‘One Fall’ is a weekly editorial column where I will explore and discuss the world of professional wrestling every Friday.
This past Sunday was the Smackdown Live exclusive pay-per-view WWE Clash of Champions. Unlike the original WWE version known as Night of Champions where every championship in the company was defended, we only saw the championships from the Smackdown Live brand defended. And while we witnessed four championship matches on a card titled Clash of Champions, the championship matches to me lacked a sense of importance and emphasis.
Throughout history, we have seen the art of the professional wrestling championships change throughout eras. We went from the territorial days of having a world champion for several years at a time to having the world championship change hands on a weekly basis during the Monday Night Wars. Now in WWE, there are two world champions much like there was during the first installment of the Brand Extension except this time one of the champions disappears for months at a time (cough, cough Brock Lesnar). Today, it feels like more now than ever that championships are used for statistical purposes rather than matches or storylines, and with the large amount of similar championships out there, it truly is a clash of the champions.
Before I get any further, I need to clarify that my issue is not with the amount of championships in WWE, but rather the layout of the championships and the uses for them. According to wwe.com, on RAW there are 32 male superstars, 17 cruiserweights, and 11 female superstars, and on Smackdown there are 33 male superstars and 11 female superstars. When you factor in that those numbers are counting tag teams as well as individuals who are not appearing on a weekly or even monthly basis such as John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Neville, the amount of credible individuals vying for those championships are very slim.
Champions are meant to be the best of the best, not the best of a small group. At the main roster level, there is essentially four singles titles and two sets of tag belts and two sets of women’s belts to vie for. The only thing separating the championships are the shows they appear on and the credibility (or attendance) of the world champion for that brand. The women’s and tag team championships are the same championship just with a RAW or Smackdown in front of it and the Universal Championship seems like a made-up paper championship. In this current model, these championships pad statistics and record books and dilute the history and importance of championships in a promotion.
During the first brand split, we had individuals such as Jack Swagger, Alberto Del Rio, Dolph Ziggler, Christian, The Great Khali, Sheamus, Mark Henry, and The Big Show capture the World Heavyweight Championship. These individuals will forever be known throughout WWE history as world champions. And while these individuals were competing for the World Heavyweight Championship, the Intercontinental Championship and United States Championships suffered with superstars who were largely undeserving getting shots at these titles as well as the infamous United States title reign from one Dean Ambrose who rarely defended it and became the longest reigning WWE United States Champion in the process. It wasn’t until 2013 when the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships were unified that WWE’s championships felt important again.
I believe the best example of a major professional wrestling promotion with an ideal layout for its championships is New Japan Pro Wrestling. NJPW has eight championships that are vastly different and cater to specific divisions on the roster. There are the usual championships in the form of the IWGP Heavyweight, Intercontinental, United States, and Tag Team Championship, but also the NEVER division with its Openweight and 6-man Tag Titles and the Junior Heavyweight division with its own title as well as a set of tag titles. Each championship serves a role and feels important.
Another brand that has a great structure for its championships is NXT. The purity of NXT is based on the fact that NXT has only three championships: the NXT Championship, the NXT Tag Team Championship, and the NXT Women’s Championship. There is not a secondary championship, or tertiary for the matter; each division gets its own title. Recently we have seen the WWE United Kingdom Championship defended on NXT but that is more of a special attraction than an obligation. Takeover events are anchored with three quality championship matches along with a couple important matches that do not necessarily need a championship to feel important such as The Velveteen Dream vs. Aleistar Black at NXT Takeover: War Games. Promotions that understand the role that championships serve and add to the product are the promotions that thrive the most when it comes to storylines and consistency.
I would like to see a system where the WWE World Heavyweight Championship is the company’s top prize and can be defended against individuals from both RAW and Smackdown. This would then mean that the Intercontinental Championship is on one brand and the United States Championship on the other acting as “territorial titles.” Say for example AJ Styles is the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Because AJ Styles is a Smackdown performer, the Intercontinental Championship and thus Roman Reigns is the top title and top performer. This then increases the importance of the Intercontinental Championship as its RAW’s top title and allows RAW a chance to determine a #1 contender to face Styles at a RAW PPV or dual-branded PPV, or allow for quality feuds to develop that do not necessarily warrant a championship. Then over on Smackdown, the United States Championship, while not the top prize at the moment, has a chance to create opportunities for individuals not quite at the main event level.
Also, an ideal setup would have the women’s division on RAW and the tag team division on Smackdown, or vice-versa. These two divisions function best when unified rather than separate. Giving RAW and Smackdown their own division will allow each brand to carve their own unique identity while giving each division ample time devoted exclusively to it. With the separation of these divisions, we may never get to see championships such as a set of Women’s Tag Team Championship belts or a 6-man Tag Team Championship in WWE. If WWE were to merge their divisions back to one women’s division and one tag team division, it would add more opportunities and more options for storylines and booking. Another issue with two separate divisions is the lack of depth. Before the addition of Absolution and the Riott Squad, we were essentially seeing the same matches over and over again and a lack of any real character development.
With RAW’s five championships, Smackdown Live’s four championships, and NXT’s three championships as well as the WWE United Kingdom Championship, WWE has thirteen championships plus accolades throughout the year such as the Royal Rumble, Money in the Bank, the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, the occasional King of the Ring, the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic (which was sadly missed this year) or Network tournaments such as the Cruiserweight Classic or the Mae Young Classic. If structured correctly, WWE could use championships to create superstars rather than superstars trying to validate these championship titles.