For the record I find it peculiar that no eyebrows were raised when it was announced that a promotion based in the north-eastern United States chose to crown a world champion so far away from its regular haunts. Madison Square Garden would surely have been the logical spot. I suppose it speaks to the nature of the wrestling business at the time that everyone believed the WWWF (as it was then) would hold a tourney in Rio.
This is not intended to be a complete historical account of the WWE championship. There are plenty of those available already. Instead these are my memories of WWE’s top title from the last fourteen years.
I first started watching the WWF in late 1998. This was during a period when the championship was vacant, a situation which had come about when Kane and Undertaker had both pinned reigning champion 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin during a triple threat match. Being a new viewer I was unaware of what the lack of a world champion meant, but I was able to gather that it was serious stuff from commentator Jim Ross.
A new champion was crowned at Survivor Series. Anyone who's sat through that pay-per-view will know what a shambolic affair it was. The decision to air a fourteen man tournament on PPV was bizarre, and necessitated some pretty hasty match times. There were a variety of poor outings in the preliminary rounds and nothing that could be held up as good. The big name matches that happened later in the sho amounted to nothing because of their truncated run times.
Of course I was blissfully unaware of this at the time. I thought it was an epic and exciting show and that all big events had a similarly stacked card.
The main event got treated to a respectable seventeen minutes and acted as the starting point for the feud between The Rock and Mankind. It also featured one of the Attitude Era's most well-known and effective swerve turns. Vince McMahon had openly favoured Mick 'Mankind' Foley going into the tournament but the main event saw the boss assist 'The Great One' in gaining the win. It formed heel stable The Corporation, turned The Rock from the popular 'People's Champion' into the cocky 'Corporate Champion', switched Mankind into a face, and turned the previous year's iffy Survivor Series main event into a storyline point (an inspired move).
It wasn't terribly new viewer friendly. I didn't comprehend everything that had happened but in hindsight it was an eventful show.
More importantly, at least for the purposes of this post, it was an important night for the WWF title. The rivalry between Mankind and The Rock would continue until February of the next year and feature no less than four further title switches. They churned out some belting matches on various episode of RAW as well as at Rock Bottom, the Royal Rumble and St Valentine's Day Massacre. Anyone watching the WWF at this time will likely remember this feud well. I thought the two men had great matches and I’m pleased it was the first title feud I watched.
The epitome of a transitional champion
As good as the Mankind and Rock stuff had been the next title programme was better. It saw Foley replaced by Austin. He'd won the right to challenge for the title by defeating Vinnie Mac in a cage match at St Valentine's Day Massacre. Austin versus Rock headlined WrestleMania and had what was, by their standards, a mildly disappointing match. That’s not intended as a knock, the two were still better than everyone else on the roster and their charisma ensured they had a good exchange. But they did have better matches at other events. Again, I wasn't fully aware of how meaningful this match was at the time, I just knew two guys I liked were wrestling on a big show.
That feud carried on until late April. At that point 'The Brahma Bull' had to be split from the Corporation and turned into a babyface because of how popular he was. That left Austin to work with the Undertaker for a while before beginning a programme with the next star chosen to get a main event push: Triple H.
'The Rattlesnake' didn't want to work with ‘The Game’, which introduced me to the shenanigans that backstage politics can cause. Before this the only things I'd read were about wrestler X disliking wrestler Y. Here Austin's refusal to lose to Tripper necessitated a bizarre storyline that saw the SummerSlam main event constantly changing. Various singles match combos involving Austin, Mankind, Triple H and Chyna were announced for the show, until finally a triple threat that included the three guys and no Chyna was finalised via a double pin finish (a Russo favourite).
Mankind left as champ and held the title for a day, losing it to 'The Cerebral Assassin' on the following night's RAW. It was another memorable sequence of title changes. Sadly it was followed by something a slump.
Vince McMahon beat Triple H for the title twenty-two days into his inaugural reign. Obviously this did little damage to Hunter’s star power long term but it struck me as a stupid move at the time. Nobody wanted to see Vince as world champion, and yet there he was with the belt. And as a face no less.
