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Night of, wait, who are the champions?

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Scott: WWE’s Night of Champions is on the horizon, and that makes me think it’s time for a discussion about the various titles to be contested on the show. It’s not too hard to find folks clamoring for a unification between the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship, or those who want the U.S. Title dropped altogether. Where do you stand on the current WWE title picture? Too many titles, too few? Defended too often or not enough?

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David: In professional wrestling, what exactly do titles mean? We’ve discussed this before, as have various other wrestling blogs, podcasts and websites. There has, historically, been a need for multiple titles in any wrestling organization. Sometimes they represent tiers of achievement the promotion wants their fans to recognize. Sometimes they differentiate weight classes or styles of wrestling. When the brand extension came into play, it seemed logical that Raw and Smackdown each have its own titles, both a “World” championship and a lower-tier championship. As the importance of the brand extension has decreased, has the WWE’s need for two of each type of championship gone away?

I guess that depends on how you feel about the WWE’s roster, and how they could best use the television time they have. They’ve got a solid roster, with some depth, which on its surface seems to favor two sets of titles. However, there’s one title that is very rarely defended, and has very few solid challengers: the tag team titles. Unfortunately for fans of tag team wrestling, Vince McMahon seems to see tag team wrestling as an old-fashioned, outdated proposition. If someone were to take charge who enjoyed tag team wrestling as an art form (how does Triple H feel about tag teams?) and condensed the title picture down to a “big” title and a “mid-card” title, could we see a healthy tag team division form from the roster that remains?

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Scott: I feel like this is one of those questions that goes beyond what we see on TV. It’s easy for me to think of, say Royal Rumble 1992, which featured three tag-team matches on a four-match undercard — that wasn’t even all the teams on the roster — and bemoan the state of today’s tag team scene. (It’s also pretty easy to argue the NWA/WCW had a far stronger tag team heritage than the WWF, which may be a topic for another day.) But so much is different about the way the WWF product goes together today than 20 years ago there may be plenty of solid business reasons to de-emphasize the tag division.

Likewise, as much as the brand split has devolved on television, it’s still an important part of the touring schedule. When we started this chat, many WWE stars were touring in Australia while stars like Dolph Ziggler and Natalya Neidhart were tweeting pre-show photos from Des Moines. You can bet the home office wouldn’t be running dual tours if the company was bleeding red ink.

All that said, I don’t think it would be all that difficult to restore the tag division. As I’ve noted before, all it would take to regenerate interest in any given title is to carve out a space on Raw (say the first match after the initial 20-minute speechifying) each week for the titles to be defended. They could even let fans vote on the challenger each episode.

The easiest way to encourage fans to care about a given title is to make the person who holds it proud to be the champion. If a fan favorite exhibits such behavior, the crowd will cheer when he retains. If a hated performer crows about his dominance, the crowd will anticipate his comeuppance. After week upon week of a tag champion wrestling in a singles match, or the Intercontinental champion losing a non-title contest, it’s no wonder the title changes generate little buzz. I’m not suggesting every title needs to be defended on every show. But take a look at the Sheamus-Alberto Del Rio feud and tell me, couldn’t they have just as much heat — or lack thereof — without the World Heavyweight Championship being involved?

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David: Absolutely. Their feud has not been about the title at all, but about doing vile things to each other. Just like the Antonio Cesaro/Santino Marella feud wasn’t really been about the US Championship either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely happy about Cesaro’s reign, but if he’s really only being used to put over the importance of Santino’s green sock, then how important is it, really? I’m looking forward to Cesaro moving on to feuds with wrestlers who aren’t saddled with gimmicks the way Santino is. I will say this for Cesaro, though… so far in his reign as US Champion, he has fulfilled your goal of being proud of the title. I don’t think a day goes by when he doesn’t tweet about being United States’ favorite son. It’s so awesome, and as much as I like him, it’s going to feel pretty sweet when someone beats him for the title. Hopefully, that won’t be very soon.

Moving to the Intercontinental Title, why does it seem as if there are few contenders for the Miz’s belt? We haven’t seen Christian since he lost the rematch on the Smackdown after Raw 1000. Since then, I can only remember the Miz defending the title once, at SummerSlam against Rey Mysterio. There are a lot of interesting stories that they could tell with a loudmouth like The Miz holding the belt. He’s one of those guys I could see everyone on the roster disliking, and wanting a shot at, but I don’t really see them building anything for him. Am I missing or forgetting something?

