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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business: The Renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship, Continued
By Samuel 'Plan
Feb 22, 2017 - 9:35:19 PM

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Just Business: The Renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship, Continued

For years, WWE’s beloved second-tier title, near mythical in its status among WWE circles, languished on the shoulders of talents WWE have shown little interest in. The Intercontinental Championship became a shell of what it once was and feuds dwindled into an unending parade of new champions ambitiously claiming they intended to “restore the prestige” of the championship to its once former glory; not one of them did anything other than pay lip service to such an ideal.

Once WWE put that championship on the shoulder of Daniel Bryan, it looked like, for once, someone was going to finally live up to that promise. Despite a disastrous flirtation with Ryback, the Intercontinental Championship soon found itself locked in an upward trajectory and, though I have been critical of the man recently, all credit is due to Kevin Owens as the kick-starter of the campaign, with particular thanks to his sizzling feud opposite Dean Ambrose. The growing orbit of top flight stars found around WWE’s Intercontinental Championship since has been a welcome change, and very much a return to the yesteryear so many fans yearn for when it comes to IC gold. You wouldn’t be wrong to call it a renaissance.

There have been stutters with the Intercontinental Championship throughout this renaissance: the Ryder win at WrestleMania and Young’s challenge of Miz at Battleground both, for example, winked at the demons of past mediocrity, while Ryback’s entire stint was a disaster and No Mercy failed to capitalise on growing mid card momentum by allowing Miz and Ziggler to close out the show. That said, the Intercontinental Championship has, overall, maintained a steady course at the very top of the card, thanks to some excellent “legacy matches” that consistently capture the spirit of our memory of IC title bouts in waned glory days, as well as inspired creative decisions to exacerbate Intercontinental feuds with personal issues in exactly the same way as is done with World level gold. The result has been the ascension of the Intercontinental Championship to the genuine status of second only to the World Championship – a reputation it hasn’t enjoyed to such a legitimate extent for a great many years.

This is because WWE have finally shown consistent dedication to the concept of the IC as second best, allowing stars not unfamiliar to the World title scene to mix it in with stars many want to see in the World title scene, as well as those further down the roster looking for a share of the spotlight. The Miz / Ziggler feud perhaps partners with the Owens / Ambrose feud in catalysing this growth, and solidifying it.

However, while I give props to WWE for maintaining this steady course, I feel it important to look toward the future, both in the short and long term, and to recognise, while Smackdown Live is undoubtedly the more beloved brand right now, the clear practical issues that could derail the ongoing rebirth of the IC title. Foremost among those is roster depth.

This week, Smackdown Live fielded a battle royal to determine who would challenge Bray Wyatt for the WWE World Championship in “a” main event of WrestleMania. Those are some very high stakes. Indeed, it was because of those high stakes that the wafer thin depth of the SDL roster shone through. Considering this was an opportunity to wrestle for World level gold in a ‘Mania main event, the presence of Mojo Rawley and Kalisto to boost numbers strained my suspension of disbelief. I don’t intend that as a knock on the quality of the match or the logic behind it happening; merely as a dispassionate recognition Smackdown Live can sometimes struggle for its smaller roster size.

This presents a potential problem for the Intercontinental Championship’s ongoing resurgence. We may yet return to the days where a Rawley or Kalisto carries the Intercontinental Championship because of a lack of alternative options for WWE’s creative time. Doing so threatens to unravel the progress thus far made, while avoiding doing so requires taking the final step in re-establishing the Intercontinental title as the springboard to the main event it once was. Otherwise it will again settle into the role of a random prize fought over by those for who creative needs to find something to do.

So, how best to achieve this final step. The answer, I believe, is simple: the Intercontinental Championship’s renaissance now needs to solidify its long term future with a constant; an anchor; a centre of gravity; an omnipresence equal parts main event talent and upper mid carder.

Enter Dean Ambrose.

