Unification, What's Your Function?
On the heels of a Survivor Series that struggled to find its memorable moment, last night's Raw started off with a bit of a teaser based on the closing events of Sunday's pay-per-view. In it, current World champion John Cena expressed to fellow (WWE) titleholder Randy Orton and the on-screen upper management of McMahons his desire to see both major titles unified. As with many things in the current product creatively, there's much left to the imagination regarding the execution of this scenario. That's mainly due to the fact that the specific word "unification" was not used, despite the fact that both championships will apparently be in play in their match in a few short weeks. But is unification something that we as fans of the current product should even be looking forward to?
Delving into the lineage of wrestling title belts falls somewhere between completist and madman on the Bell curve. A month's worth of columns could be compiled with facts about how these championships came to be, and as with most traditions, the line between definitive and hazy keeps shrinking in size. A large portion of this confusion is the assumed differentiation between the WWE Championship, which traces its lineage back through the WWWF Championship, established in 1963, and the World Championship, which follows its ancestral roots to the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, established in 1991. These waters are further muddied by the understanding that both WCW and the current-day WWE are technically offshoots of the National Wrestling Alliance from the territorial era of wrestling, so the "history" of both championships can really be theoretically traced all the way back to 1905.
It can be argued (somewhat successfully) that in an art form populated by fixed outcomes, the credentials of a championship become slightly less important. A big reason for that is the fact that currently the WWE is the only big game in town, effectively isolating itself from any perceived competition and forming a monopoly on the perceived right to call any wrestler the "best" simply by wearing their title around their waist. This would disregard the notable moments in pro wrestling's history when unification (or separation) have not only been big stories, but historic events. A glaringly large example of that occurred on August 27, 1994, when ECW booker Paul Heyman scripted champion Shane Douglas to discard his recently-won NWA Heavyweight Championship and become newly-minted ECW World Heavyweight champion. While literally seceding from the NWA, ECW was metaphorically showing its disinterest in the history of wrestling and breaking out to become its far more "extreme" incarnation. Few moments resonate with the power of the actual sea change occurring in the sport like Douglas tossing down the NWA belt in distaste to proclaim the dominance (and difference) of the new title.
Similarly, when the WWE purchased WCW and all of its assets, we as wrestling fans were practically salivating at the prospect of determining who the "best wrestler in the world" was. Long a topic of many a wrestling magazine column and theoretical dream match, the reality was fast approaching with the expectation that the WWE would have its champion take on WCW's champion in the long-standing battle for supremacy. That fantasy did come to pass; well, sort of. At Vengeance 2001, Steve Austin defeated the challenge of Kurt Angle to retain the WWF/E gold, and Chris Jericho triumphed over The Rock to claim the WCW belt. The two champions then did battle in a unification match which Jericho won, effectively unifying both belts. The brand battle had come to pass, most certainly, but not exactly in the way most wrestling fans had envisioned it.
As a matter of logic (and airport security), lugging around multiple belts became passé, and eventually the Undisputed WWE Championship was born. The first person to wear that belt was current Authority head Triple H, presented it by Ric Flair following the much-ballyhooed expansion draft. During this period, the champion moved freely between shows and could be challenged by talent from either show, thus cementing their status as the best in the company. Things progressed in this fashion until storyline Smackdown general manager Stephanie McMahon poached Undisputed Champion Brock Lesnar to her brand, causing Raw showrunner Eric Bischoff to protest the designation and bring the back the World championship. Ostensibly this was done to allow both brands to have a champion of equal stature, as the brand extension was hot and heavy at that time with the WWE attempting to create its own competition after severely mishandling the "Invasion" angle.
This might have made sense had the WWE not made it so clear from the beginning that Raw was the superior brand, through both the wrestlers on its roster and the frequent "special events" or hosts that accompanied weekly Monday Night Raw broadcasts. This once again relegated the World Heavyweight belt to also-ran status, despite the insistence of the brass that they had equal import. Lady Macbeth was protesting too much once more. This sojourn takes us through to recent history, when CM Punk's storyline walk out on the company (title belt in hand) eventually created a match with recognized champion John Cena that once again fused the two champions into one. Punk would indeed defeat Cena to win those unified belts, only to lose it to an insurgent Alberto Del Rio, cashing in his Money in the Bank contract on the same evening. Got all that?
The basic tenet in all of these machinations is that there is a whiff of desperation which becomes a cloying odor when wrestling matchmakers start the long, hard road to legitimacy by having unification matches. They are, like just about everything done in wrestling, merely a vehicle in which to deliver storyline change. Because the WWE has stood tall over all its competition, it has been forced to create internal conflict to attempt to replicate the all-time high numbers done during their war with WCW. Keep in mind that this is a battle which nearly bankrupted Titan Tower. Only in the unrealistically real world of pro wrestling can a promoter sustain major damage and come out on top, only to create competition for themselves a little later, longing for the good old days when they were getting their ass kicked.
