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Get an inside look at the career of two-time WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair. Don't miss ESPN's "30 for 30: The Nature Boy," Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN.10/31/2017 - 15:30
The secret history of phantom title changes
Title changes aren’t uncommon in WWE. Whether they’re on Raw, SmackDown, a pay-per-view or Live Event, there’s always someone there to verify a new champion has been crowned. That’s especially true today, with members of the WWE Universe carrying around smartphones that can tweet, Tout and post to Facebook in an instant.
That hasn’t always been the case, though. Throughout wrestling history, there are rumored to have been many title changes that have been wiped from the history books for one reason or another. Promoters and wrestlers alike have been trying to hide these unexplained changes from prying eyes for decades. But now, whether they like it or not, we’re pulling back the curtains and letting you in on the secret history of wrestling’s biggest prizes.
After doing some digging through WWE’s extensive archives, WWE Classics has pieced together a list of the most mysterious cases of championships allegedly changing hands in sports-entertainment history. ( PHOTOS | VIDEO PLAYLIST)
Flair's Debacle in the Dominican Republic
“The Nature Boy” Ric Flair wasn’t lying when he called himself a “learjet flying, limousine riding, kiss-stealing, wheeling, dealing son of a gun.” When he was the NWA World Champion, Ric Flair was a veritable marathon man, traveling the globe and battling in matches that often went a full hour. One night, he’d be in Japan grappling with fellow WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki; the next, he’d be in Puerto Rico, dueling with Carlos Colon; before heading back to the States to fend off the challenge of stars like Dusty Rhodes and Magnum TA. By hook or by crook, Flair usually managed to escape with the title in hand.
One match in the Dominican Republic didn’t go quite as planned, however, as Flair recalled in his autobiography, “To Be The Man.” Taking on national hero Jack Veneno in front of a rabid crowd in the capital city of Santo Domingo, Flair found himself in a precarious position, trapped in Veneno’s sleeper hold with the time limit approaching. Just before Flair’s arm dropped for the third time, the bell rang, signaling a draw. But the crowd was at a fever pitch and didn’t hear the bell. They thought they just saw their hometown hero capture one of wrestling’s biggest prizes. With armed military police struggling to hold back the masses, Flair assessed the situation and, in the interest of self-preservation, decided it was best to go with the flow. He left his championship in the ring for Veneno to celebrate with in front of the adoring crowd.
The “victory” was never acknowledged stateside, but Flair returned to the Dominican Republic for a rematch soon after. This time, he didn’t come alone. “The Nature Boy” brought the unpredictable “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to ringside. Flair thought he had the upper hand with Piper in his corner. According to Flair, though, when Piper went to grab Veneno’s leg, some of the military guards at ringside drew their rifles on “The Hot Scot.” Sensing another riot was on the verge of breaking out, Flair grabbed his Dominican opponent and pulled Veneno on top of him for a pin and screamed for the referee to count. The official complied as police began attacking Piper with clubs. “The Nature Boy” managed to escape the fanatical crowd after ordering his opponent to put on the title and celebrate.
Veneno understood the compromising situation they were in and returned the belt to Flair before he left for America. His victories were never recognized by the NWA and the rest of the world, but in the Dominican Republic, he’s a hero.
"The Hammer" Causes Confusion
Greg “The Hammer” Valentine was a perennial title contender in WWE. A punishing technical wrestler, Valentine was a thorn in the side of Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan and many other WWE Champions during his Hall of Fame tenure.
For one fleeting moment, however, confusion led to “The Hammer” supposedly capturing the WWE Championship. On Oct. 19, 1981, in Madison Square Garden, he was locked in a grueling battle with then-champion Bob Backlund. Valentine had the advantage, with the champion trapped in an airplane spin. Unfortunately, while spinning around, Backlund’s legs collided with the official, knocking him out.
