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WRESTLING COLUMNS

The History of the WWE Title (part 2)
May 23, 2005 by Colm Kearns


This is a continuation of last month's column:
History of the WWE Title Part 1.

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.

by Colm Kearns ..


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