Historically speaking, the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship may be the most prestigious and honored championship in the history of professional wrestling. In the United States and abroad, very few other wrestling titles can compare to the rich history of the NWA World Championship and the great tradition that it represents. The championship itself actually predates the National Wrestling Alliance, which was formed in 1948. The lineage of the NWA World Heavyweight Championship can be traced back to the early 1900s, during the days of the legendary Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt.
When you go back to trace the origins of modern-day American professional wrestling, Gotch and Hackenschmidt are the two names that have been immortalized. These wrestling pioneers competed for the title of "World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion" in a period when big-time wrestling matches were still very much a shoot, which is pro-wrestling slang for "real" or "unscripted".
The early lineage of the World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship is sketchy at best. There were several versions of the World Heavyweight Championship and no shortage of men who labeled themselves as being the "true" World Heavyweight Champion. The controversy and debate over who was truly the World Heavyweight Champion of Wrestling was one of the primary catalysts for the formation of the National Wrestling Alliance in 1948. Different wrestling territories from across the United States agreed to join forces under one banner and to recognize one true, undisputed World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.
It took a man of truly exceptional qualities to even be considered as a possible contender for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. The NWA World Champion would be the face of the National Wrestling Alliance and would need to carry the championship with dignity. He needed to be somebody who could draw crowds and generate revenue for the NWA, not just domestically, but around the globe. And perhaps most importantly, he needed to have legitimate skills as a grappler or fighter and be able to hold his own in a potentially unworked (unscripted) situation.
For decades, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was widely regarded as being the top prize in all of professional wrestling, anywhere in the world. Although other wrestling promotions in the United States and other countries recognized their own World Champions, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was universally considered to be the true World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship. The NWA World Title, and the champion himself, were the measuring stick which all other World Champions were compared to.
The NWA sanctioned numerous territories, including Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP), Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW), World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), and many others. All NWA-sanctioned promotions around the world would occasionally get a visit from the reigning NWA World Champion, who would defend the title against that promotion's top star. It was a rigorous schedule for the NWA World Champion.
Jim Crockett Promotions was the largest NWA affiliate in the United States and enjoyed considerable success for years in the south, even buying out Georgia Championship Wrestling to gain majority control of the southern U.S. wrestling scene. However, as JCP grew in size, the company started to suffer from financial difficulties. In 1988, Jim Crockett Jr. officially sold JCP to Ted Turner. The former JCP then became known as WCW: World Championship Wrestling.
The Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling continued to operate under the NWA banner until splitting from the NWA in 1993. This is where the history and lineage of the NWA World Heavyweight Championship becomes murky.
Ted Turner's WCW still had physical possession of the well-known "Big Gold Belt" that represented the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. WCW recognized this belt as having the official lineage of the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, going back to 1948 and even before the formation of the NWA. To this day, WWE and many wrestling fans accept the notion that the Big Gold Belt, which was originally introduced by "Nature Boy" Ric Flair in 1986, carried the lineage of the NWA World Heavyweight Title.
However, the NWA still had possession of the former World Title belt used in the 1970s and 80s and brought that belt out of retirement after WCW withdrew from the NWA. The NWA recognized the 70s/80s belt as being the true NWA World Heavyweight Championship, while WCW continued to recognize the Big Gold Belt as the true/former NWA World Heavyweight Championship, thus creating two different lineages of the NWA World Heavyweight Title.
At one point in the early 1990s, WCW recognized two World Champions: the WCW World Heavyweight Champion, who carried a new belt, and the WCW International Heavyweight Champion, who carried the Big Gold Belt that WCW considered to be the former NWA World Title. Ric Flair defeated Big Van Vader at Starrcade 1993 to capture the new WCW World Title belt. He then faced the WCW International Heavyweight Champion Sting, who carried the Big Gold Belt, in a World Championship Unification Match at Clash of the Champions XXVII on June 23rd, 1994.
Ric Flair defeated Sting in this World Title Unification Match and walked away with both the WCW World Heavyweight Championship and the WCW International Heavyweight Championship. The short-lived WCW World Title belt was retired in favor of the more well-known Big Gold Belt. The Big Gold Belt was used as the undisputed WCW World Heavyweight Championship from that point forward.