Dean Ambrose had his run as WWE World Champion and, thanks in the main to Steve Austin’s utterly unnecessary and completely bizarre character assassination of the Lunatic Fringe during a podcast appearance, many felt it disappointed. I disagree with that sentiment, but I do feel Ambrose better suits the Intercontinental Championship than the WWE World Championship. This is not meant as a slight. Ambrose is as talented in the ring as either of his fellow Shield alumni, more-so in some departments, and he is entirely capable of creating compelling main event level programmes and matches with anyone – from Triple H to Dolph Ziggler. He is a top dog of his generation and the deserving first pick for the blue brand in last summer’s draft, being second overall. Yet there’s something about Dean Ambrose as Intercontinental Champion – as the outsider; the hipster pick – that seems to, put simply, just click.

Ambrose has the name power to guarantee the continued renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship remains at the top of the card, regardless of who is chasing the title. He has the ability to compile opposite near anybody, and on a consistent basis, the “legacy matches” I referred to earlier – compositions that mirror the quality of match upon which the IC established its reputation. He has proven himself effective at elevating the status of those he wrestles whenever those he wrestles might be considered lower down the card than him, but looks right at home opposite the top brass of WWE’s fictional universe. Ambrose can be funny and intense, a psychologist and a brawler, emotive and detached, all with equal effectiveness. Can there be a more perfect mainstay for the Intercontinental Championship’s renaissance than this renaissance man?

Ambrose, I feel, is the perfect candidate to anchor the IC, capable of presenting rising stars with gateway feuds to the highest echelon. Some might consider the suggestion of Ambrose remaining a semi-permanent presence at such a level something of an undeserved demotion for one of the very best of the current generation of talent. I disagree, because I think back to Razor Ramon’s run during the New Generation Era.

There is no doubt Razor Ramon, throughout the character’s entire life cycle, could have comfortably become World Champion and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Hart, Michaels, Diesel and Undertaker. He never did, but his career was as vital to the period and to the quality of the product of any of his aforementioned contemporaries. Razor Ramon was the standard bearer in many respects; the proving ground for stars seeking to establish a name for themselves. 1-2-3 Kid (latterly known as X-Pac), Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Jeff Jarrett and Goldust all, to varying degrees, solidified their presence as a mainstay star of the Era in top quality bouts and feuds opposite the Bad Guy, most of the time over the Intercontinental Championship. Throughout the 1990s, Razor Ramon pretty much was the Intercontinental Championship; so much so, I have heard it said that if a man proved he could go opposite Razor, he proved he could go in the main event. The Era benefitted greatly for such consistency at the heart of its product, providing stability and a steady succession of fresh new characters that could be convincingly pitted against the longer-term names sat on the top tier. Throughout that time, the Intercontinental Championship scene was a breeding ground for the very best, and Razor was at its core.

Today, the Intercontinental Championship scene is grinding back towards being a breeding ground for the very best, thanks to rise of the “legacy match,” the return of star power to that scene and the continued prominence of the title as a core pillar of the product. Dean Ambrose as this generation’s Razor Ramon is a perfect fit, and a perfect next step that can help combat an, at times, quite thin roster.

Right now, it seems, WWE have a litmus test on their hands: Baron Corbin. Corbin has put together some fun matches lower down the card, and now he looks set to compete for the Intercontinental Championship at some point opposite a man we know is World Championship level-talent; indeed, a man who, even as Intercontinental Champion, continues to find himself in World title bouts and chases. Thus, if Corbin can go opposite Ambrose, if Corbin can become Intercontinental Champion, we will know Corbin can go in the main event and one day, perhaps, become World Champion too. And if Ambrose can, as I know he could, pull off another “legacy match” opposite the Lone Wolf, then Corbin’s run at the top of the brand – maybe, one day, the company – will have found itself a foundation of stone.

Then all WWE need do is put the title back on Ambrose and move on to the next guy.

Keep doing that, as they did with Razor, and not only will the roster depth of Smackdown Live ever prove a stumbling block, not only will Dean Ambrose find a niche he can thrive in, not only will future stars have the best introduction to main event calibre wrestling they could hope for, but most importantly of all the Intercontinental Championship renaissance will be a guaranteed ongoing success, and the title itself on course to find itself back in the spotlight it once enjoyed.

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