So as I said, this is going to be a look back at the history of the NWA World Title and some of the bizarre circumstances surrounding various title changes over the years, most of which somehow involved Ric Flair. Some of these incidents resulted in major changes to the industry that included the creations of new companies, while others were simply embarrassments that chipped away at the credibility the National Wrestling Alliance had built in the decades since the postwar years.
Just a disclaimer before we start: the last fifteen years have seen a lot of incidents where the NWA Title has either been vacated or changed hands for a variety of bizarre reasons that aren't really worthy of inclusion here. No offense to anyone who was champion between 1995 and 2002, but I'm not sure how many people really care why Naoya Ogawa gave up the NWA Title or probably even realize he was the champion.
The Edouard Carpentier/AWA Incident (1957)
This was the first major ripple in the lineage of the NWA World Title, and led to a chain reaction of events that resulted in the creation of the AWA and their own World Title. Edouard Carpentier beat Lou Thesz in Chicago to win the NWA World Title in June of 1957, but the NWA refused to acknowledge his claim to the title and still officially recognized Thesz as champion. However, several promoters around the Midwest did recognize the title change and decided to book Carpentier as the World Champion, eventually even having Carpentier drop the title to Verne Gagne without the approval of the NWA board.
The Carpentier/Gagne branch of the World Title lineage (often referred to as the Omaha version of the World Title) continued separately from that of the officially recognized NWA World Title for several years, and eventually led to a rift in the NWA where the promoters who recognized the Carpentier title change left the NWA altogether. They formed the AWA and named Pat O'Connor, who by that point was the NWA World Champion, as the first AWA World Champion and gave him 90 days to face Verne Gagne or be stripped of the title.
This was obviously just a combination of a publicity stunt and a way of legitimizing their own new title, so when O'Connor never showed up to the surprise of nobody, the title was awarded to Verne Gagne in August of 1960. The Omaha version of the title, which had continued to be defended separately while all this was going on, was eventually unified with the AWA Title when AWA World Champion Gagne defeated Omaha World Champion Fritz Von Erich in Amarillo, Texas in 1963.
The Buddy Rogers/WWWF Incident (1963)
A very similar situation to the Carpentier Incident happened only a few years later when the promoters in the northeastern United States refused to recognize Buddy Rogers' loss of the NWA World Title to Lou Thesz in Toronto in January of 1963. However, unlike the years of split World Title lineages we saw in the case of the AWA, the northeastern territory wasted no time in splitting off to form their own company called the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and naming Buddy Rogers the first champion after having him win a fictitious tournament in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
That company still exists today as WWE and, in an interesting twist of fate, wound up owning the video libraries and assets of many of the more prominent former NWA members. The amount of wrestling history they have stored in their vault actually makes them a more legitimate descendent of the NWA than the group that currently owns the initials.
The Ric Flair/Caribbean Incidents (1982-83)
After nearly two full decades without any doublecrosses or other problems, Ric Flair found himself involved in three separate (and very suspect) title changes that were not planned in advance. All three took place in the Caribbean, all three were promptly voided by the NWA, and all three happened within the span of about five months.
The first happened when Flair went to the Dominican Republic to defend the NWA World Title against Jack Veneno in September of 1982. You hear a lot of stories from wrestlers about how the fans in the Caribbean sometimes take wrestling a little too seriously, and in this case, Flair legitimately feared a riot if he beat Veneno. Instead of risking his life for a worked wrestling match, Flair allowed himself to be pinned by Veneno to send the fans home happy and save his own skin. The NWA never acknowledged the title change and the belt was returned to Flair, but Veneno made the most of it and continued to claim himself as a World Champion into the 90s.
The second happened in January of 1983 when Carlos Colon pinned Flair in San Juan, Puerto Rico to become the World Champion...sort of. What was shown on TV in Puerto Rico was Colon pinning Flair and being handed a belt as he was declared the new World Champion. The reality was that this match was for the WWC Universal Title that Colon already held, and the NWA World Title was not on the line. Colon had wanted the NWA Title but got vetoed, so the match was for Colon's title only and was turned into a storyline to give the WWC Universal Title credibility. Flair and the NWA had no idea Colon was going to this until after Flair had returned to the mainland.
The third happened a mere month later in February of 1983, when Flair was pinned by Victor Jovica in a title match in Trinidad, only to have the decision reversed because Jovica's feet were on the ropes (or Flair's foot was on the rope, depending on who you hear the story from). I don't recall exactly why it happened this way, but I don't believe the fear of a riot was present in this one like the Veneno title change, and Jovica is similarly not officially regarded as a former NWA World Champion.
The Ric Flair/Harley Race Incident (1984)
For some reason, Ric Flair seemed to constantly keep losing the NWA Title when he went overseas, in matches nobody back in the United States ever recognized or told anyone about. In this case, even the NWA didn't realize it happened until the whole thing was over with. In a decision made strictly between Flair and Harley Race, they decided to have Race beat Flair in Wellington, New Zealand in March of 1984 and then lose the title back to Flair two days later in Singapore as a way of helping to drive business for the local promoters.