In March of 2001, World Championship Wrestling was purchased by their longtime rival, Vince McMahon, and his World Wrestling Federation (WWF). The WWF used this real-life acquisition as a storyline on television and all WCW titles, including the World Heavyweight Title, were prominently featured on WWF programming throughout 2001. As part of the now-infamous "Invasion" storyline, WCW was paired with ECW: Extreme Championship Wrestling, and threatened to put the WWF out of business. The WWF waged war against the WCW/ECW Alliance for most of 2001 until the Survivor Series pay-per-view event in November when Team WWF defeated the WCW/ECW Alliance to finally put WCW and ECW out of business.
The WCW World Heavyweight Championship stayed active for a short time after Survivor Series and was simply labeled as "the World Heavyweight Championship", not to be confused with the World Wrestling Federation Championship. The WWF Championship and the former WCW World Heavyweight Championship were unified at the WWF Vengeance pay-per-view in December of 2001 when Chris Jericho defeated The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in the same night to become the first-ever WWF/WCW Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion.
The WWF and WCW World Title belts both represented the Undisputed Championship until after WrestleMania X8 in March of 2002. Triple H defeated Chris Jericho at WrestleMania and was given a brand new Undisputed World Championship belt.
The WWF changed its name to WWE: World Wrestling Entertainment in May of 2002. This was shortly after the company had split itself into two different rosters for Monday Night Raw and Thursday Night SmackDown. The Undisputed WWE World Champion was eligible to appear on both programs until Brock Lesnar defeated The Rock at SummerSlam 2002 and signed an exclusive contract with the SmackDown brand, leaving Raw without a World Championship.
Raw General Manager and former WCW President Eric Bischoff then revived the former WCW Big Gold Belt and awarded it to Triple H in September of 2002, thus creating two separate World Titles in WWE. The Undisputed Championship was simply known as the WWE Championship, and the former WCW World Heavyweight Championship was again known as "the World Heavyweight Championship".
The WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship co-existed in WWE for more than a decade from September of 2002 until December of 2013 at the Tables, Ladders and Chairs pay-per-view when WWE Champion Randy Orton defeated World Heavyweight Champion John Cena in a World Championship Unification Match. Since then, WWE has acknowledged one World Title: the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
The WWE Championship belt and the World Heavyweight Championship Big Gold Belt both represented the Unified WWE World Heavyweight Championship until Brock Lesnar won the Title from John Cena at SummerSlam 2014 and was presented with a brand new WWE World Heavyweight Title belt the following night on Raw. This has seemingly laid the former WWE/WCW/NWA Big Gold Belt to rest.
While WWE used the Big Gold Belt as the World Heavyweight Championship, the National Wrestling Alliance is still in operation today and still uses the classic 70s/80s title belt that was used before the Big Gold Belt. The NWA had a brief working relationship with Eastern Championship Wrestling in the 90s after the withdrawal of WCW. In August of 1994, ECW's "Franchise" Shane Douglas won a tournament to crown a new NWA World Heavyweight Champion, only to throw the historic NWA World Title on the mat after winning it. In one of the most legendary and controversial moments in wrestling history, Douglas cut a scathing promo against the NWA and its World Title, declaring that he didn't want to be the World Champion of a "dead promotion." He labeled himself as being the new ECW World Heavyweight Champion and was officially recognized by ECW as being their new World Champion. Shortly after this, Eastern Championship Wrestling changed their name to Extreme Championship Wrestling and became the third-largest promotion in the United States behind the WWF and WCW until closing down in 2001, just before WCW was sold to the WWF.
The NWA and the NWA World Title became scarce throughout the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s until former WWE and WCW Superstar Jeff Jarrett, along with his father, longtime wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett, formed Total Nonstop Action Wrestling under the NWA banner in June of 2002. TNA brought new life to both the NWA World Heavyweight Title and the NWA World Tag Team Titles for five years until TNA and the NWA finally parted ways in the summer of 2007.
Since parting ways from TNA, the NWA has continued to promote shows around the world and remains a fairly active force on the independent circuit. The NWA World Heavyweight Championship is still one of the most coveted and sought-after titles on the independent scene, simply for its illustrious history if nothing else.
While the NWA may have fallen from the mainstream spotlight, nothing will ever erase the incredible history and background of the once-great promotion. Regardless of the controversy and debate surrounding the official lineage of the NWA World Heavyweight Title, the fact remains that the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was once the single most prestigious prize in all of professional wrestling and one of the most prestigious championships in all of sports. The men who held the NWA World Title in its glory days were some of the most honored competitors to ever grace the squared circle, and their contributions to the wrestling industry should not be forgotten or overlooked.
The second part of this article will profile ten of the greatest NWA World Heavyweight Champions of all time.