WWE tag team legends The Hart Foundation
The History of the WWE Title
(Covering from 1963 until 2005)
Originally published in 2005
Written by Colm Kearns
Seeing John Cena win the WWE title at WrestleMania XXI was a remarkable moment for the company, for not only was Cena cementing his status as a main eventer, he was also continuing the 42 year tradition of WWE title changes.
The history of the prestigious title (arguably the most highly valued in the world) began in 1963. Kennedy was president, Brazil were the world champions but in wrestling ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers was the man. Rogers was NWA World Champion and he was also one of the biggest draws and most over heels in the sport at that time. Unfortunately northeast promoters Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon Sr. who controlled Rogers’ bookings wouldn’t allow him to wrestle outside the northeast area. In retaliation the NWA board had Rogers drop the title to Lou Thesz. However, the title change took place in a one-fall match contrary to the usual two out of three falls system of the day for deciding world title bouts. McMahon Sr. and Mondt refused to recognise the title change and broke away from the NWA, forming their own company, the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), with Rogers as their champion.
Rogers’ title reign didn’t last long though, on an historic night in the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden on May 17th 1963. Rogers was crushed by popular Italian-American Bruno Sammartino in under one minute. Rogers was in such bad health after suffering a heart attack before the match that it was clear he could barely wrestle for a minute. This worried the WWWF bookers who thought that in this era of hour long world title matches Sammartino would never be taken seriously if he won the title in such a short time – how wrong they were! Sammartino’s one minute demolition of Rogers propelled him to super-stardom. Fans were amazed; Rogers was a well known and well respected grappler. Surely anyone who could defeat him in under a minute would be a worthy champion. Sammartino proved himself to be just that, holding the title for seven years (the longest title reign in North American wrestling history) and defending it against all comers including the 601 pound Giant Haystacks and a violent feud with Stan Hanson, the man who broke his neck before finally losing it to Ivan Koloff in the very place he had won it, Madison Square Garden.
Koloff’s title reign lasted three weeks before he lost it to Puerto Rican Pedro Morales. This was McMahon’s Sr’s system for the world title. He would put the belt on a face and build the company around him by giving him a long title reign. To get the belt from face to face, McMahon Sr. would use a transitional champion, a heel who would dethrone the popular title holder before losing the belt to McMahon’s next big star a few weeks later.
This system had its flaws, however, and nowhere was it more evident than in the world title reign of Pedro Morales. Morales was a talented grappler (his in ring ability was superior to Sammartino’s) and WWWF did everything they could to get him over: an almost three year reign, successful defenses against the top contenders of the time, even a ninety minute draw with the still wildly popular Bruno Sammartino. But fans just couldn’t get past the fact that the man he beat for the title in the first place was Ivan Koloff.
Koloff was a talented grappler, well versed in generating heat from the fans, but even though he beat Sammartino for the title, fans didn’t see him as championship material. Perhaps if WWWF had let Koloff hold onto the belt for a few months before dropping it, fans would have viewed him, and so in turn Morales, as genuine main eventers. When Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers for the title in 1963, Rogers had only held the championship for a month (a short time for the standards of the era) but fans took Rogers seriously because of his legacy in NWA. The prestigious legacy was something that Ivan Koloff and Stan Stasiak (the other transitional champion of the era) didn’t have, and the value of the WWWF title suffered from it.
Stan ‘the man’ Stasiak upended Pedro Morales on December 1st 1973 and was as previously noted a transitional champion losing the title to Bruno Sammartino a mere nine days later. After Morales’ failure to draw as champion, the WWWF went back to their tried and tested Sammartino formula. Despite his limited ability, Sammartino proved a successful champion second time round as he was the first, holding the belt for over three years, defending the title against the top heels of the era. In 1977 he became embroiled in an extremely heated feud with ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, eventually dropping the title to Graham in April of ’77 in Baltimore.
Graham was a champion the likes of which WWWF fans had never seen before (though they saw it repeated again, Graham’s look was imitated by Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Scott Steiner and Jesse Ventura among others). He was tall with an incredible physique, bleached blond hair and wore skin tight tie-dyed T-shirts and tights, he was brash and arrogant but possessed a charisma that was extremely unusual with heels of the era. Fans loved to hate him, and to top it all off he was pretty good in the ring too. Graham’s credibility as champion was secured by a ten month reign which included several re-matches against Sammartino. He then engaged in a terrific battle of the opposites with the talented Bob Backlund, an upstanding model American citizen. By the time Graham lost the belt to Backlund on February 20th 1978, the title was more valued and prestigious than it had been in years, thanks to Graham’s respectably long reign and subsequent feud with Backlund.
