Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dispatches from the Lake: The Once Proud Intercontinental Championship

What the hell happened to you, IC Title?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Fourth of July, 2011. The place? Chicago. The time? No idea. I was floating in a pool with a beer in my hand, future husband at my side, and chatting with some friends about wrestling. These gents were roommates with my dearest friend, and had made the mistake of mentioning they liked wrestling once when we were hanging out. For the previous few years, I had only my cousin to chat with about it, so having some new folks to discuss the ridiculousness with was great. I didn’t watch religiously, but knew enough about what was going on at the moment that I could have a conversation about it.

The topic of conversation that day was CM Punk and the pipe bomb that pulled so many of us back into the wrestling fold. Excited and a little drunk, we all decided that we would attend the upcoming Money in the Bank pay-per-view to see Punk challenge John Cena for the title.

I hadn’t cared about a title match for quite some time. Sure, there were various bouts from my height as a fan that I was deeply invested in. When Mankind won the title for the first time, I went nuts! That’s not even mentioning the Goldberg vs. Diamond Dallas Page match from Halloween Havoc 1998. I was so pleased with that match—horrible technical issues aside—that I can remember praying to a god I no longer believe in to bless both men for such a great display of sportsmanship at the end of the match. That was 16 years ago, and I’m kind of mortified that I typed it here. Also, just avoid Havoc ’98. That was one of the first things I watched when I got the Network and holy shit, does that main event not match what I had remembered. And the less said about that Hulk Hogan against Warrior match, the better.

But this is to give you all some context. The Punk/Cena match and the Goldberg/DDP match have next to nothing in common, save that it was for the premier championship in those promotions. Both these matches held weight because holding the titles meant something. Listen to some of the interviews wrestlers give from the 1990s and the early 2000s. To be given the title was to be given the faith of the company. Or it used to be.

WWE has a problem with their titles these days. Top to bottom, they just don’t mean anything anymore. I thought that the WWE World Heavyweight Championship was on the road to relevance again, especially after Daniel Bryan’s run to WrestleMania this year. I still have some faith that title can be righted in the coming months, but my rant about how John Cena is presented as more important than the title is a screed for another time.

With this article, I’d like to focus on the Intercontinental Title. Once seen as a stepping stone for the stars of tomorrow, the once prestigious belt means less than nothing these days. To be Intercontinental Champion these days simply means that you will lose practically every match you wrestle. Or does it just seem that way? Are we, the wrestling fans who are interested in compelling narratives and logical bookings, just being terrible smarks that need something, ANYTHING, to complain about?

Let’s look to the data, shall we?

Because I am a nerd who finished Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix earlier this week, I needed something else to occupy my free time. With my husband hiding in lockers for the foreseeable future with Alien Isolation, I jumped onto Cagematch and Wikipedia and pulled some information on the last twenty years of Intercontinental Champions. I was interested in non-title matches that were either on television or pay-per-view. I left out any multi-man matches, unless they were for the title. So no randomly slapped together tag matches were counted. Singles matches only. In my opinion, if a wrestler holds a title, they should be defending it. What’s the harm in putting them in matches for the title? Just have them win. Then, said wrestler comes out looking strong, like a champion should.

As you can see from the chart below, WWE felt the same way until 2009 when the total number of non-title matches jumped from seventeen to thirty-two. After dipping back down to twenty the following year, 2011 was back to thirty-two with 2012 reaching fifty-five non-title matches. FIFTY-FIVE! That’s bonkers!

But hey, no harm no foul if the champs are winning, right? It would be pointless, but not make the champions look as ineffectual as Kane’s been the last year.

In 2012, the Intercontinental Champion lost twenty-four of fifty-five non-title defenses. That’s forty-four percent. 2013 looks like it starts to reverse the upward trend that began in 2009. Of the fifty-four non-title defenses from that year, nineteen were losses, thirty-five percent.

We need some context for these numbers, though. If the Champion was defending the belt and winning twice as often as losing in non-title match ups, then these numbers wouldn’t be so maddening. Lucky for you, I have that data too.

The data after 2006 is where I start to pull my hair out. Why? Why the hell would you have the Champion not defending the title more often than defending? The last few years are especially disturbing. What is the point of having a Champion in your company lose so much? If I may pull a quote from the "Flight of the Cruiserweights" episode of the Monday Night Wars, “The more people that are stars on the roster just helps everybody. I don’t think they cared enough to try.” Billy Kidman said that. A current employee of the WWE said those words with no sense of irony. Granted, Kidman has no say over how things go on the show. Those decisions begin and end with Vince McMahon. I just don’t understand the logic in this booking.

We can take solace in the fact that we aren’t going crazy. The Intercontinental Champion has been losing non-title matches more often than defending the title, dropping the ball in the potential building of new stars on the show. The Intercontinental Champion was once a prestigious title. Over the last few years, it’s become a joke as have some of the wrestlers who have held it.

Poor, poor Wade Barrett has felt the brunt of this ridiculousness. Over the course of his four reigns as Intercontinental Champion, Barrett has competed in more than twice as many non-title matches as title defenses. Of the top ten, only Chris Jericho and Jeff Jarrett competed in more title defenses than non-title matches.

Ultimately, this data is meaningless. Wins and losses don’t mean anything in wrestling, but can be used as a tool to build the character. There are enough wrestlers employed by the company that can provide wins for the Intercontinental Champion without sacrificing other popular wrestlers’ credibility. WWE, above anything else that we might expect from them, is an entertainment company. Entertainment lives and dies with compelling characters that you want to see more of. A Champion who comes out and loses all these non-title matches is not compelling. Remember Barrett before he was banging a gavel and standing atop a giant, rising podium? He hadn’t been interesting since the Nexus. The title was toxic for him.

At the very least, if WWE is uninterested in presenting stories that make sense, then the characters can at least be interesting. And as enjoyable as the current Intercontinental Champion, Dolph Ziggler, can be in the ring, he needs a jolt to his character. Give him a compelling motivation and put him in a program that he can sink his teeth into. Just having the Intercontinental Championship isn’t doing him any favors. If I were him, I’d want it off my waist as soon as possible.