Saturday, 17 September 2011

Building Prestige Into A Title

Reigning, even fleetingly, as the best in a chosen sport is a dream most people have as they grow up. For the vast majority it is a dream that will slips through their fingers however those few truly lucky ones, will not only hold the honour of bring called champion but will bring glory on their entire nation. It can bring a sense of accomplishment that permeates through society, bringing together people from all walks of life to celebrate a triumph. A moment of ecstasy that stands alone in time.

For the WWE, or any professional wrestling outfit, to succeed they must be able to conjure up this illusion of grandeur so people can buy into the world's most physical soap opera. 


The devaluation of the championship gold, whether that be the WWE or World heavyweight championship belt, has been prevalent throughout the 21st century. Sidelined for a mixture of character development or becoming an association piece for top talent. Trending towards overkill has been the establishment of super fighters, notably Triple H in the early part of the decade followed by the tandem of John Cena and Randy Orton who currently dominate both television time and the win column. These wrestlers haven't transcended public consciousness in the desired way but have become indiscriminately linked with being the champion, whether they hold the strap or not. Such events create a power vacuum where other champions are simply expected  to drop the belt in the near future to one of the existing franchise players and any feud, no matter the situation, inevitability ending with one of those men ending up on top. 

Situations of stagnation at the top of wrestling has often lead to lesser belts rising to the fore however the requirement of  a conveyor of  short term monsters has stopped such occurrences. Both mid-level belts (the Intercontinental and US belt respectively) have been relegated to novelty acts, often utilized to support comedy angles or simply forgotten about until the next body in the firing line needs a small boost in ratings. Worse still is the tag team title which coverage has mainly been used as a ploy to get two singles competitors on both shows with little time, effort or consistency being put into the thought process. Rumours of a change in policy related to the tag team division is hopeful but time will tell if this is the true rebirth of the division or if it's yet another false dawn.

What is abundantly clear is the old methods used to create prestige, allowing a fighter to hold the belt for several months and defend it relatively frequently is failing to do its job. The process of rinse and  repeat with a different wrestler being built up over a short period of time only to lose to the champion and be relegated back to mid-card level is just to predictable. Title matches become pointless to watch as it guarantees either a win for the champion or non-finish such as a count out or DQ. Such predictability takes away from the spectacle of the show so resolving to alter the process has to be a top priority for wrestling as the product tries to become relevant once again.

Due to the structural similarities, it would be most prudent to examine how the UFC belts have developed credentials as their worth has been established in the same time 10 year period as the WWE ones have ebbed away. This becomes especially relevant with the realization that the most prestigious belt within the company is not the heavyweight title belt as has been the tradition in boxing but rather the light heavyweight belt closely followed by the welterweight belt. These two titles above all else have developed with the companies growth, successfully increasing in value compared to other titles that have faltered. Even more interesting is that they have been established in two different ways which gives two blueprints into getting a title over.

The light heavyweight championship established early dominance with the charismatic, if controversial, Tito Ortiz defeating all comers. However two others, one a small heavyweight Randy Couture who threatened to drop weight and brawler Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell were also knocking of wins which meant the question of who the true champion was open for sometime. After several battles, Liddell looked like he was coming out on top having defeated both arch rivals twice however the introduction of a new wave of talent (in this case from the now defunct Pride organisation) and some young guys coming through changed the landscape leading to the eventual retirement of the champ.

However the belt since that early Liddell reign has changed hands 7 times in the last 9 fights. This has added to the mystique of the belt as it shows that people will find another level to gain the belt only to find that once their hands are wrapped around it, it get torn away by the challenger and they fight against a group of former champions, all desperate to get their next shot at dethroning the latest champion.The key is that the belt has changed hands so that the title becomes the item everyone wants rather than the victory over the champ who could change at any time.

Welterweight is completely different with only two main champions holding the belt for 14 of the last 16 title fights (not including interim title fights). This seems remarkable similar to the WWE in principle but the key is that the fighters just underneath the top guy are unpredictable, beating one another in a seemingly endless round robin competition where eventually one person draws their head above the line only to be stamped back down.

