THERE CAN BE ONLY TWO
In the early days of the WWE's (in)famous brand expansion, some professional wrestling fans began to wonder about the legacy of the company and the world championship titles being used. The "Undisputed" title on Smackdown and the "World" title on Raw. The former was certainly in dispute until it was thankfully renamed and the latter could not possibly be considered the old WCW Championship...right? The lineage of these championship belts have been called into question. Is it right for WWE to say that Raw's World Heavyweight Championship is entirely the same title from the days of the old NWA? Is it fair to call Smackdown's top prize the WWE Championship, considering it is only one of the two top titles in the company that the belt shares its name? Who owns the rights to history? Is it the scholarly historians? Is it the casual observers? Is it victors? The defeated? Is it us or is it them? Most importantly, what the heck am I talking about?
These questions (and more) will be asked in this article. The solutions, however, are your's to answer.
--THE OLD NWA--
In 1948, North American wrestling promoters joined forces to form the National Wrestling Alliance. It was the day of the old regional territories. If you had a promotion in one area and another company tried to have a show in your backyard, they were asking for trouble. Promoters kept a respectful distance from each other. So, the NWA wasn't an all-encompassing wrestling federation. Far from it. The various territories ran their own shows their own way, but they also agreed to do so under the NWA banner for financial purposes. Thus began the history of the NWA World Championship. The first title holder was Orville Brown, who at the time was Midwest Wrestling Association's champion. MWA was absorbed into the NWA, so Brown was chosen as its figurehead wrestler. A year later, Brown was injured in a car accident and had no choice but to relinquish the belt. Wrestling legend Lou Lesz, who was originally scheduled to face Brown before the accident, was awarded the belt days later. Under Lesz's reign, the NWA Championship absorbed other regional titles in unification matches. The NWA was growing.
Years went by and the NWA Championship was held by grapplers like Jack Briscoe and Dory Funk Jr. to more contemporary champions like Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. It is here that NWA title history becomes a little tricky. In 1988, Jim Crockett sold his Jim Crockett Promotions to Ted Turner. At the time, JCP and the NWA were practically one in the same, as JCP was the largest part of the massive Alliance. Turner must have thought the NWA was too old-fashioned, so he began calling his newly-bought acquisition World Championship Wrestling. Turner wished to remove all remnants of the old company, including the championship belts. The Television, Tag Team, and United States titles could easily be changed at his whims. After all, JCP created those championships. The new WCW, however, did not own the rights to the NWA Championship. So, WCW created their own championship using their own name. Ric Flair, who was NWA Champion at the time, won the WCW Championship. Both belts were defended at the same time.
In 1991, Ric Flair left WCW, allegedly fired by NWA President and WCW Vice President Jim Herd. This stripped Flair of the WCW and NWA titles. However, one must remember that the NWA was not a single entity. The Alliance went against the President's wishes and still recognized Flair as NWA Champion. This created the rift between the organizations. Flair claimed rightful ownership of the NWA belt and brought it with him to display on WWF television. I still remember those days. Flair's belt was blurred on TV probably for legal or competitive reasons. Having only a passing familiarity for NWA and WCW at the time, I was intriguied, as was the wrestling world.
In 1993, WCW withdrew from the National Wrestling Alliance, leaving the NWA a shadow of what it once was. It was an entity more on paper than in the ring. Eastern Championship Wrestling soon split from the NWA as well,
rennaming itself and forming the notorious Extreme Championship Wrestling. In many ways, WCW replaced the NWA. Not in the minds of many of its fans, though, and certainly not officially.
--WWF and WCW--
In 1963, the World Wide Wrestling Federation was born out of Vince McMahon Sr. having a falling out with the NWA and a wish to start his own company. Buddy Rogers was the first ever WWWF Champion, who is best known as the original "Nature Boy." He was crowned champion despite never actually having won the championship match they said he did. That's old world kayfabe for you. Soon to follow was Bruno Sammartino's amazing eight year run with the title. Absolutely unheard of in modern times. Management would never let Triple H hold the belt that long. Wait. Bad example. Anyway, back to the history.
In 1971, the WWWF applied for readdmittance into the NWA and was accepted. Business is business, and the WWWF knew that NWA was good business for regional wrestling promotions. In 1979, the WWWF changed its name to WWF for aesthetic reasons. Probably a good idea. WWWF is almost as cumbersome as NWA-TNA. In 1982, Vince Sr. sold the WWF to his son. Vince McMahon Jr. withdrew from the NWA, went against regional wrestling etiquette, and began to compete with other promotions in their own territory. He persuaded big name talent from other companies to join his. After all, there were no contracts at the time. Handshake deals were more commonplace. McMahon wanted the WWF to be a monopoly in American wrestling. Not a loose confederation of regional promotions like NWA. One company. One ruler. One champion.
WWF dominated professional wrestling in America until Ted Turner formed World Championship Wrestling. With the backing of a billionaire, WCW had a massive budget that WWF could not match. Over the years, WCW aquired big name WWF talent and former WWF Champions like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Kevin Nash, Bret Hart, and many more. In 1995, under the administration of Eric Bischoff, WCW debuted Nitro, a Monday night program to go head-to-head with WWF's Monday Night Raw in an all-out ratings war. For over a year, World Championship Wrestling ruled the Monday Night War, but WWF countered by changing with the times with the "Attitude" era: Edgy, risky, shock television. Due mostly to the popularity of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, D-Generation X, and The Rock, WWF came from behind and was once again on top. WCW sufferred so much that in early 2001, the company was deemed a failure and was sold to WWF for an unknown (but likely huge) amount of money. With only one major American wrestling company left, the World Wrestling Federation Championship became the most highly-regarded title in North America.
