Seth Rollins and Bobby Lashley's bout last night for the US Championship was chosen to be the show's main event and, as of the results of a poll on WWE's Instagram story, to be the "face of Raw." This wasn't exactly a strange choice. But something seemed a little... off?
The idea that someone would be both of those things at the same time is almost wholly unprecedented in WWE history. Being either man as the face of the red brand or the U.S. champion independently makes a tonne of sense. However, in general, being (basically) without precedent in the WWE is not the same as being unheard of in the history of wrestling.
It is a well-worn story that both shows have been forced to rehash since at least the start of the summer: one show has a "local champion" who becomes the face of your business, while the other show has a "travelling" champion who represents the bigger company as a whole. Since SummerSlam, Intercontinental champion Gunther has appeared in the main event or in the show's marquee match almost every single week, including on SmackDown, despite Bloodline business still having a sizable purchase.
Our statistics also show that the two championships' winners, Bobby Lashley and Gunther, who are currently ranked fifth and seventh on the Big Board, respectively, have regained notoriety.
Despite the fact that their reigns began in the previous era—in Lashley's July and Gunther's a little less than a month earlier—the promotion given to the championships by HHH has been very different from that given by Vince McMahon. Ricochet was the only mid-card title holder to make his top 16 debut before HHH (BH3) (at 16th), and Gunther did so (at eighth) after proving his eligibility after Clash at the Castle. The artists who participate in the mid-card "division" have merit, so the titles weren't completely meaningless, either. Instead, the capacity to give value to elements of the programme that weren't the world title or key event scene was frequently nonexistent, as was the case with many other things toward the conclusion of the previous regime.
Roman Reigns is becoming more untouchable in the ring and ephemeral on-screen as he climbs the WWE ladder, but this means that the standard operating procedure of having the most well-known/important performer on each roster end almost every show with a fight or 15-minute promo isn't currently feasible. This isn't only a problem with the writing staff's pace or structure, either.
Having neither Roman Reigns nor the company's most precious assets (their world championships) on the broadcast every week was undoubtedly not something FOX or NBC/USA (in particular) believed was optimal for business. Networks want stars or stakes on their show. Since WWE and the majority of contemporary televised professional wrestling have established the standard that the name on the world championship must match the name on the marquee or, at the very least, be working the programme, this expectation differs from the territorial era.
However, his schedule was a part of an agreement the corporation made with the audience when Brock Lesnar returned in the first place. As has so often been the case, Brock Lesnar changed some of the thinking on this. Since he was never really there full time to begin with, it wasn't shocking when he would take a few months off while holding the title. And he or his supporter Paul Heyman would be available practically every week to act tough or make a foolish statement.
Reigns, on the other hand, had returned almost every Friday after his COVID break in order to be recognised and subsequently pound people into oblivion with Spear and/or Superman. Then, all of a sudden, he ceased talking, punching, and even spearing on a weekly basis. Although we at the Palace of Wisdom strongly support the concept of work-life balance, the second-order effects of Reigns' drastically reduced schedule have been the most noteworthy sports entertainment story of the summer, aside from the enormous amounts of (discrete) EVP/C-suite drama that have shocked the three largest corporations in the world (lest we forget Kota Ibushi's problems with New Japan executives).
The Tribal Chief's absence after winning both world championships was felt much more keenly on Raw than it was on its Friday night counterpart due to Reigns' inclusion on SmackDown's official roster (because, as mentioned, the latter has functioned as a home base for the Bloodline and its attendant story lines since it began). This is probably the reason why Bobby Lashley was chosen as the United States champion at the beginning of July, around the time Reigns's schedule started to slow down in earnest (and not just in speculation), as a bulkhead against whatever concerns may have been voiced by people at NBC and FOX, as well as Vince's affinity for performers who look like him and the fans' affinity for performers who work like him.
Between two reigns as the United States champion, Lashley has earned two runs with the WWE belt over the previous two years. One of those runs featured a successful defence against Drew McIntyre at WrestleMania 37. All the while, since the Institute of Kayfabemetrics was formally founded in March of this year, he has been consistently ranked among our top five.
Lashley has had his strongest run in the ring in the last two years, and as a result, he has one of the highest "unweighted" POP scores in our tracking. Lashley has been positioned as the strongest (based on our analytics) out of practically all of the full-time performers on either brand, regardless of their championships or the number of matches they work beyond the usual, as you can see below.
One of those statistics that unquestionably passes the eye test is the fact that he is just marginally behind Roman Reigns despite having a significantly busier schedule over the last three months. It makes sense for Lashley to defeat Reigns for the united championships because, unlike McIntyre, Rollins, Matt Riddle, Kevin Owens, Cody Rhodes, or Austin Theory, Lashley has no genuine "motive" to pursue Reigns other than his title. It might be the least surprising from a betting standpoint once you take into account his current position (if not necessarily a story line one).
Gunther, his SmackDown counterpart, has made a smooth transition from being a powerful NXT performer known as WALTER to the company's fastest-rising star with 24 Intercontinental championship defences in three months and a 94 percent victory rate in 2022. These astounding figures make it much simpler to respond to the age-old question of whether die Meisterschaft makes the man or if derr Mann makes the championship, similar to what is happening with Lashley's obvious elevation of the U.S. championship.
