I have found myself in several true World title debts over the last few months. Starting with highlighting former African American World champions and moving to Twitter where I have debated many people on Kenny Omega winning 3 World titles all at once. As a historian, one thing I spent many hours studying in-between the great history subjects of Ancient Greece, or the Civil Rights Movement, was the World Heavyweight Title.
You see, like people who study the history of Star Wars, or the history of comic books, I too study useless information that really doesn’t mean much, other than winning Twitter debates. Now, should I use my vase knowledge and interest in history to only study the worth wild things? Sure. But I like to have fun, and fun to me is studying how “Strangler” Lewis captured the World title in 1920 and monopolized the title with his style of “Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling.”
As I go on with this article, I want to first say if you take the Bill Apter Magazine’s view of the World title, then by all means. Apter was covering wrestling before I was even born. In my honest opinion, he’s the only one who covers wrestling and takes it for what it is. Other writers like Dave Meltzer or Wade Keller try to “expose” the business of conmen, and they go for insider news. Apter on the other hand sees the wrestling business for exactly what it is. So, if you go by the Apter Magazines, I wouldn’t fault you. With that said, I’m about to destroy the concept of World title and tick off a lot of fans. Why? Because what is a world title in a sport that’s not really a sport?
The History of the World Title
When there was a war between WCW and WWF, WCW had always claimed their title was the legitimate title. The claim was there is a direct link from their title to Frank Gotch and George Hankenschmit. In a sport like wrestling, once the fans knew everything was preterminal, then linage becomes very important to justify your place. Without a linage, then you just made up a prop in mid-air and called it important. There is some value to creating titles, WWE just created the Universal title.
With that said, the Universal title is a world title. But I do not think the Universal title is THE World title. It is hard to compare the two WWE titles, when one was unified with the WCW title, and held by Bruno, Hogan, Austin, the Rock, and John Cena, and the other started off with a one week Finn Balor reign. So what is THE World championship?
George Hackenschmidt as the first World Champion
The actual line between Gotch/Hackenschmit to now has been broken so many times. It is hard to claim the current World title lineage started with that match. Gotch ended up retiring with that title in 1916. You had a disputed world title again, which would be unified when Ed “the Strangler” Lewis unified the Olin line title and the world title. Eventually, the title Lewis split to the original NWA (National Wrestling Association), original AWA (American Wrestling Association, and lineal World titles. Lots of back stabbing, screw jobs, and other dirty tactics created many disputes. But after World War 2, times were beginning to change. Television became widely available and promoters decided they needed one unified champion.
Jim Londos held the lineal World title for 8 years. He would only defend his title in Southern California. In 1948, instead of losing the title to pass on, Londos retired as World champion, ending the Lewis line. Promoters decided to get together and create a new NWA world championship. The first champion would be Orville Brown. Eventually he was scheduled to face Lou Thesz in a match to unify the two NWA titles. Brown would suffered a car accident, and Thesz was awarded both NWA titles. Thesz would then travel to Los Angeles and win that territory’s title, as that was a stand in for the lineal belt. The AWA title would disappear after champion Don Eagle suffered career ending injuries at only 27 years old. The Boston territory would retire the title with Eagle, and create a regional title to be defended in the territory.
Lou Thesz as NWA World Champion
Despite the NWA being a collection of promoters who are now agreeing who is the World champion, there would still be many disputes. The biggest dispute being the WWWF’s split off the NWA title when they refused to recognize Buddy Roger’s one fall lose to Thesz. (Back then, champions defended the title in 2 out of 3 fall matches.) But that would not be the only dispute.
Every World title in the territory days had their own linage, which all of them could trace back to the NWA title. The WWA title in Los Angeles came from the Édouard Carpentier line when Carpentier beat Thesz in disputed fashion. Most territories still recognized Thesz as the champion, but Carpentier had his claim of the title. Using that claim, the Los Angeles territory brought in Carpentier so he could lose to Freddy Blassie, which added legitimacy to their World title.
The Minnesota territory gave NWA title holder Pat O’Connor 90 days to defend his title in Minnesota or he’d be striped of the World title in the Northern territories. Well, O’Connor never defended the title in North, So the Northern territories created the AWA World title. It was eventually unified with a Carpentier linage belt to add further legitimacy. Showing your title’s connection to the line was maybe the most important thing for legitimacy.
Where is the Linage Today?
