The WWE Championship was once the most important narrative element of WWE programming. It signified the titleholder as the main character on television at any given time, and attaining it was the ultimate goal for every character in the WWE Universe.
The title was power, a way of differentiating the leading men from the supporting cast. Such greats as Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H and John Cena—all of whom served as the company's central character during their careers—have carried the WWE Championship throughout different eras. The title is indeed the most prestigious prize in all of professional wrestling throughout the world.
At least, it was.
Since 1999, the prestige of the WWE Championship has been severely diminished by several key events. This article chronicles 11 of these events, beginning around the time of former creative head Vince Russo's departure in 1999 until the present day.
Today, Triple H is one of the all-time greatest WWE Champions. With accomplishment comes credibility, and over the years, he has certainly grown into a household name. Of course, he was not always so renowned or deserving of the recognition he now receives.
In the summer of 1999, Triple H was just beginning his ascension into the (then) WWF's main-event scene as a ruthless heel. The main event of SummerSlam 1999 was originally supposed to pit WWE Champion Stone Cold Steve Austin against Triple H, who was supposed to win the title cleanly, thus cementing his status as a true main-event talent.
There was a problem with this scenario, however. Stone Cold Steve Austin—then the highest drawing talent in the company—did not believe the Triple H character was developed enough to believably win the WWF Championship and reign at the top of the card, thus he would not agree to lose the match cleanly. It could also be argued that Austin simply did not want to relinquish his spot to a man who would marry into the company's hierarchy, but only a few people will ever know the truth.
Whatever the case, Triple H was indeed WWF Champion after SummerSlam 1999, but the way in which he won the title was suspect and tarnished not only the credibility of the titleholder but also that of the title itself.
As a quick solution to Austin's refusal to put Triple H over cleanly, Mankind was added to the match late in the advertising period for the event. At the conclusion of the match, it was Mankind—already a proven draw as a titleholder—who celebrated a WWF Championship win.
The main event of Raw is War the following night was painfully predictable: Triple H defeated Mankind to win his first WWF Championship. The company was obviously committed to putting the title around the waist of Triple H at that point in time, but the transition and ensuing title reign were not nearly as powerful as they could have been if Triple H defeated Stone Cold Steve Austin outright.
In my opinion, Triple H was not ready to be WWF Champion in 1999. In a perfect world, Austin and Helmsley would have feuded until WrestleMania 16, but Austin was shelved by neck surgery following his appearance at Survivor Series 1999.
Still, a clean win for Triple H over Stone Cold at SummerSlam would have helped his character and the credibility of the WWF Championship regardless if he was ready for it.
Such is professional wrestling, though; what you see on television is almost always dictated by backstage politics and real world issues rather than creative direction.
The first man to unseat Triple H as WWF Champion was none other than he chairman himself, Vince McMahon. While this is in no way comparable to David Arquette's WCW Championship win in terms of damaging prestige to a title, it was certainly not necessary.
This particular title switch happened at the conclusion of one of the first episodes of WWF SmackDown, a show which was in the process of proving itself as a solid contributor to UPN's prime-time lineup. At the time, McMahon likely figured a title switch on broadcast television would spike ratings for the show that night and in the ensuing weeks. Fair enough—he was probably right.
The problem with this title change is readily apparent, however. Regardless of the circumstances under which McMahon won the title or how believable the events of the match were, the WWF Champion was defeated by a 54-year-old man who had wrestled his first match less than one year prior. For those who did not actually see the show that night, that is a hard pill to swallow.
McMahon ultimately forfeited the WWF Championship, which ended up back round the waist of Triple H in short order.
So what was the point of this, really? Sure, it may have been shocking and perhaps helped ratings for a week or two, but it weakened the credibility of Triple H during a time when the WWF needed a strong character to fill the void left by Stone Cold's impending absence.
In the storyline, Stone Cold Steve Austin was hit by a car and removed from the main event of Survivor Series 1999, which was billed as a triple threat match also including The Rock and the WWF Champion, Triple H. Austin's replacement for the match was Big Show, who had single-handedly defeated a team of midcard talents earlier in the evening. This bait and switch was revealed after fans had already paid to see the advertised main event.
