Part 2: History of the WWF / WWE Championship

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.

1988 - 1998
1988 – 1998

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…!”

Hulk Hogan
Hogan had four reigns from 1984 to 1994

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”. 

History of the WWE / WWF Championship

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

original_wwe_title_main
1963

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).

Wwf_82_big-green.png
1982

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.

1985
1985
1986
1986

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.