Just know, I don’t like what I’m about to type myself. There is only one true World title belt right now. That title belongs to the WWE. Yes, I know, it’s boring, it sucks, Vince is out of touch, I agree with all of that. But two events happened which make the WWE’s case as the only World title so strong, I am confident saying we’ll never see a dispute for the World title in our lifetimes. The first event is the obvious one, when WWF bought WCW. WCW’s came from the NWA, as it was united with the Big Gold Belt. When the WWF bought WCW, they inherited the NWA linage. But there is an overlooked event which strengthens WWE’s claim.
You see, prior to 1991, there wasn’t never a break in the NWA’s linage. Yes, you had the occasional short reigns for local territories, like Ric Flair losing to Carlos Colon in Puerto Rico, and even as early as Leo Nomellini winning the title from Thesz for a month in 1955. And yes, territories might have created a disputed when they split from the NWA. But the NWA’s line was the strongest of all World title lines, until.
Ric Flair bringing the Big Gold Belt to WWF changed wrestling history
It was the summer of 1991, when Bobby Heenan arrived on WWF TV with the NWA title. The NWA champion was now in WWF. The line that had never been broken, was now broken. In the old days, territories would pull these types of moves all the time. Tony Stetcher paid off Stanislaus Zbyszko to shoot on Wayne Munn and win the World title. Even though Ed Lewis and the Gold Dust Trio made a new championship, the public saw Zbyszko as the true champion. It was not anything new when Vince signed the NWA champion. And since Flair never lost in WWF before Royal Rumble 1992, he was the lineal NWA title. It could be argued that Ric Flair winning the Royal Rumble was the true unification of the NWA and WWF titles.
World Titles, but with a Lowercase w
An argument can be made that right now, there are more world titles that ever. From 1963 to 1991 and 1999 to 2001, Pro Wrestling Illustrated recognized three world titles. From 1991 to 1999, and 2002 to 2006, PWI recognized two world titles. When WWE won the Territory/Monday Night Wars, they ended up with the Undisputed World title. They’ve never even bothered to add any disputes to that title. Instead Eric Bischoff just handed Triple H a title, and Triple H ended up unifying it with the Intercontinental title. This made the World Heavyweight title the most powerful mid-card title in history.
The WWE created the Universal title by a tournament because they needed a world title on Raw. Both were small w world titles. In modern history, small w world titles are more the norm. Aside from WWE’s secondary title, you have a string of smaller companies, like Ring of Honor, or Impact Wrestling, and now All Elite Wrestling, gaining world title recognition from wrestling publications. With wrestling promotions able to stream online, and trade with companies around the world, how we think of world titles has changed.
Taz as champion when PWI changed the ECW title to a world title
In the 90’s, many fans wrote into Pro Wrestling Illustrated to lobbying for them to recognize Extreme Championship Wrestling as a world title. The conversation was hot and heavy. ECW had gained national television, and a pay per view. Also, ECW did make connections with Japanese promotions to trade talent, making them a true international promotion. Aside from linage, the ECW title was a true world title. Eventually PWI recognized ECW as a world title, and for the first time since AWA went out of business, there were three world titles. Twenty-two years later, PWI made a move that I never thought I’d see. After years of being very conservative with their world title classifications, they opened the flood gates.
As of this column, PWI now recognizes 12, count them, 12 world titles in wrestling. And currently, Kenny Omega has 3 of those world titles, making him the first person since Lou Thesz to accomplish such a feat. And the reason for this is simple, Kenny Omega is wrestling’s last great attraction. Since 2001, WWE has tried to change their business model from a star base business, to a brand base business. Slowly stars have lost their drawing power. Now in a world starved for stars, Kenny Omega’s legend grew as he put on 5-star match after 5-star match in Japan. Instead of tape trading, fans now can go online and find Kenny Omega matches. On the strength of their work in Japan, Omega, Cody, and the Young Bucks were able to start their own promotion here in the United States, and it was immediately seen as a world title.
My Reservation with 12 world titles
Call me old fashion, but I just have a very hard time with calling all these titles, world titles. Sometimes a global title doesn’t make a world title. What makes a true World title is the story behind it. Eric Bischoff couldn’t just walk out and create a title. A true World title is something multiple companies want. These were belts that promoters were willing to screw each other over. Now a vice-president of AEW stands with the title of Impact Wrestling around his waist and a vice-president of Impact is standing next to him smiling. And if Omega loses the Impact title, will the other titles follow? If not, then what good is having the titles unified?
