In many ways, The TNT championship is emblematic of AEW itself. It’s a throwback to the past. It’s an extension of a wrestling tradition long ignored. Most strikingly, the TNT Championship has at times found itself at odds with its founding ethos.

The TNT championship debuted in a much different AEW than we know now. When it was introduced in 2020, it was only the fourth title in AEW and the first secondary title. Though it wasn’t the world title, the TNT Championship felt prestigious for nearly 18 months, largely due to its initial holder: Cody Rhodes.

By the time the TNT Championship tournament had come around, Cody had been shut out of the world title picture for six months since losing to Chris Jericho at Full Gear. The TNT Championship was Cody’s world championship. His open challenge was the centerpiece of several Dynamites and led to the signings of Eddie Kingston and Ricky Starks.

After eight successful defenses, Cody lost the title to Brodie Lee in one of the greatest angles in Dynamite history.

Cody’s reign established the identity of the TNT Championship. It was the workhorse title. Of the 11 episodes of Dynamite that followed Cody’s title win at Double or Nothing, nine featured a TNT Championship defense. The early TNT championship reigns burned bright, but they didn’t burn long. The first five reigns averaged 99 days and over six defenses. After Brodie Lee and Cody reigns that lasted three defenses each, the story of the belt’s first 100 days returned. Darby Allin and Miro had great reigns with nine defenses each, but the toll of those defenses caught up to their bodies. When a new TNT Champion was crowned, it was not a matter of if they would lose the title, it was a matter of how long their body could hold up.

After the first five reigns, the TNT Championship lost its identity.

The reigns since have averaged only 47 days and under four defenses. It’s clear AEW still views the championship as a vehicle to elevate someone from mid-card to the upper mid-card or main event, but the execution has left them short of the goal.

After Sammy Guevara beat Cody Rhodes to win his second TNT Championship, Cody left the company and it felt like the focus on the TNT Championship walked out the door with him. Guevara was quickly paired with Scorpio Sky in a feud containing three title changes and promos from the WWE playbook. Scorpio, and to a lesser extent Sammy, felt like a step down from the previous title holders, and fans grew eager for a savior for the TNT Championship.

By the end of the feud, the fans had forced a Guevara heel turn, and even the wrestlers involved seemed desperate to be doing anything else.

Wardlow defeating Scorpio Sky presented a chance to reset the title to its former glory, Wardlow was one of the hottest acts in the company after all. Over the next few months, the TNT Championship got lost in the shuffle, cooling off Wardlow and the belt in the process. In fairness, Wardlow is not to blame for the TNT Championship not standing out. AEW saw an influx of titles over the summer with the creation of the All Atlantic (now International) Championship and the influx of ROH talent on AEW programming, leaving less time for the TNT Championship. Wardlow racked up seven successful defenses over 136 days. On paper, those numbers look similar to the TNT Championship reigns that are remembered fondly, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The strength of the TNT Championship was good matches with believable contenders week after week. After a strong start with defenses over Orange Cassidy and Jay Lethal, Wardlow’s title challengers seemed to be drawn out of a hat. Between his Jay Lethal defense and his title loss to Samoa Joe, Wardlow defended the title against Ryan Nemeth, Tony Nese, Brian Cage, Matt Taven, and Ari Daivari.

Many of these matches were rightly squashes, which made sense for Wardlow, but not the title.

In the late summer and into the fall, AEW was desperate for some stability, and the TNT Championship could have provided that if appropriately booked. The world title being vacated not once, but twice, should have been a sign to elevate the TNT championship.

At Full Gear 2022, Samoa Joe ended Wardlow’s reign. Over the next three months, the feeling of the 2020 TNT Championship returned. Samoa Joe and Darby Allin traded the title back and forth, but unlike the Sammy Guevara and Scorpio Sky program, the title changes felt earned, and the stipulations justifiably escalated. This return to form was brief. This feud is proof that the TNT Championship is easy to heat up, but there will be a time that it won’t be if lackluster reigns become the norm.

Wardlow’s second reign was even less memorable than the first, ending with his first defense against Powerhouse Hobbs after having the title stolen from his car. Dynamite had never seemed more like RAW than when Wardlow destroyed Hobbs’s prized car that had never been mentioned until mere moments before its demise.

In just over a year, the TNT Championship had gone from the workhorse title to the home of RAW-esque segments on AEW.

Orange Cassidy is the best television champion since Miro’s TNT Championship reign. The issue is that he’s not holding the TNT Championship. Orange holds another championship that is drifting away from its original purpose. The International Championship was created to have title matches worldwide in different promotions, but after winning the title in Canada, Orange has defended the title once outside the US and only once outside of AEW television. Orange Cassidy’s International Championship reign currently sits at 19 successful defenses over 195 days, and the story is the same as the early TNT reigns. His body is slowly wearing down. The existence of the International and TNT Championships on the same shows simultaneously is undercutting the TNT Championship. With rumors of a brand split, AEW would benefit by isolating the TNT and International Championships to their own show

Though the TNT Championship has seen better days, it’s not a lost cause. The TNT Championship caught fire in 2020 because it was a consistent source of good matches with interesting title challengers. AEW has the talent to put on a high-level TNT Championship match every week, and they have shown in recent months that they still have the fastball. The question is, do they still want to use it?

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