The Real World’s Champion


John Cena and Randy Orton’s title unification match at T.L.C. would be the symbolic end for what was once a fascinating debate in wrestling lore

When Triple H announced that John Cena and Randy Orton would wrestle one another at T.L.C. on December 15th, he punctuated that he wanted to do something “epic.” What he thought up was a match that, if they go through with it, would end the 11-year-long schism between the WWE Championship held by Orton and the World Heavyweight Championship held by Cena. Both men would compete in a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs Match in Houston, Texas with both belts hanging high in the middle of the ring, and the man who grabs both belts would become the undisputed, unified champion of the WWE. Given that this match was booked for a December pay-per-view and how suddenly it was thrust upon us, fans were immediately (and still are) cautious that the WWE is pulling another bait and switch in which the belts are still split apart and nothing of significance comes from the match.

But the closer they draw towards the main event, the more serious it seems that Vince McMahon and the WWE are about actually putting an end to the dual title reigns. In what he personally bills as the “Biggest match in WWE history,” Triple H, in a sit down interview with Michael Cole, did not beat around the bush when he said that at the end of the Cena/Orton TLC Match, there will be only “one undisputed WWE Champion.” The speculation of whether or not the company will actually go through with it rages on, but the premise is fascinating in nature: Combining the original WWE Championship first held by Buddy Rogers with the older World Heavyweight Championship that (by the WWE’s account) goes all the way back to Frank Gotch and Lou Thesz. To have one belt figuratively combine the lineages of the two most storied championships in the history of professional wrestling sounds like quite the spectacle, but unfortunately, for the older fans who dreamed of a night like this, an eventual unification of these two titles has far outlived its attractiveness.

I have an affinity for this particular subject because my first ever experience of a big-time wrestling event as a kid came from what was promoted as a title vs. title match. Granted, the WWF Intercontinental Championship was clearly a rung below the WWF Championship, but it did not deter me from being all in and completely in awe of the gold-covered, testosterone-driven awesomeness that was the Ultimate Challenge. Hulk Hogan, the WWF Champion, faced off with the Ultimate Warrior, the Intercontinental Champion, in the main event of WrestleMania VI in Toronto that was heavily built as “Champion vs. Champion, Title for Title.” Only one WWF king would rule them all at the end of the night in the Sky Dome, and after a match that would be unanimously praised as epic, it was the Ultimate Warrior who got the splash on Hogan and won both titles. I still vividly remember every nuance of this memorable match, from the yellow strap on the Intercontinental belt to Warrior’s extra poofy hair to Hogan tearing off Earl Hebner’s shirt pocket. The question posed by both wrestlers in their promos that night was, “Do you want to live forever?” No mere mortal or even a reign at the top of the card can live forever, but by emphasizing the significance of the Ultimate Challenge, that match will live forever in my mind.

When the Ultimate Warrior wrestled Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI, it was Champion vs. Champion, Title for Title.
When the Ultimate Warrior wrestled Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI, it was Champion vs. Champion, Title for Title.

But what lived up to the hype as a battle of champions turned out, like Bill Goldberg’s memorable win as WCW’s World Champion and United States Champion over Hogan in 1998, to be just a fleeting snapshot before a dispersion of the two belts. Shortly after WrestleMania VI, the Intercontinental Title was vacated and later won in a tournament by Mr. Perfect. What we saw from the title-merging accolades of Hogan vs. Warrior was phenomenal, but still a tangible scenario given that one championship clearly superseded the other. It was in the unknown, the seemingly unapproachable, that fans indulged themselves in by imagining dream match-ups between champions from separate promotions. It was serendipitous for me that the first two world champions I familiarized myself with as an eight-year-old were the larger-than-life Ultimate Warrior and his former tag team partner of yesteryear, the bodacious, equally energetic Sting. Sting had just won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship for the first time against his longtime rival Ric Flair at the Great American Bash. By the time we reached early 1991, Hogan had regained the WWF Title and Flair had done the same against Sting at WCW.

