Let's go back roughly one year ago where in the seventh week of John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge, the United States champion threw down the gauntlet and received a response from Neville, who had by that point been up from NXT for as many weeks as Cena’s reign.
Still early in his run on the main roster, Neville had been given decent opportunities to showcase some of the in-ring abilities that had made him an attraction during his run in NXT, even earning a visual pin on then-WWE Champion Seth Rollins in a losing effort the week after his debut. But the fact that he had worked the vast majority of his television matches to that point with names like Curtis Axel, Dolph Ziggler, Sheamus, and Wade Barrett had already solidified him as a guy firmly in the middle of the go-nowhere midcard mix.
On this particular night, in just under 15 minutes, Cena did more to elevate Neville’s stock than the previous six weeks of television combined. The former Pac kicked out of the Attitude Adjustment -- though this was far from uncommon for Cena’s opponents during this period -- and was given a significant amount of time to shine on offense. He took full advantage with an incredible twisting Asai moonsault to the floor, a Phoenix Splash from the second rope for a near fall, and a perfectly-executed Red Arrow that left the audience with the distinct impression that Neville had the champion cold just before the match was thrown out due to Rusev’s interference. If WWE had any interest in making Neville a top star, this moment would have been the ideal foundation for that project.
Moreover, Cena’s gimmick of issuing an open challenge that would then be accepted by a wrestler who may not have otherwise been given a platform on Monday nights once again resulted in an exciting television match that put the United States title a level above where it had been for most of its post-WCW existence. While previous champion Rusev had done a surprisingly capable job of keeping the belt relevant with an undefeated streak and a back-to-basics foreign heel shtick, he never felt like much more than a midcard act, working with and bowling over guys like Jack Swagger and Mark Henry.
When it became evident that he was being put up against Cena at Wrestlemania, it also became evident that Rusev's lot was being built up to be toppled by the company's resident uber-patriot. The clear line of logic behind putting a mid-card belt on Cena, who had spent nearly the entirety of the prior decade as the company’s singular top draw, was to use his star to help elevate a championship once held in high regard back to its former glory.
And at this point, it was working exceedingly well, particularly when comparing the U.S. title's standing at the time to that of WWE’s other singles titles. On the same show as Neville vs. Cena, Daniel Bryan -- who, like Cena with the U.S. Title, had been chosen to reinvigorate the Intercontinental Championship after winning it in a ladder match at Wrestlemania --surrendered the gold as a result of what was ultimately a career-ending injury, sadly having never gotten the chance to do what he had intended with the title.
The main event on this night saw Rollins defend his championship against Randy Orton in a match that also went about 15 minutes and ended unceremoniously in a disqualification. Between Cena’s and Rollins’ matches, however, only one of the two felt like it mattered for something both in context and in a vacuum.
The seeming end-goal for Cena’s run with the U.S. Championship would be something perhaps comparable to having Brock Lesnar end Undertaker’s streak, only on a significantly smaller scale. Like how being the one to beat Lesnar carries a weight that could potentially launch a wrestler to the moon, Cena’s prestige would make the championship a valuable asset that could greatly benefit whoever ultimately won it from him. Defeating Cena and winning the United States Championship would ideally help create a new top star who could maintain the integrity of the title with similarly exciting matches before passing it on to the next burgeoning star and stepping up into the main event scene.
Or, at least, that may have been the concept.
Now consider the United States title in its current state.
Kalisto is entering the fifth month of his reign as U.S. Champion, a fact that is surprising enough in and of itself. More astounding is the fact that heading into Extreme Rules, he is riding a three-show streak of not being featured on the main card of pay-per-views. The sum total of the work put into making the title an important piece of the larger picture appears to have been all for naught.
Since winning the title back from Alberto Del Rio at Royal Rumble, Kalisto has defended against Del Rio in a pretty great 2/3 falls match at Fastlane, against Ryback at Wrestlemania in front of a mostly empty stadium, and once more against Ryback at Payback in a match that was probably most notable for his opponent’s weightlifting belt bearing the words “The Pre-Show Stopper.”
