A quick wrestling trivia question for you: what do Bruno Sammartino, Lou Thez, Verne Gagne, Dory Funk Jr, Nick Bockwinkel, Bob Backlund, Dan Severn, and Hulk Hogan have in common? Answer: they all had World Heavyweight Title reigns that lasted at least four years at the minimum. At the minimum. And that’s not even taking into consideration the likes of Gene Kiniski and Harley Race, who had reigns around the three-year mark. Hell, even Terry Funk held the Ten Pounds of Gold for over a year during his reign on top.
When you consider what an honor that must have been, to be considered such a draw and a professional to be able to carry their promotion’s top titles and be the company figurehead, and to be a big enough draw to hold the belts for so long, there’s no question that the above figures should be considered some of the biggest names in the history of the sport, even if the majority were not the global superstars that the biggest wrestlers are now.
But here’s the thing: I said these wrestlers were draws and they were, each to varying degrees. Yet, the main point is, for such wrestlers to draw for so long, there had to be a willing audience who was happy to pay and to watch these talents be on top, again and again. While I’m sure some fans complained about the length of some title reigns, such reigns generally wouldn’t have lasted, certainly not back then, without the paying vote of the wrestling fan. And while some things remain the same, a lot of things have changed.
One of the most notable things about modern wrestling fandom is a certain impatience with long title reigns. As soon as a new champion is crowned, we’re immediately laying bets on who the person to unseat them is going to be. Most notably, I’ve seen a lot in recent months around Adam Page during his run as AEW World Heavyweight Champion, and then in the four days that CM Punk held the title before injury stopped him. We can’t help it. As soon as we get a new champion, we’re already looking for the next one.
The Armchair Booker
Why is that? What drives us as fans to not just live in the moment and let title reigns play out even for a few months before we decide whether they’re good and bad reigns and whether we want them to end or not? With Adam Page, I’ll grant you, AEW did not particularly book him like a World Champion as they should have, and that is on AEW, not Page. But even as soon as he won the title at Full Gear 2021, there were fans immediately discussing how long his reign should be, even suggesting it should end at Revolution. As it was, ‘Hangman’ got until Double or Nothing, but I thought he should have got longer: after how long the chase was, with all that brilliant long-term storytelling, such a short reign feels a bit of anti-climax, quite frankly (again, I’m aware Page’s run wasn’t great but he was booked into a corner as soon he won the title in all honesty; he just wasn’t Tony’s priority anymore).
I think a large part of the issue is that fans are smarter about the business now. It’s pretty much a fact that kayfabe, if not dead, is certainly not in the rudest of health. We know so much more about the inner workings of the wrestling business now, thanks to numerous books, documentaries, news sites, and social media posts from talent themselves. I don’t think these things are bad, but I do believe one detrimental thing to come out of them is to take away a lot of fans’ ability to suspend their sense of disbelief. Because we know so much, we have become much more analytical about wrestling and, much like armchair coaches in pro football, we have become armchair bookers for pro wrestling.
The problem with armchair booking is, when you look into wrestling so deeply (and I’m aware of the irony of a wrestling writer making this statement, trust me), you’re more likely to be critical of what you’re watching simply because by analyzing so much, you’re immediately setting a heightened level of expectations that wrestling is not likely to meet. Even Tony Khan, who quite reasonably has a ‘book for the fans’ mentality, can not please everyone. People’s tastes are too varied and complex for that.
The knock-on effect of armchair booking is that by analyzing matches and angles and shows immediately, rather than letting them flow over you for you to experience them in the moment, it puts fans at risk of making pre-formed judgments right from the beginning of a show that might then filter over the perception you have of the rest of the show. When you add that to a lack of suspended belief, watching wrestling becomes a very dry game indeed. Wrestling can bear scrutiny, but I don’t think it was ever meant to hold up to the amount of analysis it gets sometimes.
What does all this have to do with resistance to long title reigns? It’s a knock-on effect of the armchair booker syndrome. If you’re constantly analyzing and booking in your head, this in turn is going to cause resistance to any title reign that does not match your idea of how a title reign should be booked. You’re instantly calling for the next champion because the current champion or reign does not match your headcanon, so to speak.
