In Defense Of… The World Heavyweight 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…
Well, a long time ago I started working on an article that was about how to really become the Undisputed Champion of the World. I have a really great Excel spreadsheet that proves my point, but just needed to write the words around it. But after all my research, Stuart Carapola beat me to the punch by writing The History of the World Title (Part 1 — Part 2). It was a great read that made about 80% of the points I wanted to make.
This was especially discerning because “This Stillisntmyname” asked me three months prior to that:
Someone really ought to do a “World Title” lineage article…
Followed by nine questions about the true World Title.
This got me thinking about how I could still do this article without repeating Carapola. Mike Mopett also helped bring the idea into focus:
The World Title (Bischoff awards the title to HHH, thus people are pissed off and instead of a world title with a legacy in WCW and NWA, it is considered a new Raw title only. Why? The US title’s legacy is recognized and the WWE Title is no longer the Undisputed Title, so what then happened to the WCW/NWA Title? Had Bischoff given Benoit the Title after disputing Brock, then the IWC would be hailing him as champ in the line of Thesz, Flair and the Funks) Sorry about the long rant on that one!
Mike Ostcler added to that not too long ago:
Triple H’s first world heavyweight title reign. His first three, technically. I’d like to see you defend the era spanning, I’d say, September 2002 ’til WrestleMania XX. H-squared is reviled for many things by most of the IWC, but it seems the belt hogging and colleague squashing of this period is what cemented him as one of the most loathed superstars of our time.
And that is when it all became clear (OK, so really I’ve been planning this for a while, but these guys added to it): I needed to defend the World Heavyweight Championship!
For a championship to be called a World Title, it is truly a distinct honor. But for a World Title to earn its name, that is a true rarity. And how does a title become a true World Championship? Well, it must be defended around the world for starters (or at least outside of Milwaukee). For another thing, it must be fought over by the top talent available. And last, it must have the ability to elevate its holder to another level.
The World Heavyweight Championship that as of this writing sits around Kurt Angle’s waist on SmackDown! is such a championship. It recently took a trip to Europe, is being fought over by the likes of the Undertaker, Randy Orton, and Rey Mysterio, and it has brought men like Batista and Randy Orton (and perhaps Rey Mysterio) to a whole new level.
Yet despite its current spot, the World Heavyweight Championship got off to a rocky start. Some people were upset about how the championship came into existence, how it was defended in its first year of existence, and their general disagreement with splitting the championship.
But I am here to show why that split was necessary and logical. We will explore the history of the belt today and what it means to the sport. And we will prove once and for all that the World Heavyweight Championship is the prestigious belt that the announcers make it out to be.
Be fair warned: I will jump back and forth between kayfabe and reality without warning. It’s your job to follow along. Good luck to you!
If you were to ask someone who started watching wrestling in the early 2000’s when did the World Heavyweight Championship come into existence, they would tell you September 2002. Well, that’s not entirely true. But for now, let’s center on that date. First, please review a bit of In Defense of… The Brand Extension to understand the beginning of how this title came into existence.
Are you back? Here, the point remains the same: Bischoff and the WWE always had the right to split championships on a dispute. It was not an uncommon occurrence at all. As a matter of fact, there would not be a WWE Championship if not for such a dispute.
In 1957, the Undisputed World Championship (minus the European Heavyweight Title and parts of the AWA championship) had been back together for five years, but pressures were coming from different promotions. With the baby boom in full force, every region in America felt they could make more money if they could control the championship. And thus, the backstabbing began. In a world where ‘shoot’ meant someone might break your leg, wrestlers had to be legitimate tough guys to hold on to their titles; but there were also other methods.
Under Lou Thesz (the man who had brought the title back under control), the title began to fall apart. It all began with a DQ win over champion Edouard Carpentier (who won the title off of Thesz when Thesz could not continue due to back injury, another questionable move). From Wrestling-Titles.com:
[Lou Thesz] Loses to Edouard Carpentier by disqualification on 57/06/14 in Chicago, IL when Thesz cannot continue due to a back injury; Thesz defeats Carpentier in rematch by disqualification on 57/07/24 in Montreal, QC; however, NWA continues to recognize Carpentier as the champion; Carpentier withdraws his claim to the title when his manager and Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn leaves NWA; NWA voids all recognition of Carpentier as champion and returns the title to Thesz in 57; Carpentier continues to be recognized as World champion in Omaha and Boston and later by World Wrestling Association in Los Angeles to legitimate the lineages of their world titles.
