Feature Article

Why The WWE Universal Title Doesn't Matter

Why fans forget to miss the Universal Title

Brock Lesnar is the current WWE Universal champion, even though he only works part-time--no house shows, barely any television, and only select PPVs. Up until now, WWE has sold fans on a shaky, flawed premise: that because a Lesnar appearance is rare, it makes the title an exclusive treasure, defended on the biggest stages only. According to WWE, this increases the title's importance rather than decreasing it.

But the opposite is true. The current booking renders the title meaningless. The WWE Universal Championship is, like every other title belt, a storytelling device, and WWE has not given fans a reason to care about who wears it and why. By keeping it on Lesnar, the company squanders any opportunities to correct this problem.

Getting the fans to care was never going to be easy. When the Superstar Shakeup went down last summer and the roster was split between Raw and SmackDown, WWE had to figure out how to divvy up the existing belts. There were two midcard belts--the Intercontinental Championship and the United States Championship--so it was easy to split those between two shows. But there was only one main event world title: The WWE Championship. So, WWE created the WWE Universal title as a second world title and made it a Raw exclusive.

The WWE Championship, which is currently exclusive to SmackDown, has a long, distinguished history. Buddy Rogers held it for the first time in 1963. Bruno Sammartino held it, collectively, for over a decade. Hulk Hogan held it. Bret Hart held it. Steve Austin held it.

It's part of WWE's institutional memory. When fans see the WWE Championship, they're seeing something weighted with history, blood, and sacrifice. Even when there's a weak champion--like Jinder Mahal, who is the current title holder--it doesn't diminish the title's importance. It would take a lot to undo over 50 years of storytelling.

The Universal title, on the other hand, has none of that historical context to fall back on, which made it important to build the title's reputation and emotional attachment. But that's never happened—sometimes due to factors outside WWE's control, and sometimes due to the company's own self-sabotage.

The belt debuted with a particularly rough start. When Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon unveiled the belt at SummerSlam 2016, the hostile Brooklyn crowd booed its design viciously--so viciously that Seth Rollins took to Twitter to scold fans for their behavior.

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But design can change. The real test of the belt's long-term future was whether its champions could make it matter. And here, WWE ran into some bad luck. The inaugural champion, Finn Balor, would have been a perfect candidate to represent Raw. But unfortunately, he dislocated his shoulder during his SummerSlam 2016 match with Seth Rollins. He relinquished the belt to commissioner Mick Foley less than 24 hours after he won it.

Miraculously, WWE devised a Plan B that, at first glance, seemed almost as good as their first plan. Triple H interfered in a Fatal 4-Way match to determine the next Universal Champion and literally handed his NXT protege, Kevin Owens, the title.

It created enough potential plotlines to last WWE for two years. It was an ultimate corrupt heel move. It set up a meta-narrative, where both in real life and in the storyline, Triple H was orchestrating a takeover of WWE through NXT. And new champion Kevin Owens had skills in the ring and on the mic. He wasn't chiseled like Finn Balor, but perhaps, in this new era of WWE, he didn't have to be.

But instead of backing his handpicked champion in person, Triple H disappeared from WWE television for weeks at a time and never explained his actions. And Owens, rather than being the lonely, emotionally damaged character that he excels at, was placed in a comedic BFF storyline with Chris Jericho. Unfortunately for Owens, no one on the roster, no matter how he or she can talk, can compete with Chris Jericho on a microphone.

Even worse, Kevin Owens relied on Jericho's outside interference. That's no way to build the new title's prestige--to have its first long-reigned champion struggle to hold onto it.

And then, to make matters worse, a 50-year-old part-time Goldberg took the Universal title from Owens, in a fluke match that lasted under 30 seconds. It nostalgia-popped the crowd, but it did no favors toward building the title's reputation. Less than a month later, Goldberg lost the title to Lesnar at WrestleMania.

Lesnar hasn't dropped it since then, and his rare matches have been inconsistent. His best defense was a Fatal 4-Way at SummerSlam between him, Braun Strowman, Roman Reigns, and Samoa Joe. Lesnar wasn't involved in the entire match, as he was injured. But he returned towards the end and performed well.

Unfortunately, this big victory was bookended by two lackluster PPV performances. Lesnar earned a clean win against Samoa Joe at Great Balls of Fire, and he earned another clean win against Braun Strowman at No Mercy. In both matches, he defeated his opponents with a single, insulting F-5.

So to recap: The Universal title went from being dropped by an injured champion, to being held by a weak champion, to being won with sheer luck by a gimmick champion, to being won and held by a part-time champion. Two of the four men held it for less than a month. What does the Universal title even signify with that sort of lineage?

How can WWE fix the Universal title's stagnancy? First, get it off Lesnar. The sooner that happens, the better. Put it on a tough, full-time wrestler--one who fights cleanly rather than cheating--and have him score a series of high profile wins. Lesnar's limited schedule does not allow him or WWE to give the title the on-screen attention it deserves.

Rumor has it that Roman Reigns will win the Universal title at next year's WrestleMania, cementing him as the top guy in the company. But WWE should give him a crown worthy of his long-awaited coronation. And as it currently stands, the WWE Universal title is no crown. It's an ugly tiara, in need of some real jewels.

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