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Scott: No, you’re not missing anything. Christian absolutely disappeared. We’re days away from Night of Champions, and there’s was hardly any building to championship matches, especially in terms of anything original. While the Cena-Punk story feels fresh compared to Sheamus-Del Rio, it’s not like these guys aren’t used to each other by now. I bristle when I read comments indicating the WWE roster is shallow, because I think there’s a lot of upper midcard talent, by which I mean I could quickly list 10 guys who could challenge Miz at the next big show without folks batting an eye (which perhaps is why he’s in a four-way encounter). I just don’t think there’s a lot of thought going into how to best use the available talent, or maybe the problem is there’s too many guys who are too similar to each other.

I hate to totally shift gears, but here’s a thought I had recently while listening to an old Jason Mann Wrestlespective podcast with his guest Black Cat of the Old School Wrestling Podcast. One of the thrills of the Monday Night Wars was the element of surprise. You watched four or five hours of live (or somewhat live) wrestling on one night with the idea that anything could happen. The unpredictability — and the fact that the surprises usually paid off with great TV — fueled the era as much as the attitude.

I get the sense the WWE producers still think surprises sell. And to a large degree, they’re right. But the kind of surprise is important. Why are we left in the dark so often about the matches for each week’s Raw? Are the fans really on the edge of their seat wondering if this is the week we get to see Cody Rhodes and Tensai in a tag match with Sin Cara and Rey Mysterio?

Perhaps knowing about that match wouldn’t make a huge difference, though it would give the guys involved something to tweet and Tout about. Or maybe they could tell us on Smackdown what the match is and let us vote all weekend for a stipulation. The bigger point is this: none of your three-hour live show is sprinkled with a few moments of unpredictability (think the backstage segments on Raw 1000), fans will feel like they can’t miss a minute. But if your entire show seems to be written on the fly, people will watch Monday Night Football and catch up on Raw via YouTube.

• • •

David: As someone who does typically watch Raw the day after it airs, I can attest to that fact. For the most part, I don’t feel it’s a necessity to watch the show live. I do miss out on tweeting about it, but the show itself is pretty much the same… until something like the ending of the Labor Day Raw happens. When I watched the Labor Day Raw Tuesday morning, and Paul Heyman stuck his head out the car window, revealing himself as CM Punk’s “getaway driver,” I thought it was awesome. I also started kicking myself for not having watched it live. For the WWE right now, that was a capital-M “Moment,” and it would’ve been great to be a part of the Twitter-verse during it. I’m going to try to make sure not to miss something like that again.

I think what it boils down to is this: in this age of time-shifting and YouTube, the WWE needs to do a better job of making me worry about spoilers. If I find out who is wrestling whom on Raw before I watch it, that’s not a spoiler. That’s an advertisement of the card. But if I find out Paul Heyman and CM Punk are aligning themselves… wow! If I had found out about that before I watched the show, I would’ve been bummed. Those moments need to be sprinkled throughout the show, not just placed neatly at the end.

Speaking of the ending of Raw, it’s probably a little early for predictions, but where does this CM Punk/Paul Heyman story go? Is this just a payoff for Punk’s proclamation that he’s a “Heyman guy” in last year’s pipe bomb promo? Does Lesnar feature in this story?

• • •

Scott: The reason this moment worked so well is because it prompts all fans to ask the question you just asked me: what happens next? Would we tune in next Monday to see the show open with Punk and Heyman sauntering to the ring and delivering face-melting speeches? Would there be an entire episode built around questions about their relationship? Will Heyman form a 21st-century Dangerous Alliance? Will Lesnar even be mentioned, or will they continue to sell his “quitting” by ignoring him altogether? Is Punk lining up “insurance” for his defense against Cena? Could we some day see a Lesnar/Punk vs. Cena/Rock tag team encounter headline a pay-per-view?

Perhaps, in a theory I floated briefly on Twitter, what’s really happening is Heyman is setting a trap for Punk. By letting the champ thinks Heyman is in his corner, he can “protect” Punk and, more importantly, his WWE Title, as a setup for Heyman to turn, allowing Lesnar to destroy Punk and become champion. Perhaps then Rock-Lesnar becomes your Royal Rumble main event, although that’s probably a more fitting WrestleMania card topper.

The good news is someone at Titan Towers saw what Heyman did during the Lesnar-HHH feud and realized how much the man brings to the weekly TV show and the company in general. Hopefully we can let HHH and his short hair fade into the background for a while without losing the chance to see Heyman, if not Lesnar, continue to be a main event player.