Although the 1990 world title reigns of Sting and Warrior were notable in their own ways before being undercut by booking decisions, it was the two men they had won the titles from that truly defined the prevalent argument over who was the greatest wrestling champion of them all: The Nature Boy or the Hulkster? Flair had been firmly cemented by the National Wrestling Alliance as the hand-picked successor to the gold after Harley Race by the time Hogan came onto the scene in the World Wrestling Federation in 1984. While Flair slowly won over fans as the NWA World Champion down in the deep South and the Carolinas, Hulkamania took the WWF by storm after Hogan pinned the Iron Sheik that year to win his first title. While Flair traveled the world, exhibited his mastery, and traded holds with many champions of their respective territories (Kerry Von Erich in Dallas, Carlos Colon in Puerto Rico, Jumbo Tsuruta in Japan), Hogan and the WWF  Superstars brought the world to them with the Rock ‘N Wrestling movement and the advent of WrestleMania. As the local promotions like World Class and the AWA slowly faded away and the national groups expanded, there were only two sheriffs left in town when it came to wrestling supremacy: Flair and Hogan.

Throughout the 1980’s, you could not read a wrestling magazine cover without some mention of a dream match between the two, and which wrestler was ultimately better. “Is Hogan Scared of Flair?” “Can the Four Horsemen end Hulkamania?” Even John Cena himself mentioned this exact quandary in a backstage promo on a recent Raw. It was the understanding that such an epic encounter was unlikely to actually occur that buttered up readers and devoted wrestling fans alike into pushing the debate far enough to wonder which company they liked the most between the WWF and the NWA, which would later be renamed WCW. The idea of the WWF Champion wrestling the NWA Champion seemed like impossible for many, but history shows us that in a time before Vince McMahon tried to globalize sports entertainment, his father Vince Sr. was more than willing to let champions from the other promotion face off with his guys. It was Vince Sr. who created the original split between the WWWF Championship and the NWA Championship after disputing the outcome to a title match between Lou Thesz and Buddy Rogers. The original Nature Boy was Vince Sr.’s star, and while Thesz remained the champion in the NWA’s eyes, Rogers was rewarded as the first ever champion in the lineage that we now recognize as the WWE Championship.

WWF Champion Bob Backlund and NWA Champion Ric Flair get ready for an interpromotional match.
WWF Champion Bob Backlund and NWA Champion Ric Flair get ready for an inter-promotional match.

Although both companies were constantly competing with one another, Vince Sr. did not mind extending an olive branch to the NWA for the sake of good business in the 1960’s and 70’s by putting on inter-promotional matches. Two featured Harley Race and they would end inconclusively in order to protect both champions: One in 1977 against Superstar Billy Graham and one in 1978 against Backlund, both of which ended in sixty-minute draws. They were promoted in the papers as unification matches only to get butts in the seats, followed slyly by a finish that would not make another promoter look bad. Those good ole days of carefully booking champions against one another were long past gone by the end of the 1980’s when the WWF and WCW were embroiled in a fierce rivalry for as many ticket sales and television viewers as they possibly could on their flagship cable networks. And it seemed like the visions of Hulk Hogan taking on Ric Flair for all the marbles would stay on the ink of Pro Wrestling Illustrated and dancing in the dreams of avid wrestling fans. Then, a funny thing happened in 1991.

