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TITLE WAVE
Revenge of the Iron Column
December 6, 2001

by Alfonso Castillo
Showdown.net/OnlineOnslaught.com

 

Many thanks go out to Rick Scaia for bringing me on board the new site. Also, I'd like to thank Dave Richard, Denny Burkholder and the entire WrestleLine crew for a fun couple of years and a special thanks to Kevin Langbaum for taking a chance on me and welcoming me to the WrestleLine gang in October of 1999.

No, professional wrestling may no exactly be a sport, but I sure wish they'd follow the lead of professional sports sometimes.

With an over-saturation of baseball teams watering down the overall product, Major League Baseball recently decided to do away with a couple of teams on the theory that less is more. It got me to thinking how great a "contraction" of the championships in the WWF would be. It sure would make my job easier.

Before the Survivor Series, there were no less than 10 active championships in the Fed. With Survivor Series theoretically marking the demise of one promotion, WWF writers made a feeble attempt at reducing the overall number of titles through a few unification matches. The WWF unified two titles, but in the same night, resurrected a previously dormant title. With Tajiri's WCW Cruiserweight title also phased out , that still leaves us with eight championships in the WWF, including two world championships in a single promotion.

Good luck trying to figure out who holds what. Sometimes I think not even the champions themselves could keep track of what title they have this week. For those of us who have been following the WWF more than just a few years, we could remember when there were just three titles in the WWF - the World Heavyweight, Intercontinental and Tag Team. With the world championship routinely being retained for years at a time, we were left with just two titles that might change hands every few months. And when they did, it was a major, major deal. 

I attended Raw a few weeks ago at Nassau Coliseum when Test defeated Edge for the Intercontinental Championship. I was conversing with a friend when the ref made the three-count. I quickly turned my attention to the ring for about a second, then continued with my conversation. The title change meant nothing to me, and judging by the reaction of the crowd, I wasn't alone in feeling that way.

The WWF has seen business drop in just about every category, and while it would be presumptuous to blame the downfall on something as trivial as the company's treatment of championships, I think most would agree that there has been a correlation between WWF's recent doldrums and the confusing, directionless product that's been offered over the last several months. It would certainly not be presumptuous to say the chaotic title picture in the WWF has been a big part of that product.

The wrestling industry is bound to change again and again and wrestling fans should embrace the changes as a tool to keep the product fresh. It would be nave to think title changes as infrequent as they were ten years ago would be a good thing. Today's wrestling fan would be downright bored with a three-year title reign. But the other extreme is just as bad, if not worse - ten titles, two and three title changes a night, WWF wrestlers winning WCW titles and vice versa, landmark WWF champions vs. WCW champion matches being
thrown away at house shows with no build up. Somebody stop the madness.

It's been more than a month since the last "Title Wave" and in that time just about every championship has changed hands at least once. Beginning with my next column, I will return to the usual format of examining the merits of a recently crowned champion. But in an attempt to hit the ground running, this edition marks the return of the Iron Column - one big column profiling every active wrestling champion.

When I wrote my first "Iron Column," in May of 2000, I profiled 16 different championships. About a year-and-a-half later, I'm down to half that. The difference is the original 16 were spread among three different companies, compared to the single promotion we have now. In addition to profiling each champion, in this column I will profile the championship itself and whether it should be done away with in a big championship contraction. Enjoy.

WWF Champion: Steve Austin

He's back as a babyface and the pops seem as loud as ever, but like the WWF product as a whole, Steve Austin has lost a step along the way. But who can blame him? The guy has a bad neck, two bad knees, and seems to earn another concussion, broken bone or new stitches every time he steps in to the ring. 

But more than injuries, Austin's momentum has slowed since it peaked in 1999 because of a series of poor moves by the WWF's creative team. His initial heel turn at WrestleMania started off hot, but soon fizzled when he was forced to play the lackey to mega-heel Triple H. The WWF then made so many radical changes in Austin's character in an attempt to salvage his floundering heel turn that Austin's credibility was quickly damaged. In the latest desperate change, Austin has been turned babyface once again with no rhyme or reason. 

Discouraged by some failed experiments, Vince McMahon has apparently decided to fall back on ol' reliable. The problem is that the WWF cannot recreate the magic of Austin's first bout with mega-stardom just by having Austin go back to shouting "Oh Hell yeah!" at the crowd. 

