As of Friday afternoon, Brock Lesnar has held the WWE Universal championship for 425 days. Over the next two weeks, he'll eclipse CM Punk's 434-day WWE title reign and become the longest-reigning world champion in WWE since Hulk Hogan's first stretch as WWE champion -- a historic 1,474 day run that began in 1984.
While Punk defended his title 22 times in televised matches, and more than 150 times overall including dark matches and live events, Lesnar has defended the Universal championship a grand total of 13 times since besting Goldberg at WrestleMania 33 -- six of which happened on TV or pay-per-view. There have been several lengthy stretches where Lesnar and Paul Heyman have disappeared entirely from television, removing the top title on Monday Night Raw from circulation.
As much as Lesnar's name value and the rarity of title shots helped give the Universal championship some gravitas and meaning in the first few months of his title reign, it's well past time for that reign to end.
Lesnar's absentee stretch as Universal champion has damaged Raw's ability to tell stories and build up new stars. The ultimate pursuit of every member of the Raw roster should be winning either the Universal championship or the Raw women's championship, and yet the Universal title has become a complete impossibility for all but the top one or two contenders. Until Money in the Bank qualifiers began a few weeks ago, there was no more than a passing mention of Lesnar or the Universal championship for weeks on end -- and when you remove the central conceit of any fictional character's pursuit of glory, the house of cards quickly tumbles apart.
No one has been hit harder by Lesnar's problematic stretch as Universal champion than Roman Reigns. It's one thing for it to be fun and easy to boo or complain about Reigns' story arc as the indestructible force of nature. This time around, in Reigns' second chance to stop Lesnar, he was once again built up to be the guy to finally put an end to Lesnar's domination. On the flip side, Lesnar's F-5 finisher was built up once again as the be-all, end-all move that put away guys like Braun Strowman and Samoa Joe in one shot.
By the time we reached WrestleMania 34, we were at the point where anything short of beating Lesnar made Reigns look like a complete fool unable to back up his words. Reigns endured five F-5s before a sixth finally put him away, and the combination of the apathy toward the buildup of Reigns, the shock that this story still wasn't over and a general exhaustion after seven hours of wrestling led to one of the most sour responses to a WrestleMania main event in that venerated show's history.
Then, with one final chance to put this story to bed, with an ending the entire story to that point had been building toward, Reigns lost a second do-or-die match at the Greatest Royal Rumble in controversial fashion. And to top it all off, Lesnar never had to show up to give him a final chance or even speak on the matter. In the month that followed, there hasn't been so much as a whisper of Lesnar's return -- and it could stretch all the way out until SummerSlam in August before he finally shows up.
If the hope was to send Reigns spiraling before building him back up, it would make a certain amount of sense. But just over a week after losing to Lesnar, with all of his hopes for the moment extinguished, Reigns defeated Samoa Joe in a bounce-back performance in the main event of Backlash, as fan frustration and anger in the live crowd only grew at the confusing, inconsistent storytelling.
The need to keep Reigns strong without having Lesnar, the champion, in attendance led to a cascading effect down the roster. Reigns had to keep picking up wins to look like a strong, worthy contender to Lesnar's unstoppable championship reign, and everybody else down the line had to pay the price.
Money in the Bank has the potential to give us a solution to this ongoing problem. If one of four Raw stars -- Braun Strowman, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor or Bobby Roode -- pulls down the briefcase, it's seemingly only a matter of time before Lesnar's number is finally called. Whether that means someone challenges Lesnar straight up at SummerSlam or waits until an opportune moment at that show to cash in, the mechanism of Money in the Bank is a way to get the title off Lesnar by any means necessary.
The counterpoint, and likely the biggest reason why Lesnar has hit 425 days and counting as Universal champion, is the business side of things. The temptation to keep a star with a lot of name recognition on top of Raw for as long as possible makes a lot of sense in a vacuum, particularly with over $2 billion in rights deals on the table moving forward. The novelty of that star being a daunting, far-off target has long since worn off, though, and no matter how much excitement Lesnar is able to generate when he shows up, you're not going to hold onto casual viewers or hardcore fans by telling the same strained story over and over again.
That's not to say that a big name or legendary figure couldn't work in the long term, even if they only work a few matches. If that star is there every week, or at least most weeks, you'd be able to keep them as a central focus and a target for all of the potential challengers to go after. Lesnar's absence hasn't allowed for the kind of traditional title chases that drive forward the weekly stories wrestling likes to tell -- and with three hours to fill every week, it gets harder and harder to write around the absence of the top champion.
If the wind-down can begin over the next couple of months, it offers the opportunity to make the next generation of stars reach a peak and prove whether they have what it takes to reach closer to legendary status. It's time to see if a rejuvenated Seth Rollins is ready to take that leap, on the back of an incredible run as Intercontinental champion that has helped carry Raw through Lesnar's absence. Perhaps it's time to see how much run you can get out of Strowman's immense popularity and propensity for destroying things, and if he can be sustainable as the "top guy" on Raw.
There's still room for Reigns to break through, given the right edge and story to get there, though the past few months have made it a great deal harder.
No matter the path forward, one message remains abundantly clear: It's time for the Universal championship to return to Monday Night Raw on a regular basis, and that means it's time for Brock Lesnar's reign as champion to come to an end.