Perhaps fittingly, the writing of our biography on the NWA National championship took place during the most contested national election in American history. Certainly for both, the battleground state of Georgia played a big part.
Originally promoted by legendary NWA affiliate Georgia Championship Wrestling as a top-tier title, the National Wrestling Alliance National Heavyweight Championship was originally awarded to Austin Idol in January of 1980. Although the inaugural champion would hold the title only once and would have it vacated for unclear reasons just six months after its inception (it may have been because he also won the NWA Georgia Championship three months later), a tournament was held in October of the same year that saw Jack Brisco defeat Terry Funk in the finals to determine the new champion. The wrestling pedigree attached to the National championship was starting strong.
Canadian-born Archie Gouldie, wrestling as The Mongolian Stomper, was next on the championship roll call when he won the strap in December of 1980. He’d hold it almost four months until junior heavyweight sensation Steve Olsonoski took the championship from Gouldie in March of 1981. Olsonoski, sometimes referred to as just Steve O and certainly an underappreciated star today, would hold the title 139 days before finally losing it to The Masked Superstar in August of the same year. Superstar, who was also the sitting NWA Georgia champion at the time, unified the two championships just a month into his reign. The Georgia title boasted a legacy dating back to 1964 when it was phased out in favor of the year-and-a-half-old National title, but the new championship would not disappoint.
The Masked Superstar was embroiled in a heated feud with “Wildfire” Tommy Rich throughout much of ‘81, and the two men would trade the championship twice each between September of that year and January of 1982 in a variety of gimmick matches: a Hair Versus Mask Match in September, a Texas Death Match in November and a Steel Cage Match in January. Rich would move on from that feud to trade championship reigns with Ron Bass, with Tommy becoming a three-time champion in Augusta in April of 1982 before losing it just two weeks into that final reign to Buzz Sawyer. Sawyer’s own reign would be ended just shy of two months later when Paul Orndorff defeated him, but “Mr. Wonderful” would vacate the National title just over a month later in order to train for a much-anticipated NWA Worlds Championship match against Ric Flair.
Orndorff would return to the championship ranks soon enough after his failed bid for Flair’s title, for even as The Super Destroyer won a tournament in August to fill the vacancy, Orndorff would take it back just six weeks afterwards. Though he’d trade it with The Masked Superstar twice over the next month before starting a 133 day-long reign, there is some ambiguity here, as some sources cite Killer Kox, Tommy Rich and Orndorff returning again over the next three months. This is not universally agreed upon, however, and the sources NWA GOLD trust most do not currently support this. As such, we must consider Orndorff’s reign to be uninterrupted.
After the late Killer Tim Brooks defeated Orndorff for the strap in March of 1983, “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko purchased the championship from him the same day for $25,000. This act enraged then-NWA President Bob Geigel, and within a month Zbyszko has been stripped of the title. In the tournament that followed to determine a new champion, though, Zbyszko would defeat Mr. Wrestling II in the final round to become the champion legitimately. While some sources have Mr. Wrestling II returning for a short time as champion, our sources show Zbyszko losing directly to Brett Sawyer in September of 1983. It’s in late 1983, though, when a merry-go-round of three champions begins, as the championship roll call names of Ted DiBiase, Brad Armstrong and The Spoiler each repeat (albeit in a different order) until July of 1984. The three men have dominated the National title scene for eight months, with each of them holding it twice; perhaps the most memorable of the encounters was DiBiase’s first loss to Armstrong, who believed that the “Mr. R” character he had been booked against was Tommy Rich. In the shock of Rich appearing at ringside and Armstrong’s subsequent unmasking, DiBiase was rolled up and was champion no more.
All of this may have been largely overshadowed, however, as “Black Saturday” fell that same month. On July 14th, 1984, the World Wrestling Federation took over the timeslot that had been held by Georgia Championship Wrestling’s World Championship Wrestling program for the previous twelve years, buying out the promotion in a move that would have significant impact on the wrestling scene for decades to come. The Spoiler was champion at the time of the takeover, and was very briefly recognized by the World Wrestling Federation as a National champion after being signed there. But the National championship was not fated to head north to Connecticut, as Ole Anderson would launch Championship Wrestling from Georgia, which was granted NWA affiliation status and claimed the title as their own. DiBiase would be the first man to officially hold the title under this banner. Though CWG was to be short-lived, it would run shows in conjunction with Jim Crockett Promotions throughout the remainder of 1984 before dissolving in April of 1985 and being swallowed up by JCP. Ronnie Garvin would be the man to hold that title throughout the period, taking it from DiBiase in October of 1984 and dropping it to Black Bart in June of the following year. The NWA National Heavyweight Championship had survived in three different Georgia-based promotions over five and half years – and would finally begin to travel nationally.
