The Five Count: The Most Wasted WWE Title Reigns
When it comes to professional wrestling, opinions are like assholes: everybody’s got one, but my opinion is better than yours.
Believe it or not, I thought long and hard on whether or not that was the line I wanted to use to introduce myself to the PTB Nation and, well, here we are.
My name is Ben Morse, and while I’ve been a fan of a great many things throughout the 31 years I’ve been on this Earth, comic books and professional wrestling have been the biggest constants (others include prime-time soap operas and boy band music, but despite this—or perhaps because of it—I’m married to a beautiful woman and have a decent amount of friends; I imagine many of you reading this have similar tales). As far as comics, that hobby has translated into an actual career for me—I’m the Editor of Marvel.com, official website for Marvel Entertainment. Wrestling, meanwhile, has mostly just afforded me a plethora of topics to BS with buddies and on the Internet about. To that end, I’m pleased to get a chance to continue doing so here at Place to Be Nation.
Here’s where we get back to that opinions thing I opened the column with, as I will be your irregular party host for what we’re calling The Five Count, an ongoing feature dedicated to debate and discourse on various aspects of professional wrestling. Every go-around, we’ll select a topic for our distinguished panel to provide their top five lists on, then tally up the cumulative sentiment to determine a definitive ranking. It could be the greatest Cage matches of all-time, it could be the worst entrance themes of 1993—we’ll cover a gamut of topics.
We’ve chosen to kick things off with an interesting one: the most wasted WWE title reigns in history.
To provide some context, “most wasted” in this case can mean anything from feeling a titleholder didn’t get enough time with the belt, that their opponents didn’t provide the level of competition deserved, that their storylines went the wrong way, that they simply weren’t treated with prestige, or whatever; it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Each panelist will provide their reasoning and then I’ll be back at the end to present our combined list and provide a summation.
Also, for the sake of having more lists to go to the well with down the line, this column covers the WWWF/WWF/WWE title first won by Buddy Rogers in 1963 and currently held by John Cena; its period from 2001 to 2002 as an Undisputed title is counted, but the World title awarded to Triple H in 2002 that Alberto Del Rio has at the moment is not fair game.
5. SHEAMUS (December 13, 2009 – February 21, 2010)
WWE took a gamble at the end of 2009 by having the unheralded Sheamus upset John Cena in a Tables match at TLC to win the WWE title. It was a victory that few predicted, but afforded a huge opportunity to create a new star. Having enjoyed Sheamus’ work a great deal in ECW, I was excited to see what he could do with the chance.
Unfortunately, Sheamus’ ass-kicking character of 2009 was jettisoned almost immediately in 2010 and he became more of an opportunistic heel. A fluke win over Randy Orton would be his only successful title defense before dropping the belt back to Cena in February at Elimination Chamber. He’d lose again to Triple H at WrestleMania—in a good match—then get a second WWE title run later in the year that again saw only cheap victories and a lot of running away from fights.
Sheamus was a hot character upon his debut and upset of Cena, but the handling of his run as champ did a lot of damage to the character that I believe has lasted to this day. He’s a guy with tremendous gifts both on the mic and in the ring, but perception has handicapped him a lot, which is a shame, and I do think stems from his early shot at success.
4. BROCK LESNAR (August 25, 2002 – November 17, 2002)
No small effort was made on WWF/WWE’s behalf toward building Brock Lesnar as an unstoppable, ruthless beast over the course of mid-2002 (not that Lesnar made it too difficult). He destroyed both Jeff and Matt Hardy, won the King of the Ring, dominated no less than The Rock to win the Undisputed title and went over The Undertaker strong in a brutal Hell in a Cell match. It seemed WWE had a monster heel they could ride all the way to WrestleMania and beyond.
Then he abruptly turned babyface and dropped the title to The Big Show (of all people) before settling into a months-long pursuit of Kurt Angle.
