A look back through history: The Original World Heavyweight Championship

A look back through history: The Original World Heavyweight Championship
The 1905 World Heavyweight Championship

When you think back to the time when you became emotionally invested in professional wrestling, there will always be one thing, one moment or one person who triggered that reaction from you.  For some it will be the moment that "The Unstoppable Force" met "The Immovable Object", for others it will be a promo, such as Dusty Rhodes "Hard Times" promo. There have been so many amazing moments and memories in the history of professional wrestling, and almost everyone will have a story to tell. For me, the thing that drew me in most and still does to this day, is championships.  


At some point in their lives every fan, promoter and wrestler has dreamed of becoming a champion, and in my opinion the strength of a championship can make or break the prestige of a company. The first championship I ever became invested in was the Intercontinental Championship. I loved the oval design and the way it seemed to just pop right out of the screen at you. Add to that the majority of my favourite wrestlers from that time went on to become World Champions meant the prestige of the title grew. It became almost a gateway title. If you held it, chances are you would go on to become World Champion. 


As time went on and my interest grew, I researched championships feverishly, and wound up buying all the toy championships of the time, and I fulfilled a dream when, at 21 years old, I bought the Intercontinental Championship replica. Almost 15 years later, this obsession with championships has only got stronger, and I now own almost a dozen replica championships (much to my wife's disappointment!) 


But there was one championship that, try as I might, eluded me for quite some time. The one that I considered to be the "Holy Grail" of championship belts, one that's very history fascinated me more than any other title in existence. The one that could trace its Lineage all the way back to the early twentieth century; The NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship. Its history is both fascinating and complex in equal measure. Of course, the NWA Title is not the "Original" World Heavyweight Championship, but it does continue its lineage. The "ten pounds of gold" is one of the most sought-after prizes to wrestling historians and purists, like myself, as it is the closest we will likely get to the original World Title. 


It is that original championship I will be delving into the history of today. 


The first ever World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion was crowned in mid 1905, when George Hackenschmidt beat the American Heavyweight Champion, Tom Jenkins. Although this was the first time he was officially recognised, he actually earned unofficial recognition as the World Heavyweight Champion just over a year earlier in January 1904, and even before that won tournaments in multiple countries, signifying his early dominance of Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling. back in those days, wrestlers would fight it out "for real" with matches sometimes lasting hours, and almost always under "Two out of three falls" rules. 


Hackenschmidt toured the world during this time, taking in Australia and Canada before returning to his home in London, England. He was a popular man with people of all ages, and was an intellectually gifted man as well as athletically. In later years he became an author, speaker and philosopher, and was multilingual. Truly a remarkable man. 

Very few images of the original World Heavyweight Championship exist, possibly because there was not one "central" belt. The main article image depicts a small central plate on a thin leather belt, with chains attached to the sides. Beneath it is a second belt which is a little close to what we are used to in terms of design, with the leather being made to fit the central plate. Another separate image depicts the main plate as "tic tac shaped", an elongated sphere with white stars surrounding the top of the plate, and what appears to be the White House in the middle, and U.S flags for side plates, although it's likely that this was the American Heavyweight Championship that Hackenschmidt won from Tom Jenkins to become the World Heavyweight Champion officially, but this is all conjecture. 

Hackenschmidt would be World Heavyweight Champion for just shy of 3 years, losing the title to Frank Gotch in April of 1908. This marked Hackenschmidt's first loss, and a passing of the torch to Gotch. "The Russian Lion" had consistently ignored Gotch's challenge, instead choosing to return home to London when initially challenged after winning the Title. When they did eventually meet in competition, Hackenschmidt was not in great shape. Hackenschmidt's contempt towards "American" wrestling combined with disrespect for his opponent had led to him underestimating his American challenger. Gotch would bully Hackenschmidt around the ring for over two hours, before taking him down and working him into his patented toe hold. 

Hackenschmidt had trained to avoid and fight out of this particular hold, and he was able to, but in doing so this took his last remaining strength, and he forfeited the fall, saying "I surrender the Championship of the World to Mr Gotch."  

Both men went back to their dressing rooms at this point while preparations were made for the second fall, but Hackenschmidt refused to come out for the second fall, and Frank Gotch was officially declared the World Heavyweight Champion. 


If Hackenschmidt's reign as World Heavyweight Champion was historic, then Gotch's run was just as spectacular. He held the Championship for 5 years undefeated, before retiring. Perhaps his most famous victory was over Stanislaus Zbyszko, who was rumoured to have won over 900 matches prior to meeting Gotch for the World Heavyweight Title. 


On June 1st 1910, Frank Gotch dominated a hapless Zbyszko in less than thirty minutes, taking both falls. Such was his dominance, he took the first fall in less than ten seconds of the match beginning, surprising his opponent with a quick move and pin. Zbyszko argued this, saying that Gotch had "tricked" him by taking the fall during the "European custom" of shaking hands before the match begun, but the referee ignored these pleas and the fall was counted. By twenty-seven minutes in, Gotch took the second fall and retained his Championship. While Zbyszko was outclassed and outmaneuvered throughout the entire match, he was still considered to be one of the foremost wrestlers in the world, and would go to become World Heavyweight Champion, but more on that later. 


By 1913, Gotch had decided to retire, and so the wrestling world was left without a champion. This remained the case for a year until Frank Gotch suggested that Americus (real name August John Schoenlein) should face off with Fred Beell to determine who the new World Heavyweight Champion would be. 


Both Americus and Beell had legitimate claims to be worthy contenders. Americus had been World Light Heavyweight Champion in 1904, combining his wrestler career with that of being a Building Inspector in Baltimore, whilst Beell had beaten Gotch for the American Heavyweight Championship in 1906. Americus and Beell had met prior to this as well. As mentioned, Americus was a former World Light Heavyweight Champion, and it was Fred Beell himself that he beat for that particular ChampionshipSo, the prospect of another match between the two, this time for the World Heavyweight Title, was considered to be a mouth-watering prospect. 

The match was set up and when the dust settled, Americus had once again bested Beelland was crowned the new World Heavyweight Champion. However, his joy was short lived, as just two months later, Stanislaus Zbyszko defeated him and took the World Title from him, before leaving America altogether and heading home to Poland until 1921, mostly due to the escalation of the First World War. Unfortunately, this is where the title was followed by a whole lot of controversy, concerning who the legitimate champion was.... 


Come back for part two of the History of the World Heavyweight Championship!