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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 10.2 ~ The Renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship
By Samuel 'Plan
Aug 18, 2017 - 9:25:50 PM




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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 10.2 ~ The Renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship


Just as in the case of the United States Championship explored in the last instalment of this mini-series, the Intercontinental Championship has been enjoying a renaissance in the last two and a half years as well. It is something of a remarkable turn in history to consider the symmetry with which WWE’s two mid card titles have clambered their way back to a prominence we all thought had been lost to yesteryear.

Some might debate whether or not that status has even been achieved again. Indeed, one response to the last instalment of this mini-series questioned whether utilising former World Champions so prominently, while at the same time ‘super-pushing’ less capable talents straight past the middle title tier, was simply symptomatic of unwise roster priorities. To my mind, however, if the result is people talking excitedly about US and Intercontinental Championship bouts both before and after the fact, in part because of the names involved but also, and in no small part at all, because of the resultant quality of match compiled by those involved, then we should consider the goal achieved: fans are interested again because the characters are shown to care about these vaunted prizes again. Thus, to me, as ever, it is not a question of why as much as it is a question of what.

Regardless of whether we might agree or disagree on the end point, though, we can surely agree that, however we might characterise the change in the way WWE has handled its mid card championships since Summerslam 2014 – and that change is undeniable – both the United States and Intercontinental Championships have experienced that change in synch.

What makes identifying this symmetrical flux so easy is the fact that both titles started out in essentially the same place all the way back in the aftermath of Summerslam 2014. The first half of this chapter made mention of the four man mini-mid card resurgence that occurred during the autumnal months that year, comprising of Sheamus, Cesaro, Dolph Ziggler and The Miz. For some time, while two of those men were locked in a bout over US gold, the others would contend for IC gold. What’s more, again rather like the US title matches of the time, though the IC title matches were perceivably well intentioned so too were they riddled with the dying vestiges of WWE’s contempt for the scene.

Dolph Ziggler vs. The Miz for the Intercontinental Championship on the 22/9/14 edition of Monday Night Raw (MNR) is a solid athletic effort from both men. It is a far cry from the ‘legacy matches’ they would wrestle two years later, but the desire to put together a match worthy of the title is self-evident. Unfortunately, those intentions are drowned out by both the unfunny comedy antics of Damien Mizdow and the distracted presentation of a commentary team far more interested in talking about the main events of the night. Thus, what results is the blight of the mid card scene in a nutshell: it’s just not that interesting in the company’s mind, and so ends up being anything but interesting to the audience.

Dolph Ziggler vs. Cesaro in a Best 2 Out of 3 Falls Match for the same title at that year’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view presents the first sign of WWE taking a step in the right direction, then. Moving arguably the most cherished championship in the promotion’s lore away from the celebrity involvement and comedy sidekicks that had dogged it throughout the summer allowed the mid card performers involved to refocus on something much less ingratiating: returning the title to its roots of fearsome athletic competition. While the absence of an evolving story prevents this long forgotten encounter from once again really reaching those ‘legacy’ heights of later years, it remains an impressive piece of work in its own laboured post-modern way. It is another well intentioned effort led by defending champion Ziggler, that this time is able to achieve more than what Ziggler and Miz had been able to; but, alas, it still falls short, centrally because of its card positioning curtailing any possibility of an extended run time and fuller exploration of the sub-genre they had been gifted to work with.

Problems were unlikely to be resolved in the space of a month at a time when the company still indicated little desire to rebuild its mid card championship scene, of course, but it is interesting nonetheless to see two matches, so historically close together, watch as two radically different approaches to deploying the Intercontinental Championship, each with its own severe limitations; be it the production in the case of the former or the card placement in the case of the latter. You can identify, through this two-parter, that a more fundamental change was going to be required in order for the championship to really climb back into the spotlight; competitors wanting it simply wasn’t going to be enough.

That change wouldn’t come for quite some time. Attempts were made, of course. Daniel Bryan vs. Dolph Ziggler on the 30/3/15 edition of MNR was the first real instance of the long held hope for change beginning to coalesce into something tangible and real. WrestleMania 31 had happened on the back of rumours WWE were looking to utilise John Cena and Daniel Bryan to re-establish the forgotten status of mid card titles, and for one brief night it looked like the symmetry explored at the opening of this column was going to become rather quite literal. On the same night the United States Championship Open Challenge began, Bryan and Ziggler put together a remarkably acrimonious composition that benefits greatly from the high intensity, the vocal, animated and conflicted crowd and, in a sign of things to come, the name power and status of the champion – in this case, Daniel Bryan.