Backlund helped the title’s credibility too, he was an incredible in-ring talent (one of the best ever to hold the belt) and his ability allowed him to travel to other territories to defend the title. He was respected not only in the WWWF’s North-East home but also all over the US, including Jim Crockett’s mid-Atlantic and the AWA in Minnesota (in fact during the course of his reign he defended the belt in several ‘champion versus champion’ bouts against other world title-holders including the NWA’s Ric Flair). Backlund also gained prestige overseas, often travelling to Japan to wrestle against their top stars. He actually lost the belt to Japanese legend Antonio Inoki in Tokyo before winning it back a week later amid controversy (though these title changes were not recognized by the WWWF). Excluding the little known unofficial loss to Inoki, Backlund’s reign lasted almost six years, making him the WWWF/WWF/WWE’s second longest reigning champion.When Backlund did eventually lose the title it was to The Iron Sheik in December of 1983, after his manager Arnold Skaland threw in the towel while Backlund was locked in the Sheik’s Camel Clutch.
The Iron Sheik was a transitional champion in the mold of those in the sixties and like Koloff and Stasiak his credentials as champion were questioned by some fans. It didn’t help that the throw-in-the-towel finish in his title win meant he hadn’t actually beaten Backlund. But this was the early eighties, the height of the cold war, and America’s mistrust of all things Eastern was at its apex so the Sheik’s obnoxious anti-American rants combined with his solid in-ring work got him over as champion. The fans loathed him and couldn’t wait for his comeuppance. They didn’t have to wait long. In the tradition of transitional champions the Iron Sheik lost the belt soon after he won it. On January 23rd 1984 he dropped the WWF (they had dropped the ‘wide’ in 1979) championship to a blond powerhouse known as Hulk Hogan. Hulkamania was born.
Hogan was no refined technical grappler but he was a good talker and possessed an impressive physique. He also had the creative genius of WWF owner Vince McMahon Jr. behind him. McMahon portrayed Hogan as the living embodiment of the USA, from his ‘Real American’ theme song to his promos about eating vitamins, saying prayers and training. Hogan was a superhero who would defy all odds by mounting a comeback against his opponent just when it seemed he was finished, by ‘Hulking Up’ and hitting them with a big boot and his trademark ‘Immortal Legdrop’. McMahon and Hogan used this formula to ride a wave of Americana to success in the late eighties.
With Hogan as champion, the WWF championship enjoyed an unprecedented level of importance and prestige. Two things are mainly responsible for this: the advent of WrestleMania which introduced the WWF product to a much larger audience than the usual hardcore wrestling fans, and the devaluation the NWA title was suffering at this time. Hogan’s first title reign lasted a little over four years during which time he defended in high-profile, record setting bouts against Paul Orndorff, Roddy Piper, King Kong Bundy (at WrestleMania II) and most notable, Andre the Giant.
It was arguably the biggest world title match of all time, Hogan versus Andre, the Unstoppable Force meets the Immovable Object, WrestleMania III, Pontiac Michigan with 93,000 in attendance! Andre had never been beaten in his career which spanned more than 15 years, and as the storyline went, he had just turned against his good friend Hulk Hogan, challenging him for the WWF title at WrestleMania III. It was the first time in Hogan’s reign that the fans doubted that he could overcome the obstacle set before him. They just couldn’t see anyone beating Andre. So, they were understandably shocked when Hogan became not only the first person to slam Andre, but a big legdrop later he became the first person to pin the French giant. The war was not over, however, and the Hogan/Andre feud continued throughout the rest of the year.
The Hogan/Andre situation took an interesting turn in early 1988, with a storyline which involved Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase purchasing Andre’s services in an attempt to wrest the title from the Hulkster (DiBiase had even gone so far as to try to buy the title from Hogan, but had been turned down). This culminated in a televised title match on 5 February 1988 between Hogan and Andre. Andre pinned Hogan for the title despite Hogan’s shoulder being clearly up (as the storyline went, DiBiase had bribed the referee) and immediately after his victory, he handed the championship belt to his benefactor, Ted DiBiase. But WWF on-air president Jack Tunney ruled this transaction null and void, stripping Andre of the title and putting it up for grabs in a 14-man tournament at WrestleMania IV.
