The Wrasslin’ Essay: WWE Failed To Give The United States Title Justice…On The Nation’s Birthday

There was real potential for the WWE United States Championship to be the highlight of the Fourth of July episode of Raw, but WWE's booking failed again, writes David Gibb.

Titus O’Neil’s pursuit of Rusev’s WWE United States Championship has not set the wrestling world on fire. At this point in his career, O’Neil is an imperfect opponent for any champion. In spite of his tenure, Titus’ career has been plagued by start-and-stop pushes and a tendency to put him in a placeholder tag teams at the bottom of the card. With that said, there was real potential for his United States Championship shot on the Fourth of July episode of Raw.

Rusev was born to wrestle on the Fourth of July. He’s a swarthy tank of a foreign menace, and his status as a dominant United States Champion over his two reigns makes him the ultimate threat to America. Rusev has pushed American hero John Cena to the brink, bent the child-friendly Kalisto in half, and ridden a tank into WrestleMania.

On the other hand, O’Neil fits the mold of a July Fourth hero: an All-American nice guy. He was named 2015 Celebrity Dad of the Year, remained deferential and respectful during a suspension for being overly-jocular with his boss, and worked through being made to lose on Fathers’ Day in front of his children. On top of that, he’s been portrayed as a progressive, accepting athlete through his long partnership with Darren Young. He is fundamentally decent and freedom loving—the supposed values of the United States.

Is O’Neil-Rusev a top match on any of the other 364 days of the year? No, certainly not at this moment in history. With that said, however, it works perfectly for this one day. With WWE all but expecting record low viewership, it was the perfect week to let the main event angles sit in neutral and build the show around the United States Title. Even Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer and Wade Keller of Pro Wrestling Torch couldn’t help but speculate that July 4 would be the perfect time for a feel-good title win for O’Neil.

Then, there was the reality of what actually happened.

The first puzzling aspect of Monday’s United States Championship match was its placement on the Raw card. The three-hour show opened with WWE’s extended food fight, continued with Lilian Garcia’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the ring, and then immediately jumped to Rusev’s ring entrance. After the combatants made their way down the ramp, the show cut to commercial and returned moments later with the match in progress.

There’s a lot wrong with that sequence of events. The long comedy sketch (whose merits can be judged on their own in a separate discussion) set a lighthearted, fun tone to kick off the show, which is diametrically opposed to the high-stakes, winner-take-all nature of title matches. From the start, WWE took pains to tell fans that there was no need to take the events of the following three hours seriously. Of course, the flippant, comedic tone was instantly juxtaposed with the formal solemnity of the national anthem, creating a schizophrenic platform for the rest of the show to stand upon.

Even worse, beginning the US Title match during a commercial break was a sin for which somebody in the WWE deserves punishment. Joining the first contest of a show in progress, regardless of the match-up, sets a self-defeating tone for a long wrestling show. Essentially the promoter tells the viewer, “We tried to sneak this darn wrestling match in during that commercial, but it looks like you’re going to have to watch the last few minutes of it. Sorry. We’ll get back to broad physical comedy as soon as possible.”

Compounding matters was the fact that this was a championship match. Title belts are the sacred talismans of the wrestling world, and their symbolism is so strong that it drives the movement of the entire universe. When they’re defended after comedy bits and preempted by commercials, championships lose their meaning as well as their purpose. Before the United States Championship match even started on Raw, it had been set up as the most insignificant thing happening on television.

Rusev’s showdown with Titus O’Neil was placed on the card in a position that did nothing to get either man over. Starting the match in the first twelfth of the show didn’t create the perception that O’Neil is rising up the card. It didn’t foster the belief that Rusev is a must-see champion. It didn’t show the fans that the US Title is one of the most important prizes in the game. Instead, it began at a quarter after eight like a throwaway Cruiserweight match on a late-90s Nitro. Through mispromotion, WWE reduced the match that could have been the centerpiece of the show to lower card “I’ll check back in later” fodder.

By the time Raw was 25 minutes old, Titus O’Neil had lost clean, tapping out to Rusev’s Accolade. While the loss from the representative of the United States on its birthday was a bit sobering from the perspective of patriotism, it could have been an acceptable finish if it resulted in getting fresh, intensified heat on Rusev. Again, WWE failed in this regard, though, as they followed the match by having Rusev cut a promo about “little weenies” that was guaranteed to get a laugh and leave people enjoying his act.

The perfect little match to anchor a lesser episode of Raw wound up being a big nothing. If a wrestling promotion can’t put together a solid C show with minimal pressure, how can fans reasonably expect that they’re going to reach that A level by SummerSlam?

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David Gibb

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