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The 7 - Guest Columns - The Obtuse Angle: The "Welfare" Titles
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Wolfram J. Paulovich
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#1 Posted on 5.2.03 0028.29
Reposted on: 5.2.10 0029.03

The "Welfare" Titles
February 5, 2003

by Jeb Tennyson Lund

"Hiya, Friends! Ralph Spoilsport, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, the world's largest new-used and used automobile dealership, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, here in the City of Emphysema. Let's just look at the extras on this fabulous car: wire wheel-spoke fenders, two-way sneeze-through wind vents, star-studded mud guards, sponge-coated edible steering column, chrome fender dents, and factory air-conditioned air from our fully factory-equipped air-conditioned factory. It's a beautiful car, Friends, with doors to match. Birch's Blacklist says this automobile was stolen, but for you, Friends, the complete price, only 295-hundred dollars in easy monthly payments of once a week, twice a week and never on Sunday!"

— The Firesign Theater, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?

It's been about six months since we said goodbye to an old friend. A friend who saw us through years of brilliance and idiocy, who shone and was in turned dulled by circumstance, who embodied much of our hopes. Yes, X-Pac — like Generalissimo Francisco Franco — is still dead. Or gone. It depends on my mood. But instead, I'll talk about the WWE's secondary titles.

Much was made of their departure. Some saw their coming absence as a helpful house cleaning in the rather busy mid-card. Others saw it as a fatal blow to both the excitement and legitimacy of mid-card feuds, matches and performers. Still others, like me, experienced a moment's reflection, then wistfully inquired, "Who gives a shit?"

It's the last comment that has proved truest of all. Mediocrity and Triple H — some might claim this is redundancy — have reigned. With the exception of Katie Vick and Al Wilson/Dawn Marie, it is remarkable how little genuine awfulness has taken place in the last six months. Indeed, without the help of these two booking abortions, and without the calendric fixity of a pay-per-view every four weeks, it would be almost impossible to remember what dull thing happened in what dull month. (I would speak of excellence on Smackdown!, but I rarely got to see that show.)

With so much colorless dullness, with no ready scapegoat at hand, the intrepid wrestling-whiner trundles out the last-ditch factoid for a "This Is Why Things Suck" column: the absence of the InterContinental, European and Hardcore Titles. Never mind that most of these people complained that things "sucked" before the titles were scrapped: somehow, the titles have, in their absence, become a cure for the muddled mid-card.

This is, of course, nonsense. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the doomsayers are right and that the titles would reenergize the mid-card dynamic. (We should ignore that the mid-card is the only aspect of Raw that prevents it from being physically painful to watch.) Let's look at the three primary explanations that many use to justify a need for the return of secondary belts.

They Are a Suitable Goal for Someone Who Shouldn't Win The Big One
Bullshit. What this statement should be amended to read is: secondary titles are a suitable goal for a wrestler no one cares about.

Many fans would be perfectly satisfied to see Rey Mysterio bop about, win some matches, have some feuds, then occasionally try for the big belt. Even if he lost every attempt — let's say, once every six months — many would be excited to see the disparities in size and move-set in the main event. (After his sixth loss, when people would begin to suspect that he would never win, three years would have elapsed. Silly me: there I go long-term booking again.)

The argument that secondary titles are a suitable "lesser" goal ignores the biggest and most contrary factor: audience desire. If you really and truly care about a wrestler, why would you wish anything but the best for him? I'm a big fan of my family, but I don't look at my mother and say, "It's your birthday. Let's getcha something discounted. Maybe used." Similarly, I think Eddie Guerrero is a fantastic wrestler. My natural inclination is not to root for him to achieve something mildly satisfactory.

The only time I rooted for someone to win a secondary title was when that someone was awful. In my mind, it was always a relief when Test won the European title: it meant that, for at least one more month, he wasn't going to get a main-event push.

