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Flair for the Gold?

Current WWE ‘SmackDown’ Women’s champion Charlotte Flair’s 14th world championship reign might be the most important for her career and the future of women’s titles

WWE/Ringer illustration

It’s hard to imagine ever being good enough at something to be crowned a world champion in it more than once. To be clear, I think I’m world-historically great at my particular line of work; I’m just not in a field where winning championships happens regularly. And if we’re being honest, I’m not entirely sure I’m the best Nick Bond on the planet (there’s one fellow whose work on erosion patterns in Australia rivers seems to be the envy of his field), so it’s not even a guarantee I’m getting that prize. So, unless the Nobel Committee starts handing out awards for “Best Numbers-Based Wrestling Criticism Featuring Semi-passable Illustrator Graphs” instead of “Peace,” I shall go wanting.

For Charlotte Flair, though, being world champion is the family business, and on December 30 of last year, she got back to it less than 50 seconds after returning to the ring for the first time since her opponent Ronda Rousey “broke” her arm in their “I Quit” match at WrestleMania Backlash.

After adding a 14th world championship to her collection, she now sits nine ahead of Trish Stratus and Sasha Banks for most by a woman in WWE history—though Stratus does have as many reigns with one title (the retired WWE Women’s Championship) as Flair does (in her case, the SmackDown Women’s Championship)—and Flair’s two behind her father, the hopefully retired Ric, for the most recognized (you have no clue how much work this word does) world title reigns by anyone in WWE history.

That’s more than Bret Hart and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin combined. In just 10 full years of work, she sits tied with Randy Orton and Triple H, both of whom had 20-plus-year careers (with Orton’s hopefully, and presumably, still going). Doesn’t feel like that, though, does it? Ric’s reigns are treated as an accomplishment. Charlotte’s? An inevitability. The question has become less about whether she’ll break the record and more about by how many. Or at least that’s the question for her and WWE.

For us, it’s what the championship reigns will mean when she finally does break the record—and what that will signify for her legacy, not just relative to her father’s, but to women’s wrestling and its standards as well as who is affected by them. And in order to understand the significance of these championship reigns, we have to go back to a few years after World War II.

When Orville Brown became NWA’s first recognized champion (technically; it’s very complicated) in 1948, it probably seemed likely that he’d hold on to the title for as long as he wanted. The Kansas-born farmer and blacksmith was made the newly formed wrestling cartel’s first standard-bearer just as much for his box office drawing power—he was an 11-time champion of the Midwest Wrestling Association—as for his hooking ability (his aptitude for actual wrestling). “Hookers” were used by promoters as a way to keep rogue performers from “going into business for themselves,” and Brown was a great hooker, as evidenced by his 71-0 record in mostly legit wrestling contests before he entered the staged industry proper.

But a car accident forced him to relinquish the championship to Lou Thesz after “just” 570 days of holding it. Thesz himself was a recognized major champion in the NWA who’d had a match scheduled with Brown to further consolidate regional belts into one to rule them all. Thesz, for his part, would then hold on to the title for so long that basically no one remembers who Orville Brown is. (All due respect to the late Mr. Brown, who seems like he’d rip me in twain because my hair was too long for his liking.) Thesz’s initial reign, which lasted 2,300 days, is still the longest of all time for the Worlds Championship—he also holds the fifth longest at 1,079 days, somewhat deceptively just 36 days longer than Nick Aldis’s 2018-21 run (Aldis worked only 35 matches because of the COVID-19 pandemic). His reign also gave the championship (and this era’s physical design for it in particular) the name the Lou Thesz belt.

Unsurprisingly, Thesz had the most days as NWA champion as well, with 633 more days in his three times holding the title than Ric Flair’s 3,116 from his record 10 reigns combined. Ric Flair, however, is an icon whose persona has permeated pop culture, and he’s become something of a style influence for southern rap, while modern fans mostly know Thesz for “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s use of his Press. Not, you know, because he was considered the best wrestler in the world for longer than literally anybody else in the history of mankind. (Quick aside: one of the weirdest option Bs in General Tso’s hypothetical history.)

That his legacy would eventually be surpassed in significance by those of Ric Flair and Harley Race has at least something to do with the eroding effects of time on our memories, and I’m guessing it partially happened because we have relatively few clips of him involving alligator shoes and absolutely zero Thesz promos about jet flyin’. (Though, to be fair to Lou, flights on jet planes weren’t commercially available until four years into his first reign, and then only between London and Johannesburg, newly under apartheid. Woof.)