That each title match was relegated to the pre-show is all the more confounding when one considers that there was room made on Payback for a match between Curtis Axel and R-Truth that was barely Raw on Hulu worthy, the main card of Wrestlemania lasted nearly 5 hours, and the segment from Payback with Vince, Shane, and Stephanie was given 30 minutes to basically reach a non-conclusion.
Kalisto is by no means to blame for whatever luster the title has lost during his five months as champion.The impetus for his initial U.S. title win was doubtlessly the buzz generated by his spectacular Salida Del Sol from atop a ladder at last December's TLC show, and it was buzzworthy enough to have catapulted Kalisto to the level of a Rey Mysterio in terms of popularity and merchandising. Putting the United States Championship on him, in most scenarios, would be an indication that he was destined for bigger things as a singles star, and that WWE had at last realized its dream of a merch-moving, bilingual, Hispanic superhero for whom children would clamor.
As with the payoff of Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge, however, there is a considerable gulf between what could have been and what is.
Del Rio, the man from whom Kalisto won the championship, cannot be blamed either. As the surprise choice to go over Cena in the Open Challenge, ADR returned from a year away from the company at October’s Hell in a Cell and won the title clean in a short, forgettable match. Despite having gotten himself over to an even greater degree in AAA and Lucha Underground as a babyface than he ever was during his run with WWE, and despite getting a strong babyface reaction from the crowd in Los Angeles upon his return, the call was made to pair Del Rio with a Rascal-bound Zeb Coulter and position him as a heel right out of the gate.
Within three weeks of the title change, both Del Rio’s self-made momentum (and, seemingly, his renewed passion) and the sense of importance that Cena had brought to the U.S. title were buried six feet below the surface of a field somewhere in Mex-America. By the time Del Rio lost the title to Kalisto on an episode of Raw in January, he was just another guy and the United States Championship was once again just a mid-card belt.
Given the presumed importance of both elevating the United States Championship andbuilding a top Hispanic superstar, the bungling of Del Rio and Kalisto as well as the championship they both have held in Cena’s stead, is staggering. Somehow, it is nonetheless unsurprising. It is a result indicative of a larger problem with WWE’s booking approach for the past several years: Cena was the lynchpin of the plan to elevate the United States Championship, and once he was pulled away, the interest in keeping the championship relevant went with him and the whole thing fell apart.
WWE had a real opportunity to keep the belt relevant post-Cena with a refreshed Del Rio, and it failed by completely ignoring what made him such a hot commodity on the independent circuit, sticking him with a dead-on-arrival gimmick, and then shoving him into the background as part of a stable. It then had the opportunity to make Kalisto into its next money-drawing luchador, and it instead killed his buzz by putting the belt on him, putting it back on Del Rio a day later, putting it back on Kalisto less than two weeks later, and then minimizing his role on TV with do-nothing feuds and a five-month absence from major shows.
With the way things are headed, Rusev may wind up reclaiming the United States title at Extreme Rules (at the very least, he has vowed to eat his opponent's heart, which should make for a great show). Monday marked one year since Rusev last faced Cena for the same title, and in the 365 days since, he has not only proven his ability to survive through bad storylines, but his capability of thriving in them and remaining entertaining (see: throwing a fish at Lana, his all-too-short-lived gimmick of stealing television monitors). Having Rusev end Kalisto’s lame-duck championship run and go on a tear comparable to his undefeated streak could both allow him to cultivate his character and put him back on the map as a viable threat for the world title.
But there is also the specter of Cena looming large over the United States title chase scene. Having already announced his return for Memorial Day, it is not outside the realm of possibility that he will challenge Rusev for the belt, win it back, and resume the Open Challenge seven months after it ended as if the intervening months had never happened. That would likely be preferable for WWE’s purposes, allowing them to smokescreen their failures with Del Rio and Kalisto by closing the loop and trying it again.
Having Cena swoop back in and reclaim the title may not be the best approach for the championship or those orbiting it now, but it is easy to see from WWE’s perspective how John Cena would restore the belt’s tarnished credibility instantaneously. If they were able to comprehend why it lost so much of the credibility that Cena worked so hard to build in the first place, then perhaps putting so much effort into bolstering the importance of championship belts would not be necessary in the future.