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Top Flight: How Bobby Lashley and Gunther Help WWE’s Mid-Card Soar

In a way, Roman Reigns’s lighter schedule has created a lane for the current United States and Intercontinental champions to occupy (and flourish in)

WWE/Ringer illustration

The decision to headline—and since last week’s Raw, heavily advertise—last night’s match between Seth Rollins and Bobby Lashley for the United States Championship and, at least according to a poll on WWE’s Instagram story, to determine who is the “face of Raw wasn’t exactly weird. But it felt a bit ... off?

Either man as the face of the red brand or the U.S. champion independently makes a ton of sense, but the idea that someone would be both of those things at the same time is an almost entirely novel concept in the history of WWE. However, being (essentially) without precedent in the WWE is not the same as being unprecedented in wrestling history, as a general rule.

The case of a “local champion” becoming the face of your brand while another “traveling” champion represents the larger organization as a whole is a tale as old as the territories, and it appears that both shows have been retrofitted to retell since at least the beginning of the summer. Even on SmackDown—though Bloodline business still has significant purchase—Intercontinental champion Gunther has found himself involved in the main event or as part of the show’s biggest match nearly every week since SummerSlam.

Our numbers also reflect the return to prominence of the two championships through their holders, with Bobby Lashley and Gunther sitting at fifth and seventh, respectively, on the Big Board.

Although their reigns started during the previous era—Lashley’s in July, Gunther’s a little less than a month before that—the kind of push the championships themselves have received under HHH is decidedly different than under Vince McMahon. Before HHH (BH3), Ricochet was the only mid-card title holder to debut in our top 16 (at 16th) until Gunther did so (at eighth) after establishing eligibility following Clash at the Castle. It’s not that performers who compete in the mid-card “division” don’t have any value, or that the titles were wholly unimportant, though. Instead, as was the case with many things toward the end of the last regime, the ability to inject meaning into parts of the show that weren’t the world title or main event scene was often nonexistent.

However, as Roman Reigns’s path through WWE’s pantheon makes him increasingly untouchable in-ring and ephemeral on-screen, it means that the usual modus operandi of having the most popular/significant performer on each roster end almost every show with a fight or 15-minute promo isn’t currently possible. This isn’t simply a structural or pacing issue for the writing staff, either.

Networks want stars or stakes on their show, and having neither Roman Reigns nor the company’s most valuable assets (their world championships) on the air every week is definitely not something FOX or NBC/USA (in particular) thought was best for business. Because, unlike the territory era, the expectation set by WWE and most of modern televised professional wrestling is that the name on the world championship is the same as the one on the marquee or, at the very least, working the show.

Brock Lesnar, as has so often been the case, changed some of the thinking on this, but his schedule was part of an understanding the company made with the audience when Lesnar came back in the first place. It wasn’t a shock when he would leave for a couple of months while holding the title, because he was never truly there full time to begin with. And almost every week, himself or his advocate Paul Heyman would be available to look tough or say something stupid.

Reigns, on the other hand, had shown up nearly every Friday following his COVID hiatus to be acknowledged and then Spear and/or Superman punch folks into oblivion. Then, one day, he just kind of stopped with the weekly punching, spearing, and even talking. While we believe strongly in the idea of work-life balance here in the Palace of Wisdom, the second-order effects of Reigns’s massively reduced schedule have been the most significant sports entertainment story of the summer outside the massive amounts of (discrete) EVP/C-suite drama that has sent shockwaves through the three biggest companies in the world (lest we forget Kota Ibushi’s issues with New Japan executives).

As we mentioned in passing earlier, with Reigns’s place on SmackDown’s official roster, the absence of the Tribal Chief after he won both world championships was felt much more acutely on Raw than its Friday night counterpart (because, as mentioned, the latter has functioned as a home base for the Bloodline and its attendant story lines since it began). This is likely why—as well as Vince’s affinity for performers who look like him and the fans’ affinity for performers who work like him—Bobby Lashley was pegged as United States champion back at the beginning of July around the time Reigns’s schedule began to slow down in earnest (and not just in speculation) as a bulkhead against whatever concerns may have been expressed by folks at NBC and FOX.

The past two years have seen Lashley earn two runs with the WWE title, one of which included a successful defense at WrestleMania 37 against Drew McIntyre, sandwiched between two United States championship reigns. All while having found himself firmly embedded in our top five since the Institute of Kayfabemetrics was officially established in March of this year.

Lashley’s time in the ring over the past two years has been the best run of his career and that’s resulted in one of the highest “unweighted” POP scores in our tracking. The metric measures independent of their titles and amount of matches they work above the norm, and as you can see below, Lashley’s been positioned as the strongest (based on our metrics) out of literally all of the full-time performers on either brand.

That he’s only barely behind Roman Reigns, even while working a much more active schedule over the past three months, is one of those stats that certainly passes the eye test. Lashley is the only “random” person that would make sense beating him for the unified championships—meaning that, unlike McIntyre, Rollins, Matt Riddle, Kevin Owens, Cody Rhodes, or Austin Theory, there’s no real “reason” Lashley would be after Reigns outside of his title. Add in his current positioning, and it might be the least shocking from a betting perspective (if not necessarily a story line one).

His SmackDown counterpart Gunther has seamlessly transitioned from a dominant NXT performer named WALTER to the fastest-rising star in the company with 24 Intercontinental championship defenses in three months, to go with a 94 percent overall winning percentage in 2022. These are incredible numbers which, not unlike what’s happening with Lashley’s clear elevation of the U.S. championship, make it much easier to answer the age-old question of whether die Meisterschaft makes the man or if derr Mann makes the championship.

