Any fan of pro wrestling can tell you the most important thing a wrestler can win is a World Heavyweight Title. The championship awarded to the top performer in World Wrestling Entertainment, now known as the WWE Championship, has existed since April 29, 1963 when Buddy Rogers was awarded the original WWWF title. That’s 46 years right there. I don’t know the original reason as to why the belt was created in the first place. However, I’ve always thought of it as being similar to boxing. One person holds the belt. Everybody else tries to beat them for it. The belt represents the best. Now, obviously pro wrestling has pre-determined outcomes while boxing is a legitimate sport (most of the time), but the stories can be told the same. Or they can be told differently. That is up to the discretion of the booker in pro wrestling, who in WWE’s world has been Vince McMahon for the past 30 years or so, which we all know as the WrestleMania era.
Over the years I’ve learned one thing about watching this company. It’s that the WWE Title, or the World Title, is important. It represents the best. The guy holding the belt is the top dog. The king. The ruler. The champ. Just like a boxer like Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson was, just like whoever the Super Bowl champ was or the NBA champ or whatever sport you want to compare it to. If you had that you were the best. A three year old kid knew that just as a 93 year old man knew it because of the belt that the champion got to carry it around. You could not watch WWE programming for a year, turn it on one night, see somebody holding the belt and know that he was the champ right now. He was the best.
That belt means something. Wait, let me correct myself. That belt used to mean something.
The Most Memorable World Title wins from the WrestleMania era
January 23, 1984. Hulk Hogan wins his first ever WWF World Title in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
March 27, 1988. Randy Savage wins his first ever WWF World Title at WrestleMania IV in Atlantic City.
April 1, 1990. The Ultimate Warriors wins his first ever WWF World Title at WrestleMania VI in Toronto by defeating the immortal Hulk Hogan.
January 19, 1992. Ric Flair wins his first ever WWF World Title at the 1992 Royal Rumble in Albany, New York.
October 12, 1992. Bret Hart wins his first ever WWF World Title at a house show in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
March 30, 1996. Shawn Michaels wins his first ever WWF World Title at WrestleMania XII in Anaheim, California.
March 29, 1998. Steve Austin wins his first ever WWF World Title at WrestleMania XIV in Boston, Massachusetts.
December 29, 1998. Mick “Mankind” Foley wins his first ever WWF World Title on an episode of Raw (January 4, 1999) in Worcester, Massachusetts.
October 22, 2000. Kurt Angle wins his first ever WWF World Title at No Mercy in Albany, New York to become the first ever Olympic gold medalist to be the WWF Champion.
December 9, 2001. Chris Jericho unifies the WWF and WCW Titles at Vengeance in San Diego, California for his first major championship.
August 25, 2002. Brock Lesnar wins his first WWE Championship at Summerslam in Uniondale, New York to become the fastest man to win the title by winning it only four months after his debut.
February 15, 2004. Eddie Guerrero wins his first WWE Championship at No Way Out in San Francisco.
March 14, 2004. Chris Benoit wins his first World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XX in New York, New York.
There have been others too. It’s just that with all of these I remember every single one of those title wins very well. Bret Hart’s, not so much. It wasn’t on TV, but when I first heard about it I celebrated because it was a huge accomplishment for somebody that had only been a tag and midcard wrestler. Everything else? Lots of fond memories. If you’ve been a long time fan you remember them too. If you didn’t see one of them “live” you’ve either seen it since or you’ve read about it. Why? Because they were important. Why were they important wins? Because the belt meant something. I know, it’s only a title in a fake “sport,” but I want you to watch any of those matches. I watch you to listen to the crowds. The outcome is predetermined, but the emotions are real. These are examples of a story culminating with the hero (in most cases) overcoming evil to reach the goal that he set out for.
One World Title Evolves into Two
In 2002, after splitting the roster into two World Wrestling Entertainment brought back the World Heavyweight Title, which dates back even further than the . With a few short term exceptions, one belt has been on Raw while the other belt has been on Smackdown. For the most part, I’ve been happy with how the titles have been booked from 2002 until 2008. I questioned some things along the way like JBL getting a ten month reign when he rarely put on good matches or some brutal Triple H title feuds against Kane and Scott Steiner, among others. Still, I’ve been generally happy with the way the champion was booked. Most title reigns averaged about three or four months in length, which was a fair amount of time. Some went really long like JBL’s or John Cena’s.
Look at these numbers:
Between November 23, 2008 and October 4, 2009 (Sunday) the WWE Title has changed hands 9 times. Nine times in eleven months.
Between October 26, 2008 and October 4, 2009 (Sunday) the World Heavyweight Title has changed 11 times. Eleven times in nearly twelve months.
