Most of the WWE’s recent intercontinental champions have done virtually nothing to restore the prestige of that title. Ditto for the United States champions.
Despite those titles recently being around the waists of once-promising stars like The Miz, Antonio Cesaro, Kofi Kingston and Wade Barrett, all of them were booked so poorly that they nearly destroyed the prestige of both midcard titles in the process.
After what the U.S. and intercontinental championships have been through over the past few years, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for those titles to matter as much as they should, at least anytime soon.
But thanks to Curtis Axel and Dean Ambrose, the WWE is already in the process of bringing the prestige back to two of the most storied titles in the history of the business.
Granted, neither Axel nor Ambrose is setting the world on fire with his championship reign. But what’s important here is progress, and that’s exactly what those two are making right now, especially when you compare them to the men who held the titles before them.
Before Axel won the belt at Payback, the previous two intercontinental champions were Barrett (twice) and The Miz.
As anyone who has watched WWE TV at all in recent months can tell you, Barrett’s two title reigns were among the absolute worst IC title reigns ever. Barrett lost so many non-title matches during both of his reigns that he somehow managed to become a jobber to the stars despite holding what has historically been one of the WWE’s top prizes.
The Miz’s reign was probably even worse, though. It lasted all of one day after he won it at WrestleMania 29 and then dropped it the next night on Raw.
His title reign was a total disgrace—just like the reigns of the two men who held the U.S. title before Ambrose did, Kofi Kingston and Antonio Cesaro.
Kingston proved to be nothing more than a transitional champion, holding the belt for just 34 days after Cesaro held it for a whopping 239 days. Don’t let that big number fool you, though. Cesaro did not have a quality title reign by any stretch of the imagination.
Despite holding the U.S. championship for the better part of a year, Cesaro had only one feud that was decent (against The Miz) while he spent the rest of his time as champion feuding with forgotten midcarders like Santino Marella and R-Truth.
Oh yeah, he jobbed, too. A lot.
Just like Barrett, Cesaro found himself developing into a jobber to the stars while holding the United States championship. He lost countless matches against anyone from Ryback to Randy Orton, completely killing the prestige of the U.S. title in the process.
The damage that recent titleholders have done to the U.S. and intercontinental titles can’t be easily repaired, and Axel and Ambrose haven’t been booked so greatly as champions that they will do that overnight.
But what Axel and Ambrose have going for them that neither Cesaro nor Barrett ever really did is this: a push.
When Barrett and Cesaro were holding their respective titles, they became totally forgettable acts. They hardly ever won any matches, received almost zero mic time and participated in no really memorable feuds.
Axel and Ambrose, however, are at least being pushed.
Axel has been labeled a “Paul Heyman guy” and is now working side by side with one of the greatest managers in wrestling history. He’s been given valuable TV time, will be teaming up with Punk next week on Raw and has even main-evented Raw on more than occasion.
Ambrose, of course, has made a huge impact in the WWE in the eight months since his debut. He’s feuded with just about every top guy in the company, has put on countless spectacular tag-team matches and is widely viewed as the top dog in one of the best factions in recent memory, The Shield.
The Shield has done a ton of great things in the WWE already, and Ambrose has played a major role in that group’s success. He was getting pushed long before he became the U.S. champion, but winning that title just solidified him as the guy in The Shield and a future world champion in the making.
That’s where Axel and Ambrose are succeeding as champions, where Barrett and Cesaro failed.
Cesaro never found himself main-eventing Raw or SmackDown, or feuding with the biggest stars in the business. Barrett was never paired with an all-time great manager or given the opportunity to go one on one with Triple H on Raw.
But Axel and Ambrose have done those things—making a giant splash in the WWE in a very short span.
They certainly haven’t been booked perfectly, and there still has to be more effort put forth into booking their feuds. But what they’ve done so far has been a major step toward restoring the prestige of the WWE’s midcard titles.
Axel is perceived to be a bigger star because of his alignment with Heyman. Ambrose is viewed as a rising stud because he’s spent his entire WWE career feuding with big names and beating those big names.
The perception is that Axel and Ambrose are two guys to whom you want to pay attention—a far cry from the days of the midcard titleholders being portrayed as jobbers to the stars.
And as long as the perception is that the midcard champions matter, the reality is that they will.
Drake Oz is a WWE Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter!