Sunday, September 15th marks the only occasion all year guaranteed to see all six major WWE championships defended on a single show as Night of Champions hits pay-per-view (although by all indications, the Handicap Elimination match involving Intercontinental Champion Curtis Axel seems to be non-title, so…y’know what, never mind this point, keep going to the next paragraph).
During the early years of this particular gimmick PPV, it had perhaps a bit more intrigue, as WWE boasted at times upwards of eight championships, and thus this might be your only chance to see the Cruiserweight title or WWE Tag Team championship spotlighted beyond Velocity. However, though the number of prizes to achieve may have dropped over the years, some would argue their prestige has not risen. Sure the tag team and Divas divisions may be in better shape now than in 2011, but many see carrying the United States or Intercontinental belts as being an albatross where those titleholders get fed to main-eventers in non-title encounters to cement the roster’s pecking order.
Nonetheless, championships still mean something to fans who remember when a WWF Tag Team title match could headline a house show, not to mention to the wrestlers themselves. To be deemed worthy of being champion on any level represents the company’s faith in you, a career milestone and—to be pragmatic—a bit more cash you’ll be able to command someday on the independent circuit.
This month in the Five Count we celebrate a title with a long and illustrious history that may have seen better days, but also seems to have a bright future given the talent of its current holder: the United States Championship (currently found around the waist of Dean Ambrose). While newer WWE fans may think the U.S. title got its start in 2003 when Eddie Guerrero won it from vacancy, the lineage actually tracks back to 1975 and made its way through the NWA and WCW via no less than 20 future members of the WWE Hall of Fame.
Our panel of experts—starting with me—have each selected our personal top five United States Champions from across all three organizations based on various criteria; after we’ve listed them, we’ll tally up the totals and see who makes our all-time PTBN list.
5. RICK RUDE (1-time WCW U.S. Champion)
In the fall of 1991, “Ravishing” Rick Rude entered WCW as one of the first legitimate WWF main event stars to jump promotions, and as such, his win over Sting for the United States title raised the belt’s credibility even higher than when a former World champion and face of the promotion holding it had. As the main cog in the Dangerous Alliance stable that ran roughshod over WCW in 1992, Rude had an unquestioned spot at the top of the company and brought the U.S. belt along for the ride.
While Rude would often wrestle in tag matches or get involved in Dangerous Alliance angles, he did have a classic series of U.S. title defenses against Ricky Steamboat. Also, he would bring back to the fore an almost forgotten element of being United States champ: It makes you the automatic number one contended to the World title. Rude would demand shots against World Champion Ron Simmons, and while he didn’t claim that belt, he set a precedent for future titleholder to follow.
Rude had to forfeit the U.S. title due to injury at the end of 1992, but would return in 1993 to feud with new champ Dustin Rhodes, and though he did not recapture his belt, he helped establish his successor as being worthy.
4. STEVE AUSTIN (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
When I think of the WCW U.S. title, I think of “Stunning” Steve Austin, the guy I most associated with the belt during my formative years watching wrestling. Beyond being the right guy at the right time to jibe with my memory, however, the future biggest star in the business would be the workhorse of World Championship Wrestling as it transitioned toward its most profitable period in history and helped keep the mid-card running strong as the main event rebuilt.
Austin won the title from Dustin Rhodes in a 2/3 falls match at Starrcade 1993, a great old school wrestling contest that lent credibility to him as champion and established the belt as one true mat technicians wanted to hold. Moving through the year, a variety of challengers would emerge, including Austin’s former partner Brian Pillman, Japanese legend The Great Muta, up and comer Johnny B. Badd and all-time great Ricky Steamboat; the champ managed to fend them all off through a combination of pure skill and nefarious means.
At Clash of the Champions in August, Austin dropped the belt to Steamboat in a classic after having defeated him a month earlier at Bash at the Beach. The scheduled rubber match between the two never took place as Steamboat suffered a career-ending back injury and Jim Duggan subbed in to beat Austin and football-tackle him out of the title scene. This would begin the downward spiral that sent Austin out of WCW, as well as setting up his eventual meteoric rise in the WWF, with the U.S. title serving in many ways as his first major springboard.
