The biggest wrestling event of the year, WrestleMania, has come and gone, and this year's card featured a variety of match types. There was what was called a “Dream Match” in AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho, a Cell match featuring a returning Shane McMahon and The Undertaker, and a No Holds Barred match between Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar. All of these were prominent match ups. What may have been most interesting about the card, though, was that the Intercontinental Championship would be defended in a multi-man ladder match.
Now this might not be noteworthy for anything other than the fact that last year’s WrestleMania also had a ladder match; it’s easy to see that unlike the world title, the history of this championship and its contenders are not being considered when putting the event together. As a result, wrestlers are slotted at random into these matches and because they have no reason for being there, none of it is of any consequence to the show, the company, or any of their careers.
The reason for this is that the championship has priority over who competes for it. Fans may still cheer for these title matches, but fan expectations have drastically changed; no longer are they committed to the stars they cheer for. This is a result of those “stars” being interchangeable (and so disposable) entities that we lose interest in shortly after they stumble into a title or title match. Still, for the time they have the lights trained on them, we call them stars while cheering the matches they are in instead of them.
Several things have put us where we are now: the ratio of past draws to current roster members has never been so lopsided in favor of the past (past stars coming back to squash the present is nothing new, it’s just now there’s no WCW for them to go to), spots have taken over as points of interest so matches that encourage those spots are overvalued, and everyone has contributed to no one wanting to let things play out. But as many fans have been saying for years, the WWE needs new, current stars, and those stars need to be the focus of the matches they’re engaged in.
A ladder is an inanimate object; it cannot create a star. Someone mindlessly jumping off a ladder may create a moment but it cannot create a star. The only way stars are created is when the people involved in the production are valued, followed and use a spotlight that zooms in on its focus – them.
A great way to do this is to use the Intercontinental Championship. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a “workhorse” title or even really “secondary” – it is a championship that is the most flexible in its visibility – it is the “all purpose” belt. It can go from opening Monday Night Raw to main eventing a WrestleMania to being vacant for a stretch and everything in between.
The WWE has not taken advantage of this – this is evident when you look at the fact that not a single star has been made as a direct result of an Intercontinental title reign for over a decade, and that the only classic IC title matches since then were classics because of the quality of the match and not the quality of the story. Matches that are famous for athleticism and multiple finisher kick outs are not remembered the same way and do not impact a potential star's career. The last star to have an IC title reign “make” him was Evolution’s Randy Orton. The series of events that made his reign successful are as follows:
5 Legend Killer
In Early 2003, Orton would join a faction that included a semi-retired Ric Flair and an in-his-prime Triple H. Unlike in most stables, though, Orton did not lose himself in the group; he would go on to create his own image in the “Legend Killer” persona. As this character, Orton would go out of his way to seek out the relics of wrestling’s past and establish himself at their expense.
What made this a wonderfully effective character for building Orton was that Orton wasn’t just the Legend Killer. Becoming the Legend Killer was in line with everything Orton had already proven himself to be: self-centered, aggressive, a king in his own mind despite his lack of experience, etc. Also important was that Orton was a “lady killer” before he became a Legend Killer, as that adds a different tone to the tones of character already established (this is important to completing a character).
4 Ric Flair
Though stars from the past have returned for themselves, there had never been a relationship in the company quite like Orton and Flair’s; a mentor going from being assisted in matches to assisting someone in their matches and vice versa. The 16-time World Champion would put his star and experience into helping another young wrestler.
Randy may have developed a rapport with each member of Evolution over time. But it was Flair who would eventually be walking a step behind Orton, enter the ring first to present Orton to the audience, and put himself at ringside for Orton’s matches. Flair worked in crafting Orton because he shifted the spotlight to his beneficiary – a spotlight only works if something else that could be in focus is out of focus to contrast with and highlight what is in focus (take a look at my profile pic to see evidence of this).
Characters need consistent, ongoing engagements in order to change and add details to their stories and relationships. Ric Flair and Orton were committed and this can be seen by Ric being assisted by Randy in his match against HBK, and shortly after the roles would be reversed and the relationship would change with Ric being present in matches Randy wrestled in. This change is necessary to presenting both as characters and presenting Randy as a new star, as it is change that exposes character.
3 IC Title
“Does the title make the man or does the man make the title?”
