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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 10.1 ~ The Renaissance of the United States Championship
By Samuel 'Plan
Aug 14, 2017 - 10:23:29 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 10.1 ~ The Renaissance of the United States Championship

Over the course of researching and writing this series, I have been quite taken aback at just how radically WWE has changed since Summerslam 2014. The constant ups and downs of WWE television often make us feel like the company is stuck in a rut, but the truth is that, with perspective and a little analytical thought, you realise the promotion is almost unrecognisable to what it was three, four, five years ago. One major element of that is the resurgence of the mid card championship.

For more years than many might care to remember, one of the most preeminent conversations among particularly the IWC fan base was the desire to see the likes of the Intercontinental and United States Championships revert to their earlier vaunted status of years gone by. Some feel this remains the case. Upon inspection, however, you come to find that, in the time that has passed since Summerslam 2014, this is exactly what we, the fans, have received.

If you don’t believe me, let’s count backwards through some of the most recent United States Champions in WWE: AJ Styles; Kevin Owens; Chris Jericho; Roman Reigns; Rusev. These are all status names, all major stars. Sure, Kalisto sits in the middle of the recent roll call and sticks out like a sore thumb, but if anything he is the exception who proves the rule, for on the opposite side of his name, going back even further, you find more former World Champions: Alberto Del Rio; Seth Rollins; and, of course, John Cena.

Though it might irk some of his more ardent detractors to admit it, the truth is that the United States Championship’s return to a brighter spotlight started in earnest with WWE’s poster child of the last decade. I personally balk at the vast majority of his identikit United States Championship Open matches from Monday Night Raw and pay-per-view during his reign as US Champ in 2015, but even as an ardent critic of such wafer thin populist content, I still accept that it was exactly the popularity of those weekly matches that helped propel the US title back into the hearts and minds of fans.

In a path that presents quite the opposite to that taken by the Intercontinental Champions of the same period, the US Championship was treated to a More is More approach in re-establishing its sense of status within WWE’s fictional universe. That refreshed status was built upon a foundation of “workhorse matches” that packed themselves full of content to the point of overflowing and which were always sure to lay the drama on thick. Nuanced is not a word I would ever utilise to describe the results, but effective most certainly is. Fans lapped it up, to such an extent that a lot of the decade-old ire harboured towards Cena (somewhat) dissipated.

We should, of course, be careful not to pin the re-establishment of the US Championship as an event unto itself all on the shoulders of one man. That is not my intention. The wheels were in motion a little before Cena got his hands on the title in question, thanks in part to the flawless manner in which WWE built up the preceding champion, Rusev, over the course of 2014. But also, we should levy some credit on the shoulders of the likes of Sheamus, Cesaro and, to a lesser extent, Dolph Ziggler and The Miz too. For in the autumnal months of 2014, those four men engaged in a four man mid card resurgence all their own, essentially sneak previewing what would follow in full force the following year.

Sheamus vs. Cesaro for the United States Championship at Night of Champions 2014 was not going to be winning any awards for Match of the Year that year, and that might very well have been because of the distinct lack of character inflection in their feud at the time. Rather interestingly, though, the pair seemed to care very little for that fact and instead substituted what lacked in character with hard-hitting action. At the same time that Dolph Ziggler and The Miz were working rapid fire athletic contests, Sheamus and Cesaro put together smash mouth compositions that spoke to a concept that mid card championship matches of the time were in desperate need of: a tangible sense of desire. The exhaustive, exhausting brawls they put together demonstrated just that: desire.

That x-factor might be exactly what made the US Open Challenges so popular. Yes, the methodology might leave some feeling cold, and I doubt is going to come to age very well either. The one thing they did, however, was demonstrate a burning desire in whoever was stepping up to the plate that week to become the title holder. When characters can play such tangible desire, the status of the championship being chased is naturally benefitted in the minds of fans, in an industry where, so often, perception and reality are one and the same. It’s why John Cena vs. Cesaro for the US Championship on the 29/6/15 edition of Monday Night Raw (MNR) feels so electric, even now – a tidal wave of bespoke action with plentiful false finish riveting the live crowd, Cesaro fights like there’s nothing he wants more in the world that day than to become US Champion.

So too is it why John Cena vs. Rusev in an “I Quit!” Match for the US Championship at Payback 2015 might be worth a second look for the majority fan base too; it was very much an early sign of how WWE recognised the next step they needed to take after Cena had established the popularity of the Open Challenge.

Once again, it might not be the best match of that year – or even of that night – but what it represents is far more important: an epoch change. It is a match designed with the geography, the run time and the pacing of a main event World title bout. Its presentation isn’t far off either, with a pre-match hype package being delivered that, once again, feels like the sort of video reserved for World title level encounters in years past. One might even say, in concept at least, it is a match that owes a little something to one of Cena’s historically most popular: the Last Man Standing with Umaga at Royal Rumble 2007. On more than one occasion there are set pieces and small touches that remind of that big brawling opus, and the brilliantly animated and lively performance from Rusev is perhaps foremost among them.

