Welcome to part 2 of our feature covering the history of the most coveted prize in sports entertainment: the WWE Championship.
In part 1, we looked at the formation of the title and covered the early days including the reigns of Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan. In Part 2, we’ll cover the late 80s and early 90s, a golden age for WWE and wrestling as a whole.
Hulk Hogan’s first reign spanned over four years. “Hulkamania” was pop-culture and WWE capitalised on a very evident boom period for pro-wrestling. WWE held it’s first Wrestlemania in 1985, a massive gamble for Vince McMahon, and boy did it pay off. While the main event didn’t feature a defence of the title, it further enhanced the popularity of the champion who teamed with Mr. T to take on Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff.
The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object
Hogan’s most memorable feud of his 4-year reign was without argument, Andre the Giant. The big man had been never been pinned or submitted in a WWE ring. He and Hogan had been pals up to now, but Bobby “the Brain” Heenan used his manipulative powers to turn Andre to the dark side. The Giant was unsuccessful in his attempts to pry the title away from Hogan, with the Hulkster picking up the victory after an impressive body slam in front of over 90,000 fans in the Silver Dome.
In 1988, WWE debuted a new championship belt, again designed and crafted by Reggie Parks. The main plate featured an eagle surrounding a small globe, it truly is a beautiful belt and one of the most recognised even to this very day. It’s affectionately known as “The Winged Eagle” – but don’t all eagles have wings?
Andre was not to be denied. He claimed the title from Hogan on an episode of The Main Event in dubious fashion. The Million Dollar Man had bribed Andre to win the belt on his behalf, and after some shenanigans with a cloned referee (in reality it was twin brothers Dave & Earl Hebner), Andre became champion and handed it over to Ted DiBiase.
President Jack Tunney was none too pleased. He immediately stripped DiBiase of the title and set up a tournament to crown a new champion at Wrestlemania IV. Hall of Fame 2015 inductee “Macho Man” Randy Savage defeated Ted DiBiase in the finals, with a little help from his Mega Powers team-mate, Hulk Hogan.
Hogan and Savage teamed for the best part of the next year. With the lovely Miss Elizabeth by their side, nothing could stop them. That being said, jealousy can drive a man crazy. Savage turned on Hogan when he suspected his wife and best friend were getting it on behind his back. A showdown at Wrestlemania 5 was on the horizon. Hogan ended Savage’s year long reign to begin his second tenure with the gold.
The Ultimate Challenge
The title didn’t change hands until Wrestlemania the following year. The 1991 Royal Rumble featured a momentary clash between Intercontinental Champion, the Ultimate Warrior and WWF Champion Hulk Hogan. The brief face-off sent fans into a frenzy. It was a no brainer for the match-makers and on-screen president Jack Tunney booked the “Ultimate Challenge” – Hogan Vs Warrior – Title Vs Title.
Dream match, huh? I challenge anyone to watch the match itself with the sound off. It was your typical old-school main event featuring two powerhouses. It was one of the first matches I watched when I got the WWE Network. But by god, I shall not be watching it again. The Warrior walked away with both titles becoming the first man to hold the Intercontinental and WWF championships simultaneously.The Ultimate Warrior’s run with the belt was lacklustre. He had feuds against Haku, Mr Perfect and Rick Rude but Hogan was still seen as the company’s number 1 guy. Sgt Slaughter ended Warrior’s 10 month reign at the Royal Rumble, with Hogan defeating the USA turncoat at Wrestlemania VI two months later.
In comparison to years gone by, 1991 featured a then-record four title changes in a calendar year. Undertaker debuted in 1990 and 12 months on defeated Hogan with the help of a Ric Flair steel chair. The Hulkster won the title back 6 days later but Jack Tunney again got involved and deemed the title vacant as “The Nature Boy” had interfered in both of the previous two matches.
“With a tear… in my eye…!”
Funny now that I mention Ric Flair. He threw a spanner in the works when he signed for the WWF and brought his NWA World Heavyweight Championship with him. Flair dubbed himself the “Real World’s Champion” and carried the opposition’s strap on WWF television. Following a copyright suit, Flair handed back the title to his former employers but it wasn’t long before he wore gold yet again. Tunney put the vacant WWF title up for grabs at the 1992 Royal Rumble. Flair outlasted 30 other superstars (literally) and survived for over an hour before eliminating Sid Justice and walking away with the undisputed WWE title. Flair’s tenure in the WWF was short-lived at just 18 months. He traded the title back and forth with Randy Savage before eventually losing it on an episode of Primetime Wrestling to Bret “Hitman” Hart.
Rise of the Hitman
The Hitman’s first of five reigns ended at Wrestlemania IX in a controversial defeat to Yokozuna. At the end of the match, Hulk Hogan challenged Yokozuna to an immediate match and ended the shortest reign in history in under 5 minutes. Hogan left the WWF later that year, dropping the strap back to Yokozuna. Hogan eventually ended up in WCW and Yokozuna carried the title up until Wrestlemania X. Bret Hart won the title in the main event at Madison Square Garden, becoming the catalyst for a new era for the WWF – one without their biggest ever star Hulk Hogan.
Be sure to tune in for Part 3 where I’ll be covering the mid-late 90s and the infamous “Attitude Era”.