All that said, I still believe Austin is the most valuable wrestler in pro wrestling today and does what he does better than anyone. The Rock may be more charismatic and Kurt Angle may be more athletically gifted, but nobody can tell a story in the ring and accomplish so much by doing so little like Austin. 

The WWF obviously has the same confidence in him because, except for that small two-week break earlier this fall when Angle held the belt, Austin has had a firm grip on the WWF title lengthier than anyone in recent history.

So the WWF is still very high on Austin and believes some tweaking of the old babyface character with some new catchphrases are enough for another run as the promotion's top face. Whether they think he's worth enough to become the first "undisputed" champion come this Sunday remains to be seen.

Championship Grade: A  
Other Options: The Rock, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle

World Champion: The Rock

Some fans that go back a few years may remember when WCW reinstated its NWA championship back in 1993, while at the same time keeping its WCW title. The concept of having two world titles - equal in status - in one promotion proved to be a confusing mess and ultimately failed, especially when WCW lost the rights to use the NWA name and was forced to rename the NWA World Championship the "International Championship." After a few months, bookers threw a champion vs. champion match on TV to unify the titles and then worked hard to make fans forget that the two-world title debacle ever took place.

Skip ahead to 2001, and like they have made a bad habit of doing in recent months, the WWF is once again lifting one of WCW's dumber ideas. But rather than the "International Title," the Rock wears the equally-ambiguously named "World Title." Heck, it's even the same belt. And like WCW did eight years ago, the WWF is now forced to clean up its own mess with a meaningless unification match that they claim is monumental in importance.  As for the Rock, it's tough not to like him. He's eclipsed both Steve Austin & Hulk Hogan as the biggest crossover celebrity in the history of wrestling, but can still deliver on the microphone and in the ring with consistently good matches. If he has a downside, it may be that he has become too much of a gimmick wrestler and has turned off some of the purists who despise catchphrases and silly gimmick wrestling moves like the Worm and the People's Elbow. But since his popularity took of in 1998, the Rock has been a great spokesman for the WWF and thus always a good choice to wear the company's top prize. However, the WWF has seemingly had its cake and eaten it too in recent months by having both its top stars as "world champions." The WWF will have to decide this Sunday which wrestler - Austin or Rock - is the better choice right now to lay claim to the only world title in the business. In the end, they may choose neither.

Championship Grade: A
Championship Options: Not applicable since title will merge with WWF World Title.

Intercontinental Champion: Edge

The singles push of Edge proves the theory that the payoff isn't always worth the wait. Since his debut years ago, many smart fans and wrestling insiders pegged Edge as the next big thing. As his tag team with Christian took off, fans became increasingly anxious to see Edge spin off his tag team success into a strong run as a singles star. The WWF took heed and started positioning Edge as a solo prodigy with his King of the Ring tournament victory. Traditionally, that crown has been rewarded to a mid-card star that the WWF has high hopes for. After getting derailed a bit over the summer by the Invasion fiasco, the WWF re-focused its energy on Edge's singles push in August with an Intercontinental Title victory and the long-awaited split with Christian. Fans and insiders finally got their wish as Edge was on his own and kicking off his singles career with a run as the #2 champion.

Unfortunately, Edge's solo stint thus far has been a major disappointment as his shortcomings have been exposed since he's been forced to carry the full load rather than having Christian as his comedic sidekick. Some even say the exact opposite goal of the split has occurred, as Christian has become the more viable solo star. But all hope should not be lost yet on Edge. The major problem with his singles push is that he is continuing to do the comedy schtick he developed with Christian even when his new role doesn't call for
it. The comedy always came more naturally to Christian than Edge so Christian should have been allowed to keep it during the divorce proceedings. As a babyface singles wrestler with the long-term goal of main event stature, Edge is better suited dumping the comedy in favor of a more aggressive approach that would mesh better with his overall look and style. The other problem is that Edge's sleek build and partnership with Christian has pigeonholed him as something of a highflier, so Edge is routinely paired with light-heavyweights and daredevils, when in reality Edge wrestles more a heavyweight style. His best matches have been against full-sized wrestlers with a strong story in place. He can take to the air and take some risks, but it's not what he does best. His by-the-book wrestling style and ability to build suspense in a match should be the focus of his feuds and matches.

Championship Grade: B+ 
Other Options: Rob Van Dam, Tazz, Test, X-Pac, Christian.

