The concept of a world championship in today’s modern professional wrestling industry is often debated by fans of the sport. That debate focuses on the legitimacy of the world title and whether or not it’s actually that important for the company that endorses it.
Of course it’s a conversation that includes all championships, but the top title is the one that always takes center stage, in more ways than one. For some fans, championships are nothing more than props so the debate is pointless. But for others, the world title itself is the most important element of any pro wrestling presentation.
There’s an old adage and one that has been repeated for years by some of the top talents in the game. That adage states that unless a guy wants to be the world champion, then he shouldn’t get into the business. Stone Cold Steve Austin made that clear during his run and to this day, many of his peers feel the same way.
Obviously the world title is extremely important for stars like Austin, who want to be the best on the roster. It’s a matter of pride and ego, both of which, when combined in the right amounts, can contribute to a highly successful and very memorable world title run. Like Michael Jordan in his prime, a pro wrestling world champion can reign over the sport like no one else around him.
It’s not just about ring work, or the ability to talk fans into the arena. Both are key elements and essential, there is no doubt about that. But it’s also the self-confidence and competitive nature that adds to the star entrusted with delivering a world championship caliber performance. Perhaps no one in the history of the sport has ever displayed all of these traits and championship qualities as impressively as Ric Flair.
Watch Ric Flair’s old school promo!
The Nature Boy was the man in the pro wrestling business and when longtime fans think about world champions, he is usually the first name that comes to mind. Flair made it look easy, as he regularly turned in one top notch performance after another, against the hottest names of his generation.
But no one was hotter than Flair. He epitomized what it meant to be the world champion because he lived it. He carried himself like a winner and his personality helped him crossover into mainstream pop culture. The responsibility of being world champion was an honor and a burden that Flair welcomed. He wanted to be the best and represent his sport to the world.
For Flair, there was no such thing as coming in second place. While he was historically always respectful of his opponents, he was also keenly aware of what he brought to the table. He realized that making his opponents look good caused him to look good in the process and in the end, no one could do it like he could.
Of course the NWA World Championship was a far cry from the WWF Championship. The story of both titles was the story of both companies and told fans all they needed to know about the differing ideology behind the scenes.
The NWA as an organization voted on the traveling world champion, based on who could draw the most money for their territories. Flair met that criteria so many times that eventually it became obvious no one could outdraw him. Flair was arguably the best wrestler on any given night, working on top as the man holding the top championship. It was a win win for the NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions.
Watch Nick Aldis and NWA legend Harley Race!
But in the WWF, the top champion was decided by Vince McMahon. Vince’s inner circle could give their opinions, but the decision ultimately belonged to the boss. He decided who would be the man in his company and more often than not, that man was Hulk Hogan.
Hogan was never the complete worker like Flair, but he didn’t need to be. Vince McMahon never booked his champion as the best wrestler in the business. He booked Hogan as the superhero under attack by a league of supervillains that wanted to tear him down. Hogan, though he showed a proficiency in the ring when he competed in Japan, didn’t have to bring that to his game in the company now known as WWE. All he had to do was put on a show and do his heroic routine. His opponents and Vince, took care of the rest.
Therein perhaps lays the key argument behind the validity of the world championship. Fans of today have no issue believing that the world title is simply a prop and nothing more. It’s become a talking point so many times that it’s a universally accepted fact. Even old school fans who grew up watching Flair in his prime, admit that the title these days just doesn’t mean much.
But has that opinion formed because of WWE? Has Vince McMahon’s company handled its champions so negatively over the years that even the concept of the world title is worthless at this point? Or has the reality of the world championship merely evolved with the times, as fans grew smarter to the business?
Relive Flair’s championship wins in WWE!
The industry’s top titleholders are among some of the most talented and bankable stars working today. WWE has positioned Drew McIntyre as the top champion, with Braun Strowman as the Universal champion. AEW has Jon Moxley in the world title spot and New Japan has Tetsuya Naito as the IWGP champion. Nick Aldis is the NWA world’s champion and RUSH is in his second reign as Ring of Honor world champion. Impact Wrestling’s Tessa Blanchard is making history as the first woman to ever wear the world title.
All of these titleholders are main event performers, but not all of them are true world champions, depending on fans’ point of view. Everyone has their own specific tastes and everyone is particular about what they want to see from their world champion. But despite who the fans love and who they would pay to see, the overwhelming consensus is likely that the title doesn’t really mean anything in the first place. All that matters is the person wearing it.
Aldis may be the exception however, as his entire NWA world title run has been a love letter to the champions that came before him. Aldis has meticulously crafted his National Treasure persona to represent what a world champion of the modern era should be. He’s old school and it shows in his views on the industry, as well as his overall presentation. Is he the true world champion because of the work he’s put in, or is his run discounted by the masses due to the NWA’s lack of reach compared to WWE?
Maybe the perception of world title relevancy is up to the fans. If they care enough about the champ, then that will ultimately affect their overall opinion. The pro wrestling company itself can support the champion as much, or as little, as it wants. But if the audience doesn’t buy in, then no amount of work will be enough. Of course, if the company wants to get the champ over and does all the right things, then the work should always be enough. Which viewpoint is right? That question is open ended, as the debate continues.
Tom Clark is a Senior Pro Wrestling Analyst and Featured Columnist for Wrestling Rumors. His podcast, Tom Clark’s Main Event, is available on iTunes,YouTube, iHeart Radio and live every Friday at 12pm EST on Wrestling Rumors Facebook Live