There is little disagreement in the wrestling community that World Championship Wrestling had its booking problems.
WCW became known, however, for nonsensical twists and turns, inconsistent storylines, and at key junctures, simply pushing the wrong guy. In no place are the mistakes more visible or memorable than when they surrounded the company’s world championship.
World titles are important. Some fans want to dismiss them as subject to the booker’s whims, and mere props for storytelling. That argument may well be fair for secondary titles, but a world championship victory suggests supreme faith in a talent to make him the face of the promotion and formally coronate him as the top star. Sure, not all world champions are created equally, but by and large a world title win holds up as justification for a Hall of Fame induction, and recognition as an all time great.
WCW played fast and loose with its world title at times—particularly in the thick of the Monday Night War by hot shotting the title to generate ratings, or crowning an unlikely champion to get buzz around the champion. Sometimes, this dynamic worked, like Goldberg rising up to crush Hollywood Hogan, or Sting paying off the original New World Order run, however temporarily, by taking the title off Hogan himself at Starrcade 1997. Just the same, WCW had its share of missed opportunities, and guys wrongfully slotted on top. This article looks at ten world champs WCW never should have crowned and five who might have turned things around had WCW had the foresight to give them a run on top.
15 Should Have Never Crowned: Vince Russo
It’s always a dicey proposition awarding a title to a non-wrestler, who neither in kayfabe, nor to the naked eye can really be believed as a champion..There are cases of this dynamic working ot reasonable effect, however. For example, Vince McMahon beating Triple H for the WWE Championship in 1999, while a little absurd, fit their blood feud storyline at the time and McMahon was an iconic enough figure in the wrestling business at large to not seem totally out of place.
While Vince Russo did develop notoriety as a major creative contributor to WWE and then WCW, he wasn’t exactly a household name when he became an on air personality for WCW. Worse yet, he didn’t have McMahon’s Herculean physique, nor his talking game. When Russo won the WCW Championship, it therefore came across as pure shock TV, and an overestimation of how over Russo was with the audience.
14 Should Have Never Crowned: Jeff Jarrett
While Jeff Jarrett was an experienced and technically sound wrestler, he never quite felt like a full on main event talent on the truly national wrestling scene. His WWE run was telling as he demonstrated good range in the gimmicks he could play, but never exceeded the Intercontinental Championship scene. Double J defected from WWE to WCW for the second time in the tail end of the Monday Night War. The move saw him better his financial prospects and get his first opportunity to work as a headliner.
While Jarrett wasn’t an absurd addition to the main event scene, he couldn’t really hold a candle to other top stars WCW had on the payroll. The roster include no lesser names than Hulk Hogan, Sting, Goldberg, Bret Hart, Lex Luger, Kevin Nash, Randy Savage, and Diamond Dallas Page just to name a few. Jarrett felt more like a miscalculated formula, or doing a talent a personal favor than he did like a star fans genuinely wanted to see on top.
13 Could Have Saved Them: Chris Jericho
From the perspective of 2018, Chris Jericho is a legend. He’s a borderline all time top ten talent for WWE who has main evented WrestleMania, and gone on to become a big enough star to dictate when he comes and goes, and broker a huge deal to work for New Japan at the biggest show of their year.
To be fair, it took time for Jericho to cultivate the talents that would make him an all time great. Just the same, he showed flickers of brilliance in his WCW run—already a great worker and already a standout talker with promos like listing off his 1,001 holds to antagonize Dean Malenko. Putting the world title on him probably would have felt rushed during his WCW tenure. Laying the foundation for that big push, though, by letting him hold his own with top talents and break the Cruiserweight glass ceiling could have been a very wise investment on WCW’s part, though. Instead, Jericho would get exactly that kind of attention in WWE before growing into a main eventer.
12 Should Have Never Crowned: Lex Luger
Looking back to the 1990s, Lex Luger is a quintessential main event guy. He essentially subbed into Ric Flair’s spot as the heel world champion when he jumped to WWE. Then Luger got a shot at filling Hulk Hogan’s void in WWE with a patriotic push opposite Yokozuna. Luger would return to WCW and work his way back to the top, to be a key cog in the New World Order storyline.
But should Luger have had all of these chances?
One of Flair’s points of contention on his way out the door from WCW in 1992 was that he was adamant Barry Windham should get a spin on top rather than Luger. Indeed, while Luger had a terrific look, he was far from a polished talent at that point, and there’s a very fair argument he shouldn’t have gotten the strap. When Luger won the title again off of Hollywood Hogan, there was more justification, and it did offer a hot moment. Luger’s short reign arguably made Sting eventually beating Hogan mean less, though, with little meaningful impact on long term storylines.
