8 underrated Intercontinental Champions
You know your Pat Pattersons, your Mizes, your Razor Ramons, your Shawn Michaelses. All the big names you typically associate with the Intercontinental Championship. But the 40-year legacy of WWE’s pre-eminent workhorse title is filled with Superstars who never quite got their due, yet whose reigns as Intercontinental Champion were outstanding in their own right. They weren’t necessarily the biggest names on the marquee, but these Superstars always made sure they stole the show in one way or another. There are too many of them to name, truth be told, so we’ll just start with these eight.
When you think of D’Lo Brown, your mind probably jumps first to the chest protector, then the cocky head-wobble as he walked to the ring, and finally, the Frog Splash that was so crisp you could probably put it in a manual. What tends to get lost in the shuffle is that D’Lo was an impressive Intercontinental Champion, bringing the hard-hitting power of a heavyweight together with the high-flying acrobatics of a Cruiserweight across a reign smack dab in the middle of the Attitude Era. He was also a history-making competitor, the first to simultaneously hold the Intercontinental and European Championships — the “Eurocontinental Championship,” as it were. History has somewhat sidelined D’Lo, but he and his reign should be remembered as a case study in earned swagger: He talked the talk and walked the walk, distinctively so.
Perusing Val Venis’ highlight reel is kind of a tricky proposition. But what we definitely can say is that the Intercontinental Championship looked quite good on him despite the inherent oddness of the storied championship resting, however briefly, on the hips of a provocateur. The same controversy that made The Big Valbowski a nightmare for concerned parents of impressionable youths had the side-effect of making him appointment television; that notoriety extended to the title, which was defended under some truly bizarre circumstances while Venis wore it. He notched a second reign when he was a bit more clean-cut by defeating Rikishi, which is also an underrated stint. But the original run stands out for all the reasons Venis stood out: It was unique, it was provocative, and you could absolutely, 100 percent, not put any of it on television today.
Rob Van Dam
In its heyday, the Intercontinental Championship was the title of grapplers, of ironmen, of whip-fast WrestleMania bouts that stole the show straight from under the guys on the marquee. And then Rob Van Dam came along, and it was anything goes. Mr. Monday Night made extreme the hallmark of his Intercontinental Championship stints, defending it and winning it across the likes of Steel Cage and Ladder Matches, sometimes within the span of a couple of months. But any purists who think RVD degraded the prestige of the title by defending it in car wrecks is missing the point: You always had to put your body on the line to win the title. RVD just took it to the extreme.
William Regal is generally known these days as the universally respected NXT General Manager, but younger fans might not know that Regal assembled quite the impressive in-ring career, plying his villainy across the Attitude Era and beyond as both a pompous authority figure and a grizzled grappler, winning the Intercontinental Championship twice in the process. Given that the Intercontinental Championship is generally considered the next-man-up title, it’s both disappointing and somewhat fitting that Regal never made the leap to a World Title. To prove your mettle as a top-tier talent, you first had to prove yourself to William Regal. In some ways, you still do.
When Brock Lesnar was recruited to WWE, Shelton Benjamin joined him in a package deal for one specific reason: He was the only man who could hang with Lesnar in the Minnesota wrestling room. The Gold Standard’s athleticism has been praised by everyone from Paul Heyman to John Cena, which makes it somewhat surprising that he never rose beyond the Intercontinental Championship. But he was an absolutely breathtaking titleholder nonetheless, notching the longest single reign of the aughts at 244 days and putting on incredible matches against the likes of Rob Van Dam, Christian, Maven, Chris Jericho and Ric Flair, whom Benjamin defeated to win his second Intercontinental Title. All told, his reigns with the title are a snapshot of a once-ever athlete in the prime of his life, and his style undoubtedly paved the way for the likes of Ali, Cedric Alexander and Buddy Murphy — all of whom should be sniffing the title any day now.
Being funny is an underrated skill as a WWE Superstar. So is the ability to make people absolutely, positively despise you. Once upon a time, Santino Marella managed to do both: Shortly after his Vince Papale-esque rise to Superstardom, The Italian Stallion became utterly loathed among the WWE Universe, and him trying to hoard the Intercontinental Championship past The Honky Tonk Man’s record-setting mark didn’t exactly endear him to anyone. Of course, Santino eventually changed his tune and became as close to universally beloved as a Superstar can possibly get; his legacy undoubtedly and deservedly rests more in that ballpark. But his Intercontinental Title stint is a textbook example of one of the forgotten pillars of being a champion: The ability to provoke a visceral, immediate reaction, from the night you win the title to the second someone takes it from you.
Bad News Barrett
From high above his lectern, Bad News Barrett held court, pounding his gavel on a podium and gleefully dashing the hopes and dreams of the WWE Universe, week in and week out, with a powerful, gravelly timbre that could only be described as villainously English. He was pretty great all around, both as an example of Superstars evolving during their careers (remember when he led The Nexus?) and an example of a Superstar using his unique persona to make the Intercontinental Title a prize worth coveting: Who wouldn’t want to give this guy some bad news of his own? Sadly, injuries marred his reigns and his WWE career, but there is an alternate universe where Bad News Barrett never lost the Intercontinental Championship and became the best British orator since Winston Churchill. Should multi-dimensional travel ever become available, this would be among the first universes to visit.
Not sure if any of you remember, but for a while, people weren’t sure what to think about Roman Reigns. And true, the reasons for all that seem a little small in hindsight given the events of the past year, but Reigns’ short stint as Intercontinental Champion should have gone a long way toward proving he was every bit the workhorse he said he was, despite public opinion to the contrary. Looking to honor both the legacy of the title and the rest of The Shield, all of whom preceded him as champion, The Big Dog put on banger after banger with the title, showed he had a better motor than anybody gave him credit for, and proved his shoulders looked just as good draped in white as they did in red — if not better. It’s a shame more people didn’t notice.