Part 2 of this article will profile ten of the greatest National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Champions of all time. With all due respect to the likes of Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, who pre-date the National Wrestling Alliance itself, only champions that have been crowned since the formation of the NWA in 1948 will be featured on this list.
10. Terry Funk
No other performer in the history of professional wrestling has been more passionate about what they do than "The Original Hardcore Legend" Terry Funk. The son of Dory Funk Sr. and younger brother of former NWA World Champion Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk has a reputation for being legitimately one of the toughest and most rugged competitors to ever step into a wrestling ring.
For the early part of Terry Funk's career, he was more of a traditional, classic wrestler, not unlike most other wrestlers of his time. The 1960s and 70s were a transitional period in wrestling. Heel (villainous) wrestlers began to appear more violent and dangerous. Men such as Terry Funk or Harley Race were feared and respected for being more-than-capable street fighters who could hold their own in a physical confrontation.
Terry and Dory Funk Jr. found themselves in a heated rivalry against the Brisco Brothers, Jack and Gerald, throughout most of the 1970s. Jack Brisco had been one of the most celebrated NWA World Heavyweight Champions of all time, having defeated Harley Race for the gold on July 20, 1973 in Houston, Texas. Brisco was originally scheduled to defend the title against former World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk Jr. on December 10, 1975 in Miami, Florida, but Dory was involved in a car accident and was unable to make the event. Terry filled in for his brother in the match and defeated Brisco to become the new NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Terry Funk would hold the NWA World Title for over a year, very much a fighting champion. He defended it all across the United States, as well as Japan and a few other countries. Funk defeated top contenders such as Shohei "Giant" Baba, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, and Pat O'Connor. Funk lost the title to Harley Race on February 6, 1977 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Heading into the 1980s, Terry Funk began to evolve as a wrestling character. He joined the World Wrestling Federation in 1985 with a new persona, which included using a branding iron as a weapon against his opponents. Funk had feuds against top WWF Superstars such as The Junkyard Dog and Hulk Hogan, though he wasn't able to capture any WWF championships. He returned to the NWA in 1989 and became a major threat to NWA World Champion Ric Flair, even going as far as Piledriving Flair through a table after Flair had just regained the title from Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat at the WrestleWar pay-per-view event.
Funk continued to perform throughout the 1990s, bouncing around between different promotions, including WCW, the IWA in Japan, and ECW. By this time, Funk had completely transitioned from being an old-school, classic wrestler, to being a violent, dangerous, downright sadistic competitor in the ring. He started to engage in more hardcore matches that often resulted in considerable bloodshed. He was a perfect fit for Paul Heyman's Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion, which specialized in hardcore wrestling.
Funk had memorable encounters in ECW with stars such as Mick Foley (as Cactus Jack), Sabu, Raven, The Sandman, and "The Franchise" Shane Douglas. But the pinnacle of his ECW career took place on April 13, 1997 at ECW's very first pay-per-view event, Barely Legal.
Terry Funk, who was 53 years old at the time, was scheduled to be a part of the main event of Barely Legal. Funk squared off against The Sandman and Stevie Richards in a Three-Way Dance Elimination Match. The winner of the Three-Way would immediately challenge Raven for the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. Funk managed to survive the onslaught of his two younger opponents and earned the right to face Raven for the ECW World Title. Raven quickly charged the ring and began assaulting Funk, who was bleeding profusely and couldn't even get to his feet. It appeared as though Raven was going to end Terry Funk's dream of holding a World Championship once again, but Funk was able to catch Raven with a quick roll-up and secured a three-count. Terry Funk, at 53 years of age, was the new Extreme Championship Wrestling World Heavyweight Champion.
Funk would hold the ECW World Championship for a few months until he faced the maniacal Sabu in a Barbed Wire Match at Born to Be Wired on August 9, 1997. This infamous and legendary bout between Funk and Sabu is widely considered to be one of the most violent and gruesome matches in ECW history.
Funk returned to the WWF for a few months in 1998 as "Chainsaw Charlie", usually teaming up with Mick Foley. He also returned to WCW in 2000 and became a three-time WCW Hardcore Champion.
WCW and ECW both went out of business in early 2001. In late 2004, WWE released a documentary called The Rise & Fall of ECW, which sparked a renewed interest in ECW. In the summer of 2005, WWE held a special one-night-only ECW reunion pay-per-view, ECW One Night Stand. WWE offered Terry Funk a contract to appear at this event, but he chose to perform at Shane Douglas's ECW tribute event, Hardcore Homecoming. Funk performed in the main event of Hardcore Homecoming in another Three-Way Dance Elimination Match against Shane Douglas and Sabu.