Did you notice that the IC title is 3rd on this list? This is because a championship given at the beginning of a star's tenure rarely makes them a real star, and the structures that need setting up have to be in place for a championship reign to succeed.
Orton had already proclaimed himself as the Legend Killer with the range and contrast of tones that come with that character, and he already had Ric Flair walking him to the ring before he won the IC title. When asking whether man makes title or title makes man, it is important to remember the title is an object, and that all a title can do is add to a star’s presentation.
Orton would walk down the ramp, and unlike before he had the belt, he would pause, bring the name on the plate in front of the camera and continue walking; this added to his presentation in that it temporarily spotlighted his character-specific relationship with the championship – he wanted to make a name for himself and he now had his name on the plate of a championship belt to show off.
2 Hardcore Legend
As Orton continued to add to the history of the Legend Killer character, he would run into a recurring character in his story, that being Mick Foley. Foley was the catalyst for Orton becoming the Legend Killer in the first place. When Orton first crossed paths with Foley, Orton would intersect with him as a result of random circumstance and the two characters that clashed engaged in conflict – conflicting personalities should cross paths to have conflict, and to do this both parties need paths outside of dealing with each other that they step out from. They would meet again and again during the course of the reign, each gradually exposing each other's most intense tones of character and stripping away the everyday notes of character until Mick Foley would reveal himself to be his core character: the Hardcore Legend Cactus Jack. Orton would reveal himself to be a scared and inexperienced youngster.
The match they had a Backlash was nothing short of an experience: Orton would walk to the ring alone with no Ric Flair as Evolution was banned from ringside. All he walked to the ring with this time were a few weapons, his title, and a purpose.
And that word, purpose, is why this match does so well in making Orton a star in the span of a night. Orton has a purpose for being here that was established long before: he was stripped of Evolution and he was left with himself, and that Mick Foley exposed him as not the lady killer but an inexperienced, scared new wrestler that had never been in this environment before. He’s here to prove that he can beat the Hardcore Legend on his own to prove, in his greatest test, that he really is the Legend Killer.
Mick Foley is here because he, bit by bit over time, after a series of Evolution beatdowns and a smear campaign calling him a coward, revealed an alternate tone of his personality. He was here to prove that he is still the Hardcore Legend to a new generation of fans. He was also here not to “kick someone’s ass” but tear someone’s flesh – this is character specific intent.
Eric Bischoff came out to stop the escalating violence and Mick Foley from lighting his bat on fire, and if Foley did Bishoff would DQ Foley (in a no DQ match) and stop the event– one of the more effective uses of the run-in trope (possibly because he was walking instead of running – walking with purpose).
And Evolution would appear at the end, after Orton had defended himself with trash cans, had tests of strength with barbed wire bats, and had thumbtacks pierce his skin, to carry out the victor and the new the Hardcore Legend.
Lilian Garcia would announce: “And here is your winner… Randy Orton.”
At no point here does the Intercontinental Championship take centre stage, despite this being a championship match: this is because here its purpose is to temporarily have less focus than who was in the match, and more specifically Orton. In this match the championship is a note – a note of significance, but a single note nonetheless – that adds to an already complete presentation; this match and rivalry would still work perfectly without the championship, but with the title reign the rivalry can punctuate an already established path set up by the title reign until both paths meet in a match of consequence to create an even greater effect. Orton was also a challenger here as he was challenging for a title that is more deeply held than a belt; he was going to become the Hardcore Legend.
1 Living Legend
The consequences of this match were large and numerous: Mick Foley wouldn't have a hardcore match for another 2 years, as his identity was changed as a result of the match; he had lost the match so crucial to maintaining the image he had of himself.
The No Holds Barred match would become a classic in history overshadowing even the World Championship match that would follow soon after. And the star of the PPV, Randy Orton, would go from up and comer to undeniable made man in the span of a half hour.
But really, it took much longer than half an hour: Orton had been adding story to his presentation a year prior when he first joined Evolution and punted Mick Foley down that flight of stairs. Everything that happened since then had been leading up to the match that would set Orton up for the rest of his career. As a result of this match, Orton will never not have name value, and opportunities to highlight him will always be available.
And the Intercontinental Title? It’ll be around for a while, always with the capacity to be flexible in its visibility. Whether the WWE takes advantage of this is up to them. Whether they decide to look at their past successes or not, It would be beneficial for them to remember how they created a star that would be prominent at 12 straight WrestleManias.