From the outside, professional wrestling (or ‘sports entertainment’ as WWE likes to call itself) is a confusing clash of sweat, skin and insane-looking people. Outlandish characters fly off the top rope and yell into microphones to the delight of thousands of screaming fans. If you’ve never even watched a single match, you probably still have some idea about what the rules are. Or at least, what they should be.
In a typical wrestling match, two competitors enter a ring to wear each other down, entertain the crowd and perform feats of herculean strength and agility. At the end, victory is usually achieved via ‘pinfall’ – one wrestler holds the other on their back so both shoulders are flat on the canvas while the referee slaps down a count of one, two, three. Obviously, it helps if you’ve done enough damage to your opponent so they have no strength to kick out of the pin.
This is essentially the backbone of every match. Wins can come in different ways (declaring submission to pain, disqualification due to excessive violence or use of weapons, being outside the ring to the referee’s count of ten) but the pinfall victory is the stock-standard guideline that the majority of matches follow.
The end goal of most wrestlers is to reach the top and challenge the current champion. In WWE, a champion is easily identified because they’re constantly carrying or wearing their championship belt. Every time they appear on camera, whether it’s walking to the ring for a match, a sit-down interview or even doing charity work for cross-promotion, the belt is always with them. Because, in theory, they’re the most important person on the roster and the constant reminder of the belt makes this loud and clear. When you’re the champ, you (hopefully) get more money and your profile increases. A wrestler can go from relative obscurity to appearing on morning talk shows and magazine covers if they have a belt over their shoulder. That’s why losing a belt also carries weight.
And yes, as a reminder, it is still all pre-determined. This is important to mention again because why would a championship belt really mean anything if the outcome of matches is decided before they even start? There are a few recent examples.
Within WWE, there’s a women’s division and men’s division. In the last couple of decades, the women’s division was arguably the most consistently embarrassing part of the biggest wrestling company in the world. Despite a few women working hard throughout the early 2000’s to highlight the capability of their training, they were typically overshadowed by the company’s obsession with juvenile titillation and bitchy catfights. WWE treated their women as an afterthought. Looking good in a bikini was the main prerequisite for a female wrestler, rather than in-ring ability. Their matches were shorter than the men’s, held less importance and were generally viewed as a distraction or a prelude to the ‘real’ wrestling.
For years, this was just the way it was in WWE. The women’s division was never going to even approach being regarded as on the same level as the men. Two concepts that shouted this fact from the rooftops in recent years was the division’s name and its belt. While the men were called ‘Superstars’, the women were known as ‘Divas’. In the court of public opinion, ‘diva’ typically translates to ‘spoiled bitch’ and that’s how a lot of women wrestler’s characters were designed. I’m awesome and I’m also a bitch. Even if they weren’t ‘heels’, they were still one-dimensional awful people. Typically because they were booked and written by middle-aged men who had very little experience treating women like actual human beings. If that wasn’t bad enough, the champion had to wear the Divas belt. Here it is next to the men’s belt of the same era.
Despite the ‘Barbie’s Playhouse’ nature of the women’s belt, that was all they had. For women, this awful, toy-like, butterfly championship was the only brass ring that existed. Believe it or not, it was only LAST YEAR that a groundswell of fan support for women wrestlers lit a fire under WWE management to actually put some faith in these incredible competitors and see them in equal standing with their male counterparts. As a goodwill gesture to fans and their employees, the Divas division was retired and renamed the ‘WWE Women’s Division’. The centerpiece of this step into the modern day was the newly created Women’s Championship belt, unveiled at Wrestlemania.
The belt was an overdue sign of change not only for WWE and its fans but for the women competitors who now felt like they had something that was deserving of their talent and hard work. It symbolised a turning point for how they were seen: they would now be called ‘Superstars’, just like the men.
While it was sickeningly ludicrous for this change to take so long to occur and highlighted a long-standing sexism problem WWE has had for decades, this belt was baller. It looked even better than the men’s belt. Women wrestlers felt like they could hold it up with pride and use it for positive reinforcement not only for the future of their division but also as role models for young girls who wanted to follow in their footsteps. The days of ‘sexy divas’ were dead and gone. Superstar women wrestlers were here and they all wanted that belt.
Not every belt holds such groundbreaking significance. Part of the reason for that is the sheer number of them in 2017. As of this writing, there are currently thirteen championship belts in WWE.
