Shane Helms - The Evolution of WCW's Cruiserweights in 2001
If you’ve followed me or any of #HardwayHQ over the past few years, you’d know of my extreme fandom for the final few months of World Championship Wrestling. From when Ric Flair became “CEO” in early November 2000, WCW was rebuilding the deck and slowly starting to rebuild from the tough years before it, due to terrible booking, outlandish contracts, and a mass exodus of talent.
When the press conference happened on January 11, 2001 with Fusient Media Ventures, led by Brian Bedol and Stephen Greenberg, founders of the Classic Sports Network, announced their intent to purchase WCW with Eric Bischoff returning to be President, it seemed that the former Time Warner property had a new lease on life. With innovative visionaries handling the business side and “Easy E” focusing on wrestling, it seemed that a real “reboot” of the company was under way.
Those three months really got back to basics for WCW. Instead of long winded, outside-of-the-box stories, a lot more focus was put back into simple storytelling, where more emphasis was placed on the in-ring aspect. More importantly, the seeds were planted in late 2000 of a real re-focus onto the division that made WCW stand out in the 1990s: the Cruiserweight division.
WCW’s branding of Cruiserweight wrestling absolutely revolutionized mainstream wrestling. Wrestlers from Rey Mysterio, Juventeud Guerrera, Dean Malenko, and Eddie Guerrero to Blitzkrieg, Chris Jericho, Kidman, and Psychosis transcended Monday nights and showcased a work rate style that had not been seen anywhere else. The Cruiserweight division was breathtaking and innovative with high-flying offense. Sadly, as the division went deeper into 1999, it slowly began to get out of line, especially when Oklahoma became champion at Souled Out 2000. (EDITOR’S NOTE: I might be the only man that loved Oklahoma the character on WCW television.) Throughout 2000, the division was an after-thought, left for slim pickings.
Thankfully, the Cruiserweights had begun to get noticed once again by the fall of 2000. With head matchmaker Johnny Ace, better known now as John Laurinaitis, utilizing more of a wrestling mindset instead of the “Crash TV” format Vince Russo used for the past 12 months, put the emphasis on WRESTLING and really instituted a throwback of Jim Crockett Promotions with a new edge. And the Cruiserweights, thankfully, began to get serious airtime on TNT and TBS.
Almost immediately, Chavo Guerrero, Jr became champion by beating “Above Average” Mike Sanders on the December 4, 2000 edition of Thunder, mere days after leaving the Misfits in Action and leaving behind his “Lt. Loco” persona. The division then picked things up a notch when at Starrcade 2000, when the Jung Dragons, 3 Count, and Karagias & Noble, six guys who were stealing the show in fast-paced matches in the undercard throughout 2000, faced off in a #1 Contender’s Ladder match. This match was where one man, in particular, stood out and began his rise to the top of the Cruiserweight division.
That man was “Sugar” Shane Helms.
Shane Helms came from the North Carolina independent circuit. Best known for being a part of OMEGA with the Hardy Boyz, Shannon Moore, Cham Pain, and Joey Abs of the Mean Street Posse, “Sugar” Shane made his WCW debut as a part of 3 Count in 1999 and slowly worked his way up the card. A former tri-Hardcore champion with Evan Karagias and Moore, Helms’ undeniable talent and charisma started to shine through. Repeated matches with Moore, Karagias, Yang, Kaz Hayashi, and Jamie Noble led to crowd reactions and fan anticipating to see this rebirth of light heavyweight wrestling in WCW.
Almost immediately, with the Fusient/Bischoff influence, Helms went on a meteoric rise throughout the division. After stealing the show with Chavo in the opener of Sin in January 2001, “Sugar” Shane worked his way back through, winning a six-way Four Corners match at Superbrawl Revenge in February, and then upending the champion Guerrero in a barnburner at the final WCW pay-per-view Greed on March 18, 2001.
From the ladder match in December 2000 to Greed in March 2001, Helms really evolved as a performer. Toning down a little more of the high-flying and infusing a bit more of a ground game, “Sugar” Shane became the “Sensation of Innovation”, which was a play on the late, great Chris Kanyon’s “Innovator of Offense” moniker that was based off creative wrestling maneuvers he would innovate and create during matches. The nickname seemed to fit and definitely showcased a maturity in Helms as a talent. The sky was the limit.
The question that always remained with people was simple: what made Helms different from the rest? If “Sugar” Shane became “the Sensation of Innovation”, what allowed this to happen to the North Carolina native? Well, in the Professional 3, I will allow myself to illustrate the point with THREE main parts (Gee, what else is new?).