If any fan has a true emotional investment in a wrestler, nothing but the best will do. For that fan, obstacles, however many or time-consuming, are perfectly fine — so long as the ultimate goal is the most ultimately satisfying. Rooting for less is analogous to Dick Vitale (I still say he should sue Pfizer for gimmick infringement) walking up to a college basketball star and asking if him if his team's going to win the game and having this conversation:

Dick: So, Star Forward, do you think your you and the Hilfiger Date Rapists stand a chance of beating the Hepatic Failures tonight?
Star Forward: Hell, no, Dick. I don't think we stand a chance. All I'm going to try to do is score 10-to-14 points.
Dick: Why is that?
Star Forward: Well, I haven't been given an absolute guarantee that I'm a winner yet. Until then, there's no sense in my trying to prove it. I'm just going to go out there, and with God's help, I should do adequately.

Who in God's name has this sort of an expectation for himself or those he respects and admires? Perhaps a Frenchman. But, for the rest of us, a secondary title is an un-scintillating band under the shadow of the World Title. We don't like being shown a steak and served a MexiMelt. Secondary titles are for second-rate wrestlers, and no one ever makes an informed rational decision to root for a second-rate wrestler. It's something that seeps unknowingly into your consciousness — like Rohypnol.

Secondary Belts Give Non-Main-Eventers Something to Do
This is true. So does online gambling, Boggle and vigilantism, but that's somewhat beside the point. Although, for ratings' sake, the booking committee might want to give some of these a tryout on Velocity.

The argument here is that no one likes to watch wrestling for talent, stories, wins or losses. We only like to watch winners get things and losers lose things — a dog, medal or piρata, for instance. We will thus be utterly transfixed when Wrestler A defeats Wrestler B in a lackluster match for a brass medallion mounted on leather. The match is irrelevant: "The guy I like obtained a product!" Apparently, this "feud" thing I've been hearing so much about cannot be created without more than the World and Tag Team titles floating around. This argument might be better called the "Special Olympics, Everyone's A Winner Theory of Wrestler Credibility."

But the fact of the matter is that the inclusion of secondary titles helps nothing. Oftentimes they serve as a smokescreen for creative ineptitude. Consider the case of Chris Jericho. Currently, he has amplified his heelish ways with a sneak attack on Shawn Michaels and an unapologetic attack on Stacy. He has a slow-burn feud with Michaels, a delayed but ready-made feud with Test, and he has a #1 contender's match with Steiner — based in part on a feud he started by being the first person to insult Steiner.

The operative word in all of these cases is feud or heel: action and character, often working together. Certainly he is ostensibly chasing the World Title. But most of us have little expectation that Jericho will be in a pay-per-view title match anytime soon. Also, most of us do not expect him to win the belt until possibly after WrestleMania. The belt, although the ultimate goal, is so far off as to make no odds. What does make the difference, however, is the quality of match or character presented each show. The belt is a nice extra — a superfluous feature. It's power windows on a brand new BMW Z-4. Who gives a damn how the windows get raised or lowered?—you're going sixty on a curvy coastal road in a roadster!

If there were an InterContinental title, however, Jericho would surely be holding it. He's the number-two heel in the Raw brand. And, were he holding it, he'd be defending it in a random weekly match against either RVD, Kane, Hurricane, Goldust, Booker, Christian, Batista, Orton, an ottoman (foot-rest — not Turk), or perhaps some sort of fork. In this case, the existence of the secondary belt would be a contributor to — and excuse for — booking non-think. The importance of maintaining or deepening a feud would be minimized with the "it's important because it's a title match" justification. Also, Jericho's character would be minimized:

Booker #1: What's Jericho doing?
Booker #2: Holding a belt.
Booker #1: Yeah, but why?
Booker #2: 'Cause it's a belt, stupid.
Booker #1: Yeah, but why?
[Booker #1 is escorted to the parking lot and flattened by a passing Lincoln Town Car.]

Now when Jericho does something non-main-event, there's a reason. Now, without secondary belts, failure to do anything interesting with a mid-card wrestler is that much more transparent. The European and InterContinental titles were just beards for nothingness. Moreover, both of them had an incomplete importance. When a beloved wrestler won the European Title, what was the response? "That was nice, but he's so good, he deserves the InterContinental." And when same beloved wrestler won the InterContinental Title, the refrain was similar: nice, but he's good enough for the World Title. It was ironic that the titles, themselves an excuse for unsatisfying booking, often provided an unsatisfying alternative.

