In Defense Of… The European Championship
A version of this article originally appeared on 411mania.com and was updated for the book IN DEFENSE OF… EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED. Learn more at https://www.jpprag.com
Certain people, events, organizations, and storylines in wrestling history have gotten a bum rap. Some writers have presented overtly critical comments and outright lies as fact, and others have followed suit. Well no more! “In Defense of…” has one reason: to bring the truth to the wrestling fan!
Some dame walked into my office and said…
I already had the World Heavyweight Championship on my docket, but the case hadn’t happened yet. That would not stop John-Peter Trask from coming to task:
I, for some reason or another, had quite the affinity for the WWF European Title. I think I may have liked it because I thought the WWF could use a [beginner’s] title that could help keep the Intercontinental Title prestigious, while giving new guys a real chance to shine, sort of like the TV Title to the US Title in WCW. However, I know that when it came to liking the European Title, I was in the minority. For whatever reason people seemed to really hate that belt (which in my opinion looked awesome), and even the WWF didn’t really seem to know what they were doing with it. Despite, the championships short comings it can be argued that it made the career of D’lo Brown, was the most prestigious singles belt held by X-pac, and provided one of the better matches at WrestleMania XV.
Therefore, I request that you defend the European Championship. Convince people that it wasn’t a bad title to have around.
Fixxer315 wasn’t as forgiving:
[T]he European title never really recovered from the HBK/HHH laydown of 97…
Sounds like a good couple of dames to me!
I always read today in 2006 about how the WWE mismanages their titles, that they cannot make a Cruiser, Tag, Women’s, IC, US, World, or WWE division seem to work. Over time, titles have become devalued as props and whoever is champion does not really matter.
I don’t agree. Whether shoot or work, we have heard numerous wrestlers on TV say the same thing: if you aren’t in this business to become champion, then you should not be in the business at all. Sure, there are “less threatening” champions, and yes there are times when the focus is not on the champions (see: H, Triple). But that does not signify the title means any less.
If you figure that there are on average about 40 wrestlers on a roster, the chances of one of them holding a single championship belt is 3%. It’s a goal to aspire to, it’s a storyline to build around, and it is the meaning of wrestlers (except Tommy Dreamer, who did not want to hold a title during his entire run, because he was crazy).
Now, not everyone is World Champion material, at least not right away. If forty or fifty or a hundred guys were fighting for one title, no one would be happy and championships would have to change waists every other week. Also, there would be no way to judge growth and change over time. How would you know someone improved if you did not see them go up the rungs? Did DDP start out as World Champion? No, he worked his way up from Battle Bowl to TV Title to US Title and finally to World. Did Ultimate Warrior or Goldberg immediately get the World Titles? No, they both won the secondary titles first.
Sometimes, though, there is a large pool on top and a large pool near the top. Sometimes you need a rung below in order to have a title that the mid-card can fight for and aspire to.
Back on an edition of WCW Saturday Night, Lord Steven Regal (then Television Champion for nearly a year) had an interview in the back. Regal said that due to politics, he would never receive a shot at the World title, and being a proud Brit he did not want the US title (“Who would want to be champion of this despicable country?”), so he was happy to represent us all as TV Champion. It was the title custom made for a man like him, and he would defend it with honor.
The European Championship was the same way. It was a lower-tier championship meant to propel some to greater heights, but also to give those going nowhere something to fight for. Not everyone needs to be or can be World champion. For some, their home is that other championship — less prestigious, but still just as proud.
Where? When? WHY?!?!
Most of 1996 had been terrible for the WWF, and 1997 was not looking much better. WCW and Nitro were killing their organization in every metric. Nitro beat RAW every week in the ratings, PPV buyrates were generally higher, and attendance was much higher for WCW television tapings. The WWF was in a rut, creatively and financially.
With the nWo red hot and the Sting year-long storyline in full-swing building up to Starrcade 1997, the WWF did not look like they had much to stand on. In desperation, Vince agreed to a number of radical changes in his organization, storytelling style, television production value, and the general direction of the company as a whole. But it would take time for him to come to accept many of the changes, and they slowly had to be brought in.