The following year, WWE held another ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view, which saw Terry Funk, his longtime friend and protégé Tommy Dreamer, and Dreamer's wife Beulah McGillicutty, take on Mick Foley, Edge, and Lita. Though they weren't the main event of the card, this Six-Person Tag Team Match was arguably the best match of the night.
Terry and Dory Funk Jr. were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009, the night before WrestleMania 25.
9. "The Original Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers
As far as championships go, Buddy Rogers is perhaps best known for being the very first WWE World Heavyweight Champion when WWE was formed back in 1963 as the WWWF: World Wide Wrestling Federation. He has been forever immortalized in WWE for this accomplishment, and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1994. But Rogers held many other wrestling titles as well, including the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
Buddy Rogers is often credited as being one of the most revolutionary "entertainers" in wrestling history. During a time when many promoters relied on wrestlers with legitimate grappling backgrounds to be their main eventers/World Champions, Rogers proved to be a special attraction due his sheer flamboyancy. He was the epitome of what a showman is in professional wrestling. Although he did have an amateur wrestling background and was capable of being a very proficient technical wrestler, Rogers relied on dastardly heel antics to gain the attention, and ire, of the fans.
In June of 1961, Buddy Rogers squared off against one of the greatest World Champions of all time, Pat O'Connor, for the NWA World Heavyweight Title in Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. Rogers defeated O'Connor in the Two-out-of-Three Falls Match in front of nearly 39,000 fans.
Rogers' NWA World Title reign was not without its controversy. Walter "Killer" Kowalski defeated Rogers in a title match on November 22, 1961 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, but some promoters did not acknowledge Kowalski's defeat over Rogers, making both men a disputed World Heavyweight Champion. Rogers then lost a title match to Bobo Brazil in Newark, New Jersey on August 18, 1962, but Rogers claimed that he wrestled the match injured, thus nullifying Bobo's victory. Rogers would then defeat Bobo in a rematch in October of that year, and also defeated Killer Kowalski in another rematch in January of 1963. His final victories over Kowalski and Brazil seemed to end the controversy over who was the true NWA World Heavyweight Champion, but more controversy would ensue when Rogers defended the title against Lou Thesz on January 24, 1963.
Lou Thesz defeated Buddy Rogers in a One-Fall Match in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. However, several promoters in the United States, including Vince McMahon Sr. and James "Toots" Mondt, argued that a World Heavyweight Title match should have been contested under Two-out-of-Three Falls rules. McMahon and Mondt withdrew from the NWA in protest and formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation. Buddy Rogers allegedly won a tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to become the first-ever WWWF World Heavyweight Champion, though no evidence of such a tournament exists. Nonetheless, Buddy Rogers was - and still is - officially recognized as being the inaugural WWWF/WWF/WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
Buddy Rogers was one of the most colorful and controversial personalities in wrestling history, but nobody can deny that he was also one of the most revolutionary performers in the business as well. He helped lay the groundwork for what a true villain is in the world of professional wrestling. His "Nature Boy" successor Ric Flair has often admitted that much of his outlandish television personality was based on "The Original Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers. In the later years of Rogers' career, he wrestled the younger "Nature Boy" Ric Flair on one occasion in the summer of 1978. Rogers lost to Flair and then returned to the World Wrestling Federation as a manager and part-time wrestler before retiring in the early 1980s.
8. "Big Thunder" Gene Kiniski
Standing 6'4" and weighing in at 270 pounds, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada's Gene Kiniski would have a considerable size advantage over many opponents in the ring even today. In the 1950s and 60s, Kiniski was virtually a giant.
Gene Kiniski dabbled in some amateur wrestling during his high school days, but truly excelled in the sport of football, specifically as a defensive lineman. He played for the Edmonton Eskimos in the late 40s and early 50s and attended the University of Arizona from 1950 until 1952. He was recruited into the professional wrestling business by Rod Fenton in 1952 and briefly did both wrestling and football simultaneously until suffering a torn kneecap. When he recovered from his injury, he made the decision to retire from football in order to pursue a full-time professional wrestling career.
