Champions in enemy territory
Back in the day, wrestling was, quite literally, territorial. Promoters split the country up into various regions and vowed not to cross each other’s borders. That led to both wrestlers and championships becoming exclusive to certain companies, a practice that continued on as the business evolved into the two-company showdown between WWE and WCW.
The exclusivity led to fans dreaming of what would happen if their favorite wrestlers from different companies clashed in the squared circle. For the most part, they remained dreams. But there were several instances throughout wrestling’s rich history where top grapplers, champions even, crossed boundaries to make some of the biggest matches in history happen — or cause a little controversy.
Take a look back at some of the most talked about instances of champions leaving their turf in search of greater competition.
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WWE Superstar Tazz wins ECW Title from WCW’s Mike Awesome
Toward the end of the original ECW’s existence, shaky finances led to many of its top stars leaving for greener pastures in WWE and WCW. That included their reigning champion, Mike Awesome. The 300-pounder shocked everyone in sports-entertainment when he showed up on WCW Monday Nitro and attacked Kevin Nash. The announce team recognized him on-air as the ECW World Champion.
Awesome jumping ship left ECW wondering what they could possibly do to get their title back. When the defector agreed to return to the promotion for one last title defense in April 2000, his opponent was the last person anyone expected to show up.
Tazz, who left ECW the previous winter for WWE, returned to the hardcore promotion to challenge the rogue champion. In a situation that will never be recreated, a WWE Superstar challenged a WCW wrestler for the ECW World Title. Although he tried to run away, Awesome was eventually trapped in the Tazzmission, giving The Human Suplex Machine the title he made famous.
The ECW faithful were stunned even more the following Monday, when Tazz walked out on Raw wearing the ECW Championship. Thrilled by the national exposure their small company was getting, ECW never could have imagined that Tazz would take on then–WWE Champion Triple H that week on SmackDown. Well, he did. In a rare Champion vs. Champion Match, the ECW Champion looked to have The Game on the ropes, until Tommy Dreamer inadvertently cracked The Human Suplex Machine with a chair, giving Triple H the opening to hit a Pedigree and claim victory.
NWA Champion Harley Race competes in WWE
If there’s anyone bold enough to ignore boundaries and travel the world in search of a fight, it’s Harley Race. Regarded as one of the toughest men ever to step foot in the squared circle, Race laughed off anyone who tried to tell him that he couldn’t go somewhere.
After WWE left the National Wrestling Alliance in the early 1960s, the relationship between the two organizations was tenuous, at best. That made it all the more surprising when Race showed up on WWE television in 1980, with the NWA World Championship in his hands. He had heard about WWE Champion Bob Backlund and wanted to see if the babyfaced grappler was as good as everyone said. To sweeten the pot, he put his championship up against Backlund’s. The winner would become the unified World Champion.
With wrestling history hanging in the balance, the two legendary warriors took to the mat in New York’s Madison Square Garden. In a back-and-forth battle where the two looked evenly matched for the better part of a half hour, Backlund eventually trapped the NWA Champion in a sleeper hold. Seeing his title slipping away, Race grabbed the official and sent him crashing into Backlund, giving the WWE Champion a victory by disqualification, thus preventing the unification of wrestling’s top titles.
WWE Champion Bob Backlund answers the NWA’s challenge
Bob Backlund also liked to venture outside of WWE from time to time in search of the best competition in the world. His battles with Antonio Inoki in Japan are legendary. But one of his trips led to a surreal moment.
The then–WWE Champion headed out of WWE’s Northeastern stronghold and traveled down to Georgia, where he answered the challenge of NWA Champion Ric Flair. It made for interesting television when WWE Hall of Famer Gordon Solie hosted both Flair and Backlund on the set of Georgia Championship Wrestling. There was obvious tension in the air as the confident competitors stated their claim as to why they were the best wrestler going.
The two champions were set to settle the score on July 4, 1982, at Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum. Unfortunately, this Champion vs. Champion Match could not be contained by the ring. Backlund and Flair brawled around the arena and were both counted out, leaving fans to wonder who truly was the best.
WWE Women’s Champion Madusa heads to WCW
One of the first salvos WCW launched at WWE during the infamous Monday Night War is often overlooked. And it happened before Scott Hall showed up on Nitro on Memorial Day 1996.