Add that all up and you’ve got twenty different title wins in one year. I don’t know why. Is it because of ratings? No. The next edition of Raw sometimes sees a small spike in ratings, but it usually doesn’t last. PPV numbers? No. Numbers are down across the board. I’m afraid that the only reason that WWE could give for the number of title wins is that they are bored. There are too many PPVs, there aren’t enough top wrestlers and they need to book rematches. As a result, they book title switches as a way to necessitate rematches, which is the opposite of what you should be doing.
The Right and Wrong Way to Book Titles
Let me give you two examples. One that shows how valuable the title can be and one that doesn’t.
Randy Orton vs. Triple H. The dominant Raw feud of the year. Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble. Triple H won the WWE Title while still a part of Smackdown at No Way Out a month later in an Elimination Chamber match. The feud, which had been done before, became more personal than ever with Orton assaulting Triple H’s wife Stephanie, father in law Vince and brother in Shane. The showdown was set for WrestleMania with HHH defending the belt against Orton. Triple H won clean. Feud over, right? Nope. A month later, Orton won the title in a six man tag match (yeah it is as stupid as it sounds) by pinning Triple H. Batista came back. He beat Orton for the belt even though it was known that he had an injury, then the belt became vacated after Batista’s injury caused by Orton and who ends up with it again? Orton. In the months that followed Triple H continued to get title shot after title shot even though the feud was supposed to be a personal issue. The feud could have ended at WrestleMania with the babyface winning. Instead it kept going with the heel holding the belt even though he never beat the babyface in a one on one setting. The end result was the longest feud of the year (that never really ended) that will be remembered as a letdown all across the board.
CM Punk vs. Jeff Hardy. Hardy was embroiled in a feud with Edge over the World Title. Hardy had won the WWE Title from Edge at Armageddon, which to me was a poor decision considering Hardy went from jobber to main event over the course of a decade and should have been rewarded with his first title win on a bigger show. The feud picked back up in the spring over Edge’s World Title. It culminated in a World Title ladder match at Extreme Rules with Hardy beating Edge for the belt again. A minute after celebrating, out came CM Punk with his Money in the Bank title shot to defeat Hardy for the belt on June 7th. In their first rematch, Punk blatantly hit the ref to get DQ’d and then lied about it. In their next rematch, Hardy won the belt from Punk at the Night of Champions PPV. I wasn’t a big fan of that title switch. It was another example of switching just for the sake of having nobody else in main events. A month after that at Summerslam, which was Jeff Hardy’s last PPV match (for now), Punk won the feud and the title by beating him in a TLC match. The feud produced a couple of legitimate match of the year contenders (nothing that’s going to beat HBK/Taker) while also igniting a heel turn for CM Punk that is one of the best heel turns WWE has ever done. You know why? Because he wanted to be champion. He did whatever it took to be the champion because to him that belt meant he was the best.
The Now and the Future
My gripe here is not about whether Randy Orton and The Undertaker should be the respective champions right now. My gripe is that the belts they are holding are at the lowest value they’ve ever had because over the past year we have seen on 20 different occasions that it’s easy to become the top guy. While in the past holding the belt meant something right now it means nothing. The traditional way of booking a title feud is like this:
There’s a guy on Smackdown right now named John Morrison who, if all goes well, should win his first World Title at some point in 2010. He’s a guy that won WWE’s third season of their reality show, Tough Enough, although they won’t ever mention that when talking about him. They’ll tell you that Dolph Ziggler was a collegiate wrestler, but they won’t remind you that Morrison was schooled in a WWE ring. Figure that one out. If WWE wants to be creating new main eventers (and they should, by the way) going forward then he’s the one they need to get behind. The fans, both in arenas and online, are supporters of him. He is supposedly well liked backstage and obviously he has the talent in the ring as shown by his recent classic TV match against Rey Mysterio last month. His promos? They’re not great. He’s not a natural talker, but there are ways to book around that. Have the heel carry a promo or allow him to be one of those babyfaces that does his talking in the ring, so to speak. Let his natural athletic ability to carry him. They could make him a star at the Royal Rumble by having him win that. Put him in at number 3 or 4, have him outlast everybody else and ultimately winning the match that would be filled with top guys.
Pro wrestling, like a movie, is about good conquering evil. The viewer knows who is good and who is bad almost immediately. They know what the good side wants. They know what the bad side wants. They know that at some point good is going to meet bad. The questions of when, where, what, why and how will be answered through the telling of the story. In pro wrestling (or sports entertainment) the story should end with the title.
Allow Me to Fantasy Book for a Moment
The question now, after identifying that poor booking of the titles are the problem, is what should WWE do going forward? Here’s a simple booking suggestion for Raw’s WWE Title:
Have Orton hold the belt from now until WrestleMania 26. It would give him a six month title reign. Over that period have him defend the title on PPV in singles matches against different opponents like MVP, Mark Henry (even though I don’t like him he’s over as a babyface for some reason) and Ted Dibiase should he turn face as expected. Orton would win every one of those matches. It would do good to have a different person getting a title match every month. If the company doesn’t that it should go on last then put the Smackdown match on last. Or have a multi-man match with some bigger names to help carry it. At the Royal Rumble, have John Morrison win. By the time WrestleMania rolls around, we learn that Morrison wants to go for the WWE Title because he grew up a fan of WWE and has always dreamed of holding that belt. Tell the same “boyhood dream coming true” story for him that they told for Shawn Michaels in 1996. Book them in none of the same matches before WrestleMania. Save the first singles PPV match for that show.