Kiniski further developed his wrestling skills under the tutelage of Tony Morelli and the legendary Dory Funk Sr. He found some success early on in the California area, and even challenged the great Lou Thesz for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in November of 1954. Kiniski was unsuccessful in his Two-out-of-Three Falls Match against Thesz, but he did go on to become a three-time Tag Team Champion in the California territory before moving on to Texas. He captured the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship in 1956.
He then returned to his home country of Canada in the late 50s and engaged in high-profile rivalries against former World Champions such as Pat O'Connor, "Whipper" Billy Watson, and Édouard Carpentier.
"Big Thunder" captured the prestigious American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship from the iconic Verne Gagne in July of 1961. He held the belt for about a month before losing it back to Gagne in a rematch. Kiniski also became a two-time AWA World Tag Team Champion along with Hard Boiled Haggerty before leaving the AWA in 1962.
Kiniski then began to travel abroad, competing throughout North America and also spending some time in Japan. In 1964, Kiniski squared off against quite possibly the greatest WWE Champion of all time, Bruno Sammartino, in Madison Square Garden. Kiniski wrestled Sammartino several times throughout 1964, and proved to be a tough opponent for the legendary WWE Champion, though Kiniski was never able to defeat Sammartino for the gold. He then spent some time in Dick the Bruiser's well-known World Wrestling Association in Indiana, capturing the WWA Heavyweight Championship in August of 1965.
On January 7, 1966, Gene Kiniski defeated Lou Thesz for the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship in St. Louis, Missouri. Kiniski held the title for over three years, becoming one of the greatest heel (bad guy) World Heavyweight Champions of all time. He defended the title around the world against countless elite challengers, including Lou Thesz, Pat O'Connor, Abdullah the Butcher, "Cowboy" Bill Watts, Johnny Valentine, Dick the Bruiser, and Bobo Brazil, just to name a few.
Gene Kiniski finally lost the NWA World Championship to Dory Funk Jr. on February 11, 1969 in Tampa, Florida.
7. "The King of the Mountain" Jeff Jarrett
Although Jeff Jarrett enjoyed success in both WWE/WWF and WCW from the mid-90s until the early 2000s, he may be best remembered for being the co-founder of the Total Nonstop Action Wrestling promotion along with his father, Jerry Jarrett.
Jeff Jarrett began his professional wrestling career at the young age of 18, having trained under the legendary Tojo Yamamoto. Jeff worked for his father Jerry as a referee in Jerry's Continental Wrestling Association during his high school years until finally making his debut as a wrestler against Tony Falk in April of 1986.
In 1989, Jerry Jarrett purchased the World Class Championship Wrestling promotion based out of Texas and merged it with the CWA, forming the United States Wrestling Association. Jeff captured numerous USWA Championships before signing with the World Wrestling Federation in 1993, where he was given the gimmick of a country singer. Although his gimmick may have been outlandish, he did enjoy considerable success as the WWF Intercontinental Champion.
Jeff signed with World Championship Wrestling for one year from October of 1996 until October of 1997. He captured the WCW United States Heavyweight Championship in June of 1997, but decided to return to the WWF when his WCW contract expired.
Jarrett became a key mid-carder in the WWF from 1997 until 1999. He captured the Intercontinental Championship on three occasions between May and August of 1999, and also formed a successful tag team with Owen Hart before Owen's tragic death at the Over the Edge pay-per-view event in May of 1999.
Jarrett left the WWF once again in October of 1999 and quickly returned to WCW where he became a main eventer and a four-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion. Jarrett remained with WCW until WCW was purchased by Vince McMahon and the WWF in March of 2001.
In June of 2002, Jeff and Jerry Jarrett teamed up with the National Wrestling Alliance to form a new wrestling promotion, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. Jeff Jarrett completely dominated NWA-TNA for its first four years from 2002 until 2006, capturing the legendary NWA World Heavyweight Championship on six occasions. Jarrett was a fighting champion, defeating the likes of Raven, A.J. Styles, Ron "The Truth" Killings, Jeff Hardy, "The Alpha Male" Monty Brown, Kevin Nash, and "Diamond" Dallas Page in NWA World Championship matches.
Many TNA fans agree that TNA's earlier years were the best period of time in TNA. Jeff Jarrett was quite possibly the greatest World Champion in TNA history and truly exemplified what a leader is supposed to be. He carried the weight of the company on his back, both on-screen and behind the scenes. His reign of dominance over the NWA World Championship was very much reminiscent of former champions such as Ric Flair or Harley Race. And most importantly, Jarrett and the TNA promotion seemed to reinvigorate the historic NWA World Heavyweight Championship, which had been dormant since the 1990s.
