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WRESTLING COLUMNS

Title Reigns: What Makes a Great Champion
June 9, 2005 by Jacob Kuhn


A lot of the talk I have been hearing lately about wrestling championships have got me thinking. There seems to be no general consensus as to what makes a champion 'great.' We all have our preferences as to whom we would like to see as champions, but realistically those ideals are not always realized for us. So, after hearing so many discussions about who is the greatest champion of all time, I have decided to analyze the different arguments. I am not going to write about who I think is the greatest of all time, because that would just be subjective.

1. Amount of title reigns: This seems to be one of the more popular indicators nowadays. Even in older times, multiple time champions were always held in more regard than those who had held the belts less often. During the 80's, there was a lot of talk about whether or not Ric Flair would be able to win the belt more than anyone else had ever done.

This is really the category I understand the least. Triple H is headed towards possibly winning his eleventh World Title. His first win of such a belt was in August of 1999. So, in six years, he has won a total of ten World Titles. For some, this may seem like a great accomplishment, but I fail to understand how. What would be more impressive: a wrestler who wins the belt 10 times in six years, or a wrestler who held the belt once during that entire six year run.

2. Length of title reigns: The topic of title reign length is one that is very near and dear to my heart. Lately, whenever a wrestler holds a World Title for over six months, I hear talk about how he has 'held the belt too long,' and how he should 'let someone else have a chance to shine.' When I have asked fans about their reasoning, they tell me that today's fans like to see more title changes more often. The ironic thing is, that is nothing new.

Title changes have long been one of the most exciting aspects of the sport. During a championship run, if the promotion is doing things right, the fans can should always anticipate a possible switching of the belt. Whether one wants the current champ to keep his belt, or to drop it because they can't stand the champ, that is where the excitement comes in on this sport. Fans have always wanted to see more title changes, but to keep fans watching, you can not always give them 100% of what they want.

I can acknowledge that we will never see title reigns as long as those held previously by greats such as Bruno Sammartino, Lou Thesz or even Verne Gagne. Hell, I was surprised when Jeff Jarrett held the NWA World Title for almost a year. Admit it or not, when someone is holding a belt and you want to see them lose it, fans are more likely to turn in over a long period of time to eventually see it happen.

3. Cumulative Years as Champion: Regardless of how many times a wrestler has held a belt, or the length of those reigns, how much time that individual spent as champion altogether does seem to be a good indicator of their place in history. Here are the top five wrestlers and their total years as World Champion of any of the five major USA World Titles (WWF/E, WCW, NWA, AWA and ECW):

~~~1. Verne Gagne: 12 years and 8 months.
~~~2. Lou Thesz: 11 years and 9 months
~~~3. Bruno Sammartino: 10 Years and 11 months
~~~4. Ric Flair: 10 years and 4 months
~~~5. Hulk Hogan: 8 years and 10 months.

Now, before anyone tries to correct me, these are estimates I took from the PWI Wrestling Almanac. I think undoubtedly that these five wrestlers are considered by most to be among the greatest to ever lace up the boots. So, this does seem to be a good indicator.

4. Wrestling Ability: This is touchy for a lot of people. There are quite a few people who judge solely on this one measure. This is one of the things that includes Bret Hart among the great champions of all time. Hart's longest title reign was 8 months in 1994, but that doesn't seem to hurt him as an all time great. Other World Champs that get positives in this category are Ric Flair, Bob Backlund, Harley Race, Ricky Steamboat, Curt Hennig and Shawn Michaels. By no means is this an all accompanying list, however.

On the negative end, there are some fans who feel the lack of any ability seems to be a detriment to the legacy of some wrestlers. Hulk Hogan is probably the most attacked for his lack of any pure wrestling ability. His peers in this category are men like Kevin Nash, Bill Goldberg and Lex Luger. However, even though this will probably follow them around forever, it doesn't truly tarnish them as a whole. The next category is one whereupon those with less ring ability seem to make up ground.

5. Popularity: There are a few forms of this. There is overall popularity, recent popularity and diehard popularity. Here's a determination of each and how it applies to some of our greatest champions:

A. Recent popularity: This is what I call the 'how soon we forget' form. The moment a wrestler who is popular becomes champion, commentators and some fans begin to label them as the 'greatest ever.' Despite accomplishing nearly nothing as WWF World Champion, during his first months as champion, Jim Ross was already referring to Shawn Michaels as the best ever. It was bizarre to me to hear such a thing, but it's really nothing new. The same has been done for Bret Hart, Steve Austin, the Rock and even Hulk Hogan was labelled as the greatest WCW Champion ever within his first title reign.

B. Overall popularity: This has a little more believability than the previous form. There is nearly no denying whom the most popular wrestlers of all time have been with the fans. Hulk Hogan was the wrestler of the 80's, Bret Hart, Sting and Shawn Michaels the most popular of the early 90's, thus giving Steve Austin and The Rock this distinction since.

C. Diehard Popularity: This is what I like to call it when a wrestler achieves the love of the fans, despite being mainly booed or played as a heel throughout the apex of their careers. I think no one probably fits in this category more so than Ric Flair. However, Triple H and Jeff Jarrett will probably be here one day, and men like Harley Race and Flair are already there.

6. Caliber of opponents: This is one that seems to fall through the cracks as well. A champion is only as good as the opponents he faces and ultimately the grappler who defeats him. You can defend your title for seven years successfully against no one special, and people will soon forget your reign after it ends. Or you can hold it for a year, defend against the likes of Ronnie Garvin, Dusty Rhodes, Steve Austin and ultimately lose it to Kurt Angle, and be remembered for a long time.

I can only imagine there must be many more factors that make a champion great and eventually legendary. However, I can't write a whole book out of this right now. Whatever the reasons, whether you agree or disagree, these are some of the things that have given our greatest pro wrestlers a spot in history.

(Note: before anyone decides they are smarter than me and point this out, yes I KNOW that factors like amounts of title reigns and lengths of them are decided by promoters, not the wrestlers. However, the wrestler has to have the faith of the promoter to merit long reigns and multiple championships, so I feel that these factors still apply).

by Jacob Kuhn ..


Shawn Taylor wrote:
Good article, Jacob!
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