The WWE Universal Championship: Two Years of Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Hiatuses
Since I’m off work this week and I have alot of extra time on my hands, I got thinking about something. It’s been two years since the crowning of the first ever WWE Universal Champion. I figured now is as good time as any to do a reflection piece. The flagship championship of Monday Night Raw has definitely been a controversial one and right now I’m going to take a look back at all the superstars that have held this title, who’s challenged for this title, and everything in between in this special article.
(DISCLAIMER: I’m only acknowledging televised title defenses, live events I will not be recognizing in this article)
Fresh off the heels of the WWE brand extension, a major match took place. For the first time ever we were going to witness all three members of the Shield face off for the WWE Championship. When Dean Ambrose of Smackdown successfully retained the WWE Championship in the triple threat match at Battleground 2016 when he defeated his former Shield brothers Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns of Raw, Raw was left without a major championship.
The following night, Stephanie McMahon and general manager at the time Mick Foley created the WWE Universal Championship. The red belt was met with it’s fair share of criticisms from the appearance to the name. You may remember general manager at the time Daniel Bryan making fun of this new championship’s name. Seth Rollins was the number one pick overall of the brand extension draft and was hand picked by Stephanie to compete in the inaugural Universal Championship title match since he wasn’t involved in the decision at Battleground. It was announced then that there would be two fatal four way matches on Raw and the winners of those matches would meet one on one. The winner of that match would meet Seth Rollins at Summerslam 2016 to crown the first ever WWE Universal Championship.
The new kid on the block from NXT Finn Balor managed to defeat Kevin Owens, Cesaro, and Rusev in one match. Meanwhile in the other match, the heavily favored Roman Reigns defeated Chris Jericho, Sami Zayn, and Sheamus. This would be the closest to a official title shot Cesaro and Sheamus would ever get in the two years of the Universal Championship. Of course many people were expecting Reigns to beat Balor and we would see Rollins vs Reigns again headline another pay per view. Balor however shocked the world and defeated Roman Reigns on Monday Night Raw. Finn Balor was going to Summerslam to challenge Seth Rollins, a dream match many fans wanted to see.
The stage was set for Summerslam 2016 with the first ever WWE Universal Championship match, Finn Balor vs Seth Rollins. The match was pretty good, though it may have been overshadowed by AJ Styles vs John Cena that occurred earlier on the show. Balor managed to win the match and become the first ever WWE Universal Champion on August 21, 2016. Unfortunately Finn Balor suffered a major shoulder injury when Rollins launched Balor into the barricade with a running powerbomb during their match. The next night on Monday Night Raw, Finn Balor had to vacate the WWE Universal Championship. An unfortunate moment for not only Finn Balor, but the WWE Universal Championship.
The show must go on however so a series of matches took place on the Raw after Summerslam 2016 and the winner of these matches would meet in a fatal four way the following week to crown a Universal Champion once in for all. The following matches took place on Raw August 22, 2016. Seth Rollins defeated Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens defeated Neville, Big Cass defeated Rusev, and Roman Reigns defeated Chris Jericho. Zayn, Neville, Rusev, and Jericho would never receive another opportunity since to even compete for the WWE Universal Championship. The following Raw August 29, 2016 the fatal four way took place. Roman Reigns vs Kevin Owens vs Seth Rollins vs Big Cass in a elimination match for the Universal Championship. Rollins would be competing in his second official match for the Universal Championship while the other three would be wrestling in their first match for the title. Looking back, Big Cass was definitely a random insert in this match and sure enough was the first one eliminated. As the match progressed it looked like Roman Reigns was on the verge of winning. All the sudden Triple H appeared out of the crowd and attacked Reigns. Triple H hits the Pedigree on Reigns and throws him in the ring. Rollins goes into the ring and makes the cover. Triple H then goes and rolls in Kevin Owens. Just when it looked like Triple H was going to finish off Owens, he takes out Rollins with the Pedigree instead. Owens pinned Rollins and became the second WWE Universal Champion. Triple H takes the belt and hands it to Owens. Now the strange thing of all this is really never went anywhere. I remember at the time thinking Kevin Owens was going to be the new Authority guy that Triple H was going to mentor. That wasn’t the case. All this really did was plant the seeds for the eventual Seth Rollins vs Triple H match at Wrestlemania months away.