--MONOPOLY ERA AND ALTERED HISTORY--
With the purchase of WCW and soon the rights to the ECW name, the WWF not only bought out their competition but also bought the rights to history to be interpreted as it wished. During the WCW/ECW Alliance Invasion storyline of 2001, WWF television presented the last true WCW Champion Booker T defending his title against Kurt Angle. Booker lost. Could a stable of wrestlers really be considered the true WCW? If not, how can Kurt Angle be considered WCW Champion when he was never a part of that company? The WCW/ECW Alliance group wasn't two companies. It was a stable of wrestlers made to look like an invading force. Kurt Angle was never WCW Champion. Not in the real WCW. Sadly, neither was Chris Jericho. He deserved to be WCW Champion when WCW actually existed, but when he won the belt from The Rock later in the storyline, it was only a plot device. WWF may own the rights to the name, but the real WCW died in early 2001.
The WCW Championship belt (later renamed the World Heavyweight Championship) merged with the WWF Championship to form the Undisputed Championship in a unification match. Such a unification was monumentally important to the history of American wrestling. Yet, months later, Brock Lesnar took the Undisputed Championship exclusively to Smackdown, which led to the reintroduction of the World Heavyweight Championship to be handed to Triple H on Raw. WWF was soon called WWE for legal reasons, so the Undisputed Championship, now in dispute, was renamed the WWE Championship. However, it was quite clear that the WWE was using the psuedo-lineage of the belts to their advantage when in reality they were simply the Raw and Smackdown Championships.
These aren't the most head-stratching of historical blunders, though. On WWE Confidential, the company's news show, there was a piece on the history and legacy of the World Heavyweight Championship (Raw Championship). If the lineage wasn't murky enough, the WWE claimed that the championship went as far back as the NWA in the 40's. Even WCW couldn't honestly claim that. WWE definately can't. Claiming the Raw Championship is the old NWA Championship didn't just rattle uptight history buffs like myself. In 2002, Jerry Jarrett bought the rights to the NWA name and trademark and created NWA-TNA. An alternative wrestling company in the era of WWE's monopoly. It ran (and still runs) weekly Pay-Per-View events on Wednesdays. Jarrett also had in his possession the actual NWA Championship belt. Whether or not NWA-TNA can actually be called the old NWA is a matter of debate, but Jarrett has more rights to it than Vince McMahon. Even the claim that the Raw Championship has the lineage of the WCW Championship could be called into question. Booker T calls himself the "Five-time WCW Champion," so by WWE's view on history, if he won the Raw Championship, that would make him "Six-Time WCW Champion." As absurd as that sounds, that is what WWE Confidential fed us. Jim Ross contradicted this on Raw once. I believe he mentioned that Booker T was a former WCW Champion but had never won the World Heavyweight Championship (Raw Championship), seperating those histories.
Because of the monopoly and roster expansion, the other WWE belts now have strange, skewed lineages as well. The old WCW United States Championship, as mentioned before, was once the NWA United States Championship created by Jim Crockett, so to say it had some NWA history to it while in WCW had at least some validity. However, now it's in the WWE. In the wake of the Alliance Invasion, the U.S. Championship merged with the Intercontinental Championship in a unification match. The merge has since been annulled (there's that word again) and reintroduced on Smackdown. The Intercontinental Championship merged with the World Heavyweight Championship in yet another unification match, but that idea was dropped a few months later and the IC title has since been given life again on Raw.
The two Tag Team Championships (one for Raw and the other for Smackdown) are even more confusing. When Smackdown introduced their tag titles, they called Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle the "first ever" WWE Tag Team Champions because the old tag team titles were rennamed the "World" Tag Team Championship a few
months earlier. So, on one hand, they are seperate. Yet, when announcers explain how many times a WWE wrestler has won tag team gold, they combine the number of World Tag Team title reigns and WWE Tag Team title reigns into one. Edge, for example. In the case of the Dudley Boyz, it is even more bizarre. Because WWE owns the rights to the WCW and ECW names, they've combined all of Bubba and D-Von's wins into one, retroactively claiming all WCW and ECW belts as their own. Not long ago, the Dudleyz were praised as being the only tag team to win the WWE, WCW (sort of), and ECW tag team belts. Now, it's all one, according to WWE.
Extreme Championship Wrestling, with a couple exceptions, has been left alone, but that may not be true soon. Word from usually accurate internet wrestling sources say that following Wrestlemania, the WWE may consider a third brand now that Smackdown and Raw ratings are steady. A rebirth of ECW. Would it be the real ECW? No, not really. ECW veteran Lance Storm says that ECW has died and anything with its name wouldn't be the genuine article. WWE will pass it off as the real deal, though, throwing Rhyno's title of the last ECW Champion ever into question and making the Dudleys' tag team title history that much more convoluted. Can WWE simply change what once was to conform to the modern monopoly era? Why must the "revised" history be so very unusually contradictory and confusing? The brand expansion has given us much. Eddie Guerrero probably wouldn't be WWE Champion right now if not for it. Chris Benoit likely wouldn't be main eventing Wrestlemania. Yet, the way it has been handled and continues to be handled has reshaped and distorted the histories of four distinct wrestling companies.
Wrestling history makes wrestling what it is today. It should be embraced and taught. Not altered on the surface (and sometimes below) to fit an image of monopoly. History isn't just facts and dates from a sometimes forgotten past. It is what molds our present and future. As I am sometimes not eloquent enough to explain this, I close this article with a quote from someone else.
"History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes, memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity." -Cicero
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