This angle had both good and bad points. Having Andre willingly give away the title after winning it, no matter how much DiBiase was reputed to have offered him, devalued the belt, but a tournament was a great idea. It could make new stars and restore any lost credibility to the title. Simply put, it wouldn’t matter who won the tournament. Everyone in it was a top guy or an upper mid-carder, and as the fans would see it, anyone who could defeat three or four wrestlers in one night would be a worthy champion, and if the WWF title holder was someone who could defeat three or four people in the space of a few hours, then the title must be worth something. In other words, the tournament idea was fool proof. When all the smoke had cleared, it was ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage who stood on top of the mountain as the WWF’s newest big star, defeating Butch Reed, Greg Valentine, the One Man Gang and Ted DiBiase in the tournament on his way to becoming champion.
Randy Savage made an effective champion, he was an extremely talented in-ring competitor and his title defenses against the top heels of the era (Ted DiBiase, Andre the Giant etc) were fresh matches that intrigued fans unused to seeing anyone but Hogan in main event matches. Inevitably however plans were to put the title back on Hogan, to facilitate this Savage turned heel in an angle in which his paranoia over Hogan’s relationship with his manager/girlfriend Miss Elizabeth drove him over the edge and he brutally attacked Hogan. It culminated with Hogan regaining the title after a very good match at WrestleMania V.
Hogan was as successful as he had been before, he continued to draw money and spent the rest of 1989 continuing his feud with Savage. At the start of the new decade Hogan became engaged in a short feud with the talented Curt Henning. All of this was profitable business but the WWF knew nothing lasts forever so they began to prepare a successor for Hogan. The man they chose was a muscle bound Queens native known as The Ultimate Warrior. Warrior was a terrible wrestler but he was built like a Greek god and the WWF had pushed him very well disguising his weaknesses in the ring by having him annihilate his opponents in minutes and as a consequence he had built up a huge fan following.
The WWF built up an intriguing face versus face feud between Warrior and Hogan which would culminate in a match at WrestleMania VI in the cavernous Toronto Skydome, which would put the Warrior’s Intercontinental belt up against Hogan’s World Title.
The match itself was surprisingly good and finished with Warrior getting the win after a big splash. After the match Hogan hugged Warrior and presented him with the belt as a sort of passing of the torch gesture. The Ultimate Warrior’s future as the WWF world champion was looking rosy.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The WWF had not prepared a top heel for Warrior to feud with and a champion is always only as good as his challengers. So Warrior was left to battle with ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude. Rude was a superb wrestler and had inflicted Warrior’s first defeat at WrestleMania V but the victory was portrayed as a fluke and despite his talent fans didn’t see him as a threat to Warrior’s title. Another problem was that as champion Warrior could no longer squash his opponents and was forced to wrestle in matches at least ten minutes long and these matches (with the notable exception of his win over Hogan and a few others) usually ranged from below average to just plain abysmal.
So the WWF had Warrior drop the belt to Sgt. Slaughter at the 1991 Royal Rumble in Miami. The comparisons between Slaughter and The Iron Sheik are numerous; like Sheik Slaughter was only considered an average wrestler but also like Sheik he took advantage of the prejudices of the era by portraying an Iraqi sympathizer during the first gulf war. Obviously like Sheik he was only a transitional champion and the man to beat him would of course be Hulk Hogan.
Just like they had in the seventies putting the belt back on Sammartino after Morales failed, the WWF went back to Hogan as a worthy champion bound to bring prestige back to the title. He took the first steps to doing just that by beating Slaughter for the title at WrestleMania VII.
Hogan held the belt for the next eight months, defending it against all comers until he rather unexpectedly lost to the Undertaker, a veritable newcomer to the Federation. The Undertaker had entered the WWF a year earlier at the 1990 Survivor Series and had been on a rampage since then, and although he eventually lost to Hogan in the autumn of 1991 it was clear that the war was far from over, so a championship rematch was signed for Survivor Series 1991 in Detroit Michigan. Taker got the win amid controversy that included interference from Ric Flair and Taker’s manager Paul Bearer. They met again eight days later at ‘Tuesday in Texas’ with the WWF on-air president Jack Tunney at ringside to ensure fair play. Hogan got a cheated win while Tunney was incapacitated. Due to the controversy, Tunney stripped Hogan of the title and put it up for grabs in the 30 man Royal Rumble in Albany, New York.