TNA parted ways from the NWA in 2007, relinquishing both the NWA World Heavyweight Title and the NWA World Tag Team Titles.
6. Jack Brisco
Often cited for his pure technical wrestling skills, proud Oklahoman Jack Brisco was one of the best in-ring performers of his time. Jack and his younger brother Gerald both entered professional wrestling after having successful amateur careers, including an NCAA National Championship victory for Jack in 1965.
Jack and Gerald spent the early part of their professional wrestling careers in Florida, where they captured numerous NWA Florida Tag Team Championships. It was during their time in Florida that the Brisco Brothers began a decades-long rivalry against another tag team consisting of brothers, Terry and Dory Funk Jr.
Jack Brisco eventually became a top contender to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and defeated Harley Race for the gold on July 20, 1973 in Houston, Texas. He held the title for a year-and-a-half until losing it to Shohei "Giant" Baba in December of 1974. Brisco defeated Baba in a rematch four days later and would go on to hold the title once again for another year until losing it to longtime rival Terry Funk on December 10, 1975.
Jack continued his wrestling career all over the United States until the mid-1980s. He competed primarily in Florida, but also made his mark in Georgia, Memphis, and the Mid-Atlantic area. He also spent some time Puerto Rico's World Wrestling Council promotion, where he became the WWC Caribbean Heavyweight Champion.
Jack Brisco retired from the ring in 1985.
5. Dory Funk Jr.
Arguably the most accomplished member of the legendary Funk wrestling family, Dory Funk Jr. was one of the longest-reigning NWA World Heavyweight Champions of all time, winning the title from "Big Thunder" Gene Kiniski on February 11, 1969 and holding it until May 24, 1973 when he finally tasted defeat at the hands of Harley Race.
Dory's father, Dory Sr., was a very accomplished amateur wrestler during his high school and college years and enjoyed considerable success as a professional wrestler and a professional wrestling promoter in Texas. Dory Jr. and his brother Terry would go on to become the only brothers to ever hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. They were also two of the most well-traveled American wrestlers of their time, making frequent appearances in Japan and other countries around the world.
In his later years, Dory Funk Jr. has become one of the most well-known wrestling trainers of the past two decades. Many of his students have gone on to achieve tremendous success in major wrestling promotions. Funk has trained the likes of Kurt Angle, Lita, Mickie James, Edge & Christian, and The Hardy Boyz.
4. Pat O'Connor
Pat O'Connor is one of only a few men to hold both the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship and the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship, and he was the only man to ever hold them both simultaneously.
Pat O'Connor was an outstanding amateur wrestler in his home country of New Zealand in his younger days, capturing the New Zealand Heavyweight Championship in 1949 and 1950, as well as a silver medal in the 1950 British Empire Games. In 1950, O'Connor met former NWA Minneapolis World Tag Team Champion Leonard Levy, who trained O'Connor to become a professional wrestler.
O'Connor climbed through the ranks of the NWA throughout the 1950s until finally capturing the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Dick Hutton in January of 1959. O'Connor held the NWA World Title for more than two years until losing it to "The Original Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers in June of 1961 in front of more than 38,000 fans in Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. O'Connor vs. Rogers set a professional wrestling attendance record that lasted until the David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions in Texas Stadium in 1984.
He was also officially recognized as the first-ever AWA World Heavyweight Champion when the AWA parted ways from the NWA in May of 1960 while O'Connor was in the middle of his NWA World Title reign. His rigorous schedule as the NWA World Champion prevented him from defending the AWA World Title, and he was stripped of the belt after 90 days.
O'Connor stayed active in the wrestling business throughout the 1980s, though mostly behind the scenes. He did still wrestle occasionally though, and even made an in-ring appearance for the World Wrestling Federation in 1987 for a Legends' Battle Royal.
3. Harley Race
Eight-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race was the textbook definition of a heel (bad guy) in professional wrestling. Widely regarded as being both one of the most feared and respected performers in wrestling history, Harley Race dominated the 1970s and 80s as the NWA World Champion, defeating the likes of Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, Shohei "Giant" Baba, and many other superb wrestlers in the NWA and around the world.
