Retro Wrestle Respawn – The WCW World Television Title: A Brief(ish) Journey In Time – Part Six (Iaukea to Wright)

Welcome back to yet more rambling about the grappling past, as we continue our nostalgic look back at the WCW World Television Title. When we last left things, Lord Steven Regal was enjoying his third reign with the Title. This reign would last 181 days for the pummelling Englishman, as he defended the Title both on Monday Nitro and other WCW televised events. One notable aspect of Regal’s third reign was that he wrestled quite a lot of smaller wrestlers who would generally employ a more high-flying style, such as the likes of Psychosis and Rey Mysterio Jr.

Despite the size and style differences, Regal was able to have some very good matches with these different types of opponents, and it highlighted once again why he was such a solid choice to hold the TV Title. At its heart, the TV Title was all about versatility, and that was something that Regal had in spades, provided he was given the required match time that he needed in order to put a coherent storyline together in his Title defences. Eventually though it was decided that Regal would lose the Title for the third time, and after 181 days he could hardly be too aggrieved to have to pass the baton onwards. The choice to dethrone him was a bit peculiar though.

Michael Hayner III began his wrestling career in the Spring of 1996 after graduating from the Malenko Family’s wrestling school. Weighing in at around 215 pounds, Hayner III was more kitted out to play the role of a Cruiserweight/Light-Heavyweight as opposed to a full on Heavyweight, and for most of the first year of his career in WCW he either wrestled the lighter weight competitors or spent most of his time getting clobbered by bigger opponents such as Hugh Morrus. Adopting the name Prince Iaukea, a name bestowed to him by Kevin Sullivan who was impressed by the youngster’s professionalism, he started working as a Samoan/Polynesian character that would enter to war drums.

Iaukea’s in-ring style was a mixture of high-flying and technical wrestling, and though he was still pretty inexperienced he was also a good athlete and he looked to have potential. He was by no means the finished article however, which made it all the more confusing when WCW decided to put the TV Title on him in the February of 1997. The exact reason why the inexperienced Iaukea was chosen to hold the “workhorse” belt of a mainstream major US company is not entirely clear, though there are a couple of theories.

From reading Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter from the timeframe, his theory seemed to be that WCW wanted to get the belt onto Rey Mysterio Jr so that he could defend the belt on House Show events in good matches. An assumption to be made from this was that WCW thought Rey was too small to defeat the 6 foot plus Regal, so they decided to transition the belt to Iaukea instead, as he was closer to Regal’s size and it would thus be more believable of a switch.

Another rumour was that Iaukea’s win was a direct response to the WWF putting their Intercontinental Title on Polynesian rookie Rocky Miavia. Supposedly WCW head honcho Eric Bischoff saw Rocky win the belt and thought “Pfft, I can do that better”, so he promptly stuck the TV Title on the first Samoan guy he bumped into that afternoon. Whatever the true reason was, Prince Iaukea was getting the belt, with the change happening on an edition of WCW’s flagship television show Monday Nitro.

Monday Nitro – 17th February 1997
WCW World Television Title
Champ: Lord Steven Regal Vs Prince Iaukea

Mean Gene Okerlund does a promo segment with Regal on the entrance way prior to the bout starting. Regal is clearly looking past Iaukea here, focusing more on his pay per view match with Rey Mysterio Jr. He does get in an excellent line that Rey won’t be five foot four anymore following their bout because he’ll stretch him so badly. It was a suitably arrogant and insufferable promo from Regal, setting up the villain for a fall, although the crowd don’t know that just yet.

The match itself is good fun for the most part, as Regal bumps a couple of times for Iaukea in the early going to establish that Iaukea can at least be competitive in the bout, before gouging him in the eyes to take over. Regal works Iaukea over with mostly strikes, and does throw a few suplexes too, although a couple of them don’t quite go the way Regal wants them due to timing issues. Thankfully no one appears to be hurt from it.