The 1992 Royal Rumble was a classic that featured Ric Flair entering in at number three and lasting over an hour to win the Rumble and the championship. Now, not only did the WWF have an undisputed champion, not only had it been won in a classic match, not only was it held by the man who some considered to the very best ever, but it also set up a dream match that fans had almost drooled over the thought of for years: Ric Flair versus Hulk Hogan.
The obvious stage for the match would be WrestleMania VIII in Indianapolis but despite several build-up house-show bouts the match at ‘Mania never occurred. Hogan was planning to retire and wanted to go out on top by beating Flair for the belt and retiring as an undefeated champion. Vince McMahon didn’t like the thought of anyone retiring without losing the belt and ‘passing the torch’ so he cancelled the match. Instead, Flair lost the championship to ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage in a fantastic, emotionally charged match at WrestleMania.
Savage reigned for five months before Flair took the title back in September. For all his talent, however, Flair was to be only a transitional champion, he spent the next month facing Bret Hart in a series of good house-show confrontations before dropping it in a terrible match (Flair was injured going into the match) on October 12 1992.
With guys like Hogan and the Warrior leaving, and Savage’s best days behind him, McMahon decided to build the company around younger guys like Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and Yokozuna.
Going into 1993, Hart was proving himself a good champion, but not yet a big ratings draw. This was mainly due to the fact that business for WWF was poor generally back then and because his match with Flair wasn’t televised – the majority of fans had yet to see him beat a big star.
However, McMahon had a plan – Hart would successfully defend his title against the surprisingly talented and seemingly unstoppable Yokozuna and WrestleMania IX. Yokozuna was a 500-pound mammoth who had debuted in late 1992 and dominated his opponents since then, he eliminated seven men on his way to winning the 1993 Royal Rumble, thus earning himself a shot at the WWF title at WrestleMania IX. The plan was that the fans would think that if Hart could stop this monster, he would undoubtedly be a worthy champion.
Unfortunately, Hulk Hogan had other ideas. The WWF had brought Hogan back after a severe drop in ratings and attendances in 1992. One of the conditions on his return was that he had creative control over his character. Hogan decided that he was too much of a big star to compete at tag match at WrestleMania (with Brutus Beefcake against Money Inc.) and booked a storyline in which he would lose the tag match by DQ but return later on the card and defeat Yokozuna (who in this scenario would defeat Hart) in a matter of seconds for the title. McMahon grudgingly agreed and all went according to (Hogan’s) plan
While the double title change was exciting and entertaining, it made both Yoko and Hart look bad and two title changes in one night couldn’t have helped the title’s prestige. But McMahon had another plan – he’d let Hogan have his way at WrestleMania if Hogan would return the favor by dropping the belt to Hart before retiring, thus giving Hart the big title victory he both needed and deserved. It is unknown whether or not Hogan ever agreed but some time after WrestleMania, he either changed his mind or refused, saying that Hart was too small to be a star and that he didn’t want to drop the title cleanly. Angered by this, McMahon had Yokozuna squash Hogan at the inaugural King of the Ring PPV with the plan that Yoko would hold the belt until the next year’s WrestleMania when Bret or someone else was ready to step up to the plate and defeat him.
That ‘somebody else’ looked to be Lex Luger. Luger underwent a persona change in the summer of 1993 transforming from the Narcissist to a patriotic American hero. He became the first man to slam Yokozuna in July 4 at a special Independence Day event. Luger then challenged Yoko to a title match at SummerSlam, but Yoko’s managers Mr Fuji and Jim Cornette stipulated that it would be Luger’s only shot at the title (only in storyline, of course). Unfortunately for Luger, he won via count-out and so didn’t capture the title meaning his only chance to get another shot would be by winning the Royal Rumble in January.
Luger spent the next five months bouncing around the WWF’s upper card while Yoko began a decent feud with the Undertaker. And what of Bret” During that time he seemed to fade out of the World title picture, feuding with Jerry Lawler and teaming with his brother Owen.
Then came Royal Rumble ’94: Luger’s last chance to get a shot at the belt, Bret’s opportunity to show that he was not done as a main eventer. Yoko, meanwhile, was defending the title against the Undertaker. In the end, Yoko retained the title and, against all odds, the Rumble came down to Bret (who had had his leg injured and was betrayed by Owen earlier in the night) and Luger, who had been attacked by Fuji’s henchmen, Tenryu and the Great Kabuki prior to his entry in the Rumble match. In an unprecedented finish, Luger and Bret eliminated each other simultaneously to become co-winners of the Royal Rumble.
