Any wrestling fan in the late 1980’s could tell you the differences between the NWA and the WWF. The NWA was more focused on wrestling; the WWF on the showbiz end of things. Detractors of the WWF always claimed that it was a circus, while WWF fans found the NWA a bit bland.
One element that is often overlooked in the differences between the two promotions was the way each handled titles. The WWF had just three championships: the world title, the Intercontinental belt, and the tag team championship (there was also a WWF Junior Heavyweight title, but it was rarely, RARELY defended in the US). By contrast, the NWA had a slew of titles: the world title, the US title, the world tag belts, the US tag belts, the six man tag championship, the TV title…the list goes on and on.
On the surface, this may seem trivial, but in actuality it made a major difference in the way each promotion was booked. The WWF had a tight focus on Hulk Hogan’s title reign, while others who weren’t in line for a title shot had to find other things to feud over, which led to a lot of goofy storylines such as dog napping or who had the best full nelson. The NWA, on the other hand, featured men like Dusty Rhodes and Tully Blanchard fighting over the TV title as though their very lives were on the line. Some WWF fans noticed this difference between the promotions, and began clamoring for more championships. After years of complaints, the WWF finally relented.
Well, sort of.
Our story begins in the summer of 1986. Rocky Balboa was battling evil Russki Ivan Drago. Robert Palmer was singing with unisexual women. And your pal RD Reynolds touched his first boob (yay for me!).
All these things were were monumental, earth shattering events. But none could compare to what took place on July 14 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
The scene: the WWF’s second annual King of the Ring tournament. Long before the event ever made it to pay-per-view, the WWF had a yearly tournament at a house show featuring some of the top names in the company. At the inaugural event, “Magnificent” Don Muraco went the distance, besting a pre-El Matador Tito Santana in the finals. The following year, however, Muraco and Roddy Piper eliminated each other, leaving the tournament open for WWF newcomer Harley Race to snag the victory.
The problem was that Race didn’t just stop at being called the King – he demanded that he actually be treated as royalty! And so manager Bobby Heenan placed a crown atop Race’s head and outfitted him with a lavish purple robe.
“Handsome” Harley Race was dead – “King” Harley Race had arrived.
Race was far from the first King in wrestling. Jerry Lawler had, in fact, been using the monicker for years, and even filed suit against the WWF for calling Race the “King of Wrestling.” Still, while others had used the name, few had ever been coronated the way Race was, with a lavish ceremony attended by all of the WWF top rulebreakers. The only problem was that while Race was the king, he almost never put the crown on the line, so it was kind of a worthless title.
Sadly, Race suffered an injury in a match with Hulk Hogan, necessitating his removal from storylines for many months. The WWF acknowledged Race’s injury, and since this was at the hands of the almighty Hulkster, it wasn’t so much that Race was injured – it was more like he was DEAD. The WWF even went so far as to have images of Harley’s disembodied head floating in the CLOUDS, as though he was headed straight for the pearly gates.
Of course, Heenan couldn’t just walk away from the crown, so he took it from Race’s cold, dead carcass and gave it to another family member: Haku (who, ironically enough, was known as King Tonga in the early stages of his career).
Haku had been struggling about the WWF midcard with little to do following the break up of the Islanders tag team. Somehow, putting on a silly cloak and metallic headgear was supposed to revive his career.
Amazingly, it did! Well, not really. But he did get a fancy new action figure, which was plastered on the back of every single Apter mag from 1988-1992:
Pardon my French, but what a freaking rip off. I mean, they’re asking SEVENTEEN DOLLARS (in 1980’s money, mind you!) and they can’t even put a two cent plastic hat on his head? What a bunch of schysters those bastards at LJN were.
Unlike Race, Haku did put his title up for grabs, with his royal reign ending at the hands of Hacksaw Jim Duggan.
You want comedy? Check out this excerpt from the August 1989 edition of WWF Magazine: “What lay in store next was almost more than the modest Duggan could take, as a royal coronation beyond his wildest dreams was lavished upon him. The gold throne was set in mid-ring as friends of the new king flooded the ring to take part in the memorable event. Ax and Smash of Demolition, Bret “Hit Man” Hart, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, Hercules, Big John Studd and the Bushwhackers were among the brawny entourage that waited impatiently for the arrival of the new king.”
You may think that’s a load of BS, but to be fair, the thought of a royal coronation featuring Brutus Beefcake and the Bushwhackers is probably more than I could take.
So Duggan carried around the crown for a few months. During this time, he would also bring his trusty 2×4 and an American flag to the ring as well. The guy was carrying so much crap to the ring, in fact, he probably could have used a shopping cart. Or maybe a wheel barrow. Come to think of it, since it’s Duggan we’re talking about, I think a wheel barrow would have made a hell of an addition to his ring entrance.
Duggan eventually dropped the crown to Randy Savage, becoming the Macho King, which, to this day, is one of the dumbest nicknames I’ve ever heard. (Though, to be fair, Billy Gunn as the ASS KING years later would far surpass it on the stupidity scale.)
From feuding with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania to feuding with Jim Duggan. No wonder 10 years later Savage still hates Hogan so much that he is singing crappy rap songs about it.
Following Savage’s “retirement” (*wink wink nudge nudge*), the crown lay dormant until the WWF decided to add King of the Ring to its annual pay-per-view schedule.
And decided to crown guys like Mabel king.
But that’s an induction for another day…