On a sweltering August night at Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City, two up-and-coming WWE superstars did battle in a hotly contested, hugely anticipated ladder match that would be talked about for years to come. Triple H and The Rock would go on to have multiple reigns as WWE Champions, and in the process, become some of the biggest superstars in WWE history. It wasn’t the WWE Title they were vying for at Summerslam ’98, but rather, the coveted Intercontinental Championship.

Fast forward to Wrestlemania 2000 in Anaheim, California. Three tag teams putting their bodies on the line in a main event caliber ladder match for the WWE Tag Team Championship. Three of those six men would go on to become World Champion.

The key to these particular match-ups (both of them being ladder matches notwithstanding) is that while the participants were competing for undercard championships, the matches themselves were presented as a main event – a reason to pay hard earned money to attend the show live, or order at home on Pay-Per-View. Given the WWE’s current landscape, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the undercard titles ever had any prestige at all. There was a time, however, when these titles meant a great deal to the company, and to the competitors that held them. With such a deep and talented roster, now is a better time than any to rekindle that value.

As September kicks into full gear and SummerSlam becomes a finished chapter, WWE turns its attention to Sunday’s Night of Champions – the one night a year, the tagline always boasts, that all Championships must be defended. For the undercard titleholders, this simply means that, for once, they’re guaranteed the coveted Pay-Per-View bonus. It used to be a given that titles like the Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships would be defended monthly on Pay-Per-View, now it’s a far less common occurrence. When it does happen, the matches are likely to have been recycled from the previous week’s Raw or Smackdown and thrown onto the card at the last minute for the sake of filling time.

Somewhere down the line, WWE lost sight of the importance of building the credibility of young stars through the use of under-card championships. On television, title holders boast about their gold trophy, but very rarely are they given storylines worthy of their title’s heritage. When I look down the scope of the last decade of mid-card competition, I find that I have to go all the way back to 2001’s bitter and personal rivalry between Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit to find a time when the Intercontinental Championship last truly mattered. Likewise, the last time the Tag Team Championship truly seemed important was throughout the fall of 2002, during the heat of Smackdown’s “golden era”, when competitors such as Eddie and Chavo Guerrero, Edge, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, and Kurt Angle were dazzling crowds nightly with their battles for the Tag Team Titles.

It’s easy to make comparisons between those initial draft rosters of 2002 and today’s WWE. The roster of 2011 features depth and diversity not seen in nearly a decade of product. The purpose of the initial brand split in 2002 was to give up and coming talent some breathing room – a place that they could showcase their skills on a weekly basis, rather than being nudged off the card by main event player X. In effect, it created a competitive breeding ground for future main event players who were all vying for a shot at the big time. That shot was obtained, quite simply, by capturing mid-card gold.

Why then, in 2011, is it commonplace to see the Intercontinental Championship defended bi-weekly on Smackdown, but hardly at all on Pay-Per-View? Now nine months into the year, the Intercontinental Title has been defended only twice on Pay-Per-View, with the third occurrence coming at Night of Champions. Both of those title defenses, to date, featured Wade Barrett taking on Ezekiel Jackson, a rivalry that most fans are likely to have already forgotten.

Even more startling is the Intercontinental Championship’s recent history when it comes to Wrestlemania. Excluding Rey Mysterio’s twenty-one second win over John Bradshaw Layfield to capture the Intercontinental Title in 2009 at Wrestlemania 25, one must go all the way back to Wrestlemania X-8 in March of 2002 to find a time when the Intercontinental Championship was defended in a competitive bout on the grandest stage of them all. How can a Championship be sought after if isn’t even considered worthy to grace the biggest event of the year?

The heart of the dilemma that raises that question within a tight knit scheme of protection that graces the WWE main event scene and its competitors. The main event stars of today are viewed in a different light than those of the yesteryear, more vulnerable and susceptible to indifference from the viewing audience. As a result, there is an undeniable proverbial net of protection that grazes over the likes of John Cena and Randy Orton. It’s impossible to fault the competitors themselves, they are part of a vicious cycle of an era void of creativity and built on paper champions. Instead of striving to have a well-rounded show, nearly all of WWE’s creative efforts go into making sure the main event scene has no competition. It’s a practice of simple business – if you take away a competition’s means to fight, soon there will be no competition. By recycling and rehashing stories with quick turnarounds and little payoff, WWE ensures that the mid-card talent never have an interesting program that rivals its major title picture.

But prior evidence suggests that these stories can co-exist, and when they do, the main event will benefit. Names like Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle may have never been the same without first being established in well thought out, intricate angles on the mid-card. Edge and Christian would have never been World Champions without first establishing dominance in the Tag Team division and frequently being involved in some of the most compelling angles of the decade. What happens before the lights turn on bright for the main event tell the story of the World Champions of tomorrow, and everyone, especially WWE, should be paying attention.

Author’s Note: As I constructed this article in the weeks leading up to Night of Champions, I noticed a bit of flare begin to return to WWE’s mid-card. While the landscape is still far from ideal, Night of Champions is shaping up to be the first time in recent memory that nearly every title defense on the card means something. There has been significant effort on all fronts – from the Intercontinental and United States Championships, all the way down to the Tag Team Championships, to create matches that are story-driven and could lead to further development. For that, I applaud the WWE creative team and their efforts over the last several weeks. It’s truly satisfying to see that the change we’ve all been noticing goes deeper than just the top of the bill.

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This article was first posted on September 17, 2011