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

Hello again and welcome to another jaunt down the rivers of time past, as we once again take a look at the history of the WCW World Television Title. When we left things last time out, Rick Martel was in the midst of a career revival, as he had just defeated Booker T to win the TV Title for the first time. However, this incredible return to form was sadly not to last, as Martel’s reign ended a mere 6 days after he had won it at the SuperBrawl VIII pay per view event on the 22nd of February 1998. Martel had in fact been slated to win that particular bout, but sadly unforeseen events were to change the outcome.

As mentioned in Part Seven, Martel, Booker T and Perry Saturn had all been taking part in a three-way feud for the TV Title, with all three men staking a claim to the belt. At SuperBrawl VIII the plan was for Martel and Booker to face first, with the winner then facing Saturn right after to decide who would leave the venue with the TV Title. Martel was supposed to not only defeat Booker but he was then supposed to defeat Saturn as well, which would have thoroughly established him as a strong Champion and deserving holder of the belt. Martel landed badly on a throw however and tore ligaments in knee, as well as both fracturing his leg and suffering cartilage damage.

Realising that the injury would derail any chance of working a match with Saturn, Martel decided to call and audible and dropped the belt to Booker, which lead to Booker and Saturn having to improvise a near 15 minute match on the fly. The match ended up being a decent effort from both men, especially given the circumstances, and Booker won that one as well in order to leave with the TV Title for the second time. Obviously with hindsight being 20/20 and all, it may have made more sense to just keep the belt on Booker to begin with, but there’s no way WCW could have known that Martel would have suffered such a freak injury the way he did and his excellent in-ring work had certainly earned him a crack at carrying the belt.

Sadly that was it for Martel’s Indian Summer, as he tried making a comeback later in 1998 but got injured again and decided to call it a career in March of 1999 following a bout in Hawaii with The Metal Maniac. Upsetting though the situation with Martel was, Booker was still an excellent candidate when it came to being a TV Champion, with his charisma, athletic ability and in-ring versatility making him a solid choice to hold the belt. With Martel and Saturn now in his rear view mirror, it was time for Booker to find himself a new challenger, and he found it in the form of “Canadian Crippler” Chris Benoit.

Trained in Calgary by the Hart family, Benoit had really come into his own due to stints both in Japan and in Extreme Championship Wrestling. It had been in the latter company where Benoit had earned himself his “Crippler” nickname, as he had accidentally dropped fellow combatant Sabu on his head in a clip that ECW gruesomely replayed over and over again in order to get Benoit over as a dangerous competitor. Benoit’s exemplary performances over in Japan against the likes of Jushin Liger and Shinjiro Ohtani, combined with his continued exposure to character work in ECW, eventually led to him being recruited by WCW in 1995 and they brought him in to become a member of The Four Horseman faction along with Ric Flair, Arn Anderson and Brian Pillman.

It was as a Horsemen that Benoit was put into his first major storyline in WCW, as he was embroiled in a long and violent feud with Kevin Sullivan. Sullivan was a stocky brawler who was renowned for his excellent mind for the business, so much so that he had often been brought in to be the “booker” of the companies he had worked in, which meant he was the one who put the wrestling shows together and decided who won and lost. Sullivan saw Benoit’s talent and the two had some exciting brawls with one another, including a battle at the Great American Bash pay per view in June of 1996 where they fought all the way through the crowd and into the women’s toilets.

Another very versatile performer, Benoit was capable of seemingly wrestling any wrestler of any style, which made him a natural contender for the TV Title, although he didn’t really challenge for it at all until his rivalry with Booker began. Following the final conclusion of Benoit’s near yearlong feud with Sullivan, his next big rival came in the form of Raven, with the two of them contesting a pulsating bout at the Souled Out pay per view event in January 1998. In fact Benoit was part of possibly three of WCW’s best matches for the entire year of 1998, with all three of them taking part in consecutive pay per view events.

