TPFKATL Bring The Pain: Detailed history of U.S. Heavyweight Title
Jul 20, 2003 - 5:15:00 PM
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By Mike Sempervive, Lounge Title Historian
My original intention of today's column was just to do a little blurb on the history of the different United States Heavyweight titles in anticipation for next week's Chris Benoit-Eddie Guerrero match for the new WWE SmackDown version of the belt. Then it went into lightly covering the U.S. belt that is most familiar to the majority of the wrestling audience today, the Mid-Atlantic turned NWA/WCW version. And then while typing, it took on a life of its own. I'm not sure how long it will take me to do this, but I decided to chop this up into sections at give a more detailed history of the belt.
Call it the "idiot's guide" to the U.S. Title. I'll hit off who the champions were, and give a little story on the major issues taking place during their reigns. Hopefully, it will serve as a solid reference piece to anybody that's new to wrestling, or just feels like taking a look back at the past. This edition traces the title from its beginning until the very dawning of wrestling's national expansion...
The United States Heavyweight Championship was created as part of a long term plan to boost the stature of Jim Crockett Promotion's Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. The U.S. belt was a title name that many promotions were using around the country to persuade the public to believe that the stars they saw in their towns and on their TV sets, every week, were prominent national figures.
Harley Race was the inaugural champion, defeating Johnny Weaver in the finals of a 1975 tournament in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The decision to give the title to Race -- who was, at that time, two years removed from his first NWA World title loss -- in Florida, was likely made to lend instant credibility to the title, and show the Mid-Atlantic fans the "power" of the promotion. It also served as a company thank you to Weaver, who was nearing the end of a career that saw him become one of the area's most popular stars in it's history. On July 3, 1975, title then went to a star of incredible magnitude wherever he went, Johnny Valentine. Crockett promoter George Scott had pegged Valentine, along with The Super Destroyer and Wahoo McDaniel, as the men to take the area away from its tag team roots, which had begun to flounder as they entered the 70's, and truly put the company on the map. Valentine was supposed to be the ace that took the company through to the end of the decade but, the most legendary plane crash in wrestling history that October changed all of those plans.
On November 9, a 16-man tournament was held in Greensboro to fill the vacant position. The mentality of the booking was almost identical to the original tournament. This time, nationally known and respected Terry Funk won the tourney defeating the extremely popular local star, Mid-Atlantic TV champion, "Number One" Paul Jones in the final match. Funk wore the title less than three weeks before dropping the belt to Jones on Thanksgiving night in Greensboro -- where the belt changed hands 17 times during it's history, including the first five changes and the final unification of the belt with the WWF Intercontinental title in 2001.
Jones started in with a weak feud with Spoiler #2, that took the belt into 1976, before he entered into a legendary Mid-Atlantic feud with Blackjack Mulligan. Mulligan, who had seen his November U.S. title tournament hopes dashed when Mr. Wrestling got revenge for Mulligan breaking his hand by interfering in his quarterfinal match with Dusty Rhodes. Mulligan played the big, Texas bully foil to Jones' scrappy, little "People's Champ" perfectly. Jones was able to hold off Mulligan until March 13, when Mulligan won the title in a match with the stipulation that if he didn't win the belt, he'd leave the area.
The battles continued after Mulligan's victory, but he dominated the meetings -- as both guys put their feud on the back burner and eased their way into new opponents by June. Mulligan would begin a feud with Rufus R. Jones that was only meant to make Mulligan a bigger monster than he already was. Mulligan also had a short feud with Andre The Giant during the first few weeks of July, before building back into the simmering feud with Jones. On October 16, after seven months as champion, Jones won the title in the main event of a memorable night full of Mid-Atlantic title changes. Jones wouldn't have too much time to savor the win, as Mulligan won it back at the Charlotte Coliseum in a two out of three falls match.
Jones reportedly won the belt back on December 12, but there is a possibility that this switch may have been a phantom (no location can be found to verify the match) to set up the next angle in the Jones-Mulligan feud. During the December 15 TV taping at WRAL studios in Raleigh, Mulligan announced he filed a protest with NWA president Eddie Graham and the Board of Directors, saying that his feet were underneath the ropes, out of the ring, thus rendering the winning pin illegal. A video ruling was played in front of Jones, Mulligan, and promoter Jim Crockett, Jr., upheld Mulligan's claim, and the title was returned. The two would continue to feud into early 1977 until Mulligan became tangled into a mini-feud with Thunderbolt Patterson (Mid-Atlantic had started to make appearances in Savannah, Georgia) and Dino Bravo, who pinned him in a non-title match in March, and then pinned him again when Mulligan tried to attack him after the match. Mulligan would finally dispose of Bravo before losing the belt to a transitional champion who would help to initiate a new era for the company.
