The centerpiece to every pro wrestling promotion is its championship. Not only is the World Championship the most important "prize" to be won, for which heroes quest and villains scheme, but also the other "under card" titles are critical. Those mid-card belts are the skeleton around which the whole rest of the card is built. The main event closes the show and sometimes opens the show too, but the middle belongs to the mid-card. Those championships, and the battles fought over them, are what keep the fans tuned in and the live audiences engaged.
Looking across the history of pro wrestling, there have been a lot of championships. Some of them are best left forgotten (and some, like TNA's new "Grand" Championship are best left never known in the first place), while others have---thanks to some legendary feuds or some memorable reigns---solidified their place in the annals of the sport.
These are 15 of the most famous (and a few "infamous") championships in pro wrestling's long history, and the superstars that defined them. They stretch across the old NWA, WCW, ECW, WWE and the revived ECW brand under WWE. Territory championships are not considered, as we're sticking to "World" titles and major titles from major promotions. Likewise there's nothing from TNA or Global Force Wrestling, because there's just not enough "prestige" to examine in either company's history.
For the most part these championships are presented in chronological order. There are actually nine different titles under consideration; variants in design over the years meant that new generations came to see new superstars define those titles. Some of these champions held their title the longest, others held it the most, and others are just what most people think of when they imagine someone wearing that belt.
Let's get into it!
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3 NWA "Domed Globe" - Harley Race
Yes, a convincing case could be made that Lou Thesz is the greatest NWA champion of all time, but when it comes to the "domed globe" belt, there's one person that has to be mentioned. The domed globe design was introduced in 1973 by Harley Race, the man who would go on to hold it seven (or eight, depending on whose history you recognize) times, more than any other man.
Ric Flair would wear the belt off and on for three hundred days, and he would go on to become the most famous NWA champion of his era. Dusty Rhodes’ quest to win the title (from Flair) is arguably the finest feud in NWA Championship history. But when you must pick one man who best personified the gruff, shooter style, that was the NWA in those days, there’s none better than the street fighter from Kansas City.
14. NWA/WCW "Big Gold" - Ric Flair
If it's flash that you are seeking, look no further than the belt the NWA introduced in 1986 as a replacement for the small, bygone-era Domed Globe belt. The design was basically an enlarged rodeo championship belt buckle. It didn't look like any other pro wrestling title before it...but it looked good. Solid gold, with rubies popping out around the edges, it had style to spare.
Who better than Ric Flair to be its inaugural wearer? Who better than the flashy, stylish, golden haired trash talker from Charlotte? He didn’t look like any other pro wrestling champion…but he looked good. Flair was loud, flamboyant, cocky and slimy. He was the ultimate heel champion and when he held the big gold belt on his waist (under his extravagant robes), he wore it like royalty wears a crown. Flair and 'Big Gold' fit together like hand in glove. It was a match made in heaven.
13. WWE "Winged Eagle" - Bret Hart
WWE’s Winged Eagle belt was first introduced right at the end of the 1980s wrestling Boom. Hulkamania peaked at WrestleMania III and this belt debuted as the World Championship just in time for WrestleMania IV, when the buzz was a little less…manic. Its ten-year existence became synonymous with the New Generation era that followed the days of Hogan’s dominance. That era saw many superstars try to rise to the level of superstardom that the Hulkster achieved, but none were able.
The man who came closest was as far from Hulk Hogan as one could be: Bret Hart. Whereas Hogan was a living cartoon character, with bulging eyes to match bulging muscles, Hart was quiet and subtle. Hogan was a 6’8 brawler; the 6’0 Hart prided himself on being a tactician. Hogan was red and yellow. Bret Hart was pink and black. But during those dark ages when WWE struggled against WCW, Hart was the best superstar Vince McMahon had, and he proved it with each of his five title reigns.
12. WWE "Classic IC" - Randy Savage
Before you say it: The problem with Honky Tonk Man is that his reign was always kind of a joke. He was a brilliant heel who, like The Miz today, was one of the most consistently hated acts in the WWE. But, like The Miz, because he was so hated for being a giant dork, it’s hard to take him seriously. He held the IC title for 454 days, a record. But the record is held back by the sideburns, the guitar, and the silly jumpsuit.
Right on his heels, however, is Randy Savage, who held the title for 414 days. It is the second-best single-reign in the history of the belt. Unlike HTM, Savage’s run with the belt was more…traditional. He was no joke. He was ruthless, wild, fierce, and, well, savage. And as IC champion, he was incredible, and is credited with establishing that belt as “the” mid-card title in pro wrestling.