But it also seems, at least after I jumped down rabbit hole after rabbit hole of championship lineages, that while long reigns are significant in the shared history of the sport stories we tell ourselves, at a certain point our brains can no longer comprehend fully what that amount of time actually means, and the entire idea becomes abstract. It’s a known issue in data science and makes it so that, essentially, 10 reigns with 3,116 days as champion feels more impressive than three with 3,749 because our brain understands “10 reigns is more than three” much more clearly than “3,749 days is almost two years longer than 3,116.”

So although Thesz’s first run as champion featured—and this is a technical term—a metric fuckton of work, after a certain point those numbers become noise. Still, they are almost unfathomable when put into context.

Between 1950 and 1956, when he dropped the championship for the first time, the second-generation Hungarian immigrant worked the following number of championship bouts (many of which were 15-plus minutes and two-out-of-three falls, as was tradition) each year: 153, 179, 181, 170, 163, and 158, before ending with 61 while swapping the belt between himself and (I swear this is not a hazing; this is real) Whipper Billy Watson. That’s 1,056 bouts!

He’d defend the title another 566 times in his other two reigns, pushing him out of reach of even Ric Flair, who’d eventually face nearly 1,400 challenges for his championship.

Charlotte, on the other hand, has 223 world title defenses. Ever.

I say this not to pick on Charlotte, who is unequivocally great and worthy of being a champion essentially any time she’s a member of the active roster (and Becky Lynch, Asuka, and Bianca Belair are otherwise occupied). But she almost perfectly highlights what we’ve come to call “reign inflation” in the Palace of Wisdom.

We were able to extract the “rate of reign inflation,” which is, more or less, exactly what it sounds like, out of mountains of championship data. It measures, over a period of time (decades, for our purposes at the moment), the average reign of a championship winner at the time they’ve won the championship. The more times former champions regain a given title in a given time frame, the higher their “inflation rate.”

This helps us determine two things. Above all else, it helps measure the decade-over-decade development of new stars in a given division. And, by extension, it also gives a peek into how often a promotion recycles feuds between performers at the top of a division (often between folks who have already held the championship).

Put simply, an inflation rate close to 1 indicates that every single person winning the title is winning it for the first or second time in their careers, which is obviously a specific kind of exciting. Something like a 4.42 inflation rate means that although the championship may have moved around a bit, it did so mostly by relying on older stars and/or rivalries to put butts in seats.

A high number is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But when the number jumps suddenly (even, in the timescale of wrestling, from one decade to the next), our understanding of the value of a title reign can become warped and lead to a lack of investment in a new championship reign for a new performer (especially if the reason for the quick switches feels inevitable, which can happen when someone feels like a “default” champion who will get a championship back sooner rather than later).

In breaking down the major current and historical WWE men’s (NWA Worlds Championship, WWE championship, the United States title, the Intercontinental title, the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, the World Heavyweight Championship, and the Universal Championship) and women’s (the WWE Women’s Championship, the Divas title, Raw, and SmackDown) championships, it’s clear how a sudden, massive rise in the number of people handing a championship back and forth can lead to disaster, even if it works in the moment. Because once all those performers with inflated numbers are gone, a new crop of contenders finds themselves challenging one another for both the championship and the audience’s attention; it can take years for the audience to recalibrate what it means to be champion and what is actually important to that concept beyond “they have won and lost this level of match many times.”

The NWA, in particular, saw the value of its world title essentially drop off the face of the earth in the ’90s after a massive spike in title reigns between Ric Flair and Harley Race. Of course, both earned their keep as champions, but reigns that sometimes lasted days or featured a handful of title defenses (without also involving an injury forcing one of them to give up the title) made it seem that anytime someone beat Flair, he’d eventually claw the belt back to his side after the fans “got what they wanted.” A “Dusty Champion,” if you will.

The trend line of the NWA’s inflation rate also makes it clear that, although young stars like Sting and Lex Luger would eventually find themselves becoming stars in the ’90s, it was too late to inject life back into the NWA title. And by 1991, WCW had stopped using the championship entirely and the lineage of the belt ended up taking a sizable chunk of the decade off.