But it gets more confusing than that. Actually, there was the WWA World Title, and there was the Los Angeles Heavyweight Title, both of which claimed lineage. Boston was actually Big Time Wrestling, a huge organization that ruled the northeast. And there were plenty of small disputes along the way.
Eventually, some of those titles merged into each other (Los Angeles into the WWA, Omaha into the AWA) while others (like the BTW title) stayed regional and eventually lost their sheen. But it was the NWA who gathered up the most titles and had the most control across the country and the world.
With a loose organization of regional promotions, the NWA tried to maintained control over the title, and was successful in the South, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest. But the Northeast remained volatile at best. And it would all come to a head in 1963.
First, though, back in June 1961, Buddy Rogers won the NWA Championship in Chicago (again Chicago!). After a couple of confusing title fakes with Bobo Brazil and Killer Kowalski, Rogers was looking to be a lame duck champion. Already twice his title reign was in complete doubt, though he had held on to it for a year and half. This had put promoters in the Northeast ill at ease. Rogers was a draw for them, but he was being made to look bad in other regions and that was affecting their sales. And then the opportunity arose.
On January 24, 1963, Lou Thesz (again!) defeated Rogers in a one-fall match in Toronto, ON, Canada. You see, in those days 2-out-of-3 fall matches were much more common, and so a one-fall to the finish match would really be out of place, especially for a title. And so the World Wide Wrestling Federation was formed with Buddy Rogers as the champion.
Rogers, though, proved unreliable as he lost a 2-out-3 falls match to Thesz just a couple of weeks later, much to the ire of the WWWF. This made the decision easy to move the title over to uber-over Bruno Sammartino in May 1963, a title he held on to and brought to incredible prominence for eight years.
But as they say, time heals all wounds. The title transitioned (ha!) from Ivan Koloff to Pedro Morales in 1971, just in time for the WWWF to rejoin the NWA. The WWWF then willingly reduced their title to a regional title so that the NWA championship could shine. Unlike with the other titles, though, the WWWF title always remained separated from the NWA championship, something that would help the promotion later. Champion Bob Backlund would put the title up against the AWA Championship in March 1979 (double count-out) and against NWA Champion Ric Flair in July 1982 (double count-out again).
It was around this time that Vince McMahon Jr. bought the company from his father (in an installment plan) and dropped one of the W’s. He also dropped the NWA and said his title was a World Championship again. And because his champion had just successfully retained against the NWA Champion, McMahon had every reason to believe his title was just as important.
The title found its way to the Iron Sheik in December 1983 shortly after the withdrawal from the NWA, and a month later was won by Hulk Hogan. And the WWF Championship would grow from there.
Meanwhile, the NWA was also growing, but very differently. Eventually, though, with the WWF becoming a national product, the NWA was suffering. In 1991, Jim Crocket Promotions — the major power of the NWA — was sold to TBS and renamed WCW. But much like TNA today, they continued to use the NWA Championships… at least for a little while. From Wrestling-Titles.com:
Stripped on 91/09/08 when Flair signs with WWF, where he claims the “Real World Heavyweight Title”; NWA World Heavyweight Title is vacant for the first time in its history; Flair wins WWF World Heavyweight Title on 92/01/19 in Albany, NY; some reports say Lex Luger, who has won the vacant WCW World Heavyweight Title by defeating Barry Windham on 91/07/14 in Baltimore, MD, is briefly given recognition as NWA World champion by the NWA board, controlled by WCW Vice President Jim Herd; Luger is not recognized by NWA as a former champion.
