How Roman Reigns, The Miz, Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler got the Intercontinental Championship back to the main event
For a while, it was like clockwork: A Superstar would win the Intercontinental Championship and one of their first orders of business would be to declare, in no uncertain terms, that they were going to singlehandedly usher in a new era for WWE’s most beloved, underappreciated title. They were going to take it from town to town, defend it in 30-minute classics each week, and wipe away the bad memories of the wannabes, also-rans and never-weres who held the title to no lasting consequence. They were going to once again make the Intercontinental Championship a title that mattered. They were going to restore the prestige to it. In short, they were going to save it.
It almost never happened. And if you ask the four Superstars who held the title in 2018, it was a ridiculous thing to even promise in the first place. Almost to a man (you can probably guess the one who dissented), they told WWE.com the title didn’t need saving, that it had always carried the lineage and prestige designating it as a title worthy of respect.
Truthfully, the title’s history has been a little more complicated than that. It’s the title that Pat Patterson christened in Brazil, yes, but it’s also the title that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin threw into a river so he could pursue the WWE Championship. It’s the title that stole the show at WrestleMania III, but it’s also the title that was ignominiously folded into a six-man match in front of a smattering of fans at SummerSlam 2017. It’s the title that The Honky Tonk Man held over the heads of the entire roster, but it’s also the title that was retired for eight months after being absorbed into the World Heavyweight Championship. If the title didn’t need saving, it’s difficult to argue it wasn’t subjected to all manner of implicit and overt neglect over the years — an old warhorse stuck in the little-brother role. The Miz, who held the title this year, claimed the title had been "put in the dirt," and the titleholder himself had been reduced to "the guy who had the title and [would] always lose." Which makes what happened in 2018 all the more remarkable.
Thanks to the efforts of those four Superstars — Roman Reigns, Miz, Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler — the Intercontinental Title didn’t experience just a bump but a sustained revival, riding a perfect storm of circumstances to once again become a showcase title with frequent, if not weekly, defenses, culminating in its first pay-per-view main event in 17 years at WWE Extreme Rules. You don’t have to call what they did “saving” the title, but it’s difficult to think of any other word for it.
So, in the words of David Byrne, how did we get here? By all appearances, the title didn’t start 2018 in a much different place than it had been in the previous couple of years. It did, however, get a big boost in visibility simply by virtue of the Superstar who was holding it.
The Intercontinental Championship began 2018 slotted firmly in a familiar role: The workhorse title. The championship held by the guy who can go the longest, connect the deepest and tap most effectively into the sports, rather than the entertainment, side of the in-ring game. That, more than anything, was the impression Roman Reigns wanted to leave as champion after he won it at the end of 2017.
I think that's what it takes to be a true Intercontinental Champion is hold down those long matches and put in that work. It shows we're not messing around.
- Roman Reigns
“[With] The Intercontinental Championship and its history, it’s clear that it’s been a workhorse championship,” Reigns told WWE.com. “All three members of The Shield pride themselves on being workhorses and the load that we can carry, the amount of weight that we can pull. We always feel like we’ve been a head above everybody in that regard.”
The biggest contribution he made to the title, however, may well have been that he was Intercontinental Champion in the first place: True, Reigns’ literal family (The Rock, Rikishi) as well as his chosen one (Dean Ambrose, and later Rollins) were all Intercontinental Champions, which would inform his view of the title as an heirloom. But a spotlight inherently attaches itself to Reigns that didn’t for any of those other Superstars, and in terms of a reputation-booster, there was no better place for the Intercontinental Title to be than around the waist of the company’s most visible Superstar. Which isn’t to say The Big Dog rested on his laurels, of course: The first Raw of 2018 was centered around the heavily promoted title fight between Reigns and Samoa Joe, and the champion brought his A-game in a masterful slugfest that still stands out as one of the best matches of the year.
Everybody has their fingerprints on [getting the title back to the main event]. It's the group of Superstars who held it, fought for it, earned it and respected it.
- Roman Reigns
“I think that’s what it takes to show you’re a true Intercontinental Champion is hold down those long matches and put in that work,” Reigns said. “It shows we’re not messing around.”
While Reigns does think his time as champion might have helped get the title back to the main event at WWE Extreme Rules, he views it as more a shared victory than an individual accomplishment.
“I think everybody has their fingerprints on it,” Reigns said. “It’s not me or just any individual, it’s the group of Superstars who held it, fought for it, earned it and respected it.”