11 Should Have Never Crowned: David Arquette
Like WWE, WCW had a certain affinity for involving celebrities in its programming. This was an understandable choice for attracting mainstream media attention and luring in casual viewers. Moreover, bringing in professional athletes like Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone, and Kevin Greene were all sensible enough as big men who could at least somewhat believably hang with pro wrestlers.
David Arquette had a natural tie in to WCW after starring in the Ready to Rumble film. However, he was an actor with no wrestling training, and far from an imposing or athletic look. On the contrary, the scrawny non-athlete seemed totally out of place in a wrestling ring.
He would win the WCW Championship in a publicity stunt. While the move did work for getting mainstream attention, including coverage in national media outlets, it crossed a line in terms of the top championship’s credibility. If Arquette could win the WCW Championship, the message was that literally anyone could do so. In defense of Arquette, himself, he has had the humility to retrospectively acknowledge it was a mistake.
10 Could Have Saved Them: Eddie Guerrero
Most major figures in pro wrestling draw mixed reactions from their peers. For all the love and respect Bret Hart gets, there are those who feel he takes himself and wrestling too seriously. Despite his overwhelming talent, many remember Shawn Michaels as a jerk. But Eddie Guerrero?
Maybe Guerrero’s untimely passing colors memories of him with rose tinted glasses. But while the guy did struggle with substance abuse, he nonetheless overcame both his personal demons, and the odds stacked high against him as an undersized performer, to become a WWE Champion before he passed.
And what of Guerrero’s time in WCW? If the promotion were run more as a meritocracy, his sheer in ring talent and charisma may well have gotten a shot at the main event. As it stood, he slammed his head against the glass ceiling time and again. Guerrero might have been just the fresh new face on top WCW could have really benefited from. Instead, he was mostly relegated to Cruiserweight division and mid card before defecting to WWE to better his prospects.
9 Should Have Never Crowned: Sid Vicious
Few wrestlers have ever looked as convincing as monster heels as Sid Vicious. He had a simply awesome physique to fill his massive frame. He was tall, and could make himself look genuinely crazed. All of these superficial attributes set him up as a can’t miss attraction. The only trouble is, the guy couldn’t ever work in the ring all that well.
Indeed, there’s a very real argument to be made that there has never been a worse in ring talent to main event WrestleMania twice than Sid. In WCW, he had some of his lowest moments and got his hands on the world title twice in the latter stages of the company. Vicious had a place as a main eventer, or more particularly as a heater for other main event talents. He wasn’t really fit to be champion, though, and that’s particularly true for the late stages of his career, by which point he was already largely exposed for his limitations.
8 Should Have Never Crowned: The Giant
Today, The Big Show is known as one of the greatest big men in wrestling history, and respected for his degree of experience and ability to evolve. In 1995, however, he was a rookie. He debuted in WCW as The Giant, a new monster from the Dungeon of Doom stable, intent on destroying Hulkamania.
The Giant had an incredible look and good agility. He had next to no actual ring experience or skill, however. While there is some merit in the sheer shock value of WCW putting its world title on this unproven new attraction, he also remains a questionable choice for not really havening earned his spot, nor having the ability to put together much a match at that point in his career.
The Giant would be an intriguing part of WCW’s programming, including the New World Order angle, for years to follow. It remains very questionable, however, if he really should have gotten a world title run, and particularly so early in his career.
7 Could Have Saved Them: Dustin Rhodes
In the early 1990s, Dustin Rhodes settled into a role as a top up and coming talent. He took up residence in the United States Championship scene, and nudged his way closer to main event status heading into 1993. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to predict Dustin would follow in his father’s footsteps as a world champion, but when Hulk Hogan showed up in WCW, Dustin saw his fortunes change. He was soon all the more firmly entrenched in the mid-card, and particularly a dead end feud with Colonel Robert Parker and his charges.
The Natural was that rare talent who could have honored tradition via his family lineage while also pushing the business forward with his athleticism and willingness to go outside the box. He’d go on to his most memorable career work in WWE, totally recast as Goldust at the vanguard of what would become the Attitude Era.
