While the late 1990’s are considered to have been somewhat of a golden era for professional wrestling, one aspect of this era continues to come in for criticism from many members of the Internet Wrestling Community. The frequent title changes that took place in WWE, WCW and ECW resulted in many stating that the titles lost credibility, due to the fact that some saw their mass trading as being disrespectful to the titles, which had previously been held by only the elite of the sport, with lengthy title reigns being the norm rather than an exception. When the WWE Title changed hands no less than 12 times in the year of 1999 alone, one of these reigns being enjoyed by WWE owner Vince McMahon, people saw it as a slaughter of the prestige that had been built around the title in previous years. It had changed hands only 5 times in one entire decade during the 80’s. Much the same, the WCW Title changed hands a whopping 17 times in the year 2000, 6 times in the month of May alone. When David Arquette, star of such films as Scream and… Scream 2 became champion; it all but crushed any importance that the WCW Title had in the eyes of the fans. So from the evidence I have put forth, surely I cannot argue that large-scale title changes are a good thing for the WWE, or TNA for that matter, to have in their product? Surely it is necessary for WWE to have their champions enjoy 6-12 month title reigns in order for their titles, and consequently their champions, to gain “credibility”? If you would like to know why I courteously disagree, take The Pepsi Plunge.
The wrestling boom of the mid to late 90’s changed the industry in many ways. The introduction of more risqué storylines, more violent matches and less cartoonish characters led to a phenomenal increase in popularity and demand for better product. So, companies like WCW and WWE grew and started putting on more and more high profile shows and matches to accommodate. By the time the clock ticked over to introduce a new millennium, both WCW and WWE were running 12 pay-per-view events a year, and two mainstream television events a week. These weekly shows contained all of their major talent, all of whom were in feuds and challenging matches on almost a weekly basis. The title was defended at pretty much every PPV event, and often on RAW, Nitro, Smackdown, Thunder or whatever as well. Now cast your mind back to the late 80’s and early 90’s, the time of these long, prestigious, “credible” title reigns. WWE at that time operated on what? 4 PPV’s a year, with weekly shows such as ‘Superstars’ where the big name wrestlers would merely compete in squash matches. The wrestling boom created a greater demand for important matches more often, resulting in more title matches, which naturally resulted in more title changes. Whereas beforehand, one could only expect to see the title change hands at 4 events a year, there was now 12 PPV’s and 104 weekly shows where a champion could find himself and his title threatened.
So, with WWE striving to put on consistent shows where fans could expect at least a chance of a title match, long title reigns naturally became less and less likely and, in turn, less believable. The sport had evolved to the point where short title reigns were realistic. Let’s do something a little crazy for a second, and pretend that wrestling is real… stupid I know, but let’s try. If you take HHH and Batista, arguably the two top guys on RAW at the moment, and had them square off in singles matches 10 times, what do you think the final win-loss record would be? 5-5? 6-4? 7-3 at a stretch, perhaps? Certainly it’s unlikely that either man would win more than 7 of those matches. The point is that we are lead to believe that, in WWE, any of the top guys can beat each other on any given occasion. So do long title reigns then become an unrealistic concept? I am inclined to argue that for the most part, yes they do.
While there are 52 RAW’s and 12 PPV’s a year where the title could feasibly change hands, that is admittedly an unrealistic concept. Title matches cannot and should not happen every week lest they would lose the buzz that they create. Instead, let us say that the title could legitimately be threatened at the 12 PPV’s each year and also maybe 4 times on the RAW show. That means that a champion would have to win 16 matches straight, against the rest of the elite of the business in order to hold the title for a full year.
Now consider the NFL. As we all know, this Sunday will see the Philadelphia Eagles take on the New England Patriots in the SuperBowl. As such, they could be called the NFL’s equivalent of Batista and HHH on RAW. In the regular season, consisting of 16 matches, these teams were beaten three times and twice respectively. When you consider that some of these matches were against teams like the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers, football’s versions of Val Venis and Rosey, it furthers my argument. The World Champion doesn’t have the luxury of having any of his major 16 title matches a year against such easily crushed opposition as Val Venis, they are all against the very best of the best that RAW has to offer. I would classify HHH, Batista, Randy Orton, Chris Benoit, Shawn Michaels and maybe Chris Jericho and Edge at a push as the legitimate contenders for the World Title on RAW. Whoever the champion is, it is these men that will be his opponents in his title defences. Now imagine that the NFL was set-up the same way as WWE. One team as champion, defending their title monthly against the best the league has to offer. Instead of the seven men I have listed above, take the Patriots, Eagles, Falcons, Steelers, Colts, Rams and whomever you feel I’ve left out as I can’t really pick the best 7. Now, let’s say the SuperBowl title was defended 16 times a year, always against one of the very best teams the league had to offer, do you think all the reigns would be lengthy? Can you see the likelihood that there could potentially be three changes in three months? Simply because they are that evenly matched? It’s just realistic, and wrestling should be no different.