He had classic matches with Raven at Souled Out, followed by another excellent contest with Diamond Dallas Page at SuperBrawl VIII, and that was followed by a Triple Threat match between all three men at the Uncensored pay per view in March of 1998. Following that match, Benoit was phased out of the storyline whilst Raven and DDP collided for the next couple of months, which left Benoit free and looking for a new opponent around the same time Booker T was looking for a new challenger. It was a natural fit, as both men were singles stars on the rise who the crowd respected, and they were both good wrestlers who could get the best out of one another.

Spring Stampede – 19th April 1998
WCW World Television Title
Champ: Booker T Vs Chris Benoit

Booker and Benoit had gone to a couple of time limit draws on WCW’s televised events, so this match was booked for Spring Stampede with the added stipulation that the match would have no time limit so as to ensure the fans an actual finish. Booker gets the best of things in the early going, using his superior size to send Benoit tumbling out to the floor a few times, and the action is the usual solid stuff you would expect from these two men. It’s quite a cagey affair at some points, with both men working the bout like it’s a real athletic contest and struggle.

Benoit eventually shows off some of his trademark intensity and stomps a mud-hole on Booker in the corner, which gets a mixture of cheers and boos from the crowd, but Booker is smart and goes back to holds in order to try and slow things down and halt Benoit’s momentum, which is a good bit of storytelling that differentiates the wrestling styles of the two men. Benoit manages to fight his way back into the match and drops Booker mid-section first onto the top rope before clocking him with a shot that sends the Champ tumbling down to the floor.

Benoit takes over following that, with Booker selling his offence well, especially when Benoit fires off some of his stinging knife edge chops. The crowd has been a little bit muted here at points but the wrestling on display has been of good quality and both men have been working a scientifically sound match. Spring Stampede 98 took place up in Denver, Colorado and I think the high altitude might have potentially played a part in the more patient pace of the match, as both men are trying not to expend too much energy too quickly. It also suits the no time limit stipulation for both men to gradually build the match rather than going all out right from the off.

As we hit the ten minute mark (the time when a TV Title match would normally end) Benoit ups the ante with some more high impact moves, such as his multiple German Suplexes and a back suplex from the top rope, and the crowd responds. This match has been built very smartly and the crowd is starting to bite, especially when they hit the finishing stretch and start trading near falls. The action continues to be good, with both men’s execution being on point and the bumping and feeding of both men being excellent.

Because more matches are due to come in this rivalry, they so a slightly dodgy finish where the referee ends up getting bumped by an errant Booker kick (Although it looks like Benoit might have pulled the referee in the way) and that means that when Benoit immediately follows up with his Crippler Crossface submission move there isn’t a referee to oversee it. Booker looks like he might have tapped, but it’s presented in a way that he might have just been reaching for the ropes, thus causing even further controversy and opening the door for rematches. Benoit goes to try and wake up the downed ref, but that allows Booker to catch him with a jumping side kick and that’s enough for three.

RATING: ***1/2

This match was chicken soup for the wrestling fan’s soul, as both men gradually built the match and told a solid story that the crowd got invested in. The finish was a bit finicky, but it left the door open for more matches between the two whilst still giving the fans a pin fall finish, which was “job done” at the end of the day

Booker and Benoit did indeed have further matches with one another, and it led to a slew of unpredicted Title changes as the belt changed hands five times in five days between the 30th of April and the 4th of May 1998. The reason for the changes was that WCW was doing a loop of non-televised House Shows in Georgia and South Carolina, and the cards had been decimated due to injuries, suspensions and wrestlers just outright not turning up even though they were supposed to be there. This of course left the fans infuriated, so WCW decided to throw the beleaguered local fans a bone by changing the TV Title.