Many longtime fans remember Harley Race as being a truly sadistic heel at times. His words, though not fancy or flashy, were very ominous and direct-to-the-point. Harley was never much of a showman along the lines of Buddy Rogers or Ric Flair. Race was known for being a legitimately tough street brawler with a no-nonsense attitude and a desperate need to hold the prestigious NWA World Title. His style in the ring reflected his demeanor: rugged and hard-hitting. He could wrestle or brawl with the best of them.
Along with his eight reigns as NWA World Heavyweight Champion, Harley Race held a plethora of other NWA-sanctioned championships. He was the first-ever NWA United States Heavyweight Champion and would hold the title for six months from January until July of 1975. He was also one half of the American Wrestling Association World Tag Team Champions along with Larry "The Axe" Hennig.
Harley Race has been inducted into numerous Halls of Fame, including the WWE, WCW, and NWA Halls of Fame, as well as Amsterdam, New York's Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum.
2. "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair
Ric Flair is a 16-time World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion and is undoubtedly one of the greatest in-ring performers in the history of the sport. But as great as Flair was in the ring, he is also known as being one of the best pure characters in wrestling. His microphone skills and outlandish, over-the-top personality always made him one of the most loved and/or hated figures in the business. Nobody, NOBODY, exemplified what it meant to be a World Champion like "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair.
The prime of Ric Flair's incredible career was in the 1980s. As the three-way war between the NWA, the WWF, and the AWA was heating up, nobody could match Ric Flair from a pure performance standpoint. His legendary feuds and battles against Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, Harley Race, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, Terry Funk, Barry Windham, Sting, Magnum T.A., Roddy Piper, and many others, cemented Flair's legacy as one of the greatest NWA World Heavyweight Champions of all-time.
Ric Flair and his Four Horsemen stable were truly the cream of the crop in the NWA. Flair and the Horsemen gave the NWA a decisive advantage over the WWF and the AWA in terms of sheer in-ring ability. While the AWA had an illustrious history of its own with Verne Gagne at the helm, and the WWF presented its larger-than-life Superstars as being almost like cartoon superheroes and villains, Flair and the Horsemen made the NWA destination programming for fans who wanted to see the very best in-ring wrestling product.
Flair was also a fighting champion. He defended the NWA World Heavyweight Championship across the globe and put on stellar performances no matter where he was at or who he was wrestling against. The NWA fans knew that if Ric Flair was on the card, they were certainly going to get their money's worth, regardless of the final outcome of the match.
Flair was extremely loyal to the NWA organization and the NWA fans. He proudly waved the banner of the NWA all throughout the 1980s and was a major financial draw for the company. Flair knew that he was one of the cornerstones of the NWA and he took great pride in his work.
Out of Flair's sixteen World Championships, eight of them were NWA World Heavyweight Titles. He was also a six-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion and a two-time WWE/WWF Champion.
1. Lou Thesz
It's nearly impossible to answer the question, "Who is the greatest professional wrestler of all time?". You could ask 100 different people this question and get 100 different answers. But Lou Thesz would certainly be an excellent choice as an answer to that question.
The name Lou Thesz is world-renowned within the realm of professional wrestling. Anybody who knows anything about the history of pro-wrestling should be familiar with Lou Thesz. If anybody was the prototype of what the NWA was looking for in a World Heavyweight Champion, it was Lou Thesz. Thesz absolutely dominated the sport of professional wrestling in the 1950s and 60s, holding the NWA World Title longer than any other man in history between his various reigns as champion. Thesz was the embodiment of a pure wrestler and a truly awesome, once-in-a-lifetime athlete.
It's been said time and time again that Lou Thesz may have had the single biggest impact of any one man in the history of professional wrestling. Thesz was one of the pioneers who laid the groundwork for countless others who came after him. His matches against the likes of "Whipper" Billy Watson, Rikidozan, "The Original Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, and "Big Thunder" Gene Kiniski are the stuff of legend.
Lou Thesz was also one of the most legitimately dangerous wrestlers of all time, armed with vast knowledge of freestyle, Greco-Roman, and catch-as-catch-can wrestling. His superb grappling skills added credibility to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and virtually guaranteed that the NWA would not be embarrassed or "held up" by any of Thesz's opponents, as Thesz could have easily defeated most of them in a shoot (real) wrestling match.
The NWA has seen many great World Heavyweight Champions over the years, but Lou Thesz is quite possibly the most honored and celebrated World Champion in wrestling history.