Tuesday 21 August 2012

The Secondary Strap

Last year I wrote an article about how not every top star needs to win a world championship to validate their career. You can remind yourself of that, or read it for the first time, here . The general gist is that by not putting their world championship on every headline talent at their disposal a promotion can actually make it mean more.

WWE currently has two world titles. The WWE championship, held by CM Punk, dates back to 1963 and is generally considered the more prestigious, having been held by the company’s various leading men. It’s the strap that Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock have all worn.

The World Heavyweight championship will celebrate its tenth birthday on September 2nd. It was created in order to allow WWE’s two rosters to each have a world championship. For several years it was treated as the equal of its more prestigious counterpart and was held by a number of talented workers including Triple H, Edge, Rey Mysterio, CM Punk, and Randy Orton.

The company’s leading man during the majority of the World Heavyweight championship’s existence has been John Cena. While he has held the title before he has always been more concerned with winning the WWE belt. That Cena has only worn the World title twice while he’s captured the ’63 strap ten times illustrates which is the more important belt.

CM Punk shows off the ugly WWE championship belt

That Cena has only ever treated the World Heavyweight championship as a trinket to pursue when the more established strap is unavailable to him is possibly what started the poor booking of the secondary world belt.

For the last few years the WHC has been booked almost like a second tier belt. It’s comparable to the way the Intercontinental title was presented in the 1980s: the company’s biggest names would battle for the WWE championship while second string talent and rising stars would clash for the IC gold.

In the past size was a determining factor in which belt a wrestler would challenge for. Smaller more athletic workers would generally be pegged as Intercontinental challengers while bigger guys would be pushed to the top to go for the company’s top prize. This was a holdover from the days when a champion was the biggest toughest guy in the company.

By pitting him against a string of challengers bigger and nastier than himself and having him triumph the champ was made to look even tougher. See the booking of Hulk Hogan throughout his various WWF title reigns in the 80s for numerous examples of this.

While the Intercontinental title still exists in the company it is no longer used as a tool for elevating mid-carders and trying them out for the main event. That is now the role of the World Heavyweight belt.

A perfect example is CM Punk. Over the last year he has enjoyed two reigns as WWE champion and has been presented and accepted as a headline talent. He won his first World Heavyweight championship way back in 2008. He held that belt three times but never felt like a true WWE main eventer. He wasn’t treated like a top star, nor was he viewed as one.

It wasn’t until his face turn and feud with John Cena last year that ‘The Straight Edge Superhero’ first appeared to have cracked the top of the card. Those three World Heavyweight championship runs helped prepare him but they didn’t make him the promotion’s number one guy.

It may not be treated like a world title but at least it looks the part

Last year Mark Henry captured the World Heavyweight championship with a clean pinfall victory over Randy Orton. I find it hard to imagine him capturing the WWE championship in the same fashion. ‘The World’s Strongest Man’ was built up for the run well but he wasn’t, isn’t and never will be headline material. That he won the World belt further indicates that is a mid-card title, being used to trial rising stars and give veterans something to do.

The most recent two World Heavyweight champions illustrate my point nicely. Before cashing in his briefcase and dethroning Big Show at TLC last December Daniel Bryan had held the United States title. During his time with that belt he was afforded no extra screen time and was treated as just another member of the roster. He may as well not have had the US gold at all.

The World title win afforded him more time on TV, more interest from the booking team and some development in the character department. Fans started taking more of an interest in him too, because they realise someone winning the World title means something, while someone winning the United States belt isn’t especially important.

Bryan had been on the roster for a year and a half at that point and it was the first time the booking team had really pushed him. You could easily forget his US title run, imagine the World title as the Intercontinental title and view that reign as Bryan’s first taste of mid-card glory.

The man who beat him and holds the belt now is Sheamus. He won the WWE championship twice between late 2009 and the summer of 2010 and while he didn’t do a bad job he didn’t really connect with fans as the promotion’s lead heel. It was an experimental reign.

The company dropped him down to the mid-card and gradually built him back up, turning him face in the process. When he captured the World title at WrestleMania he was far more over and more believable in the role of champion. This is partly because he was more experienced and partly because the World Heavyweight championship is not seen as being as important as the WWE title. There’s less pressure and it feels a better match for ‘Great White’ at this time.

Part of the trouble is that WWE has too many titles. The United States and Intercontinental belts have been devalued by changing hands too often and not being booked as titles people actually want to hold. The emphasis has firmly been on the two world titles.

WWE cannot get rid of its two mid-card belts and keep two world belts though. It’s not practical and would not solve the issue of the WHC being the clear second yet still billed with world status. I would suggest getting rid of the World Heavyweight championship and the US championship, in that order, and returning to the days of the WWE championship and the Intercontinental championship being the two prizes the organisation offers.

The WWE title is already the top prize in the business. It’s the belt held by one of the company’s most over stars in CM Punk and wanted by merchandise king John Cena and Hollywood megastar The Rock. It is already treated about as well as it can be by the writing team.

The Intercontinental title needs a boost though. If the other belts were written off TV the company would need to dedicate time to rebuilding the white belt’s tattered image. It would need to look like a star builder again. The best way of accomplishing that would be to book it as the World Heavyweight belt has been booked for the last several years. Treat it as a secondary world title, just don’t actually make it one.

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