The Intercontinental title may seem too prestigious to be won by someone with less than a year of main-roster experience, but nostalgia is simply doing what it can to make you mentally obsolete: rotting your brain. Nobody has, excuse our French, given two full halves of a single horse shit about the distinction in more than ten years, and even something as hilarious as (friend of the programme) Big E's run with Apollo Crews in the early twenty-first century didn't do much to help either performer (and in Crews' case, nearly derailed his career entirely).
Megastars like Seth Rollins made depressingly unsuccessful attempts to elevate the championship during main-event PPV battles. We'd have to infer that the fact that the match—a 30-minute Iron Man match in which spectators counted down from "10" like so many Royal Rumble fans—took place against Dolph Ziggler is almost probably a coincidence. In any case, the Intercontinental title hasn't mattered as much as it does now since at least the George W. Bush administration, which is essentially beyond debate (and, in our opinion, quantitatively demonstrated).
The division we previously discussed has received less attention, which contributes to some of this depreciation since, as CM Punk famously said (perhaps in reference to something completely else), "the grass is greener where you water it."
The intercontinentalization of the main event circuit, which started in the early to mid-1990s, has been perhaps the biggest change. This is responding to a shift in the expectations of the rate at which a main event should be worked, not "becoming smaller." The main event didn't get smaller so much as WWE-sized performers like Randy Orton and Edge (whose Intercontinental title match at Vengeance is an all-time favourite here in the Palace of Wisdom) started putting on matches that would have been done only by smaller performers in the years prior. This is analogous to how big men in basketball have started to move to the 3-point line.
And with that, the performers vying for the WWE and World Heavyweight titles came to embody the implied title that the Intercontinental title belt symbolized—that the wearer was the company's workhorse, their most dependable performer, and their good time boy. The Intercontinental title (and consequently its "division") was stripped of its primary identity and turned into an afterthought that more than anything else represented the company's lack of faith in you. In contrast to the U.S. Champion, who in a literal, nominal sense acts as a point between the bottom of the card and the top of the world, the Intercontinental title was reduced to an afterthought.
Even if not for the match quality—every single one of these performers will/could be a member of the Hall of Fame—looking through the list of titleholders before Gunther is fairly gruesome: Crews, Shinsuke Nakamura, Ricochet, Jeff Hardy, a prerelease Braun Strowman, and AJ Styles have all held the title since 2020, although only Big E and Sami Zayn had a run and improved subsequently during that time frame.
As a result, the Intercontinental championship ended up symbolising the idea that it once signified that rather than being employed as a semiotic device to further the narrative goal of elevating the person who held it before advancing them up the card. While "I want this championship because Bret Hart won it before he became world champion and I think that's really neat" is a far cry from "I want to be on top one day and this championship means that I'm next," without a way forward after winning, it was really all that performers and fans had to cling to.
Gunther entered his SmackDown debut with virtually no expectations from the fans on what the title should mean to him, which allowed him to define himself as champion instead. Gunther also won the belt from Ricochet after just six broadcast matches on the main roster.
Der Ring General exudes confidence and doesn't appear to give a damn about what people think of him or how they feel about him winning the championship. He has the main-event ability to restore the title to its former "glory," or at the very least to the position it formerly had as the most significant achievement outside of the WWE championship. He wants to beat people up, burst blood vessels, and collect trophies. This is a noble quest. This is a somewhat synergistic connection because Gunther now has a huge promotional push as the Intercontinental Champion and the protection that can bring in booking decisions.
Lashley performs far better as someone who boosts the prominence of a championship without deriving nearly any value from actually wearing the belt because of both his professional background and personal history. The desire Lashley appears to have for holding and defending the title of "United States Champion" beyond the business benefits feels genuine and helps make it mean something to him without having to spend a great deal of time explaining why. Lashley is a member of the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program and the son of an Army drill sergeant.
To be clear, this is not an exploitative agreement because the WWE has a good reason to bring him on at the conclusion of their event because he is the U.S. Champion. Who wouldn't want to participate in the main event? Because Bobby Lashley regularly beats up men just before the end-of-show tag appears, it may be assumed that he is actively courting Roman Reigns. Do the same thing if there was a smaller championship at stake? You've got a stew cooking, baby.
Contrarily, Seth Rollins is currently in full "I'm not going to flush, LET THEM SEE THE WRATH OF THE MONARCH!" mode, which is exactly where you want a villain like Rollins to be when holding a mid-card title, and Lashley should be moving further up the card, if not necessarily to challenge Roman, then at the very least to put himself in the mix with Drew McIntyr. Although it's likely his top-level stats temporarily declined as he adapted to a different flight path, Lashley would have been completely OK with a defeat—especially if there were shenanigans that led to the result.
While it's improbable that Gunther will continue to win 94 percent of his fights, the phrase "the future's so bright I wanna wear shades" comes to mind when thinking about him. And nobody embodies sunshine more than Gunther.