Only a few months into his most recent reign as the WCW World Heavyweight Champion, Flair found himself at major odds with a newly hired president of WCW named Jim Herd. A television executive who had previously been a regional manager for Pizza Hut, Herd rattled the WCW status quo by insisting that Flair not only change his signature look but quickly drop the World title to Lex Luger. Flair refused to work with the aggressive Herd because he found him disrespectful, but they came to a compromise that he would drop the Big Gold Belt (as many know it as today) to Barry Windham. Before Flair could do it, however, Herd fired him over the phone. Flair had already put a $25,000 deposit in for the belt as instructed by NWA rules and was to be paid back plus interest after losing it. Herd refused to pay Flair back for the deposit, which granted Flair legal permission to keep the actual World Heavyweight Championship belt for himself even after WCW had officially stripped him of the honor. Because of Herd’s stupid blunder, WCW had to suffer through the indignity of not only creating a makeshift WCW Championship on little notice but also letting their standard-bearing champion for over a decade walk away without ever losing the title. The mistake was so disastrous that it was one of main reasons why McMahon pulled the Montreal screw job on Bret Hart in 1997 in order to avoid the possibility of the WWF Title being paraded on WCW Monday Nitro. By the beginning of 1992, months after Flair had already left WCW, Herd was fired.

Lo and behold, within a matter of days, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan was popping up on WWF television proudly displaying the same gigantic belt that had represented the NWA World Champion for years. Week after week, Heenan was smugly proud to give advance warnings to WWF Champion Hulk Hogan: Ric Flair is coming to the WWF to end the debate once and for all. I will never forget being at my friend’s house watching Flair’s flamboyant and rambunctious WWF debut in front of a live studio audience on Prime Time Wrestling in September of 1991. The Brain gave him a hero’s welcome on a red carpet (“Live and in living color!”) as Flair laid out a plethora of challenges to WWF stars like Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper, calling himself the “real world’s champion.” For NWA fans, it was a dream come true to see Flair smack talk the boys at Titan Towers. For loyal, uncertain fans of the WWF, they would finally find out if Flair was all style, all substance, neither, or both (Here is a great self-made documentary detailing Flair’s run during that time). The dueling belts scenario was so enticing, that even when WCW paid back Flair and took back the original Big Gold Belt, McMahon kept the storyline going by enlisting belt maker Reggie Marks to concoct a cheap, generic version that is now known as the “Vegas Big Gold Belt.”

The WrestleMania main event that never happened.
The WrestleMania main event that never happened.

Unfortunately, what seemed like a culmination to the once-endless argument over Flair and Hogan settling the score never rounded out into any epic encounters. There were very few interviews in which both of them appeared, one being a Funeral Parlor segment leading up to Survivor Series where Flair talked down Hogan (constantly calling him “big man”) only to be a decoy for a sneak attack by The Undertaker. Even before the interruption, Hogan barely got a response and showed no emotion to Flair’s diatribe. Flair would wind up personally costing Hogan the WWF Title at Survivor Series shortly afterwards, followed by the really confusing Tuesday in Texas a couple of weeks later. If you thought that one promo on national television was a tease, how about the matches, which only occurred a few times at non-televised house shows? They wrestled a handful of times with both men wearing their respective gold, and almost every match ended either disqualification, count out, or a reversed decision after Flair cheated to get the pin on Hogan. Their only two televised matches were both at Madison Square Garden on December 29th after Hogan had already lost the WWF Title. Fittingly, to show how incapable McMahon was at the time to determine a true victor, Hogan won one via reversed decision and won the other via count out.

The moment of truth in the WWF came for the Nature Boy at the 1992 Royal Rumble in Albany, NY, where the winner of the annual battle royal would become the undisputed WWF Champion. Flair got the unenviable #3 spot in the Rumble match, where no wrestler had survived that long before him to win the battle royal. But as the match carried on for over an hour, Hogan eliminated The Undertaker, Sid Justice eliminated Hogan, and there still was Flair, holding on to his goal and dumping Justice at the end to not only become the undisputed WWF Champion, but also finish what may have been his career crowning achievement. As Heenan boisterously repeated, “I knew he could do it,” many fans who had followed Flair for years said the same thing at home; The Man from another universe now becoming The Man in Hulk Hogan’s universe. The swagger of the World Heavyweight Championship on his waist in the fall was long gone by then, as Flair, WWF Title right next to his tearful face, gave an emotionally stirring interview backstage with Heenan and Mr. Perfect by his side. “With a tear in my eye,” Flair proclaimed, “This is the greatest moment of my life.” For a short and beautiful moment, the most cunning talker in the history of pro wrestling was at a loss for words.

