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 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 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 Balor would face Seth Rollins.
In a very solid, but unspectacular match, Finn Balor 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 Balor into the barricade as per usual, but Finn 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 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.
Owens would hold onto the title until Fastlane 2017, when the returning Goldberg would defeat Ownens 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, an old foe in the form of leukemia came back to haunt him, rendering him unable to defend his title, and 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, 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 Balor. Of course, his short reign was not his fault, and it could not have been any more unlucky for him. Finn was set for the push of a lifetime. Coming off a successful run in NXT, Finn 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 continue 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’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. 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 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 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 Owens defended the title against on PPV. Owens was deserving of the title, but it was equally clear that WWE didn’t view him as somebody that can carry main events without bigger, marquee names, which is unfortunate. It’s probably the reason why WWE never granted KO 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 anyways. 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 Lesnar.
Brock Lesnar is a genius. He gets paid millions of dollars a year, shows up on RAW periodically to let 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 Lesnar’s defeat of 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.