The NWA North American Championship in the WWF
I have always been a fan-boy for unique wrestling championships in mainstream wrestling companies. I always believed the 8-day existence of the WCW Cruiserweight Tag Team Championships would have transcended the industry if Fusient Media Ventures purchased World Championship Wrestling in 2001. The Ring of Honor Pure Wrestling championship, for a short time, established unique stipulations and emphasized following the rules, which led to some interesting title matches. Even the IMPACT Wrestling Grand Championship has a tremendous vision, including the throwback to World of Sport with title matches being held in rounds.
Which is why in 1998, during the early stages of the Attitude Era, I was always confused on why the World Wrestling Federation never did more with the NWA North American Championship during its days as an active championship.
Yes, the NWA North American Championship.
From January 5, 1998 to March 2, 1998, the National Wrestling Alliance took one of its most prestigious championships and utilized it to kick-start both a business relationship and a creative direction towards the flagship television show of the WWF, Raw is War. But what exactly is the North American Championship?
Created in 1994 when the NWA officially separated from WCW, the North American championship was a staple of the governing body of the National Wrestling Alliance. Men like Greg “the Hammer” Valentine, Kevin Von Erich, the legend John “Bradshaw” Layfield and Reckless Youth held the title belt prior to this title. The title was started in Jim Crockett, Jr.’s NWA Dallas territory and ultimately moved to Dennis Coralluzzo's New Jersey territory once Dallas closed down by 1996. There were eight different title changes within a three-year period. The North American championship had a very unique history up into this point.
But what truly led to the NWA bringing the championship to the World Wrestling Federation? What happened with the championship once it got there? What was the aftermath? Unbelievably, it’s all based around tradition.
JIM CORNETTE HYPED ON TRADITION: Over the fall of 1997, “the Louisville Slugger” Jim Cornette was gaining headway in the WWF, recording “shoot” promos on his feelings regarding WCW, New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick, and professional wrestling in general. Making his appearances count, especially since being removed as a manager by 1997, Cornette completely stole Monday Night Raw with his views and feelings, mixing in biting remarks with quick-witted one liners without barely taking a breath as only he could do.
On Mr. Cornette’s final rant on December 29, 1997, Cornette was hyped up on hating what professional wrestling had become. Sports entertainment was the phrase of the day in the World Wrestling Federation, and Cornette could not stand what actually happened to the wrestling he grew up on. He promised to bring back “tradition” to the world of sports entertainment and would do so in due time. Watching this all these years later got ME hyped. Regardless, Cornette was prepared to unleash tradition back into the World Wrestling Federation. No one knew how far he’d go. Well, in one week, Cornette would go BACK to the territories.
THE NWA NORTH AMERICAN CHAMPIONSHIP ON WWE TELEVISION: The next week on Raw, Jim Cornette brought out two NWA representatives to the ring on Raw is War. Both Dennis Coralluzzo and Howard Brody stood in the ring alongside “the Prince of Polyester”, bestowing the virtues and values of “tradition” of what professional wrestling is all about. Cornette spewed the history of how strong the National Wrestling Alliance was at one time, and then started to illustrate that the winner of the next match would be holder of the NWA North American Championship. The championship, held in front of Mr. Coralluzzo’s chest, was a throwback to the old NWA World Heavyweight championship, with an oval front plate instead of a rectangle shape. Unbeknownst to viewers, Reckless Youth, the last champion of record, was stripped of the North American title prior to this appearance on Raw.
The match wound up being between Barry Windham, former NWA World Champion and a current member of the New Blackjacks, and Jeff Jarrett. Double J was in the middle of trying to find himself inside of the Attitude Era, coming back and giving Vince McMahon and the WWF a piece of his mind, while hating on the debauchery that the Attitude Era had started to bring in. “The World’s Greatest Wrestler” strutted down the ramp in his completely underrated entrance robe and was getting thoroughly thrashed by Windham.