In the meanwhile, although the WWF was doing terrible at home, the international market was growing hot. While they could not sell out a 6,000 seat arena in Minnesota, the WWF found that they could sell out 15,000 seat arenas in Europe. In order to appease European fans and give them something special, a tournament was held to crown a brand-new title:
The European Championship.
Eight men participated, but it came down to Tag Team Champions Owen Hart and Davey-Boy Smith. From the History of the WWE website:
Februrary 26, 1997
Monday Night Raw — 3/3/97:
- WWF European Title Tournament Finals: WWF Tag Team Champion Davey Boy Smith pinned WWF Tag Team Champion Owen Hart with a [rollover] out of a victory roll at 22:43
As time went on, Davey-Boy Smith did not really defend his championship, although it did become a point of contention between the tag team partners. This did not materialize too much, but what did was the WWF’s return to Europe in September.
By this point, McMahon had agreed with the likes of Vince Russo and was ready to change the WWF into a new “attitude”. So, at the UK only PPV entitled “One Night Only” on September 20, 1997 things would change. In the main event, the European Championship was defended by the British Bulldog against Shawn Michaels. That’s right, the European Championship not only main evented a PPV, but it was also above the WWF Championship match between Bret Hart © and the Undertaker.
And in quite the shock to EVERYONE, Shawn Michaels evilly cheated his way to the title and Degeneration X (a couple of weeks before it got that name) was formed! The arena erupted in disgust and hatred, it truly was a shocking moment. The European Championship had become the instrument used to set off the new direction in the WWF: The Attitude Era.
Just three months later, to show how rebellious they were, Shawn Michaels (then WWF/E and European Champion) laid down for his partner Triple H to lose the title. As mentioned above, this would seem to devalue the title.
But it was after this point that the title actually began to be defended. It was from this point on that it joined the regular rotation of defending and losing the title began. Before this point in time, the title was just a showpiece for the beginning of the Attitude Era and DX. This was the first opportunity for the title to exist on its own.
It was also after this point that the title got its most memorable storyline in the form of four-time champion D’lo Brown. Both he and Jeff Jarrett would also win the European and Intercontinental championships at the same time, creating the ground for the “Euro-continental” championship that Kurt Angle would make famous in his feuds with Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit.
You see, the laydown happened in December 1997, but there would be another four years of history for the title. There was nothing to devalue at that point, and the best and most important years of the title were still to come.
Sure, it was not like the European Championship reached the heights of meaning of the Intercontinental Championship, but who says it ever was supposed to? Maybe for some people, that’s the best they would ever have to aspire to.
The best we could do
With only so many hours of TV a week, and considerations of selling ability, pushes, and the financial situation of the WWF at the time, not everyone was going to become WWF Champion. And although a few more would become Intercontinental Champion, there were still many on the roster sacrificing their life and body to try to save the company. Was there any possible reward for them? Could they get spotlighted? Could they get a chance to prove they could carry the ball?
Enter the European Championship. As a testing and reward ground, many people who would never see other titles or never be able to move up found a goal and championship to fight over. It gave them an exposure that they would never get otherwise. In the list of people whose highest single’s achievement (at the time of this writing) was the European Championship are:
- Al Snow
- Crash Holly
- Mark Henry
- Matt Hardy
- Perry Saturn
- Shane McMahon
- Spike Dudley
- Gregory “Hurricane” Helms
Perry Saturn may have been able to reach IC level, and Al Snow almost became ECW Champion. Gregory Helms is still early enough in his career that he may reach that IC/US Level. Matt Hardy seems like he could he a World Champion every other week, but that’s a wait and see. The rest, though (with the exception of McMahon) were tailor made for a title like the European Championship. For everyone else — for people who work hard, who have storylines, who are able in different ways to get over, yet are not made to reach the pinnacle of the sport — do they not deserve a reward of some kind? Do they not need a title to call their own?
For these men, the European Championship was the perfect place for them. Actually, of the 27 European Champions, the 10 on that list account for 37% of all champions. That means that for over a third of all people who captured the title, that it would be the high point of their career.