So after much debating and deliberating (on and off air), WrestleMania X was to pan out like this: Bret would wrestle Owen in the night’s opening contest. Later on the card, Luger would battle Yoko for the title and the winner of that match would face Hart in the main event. Rumour had it that Luger was originally scheduled to win the title but plans were changed when Luger revealed this to a journalist while drunk. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant. What actually did happen is the following: Owen upset Bret in a stellar match, special referee Mr Perfect controversially disqualified Luger in his title match and Bret defeated Yoko for the title in the main-event.
Bret’s second reign lasted eight months during which time his title defenses included a good match against IC champ Diesel at the 1994 King Of The Ring and a phenomenal cage match with his brother Owen at Summerslam. Bret’s next big challenge came in the form of former titleholder Bob Backlund. Backlund had returned to WWF in 1993 as an outdated and colorless Face but he turned Heel in 1994 in an angle which saw him so obsessed with avenging his loss to the Iron Sheik eleven years earlier that he challenged Bret to a title match at Survivor Series in which victory could only be obtained by trapping your opponent in a submission until his cornerman literally threw in the towel. Backlund won amidst controversy his cornerman Owen Hart tricked his mother into throwing in the towel when Bret was trapped in the Crossface Chickenwing.
But Backlund’s triumph was shortlived as he lost the title days later to Diesel in an untelevised, seven second demolition in New York. Diesel held the belt a year, and although he had quality matches with the likes of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels (at WrestleMania XI) his reign was largely a disaster. The comparisons to the Ultimate Warrior’s failed title run in 1990 are numerous: Both men were limited wrestlers whose title matches were usually predictable and boring, both had a lack of top quality opponents (Diesel’s challenger at the big SummerSlam 1995 event was perennial midcarder Mabel) and both men were terrible draws (Diesel is the worse drawing WWF Champion in history). After one year of bad business for WWF, Diesel dropped the title to Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1995.
Bret’s title win led to his match with Royal Rumble winner Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII. The two men wrestled in a classic, hour-long Iron Man Match with Michaels eventually victorious in sudden death over time. Michaels may not have been a great money maker in his initial title run (business wise, 1996 was a bad year for WWF – they lost $6 million) but his matches were nothing short of magnificent. He had a great no DQ match with Diesel in April, and followed it with amazing bouts against new title challengers Mankind and Vader. Michaels lost the belt to Sid Justice at the 1996 Survivor Series, but won it back at the Royal Rumble in January, and here’s were things get confusing.
The plan was that Steve Austin would controversially win the Royal Rumble. This would set up a four man match in February to clear up the controversy and decide the number one contender for the World Title at WrestleMania. The Undertaker would triumph in the four way and defeat Sid (who would have won the belt back by then) for the championship. Also on the card, Bret Hart would defeat Shawn Michaels. The problem was that Michaels didn’t want to lose to his real life nemesis, Hart. So a few weeks after beating Sid at the Rumble, he exaggerated a knee injury as an excuse to vacate the title. WWF dealt with this by changing the stipulation of the four way – now the winner would become champ and the runner up his challenger at WrestleMania 13. Ultimately, it was Bret who won, with Undertaker as the runner up. The next night, Bret lost the title to Sid, thus setting up Undertaker’s victory at WrestleMania.
A succession of title changes such as the one between November and March some was something that would not yet become commonplace in WWF and Undertaker’s five month reign helped restore some prestige to the belt. After a title run that included successful defenses against Steve Austin and Mankind Taker dropped the belt to Bret Hart at Summerslam 1997 in New Jersey. Bret in turn held the title three months before losing it to Shawn Michaels at the 1997 Survivor Series in the infamous ‘Montreal screwjob’ which would take an article in itself to fully explain.
This time round Michaels was a cocky but cowardly Heel champion and he played the part to perfection. He had a good feud with the Undertaker before he lost the title to Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIV in Boston and the Stone Cold era began.
Austin was a hugely successful champion from both financial and entertainment standpoints. His storyline war with WWF chairman Vince McMahon and title defenses against McMahon’s ally Dude Love (Mankind) drew huge money and were highly entertaining. He eventually lost the title in June at the King Of The Ring to a seven foot monster by the name of Kane but the Austin won it back the next night in a very good match on Monday Night RAW. Austin would go on to hold the belt another three months. He spent his second reign warring with Undertaker, Kane and (of course) McMahon. Following a successful title defense against the Undertaker at SummerSlam ’98 McMahon booked Austin in a 3-way with Undertaker and Kane (who were now united under McMahon) at the Breakdown PPV in September. Fans were stunned, how could Austin possibly defeat these two huge monsters” The answer was that he couldn’t, despite putting in a valiant effort Austin was defeated following a double-chokeslam when Undertaker and Kane simultaneously pinned him.
