By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Despite what we might all think, gold medals were actually not awarded to the winners of the first Olympic Games. Instead, according to most historical accounts, winners were given a silver medal and an olive branch, while runners-up went home with a laurel branch and a bronze medal.
It wasn’t until 1904, at the Summer Olympic Games in St. Louis, when gold, silver, and bronze came into play. Even so, be it branches or trophies or medals, the modern Olympic era has always adhered to the three-award system. Of all the countries and all the competitors and all the events, you got one shot to land in the top three. If you do, you take home hardware. If you don’t, sorry about your luck.
Why outline the history of the Olympic Games? Well, for one, they are almost actually here, and at a time when many thought these Games were going to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s encouraging. But for two …
STICK TO THE BASICS
… It establishes a baseline for how affecting the act of sticking to one championship system can be over a long period of time.
Or, in other words, nobody who makes the decisions at the International Olympic Committee has thought over the course of nearly 150 years to start introducing awards for fourth place. Or fifth place. Or sixth place. Nobody said, “Gold, silver and bronze is cool and all, but how about we introduce a Diamond medal, or, hell, maybe for those who finish in sixth, we could make plastic a thing.”
That precise commitment to a reward or award system in competition has been part of what has made the Olympics special, winter, summer or anything in between. It’s an honor just to receive a bronze because the number of people who have actually medaled at an Olympics, in context, is miniscule. It’s the only time in competition that coming in third feels good.
Professional wrestling, though?
TOO MANY CHAMPIONS
Of all the problems the current state of professional wrestling encounters on a low-key, everyday level, it’s the amount of belts it has. In short, there are too many. That isn’t specific to the current day — did you have “Stampede British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight Championship” on your Bingo card for this week’s piece? — but it’s just that the current era is the era in which we live.
Plus, the territory days are gone. If you had a business where, say, a dozen thriving territories of professional wrestling existed in North America, you could understand the desire for every single promotion to have its share of belts. My only issue with that model, however, is this: No matter what territory you’re in, and no matter which era is your favorite, why don’t we have rules that state each promotion should have only a heavyweight title, a secondary title, and a tag title? And if you have a women’s division, apply the same logic to that division as well.
Having too many belts is like giving away too many trophies to Little League competitors as they come through their formative years in sports. The desire to make everyone a winner, in most cases, cheapens the act of actually being a winner. That includes those soccer medals for 12-year-olds who wouldn’t even be playing the sport if their parents didn’t insist they get out of the house more. But youth is innocence; professional wrestling is anything but. So, why do it? Why have so many titles in a time when there are numerous thriving companies on a national scale and even more wrestlers to boot?
Speaking of which, the constant flow of wrestlers going back and forth between said nationally thriving companies also muddies the championship water. The Good Brothers, who are not Impact Tag Team champions, but feel like they should be, are now going to appear on NJPW Strong in a few weeks to compete in a tag team tournament for trophies. But in the middle of all that, they continue to play a key role — through interference or God knows what else — in Kenny Omega keeping his AEW World Championship on a seemingly weekly basis in AEW.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
Thinking about the abundance of titles in mainstream professional wrestling today, I thought I’d take to the World Wide Internet to do some number crunching, just to see if my thought was an overreaction, or, perhaps, if there was some levity to it. After looking at the rosters of WWE, AEW, Ring Of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling and Impact Wrestling, here’s what I found.
Currently, if my counting is correct and my eyes didn’t deceive me, WWE has a total of 209 wrestlers on its roster. That roster includes five brands — Raw, Smackdown, NXT, NXT UK and 205 Live. If you break down each brand while adding in multi-brand titles, like the Raw/SmackDown Women’s Tag-Team, the Cruiserweight Championship, the 24/7 Championship and, why not, the Million Dollar Championship, WWE currently has 21 belts on its hands.
Remember, that includes six tag titles, which means 12 wrestlers hold some type of belt in some way, shape or form due to those. In all, that would mean 27 wrestlers across all WWE platforms have one of these things. Now, keep in mind, when I look at the rosters, I see people like Gran Metalik or Riddick Moss — people who barely ever appear on television on any type of regular basis. If we’re being real, it feels like the Raw roster has something like 22 men and women on it and the Smackdown roster might top out at 17 or something.
But if you watch a three-hour show on Monday, or even a two-hour show on Tuesday, and 80 percent of the people you see have something around their waist, you’d like to think that that thing around their waist would mean something. But as the wrestling business has become oversaturated and flooded with gold, I don’t think it would be out of the question to say that I’ve become immune to seeing someone win a belt in WWE.
