A “Universal” title? As soon as the words came out of Mick Foley’s mouth I slapped a hand to my forehead and began to mourn for what might have been.
Since the announcement of July’s brand split between Raw and Smackdown, nothing official had been said about the fate of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt besides the obvious: if the Smackdown guy, Dean Ambrose, won the triple threat at Battleground, the belt was coming to Tuesday nights. If either Seth Rollins or Roman Reigns won the match, it would return to Monday Night Raw. The notion added some great intrigue to the triple-threat battle between former Shield members, and the addition of Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan, Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley at ringside, rooting for their respective representatives, made the stakes seem real. When Ambrose won, it seemed not only like a victory for him, but for Smackdown in general. The commissioner celebrated, the general manager celebrated, the entire roster celebrated.
And then Raw began with the announcement that a new title would be unveiled for the Raw brand at Summerslam, with the winner of that night’s tournament earning the right to fight Seth Rollins for the new WWE Universal Championship. I was as happy as anyone else that the person earning that right was newcomer to the main roster, Finn Balor, but there are many equally impactful ways to bring a new superstar up to the main roster and it is a shame that, ultimately, Finn’s debut and push came as part of this stupidity.
Championships are very simple. The fewer there are, the more prestige and importance they hold. The more there are, the less impressive it is to win one. Consider the much mocked “participation trophies” that some schools indulge in: no one “wins” sports day – everyone gets a trophy just for taking part. I am not saying WWE is anywhere near that state yet, but I am saying that the more gold there is to go around, the less important winning that gold becomes.
Those of us old enough to remember the days when a single roster shared a WWE Title, an Intercontinental Title, a European Title, a Light Heavyweight Title, a Tag Team Title, a Women’s Title and a Hardcore Title, can remember that there were championships, but few of us can recall the names or runs of great championship holders. These belts swapped hands regularly, with few competitors getting much traction with their titles, and eventually the extraneous championships were slowly phased out. Until WWE bought WCW and once again found itself with too much gold to make meaningful, even with a brand split. The original decision to have a World/WWE Champion on each show, a set of Tag Champions, a Women’s/Divas Champion, and an Intercontinental/US Champion seemed clear and equal…until PPVs started featuring one brand’s gold in opening matches and semi-main events, while the other’s gold got top billing. This reached its greatest level of farce when a Royal Rumble winner found their big victory leading to a forgettable title match somewhere in the second hour of the Showcase of the Immortals while the other brand’s belt was contested at the end of the night.
When John Cena and Randy Orton at last unified the World and Heavyweight titles at the end of 2013, I was never happier. Finally we had the pleasure of seeing the WWE World Heavyweight Championship once again becoming an actual prize in the business instead of just a prop.
Remember when Daniel Bryan won the belt at “Yes-lemania” 30 after the passionate “Yes Movement” forced the Authority to give him a shot? It seemed like something massive had happened – yet don’t forget that previously Bryan had already been Heavyweight champion over on Smackdown for four months. How easy was it to forget, but the fact is that a single brand’s world title is not perceived of as just as important as a unified title is. And could you imagine Brock Lesnar holding anything less prestigious than the undisputed WWE World Heavyweight Championship during his near year long reign?
While any championship can mean something, a single title will always mean a whole lot more than multiple titles will.
Those days are over, but they didn’t have to be.
Remember, despite the brand split, WWE still plans on having joint pay-per-views for the big four: Wrestlemania, SummerSlam, Survivor Series and Royal Rumble. (For those not paying attention, the brand split includes new Raw/Smackdown only pay-per-views – meaning that the average wrestling fan, already struggling with the five hours of Raw and Smackdown each week, plus hour of NXT, and extra hour of something good on the Network, such as the Cruiserweight Classic, on top of an additional three hour PPV some weeks, now has to add another three hour PPV to their watch-list each month…and has anyone noticed that the PPVs are now regularly running to three hours and fifteen minutes? At some point WWE will surely be forced to remember that their fans do have other things to do with their lives!) Think how important a single World Championship belt would have felt if the only opportunity a brand had to bring the title home was at one of those four joint PPVs. During the months in between, when the belt was on another brand, the losing brand would have time to develop characters, storylines, and secondary titles, with the idea that the GM would be scouting for the most qualified contender to try and take the title back at the next inter-brand Pay-Per-View. Meanwhile, on the show with the belt, business would continue as usual, with title matches at all the PPVs, creating a strong champion we would want to see either beaten, or retaining, at the next inter-brand event.
There would be no denying that such a championship would be seen as the highest prize in the business, and at the same time it would raise the profile of the US and Intercontinental belts, as their respective holders would, on one brand at least, be the only championship on the show. With enough back and forth between brands with the World Title, over time, both secondary championships would gain in their significance. Each show would have a belt to fight over, but there would be a World Championship demonstrably higher in status reigning over all.
Which brings about another question – now that Raw has pulled a Universal Championship out of their asses to keep the men happy, on Smackdown how long will it be before the women realise they don’t have a belt to fight for either? Are we going to also see a Women’s Universal Championship too for parity? If not, then once again the women seem less important than the men in WWE (the men have a world championship and a secondary championship to fight for on each brand, meanwhile on Smackdown the women don’t have a single accolade to achieve). And what about tag team wrestling on the blue brand? It seems a shame The New Day and The Club get to have some gold to squabble over while Smackdown tag teams do not. Logic suggests it is only a matter of time. Two Men’s World champions, two women’s World champions, two sets of tag champions. Two of everything and only half the meaning for each.
That said, the watering down of the championship belts is really my only complaint about the brand extension so far. Well, except for the lame choice of Mick Foley for Raw GM. I say that with love, and as a huge Mick Foley fan. Mick was my favourite wrestler when he was an active performer. I’ve read all his books (even his novels) and seen his stand up. He’s great – but he did not add a sense of excitement or intrigue to the Raw brand at all when he was announced to lukewarm applause. Hell, he’s already run Raw before as commissioner. It would have been great to see someone the equivalent of a Daniel Bryan return to Raw – an Edge, a Kurt Angle, a Sting, etc. – and give the show some new energy. Foley’s schtick feels dated, and he doesn’t have great chemistry with Stephanie either. I’m hoping for some good banter in future between Foley and Enzo and Cass, or Foley and The New Day…but even that feels like old hat trading on memories of Foley’s former relationship with Edge and Christian. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Foley to tell Stephanie he’s quitting…but he appears to be a permanent feature of the program thus far.
Foley and the Universal Championship aside, I’m happy with the new look to each show, and to the respective rosters drafted. I like the fresh feeling of Finn Balor vs Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose vs Dolph Ziggler in the title pictures, and look forward to seeing where the next breakout stars will emerge on each show. On Smackdown, the returning Randy Orton seems to have developed some great personality during his absence, and will surely be competing for some gold after his run-in with Brock Lesnar at Summerslam, whatever the outcome of that particular match, and I’m excited about the impending return of Shelton Benjamin and Rhyno to WWE, with hopes for further old faces due to return in the weeks and months to come. Enzo and Cass over on Raw continue to bring value for money, and we all know it’s only a matter of time before Balor crosses paths with Anderson and Gallows. Meanwhile the triumvirate of Cesaro, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn means the match quality on the show each week is guaranteed even if the management of the brand (and Stephanie McMahon’s “evil boss” character continues to feel a bit stale).
So I’m still not against the brand split, and I still hold out hope I will be proved wrong and the additional championship(s) will add to each show, not take anything away. But history suggests less is more when it comes to titles, and I fear that in their shortsightedness, WWE may have taken an amazing opportunity to build something magic and pissed it away their very first night. Dan McKee