While Terry Taylor would take the National title from Black Bart in Atlanta in September of ’85, Buddy Landell would become the first man in a series of champions involved in title changes occurring consistently out-of-state. Capturing the championship at Starcade in Greensboro in 1985, he would unfortunately be stripped of the title for personal reasons, and Dusty Rhodes was awarded it in Albuquerque, New Mexico just a month later. Although being awarded a championship is far from ideal, this final year of the National championship in its original form was really a golden period around the title: Rhodes would give real star power to the belt, Tully Blanchard’s much-vaunted 177-day reign would begin in March of ’86 in South Carolina, and Wahoo McDaniel would have a short month-long reign in August of that year. But Nikita Koloff, having won the NWA United States Championship a month earlier from Magnum T.A., would be the last man to hold the National Championship during its initial six year run, winning it in September and carrying on as US champion when the titles were merged.
The National title, no longer active, would remain dormant for eleven years. Taking nothing away from the effort, skill and hard work of the talent and management found within the NWA at the time, it is important to note that upon its return in 1997, the landscape of the National Wrestling Alliance had changed dramatically and the platform for serious fan exposure no longer existed on the same scale. World Championship Wrestling had already seceded from the Alliance, and the NWA existed as a group of independent promotions without a major platform to draw a large audience. Regardless, a number of territories shared recognition of the belt at this time, and the revived title would eventually travel across the United States, Canada, and beyond over the next twenty years, this time featuring up and coming young stars of the new era.
The recently-passed Big Slam Vader was awarded the championship in May of ’97 before losing it to former WWE superstar Salvatore Sincere in July; when Sincere vacated within three months, Doug Gilbert defeated Barry Windham and Rocco Rock in a three-way matchup in New Jersey. There is some excellent talent connected to the revived National championship over the next several years, including Stevie Richards and Gilbert himself (his second reign lasting 448 days, having won it at the NWA 50th Anniversary Show in an eight-man tag team steel cage match), NWA Wildside United States champion Terry Knight (who would merge that promotional title with the National championship in November 2000), and Kevin Northcutt and “Big” Don Brodie, the latter of who was forced to vacate after 200 days as champion following an out-of-ring accident.
One of the more newsworthy moments of this period involved the now-late Shinya Hashimoto. Hashimoto had defeated champion Hotstuff Hernandez on May 23rd, 2002 in Tokyo in a match that NWA President Jim Miller was in attendance for. He refused the championship, however, and the title was subsequently returned to Hernandez, who officially reigned uninterrupted for 455 days. The NWA later claimed that the match had been a non-title one. The world of professional wrestling is, and always shall be, extremely malleable.
Other notable champions of the era include Spyder, who was stripped as champion in 2005 for no-showing an event after a year as champion; the enigmatic Chance Prophet, an eventual two-time National champion with significantly long reigns each time; Pepper Parks (who now wrestles as The Blade in AEW); and Phil Shatter (currently appearing in WWE as Jaxson Ryker), who became the longest single-reign National champion in history at a whopping 763 days, surpassed only by Ricky Murdock’s two reigns totaling 817.
The National Wrestling Alliance attempted a bigger splash at the beginning of the Tharpe era in 2012, though, when “The Tokyo Monster” Kahagas won the National championship before becoming NWA Worlds champion, adding the NWA North American championship later to the become the first man to win the National Wrestling Alliance “triple crown” of top titles. “Godzilla” Jax Dane would also accomplish a similar feat in 2015 when he would win the National title in February and the North American championship in April, but not before Damien Wayne, Lou Marconi and Phil “Nitro” Monaghan had made their own consistent marks. Former four-time NWA Referee of the Year and friend of NWA GOLD Jeffrey Capo, who had the pleasure of refereeing two National championship matches, considers Chance Prophet and Damien Wayne to be amongst the standouts in this talented crowd.
The final years of Bruce Tharpe’s NWA licensee era saw a handful of notable champions, including three-time champion Greg Anthony, Jake Logan (the youngest man to ever hold the title at 23 years of age), and a returning Kahagas in 2017, five years after his original run. It was “The Tokyo Monster” who would hold the title when, on September 30th 2017, the National Wrestling Alliance was purchased by Lightning One, terminated all contracts with their licensees, and vacated all championships except the Worlds and Women’s World titles. A new era of the NWA had begun, promising new life and direction for the company, and the National championship would need to be shelved until it was time for it to return.
The time came to pass in October of 2018, when Willie Mack would defeat Sam Shaw at the NWA 70th Anniversary Show in Nashville to become the first NWA National champion of the William Patrick Corgan era. Mack would hang on to the title through the winter, losing it to former NWA Worlds champion Colt Cabana in April at the Crockett Cup 2019 pay-per-view. Cabana would trade the belt with James Storm in June on a Ring of Honor show, winning it back on the company’s online program, NWA Powerrrr, in October of the same year. After losing it to Aron Stevens at the Into The Fire pay-per-view event in December during a Triple Threat Match that also included Ricky Starks, Cabana would move on and Stevens would embark on a 290-day reign (made more impressive in length by the Covid situation that affected the NWA) before “Shooter” was brought to heel by the current champion, crowd favorite Trevor Murdoch. Murdoch won the title at the United Wrestling Network’s Primetime Live event on September 29th of this year, the NWA having embarked on a fruitful relationship with that company during these difficult pandemic times.