Tag Team Champions: The Dudleys

When the pops have quieted down a bit, the opponent pool has been drained, and the gimmick has been exhausted, just have the announcers start referring to you as "the greatest tag team in history." Oh, and get yourself a hot chick with killer legs to escort you to the ring. The "greatest ever" moniker may be a stretch, but there is little doubt that D-Von and Buh Buh Ray have gradually become the most consistent tag team in the WWF. 1999 and 2000 probably marked the golden age of tag team wrestling in the WWF as the Duds, E&C and the Hardy Boyz tore down the house night after night with their incredible matches. A few other capable tag teams also spiced up the ranks.

But with E&C having broken up and the Hardyz teetering on an official
break-up for months, the Dudleys remain the only tightly knit unit in the WWF with any sort of drawing power. But they too have been among the victims of the WWF bumbling creative team in recent months. Like others in similar situations, when their popularity started to fade a bit, writers started throwing everything to the wall to see what would stick. They turned heel, brought little brother Spike on board, got new music, joined the Alliance, started putting women through tables again, brought Stacie Kiebler on board as a manager and became the first tag team to hold the ECW, WCW and WWF tag
titles. Still the Dudleys can only wish they could reclaim the popularity
they enjoyed both as a face and heel team in 2000. Hopefully, the WWF won't interpret their dwindling popularity as a call to split up the duo. While each of the members of E&C and the Hardyz are capable enough performers to carry on by themselves, the Dudleys' are a sum of their parts. As more of a gimmick tag team than other duos in the Fed, a split up would mean at least one member would have to carve out a completely new identity, which is always a gamble.  The best route to take with the Dudleys may be just wait it out and see if the fans come around again. These things happen sometimes. In the meantime, the Dudleys may very well be the best tag team in the WWF, but unlike a year ago, that's really not saying much.

Championship Grade:
Other options: The APA, Chuck Palumbo & Billy Gunn, Big Show & Kane.
 
European Champion: Christian

If you want a sense of how devalued championships have been, look no further than Christian's European Championship victory over Bradshaw. It wasn't even aired on television due to time constraints. It's hard to believe this is the same title that Owen Hart and the British Bulldog competed in a classic tournament finals match over; the same championship that was at the center of another terrific pay per view main event between Shawn Michaels and the British Bulldog in 1997.

There's nothing wrong with the idea of a tertiary championship. If used properly, as a tool to elevate lower-mid-card workers into secondary-title contention, it could make for some heated competition. WCW had terrific success with its Television Title for several years, even as late as 1998 when Booker T and Chris Benoit competed in a memorable series of matches for the championship. But the WWF has been inconsistent in its use of the title.  It's been given interchangeably to wrestlers who are not over enough to warrant a championship and wrestlers who should be considered above the
title. For the type of wrestler the title was originally intended to help
breed, Christian fits well. Upon splitting with Edge, he was not quite
Intercontinental Title material (even though he briefly wore the title) but did deserve some recognition for his strong performances and promise to accomplish a lot more in future months. Here's a case where a wrestler is a perfect fit for his title. But the title situation has become so chaotic in the WWF that something has to give. The Euro title has actually changed hands a lot less than other titles during the last year and benefited from not having an equivalent championship when WCW invaded, but it's still expendable. I actually think the European Championship is worth keeping, but with so many other titles around,  cuts should be made wherever possible.

Championship Grade: A-  
Other Options:  Tazz, Billy Gunn, Matt Hardy

Light Heavyweight Champion: X-Pac

Jim Ross constantly touting the merits of the light heavyweights and venting his frustration with the division not getting a fair shake has become a running gag in his weekly's Ross Reports. That's his way of saving face with the hardcore fans by pretending to stand up for the little guys, all the while knowing the division is going nowhere fast. Can you believe the WWF's light heavyweight title has been around a full four years? I remember when the tournament to crown the first champion was playing out on TV. It seemed to take forever before Taka Michinoku won the tourney finals to win the belt.

With so much TV time invested in the tournament, it was tempting to think the WWF had big things in plan for the division. Four years later, the title is probably the least relevant in the company and often goes months without being defended on television. The current champion, X-Pac, has been sidelined for several weeks, once again rendering the title dormant. Here is one place where the WWF never surpassed WCW. When WCW was on top of the wrestling heap, it's cruiserweight division was a thing to watch and its matches were usually the highlights of any program. Even when the company was falling apart, it's cruiserweight action was still an amusing distraction.
Regardless of whatever progress the WWF has made over the last decade in terms of giving fans what they want, Vince McMahon at the end of the day is still a mark for the giants and will never be convinced that light heavyweights will draw money. That's clear from who the current champion is.

