What is with all the “championship contender’s” matches in WWE?

Apr 11, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Sheamus (black/red trunks) and Riddle (blue trunks) during their United State Championship match during WrestleMania 37 at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 11, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Sheamus (black/red trunks) and Riddle (blue trunks) during their United State Championship match during WrestleMania 37 at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Over the years, WWE has earned a reputation for taking booking devices that would be effective if used once every few years and using them to the point where no one wants to see them again.

Fans have seen the promotion do this with disqualification/countout finishes, distraction finishes, and surprise roll-up finishes, among other tropes. For the last few weeks, particularly on Raw, they have watched the WWE creative team employ one of these ideas under a new name: the “championship contender’s” match.

For those reading this that have wisely chosen to find other things to do on Monday’s other than watch a mediocre-at-best three-hour wrestling show, a “championship contender’s” match is basically the same non-title champion vs. contender match that WWE has plastered on their weekly shows for the last two decades, but with a wrinkle: if a wrestler beats the champion, they get a guaranteed title shot at a later date.

Of course, WWE is far from the only promotion that books these sorts of matches — Ring of Honor’s “Proving Ground” matches are probably the closest analogue — but the company’s increasing reliance on them shows us what we already know about WWE’s creative struggles.

These “championship contender’s” matches are another sign of WWE’s booking woes.

Look at this past Monday’s Raw, for example. On that show, WWE scheduled three of these “championship contender’s” bouts: Damien Priest vs. United States Champion Sheamus, Eva Marie and (sigh) Doudrop vs. WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions Natalya and Tamina, and, most baffling of all, Charlotte Flair vs. Raw Women’s Champion Nikki A.S.H.

You won’t be astonished to hear that the billing infused no additional drama to these matches. Priest vs. Sheamus provided the same level of quality action that would’ve taken place had that stipulation not been in place. Plus, with Priest clearly being positioned as Sheamus’ next challenger and no other credible challengers, the “championship contender’s” tag made his pinfall win feel like even more of a foregone conclusion.

The gimmick certainly didn’t increase fans’ interest in the women’s tag team match, which should be used to repel any notion that Eva Marie will generate a massive amount of heel heat and use that to put a new star over (and that’s without talking about the awful distraction finish with Alexa Bliss’ doll, Lilly).

At least those two somewhat carried the potential of a future title shot. Flair vs. A.S.H. had already popped that bubble with the knowledge that Flair was already set to challenge for the Raw Women’s Title at SummerSlam in a triple threat match. And after she beat the almost superhero clean (a decision that, along with the post-match angle, warrants its own article to dissect), she accepted another non-title match for the next week, ignoring the leverage she had to get a singles title shot (you know, the entire point of these matches!).

Like the 50/50 booking WWE often leans on or those overused finishes mentioned above, these “championship contender’s” matches exemplify the company’s issues creating matches where fans are invested in who wins and who loses. In fact, let’s take it a step further: These matches are the result of the company’s unhealthy marriage to those finishes and its de-emphasis on wins and losses.

For almost every wrestling promotion, even the most stripped-down, traditional match carries an inherent conceit: wins earn you more money and move you one step closer to a championship match, and losses, obviously, accomplish the opposite.

But years of shoddy WWE booking has devalued those premises within its own canon, which has forced it to staple these incentives onto matches that don’t need it. Even then, it still manages to undermine the goal it’s trying to reach.

Look, it’s nice to see WWE attempting to make their matches matter, but if the company truly wants to achieve this, it has to get back to establishing the already-existing stakes of a regular wrestling match.

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If it doesn’t, it won’t matter how many stipulations these matches have.