The champion slithered out of Valentine’s grasp and collapsed on top of him for the pin. But as soon as the bell rang, “The Hammer” jumped up and began celebrating as though he had won. The still-dazed official bought into Valentine’s charade, raising his hand in victory and handing him WWE’s top prize. ( WATCH)
Once the pandemonium in New York City settled down, everything was cleared up. Valentine was not the champion, but because of the confusion, a rematch would be held the next month at The Garden to settle the score. In the second contest, Backlund emerged victorious, and “The Hammer’s” perplexing turn as WWE Champion was erased from history.
The wrong kind of rope break
Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty dazzled the WWE Universe with their aerial acumen in the ring. Most WWE fans figured it was only a matter of time before The Rockers captured the World Tag Team Titles after their 1988 debut.
The talented duo finally got their big opportunity at a taping for Saturday Night’s Main Event in October 1990. The highfliers were set to challenge The Hart Foundation in a 2-out-of-3 Falls Match with the titles on the line. The crowd in Fort Wayne, Ind., knew they were in for a treat, when the unthinkable happened — the top rope snapped in the middle of the second fall. WWE’s ring crew scrambled to reattach it as The Rockers reversed the Hart Attack, with Jannetty pinning Neidhart to capture the titles.
For a brief moment, Jannetty & Michaels were on top of sports-entertainment. Their glory would not last, though, as esteemed WWE President Jack Tunney reversed the decision because the broken ring rope meant the bout was partially contested in an unfair environment. The championships were returned to Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart and the match never aired. It was locked deep inside the WWE vault until 2007, when the full match was released on the “Heartbreak and Triumph” DVD. ( WATCH)
Both Michaels and Jannetty would go on to win the World Tag Team Titles with different partners, but the legendary Rockers were never recognized with the honor.
A "Rude" Departure
Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson were one of the most popular tag teams in sports-entertainment history. The cheers were deafening when The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express entered arenas across the southern United States. The duo rode their extreme popularity to four reigns as NWA World Tag Team Champions. It’s their final reign that is so perplexing.
Morton and Gibson were embroiled in a bitter rivalry with champions “Ravishing” Rick Rude and “Raging Bull” Manny Fernandez throughout winter 1986 and early 1987. By springtime, however, Rude left the NWA and joined WWE’s roster, leaving Fernandez high and dry.
Left with only one-half of their champions, the NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions allegedly came up with a unique solution to their conundrum. On one of Crockett’s several hours of television, David Crockett and Tony Schiavone introduced footage from a match where The Express defeated Rude and Fernandez for the titles that took place in Spokane, Wash., well outside Crockett’s usual stomping grounds in the Carolinas.
What supposedly happened was, to explain the title change and Rude’s disappearance, the NWA aired a previously taped match between the two teams where Morton and Gibson won, cut out of the tape before anything gave away the ruse, then introduced them to the world as the new champions. Die-hard NWA fans could not have cared less about the veracity of the title change. They were none the wiser, but Morton and Gibson were once again on top of the world.
Antonio Inoki ... WWE Champion?
Backlund’s match against Valentine wasn’t the only time controversy emerged during his reign as WWE Champion. The Minnesota native often traveled to Japan during his time as champion, taking on the nation’s top talent. His greatest challenge in the Far East came from Antonio Inoki.
Their bout on Nov. 30, 1979, while a classic battle, ended in controversial fashion when Tiger Jeet Singh distracted the American, leaving him open for a roll-up by Inoki. Japan was shocked their hero defeated the visiting Superstar for his championship.
The two met in a rematch one week later, with a similar outcome, thanks to Singh’s meddling. In perhaps the ultimate sign of sportsmanship, Inoki refused the WWE Championship because of the interference and returned the title to Backlund. Inoki’s title reign may not be listed in WWE’s record books, but the Japanese great was recognized for his extraordinary contributions to sports-entertainment in 2010, when he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
The Glamour Girls' suspicious trip to Egypt
The WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship dates back to 1983, when WWE assumed control of the NWA’s titles and Velvet McIntyre & Princess Victoria were named the first champions. The titles were rarely defended until late 1986, when Judy Martin and Leilani Kai appeared on television holding the championships.
