Every professional wrestling promotion claims their world championship is the most coveted prize in the business. But which ones actually are? And what decides it? Since pro wrestling is spectacle rather than competition, it’s nearly impossible to quantify which company’s world title means the most. That won’t stop us from trying!
First off, what is a “World Title,” anyway? And why does it matter? In reality, all it takes for a belt to be a “world title” is a promoter saying it is. But there’s just no way Jumpin’ Jimmy Superstar who wrestles in your local VFW hall is a World Champion the same way Ric Flair is a World Champion. We need some kind of ground rules to determine which promotions “count” when it comes to bestowing the honor of World Champion upon wrestlers.
Unfortunately, no such agreed-upon rules are set in stone. Pro Wrestling Illustrated, one of the most enduring wrestling magazines in history, has their own set of standards that have evolved over the years, which can serve as a decent starting point. But those criteria have contained some oddities over the years that make the whole thing questionable. For instance, PWI once withdrew World Title status from the WWF Championship because Bob Backlund was only defending it against heels (or “rulebreakers,” in kayfabe parlance). Only in 1985 did they reinstate the title, because by then the WWF’s dominance was undeniable. That means according to PWI, the first WrestleMania didn’t feature a World Champion!
So I’ve decided to try my best to come up with a standard of what makes a world title a World Title, to put the arguments to rest. Let’s take a look at some of the things that probably need to be considered:
Importance of promotion
Above all else, this is the big one. Hardcore smarks across the globe can deride WWE all they want, but there’s little denying that the WWE Championship is the belt in pro wrestling. Other promotions may (and do) have better wrestlers, who work harder, and put on better matches, but being on the list of 50-some-odd wrestlers who have held the WWE Championship is akin to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy or Stanley Cup above your head. You made it to the big time, and you climbed to the top of the mountain.
Right off the bat, only titles that have been defended on pay-per-view (or “Premium Live Event”) should be considered. This unfortunately eliminates streaming-only companies like Progress, and DVD-only operations like PWG. You could also argue for a minimum live audience – say, 5,000 people in attendance to witness a title defense.
Obviously then, WWE and its two World Titles – the WWE Championship and the Universal Championship – are in. New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, representing arguably the #2 promotion on the planet, is in. World Championships from legacy promotions that commanded global recognition before folding, such as WCW, are in (even if that particular one was once held by David Arquette).
After that, it starts to get a little murky. Really, the only objective ways to quantify how “important” and “influential” a promotion is would be by revenue generated and television ratings. However, since wrestling’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years, I propose that a promotion’s revenue or ratings are compared against whatever was the top promotion at the time, rather than absolute values. If WWE is the standard-bearer in this category (and it is, and has been for decades), maybe a promotion garnering at least, say, 50% of WWE’s ratings can qualify as a world title.
On the surface, this one seems like a no-brainer. Logic dictates that the longer a prize has been coveted, the more prestigious it gets – winning the Royal Rumble comes with a lot more cachet nowadays than it did when Jim Duggan was winning them on the USA Network. However, strictly speaking, this line of thinking would mean the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship is more prestigious than the AEW World Championship, and I don’t think anybody besides Billy Corgan could make that argument with a straight face.
So how long must a promotion be around until its top title is considered a proper World Championship? A nice, round number like five years seems like a good place to start – this is what Pro Wrestling Illustrated goes by – but that would currently exclude the AEW World Championship, which doesn’t feel right. AEW will almost certainly get there less than a year from now barring something catastrophic, though, so let’s go ahead and say five years. And once that mark has been reached, the title can be retroactively considered as having been a true World Title the entire time.
One last thing needs to be pointed out on this subject: it’s the longevity of the promotion that matters, not the longevity of the title itself. When Triple H was handed the World Heavyweight Championship by Eric Bischoff in 2002, shortly after the first brand split, it immediately became one of the top titles in wrestling by virtue of being defended on the largest stage possible, WWE. Likewise, the nascent IWGP World Heavyweight Championship is still a World Title, despite NJPW bafflingly retiring their title’s incredibly rich 34-year lineage in 2021, in favor of a new title that looks like it’s straight out of Power Rangers.
Geography of defenses
This one’s easy, and nearly universally agreeable: to be considered a “World” championship, the title has to have been defended in multiple countries – or, depending on how stringent you want to be, multiple continents. For this exercise, let’s go with continents. That should take care of some smaller promotions who find their way up to Canada.
If a promotion’s influence wanes, like the NWA’s has, it must be possible for a championship to have its “World Title” status revoked. There was a time when the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship was the undisputed top of the mountain in wrestling, but that’s no longer anywhere near the case. Call it wrestling’s version of the sorites paradox: when is the precise moment the Ten Pounds of Gold went from the most sought-after prize in the business to indie prop?
The answer goes back to the first header of this article: influence and importance of promotion. These two criteria need to be constantly reevaluated. Once the Worlds Heavyweight Championship went from being defended on pay-per-view to changing hands in bingo halls in the greater Los Angeles area, it became disqualified. And unfortunately, a YouTube-only show in front of a few dozen fans isn’t enough to bring it back.
This one is obvious, but I want to bring it up to answer a common question: The NXT Championship is not a World Title, as even WWE itself doesn’t treat it as such. While we’re mostly focusing on the men’s titles here, this is evident in the fact that Charlotte Flair is currently considered by WWE to be a 14-time World Champion: six times Raw Women’s Champion, seven times SmackDown Women’s Champion, and … one time Divas Champion??? WWE considered the Divas Championship a World Title but not the NXT Championship?! Maybe we should just throw this whole thing out. Nothing matters.
The current list
So, to recap, the rules we’ve come up with are as follows:
- The title has to have been defended on pay-per-view (or Premium Live Event).
- The title has to have been defended in front of a live audience of 5,000 people or more.
- The promotion has to have been in existence for five years.
- The promotion has to have achieved gates or ratings of at least 50% of the top-grossing promotion at the time.
- The title has to have been defended on more than one continent.
- The promotion has to maintain all of the above on a continually evaluated basis.
Under these rules, the current list of World Titles being defended today are:
- WWE Championship
- WWE Universal Championship
- IWGP World Heavyweight Championship
Titles that are or were under consideration, but don’t currently qualify:
- AEW is simply too new for its world title to be considered, but once the promotion turns five years old next January, it will be.
- The Impact World Championship would have been considered a World Title at the peak of the promotion’s popularity, but doesn’t qualify today.
- The NWA Worlds Championship qualified decades ago, but no longer does.
- The Ring of Honor World Championship has never quite been prestigious enough.
- PWG doesn’t have the reach for its world title to qualify.
- This feels dirty, but the ECW World Heavyweight Championship didn’t qualify until WWE revived the brand in 2007. That’s right, folks: The WWECW Championship was a World Title. It’s science.
What say you? What do you think about the criteria we’ve defined here? What are your criteria? Sound off in the comments below.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture.
The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Rather than repeating the same old arguments, we put them to the test. AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.
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