So, to bring you up to date, the NWA World Champion was stripped of his title, but never lost, and then won the WWF title, making that title more prestigious. Meanwhile, WCW had Lex Luger win the championship while the NWA was not sure what to do. For a year and half, the NWA had no champion (Masa “My Hero” Chono won the title in August 1992), while the rest of the world thought of the WCW Championship as the real title (if not the WWF Championship).
Things became more confusing when WCW rejoined the NWA in 1993, as did Ric Flair. Big Van Vader was the WCW Champion and four months later Ric Flair won the NWA Championship. So there were two World Champions in WCW in 1993, but their relationship with the NWA would be strained. In September 1993, the NWA and WCW split again, and Flair became the “WCW International Champion”. Meanwhile, there would be no NWA Champion again for a year, so the International title was the title as far as everyone else was concerned.
Flair quickly lost that title to Rick Rude and then went on to defeat Vader in December 1993 for the WCW Championship. The International Championship traded hands for a few more months before Flair unified the titles on June 23, 1994. So the WCW Championship had two direct links to the NWA Championship (which had a direct link to the Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship) and the WWF Championship had one direct and two indirect links to the NWA Championship.
And strangely, that’s pretty much how it would remain for almost a decade. The NWA became incredibly regionalized and the title reduced to little value (especially after Shane Douglas threw it down in favor of the ECW Championship, and the NWA refused to let him throw it away), while the WCW and WWF Championships were raised to incredible heights and prominence during the Monday Night Wars.
In March 2001 that would all change when the WWF bought WCW, and a few months later brought their champions in. After a time and an InVasion, the two titles became combined on December 9, 2001 when Chris Jericho became the “Undisputed” (that’s for another day) Champion.
Now the WWF Championship had three direct and two indirect links to the NWA (and thus real World) Heavyweight Championship and had the shared history of all of those belts. You see, when the belts were put together, they absorbed their history and champions. Although the exterior was different, the connections were quite real.
That also means that history can be split from the belt. So yes, the “World Heavyweight Championship” is a different belt physically, but it is the same belt emotionally. It does have a history that can be traced to 1880 with the American Greco-Roman World Heavyweight Title (and I did!), as can the WWE Championship. In reality, they were always the same belt, coming from the same origin, but just slightly different paths to get there. And when they came together all of that became intermingled, but that history is still there.
As we noted in the previous section, splitting championships is nothing new in the context of storylines and promotions. The only difference is in the past it was a legitimate heat between promotions that split the title, while in this case it was a calculated decision to establish separate brands. But both were decided for one reason: money.
Why did the WWWF split off in the first place? Why did the NWA have disputes? Why did the AWA and WWA spend years avoiding those organizations? Because they wanted to maximize their own profit in their own regions. It is not like the title split for any nobler reason than that, that there was some deeper meaning; it always came down to money.
So that same was true in the Brand Extension. The title was split for money, just an amicable split compared to the ones in the past.
Still, some people are upset about how the title was split and who was given the championship.
The Case for Triple H
When Eric Bischoff declared the Undisputed Championship in dispute, he named Triple H as champion because Triple H was the number one contender. We already covered the storyline reasons for this with past precedence, but people are still upset over this decision. Many wanted a tournament or some other way to come up with a new champion — at least one match.
But the Brand Extension was young and RAW had been suffering. Up until that point, SmackDown! had most of the talent and the storylines. RAW had in the main event scene:
- The Undertaker
- Kevin Nash
- The Big Show
- Steve Austin
The Undertaker was really the prime player on RAW, but he was maligned at the beginning from getting his championship shot by Vince McMahon. Kevin Nash was not in good condition and was mostly injured, as was Austin. Kane and the Big Show had both been buried as transitional stepping-stones in the past, so RAW’s main event scene was hurting. In the fringe there was:
- Scott Hall
- Booker T
- Brock Lesner
Scott Hall was already having problems, so his time was limited. Booker T, RVD, and Lesner seemed like the best bets, though Booker and RVD had to “get over” being WCW/ECW wrestlers, and Lesner was extremely young. None, save perhaps Booker T, were ready to be taken as serious contenders to the Undisputed Championship.