6 Should Have Never Crowned: Chris Benoit
Chris Benoit was one of the most talented professional wrestlers in the world when he reached his prime from the late 1990s to early 2000s. It’s easy to dismiss his legacy and question his pushes now, with the knowledge of what he’d end up doing to his family at the end of his life. However, one could make an argument against his one night reign as WCW Champion without even delving into his personal life.
Benoit scored a dubious championship win over Sid Vicious on what would turn out to be his last night with the company. Knowing he wasn’t happy in WCW, and knowing he might leave, there’s no real rationale for WCW to have put its top championship on him, no matter how good he was. Whether this was an attempt to make good with The Crippler so he’d stay, or a complete disconnect between WCW’s creative and talent relations departments, letting him end his run as champion made next to no sense.
5 Should Have Never Crowned: Bret Hart
Bret Hart is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. He was a technical wizard, an exceptionally safe worker who never meaningfully hurt an opponent, and a guy who could connect with diverse audiences. For all of these positive attributes, when Hart made it to WCW at the end of 1997, it was an immediate poor fit.
From Hart’s perspective, WCW was disorganized, without vision, and largely dropped the ball on him when he arrived. Eric Bischoff, who was running things backstage, has claimed Hart showed up, after the Montreal Screwjob, as a shell of his former self. Regardless of who’s to blame, all sides seem to agree Hart never really connected in WCW. Placing the company’s top title on him—let alone doing so twice- two years too late was a mistake.
4 Could Have Saved Them: Rey Mysterio
One of the creative choices that WCW is most widely and rightfully praised for is the choice introduce Cruiserweights as a serious division, including promoting truly excellent talents from worlds of Japenese wrestling and lucha libre. Rey Mysterio was among the fresh faces the company introduced to a mainstream American audience and the guy put on some truly electric performances opposite guys like Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko.
Mysterio had been a national level star for a decade before he ever got a world title opportunity, when WWE surprisingly pulled the trigger on him at WrestleMania 22. While he’d never really thrive in the champion’s role, his WWE success does raise questions about what might have been had WCW given him at least a short reign on top. His talents were beyond reproach, and he’d built a solid following. Mysterio may well have been a special champion had WCW rolled the dice on him.
3 Should Have Never Crowned: Ron Simmons
Ron Simmons is a great athlete and a real life badass. His name doesn’t look out of place in a ledger of world champions, it’s a feel good story that he beat Big Van Vader to become the first African American WCW Champion. The trouble with Simmons’s legacy, however, is that he went down as one of those guys who had the title hot shotted onto him with little build up, and no clear direction.
It’s telling that Simmons would spend his five months on top defending the title against guys who weren’t really main eventers, like The Barbarian and Steve Williams. It’s telling, too, that he’d ultimately drop the title back to Vader to more or less resume his dominant reign and scrub memories of the fumbled Simmons experiment.
2 Should Have Never Crowned: Kevin Nash
WWE rolled the dice on Kevin Nash in the Diesel gimmick, giving him a sling shot into the main event picture, and nearly a year as WWE Champion. He didn’t have the experience to fully capitalize on the opportunity, and wasn’t the Hulk Hogan successor Vince McMahon seemed to want him to be. Still, he established enough notoriety to have a plum spot when he left for WCW. He was heavily featured as a charter ember of the New World Order and would eventually capture the world title there five times.
Nash’s first WCW Championship win came when he ended Goldberg’s undefeated streak at Starrcade 1998. This was, in and of itself, a questionable booking decision. Nash’s world title reigns to follow would come fast and furious as WCW popped off title changes rapidly in service to drawing ratings and creating buzz.
While Nash isn’t totally out of place as champion, it’s remarkable to think he had five WCW Championship reigns to Goldberg only having one, not to mention the plethora of comparably talented guys who never got to sniff a world title.
1 Could Have Saved Them: Steve Austin
Steve Austin is on a very short list of the biggest professional wrestling stars of all time. His Stone Cold persona caught fire at a key juncture in wrestling history, bolstered by a guy with very real talent both in the ring and on the mic. But could Austin have worked as a top guy in WCW years earlier?
While Stunning Steve probably wouldn’t have caught on to nearly Stone Cold levels, no matter the era, there is reason to believe he could have been a fine world champion. Indeed, WCW seemed to be grooming him for a top a spot a rock solid heel atop the mid-card with US Championship victories to his name and managers like Paul E. Dangerously and Harley Race offering extra credibility. If Dustin Rhodes was lined up to succeed his father as a top face, Austin may well have been his generation’s Ric Flair had WCW not shifted courses so dramatically with the signing of Hulk Hogan in 1994.