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10 championships you never knew existed in WWE
The WWE Championship, established nearly 50 years ago, has long been sports-entertainment’s richest prize. The World Heavyweight Championship has a revered lineage that can be traced back to the formative days of professional wrestling. Even recently retired titles, like the European and Hardcore Championships, maintain a special place in the hearts of WWE fans who fondly recall The Attitude Era.
But there are certain titles once defended in WWE rings that are so obscure even wrestling’s most knowledgeable historians possess little information about them. These are titles that have been wrapped around the waists of many WWE Hall of Famers. These are titles that were showcased in the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden. These are titles that have been mostly forgotten. These are 10 titles you never knew existed.
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World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship
Before coming to WWE in late 1978, WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki had already established himself as one of the most popular Japanese wrestlers of all time. After battling pop culture icon Muhammad Ali in Tokyo, Inoki had begun to achieve mythical status. On Dec. 18, 1978, at Madison Square Garden, Vincent J. McMahon was so thrilled to have Inoki in his organization, he bestowed Inoki with the World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship. The title was rarely defended, but when it was, it was in contests that resembled early versions of what is now referred to as mixed martial arts.
As champion, Inoki battled legends like The Iron Sheik and Hulk Hogan and faced off with Larry Sharpe in a memorable outdoor title defense at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1980. One year prior, Inoki defeated reigning WWE Champion Bob Backlund while holding the Martial Arts Title. The Japanese shooter held his personal prize for more than 10 years until he was defeated by Georgian judo master Shota Chochishvili, who had won a gold medal for the Soviet Union in the 1972 Olympic Games. Inoki regained the title one month later, but it was never seen again.
Women's Tag Team Championship
At Night of Champions 2010, the 54-year-old lineage of the Women’s Championship ended when it was unified with the newer Divas Championship. But this recent evolution does not tell the whole story of titles that have belonged to WWE’s females.
In 1983, WWE acquired the services of the National Wrestling Alliance's reigning Women’s Tag Team Champions — Velvet McIntyre & Princess Victoria — and took the more than 30-year-old history of that title along with them. The lineage dated back to the early 1950s when legendary lady grapplers Ella Waldek and WWE Hall of Famer Mae Young became the first champions. Desiree Petersen later took an injured Victoria’s place, but it was the next duo that became known as the marquee Women’s Tag Team Champions.
The Glamour Girls — Leilani Kai & Judy Martin — won the titles in Egypt during summer ’85 and remained champions for two and a half years. At the first Royal Rumble event in 1988, the champs were unseated by Japan’s Jumping Bomb Angels in a famous 2-out-of-3 Falls Match, but The Glamour Girls regained the titles later that year before the championships were abandoned altogether less than a year after that.
International Heavyweight Championship
WWE’s International Heavyweight Championship boasted one of the most bizarre and disjointed lineages of any title in wrestling history. Established in summer 1959 by the NWA’s Capitol Wrestling Corporation — an early predecessor to modern-day WWE — the title was won by WWE Hall of Famer Antonino Rocca in a bout against the legendary “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Some historians insist that Rocca actually won the title in 1948, more than 10 years before facing Rogers. Nevertheless, Rocca held the title until it disappeared in the early 1960s when Capitol withdrew from the National Wrestling Alliance.
Paying tribute to the international collaboration between WWE and New Japan Pro Wrestling in the early ’80s, the long forgotten title was unexpectedly revived and mostly defended in Japan. In 1983, Tatsumi “Dragon” Fujinami controversially defeated Riki Choshu, inciting a tremendous dispute regarding the title’s rightful owner. The following year, Akira Maeda defeated Pierre Lefebvre in the final of a tournament at Madison Square Garden to win the disputed title. Fujinami was still recognized as the champion in Japan, but he gave up the title in 1985 and Maeda’s version had been abandoned by WWE.
International Tag Team Championship
Held by ring legends like Bruno Sammartino, Dominic DeNucci and Professor Toru Tanaka, the International Tag Team Titles ought to be one of the most highly regarded tag championships in wrestling. Instead, it is one of the most obscure.
In Sammartino’s hometown of Pittsburgh on Dec. 8, 1969, Bruno teamed with Tony Marino to win the titles from The Rising Suns — Tanaka & Mitsu Arakawa. Marino wrestled as “The Battman,” a blatant Dark Knight rip-off. Sammartino was the reigning WWE Champion and the rulebook stated he could not hold both titles, so Marino replaced his strong Italian pal with Victor Rivera.
Marino and Rivera were defeated by the terrifying Mongols — Bepo & Geto — who would go on to be the only team to hold the titles on two occasions. Bepo even won the titles a third time with Johnny De Fazio before going onto a WWE Hall of Fame career as Nikolai Volkoff. Bruno also held the titles on another occasion, this time with DeNucci, who famously taught Mick Foley how to wrestle.
The titles were sold to the National Wrestling Federation in 1972 and were revived in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1985, but the new versions lasted less than a year.
United States Heavyweight Championship
When WWE acquired WCW in 2001, it acquired the Atlanta-based organization’s United States Championship along with it. The lineage of that title dates back to the territorial days of the National Wrestling Alliance, Jim Crockett Promotions’ Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and the crowning of Harley Race as the first champion in 1975. But the current version is not the only United States Championship to have been defended in WWE.