It was not until the addition of GMs that this problem began to get fixed. The rosters were mixed up and cleaned up so that RAW became a whole new place. Again in The Elimination Chamber case, check out the summary of the contenders to the first Elimination Chamber itself.
You can see from the time Eric Bischoff took over until the Elimination Chamber, RAW had become a completely new world. But still, look at the roster: Shawn Michaels was a part-time wrestler, not ready to be a long-term champion. Jericho had some credibility, but only slightly more than Booker T and RVD. Kane still had the same problems listed as above. That left one person: Triple H.
Triple H was a truly established champion at that point in time, and was also the only one who could wrestle full time.
Yes, the ideal of the Brand Extension was to raise new talent to the title. But because we are talking about splitting a title, its worth had to be proven right away. Any time RAW spent without a champion would make them look even more inferior (see: SmackDown! during the 2005 draft lottery), and they needed a belt and a program fast.
Triple H was just the man for the job. He was a hated heel, so he could just accept a title without a fight. At the same time, he was considered a legitimate main eventer in the eyes of the fans, so the title would be given some prestige. Having Kane, RVD, Booker, or Jericho win the title would not elevate it to the level that RAW needed. They needed the title to look like a legitimate World Title, and it either had to be Triple H or Shawn Michaels. Since Michaels could not wrestle the full schedule at that time, he was not the person to carry the title.
Triple H lost to him in the Elimination Chamber for several reasons. First, it did put over the other wrestlers in there because all of them looked like they could take the title from Triple H. It actually created the programs for the next six months thereafter. But Shawn had to win to give RAW a happy ending to a huge event and also to have two huge names hold the belt.
Again, though, the WWE was faced with the same problem. Michaels was not a full-time wrestler, and there was no way they were going to sell MORE house show tickets without the champion at the show. Thus the title returned to Triple H as he was the biggest name on RAW to head into WrestleMania.
Triple H was not petitioning for the title and did not demand to keep it. He lost again and again, from Bill Goldberg to Chris Benoit. But that would all be later on when RAW had more people and began to become a powerhouse. Soon, it was because of his grip on the title that the World Heavyweight Championship became regarded as THE title while the WWF Title was used to create new champions in Brock Lesner, Eddie Guerrero, JBL, and John Cena.
It was not a point in the WWE where they could handle both championships being in new people’s hands. They were also experimenting with what the Brand Extension meant. They were testing the waters to see what people wanted: their known stars or the new generation. Nothing was set in stone; it was all a trial. And in trials such as these, some things work and some things don’t. As long as you learn from what you do then the effort is worth it.
And look, the WWE did change! They separated PPVs, moved more towards new champions (with Cena and Batista champions at the same time), and brought back different wrestlers. As we discussed in the Brand Extension case, the whole thing is a work in progress, as are the titles that are at the head of these organizations.
Over your shoulder or around your waist
The World Heavyweight Championship is one of this most prestigious titles in the world. But it is not some magical belt created from nothing! No, it shares a long, storied history with the real World, NWA, and WWWF/WWF/WWE Championship. That history is real, and deserves to be recognized. At the same time, all these splits in the title’s past have been about one thing: money. And the Brand Extension split was also about that. In the ideal world, the Brand Extension would automatically mean new talent would get the title. But in a suffering brand, only the best of the best who could work full time could establish the title so that when other people won the belt it would mean something. The man at that time was Triple H, and his stranglehold of the title helped push it up to a value above and beyond the actual WWE Championship.
The World Heavyweight Championship is everything its name suggests. It deserves to be revered for what it really is. How many people can even say they have gotten a shot at a world title of that magnitude, nonetheless won it? No one who wins a title should ever be looked down upon, but only looked up to as the worthy champions they are.
The defense rests.
After the Trial
IN THE CASE OF THE IWC VS. THE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP, THE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP HAS BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING A PAPER BELT THAT WAS ONLY CREATED TO SOOTHE TRIPLE H’S EGO AND HAS NO REAL VALUE, PRESTIGE, OR HISTORY.