2 WCW "WCW 91" - Vader
In 1991, Ric Flair was fired from WCW and left for the WWE. Due to a financial dispute with WCW President Jim Herd, Flair claimed ownership of Big Gold (which he was holding at the time he was fired) and took it to WWE TV. Eventually (lawsuits!), Flair stopped carrying Big Gold on WWE TV, but the title was not available for WCW TV either.
Flair would return to WCW in 1993, but in the two-and-a-half year interim, the company debuted a new design for their world title, affectionately dubbed “WCW 91.” The belt was smaller and more traditional looking, but couldn’t hold a candle to Big Gold. The most dominant champion during this period was certainly Big Van Vader. The giant held the belt three times, carrying it for almost half the time Flair was gone.
Unlike the way he’d later be booked, WCW positioned Vader as an unstoppable monster. His title reigns helped carry WCW while Flair was away.
10. WWE "World Tag" - The Dudley Boyz
Yes, Demolition holds the record for longest World Tag Title reign, but they really only had one big reign, followed by two smaller ones. They were a flash in the pan and never were a big draw.
On the other hand, The Dudleyz, Hardyz and E&C all share the honor of making Tag Team wrestling one of the most must-see parts of the Attitude Era, and considering how big the star power was in those days, that’s a great accomplishment. Six guys, none of whom were great on the mic (except Bubba Ray, but he was really limited by what he could say on WWE as opposed to ECW TV), managed to be show-stealers week after week. This really is a three-way tie, but the Dudleyz take the prize because they won the title the most and because they have endured as a “team” more than the Hardyz or E&C did over the years.
9. WWE "Big Eagle" - Steve Austin
This one’s easy. Just as the Winged Eagle became synonymous with the New Generation Era, the Big Eagle belt is “the” championship of the Attitude Era. And though many huge names held the title (Rock, Foley, Undertaker, Triple H, even Vince McMahon himself), the star of the show is the star of the show: Steve Austin was the man during the Attitude Era, and he held the belt six times during that late-90s boom.
Austin’s time (as with the Attitude Era itself) was short. He was only on top for four years, three of them while he was active, but even during late-1999/mid-2000 (while recovering from neck surgery), any mere mention of his name drew the biggest pop of the night. As with Ric Flair and the Big Gold, any time Austin tossed the Big Eagle over his shoulder it just felt right. That was his time, his era, his title.
8. ECW "World Championship" - Shane Douglas
Shane Douglas’ first taste of ECW gold was in 1993 as “ECW Heavyweight Champion” (under the NWA umbrella). It was a reign that lasted less than a month. Six months later, however, he would regain the title, only to announce ECW’s departure from the NWA and the formation of a new “worldwide” wrestling promotion.
For the next seven years, ECW would be the (struggling) underground, counter-culture, alt-rock band of the pro wrestling world. And even though others held the title more than Douglas (Sandman), and others better embodied the spirit of the Hardcore brand (Tommy Dreamer), there simply is no one better to recognize as “the” ECW World Champion than the guy who birthed it into existence. He also held the title more than any other man. The second closest champion is Sandman, who needed five reigns just to total one of Douglas’ two 400+ day runs with the belt.
7. WWE "Oval IC" - Chris Jericho
The idea behind this list is to recognize those guys you automatically think of when you think of a certain championship. Who else is there, when you think of the Oval Intercontinental Championship, than the long-haired, long-bearded, foul-mouthed, ayatollah of rock-and-rollah?
Jericho has held the IC title a record nine times, with his first coming in December of 1999 (four months after debuting) and his most recent coming a decade later. Only a couple managed to last any appreciable length of time; the other seven reigns lasted for an average of 15 days (a few were less than a week, and one was less than a day). And yet, when you think of the oval belt, you think of Jericho’s smug face. Despite a few great main event runs (and a few not so great), Jericho really is the quintessential mid-carder. Naming him the quintessential mid-card champion just feels right.
6. WWE "Undisputed Championship" - Brock Lesnar
The so-called Undisputed Title belt had a shorter lifespan than other WWE World Championships (2002-2005), but despite that, it became a favorite among belt enthusiasts. It’s a beautiful title, with its stark gold and black look, an eagle stretching across the top and gem stones sprinkled all around. Only a handful of people wore it but the man who wore it the most, and the one who dominated the most with it, was certainly Brock Lesnar.