From the brutal stipulation – on both a physical and mental level – through to the determination of John Cena and the ferocity of Rusev, it simply cannot be denied that, while eventual quality might be debated, the effect of that blockbuster US Championship bout was undeniable; it was one major part in a story that would unfurl over the course of that summer.

The “I Quit!” Match is something of a waypoint in that story, followed by a feud and series of matches that only took matters to the next level once again. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens for the United States Championship at Battleground 2015 was the big payoff of a feud that took the intangible atmosphere of a big event that had started to underpin the Rusev affair and exacerbated it tenfold; so much so that, by the time they got to their Battleground bout, the atmosphere heading in was one of immeasurable excitement and special event.

In what appears to be something of a trend hiding underneath the tale of the US title’s return to status in the eyes of fans, I again have never been overly fond of the three Cena / Owens matches, and once again it’s entirely because of the method with which they were wrestled. More than most others, their three encounters stick out in my mind as being a series of one-move exchanges and a dense forest of false finish. Like before, though, my personal opinion is second to historical meaning, and the Owens trilogy sits heavy with historical meaning.

Taking the method of the US Open Challenge and dialling it up to 11, they were intense, live in the moment matches that, for many, were memorable enough to ensure the moment would live forever in their minds. The aforementioned big fight feel rubs off on the championship being vied for by WWE’s most marquee player and one of WWE’s most prominent rising stars; a man styled, no less, as a Prizefighter. This is a far cry from the throw away days when under-qualified talents would be in receipt of a US title reign because there was nothing else to do. Here, the US title was a prize, being sought by two top names.

Even the controversy of Cena emerging victorious to go 2-1 over Owens only further played into ensuring the United States Championship was no longer going to remain an afterthought but, instead, would become a fitting second to the company’s World Championship. It was an unpopular creative decision, true enough, but the outrage that followed proved only that the US title wasn’t going to carry on going about its business quietly and unsuspecting. Far from it; it had returned to centre stage.

Centre stage was right where it stood come the second biggest pay-per-view of the year that year, Summerslam. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins would main event that year with both titles on the line, seeing the US Championship reframed as a proving ground equally as tough, perhaps even more challenging as the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, thanks to a narrative that placed US Champ John Cena as the primary protagonist. It is their match together on the 27/7/15 edition of MNR that should be considered as must see here though.

With a measured pace and robust logic, it remains a coincidental albeit no less enthralling tale of true grit speaking to the theme of proving grounds, and of “the man making the title.” The infamous nose break feeds into that notion further still, as does JBL’s commentary about Cena’s success in big match situations. Essentially, what you have in the instance of this composition, which came at the time that the US title’s resurgence was peaking, is more than just another title defence. It is no less than a survival thriller for Cena, that sees the US Champion introduce the WWE World Heavyweight Champion to the ferocious, earnest competition of the highest echelon of the world’s foremost pro wrestling promotion; and defeat him in the process. It’s hard to imagine a situation that could be kinder to a title that only a few years before was being held briefly by the likes of Zack Ryder and Jack Swagger.

As with all things in WWE it hasn’t all been plain sailing of course. The US Championship, following on from a spectacular 2015, perhaps inevitably found itself on something of a downturn when Kalisto rather randomly got given a misadvised opportunity to run with the gold. Even when the championship found itself back on the shoulder of Rusev – a driving force behind its resurgence – we would witness see the likes of Titus O’Neil get a title opportunity. Fans might have been justified, then, in harbouring fears of a return to what had for so long been the forgettable and dismissive form of yesteryear.

Thankfully, such was not the case, and while the US Championship has categorically failed to rekindle the sparkling in-ring highlights it enjoyed on a consistent weekly basis in 2015, or its prominence in fan conversation regarding the best bits of any given week of WWE’s product, there can be no denying that WWE have substituted what is missing with solid name power, like those mentioned earlier in this very column. Rusev vs. Roman Reigns was the first to kick start this newer trend, and their Hell in a Cell United States Championship Match at Hell in a Cell 2016 stands out the most.

Once again, truthfully it isn’t all that great a match. Watching it back now, it might strike as uninspired; predictable; painfully slow. Inevitably, like all Reigns’ matches, it still sucks in the live crowd all the same though and, importantly, like the “I Quit!” Match before it, is produced and presented in a manner akin to how a World title Cell bout would be. Thus, match quality again plays second fiddle to how the match watches. It watches like a main event; like a happening, as Gorilla Monsoon might say; as something special and set apart from the rest.

It is perhaps the match to which we might point and say, compared to where that same championship was only two years beforehand, we fans should consider the United States Championship officially “elevated.”

Best of all, this is simply one half of the overall story. Arguably more important to WWE than its inherited US title is its original Intercontinental Championship. While the US Championship was being re-established on the back of a plethora of content driven work, the Intercontinental Championship enjoyed a similar resurgence in far quieter, yet I would argue far more accomplished fashion. That is what I shall turn to in the next half of this latest chapter.

Until then, please do share your own thoughts on how and why the US title has enjoyed a renaissance in WWE’s product since Summerslam 2014. To whom does the title owe the most? And just how important has the US Open Challenge come to be historically? Let me know in the comments below or over on social media!

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

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