Titles rarely changed on non-televised events like this, so getting to see a little piece of history take place in front of them went a long way to appeasing the fans who had bought tickets. Noticing that it had worked, WCW decided to do it again for the other three House Show events, meaning that Benoit and Booker passed the parcel with the TV Title in order to keep the local fans from rioting at the utter shambles of a card WCW had presented for them. Normally playing hot potato with a Title belt so flagrantly would do a number on its prestige, but WCW had a canny way around that. Seeing as the Title changes never actually happened on TV, WCW decided to just act like they never happened at all, and made zero mention of them when Booker showed up to lose the belt for the third time that week to Fit Finlay on Monday Nitro.

Of course not acknowledging the Title changes was a gigantic slap in the face of the fans who had turned up to those House Show events, especially as they had been” treated” to such matches as Pez Whatley taking on Buddy Lee Parker on the under cards before finally getting thrown a bone in the form of an exciting Title change. WCW simply behaving like the changes never happened not only insulted those fans but it also essentially robbed Benoit of his first official gold in a WCW ring, although retroactively I do think these changes have officially been recognised. Of course if WCW tried this today then there’d be videos up on social media and it would be impossible to hide it, but back in 1998 something like Twitter was just a glint in the internet milkman’s eye and it was easier for WCW to get away with their little wheeze.

Fit Finlay was an odd choice to be the next TV Champion as well, due to the fact that WCW hadn’t really done anything with him since 1996 and he had mostly been languishing in the under card doing little productive as a character. On paper though, Finlay was a solid choice to hold the TV Title, as he was a talented wrestler who could mix strong technical wrestling acumen with vicious strikes. Finlay was a thoroughly believable wrestler who you could buy as badass and he was skilled and experienced enough that he could have decent outings with a variety of different opponents. It would have however made far more sense to actually build Finlay up as a genuine contender for the belt before having him win it so that his reign didn’t feel so out of nowhere.

Finlay successfully defended the Title against Chris Benoit in a hard hitting affair at WCW’s Slamboree 98 pay per view event in May of 1998 and then went on to defend it on WCW’s television shows against mostly undercard guys that had zero chance of defeating him such as Kenny Kaos and The Renegade. To be honest, the focus was less on Finlay as Champion and more on Booker and Benoit still, as they took part in an excellent eight match series in order to decide who the next challenger to Finlay would be. It was originally supposed to be a seven match series, but Benoit refused the help of fellow Canadian Bret Hart in the seventh match and allowed himself to be disqualified. Booker appreciated the gesture and requested the match be wrestled again at the Great American Bash pay per view and Benoit agreed. Booker would go on to win an excellent match and earn himself a shot at Finlay later on in the same show.

Great American Bash – 14th June 1998
WCW World Television Title
Champ: Fit Finlay Vs Booker T

Booker had defeated Benoit in an absolute corker in the opening match of the pay per view, although a number was done on his knee in the process. Finlay gets to come into the match fresh though, so Booker is very much the underdog here. Booker and Finlay would end up aligned at one stage in WWE, but they’re opponents here and are happy to throw down with one another, with Booker cleaning Finlay’s clock with a big kick early on. You can hear the slaps and thuds reverberate through the building when the two men attack one another.

Finlay is on the defensive in the early going but eventually manages to get himself into the match by working over Booker’s left knee with a variety of painful looking submission holds. Being a European wrestler who competed during the classic World of Sport days, Finlay knows his way around a submission hold and he believably punishes Booker, with Booker selling it all well. The crowd is kind of quiet for this; although Finlay will occasionally play to them in order to draw some boo’s. It’s not the most exciting match ever, but it has solid wrestling and tells a decent story of Booker gutting it out in an effort to regain his belt.

Booker gets the odd pin attempt or attack in here or there to show he’s still alive in the match, but it always comes back to Finlay going back to attacking his leg, including a moment where Finlay drags Booker out to the floor and then swings his knee into the ring post. Booker manages to get Finlay with a Scissors Kick, but he stops to Spinaroonie and that allows Finlay to take him out with a clothesline before setting up his trademark Tombstone Piledriver finisher. Sadly the match kind of falls apart here, as Booker is supposed to counter the Piledriver into one of his own but he loses his grip and the spot goes awry. They improvise a new finish though as Finlay misses a charge in the corner and Booker snaps off a more standard Piledriver for the three count.