During the territory era of professional wrestling, nearly every local promotion had some sort of “United States” title. Barrier-breaking WWE Hall of Famer Bobo Brazil boasts the honor of being WWE’s first U.S. Heavyweight Champion, having begun his reign with less than three weeks before Buddy Rogers was recognized as the first WWE Champion. Bobo battled the sadistic Sheik over the United States Title many times during the late 1960s and held the championship on a record seven occasions.
When reigning United States Champion Pedro Morales won the WWE Championship in 1971, he was forced to vacate the U.S. Title. Bobo held it for the seventh time immediately afterward and carried the championship until it was retired in 1976.
United States Tag Team Championship
Before Luke Graham & Tarzan Tyler were crowned the first World Tag Team Champions in WWE, the United States Tag Team Championships deemed the best of the tag ranks. During a four-year period spanning WWE’s withdrawal from the National Wrestling Alliance in 1963 until the title’s retirement in 1967, the United States Tag Team Championships were coveted by early duos like Skull Murphy & Brute Bernard and Red & Lou Bastien.
The title’s lineage actually predated 1963 and was originally defended in the Northeast territories of the NWA. During this period, the United States Tag Titles were held by legendary duos include Eddie & Jerry Graham and The Fabulous Kangaroos — Al Costello & Roy Heffernan. The Kangaroos held the titles three times while the Grahams won them on a record four occasions.
By the time the championships made their way to WWE, they were held by a who’s who of WWE Hall of Famers including Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon, Bill Watts, Baron Mikel Scicluna, Arnold Skaaland and Captain Lou Albano. Even The Living Legend himself, Bruno Sammartino, held the titles with early protégé Spiros Arion before the powerful Greek betrayed his mentor.
North American Heavyweight Championship
The Intercontinental Championship is one of the most revered titles of WWE’s long history. But few know that before Wade Barrett and Cody Rhodes paraded around with the nearly 35-year-old title, its direct (albeit short-lived) predecessor was the North American Heavyweight Championship.
When “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase agreed to jump from Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling to WWE in February 1979, Vincent J. McMahon bestowed him with the brand-new North American Championship. The fiery and hungry DiBiase carried the title into battle against WWE Hall of Famers including The Valiant Brothers, The Iron Sheik, Baron Mikel Scicluna, Johnny Rodz, High Chief Peter Maivia, Nikolai Volkoff and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine.
But the eventual Million Dollar Champion’s luck ran out when he faced off with another WWE Hall of Famer, Pat Patterson, in June 1979. The devious French-Canadian shoved DiBiase into the referee and nailed the champion with a pair of brass knucks to score the pinfall and win the title. Later that year, Patterson won a tournament for the South American Heavyweight Title in Rio de Janeiro and unified the championships to create WWE’s Intercontinental Title.
As Mr. McMahon grew WWE from a Northeast promotion into a global powerhouse, one step was to acquire the Montreal office of Lutte International (aka International Wrestling) organization in August 1985. As a result, IW’s reigning Canadian International Heavyweight Champion, Dino Bravo, rejoined the WWE roster after a seven-year absence.
Bravo touted himself as Canada’s strongest man at that time and WWE named him the Canadian Champion — the Great White North equivalent of America’s Hulk Hogan. Throughout the remainder of that year, the burly Quebec native defended his title at venues like the Montreal Forum and Toronto’s famed Maple Leaf Gardens. By January of the following year, WWE had abandoned the title, and Bravo bleached his hair blond and took Brutus Beefcake’s spot in The Dream Team alongside Greg Valentine.
Intercontinental Tag Team Championship
For all of WWE’s forgotten championships, the Intercontinental Tag Titles are perhaps the most mysterious. To today’s fan, these titles sound like a combination of two more familiar championships. But according to WWEClassics.com’s research, these titles were never defended in the United States.
During one of WWE’s short-lived Japanese partnerships, the Intercontinental Tag Team Championships were created in association with Tokyo-based Universal Wrestling Federation. The titles were awarded to the tandem of legendary luchador Perro Aguayo & Japanese mainstay Gran Hamada in early 1991. But later that year, WWE’s partnership with UWF ended and the titles were never seen again.
Junior Heavyweight Championship
Many WCW fans cite their Cruiserweight division as one of the defunct company’s most entertaining properties and one of the major reasons for WCW’s success in the 1990s. When WWE acquired WCW in 2001, WWE’s four-year-old Light Heavyweight Title was replaced with the WCW Cruiserweight Championship’s richer lineage. But that wasn’t the first time WWE boasted a respected title for light heavyweights.
The Junior Heavyweight Championship’s beginnings were in the 1960s, but the title disappeared after reigning champion “Jumping” Johnny De Fazio retired in 1972. Six years later, the title was revived and held by innovative grapplers like Tatsumi Fujinami and Jose Estrada. During the 1980s, the title was defended in partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling, which saw the crowning of champions including the awe-inspiring Tiger Mask, Black Tiger, Dynamite Kid and The Cobra.
The title was abandoned when WWE severed ties with New Japan in 1985, but the championship’s distinction of changing hands in both Madison Square Garden and the Tokyo Dome makes it one of the richer forgotten titles in WWE’s history.