Of course the cynic might say aligning Punk with Heyman was the last-ditch effort to cement his heel turn for as many fans as possible — especially in his beloved hometown. But those of us who love good drama are thrilled either way. Punk has become infinitely more interesting since Raw 1000, and this new development only adds to the intrigue.

• • •

David: Your idea of Heyman just being there to get Punk some boos is an interesting one. While I don’t think Punk clotheslining the Rock on Raw 1000 was necessarily what made him a bad guy, it has seemed pretty clear over the past two or three weeks the WWE wants us to think of him as a bad guy. Obviously that hasn’t really been happening… especially in Chicago.

This brings up something I’ve been pondering for a while now. Most forms of entertainment require some suspension of disbelief, but even more so, suspension of reality. If I’m watching a movie like “The Avengers,” and while I’m watching it, I spend a lot of time thinking about how great the performances are, or how great the effects are, are they really that great? If the movie isn’t causing me to suspend that reality and immerse myself in the action, how good can it really be, right?

Do wrestling fans suspend reality enough? Has the social media era caused us to analyze wrestling too much as it happens? Are “smart” fans breaking wrestling by not really caring about who are the good guys and bad guys?

• • •

Scott: That’s a great question, and I know several folks have tried to find a definitive answer (I am thinking specifically of a mid-July discussion on the International Object podcast). The problems with wrestling, as it relates to other entertainment, are twofold.

First, fans become heavily invested in seeing their favorite performers succeed in “the business” and not just in the ring. So even when someone you love loses brilliantly, you want to find a way to salute the performance. The problem is exacerbated for fans who follow wrestlers’ careers as they progress from smaller promotions to the main stage. This is, in large part, why CM Punk is so popular in Chicago. It’s not just that he’s a native son, it’s that he built his career in front of many of those same fans. They’re not just cheering CM Punk, they’re cheering the idea of CM Punk as a mainstream success.

The second component is wrestling exists explicitly in the moment, live and in color. In your movie example, the studios want your money. They want everyone’s money, sure. But all they really need to do is get you in the theater. They don’t care if you laugh or cry or suspend your disbelief. The actors won’t hear or see your reaction. That’s different in live theater, an area you have lots of expertise. But with theater we only have to suspend our disbelief between the curtains — once the cast comes out for bows, we can heartily cheer the person who portrayed the villain, presuming they gave a worthy performance. (The TV/movie equivalent may be reacting to the actors as they make the rounds to Letterman, Kimmel, etc.)

With wrestling, there are no bows. We’ve been conditioned to believe everything is part of the show. The Attitude Era delivered scores of characters who were simply amplified versions of themselves instead of contrived bits (Steve Austin is a real redneck, I don’t believe Brutus Beefcake attended any accredited barber college). Now that we can follow wrestlers on Twitter, it makes it even harder to determine where the character ends and the real person begins. I bristle when I see tweets from Jericho or Cena just a few hours after a show that let me know they’re back in “real life” mode. I think I prefer to be worked 24/7. Or at least I prefer to support guys like Punk and Ziggler, who carry their ring personality everywhere to some extent.

The other problem with wrestling is that, unlike most other forms of entertainment, it utilizes the fourth wall as part of the show on a regular basis, yet never openly (canonically) admitting everything is a show. Sometimes we’re not entirely sure what we’re watching, and the promoters seem to like it that way. So what might be broken, to some extent, is not our ability to suspend disbelief or reality, rather it’s the show’s refusal to simply be a show.

When I went to my first live event, SummerSlam 1994, I was a newly minted 15-year-old, and I knew everything was an act. But since the entirety of it was presented as real, I allowed myself to get caught up in the show, rather than worry about what might or might not be a truer shade of reel. I didn’t care if Bret and Owen Hart went backstage after their iconic cage match and talked about how great a show they put on. I came for the scripted drama, and I was not disappointed.

• • •

David: Unfortunately, the scripted drama isn’t the only type of drama you get in wrestling. We were reminded of that this past Monday night when Jerry “The King” Lawler had a heart attack during the live television broadcast. I’m sure I speak for you when I say we’re glad everything seems to be okay, and we hope he recovers quickly and fully.

Enjoy Night of Champions this weekend, and let us know via email or Twitter if there’s any specific topic you’d like to see us talk about.

• • •

As always, thanks for reading — please feel free to contact us via Twitter or the comments section. Your feedback is appreciated!

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