Pro wrestling has always had its fair share of controversies both inside the ring and out. Some of pro wrestling’s greatest controversies have surrounded championship matches. Some of the most controversial championship matches are caused by forces outside of pro wrestling booking and angles. These title bouts have fans on the edge of their seats because the lines of fantasy and reality become blurred. Other championship matches are so controversial that pro wrestling promoters attempt to sweep them under the rug.
Fans have to rely on research to dig up information on these phantom title changes. Wrestlers can also have a hand in making a championship match controversial by shooting or improvising to create an unintended result. Promoters sometimes have an agenda that can be the recipe for controversy; they can really complicate truly classic championship matches on paper that end up being real stinkers in the ring. And yet other championship matches are controversial due to how they are booked.
Worked shoots and “Dusty finishes” can shock and frustrate fans who are looking for a definitive winner. However, sometimes a lot or even a little controversy can turn a good championship match into a legendary championship match.
Let’s take a look at the 15 most controversial pro wrestling championship matches.
19 WWE Championship Match: Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant - The Main Event
The controversy was all a part of the angle in the championship match between WWE Champion Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. Andre defeated Hogan after referee Dave Hebner counted three despite Hogan’s shoulder coming off the mat. However, it was Dave’s “evil” twin Earl who made the three count as a part of a conspiracy orchestrated by The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase. DiBiase failed on a number of occasions to wrestle away the belt and decided to use his money to get the title. Andre sold the WWE Championship to DiBiase shortly after the win. There was historical controversy related to the angle. DiBiase was stripped of the title thus leaving the WWE Championship publically declared vacant for the first time. Macho Man Randy Savage won a tournament to crown a new WWE Champion at WrestleMania IV.
18 WCW Championship Match: Sid Vicious vs Chris Benoit - Souled Out 2000
Chris Benoit was extremely unhappy with the atmosphere in WCW. Benoit and a few others who were being held down in WCW were looking to make a change to better their careers. Injuries to both Bret Hart and Jeff Jarrett lightened the roster and wreaked havoc on the original plans for WCW’s Souled Out 2000 pay-per-view. WCW desperately wanted to keep Benoit in the fold. As a result, he defeated Sid Vicious for the vacant WCW Championship at Souled Out 2000. WCW’s effort to keep Benoit by putting the gold on him was all for not. He forfeited the title and left for WWE along with Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn. This and other WCW Championship controversies tarnished the title and was just one of the factors that led to the eventual downfall of WCW.
17 WWE Tag Team Championship Match: The Hart Foundation vs The Rockers
Shawn Michaels & Marty Jannetty, The Rockers, defeated Bret Hart & Jim Neidhart, The Hart Foundation, in a two out of three falls match to win the WWE Tag Team Championship. However, the match was untelevised, the belts were given back to The Hart Foundation, and the title change is unrecognized by WWE. There are some theories as to why the title change was swept under the rug. The match itself had a serious technical issue. During the match, the top rope broke causing the match to be a bit of a mess. This could have been one reason why the title change was scrapped. Another more juicy theory is that The Hart Foundation used the broken rope to buy some time to politic their way back into wearing the belts. If this were true then maybe this phantom title change was one of the first shots fired in the professional war between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels.
16 NWA Championship Best Of Seven Series Final: Adam Pearce vs Colt Cabana
Starting in 2011, Adam Pearce and Colt Cabana entered into a heated rivalry for the NWA Championship. A rivalry that was helping bring some prestige back to a once proud championship. The NWA Championship had some very low points starting in the 1990s after being one of the most coveted titles in all of pro wrestling since the 1950s. Pearce and Cabana had traded the belt back and forth several times before agreeing to a Best of Seven Series called “Seven Levels of Hate”. With Pearce in possession of the title heading into the seventh and final match, the NWA refused to sanction it as a title match. Cabana won the match and refused the belt. Pearce also refused the belt leaving the NWA, once again, without a champion. The NWA had gone over 40 years without their title being vacant. The title has been vacant nine times since that first time in 1991.
15 NWA Championship Match: Shane Douglas vs 2 Cold Scorpio
Shane Douglas met 2 Cold Scorpio in a tournament final for the NWA Championship. The legendary championship had been vacant for nearly a year after the WCW-NWA working agreement went south. WCW withdrew from the NWA and the NWA no longer recognized Ric Flair as champion starting in September of 1993. Douglas defeated Scorpio in a solid match and it appeared the NWA had a champion once again. That was until Douglas’ acceptance speech turned into an insult filled refusal of the title. He insulted former champions such as Kerry Von Erich,Dusty Rhodes, and Ricky Steamboat before declaring himself the first ECW World Champion. The NWA Championship was once the most prestigious championship in all of professional wrestling. It still exists today on a much smaller scale and some say that the events of August 27, 1994 caused the NWA Championship irreparable damage.