This wasn't like what happened in the Caribbean where the controversy resulted from some unplanned series of events, this was planned by Race and Flair and happened without incident. However, since the NWA hadn't approved it ahead of time, they refused to recognize the title changes and denied for years that they had happened. It ended up taking almost 15 years for the NWA to finally admit that the switch happened, and credit each of them with an additional title reign on top of the already impressive number they both had.
The Ric Flair/Fujinami Incident (1991)
Though WCW was clearly the largest surviving member of the NWA, and the only one of any real importance left by the time the 90s dawned, WCW had continued to recognize the NWA World Champion as its own top champion. However, when WCW arbitrarily decided that January 1st, 1991 would be their official "opening" day, that meant that NWA World Champion Sting became recognized as the first WCW World Champion as well. It was never specifically acknowledged that these were now separate titles, and nobody gave the matter any thought when Flair beat Sting early in January 1991 and, as we later became privy to, claimed both titles.
However, when Flair was defeated by Tatsumi Fujinami in Japan that March, the NWA recognized Fujinami as their new champion while WCW chose to ignore the match and continue to recognize Flair as the WCW World Champion. This was a confusing situation that wasn't adequately explained to the fans who then saw this Fujinami guy they didn't know come to Superbrawl I with a belt they didn't recognize to face Flair because of some disputed match in Japan they didn't see.
Flair won the match and regained the NWA World Title, but most fans never even realized he lost it to begin with since he had kept carrying the Big Gold Belt around and continued to be referred to as the World Champion. He technically was, but it was the first bump in what would turn out to be a tumultuous and, at times, disastrous decade for the NWA.
The Ric Flair/WWF Incident (1991)
Ric Flair was involved in yet a sixth NWA Title controversy, the second of 1991, when a series of problems with WCW management caused him to leave the company without first dropping the World Title. As we've already established, the lineages of the WCW and NWA World Titles broke for the first time when the thing with Fujinami happened, but they split for good when Flair left WCW in June of 1991. WCW immediately crowned Lex Luger as their new World Champion, but the NWA continued to recognize Flair as champion for several months before he debuted for the WWF and was finally stripped of the NWA World Title.
I suppose the logic might have been that a refusal to work for one NWA affiliate didn't necessarily mean he wouldn't still travel to whatever other members still existed and defend the title there, but this led to an even more bizarre situation where Flair let the WWF use the NWA Title belt, which he was still in possession of, to hype his debut and pronounce him the "Real" World Heavyweight Champion. Lawsuits started flying where Flair was demanded to return the belt and stop showing it on WWF TV, while Flair claimed ownership since he had never had the deposit all NWA Champions were required to pay returned to him on his departure. After months of the WWF using video distortion to keep the belt on TV without showing it, the lawsuit was settled, the belt was returned to WCW, and Flair started carrying around an old WWF Tag Team Title belt (which was conveniently obscured by the video distortion) until he won the WWF Title in the 1992 Royal Rumble.
The International World Title Incident (1993)
The NWA World Title remained vacant for almost a full year after being stripped from Flair, until August of 1992 when Masahiro Chono defeated Rick Rude in a tournament final in New Japan Pro Wrestling to become the new champion. Over the next year, the title transitioned from Chono to the Great Muta, from Muta to Barry Windham, and then from Windham back to Flair, who by that time had left the WWF and returned to WCW. The NWA actually had some momentum again now that the title was being featured prominently in both WCW and New Japan, but the arrangement quickly broke down because WCW decided that, since they were the only member of note in the United States, they'd start booking title changes on their own without clearing them with the NWA first.
The NWA, no doubt wanting to rebuild their empire to its former glory and include other prominent members besides WCW, had a major problem with this. When WCW did the infamous MGM tapings in 1993 where they taped four months of TV in one shot, we knew months in advance that they had booked Rick Rude to defeat Ric Flair and become the NWA World Champion. The NWA said no way, and WCW responded by dumping the NWA completely since they realized they didn't really need them anymore.
The NWA dropped off the map again after this, but WCW still had four months of TV in the can with the NWA World Title belt in a prominent position that they had to figure out how to handle. They couldn't call it the NWA World Title, but couldn't pretend like it wasn't in the middle of this big feud between Flair and Rude either, so starting in September of 1993, Ric Flair (who was the NWA World Champion at the time the split happened, and was now involved in an astounding seventh NWA World Title controversy) started to be referred to as simply the World Champion. By the time Rude won the title and they did the rematch a month later, they decided not to call it the World Title anymore and the match was simply for the "Big Gold Belt", as they apparently decided to sweep the whole thing under the rug when the four months of tapings had finished running on TV.
