In this 4-part series, I’ll be covering the history of sports entertainments most coveted prize, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
For the sake of clarity, the belt in question is the WWF/WWE version first established in 1963. It has been held by greats such as Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Bret “Hitman” Hart, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H…. you get the picture. I’ll be looking at the different iterations of the belt – designs, unifications, famous champions (and the not-so famous). In part one, we’ll be looking at the belt’s incarnation up until Hulk Hogan’s first reign in the 80’s.
First Champion & Early Years
So back in the day, wrestling was split into various territories divided up across the USA. The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) were the governing body (yes, wrestling had a governing body) and had one true World Heavyweight Champion. Following a disputed result of a match between then-champion Buddy Rogers and Lou Thesz, Capitol Wrestling Corporation (an NWA territory owned and run by Vince McMahon Sr.) split from the NWA. The company was renamed the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) and Buddy Rogers won the title in a tournament held in Brazil. The first belt is shown on the right. A far cry from today’s version, the centre plate is shaped like the map of the USA and it depicts two grapplers squaring off with the words “World’s Champion” etched on the bottom.
Bruno Sammartino won the title three weeks later and went on to hold the strap for a record 2,803 days, one that still stands to this very day.
The title changed changes six times over the next 15 years. Pedro Morales had a 1000+ day reign, as did Sammartino when he held the belt for the second time in 1973. Bob Backlund defeated Billy Graham in 1978 and the company (and belt) was renamed to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).
Backlund, the true American hero feuded with Iran’s Iron Sheik. The Sheik won the title via the dreaded Camel Clutch hold when Backlund’s manager threw in the towel (something we’ll revisit later on). Backlund never officially submitted but The Sheik walked away with the “Big Green Belt”, pictured right.
The Rise of Hulkamania
The Iron Sheik was merely a transitional champion (a term used to describe someone who is temporarily holding the belt for someone else, or a technique used to pass the belt from one good guy to another without having them face off). Vince McMahon Jr had taken over the running of the company, and signed American Wrestling Association star Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan. The Hulkster had previously starred in Rocky III and McMahon chose him as his first mega-star in order to gain national notoriety.
Hogan won the belt in Madison Squared Garden in January 1984 and went on to hold it for over 1,400 days. The belt he carried had a green strap and a large round golden centre plate. The side plates were engraved with the names of previous holders and the dates they won the title. The design was changed twice during Hogan’s tenure. WWE enlisted the help of former wrestler Reggie Parks to design and produce their championship belts. The improvement in quality and design was clear to see.
That concludes part 1 of our history of the WWE championship. In part 2 I’ll look at WWE’s “Rock n’ Roll” era, Wrestlemania and the early 90’s.