On July 7 in Norfolk, Bobo Brazil knocked off Mulligan to win the title. As was the case the last time he was defeated for the belt, Mulligan protested to NWA president Eddie Graham. He claimed that troubleshooting referee George Scott grabbed his arm without reason, which distracted him long enough to allow Brazil to hit his "Coco Bump" headbutt, and get the pin. This time though, Graham ruled against Mulligan, and the title stayed with Brazil. The problems with Scott continued for Mulligan as he had apparently regained the title, before Scott overruled the decision because of Mulligan's use of brass knuckles to get the pin. Mulligan would then get sidetracked into a series of handicap matches against Scott and his mystery partner of the night, as Brazil would then face the challenge of a young Ric Flair.
Flair had promised to streak buck-ass naked through the Richmond Coliseum on July 29, if he failed in his big opportunity to take the strap. Obviously, that didn't happen, and for the first time Flair had won a "major" singles championship. He would defend the belt in rematches with Brazil, Paul Jones, and Mid-Atlantic TV champion -- and longtime thorn in the side -- Ricky Steamboat. Flair would do promo's stating that because he was in such high demand across the country, he would defend the title only 18 times in the area, before he left and took the belt with him. On October 22, Mulligan returned to Mid-Atlantic television as a face, after taking a short hiatus, and promised to reclaim the U.S. title before Flair had a chance to run away with it. The face turn didn't last long, as the next night the popular Steamboat upended Flair, who was making his 18th and "final" defense of the title in Charleston, South Carolina, and Mulligan went back to being hated.
While Steamboat and Flair would have several rematches, the man that Steamboat had to worry about most was Mulligan. In February of 1978, the big Texan started in on his fourth, and final, reign in less than three years when he knocked off Steamboat in Greensboro. The belt would then play like a hot potato as Mulligan quickly lost it a month later to Mr. Wrestling Tim Woods, who in turn dropped it to Ric Flair on April 1 in a Title vs. Hair match. This was Flair's second run with the belt, and was the second time that he knocked off a legendary name, known more to fans of that area from stories in pulp magazines than actual appearances, to do so.
Flair would then embark on the longest reign of any United States champion to that point, but only four days in at WRAL studios, after Mulligan congratulated Flair on his victory, the conversation quickly slipped into why Flair hadn't given his friend a shot at the title. Later in the show, Flair came out during Mulligan's match and tore apart his cowboy hat that was given to him by Waylon Jennings. To retaliate, Mulligan came out during Flair's match wearing his $5,000 peacock robe, and then ripped it to pieces. As a result, Flair placed a bounty on Mulligan's head, which wrestlers like Big John Studd (which was a wild feud), Cyclone Negro, and Baron Von Raschke attempted to collect. Finally, Mulligan got his shots against Flair, but came up short due to his weakened condition from the hard feuds.
One of the reasons Flair enjoyed such a lengthy reign was because he was able to truly duplicate his regional success in almost every big money territory he visited including St. Louis, Toronto, and Georgia. He made his first tour of All Japan and scored a huge pinfall victory over Giant Baba. But every great champion needs a great opponent, and Flair had the ultimate foil in Ricky Steamboat. In the late fall of 1978, the two would pull off two angles in back-to-back weeks that would become two of the most repeated in wrestling history.
On October 25, Flair came out and ranted and raved about Steamboat defeating him. Flair called out Steamboat, challenged him to get in the ring and slapped him in the face. Flair jumped in the ring and continued to rant until Steamboat got into the ring. Flair jumped Steamboat, threw the ref to the side, and proceeded to rub Steamboat's face across the mat, and then all over and into the Mid-Atlantic Championship set as Bob Caudle and David Crockett screamed at him to get in the ring. Flair screamed to "Look at the pretty boy's face! Now he's ugly!" On October 30, Flair and Big John Studd would then take the Mid-Atlantic tag titles from Steamboat and Paul Jones, as well.
The next week, Flair came out with two women on his arms (one being the future Bonnie Steamboat) and carrying a picture of Steamboat's scarred up face. Flair dismissed Steamboat by saying that he got lucky once by beating him, and that just like Steamboat's win made him an instant star, he destroyed him last week and ran him away. Of course, this brought Steamboat out. As Flair asked his ladies to "Check out the turkey, girls", Steamboat grabbed Flair by the tie and slap him across his face. Steamboat would then toss Flair into the ring and rip his brand new suit off his body, leaving Flair in his just tie, underwear, and socks. As the girls stood shocked, Steamboat walked over and told Caudle and Crockett that, when it came to Flair, "We're not even, even." Steamboat walked away, as Flair rolled out of the ring, walked over and cut another classic promo, while seemingly on the verge of a heart attack. To make matters worse, Steamboat and Jones would then return the favor to Flair and Studd by taking the tag belts back.