The belt was held up and to decide an new champion a match was set up between Undertaker and Kane with Austin as the special guest referee. Unsurprisingly it ended in chaos when Austin stunned both competitors and declared himself champion. So to decide an undisputed champion McMahon set up a one night fourteen man tournament at the Survivor Series in St. Louis.
The tournament was a highly entertaining one and concluded with McMahon turning on Mankind by helping The Rock to defeat him in the final. By allying with McMahon and styling himself the ‘corporate champion’ Rock instantly earned the hatred of the fans, hatred he justified by playing the part of the arrogant Heel brilliantly and feuding with hugely popular Faces like Mankind and Austin. From November to February Rock and Mankind traded the title in a series of classic matches such was the frequency of the title changes that by the time WrestleMania came round in March Rock had held the belt three times and Mankind had won it twice. This series of title changes did not lower the prestige of the title however, because there were only two men involved and they had brilliant title matches and cut great promos about their hatred for each other and the importance of the belt to them.
Rock’s third reign came to an end at WrestleMania XV when he lost to Steve Austin is what was easily the best match of the night. Thus began Austin’s third title run; he warded off another challenge from Rock in a great match at April’s Backlash PPV before losing the belt to Undertaker at Over the Edge in late May. Undertaker reigned only a month before Austin triumphed again on the June 28th edition of RAW. Austin had the title two months before he rather inexplicably lost it to Mankind in a 3 way with Triple H at SummerSlam. It was inexplicable because Mankind merely lost the belt to Triple H the following night which begs the question why WWF didn’t just have Triple H win it at SummerSlam. Triple H made a brilliant Heel champion. He was good in the ring and on the mike and was universally loathed by fans. But he held it less than a month before he dropped it to the now Face Vince McMahon. Though some were quick to criticise McMahon booking himself as champion, it can be justified: McMahon was hugely popular with the fans, and his win made sense from a storyline perspective. Mcmahon vacated the title soon after winning it and put it up for grabs in a six man match. Triple H restored whatever prestige the belt had lost with McMahon’s reign by grabbing a clean win over five of WWF’s top stars at Unforgiven in September. Triple H’s second reign came to an end at Survivor Series in November when he lost to surprise contender the Big Show in a 3 way with the Rock. Show’s reign done little to help the value of the title, as he spent most of his reign defending the belt against midcard wrestlers. He eventually lost the title to Triple H in the first edition of RAW of the new millennium.
Over the next few months HHH cemented himself as one the great champions of the era. He engaged himself in a bloody and exciting feud with Cactus Jack (Mankind/Dude Love) which featured classic matches at the 2000 Royal Rumble and February’s No Way Out PPV. He also became not only the first Heel to triumph in a WrestleMania main event but also one of only five men ever to retain the WWF/E title at the showcase of the immortals. He finally lost the title to at Backlash in late April to The Rock. Rock’s fourth title-run lasted only a month before he dropped it back to Triple H in a great Iron Man match that featured the return of The Undertaker. Triple H lost his fourth WWF title to The Rock in a six man tag team match in which he wasn’t even pinned at the King Of The Ring. Rock remained on top of the wrestling mountain for the next four months, fending of challenges from old foes like Triple H and Undertaker as well as WWF newcomers like Chris Benoit. When he finally did lose the belt it was to pro-wrestling rookie and former Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle.
Rookie though he was, no one could argue that Angle wasn’t ready to be champion; blessed with superb in ring skills and fantastic mic ability, you could easily mistake him for a five year veteran rather than someone who had made their TV debut in November. Angle proved himself a more than competent champion, defending the belt in quality matches against WWF’s top stars including an emotionally charged battle with Triple H at the Royal Rumble and a brutal six-man Hell in the Cell match at Armageddon in December. After a solid four-month reign, Angle dropped the title to the Rock at No Way Out in February. Rock’s title win set up his title match with Royal Rumble winner Steve Austin at WrestleMania X7.
With both men (as well as the WWF itself) at the peak of their popularity, Rock’s battle with Austin was the most anticipated WWF title match in years.
