Lou Thesz. Harley Race. Ric Flair. The Great Muta. Dusty Rhodes. Terry Funk. Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat. Sting. Buddy Rogers. What is the unifying link between all these names aside from being nine of the 20 greatest professional wrestlers in the history of the medium? They’ve all held the once-prestigious National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship. And these are just the stars that have held that title. It doesn’t include masters of the artform whose names may only register with the more obsessive swath of wrestling fans, names like Dory Funk Jr., Jack Brisco, Shinya Hashimoto, Barry Windham (at least for a short time), Masahiro Chono, Tatsumi Fujinami.
In an era long past, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was the world title in professional wrestling; even when the World Wide Wrestling Federation (now known as WWE, the only show in town as far as mainstream American wrestling goes) seceded from the National Wrestling Alliance and created their own title, using all their power and influence over the northeastern United States to polish its luster in the eyes of fans, it was during a time when many of the best matches in wrestling were being held for the NWA title.
When the WWWF was bought by Vince McMahon from his father in 1984 and shaved of one of its initials, the WWF Championship was (with some exceptions) mostly seen as a trophy for the star with the most wattage. In the NWA, though there were politics involved (several documentaries and books systematically compare the NWA to the mafia) and champions got placed on the card partly based on their ability to attract fans to the arena, the draw was mostly in the wrestling. To paraphrase the prestigious philosopher RuPaul, you had to work.
After the “territorial era” started to flounder, so did the reach of the National Wrestling Alliance and their championship. Its prestige suffered a death blow when, in a sweatbox bingo hall in 1994, Shan...