Wrestling can be a cutthroat business sometimes.
Normally, championship belts are considered to be the property of the wrestling promotion, as they have traditionally traveled with the champions. But when the people in charge have issues with the people that are supposed to be representing the promotion as champion, that can lead to a pretty awkward situation.
So here are four times that wrestlers actually held their belts hostage to settle a dispute with a promoter.
Case No. 1: Ric Flair and the WCW World title (1991)
In a famous real-life feud that we’ve talked about before, Ric Flair was fired from WCW in 1991 by WCW President Jim Herd after a lengthy and petty argument. Herd wanted to make Flair into a midcard character — and possibly a gladiator — while cutting his salary in half. Flair was not OK with this and allowed his contract to run out, while talking with the WWF about jumping ship.
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This normally would not have become such a huge issue, but Flair was WCW World champion because WCW was dumb enough to make him champion again despite his contract nearing expiry. In July 1991, the inevitable occurred and Flair was fired as a contract re-negotiation ploy, and Flair called their bluff and actually went to the WWF, with the WCW World title belt.
Normally, in a situation where a champion is fired by a promotion, they simply return the belt because it’s assumed to be the property of the company. However, this situation was a bit more complex. Back in 1985, when the company that became WCW was operating under the umbrella of the NWA, you had to put down a $25,000 deposit to be NWA World champion, to prevent against exactly the kind of thing that Flair was doing. However, Flair personally paid for the creation of a new title belt, the famed “Big Gold Belt,” in lieu of paying a deposit as champion, since it was roughly the same amount of money. So legally speaking, Flair’s stance was that the physical championship belt was his, and he could take it to the WWF if he wanted to. So at SummerSlam 1991, Bobby Heenan appeared on TV carrying it around and claiming to represent Flair, “The Real World Champion”.
Naturally, the legal threats started flying on both sides, mostly with WCW accusing the WWF of stealing their title. Having the World champion and biggest star jump to the competition was a major embarrassment for Jim Herd as it was, and now the title belt itself was on someone else’s TV. Flair, for his part, was gracious enough to agree to return the belt in exchange for approximately $40,000 (the original cost of the belt, plus interest), and they were finally able to reach an agreement later in the year.
Strangely, this marks one of the few times were the WWF backed down in a situation like it, because their normal course of action would be to steamroll the opponent in court, but instead all references to the belt were removed from their programming and the whole “Real World champion” gimmick was dropped like a rock.
Flair was of course back in WCW by 1993 anyway, so ultimately the whole thing was pretty silly.
Case No. 2: Stan Hansen and the AWA World title (1986)
And now for a couple of instances of Verne Gagne not being very good at his job. Gagne founded the AWA in the ’60s and ran it all the way until it completely collapsed in 1991, but unfortunately most of his mentality when it came to the wrestling business remained firmly in 1963. He is most notorious for letting Hulk Hogan leave during the height of “Hulkamania” in 1983, and by 1985 his company was clearly a distant third in America while the NWA and WWF battled it out. Verne’s solution had been to try Rick Martel as AWA World champion to capture a younger demographic, but when that proved to be a complete flop, the belt moved to legendary tough guy Stan “The Lariat” Hansen instead.
Hansen made a name for himself in a famous feud with Bruno Sammartino in the WWF, but was now more associated with Japan, specifically working for All Japan Pro Wrestling under Shohei “Giant” Baba and making way more money that way on his own schedule. In fact, he was making so much more money with Baba that it was fairly pointless to try and keep him in the U.S. for any amount of time. But Verne tried anyway, putting the focus of the AWA on Hansen for a few months in hopes of building up a bigger name for the promotion in Japan. However, by 1986 Stan had commitments that he made on the All Japan tours, and Verne wanted Stan to return to the States to headline some big shows in San Francisco and drop the belt to Nick Bockwinkel.
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Well, Hansen wasn’t going to do anything that Baba didn’t want him to, so he just stayed in Japan and continued defending the belt for All Japan while Gagne flipped out and stripped him of it. And just to make sure Stan knew who was boss, Verne went on TV and had all the announcers talk about how Stan was “scared” of elderly Bockwinkel, who was now champion via forfeit. And then after completely burying Hansen on TV, Verne asked for the AWA World title back. Well, he got it.
Unfortunately for him, after refusing to return it for weeks, Hansen took it to his ranch in Texas, literally ran it over with his truck until it was defaced by tire tracks, and then mailed the belt back to Gagne with a very nasty letter.
Stan has since talked about how he might have handled that particular situation badly. Verne had to have a new belt made and I’m pretty sure he learned his lesson.
