Sunday at Hell in a Cell, during the last match of the night, archrivals Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose put on a memorable show. They brawled from the top of the cage, they knocked each other through complementary announce tables, and eventually they fought in the ring, where innumerable chairs and tables awaited them. The fight reached a crescendo when Ambrose retrieved two cinder blocks from under the ring — a callback to two months ago, when Rollins curb-stomped Ambrose’s head through a pile of them. Just as Ambrose was about to return the favor and (theoretically) win the match, the lights went out and Bray Wyatt interrupted, attacking Ambrose and spoiling his victory.
Announcer Michael Cole conveyed the dismay of Ambrose fans with characteristic subtlety: “He could have had bragging rights!” It might seem like a disservice to the brutal feud that Ambrose and Rollins had shared over the preceding months, but it was functionally true — the main event of one of WWE’s biggest pay-per-views was headlined not by a title match, but instead by an old-school grudge match. Despite a supernatural ending that featured Wyatt, this was much more rasslin’ than sports entertainment, and that was a very good thing.
Since Brock Lesnar returned to WWE two and a half years ago, he has been a similar corrective. His superlative collegiate wrestling background and experience in the UFC brought an unprecedented legitimacy to WWE. But Lesnar has been a part-time performer — at best. He has wrestled a mere nine matches since his 2012 return, always as a special attraction — a monster heel — to add excitement to big cards. When he took on John Cena for the WWE title at SummerSlam, it seemed like a mismatch, since one guy was the full-time face of the company and the other showed up only every couple of months. But WWE had Lesnar beat Cena anyway, and even then it wasn’t just a short-term fix, as it had him retain the title via disqualification at Night of Champions. Then, just when it looked like Lesnar and Cena were setting up for a rubber match at Hell in a Cell, Cena turned his sights elsewhere and Lesnar disappeared. Lesnar’s mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, vanished from TV too; whereas Heyman had previously served as Lesnar’s proxy, reminding us of his presence even when he wasn’t booked on a weekly basis, now WWE seemed eager for fans to forget Lesnar and Heyman altogether.
To say it seemed odd at first would be an understatement. Modern wrestling is largely an anticipation game; we’ve become conditioned to a nearly Pavlovian extent to expect and respond to the grunts and groans of the familiar WWE narrative arc. We’re always anticipating the next step. When there’s a narrative loose end as large and significant as Lesnar, fans will speculate him into the next episode every week. So keeping Heyman off television was a way for WWE to signal to fans that the champion wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon.
It’s feasible that WWE put the strap on Lesnar just to break the Cena monotony, or to make up for the absence of such stars as CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, or to cash in on his mainstream sports celebrity — probably it’s a combination of the three. In an era when we’re accustomed to the monthly pay-per-view grind to the point of monotony, when the title is defended — or, at a minimum, when the champion competes — almost every time, the notion of an absent champion is outlandish. But in Lesnar’s case, just maybe, it’s the best thing that could have possibly happened.
One of my favorite wrestling angles ever played out in the Mid-South territory in 1985. Ted DiBiase was pegged as the last-minute replacement for Butch Reed to face NWA champion Ric Flair. Flair was a minor presence in Mid-South, obligated as the world champion to appear in all the other territories. But whenever he performed in the region, it was a chance at the top of the mountain for whichever Mid-South star was set up opposite him. So Flair, attempting to avoid a rematch with Reed, who had pushed him to his limit in his last visit, decreed that only the North American Champion — the local champ, then Dick Murdoch — was worthy of a match. Reed then challenged his buddy Murdoch to a series of matches and eventually won the belt. Flair offered a reward for other wrestlers to injure Reed and keep him out of the match, and an aggrieved Murdoch took him up on it, teaming up with Flair to injure Reed’s neck.