Big Show won the WWF Championship this night, another move that was likely done for shock value. It was clear to most fans that Big Show should not have been WWF Champion at that point. With the title's prestige already in flux due to the events of the past few months, this was simply a poor decision by the creative team.
Triple H would regain the title before the end of he year, indicating an absence of any long-term title plans for Big Show.
Perhaps the worst part of this title win is that the WWF Championship was downgraded out of narrative necessity. Prior to his title victory, Big Show was embroiled in a midcard feud with the Big Bossman. Since the title win came unexpectedly, he WWF had no choice but to wrap up the storyline with the Big Bossman. The two squared off for the WWF Championship just one time, but the effects of this match were disastrous.
For one brief period in 1999, the WWF Championship was relegated to a midcard feud.
The title had been on a strange journey since Vince Russo left the WWF in September 1999, but this was the most damaging event yet.
In a moment that will live on as one of the WWF's biggest mistakes, Chris Jericho won the WWF Championship in the summer of 2000 only to have he decision nullified later that night.
This seriously damaged the prestige of the title. It wasn't as bad as Kevin Nash laying down for Hulk Hogan, thus killing WCW, but many fans lost interest in the WWF after this occurrence.
During the match, Triple H physically assaulted referee Earl Hebner. After Jericho landed a lionsault, he pinned Triple H with the assist of a fast count from Hebner. Jericho was announced as the winner and new WWF Champion.
Later that night, Triple H proceeded to bully Hebner into reversing the decision, citing a fast count and impartiality as a referee.
The decision was reversed, and Triple H was granted the WWF Championship. The match was stricken from official records.
First of all, Triple H should have been disqualified for assaulting Hebner, thus removing the possibility of a title switch altogether. Secondly, the fast count should not have been used as cause for reversal. By this logic, Shawn Michaels would have been granted the WWF Championship after WrestleMania 14, and his match with Steve Austin would be erased.
The WWF essentially told viewers that Triple H and the McMahons always get their way, and that the WWF Championship can be bullied into one's possession. At that point, after years of signifying the very best wrestler in the world, the WWF Championship was won backstage, without a wrestling match.
Thus started the WWF's ratings decline that persists to this day.
Kurt Angle should not have won the WWF Championship at No Mercy in 2000. I understand that the company wanted to push a new major heel, but Angle simply wasn't ready for the role at the time. As a heel, Angle was mildly irritating and his in-ring work was superb, but the fans were not invested in the character to the point where they would buy into him beating The Rock for the title.
This was eventually apparent, as Angle would drop the title back to The Rock a month before WrestleMania 17. The company probably realized that Angle was nowhere near popular enough to headline the biggest show of the year, thus he was relegated to a midcard match with Chris Benoit (which arguably stole the show).
Kurt Angle's first WWF title reign ultimately amounted to nothing. I firmly believe that The Rock should have held the title until WrestleMania 17. We would have been spared the failed main-event ascension of Rikishi and an unnecessary Rock/Undertaker tag team title run.
This is simply an example of the WWF placing its championship on a man whom the fans did not yet view as a champion.
Vince McMahon and company made a good decision by creating the WWE Undisputed Championship. After years of wrestling fans having two equally revered world championships, there was finally one man labeled as the absolute best in he world.
There was a problem, though; with a roster larger than it had ever been following an influx of former WCW and ECW talents, there were too many names being left out of the main-event scene. The solution for this was to simply create two distinct main event scenes–one for Raw and another for SmackDown.
Brock Lesnar was the WWE Undisupted Champion when the split occurred, having defeated The Rock for the title at SummerSlam 2002. Instead of being the main attraction for WWE, as he should have been while WWE Champion, Lesnar was limited to only one television show per week, and it was WWE SmackDown, the less popular of the two. Meanwhile, Triple H would carry the newly christened World Heavyweight Championship (essentially a resurrection of the WCW Championship) and defend it in high-profile feuds on WWE's flagship program, Monday Night Raw.
This split of the Undisputed Championship effectively made the WWE Championship the No. 2 wrestling title in the world behind the big gold belt that diehard WWE fans had detested for years.
WWE slapped its own lineage in the face with this move. I am almost certain that Triple H simply wanted to be the top name in the company over Lesnar, and this was the only way to do it.
This was an absolute atrocity. If there was ever a character that could not credibly be the WWE Champion, it was JBL.