Case No. 3: Jerry Lawler and the AWA World title (1998)
Oh no, wait, my mistake, Verne didn’t learn his lesson at all.
Moving ahead a few years to 1988, with everyone but the WWF and NWA dying a slow painful death, the remaining promoters decided to band together and put on a giant PPV show together and destroy Vince McMahon! It would be called SuperClash III and feature a unification match between AWA World champion Jerry Lawler and World Class champion Kerry Von Erich and they’d have to build a giant vault like Scrooge McDuck to contain all the money.
It was a reasonably clever idea in that Lawler was wrestling people around the country as a sort of modern version of the touring champion, taking on all comers. Thus, it was a natural extension of that for him to face a rival world champion and unify the titles.
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The problem is that asking two wrestling promoters to agree on what to order at a coffee shop is enough of a challenge, but asking multiple ones to work together to run a show? Forget about it.
SuperClash III was a legendary disaster, ending with Lawler supposedly unifying the titles while Verne Gagne walked off with all the money — which Verne later claimed didn’t exist — and the cooperation between promoters self-destructed.
The first casualty was World Class Championship Wrestling itself, the Texas-based promotion that featured the Von Erichs as top stars, and which had been falling apart for years. The real story behind the “unification” match was that Jerry Lawler and business partner Jerry Jarrett bought the WCCW promotion from Fritz Von Erich and renamed it to the USWA, basically merging it with their own home base out of Memphis. Thus Jerry Lawler could be champion and make things simpler. And then the relationship with Verne Gagne completely fell apart and Verne decided that he didn’t want the AWA title to be unified any longer, and he asked for it back. Lawler, quite reasonably, asked to be paid for the SuperClash show before he’d return the title, and in fact to this day he has never received any money from that show.
So the AWA never actually got that title belt back. Verne once again declared what a coward that his champion was and stripped him of the title, and eventually had a new one made. This time he was at least smart enough to put it on his son-in-law, Larry Zbyszko, because he knew that Larry wouldn’t screw him over and leave. Lawler continued using the old AWA belt as the main one in Memphis until the promotion died in 1996. Larry Zbyszko did in fact screw Verne over and leave for WCW in 1991, for those wondering, but by then the AWA was dead anyway.
Case No. 4: The Snowman and the USWA title (1990)
And we close with the oddest one, which again involves Jerry Lawler.
In the early 80s, he trained a young black wrestler named Eddie Crawford, who worked as The Snowman and made a name for himself as a guy who would typically blow into a territory like Mid-South, make some money on top, and then suddenly disappear again after burning his bridges. Bill Watts had to tried to use him to recreate the success of Junkyard Dog in 1985, but that failed miserably and Snowman mostly faded into obscurity again.
Until 1990, when he re-emerged in Memphis and started doing radio and print interviews where he complained about the racism inherent in the Tennessee wrestling scene. Specifically, he accused his former trainer Jerry Lawler of making sure that only white people were ever made the focus of the promotion. Now, Lawler might have been from the south, but he certainly wasn’t a racist. However, Snowman continued to attack Lawler and the promotion in the local Memphis media, which made it all the more shocking when he showed up on the live weekly TV show to challenge Lawler for his title. Lawler offered him a chance to “work his way up from the bottom” in a segment that came across as “real” because it was so raw and different than the usual “bad guy cuts a promo on the good guy” stuff fans usually saw.
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The storyline was an immediate success, thanks largely to an effort on the parts of Lawler and Snowman to work their matches in “shoot style,” pretending to not cooperate and throwing ugly wild punches at each other to show their hatred. Snowman won the USWA World title from Lawler after a few twists and turns and seemed to have found redemption for the racism he supposedly encountered in the territory.
However, despite being champion, Snowman was used in the middle of the cards, while Lawler was billed as the top star in the area and given all the main events. Snowman once again became disgruntled, this time for real, and got into a heated dispute with the owners about his financial situation before walking out of the promotion with the title in October. People thought that this might also be another twist in the story, but then Snowman starting showing up on other shows, still billing himself as the USWA World champion even after he was stripped of the title.
So this all led up to the Oct. 6, 1990 episode of the Memphis TV show, where matchmaker Eddie Marlin famous buried the Snowman once and for all, declaring that Snowman had pawned the USWA World title belt for drug money. Is it true? It’s never been established conclusively, although Snowman himself later said that it was merely Marlin misunderstanding a threat that Snowman made to pawn the title if they didn’t raise his pay.
Regardless, no one ever found the belt again, so it’s certainly possible. One thing is for sure: It’s doubtful that anyone will ever again burn a bridge as effectively as Snowman did in 1990.
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