A good feud perpetuates itself and justifies itself, and needs no added features to ennoble it. What's more, a good feud locks a wrestler in place: the feud — as a whole cause, whole purpose and reward — eliminates that kind of "stepping stone" vision created by lesser titles. By simply starting a new feud during the final third of an old one, a wrestler could find himself in interesting and interlocking stories for half of a year. Once ensconced in those stories, significant or plausible attempts at a title match or title victory become afterthoughts, distractions. And, frankly, we can use all the distractions from the Raw main event that we can get.

Having removed the convenient "title excuse" for a match, the onus is now on the bookers to create engaging conflicts and on the wrestlers to present engaging characters and matches. Without a convenient last-minute crutch to justify the existence of a match, the overall approach to designing the WWE program is better. Missteps might be more glaring, but in the end, that prominence of error or inadequacy aids in improving efforts to present a better show.

Secondary Titles Legitimize and Elevate Lower-Mid-Card Wrestlers
This claim seems to be the most appealing defense of secondary titles, but it is also the most spurious. Again, good character elevates a wrestler. Good character then leads to good feuds. (After all, two dental dams could be feuding and at each others' throats constantly, but we'd never know and never root for them, because they don't cut good promos.) Good feuds lead to a wrestler's elevation. You can point to Kurt Angle's systematic winning of the European, InterContinental and WWF titles all you want, but if you think those wins were plausible and justified without his immense mic skills, compelling character and good ring work, then you need to put down that hard-hitting investigative report on the WWE Divas, so I can slap you and call you "Susan."

There is a multi-fold logic at hand when we talk about who needs a secondary title. First, there is the acknowledgement that the wrestler is very good, but needs it for some sort of "legitimacy." What we are saying is that the wrestler has shown that he is good, and now he needs a belt to show that he is good. As such, the title is meaningless: we have already arrived at the judgment that the wrestler is "good." Ergo, the only wrestler in real need of a secondary title is one who is essentially undeserving of one.

Here we are saying, "This person isn't good enough; the recognition-value of the title will make him seem good and eventually be good." However, when it comes to the World Title, wrestling fans invariably use an opposite logic: the title is so important that you cannot give it to just anyone, as such a wrestler has to grow, appear successful and generate appeal/hatred before winning it. Most World Title holders prove that they are good enough to hold it long before they win it. But, employing the rationale that a title makes a wrestler better, Rocky Maivia should have won the WWF title long before becoming The Rock, and Stone Cold should have gotten it right after the "3:16" speech. Shucks, they would have grown into being main-eventers eventually.

Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. Either you grow into a title, or you earn one. We cannot have a liberal wrestlers' welfare program of Titles for The Talentless and then a conservative program of "Earn It, Buster." The triumvirate of Rock/Stone Cold/Triple H never needed the InterContinental title to make their 1997-1999 matches interesting: they had their characters, Austin-McMahon, the Nation of Domination and DX to fill in all the promo time and storyline gaps between great matches. (One could argue that Austin's character is so well-developed that he never needed a belt to make his actions seem interesting. The only exception to this was his heel turn, where he created a character built entirely on the demented paranoia of losing the belt.)

It has been proven time and again that wrestlers exude a main-event legitimacy long before becoming a world champ. Be it from a feud, a catchphrase or a character, it happens. On the other hand, it has also been amply demonstrated that a welfare title on an poor wrestler is undesirable and unpleasant to watch. Witness the InterContinental Champion, The One, Billy Gunn.