Even though it was serendipitous for many fans of pro wrestling to finally see Flair at the top of the WWF mountain going into WrestleMania VIII, the opportunity to find a clear resolution between Hogan and Flair never came to be. Due to the arm-twisting political innuendo that is prevalent with many superstars backstage and an inability to find a compromise between the two (as well as poor house show sales for those aforementioned untelevised bouts), the previously billed Hogan/Flair WrestleMania dream match was called off. What we got was a serviceable double main event where Hogan wrestled the newly evil Sid and Flair lost the title to Macho Man Randy Savage in a heated rivalry. Although I would like to say I would never trade anything in the world for what turned out to be a phenomenal bout between Flair and Savage, I always felt like fans got unfairly fooled by the WWF for not having the resources or cooperation to pit the Hulkster and the Nature Boy together to find who was truly the king of the wrestling castle. Like most of their house show matches being cheated out of actual finishes, fans were cheated out of what should have been the most anticipated match since the Ultimate Challenge, a figurative unification of respective championship glories.

Flair wins the Royal Rumble and the WWF Championship in 1992. Hogan and Flair stand at an arm's length from each other.
Flair wins the Royal Rumble and the WWF Championship in 1992. Hogan and Flair stand at an arm’s length from each other.

I always found it somewhat trivial how perfectly aligned the Ultimate Challenge was when it was a fight for champions of the same realm and then how ineffective the WWF was able to repeat the doings in the feud between Hogan and Flair. Perhaps it was his mantra as the standard-bearer for everything outside of the WWF that ultimately dissuaded McMahon from going through with what could have been a critical impasse for Hogan had he looked bad in a WrestleMania match against Flair. There is far more trepidation in letting a self-made man walk down that aisle and undo the monster that you created than doing it the other way around, which is exactly what happened when Savage pinned Flair. But the irony of that misstep is the fact that by never granting us the actual comeuppance between the two legends, the debate was able to continue on even after their WWF runs were over. What I felt along with the disappointment was a restored sense of wonderment: Just who was the “real world’s champion” after all?

I suspect that they carefully called Flair the “Real World’s Champion” in order to avoid further legal action from WCW for copyright infringement, but that phrasing had a double meaning for me. For most fans, it simply meant that Flair was the champion of the promotions outside of the WWF. But if you look at it in the literal sense, Flair was the champion of the real world, the trophy holder for accomplishments that were tirelessly earned and free of fictitiousness or illegitimacy. Sure, Hulk Hogan was the ruler of all things WWF, but Flair was a fresh reality check to the now-outdated Rock ‘N Wrestling superstar system, and the balance of power was shifting before Hogan took his sabbatical. It would be disingenuous to assume by this line of thinking that Flair’s reigns atop the many lands of the wrestling world mattered more than what Hogan did in the self-centric WWF, but it was the incomplete nature of their actual encounters in 1991 and 1992 that continued to make me wonder rather than just plainly know. Just like pro wrestling itself, the results are not, in essence, “real,” but the search for something “real” to hold onto never ceases. Flair obviously did not stick around long enough to cement his legacy up north in Hogan’s absence, going back to WCW in 1993. Ironically, he wound up winning the same Big Gold Belt that he had paraded with in the WWF just two years earlier. What almost became an unequivocal reality was again left to the imagination in the battle between WCW and the WWF going into the late 90’s.