What about Smackdown’s World Title?
Put the Undertaker in a four way match against CM Punk, Chris Jericho and Kane at Survivor Series. Big Show can be in Jericho’s corner. The winner of the match will be Jericho, who gets the victory after Big Show KO’s one of his opponents. At the December TLC PPV (I guess that’s the name), with Jericho and Show still tag champs, they are forced to defend the belts against Christian and Shelton Benjamin from ECW. They lose after some miscommunication issues, ending with Christian pinning Jericho clean with the Killswitch. At the Rumble, Jericho defeats the newly babyface Big Show to retain his title while Christian stars the Rumble match, making it to the final four. A month later at February’s No Way Out PPV (assuming that’s still the name) they have a Smackdown brand #1 Contender’s match inside Hell in a Cell. One of the six participants is supposed to be Edge. They would hype it as his first match back even though most of us know he probably won’t be ready for then. In a twist noting last year’s NWO PPV, Edge gets attacked backstage and we find out it was by Chris Jericho. Needing a replacement, when Edge’s music starts up we see his storyline brother (I know they never mention it anymore but I do) Christian come out. He is the third guy in, he takes a beating and doesn’t score a single pinfall until the last one of the match when he pins The Undertaker, who most people assume would be winning. You can do something where a heel (maybe CM Punk) attacks Undertaker after he pins them to set up for Undertaker’s predictable WrestleMania victory. For the next month Christian appears on Smackdown to feud with Jericho. During the WrestleMania match, Jericho can try to cheat when Edge suddenly appears to stop him. Jericho turns around and eats the Killswitch leading to Christian winning the belt. The show can end with Edge & Christian embracing in the ring while the announcers note that Christian’s journey started with Edge over 15 years earlier.
After that, you have Morrison take his WWE belt back to Smackdown while Christian and his World Title get drafted over to Raw. You can then have Jericho vs. Edge feuding over on Smackdown without the title because it’s a personal feud that doesn’t need the belt to be involved.
Will any of this happen? No, of course not. This is WWE. You know that Cena, Triple H or The Undertaker will be involved in at least one of the title matches. That’s part of the problem, though. In order to re-establish the credibility and value of the WWE and World Titles we need to see people holding the belts that don’t have the stench of the previous bad year of booking title matches.
Booking Titles in a Nutshell
The booking philosophy surrounding a world title is not hard. There are a couple of simple steps that should be followed on the road to WrestleMania. It’s old, it’s predictable, but if told right it will always work. The problem has never been the story. The problem has been the execution.
1. Heel wins the title. It could be clean. It could be controversial. With a heel it can go a number of different ways.
2. Heel defends the title (and retains it) against the same person he won the title from or a different opponent that was not the champion. He can do this over the course of two or three months to establish himself as a worthy champion.
3. Babyface wrestler beats a different heel (or wins the Royal Rumble) to improve his standing. The more heels he can go over, the better. He earns his stripes, basically.
4. The new top babyface meets the heel champion preferably at a major PPV like a WrestleMania or Summerslam.
5. The babyface beats the heel again at the next PPV in a rematch to establish himself as a credible champion.
6. The babyface begins his title reign against new challengers.
The idea is to elevate the new champion by beating a credible, long lasting champion that will make the new babyface champion the bigger star in the company. You should use the belt to elevate the stars rather than the stars to have a feud, then have the belt thrown in as some kind of accessory. That hurts the belt and ultimately the company in the long run. We’ve seen that over the past year on both brands.
There are other issues in WWE. We all think we know what they are. In my opinion, the problems start at the top. It starts with the championship belts. The less value they have, the less value the title matches have. The less value the title matches have, the less star power the wrestlers have. The less star power the wrestlers have, the less money the company can make. It’s a pattern that can repeat itself over and over.
You know how they say the best way to correct a problem is to admit you have one? Congrats WWE because I can do it for you. The way you book your titles is a problem. It’s up to you to correct it for your sake as a company and for our sake as fans.
I want to know what you think. Hit me up at email@example.com and let me know if I’m on the right path here or maybe you think I’ve lost my mind. Any feedback is good. I might share some in future Raw Deal or Talking Smack columns. Don’t be shy. Send it over. You can also join the discussions on my facebook page or via Twitter (links below) and get at me there.
See you tomorrow for The Raw Deal. Don’t expect regular columns like this. Let’s just say that this one has been sitting with me for a while and I needed to get it out there.
Smell ya later,
John Canton – firstname.lastname@example.org
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