WWE jumped the gun way early on the face turn, as Lesnar may have been hearing the cheers any dominant force is going to receive, but was (and remains) a natural heel, as demonstrated by a tepid run as a good guy aborted under a year later. Had he remained in his original character and not dropped the title, you could have still run the Angle feud but with a much better payoff (Olympic hero ends seventh month path of destruction) and not wasted 10 months with Lesnar smiling through gritted teeth.
3. CHRIS JERICHO (December 9, 2001 – March 17, 2002)
When it comes to “wasted” WWE title reigns, I think Chris Jericho’s run as Undisputed champ quickly comes to mind for most. On the one hand, it’s tough to contend that a four month period that saw multiple victories over The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin—cheap or not—was truly a waste, but on the other hand, it could have been much more.
The big knock on the Jericho reign is that being the first Undisputed champ should have been a mammoth deal, but the main event scene was so top heavy at the time—in addition to Rock and Austin you had Kurt Angle, a returning Triple H, and then the influx of WCW returnees like Hulk Hogan—the titleholder became an afterthought. WWF’s insistence of putting Jericho in the ring with guys they didn’t feel like he could beat cleanly devalued both the performer and the title before Triple H and Stephanie McMahon buried him going into and at WrestleMania.
It would have been nice to see Jericho get some solid wins against the likes of Rob Van Dam—whom it seemed like he was originally set to face at the Royal Rumble—and maybe even an Undertaker or Kane to make the reign seem a bit more worthwhile. Again, it’s a tough argument because timing seems more the enemy here than anything else, but given the magnitude of the Undisputed title, it would have been nice to see something more made of it and the champ himself.
2. EDGE (January 8 – 29, 2006)
At New Year’s Revolution 2006, Edge cashed in the very first Money in the Bank briefcase to score an upset win over John Cena to claim his inaugural WWE title. It was a fantastic “anything can happen” moment during a period where WWE boasted few. Immediately, the ratings for RAW elevated as fans turned in to see what Edge would do, be it in a Ladder match with Ric Flair or his infamous “live sex celebration” with Lita. The potential seemed there for a very exciting road to WrestleMania.
Then, just a few weeks later, Edge dropped the title back to Cena at the Royal Rumble.
Presumably plans had been locked in for Edge’s triumph to be a shocker and not long-lasting—Triple H was likely already penciled in to challenge Cena at WrestleMania—but this is one instance where WWE should have taken a step back and course corrected on the fly.
Edge was drawing as champ and the opportunity to solidify a new main event level heel was right there. On the flip-side, fan sentiment was solidly turning against Cena at this point and a chase going into the biggest show of the year could have possibly helped restore some of his babyface luster. Obviously Edge would become a star no matter what, but the winter of 2006 could have been so much more satisfying—and lucrative—with him holding the belt through WrestleMania and building a main event with Cena that had a lot more back story than what we got (HHH just won a tournament in February to get the title shot).
1. BOB BACKLUND (November 23 – 26, 1994)
The WWF hit its nadir both creatively and financially in 1995. Fairly or not, much of the blame has historically been laid on the 12-month WWF title reign of Diesel, aka Kevin Nash. A strong heel for the bulk of 1994, Diesel had won enough fan support by November that he got the strap; however, rather than a prolonged chase that saw the new babyface closing in on the title as crowds clamored for his ascension, he picked up the big win mere days after leaving the dark side at a non-televised MSG house show.
The man Diesel defeated, Bob Backlund, was the surprise heel success story perhaps of the decade to date, going from an All-American has-been to crazed villain intent on restoring “the good old days” in a matter of months in the middle of 1994. Upsetting Bret Hart for the WWF title at Survivor Series, Backlund was drawing incredible heat and could have milked months of antipathy out of WWF fans as their heroes attempted to wrest the championship from his grasp.
Instead, Diesel pinned Backlund in eight seconds at a house show and ended his reign of terror before it even truly began.