With the WWE Women’s division in the midst of a renaissance thanks to an influx of talented ladies from Japan, the exciting Alundra Blayze had positioned herself as WWE’s top female. So it was strange for most to see the Women’s Champion walk out unannounced on the WCW Monday Nitro set on Dec. 18, 1995. It was even stranger to see her pull out WWE’s title and toss it in a trash can, declaring that WCW was now “where the big girls play.”
With Nitro overtaking Raw in the Nielsen ratings with each passing week, Madusa’s public trashing of the WWE Women’s Championship made it clear that no punches were going to be pulled in this war.
The NWA’s Champions invade WWE
After Shane Douglas threw down the NWA World Title in favor of the ECW Championship in August 1994, the National Wrestling Alliance got lost in the fold. Having already been ditched by WCW in the early ’90s, the NWA was no longer on television and was struggling to hold on the few fans they had left through several independent organizations around the country.
WWE gave the NWA a lifeline in 1998. The WWE Universe was surprised to see Jim Cornette standing in the ring on the first Raw of the year with Howard Brody, one of the Alliance’s top officials. He had in his hands the NWA North American Championship, a once prestigious, now-vacant title. That night, Jeff Jarrett defeated Barry Windham to capture the title and was declared the future of the NWA.
Cornette later brought in The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, handing them the NWA Tag Team Titles they held throughout the ’80s, and Dan Severn, who was splitting his time between defending the NWA World Championship and participating in mixed martial arts tournaments.
The Alliance’s brand of old-school wrestling didn’t catch on with the WWE Universe. Disqualifications for throwing your opponent over the top rope just didn’t jive on a show where Superstars were pushing the envelope further and further on a weekly basis. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express traded the tag titles with The Headbangers before engaging in a feud with The New Midnight Express to little fanfare. Jarrett ditched the old-school faction by the summer, adopting a new attitude. Severn also stopped carrying the once-revered title into WWE rings. Just like it had several years earlier, the National Wrestling Alliance slipped back into obscurity not with a bang, but with a whimper.
WCW Champion Ric Flair comes to WWE
For the better part of the 1980s and early ’90s, WWE and WCW stayed out of each other’s paths. Any shots fired in the war for sports-entertainment supremacy were taken from afar. Whether it was over conflicting pay-per-view dates or a free TV show going up against WrestleMania, the fights mostly took place behind the scenes.
That was, until Ric Flair made things a little more complicated.
After a dispute with WCW’s executives left him sour, The Nature Boy, who was the WCW Champion at the time, decided a change of scenery would be nice. And since no one was able to defeat him for the title, Flair took the famous 10 pounds of title gold with him up north.
Meanwhile, Bobby Heenan took to WWE’s airwaves, telling anyone who would listen that the “real” World Champion was on his way to the company. Most shrugged “The Brain” off, figuring that he was spouting hyperbole, as usual. Heenan shut his detractors up on “WWE Superstars” in August 1991 when he pulled out the WCW Championship. Gorilla Monsoon and Jim Neidhart were stunned. Heenan was glowing several weeks later when Ric Flair stunned the world by making his WWE debut.
WCW was not thrilled with their title being shown on their competition’s programming. Although they sued WWE, Flair refused to stop parading the title out on television. Thus, WWE officials were forced to censor the championship whenever it appeared. Soon, though, Flair no longer had a need for the WCW Title. In January 1992, The Dirtiest Player in the Game outlasted 29 other Superstars in the Royal Rumble Match to capture the vacant WWE Title.
J-Crown Champion Ultimo Dragon brings his eight titles to WCW
When a wrestler shows up in a new company with one title, people take notice. But showing up with eight covering every inch of your upper body? You might as well have a target on your chest.
That’s exactly what Ultimo Dragon did early in his tenure with WCW. Still splitting his time between the United States and Japan, Dragon awed fans when he made his return to WCW after several months in Asia with eight titles in tow. Back in his homeland, he had captured the prestigious J-Crown Championship, which consisted of eight unified light heavyweight championships from around the world, including the forgotten WWE Light Heavyweight Title.
All those championships made Ultimo Dragon look like the baddest man on the planet, and he certainly could back it up in the ring. The highflier added a ninth championship to his collection at Starrcade 1996, defeating Dean Malenko to capture the WCW Cruiserweight Title. It was good he had manager Sonny Onoo around to hold them all.