A reasonable counter-argument to all of this might be Triple H. He was given the WWF title belt before being a solid main-eventer, and some say he grew into it. But this is a fairly generous statement. Granted, his 2000 matches were enjoyable. But his image as a main-eventer was supported — if not entirely created — by a high-profile marriage to the most annoying woman in the company, inclusion in the McMahon family, overindulgent booking, endless promos and a spot in virtually every main event on TV. Frankly, I don't doubt that anyone would become a big main-event heel with this kind of treatment. But this condition was not the work of the belt: it was the work of kid-gloves booking, Mick Foley's generosity and endless skits apparently written by sychophants. Triple H didn't grow into the belt: while he dozed off during a manicure, someone took the strap out to have it altered.

Bottom line: when we say a wrestler is so good that a secondary (almost "honorary") title should be given to him, we recognize that the wrestler is already more important than that title. When we say a wrestler needs a title to get better, we are saying that that wrestler has a weak character, a lack of charisma, a lack of workrate or a lack of something. In short, we are saying that he is not a particularly great wrestler.

To return to the car metaphor: a bad wrestler with a title is like a Chevette with a spoiler... or a riced-out golf cart. He has all the attendant cool and legitimacy of a Honda CRX with ground effects, hydraulics and a "Slave-1" personalized plate. The title is just the overly tinted window that obscures the harsh light of day.

A Future for Secondary Belts
Although I feel they have no fundamental worth in a well-crafted wrestling show, secondary belts can serve a purpose in a poorly written show. Since the latter description best fits what many viewers have seen lately, it might behoove the WWE to bring one back.

The InterContinental Title, storied and revered as it once was, could have a positive impact if carefully used. First, it would have to be an exclusively mid-card belt, as those shooting for it should rarely have an outside chance of winning a World Title match. The problem that plagued the belt in 2000-2002 was that a wrestler would have a good (losing) showing in a main-event match, then struggle to retain the InterContinental title against an obvious lower-mid-carder. When Jericho or Benoit would lose to Stone Cold via disqualification, then barely squeak out a victory over Christian, their characters were harmed, and the belt's purpose was muddied.

If the belt were exclusively the preserve of those wrestlers who — by dint of crowd appeal, mic work, move-set or workrate — could not credibly wrestle in a main event, then it would serve a useful purpose. Once a wrestler accumulates the necessary traits to pursue the World title, however, the InterContinental title should no longer be a concern. The former random assortment of division killers and weak champions robbed the belt of its importance in the past. In the future, if it is used, it should be imbued with an importance that the mid-card wrestler cannot achieve on his own. It should be bigger than the wrestlers who fight for it. Once it fits snugly, holding it should no longer be the goal.

Until then, the mid-card is doing a wonderful job. Smackdown! has a diverse and talented roster, and Raw's mid-card often saves the show from tottering over the edge of total banality. There is no need to fix a situation that currently provides the wrestling viewership with so much quality and, ultimately, so much legitimate satisfaction.

A Final Note
I would once again like to thank everyone who wrote such thoughtful (and kind) responses to my last column. It generated a lot of hate mail for me, and it was great to see you guys picking up on the facetiousness and geniune hopes, rather than getting side-tracked at an offhand joke. Keep writing in! And thank you!
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#2 Posted on 6.2.03 1839.11
Reposted on: 6.2.10 1839.58

    Originally posted by Jeb Tennyson Lund

    They Are a Suitable Goal for Someone Who Shouldn't Win The Big One
    Bullshit. What this statement should be amended to read is: secondary titles are a suitable goal for a wrestler no one cares about.


    If you really and truly care about a wrestler, why would you wish anything but the best for him?

I could not disagree with something more than I disagree with this. A suitable goal for a wrestler nobody cares about? Do you understand what a Midcard is? It's a group of wrestlers who aren't ready for the main event level YET. Some will make it, some won't. You use the Intercontinental title to distinguish the two (or, if you use it incorrectly, you give it to the Godfather, but that's a whole other article on booking the title...) That way, when they win the title, you say "hey this guy might be going places".

I think that works a lot better than your Rey Mysterio example of jobbing him 6 times until 3 years later when the crowd wises up that he's never gonna win. That's what you call BAD BOOKING. If you push a guy to the main event and have him lose every time, I guarantee it'll destroy his credibility. You can only pull so many Benoit/Angle Rumble '03 matches before they say "hey ya know, this Benoit guy is pretty good...but he never fucking wins".