The platinum-blond duo known as The Glamour Girls supposedly defeated McIntyre & Desiree Petersen for the titles at a Live Event in Egypt in 1985. A cursory search through the WWE archives yields nothing to support that claim. If it is true, why did the Women’s Tag Team Titles disappear from WWE for nearly two years?
The mystery behind The Glamour Girls’ title victory became moot when a thrilling pair from Japan, The Jumping Bomb Angels ( WATCH), soon arrived on the scene and dethroned Kai and Martin with a dizzing array of offense that left the WWE Universe speechless. As for that Live Event in Egypt? We’re still searching for evidence it ever took place.
The Dream becomes a nightmare
“The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes let us know what hard times were all about as his NWA World Title showdown with Ric Flair at Starrcade 1985 approached. Dusty Rhodes took the burden of the downtrodden working class on his shoulders when he took on the fast-living champion.
The title bout in Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum was hard-hitting for all involved, including the official. Deep into the heated brawl, the two warriors accidentally slipped into referee Tommy Young, sending him crashing to the arena floor. With no official, Arn and Ole Anderson tried to interfere in the proceedings, but were dispatched by Rhodes. A second official dashed into the ring and soon after, Rhodes trapped Flair in a small package for the win. The American Dream was a reality, Dusty Rhodes was World Champion. ( WATCH)
But the dream would soon become a nightmare for Rhodes. The future WWE Hall of Famer defended the title for several weeks around the country. In the meantime, NWA officials reviewed the match. Ultimately, they came to a decision that because Young did not count the fall, the title change did not count. Rhodes was forced to return the championship to Flair.
The mystery behind WWE's biggest prizes
It’s etched in history that Buddy Rogers and Pat Patterson were the first people to hold the WWE and Intercontinental Championships, respectively. But the tournaments they each won to gain the titles are shrouded in mystery.
WWE matchmakers have always had a great relationship with their colleagues in Brazil, which explains why the tournament to crown the first WWE Champion was held in Rio de Janeiro. Still, little is known about the tournament. We spent months combing through WWE’s extensive records to find any bit of information about it. Whether it was the number of competitors, the seeding or the early round matches, no photo or video exists. All we know is that on April 25, 1963, Rogers defeated Antonino Rocca in the final to become the inaugural titleholder.
Sixteen years later, Brazilian promoters were able to woo WWE North American Champion Pat Patterson down to “The Marvelous City” for another tournament. Patterson emerged victorious and captured the South American Title. Returning stateside with both continents’ championships, Patterson unified the titles, becoming the first-ever Intercontinental Champion. Like Rogers’ victory, little evidence is available of Patterson’s conquest in Brazil. No physical record could be found.
For a company that keeps impeccable track of its history, the ambiguity surrounding the origins of WWE’s two biggest championships is quite unusual.
Jericho's thrilling WWE Title win cut short
Chris Jericho made an impact on WWE from the moment he debuted. The WWE Universe knew he was destined for Superstardom. They didn’t think it would happen quite so quickly, though.
Y2J opened up the April 17, 2000, edition of Raw by engaging in one of his favorite pastimes, mocking Stephanie McMahon. The antics drew the ire of her husband, WWE Champion Triple H, who challenged Jericho to an immediate match. Y2J agreed, on one condition: The WWE Title would be on the line. As an added insurance policy, Jericho hired The APA to prevent any funny business from going on.
Shane McMahon tried to interfere, but Faarooq and Bradshaw chased him off. The Game soon got in an argument with official Earl Hebner, shoving the referee to the canvas. The distraction allowed Jericho to bulldog Triple H to the mat and hit the Lionsault. Hebner crawled over and administered the three-count. The bell rang and the State College, Pa., crowd exploded in delight as Jericho held sports-entertainment’s biggest prize high. ( WATCH)
Jericho’s big moment didn’t last very long, though. Later that night, Triple H dragged Hebner to the ring, making threats against the official until he overturned the decision. Jericho was forced to give The Cerebral Assassin the title back, and the Jerichoholics would have to wait for Y2J to get his hands back on the championship.