Championship Props…I Mean, Belts

Mark Madden

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One of the biggest mistakes wrestling ever made was treating the belts as props.
Wrestling was never “real.” But until championships were totally devalued, wrestling never seemed as “fake” as it does now. Until belts were made meaningless, wrestling had competitors who tried to put together a progression of accomplishments leading to a shot at a championship and, ultimately, a championship.
When those championships are rendered moot, so is the buildup to winning one. And then you’ve got a whole lot of TV time to fill. WWE has tried to re-emphasize the importance of titles, but unless you can consistently name – off the top of your head – what wrestlers hold the major belts, it isn’t working.
I can’t. I can name the line of succession for the WWWF/WWF title from Buddy Rogers all the way to Hulk Hogan’s third reign, but I can’t name all the champions now. I bet you can’t, either. Belts were important then. Not now.
The emphasis now is on personal issues, leading WWE announcers to endlessly scream “THIS IS PERSONAL!” over and over even as Vince McMahon screams it in their headsets over and over.
That’s fine. Personal issues have always been a big part of drawing money. But if they’re your LONE emphasis, you need more/better scriptwriters.
Woody Allen, Paddy Chayefsky, Cameron Crowe, the Coen brothers and whoever really wrote “Good Will Hunting” would have trouble coming up with the amount of interesting storylines required for the number of characters WWE features during the copious hours of original TV they produce. Don’t forget, those guys don’t write WWE TV. Guys who used to fetch coffee on the set of “Friends” do.
Important championships made it easier. Jerry Lawler chasing the world title drew money in Memphis for the better part of two decades.
When it comes to the importance of titles, the day the music died was April 26, 2000. That’s when actor David Arquette won the WCW world championship.
Blame Vince Russo for the death of titles. No one maintained more vigorously that belts were props (thus making his creative acumen that much more important, of course) and no one ruined his own product more in the process of proving his point.
I remember when others in WCW protested the idea of giving Arquette the title. “IT’S JUST A PROP!” Russo spat venomously, giving antagonists that classic cockeyed look that only New Yorkers can manufacture when they want you to feel like you’re the stupidest person on the face of the earth. “THIS IS GONNA GET US IN USA TODAY!”
It did. But it was a textbook Pyrrhic victory. The mainstream media took notice. But fans turned off their televisions.
But it wasn’t just giving Arquette the belt that devalued it. In the days leading up to Arquette’s “reign,” Jeff Jarrett held the belt for eight days, DDMe for one day. Arquette held it for 12 days before it went to Jarrett (eight days), Ric Flair (seven days), back to Jarrett (one day), then to Kevin Nash (six days).
That’s RIDICULOUS. Bruno Sammartino once held the WWWF title for 2,803 consecutive days. No wonder it meant something.
This is a tangent best saved for another column, but has there ever been a worse booker than Russo? He was the catalyst for the WWE “Attitude” era, but since then his booking career has consisted of one embarrassing failure after another. Write all his pros down one side of a legal pad and all his cons down the other, and when you’re done you’re going to have a piece of paper that leans heavily to the right.
As a kid, I couldn’t wait to get the Apter mags to see if any of the belts changed hands. I was SHOCKED when Tommy Rich won the NWA title. I will NEVER FORGET when Superstar Billy Graham walked out on WWWF TV holding Bruno’s belt. When Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair had their epic feud in 1989, the family values vs. playboy angle was awful. Things got “personal,” but the belt was what mattered.
True, there’s more TV now. A pay-per-view every month, and I understand. It’s all about cash flow. A schedule like that necessitates more title switches. What used to take years to play out gets done in months, sometimes weeks.
But I used to CARE about those belts. Not these belts. These belts are just props.

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