The following Raw on September 5, 2016 Rollins crashed Owens Universal Championship presentation and Mick Foley booked them in a title match at Clash of Champions. September 25, 2016 Owens successfully retained the Universal Championship against Rollins with the assist of Chris Jericho. Rollins has failed now in three attempts in becoming Universal Champion. Rollins also suffered a rib injury in this match as well when Owens connected with a gutbuster from the top rope. That wasn’t enough though to stop Rollins in his pursuit of Kevin Owens and the Universal Championship. Raw October 10, 2016, Rollins was booked to face Kevin Owens again at Hell in a Cell for the title against Owens wishes having the match again, let alone take place in Hell in a Cell. Stephanie however decides to make things interesting by having a match between Rollins and Jericho and if Jericho wins, he is added to the Hell in a Cell match. Rollins though manages to defeat Jericho keeping him out of the match. However that didn’t stop Jericho from getting involved at Hell in a Cell. October 30, 2016 Owens and Rollins met inside Hell in a Cell and with Jericho’s assistance, Owens successfully retained again by powerbombing Rollins thru two chairs. Rollins now has failed at four attempts for the Universal Championship and Owens has two successful defenses.
The Raw after Survivor Series, November 21, 2016 found Kevin Owens once again defending the Universal Championship against Seth Rollins in a no disqualification match. Rollins was rewarded for joining Team Raw at Survivor Series and as a added bonus, Chris Jericho was banned from ringside. However it didn’t stop him from dressing as a fan in a Sin Cara mask and getting involved. Rollins managed to haul Jericho over the barricade and Pedigreed Jericho to the floor. The distraction though was enough for KO to take out Rollins with a apron powerbomb and successfully retaining again. Rollins now has failed five times in his quest for the WWE Universal Championship and KO is up to three successful defenses.
Kevin Owens finally moved on from Rollins and onto Roman Reigns. Reigns challenged Owens to a match on the November 28, 2016 Raw and if he wins, he gets a title shot. Reigns went on to defeat Owens since Rollins Pedigreed Jericho on top of a car. The match was set for Roadblock: End of the Line December 18, 2016. Kevin Owens would defend the Universal Championship against United States Champion Roman Reigns. Owens was willing to win by any means necessary. Owens grabbed the title and went to hit Reigns with it, but Reigns hit the Spear. Reigns was on the verge of winning the title, but Chris Jericho hit Kevin Owens with a Codebreaker to not only keep the title on Owens, but giving Owens a win by disqualification as well. Reigns has now failed in two attempts at winning the Universal Championship and Owens reaches four successful title defense. Roman Reigns would receive another shot at the Royal Rumble against Kevin Owens for the Universal Championship in a no disqualification match and Chris Jericho would be hanging above the ring in a shark cage. This happened on January 29, 2017 and just when it looked like Reigns was going to win, Braun Strowman shows up and chokeslams Reigns thru the commentators table followed by a running powerslam thru a table. Owens with the assist was able to retain the Universal Championship for the fifth time while Roman Reigns fails in his third attempt to become Universal Champion.
The following night on Raw January 30, 2017, it was revealed the only reason why Braun Strowman helped Kevin Owens was because Owens promised Strowman a Universal Championship match. Owens of course denied this, but Strowman had footage proving otherwise. The match was set and Owens would have to defend his title against Strowman. Roman Reigns however was out for revenge and attacked Strowman costing him a chance at becoming Universal Champion. Strowman won by disqualification, but failed in his first attempt at the Universal Championship. Owens reaches six successful defenses.
All good things though come to an end. When Chris Jericho accepted a Universal Championship match on Kevin Owens behalf against Goldberg at Fast Lane, Jericho’s “Festival of Friendship” ended the relationship of Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho when Owens savagely attacked Jericho and sent him to the hospital. March 5, 2017 is when Owens was set to defend his Universal Championship against Goldberg. Owens stalled at the start of the match, but when he finally got in the ring, Chris Jericho’s music hit. Jericho’s distraction was enough for Goldberg to Spear and Jackhammer Owens to win the WWE Universal Championship. Goldberg became the third WWE Universal Champion. Kevin Owens 189 day title reign came to an end. Goldberg already accepting a match against Brock Lesnar for Wrestlemania 33 would be defending the Universal Championship there while Owens would move onto settling his feud with Chris Jericho. Owens for some reason never invoked his rematch clause and was shortly after Wrestlemania moved over to Smackdown Live. Owens has returned to Raw since, but hasn’t competed for the Universal Championship since losing it to Goldberg.
