As Dusty Rhodes once so succinctly put to Diamond Dallas Page; “If you’re not in this business to be the World Champion, then why are you in it?”
True though those words certainly are it’s a harsh reality that not everyone can be the top dog or challenging to take the reigning champions crown. There will always be talented stars that are out of the big title picture, so for that reason it behoves wrestling companies to come up with storyline reasons to both keep them busy and retain fans interest in their trials and tribulations.
One good way of doing this is by having secondary titles, such as the Intercontinental and United States Championships. Though these titles might not be as prestigious as the World Title, they can still be seen as valuable trophies in the minds of fans and thus worthy of attention. Indeed, during the 1980’s in the (then) WWF, Intercontinental Champion The Honky Tonk Man regularly defended his title in feature bouts, with fans paying hand over fist in the hope of seeing him be dethroned.
As a result, there has been many a good rivalry over a secondary title. Indeed, on rare occasions these rivalries have even overshadowed those for the premier championship. In this week’s article, I will be looking at five rivalries from yesteryear that not only held fans attention but also raised the prestige of the titles in question.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive objective list. It’s merely just five rivalries that I enjoyed and felt did a lot to raise the profile of the titles they were fought over. There’s just one rule, which is that the rivalry needs to be at least ten years old to qualify as “Retro”.
So, in no particular order, here are five of my favourite rivalries for secondary titles
D’Lo Brown and X-Pac – WWF European Championship – 1998
First debuted in March 1997 as a vehicle to get “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith over, the European Title had a sordid and often depressing existence. Particular lowlights saw Shawn Michaels laying down so that Triple H could pin him to win the title in a comedy bout, only to be topped by Mideon becoming the champion because he happened to find the title in Shane McMahon’s gym bag.
There were very few periods in its five painful years of activity that the European Title ever really had any credibility as a title that should be cared about. However, the title was gifted a major shot in the arm during 1998, when it found its way to D’Lo Brown. Defeating Triple H for the title on an episode of Raw, D’Lo acted like he was genuinely happy to be champion. This was a stark contrast to Triple H, who had rarely defended the title and usually just handed it off to his bodyguard Chyna once his entrance was over with.
Thrilled to be champion, D’Lo decided to dedicate himself to representing all parts of Europe, so he demanded to be announced as being from a different European city every time he came down to the ring, title in hand. One week he’d be from Milan, Italy, the next he’d be from Helsinki, Finland. It was the first time in ages that anyone was actually doing anything of note with the title, and fans immediately got on board with it.
With Triple H moving onto a feud with The Rock, D’Lo found himself thrust into a rivalry with Triple H’s fellow D-Generation X member in X-Pac. As well as being a popular competitor, X-Pac was talented between the ropes and, due to his smaller stature; he made the perfect foil for the bigger and more aggressive D’Lo.
The two traded the title throughout the autumn on 1998, having a great match every time. Having two good wrestlers battling hard to hold it did wonders for the European Titles image and, for the first time in over a year, it actually looked like a real championship worth fighting for as opposed to just a comedy prop. Sadly it wasn’t to last, but that was neither D’Lo nor X-Pac’s fault. They did their best to elevate the title, and they did a great job in my opinion.
Eddie Guerrero and Rey Misterio Jnr – WCW Cruiserweight Championship – 1997
WCW often gets rightly praised for popularising the Cruiserweight style of wrestling in the mainstream on its Monday Nitro show. Previously to Nitro, smaller and more athletic wrestlers often found they had to go to Mexico, Japan or ECW to get any sort of a push, because both of the two major promotions in American Wrestling didn’t have a dedicated division for the lighter weight classes. WCW had experimented with a Light-Heavyweight Title in the early 90’s, but it had quickly fallen by the wayside.
However, knowing that he had TV time to fill and wanting to do something that would make his show stand out from the opposition, WCW head honcho Eric Bischoff decided that he would put smaller wrestlers like Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko on a national podium to thrill crowds with great wrestling.