The finish comes pretty much out of nowhere, as Regal stops clobbering Iaukea for a moment to taunt Rey Mysterio Jr, who has come down to watch the bout. This allows Iaukea to catch Regal with a quick pinning hold, which is enough for him to hold Regal’s shoulders down for three in order to win the belt.

WINNER AND NEW CHAMPION: PRINCE IAUKEA
RATING: *

The match was under 4 minutes long, so the wrestlers didn’t really have chance to tell much of a story. Regal was excellent as the cocky Champion who was looking past his challenger though, only for the challenger to then make him pay. They gave him a bit of an out as well, as it took a distraction from Rey in order for Iaukea to get the winning hold applied

Though the match itself wasn’t much, Iaukea winning the belt was a nice television moment, especially as WCW sent down a lot of other wrestlers to celebrate his victory with him. It certainly made the occasion seem important and it could have been a springboard to bigger things for Iaukea in his career. However, just as Rocky Miavia’s initial run with the Intercontinental Title over in the WWF proved to be a mistake, so too did Iaukea’s run with the TV Title in WCW. Though Iaukea was hardly a bad wrestler, he wasn’t an especially good one either due to only being a year into his career. It was just too much too soon for him.

WCW attempted to keep Iaukea’s momentum going, as he scored two pay per view wins over Mysterio Jr at SuperBrawl VII and Uncensored, followed by another victory over Regal at the Spring Stampede event. Iaukea even successfully defended the Title against wrestling legend “Macho Man” Randy Savage on an edition of Nitro, although that was in screwy fashion due to interference from Diamond Dallas Page and Iaukea didn’t get a pin fall victory out of it. Still, you would normally expect someone of Savage’s level to pin Iaukea’s shoulders to the mat, so the fact that Iaukea managed to escape that fate was a reasonable showing of faith from the WCW higher ups.

The big problem with Iaukea as Champion was that, though he could work a serviceable match against the right opponent, he lacked stage presence and charisma. Had he been an excellent in-ring wrestler then it might have offset the fact that he was quite a bland personality, and alternatively had he been super charismatic then it would have made up for the fact that he wasn’t an especially exciting in-ring performer. However, he was a solid enough wrestler with a pretty dull personality, which would have been fine if he was on the undercard still learning his craft but he was supposed to be a Champion and pushed commodity.

Eventually it was decided that the Iaukea experiment would be brought to an end, with Iaukea slated to lose the belt on an edition of Nitro to masked Japanese wrestler Ultimo Dragon. Real name Yoshihiro Asai, Dragon had been held back in his native land due to his size, so he had instead travelled to Mexico where he had eventually started using the Dragon gimmick in 1991 whilst working for the CMLL promotion. Playing a high-flying masked martial artist gave Dragon the final bit of flavour he needed to become a star, and he quickly became the Junior Heavyweight “Ace” for the Wrestle and Romance promotion in Japan.

During the peak of his stardom in Japan Ultimo Dragon at one stage held 10 Title belts concurrently, with one of them being WCW’s Cruiserweight Title. Though Dragon had mostly been a Cruiserweight competitor for most of his WCW run, it was decided that he would start to mix it up a bit more with the Heavyweight’s as the company entered 1997, with feuds against the likes of Yuji Nagata and Eddie Guerrero being as commonplace for him as one’s with the likes of Psychosis and Rey Mysterio Jr would be. In order to establish him as genuine contender in the Heavyweight ranks, WCW decided to select Dragon as the man who would dethrone Iaukea, after which they then had him defend the belt almost exclusively against Cruiserweights, because of course they did! When he did finally defend it against a Heavyweight, things didn’t go that well for Dragon, as we’ll see next.

Slamboree – 18th May 1997
WCW World Television Title
Champ: Ultimo Dragon w/ Sonny Onoo Vs Steven Regal

Regal had dropped the “Lord” part of his name, in an effort to give him a harder edge, as he’s less about being all snobby now and more interested in slapping the taste out of people’s mouths. Despite the size difference here they work a very good match, with a lot of it being on the mat in the early going, as both men know their way around a wrist lock and can go at it in a technical wrestling battle quite happily.