And now we move onto the dark times of the Universal Championship, the part time era. An era that has clouded this Universal Championship for the majority of it’s existence. Goldberg brought the Universal Championship to Wrestlemania 33 on April 2 2017 four weeks later and lost it to Brock Lesnar in under five minutes ending Goldberg’s reign at 28 days and zero successful defenses. This would be Goldberg’s final WWE match to date.
Brock Lesnar, the part time superstar, held the Raw Universal Championship hostage for a very long time. Some people were okay with this. Others were annoyed by it. Annoyed that the featured championship of Monday Night Raw wasn’t featured weekly on television, wasn’t seen at live events, and not defended at pay per views. With the absence of a major championship, it really hurt progressing storylines on a three hour Raw every week. Most of the guys that should be in the main event scene wrestling for the Universal Championship were wrestling for the Intercontinental Championship delaying the ascension to the upper card for alot of guys in the undercard/midcard.
After Wrestlemania, Lesnar didn’t defend the Universal Championship until Great Balls of Fire on July 9, 2017. Samoa Joe was the first one to challenge Lesnar after Joe won the rights to do so by choking out Finn Balor in a Extreme Rules match also involving Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins at Extreme Rules on June 4, 2017. Joe barely lasted over six minutes with the Beast at Great Balls of FIre. Joe failed in his first attempt, Lesnar notches one successful defense. Lesnar returned at Summerslam 2017 on August 20, 2017 with the Universal Championship and defended it against Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman, and Roman Reigns in a fatal four way match. It was announced if Lesnar lost, he would leave the WWE. Unlike most Lesnar matches, this one actually got some time. Of course there were three other workers in there and Lesnar was hauled away mid match after Strowman powerslammed Lesnar thru the announcers table. In the end though, even after Reigns hit three Superman punches and was going for the Spear, Lesnar turned it into an F5 and finished off Reigns. Lesnar moves onto two successful defenses. Joe and Braun have failed in two attempts each. Reigns has now failed in four attempts at the Universal Championship.
Lesnar would defend the title again at No Mercy September 24, 2017 against Braun Strowman one on one after Strowman attacked Lesnar during his victory celebration the Raw after Summerslam 2017. In what could’ve been a great match was cut way too short and the Monster Among Men was put down with only one F5. Lesnar retains successfully again giving him three defenses and Strowman has failed now in three attempts at the Universal Championship. Lesnar wrestled one more match in 2017 against AJ Styles at Survivor Series 2017, but this was a cross brand promotional match between both brands top champions so no titles were on the line. Lesnar wouldn’t defend the Universal Championship again in 2017 after his match with Braun Strowman September 24, 2017.
Royal Rumble 2018 on January 28, 2018 would be the next time Lesnar defended the Universal Championship. He would face Braun Strowman and Kane in a triple threat match. The match was considered a flop and Strowman didn’t factor in the decision. Lesnar took Kane down with an F5 and now has four successful title defenses while Braun Strowman has failed in four attempts at the Universal Championship. Kane has failed in his first and only shot at the title.
Brock Lesnar’s next defense would be at Wrestlemania 34 on April 8, 2018 against Roman Reigns. Reigns won the right to challenge the Beast by winning an Elimination Chamber match against Braun Strowman, Seth Rollins, Finn Balor, John Cena, Elias, and The Miz. Strowman eliminated everyone in the match except Reigns who eliminated Strowman. Reigns started criticizing Lesnar for his lack of appearances as creative was trying hard as they could to get everyone behind Reigns. The match was met with criticism from the fans in attendance as many in the WWE Universal have had enough of both Lesnar and Reigns. Lesnar needed six F5’s to beat Reigns for his fifth successful defense while Reigns has now failed in his fifth attempt at the Universal Championship. It was noted that Lesnar would not resign with WWE if he lost to Reigns, however since he won, he in fact did renew his contract.
Lesnar and Reigns would meet again at the Greatest Royal Rumble on April 27, 2018 in a Steel Cage Match for the Universal Championship. This match wasn’t very good and ended after Reigns speared Lesnar through the cage. Both men landed on the floor and while it’s noted that Reigns feet touched the floor first, Lesnar was awarded the victory. Lesnar has six successful defenses of the Universal Championship and Reigns has now failed in six attempts at capturing the title.