This belt collector gimmick might be what wrestling needs
I do see the need to recognize more world champions, as WWE’s monopoly on the World title makes it very hard on other wrestling promotions to rise. But is 12 a bit too much? I agree with a few of the titles, you have AEW, obviously, then AAA’s Mega title, NJPW World title, and finally AJPW’s Triple Crown title. Apart for AEW, the other 3 world titles are unified championships from storied titles with deep histories. In fact, PWI should have recognized these titles as world titles long, long ago. (Well the Mega title is newer than the rest, still, should have been a world title from it’s start.)
With that said, when PWI stripped Impact of being a world title in 2015, they made the right call. Before that, they stripped the NWA again, in 2007, also the right call. Ring of Honor, Major League Wrestling, and Global Honored Crown are all smaller promotions in their own country. And CMLL’s Heavyweight title isn’t even the most important title in the CMLL’s promotion. In fact, really, no championship is the most important title in CMLL. So, while I understand why PWI did what they did, I will say I don’t agree. But just because I don’t agree, does that mean anything, well, yes. Yes it does.
We hear this all the time, title inflation. And we currently have that right now. WWE suffers this the most with their two brands, too many titles. With that said, we have too many world titles as well. When Lou Thesz united three titles in the 40’s, it was a huge deal because there were only four titles to start. When Ric Flair won the 1992 Royal Rumble, it was a big deal; he held the lineal NWA and WWF titles at the same time. And when Jericho beat the Rock and Steve Austin on the same night, he held the two belts that had represented the two largest companies in wrestling history. There was an aura of exclusivity. Sadly, that aura does not surround Omega. Though it’s not his fault.
If WWE were to unify the World and Universal titles, it wouldn’t have the same feel as when Jericho beat Austin and the Rock on the same night. Unless Kenny unifies the AAA Mega and NJPW World titles, it just doesn’t feel like winning all these titles are a big deal. In order to create that aura, fans have to be invested in the titles. When WCW and WWF were at war, fans were invested. There were arguments all over the place over who was the true champion. In the 80’s, was Ric Flair the true champion, or Hulk Hogan; in the 90’s, was Sting the true champion, or Shawn Michaels. No one debates that now. People are invested in their companies, their brands. But they aren’t invested in the titles anymore.
What is a world title?
Look, world titles aren’t what they use to be. With one company holding a monopoly over the World title, the rest of the companies have had to scramble to make it work for them. It takes all companies thriving for the business to improve, not just one company. With that said, I personally will not be referring to all 12 worlds titles as world titles in my future columns. From here on out, it will only be the WWE World title, WWE Universal, IWGP World title (NJPW), AJPW Triple Crown title, AAA Mega title, and the AEW World title. With WWE, NJPW, AJPW, and AAA you have four titles with rich traditions and heritage built in. And the AEW and Universal titles are included because, well Tony Khan and Vince McMahon have the money to make those titles important.
As for the other world titles, I will talk about them as small w world titles. But if I’m making list of World champions, I will only be referring to the ones listed above. Winning a title from those companies is the peak of any wrestler’s career. No matter what happens with Fenix, he will be remembered for winning AAA Mega Champion. Alternatively, Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley winning the Impact title is a footnote in their careers; a highlight on their road to returning to the WWE. So Impact is part of the story, but it’s not the happy ending that winning the WWE World title is. And it’s that reason why litte w world titles are not counted to me.
How to Truly Judge Kenny Omega
Okay, Kenny Omega inspired me to go down this road, so I’m going to end with Kenny Omega. The reality is this, Kenny Omega is has not done anything on par to what Lou Thesz did in 1948, or even what Ric Flair did in 1992. That’s not to discredit Omega. Omega is without question the biggest needle mover when it comes to business right now. A close second is Roman Reigns himself. I personally have enjoyed Reigns much more as a heel than I have Omega since joining AEW, but let’s not fool ourselves here. On the back of Kenny’s 5-star match reputation, Tony Khan has been able to create a new wrestling brand from thin air. That’s mostly Kenny Omega.
Impact put their world title on Kenny because that helps them draw better. They just had much higher pay per view buys with Kenny Omega on the card. I’m going to keep it real, in lucha libre titles are rarely defended so they could keep the Mega title on Omega until Triplemania and no one would notice. But he did get companies to work together. Impact is more than happy to get the Kenny Omega rub. For that Omega deserves his props. I do have issues with all these world titles, and everyone having a world title. It’s like the everyone gets a trophy world of professional wrestling. With that said, it’s not Kenny Omega’s fault the business is the way it is, and because he’s that strong of a draw he can win and lose any title he wants. And that fact will be remembered in wrestling eternity.