That’s not to say fans can’t or don’t have legitimate complaints about title reigns. There have been some bloody awful title reigns over the years, but the bigger problem is closed-mindedness to long title reigns that comes out of a kind of impatience borne of the conflict between what we want, what we get, and our expectations. And that brings me to Roman Reigns.
The Case of Roman Reigns
‘The Tribal Chief’ has, of the 15th July 2022, been the WWE Universal/Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion for 685 days. If he can make it to the 30th August 2022, he will have been champion for two years. Reigns has been the subject of many different, varying opinions over his career, but he seems to have divided people with his title reign. He has converted a lot more fans to his cause with the title run, but already people are saying they are sick of seeing him dominate everyone and that there are no real stars left for him to beat. Reading between the lines, then, this appears to be an issue with booking over the length of the title reign.
Yes, WWE has run out of real legitimate stars that look like a genuine threat to Reigns. But that isn’t Roman’s fault; WWE brooks the blame here for releasing so many stars and being seemingly unable to build sufficient new stars to make up the deficit. But in turn, if you end Roman’s title run now, who’s the person you give the belt to? Fans have already had enough of Brock Lensar on top. As fans say, there isn’t a star at the moment who could credibly beat Roman (Cody might have, and I understand that might be the plan, but he, unfortunately, got injured), so who do you have to dethrone him? As much as some fans might not like it, it makes more sense to keep Roman on top for now until there is a credible contender to finally defeat him (we’re all looking at you, Mr. Rhodes!)
The other issue is booking. It’s not enough now to wheel out the latest challenger and have your top draw beat them around the circuit. Everything is recorded now, everything is available to be seen, pretty much. No, if anything, a promotion will have to fall back even more heavily on storytelling to keep fans interested in a title reign. This is where WWE has had more mixed results with Roman’s title run. When they’ve put the effort in, it’s been great. Roman beating down The Uso’s and converting them to the cause was great, and I enjoyed the tease of Paul Heyman betraying Roman to go back to Brock Lesnar, only to ultimately betray ‘The Beast’. By having engaging stories as well as matches, fans are more likely to side with a long-term title run. It’s the moments where Roman has just been set up to demolish his latest challenger that has stopped his title reign from being as incredible as it could have been.
Bear in mind, I’m not blaming ‘The Tribal Chief’ here. I think he has had one of the more notable runs in recent WWE history and has certainly been one of the more entertaining this side of 2010. Because of the length of his title reign, he also feels like one of the more substantial champions they’ve had in a while. I think he certainly does deserve to be the face of WWE in 2022, but it does feel like the momentum is starting to drop; since he has taken on a more relaxed schedule and is making fewer appearances, he suddenly feels less important.
It should feel like a big deal when the champ appears, not a case of ‘oh, Roman’s decided to turn up this week.’ But that is what it feels like it has become. I don’t pass judgment: I don’t the reasons for the more relaxed schedule and can only hope he is healthy. But that same schedule is contributing to the feeling, for me, that it’s time for a new champion.
And yet, even at its peak, some people wanted Roman to drop the title because he had been holding it ‘for too long.’ And that brings us back to impatience and armchair booking again. So what’s the answer?
As we can see when we look at Roman Reigns, long-term title reigns can still work. They can add legitimacy to a star, but for them to work the booking has compelling, varied, and creative. It can’t just be a case of ‘here’s the latest challenger.’ That can work now and then to punctuate things and offer a little breathing space between feuds, but the main substance has to be filled with blood feuds and real stories that fans can get invested in. People might not think much of Hulk Hogan anymore, but many people still fondly look back on ‘The Mega Powers Explode’ story, which was some of WWE’s best long-term storytelling.
But what to do about armchair booking and impatience? For a long-term title reign to work now, fans have to be open to them and meet promotions and champions halfway. They have to try and suspend the inner critic a little and let things play out without over-analyzing them to the point of knocking the fun out of it.
Whether will see another title reign like Sammartino’s legendary 2,803 day run from May 17th, 1963, to January 18th, 1971? I highly doubt it. Still, find me the right wrestler and the right story, and I’m game if you are…