In this group of fighters are people who have been successful at other weight classes but compete at 170 simply as it has the most stacked weight class for the lower divisions and is the place to prove your worth as a fighter. Having a great champion with a genuine group of athletes who can beat anyone else has not only inspired many to break new ground in development of training and offense but also raised the stature of the entire division.

As an interesting side not, the least successfully thought of title within the UFC is the middleweight title although it is arguable held by their best fighter and pound for pound elite if he is not the greatest of all time. However much like the dominance of Cena and Orton, that division has been dominated by two men in succession. The first Rich Franklin had defeated everyone around him until he met Anderson Silva who defeated him with relative ease. What happened next made the division look weak as Franklin went on to dominate other fighters in the division only to lose badly again to Silva leaving a clear one and two, much like Cena and Orton in the WWE.

This was made worse by Franklin moving up in weight class which, after 6 fights, has left with a even record of 3 wins and 3 losses. Accidentally, this resembles the current WWE tactics of setting a side one super fighter with a distinct second best figure in the background, yet even in a real world setting with a truly great champion it has not got the title over. Instead, the fighter is the division, leaving a distinct impression that the rest of the division are built from less talented individuals than other divisions which can be seen in WWE terms as people seeing the current roster as weaker as historical rosters simply down to the dominance of the champions at this time.


The question is whether experiences in a genuine sport can be replicated in the staged environment of the WWE and whether it will help to reestablish their titles anyway.

The experiences of the light heavyweight division would not do for the main heavyweight championships within the WWE as constant change in that belt means losing the spectacle, and potential payday of a big pay per view. However it could well be the perfect opportunity for either of the two lesser belts, helping to establish a new collection of wrestlers, all desperate to take the belt with them but no one really being able to run away with it. In that situation, people who excel can be promoted up to fighting the for main belt but for the time being it would allow for the importance of the belt to shine through. becoming a focus point for television while feuds roll of it.

This is not without precedent either as a similar tactic was used in the run up to Wrestlemania 15 where Golddust, Ken Shamrock, Road Dogg and Val Venis were in a constant flux of champion and new champion culminating in a final elimination match at the end. Several other stars could have been interjected into the match who had failed to gain the championship but it really emphasized how important being the Intercontinental champion could be.

The way that the welterweight division has established long term champions could work for WWE however it would require the WWE to make the decision to have far less title matches, certainly removing them from every other Raw so that the unpredictability factor was largely increased. However this is not a perfect solution to the situation due to the relative weak status of the majority of potential contenders who have already been run through by the top two guys, sometimes several times over.

It may be best for the long term prospects of the title for Cena and Orton to leave the scene for a few weeks, possible to shoot another straight to DVD movie, and allow some time fro wrestlers to establish themselves as a legitimate threat to the WWE belt.What would ideally happen is that the talents who rise to the top, fall just sort of beating the current super hero characters after they return only to vow to improve and come back stronger. This could see a story line develop over several months, preferable keeping the talent out of the title picture until they could come back improved to finally take the title. Such a build up would give them automatic  authority as someone who fought for the belt tooth and nail and that effort would translate into direct prestige for the championship they would hold.

Such long term story building has been successful with The Rock's much anticipated return at the next Wrestlemania however the key to keeping a feud like this fresh is keeping the two men apart, allowing others to challenge and fail as well. Opening it back up to the all-comer mentality that was so successful in the territory period of the pre-McMahon era could see people rise to prominence from relative obscurity, something scene in the UFC far more often than pro wrestling where an upset is far more of a possibility as the situations are not staged. This variability, or lack of as the case is currently has had a profound effect on people not being able to absorb themselves into the moment so becoming more unpredictable should be another key.


It may well be that this all boils down to one critical element that the WWE is missing. This point is simply a lack of legitimacy that pulls people out of the make believe world they surround themselves with like any good  entertainment experience. An ingredient missing from WWE programming for some time that has been papered over by a refusal to acknowledge the problem which as lead to the questioning of the worth of a title which is ultimately gifted to a performer. Until legitimacy of the titles are restored, it will eat away at the heart of the institution which will leave no one happy. 

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