A Storied Championship’s WWE Legacy

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August 13, 2012

On September 2, 2002, in the wake of the split that severed Raw from SmackDown, WWE suddenly found itself without a World Title to defend on Monday nights. Brock Lesnar, then the WWE Champion, remained on SmackDown by decree of Stephanie McMahon, meaning the WWE Title could no longer be defended on Raw. Eric Bischoff,  the Raw GM at the time, decided to confront the problem head-on by creating a new title, the World Heavyweight Championship, and crowning Triple H as its inaugural holder.  Shortly after The Game was made champion, Ric Flair, a man who had defined the World Heavyweight Championship in WCW, challenged him to a match on the spot. “To be given the championship that night, and then to wrestle Ric, and to have it be as big a deal as it was, was huge for me,” recalls Triple H. “That night was special for both of us.” 

A Golden Lineage
Although the World Heavyweight Title’s history as we know it today officially begins with its initial champion in 2002, its lineage can be traced back to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, which counts Ric Flair, Harley Race and Ricky Steamboat as champions. (In fact, if you want to split hairs, you could even follow the ancestry back to 1905, when George Hackenschmidt first held it.) This begs the question, do new champions feel the burden of having to live up to previous titleholders? “I think if they don’t, there’s a problem,” Triple H observes. “You can’t look at that title and not think, ‘This represents the championship that was held by Harley Race and Ric Flair.’ ”

“What’s cool to me about the title is that it’s the same title that Lou Thesz held,” says Daniel Bryan, who first won the World Heavyweight Championship at WWE TLC, when he cashed in his Money In The Bank contract on Big Show. “You can even trace the men who trained me in grappling all the way back to Thesz himself.”

“Now The Hard Work Starts...”
Of course, winning the World Heavyweight Championship is simply the beginning. Once a Superstar claims the title, his job is far from over. “There are two kinds of guys in this business,” says Triple H. “There are guys who make it to the top and think, ‘I made it—now I can sit back and enjoy the benefits of making it,’ and guys who think, ‘OK, I made it. Now the hard work starts.’ ” That hard work includes media appearances, promotional tours and carrying the torch as the face of the company. “Members of the WWE Universe see that 15 or 20 minutes that you’re out there in the ring,” says Booker T, “but what they don’t see is all the days on the road, all the media and press and shaking hands and kissing babies.” Being prepared for all that comes with the title is something that any would-be champion should consider, says Triple H. “I had a conversation with Sheamus, and he told me, ‘I want to be that guy.’ And I asked if he understood what that really means,” The Game recalls.

Grace Under Pressure
There’s pressure in the ring as well, as all eyes are on the champion to deliver matches worthy of the title. “If two guys go to the ring and the match stinks, they come back and people say, ‘You both just stunk the joint up,’ ” says Triple H. “If you’re the World Champion and you go to the ring and you stink, you come back and they go, ‘Come here. You’re the World Champion and you just stunk the joint up!’ If it’s good, it’s a joint effort. If it’s terrible, it’s all on you.” But there’s also a certain measure of respect that comes with carrying the World Title, and Triple H explains that he was keen not to forget that. “When I broke into the business, if I worked on a card and Bret Hart was the champion, and the house was sold out that night, I would go up to Bret and say, ‘Thank you for the house,’ ” he says. “Because he drew the house.”

There are upsides as well, such as the chance to create moments that members of the WWE Universe will never forget. For Triple H, some of the matches he remembers most fondly were against competitors who might not have carried the same star wattage, but nevertheless were commanding presences in the ring. “I had a non-televised match in Japan with Tajiri,” he recalls. “We went 45 minutes and people were going crazy. They thought Tajiri was going to beat me and take the World Title.”

Booker T feels a special kinship with the title, having been the last Superstar to hold it in WCW before the company folded in 2001. “I think that’s one of my crowning moments,” he says. “I never saw it coming, being the guy at the end of the company’s existence, being the World Heavyweight Champion and the U.S. Champion,” he says. “That was a great moment for me. It was bittersweet, knowing it was going to be the end of WCW, but I knew there were greener pastures on the other side.”

From the ashes of a brand split that left WWE’s flagship show without a title came a legacy that manages to both honor the past and pave the way for the future. “It was kind of an awkward situation,” Triple H recalls. “But we were able to create a championship that means as much as the WWE Championship.”

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