Views From The Turnbuckle: Is The WWE Universal Championship Actually Important?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of WrestlingInc or its staff

When WWE decided to create the Universal Championship, they were entering uncharted water when it comes to introducing a major title. Previously, when they incorporated a world title (either the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship or later the World Heavyweight Championship that Triple H received) they tied both of the belts to the historic NWA World Heavyweight Championship and in the case of the latter title, WWE used the same belt that was being used in World Championship Wrestling. These were not titles that were created out of thin air; they were pieces of wrestling history; creating a championship aura to fans before the titles had ever even been defended.

With the Universal Championship; WWE just wanted to create a new title for the RAW brand after the brand split took the WWE Championship (at the time considered the undisputed world title since the WWE Championship and World Heavyweight Championship had been united) to SmackDown. So WWE threw together a championship tournament and had the first winner crowned at SummerSlam. There was no history with the Universal Championship, fans were simply told that it was going to be the top title on RAW and were expected to buy into it.

The Universal Championship did not get off to a good start. The awkward red belt was immediately panned by fans as being an ugly design and looking like a red-headed version of the WWE Championship. Finn Balor was pegged as the first champion, winning the title against Seth Rollins at SummerSlam 2016. However, any plans to build the title around Balor had be scrapped when he tore his labrum in the match at SummerSlam. Balor vacated the title the next night on RAW; and since he returned he has never seriously been pushed as a top star. In some ways this hurts the credibility of the title; while legends in Rogers and Triple H were the inaugural WWE and World Heavyweight Champions; the first Universal Champion was a mid-card wrestler who got hurt the moment he got the title.

The title then shifted over to Kevin Owens, who did his best over 188 days to establish the title as the top belt in WWE. Being the world title on RAW helped; even if Owens was booked as a weak champion. Owens almost exclusively retained his title due to interference and dropped the title in February 2017 when he was squashed in a match with Bill Goldberg. Goldberg then dropped the title a month later to Brock Lesnar, who has held the championship ever since. So far the Universal Championship has been held by Balor, who dropped the title after holding it for less than 24 hours, Owens, who was never taken seriously as a top star, Goldberg, who was 50 years old at the time, and Lesnar, who has only defended the title a handful of times and has been largely absent for his 459+ day title reign.

The Lesnar title reign has been the subject of much controversy. He has only defended the title seven times since winning it from Goldberg (not counting a handful of house show defenses) and has gone months without appearing in WWE. In the old days, when the world title was the biggest drawing card in the business, such an infrequent schedule would be impossible, but since WWE does not need to rely on the title to make money, they can afford to have an absentee champion.

Fans have been conditioned for more than 100 years that the world championship is the most important thing in professional wrestling. The perception is that every person that has ever laced up a pair of boots has done so with the aspiration of one day becoming the world champion. Like any other promotion, WWE was built around the world champion, whether that was Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin. Throughout the Lesnar title reign, WWE has been largely devoid of what is supposed to be their most important title. It's completely backwards from what fans are used to seeing, so it is logical that they would be upset about it.

Since Lesnar became the champion, WWE has not presented the Universal Championship like a traditional world title. Because of that; they can no longer really leverage the Universal Championship in storyline the way they could with a traditional world title. WWE has hinted in recent weeks that Lesnar will be headed back to UFC, and if he doesn't lose the title soon, he'll take it with him. The idea is that the conquering babyface who beats Lesnar (presumably Roman Reigns) will be a savior because he stopped Lesnar from leaving with the title. If Lesnar was defending the title all the time that idea may work. The problem is that since Lesnar never defends the Universal Championship anyway, him leaving with the title doesn't mean a whole lot, since he is hardly on RAW as the champion currently.

The other issue is that the world title historically has been used as a crowning achievement for the company's new babyface. Sammartino, Hogan, Austin, John Cena, they all officially became icons when they won their first world title. The idea is that eventually when Reigns beats Lesnar, he will be elevated to that level. Again, the problem is that since Lesnar is already absent from most RAW shows, Reigns has been the most pushed wrestler in the company. Reigns already has been booked as the top star in the company and has been for the last couple of years. A world title run isn't going to change any of that; Reigns will just go from being the protected babyface superstar without a title belt, to the protected babyface superstar with the title. Since the Universal Championship has been devalued; it really doesn't mean a heck of a lot if Reigns were to win the world title.

The Universal Championship could have been very successful; as long as WWE booked it very seriously and protected the champions, I think fans would accept it as the biggest championship in the company. So far, WWE has failed to do that and the aura around the title has never gotten off the ground. There is still plenty of time for the title to be salvaged; but WWE needs to get the title off of Lesnar and put it around someone that can have a Sammartino/Hogan/Austin/Cena-like effect around the title and make it the pinnacle of WWE. I'm not sure if Reigns is the right guy for that role, but he'll probably get the first shot.

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