exchange with that other guy when there's this mystique about him. When I got in there, I saw why he's [considered to be] world class."
Ibushi's first big foray into the United States, after sporadic appearances in the previous decade, led to a number of classic matches in his journey to the semifinals. As Ibushi continues to insist on remaining a free agent for the foreseeable future, all that can be hoped for is that he eventually commits to a company like WWE or even New Japan Pro Wrestling down the line -- providing the proper stage for a talent that's as gifted as Ibushi.
Final: T.J. Perkins vs. Gran Metalik
The energy and noise generated by the crowd at Full Sail University was palpable as Perkins and Gran Metalik made their entrances -- and the addition of Triple H to that equation only served to further raise the fervor of the fans.
Metalik wrestled a much different kind of match this time out, and Perkins is to thank for that. As noted on commentary, Perkins' background and initial training were in lucha libre, and the finals match certainly reflected the strength of both competitors in that discipline of wrestling.
"Stylistically, that was kind of a dream final match for me," said Perkins. "It sort of added to the backstory, for people who followed the narrative closely, that Gran Metalik was a student at CMLL when I was there as a teenager and in main events and big time matches. I used to see him in the gym all the time as he was coming up. We also shared locker rooms in Japan as he was becoming a superstar at that time. I've seen him get up to this point, and [kept track of me] as he's caught up to me"
Gran Metalik once again put his submission skills on display, with an early reverse pendulum lock, then a Muta lock to wear an already-fatigued Perkins down further.
As Perkins tried to climb up the apron, Gran Metalik hit a dropkick to the knee to send him flying to the outside, directly into a full blown sprint and a tope suicida that connected with Perkins' chin. Metalik continued to utilize his tightrope walk along the top rope as well, hitting Perkins with a springboard senton to further beat him down.
Metalik showed why his highest spots had captivated fans throughout the tournament, and should continue to do so going forward on Raw. He hurtled the top rope to hit a frankensteiner to Perkins, who once again was standing on the apron, and was deposited both men on the outside.
Perkins finally started to control Metalik for the first time and slipped on a kneebar, but Metalik crawled to the ropes to save himself. Both men brutalized each other with strikes, and Perkins got the worst of it with open-handed slaps to the chest that left deep red welts that were apparent even after the match ended. Perkins tried to set Metalik up for the kneebar again with his firemans carry drop into a kick, but it was reversed into a DDT by Metalik for a two-count.
A second kneebar by Perkins saw Metalik reaching for the ropes again, and Perkins attempted to finish off the match by pulling his opponent back into the middle of the ring. He failed to lock it in by crossing the leg over, however, and Metalik rolled it over for a two-count.
This effort by Perkins took its toll, as Metalik clutched at his knee. When presented the opportunity for a victory of his own, Gran Metalik hit a less-than-perfect Metalik driver due to his injury for only a two-count after a weak cover. After going back and forth with some acrobatic lucha libre exchanges, including a springboard dropkick by Perkins to Metalik on the apron, the match turned once more as Metalik positioned Perkins for an avalanche Metalik driver on the top rope.
His hampered knee came back to haunt him one too many times, however, and this story reached its end as Perkins countered directly into a third kneebar. This time he crossed his leg over to lock in the submission hold and maximize his leverage -- ultimately clinching victory and the tournament title.
In reflecting upon his victory and journey in this tournament, Perkins pointed out the potential effects an event of this scope and magnitude might have that go well beyond the advent of a Raw cruiserweight division.
"So much of what I do has been based off of my heroes and guys I've watched come up," said Perkins. "Most of them started out as cruiserweights. That's what kind of inspired me to do this. It's [crazy to think] that there's probably some kid out there that's going to come to the Performance Center one day, or enroll in some wrestling training and get started on the regional level who's going to look at this tournament and say 'that's why I wanted to do it.' That's really incredibly humbling, to be honest."