3. JOHN CENA (3-time WWE U.S. Champion)
A controversial pick? Of course. Any time you put John Cena on a “Best Of” list you’re courting controversy, but I contend the facts back me up on this one.
When John Cena won the WWE United States title from Big Show at WrestleMania XX, it kicked the show off with a moment everybody wanted to see, with an up and coming superstar winning his first title on a big stage, the type of thing that used to happen all the time back in wrestling’s heyday but had been missing for some time and has gone pretty much M.I.A. since when it comes to secondary belts. Cena had the kind of rabid popularity in 2004 into 2005 that as U.S. Champion he felt like as big a deal if not more so at times than the WWE Champion, which in turn brought the title up a notch.
After a few tepid defenses against Rene Dupree, Cena got involved in a lengthy feud with Booker T that saw them swap the belt and engage in a best of seven series he ultimately came out on top of. Carlito would win the championship in an upset in his debut match on SmackDown and while an unfortunate injury would derail that program, it put even more heat on the belt and Cena’s desire to recapture it.
By the time Cena ultimately dropped the strap to Orlando Jordan en route to winning the WWE title from John Bradshaw Layfield, he had become a legitimate main eventer while still holding the United States championship. Given today’s jaded views on Cena, it may be hard to recall how much unquestioned popularity he had nearly a decade ago, but his run with the U.S. title made it a huge deal throughout 2004—people didn’t love that he customized a spinner belt, but at least it showed he cared about it—that it unfortunately could not sustain after he moved on.
2. MAGNUM T.A. (2-time NWA U.S. Champion)
In a perfect world, Magnum T.A. should have been the NWA’s answer to Hulk Hogan, winning their World title from Ric Flair in 1986 and going on to dominate the late 80’s into the 90’s. He had the look, the charisma and the bonafide in-ring skills to be an all-time great. Sadly, a car accident would prematurely end his career and leave his impactful reign as NWA United States Champion as its highlight.
Magnum won the U.S. title from Wahoo McDaniel in March of 1985 and defend it successfully against Kamala during the Great American Bash tour, but he took it to the next level when he began feuding with the Four Horsemen over the summer and into the fall, taking World Champion Flair to the limit and entering a blood rivalry with Tully Blanchard. Magnum lost his championship to Blanchard then win it back in a violent I Quit match inside a steel cage at Starrcade remembered to this day as not only one of the most brutal contests in history, but one of the best, a textbook example of how to blow off a feud.
In 1986, Magnum engaged in a lengthy series of encounters with Nikita Koloff. At a contract signing for a U.S. title defense, Nikita insulted Magnum’s present mother, prompting a wild brawl; shortly after, NWA president Bob Geigel chided Magnum for “conduct unbecoming a champion,” leading the champ to deck the executive in a scene prescient of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Vince McMahon a decade early.
Geigel stripped Magnum of the U.S. title, leading to a best of seven match series between the former champ and Koloff over the summer. Magnum dropped the first three matches, then surged back with a trio of victories, only to be thwarted in the final contest due to outside interference by Nikita’s uncle Ivan and their ally Krusher Kruschev. Both men emerged from the series bigger stars than before, with Nikita set to be a dominant U.S. Champion and Magnum slated to step up to the next level as Flair’s challenger for Starrcade before tragedy struck.
Magnum T.A. represents perhaps the most unfortunate missed opportunity in pro wrestling history, but also the prime example of a star that burned out fast, but could hardly have been brighter during his time on top. Cumulatively, he had the NWA United States title only about a year, but during that time he elevated the championship to the lofty status it would retain throughout the remainder of the decade. Magnum’s feuds with Blanchard and Koloff stand out amongst the best of the 80’s and made the U.S. championship a major prize to be coveted.