Without further hesitation…
HIS ENTRANCE: During the final days of WCW, it became very evident that Fusient wanted to performers stand out a bit more for their ring entrances. Shawn Stasiak had that with his “Mecca of Manhood” spiel. Kanyon completed changed his entrance to a rise from the stage. But no one, in my opinion, had quite the entrance such as “Sugar” Shane Helms.
Once you heard “VERTABREAKER” blare from the PA, the lights went down and out came Helms and his “Sugar Babies”. The four backup dancers and Helms did a little routine with a green spotlight on them and Helms went to the ring. Definitely a play on his 3 Count start, this automatically gave “Sugar” Shane an edge en route to the ring and definitely had him stand out among the other Cruiserweights as a star.
And, by the way, here is his theme song from WCW in the final days: the self-rapped Vertabreaker, produced by Jimmy Hart.
CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: With Helms moving away from the heavy-on-comedy 3 Count from 2000 and focusing more on the in-ring perspective, you got to see a different side of “Sugar” Shane. Obviously, the man was talented, as seen in the series of matches with the five men mentioned earlier, but to turn it up a notch and be taken seriously as an in-ring competitor, you have to grow. Ultimately, Helms switched off into trunks and left the dancing mainly for his entrance. Focusing more in-ring, he allowed himself to learn from his loss to Chavo Guerrero at Sin and grow from it. The loss made him better. And when Helms won his first Cruiserweight champion at the last WCW pay-per-view Greed, you felt that he earned it. He had vindication. Those little quirks are what help grow and evolve a character. That is what made “Sugar” Shane into a next level competitor.
THE VERTABREAKER: No, I’m not talking about the theme song this time.
Photo Credit: ShaneHelms.com
As I discussed earlier, Helms modified his move set to the top of the Cruiserweight division. He started using different versions of the neck breaker. Helms mastered his super kick and allowed WCW commentator Scott Hudson (another underrated part of WCW near the end) to dub it the “Sugar Smack”. You might know of the reverse DDT into an elbow drop cutter as the “Eye of the Hurricane”, but WCW fans know it better as the “Nightmare of Helms Street”. These were all moves that would soften up the neck for my all-time favorite finishing move, the Vertabreaker.
What is the Vertabreaker you ask? According to Wikipedia, a Vertabreaker, also known as a back-to-back double underhook piledriver, is executed from a position in which the opponent is standing behind the wrestler, the wrestler underhooks his/her arms under the opponent's arms. Then the wrestler twists his / her body around so that the wrestler is facing the ground and the opponent is standing with his / her back resting against the wrestler's back. Then the wrestler stands while the opponent is in an upside down position while both the opponent and the wrestler's arms are still hooked. The wrestler then drops to a sitting position. Another way to get the opponent into the position is to approach a standing opponent from behind, hook the opponent's arms, bend forward under the opponent, and then rise up, raising the opponent upside down.
The move, created by Joshi wrestling legend Megumi Kudo, is incredibly dangerous and risky to do and take. Although Homicide later used it throughout his career as “Da Cop Killa”, “Sugar” Shane brought it to the US and made it stand out. This one move helped personify the evolution of Cruiserweight wrestling in WCW. “Sugar” Shane was high-risk, and there was no stopping him once he got rolling. The Vertabreaker was icing on the cake from him. That made him unstoppable.
I will always state that if Fusient ultimately purchased the company in 2001, WCW would have eventually become #1 again. Forget the revisionist history; I know full well the company was on the rise with ideas and development, just from the final months. The Cruiserweight division would have been the forefront to the style TNA would use with the X-Division and ROH would implore from its talent a year later in 2002. Combined with the layering of depth and talent the Fusient side was starting to implement, WCW would have given the WWF a run for their money. However, what happened with World Championship Wrestling happened and WCW’s assets were purchased by the WWF in March 2001.
Regardless, “Sugar” Shane Helms was the last Cruiserweight champion under an AOL Time Warner owned WCW. He went to the WWF, where in his first match, with a NEW first name in GREGORY Helms, he lost the title to Billy Kidman, which, in thanks to my inner geekdom and hardcore wrestling knowledge, became the only man to hold both the WCW Cruiserweight singles and Tag Team championships at the same time. So distraught over the loss, Helms became deranged and supposedly started believing he was a superhero or something. I’m not entirely sure on whatever happened to that guy.
When I look back all these years later on “Sugar” Shane’s rise to the top of a rebuilt Cruiserweight division, I can only wonder what could have been. Helms was great. I wish he had more of a shot. I will always say that the Cruiserweights were well on its way to saving the company at the end. They just ran out of time.