What Makes A Title A World Title?

A lot of wrestling companies call their heavyweight title a World Title, and while some of those claims have merit, other times you see small, local independent companies claiming to have a World Title and you just wonder, “are they kidding me?”

I’ve always thought there ought to be some kind of criteria to determine what exactly makes a World Title, but in a worked business, no criteria are set in stone to determine whether a particular title should have World Title status.  That’s why it’s so hard to answer a question like, “How many times has Ric Flair been World Champion?”

To try and help define some criteria, I came up with the following questions to ask to determine whether a title really qualifies as a World Title.

Is the title actually defended worldwide?

Let’s start with the literal meaning of a World Title: is it defended all over the world or not?  The original NWA World Title, pre-WCW, fit the bill because it was literally designed to be defended all over the world in several different companies who all recognized that one man as all of their champion.

The NWA Title went everywhere, and did so on a fairly regular basis.  It changed hands several times in Japan, the Pacific, Canada, and even several unrecognized title swaps in the Caribbean.  If you’re talking about the most literal meaning of a World Title, that would be a good starting point.

Then again, other major companies have had a significantly narrower scope.  The AWA World Title changed hands in Japan, but for the most part was only defended in the Midwest and Central Canada, and spent most of its existence around the waist of the promoter.  It was the first major territory to break from the NWA and recognize its own World Title, but it didn’t have the geographic scope.

The WWF/WWE and WCW both toured overseas and their titles were defended there as often as they ran overseas tours, but you could be pretty well assured that there was almost no chance of a title change happening outside the United States.

ECW and ROH, the respective #3 US promotions of the 90s and 2000s, both had limited scope as well.  ECW ran shows around the country, but usually stuck to the Northeast, and Philadelphia and New York in particular.  Both huge markets, but still only two major markets.

ROH has expanded all over the country since Sinclair Broadcasting purchased the company, and the title HAS been defended internationally, but ROH still mainly sticks to the United States.

What kind of television exposure does the company have?

Another thing to consider about ECW and ROH compared to the WWF, WCW, and AWA is that they simply don’t have the same level of television exposure.  In today’s day and age, that TV exposure can mean far more than where the title’s being defended.

A title can be defended every night of the week in a different state or country, but if nobody knows it exists, it’s a definite hit to its value and credibility.  If TV exposure is what’s most important, then that would make the WWE Title the only real World Title today.

ECW was and ROH is on TV, but in both cases the distribution just wasn’t there to have the same kind of effect that a weekly show on USA, SpikeTV, ESPN, TBS, or TNT would have.  In ECW’s case, more of a buzz was created just on tape trading and word of mouth than people watching their TV show.

Who has held the title in question?

What about when you take the champion himself into consideration?  Who was holding the title?  How long was he champion?  Who was he defending the title against?

Samoa Joe was the ROH Champion for nearly two years and was the first to carry it overseas, and later would go on to win the TNA World Title as well.  Other former ROH Champions would go on to hold major gold elsewhere, including CM Punk becoming a multiple-time World Champion in WWE.

On the flip side, some big names have tried and failed to become the ROH World Champion.  AJ Styles, a multi-time former NWA/TNA World Champion, has had three shots at the ROH Title and lost them all.  Bryan Danielson in particular made defeating challengers from outside ROH his trademark, as throughout the course of his reign he went over Steve Corino (a former ECW & NWA World Champion), Chris Sabin (TNA), Naomichi Marufuji (NOAH), Chris Hero (CZW), AJ Styles (TNA), Lance Storm (a champion in ECW, WCW, and WWE), Sonjay Dutt (CZW/TNA), KENTA (NOAH) and Samoa Joe (ROH/TNA) before finally dropping the belt.

A case could also be made for the old USWA Title for the same reasons.  99.999999% of the time it was defended in Memphis and they didn’t have any national TV, so that exposure thing comes into play again, but it also spent most of that 99.999999% of the time around the waist of former AWA World Champion Jerry Lawler, and was originally created when Lawler unified the AWA and WCCW Titles.

The USWA Title has also been held by national names like Randy Savage, Owen Hart, Sid Vicious and Jeff Jarrett, and a lot of other major stars tried and failed to win it.  But because of the Memphis thing, it’s usually viewed as a regional title.

How long has the company been around?

What factor does longevity plays in a promotion’s claim to World Title status?  The UWF and ECW were both considered quality products in terms of great wrestling, solid storylines, and memorable moments, but neither were around anywhere near long enough to measure up to the history of WWE, WCW or the AWA.

World Class was also legendary for its success and overall influence on the business, but they only lasted a matter of years after leaving the NWA.  Many companies that claim World Titles last a decade on average, does that supersede their other qualities?

How often is the title defended?

One of the issues that detractors of Hulk Hogan pointed to was that Hogan often went months without defending the WCW World Title, and at times would not only not defend the title on PPVs, but wouldn’t even appear on them, and this was a blow to the value and credibility of the title.

The counter-argument you can make is that when Hogan did defend the title, it was against some of the biggest stars in the world: Randy Savage, Lex Luger, Diamond Dallas Page, Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, The Giant, and Kevin Nash all fell in defeat to Hogan.

Can there really be more than one World Champion in the world?

Then of course you can make the argument that with one world, there can only be one World Champion, but who would it be?  There would be constant comparisons between the WWF and WCW Champions in the 90s, and whether the ECW Champion should even be in the same conversation.

But what if one promotion has two World Titles?  WWE had separate champions for Raw and Smackdown, so which was the “real” champion?  What about when the NWA Title was being defended in WCW in the early 90s?  When Ric Flair was NWA Champion in 1993, was he really a World Champion, or was Vader the “real” champion?  Or since WCW was technically the member promotion of the NWA, would that have made Vader the “regional” champion and Flair the “real” World Champion?

As you can see, there are a lot of criteria that you can take into consideration, but at the end of the day, wrestling promoters probably prefer the ambiguity since it gives them more creative freedom to shape history retroactively as they see fit.