Case in point: Using the number of roster members that have a belt around their waist compared with the total number of wrestlers on the roster, you have 12.9 percent of all wrestlers — let me stress, all the wrestlers across five brands — wearing something that should be reserved for not nearly 13 percent of an entire workforce. What does that say about the value of the title, whichever title it is? What does that say about the value of a company whose job is to provide entertainment centered around competition (even if that competition is admittedly pre-determined)?
And this isn’t even the beginning.
THE MOST EGREGIOUS
Perhaps the most famous case of a company with more titles than it knows what to do with, in my opinion, is New Japan Pro Wrestling. Diving into that research the best I could, I counted 96 people on its roster, and that count includes the Young Lions, the NJPW Strong roster, and, of course, the Junior Heavyweight and Heavyweight divisions. In all, the company offers nine championships, and that includes the King Of Pro Wrestling Champion that was invented in December and has yet to be defended.
But — and this is where things get interesting — of those nine titles, two are tag-team titles and one is a six-man championship. That in mind, there are actually 13 wrestlers in New Japan who are the current owners of hardware. That means it is roughly 13.5 percent of the entire roster at NJPW that holds a belt.
Can you believe how high New Japan charts for belt/wrestler percentage? And don’t forget this: WWE prides itself on being sports entertainment, it has five separate brands to take care of, and the corporate reach of the company is light-years beyond not just New Japan, but anything else in the wrestling business. WWE’s sole purpose in life is to print money with the sales of replica belts — and those belts, in some cases, were invented only to be sold as replicas. NJPW, meanwhile, doesn’t even have half the amount of wrestlers on its roster that WWE does, and despite not even reaching the 100 wrestler mark, that company has nine titles to its name. Nobody thinks that’s a bit excessive for a smaller organization?
Let’s come back to America and take a look at WWE’s biggest current rival, AEW. In all, I counted 102 wrestlers under contract for the company. If you include the FTW belt, which I think has only been defended sparingly at best by Brian Cage, AEW comes in at five titles — the AEW men’s and women’s world championship, the TNT title and the world tag-titles, in addition to the FTW Title. Factoring two people for the tag titles, you have 5.8 percent of all its wrestlers wearing gold. And for a company whose detractors use phrases like “All Friends Wrestling,” the company at least knows how to keep the titles special so far.
Rounding out the five companies I researched, Ring of Honor and Impact, the former has 57 men and women on its roster while the latter is home to 56. Ring of Honor, including a six-man tag title and men’s and women’s tag titles, have a total of nine wrestlers donning gold. Impact, for its end, has seven. That equals out, respectively to 15.7 percent of ROH’s wrestlers have a belt, while Impact has 12.5 percent of its roster walking to the ring with something around their waist.
But then again, when you look at Kenny Omega, who is the champion of two of these companies, and you have the ability for The Good Brothers to potentially win gold in NJPW in some context, and they could also do that in Impact, and then, if a split in their faction occurs in AEW, some of these numbers would or could overlap depending on who wins what … well, my head hurts.
MAKE THE PRIZE MORE VALUABLE
Naturally, this brings us back to the Olympics. When you think of each event in an Olympic Games, and then you think of each country’s trial for athletes to make it on each country’s team, and then you think of what those athletes had to do and had to win just to compete in the trials, you’re looking at hundreds upon hundreds of athletes competing in one event worldwide for a chance to win either gold, silver or bronze. The competitor-to-prize ratios in those cases are beyond minimal.
Now, I could never make the argument that professional wrestling should have titles with as much prestige as Olympic medals, but my God, man. I mean, that’s a whole lot of space between “Olympic Medals” and “The ROH TV Title” that could be covered, no?
The point underneath all of it is that the less prizes there are in ratio to the amount of people for which those prizes are competed, the more valuable those prizes become to any brand, any competition, any form of entertainment. I don’t mind one main one, and I don’t mind tag teams, and I don’t mind splitting champions by gender, and I also don’t mind one single secondary strap, but beyond that, what gives? Is this the product of the everyone-needs-to-win era of the world? Or is this the product of bored promoters, sensitive wrestlers and all-around greed from everyone involved?
No matter the answer to those questions, the numbers don’t lie when it comes to the question of who is most egregious. ROH fills that out with nearly 16 percent of its wrestlers holding gold, while NJPW finishes a close second at 13.5 percent. Meanwhile, AEW deserves kudos for having a very respectable outcome for those of us who believe there are too many titles in wrestling, clocking in at less than six percent. And, in fact, even if AEW does add a trios championship and put that on three of its current roster members without overlapping champions, they’d still crush the competition with a roughly 7.8 percentage of wrestlers with belts in the company.
The moral of the story? Please hold off on the idea of those trios titles, AEW! You’ve already got it figured out! Or if you don’t hold off … I don’t know, maybe offer up a silver medal and a one-time olive branch, and call it a day?