Well, with 71.1% of the vote, the World Heavyweight Championship was found:
That was way more contentious than even I thought it would be. I got a lot of heated responses from people who just blatantly did not accept points of my defense. The key areas being: (1) that the WWE does not acknowledge the history of the title (or they only do when it suits them) and (2) Triple H’s stranglehold of the title. I think with the latter it has more to do with people looking back, not forward. Yes, today Triple H held the title too much beyond that first year, and looking back it is easy to critique. But I was talking about that decision at that point in time. As for the former, since when does the WWE have final say on history? We let them rewrite it too much, and it makes just as much sense by my history of the title. Besides, the WWWF title has just as much of a connection to the NWA championship as the WCW title, so why is the WCW title looked at as the only legitimate branch? The NWA championship is only a branch of a larger championship belt that preceded it, so how is this any different?
This was the point that I fell hopelessly behind on my e-mail and never caught up. As such, any response from this point in is the first time I have actually been able to reply!
There is no doubt in my mind that the Big Gold Belt is of monumental importance in the world of professional wrestling history and indeed carries the lineage of all the men that held it before Bischoff rebirthed it. However when you said “No one who wins a title should ever be looked down upon, but only looked up to as the worthy champions they are,” you must have been lucky enough to forget the appalling act of crowning David Arquette World Heavyweight Champion simply to promote Ready To Rumble. But please don’t consider this an insult to Ready To Rumble. To this day I boycott the Academy Awards for snubbing one of the top five films of the last decade.
I wonder if this actually proved my point more? If David Arquette and Vince Russo could be WCW Champion, isn’t a highly decorated wrestler even better?
The real title is still the NWA title as it is still around. The others (WWE, Big Gold) are branches off of the original (NWA). So I say guilty of not being the real deal… the WWE versions, that is.
That is assuming you would go with the NWA Championship as the full legitimate path, as well. So, I started working on a project in 2002 that I last updated in March of 2006 on how to become the Unified World Heavyweight Champion for real. This began with tracing every branch of the title visually. For this purpose, I have broken it up into several parts.
First, we look at the generation that gave rise to the real Unified World Heavyweight Championship:
Then, we see the years of stability followed by the years of massive division:
This is followed by the continued division leading back to the last unification, which in turn splits up the title for the remainder of eternity (to date):
Then we see the age of territories, and most especially the dominance of the NWA system:
Things changed in the early 1980’s with the rise of Hulk Hogan and Rock ‘n Wrestling, culminating in the world as we knew it in 2006:
Among all those versions of the title, here was the final resting place of each:
Thus that leaves us with the final question: if you want to the Undisputed World Champion, which titles do you need?
- This history does not reflect the addition of non-World and secondary titles that may have been absorbed into the many versions of World Heavyweight Championship over the years.
- Since the WWE and the NWA are the only two organizations still in existence with actual lineage to the World Title (and thus to several older titles), one needs only to win those three titles to be the Undisputed World Champion.
- — — — At the time of this writing, the WWE title names are the “WWE Championship” and the “Universal Championship”. The World Heavyweight and WWE titles discussed in this and other cases merged in 2013 (after the Brand Extension ended in 2011) and then split again in 2016 (when the Brand Extension started anew), although it was not necessarily presented as a split in the same way. As far as we are concerned, though, the “Universal Championship” is the equivalent of the “World Heavyweight Championship” for these purposes.
- — — — Further, since 2006 there have been many changes to both the WWE versions of the championships, what happened between the NWA and TNA (iMPACT Wrestling), the start-up of AEW, and other such events. However, if you carry forward from here, this would mostly remain the same.
- — — — To add more credibility to the champion, it would be good if he could somehow obtain the European version of the World Title and the AWA Title, since those date back around 80 years and make a drastic break in the World Title History. The BTW and LA Title are of questionable value, and the Undisputed Championship does not need them except to satisfy older fans who remember these champions.
- — — — The same can be said for the ECW Championship (though that was retired in 2010 and is not readily available), which does not have a true lineage to the world title, but recent fans value the title, thus giving it credibility. One could argue that NXT is the defacto inheritor of ECW since it replaced ECW in the WWE’s programming lineup, but that is a stretch at best (especially since the original NXT was nothing like it became later).