The Intercontinental championship may feel as though it has too much prestige to be elevated by someone with less than a year of main-roster experience, but this is nostalgia doing the only thing it can: rotting your brain to the point of obsolescence. Nobody has, pardon our French, given two full halves of a single horse shit about the distinction in over a decade and even great fun like (friend of the program) Big E’s run with Apollo Crews in early 2021 didn’t do much to help either performer (and in the case of Crews, nearly derailed his career entirely.)

Attempts by megastars like Seth Rollins to return the title to prominence in main-event PPV matches for the championship fell depressingly flat. That the bout itself—a 30-minute Iron Man match in which fans counted down from “10” like so much Royal Rumble, on repeat for (roughly) 32 minutes—was a beautifully dumb failure and took place against Dolph Ziggler is almost certainly a coincidence, we’d have to assume. Either way, it’s essentially inarguable (and as far as we are concerned, mathematically proven) that the Intercontinental title has not mattered as much as it does now since at least the George W. Bush administration.

Some of this depreciation comes from the lack of attention to the division we mentioned earlier, because as CM Punk explained (about, we’re guessing, a whole different thing), “the grass is greener where you water it.”

Perhaps the most significant shift, though, has been the Intercontinentalization of the main event scene that began in the early-to-mid ’90s. Which isn’t “getting smaller” but adjusting to a change in the expectations of the pace at which a main event should be worked. In the same way that big men in basketball have started to move to the 3-point line, the main event didn’t get smaller so much as WWE-sized performers like Randy Orton and Edge (whose Intercontinental title match at Vengeance is an all-time favorite here in the Palace of Wisdom) began putting on matches that would have been done only by smaller performers in the years prior.

And with that, the implicit title that the physical Intercontinental title belt symbolized—that the holder was the company’s workhorse, their most reliable performer, their good time boy—became embodied by the performers trying to get their hands on the WWE and World Heavyweight championships. Unlike the U.S. Champion, which in a literal, nominal sense acts as a point between the bottom of the card and the top of the world, the Intercontinental title (and by extension its “division”) was stripped of its primary identity and became an also-ran that symbolized the company’s lack of faith in you more than anything else.

Look through the list of titleholders preceding Gunther and it is pretty gruesome, if not in terms of match quality—every single one of these performers will/could be a Hall of Famer—then the trajectory of their careers going forward: Crews, Shinsuke Nakamura, Ricochet, Jeff Hardy, a prerelease Braun Strowman, and AJ Styles have all held the title since 2020, but Big E and Sami Zayn were the only ones in that time period who had a run and ended up in a better place afterward.

This meant that, instead of treating the Intercontinental championship as a semiotic means to the narrative end of raising the profile of the person who had it before moving them up the card, it ends up being symbolic of the idea that it used to mean that. “I want to be on the top one day and this championship means that I’m next” is a far cry from “I want this championship because Bret Hart won it before he became world champion and I think that’s really neat” but without a path forward after winning, it was really all that performers and fans had to hang on to.

Gunther, by virtue of being largely unknown by non-wrestling nerds before his SmackDown debut and winning the championship from Ricochet after just six televised matches on the main roster, came in with essentially zero expectations from the audience as to what the title should mean to him and allowed him to define himself as champion instead.

Radiating self-possession, Der Ring General doesn’t seems to care at all what the fans think of him and how they feel about his holding the championship. He wants to beat people up, break blood vessels, and collect trophies; it’s an honorable pursuit that, when coupled with the main-event potential he has, could bring the title back to its former “glory,” or at least to the same role it once had as the most meaningful milestone outside of the WWE championship. This is a somewhat symbiotic relationship as, in the meantime, being Intercontinental champion now affords Gunther a massive promotional push and the protection that can provide in booking decisions.

Lashley, because of both his professional résumé and personal history, works much better as someone who raises the profile of a championship without extracting almost any value out of wearing the belt itself. As a member of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program and the son of an Army drill sergeant, the desire that Lashley seems to have for holding and defending the title of being “United States Champion” beyond the business benefits feels genuine and helps make it mean something to him without having to spend a great deal of time explaining why.

This is not, to be clear, an exploitative arrangement, as being U.S. Champion gives the WWE a legitimate reason to put him on at the end of their show without raising further questions. (And who doesn’t want to be in the main event?) This is intentional, as Bobby Lashley routinely pummeling dudes right before the end-of-show tag appears might lead someone to ask why he isn’t actively pursuing Roman Reigns. Do the same thing with a lesser championship on the line? Baby, you got a stew goin’.

Which is, counterintuitively, what made it a little surprising that WWE didn’t have Lashley move on from the U.S. title last night: Seth Rollins is in full “I’m not gonna flush, LET THEM SEE THE WRATH OF THE MONARCH!” mode at this point (exactly where you want a villain like Rollins to be when holding a mid-card title) and Lashley should be making his way further up the card, if not necessarily to challenge Roman, then at least to put himself in the mix with Drew McIntyre as the next in line for the throne. Lashley would have been totally fine with a loss—especially if there were shenanigans that led to the finish—though it’s possible his top-level stats may have taken a temporary dip as he adjusted to a different flight path.

As for Gunther, while it’s unlikely he’ll continue to win 94 percent of his matches, I’m reminded of the old Austrian saying that goes something like “the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.” And nothing says sunshine like a man named Gunther.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.