Four champions and fifteen matches over three hundred and sixty-five days encompassed the first year of existence for the WWE Universal Championship. The big red belt has become WWE’s top prize after stumbling out of the gate upon its arrival.
Stephanie McMahon announced the title’s inception on July 25, 2016, in response to SmackDown acquisition of the WWE Championship. Seth Rollins was granted an automatic bid for the title at SummerSlam while NXT call up Finn Balor earned his shot on his first night on Raw.
Balor pinned Rollins to become the inaugural champion. It was a bitter sweet moment, however, due to some really bad luck. The physical belt was unveiled to chants of “This belt sucks” due to its unoriginal design and gaudy all red motif.
It only got worse the next night on Raw. Balor legitimately injured his right shoulder in the match against Rollins and would be out of action for six months. Balor would relinquish the newly instituted championship that he had won only twenty-two hours earlier.
A week later, Kevin Owens won the vacant title in a fatal four-way elimination match (also involving Big Cass, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins) to a prodigiously mixed reception. Some felt the win made Owens a main event star. Others felt that Triple H’s shocking betrayal of Rollins stripped Owens of any credibility as champion.
The title would gain some much-needed consistency over the next 189 days. Owens became the cowardly heel who defended the title six times with the help of Chris Jericho Ironically, it would be Jericho who would play a part in costing Owens everything.
After a twelve-year absence, Bill Goldberg returned to WWE with a king’s welcome. After dispatching Brock Lesnar in 90 seconds at Survivor Series, Goldberg dethroned Owens in 28 seconds, thanks to a Chris Jericho distraction, and became the third Universal Champion.
Brock Lesnar would get his win back over Goldberg in a “match of the night” performance at WrestleMania 33. The match was five minutes of all out destruction between the two goliaths. Lesnar defended the title this past Sunday at SummerSlam where he pinned Roman Reigns to win a fatal four-way match including Samoa Joe and Bruan Strowman.
What a difference a year makes when it comes to pro wrestling. Initially, everyone hated everything about the Universal Championship. People even mocked the galactic implications of its namesake.
Now, it’s the most purchased replica’s on WWE’s website at $400.00 a pop with red straps as far as the eye can see in arenas across the globe. It’s the company’s big boy belt, eclipsing the longtime traditional benchmark of the WWE Championship.
This isn’t the most shocking development. We saw this in the previous brand split with the big gold belt. This goes to show that the version of the world title that finds residence on Monday night is the one belt to rule them all.
The Universal Championship’s short but impressive lineage has also gone a long way in establishing its significance. Finn Balor is a star who is on the verge of superstardom. Kevin Owens is the heel that everyone loves to hate. No one saw Goldberg making a comeback, never mind winning a championship and Brock Lesnar is a household name honing in on 144 days as champion.
The next Universal Championship match is also the most anticipated match in the industry today. Brock Lesnar will defend the title against Bruan Strowman on September 24th at No Mercy. This is a match that people are saying should headline next year’s WrestleMania.
All and all, not bad for a championship that’s still in its infancy.