14 NWA Championship Match: Ric Flair vs Tatsumi Fuginami - WCW/New Japan Supershow I
A championship match that had a tremendous amount of confusion and controversy surrounding it was NWA/WCW Champion Ric Flair vs IWGP Champion Tatsumi Fuginami at WCW/New Japan Supershow I. First, it must be said that it was a complicated time for the NWA Championship. At that time, Ric Flair was recognized as both NWA and WCW Champion and “The Big Gold Belt” represented both titles. However, on WCW television, Flair was only referred to as the WCW Champion. Officially, the match was only for the NWA Championship. Fuginami became NWA Champion when he defeated Flair. Things got complicated when Flair took “The Big Gold Belt” back to WCW and WCW refused to acknowledge Fuginami’s victory. WCW ruled that Fuginami was disqualified for throwing Flair over the top rope thus retaining the WCW Championship despite it not being officially on the line during the match. Flair won the rematch at SuperBrawl I and again unified the titles.
13 Intercontinental Championship Match: Jeff Jarrett vs Chyna At No Mercy 1999
Jeff Jarrett defended his WWE Intercontinental Championship against Chyna in a “Good Housekeeping Match” at No Mercy 1999. Double J walked in with the strap and left for WCW without it. The fact that a woman won the Intercontinental Championship was not controversial at all. Pro wrestling is all about compelling stories and the fans loved this battle of the sexes. What was extremely controversial is supposedly what went down behind the scenes leading up to the match. Jarrett’s contract expired a day before No Mercy and he allegedly threatened to no show the event if his financial demands were not met. There have also been accusations that Vince Russo and Jarrett both conspired to make sure the match would take place a day after the contract expired for the specific purpose of holding the Intercontinental title up for ransom. Russo and Jarrett both ended up in WCW and the last thing Vince McMahon wanted was for the prestigious Intercontinental Championship to be thrown in the trash on an episode of WCW Nitro.
12 WCW Championship Match: Jeff Jarrett vs Hulk Hogan - Bash At The Beach 2000
The championship match between WCW Champion Jeff Jarrett and Hulk Hogan was a confusing worked shoot angle that turned into a legitimate shoot by Vince Russo. Russo wanted Hogan to simply job to Jarrett at Bash At The Beach 2000. However, Hogan who had creative control of his character didn’t want to simply job. Hogan and Russo compromised on a worked shoot angle in which Jarrett would simply lay down for Hogan. Hogan would take the belt and be written out of WCW storylines until returning to confront the new WCW Champion. The only problem was that after Hogan left with belt, Russo cut a shoot promo on him. The promo revealed to fans that Hogan had complete creative control. Russo told WCW fans that they would never see Hogan in WCW again. As a result, Hogan did not return and later sued Russo for defamation of character. Later in the card, Jarrett dropped the “new” WCW Championship to Booker T.
11 WWE Championship Match: Bob Backlund vs The Iron Sheik
The Iron Sheik defeated Bob Backlund for the WWE Championship and ended a reign that lasted nearly six years. The match was a bit controversial for its time due to Backlund not being pinned or submitted. The Sheik trapped him in the Camel Clutch and it was Backlund’s manager Arnold Skaaland who threw in the towel for a match stoppage. The real controversy took place outside the squared circle. Vince McMahon had recently gained control of WWE from his father and left the National Wrestling Alliance. McMahon’s vision for his WWE was a national promotion. His vision did not include Backlund as a champion but rather a charismatic big man named Hulk Hogan. However, Backlund refused to turn heel and drop the belt to Hogan. He has publically stated his dislike for the Hulkster. It is also believed that Hogan’s lack of an amateur wrestling background did not sit well with Backlund at that time. The Sheik, who has an impressive amateur background, may have been Backlund’s hand picked successor. Obviously, The Sheik had no problem putting over Hogan and helping launch Hulkamania. Backlund left shortly after his title defeat and wouldn’t return to WWE until 1992.
10 WWE Championship Match: Yokozuna vs Hulk Hogan - WrestleMania IX
One of the most controversial main events in WrestleMania history took place at WrestleMania IX in 1993. Bret Hart lost his WWE Championship to Yokozuna in the scheduled main event of WrestleMania IX. Hulk Hogan made his way to ringside during Yokozuna’s victory celebration. The four-time WWE Champion returned just a few months earlier from one of his WWE sabbaticals. Yoko’s manager, Mr. Fugi, made an impromptu championship challenge to Hogan who accepted. He won the WWE Championship for a fifth time in a quick and controversial match. The controversy would also extend to the backstage political scene in WWE. This Hogan title reign was short but extremely toxic. It has been rumored that Hogan refused to drop the belt to Hart in what would have been a very significant “passing of the torch” match. Hogan then took the WWE Championship to Japan where he had a dream match against New Japan Pro Wrestling’s IWGP Champion The Great Muta. Hogan cut an infamous promo in the land of the ring sun in which he called the WWE Championship “a toy” and said, “the IWGP belt is the most important belt in the world”. After defeating Muta, he returned to WWE and dropped the title to Yokozuna in a glorified squash match at King of the Ring 1993.
