Friday 14 March 2014

Intercontinental Versus United States: More Unification

On May 19 2013 Dean Ambrose defeated Kofi Kingston to win the WWE United States championship. On November 8 2013 Big E (then a Langston) defeated Curtis Axel to win the WWE Intercontinental championship. Both are mid-card championships designed to enhance the status of the stars wearing them and mark them out as names on the rise.

Are the titles doing this? I don’t think so. Ambrose and Big E are both over but that has more to do with their own abilities: Ambrose’s peculiar mannerisms and promo skills and Big E’s cool, understated self-assuredness are more noteworthy than their hardware. In Ambrose’s case it’s also a result of the fantastic booking he and his Shield teammates have enjoyed over the last year and a half.

Big E with his not-so-big belt
Twenty years ago the Intercontinental championship was a valuable prize in the WWF. It was protected by being placed (mostly) on good wrestlers and being presented as something that people wanted to win. People cared about it, or at least didn’t think of it in disparaging terms, because the wrestlers cared about it and because it was linked to enjoyable matches.

I’ve written before that the introduction of the World Heavyweight championship dealt the status of the IC gold a blow, one from which it’s never recovered. The WHC gradually usurped the Intercontinental title’s spot of being the number two strap, the prize the workers won, the title that was used as a reward for veterans who’d never get the WWE title, and the title which rising stars won. It became the company’s second most important prize.

When the World title was folded into the WWE championship last year I thought this state of affairs might change, that the Intercontinental championship may slowly regain some prominence. It didn’t seem unreasonable to assume that Big E, as the number two champion in the company (and more to the point someone WWE were and are keen to groom for the top) could get more microphone time and more opportunities to defend his title on RAW in an effort to highlight that he and his title had been moved up a notch.

He didn’t get that. Neither did Dean Ambrose get similar chances to defend his belt. He notably went three and a half months, from the post-Hell in a Cell RAW on October 28 2013 to the February 10 2014 RAW, without defending his championship at a televised event. Big E went two months, not defending his title (on TV) between the December 30 RAW and Elimination Chamber in February. More worryingly no other wrestler has shown any real interest in relieving either champion of their title.
Do you care about this championship?
If the wrestlers don’t want to defend their titles and nobody’s interested in beating them for them then why should viewers care about them? And if viewers don’t care about them what’s the purpose of keeping them around? WWE has demonstrated that they’re not interested in, or are incapable of, giving meaning to two mid-card championships at the moment. Part of the problem stems from the fact that they concern themselves almost exclusively with the main event players and treat mid-card men like Dolph Ziggler, Kofi Kingston, Bad News Barrett, Damien Sandow, and Fandango as afterthoughts. There are enough guys on the roster to sustain two mid-card championships, but WWE doesn’t have the interest to.

The best thing that could be done right now would be to have Big E and Ambrose face off in a unification match, with whoever wins quietly getting rid of the US title after a few weeks or a month. That would leave the remaining Intercontinental title looking more prestigious even if it was booked exactly as it is now: it wouldn’t be sharing its level with the US strap.

I wouldn’t like to see it happen at WrestleMania though. Extreme Rules looks like the better option to me. It could, if presented in a dynamic fashion, be used as a reason for people to buy the show. It wouldn’t add anything extra to WrestleMania. In fact it might actually look out of place presented on ‘The Grandest Stage of Them All’ because it could raise the question of why two mid-card titles were being unified there while the company’s two world titles were chucked together at the last minute in a match at TLC.

If WWE had a mind to they could make great use of the Intercontinental championship. It could be used as a tool to highlight rising stars, start feuds, and add good matches with meaning to TV shows and pay-per-views, just like it used to. But I think we’re a long way from seeing that happen. Which is another hurdle for the non-established roster members to overcome.

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