With the addition of highflying Mexican and Japanese wrestlers such as Psicosis and Ultimo Dragon, the newly named Cruiserweight Division became an instant hit. Bischoff himself said that he deliberately picked the name Cruiserweight because he felt terms like Light-Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight demeaned the smaller wrestlers somewhat, whereas Cruiserweight didn’t carry the same connotation.
Eddie Guerrero may have been one of the most talented smaller wrestlers in history, but he rarely competed for the Cruiserweight Title upon its inception, because he was instead battling larger wrestlers for the United States and Television Championships. However, after returning from an injury in 1997 Eddie showed off a new nastier side, after previously being a hand slapping good guy. Eddie soon bullied his way to the Cruiserweight Title, and looked set for a long run with the title.
Highflying Rey Misterio Jnr had other ideas, and the two had an incredible series of matches over the latter stages on 1997, with a particular highlight being a stupendous bout at Halloween Havoc 1997. What made the rivalry so engaging was that even though Eddie wasn’t the biggest wrestler in the world, Rey was actually smaller than him. This meant that Eddie could really throw his weight around and be an overbearing jerk, which was something he was outrageously good at.
Though they would never be able to match the brilliance of Havoc 97, the two still went on to have many more thrilling bouts and the rivalry still holds a great amount of personal enjoyment for me and many other grapple fanatics. It was certainly one of the best feuds in Cruiserweight history.
Rick Rude and Ultimate Warrior – WWF Intercontinental Championship – 1989
The Ultimate Warrior was near unstoppable upon his WWF debut, crushing all who stood in his way with his punishing Gorilla Press Slam and big running splash. After demolishing The Honky Tonk Man at SummerSlam 1988 in mere seconds to win the Intercontinental Championship, Warrior went on to be one of the most dominant champions in the titles history.
When Warrior was matched against “Ravishing” Rick Rude at Wrestlemania V, many thought that Warrior would smash the preening and arrogant star just like he had every other previous challenger. However, against the run of form, and with copious amounts of help from his manager Bobby Heenan, Rude was able to pull off a huge upset and pin Warrior’s shoulders to the mat, winning the title in the process.
Rather than hurt Warrior, the defeat actually propelled both men further up the card, as fans now salivated for Warrior to get his revenge whilst Rude gained an immediate boost of credibility from the win. Warrior tried and failed numerous times to regain the title, often because Rude would get himself disqualified or counted out.
The two eventually met again at SummerSlam 1989 and had another great match, this time ending with Warrior being able to pin Rude following a keenly timed distraction from Rowdy Roddy Piper. Thus Rude began a new feud with “The Hot Scot” whilst Warrior continued onward towards his epic clash with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI.
You’d be hard pushed prior to this feud to find someone who had carried Warrior to better matches than Rude. His willingness to take numerous big bumps really helped Warrior get over and made the matches very exciting to watch. Rude was the best preparation that Warrior could have hoped for before going into the main event scene, and the rivalry also kept fans interested in the Intercontinental Title as well.
Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat – WWF Intercontinental Championship – 1987
Sticking with the Intercontinental Championship, we get to possibly the most famous rivalry in the titles long history. Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat were not just two of the very best wrestlers in the world in 1987 but they were also two of the more popular superstars in the entire WWF.
Steamboat was one of the few competitors who could really hang with Savage and vice versa. Both men were quick as lightning and crisp as a nice pint of Strongbow (Other ciders are available). Whenever they matched up between the ropes it was immediate gold every time out. So when Savage brutally assaulted Steamboat and drove a ring bell into his throat, fans were positively desperate to see Steamboat conquer the “Macho Man” at the seminal Wrestlemania III.
Previous to his feud with Steamboat, Savage had been involved in a rivalry with George “The Animal” Steele over the simple minded Steele being infatuated with his valet Miss Elizabeth. Savage abused Steele like an insufferable and mean-spirited bully, and always managed to escape their contests with the Intercontinental Title still within his possession.
