The significance of being champion

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September 11, 2012

Glory and fame. A fatter paycheck. First-class air travel. Constant toil. Endless media appearances. A huge bull's-eye on the back.

Welcome to life as a champion in WWE. It's a blessing, and just as often, it’s a curse.

Amid the power grabs, deep-seated rivalries and sneaky ambushes that play out in WWE weekly, it is easy to sometimes lose sight of why Superstars compete in the first place: to become champion. It is for that reason that Night of Champions — the one night of the year when the WWE Universe is guaranteed to see every title put on the line — is a uniquely important event on WWE's pay-per-view calendar.

Titles have changed hands 13 times in the five pay-per-views that have been branded Night of Champions, including 2007's Vengeance, which was subtitled "Night of Champions.” Each event saw at least one title change hands, suggesting at least one of the challengers will leave Boston this Sunday with newfound championship gold. But what, exactly, is the significance of being champion?

A title win serves as the reward for years of training and hard work. Every wrestler remembers his or her first championship win, regardless of whether it happened under the bright lights of WWE or the flickering fluorescents of the independent circuit. It is a moment that comes with a sense of pride, always.

"That feeling is something that will stick with me forever," SmackDown General Manager Booker T said of a night in 1992 when he and brother Stevie Ray won the tag team championships of the Dallas-based Global Wrestling Federation. The brothers' family in attendance was proud of Booker and Stevie Ray "breaking out and becoming something," he told WWE.com.

The GWF Tag Team Titles, of course, were only the first of many eventual titles that Booker T, a former World Heavyweight Champion and a five-time WCW Champion, would go on to hold.

Everybody has the same goal, and they're after what's around your waist.Former United States Champion Fit Finlay thought he had "made it" when he won his first championship in Europe at age 19. But as soon as the glow of the title victory began to fade, the realization that he had instantly become a target sunk in. Now a producer with WWE, Finlay concluded to WWE.com that his first title victory “wasn’t as happy a moment as I thought it’d be,” given the new pressure that comes with being a champion.

That pit-of-the-stomach sensation may resonate with another European Superstar, current U.S. Champion Antonio Cesaro. At Night of Champions, Cesaro will make his first pay-per-view title defense, taking on the winner of a Battle Royal that will be held earlier in the night during the free, live-streamed online Pre-Show. Cesaro has already experienced the thrill of winning his first title in WWE; now he moves on to the even harder part: keeping the U.S. Championship.

Fly-by-night champions come and go, observes Finlay, a ring veteran of more than three decades. No matter the championship or the division, a titleholder needs to be on his or her A-game 365 days a year, he said, putting into perspective accomplishments such as Punk’s remarkable 300-plus day WWE Title reign.

“Everybody has the same goal, and they’re all after what you’ve got around your waist,” Finlay said. “You need to be in top form.”

There are other downsides to being a champion. Toting a gold-and-leather title through airport security can quickly become a tiresome chore. Media appearances, though essential in the eyes of management, only pile onto Superstars’ already packed itineraries.

“It’s a never-ending story when you become champ,” Booker T said. “I’ve always said, be careful what you wish for, because being a World Champion is actually the hardest job in WWE.”

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