In October of 1978, Jim Crockett, Jr. and George Scott bought into Jack Tunney's Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto giving them a third of the control of the company, and opening up Ontario and Buffalo to the group. As a result, there were constant talent exchanges, unbelievable cards and, for the only time in the title's history, a U.S. title change outside of the United States. On December 18, 1978, after chasing Flair throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Toronto territories. Steamboat began his second reign by ending Flair's 244 day run as champion.
Flair was livid, and the back and forth with Steamboat had become more than just a major feud and started to become what would end up being possibly the most well wrestled, consistently entertaining, and most legendary rivalry in wrestling history. The two would continue to wage war across the eastern U.S. and Canadian landscape before Flair was able to take back the belt on April Fool's Day, 1979 in Greensboro. The most notable event of Flair's third reign occurred on June 26 in (go figure) Greensboro. Flair was defeated by Dusty Rhodes, only to have the belt returned to him when it was ruled that special referee Buddy Rogers, the man who had made the "Nature Boy" moniker famous, acted partial towards Rhodes. This, along with Rogers attacking Flair while he demonstrated his version of the figure four on World Wide Wrestling (Flair is one of the only wrestlers to apply the move from the left side), created a new feud for the champion, and opened the door for major changes in the product.
In his quest to destroy Flair, Rogers enlisted ex-face "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, Big John Studd, and Ken Patera to join "Roger's Army." While this was going on, former super babyface Paul Jones, who had turned against longtime partner Steamboat and was extremely hated now, was used as a pawn to get Flair officially over as a face. During a match between Jones and Steamboat, Flair came down to the ring to nail Steamboat with a chair. He missed, and hit Jones instead. This led to Jones getting revenge later on, when he drilled Flair during his match with Snuka. The next week on television, Flair called out his longtime rival Steamboat, and asked him to be his partner against Jones and Baron Von Rashke in a quest to take their JCP World tag team titles. Steamboat agreed only after Flair put up $10,000 guaranteeing that he wouldn't double-cross him. Flair and Steamboat failed in their attempts to wrest the belts away, but Flair and Blackjack Mulligan (who returned after tending to the Amarillo promotion that he and Dick Murdoch bought from the Funks) did on August 5, 1979.
As a result of his tag title victory, Flair was forced to relinquish the U.S. belt and a strangely set 8-man tournament was announced for September 1 at the Charlotte Coliseum that included Jones, Von Rashke, Steamboat, Snuka, Rogers (who was 58 years old at the time), Mr. Wrestling, Jim Brunzell and Bob Marcus.
First, Marcus was a jobber that was in the tournament for the purpose of getting beaten by Rogers. (Which he did -- in under a minute -- via figure four.) Second, when Jones and Von Rashke regained the belts from Flair and Mulligan on August 22, instead of the faces automatically taking the new champions place, George Scott created two qualifying matches the night of the tournament to fill the spots. Third, he added another match that would decide an alternate in the case of injury or double elimination. Fourth, because the qualifier between Studd and Wahoo went to a double count-out, and alternate Bruiser Brody (who made his first appearance in the territory this night, destroying the aged legend Johnny Weaver) was inserted into tourney, referee Tommy Young was given the authority to decide the winner of Snuka and Wrestling, when they went to a 15-minute draw. (Snuka advanced.) Fifth, Flair wasn't entered into the tournament at all, meaning that he wouldn't be able to regain the title that he never lost.
The reasoning for all of that was to allow the Flair vs. Rogers/Snuka feud to develop into a major title chase. Snuka won the tournament by defeating Steamboat. He would have side feuds with Steamboat and Mr. Wrestling over the belt, but his main rival was Flair. Flair ran Rogers off when he attacked him at WRAL studios injuring Rogers already bad ear, and in his place came wholesale changes. Flair's worked cousin Gene Anderson took over as leader, and when Studd and Patera left Mid-Atlantic, Ivan Koloff and The Great Hussein Arab a/k/a The Iron Sheik took their places.