Once Reed was out of commission, Mid-South had to find a new challenger. That opportunity fell to DiBiase, who would later become the WWF’s “Million Dollar Man,” but who at that point was just a regular brawler. He had briefly been a fan favorite, but then he became a heel and aligned with “Dr. Death” Steve Williams. The story went that when DiBiase was chosen for the Flair match, Murdoch took exception, so he attacked DiBiase right before the title fight was scheduled to begin. Murdoch came to the ring and busted open DiBiase’s head. Flair thought he had the night off, but no: DiBiase was determined to have the match, injury be damned. He fought the good fight, and he nearly defeated Flair a few times, but after a grueling bout DiBiase was counted out. Murdoch then reappeared to work over DiBiase some more, brainbustering DiBiase’s already-injured noggin onto the concrete.1
Untold love to Max Levy’s retelling on Kayfabe Memories for background. The whole site is beyond incredible, and well worth a trip down the rabbit hole. You might spend a whole month reading it and you might lose your job because of it, but it’ll be worth it.
It was a moving emotional journey for the fans, who both embraced DiBiase as a hero and then lost him to “grave injury” in the same night. The fact that the NWA title was on the line was secondary to the storytelling. Flair’s presence elevated the stakes, but in the end he was just a prop.
The DiBiase affair wasn’t a unique endeavor. The NWA championship was awarded based on a vote of the most powerful territorial bosses, and it hardly ever changed hands; the outcome of the championship matches was certainly not up for debate on the night of the show. For decades, the best a local hero could normally hope for was to look good in trying and failing. But in the ’70s and ’80s, when weekly televised storytelling became a tool of promoters, a new sort of Pyrrhic victory emerged: The local hero could lose, sure, but the fans left caring more about the local feuds than the world title. The title was the pinnacle, but the story lines were what mattered.
Probably my favorite match of all time (which I’ve written about before) was Kerry Von Erich versus Flair in the steel cage at Star Wars in December of 1982. It sported a similar outcome: Kerry failed to win the belt, but after he was double-crossed by special referee Michael Hayes and his buddy Terry Gordy, fans forgot about Flair. They wanted to see Kerry get his hands on the Freebirds just like Mid-South fans wanted to see DiBiase get his hands on Murdoch.
The NWA title was still the peak to which every wrestler aspired, but it wasn’t part of each territory’s regular storytelling, and even with lesser regional titles around to keep the hierarchy alive, feuds tended to focus more on personal grudges than athletic ascendance. When Vince McMahon took WWF national, he eliminated the necessity of the special-attraction champion, although he spaced out Hulk Hogan’s major defenses with similar scrupulousness. But when the economic model of the business shifted from house shows to PPVs, regular title defenses became almost mandatory, and when the PPVs evolved into monthly occurrences, title defenses became almost perfunctory. The zany competition of the Monday Night Wars turned championship defenses into another way to pump up television ratings for the rival promotions WCW and WWE. Sure, it ramped up the excitement factor for a handful of Monday-night broadcasts, but it also further cheapened heavyweight title matches compared to those NWA days of yore.
After the Attitude Era, when WWE was alone atop the wrestling world, the regimented nature of the schedule rendered title feuds almost mechanical: The champ comes out the night after a PPV and either states his continued grievance with the previous night’s opponent or sets his sights on another challenger. The lower slots on the card, which could be used to pursue more fully formed stories, were subordinated in screen time and marketing energy to the main-event feud. WWE found itself in a vicious cycle: The more regimented the schedule became, the more the routine left fans bored; and the more fans lost interest, the more energy WWE spent hyping the main event. The structure lent itself less to telling compelling stories and more to hitting the high notes. Instead of evolving into The Sopranos, it became CSI: Stamford — a retreat into formula with pretty bows on the end of each episode. The result felt forced and predictable: title, rematch, rinse, repeat.
No matter how much wrestling fans clamor for one favorite or another to be given the championship, it’s a fact that titles just don’t matter in pro wrestling. The bosses’ favor matters, and titles are an indicator of how much Vince McMahon values a wrestler. But titles are assigned instead of being won; they’re story line mechanisms, and in the modern era, they’re usually not very compelling ones. When wrestling fans look back on the feuds that shaped their fandom, they rarely think of titles — they think of the stories that led to the title matches. Randy Savage–Ricky Steamboat was for the Intercontinental belt, sure, but what we remember is Savage maiming Steamboat and their epic match at WrestleMania. When we think of the New World Order, we think of them spray-painting their logo on the belt rather than their winning it. When we think of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin versus Vince McMahon, we hardly remember the title at all.