It didn’t disappoint, as Austin and Rock duked it out in a no-DQ classic. It ended when Austin pinned Rock with the help of the villainous Vince McMahon in one of the most shocking Heel turns ever.
Austin’s first major challenge as a Heel champion came in the form of an old enemy; Austin defeated the Undertaker at Backlash (in a tag team match) and at May’s Judgment Day PPV. Next up was Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho who defeated Austin and partner Triple H on the May 21st edition of RAW for the tag team titles and were hungry for more gold. But Austin still managed to hang on to his belt in a very good three way at the King of the Ring. After a short stint as a face at the beginning of the Invasion angle, Austin returned to being a Heel as the leader of the WCW-ECW Alliance. Austin’s main challenger during this period was Kurt Angle. The two met in a bloody and entertaining match at SummerSlam in which Angle gained a DQ victory. A month later Unforgiven an emotional Angle won the title in his home town of Pittsburgh with his family in attendance.
Angle didn’t even hold the belt for a month before he lost it back to Austin on RAW a few weeks later. After the Invasion Angle ended at Survivor Series, Austin was once again a Face and still champion but with the WCW title still in existence within WWF he was not the company’s only World Champion. To resolve this problem, a four man tournament was set up in which the WWF title (Austin vs Angle) and the WCW title (the Rock vs Chris Jericho) would be contested for with the two winners meeting in the night’s main event. This was huge news for wrestling fans everywhere as the tournament would unite the WCW championship and the WWF’s, making the new Undisputed World Title, unquestionably the most prestigious in the World. Not only that, but one of the four men would have the honour of being the first undisputed champion in forty years.
The honour went to Chris Jericho, who surprised everyone by becoming the first and only man to win both the WWF and WCW titles (defeating the Rock and Austin in one night) and so became the Undisputed World Champion. Furthermore, he wouldn’t let the fans forget about it and for the next three and a half months, Jericho played the part of the boastful Heel champion perfectly; in every title defense whether it be against a huge star like the Rock or a newcomer like Maven he always seemed on the verge of losing the belt but managed to steal a victory by the skin of his teeth and would be back on the next week’s show to boast about it. His look finally ran out against Triple H (now fully healed from the torn quad injury suffered in May) at WrestleMania X8 in the gargantuan Toronto Skydome.
Soon after WrestleMania, the Brand Draft split the WWF’s roster in two with one half competing solely on Smackdown! and the other on RAW. The World Champion would be one of only two competitors (along with the Women’s Champion) to wrestle on both shows, which theoretically should have increased the title’s value, but instead it lost some prestige over the next few months. Despite recovering from a devastating injury to defeat his nemesis Chris Jericho at the biggest show of the year, Triple H held the belt a mere month before losing it to the returned Hulk Hogan at Backlash. Although he had been a great champion in the past, Hogan holding the title in 2002 was just a nostalgia kick. Hogan in turn lost it to the Undertaker only a month later at Judgment Day. Taker made a decent champion, holding the belt until July’s Vengeance PPV, when he lost it to the Rock in a three way with Kurt Angle, though he wasn’t pinned. Rock was to be only a transitional champion as he dropped it a month later against rookie sensation Brock Lesnar in a great match at SummerSlam.
Soon after winning the belt, Lesnar opted only to compete on Smackdown! Prompting RAW General Manager Eric Bischoff to create his own world title for his show. Although the WWE (the name was changed in May 2002 due to a lawsuit) belt was now reduced from its ‘undisputed status’ it retained prestige and Lesnar made a good champion. Soon after SummerSlam he began a feud with the Undertaker that culminated in an awesome Hell in the Cell in Little Rock at No Mercy in October. A month later, he suffered his first pin-fall loss in a terribly short match with the Big Show at Survivor Series in New York. At Armageddon in December it was Big Show’s turn to do the job; he lost the belt to Kurt Angle. Less than a weak after winning the title, Angle turned Heel and began feuding with Chris Benoit and Brock Lesnar. His war with Benoit included one the greatest WWE title matches ever at the 2003 Royal Rumble; on the same night, Lesnar won the Rumble match, giving him a world title shot at WrestleMania. Two months later, the much anticipated Lesnar-Angle bout lived up to the hype as both men put on a fantastic match (Lesnar’s botched shooting star press being the only flaw) with the challenger coming out victorious.