The long-anticipated Flair/Hogan match finally materialized for fans in front of a nationwide audience, but it occurred at Bash at the Beach ’94 in a match that felt more like a case of twilight than resonance. What is ironic is the fact that a month before the Bash at the Beach match, it was Flair who took part in a unification match of his own against Sting at Clash of the Champions. In a series of weird logistical moves, the WCW Championship created in Flair’s absence and the original World Heavyweight Championship (then renamed the WCW International Championship after WCW and the NWA parted ways) merged as one after Flair (with some help from Sensuous Sherri) pinned his longtime rival right before Hogan debuted. It was still called the WCW Championship, but the Big Gold Belt we all knew and loved in the NWA days stayed as its representation. Even before Hogan and Flair’s non-date with destiny in the WWF, there were plenty of other unifications involving world championships from separate, smaller areas. There was the match between AWA Champion Jerry Lawler and World Class Champion Kerry Von Erich at SuperClash ’88, the only pay-per-view in the history of the AWA. The match, just like the show, was a scatterbrained disappointment, and the unification was quickly forgotten when both companies went out of business.

Sting and Ric Flair during their unification of the WCW Championship and Big Gold Belt at the Clash of the Champions in 1994.
Sting and Ric Flair during their unification of the WCW Championship and Big Gold Belt at the Clash of the Champions in 1994.

Japanese wrestling promotions also took part in unifying belts in round-robin tournaments like the J-Crown, which gave us this hilarious visual of winner Ultimo Dragon. There was All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1989 creating the Triple Crown Championship, originally won by Jumbo Tsuruta after defeating Stan Hansen. That was followed by a feud between Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu that became the precursor to AJPW’s peak years in the 1990’s. Even if titles were not merged together, there have been many cases of champions wrestling champions from other places more recently, the most glaring example being at ECW. In early 2000, Mike Awesome was the ECW Champion and signed a deal with WCW before dropping the title, quickly appearing on Nitro but without the belt. Desperate to take the title off of Awesome, Paul Heyman was granted a favor from Vince McMahon, who had just hired one of his former top stars in Tazz. After unifying the ECW World Title and his own specially made “F.T.W.” World Title, Tazz took his talents to the WWF but was invited back to ECW on a short-term basis to beat Awesome and win the belt. A week before Tazz eventually dropped the Title to Tommy Dreamer, Tazz wrestled Triple H in Philadelphia on Smackdown in a battle between the WWF Champion and the ECW Champion. Triple H won a forgettable match with an ending involving Dreamer that made no one happy.

The nonchalant, indifferent response to WWF Champion vs. ECW Champion was a telling omen to what was to come when WCW was bought by Vince McMahon and reformed alongside ECW stars as the Alliance to feud with the WWF. What seemed to have the unlimited potential of champions like Goldberg or Sting continuing the WCW name in feuds with Steve Austin and The Rock turned out to be a poorly conceived red herring. Instead of Goldberg vs. Austin, which was a dream match during the Monday Night War, we got Booker T vs. Buff Bagwell. By the time we reached the fall of 2001, merely months after the Alliance storyline began, the WCW Championship had already changed hands five times and was clearly deemed a notch below the all-important WWF Title on television. Once WCW and the Alliance was officially declared dead at the Survivor Series, the two men feuding over the WCW Championship were WWF superstars: The Rock and Chris Jericho. The concept of the “real world’s champion” was far more entertaining and debatable when  the battle lines were drawn between the WWF and WCW and speculation was beyond the control of a single company’s creative direction. But by the end of 2001, the WWF was the only game in town and had already put the tradition of their former rival into a sad form of cruise control. There was simply no fun to be had knowing that the WWF had all the cards on the table and the future of WCW’s legacy was ultimately doomed. Although they tried to continue the WCW Championship by name, the legitimacy and significance of that belt had clearly reached ground zero in the eyes of many.