If you’re a newer fan and missed Brock’s previous WWE run (2002-2004), check it out on the WWE Network. If you think a Lesnar match has always been “clothsline, suplex, suplex, suplex, F5, win,” his old work will be a revelation. He incorporated his amateur background extensively and had amazing matches with everyone from Kurt Angle to Big Show. During the time this championship was SmackDown’s top honor, Brock Lesnar was usually the man to beat for it.
1 WWE "Big Gold" - Edge
Yes, it’s basically the same one the NWA debuted in 1986, but there are cosmetic differences (the size, the rubies, the leather cut, the WWE logo). In the beginning, it was the top title for the Raw Brand, and during that time (2002-2005), Triple H held a death-grip on it, holding it five times for over 600 days. Eventually, it moved to SmackDown and found a new waist.
From 2005-2011 (when the brand-split essentially ended), Edge held the WWE's Big Gold a record seven times. In fact, during the five years he won the belt (2007-2011), there wasn’t one year that went by that didn’t see The Ultimate Opportunist weasel his way to another title win. For most of the brand-split, the Big Gold was THE championship of SmackDown, and for most of that time, it was Edge who was either scheming to win it or cheating to keep it.
4. WWE "Spinner" - John Cena
Easily the most controversial championship belt design ever, the Spinner was originally going to be a short-term novelty belt, similar to Austin’s “Smoking Skull” design or Cena’s own “US Spinner” belt, but it was such a huge merchandise mover that they just stuck with it.
Much to older fans chagrin', the Spinner lasted for nearly a decade. When worn by guys like Triple H or Randy Orton (or CM Punk, who often mocked its design), it felt odd. But when Cena wore it (especially early on, when it actually spun), it fit his character as well as any belt since Ric Flair first strutted around with Big Gold. Cena is the first WWF/E champion since Hulk Hogan (with his “Hogan 85” and “Hogan 86” belts) to have his custom belt become the official belt of the era, which further shows just how much the past generation was “The John Cena show.”
3. WWE "ECW Silver" - Jack Swagger
WWE relaunched ECW in 2006 as a third brand with Paul Heyman in control and several veterans returning. It began with promise, as Rob Van Dam won the first version of the relaunched championship. Things quickly went south, however, as Vince took over more and more control and eventually turned the brand into “Raw-light.”
Heyman split after a year and the old ECW legends soon followed. This new belt debuted in 2008. Its silver design only made it seem more like a “second place” title and, other than Tommy Dreamer, was passed around exclusively by WWE mid-card superstars (Mark Henry, Matt Hardy, Ezekiel Jackson). Christian actually held this belt the longest, with two reigns totaling 240 days. But the guy who best represents this terrible rendition of ECW is the terrible Jack Swagger. Just Google “Jack Swagger drops belt” and you’ll get the perfect summary of WWE’s woeful take on the ECW Championship.
2. WWE "Penny Tag" - The New Day
WWE will say that New Day is the longest reigning “WWE Tag Team Champions” of all time, but that’s a bit misleading. They’ve held the titles for over 400 days, but their reign only counts the Tag Titles that started on the SmackDown brand in 2002. The old “World Tag” titles that started in 1971 were held the most by Demolition, whose first reign lasted 478 days. New Day still has a few months to go before they can well and truly own the title of “WWF/E’s longest reigning Tag Champs.”
Still, considering their terrible beginnings (as a bland trio of losers), what they’ve managed to do in the past year and a half is extraordinary. They’ve been fun, original and spontaneous. They managed to win over the fans as heels and stay popular as babyfaces. Despite the ugly bronze design of the modern tag belts, they will forever be remembered as “the ones New Day dominated with.”
1. WWE "Big Logo" - Brock Lesnar
A case could be made for Seth Rollins, who held the title for an impressive 220 days, but his reign was frequently undercut by bad booking that made him a toothless champion that no one took seriously as a threat.
On the other hand, there is Brock Lesnar. He held the so-called “Big Logo” belt (a phrase I’ll brag about coining on BeltTalk) for 224 days and though his reign was “less televised” than Rollins, when “The Beast” did make a WWE appearance, he always looked like the most unbeatable monster ever to step into the squared circle.
This belt, which has had minor variations since 2013, represents the new era that WWE is finally fully embracing. That era has seen no greater or more awe-inspiring champion so far than Brock Lesnar. When he finally sets his sights on reclaiming it, he will, and it will be “his” title once again.
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