In late 1994, Backlund’s mic work was a thing of beauty, he had been built up as a legitimate threat thanks to putting his crossface chicken wing on any babyface foolish enough to step up, and even at a slightly advanced age, he could more than hold up his end of the bargain in the ring. Had he been permitted to hold the WWF title through to WrestleMania, it would have provided a tremendous opportunity to create a star out of whatever babyface finally stepped up and took the old man out. It could have been Diesel, or if the writing was on the wall as far as him losing his steam by January or February, you could go back to Hart or even turn Shawn Michaels face.
Not only did the WWF waste a tremendous heel champion in Bob Backlund by cutting off his run in under a week, they set up their worst year ever by jumping the gun on Diesel and taking away somebody who could have been one of his great adversaries. If Bob Backlund had held the WWF title for a more significant period, the company could have potentially steered away from rock bottom, which to me makes his the most wasted reign of all.
5. THE UNDERTAKER (May 19 – July 21, 2002)
Undertaker could have all of his title reigns on this list, but I think this was the most egregious. I would have liked to have seen him drop the belt to Brock earnestly in the Hell in a Cell match. I then would have parlayed that into having Rock vs. Brock occur at Survivor Series with a clean win for Brock.
4. RANDY ORTON (April 26 – June 7, 2009)
Orton was red hot in the early portion of 2009 destroying Triple H’s family and being a despicable human being. Then they laid that egg of a match at WrestleMania 25 and his run looked to be in danger. The way he won the title here in the fashion he did seemed like a rehabilitation technique. Orton with a lengthy title reign could have went a long way in making the Viper a bona fide star, but instead we got some title flip flopping and then had the endless series and title switching in the fall of 2009 between Orton and Cena. The net result of that was Orton returning to the upper mid card and becoming a WWE star instead of a mainstream star.
3. YOKOZUNA (April 4, 1993)
I think everyone can agree that this was a skittish move done by a scared company to appease Hulk Hogan. Having enough trust in Yoko to have a year-long title reign culminating with a loss to Bret Hart, would have been an even more satisfying finish to WrestleMania X.
2. EDGE (January 8 – 29, 2006)
Edge cashing in the first Money in the Bank was such an exhilarating moment. I was just starting to get back into wrestling from my early college withdrawal, and this event jettisoned me back in. Three weeks later when Cena regained the title, all that momentum was halted. I will never understand why Edge was not given the chance to have a title reign that lasted at least until WrestleMania. Cena vs. HHH was a great match and was important for Cena to prove he was the ace of the company, but they could have done Edge vs. Cena at that Mania and really created two huge stars. Edge became a big “WWE Universe” star but never reached the mainstream level that Cena did. I trace a lot of that back to the neutering of this first title reign.
1. STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN (March 29 – June 28, 1998)
All of the biggest stars in the business have a signature title reign. Bruno, Hogan, even Cena from September 2006-October 2007. Austin came closest with his 2001 reign but really had an opportunity here. The Attitude Era was ushered in with Austin’s victory over Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania making him the biggest wrestling star in the world. Austin losing to Kane three months later only to regain the belt back the next night felt like a cheap tactic to make a PPV noteworthy. I understand the viewpoint of building up other stars by having them beat Austin for the belt, but the truth is that the history of WWF/E dictates that the company is always the most profitable with a strong babyface on top. I unequivocally would have had Austin keep the belt until at least Survivor Series where you could have had the switch to Rock when he was really ready to share the mantle with Stone Cold. Fans remember this era for the beer-swilling, hell-raising tactics but I do believe ramifications from the devaluation during this time frame are still in effect today.
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Bob Backlund, Bret Hart, Brock Lesnar, Chris Jericho, CM Punk, Edge, JBL, Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio, Rob Van Dam, Sheamus, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Big Show, Triple H, Ultimate Warrior, Undertaker, WWE, WWF, Yokozuna