With the amount of signings of marquee names added to the NXT roster and the proliferation of talent that WWE went through in 2016, there were changes made in a swift manner. Raw and SmackDown LIVE once again got unique rosters, brand-specific PPV’s and their own set of titles. In the draft, then WWE Champion Dean Ambrose went 2nd overall, making the WWE Championship specific to the SmackDown LIVE brand as it was from 2002 to early 2005 from the original brand split. Dean Ambrose retained his WWE Championship against two stars drafted to Raw, his former Shield brothers, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns. This left the Raw brand without a world title on their brand. To rectify this issue, WWE took a slab of meat from the local supermarket, put a big “W” on it, and proclaimed that the new Universal Championship would be decided when popular NXT standout Finn Bálor would face Seth Rollins.
In a very solid, but unspectacular match, Finn Bálor defeated Seth Rollins to become the first-ever Universal Championship. However, that reign would be short-lived. And perhaps an omen for the Universal Championship was set ever since. In the match, Seth Rollins powerbombed Finn Bálor into the barricade as per usual, but Finn Bálor tore his labrum and pectoral tendon in the process. While he was able to put on a gutsy performance by re-popping his shoulder back into its socket, the underlying damage was done, and Finn Bálor was forced to surrender the title the very next night. To decide the next champion, a tournament was held, and the tournament ended with Kevin Owens defeating Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns and Big Cass in a Fatal Four-Way elimination match on Raw with interference from Triple H.
Kevin Owens would hold onto the title until Fastlane 2017, when the returning Goldberg would defeat Kevin Owens with a convenient distraction in a 12 minute squash. Brock Lesnar, who had a long standing feud with Goldberg dating back to 2004, defeated Goldberg in a six minute sprint at WrestleMania last year to de-crown him, and it would be over 500 days until Roman Reigns would finally reach the mountaintop and win the title that had eluded him for over a year. Unfortunately for Roman Reigns, an old foe in the form of leukemia came back to haunt him, rendering him unable to defend his title, and Brock Lesnar promptly won the title back against Braun Strowman last Friday at Crown Jewel.
This doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of lineage you would want your now premiere title to have. Many people did not even believe that the initial brand split was necessary. As long as you built interesting feuds and allotted enough time for superstars between Raw and SmackDown LIVE, there was no reason as to why more titles should be added. That being said, WWE saw an opportunity and the Universal Championship was brought as a means to giving the Raw brand its signature title. However, the list of title holders have been short, and each reign had been disappointing in its own way. Let’s examine.
We start out with Finn Bálor Of course, his short reign was not his fault, and it could not have been any more unlucky for him. Finn Bálor was set for the push of a lifetime. Coming off a successful run in NXT, Finn Bálor would defeat Kevin Owens, Rusev and Cesaro in a Fatal Four-Way Match and defeat Roman Reigns all on his first night on Raw. He then defeated Seth Rollins at SummerSlam. Had he continued to hold that title into the fall, there’d be no telling what he would be able to do as champion. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, Finn Bálor’s reign was short-lived and he has struggled to find his footing ever since. He has had no signature wins and no title victories since that night, and we have to wonder if he’ll see the Universal Title any time soon.
Kevin Owens has appeared on Raw with the Universal Title the most out of any other champion. Kevin Owens had always been a reliable worker, primarily because he is a great heel, puts on solid matches and had been a durable superstar without any significant injury history. The problem with Kevin Owens’ reigns wasn’t in his determination or with his character himself, but rather with his believability. There was little originality in his title reign, because you’d find Kevin Owens fighting Roman Reigns or Seth Rollins on Raw in singles matches or tag team matches week after week. There were literally no other opponents for him. In fact, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns were the only two superstars that Kevin Owens defended the title against on PPV. Kevin Owens was deserving of the title, but it was equally clear that WWE didn’t view him as someone that can carry main events without bigger, marquee names, which is unfortunate. It’s probably the reason why WWE never granted Kevin Owens a rematch for the Universal Title to the man he lost it to.
Goldberg’s return at Survivor Series was a great feel good story, and I didn’t even mind the fact that most of his appearances were just squashes. It’s not like anyone should want to have Goldberg to have extended 20 minute main event style matches at 50 years old anyway. Problem is his run was a complete waste. He only defended the title once, and it was to a man who might as well never defend the title. The match he had at WrestleMania with Goldberg at WrestleMania was a great, quick sprint, but the quality of Universal Title matches was going in sharp decline. Then, we have the reign of Brock Lesnar.
Brock Lesnar is a genius. He gets paid millions of dollars a year, shows up on Raw periodically to let Paul Heyman do all the talking and all he has to do is pose and throw an F-5 to someone every now and again. He isn’t on every PPV, he only defends the title against specific people and he gets WrestleMania main events in the process. Life is great for him. But that also means life isn’t great for anyone who wants Raw’s top title to, you know, be on Raw every week. This makes Brock Lesnar’s defeat of Braun Strowman all the more befuddling. He just came off a 500 plus day reign with the title. And guess what? He defended the title a grand total of 7 times. He’s not even defending it once a month.
People can say that Brock Lesnar gets this treatment because he’s box office and a big attraction, but if you ask me, I don’t see that in Brock Lesnar anymore. His matches have become formulaic and far too brief to care about. If he’s willing to put on a great match, like against AJ Styles at Survivor Series from last year, yeah I can see that. But what’s so great about a man who just does the same signature move time and time again? And it’s already practically been confirmed that Brock Lesnar will hold the title until WrestleMania 35 at the least. It’s a shame that WWE has such little faith in its current crop of stars. They cannot expect to build future box office stars if you do not give people a chance.
Roman Reigns’ “reign” came to untimely end as well, but before his devastating diagnosis, his title run was not looking promising by any stretch. I hardly noticed he was the Universal Champion because of his tedious feud with Dolph Ziggler, Drew McyIntyre and Braun Strowman. He had a couple of title defenses against Finn Bálor (a really good match) and Baron Corbin (meh), and a Hell in a Cell match that somehow managed to end without a finish because of interference from the current champion.
Bearing the history of the Universal Title in mind, and bearing in fact that Brock Lesnar is off to another reign as champion where he may defend it once every three months, we have to ask the question. Has the Universal Championship been a failure? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that.
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