It all started with a completely unexpected title change at a WWE house show.
A.J. Styles became the new U.S. champion, defeating Kevin Owens at an untelevised WWE show in Madison Square Garden. Then in a single SmackDown segment, it became clear a much bigger shift in the WWE landscape was taking place before our eyes.
The title does not make the man. The man makes the title.
Beyond that, the man makes the title, and so do his challengers around him. The championship is only truly prestigious if those in its association are prestigious themselves.
It seems we are entering a new peak period for the U.S. Championship. While the title change itself seemed like little more than a publicity stunt to get attention and start attracting big audiences to house shows again, the follow-up was where — and when –the real substance showed itself.
Styles came out to open SmackDown. He began with a typical promo for any new WWE champion, but it soon veered into a meaningful promo. The attention was pushed to the championship itself and what it will represent.
Fans were reminded of a time not that long ago when “a United States champion wanted to prove that he was the best every time he stepped foot in a WWE ring. He took on any and all comers, and he called it the ‘U.S. Open Challenge,'” Styles said. “And I think it’s about time we bring it back.”
Styles was of course referring to John Cena and his run as U.S. champion in 2015. Cena managed to make the U.S. Championship as important as the WWE World Championship. A big part of that was the weekly open challenge, which routinely featured the best talent on the WWE roster and often brought fans the best match of the night.
Now, with very similar intentions, Styles planned to hold the title the same way, issuing his first open challenge right there and then.
Who should come out but Cena himself? Whereas Cena’s entrance theme usually sparks a passionate reaction of cheers and boos, this time it was near unanimous with cheers.
Why? Everyone knew this was a big deal, regardless of any biases towards Cena. At this point, Cena and Styles are two names that will be stuck together for many years to come. Their WWE feud has been among the most memorable in recent years, and the three big singles matches they’ve had have gone down as three of the best WWE matches in years.
The tease was well set up, but obviously it was a tease. Owens came out to interrupt just before the match began. He cut a heel promo about how no one wanted to see a Cena-Styles match again and no one missed Cena — a heel promo because those are, of course, completely false.
Cena responded, but Rusev ran in for the sneak attack leading to Owens and Rusev beating down Cena and Styles, setting up a tag-team match to main-event SmackDown.
What was important, though: The whole segment was not just executed well, but it — and everyone involved — felt important. The fans were completely invested with all four men and what was going on.
Juxtapose that with what followed.
WWE World Champion Jinder Mahal came out for a match with Tye Dillinger. The match drew very little crowd reaction. WWE felt the match so important that half of it was played during a commercial break. Once Mahal won, the crowd remained largely flat, even as he cut his typical “WWE foreigner heel” promo to incite the always-easy USA chants.
We are talking about the top champion of SmackDown, holding the title with lineage all the way back to Buddy Rogers in 1963. The “top” feud of SmackDown for months has been Mahal versus Randy Orton. The two are set to main-event their third pay-per-view in a row at Battleground, this time in a Punjabi Prison match, an event so lacking in interest and ticket sales that WWE has been offering automatic ticket discounts for the last week.
Mahal’s reign has brought the WWE championship to a low it has not seen in maybe seven years — probably even lower. Orton’s involvement helps little given the fact he had a number done on him in the later stages of the Bray Wyatt feud earlier this year.
It has left SmackDown wide open for anyone to ascend and take the reins. The Mahal-Orton feud may be main-eventing the shows, but it comes off entirely like a mid-card feud at best.
With Cena and Rusev having returned last week, and now having an ultra-popular baby face like Styles take the title from a great heel like Owens, it was not a big step to make. With or without the opening, this setup was going to uplift the U.S. Championship scene to those heights it had not seen since 2015.
However, given that the void exists, it took that one segment for the U.S. Championship to become the true main-event scene of SmackDown.
It is where the biggest stars of the brand now reside. It is where the highest quality matches are most likely to come from. It is clearly where the fans are most invested, by far.