Mere weeks prior to his first title win, John Bradshaw Layfield was still in a tag team with Ron Simmons and had been a tag team wrestler for much of his career. With WWE in need of a stronger antagonist presence at the time, he was quickly transformed into a character reminiscent of a mix between J.R. Ewing and Ted DiBiase.
Giving Layfield this new character was not a bad idea; in fact, he played his role very well. Giving him the WWE Championship so quickly was a terrible idea, though. Ratings were flagging more than usual with Eddie Guerrero as WWE Champion, but surely nobody actually believed that turning an aging tag team wrestler into a WWE Champion practically overnight would help ratings.
I suppose WWE figured his cross-media appeal stemming from appearances on Fox news was enough to warrant a championship reign.
Immediately? Not a chance.
The main event of WrestleMania 21 will forever be remembered for the rise of Batista, who ended Triple H's long, bitter reign as World Heavyweight Champion. From a canonical perspective, this was the biggest match of the year until that point. It ushered in a respectable title reign from Batista and solidified the Animal as a top-drawing act in the ensuing years.
Of course, the prominence of the World Heavyweight Championship dated back to the split of the WWE Undisputed Championship in 2002. Since then, the WWE Championship had been showcased on the "B" show, WWE SmackDown, and was thus presented as the "B" title.
John Cena was well on his way to superstardom but was still quite far from the level Batista recently attained. This is due in large part to the quality of their respective opponents.
Batista had defeated Triple H, unquestionably the central villain of WWE programming at the time, regardless of the brand split. In other words, JBL was not considered an equal to Triple H in terms of notoriety or credibility as an accomplished wrestler, despite holding a comparable title. When John Cena defeated JBL, his victory was seen as lesser than Batista's, for his opponent was a less powerful character.
It was clear that WWE had narrowed down their future cash cow sweepstakes to two candidates: Batista and John Cena, the former being the front-runner at the time. With this in mind, it makes sense that Batista would win the Royal Rumble (last eliminating Cena) and go on to face Triple H at WrestleMania.
John Cena would eventually get his match against Triple H the following year at WrestleMania 22 (Batista's injuries really lowered his standing in the company), and he would go into the match as the reigning WWE Champion. His subsequent victory over The Game added more emphasis and legitimacy to both his character and the WWE Championship, but he was still playing catchup due to his first title win coming during the undercard of WrestleMania 21.
Occasionally, wrestling fans are fortunate enough to witness a brand new character who can feasibly become WWE Champion shortly after his debut. Such was the case with Brock Lesnar, a superstar unlike any before him. Lesnar was absolutely enthralling to watch in the ring. He was characterized exactly as he should have been: a monster heel who would absolutely destroy anyone who stepped into the ring with him. His first WWE Championship bout saw him as the favorite to The Rock's underdog, a scenario the fans wholeheartedly believed.
Such was not the case for Sheamus, who defeated John Cena for the WWE Championship mere months after his debut. While a large man himself, Sheamus was not nearly as terrifying as Brock Lesnar was after debuting. At the time, fans were treated to squash matches; Sheamus would destroy lower-card talent, most notably Jamie Noble, whose career he ended in storyline. Other than that, fans did not really know Sheamus, and they did not have a good reason to take interest in him just yet.
When Sheamus surprisingly won a No. 1 contender's battle royal to earn a shot against John Cena, most fans unquestionably believed Cena would prevail and that the match was booked as a way of strengthening the Sheamus character while offering a new matchup. Nobody really believed Sheamus would walk out of TLC 2009 as the WWE Champion.
Granted, Sheamus and Cena competed in a Tables match, in which a fluke victory is entirely possible. This is exactly what happened in this match; Sheamus pushed Cena off the top rope and through a table, thus winning the most coveted prize in sports entertainment.
My question is simple: Why would WWE have Sheamus win the title at all if the switch is entirely devoid of credibility? A cheap win for a new villain only weakens that villain's drawing power in fans' eyes. Sheamus was not believably dominant like Lesnar was, and when he won the WWE Championship, fans around the globe lamented the fact that the top prize was around the waist of an unproven, unbelievable newcomer.
Of course, WWE must have known that Sheamus was not another Brock Lesnar; if that were the case, he would have mauled John Cena just as Brock Lesnar had done to The Rock.
