The forgotten legacy of the European Title
July 22, 2013, marked 11 years since the European Title disappeared from WWE. Not that anyone noticed.
The championship, which was first won by The British Bulldog in a tournament final in Germany in Feb. 1997, was held by Shawn Michaels, Triple H and Chris Jericho, defended at multiple WrestleManias and unified with the Intercontinental Championship in a Ladder Match between Jeff Hardy and Rob Van Dam. And yet, it’s little more than a historical footnote today. A forgotten aspect of the fabled “Attitude Era” as easily overlooked as the Light Heavyweight Title or Head Cheese. But why is that? Why do some titles become integral parts of sports-entertainment while others fade into obscurity?
The European Title wasn’t designed to fail. When it was introduced to WWE fans during a Raw tour of Europe in 1997, it was meant to be a big deal. A completely new championship hadn't debuted in years and the sight of United Kingdom hero The British Bulldog raising the title in the air after a classic tournament final against Owen Hart was something to be inspired by. The Europeans finally had their own title in WWE. They could be proud of that, right?
“No, not really,” current World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus flatly told WWE.com. “I mean, when it first came out, it had that prestige with The [British] Bulldog winning it and Shawn [Michaels] beating him for it. But I don’t think it ever took anything away from the WWE Championship and Intercontinental Championship. I never really saw it as a serious championship.”
A serious championship. That’s the issue, isn’t it? Sports-entertainment fans take their titles seriously and the championships they do respect (the WWE Championship, the Intercontinental Championship, etc.) have two main things going for them — longevity and credibility. The European Title wasn’t going to have any history behind it right out of the gate, but it had a chance at credibility. When Bulldog beat Owen Hart for the championship in one of the best matches in Raw history, it made it apparent that this title mattered. But that changed.
After HBK wrestled the title away from Bulldog at 1997’s European exclusive One Night Only pay-per-view, he was forced to defend the championship against his D-Generation X running buddy, Triple H. But instead of fighting for the title like it meant something, Michaels simply let his friend defeat him. Sure, it was the type of arrogant, nose thumbing that DX was infamous for, but it was also a big shot to the title’s credibility. The next time the title changed hands, Owen Hart won the championship from Triple H by beating Goldust who was dressed up as The Game. Make sense? Of course not. Shot number two.
The European Championship wasn’t dead yet, though. In fact, it was revived, somewhat unexpectedly, by D’Lo Brown. A flunky in The Rock’s Nation who won the bulk of his matches thanks to a superfluous chest protector, Brown brought the title some interest through a series of exciting matches against Sean “X-Pac” Waltman. Pac, in turn, gave the championship its greatest exposure during one of 1999’s most memorable rivalries.
“[The European Title] was the centerpiece of probably one of the hottest feuds I had in my career with Shane McMahon,” Sean Waltman told WWE Classics.
A referee and commentator early in his WWE career, Mr. McMahon’s son found his footing as the type of entitled, prep school jerk that people would gladly pay money to see get kicked around. When he shockingly defeated X-Pac for the European Championship, it led into a rematch at WrestleMania XV with WWE fans desperate to see the DX member get the title back. (WATCH)
“I have to take my hat off to him,” Waltman admitted. “He was up there with the toughest I’ve ever been in the ring with.”
Shane O Mac successfully defended the European Title that night and the championship was never hotter. Suddenly, the title was doing exactly what it was supposed to do, which is inspire passion in young competitors and give them something to fight for. Then along came Mideon.
Once known as hog farmer Phineas I. Godwinn before being possessed by The Undertaker (true story), Mideon was a rugged, unforgiving competitor who captured the World Tag Team Titles on two separate occasions. But here’s how he “won” the European Championship — he found it in Shane McMahon’s duffle bag.
Disinterested in his title after defeating X-Pac at WrestleMania XV, Shane stopped competing and declared that he had retired as champion. The championship was listed as defunct for the next three months before Mideon stumbled upon the title while rummaging around the locker room. McMahon simply let him have it and the European Championship was magically reactivated. The only title change that was more demeaning was when “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan became the WCW Television Champion after finding it in the trash.
The European Title was never really taken seriously after that. Sure, legitimate contenders carried it. Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero were just a few of the future WWE Champions who snatched the title on their way to the top. Superstars who never quite reached that peak like Val Venis, Test and Matt Hardy won it, too. But the championship was never the goal. It was just a stopping point on the way to a goal.
And why wouldn’t it be? Jericho has often told the story of how he came to WWE with the dream of becoming the Intercontinental Champion after watching his idol, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. Would anyone have the ambition to win the same title that Mideon yanked out of a Samsonite? Or that Jeff Jarrett handed to Mark Henry? The puzzled looks on the faces of some young Superstars who WWE Classics interviewed about the European Title answered those questions. Even William Regal, a four-time European Champion and an invaluable source of sports-entertainment knowledge, could barely recall winning the thing.
"Four times and I can’t remember one!” he said with a bit of disbelief.
The European Championship was merged with the Intercontinental Championship on July 22, 2002, when Rob Van Dam defeated Jeff Hardy in a Ladder Match on Raw. All told, the title lasted for a little more than five years in WWE — a staggeringly short time when you consider that the WWE Title’s lineage dates back to when John F. Kennedy was in office.
So what was the point?
"I guess they wanted to show that WWE was expanding to a worldwide audience," Sheamus said. "Especially when they were running so many shows over in the UK."
Again, the big fella was right. More than anything, the European Title was a statement — like planting a flag at the top of a mountain. It was WWE’s way of saying, “This is bigger than just North America. This is universal.” When that was made apparent, which was probably five minutes after The British Bulldog won it, the European Championship was no longer necessary. Beyond that, it was just another title.
“Honestly, I think it could have said 'Tic Tac Toe Champion' on it and the people would have reacted,” Sean Waltman said. “It was a championship, it was nice looking, and it fit.”