RATING: **1/2

Sadly the finish was a bit of a mess, but the match itself was solid enough, with some decent submission work from Finlay and some good selling from Booker

Booker T was now the TV Champion for the fifth time in his career, once again winning two matches in the same night in order to claim the belt. This cemented Booker as a deserving Champion, but sadly his fifth reign would end up being a bit of a damp squib due to injury. Booker had been selling his knee a lot in his matches and the injured limb would only get even more beaten up during Booker’s fifth reign, with it eventually reaching the point that he would need some time off. Bret Hart had recently become a Heel after joining WCW as a babyface in the winter of 1997, so WCW decided that they would put some heat on “The Hitman” by having him put Booker on the shelf, hence a match was set up between them for the Bash at the Beach pay per view event.

Bash at the Beach – 12th July 1998
WCW World Television Title
Champ: Booker T Vs Bret Hart

This was one of the most high profile singles matches of Booker’s career up to this point, as this match happened quite late in the card and it featured him taking on one of the biggest stars in all of wrestling. Bret was someone who would have likely been a strong candidate to hold the TV Title in his younger days when he was still growing his stardom, but by 1998 he was a Main Event level guy and he didn’t really need to hold a belt of the TV Title’s standing, as it had normally been used as a way to elevate guys in the mid-card by giving them competitive matches with other guys at that level. Bret even has a bit of a sneer at the belt before the match starts to show that he thinks the belt is beneath him.

You can tell that Booker is jazzed to be working with Bret on a big event like this, and he gets to shine on Bret in the early going, including a moment where he flings him over the top rope to the floor, with Bret taking a big bump for it. Booker makes the mistake of following Bret to the floor however, and that allows Bret to cut him off and start working him over back inside. Bret is going at a pretty methodical pace here actually; sticking to things like punches and eye gouges whilst playing to the crowd. It’s not a bad performance from him or anything, but you also kind of get the feeling that he doesn’t really want to be there.

Booker sells all of Bret’s offence well, and Bret does a good job of showing frustration that he isn’t able to put Booker away after a certain point. Watching Bret work this Hollywood Hogan styled eye gouge cheap heat match is kind of weird to be honest. It’s not like he didn’t cheat during his Heel runs in the WWF either, but he wasn’t this 1970’s about it. Booker eventually makes the comeback and heads up top with a Missile Dropkick, but Bret gets his foot on the ropes to stop the referees count and then blatantly clobbers Booker with a chair for the disqualification.

RATING: **3/4

This was just starting to get kind of good and then they took it home

Bret destroys Booker’s knee with a chair and ring post Figure Four Leglock until Booker’s brother Stevie Ray makes a very late save, long past the point of doing any good. There was a reason for this though, as Stevie was going to be turning Heel, so the delayed save was a way of putting more heat on him.

With the brutal injury angle now completed, Booker was able to step away from the ring for a bit to heal up, but it meant WCW needed to do something with the TV Title. They could have chosen to vacate the belt and crowned a new Champion, but instead they went with a novel idea where Booker’s brother Stevie Ray started carrying the belt around, saying he was defending the belt on his brother’s behalf. Stevie even went so far as to get a signed power of attorney document that officially instilled him as Booker’s designated Title defender.

Seeing as WCW was prepping Stevie for a Heel turn anyway, the logical payoff to the story would have been for Stevie to defend the belt whilst Booker was away and then refuse to give it back once Booker was healthy enough to return, thus leading to the two brothers feuding over who had the rightful claim to the belt. However, such long term planning wasn’t really a feature of WCW’s programming at the time and the story didn’t end up going that way. We’ll take a look at what happened in Part Nine…

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