 It is funny that many are currently mulling over the fact that the WWE is giving away a unification title match at a pay-per-view in the month of December because in 2001, desperate to make the most out of the history of the fledgling WCW Championship, the company did the exact same thing. In fact, history will merely be repeating itself this Sunday at T.L.C. because if you look deeper, the championship that represented the NWA and WCW throughout its history had already merged with the WWF Championship at Vengeance ’01 to create (get this!) an Undisputed WWF Champion. The four wrestlers selected to compete in an elimination format were Jericho, Rock, Austin, and Kurt Angle, with the winner being the unlikely Jericho after pinning Austin thanks to outside interference. Jericho still considers this the greatest accomplishment of his career as he defeated Austin and The Rock on the same night, to the reminding of almost everyone around him. Chris Jericho would proudly hold up both titles for months leading into WrestleMania X-8 before losing the titles to Triple H, who was the catalyst for the two championships that WWE fans have familiarized themselves with for the next 11 years.

In December of 2001, Chris Jericho became the Undisputed WWF Champion.
In December of 2001, Chris Jericho became the Undisputed WWF Champion.

It was on Raw as the Undisputed WWF Champion that commissioner Ric Flair presented Triple H with a newly made, singular title belt instead of the former two. But what was meant to be a reigning king for both Raw and Smackdown evolved into split champions. In September of 2002, Raw general manager Eric Bischoff shocked and angered many when he brought back the Big Gold Belt as the brand’s new World Heavyweight Champion and simply gave it to The Game only months after he had already been the Undisputed WWE Champion, which now resided on Smackdown. Interaction between stars on either show was limited to a point where there was open discussion over which champion represented the WWE the best. With their closest competition vanquished and the artifacts of wrestling lore in their possession, it was now up to McMahon and his company to create ruthless aggression from within, to mixed results. As the brand split was taken very seriously by the renamed company in its infancy, the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship were place on equal pedestals for both brands to a point where Brock Lesnar won the WWE Title in the main event of WrestleMania XIX and Chris Benoit won the World Title in the main event of WrestleMania XX. The two championships were equally significant when both Benoit and Eddie Guerrero celebrated together to ovations and confetti at Madison Square Garden in 2004. Even a year later, when Batista won the World Title and John Cena won the WWF Title at WrestleMania 21, it seemed like both stars’ futures were on an even path to greatness.

One of the turning points that began the renewed focus on the WWE Championship was the 2005 Draft, where Cena as the WWE Champion transferred to Raw and Batista, fresh off of a hot, star-making feud with Triple H, brought the World Heavyweight Championship to Smackdown. As the WWE continued to strengthen Raw, which had just moved to the USA Network that year, as its flagship program, Smackdown (and the World Heavyweight Title that represented the brand for most years thereafter) slowly began its permanent downgrade. While superstars like Cena, Randy Orton, Edge, and Triple H were carefully picked to be the WWE Champion on Raw, the World Heavyweight Title bounced around to the likes of Booker T and The Great Khali. Sure, there were shreds of vitality in the World Heavyweight Title when The Undertaker would slowly rise to challenge the likes of Batista, Edge, or C.M. Punk, or when the belts switched back to Raw from June of 2008 to March of 2009, but by the time we reached the end of the 00’s, it was perfectly clear that the World Heavyweight Championship meant only as much as a mid card achievement to WWE brass. It has always been convenient to namedrop the history of the Big Gold Belt in attempts to promote and alleviate newly crown up-and-comers, but the thought of seeing such a presumably prestigious championship being the opening match to two straight WrestleMania’s is sickening to fans who long once more for the days of Hogan vs. Flair or Sting vs. Flair. Since the original brand split in 2002, the World Heavyweight Championship has only appeared in the main event four times, and the last time was in 2009.

