This is a work in progress.
If you read certain interviews or shoot videos, you get the impression that some wrestlers
could care less if they ever were a "champion," and considered the championship belt to
be nothing but a prop. In fact, it seems that the belt (whichever belt it was) was nothing
more than extra weight to be packed in a suitcase and lugged to the next town. I'm sure
some wrestlers felt that being a "champion" in the worked sport of professional wrestling
was significant and enjoyed the run on top on a personal level. But hearing others say
that it was meaningless outside of the money to be made as a headliner while they were
a titleholder is a jaded thought.
Follow up on message boards and you get more of the same from wrestling fans. Some
people have nothing but criticism about everything regarding today's pro wrestling.
That's the cool way to act, apparently, and it is very slick to be the guy putting down
everything TNA and the WWE does. It seems that only about one percent of the angles
and matches get across the board applause by modern wrestling fans. Many really
talented workers get put down on a consistent basis, again, because it must be the cool
thing to do.
Wrestling has certainly changed in my lifetime, and will continue to evolve. But the odd
reactions of fans to today's professional wrestling is not necessarily at the heart of what
I'm trying to say here. There is a segment of the wrestling public who could care less
about championships, and about title lineages or history.
But throughout professional wrestling's past, wrestling championships have meant
money, and lots of it. Titles were coveted, champions were double-crossed in the ring,
and promoters spent a lot of time and money building up an aura around their particular
championship. The investment in a champion or brand paid huge dividends, and in many
cases, to get a wrestler to drop a specific lineage of a championship to another, tens of
thousands of dollars changed hands. Let me say that again because this is important.
Promoters in those days respected title lineages, and felt that certain championship were
worth a great deal financially. In the case of Ed "Strangler" Lewis in 1929, to get him to
drop his prized title to Gus Sonnenberg, a tremendous financial deal had to be worked
out. To Paul Bowser, who backed Sonnenberg, it was worth it to pay the fee because
getting that particular title (with its amazing legacy) to his man was going to be hugely
Bowser was right. Sonnenberg got the championship and toured the country as a highly
respected titleholder. After all, he beat the "Strangler" and was considered the best in
the land. It gave him the credibility he needed to be successful. The decision to make
that deal had been sound.
To capitalize on the champion craze, promoters went wild in naming titleholders. There
were "world" champions, regional champs, and state kings, all in effort to draw numbers.
Paul Mickelson of the Associated Press noted in his November 18, 1938 column that
"seven" world championships were at stake that evening across the country.
(1) Tampa - World Champion Dick Shikat vs. Shelem Aleichem (?)
(2) Cincinnati - World Champion John Pesek vs. Wilcox
(3) Philadelphia - World Champion Bronko Nagurski vs. Jim Londos
(4) Wichita - World Champion Everette Marshall vs. Joseph Doakes
(5) St. Louis - World Champion Steve Casey vs. Ali Baba
(6) Houston - World Champion Leo Savage vs. Elmer Wiggins
(7) Bridgeport - World Champion Steve Passas vs. King Kong Frankenstein
The heavyweight champion was at the center of the promotion, and relied upon to draw
numbers. In a letter to Jack Pfefer dated February 9, 1949, Sam Muchnick wrote: "I
agree with you fully that the champion is the one who draws the dough."
Reputations are everything to a wrestling champion. When the Curley faction began
calling out Wayne Munn as a second-rater or telling the press that Sonnenberg was
wrestling the same men over and over again with some wrestlers using fake names, how
did the public interpret it? Did it turn public against them?
To capable shooters like Lou Thesz, John Pesek, and Frank Sexton, there were few
things rival promoters or wrestlers could do to tarnish their image. Although there were
some outside and shady tricks to do so, and pulled out of the bag at certain moments in
Fast forward to 1950, and this is debatable, but when there was a plot to double-cross
the newly crowned AWA World Heavyweight Champion Don Eagle in a Fred Kohler ring in
Chicago, how did the loss to Gorgeous George affect Don Eagle's reputation? After all,
the champion wasn't suppose to lose.
Jim Londos remained undefeated through the remainder of his career, always touring as
a claimant to the World Heavyweight Title. His reputation as that unbeatable Greek was
worth plenty of money to him and his ego. And I'm not saying that in a negative way.
Londos's name was synonymous with being unbeatable. His popularity was built upon it.
He was the legend that you heard about from your grandfather and had to see in public,
if you were lucky enough to see him in action in the 1940s or '50s.
Research by Tim Hornbaker
February 11, 2011
|The Importance of Champions in Professional Wrestling