Snuka would go onto a monster seven month, 19 day run before Flair would finally get his revenge on April 19, 1980, in Greensboro to give him his then-record fourth reign. On TV the next week, Gene Anderson announced -- like so many times with the title in the past -- that he had lodged a protest with the NWA president, saying that Flair held the trunks. The president at this time was Central States owner, Bob Giegel. I know this will be a little mean, but, here is Anderson's painfully funny promo when he, Snuka, and the Iron Sheik confronted Flair as he did his promo. I swear I am writing it exactly the way it was said:
"And I'm gonna sh... (pause) I'll sent it to the president of the National Wrestling Alliance, Bob Giegel. Showing him a few things that the referee, the unbiased referee, (pause) that Flair gets assigned to the match. The fast count. The breaking that, um, the referee made him, um, the Superfly do. And if, the Superfly (pause) don't win, (pause) the belt, before (pause) Bob Giegel's (pause) thing. We're gonna get the belt because Giegel's gonna reward it back to us."
Flair saved it the best he could, but it certainly wasn't a high spot in interview history.
The week after, Snuka, Sheik and Anderson attacked Flair and stole his robe. Flair then challenged Snuka and Sheik to face him, and a partner to be named. Flair's old partner, Greg Valentine, who had just returned to the area from the WWF, offered to team with him. As is usually the case in situations like this, Valentine turned on Flair, and broke his nose with Anderson's cane. The next week, Valentine came out on TV in a tuxedo and said that he had to live in Flair's shadow for the past six years, and he wanted to be the U.S. champion. He also wanted to tell the women that loved Flair, he was the new man in town. The two ex-partners would enter into a bloody feud for the belt that culminated in Valentine winning the belt cleanly on July 26, 1980, in Charlotte.
Four days later, Valentine hit the WRAL studios wearing a tuxedo and being flanked by two women. He cut a promo bragging about his win and said that he wouldn't give Flair any rematches. Flair then came out to confront him. When Valentine took exception to Flair questioning how they could say Valentine was the greatest, Flair quipped, "They're very nice, Valentine. I give you credit, I threw her number away last year." He then sucker slapped Valentine, and threw him into the ring. Then, in angle that had been done to Flair two years earlier, he stripped Valentine down to his underwear. After he did, Flair was blindsided by Bobby Duncum (who was feuding with Flair's buddy Mulligan) with a chair. The two would then pound Flair until Ricky Steamboat, Jay Youngblood and Sweet Ebony Diamond made the save. There were a bunch of tag matches between the two factions inserted between the title bouts, but -- as was the case with Snuka -- Flair would finally get the last laugh. Four months later, on Thanksgiving night in Greenville, South Carolina, Flair would rack up his fifth United States championship in a little more than three years.
Around this time, Roddy Piper was rapidly becoming the most hated man in the Mid-Atlantic area. He had come to the East coast to see if he could duplicate his success from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver. He and Flair quickly became buddies and had some wild nights behind the camera, but in front of it, he started to become a thorn in Flair's side. He quickly beat Paul Jones in a final to win the vacant Mid-Atlantic TV belt, and started to call Flair out in his promos. Flair would respond by making fun of Piper's kilt, calling it a "skirt," and the two would begin to feud. Piper would also hook up with Anderson's Army and begin to team with Valentine. During a televised title defense between Flair and Valentine, Valentine had seemingly won the title when he pinned Flair with his feet on the ropes. George Scott (surprise!) ordered referee Tommy Young to restart the match, and Flair quickly rolled up Valentine for the win. After the match, Valentine and Piper attacked Scott, and beat down and busted open Flair until Ricky Steamboat, Don Kernoodle, Jay Youngblood, and others made the save. After the match, as Piper and Valentine were about to join Anderson, Snuka, and Ray Stevens at the announce position to gloat, president Jim Crockett Jr. made one of his rare television appearances to fine both Piper and Valentine $5,000 and tell them he will seek to get them suspended at the next NWA board meeting. They gloated anyway as Piper crowed, "They said we should give Scott a little respect. Well, we gave him as little respect as possible."
A collective groan went out by the fans in WRAL studio on January 28, 1981, when Piper appeared in a tuxedo top and kilt, with gift box in hand, to announce that he had become the new United States champion. The amped up Piper called Flair out and handed him the box. Inside of it was Piper's Mid-Atlantic TV title. Flair put over the belt, but said he "doesn't wear anything he didn't win." He then said that he bought time on the show so he could show the tape of the match. Piper got nervous as Flair pulled out a piece of metal that was wrapped in tape, and said that Piper used it to KO Flair the night before at Raleigh's Dorton Arena. Flair then shouted down Piper's denials, and cut a promo saying "Just as sure as I can rip this $400 sports coat" (which he did) he would get revenge on Piper. Later on, Flair showed the 16 mm house show footage of the match which exposed Piper's cheating. Flair said he could get the NWA to overrule the decision, but he wanted to do it himself.