Lesnar wouldn’t be around to defend his title again until Summerslam 2018 against once again Roman Reigns. Reigns won the right to do so after a series of matches took place on Raw to determine a number one contender. There would be two triple threat matches and the winners of those matches would face off for the right to challenge Lesnar. The first one was won by Reigns after he defeated Finn Balor and Drew McIntyre. The second one was won by Lashley who defeated Seth Rollins and Elias. Lashley beat Reigns at the previous pay per view Extreme Rules, but it was Reigns who came out on top this time around and earned the match against Lesnar again. Just before the match took place at Summerslam on August 19, 2018, Braun Strowman came out to the ring with his Money in the Bank contract and threatened that whoever won the match that he would cash in on them. The fans were annoyed again with another Lesnar Reigns match with their reactions and chants. Lesnar was more distracted with Braun Strowman on the outside and took him out instead of focusing on Reigns. This proved to be the downfall of Lesnar as Reigns speared Lesnar for a fourth time finally ending the 504 day reign of Brock Lesnar. Roman Reigns in his seventh attempt finally wins the WWE Universal Champion and becomes the fifth superstar to hold it.
The following night on Raw August 20, 2018, Roman Reigns wants to be a fighting champion and wanted to offer Finn Balor the first title shot since he never got his rematch after his injury two years ago. Constable Corbin of course tried to prevent the match from happening, but general manager Kurt Angle allowed it to happen. Paul Heyman tried to invoke Lesnar’s rematch clause, but Kurt Angle wouldn’t let him. In the middle of the Reigns vs Balor match, Braun Strowman made his way to ringside. Balor took advantage and was looking to polish off Reigns, but Reigns hit the Spear to successfully retain his title for the first time. Balor lost in his first Universal Championship match since he won it two years ago at Summerslam. Braun Strowman was poised to cash in his Money in the Bank contract after knocking Reigns to the group, but the Shield theme hit and Rollins and Dean Ambrose came to the ring. The Shield took down Strowman to a mixed reaction and that is where our story ends. We’ve just officially reached the two year anniversary of the Universal Championship.
Now that the part time era is over and the title is on Roman Reigns, will things be better? This could be very similar to the Kevin Owens run where Chris Jericho interfered frequently making sure the title stayed on Owens. Could we see the same with Ambrose and Rollins making sure Reigns stays the Universal Champion?
In the two year history of the Universal Championship, we’ve only had five men hold the title Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, and Roman Reigns. Think of all the Raw superstars that have wrestled in a Universal Championship match, but never won it such as Seth Rollins, Braun Strowman, or Samoa Joe (when he was on Raw). Think of all the Raw superstars that have wrestled in qualifying matches to earn a title shot and failed. Some wrestlers such as Sami Zayn, Rusev, Chris Jericho, Sheamus, Cesaro all haven’t even been considered for a Universal Championship match since 2016 when the title was introduced. Granted some of these superstars have moved to Smackdown since, but still. How can someone like Kane get a Universal Championship match while someone like The Miz or John Cena has never received a shot? I know Dean Ambrose has been injured the past how many months, but he’s never once received an opportunity to wrestle for the Universal Championship and this was the guy that was WWE Champion when the brand split was done just over two years ago. Since the brand split Bray Wyatt and Jinder Mahal were WWE Champions on Smackdown Live and Bobby Roode was a former NXT Champion, but barely a blip on the WWE Universal Championship radar. Then you have guys such as Drew McIntyre, Dolph Ziggler, and Bobby Lashley that could be in the conversation as well.
In my opinion, the Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns feud has killed the legitimacy of the Universal Championship. It’s literally crippled the entire main event scene for the entire year. Reigns should’ve won the Universal Championship at Wrestlemania. There was no reason to extend things like they did. Fortunately we could be seeing some big things coming up in the fall. Between the Shield reunion, Braun Strowman’s Money in the Bank briefcase, and everything in between. Raw’s Universal Championship will be must see television each week. This will be a major part in rebuilding the struggling brand on Monday nights. Now they just need to make the tag team and women’s divisions stronger, but that’s a conversation for another time.
This is the Chairman. Thanks for reading. Tweet me @ChairmanSV with your thoughts.