Unfortunately, Angle had neck problems going into the match and came out of it with a serious injury, so a rematch in the near future was not an option. With Angle injured, Lesnar feuded with John Cena and the Big Show. Angle (now once again a face) returned in the summer and retook the title in a great three way with Lesnar and Big Show at Smackdown!’s Vengeance PPV in July. Soon after this, Lesnar made a shocking Heel turn, allying himself with the diabolical Vince McMahon in a bid to wrest the belt from around Angle’s waist. Angle and Lesnar wrestled another classic at SummerSlam with Angle gaining a surprising submission victory. The chants of ‘you tapped out’ that plagued Lesnar in the weeks following SummerSlam did not prevent him from defeating Angle by 5 falls to 4 in an outstanding Iron Man match on Smackdown! In September. Over the next five months, Lesnar fought off a variety of contenders to his crown, including Chris Benoit, the Undertaker (at No Mercy), John Cena and most surprisingly, mid-card stalwart Hardcore Holly at the Royal Rumble. Lesnar was a seemingly indestructible champion set on a collision course with the only man fans thought could beat him – RAW’s Bill Goldberg. The two were scheduled to meet at WrestleMania XX in March and most were sure Lesnar’s challenger at No Way Out in February, Eddie Guerrero, posed no real threat to the title. The match, they thought, was merely a way to help elevate Guerrero for a future title push. Sure, Guerrero would put on a brave showing but he would lose eventually. Perhaps Goldberg would even make an appearance to fuel his feud with Lesnar. Well, Goldberg did make an appearance and Guerrero did put up a brave showing, but he didn’t lose. On February 15th, 2004, Eddie Guerrero pulled off one of the biggest world title upsets in recent years when he defeated Brock Lesnar in the San Francisco Cow Palace.
Eddie Guerrero proved himself a more than capable champion. He defeated Kurt Angle (Heel once more) in a fantastic match at WrestleMania XX. His next challenger came in a most unlikely form; tag team specialist Bradshaw traded in his six pack of beer for a ten gallon hat and became the obnoxious JBL, a brash, racist, loudmouth Wall Street tycoon. JBL’s rapid ascent to being a world title contender shocked fans and his DQ victory over Guerrero in a bloody and entertaining match at Judgment Day failed to convince many people of his main event credentials. So it was understandable that his title win in a controversial but decent bull rope match at the Great American Bash lowered the prestige of the belt somewhat.
JBL proved his doubters wrong, however. No one will consider him one of the greatest champions ever, but he was the longest reigning champion since Diesel nine years earlier and he became the most over Heel in the company, defeating every top star on Smackdown! along the way (including Angle, Guerrero, Big Show, Undertaker and Booker T). Just like Jericho three years previously, it seemed JBL would always escape with his title intact. But at WrestleMania XXI, his number came up. He faced a man he had never before defeated – the immensely popular John Cena. Cena versus JBL was a classic kind of rivalry; the man of the people versus the arrogant and overbearing tyrant whom the fans are itching to see get beat. The feud was built perfectly and by the time WrestleMania rolled round on April 4th the fans couldn’t wait to see Cena knock this swaggering SOB off his high horse. The match itself was a disappointment but the fans got what the wanted when Cena pinned JBL after an FU.
Cena’s popularity continued to soar after his title win. He defeated JBL in an I Quit match at Judgment Day and soon after was drafted to RAW in the brand lottery. Sadly, in the weeks following this the WWE title, played second fiddle to RAW’s World Heavyweight Championship (during this time, Cena retained his belt in an entertaining three way against Chris Jericho and Christian at Vengeance in June) but then Heavyweight Champ Batista was drafted to Smackdown!, restoring balance to the company, and giving the WWE title the attention it deserved on RAW. At the time of writing (2005), Cena is continuing to feud with Jericho and the two will meet at SummerSlam 2005.
In a way, it will not matter who triumphs at SummerSlam, because both Cena and Jericho (unless they are horribly booked) can do nothing but add to the value of the belt: both men are charismatic athletes gifted on the mic and in the ring (especially Jericho). They’re in the mold of past greats and the legacy they leave behind as champion will add to that of the title. A legacy that spans over forty years and includes some of wrestling’s all time greats and some of the best title matches ever, a legacy that has survived all the ups and downs of the WWF/WWE and hopefully will continue to do so. A legacy that has made it the most prestigious title and valued title in the world of profession wrestling.
Well, that’s it. I hope reading about the history of the WWF/WWE title was as rewarding for you as it was to me writing about it.
Written by Colm Kearns (April 23, 2005)