Why title belts matter (and women should have them)

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Viper pins two women to become the first ever ICW Women’s Champion.

If you asked me what the most important moments of 2015 were for the professional wrestling industry, I’d give you two answers. One would be NXT TakeOver: Respect, when Sasha Banks and Bayley took part in the first ever all-female main event on a WWE live special. The other would be ICW Fear and Loathing VIII, where Viper became the first ever Women’s Champion for the UK’s most popular independent wrestling company.

Fear and Loathing itself was the biggest independent wrestling event in the UK since the early 1980s, but outside of Grado beating Drew Galloway for the title, it was the inaugural women’s title match that struck a chord with me. Championships matter, and my hope is that ICW sets the precedent for more independent promotions to follow suit.

In most promotions, championships set the scene for the action on every show. They create the conditions under which the wrestlers compete, because if you have a title, it’s the prize that brings all the competitors under one roof. The desire for glory, prestige and recognition that they are better than their peers is what drives wrestlers to compete.

This is why titles tend to be introduced early in the life of a promotion: personal issues and blood feuds might develop, but those people wouldn’t have crossed paths without their quest to eventually become champion. Even if the promotion doesn’t have a belt of its own, there needs to be a prize that introduces stakes into a match: in Chikara’s early days, people like Mike Quackenbush would defend titles they’d won elsewhere.

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It got a bit ridiculous to be honest.

So when Vince Russo referred to the belt as “a prop”, he was only half right: it’s just an object, but it represents the championship. It’s the McGuffin for your major storylines, and as such it helps you write them. It also gives the performers a position in the company to aspire to – a promotion opportunity – and that enables you to keep your best talent.

For a great example of a well-booked title feud on the indies, look at Progress. Will Ospreay won the title from Jimmy Havoc after a lengthy and brutal feud to end Havoc’s 609-day run. Havoc was inextricably tied to the title – his win was used to introduce a belt when he burnt the original staff, so he became a crucial element of the title’s history.

Holding the title also cemented Havoc’s position as the top guy in the company, despite the fact that everybody hated him. He went to extreme lengths to keep the title simply because he knew that his supremacy, as embodied by the belt, seriously pissed off company and fans alike. Ospreay became the white knight who could liberate Progress from Havoc’s reign of terror by supplanting him at the top. It’s brilliant stuff.

Progress also has a very exciting nascent women’s division. Which is why I was so disappointed with this tweet from the management:

There are a couple of big problems with that. First, it suggests that the men’s title has to exist because men are so bad at wrestling they need the validation. Try telling Will Ospreay that.

But the bigger problem is that the existence of the men’s and the tag team belts has set a precedent that divisions are built around the title chase. Competition for the championship is the fundamental condition on which everyone else competes. So if women can have matches but have no title to compete for, they’re just having matches for the sake of it. They’re basically there for show.

Women therefore exist and wrestle outside of the conditions of the promotion where they appear. Ultimately, this exoticises women’s wrestling and the women themselves, distancing them from the audience. Not only does this make it easier not to take women’s wrestling seriously as a division, but it also means it’s much harder for audiences to invest in the characters. Because it’s harder to get female wrestlers over, money is being left on the table.

Outside of the moment of the wrestling match, there are longer term repercussions for the lack of a women’s title.  If you’re not from the UK, you may not be familiar with Only Fools and Horses. You should fix that, but for now it’s Trigger’s Broom that matters.

In wrestling, this is exactly how championships work. Any given belt that has a lengthy heritage will probably have had new straps, new plates, new buckles, the works, but in the minds of the fans and many performers, it will still be the same belt held by all of its previous champions. Holding a title puts you in a direct line of succession from its previous holders, which means that a prestigious title (provided that it’s booked well) can do wonders to elevate a performer’s career. It also allows them to write their own chapter in the heritage of the title and the company that uses it, as well as to create a legacy for future generations to aspire to. The belt is the physical manifestation of the title’s cumulative history.

Companies have actively promoted the prestige of their belts to heighten the stakes in their title feuds. In Japan, the Triple Crown was huge from the moment of its inception because it unified the pedigrees of all three original belts. UWFI invested in the belt that had previously represented Lou Thesz’s NWA title – the company didn’t call it that, but the provenance of the belt was what made it special. The most important example in women’s wrestling, however, goes back to a woman called Mildred Burke.

Her name has been largely forgotten over the years, but to students of women’s wrestling Mildred Burke is practically a deity. You should definitely learn more about her colourful life, but for now you need to know that she held the NWA World Women’s Championship for nearly two decades. Take that, Nikki Bella.

Essentially, she was screwed out of her title in 1954 in a match against June Byers. She refused to acknowledge the loss and went back to her own promotion, World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA), where she set up a title of her own which she defended until she retired in 1956. Significantly, she believed she was still the rightful champion, and so it was her legitimacy that made the WWWA title just as prestigious as the NWA one. That meant she could defend it as  an equivalent title.

This means that Mildred Burke was seen as the spiritual mother of two belts: the WWWA and the NWA, which was recognised by that company as having passed from Burke to Byers in their 1954 stitch-up. In 1970, the WWWA belt which Burke had vacated at her retirement was picked up by All Japan Women’s Wrestling (AJW) to be used as their championship belt. Meanwhile, Byers dropped the NWA belt to The Fabulous Moolah, and after a long and quite confusing chain of events Moolah became the first WWF Women’s Champion. The belt became the WWF Women’s Championship, which was eventually unified with the Divas Championship we know and hate today.

Mildred Burke can be seen as the person at the source of probably the two most important women’s championships of the late 20th century. This means that Manami Toyota, Trish Stratus, Akira Hokuto and Nikki Bella all claim succession from her, and this was what gave their titles legitimacy (WWE tends to trace the Divas belt back to Moolah, but they’re crap with history).

By denying female competitors the chance to compete for a title, you deny them the chance to build this kind of lineage – to make and take their place in company history, and by extension, the history of professional wrestling. Wrestlers are remembered by the audience for the characters they play; by the history books, they’re remembered by their championships. Not giving women the chance to have a title to their name effectively keeps them from being recorded, and from setting precedents that inspire future wrestlers of any gender. In fact, it’s the very opposite of progress.

So indies, give your women titles. Big companies, take your titles seriously. You might find you’re remembered as the ones who gave us these champions.

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