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The Night Bruno Fell
AKA: Why The Hell Does WWE Have Three World Title Belts?
It was a cold and windy night in Manhattan on January 18, 1971 when Ivan Koloff took the world championship from Bruno Sammartino, the weather for once reflecting the mood of the crowd as they poured out of Madison Square Garden. Normally fans left the building all riled up, either because their beloved hero had dispatched some rotten foe, or mad as hell at some calamity that had befallen him, requiring, no doubt, a rematch to settle the score.
But not this night.
For the first time in nearly eight years, the great man had been defeated in the middle of the ring. Koloff had picked the champion up and the ground shook when he put him back down. Following a kneedrop from the top rope, the referee Dick Kroll counted nice and steady so no one missed it.
The audience sat in stunned silence, so quiet Sammartino was afraid he had popped in eardrum when Koloff clobbered him. No one had known exactly what to expect when the paradigm shifted—but no one had predicted shock and sadness so extreme that the only way to express it was through the complete absence of sound. He expected anger at Koloff. Instead, he mostly felt the audience’s overwhelming disappointment that even their great hero was a mere mortal in the end.
“Everything went so quiet,” Koloff told me once. “Can you imagine it? A sold-out Garden and not a single person was making a sound.”
Koloff had been menaced in the past by fans, angered by his phony Russian heritage in the midst of the Cold War. He’d been attacked with chairs, an old lady’s cane and even a folding knife on one memorable occasion. He was ready for anything.
Old heads remembered the 1957 calamity when Dr. Jerry Graham had bloodied the beloved Antonio Rocca and more than 60 cops had been required to calm the crowd. Officials at the Garden feared a similar response. They hustled Koloff quickly out of the arena and to the back before announcing the title change, terrified of the crowd’s response if he was presented the $25,000 belt in the ring. But there was none of that, not on this night.
Men tried their best not to.
In the first 15 years of the promotion’s history, just seven men held the prestigious WWWF championship. A title victory didn’t just ensure momentary possession of a prop or bauble. It was a hand-crafted invitation into wrestling immortality, a list so short and exclusive that even being considered for the honor carried with it serious weight.
By comparison, in the first 15 years of this century, there were 69 WWE Champions. Sixty Nine!
Almost every wrestler of note has had a cup of coffee with the belt, with the title changing hands so often sometimes fans had to check online to remember who had possession at any given time. The brand split made it all worse. For years there wasn’t one world champion, a standard-bearer everyone aspired to beat. There were two, each ostensibly representing not the world, but their respective television brands.
Roman Reigns set all that right when he took possession of both belts and refused to give them back. In a historic reign that is now numbered in years rather than months, the Tribal Chief slowly brought prestige back to the title. For the first time in years, winning the championship mattered. That change was deliberate—and wonderful.
The purpose of sports is to crown champions on the field of play. At the end of the NBA playoffs, one team will emerge as the league’s standard-bearer. It’s simple and pure. The league won’t run a simultaneous tournament on a different network and select an alternate team to represent them right alongside the real champs. That would be absurd.
Even WWE recognizes there can be only one—they don’t send out replica title belts to both the Super Bowl winners and losers. To the victor goes the spoils.
If only they had that level of clarity about their own product.
Last night on WWE RAW, Triple H introduced a third title belt, looking every bit like a giant-sized Jostens class ring, once again muddying waters the company had worked so hard to clean.
There can be only one world champion. If there is more than one, there are none. It’s exclusivity that lends the title power and prestige. The more you introduce, the less they all mean.
Just ask boxing if you don’t believe me—most divisions are represented by multiple champions and it’s a full time job keeping track of which ones matter. Sometimes a single sanctioning body will even have several champions. At lightweight Gervonta Davis, the so-called face of boxing, is the WBA’s “World” champion. But Devin Haney is their “Super” champion. None of it makes a lick of sense and, in turn, title fights means less than ever.
Boxing has built this mess over decades and it is beyond the control of any single organization to fix. But WWE has done this voluntarily, fixed it, and now wants to break it anew. Will the madness never end?
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