The SmarK Rant for the History of the World Heavyweight Championship
OK, this came up on my WWE Network timeline and of course I own the DVD set but I’ve never watched it. So this is the hour-long documentary portion, and it looks interesting enough so let’s give it a go.
This was released December 15 2009, for some context.
Let us take you back to thousands of years ago, when Gilgamesh wrestles Jacob in the first grudge match, and then Abe Lincoln ran in to make it a three-way and cashed in his Money in the Log Cabin contract.
George Hackenschmidt was considered one of the first people to be recognized as World champion and was a freakishly strong guy who demolished all his competition. George was undefeated until 1908 until he ran into Frank Gotch and did a two hour match where he submitted to an anklelock and set off a “wrestle mania” in the US. I can only imagine this led to a rash of kids doing flying mares in the schoolyards.
Meanwhile, in Comiskey Park, the largest crowd in history to that point saw the rematch, which was once again won by Gotch. Frank held the title until 1913, when he retired, and then unexpectedly died due to kidney failure.
Next up, we meet Ed Stranger Lewis, who honestly is a fascinating son of a bitch that warrants an entire documentary all to himself. He wins a version of the World title (which this documentary has just lumped all together like it was one lineal World title the whole time, which is SO NOT TRUE) in what the newspapers described as a “fast bout” of 1 hour and 41 minutes. I hope they refunded everyone’s nickel! Anyway, the 1920s were booming and we get words from Bob Geigel and Bill Watts about Ed Lewis and how much he ruled. Mae Young also offers words of praise, although she likely considered him to a youngster even in 1920. Although it’s pointed out that Ed might have been a larger than life character, but he was BORING in the ring, doing 5 hour matches with Joe Stecher where referees would pass out from exhaustion while Ed did his defensive style.
So the discussion turns to Ed Lewis and Stecher deciding that maybe they should stop doing the shoot matches and come up with a style that was just for entertainment purposes. Just to be 100% clear here, it was never a shoot. Wrestling matches were known to be worked and the fix was in even back in the 1890s and there’s documentation. The idea that Ed Lewis came up with “working matches” is nonsense.
Skipping ahead, territories were formed and the National Wrestling Alliance was formed in 1948, and apparently that was so the various promotions could “support each other” instead of fighting. OH MAN. We’ll be here forever if we go down this rabbit hole, but suffice it to say, BULLSHIT. There’s entire books dedicated to this subject, but no, they were not a helpful group of promoters looking out for each other, they were a racketeering scam set up to skirt anti-trust laws and destroy opposition. But we’ll move on, as apparently everyone wanted a single champion because that’s better for everyone, and that ended up as Lou Thesz.
Thesz held the title for seven years straight at one point and we’re now at the point where footage exists, so we get some old black and white match clips and all the old guys talk about how Lou was always the consummate champion who looked and acted the part. I’d also recommend reading Lou’s book “Hooker” because it’s great as well.
By the 50s, television was a thing, and Lou was all over it. Much like today, TV at the time was desperate for programming to fill time and wrestling was there. Also, they don’t discuss it here, but one of the great tragedies of early TV was the DuMont Network, which had thousands of hours of classic wrestling footage destroyed when they went out of business, lost forever. The TV business brought new faces like Whipper Billy Watson and Dick Hutton, but Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was the one who really cashed in on the TV wrestling craze. Oddly they don’t really talk about Gorgeous George, but I guess he doesn’t really fit the narrative here. Anyway, Buddy won the NWA World title from Pat O’Connor in Comiskey Park in a story that was way more complicated than presented here.
Moving on, Buddy signaled a move to the flashier entertainment style, but Thesz ended up with the title again in 1963 in a match that created the WWF, but that’s not mentioned at all. Gene Kiniski won the title from Thesz in St. Louis and was a hated champion, and then lost the title to Dory Funk Jr. in Tampa after three years. Gene does a kayfabe interview where he talks about the “mental lapse” that cost him the title. Dory talks about the family stress of being the champion, and now we’re into color footage so that’s pretty cool. Dory held the title for four years and a bit, and then dropped the title to Harley Race in 1973, Race’s first one. We actually get Jack Brisco and Race telling the bizarre backstory behind the title change, with Dory Funk supposedly getting into a car accident and being unable to drop the title to Jack, leaving Harley as the go-between who ended up with the title. Man, they need entire documentaries dedicated to these crazy stories that they’re just glossing over.
Brisco won the title from Race after a month, but the grind eventually got to him and he was burned out and ready to drop the belt, losing it to Terry Funk in 1975, which made the Funks the only brother team to ever hold the NWA title. We get a funny bit of footage with Terry winning the title and then accidentally whacking the referee in the nose while celebrating. Terry held the belt for two years, but dropped it to Harley Race in 1977 to begin Race’s second reign in Toronto.
