The Wrestling Connoisseur: The Next Best Thing; Second Tier Titles (WWE Intercontinental, WCW Television, United States)

I remember the second most important title in wrestling. I’m not talking about the debate as to whether the WWE/WWF or the NWA/WCW world title was more important, but rather the Intercontinental and United States titles. At one time they meant something. These were titles that showed the fans the company had chosen someone to get behind, someone to watch out for. I’m not sure when that changed. But it did and very unfortunately.

The Intercontinental title was held by notable figures in my youth. Just a little beyond my remembrance Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat tangled over the belt. Both would go on to be multi-time world heavyweight champions. The same thing would happen years later with the Ultimate Warrior, who took the title off of interim champion Honky Tonk Man, a legend in his own right today, who lifted the belt off of Ricky Steamboat. Warrior and Rick Rude would trade the title between one another in a long-standing feud after that. Warrior went on to defeat Hulk Hogan for the WWF World title and join a very small class of wrestlers to do so. Rick Rude would later become the NWA World Champion. Even years down the road the IC title would give us shining stars like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Edge, Jericho, Eddie Guerrero and the list goes on and on. But what has it given us lately?

The same can be said for the United States title, originally starting in the NWA/WCW era. I first recall Lex Luger strapped as United States Champion. Hold your boos. At this point in history Lex was basically the Bill Goldberg that could have been. Lex Luger had notable feuds with the Four Horsemen, Stan Hansen, and Nikita Koloff. From the Horsemen, Sid Vicious and Barry Windham would become World Champions. Hansen would become a world champion and legend in Japan. As US Champ and number one contender to the world champion, Lex would often feud with Ric Flair, especially after Sting’s injury. Before his rise to critical heat in the fan’s eyes, Lex would not only capture the WCW World title but flirted with the WWF World title as well. Before its ultimate demise WCW would often still use the title in this fashion but it was slowly fading away.

Even more notably in WCW, the Television title, a third tier belt, noted up and coming wrestlers. Arn Anderson was the main stay in the division for a long time. And the title would change hands with wrestlers that WCW hoped to elevate to some degree. The most recognized of Television Championship holders is Steve Austin, before moving on to tag and US title reigns and then to the WWE. Booker T and Chris Benoit held an epic feud over the Television title before their careers elevated. Even Sting was Television champion on his shooting star rise to the top.

The idea behind these second and third tier titles is two-fold. It sets a goal for the lower and mid card wrestlers and it also allows the wrestling organization to build future champions properly for the fans to see. Characters need trials and tribulations. They need to have goals taken away. They need to become familiar to the fans. No one could ever imagine tag team specialist, the tiny Bret Hart among the giants of wrestling immediately challenging for a world title. Bret worked his way up through the Intercontinental division. He proved his chops against heavyweights like the Barbarian and the Warlord, outsmarting the muscle men with his technical skill and he kept going until locking up with IC main stay champ Mister Perfect. The rise up through the division helped to mold Bret as a contender and, in the fans eyes, a serious contender.

This just isn’t so today. At some point the IC and US titles became name holders and empty promises. “I know I promised you a world title run, but…here’s the IC title until then.” It’s mind-boggling to have former world champions back track to the Intercontinental or United States title. And it has happened on numerous occasions. And beyond ex-world champions, when the wrestlers that have already been built as top contenders become second tier champions the company is misusing resources. The current second tier champions, The Miz and Rusev; a former world champion and a crafted top contender. Even the most recent US feud, Rusev and Roman Reigns. Former world champion Roman Reigns.

In my opinion, ex-world champions should not go into second tier title divisions. At the most they should go into the tag division, but that’s another perspective for another time. And I dismiss the John Cena US title reign (again) since the WWE booked the title into death. It seems the second tier champions are all interim champions. I can’t really recall any meaningful recent title reigns. There are plenty of wrestlers for the division that jobbed out every week. Baron Corbin and Braun Strauman could benefit from lengthy second tier title reigns with thoughtfully booked feuds. I can only imagine if they had gone that route with Roman Reigns, building him slowly instead of the mega push the fans grew to resent. After all, that is what the titles are for.