At the end of the match, when it seemed Windham had things in complete control, setting up for his patented Superplex, Mr. Coralluzzo distracted the referee, allowing Cornette to give the “Blackjack”, who was standing on the second rope, a whack to the back of his loaded tennis racket. Although the move was completed, Windham was out cold and Jarrett rolled over into a cover. One three-count later and Double J became the NWA North American champion. The fix was in. Jarrett and the NWA were in cahoots. A real organization had “the World’s Greatest Wrestler” as its North American Champion.
Jarrett became the figurehead of the NWA Invasion. On the January 19, 1998 Raw, Jarrett had his first championship defense of the title against Windham’s partner Bradshaw, who, not known by mainstream wrestling fans, was a former North American Champion himself. Mr. Cornette got Windham to ultimately turn his back on his “Blackjacks” partner Bradshaw during the match, costing Bradshaw his partner and the chance to be North American champion. Combined with backup of Windham, the Rock and Roll Express, and Cornette, Double J had things in firm control.
At No Way Out in Texas on February 15, 1998, Bradshaw got a rematch against Double J for the North American championship and won! However, it was by disqualification after Cornette’s tennis racket was used on Bradshaw by Jarrett in front of the official. Therefore, “the World’s Greatest Wrestler” retained his belt. Yet, even being champion, Jarrett suffered some debilitating losses. Losing to Owen Hart and Ken Shamrock on back-to-back Raw episodes caused Double J to snap, saying on-air after the Shamrock loss on February 23, 1998 that “Maybe it’s time Cornette and I went our separate ways.”
One week later, a music promoter named Tennessee Lee came out to the ring and announced that Jeff Jarrett returned to country music and was no longer with the NWA faction. Effective immediately on March 2, 1998, the NWA announced that the North American championship was vacant. It was the last time the championship was ever brought up on WWF television again.
THE AFTERMATH: For the NWA and Cornette’s feelings on “tradition”, not much happened. Although Cornette kicked the Rock and Roll Express out of the invasion and brought in Bombastic Bart and Bodacious Bob as the NEW Midnight Express, as well as debuting UFC legend and NWA champion Dan Severn into the WWF on March 30, 1998, the NWA faction was null-and-void by the end of August. For everything Cornette tried as it came to tradition, the Attitude Era was much too strong, and the NWA, sadly, was a blip in the radar.
As for Jeff Jarrett, after a few years of success in the WWF and WCW, he found his way back to the NWA. Using the National Wrestling Alliance as a springboard, TNA was formed in 2002, where Jarrett became a multiple-time NWA World Heavyweight champion. Sometimes, tradition helps bring you to the promise land. Double J went back to his roots.
The NWA North American Championship remained vacant until August 1, 1998, when “the Colorado Kid” Mike Rapada won the championship against Recon during an episode of Music City Wrestling. Throughout the next 16 ½ years, a plethora of talent have held the championship, including Terry Taylor, Air Paris, “Wildcat” Chris Harris, Steve Corino, Hernandez from LAX, Mike DiBiase, the Sheik, and Apolo. The champion currently is Tyson Dean, who has held the belt since July 16, 2016 after defeating Tim Storm in Pavo, GA.
I never understood why the championship never gained ground during the two month period in 1998, until I listened to Kayfabe Commentaries’ Timeline of the WWF in 1998 with Vince Russo. Mr. Russo elaborated it loud and clear.
Regardless of what side you take behind-the-scenes wise, the NWA North American championship was not treated with the respect it deserved. It was never taken seriously by WWF management, and a title belt was not given more prestige, in spite of the television exposure during the Monday Night Wars. I, as a viewer, believe the championship never worked because creatively, it was never given a chance to work.
The NWA invasion and the North American championship had legs to it and a million different directions it could have gone in. Even the old school NWA rules like “the over-the-top-rope” rule and the title changing hands on a disqualification and countout could have worked. Instead, it was just fodder to be discarded. And the poor NWA North American Championship was made to look inferior.
Don’t worry NWA; your championship was still cool to me. Even if it wasn’t respected the two months it was on WWF television. It’s still a beautiful belt.