1. LEX LUGER (3-time NWA U.S. Champion; 2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
I think it’s fair to say Lex Luger never quite lived up to the expectations put upon him. He never sealed the deal against Ric Flair for the NWA World title during the peak of his career. His WCW World title win proved too little, too late. He choked time and again in the WWF. By the time he returned to WCW, he’d never rise above being fifth or sixth in the depth chart, ratings pop World title reign or not.
However, from 1987 to 1991, he owned the NWA United States championship, and to my mind, did more with the belt than anybody before or since.
As an “associate” of the Four Horsemen during the summer of 1987, Luger took the U.S. title from the previously unstoppable Nikita Koloff, cementing his place in the stable and giving them all the gold in the NWA. His first reign would last only a few months before he dropped the strap to Dusty Rhodes at Starrcade, but it propelled him through a hot babyface turn and into a great 1988, teaming with Barry Windham and feuding with Flair.
In 1989, after failing to secure the World title, Luger refocused on the U.S. belt and took it back from his old buddy Windham, who had turned against him nearly a year earlier. Michael Hayes upset him to briefly become champion, but Luger quickly regained his belt and turned heel in the process, using aggressive tactics and developing a nasty streak that would propel him through the remainder of the year in awesome matches against Ricky Steamboat, Brian Pillman and more. In a promotion that had Ric Flair and Sting operating at their peak, you can go back and watch some of those old shows and argue Luger got the most heat out of anybody; a lot of people call 1989 in the NWA the best year in the history of wrestling, and the “Total Package” played a huge part in that, leading the upper mid-card with killer promos and underrated matches.
Coming to the aid of Sting against the Horsemen, Luger flipped back to being a babyface in 1990 while still holding the U.S. title. After coming up short once again in trying to snag the World championship from Flair, Luger returned to defending his own belt against “Mean” Mark Callous just before he became the Undertaker, then trading it back and forth with Stan Hansen in a brutal feud. Luger’s long tenure as U.S. Champion only came to an end in 1991 because he finally acquired the World title and vacated the U.S. belt.
For nearly two straight years with a pair of brief interruptions, Lex Luger held the NWA United States title dominantly. He did so as both a heel and a babyface, remaining over no matter which side he aligned himself with or against whom he defended the belt. He elevated the championship both by challenging for the World title and by taking on all comers. His opponents ran the gamut from veterans like Steamboat and Hansen to rookies like Callous and Pillman.
Denied the World championship and overshadowed by Flair, Sting, Steamboat and others, Lex Luger could have chosen to phone it in during 1989 and 1990, but instead he put in the hardest work of his career and made U.S. title matches must watch affairs that kept classic shows like the 1989 Great American Bash from being remembered only for a hot main event. “The Total Package” never performed better than as U.S. Champion, and the title never had a better representative.
5. DIAMOND DALLAS PAGE (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
This may seem like an odd entry, but this list is my favorite United States Champions, not necessarily the best or strongest reigns. Right from my early days of watching WCW, Page was always one of my favorites. His feud with Johnny B. Badd in 1994 was really fun and then watching him lose everything, win it all back, lose it again and then find a benefactor was a cool story arc over the following years. In 1997, he really broke through when he spurned the NWO and became WCW’s everyman defender, the man of the people.
Page first captured U.S. gold at Starrcade 1997, knocking off the NWO’s Curt Hennig in one of the few feel good moments of the show. It was a major blow to the NWO and also some payback on behalf of the Horsemen, who Hennig had screwed over back in the fall. I loved Page as champ because of the pride he always showed in carrying the belt. It felt special and it definitely felt well earned. That was the cool thing about Page, thanks to his advanced age and back story, everything always felt earned. Page would have a really good feud with Chris Benoit and Raven throughout the spring of 1998, before finally losing the title to the latter at Spring Stampede. While Page had made a name for himself in 1997, the U.S. title feuds of early 1998 put him on the map as a very good worker that could adapt to a few different styles.
