In the 1980’s, Hulk Hogan held the WWE World Heavyweight Title for 4 consecutive years plus one full year. In 1991, he held it for more than 8 months. In 1993, he held it for more than 3 months. The total number of days he held the title before Vince McMahon decided to push the younger talent and before Hulk Hogan jumped to WCW was 2157 days. When holding the title for those many days meant that anybody he was up against him was doomed to lose. Why has he held such long title runs? Because it was good business. For those who can recollect the 1980s Hulk Hogan era, they will remember that there were hundreds and hundreds of marketing schemes to maximize on his popularity. As long as Hulk Hogan was on a lunch box, pencil case, t-shirt, etc., the WWF (now WWE) was making money outside of the wrestling events. Hulk Hogan did talk shows, interviews, and guest appearances in promoting the WWF. Amongst the kids, he was the biggest living hero around. Among the adults, they tolerated him because of his positive messages of “eat your vegetables, take vitamins and say your prayers”. So, in keeping Hulk Hogan as the WWE champion made a lot of business sense.
In the early 1990s, when Hogan and his contemporaries where getting older and deemed less relevant to the next generation of wrestling fans, fresher and younger talents became the center of the WWE. Unlike the 1980s where the company was primarily centered on Hulk Hogan, the WWE developed many superstars whose popularity was big enough to hold the title and carry on the WWE marketing scheme. Superstars like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, and the Rock, were thrusted into the spotlight and because each could hold their own in the ring and on the mic, it was easy for the WWE Heavyweight Title to change hands frequently. During this time, no one held the title close to a year (with the exception of Diesel who held it for 358 days) before having to lose it to someone else. One big factor why no one title reign was longer than a year is because the WWE shifted the shows format from a pursuit for the championship to non-title storylines with on-going drama.
In the early 2000s, this tactic of creating a new generation of Superstars that can hold the WWE Heavyweight Title continued on with the cycle being around 5-7 years cycle. As Bret left in the mid-90s for WCW, as Shawn and Austin’s injuries kept them out of the ring for longer periods of time throughout the late-90s to early 2000s, and as the Rock decided to pursue an acting career in the early 2000s, the title bounced around from Triple H, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, the Big Show, and Brock Lesnar. The difference now is that they really focused on story lines than fighting for the title. The title played more and more as a second fiddle to the non-title storylines. The problem with focusing on a story line is that there is only a few people who can be featured. Another effect is that more time is spent on promos and other non-in-ring action. When there is less in-ring action, then there is at least 2 to 4 people (single and tag-team matches) who is not regularly getting on TV. With less people on TV, then less people are getting over in front of the crowd. Because of this, those who are in main event storylines have to work double time in order to fill out a show.
By the mid-2000s, many of the main event workers were either injured or burnt out from all the travel and extra work that was expected of them. People like Jeff Hard resorted to drugs. Chris Benoit basically went insane. Edge was constantly working in pain, which led to his mandatory in-ring retirement. Brock left to pursue MMA. Batista left for other ventures. Jericho left so as to have a break, in which he did return, but left the company again. These are a few examples of main event Superstars who are no longer with the company, but could have picked up the slack and keep the WWE in it’s success until now. Now with less of them there, that responsibility has fallen on the few.
So now in 2011, who does the WWE rely to hold the title and carry the company on his back? John Cena. John Cena is in the position he is in with always winning the title and being in the center of Main Event storylines because for the past 3 years, they stopped creating future Main Eventers. Because of the major focus of John Cena, they stopped allotting time in creating good undercard matches. Not creating good undercard matches means less camera and promo time, which means less Superstars have the chance to get over with the crowd. So, if anything were to ever happen to John Cena that will be huge blow to their revenues. In short, the WWE has seemed to paint themselves into a corner.
Though I will admit that they have given opportunities to a few who have dropped the ball like Jack Swagger and Ted Dibiase, they still have other people with whom they can try to get over with the audience. At this point, CM Punk, the Miz, and R-Truth are being positioned for the main spotlight. Sheamus and Cody Rhodes are also on their way up. I could add Mark Henry (who is for the moment the World Heavyweight Champion) and Christian, but they are more on the down slope of their careers because of their longevity. Though these Superstars are currently working the Main Event storylines, they still haven’t reached the “John Cena” level, and this is due to lack of a push to make them main event stars.
It is a fact that there is only one Hulk Hogan, one Randy Savage, one Bret Hart, one Shawn Michaels, one Stone Cold Steve Austin, one Rock, one Edge, etc. They had the character, in-ring psychology and mic skills that brought them to the level they were at, but it was only through an investment of time, which brought them higher and higher. This investment is need now for the current talents. They to test their limitations by investing time for them to pursue the lower titles like the Intercontinental and US Championship or pair some up to battle for the Tag Team titles. Except for Hulk Hogan, the rest of those mentioned above followed that path. They held those title as if that was the most important title in the company. The result of that investment of time is that when it was time for them to step-up, they did step up and rose higher than even they themselves ever expected.
In order for power to change, there is a transition. So far, the WWE transition to promote future main eventers has been slow. The main title always falls on Cena. The minor titles have rarely been showcased. Even when someone like Alberto Del Rio is introduced to the main storyline, they find a way for Cena to retain the title or to regain it if it’s lost. With no Big Show, Kane, Edge, and Rey Mysterio (who are the biggest draws after John Cena, Randy Orton, and CM Punk), they need to speed up this transition period. They need to start building the future main eventers, because there is only so much that they can do with Cena and Orton before the crowd starts turning away (with some already have turned away by not tuning in or just staying dedicated to Impact Wrestling or ROH).
I have no doubt the WWE will revive our attention to their product. Like everything in life, there is their ups-and-downs, but there has to be that time when you shift into second gear when you’re climbing that mountain. Recently, there has been some mix-up for the better with Raw and Smackdown, which has caught my attention, but we will have to wait and see as to where they go from there.