Plus, I can name countless matches off the top of my head...Savage/Steamboat, Bret/Bulldog, Piper/Bret, Perfect/Bret, Shawn/Razor, Benoit/Jericho -- IC matches. Oh, but the title is for people nobody cares about? Maybe you're angry at the WWE's booking of the title in it's waning years, but don't discount what the title can do for a career.

And your other point about only wanting the best? So if I like a wrestler I should only want him to be the World or WWE champ? No, that's quite stupid. Off the top of my head, let's just say Matt Hardy. I think he's great, but do I want him in the main event? No. Do I want him to job 6 times in 3 years to the champ to find out that he's not gonna be champ? No. I want him to have a title that means he's something. That means he may not be as good as Angle or Benoit, but he's on his way - and he's better than the rest in the chase. Just cause you're not the champ doesn't mean you're worthless. And just because you're not challenging for the World or WWE title doesn't mean you're worthless. You have to have that balance in between of main eventer and Shannon Moore.
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#3 Posted on 7.2.03 0107.59
Reposted on: 7.2.10 0108.09
I disagree with the thesis of this article on the basis that professional wrestling's context as competitive sport leaves few employable storyline possibilities outside of vying for belts. There's only so many times guys can feud over coffee, vehicular assault, significant others or friendships. The chase of titles creates, in the context of the storyline if nowhere else, a instant legitimization of the sport context that the shows are dependent on. Because as a legitimate soap opera, wrestling is trash. As a psuedo-sport, it is compelling to some people. If titles, which represent professional progression, cannot be battled over, what will? More fake injury angles? More outlandish falsity that no one would really fight over in the real world. A championship is a championship...If you were a wrestler, you'd want one and anyone watching, however casually, can understand that correlation.

A wrestler with gold who is automatically earning more money because of holding it, in theory anyway, is experiencing a lifestyle that no one in his position would want to give up. Theoretically. When that is threatened by a viable contender, the champion is adamant that he not be denied this lifestyle which the title has afforded him. So he gets desperate and intense in the defense of his title. He's willing to do anything and people can relate to it because a championship is a championship. Who wouldn't want to be a champion? If with championship status comes cars, and girls, and money, and limo rides...All within the context of the storyline, of course, but all these things nonetheless, why would you not want to hold a title?

It is the single best dramatic device in wrestling and the only one that makes sense. At least when someone runs someone over with a tank and blows up their house and rapes their dog we can see the championship and say, well, that's the only reason these guys are being cleared to fight each other. They are bound by the tenets of their sport. In the context of the storyline, it is a sport so that's what makes this work.

There is no other legitimate storyline means to infer these combatants are battling it out for money and prestige and a better lifestyle other than a title. How else do you make matches matter. How do you relate to the audience that this is must-win when there's not a visible prize one guy walks away with that implies, on it's gaudy appearance alone, that the winner will lead a better life as long as he possesses it? Unless you want to have bag of money matches , we need to see a tangible, inanimate object that represents iconic status within a specific world. Saying there's no need to have those secondary championships is like saying divisional championships in sports are nothing to be proud of.

They are something to get behind.

The european and hardcore titles were always jokes for obvious reasons. The intercontinental title suffered a lot in recent years as well. i would suggest a new title, the international title or the north american title or something like that...a brand new title that isn't tied into the horrifically devalued U.S., Hardcore, I.C., and whateverother strap histories you might have. Resurrecting the I.C. title would be erasing what's already gone down, so a new title, for the mid-card, which booking actually took care of allowing switching no sooner than every three months would accomplish what we all need here.

I might also add the idea that it is for "mid-card" is not all that accurate, since originally, I.C. title matches headlined house shows for years. On a PPV they weren't the "big prize" obviously, but in terms of house shows and even free t.v. shows, they were a main event prize. Let's revisit that.

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#4 Posted on 7.2.03 1007.03
Reposted on: 7.2.10 1012.25
columns like this, and intelligent rebuttals like these, just make me sad. because i know that no one at Titan Towers is going to ever see this.
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#5 Posted on 7.2.03 1053.05
Reposted on: 7.2.10 1059.01
This column really sucked. Cancel my subscription.