Race talks about the NWA committee deciding that Race would have the belt for a while and get a run with it, which kind of sounds like a group of mafiosos, complete with group photo that looks like something out of the Godfather. So now we get more modern stars talking about Harley and his run, like Jim Ross and Chris Jericho.
Moving on to 1983, we skip a bunch of stuff and jump to Starrcade 83, as Ric Flair was anointed as the next big star for the NWA. JR talks about how the NWA title was a “political hot potato” and Ric Flair was so hot that he needed to be champion in order for Jim Crockett to give up dates on Flair. Flair had already won the title before then, but they treat it like his first win here. I love the headline clipping they showed: “Flair defeats Race for wrestling title”. Hoped they held the presses for that one!
So Flair was off to the races as champion and we get the roll call of classic Flair footage. We note that the NWA World title was mostly considered the “real” World title by most fans at the time, led by Jim Crockett in Mid-Atlantic. Well that was because Crockett was basically controlling the NWA at that point. This leads to a discussion of Dusty Rhodes and we clips of him beating Race and Flair for the title, although one of the clips was Starrcade 85, which wasn’t actually a title change. Minor point, though.
We skip ahead to 1988, as Jim Crockett sells to Ted Turner and “the NWA champion was now referred to as the WCW champion.” NERD RAGE IMMINENT. 100% incorrect, they were two different titles. Also, they show the Flair-Steamboat matches from 1989, which was two years before the WCW World title was a thing. Anyway, Steamboat wins the NWA title from Flair and then Flair regains it at WrestleWar in one of the greatest matches in history. Another fun story behind that show: By a staggering coincidence of epic proportions, Vince McMahon decided to hold his own house show in Nashville the night before, in the very same arena, which was then extended to over four hours in order to make sure to end past 11:30 PM, thus ensuring that the incoming NWA crew had a minimum of time to set up for the afternoon PPV the next day. That Vince, always out to help himself and not hurt the other guy.
Anyway, in an understatement of staggering proportions, we learn that Ric Flair had a “dispute with management” in 1991 and took the belt to the WWF. So WCW had to “name a new champion” and this was apparently Ron Simmons beating Vader. LOL WUT? That was a YEAR LATER! Sorry Lex, you don’t exist. The title then bounced from Simmons to Vader and back to Flair again, and Sting was in there somewhere I guess. For those keeping track, this is about where the documentary goes completely bonkers.
In 1993, WCW withdraws from the NWA and other people hold the title. I don’t even understand what this narrative is supposed to be. The narrator talks about the later years and “dubious champions awarded the title under questionable circumstances” and we get a series of shots of Sid Vicious, Jeff Jarrett, Vince Russo and David Arquette for those keeping track. OUCH. But then we circle back and talk about Hulk Hogan and how he took TBS from “backwoods rasslin’ company” to worldwide entity. This is making my head hurt. They should just shut this documentary down right now, we’re completely off the rails.
Moving on, Goldberg got the title and we breeze past that and talk about Booker T winning it, and of course there’s the whole crazy story behind THAT and we don’t touch on any of it. And then 2001 sees WWE buying the company and Booker talks about how happy he was to close out the show as champion. Well he didn’t but that’s a minor point. So we skip ahead to the end of the year as Chris Jericho unifies the titles and that gives him another chance to brag about being Austin and Rock in the same night.
Six months later, the undisputed title was split up and HHH was awarded the World heavyweight title, kicking off the Reign of Terror. But then we skip ahead over the next 7 years with various people winning it, although that title had literally nothing to do with the NWA World title aside from sharing a physical belt. So yeah, the doc gets pretty tiresome at this point with the narrative about the “glorious history” with all these guys who get 2 weeks each. Like that geek CM Punk, as if we’re ever gonna hear about him again. And we get John Cena winning the title from Chris Jericho to end the list of guys. And we close out with the narrator noting that the World heavyweight championship will always be revered and hold a prestigious place in history!
Until 2013, when it was killed off for good. But, you know, close enough.
So this was, um, an interesting attempt at tying together multiple narratives into something cohesive, and I appreciate the attempt of the first half with the golden age stuff. And in fact there’s probably an entirely different documentary they could make that would be awesome. But man, once they got into the 80s and hit the WCW/NWA split, they just plain gave up and said “fuck it” and the whole thing went down the tubes fast. It was just “Oh yeah that guy held the title I think but then Hulk Hogan was in there somewhere and then WWE bought it and Rey Mysterio lived his dream and here’s the Giant talking about his time as champion”. It was just a complete mess. We know they can do better and have done better, and this is not it.
Recommendation to avoid.