Randy Orton and John Cena glaring at each other, titles held high, is certainly a photo op of magnitude. It harkens to every boxing title fight where the combatants shoot each other steely glances with flashbulbs popping. Much like its boxing brethren, however, wrestling has no real reason to go about unifying every belt they can in an effort to obtain a natural simplicity. Their two sports will always be complicated, title changes and champions lost in a miasma of confusion and archaic dates and times. Far from causing them to be substandard, it adds a mystique that serves the sideshow roots of the sport quite well indeed, thank you very much. The real cause for the two champions engaging in epic staredown is the fact that neither of them has anything else to do. Del Rio has been reduced to also-ran; Big Show's challenge to the Authority's, well, authority, ended ignominiously. The additional feather in this well-insulated cap is that our old friend Mr. McMahon is clearly lurking just around the corner, waiting for the opportune moment to step in and challenge his family's authority. Yep, we've been here before.
I've discussed at length some of the shortcomings in the current product creatively. The last three to four pay-per-views have borne that out, with last-minute scrambling to establish who's facing whom and head-scratching finishes that have left fans emitting a collective "Huh?" We have entered the stretch drive for WrestleMania season already, and TLC needs a "big fight" feel in order to help those tumbling buyrates. How better to accomplish that feat than placing champion up against champion? But this is not ECW separating from the NWA mothership. It's not WWE demonstrating its triumph over rival WCW by usurping its (somewhat shared) history. It's not even Punk taking his ball and going home. It's just another machination by a creative group that firmly believes in the mantra of "been there, done that, let's do it again." Unification has put execution in the back seat once more. It's a winter of discontent.
* An online wrestling petition should circulate with the intention of removing one very irritating facet of pro wrestling per week. For the inaugural edition, I nominate the insipid laziness of booking the same exact match on the show following a pay-per-view or back to back weeks. While building a feud is unquestionably not an easy thing to do, simply throwing out the same combatants under barely altered strictures is the epitome of the creativity lack that has infected the upper echelon of wrestling's intelligentsia seemingly forever. Having one group win on a PPV just to lose the night after to the same opponents is, at its core, a cop-out. Or take the recent example of Damien Sandow once again wrestling Dolph Ziggler in an objects-heavy street fight. Are we seriously suggesting that these two couldn't have a Best-of-7 series, a la Booker T and Chris Benoit in WCW? That would at least have the veneer of a special occasion. Recreating the days of Scott Levy pushing a shopping cart of items to the ring does make this Philly guy somewhat wistful, I admit, but it reminds me even more of the Saturday Night Live writers loving a sketch so much (I'll pick "Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger," there's far too many examples) that it's shoehorned into every week's lineup.
* Going into Survivor Series, the smart money was on the 5-on-5 "traditional" match being the best of the night, and that money was right on. Goldust continued his surprising career renaissance, Roman Reigns got his coming-out party marking him as the first official breakout star of the Shield faction, and the match was interesting and varied enough to set the opening tone for the rest of the show. Pity that most of what followed was far more forgettable. Hopefully, the success of this match and the crowd's reaction to it furthers the point made in the previous column that these matches are what make Survivor Series great. If you're going to eschew them in favor of title bouts, I certainly understand it, but make them good. Otherwise you're better off inserting those champions into Survivor Series matches and letting storylines play out off of that. Punk/Bryan vs. The Wyatts couldn't have had some talent added to it for another 5-on-5? PPV viewers were treated to another Ryback/Mark Henry snoozefest, and 15 minutes of dead time at the end. That's why $50 isn't worth it.
* Anyone else missing Brock Lesnar right about now? We all knew what we were in for when we learned of Lesnar's return for a minimum of dates, but there is an intensity missing when he's not hulking in the background of the roster. Even though there seems to be general consensus that more could have been done with Brock's return, I for one am excited about the prospect of what the future holds when he (and Heyman) make their inevitable return. Whether it's a feud with The Undertaker as rumored or something else, it will just be good to have the beast back in the limelight. He adds a hefty dose of realism and old-fashioned freak show power that's sorely missing. Hurry back, big man, hurry back.
* Finally, I'd be remiss not to wish all of the readers of TJR happy holidays as they continue. Hard to believe it's been almost nine months since I began writing here, and throughout the entire process I've been introduced to some of the best folks one could hope to work with, as well as been inspired and challenged by all of you taking the time to read this space. Whether you've agreed, disagreed, shook your head in concurrence or raised your fists in consternation, your reactions and feedback are as always much appreciated. I hope you take time over this week and the ones to come to enjoy the important things in life and, hopefully, to see some damn good wrestling if everything works out.