By the middle of the next year Triple H had racked up four title reigns but none of them, or any of the reigns of other men, had meant anything much. The next title win that meant something to me as a fan would come on April 1st 2001 when Austin defeated The Rock at WrestleMania X7 in his home state of Texas. That was Austin’s first title reign in a year and a half. It was great to see him return to the top.
That match was supposed to see Austin go heel but it didn’t really stick. The turn was tried again in July. It worked better then as it was linked to the WCW and ECW invasion angle. Austin jumped ship to the Alliance, with the WWF title, because he felt unappreciated by Vince McMahon. The entire invasion was bungled and it would take too long to go into why here. Suffice to say that Austin’s turn shouldn’t really have stood out as a highlight of the months long storyline, but it did.
By December Austin had lost the belt to Kurt Angle and then regained it for what would be his sixth and final reign. The WWF championship was announced to be unified with the WCW championship at Vengeance. What could have been an epic eight man tournament was instead turned into a series of three matches: Rock versus Jericho for the WCW strap, Angle versus Austin for the WWF gold, and then Jericho versus Austin in a final match. Surprisingly ‘Y2J’ won both his matches, becoming the only man to ever beat Austin and Rock on the same night and gaining a bragging point for the rest of his career.
His reign wasn’t a success. In fact there wouldn’t be another great reign for quite a while. The first half of 2002 did yield a memorable sequence of title exchanges though.
Triple H conquered Jericho at WrestleMania X8. That was to be expected. He’d returned from an injury as a monster face and won the Royal Rumble at the start of the year. It was inevitable that he’d be the man to dethrone ‘The Highlight of the Night’. What was less expected was his loss of the title just five weeks later to Hulk Hogan. Yeah… Hulk Hogan.
Triple H's fifth WWF title win
‘The Hulkster’s’ sixth and final run as WWF champion come thanks to a wave of nostalgia. He’d returned to the company as a heel in February. Having been cheered in his match with The Rock at WrestleMania Vince McMahon had decided that a title win for Hogan would be good for business.
The result got a good reaction but didn’t cause the ratings surge that had been hoped for so Hogan lost the belt a month later to the Undertaker. It was during this reign that company name changed from the WWF to WWE, making ‘The Dead Man’ the first ever WWE champion. He only held the belt for two months before losing it to The Rock.
It’s always struck me as a memorable sequence of title changes because Triple H, Hogan, Undertaker and Rock are four of the biggest names in company history. For each of them to get some time with the belt in such quick succession was pretty special. It culminated in the first title win of Brock Lesnar. That’s pretty big too.
‘The Pain’ dominated the title scene until 2004. It was hoped that he could become the face of the company. Ultimately that didn’t happen because he got bored and decided he wanted to play football. We all know how that turned out for him.
The man who ended Lesnar’s third (and most recent) WWE title run was Eddie Guerrero. Their match together was masterful, quite possibly the best wrestling match of Lesnar’s entire career. So many things came together to make it special.
The show being held in a large Hispanic market meant there was huge support for Guerrero, who had become incredibly popular anyway. Lesnar had finally hit his stride as a bullying monster and begun to understand how to get over in the world of pro wrestling. Both men meshed well as opponents: they told a captivating story of the overmatched underdog facing nigh insurmountable odds. Even Tazz contributed something to the match, making one of the best calls of his announcing career when he said he didn’t even think Guerrero, the smaller man, had the speed and agility advantage over Lesnar. That helped to hammer home just how long the odds were for Eddie.
Eddie’s reign as champion was hard on him. WWE’s business had been in a steady decline for years following the end of the Attitude Era boom period. The promotion continued to do badly with Eddie as champion. Being an old school kind of guy ‘Latino Heat’ blamed himself. By that point it was the WWE brand name, rather than the champion, that drew audiences so he was pretty hard on himself: there was nothing he could have done to impact the company’s business. Guerrero was happy to be relieved of the pressure when he lost the title to JBL in June.