It was at this stage in recent history that the Intercontinental Championship’s resurgence truly became something of a curiosity. To this day, it is difficult to tell whether the decision, upon Bryan’s injury, to place the championship instead on the shoulder of failed project Ryback was an unwisely rushed decision, an example of contemptuous lack of thought or little more than good will backfiring because of misjudged faith in a man’s ability. Needless to say, the results were massively underwhelming.

While John Cena, Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins and more were weaving magic around the United States Championship, quite literally on a weekly basis, the Intercontinental Championship struggled through a lacklustre reign peppered with wince-inducing matters like that year’s Summerslam Triple Threat. Ryback’s reign hardly got off to a great start, with the Elimination Chamber Match for the Intercontinental title at that year’s self-titled event proving to be one of the absolute worst bouts of its entire Era, full of miscommunication, awkward timing and, to put it bluntly, incompetent work. Had it not have been such a car crash, it might have proven embarrassing to watch. In hindsight, WWE should have pulled the plug on Ryback’s reign there and gotten on with the job they would, in mercifully short order, return to.

There are some cynical fans who might take a certain joy in knowing that Indy darlings succeeded with the Intercontinental Championship where WWE projects like Ziggler, Miz and Ryback had failed to make in-roads in creating the fundamental change required for the title to return to its glory days. Daniel Bryan, as short lived as his time might have been holding the title, inevitably made waves, but it would ultimately prove to be Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose who began the ‘Interconti-naissance’ in earnest at the back end of 2015.

Ryback vs. Kevin Owens at Night of Champions 2015 was the turning point; how fitting the pay-per-view would hear Kevin Owens proclaim “Tonight, you’ll see what a wrestler looks like!” It is a line that strikes at the very heart of the IC issue – the so-called workhorse championship. Owens lays out his stall in the match too; it’s far from being a classic, but maximises its minutes, using them to tell its own neatly trimmed but no less cerebral story focussing on Ryback’s arm and power, ultimately exceeding expectations.

Exceeding expectations; if a championship’s legacy were to have a tag line, can you think of one better suited for the Intercontinental gold? It would most definitely go on to become the trademark of the title in the months and year that would follow on from Owens’ victory.

Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens vs. Dolph Ziggler in a Triple Threat Match for the title on the 22/12/15 edition of Smackdown Live (SDL) did just that. Though conventional in its status and presentation, it marks an early indicator of the transition that began the moment Owens won the title, and escalated when Ambrose took it at the Tables, Ladders and Chairs pay-per-view that year. Smart, creative, well executed, opportunistic and concerned only with being a good match, it was another step closer to establishing the ‘legacy match’ as an emergent conceptual genre unique to the title.

This conceptual genre is an interesting one to ponder, and helps us further in identifying the transitional narrative the Intercontinental Championship has been in receipt of these last few years. Gradually, since Summerslam 2014, as the bouts thus far selected should prove, individuals competing for the Intercontinental Championship put together matches that felt increasingly like the famous Intercontinental Championship affairs of yore.

These so-called ‘legacy matches’ are not necessarily prolonged bouts, nor the most promoted, but they possess a certain undeniable spirit too intangible to describe in words, though instantly identifiable when you encounter it. The passion for the championship bleeds through the screen in such matches, and the result is simple: you, as a fan, feel like you’ve just witnessed an accomplishment.

Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens in a Last Man Standing Match at Royal Rumble 2016 is the first really prominent instance of this so-called ‘legacy match’ genre. Though rendered unique in the Intercontinental library courtesy of its Last Man Standing stipulation, it is nonetheless worthy of mention alongside the likes of Hart vs. Perfect, Michaels vs. Ramon and H vs. Rock. It is nothing short of an outright character masterpiece that helps redevelop the championship’s standing in lieu of the passion of both men putting themselves through such physical torture, and in such willing fashion. It was also the last bow of the opening act of the Intercontinental Championship’s true renaissance.

For Owens and Ambrose were really the forefathers of the ‘legacy match’ in 2016. They laid a foundation; a very strong one at that. The Miz, however, would be the man who would build upon that foundation an outrageously accomplished library of work that cemented the ‘legacy match’ as something more than an intermittent trend; as a revived status quo that made the old new again.

