“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
Speaking from a character standpoint, the goal of being a professional wrestler is to capture the championship belt. Winning the title is the equivalent of a football team’s goal of winning the Super Bowl, or an action heroes’ hope to save the day and get the girl. It is the ultimate prize. Stepping out of character, winning a championship belt means being a part of something big. That a wrestling company sees fit to make you a champion because they have that much faith in you. There are different schools of thought on champions. Some see the belt as a prop that is there to be utilized, while others feel there is a certain prestige to the gold, and that it should be treated as precious. Yet the most compelling stories told involving the championship have both points of view of the gold happening at the same time.
Because of this, championship reigns become defined by different fans for different reasons. Short reigns, particularly that of a crowd favorite, really irk some fans, while a longer reign seems to command a certain amount of respect. The Big Show recently defeated Mark Henry for the World Championship, but only held the title for a few moments. Henry’s reign was respectably lengthy, while Show, who had not won the title in over a decade, only had it for a couple of minutes, and thus fairly meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Others feel that the length of time a wrestler holds a championship is irrelevant, and instead focus on the reigns act as a means to an end. Big Show’s win was significant in that it served to transition the title to Daniel Bryan and launch Bryan’s heel turn. It also added a whole new dimension to the Big Show character.
CM Punk has now held the WWE Championship since Survivor Series. That’s fairly long considering the hot potato game played with the belt in the months prior to his victory. John Cena had a fairly short reign before losing it to CM Punk at Money in the Bank. After that, there was the mess with WWE declaring a new champion in Rey Mysterio only for Cena to beat him, who then lost the belt again to Punk. Alberto Del Rio got involved and the late summer and early fall season saw a lot of title confusion During his reign, Punk has been involved in a feud with John Laurinaitis in which the interim Raw General Manager was trying to get the belt off of Punk. The build to Punk’s Royal Rumble match with Dolph Ziggler focused on the chance Laurinaitis would screw Punk out of the title. The feud reminded many fans of the Steve Austin-Vince McMahon saga, in part due to so many people comparing Austin and Punk over the last year. Steve Austin won his first world championship at WrestleMania XIV in 1998. The following year at Wrestlemania XV saw Austin win this third title. It took Hulk Hogan nine years to win the championship five times. That was huge. It took Bret Hart three years to get to three championship reigns. It took a less than five to get to five reigns. Steve Austin won the title three times in just one year. Over the course of a decade, the mentality on the title had changed. Regardless of his short reigns, Austin is one of the most celebrated champions in WWE history. This is because of the successful storytelling of the Austin-McMahon feud. McMahon didn’t want Austin to be the representative of the company, thus McMahon’s character was validating the title’s significance, but the title was treated as a mere prop in the saga. Because the title was taken off of Austin through tainted finishes and sought after by McMahon, it meant all that much more when Austin would win it back, demonstrating how good he was, and how important the title was to him.
There is a scene in one of Plato’s dialogues where Socrates asks if the gods love something because it is pious, or if it is pious because the gods love it. In some respect, wrestling titles often find themselves in the same situation. Does a championship make a wrestler, or does a wrestler make a championship? Just putting a title on a wrestler doesn’t make them better workers, nor give them instant notoriety. Just look at Jack Swagger’s run in 2010. Also, a wrestler cannot single-handedly make the belt important. As it was in the case of Steve Austin, it was both happening at once. Austin’s passion for the title made the belt important, and in turn, him capturing it made him all the more better of a wrester. The cycle continued throughout his run.
Wrestlers are used to in a grand scheme. They are part of a roster, all being utilized for a different means. Championships often get confused by a chunk of fans as being something that should be booked like a wrestler: It should have a prominent place on the show every week and have ample TV time. But the title cannot be brought out and just put on display for a ten minute segment. It functions as a prize in the background. It is always there around one’s waste or on their shoulder, but it is not the focus. The title has its moment when a champion raises it over his or her head, but otherwise it remains in the background as a constant. This is the dynamic of the championship. It is both important and not important. Over the years, wrestlers come and go, but there the title is always there, in the background, being passed around.