9 AWA Championship Match: Stan Hansen vs Nick Bockwinkle
AWA Champion Stan Hansen was set to defend the gold against the former three-time champion Nick Bockwinkle in the summer of 1986. However, Hansen no-showed the match. Bockwinkle was simply declared the champion despite “The Bad Man From Borger, Texas” being in physical possession of the belt. In fact, Hansen continued to defend the AWA belt in All-Japan Pro Wrestling. Legend has it that Hansen eventually returned a damaged belt to the AWA after running it over with his truck. Hansen sat down for a shoot interview with Hannibal TV to explain his side of the story. Hansen claims the AWA never promoted him correctly which didn’t allow him a fair opportunity to “draw money” as AWA Champion. Hansen felt he was only being used as a transitional champion. He said he was in the building the night of the match but left after a “confrontation”. In regard to the truck story, Hansen neither confirmed nor denied it but did say, “the belt got beat up”.
6 NWA Championship Match: Ric Flair vs Jack Veneno
When pro wrestling fans think of classic Ric Flair matches from the 1980s they usually come up with names like Ricky Steamboat, Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, and Kerry Von Erich. Some of those matches were very controversial. To name a couple, there was The Midnight Rider title change and Von Erich’s head getting smashed with the cage door setting off the epic Freebirds vs Von Erichs feud. However, one of the most controversial championship matches was for Flair’s NWA Championship against a less known contender named Jack Veneno. Veneno was from the Dominican Republic and he wasn’t willing to defend the NWA Championship outside of the DR. Flair has stated that his match with Veneno needed to be improvised for fear of rioting fans. Despite losing the match, Flair returned to the United Sates with “the ten pounds of gold” and the NWA never recognized the title change.
5 WWE Women’s Championship Match: Wendi Richter vs The Spider
Before The Montreal Screwjob there was The Original Screwjob. Wendi Richter was a huge part of Vince McMahon’s national expansion plan, which included The Rock n’ Wrestling Connection. Pop singer Cyndi Lauper aligned herself with Richter in her feud with The Fabulous Moolah and Captain Lou Albano. Richter defeated Moolah for the WWE Women’s Championship at The Brawl To End It All, which was broadcast on MTV. The women’s match headlined the event and drew great ratings for MTV. At this time, Richter was arguably just as popular as WWE Champion Hulk Hogan. It is said Richter starting having serious disagreements with Vince McMahon about money. This led to McMahon wanting the belt off of Richter and plan was made to do just that. Richter defended the title against a masked woman wrestler known as The Spider. The Spider scored a stunning but puzzling win over Richter to win the title. The Spider used a small package that Richter kicked out of almost immediately. However, the referee who was in on the screwjob counted a fast three and awarded the belt to The Spider. Richter ripped off the mask revealing Moolah. It is believed that the screwjob was ordered because McMahon didn’t think Richter would drop the belt to Moolah due to legitimate heat they had with one another.
4 Unification Match: AWA Champion Jerry the King Lawler vs WCWA Champion Kerry Von Erich -SuperClash III
SuperClash was the AWA’s answer to WWE’s WrestleMania. The first SuperClash took place just a few months after the first WrestleMania. SuperClash III in 1988 featured a very controversial unification match, which pitted AWA Champion Jerry the King Lawler up against WCWA Champion Kerry Von Erich. The complicated working relationships in this event led to neither promotion wanting their champion to do a clean job. It was decided that Von Erich with drop the decision due to excessive bleeding while applying his iron claw hold on The King. The ensuing mess coming out of this unification match could fill a couple of books. Lawler was eventually stripped of both titles but recognized as the new USWA Unified Champion. The USWA was a brief merger between Jerry Jarrett’s CWA and Fritz Von Erich’s WCWA. WCWA split from the USWA and soon went out of business. Despite crowning a new champion, Verne Gagne’s AWA also went out of business a short time later.
1 WWE Championship Match: Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels - Survivor Series 1997
The most controversial championship match in pro wrestling history took place at WWE Survivor Series 1997. Bret Hart lost the WWE Championship to Shawn Michaels in what would forever be know as “The Montreal Screwjob”. The story goes that WWE Champion Hart had agreed to a contract with WCW and Vince McMahon wanted the title off of him as soon as possible. McMahon didn’t want a 1995 repeat of Madusa throwing the WWE Women’s Championship in the trash but this time it would potentially be the WWE Championship ending up in the circular file. McMahon wanted Hart to drop the belt to Michaels at Survivor Series but The Hit Man didn’t like the idea. As a result, McMahon conspired to take the belt off of Hart without him knowing. At one point during the match, HBK trapped Hart in his own Sharpshooter finisher. This spot led to the infamous calling for the bell by Earl Hebner despite Hart not submitting or tapping out. The pay-per-view went off the air as chaos ensued at the Molson Centre. Hart spit on McMahon and destroyed WWE equipment. The Hitman also punched out Mr. McMahon in the backstage area. McMahon achieved the intended result which was Hart was on his way to WCW without the WWE Championship. The Montreal Screwjob remains a hot wrestling topic even today with many conspiracy theories including that it was a work.