Flair never did, and Piper would hold onto the belt for seven months feuding primarily with him, and Steamboat. But, it would be actually be another huge fan favorite that would end his run. On August 8, Wahoo McDaniel would win his first United States title, and begin a run of title reigns over the next few years, that were mostly done for transitional purposes.
During a match between Wahoo and Jacques Goulet on television, in September, Piper suddenly ran to ringside and started yelling at McDaniel. Abdullah the Butcher then attacked from the blindside, as Piper stood on the floor screaming orders. Abdullah absolutely destroyed Wahoo, carving and pounding his forehead, leaving him in a pool of his own blood. When the footage was shown in syndication in some areas (including when it was shown on Maple Leaf in Toronto), the negative of the film was flipped on, further adding drama to the situation. McDaniel was forced to vacate the title only a month later. McDaniel would sell the injury for a few weeks before returning to get revenge against Piper. As they battled over the Mid-Atlantic title that Piper had recently won, the 16-man tournament for the vacant U.S. belt was announced to take place in Charlotte.
The October 4th tournament was loaded with a number of wrestlers from across the country. Pat Patterson, Nikolai Volkoff, Steamboat, LeRoy Brown, Super Destroyer, Ron Bass, Ivan Koloff, Jay Youngblood, Dusty Rhodes, Jacques Goulet, Ole Anderson, and others were there that night. One of them was Sgt. Slaughter, who would begin his night by knocking off the only man to appear in all four U.S. title tournaments, Johnny Weaver. He then beat Youngblood, received a bye to the finals when Goulet and Anderson brawled to a DDQ, and stunned Steamboat to win the belt.
With Flair winning his first NWA World title from Dusty Rhodes on September 27, Steamboat and McDaniel were positioned as a 1-2 punch of babyfaces, and Slaughter -- who was already making waves by "enlisting" jobbers Jim Nelson and Don Kernoodle into his Corps, and holding exhibitions for his Cobra Clutch, that would usually end in a 3-on-1 beatdown for whoever accepted the challenge of trying to survive it. Slaughter would embark on the seemingly mandatory seven month reign defending against Steamboat, Blackjack Mulligan (Barry Windham), McDaniel, Jake Roberts, and others. In February 1982, Slaughter and McDaniel wrestled a rare thirty minute, non-title, television match. McDaniel would stun Slaughter, and position himself as the top contender for the belt. Slaughter held off McDaniel's challenge for the next few months before Wahoo was able to win the belt back on May 27, 1982, in Charlotte.
Just as his first reign did, McDaniel's second would be cut short by injury -- this time after only ten days. McDaniel and Slaughter were scheduled to meet on June 6 in Greenville, but his leg was injured at the hands of Roddy Piper, and the man who had just recently turned on him during the NWA tag title tournament, Don Muraco. As a result, McDaniel was forced to forfeit the title back to Slaughter, who would hold the title for two more months, before dropping back to McDaniel and leaving for the WWF. As was par for the course, McDaniel only held onto the belt for a short time. Less then three months later, on November 4th, Greg Valentine won his second U.S. title in Norfolk, Virginia, and Wahoo left a short time later to tour Georgia and Florida.
Valentine would hold the title for five months, during which his friendship with Piper would splinter apart. The two became bitter enemies, and on April 16 in Greensboro, Piper would upset Valentine to win his second U.S. title. It wouldn't last long, however, as the two would go into a series of rematches over the next two weeks culminating with Valentine winning the title back after he repeatedly smashed Piper in the left ear with the title belt until it was a bloody mess, and the ref was "forced" to stop the match due to excessive blood loss. Valentine would continue to haunt Piper, and going so far as to send him a cake with a dog collar in it, to remind him what he got whipped like. That dog collar would come in handy, as it gave Piper an idea for revenge, and would set up one of the most legendary matches of the last 20 years.
- Sources for this column were: Pro Wrestling Torch, MidAtlanticGateway.net, the Wrestling As We Liked It papers library, The Great Hisa's Title Histories, ProWrestlingHistory.com, and my own ridiculous overabundance of random papers and video tapes.
- Well, I guess that's it for this week. Thank you very much for reading and responding to all of us here at the Torch, we really appreciate it. If you have a little to give, please donate to the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. Thanks.
Wade Keller's favorite writer Mike Sempervive has been a little slow recently in responding to e-mails. (So sorry.) He's right now deciding on whether or not to torture himself by watching Lex Luger-Michael Hayes U.S. title matches. Should he? Let him know at MSempervive@pwtorch.com
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