If the best thing Reigns did for the title was hold it at all, the second-best thing he did, ironically, might have been to lose it. That freed him up to pursue then-Universal Champion Brock Lesnar, who The Big Dog pilloried for his cushy contract and flagrant absenteeism. Such a line of attack had previously been labeled as no-no, corporately speaking. But by saying the quiet part out loud, Reigns had made the implicit explicit: The World Champion was abdicating his duties. That meant the Intercontinental Championship was now the de facto top prize on Raw, and it needed someone to advocate for it as a main-event title. Once again, it had just the right man for the job.
If The Miz is a hammer, the Intercontinental Championship is his nail. Over the course of his first seven reigns as champion, stretching from 2012 to 2017, The A-Lister devoted almost every instance of microphone time he had to a singular talking point, repeated ad infinitum: That the Intercontinental Championship was the most prestigious title in WWE, and to give it anything less than a main-event showcase was a slap in the face to the entire history of the industry. Of course, Miz says this about everything he does, so his boasts can sometimes ring hollow. But with Lesnar in the wind, it was tough to dismiss him this time around.
I brought that title back to relevance and prestige and [the main event] is exactly where it should be.
- The Miz
“One hundred percent, the Intercontinental Championship was more important than the Universal Title because it was on Raw each and every week,” Miz explained to WWE.com. “I don’t even mind if you’re a champion that makes people earn their way to get to the championship. I understand that, I get that. But [the title] needs to be on TV and in Live Events to showcase so people will look at it in awe. I did that with the Intercontinental Title.”
For all his self-aggrandizing, the tape doesn’t lie. The A-Lister was there, on Raw, representing and defending his title (sometimes under duress, but still) in a way it was now being openly acknowledged that Brock Lesnar was not. The irony, of course, is that the crowning achievement of all his work — the title’s return to the main event — happened after he lost the prize to Seth Rollins at WrestleMania 34. Even though The Miz wasn’t part of the WWE Extreme Rules match itself, he didn’t hesitate to celebrate the occasion … and take the lion’s share of the responsibility.
"There was only one person who did what they said they were going to do, and that was me." he said. “I brought that title back to relevance and prestige and [the main event] is exactly where it should be.” In one sense, this is classic Miz (again: hammers and nails), but is he really wrong to claim credit for the groundwork?
One hundred percent, the Intercontinental Championship was more important than the Universal Title because it was on Raw each and every week.
- The Miz
Is it out of pocket to say that no Superstar had pursued, or advocated, for the title more than Miz over the past few years? Is there anyone who will argue that Miz choosing to doggedly pursue the Intercontinental Title after he’d already been WWE Champion was a signifier that it wasn’t just the title someone wins on the way up? Is there anyone who can say that Miz making the title the centerpiece of so many major moments — whether he was stealing it from one fan favorite who had finally had his WrestleMania moment or losing it to another who wagered his career on the bout — didn’t manage to turn the Intercontinental Title into something that it hadn’t been previously?
“The Superstar makes the title,” said Miz. “It’s not the title that makes the Superstar.”
At WrestleMania 34, Lesnar would hold off Reigns to retain the Universal Championship, leaving Team Red with a part-time World Champion for another quarter. Meanwhile, Miz would lose the Intercontinental Championship in a Triple Threat Match, a defeat that would separate the title from its biggest advocate but nonetheless set it on its path back to its first main event in almost two decades. Because the Intercontinental Championship wouldn’t be in the hands of the walking, talking bullhorn who had proclaimed its importance for years. Instead, it would be fastened firmly to something even better: A human rocket in full flight.
If the Superstar does, indeed, make the title, and if the Intercontinental Championship is a workhorse title, it stands to reason the best possible Superstar to hold it would be a workhorse whose own reputation could carry over to the championship’s. That’s where Seth Rollins came in.
The wrestling behind the championship is what makes that title important. You don’t need to bring prestige back to a title that already has that much prestige.
- Seth Rollins
Winning a title was something of a natural endpoint for The Architect’s own redemption story. He had been attempting to find more secure footing in a post-Authority world for almost a year, and finally remade himself as a super-athlete with an hour-long Gauntlet Match performance that cemented himself as the company’s preeminent marathon man. It was the perfect next step for the championship itself: Reigns had given it a spotlight; Miz had given it a voice; and Rollins, who instituted an Open Challenge policy, would give it a pair of boots.
“Whether I won or lost in those Open Challenges I got better every single time. That’s what made me a better champion and that’s what elevated the title,” Rollins said of the impromptu matches he instituted as champion. “All it did was make myself better, make my opponents better, and make the title mean more than it already did.”
Among the Superstars who stepped up to the plate were Mojo Rawley and Kevin Owens. Given that Rollins was on the run of his life at the time of his title victory, it meant that the challenger would have to go as hard as they could just to hang with him — which, would, in turn, force The Kingslayer to dig that much deeper to pull ahead. (Elias, who contended for the championship at WWE Money in the Bank, didn’t answer an Open Challenge, but he looked great in defeat all the same.)