I've never seen a column take this point of view before and I think there's a good reason for it.

This comes from the Russo logic of all belts are worthless props. The defense used recently when Triple H was given the Raw title.

The two major points that midcarders don't deserve to be elevated and that the IC belt doesn't work in elevating midcarders are two that I disagree with vehemently. I could write a 3,000 word response on this subject, but I'll spare you.

The only similar way to elevate a midcarder is the King of the Ring tournament and that only happens once a year. So, if they wanted to elevate Batista, giving him the IC belt would work in giving him credibility. There is no way in hell he can challenge Triple H for the Raw belt, so you can't do anything with him.

My favorite wrestler was Ricky Steamboat, yet I knew even at age 9 he's got no chance in hell at the big belt. So, should I and all other fans have given up on him.

Also, I'd say the IC belt makes the WWE a lot of money. Steamboat would HEADLINE house shows defending the IC title in the main event. These shows would all sell out. Now you can't even sell out MSG with the Raw title, you have to bring in the Smackdown title and it still won't sell out.

The IC title also has values to the wrestlers. In 99 Edge signed a downside contract because he was promised a run with the IC title. It makes everyone who holds it more valuable to the company and gives the impression they are future stars.

Last year saw zero main title changes on Free TV. the IC title could change hands on TV giving people a reason to watch Raw. Give people a reason to believe they saw something special, as opposed to a wasted two hours.

What match would you rather see on Raw: RVD vs. Jericho for the IC title, or Steiner vs. Batista for nothing?
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#6 Posted on 7.2.03 1511.42
Reposted on: 7.2.10 1515.23

    Originally posted by skorpio17
    What match would you rather see on Raw: RVD vs. Jericho for the IC title, or Steiner vs. Batista for nothing?

Yes, but which match would you rather see on Raw: Steiner vs. Batista for the IC title, or RVD vs. Jericho for nothing?
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#7 Posted on 7.2.03 2020.28
Reposted on: 7.2.10 2023.56
Fair enough, I may have stretched my point there.

We can compare Steiner vs. Batista for the IC title vs. Steiner vs. Batista for nothing on Raw. I wouldn't be eager to watch either match, but I'd be more likely to watch the first.

It may be a stereotype, but I think the IC matches were usually the more talented wrestlers, while the big slow hosses could take up the main event time.

I'd like to see at least one good match on each Raw. The Regal/Storm tag match at 10 followed by the Steiner beatdown at 11 isn't working for me.
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#8 Posted on 10.2.03 0500.24
Reposted on: 10.2.10 0505.37
I have to agree with Hogan's My Dad on this one. Not only are there few viable storylines outside of a belt, but there are even fewer competent writers in the business to pull them off.

While a midcard title is not necessary to elevate a wrestler to the main event, it can be *very* helpful. See the Rock vs. Austin IC title feud. See Kurt Angle's run as "Eurocontinental Champion", especially. Angle came into the fed, full of talent. The powers that be knew it, but most of the fans in general did not. But when he won both the European title and the Intercontinental title swiftly, everyone was forced to sit up and say, "Wow, that guy is legit." Now, Rock, Austin, and Angle would have, in all likelihood, ended up in the main event without the midcard belts, but they certainly helped.

The problem with the midcard belts in recent history is twofold- one, that there was an overabundance of them, especially after the WCW belts came into play, and two, that they were booked badly. There weren't extended title reigns to legtimize the belts. How many of us can name all the people who held the IC belt in the last three years? I know I can't. But the solution to that problem shouldn't have been to eliminate the title. It should have been to legitimize it again.

The only midcard titles we have now are the tag titles. And one only needs to look at how the chase of those belts elevated Booker T and Goldust in the eyes of the fans, even though it seems pretty unlikely either will hold the world title anytime soon. But we can't stick everyone in a tag team, because most wrestlers are singles, and I think we've all had our fill of "unlikely duos" for the time being.
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