Let us look at one man whose title reign has caused more controversy in WWE than any other in quite some time. When John Bradshaw Layfield attained the WWE Title at the ironically named Great American Bash by way of WWE’s new fast-track system, it created uproar amongst many wrestling fans, particularly those in the IWC. Many saw JBL as nothing more than a mid-carder who had gained his title reign through backstage politicking rather than any considerable talent. People threatened to boycott WWE until JBL was stripped of his title. The number of hateful columns posted in regards JBL between April and July of 2004 in the IWC was staggering. Everyone and his metaphorical dog was having his say on the great JBL debate. It is now February of 2005, over 7 months sine JBL has won the title. Check any wrestling website and find me an anti-JBL column now. You can’t do it, they don’t seem to exist. And why in hell is that? I’ll admit JBL has a great character, and his matches have been better than I expected they would, but is he really believable as the very best on Smackdown? Someone who could legitimately sit on top of the roster for seven months, despite being part of a mid-card tag team for years previously? How do Eddie Guerrero, The Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Booker T and The Big Show all look when they can’t beat a man who was little more than a glorified jobber to the big names for so many years? But, because JBL has held the title for such a long period, he is seen as a “credible” champion. Have you forgotten Eddie Guerrero? The man who worked for so many years to make it to the top, only to be sacrificed at the alter of the JBL experiment, something he has never recovered from. So in giving JBL and the title their “credibility”, has not the credibility of every other big name on Smackdown been tarnished? Which is more important?
My primary problem with long title reigns in WWE at the moment is that, at the moment, WWE are pretty much the only game in town as regards national exposure and big name superstars. Sure, TNA are making progress, and the likes of ROH and CZW are developing a following, but most fans can see that TNA’s talent is a mixture stars that are well past their prime and young talent who are not well known to a larger audience. So WWE has somewhat of a monopoly on the entire American mainstream wrestling industry. As a result, they have the supposed elite of the wrestling talent in the country, all vying for two Heavyweight Championships. So surely it is reasonable to assume that there would be fierce competition for these belts, making it excessively difficult to hold the title for any significant period of time? The longer title reigns we see these days mean much of WWE’s talent who are not considered “championship material” become stuck in a dead-end of sorts. Such is the situation faced by Booker T and RVD at the moment. It was a problem experienced for so long by Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit also. The biggest victim of it seems to be Chris Jericho at the moment. He is for my money the best in WWE right now, but for some reason somebody in WWE has decided he isn’t main event material. As a result, he has become stuck. He may never hold the title again, something I find to be a sin. But since he “flopped” as champion last time, ignoring the fact that his two primary feuds were against a burnt-out, frustrated performer on the verge of leaving the business and the least over face in Wrestlemania main-event history, they cannot put the belt on him again, lest it’s “credibility” be diminished even further.
Now, obviously there are many potential drawbacks that need to be avoided when it comes to having shorter title reigns without having the title seem meaningless and little more than a prop to aid the drama of a television show. There is no need for us to see any more David Arquette’s as champion, or Vince McMahon’s for that matter. It is my own personal belief that if a man cannot climb into a wrestling ring without tearing several tendons in his quadriceps, he has no business being the WWE Champion. Get well soon Vince. Also, it is important that the title isn’t bastardised with bizarre angles and people getting stripped of the belt or forced to defend it under unfair circumstances. Just that title matches would become genuinely massive encounters, with the title actually changing hands cleanly due to one man being the better of the two on that day. Much like in a so called “real” sport.
The biggest issue that would have to be tackled though is the potential problem that the title could become too easy to win, meaning guys like Cena, Benjamin, Edge, Christian and many others could get the title without having to work as hard as some would like them to get it. This could be combated by WWE deciding to only have one or two first time champions a year, so as not to make it too easy for wrestlers to scale the ladder. Once a wrestler has won the title once, it should be seen as him having stepped up to that next level and become one of the elite. Yet it should be a very hard struggle to get there.
Let us analyse the fortunes of the titles on RAW and Smackdown over the last few months. While JBL has held onto his belt, enhancing his and the belts “credibility” in doing so, the RAW World Heavyweight Title has been scrapped over dramatically. Questions over who the champion is, a dramatic simultaneous pin and submission at the same time, an Elimination Chamber to decide the champion. These gave us exciting, fresh, dramatic developments which made for wonderful television. The beauty of the attitude era was the unpredictability of everything that happened, including the title changes. In a business that revolves around trying to surprise the fans and keep them entertained, long title reigns can often become tedious. Fans know that wrestling is scripted. This takes away from the prestige of a long title run, as people know that the opponents are losing deliberately. It doesn’t have the awe inspiring effect of Arsenal going 49 games unbeaten, because Arsenal were playing teams that were giving their all to beat them, not put on an entertaining match.
Ultimately, I believe when dealing with the issue of credibility we are left with a simple choice. Which is more important, the credibility of a champion or the credibility of the competition he faces? Personally, I am inclined to believe it is the latter. It would make the 6-9 month title reigns that so much more impressive when they did happen, rather than having someone who has a 1-2 month title reign look weak, as is currently the case. Where do you think Randy Orton’s momentum went?
Well, that’s all I’ve got to say about that. I’m sure there are many of you who disagree with me on this subject and I would be happy to debate the issue with you if you feel strongly enough to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and vent your frustrations. Also, if anyone actually agrees with me I would like to hear it as I’m not at all sure how this will be received. I look forward to hearing your thoughts either way.
Talk to you all again soon, whenever like.
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