Of course, that leaves another 2/3rd.
Is it a steppingstone?
Even though we have discussed the European Championship as the highest level attended by some, it has been the steppingstone as promised for others. The following are people who won the European Championship who later went on to win a World Championship (or had already won a World Title):
- Shawn Michaels
- Triple H
- Jeff Jarrett
- Kurt Angle
- Chris Jericho
- Eddie Guerrero
- Diamond Dallas Page (had already been a three time… three time… three time World Champion)
In total, there were 27 individual European Champions, and of those 10 at one point or another have held a World Championship. That means the belt has a 37% success rate of helping to elevate people up the ladder (not even looking at others who also went on to hold IC/US Gold).
Let’s put this in a little context. The WCW Television Championship (from when it became the WCW in 1991 until the title was lost in 2000) also had 27 champions (same amount of champions in double the amount of time, how odd), and of those 9 went on to be or had been World Champions, or 33%.
The numbers seem incredibly similar, don’t they? That’s because they are similar belts with similar missions. Also, the following people were both European and Television Champion:
- Chris Jericho
- Perry Saturn
- William/Steven Regal
Two World Champions, a consummate professional, and man who has mostly disappeared. Three out of four is not bad.
But that is not the point. The point is that the titles were doing the same thing. They were giving some people a chance and elevating others. And 15% of the people were the same people! The WWE and WCW had the same idea and saw many of the same people with the same type of potential. The European Championship in the WWF/E was their chance to begin to shine or shine a little more.
The remaining 26% discussed in the previous section went on to also have Intercontinental/US Title success. Do any of them (D’lo Brown, Jeff Hardy, Owen Hart, Test, Davey Boy Smith, Val Venis, and William Regal) have a World Title in their future? Well, two have passed on, one is happy in Japan, one is happy with his music, one is likely to be fired, one is in a “veteran” role, and one was recently rehired yet hasn’t been seen on TV. So perhaps not. But with an active Intercontinental/US title scene, could they still be involved in the European title hunt today, should the title exist? Absolutely; they have not left the title behind.
What did the wrestlers think?
There are those, though, that claim even the wrestlers did not want to hold the European Championship. This quote from Chris Jericho would seem to be the proof (from a WWE.com article via Obsessed with Wrestling):
“I kind of think it was a worthless title anyway,” Jericho told WWE.com. “It was never promoted as (a prestigious championship). In boxing, there are too many titles. I think in WWE there might have been a few too many titles. So I think it’s good that it’s been unified, because it didn’t really mean too much anyway.”
Then again, even the article begins to disagree with Jericho almost immediately:
But many superstars disagree with Jericho, and there’s no denying that the European Title — whether it was prestigious or not — brought about some of the most memorable moments in WWE history.
I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Was it prestigious? Maybe not as much as many hoped. But did it have a purpose and present memorable history? Most certainly. Besides, not everyone was as cynical as Jericho:
D’Lo Brown upset Triple H on RAW to secure the title. D’Lo’s reaction to winning and his subsequent reign as champion were priceless. Immediately after his victory, Brown’s face lit up like the proverbial kid in a candy store. He jumped around exclaiming, “I’m the Champion of Europe!”
“It was without a doubt one of the highlights of my career,” D’Lo says. “I still have that picture framed and hanging up in my office.”
[I]n February 2000, Kurt Angle won the title, his first in WWE.
“I felt that the European Title was one of those titles that, not only does it bring another storyline and another dimension to the show, but it’s kind of a catapulting belt,” Angle said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you’re the next guy coming through. Keep your eyes on this guy because soon he’s going to be Intercontinental Champion. Or soon he’ll be vying for the WWE Title.’”
That was certainly the case with Angle. Less than three weeks after winning the European Title, the Olympic gold medalist won the Intercontinental Championship, and went on to that year’s WrestleMania as the “Euro-Continental Champion.” While he lost both titles at ‘Mania, Angle defeated The Rock the following October at No Mercy in Albany, N.Y., to become the WWE Champion, and cap off arguably the best rookie campaign in history.