Later that year, Page had another brief run with the title, sandwiched between reigns of Bret Hart. The two had a pretty good feud in the fall, culminating on the 11/30 Nitro that saw Hart regain the title with an assist from the Giant. Page wouldn’t see the gold again, but his reign from December 1997 through April 1998 always remained one of my favorite U.S. title runs. Thanks to his energy, dedication and work ethic during that stretch, Page earns a slot in my Top Five.
4. TULLY BLANCHARD (1-time NWA U.S. Champion)
As I have mentioned numerous times in the past, pro wrestling first entered my world in the late 1980s. I had a cursory knowledge before that, but I didn’t really know or like it until late 1989. And I wasn’t even fully aware of the newly rechristened WCW until late 1991. Therefore, for a long time, my only knowledge of Tully Blanchard was from his run as one half of Bobby Heenan’s Brainbusters in the WWF. Eventually I went back and caught myself up, and I definitely liked what I saw. Blanchard was my kind of heel: a douchebag. A cocky, arrogant, smirking, condescending douchebag. Sure I love me some hoss heel action, but the heels in the mold of Tully were always my favorites.
Tully only had one reign, which came in the second half of 1985, but it was definitely quite memorable. During this stretch, Blanchard still had Baby Doll in his corner, and she played a role in his title win when she handed him a foreign object that he used to deck champion Magnum T.A. and pick up the win. Blanchard would spend the next five months mainly battling Magnum, Dusty Rhodes and Manny Fernandez around the house show circuit, each time able to walk away as champion, whether he won the match or not.
After months of chasing his strap, Magnum finally got Tully in an I Quit match inside a steel cage. After 15 minutes of bloody goodness, Magnum jammed a busted shard of wood into Tully’s eye, forcing him to finally quit and relinquish his championship. Even though Tully’s reign was a brief one, to me he was a prototypical heel U.S. Champion. The title just looked right on his waist and before he would give it up, he had to be forced to death’s doorstep by his bitter rival. That, my friends, is pro wrestling.
3. DUSTIN RHODES (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
By late 1992, I was all-in as a dual purpose WWF/WCW fan. I loved the Dangerous Alliance (more on that shortly), I loved Vader, I loved Sting and really dug…The Natural, Dustin Rhodes. I remembered liking him during his brief WWF run alongside Dusty in late 1990, and was happy to get back into him in WCW and see that he was one of their up and coming stars that got a lot of focus. As Rhodes began to rise up the ranks, he entered into a tournament to determine the number one contender to Rick Rude’s U.S. title. However, before the tourney could wrap up, Rude was forced to forfeit his title due to injury. Therefore, when Dustin and Ricky Steamboat met in the tourney finals on January 11, it was now to crown a new U.S. Champion. Rhodes would win the match, in what would be considered somewhat of an upset. It was a big win and I was pumped to see one of my favorite young guns cash in on the opportunity.
Once Rude was healthy, he came straight for Rhodes and his U.S. title and I loved every minute of this feud. On May 15, the two had a match that ended in a draw when both men’s shoulders were on the mat during a pin attempt. At the Beach Blast PPV in early July, Rhodes and Rude battled to a draw in a 30 minute Iron Man match, leaving the title vacant. Finally, on August 30, Rhodes cleanly defeated Rude to regain the title and completely legitimize him as champion. He had defeated two legit contenders to grab the brass ring and was now considered a major player.
Rhodes held the title until the end of the year, when Steve Austin knocked him off in a 2/3 falls match in two straight falls at Starrcade. Rhodes was in the U.S. title picture for the entire year of 1993, a year in which he entered as an up and coming star and closed out as a legit upper mid card title contender. Spending the year working with Rick Rude also really helped him develop and refine his in ring psychology and style. He also used his new status to establish Austin and his title reign as well.