In a nice touch, Dragon tries to take Regal down with a simple drop toe hold at one stage, but Regal doesn’t go down right away due to the size difference and makes Dragon really work to take him down to the mat, which is an extra bit of realism. Both of these men are not just classy on the mat but they can also throw down with snug strikes, which we see when Dragon starts throwing some sharp kicks at Regal, including some vicious soccer kicks to the back when Regal is on the mat at one point.

Regal eventually decides that he’s sick of Dragon’s insolence and delivers some brutal stomps to the back of his opponents, before getting some suplexes and applying some bruising holds. Neither man is really a babyface here, with Dragon still being associated with the almost universally disliked Onoo, but he spends most of the match working as a subtle Face, which makes sense when you take into account the size difference between the two men. Dragon actually holds his own just fine here, working the bout smartly by trying to use strikes, holds and his speed to wear the bigger man down.

Interestingly though Regal does get some scattered chants of support from the crowd, mainly because the match is pretty back and forth and that calls for him to sell, which naturally sets him up to be in a position for some of the crowd to get behind him, especially when Dragon’s manager gets some cheap shots in. They tease dissension between Dragon and Onoo due to that, with Dragon wanting to win the match on his own, and he nearly does with a rana off the top for two.

The crowd has got progressively more into this match as it has progressed, and it’s deserved as both men are working hard and having an enjoyable contest, with the offence all looking good and both men selling the attacks of the other well. Regal even busts out the old World of Sport school boy roll up at one stage, which I always appreciate. Dragon gets a few more pinning attempts, but he can’t hold the bigger man down and eventually the dissension with Onoo has a payoff, as the manager turns on his client and that allows Regal to pick up the win with his Regal Stretch submission hold.

WINNER AND NEW CHAMPION: STEVEN REGAL
RATING: ***3/4

This was a bit of forgotten gem, as both men worked well together and had a fun match that mixed in silky technical skills with hard-hitting action. Definitely worth a watch if you’ve never seen it

This fourth run would prove to be the last time that Regal held the TV Title in WCW. By his standards it ended up lasting a comparatively paltry 64 days, with the most notable Title defence being against former foil Prince Iaukea, as he battled his way to a victory over the youngster on an edition of Nitro to avenge his prior defeats. Whilst Regal defended the TV Title on Nitro and other television shows, Ultimo Dragon went away to lick his wounds and try to gain vengeance against his deceitful former manager Onoo.

After defeating Onoo’s new charge Psychosis at the Great American Bash pay per view, Dragon went on to a losing effort against Chris Jericho at the Bash at the Beach event before surprisingly defeating Regal 8 days later on the 21st of July 1997 to claim the TV Title for the second time. This began a trend for the rest of 1997, where most TV Champs would have about a month with the belt before passing it on to another contender. In some ways this kind of made sense as the whole point of the TV Title was that the Champion had to defend the belt against a variety of different opponents on a regular basis due to how many TV shows WCW had, so it was only natural that this would lead to the belt changing hands quite a bit.

However, this was a marked departure from how the belt had been presented in recent years, especially as the Title had changed hands a scant four times in 1996, with both Lex Luger and Steven Regal enjoying reigns of over 150 days. Short reigns aren’t terrible in a vacuum, but ideally they shouldn’t happen too often as they can do a number on a Title’s prestige. Though WCW were trying to make it look like the TV Title was a hard belt to hang on to, if they belaboured the point too much then it could end up looking that, rather than being hard to defend, it was instead a belt that was easy to win, and the minute you make a belt easy to win then you fire a homing missile into any rub a wrestler can get from the act of winning it.

Dragon’s second reign saw him see off former Champ Prince Iaukea and also gave him an opportunity to successfully defenf the belt on the 100th edition of Nitro, as he defeated Mortis/Chris Kanyon. Getting to successfully defend the belt on such a milestone achievement for the company was probably the peak of Dragon’s second run, and fittingly his reign ended a couple of weeks later on a live Clash of the Champions special. Selected to take the Title from Dragon was the freshly Heel turned Alex Wright.