- WWE Championship
- Raw Women’s Championship
- Universal Championship
- Smackdown Women’s Championship
- Raw Tag Team Championship
- Smackdown Tag Team Championship
- Intercontinental Championship
- United States Championship
- United Kingdom Championship
- Cruiserweight Championship
- NXT Championship
- NXT Women’s Championship
- NXT Tag Team Championship
The WWE Championship is the oldest belt (1963) while the United Kingdom Championship is the newest (2016). There used to be others (World, Hardcore, European) but they don’t exist right now. Belts can be unified if needed by having a ‘unification match’ where two belts are merged and a single new belt is created. There’s no such thing as a Women’s Tag Team Championship because…well, I don’t know why.
That’s the basics. Obviously, there’s history behind every championship but those are the bare facts. Which is a problem. The more belts there are, the less value they hold. And it’s extremely rare in the modern era that two champions go up against each other with the possibility of both belts being the prize. With so many championships, it’s difficult to keep track of who holds what in any given month. And as result, your care factor drops to zero.
But not all of them suffer this fate. Some will always matter more than others. If there is a top men’s belt, it’s the WWE Championship. It is a symbol that you are top dog in this company. Enough of a total package that the people in the back office will give you the ‘push’ into stardom and WWE history. Which can be applied to all the belts on one level or another.
The theory goes that if you’ve been impressive enough in the ring (following direction of a match) and on camera (saying the lines), you might get a shot at the title. It helps if you have bags of natural charisma, an inherent sense of timing and the fans respond to you (with either love or hate). But ultimately, it’s up the CEO and WWE executives to decide if you are worthy enough for a championship. Sometimes, belts go to undeserving competitors and other wrestlers are criminally overlooked to the bewilderment of fans but the general rule is: if you’re enough of an entertainer, you’ll eventually get your hands on the gold.
However, there’s a double-edge to each championship. For example, the Intercontinental Championship used to be the cooler, younger brother of the WWE Championship back in the 1980’s. Held by far more interesting competitors, it almost superseded the main belt in the eyes of fans simply because wrestlers and their storylines made you believe in its importance. They convinced you that it held value by talking about it whenever possible and making every Intercontinental match seem like a big event. That doesn’t happen anymore and despite wrestlers holding onto it for months on end, nobody really cares about it in the modern era. But once in a while, belts like this can make all the difference in the world. Like when Zack Ryder won it at Wrestlemania.
A lot of wrestlers, regardless of work ethic, are overlooked for a variety of different reasons. Age, aesthetics, personality. They might even be popular with fans but someone in the back office could have a biased opinion of them and work for years to unfairly prevent them from succeeding. So when a wrestler who has wallowed in low-card obscurity for years suddenly gets a chance for championship gold, it can be an extraordinary surprise. Zack Ryder floundered back and forth between WWE’s developmental division and occasional tag teams for years. He was a compelling enough figure with a decent level of charisma to make matches interesting. A nice enough guy with a great finishing move, he was generally liked by everyone.
At Wrestlemania 32, Ryder overcame the odds (i.e. was scripted to win) to claim the Intercontinental Championship in a ladder match. The rules were simple: fight other competitors to climb the ladder in the middle of the ring and grab the gold. When he did, fans were both shocked and overjoyed. Nobody expected Ryder to beat out far more popular and high-profile wrestlers to win this match and this decision seemed like a refreshing one. In front of hundreds of thousands of fans, and his parents, Ryder held the belt above his head and enjoyed the absolute peak of his career thus far. For a brief moment, the Intercontinental belt once again felt like the ‘people’s belt’. A symbol for mid-to-low tier wrestlers to not give up hope and continue striving for opportunity despite years of politics and bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, Ryder lost the belt in a match the very next day and immediately went back to a low rung on the roster but it didn’t matter. Belief had returned and the belt gave a brief resurgence to a wrestler’s career. It was evident these tangible objects still held power and remained an important, if not vital, factor in this world of ‘sports entertainment’.
In keeping with the scripted nature of WWE, championship belts are like the validation that you’re doing your job correctly. It’s like if an unknown actor scores a breakout movie role or your favourite character in a TV show suddenly becomes the hero. Belief from a large group of people that you’re worthy enough to sit at the top of the pile. It could come from years of hard work or organic chemistry that strikes a chord with fans. It might be as simple as a refreshing move set or an unscripted moment that you took a risk to perform that raised an positive eyebrow with the WWE creative team.
Preferably, the wrestler that holds the gold is a combination of the best three aspects of a champion: natural charisma, in-ring ability and the willingness to keep reinventing themselves so they don’t get stale. If you can do that, your career will last decades and a belt immediately encapsulates this achievement to fans and the world at large more than anything else ever could.