Sheamus' first title win will be remembered as a failed experiment that ultimately damaged the prestige of the WWE Championship, and I certainly hope that if WWE ever decides to place the title on a newcomer again, they pick the right man for the job, like they did in 2002.
Speaking of superstars who are not ready to be WWE Champion, Alberto Del Rio is by far the most notorious offender.
While it took Del Rio longer than Sheamus to achieve WWE gold, his reigns are far more forgettable and damaging to the WWE canon. Del Rio is a prime example of the WWE marketing machine's efforts to create something out of nothing. To this day, very few American fans believe Del Rio should even be in WWE main events, let alone reigning as champion.
Del Rio's first title reign came cheaply, as he cashed in a Money in the Bank briefcase to defeat CM Punk, who had just battled and defeated John Cena only to be subsequently incapacitated by a returning Kevin Nash. Considering some of Edge's title reigns came in similar fashion and ultimately hurt his credibility as a champion (let's face it, Edge will never be mentioned in the same league as Hogan, Austin and The Rock), I cannot fathom why WWE would give the title to Del Rio this way. It didn’t work for The Miz, who was clearly much more popular than Del Rio was at the same juncture, so why would this case be any different?
In fairness, WWE had invested greatly in Alberto Del Rio and were looking for a good return on their investment. Del Rio had previously competed in Mexico as Dos Caras and was an absolute superstar in his home country. American fans can easily forget that WWE is more a global product now than it ever has been, and while many Americans may not like Del Rio's character, people from other nations—particularly Mexico—adore the man.
This raises an important issue: WWE toured Mexico in mid-October of last year, and of course, Alberto Del Rio was WWE Champion at the time. This is no coincidence. It is quite clear that Del Rio's second reign was done solely to raise live gates at the Mexican shows and to make the company's advertising much more appealing to the Mexican fanbase.
Quite simply, Alberto Del Rio became champion as a way to globalize the WWE brand, to thicken revenue streams around the world. For this same reason, Sin Cara will likely hold a major championship the next time WWE tours Mexico.
This is just another case of stockholders and dividends dictating WWE's creative direction.
On the bright side, this might not always be such a bad thing. I would not be opposed to seeing Wade Barrett battle Sheamus for a championship at WrestleMania 30 if it is held at Wembley Stadium. The crowd would likely be electric.
After WWE's 2011 tour of Mexico was complete, there was little reason to keep the WWE Championship around Alberto Del Rio's waist. The focus shifted back to the American fans, who were clamoring for their newly found hero, CM Punk, to bring legitimacy back to the WWE title scene.
At Survivor Series, CM Punk defeated Alberto Del Rio to begin his third reign as WWE Champion, which continues to this day. This reign has one major flaw, however.
Since winning the title, Punk has closed only one pay-per-view, that being TLC in December 2011, where he defeated Alberto Del Rio and The Miz in a triple threat match.
Suspiciously, John Cena was left off the card for this pay-per-view, likely as a way for WWE to gauge how well Punk can sell a show on his own. The main event was undeniably weak, though; Punk's victory was far too predictable, as the fans did not believe Del Rio or The Miz could feasibly walk out as champion (seeing as they had both failed as champion already).
Why buy a show if the outcome is already painfully obvious? Interesting characters require interesting storylines, and vice versa—there is no other way. The mediocre buy-rate for TLC 2011 is in no way CM Punk's fault. The blame falls entirely on the WWE creative team.
Since that event, John Cena as headlined six pay-per-views without holding a major championship, while WWE Champion CM Punk has defended his title on the undercard. The longer this persists, the less prestigious the WWE title appears in fans' eyes. This is especially true for new fans, particularly young children who will grow up with the notion that the title is not important.
CM Punk could potentially be in the main event of SummerSlam this Sunday, as he is defending the title against Big Show and John Cena (Triple H versus Brock Lesnar will likely go on last, though). If WWE is planning something major for this title match and it does indeed go on last, the company will effectively prove that John Cena is more important than the WWE Championship, as the title will only appear in a main event if Cena is involved.
Only time will tell how WWE presents its top prize in the future. I certainly hope the title returns to prominence and transcends the drawing power of individual superstars again at some point, but it might take some time after all the trouble it has seen since the Attitude Era.