So WWE decides to bring back its Brand Split in 2016 to allow for more talents to get over and offer the fans a more exciting experience. I support that. They move the WWE Championship to Smackdown to solidify the brand. I support that as well. They created the WWE Universal Championship to be the flagship title on Raw. So far they had me hook, line, and sinker. Then they went on to book the WWE Universal Championship as nothing more than a big event, no significance, and no legitimacy artifact that is never showcased on the flagship brand.
What Goes into a Flag Bearer?
WWE has had a tough time establishing a true ‘Flag Bearer” for Raw since the brand split occurred. They thought they had their man in the inaugural champion Finn Balor. He was put over Seth Rollins on his way to winning the title but by the end of his triumphant evening, he could barely lift his arm as he had suffered a severe shoulder injury. He would relinquish the title the next day.
Kevin Owens was given the next shot. He was handed the title by Triple H in a very “Daniel Bryan vs Randy Orton 2013” kind of way. This did nothing to solidify Kevin Owens as the Main Man on the brand. To Owens’ credit, he did have the only 3 Monday Night Raw Universal Championship matches in the title’s history.
Next we had the Goldberg experiment. He defeats Kevin Owens and never gives him a rematch. Come to think of it, has any former Universal Champion ever had a rematch when they lost/vacated the title? The answer would be no. The same is the case for Goldberg when he lost the title to Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 33.
With Lesnar as the Universal Champion, WWE had a legitimate attraction holding the belt. He is a walking mass of destruction. His demeanor is that of an arrogant prize fighter. He strikes fear in the eyes of his opponents. And he virtually never shows up on television. Let’s face it, Brock Lesnar may as well be The Rock for as often as he shows up. Since April of 2017, Brock has made a mere 21 appearances on Raw itself and has never defended the title or even had a match on the brand.
What will the Legacy of the Universal Championship Be?
The WWE Championship may not have the longest lineage but when you consider the impact that it has had on the industry, it is hard to debate that it is the most important championship in the world. There are those who will argue for the NWA or IWGP championships but the NWA has spent the better part of 30 years toiling in mediocrity and seeing sub-par champions like Rob Conway and R Truth as champion. The IWGP championship is very prestigious but has a significantly shorter tenure in the world of professional wrestling and does not have the mainstream coverage that the WWE championship does. In the end, the WWE Championship is the Apex of the industry right now.
Where does that leave the Universal Championship? One would think WWE would want to add to their own legacy and bring legitimacy to the Universal Title. Wouldn’t it behoove WWE to crown a magnificent worker as the flag bearer and showcase them constantly to earn the credibility of other championships within the industry? As it stands right now, they have not. They were close with Kevin Owens but since his championship loss to Goldberg, the title has been worthless.
Where does the Universal Title Stack up?
Right now, the you can make the argument that the WWE Universal Championship is behind the IWGP, Ring of Honor, AAA Mega, WWN, and even the Impact Wrestling World Championship. There is an argument to be made that the Universal Title is behind both the WWE and IWGP Intercontinental championships as well as the United States, ROH Television, and X Division championships based solely on the level of competition that has battled for and held those titles. It is sad when it is open to debate if the WWE Universal Championship is really the 4th most prestigious championship in its own company. At least Pete Dunne and Cedric Alexander defend their titles. Of course Dunne defends his on Progress and ICW shows and Alexander is stranded on 205 Live but at least they being legitimacy to those titles.
Honest Historical Comparison
Here is the interesting part though. In the 1980’s when Hulk Hogan was world champion, just looking at television defenses, the WWE Championship was rarely defended. It would happen on Saturday Night’s Main Event. Perhaps it would be defended at the big pay per view events but almost never on the Saturday morning shows or Prime Time Wrestling on USA. If your method of comparison is the title defenses on television, the Universal Championship is doing just fine. Of course Hogan would make weekly appearances and cut promos. He would get squashed on the Brother Love Show by Earthquake or get double crossed by Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff every now and then.
What about the other side of being champion? Hogan toured the country defending his title against any and all challengers. He had non-televised feuds with Adrian Adonis, Terry Funk, Don Murracco, Nicolai Volkoff, Brutus Beefcake, and many others to go along with the high profile programs with the likes of Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy, Roddy Piper, and the aforementioned Paul Orndorff.
Brock Lesnar has little contribution in either way. There have been no championship defenses on Raw since winning the title. There have been 21 sporadic Raw appearances. He has done a handful of house shows. Most importantly, there have only been 12 matches under his belt including the Universal Championship win since WrestleMania 33.
The Sum of the Parts
In the end, it is an indictment on WWE creative and Vince McMahon that the WWE Universal Championship is virtually meaningless in the industry. It is not unsalvageable but it is far from a forgone conclusion that it will be an equivalent championship to the WWE title any time soon. WWE needs to put the championship on someone who is consistent and who can represent the largest sports entertainment company in the world, on its flagship program, in a way that brings the same respect to the Universal Championship as the WWE title has right now.
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