This is because, especially in the modern era, title matches never mattered in and of themselves, despite the promoters’ best efforts to convince us otherwise. The belt felt important only when the story line — in narrative terms or in real-life, meta terms — hooked viewers, and those situations tended to occur accidentally. Titles matter because they’re an indication of WWE’s editorial direction. When we complain that, say, Curt Hennig never got a title run, what we’re really saying is that we wish he got more camera time, because we liked his character and his wrestling ability. Bryan rejoicing with the belt at the end of WrestleMania 30, CM Punk leaving through the crowd, belt in hand, after Money in the Bank 2011 — we remember those moments because those wrestlers made us care about their journeys to the top.
Last fall, when Cena and Orton battled to unify the WWE Championship, it was a tacit acknowledgement by WWE that the titles had lost their meaning. Having two “top level” belts diminished them both (and relegated the secondary straps to ignominy). In the post-unification period, fans clamored for the secondary titles to matter, but what they were really calling for was for the stories to matter. The subsequent period, when the title was held “in abeyance,” was even more telling: The story line was that a suitable champion couldn’t be determined, but the reality was that without a competitor whom we wanted to win the belt, having a champion wouldn’t even matter. The story, such as it was, rolled on.
Monday on Raw, faced with another month without Lesnar, the champion, WWE reset its story lines with an eye toward an almost entirely post-championship era. The standard-bearer is still Cena, but he’s set against the Authority in a battle for career survival. After Cena declined Stephanie McMahon’s offer to join them and be the face of WWE, Triple H cut a masterful promo, telling Cena he has two choices: to go the Hulk Hogan route and continue to relive his past glory night after night with diminishing results, or go the Triple H route and sacrifice his pride for continued dominance. If it wasn’t exactly Austin-McMahon, it at least suggested a path forward that was about something deeper than title wins.
And it’s not just Cena who has benefited by being liberated from the monthly championship belt cycle. Left to assemble a team to challenge the Authority at Survivor Series, Cena’s first cohort was Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler is the Intercontinental Champion, but that fact was rendered almost completely secondary. By ditching his rote feud for the secondary belt, Ziggler is finally sniffing the main event. Ambrose and Wyatt are presumably off on their own island, a semi-main event with no titles involved, and that’s a good thing. Two guys who can talk and wrestle as well as they can don’t need the title to prop them up. Roman Reigns appeared via satellite to provide an update on his injury status, and even though his shtick was wearing thin before he got hurt, he was far enough away from the ring — and from the title picture — for fans to forget how they groaned a few months ago when Reigns was being force-fed to them as a future champion. The list goes on. Some of the most interesting story lines on Raw — Miz and Mizdow, Big Show and Mark Henry, Paige and Alicia — are utterly divorced from championship ramifications.
And then there’s Randy Orton, who seemed to have turned on the Authority on Monday’s Raw by attacking Rollins, but who hasn’t formally aligned himself with Cena’s squad. He’s in an odd place: Orton is lackluster as a babyface and has run out of steam as a heel; he’s often tedious as champion, but slightly pathetic when he’s boxed out of the main-event scene. This latest development might lead Orton to a perfect third way — a vicious tweener, which is a role that has worked for him in the past. When Orton RKO’d Rollins, it felt like a main-event feud, even though no belt was at stake. The World Championship belt wasn’t even in the building.
In his promo on Cena, Triple H conveniently left out that Hogan had done exactly what Trips was asking Cena to do when he joined nWo. Hogan had to reinvent himself to stay relevant and keep himself in the title picture. He turned heel, just like DiBiase and Hayes and so many others did before him. It’s the most basic wrestling trick in the world, but at the right time, it was the most powerful narrative move available.
There’s some of that old-school storytelling in what WWE is doing these days. It’s bringing back the emotional weight of the old NWA territories by focusing on personal beefs and effective, timeworn narrative tropes. It’s not relying on upcoming title matches as a crutch to infuse feuds with artificial importance. The story lines feel like they matter because the title belt is out of the picture. And just like when Flair would come to town in the Territorial Era, the fans will care even more about the title when Lesnar eventually returns. It’ll feel special, and hopefully we’ll have more of a stake in whoever challenges him.
I asked a friend if there was anything that happened at Hell in a Cell that I needed to remember to include in my column this week. “There were no big title switches or anything, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “But it was a damn good show.”