Following WWE’s acquisition of WCW in 2001, there was an overabundance of performers under contract. The influx of talent and titles coming in from WCW were utilized in the Invasion storyline which pitted Shane, Vince and eventually Stephanie against one another as the respective owners of WCW, WWF and ECW. The Invasion provided some memorable, I-can’t-believe-my-eyes moments like Kane & Taker winning the WCW Tag Titles and The Rock beating Booker T for the WCW World Title. Still, the WWE felt no need to carry that many championships. All of the WCW titles were unified with their respective WWE counterparts by the end of 2001.
This clarity of champions lasted only a few months. As a way to create competition for itself in the absence of Monday Night Nitro, WWE announced the first ever brand extension in early 2002. Raw was Raw. Smackdown was Smackdown. No crossover. The recently retired Big Gold Belt was resurrected as Raw’s World Championship with the WWE Title becoming exclusive to Smackdown. Other titles were added over time to balance the brands but none stayed around too long.
By the time the brand extension officially ended in 2011, the only remaining titles were the WWE, World, US, IC, Divas and Tag team championships. The World title was merged with the WWE title in 2013. The champion would walk around with both belts until August 2013 when Brock Lesnar was presented with a single title featuring the new WWE Logo. Big gold was no more and the WWE was back to 5 championship belts for the first time in over a decade…until this summer.
With the WWE brands now home to 9 combined titles, we ask ourselves…What if the brand split ends again?
How It Happened
The 2016 brand split was facilitated in part by the arrival of AJ Styles, the appeal of the 3 former Shield members as single competitors and the rise of NXT. There were too many main event title contenders (both young and old) and not enough championship reigns. Since the split, we’ve seen Finn Balor, Kevin Owens and AJ Styles all hold their brand’s top title. In that sense, the brand split is working.
Two world titles were imperative. Without a top title on each brand, matches would require convoluted stipulations to raise the stakes. Some wondered whether WWE could use this opportunity to elevate the United States or Intercontinental title but their recent lineages are mired in mediocrity. The last 3 US champs were Rusev, Kalisto and Alberto Del Rio in mostly forgettable runs. The IC title, a WWE original, has been held by guys like Zack Ryder, Ryback and Curtis Axel in the past 3 years. It’ll take a long Cena-like run and an amazing follow up for either to come back to relevancy. WWE and Raw didn’t have that kind of time. So the Universal Title was born on Raw.
Smackdown faced a similar issue in their women’s and tag division. With 6 or so competitors and the division title on a different show, how could you create excitement or drama? It’s possible, but it’d take time (and creative talent) that Smackdown didn’t have. So the Smackdown Women’s and Smackdown Tag titles were created. A deserving Becky Lynch is the inaugural SD Woman’s champ. Heath Slater and Rhyno ended their oddly compelling journey by becoming the first ever Smackdown tag champions. From here, we’ll see a shallow but serviceable talent pool chase the top prize. If done right, we’ll have the opportunity to see many of our favorite superstars become champions. But when the brand split inevitably ends in a couple years or even a decade from now, will any of the new belts even matter?
Both CM Punk and Daniel Bryan won the big gold belt relatively early in their WWE career. On paper, they were world champions. But it wasn’t those wins that people remember. Their career defining moments came when they captured the WWE title. Despite an official decade long linage and an unofficial linage dating back to the early 20th century, the World Championship has never felt as important as the WWE title. It always felt like a second title or a throwaway. The WWE will do everything in their power to make all 9 titles, new and old, seem equally prestigious this time around but it will depend heavily on who possesses them over the next few years. Let’s look at each.
The Tag Division
Rhyno and Slater are a great Cinderella story. Where they go from here will be interesting but this might very well be the high water mark in their careers in the new era. Over on Raw, you’ve got The New Day in the midst of a record breaking streak while holding the very familiar WWE Tag Titles. The level of competition on both shows isn’t too deep. Figure, The Club and Enzo & Cass are next in line on Raw. American Alpha and The Usos are next in line on Smackdown. The 4 belts will likely rotate between those 6 teams for the foreseeable future. The days of main eventers like Austin and HHH or The Rock and Mankind holding tag team gold are seemingly over.
In the event of a merger, Raw holds the advantage as the belts with far more relevancy and prestige. But in fairness to Smackdown, there is a wild card lurking…The Revival. When they do hit the main roster, the tag division on whichever brand they end up on immediately becomes the more compelling of the two. If The Revival ends up on Smackdown, they could steal every show and change the way those titles are viewed. Until then, Smackdown’s belts feel second rate plot device, especially with an untraditional pairing winning them first.
Three of the four horsewomen are on Raw and the fourth is the champion on Smackdown. These four wrestlers could be the most important combo of developmental talent since Batista, Orton, Lesnar and Cena. Unfortunately, the ‘class’ after them of Alexa, Dana, Carmella and Nia Jax just don’t resonate with the audience the way Bayley, Sasha, Becky and Charlotte do. That’s bad news for Becky who will be forced to tango by herself as Sasha, Charlotte and Bayley inch closer to unparalleled main event status. Once again, it’s the Women’s title on Raw that feels like the top title in the business because of it’s history and it’s present. So while Becky’s win at Backlash is exciting for fans, it’ll feel like an incomplete career until she captures the WWE Women’s title.
If the Smackdown title is passed around between Becky, Alexa, Carmella, Natalya, Naomi, Nikki and Eva Marie and never held by the likes Charlotte, Sasha or Bayley, it’s hard to take it seriously. Similar to the tag belts, a reign by current NXT superstar Asuka could change that. But Smackdown faces an uphill battle to establish the title as anything other than an over the top brand split gimmick.
Universal and WWE Title
WWE has always protected the importance of their world title. When it came time to choose which design would singularly represent the WWE World Heavyweight championship, they kept their belt and retired big gold. Still, they’ve never shied away from attempting to elevate another title by making it the focal point of their flagship show. It’s what they did during the first brand split and it’s what they’ve done now with the Universal title.
The two Universal champions thus far have been Finn Balor and Kevin Owens. The top challengers seem to be Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns. There is a chance that the Universal title could succeed where the World Championship failed but the success won’t hinge solely on who wins it, it’ll also hinge on what happens to former champs. The World Championship was held by HHH, Undertaker and Edge but it was also won by Jack Swagger, Dolph Ziggler and Christian. That killed it. It felt like a consolation prize for guys who were almost good enough (or willing to work on Tuesdays).
The Universal Title feels like the opposite so far. It feels like the title that can and will be won by top guys, new guys, guys who deserve it. Finn, Owens and inevitably Rollins. Meanwhile, the WWE title has reached new heights with all time great AJ Styles holding it. Does WWE officially have two meaningful and equal World titles? Maybe. But it all depends who wins and what happens after the champ loses.
On the surface, Smackdown’s two new championships both feel temporary. That’s more than likely a byproduct of their short existence so far and shallow contender field. It could take some getting used to. But when Raw’s two titles in these divisions have roots linking back to Trish Stratus and Lita or Demolition and The Dudleys, Smackdown’s belts would feel disposable if/when the shows come back together thus dampening the excitement surrounding current title reigns.
The Universal title on the other hand is truly interesting. That could change in an instant if the wrong guy wins it or if a former champ is relegated to irrelevancy too soon after losing it. In the event of a brand merger, the WWE might have to take a cue from Boxing, MMA or *gasp* TNA and add some sort of stipulation or qualifier to the Universal Title. Whether it’s weight, age/experience or a different way of winning it, the Universal title will need something to separate it from the WWE title because no matter what, the WWE Title will always be the top prize in all of North American wrestling.