This may come as a shock to you, but WCW changed their minds again within days, and decided to keep the title after all. After Rude retained against Flair, WCW cooked up a phony International Board of Directors who declared that they still recognized Rick Rude as the World Champion, so Rude now became known as the International World Champion. The title was supposed to be roughly equal to the WCW World Title, but was thought of by fans as a joke for the eight months it existed before it was finally mercy killed and unified with the WCW World Title in June of 1994.
The Shane Douglas/ECW Incident (1994)
The NWA went under the radar for another year after WCW left the fold, and spent that time searching for a new home before finally coming to an agreement with ECW, a fledgling company in Philadelphia that was starting to create some buzz due to the hardcore wrestling style they featured. ECW soon came to the same realization WCW did about how little the NWA name was worth by that time, but since they were already hosting the tournament to crown a new NWA World Champion, they decided they'd use the NWA to elevate themselves after all, only in a more shocking fashion than even the NWA expected.
Shane Douglas had been chosen to win the tournament and become the new NWA World Champion, but after beating 2 Cold Scorpio in the tournament final, he suddenly changed gears completely. Douglas threw down the NWA belt, declared himself the Extreme World Champion, and ECW immediately terminated their relationship with the NWA. The NWA executives in attendance didn't see any of this coming, and were so caught off guard that they originally thought the incident was a work that would play into a future storyline, and didn't find out until the next day that it was a complete shoot.
This incident was a crushing blow to the NWA, because ECW was their last hope of finding a home in a major company after the WCW deal ended, and Douglas throwing down the title signaled the beginning of a very long "dark" period where the NWA World Title was little more than a glorified indy belt. Chris Candido won a second tournament in New Jersey three months after the ECW tournament, then dropped the title to Dan Severn, who would go on to hold it for over four years.
I think Severn was a guy the NWA looked at as a throwback to the old days when a no-frills guy who could legitimately handle himself in the ring held the title for years at a time while touring the different affiliate companies. Without a major TV outlet they could use to promote the title, however, the Severn years are largely uncharted territory in the title's history, and the title wouldn't find another home on national TV for almost eight full years after the Douglas Incident.
The Dan Severn/TNA Incident (2002)
When the Jarretts decided to start a new wrestling company in June of 2002, they knew that they'd need something familiar for fans to grab onto to draw some interest, and decided that the NWA was their best available option. However, unlike in years past when NWA-TNA (as their company would be known) would have been a mere member of the NWA, they paid to lease the NWA World Title and NWA World Tag Team Title for five years, during which time they would have exclusive control over who held those titles.
The only problem was that Dan Severn was already the NWA World Champion, so since they didn't have any plans to bring Severn in, TNA cooked up a kayfabe story where Severn was stripped of the title because he wasn't able to schedule a title defense for the first TNA show. I suppose it's possible they thought about it, but most likely Dan just got a polite phone call telling him that he's now the ex-champion and asking him to FedEx the belt to Nashville.
The "TNA Wishes The NWA Well In Its Future Endeavors" Incident (2007)
I think you've probably noticed throughout the course of this column how many of the controversies related to NWA Title changes led to either the creation of entire new promotions (AWA, WWWF) or existing companies springboarding to greater fame (ECW), so when TNA's license to control the NWA titles ended in 2007, and they chose not to renew the deal and created their own titles instead, it was probably the only time a major company left the NWA under remotely friendly terms.
That said, TNA made the decision for the same reason as all the other companies: they weren't really getting anything back from the money they spent on the NWA name that they couldn't get on their own. Though they had started out calling the company NWA-TNA, they had dropped the NWA name years earlier and had just been TNA Wrestling for some time. They were also in a period where they were adding a lot of big name stars to their roster, and the reality was that if they weren't going to be able to draw with Christian Cage (the champion at the time), Sting, Kurt Angle, Jeff Hardy, Scott Steiner, Booker T, Kevin Nash, and a variety of excellent homegrown stars, having the NWA World Title wasn't going to add anything useful.
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Christian Cage was stripped of the NWA World Title, and a tournament was held a few months later to crown a new champion. The original idea was to make Bryan Danielson the champion since he fit the mold of a classic NWA World Champion so well and brought name value from his time in ROH, but then he suffered a detached retina in a match with Takeshi Morishima on an ROH show and ended up withdrawing from the tournament. Adam Pearce, whom Danielson had defeated in the tournament semifinals, took his place and went on to defeat Brent Albright in the finals to become the new NWA World Champion.
Pearce became the man the NWA World Title was built around for the next half a decade until the events of last month in Australia. Pearce, and in the last year or so Colt Cabana as well, did a lot more to bring eyes to the NWA than anyone did in the previous "dark" period from 1994-2002, but it was still very difficult work without a major company to get exposure through, and I have to wonder how much more difficult it will be for the NWA in its current form to try and maintain whatever credibility they still have left in 2012.
Stu Carapola can be reached at email@example.com.