Like many other NWA championships, the National title has seen several different designs. The George Levy red, white and blue strap with the twin torches and American flag side plates remains amongst the most iconic due to the sheer list of talent that held it. The Reggie Parks-designed gold version from the 1980s, with its familiar shape and its visibility at the time, continues to be amongst the most popular of designs, and the eagle design of circa 2016 is simply stunning, though far lesser known to fans due to the limited exposure the NWA received in the Tharpe era. Amongst the fans, though, it is the current belt design that remains the most polarizing.
More of a sweeping bow of reverence than a simple nod of respect to the NWA Mid-Atlantic United States Championship designed by Nikita Mulkavitch in 1975, the title is a five-plate gold cast design with black accents mounted onto a wide red strap. Designed by Belts By Dan (www.leatherbydan.com), the outer side plates bear the NWA logo and the inside side plates a pair of eagles. The main plate remains the most interesting: cast in the form of the continental United States, the design features another American eagle, the flag of the United States, a seahorse on the west coast, nautical stars on the coastlines, and two jeweled flowers on either side of the elephant and donkey to symbolize the Republican and Democratic parties. Added in are two traditional combatants locked in a contest, a plain banner above the words “NWA National”, and the additional words of “Wrestling” and “Champion” placed at off angles. All of this is placed on a wide alligator-style red leather belt with a unique shape. The result is a belt that is both simple but eclectic, and which throws back to NWA history while remaining completely different than any other title design used today. While many fans don’t care for different, none can say that the current design isn’t interesting and nostalgic.
The thirty active years packed into the National championship has seen it serve as a focal point for both wrestling legends and up-and-coming stars. It’s a legacy that only a handful of championships around the NWA can historically match, both in tenure and diversity of purpose, and it’s one that has lived on through both the good times and the bad. Like the company that continues to proudly hold it up today, it’s a survivor, and it remains one of the shining historical jewels of the National Wrestling Alliance.
- Tim “BC” Wood
[NOTES AND SOURCES]
NWA National Heavyweight Championship title history: Because of their research and depth of information, my go-to source remains www.wrestling-titles.com. The National championship history specifically can be found at https://www.wrestling-titles.com/nwa/others/nat-h.html.
NWA Wildside United States Heavyweight Championship (for cross-over purposes): https://www.wrestling-titles.com/us/ga/wildside/wild-us-h.html
NWA National Heavyweight Championship title history (for event locations only): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NWA_National_Heavyweight_Championship. Wikipedia is not a reliable resource, but they do list the events where the title changes took place when they can.
“Black Saturday” information: “Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America”, Scott Beekman, Praeger Books. It can be purchase don Amazon here: https://www.amazon.ca/Ringside-History-Professional-Wrestling-America/dp/027598401X
“The Return of the National Championship”, The Wrestling Insomniac: http://www.thewrestlinginsomniac.com/2018/08/return-of-nwa-national-championship.html
“Former NWA National Champion has passed away” (Big Slam), Alliance-Wrestling: http://alliance-wrestling.com/former-nwa-national-champion-has-passed-away/
“NWA Unveils New National Championship Belt”, Wrestling Observer: https://www.f4wonline.com/other-wrestling/nwa-unveils-new-national-championship-belt-268286
“The History of the NWA National Heavyweight Championship (original version)”, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3vE_pUX4sk
Gold Parks National Title: https://www.reddit.com/r/belttalk/comments/5h0sf0/fs_reggie_parks_made_nwa_national_heavyweight/
Tully Blanchard w/ National Championship: Blogspot: https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-K5Vbo-Zc2HA/W4JmM3btW4I/AAAAAAAARtI/bruFl-O8Jmg9CT6GZ7QVcpHVoiig6ZckgCEwYBhgL/s1600/Tully_Blanchard.jpg
Legacy Georgia NWA National Championship replica (George Levy design): Belts By Dan (https://twitter.com/beltsbydan/status/887333169690804224?lang=en). Dan’s belts are discussed on www.belttalk.com and his work found at www.leatherbydan.com.
Larry Zbyszko w/ National Championship: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/d4/7f/a9/d47fa99e89b2c0473969637c5b8ee5c2.jpg
NWA National Championship, circa 2014: http://alliance-wrestling.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/NWA-National-Heavyweght-Title.jpg
Lou Marconi w/ National Championship: https://www.onlineworldofwrestling.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Marconi-2.jpg
NWA National Championship, circa 2016: https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-6WTx_K4MjXk/W4JmKaifgfI/AAAAAAAARtE/rHvFfDbvC5IZxiIEW-nHKbYoQCtpU4LXwCEwYBhgL/s1600/0118-800×532.jpg
Jake Logan w/ National Championship: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jake_Logan_NWA_National_Champion.jpg
NWA National Championship, current version: http://leatherbydan.com/product/nwanational
Trevor Murdoch w/ National Championship: https://itrwrestling.com/news/trevor-murdoch-crowned-nwa-national-champion/
Referee Jeffrey Capo w/ Chance Prophet, NWA Legends FanFest, 2007: Photos by Dave Latyne; courtesy of Jeffrey Capo. Used with permission.