X-Pac would certainly make the weight requirement in any light-heavyweight division, but years of wear and tear have limited his aerial assault. Sean Waltman is hardly the kind of wrestler who typifies the light heavyweight product. But he's a veteran and a locker room leader, so he gets the nod by the WWF higher-ups. But this late in his career, Waltman should consider the championship an insult. The WWF should stop teasing fans with the meaningless light heavyweight title and get rid of it once and for all. 

Championship Grade: B  
Other options: Tajiri, Jerry Lynn, Jeff Hardy, Taka Michinoku

Hardcore Champion: Rob Van Dam

Here's another title the WWF could do without. The early months of the Hardcore Title were actually a lot of fun and helped put wrestlers like Al Snow, Hardcore Holly and the Big Boss Man on the map. But from the day the 24-7 rule was adopted, the belt became nothing more than a comedy prop. How can anyone take seriously a championship that changes hand 30 times a year?

Van Dam is certainly a commendable athlete and perhaps the best at making hardcore matches entertaining, but even he can't erase the tarnish that's been put on the title. Hardcore matches have their place in wrestling and make for a fun diversion every once in a while, but the style of wrestling need not have a championship to make it interesting. By definition, hardcore are the most unpredictable because each wrestler can do just about anything to win, so what does it actually mean to be the "hardcore champion?" You're the best at cheating? Van Dam should move away from the garbage brawling and concentrate on showing off his fundamental skills, especially if he intends to hold on to a spot near the WWF's main events. I know the occasional chair is essential towards getting over some of his key spots, but I'm sure he can find a way to distract a referee long enough to pull off the move. The WWF could feature a hardcore match every few weeks when there's a hot feud to settle, but the title is completely unnecessary and only adds to the championship clutter in the company. 

Championship Grade: A  
Other Options: Raven, Bradshaw, Tazz

Women's Championship: Trish Stratus

The WWF should have taken Chyna's departure as a blessing in disguise. The women's championship had not been a serious draw since Sable was doing "the grind" every week and this was one way to dissolve the title with little fanfare. But for some reason the company decided to reactivate the dormant championship and awarded Trish with the belt at Survivor Series. Even more unusual, the WWF has been putting a great deal of importance in the title in
recent weeks. Trish has gotten plenty of television exposure recently, even headlining last Monday's RAW, and has a title defense scheduled for this Sunday's pay per view. I can't imagine why anyone would think resurrecting the title, then featuring it prominently, would be a good idea. The only women's matches that draw any kind of crowd response are ones where the removal clothes is required or ones contested in a giant pool of some sort of slippery substance. The WWF is trying to ride the fence with the latest champion, who certainly has plenty to offer in the T&A category and is willing to do so, but is also being featured in athletic wrestling matches - or at least attempts at them. Not surprisingly, the fans couldn't care less
about the latter. The WWF needs to make up its mind. If it wants a women's division focused on actual wrestling, give the title to Ivory or Jackie who are actual wrestlers. If they want to solely feature the more popular sleaze fests, then Trish is a fine choice, but don't embarrass her by booking her in actual wrestling matches. If they want a happy medium, consider Lita, who certainly offers candy for the eye but can go in the ring with the best of them. The best option is probably to do away with the title once and for all and feature women's matches as special attractions with no title on the line.

Championship Grade: B-  
Other Options: Lita, Ivory, Jackie

There you have it. If there's one conclusion that could be drawn from all my rambling above, it's that the WWF has really bitten off more than it can chew in recent years by introducing so many new titles. The disbanding of the Alliance helped ease the load of too many titles for now, but the WWF could do with even fewer. It would make the championships that are still around seem so much more important and the matches that are contested for those titles must-see battles.

Following Sunday's PPV, it's likely we'll have at least one new champion crowned. Hopefully I'll be by next week with a new column, in its standard format, discussing one of those new titleholders.

E-MAIL FONZO
BROWSE THE TITLE WAVE ARCHIVES

Alfonso Castillo, 24, is has been a wrestling fan since he was six-years old.
He has been writing the "Fonzo's Title Wave" column since 1999. The host of
the Showdown radio audio program on www.Showdown.net currently lives in
Queens, NY and works as a reporter for a New York metropolitan area newspaper.



  
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