[The Open Challenge] made me a better champion and that's what elevated the title.
- Seth Rollins
“The wrestling behind the championship is what makes that title important,” Rollins said. “You don’t need to bring prestige back to a title that already has that much prestige.”
It was all very reminiscent of John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenges a few years prior — right down to the sudden yet inevitable defeat Rollins suffered when a challenger he wasn’t quite ready for stunned him to win the title. Rollins was ultimately granted a rematch for WWE Extreme Rules, and thanks to some behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt, he knew that there was a chance the title would be afforded the main event.
“There was a conversation the week before between myself and some of the higher-ups who were involved in that decision-making process,” Rollins said. “Almost as a challenge to me, they said they were thinking about — thinking about — putting that match on last. I said, ‘I hope you do. Because we’re going to steal the show.’”
The we, of course, is the key element of how the title finally made its way back to the main event. Seth Rollins had ascended to a hero’s pedestal worthy of the main-event spotlight, but the old cliché about it taking two to tango is there for a reason. Put more simply: While the last match of the night is traditionally the place for a hero, a hero is only as good as his villain.
They say the money’s in the chase, and for a long time, Dolph Ziggler was doing the chasing. Time and again, the beloved, cult-hero Superstar would try and try and try, every single night, to reach the pinnacle and come juuust close enough that you’d want to see him get another opportunity. But in 2018, he reinvented himself as an opportunistic villain, complete with a musclebound enforcer who helped do his dirty work. And like any villain worth his salt, he committed a robbery, stealing Rollins’ Intercontinental Title with an underhanded win at the height of The Architect’s popularity. Now, he was the one being chased. And therein lies the money.
If any of those things weren't firing on all cylinders, we could have easily been the first match on the show, the third match, the second-to-last match.
- Dolph Ziggler
“Seth Rollins is one of the premiere athletes and Superstars in WWE and will be for a very long time,” Ziggler said. “That’s what made it so sweet prying [the title] from his hands: Knowing the fantastic job he was doing with it [and] that I would make those crowds so angry at me for dethroning their champion.”
Ziggler stuck to dirty pool in the month or so after he won the title from Rollins, using Drew McIntyre to stave off The Kingslayer’s attempts to get it back. Each time Rollins came up short or found himself swindled, the WWE Universe clamored more and more ravenously for Ziggler’s defeat. By the time Extreme Rules rolled around, there was no clear option for a closing bout at the pay-per-view, and much like Rollins, Dolph saw an opening — with one difference. While The Architect saw an opportunity to steal the show athletically, Dolph saw green.
“In my head, I did the math,” said Dolph. “[We were doing] the best work we’d done in a long time. The Intercontinental Title’s on the line. Everybody wants to see it … Business-wise, it made sense.”
The WWE Universe thought so as well, as Ziggler cited vocal social media support for him and Rollins to close the show as a deciding factor in the match’s placement.
I did the math. [We were doing] the best work we'd done in a long time ... Business-wise, it made sense.
- Dolph Ziggler
“That’s Seth’s work, that’s the crowd’s work, that’s Drew McIntyre doing everything he possibly can [to help me],” Ziggler explained. “If any of those things weren’t firing on all cylinders, at the same time, we could have easily been the first match on the show, the third match, the second-to-last match.”
But they were. Thanks to that perfect storm of circumstances, a 30-Minute WWE Iron Man Match — about as workhorse-friendly a stipulation as you can think of — for the Intercontinental Championship closed out WWE Extreme Rules. The final piece of the puzzle was complete.
“There are situations, months and years go by, where either Superstars or titles or even women were put on the backburner for Raw and SmackDown,” Ziggler said. “There are situations where of course anybody has that attitude: I’m gonna take this from being the second fiddle to making it the most important title. In this situation, it actually was the premiere individual men’s, singles title on the actual show.”
Ziggler would ultimately lose the title back to Rollins, but not at Extreme Rules. Thanks, once again, to McIntyre, the chase would continue, and it would take the arrival of another top-flight Superstar, the returning Dean Ambrose, to finally help oust The Showoff as champion. They’d go from closing Extreme Rules to opening SummerSlam, but their main event nonetheless stands as validation of everything that came before: The lineage Reigns sought to honor. The importance Miz made it his business to trumpet. The performance Rollins put in. The good business sense Ziggler had to screw over the most popular guy in the company. And the idea that, at the end of the day, sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one. If the title has the lineage, and the rivalry and the momentum, why wouldn’t you put it in the main event?
“It made sense,” Ziggler said. “The story was there, and the title meant a lot. Means a lot, still.”