The illusion of a prestigious championship is caring about a title change. It’s feeling sadness when a face loses their title. It’s becoming angry with despair when a heel wins. It’s the grandeur of a superstar standing above the rest. A great champion makes fans care enough to tune in for them. They sell merchandise, and replica belts are worn to emulate heroes. Fans look back on the titles with happy nostalgia, as they remember the superstars who held the championships high with pride.
Today I’m looking at the status of all of WWE’s current titles. How has management treated some of the old favorites since introducing the new? Which talents have helped or inadvertently harmed how we perceive them? Will WWE introduce more avenues for success? Or would it not make sense to cut back so title matches are more special? Many questions to answer, so let’s begin with WWE’s World title equivalents.
You know where I’m going with this? Yes, its part-time status has severely affected how we care for it. And it’s not simply about hating Brock Lesnar (for his contract), as much as it is WWE allowing Monday Night Raw’s biggest prize to be featured so infrequently. Looking at it from another perspective, would fans be upset if The Undertaker only defended it twice a year? They sure would. A brands champion’s weekly appearances is expected, and to not give the title the exposure it needs could be seen as robbing paying consumers and full-time talent. The title is only defended on PPV, often taking up the main event slot as a special attraction. WWE has booked the Universal Championship as the #1 of any brand in recent times.
You might have wondered how part-time it’s become since Finn Bálor was crowned the inaugural at SummerSlam 2016? As of this writing, active for 804 days. Add Brock Lesnar’s reigns and the two times it was vacated, you get 523 days. This means 65% of its existence has been spent on a part-timer or vacated (not including Goldberg’s time). Let that sink in. How can WWE expect the WWE Universe to get invested in its still relatively young title when it’s not around? Do they have a specific reason? And why does it take precedence over the most valued title in the business? Whatever happened to it being a representation of the WWE Universe?
Remember last year when Brock Lesnar defeated AJ Styles in champion vs. champion? We should expect the same result this year. I’ve not even gone into how the title’s booked. I’m sure you’re aware of the extremely short, “Big Daddy vs. Giant Haystacks” style matches we’ve been seeing. So much time and effort has gone into promoting these huge encounters, yet when it comes down to the nitty-gritty there’s little to be desired.
I could probably harp on and dissect every title match, but that’s another day altogether. The most dominant Universal Champions have been Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, on a show which features many young, athletic, and charismatic full-timers putting their bodies on the line all year. Who’s more deserving of the accolade? This is the seemingly never-ending dilemma leeching any potential the title’s had since its introduction as an “equal” to the WWE Championship.
Many greats have held the WWE title. We’re aware of Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and there are too many others to list here. I remember the first brand extension when the World Heavyweight Championship (Big Gold Belt) was introduced. As a young fan I felt having two major world titles in the same company was counterproductive. And I still do, even more so. Imagine if AJ Styles was the #1 guy? Imagine if he was WWE Champion over Brock Lesnar? Roman Reigns? Braun Strowman? What if he was the main event at PPV? What if he was the poster boy defending the most coveted title in the main event of WrestleMania?
While AJ Styles has had the biggest year of his career, it’s safe to say he’s not had the same level of promotion than the Universal Champions. One issue he’s faced is being on SmackDown LIVE with a smaller roster, so he’s not had the same exposure because the brand struggles to draw fans like it did. This is more to do with WWE keeping most of their major storylines and surprises for Raw; so there’s less anticipation.
When WWE brought the brand split back, SmackDown LIVE got a stacked roster and often did better than Raw with an hour less per week. It probably still does to many, but it’s not “must-see” (not that I’m saying Raw is). Monday nights are more unpredictable, while SmackDown LIVE is about the matches. One week after it reached its 1000 episode milestone with an average tribute of nostalgia, SmackDown LIVE quietly went back to being just another WWE show.
Luckily AJ Styles has put in some great work with his rivals this year, giving us competitive title matches conveniently placed in the middle of stacked cards to not “steal the show”. In these times it seems the demotion of the WWE title has been accepted, much like when John Bradshaw Layfield ruled over SmackDown LIVE. But we know AJ Styles is the consummate professional, and he doesn’t care where he is on the card so long as he can do what he does best.
That’s all well and good, but I’m positive many fans would prefer a champion like him being the #1 guy. They might even buy a PPV, subscribe to the WWE Network, or get a ticket to see something like that in person. Management has such an incredible reliance on the already established legends that AJ Styles has to make do with what he’s given. And so do the many who believe he deserves better.
So while the WWE title has played second fiddle lately, it’s been through it before and survived. I might be one of a few, but I’m a firm believer a World Championship should be the only one. So long as the Universal Title exists on a show deemed more important, it cuts the importance of anyone who holds them by half. Could you imagine if there was another WWF Champion in Bruno Sammartino’s era? Or Hulk Hogan’s? Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels? Their legacies would not have been as great. They would’ve never been able to claim they were the #1 champion of their generation.
Although the title jumped around a lot in the Attitude Era, it remained the #1 title fought over by Hall of Fame worthy names on the same show; whether it be Raw or SmackDown. Splitting rosters and introducing duplicate titles has severely diminished the feeling of grandeur. No one can ever truly say they’re the best, not until they hold titles from both shows and unify them.