Why ‘205 Live’ Is WWE's Most Underrated Show

The network's cruiserweight program punches above its weight. Here's why WWE should invest in it.

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It’s impossible to speculate what exactly WWE’s recent ratings crisis means for the brand’s long-term plans, but fan discontent seems to be at an all-time high despite the company raking in massive profits. The contrast between what actual audiences want and what WWE delivers on its weekly shows is stark. Considering the massive amount of content the billion-dollar corporation produces, it’s striking that the flagship TV shows have become the most disappointing. Although it’s hardly as popular as RAW or Smackdown!, the WWE network-exclusive show 205 Live is precisely what many fight fans would actually want from a wrestling show.

205 Live debuted on the network in November of 2016, shortly after the success of the Cruiserweight Classic, a multi-week tournament featuring the most esteemed lighter-weight competitors on the planet. The enthusiasm for the project seemed a fresh start for WWE, who has been drawing heat from fans in recent years. The fast-paced and acrobatic matches on 205 immediately contrasted sharply with the deliberately plodding bouts on regular WWE shows. 

But with a small roster and limited storyline possibilities, the excitement for 205 waned somewhat quickly. The cruiserweight belt seemed to be instantly relegated to PPV pre-shows, and none of its stars seemed even close to breaking out. It didn’t help that writers baked in a patently sexist storyline essentially reducing wrestler Alicia Fox to a prop for a while. It then got worse: Shortly before he was terminated, Enzo Amore had a bizarre title reign and even claimed some baffling victories over far more beloved and superior superstars like the prodigious Tyler Bate. The choice to tack on the filming of 205 before or after live events meant that hyping up the crowd during the cruiserweight matches became nearly impossible.

It quickly became somewhat of an in-joke amongst wrestling fans that being put on 205 Live was basically a form of career death: fans didn’t care, WWE CEO Vince McMahon didn’t care—but the wrestlers always did. 205 has more recently managed to recover from some of its less sensible booking decisions and is now easily one of the best and most consistent programs on the entire WWE Network. 

Because WWE does not release numbers for its streaming content, it’s impossible to tell how well the show is doing in reality, but the quality of what’s actually depicted remains outstanding. Just this month, a recently re-debuting Chad Gable fought UK wrestling icon Jack Gallagher—their bloody and ferocious fight brought a dead crowd to their feet. Shortly after that, an incredibly fast-paced fatal four-way showed off the dynamic movesets of all the athletes and prompted zealous chants from the live audience. Then, at the Stomping Grounds PPV on June 23, it was a pre-show three-way match between Akira Tozawa, Drew Gulak, and Tony Nese that by far surpassed the quality of every other bout on the card—but probably received the least attention outside of critic circles. The international talent of the 205 roster is arguably the most skilled and entertaining of all the superstars but none of them are positioned prominently in WWE’s marketing or branding whatsoever. Why?

Debates about the internal politics of WWE and conspiracy theories around internal warring factions aside, I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason 205 never can get its feet off the ground despite the obvious excellence of the show has to do with the bizarre body standards of pro-wrestling as an industry. It would be easy enough to excuse 205’s lack of breakout success as a mere stylistic preference: not everyone likes backflips and somersaults. But McMahon’s purported disinterest in the show seems to cohere with his reported obsession with bigger men.

Part of the reason wrestling works as an art-form has to do with the spectacle of seeing these oversized individuals thrash each other about and plenty of storylines still use size as the main selling point. Entire narrative arcs play on the difference in scale between athletes, as displayed by the ongoing friendly rivalry between Braun Strowman and Finn Balor or Daniel Bryan’s entire career—an underdog story can easily be written if someone is notably smaller than their nemesis.

It’s not exactly a nuanced observation to say that the big names throughout wrestling have been larger guys. But the pressure to be a giant hasn’t exactly gone away in the new millennium, even as an expanded awareness about body positivity is just beginning to breach into the mainstream. The discussion around the policing of bodies has largely been facilitated by women questioning society’s rigid beauty standards and the fashion industry’s unhealthy obsession with skinniness, but the extent the dialogue can be carried over to wrestling is perhaps under-discussed.

We spoke with several pro wrestlers who said that the immense pressure to fit a specific beauty standard for both men and women in the industry is absolutely related to the ways that those who can achieve the desired gladiator look are given preferential treatment despite a sometimes obvious lack of skill. The rigidity around this aesthetic works both ways, with smaller and larger athletes feeling immense pressure to conform to a specific aesthetic: impossibly tall, incredibly (and sometimes artificially) hyper-muscular, ultra-lean, darkly tanned and ludicrously statuesque.

“I feel like there’s still the cookie cutter look going around still,” says Jack Prater, a pro-wrestler based out of St. Louis, Missouri. “I do feel that there is a way of thinking that you have to be cut from stone to make it anywhere.”

“Hulking-type folks who may not be technically or even character-wise as good are given opportunities just because they are big,” agreed Leo London, a Canadian pro-wrestler. “I feel there's definitely a glass ceiling in place [for anyone not of a certain size]... I‘ve always had body and image issues and being a wrestler has worsened it.”

If that’s the case, then perhaps the lack of enthusiasm for 205 has little to do with the show itself or the internal politics around it and more to do with industry stalwarts’ conscious and unconscious biases against smaller athletes—who, in their view, can’t ever be megastars simply because of their size.

Read More: What Does Creative Control Look Like in Pro Wrestling?

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