Recently, Culture Crossfire had columns regarding WWE’s top five European Champions and top five Hardcore Champions. So it’s as good a time as any to take a look at another defunct title, the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship. Like the Hardcore and Euro titles, the Light Heavyweight title had the bulk of its run during the Attitude Era. Unlike the other titles, the Light Heavyweight title didn’t even make it to 2002, which meant it never even existed under the WWE banner.
The belt actually has its roots in the Universal Wrestling Association and New Japan Pro Wrestling, where legends such as Perro Aguayo and Jushin “Thunder” Liger were the champions. The WWF had partnerships with both companies at different points in time. The Light Heavyweight Championship was created in the UWA, passed on to NJPW, and finally passed again to the WWF in late 1997.
A tournament was held to crown the inaugural WWF Light Heavyweight Champion. The tournament culminated at the In Your House: D-Generation X pay-per-view, where Taka Michinoku (more on him later) defeated Brian “Too Sexy” Christopher to become the first Light Heavyweight Champion in the WWF. With that said, let’s get to the countdown!
#5: Duane Gill/Gillberg
Why is a man who had a title reign of 453 days not ranked higher? Because I could count the number of title defenses he had on one hand. Gill was much more notable for the characters he portrayed rather than his wrestling skills. He was a member of the J.O.B. Squad as Duane Gill. After winning the title, he transitioned into the hilarious Goldberg parody, Gillberg. Unlike Golberg, Gillberg lost the vast majority of his matches, although he never had the famed 173-match losing streak as originally planned.
Of course, many of the matches were of the non-title variety, so he was able to keep the belt for awhile. Gillberg’s run as champion didn’t exactly elevate the light-heavyweight division. Still, holding a title for 15 months has to count for something, doesn’t it? Gillberg must’ve been doing something right. Either that, or management completely forgot about the light-heavyweights.
Most of the Light Heavyweight title reigns were very long or very short. Christian’s was one of the shorter ones, at just 30 days long. It was noteworthy for the way it started though. Christian started in the WWF as an ally of the vampire Gangrel. His in-ring debut happened at the Judgement Day: In Your House pay-per-view. He defeated Taka to become the first of three men to win the Light Heavyweight Championship in his first WWF match. The others were Essa Rios (technically a re-debut as he wrestled under other names previously) and Jerry Lynn.
Shortly thereafter, Christian and Gangrel recruited Edge and formed The Brood together. The Light Heavyweight Championship fell to the wayside, as Christian soon dropped the strap to the previously mentioned Duane Gill. Christian didn’t win his next singles title until nearly three years later, but he did embark upon one of the greatest tag team runs in history with his “brother” Edge in the meantime.
X-Pac was one of only two men to hold the Light Heavyweight title more than once. His reigns occurred during the Invasion era, where the WWF was up against the WCW/ECW alliance. The funny thing was, despite being on the babyface WWF team, X-Pac was booed by the fans. He didn’t let that stop him though. Not only did he win the Light Heavyweight title (over Jeff Hardy), he later won the WCW Cruiserweight Championship (over Billy Kidman), becoming a dual-champion.
X-Pac lost the Light Heavyweight title to Tajiri but won it right back at SummerSlam 2001. Being a double champion is certainly special, so why isn’t X-Pac ranked number one here? Well, it’s partly due to him inadvertently bringing about the end of the Light Heavyweight Championship.
Survivor Series 2001 was the culmination of the Invasion era. There were two unification matches, as the WWF Intercontinental and WCW U.S. titles merged as well as the WWF and WCW Tag Team titles. A Light Heavyweight/Cruiserweight unification match was supposed to take place as well. Tajiri was the Cruiserweight champ at that point and was ready to go.
Unfortunately, X-Pac was on the shelf with an injury, so the Light Heavyweight belt wasn’t represented. The Light Heavyweight Championship presumably would’ve survived the merger, as the WWF belts took precedence in the other unification matches. Instead, the WCW Cruiserweight title stayed and was rebranded under the WWF banner.
#2 Taka Michinoku
As mentioned before, Taka was the first WWF Light Heavyweight Champion. There were guys in the WWF like Shawn Michaels and the 1-2-3 Kid (X-Pac) who pulled off impressive athletic moves in the ring before. But Taka brought even more aerial moves to the table such as springboard planchas and Asai moonsaults. He wasn’t all flips and dives though, as he had the devastating Michinoku Driver as his finisher. Maybe even more importantly, Taka had one of the sweetest entrance themes in the company.
Taka continued to defend his title on PPV, beating Pantera at No Way Out in Texas. At Wrestlemania XIV, he successfully defended his championship against Aguila (Essa Rios). This was the first and only Light Heavyweight championship match at Wrestlemania. After losing the title to Christian, Taka never became a champion again in the WWF. The rest of his time in the company was spent with Kaientai, an evil Japanese stable that later morphed into a comedy tag team with Funaki.
#1 Dean Malenko
Malenko jumped from WCW to the WWF in early 2000 along with Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, and Perry Saturn. With some of the finest wrestling talent in the business, The Radicalz injected a huge dose of workrate into the WWF.
Each member of the group had some early success in the company. Benoit was an Intercontinental champion and had a couple WWF PPV title shots. Guerrero became European and I.C. champ at different points. Saturn won the Hardcore and Euro titles. Malenko’s domain was the Light Heavyweight division, where he was a two-time champion.
Malenko tended to be underrated, mostly because he wasn’t the most dynamic personality. The WWF tried to spruce up his character by giving him a 007 ladies’ man gimmick. It had its moments, from Malenko hanging out with the Godfather (and his ho’s) to his feud with Lita and the Hardyz. He also had some cool theme music. But Malenko’s forte took place inside the squared circle. He already had a rep for being a great wrestler from his WCW cruiserweight days, so the hope was that he could parlay that into boosting up the light-heavyweight division.
After a brief, 35-day run with the belt, Malenko recaptured the Light Heavyweight title and held onto it for nearly a full year (322 days). Unlike Gillberg, Malenko was a fighting champion, taking on the likes of Scotty 2 Hotty, Taka, and Crash Holly. He was a different animal in the ring, opting more for elite technical skills (including his Texas Cloverleaf submission) instead of solely relying on exciting acrobatics. Malenko has been retired for well over a decade, but you can still catch him occasionally on WWE TV in the background as a road agent.
The WWF’s light-heavyweight division certainly was not the one of the more memorable things in wrestling. It paled in comparison to the WCW Cruiserweight division that was running at the same time. To be frank, the WWE probably got more mileage out of the Cruiserweight title, especially with a big star like Rey Mysterio leading the way. But there were some hidden gems during the Light Heavyweight title’s run and it gave more wrestlers an opportunity to be featured. In this current era with three-hour RAWs and influxes of talented (but smaller) superstars, maybe it’s time to think about bringing the belt back to the WWE.
Credit to WWE.com for the images in this article