It feels as if WWE is venturing into new territory by crowning a part-time champion in Brock Lesnar, but in a way the company is simply circling back to the way things used to be.
Over the years, WWE's titleholders have become a more common sight on TV. That has caused a shift in expectations from fans.
Lesnar is already hearing some of the same criticisms that The Rock endured about not being on Raw every week, about not serving as the face of the company.
The Rock and Lesnar are anomalies in today's WWE, but past champions have had lighter schedules than the members of the undercard. As hard as Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan worked throughout their champions reigns, it sounds sacrilegious to call them part-timers. In a way they were, though.
Fans are now used to a champion like CM Punk or John Cena, who is a constant presence on camera and a man who fights regularly.
WWE World Heavyweight Championship history hasn't always unfolded that way. Put Backlund into today's wrestling landscape, and he would inspire scorn.
Part-Time by Today's Standards
After Bruno Sammartino and before Hogan's respective eras, a skilled grappler held the WWE crown for over four years. Backlund was a no-frills performer with a wholesome all-American look, a man as comfortable between the ropes as a carp is in the river.
The company built around him, but in a much different way than it does with its stars today.
During Backlund's first run as WWE champ (Feb. 1978-Dec. 1983), wrestling was not on cable TV or pay-per-view. Back then, WWE had two serials on TV: Championship Wrestling and All Star Wrestling.
The champ didn't show up on either program often.
Even factoring in his appearances in dark matches when these programs were taped, Backlund missed 38 All Star Wrestling shows and 46 Championship Wrestling programs in 1979 alone, per TheHistoryofWWE.com.
That year, Backlund appeared on just one edition of All Star Wrestling and three editions of Championship Wrestling. Try to imagine a modern champion doing that today. If Lesnar wasn't around for that many Raws, fans would break their keyboards sending angry tweets.
The world champ's performances were more sporadic and thus more special.
It wasn't as if Backlund was off doing TV interviews and shooting movies, but he didn't work the kind of schedule today's champions did. That was WWE's way of making a Backlund match, especially a title bout, a can't-miss event.
Compare his workload to Punk's during his recent historic reign. Per CageMatch.net, Backlund's match totals from 1979-1982 were as follows:
- 1979: 92
- 1980: 136
- 1981: 98
- 1982: 93
Punk, meanwhile, wrestled 177 times in 2012, per CageMatch.net.
Backlund was billed as a special attraction. Punk was around every week. Both strategies make sense. WWE could either limit its champions' appearances to add to their novelty and drawing power or, like it did with Punk, lean on him as a constant marquee attraction.
After The Hulkster defeated The Iron Sheik in early 1984, he held tight to the WWE title for nearly as long as Backlund did.
Looking at his schedule, one can hardly call him part-time, but the number of his shows he wasn't a part of is far from what fans expect of their champions today. Take 1985, for example. Digging through the results for that year from TheHistoryofWWE.com, one finds a surprising amount of non-televised shows that were sans Hogan.
It's hard to get an exact number as some of the listings are incomplete, but there are at least 300 house shows where Hogan didn't appear.
That doesn't mean he wasn't a featured performer, though. For at least 115 live events that year, Hogan was kicking WWE's bad guys around in his trademark yellow boots. WWE was still saving Hogan somewhat, but his total of 147 matches that year, per CageMatch.net, beats out what Backlund did before him.
Comparing Hogan's run to Cena's lengthy reign from 2006-2007 shows WWE's changing philosophy in how it presents its top champion.
Before Cena's pectoral injury in the fall, he was a constant on Raw-brand shows. Of the 61 Raw house shows that occurred during Cena's time with the title, he missed just two of them, per The HistoryofWWE.com.
Plus, Cena wrestled on 10 pay-per-views that year. In 1985, WWE only produced two pay-per-views. That contrast not only points out how difficult it is to compare eras, but how much more fans see the world champ on TV.
By the time The Rock defeated Punk in 2013 for the WWE title, the audience was accustomed to seeing the gold flash onscreen often.
The Great One
The Rock's title reign ran from the 2013 Royal Rumble to WrestleMania 29. He fended off Punk in the one pay-per-view between those shows—Elimination Chamber.
In that span, he was far from the constant presence fans are used to seeing from its top titleholder.
Per TheHistoryofWWE.com, he appeared on four editions of Raw and missed five of them. He was only once on SmackDown, and as champ he only wrestled a total of three matches. No house shows featured The Brahma Bull.
By comparison, Backlund and Hogan's schedules seemed like oversaturation. Glimpses of the world champ were now a rarity.
Some fans understood. After all, The Rock was a major movie star at this point. Many assumed he would lose the title to Cena at WrestleMania anyway.
Even if it was a temporary situation, not everyone was happy with it. PWTorch detailed how much backstage resentment The Rock was earning. Some fans offered backlash of their own.
Fans like James Milne were resistant to the idea of The Rock being champ before it happened:
I still don't understand why The Rock is going to win the strap at #RoyalRumble, it'll be embarrassing having a part time Wrestler as champ.— JamesMilne. (@James_Milne) November 9, 2012
The Rock's run wasn't the same as past champs making special appearances. He was viewed by many as an outsider now, as a mercenary of sorts.
Hogan and Backlund were clearly the faces of the company during their time on top. The Rock was making an extended cameo.
Only he could pull this off. His star power was great enough for WWE to diverge from recent tradition. It's hard to imagine the company trying this strategy with Rob Van Dam or Chris Jericho.
Over a year after Cena dethroned The Rock, another part-timer took the title from Cena, changing the rules once again.
The Beast Incarnate
Lesnar stomped Cena into the ground at SummerSlam. He won in such dominating fashion that it feels highly unlikely that WWE will just take the title from him at Night of Champions.
It's a long ways away from WrestleMania when many are assuming Lesnar will lose the title to Roman Reigns. The part-timer's reign will be much lengthier than The Rock's if that's the case.
One still hears pushback about Lesnar holding the title despite only working a paltry schedule, but it's much quieter. Perhaps that's because Lesnar knocked off the man many pin as the scapegoat of the PG Era's flaws. Maybe it's because he's a legit badass and, despite his fame, is not seen as such an outsider as The Rock.
The topic of just how his title reign will play out is still a common one.
Is Lesnar going to work Hell in a Cell and TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs? Are all his feuds going to rely on the pre-recorded promos we've seen in the last few weeks?
WWE is having to carve out a new path for him as it answers those questions. Fans are going to grow annoyed if he misses a succession of Raw episodes. Never showing up at house shows or SmackDown won't help either.
After years of fans seeing Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Cena and Punk recalibrate the audience's expectations of a championship reign, WWE looks to be taking us back to the days when men like Backlund stepped into the spotlight less often.
The world champion is set to be a special attraction once again, the king stepping out of his throne to become a momentous event rather than a commonplace one.