To ensure that Savage wouldn’t be able to repeat his ring bell antics, Steele accompanied Steamboat down to the ring at Wrestlemania III. Savage and Steamboat partook in an excellent athletic contest, possibly the best in Wrestlemania history, with neither man being able to gain a clear advantage. In the ensuing battle, the referee was taken out. Seeing his chance, Savage decided to go outside for the ring bell, but Steele intervened and took it away. Savage struck Steele, but when he went up top to finish Steamboat, Steele retaliated by shoving Savage off, allowing Steamboat to eventually win the match and the title in a memorable moment that lives on in people’s memories to this day.
This rivalry isn’t just great because of the incredible angle of the ring bell to the throat, or for the fact that Savage and Steamboat followed it up with a fantastic match. It’s great because it paid off nearly a year of storylines and justice was finally served after months of Savage acting like a complete jerk. It also laid the groundwork for Savage’s eventual face turn and title win at the next years Wrestlemania.
A truly historic rivalry that produced perhaps one of the very best payoffs of all time.
Rob Van Dam and Jerry Lynn – ECW Television Championship – 1999
In some ways you could argue that during the height of Rob Van Dam’s nearly two year reign as ECW Television Championship, he in fact wasn’t the holder of the secondary championship at all. Van Dam was such a big star, and his matches were so heavily anticipated on the big ECW events, that you could have made a genuine argument that the ECW TV Title in fact overtook the ECW World Title as the most prestigious trophy in the promotion.
What helped Van Dam raise the profile of the title so highly was his incredible rivalry with Jerry Lynn. Prior to stopping off in ECW, Lynn had been on the lower rungs of the WCW ladder under a mask as the “mysterious” Mr. JL. Despite having good matches with the likes of Sabu and Dean Malenko, Lynn never got past the bottom reaches of the card and eventually left in 1997. Showing up in ECW as “Dynamic” Jerry Lynn, Lynn still struggled to find his niche until a big feud in the summer of 1998 with Justin Credible.
The summer series with Credible raised Lynn’s profile and he started getting over with the ECW fan base for his keen technical skills and impressive high flying. As 98 turned into 99, Lynn found himself in the ring opposite Rob Van Dam. The two had instant chemistry together and, seeing the reactions from the crowds, ECW shot caller Paul Heyman decided that he’d put Lynn and Van Dam against each other on a pay per view at March’s “Living Dangerously”.
Following an athletic and exciting back and forth contest, the match ended in a time limit draw. Despite this, ECW official John Finnegan tried to declare Lynn the winner. Lynn refused this and demanded five more minutes. Finnegan agreed and Van Dam went on to win the bout.
Neither man was satisfied with this outcome, with both of them feeling they had something to prove. At May’s “Hardcore Heaven”, the two wrestled each other again, this time for over half an hour. Lynn got split open during the bout after landing face first on the concrete floor with a sickening thud, but he battled on as the two men finished another classic bout, with Van Dam once again winning.
The feud essentially came to an end later in the year on an episode of ECW Hardcore TV. Held at the famous ECW Arena, Lynn battled with injured ribs against Van Dam and so nearly won the title before once again staring at the lights. It was frustrating to see Lynn come up short on so many occasions, but his losses had a purpose. Making Van Dam into such a strong champion only raised the prestige of the title itself. If you want something to have worth, then a good way of doing so is to make it hard to attain.
The fact such a talented wrestler as Lynn was unable to wrest away the title from Van Dam’s waist showed that Van Dam really was as good as he often proclaimed he was and only made the queue of challengers even longer.
I personally enjoy the final instalment the most, as Lynn does an incredible sell job of his ribs and even though I know he doesn’t win, there are still moments watching it now where I think he will. It is by far the most story driven match of the series and it’s a great watch.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane. If you haven’t seen any of the matches in these rivalries then I suggest you give them a goosey gander!
Thanks for reading
Until Next Time;