Bradshaw’s winning of the WWE championship was a contributing factor to me paying less attention to WWE and more to other wrestling promotions. He struck me as a glorified mid-carder and I had no interest in seeing him as a featured singled competitor. He held the title for a ridiculous 280 days before dropping it to John Cena (you may have heard of him) at WrestleMania 21 which, in a sense, brings us into the modern era of the WWE championship. That title change happened nine years ago and Cena has been a central part of the title scenery ever since.
Whoever thought a "vanilla midget" would become the WWE champion?
Cena’s title reign ended in two firsts: the first Money in the Bank cash-in and the first WWE title victory for Edge. This was another reign that meant a lot to me as a fan. Edge was a guy I’d been a fan of for a long time and it was great to see him finally get the recognition he deserved by winning the promotion’s top championship. Sadly it didn’t last long: he dropped the belt back to SuperCena three weeks later at the Royal Rumble.
He’d win the title a further three times during his career but he’d never hold it for more than a month and a half. All of his reigns but that one lasted twenty-one days. He’d have more luck with the company’s other world title.
WWE had introduced the World Heavyweight championship in September 2002 as part of their separate rosters initiative. For the first few years of the WHC’s existence the prestige and meaning of the WWE championship was diluted slightly. WWE did a good job of booking both titles as though they meant something and ensuring only the most appropriate wrestlers challenged for and held both prizes. That helped the World Heavyweight title but decreased the importance of the older belt. Eventually the company de-pushed the World Heavyweight strap and the WWE championship became the clear number one again.
Going back to the memories… John Cena’s second title reign came to an end at ECW One Night Stand in June of 2006. He lost to second Money in the Bank holder Rob Van Dam, who held the title for just twenty-two days before unceremoniously dumping it to Edge thanks to a Wellness Policy violation. Rumours at the time were that RVD had been due to have a lengthy run. His stupidity cost him what probably would have been a career highlight run.
Nothing particularly noteworthy happened again until the end of 2008. The second half of the decade saw WWE hit a bit of a slump and so they played things safe by keeping the title on established headliners like Triple H. Randy Orton got his first and second reigns with the belt at No Mercy 2007, but he’d already held the World Heavyweight title by then and was established at the top. It wasn’t a big deal.
December 2008 saw Jeff Hardy capture his first WWE championship in a triple threat match with Triple H and Edge. This was a noteworthy moment in much the same way ‘The Rated R Superstar’s’ first title win had been. I’d never been the biggest fan of the Hardys (I preferred Edge and Christian, obviously) but it was nice to see another guy who’d started in the company during the Attitude Era getting a reign with the big belt.
Orton, Triple H and Cena spent the next year swapping the title amongst themselves before newcomer Sheamus was randomly given a premature try as a headliner on December 13th. He was presented as a fluke champion unworthy of the position. Which, y’know, didn’t do a huge amount of good for the title’s image or ‘The Celtic Warrior’s’ long term perception.
The next big moment featuring the title was CM Punk’s victory at Money in the Bank 2011. A lot has been written about that, on this blog and elsewhere. It was an important moment because it was acknowledgement from WWE that the group of indy stars who had risen to prominence over the preceding decade were not just able to get jobs in “the big leagues” but could rise to the top. It was a significant moment for the championship as well as WWE’s views on what made a wrestler suitable to hold it.
Punk’s win led to the farcical double champions storyline. That was resolved just weeks after it started when Punk and Cena clashed in a unification bout at SummerSlam. It wasn’t an especially memorable moment. It could have been had the story continued for longer, but that wasn’t on the cards. WWE were more interested in having Kevin Nash return to launch into a feud with their hottest star. The belt was slapped on to Alberto Del Rio and Cena before Punk became a two time champion at Survivor Series and embarked on his 434 day reign.
We all know the story from there.
The WWE championship may not always be held by the best wrestler in the world or even the best wrestler in the company but that doesn’t stop it being an important prize. Despite WWE’s continual shift away from sports and towards entertainment they still have the sense to protect the WWE championship and present it as the top championship in the industry. Other companies may have their own world titles but there are none with the history and legacy of the WWE world heavyweight championship. It is wrestling’s most prestigious prize.