2. RICK RUDE (1-time WCW U.S. Champion)
I mentioned Rude a lot in my last entry, but let us backtrack to October 1991, when Rude made his surprising WCW debut. As you now know, I love heels in the Rude mold. I was devastated when he abruptly left the WWF at the end of 1990 and then completely vanished from my closed off world of wrestling. Just as I was starting to become aware of WCW, he showed up as the Halloween Phantom and took on the always entertaining Paul E. Dangerously on as his manager. Dangerously vowed that he would use Rude to help him gain revenge on the company that fired him from his commentary gig. A month later, Rude took advantage of an injured Sting and took away his U.S. title at Clash XVII and the belt would not leave his waist for a long, long time.
Shortly after the Clash, Rude & Dangerously officially formed the Dangerous Alliance. The stable was loaded with talent, but it was clear that Rude was the crown jewel. In 1992, Rude engaged in a memorable, bitter feud with Ricky Steamboat. The feud was filled with violence, twists, turns and great wrestling. No matter how many non-title or tag team pinfalls Steamboat picked up, Rude was always able to escape with the title thanks to his buddies. At WrestleWar in May, a team led by Sting knocked off the Alliance inside of War Games, igniting the disintegration of the group. Rude would leave the unit, taking his valet Madusa along with him. Throughout this, Rude’s issues with Steamboat raged on.
At Beach Blast, Rude lost a non-title 30 minute Iron Man match to Steamboat, pushing the feud along. After Steamboat came up empty, Rude would fend off a challenge from Nikita Koloff before eventually turning his attention to World Champion Ron Simmons. After coming up short, Rude continued to defend his title but eventually was sidelined with the injury mentioned above. Rude’s 14-month reign is the second longest in the history of the championship and he was never defeated for the strap in the ring. After the injury, Rude was never really the same, but for a time in 1992, he was arguably the best wrestler in either major North American promotion and he did it with the United States title strapped around his chiseled waist.
1. STEVE AUSTIN (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
Steve Austin ranks number one on many wrestling based lists, but those lists usually focus on the years 1996-2003. Back in late 1993, he was riding high off the wave of being part of both the Dangerous Alliance and the Hollywood Blondes within a two year span. Both groups were revered and fantastic both in the ring and on the mic. The Blondes (Austin and Brian Pillman) dominated 1993 and reigned as bombastic, sarcastic and nostalgia hating heels. As the story goes, the team got over too well, too fast and was broken up hastily. Pillman turned face and they briefly feuded before Austin turned his attention elsewhere. At Starrcade, he defeated U.S. champ Dustin Rhodes in a 2/3 falls match in a rare occurrence that saw the match end in just two falls. That Starrcade was the first WCW PPV I watched live and I was engrossed in the match and freaked out when the lights in the building blew out, leading to a spotlight guiding us through the rest of the bout. When Austin took the title from Rhodes, I celebrated heartily, but it was bittersweet. I was a Rhodes fan after all…but the Blondes were awesome and were my favorite tag team throughout the year. Austin was a guy that had it all and delivered in spades.
Austin would pick up Col. Robert Parker as his manager, adding a little bit of comedy into what had become a very serious heel. Austin could go in the ring, working at a fairly quick pace and never wasting a motion. He was always working, always using his impeccable facial expressions and he just made you believe. He loved that fucking title and thusly, so did I! As 1994 dawned, Austin’s old buddy came looking for the gold and the former Blondes warred whenever they could, with Parker often swinging the outcome of the match. After fending off Pillman, Austin competed in some tag matches while he also batted back talented challengers like Johnny B. Badd and Great Muta before becoming embroiled in a feud with Ricky Steamboat. At Bash at the Beach, Austin defeated Steamboat in a great twenty minute battle. The feud came to a head at Clash XXVIII when Steamboat finally bested Austin to capture the title.
It was a close call between Austin and Rude for me, but Austin was the first U.S. Champion I remember watching elevate himself through sheer will and force. He worked hard, busted his ass and got himself over as a legit player. He also had great matches, both singles and tag, along the way and his final feud as champion was fantastic, capped with a pair of really damn good matches. Did I mention I love arrogant heels?