We have come across Wright on this journey already when I looked at his unsuccessful attempt to wrest the Title away from Arn Anderson back at the Slamboree 95 pay per view event. Following an initial push and undefeated streak, Wright ventured over to wrestle in New Japan for a bit before returning to WCW in 1996, where he was mostly used as an enhancement talent whose job it was to make the other stars look good. Though Alex’s smiling babyface act might have worked reasonably well in 1994, by 1997 the 90’s had gotten far more cynical, especially when it came to the world of professional wrestling, and a gimmick like that just wasn’t going to see Wright get anywhere up the card.

However, one good thing about Professional Wrestling is that it sometimes isn’t difficult to breathe new life into a character by giving them a change in attitude, and that worked out well for Wright as WCW decided that they would turn him from a smiling good guy into an arrogant Heel, thus freshening him up as an act almost instantly. Though he was still learning his craft, Wright took to his new Heel persona like a duck to water, with his wacky German techno dancing now being done expressly to annoy people, and annoy people it did! Wright immediately rode his new momentum to Championship glory, as he first defeated Chris Jericho for the WCW Cruiserweight Title and, after dropping that back, he quickly moved into the TV Title division to take that Title as well.

Clash of the Champions 35 – 21st August 1997
WCW World Television Title
Champ: Ultimo Dragon Vs Alex Wright

They actually show a very good video prior to the match to give us some background on Dragon, which makes me wonder why they then decided to take the belt off him when they’d just succeeded in making him look like a big star. Oh WCW, you never fail to disappoint when it comes to bizarre booking decisions!

Wright had lost the Cruiserweight Title back to Chris Jericho a week previous to this, so the fact he could go straight into another Title shot at a different belt stretches credibility a bit, but then again WCW didn’t really care about that stuff most of the time. And to be honest, you can argue that he’s just forgoing his rematch at the Cruiser belt in order to go up a weight division, which I could possibly see happening in a legitimate sport like MMA or Boxing.

The wrestling here is solid and Wright does some good character work, playing up his new cockier persona, whilst Dragon also works well as a babyface, playing up to the crowd and outsmarting Wright at different points with some of his counters. Dragon gets the traditional babyface shine and really looks good, with Wright doing a good job selling his offence to make him look dangerous. Wright does eventually manage to catch Dragon with a powerbomb out of nowhere though, and that’s enough for the cut off and some heat.

Wright’s offence looks decent whilst he’s in control, with a good mixture of strikes and throws. Wright is one of those guys who were never a top level worker, but he was solid and perfect for the role of a mid-card Heel. There’s nothing wrong with that either, not everyone is cut out to be a Main Eventer, but someone like Wright is a good addition to a roster. I don’t think the WWF would have ever really given him a chance due to his more European based in-ring style and the fact that, by their standards in the 90’s anyway, he was quite slender, but he fit in just fine in WCW.

Dragon eventually makes the comeback by dropkicking Wright to the floor, but when he tries to follow up with a dive Wright is able to dodge it and send Dragon tumbling onto the floor. Dragon is nothing but persistent though and fights back before getting a beauty of an Asai Moonsault, before putting Wright back into the ring for an attempted rana off the top. Wright fights that off and both men tumble down to the mat in what looks to be a botch. We get some near falls from that, with both men getting some two counts until Wright catches Dragon with a German Suplex for the clean win.

WINNER AND NEW CHAMPION: ALEX WRIGHT
RATING: ***

This was a good effort from both men, with some solid wrestling and some nicely executed near falls in the closing stretch

Wright’s reign would be another that wouldn’t last all that long, as WCW would continue to play Pass The Parcel with the TV Title as 1997 wore on. However, we’ll leave the discussion of his successor for Part Seven. I hope you’ll all join me next time for more journeys in wrestling history.

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