The WWE has even gotten to the point of using an old trick from yesteryear by making doppelgänger belts for the same championship. It worked like a charm back in 1994 when Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon both claimed to be the real Intercontinental Champion, which is what led to two belts at stake in their groundbreaking ladder match at WrestleMania X. This was duplicated in 2011 when C.M. Punk and John Cena had dueling WWE Championship belts (spinners and all) and has recently been done by TNA as Dixie Carter crowns a new TNA World Heavyweight Champion while the real champion, A.J. Styles, remains in exile. We’ve seen sore losers hold on dearly to token belts after losing the real, newly minted championship like J.B.L. did against Cena in early 2005. We’ve seen the revival (and re-demise) of the ECW Championship which started proudly with Rob Van Dam and ended obscurely with Ezekial Jackson. How about the time that three world champions from Raw, Smackdown, and ECW wrestled at Cyber Sunday ’06 in a match where the only notable moment was interference from D-list celebrity Kevin Federline? History is obviously written by the winners, as they say, but when it came to trying to recapture the once-potent magic that the World Heavyweight Championship conveyed to wrestling fans, that ship had sailed long after the decision was finally made to unify the belts once again this month.

C.M. Punk and John Cena compare belt sizes during their memorable WWE Championship feud in the summer of 2011.
C.M. Punk and John Cena compare belt sizes during their memorable WWE Championship feud in the summer of 2011.

I have written in the past about how despite the elevations of C.M. Punk and Daniel Bryan in recent years, the two superstars chosen to take part in unifying the WWE Title and the World Heavyweight Title would be Cena and Orton. Just like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan tiptoeing past one another about who the “real world’s champion” was, Orton embarked on a figurative quest of his own to be declared the “face of the WWE,” when any sane person can safely tell you that John Cena has been the face of the WWE for many years. While Flair and Hogan’s lost opportunity kept wrestling fans’ imaginations lively for years about who truly was the best, we will actually get to see who will be the latest Undisputed WWE Champion in a match that has more accolades and gold plates than it does legitimacy. Cena and Orton’s match on Sunday might be high in ambition and bold on the surface but low on realization because of the WWE’s inability to retain the importance of the Big Gold Belt. It is telling that despite the fans voting to call the newly won title “The Unfied Championship” that the WWE is reportedly going to stick with their own script and call it the “Undisputed WWE Championship.” Along with absorption come dissolution as the weaker element ultimately fades into nothingness, and in the case of the match on Sunday, the World Heavyweight Championship is bound to meet its end regardless of who wins.

 It makes sense in WWE for a belt that was recently unveiled by The Rock on the eve of WrestleMania XXIX to make the sports entertainment cut while the belt that represents a long-gone era of classic professional wrestling will eventually disappear. Shortly after Randy Orton or John Cena snatch both belts high above the ring to declare an Undisputed Champion, one championship will remain held high while the other disappears into the ether down below, merely another artifact in the expanding WWE library. But this destiny for the Big Gold Belt seemed like manifest destiny long before we even knew about it. Ric Flair was a proud holder of the World Heavyweight Championship, but it always seemed like he was never more rambunctious in victory than he was when he won the Royal Rumble and wept with the WWF Title in his hands. It seemed like even Flair, that belt’s greatest representative, had to bow to the power of the championship that will now stand completely alone. C.M. Punk infamously labeled these as Vince McMahon’s “imaginary brass rings,” which leads you to believe that if McMahon’s brass rings are the only ones that matter anymore in the wrestling business, maybe the Undisputed WWE Championship is the only “real world’s championship” after all.

There seems to be more focus on what could have than what actually was when it comes to title unifications and what they mean to the wrestling business. The problem today with matches like John Cena vs. Randy Orton is that by the time dream matches reach actuality, the dream is either gone or it has been replaced by numerous nightmares. When I think about the maximum potential for these special types of matches, it is weird and prescient that the quote which stays the longest with me was uttered by the snarling, non-sensical Ultimate Warrior. During his incredibly cheesy contract signing with Hulk Hogan for their title vs. title match at WrestleMania VI, the Warriors slaps both belts on top of one another and stares at them. “I will take the powers of those that question,” Warriors says, “and I will take the powers of those who have no fear as I take two and become one.” When John Cena wrestles Randy Orton for both championships on Sunday, the powers of those that question will be the ones that linger because it is hard to capture the imagination of wrestling fans when there is little to imagine anymore.