“You hate to see a title like (the European Championship) get dropped,” Angle said.
So while some forgot what that reign with the European Championship meant, there are many more who remember what it did for their career, storylines, and future. And there are just as many fans who remember the enjoyment they got out of the European Championship, not disappointment.
Today… what are they doing?
While looking through the WWE roster today in 2006 (just RAW and SmackDown!, not ECW), there are many at that European/Television level. What are they doing? Why are they fighting? What is their goal? Is Simon Dean, Tatanka, Vito, or Gunner Scott ready to be US Champion? What do they do every week that has meaning? What could they be fighting over?
Are Eugene, Johnny Nitro, Matt Striker, Rob Conway, and Rene Dupree ready to step up to the Intercontinental Championship? Or would they be better served putting each other over for a lower tier title?
Now I know there are fears, as stated above, that the WWE cannot manage the titles they have now. This may be true. But in the late 1990s, the WWE, Intercontinental, and Tag Team divisions were full and active, and the WWE was able to create another division that put over men like those listed in this section.
Is today the right time for the return of the European Championship? Probably not. The World/WWE title scene for three brands needs to be figured out first. But is it a possibility for the future? Why not?! The WWE has used the European Championship to propel a third of its holders to greater heights. It has proved its ability as a title, both as a place holder and as a steppingstone. It provides a central story for many wrestlers that would not have one otherwise. Perhaps it will have a home in the future.
Strap it on
The short-lived European Championship is a title often maligned here in the IWC. Because it was not a cornerstone title and only had five years of history, people are ready to dismiss it as meaningless. But it had a very eventful life, from helping to kick off the Attitude Era to propelling ten people to World Championships to giving the mid-card something to fight over when nothing else was available. Its place in history should be recognized and revered, not forgotten and laughed at. For some, the European Championship was the greatest achievement of their careers. For others, it was the break they needed to become superstars. Either way, the European Championship always did what it was designed to do: be a true championship.
The defense rests.
After the Trial
IN THE CASE OF THE IWC VS. the European Championship, The European Championship HAS BEEN ACCUSED of being a worthless hunk of metal that did nothing for anyone who held it.
And with 84.4% of the vote, The European Championship was found:
A Television/European championship, I believe, is very necessary. It really does give people lower on the card something to fight for. And I’ll be honest: my favorite championship of all time is the WCW Television Championship, especially when Steven Regal was the champ. That was the only title that was always defended, even when the World Heavyweight Championship (and champion) would disappear for a while. And what an upset when Prince Iakea won it!
It was a lot of parroting back to me the same points, but I did enjoy particularly hearing from the Europeans and non-Americans in general on this one:
The fact that WWE was dipping into a ridiculously profitable market more than justifies the title itself. European fans are just as die hard as American fans, and there is no reason for them not to have a crowned champion they can be proud of as opposed to just rooting for the British Bulldog all the damn time. Christ, he’s just one guy from one country! …
You were right to point out that the WWE was going through some serious changes during this period, but I think they were trying to emulate WCW flat out by adding more divisions and titles. That’s perfectly fine except the WWE is notorious for dropping the ball on a great idea. The European championship was meant for a [separate] division. Whether that be a division that competed abroad or just a division of up and comers doesn’t matter, all that matters is that the title be kept to a SINGLE DIVISION. WWE, as usual, tried to get the title to do everything at once, and thus it started to lose its flavor for many fans. But it isn’t the belt’s fault that the WWE doesn’t know the meaning of continuity. The spirit of the belt, as carried on by the wrestlers who enjoyed it and the thousands of cheering European fans, even if only for one PPV, is still quality stuff.
This actually gives me a reason to just drop in how amazing it was to hear from people all over the world. As noted, this was the wild west of the Internet, and finding like-minded people all over existence was just coming into being. The Internet helped make the world much smaller, but the amount of people online regularly back then was minuscule compared to what it would be just a couple of years later. It is part of the reason I wanted to release this collection; there were so many people who just were not there the first time around.