Looking Back at Storied Champions
When you think back to the evolution of the World Championships that are most respected around the world, often the most recognizable champions who define many of those championships do so by retaining their gold over extended periods of time. The WWF World Heavyweight Championship was synonymous with the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, and Hulk Hogan. The NWA World Championship was defined by long reigning champions including Dory Funk Jr, Ric Flair, and Harley Race. The AWA was measured by the reigns of Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel. Even ECW can reference long reigns by the Sandman and Raven as ways they legitimized their championship.
It used to be that fans would go to a show to see their champion reign supreme after vanquishing yet another foe. Bruno Sammartino would be expected to sell out Madison Square garden each month because the fans wanted to see him topple that month’s challenger. Dory Funk Jr would travel the world and defend against any and all challengers while garnering the support of the fans for a long and storied reign. Despite many separate championship reigns, Ric Flair seemed to be the odds on favorite to win at virtually all NWA shows throughout his heyday. When he did lose a championship, it was usually for a short period of time until he regained his coveted prize. That was how the champions were booked and the fans loved it.
The Fans Change of Heart
Today’s fans have seemed to become disenfranchised with the long title reign unless it is one that is handed to their chosen superstar. WWE allowed CM Punk and JBL to have lengthy championship reigns as well as Seth Rollins and now Brock Lesnar. Unfortunately, when WWE was pushing CM Punk as the main event, they were looking ahead to other stars which took away from the magic of Punk’s amazing run as WWE champion. Brock Lesnar’s current Universal Championship reign is going to break all sorts of modern era records but is consistently scrutinized due to Brock’s light work schedule and lack of passion for the business. It makes the fans crave a title change.
Promotions like Ring of Honor have even strayed away from what made their championship special. Long gone are the extended reigns of Samoa Joe at a record 645 days. Nigel McGuinness held the ROH title for 545 days. Even the 462 and 427 day reigns of Daniel Bryan and Jay Lethal are few and far between. Long term champions used to be the staple of their company.
New Japan Pro Wrestling has seen Kazuchika Okada hold the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship for an astounding 700 days. Astounding is a term chosen because when compared to any world championship run since the 1990s, 700 days is the longest reign out there. Unfortunately, it is a far cry from the reigns of champions past. Bruno Sammartino had 2 reigns as WWWF Champion that went for 2,803 and 1,237 days. Bob Backlund held the WWWF/WWF Championship for 2,135 days. Pedro Morales held the WWWF Championship for 1,027 days. Hulk Hogan’s 1,474 day reign is the last of its kind.
When you look at the NWA World championship you also have long term reigns that gave the championship its credability. Lou Thez had many reigns but two of them saw him holding the championship for 2,300 and 1,079 days and was huge in the early days. Pat O’Connor holding it for 903 seems short by the standards in those days. Other extended reigns were given to Dory Funk Jr (1,563 days), Gene Kiniski (1,131 days), Harley Race (926), Ric Flair’s long reigns (631, 793, 412, 452, & 426 days), and finally Dan Severn’s reign of 1,479 days.
Why are we here?
What it boils down to is one of a few possible issues. It could be the excitement of crowning a new champion has become the motivation for shorter reigns. Fans want to see the new champion crowned. Perhaps it is the result of promoters like Vince McMahon changing their mind too quickly and wanting to push different talents too quickly. It could also be that promotions like WWE want to push new merchandise and crowning a new champion allows for a slew of new T-Shirt designs. Maybe they just have poor booking and build up of new characters that there is no one who they feel is established enough to carry the brand.
Whatever it is, long term championship reigns are far less common these days and when the fans see one, they typically complain that they want to see a change at the top of the card. I have seen countless messages on all form of social media comparing Kazuchika Okada and Brock Lesnar to CM Punk. Punk had one of the most incredible modern day reigns and his reign is clearly more influential and more significant than Okada, who has only defended the IWGP Championship 12 times in the 700+ day reign he is currently in. Punk’s reign is by far more impressive than Brock’s 415+ day reign simply because Punk showed up at every house show. He defended the belt at every Pay Per View. Most importantly, he was beyond just a wrestler. He was a showman who could wrestle, talk, promote, and was so quick witted that WWE really never maximized his potential.
Who could do it today?
When you think about it, is there really anyone in wrestling today that fans could get behind for a 1,000 day reign? Is there someone they would accept as the one and only face of a franchise that would transcend the sport and be deserving of an incredible reign like that? Who are the possibilities? Daniel Bryan, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Braun Strowman, and many others would be the first ones to consider but can you see the fans or the talent wanting to have a reign of that length? John Cena has held the WWE Championship for a whopping 1,257 total combined days but his days are spread over 13 different reigns.
The reality is that in the short sighted world of professional wrestling these days, it will be virtually impossible to see one of those epic reigns again. The wrestling world nowadays revolves around spontaneity and rejects legacy and legitimacy in its champions. Alas, long championship reigns are no longer a sign of legitimacy or legacy.