The most extreme example of this is, of course, the WCW championship. While the WCW’s 26 title changes was technically the lowest of those in the 2000s that we looked at, 20 of them happened in, essentially, one year and literally destroyed the company. The last six swaps before the title went defunct were under the auspices of WWE, and the lineage of the belt, like the company whence it came, became the stuff of Rise and Fall DVDs.

Even when they don’t send a company into a death spiral, these kinds of fluctuations can do real damage to the value of a title. So while it’s not as though in the 1990s the Intercontinental title was treated as sacrosanct, a title change once every 55 days—which is what 66 title changes in 10 years will get you—in the 2000s led even the most libertine of wrestling fans to hope they’d tighten things up, which they did by reverting back to the standards of the previous decade. And, in an almost perfect example of the cyclical nature of the business, most championship changes have reverted even further back in the first third of this decade.

Although we are only three years into the 2020s, for the most part, the feverish pace of hot potatoed titles from the last 25 or so years of the business has slowed down considerably. Long and, perhaps more important, medium title reigns have returned, with several pay-per-view and premium live event cycles between big shifts in most championship pictures.

Except in the women’s division.

While they aren’t exactly speed running through all the mistakes made in previous generations, choices have definitely been made to, if not diminish, then deflate the potential value of any given champion reign for any given performer not named Charlotte Flair.

To be sure, reign inflation for these championships is not as steep as it was for something like the WWE championship in the two previous decades, which came about as a result of performers like Edge, John Cena, Randy Orton, and even Triple H handing the championship back and forth as the company attempted to calibrate providing value month to month on PPVs. (FFS, Orton and Triple H literally accounted for three title changes between the two of them in one night.)

Reign inflation is certainly not great for the general long-term health of the division, though, and for Charlotte, it’s been particularly problematic. She’s held the SmackDown belt seven times and the Raw belt six, but she’s rarely been able to hold on to those titles for long. Although she has two of the five longestf SmackDown women’s title reigns, she also has five of the shortest six. For Raw, her longest reign is just seventh longest overall, while each of her five others resides in the bottom 11 (including the shortest for that belt), alongside most of Sasha Banks’s runs with the title.

For the WWE title, such massive inflation of the top performers’ reigns, along with the understanding that none of them would likely ever pass Ric Flair—WWE had Jon Stewart, in his first public appearance after leaving The Daily Show, make sure it didn’t happen for John Cena—made all the reign collecting feel like garbage-time stat padding. This is why, in many ways, the WWE championship currently has had much of its prestige usurped by the fledgling Universal strap. WWE has even gone so far as to frame Roman Reigns’s historical run by the length of time he’s had the Universal belt in particular (as you may recall, he won the WWE championship at this past WrestleMania in a unification match with Brock Lesnar).

Although it’s lost a lot of luster, the literal decades of prestige and history associated with the WWE championship make it highly unlikely (though ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN IN WWE) that it will ever be completely removed from WWE. Even when titles have been unified with it in the past, they’ve mostly kept that title’s name and certainly maintained the lineage. For something like the Raw and SmackDown women’s championships, though? The future of those titles isn’t as certain.

Ignoring that the championships are just a few years old since they’re a product of the brand split, they have a conditional life span that could come to an end at literally any moment. A decision to consolidate yet another pair of championships would likely raise an eyebrow only because it could indicate the return of a certain member of the Bloodline, not because people would miss either championship.

Which is absolutely not where the women’s title should be, as it’s definitely not where the women’s division is. But the titles could be consolidated in an effort to make them seem like they have a lineage in line with what the history of the division should have been—don’t even get us started on Moolah’s role in stunting the growth of women’s wrestling—as opposed to the reality of where the women’s division ended up for much of the last half century. Charlotte, unfortunately, finds herself as both the beneficiary and victim of the mindset of manufacturing prestige and importance instead of performing the necessary actions to actually produce either.

We will, of course, not weep for Charlotte—who is fabulously wealthy, appears happily married, and is an already legendary performer—and her being a 14-time champion should not somehow make her career worse or lessen our opinion of her. But as she and the company navigate this championship reign (which weirdly feels like one of her most important) and the reigns that will put her closer and closer to and then ahead of her father, it would do them well to remember one of the most important lessons from the greatest story ever told about getting everything you ever wanted:

“It’s no trick at all to make a lot of money, when all you want is to make a lot of money.”

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