His successes, so deserving of recognition, started in the spring, with a double header at back to back pay-per-views. The Miz vs. Cesaro at Payback 2016 and The Miz vs. Cesaro vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn at Battleground 2016 are inseparable from one another courtesy of inspired deployment of shared universe storytelling, that wove into the increasingly enrapturing IC scene the emotive powerhouse of a storyline that was the destruction of the Owens / Zayn friendship.

In the case of the former clash, you have a classically psychological story of the outmatched champion doing little more than surviving his challenge and, in the case of the latter, you have a newly re-established sense of big event surrounding the belt; for, while the overhanging Owens / Zayn issue informs vital moments among the action, it never overshadows the fact that the match was, first and foremost, an Intercontinental title bout. Despite intermittent moments of silliness, and one or two woeful clichés, it remains inescapably brilliant; especially when paired with the singles effort that preceded it.

That spring was a statement season for The Miz, but so too was it affirmation that, for lack of a better expression, the Intercontinental Championship was “back.” A few misadventures opposite Darren Young and Apollo Crews continued to threaten a rocky future, but ultimately the Intercontinental renaissance would come full circle by peaking with the same individuals who, two years prior, had shown a desire to realise the dream they were now making a reality.

The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler at Backlash turned heads. It was an excellent match. It was an over-achieving match. It was a platform match showing the main event potential of both men involved. In every which way, it was an IC classic and a textbook ‘legacy match.’ Their No Mercy sequel is widely considered the better effort, quite accurately I would say, but for the purposes of looking to a match that best exhibits the renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship I do not think you can look past the Backlash affair.

Heading into his title defence at the first SDL exclusive pay-per-view of the Extension, The Miz was now actively making a point on screen of the returning status of the Intercontinental Championship. Unlike in past instances, though, this is not the intended story in and of itself; it only contributes to the real one in play. That real one is defined by the character inflections of both combatants. The accusations of The Miz’s apparent cowardice dog him, thematically raising the matter of the Intercontinental Championship’s reputation as a workhorse title, and questioning what type of performer most deserves to carry it; worthiness thus becomes a prominent issue. On the flip side, Ziggler’s self-imposed pressure and increasingly dismal win / loss ratio highlights the nature of the Intercontinental Championship as a noteworthy prize, deserving of the chase and prestigious enough to be considered a career revival. In both men, you have characters that make the title matter on a practical as well as philosophical level.

The match that follows pursues realism over stylised action; is to be felt, rather than admired; is as accomplished a piece of work as some of the finest IC sleeper classics of yesteryear; and is given room to transcend into something special courtesy of a feature length 18 minute run time. It is the embodiment of a ‘legacy match’ – a piece of work spiritually and tonally in tune with its legendary ancestry.

Though this mini-series is designed to end at the point of WrestleMania 33, it is worth noting briefly that the renaissance of the Intercontinental title would only continue to gain strength after The Miz and Ziggler’s excellent two-parter. Only misguided mitigating circumstances bumped Ambrose’s brilliant defence against up and coming Baron Corbin at WrestleMania to the pre-show; and the Lunatic Fringe’s return to the IC field would lead to another masterful ‘legacy match,’ this time on the MNR-exclusive Extreme Rules 2017, and again opposite The Miz.

It is fair to question whether the new status quo of dropping World title veterans down the card to vie for these championships, rather than elevating up and coming fresh faces to the level of chasing them, is a sustainable and wise method in the long term. On the basis of match quality, however, and the resultant excitement of fans surrounding both the United States and Intercontinental Championships, it is difficult to argue against the results. Both titles have developed a conceptual genre to call their own – the ‘open challenge match’ for the US title, and the ‘legacy match’ for the IC – and both of them have undeniably achieved something truly worthy of celebration: the renaissance of the mid card championship.

So I come to it at last; time to answer the question this entire mini-series has been designed to research. What is the most must see match between Summerslam 2014 and WrestleMania 33, and the 102nd WWE Match To See Before You Die? What match, in the aforementioned timeframe, has brought together all of the issues this series has explored and still created an impressive piece of in ring work to boot? I reached my decision some time ago; and on Sunday, in this series’ final instalment, I will reveal my pick!

In the meantime, share with me your thoughts on the renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship in the comments below or over on social media! And why not tell me what you would pick as the most must see match this side of Summerslam 2014 and the other side of WrestleMania 33!



This mini-series is a spin-off of my first book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, spawned from the acclaimed LOP column series of the same name. So for more of the same, click below to pick up your paperback or e-book copy today!


Click here to pick up your copy of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die from Amazon.com – currently on sale for less than $3!







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