Championship reigns are determined by professional wrestling matches, in which competitors are involved in predetermined rivalries. These narratives create feuds between the various competitors, which cast them as villains and heroes. The bookers in a company will place the title on the most accomplished performer, or whom they believe will generate fan interest in terms of event attendance and television viewership.
Professional wrestling portrays the structure of title match combat sports. Participants compete for a championship, and must defend it after winning it. These titles are represented physically by a championship belt that is worn or carried by the champion(s). In the case of team wrestling, there is a belt for each member of the team.
Almost all professional wrestling promotions have one major title, and some have more. Championships are designated by divisions of weight, height, gender, wrestling style, and other qualifications.
Typically, each promotion only recognizes the "legitimacy" of their own titles, although cross-promotion does happen. When one promotion absorbs or purchases another, the titles from the defunct promotion may continue to be defended in the new promotion or be decommissioned, usually through championship unification.
Behind the scenes, the bookers in a company will place the title on the most accomplished performer, or those the bookers believe will generate fan interest in terms of event attendance and television viewership. Lower ranked titles may also be used on the performers who show potential, thus allowing them greater exposure to the audience. However, other circumstances may also determine the use of a championship. A combination of a championship's lineage, the caliber of performers as champion, and the frequency and manner of title changes, dictates the audience's perception of the title's quality, significance, and reputation.
A wrestler's championship accomplishments can be central to their career, becoming a measure of their performance ability and drawing power. The most accomplished or decorated wrestlers tend to be revered as legends. American wrestler Ric Flair has had multiple world heavyweight championship reigns spanning over three decades. Japanese wrestler Último Dragón once held and defended a record 10 titles simultaneously.
Professional wrestling's championship belts are modeled similarly to the championship belts in boxing, and other combat sports such as mixed martial arts. They are made of elaborately designed plates of gold or other precious metals, usually bearing the name of the title and the wrestling promotion, and is on a leather strap. The color and designs vary with each title and promotion.
A wrestler may win a sanctioned championship and redesign the belt itself. Some (such as John Cena's Spinner Belt) later became the official belt design. Others (such as Stone Cold Steve Austin's Smoking Skull Belt, Edge's Rated-R Spinner, Daniel Bryan's eco-friendly belt), The Fiend Bray Wyatt's Universal title with his face on it, were not used after their respective title reign.
While rare, there are cases of championships being represented with items other than belts, such as championship trophies, medals, crowns etc.
The fate of a title depends on the champion's condition and the importance of the title to the promotion (e.g. Gregory Helms held the WWE Cruiserweight Championship, despite being sidelined with an injury, because the Cruiserweight Championship was not a major championship). The champion may be forced to vacate his or her title if the injury becomes too severe and the championship is too important. In May 2015, Daniel Bryan vacated the WWE Intercontinental Championship due to a major concussion and a year before, he had to vacate the world title due to neck surgery. In November 2015, Seth Rollins vacated the WWE World Heavyweight Championship due to a knee injury that required surgery.
However, a champion may keep their title despite a severe injury and despite the championship being quite important. In 1998, Shane Douglas kept the ECW World Heavyweight Championship while sidelined. In 2005, Trish Stratus kept the WWE Women's Championship while sidelined with a herniated disk for four months. In 2012, CM Punk kept the WWE Championship while undergoing and recovering from knee surgery. In 2015, Ryback kept the WWE Intercontinental Championship while recovering from a knee infection.
Before the 1980s when title matches were rare, some champions could keep their titles even when injured; Bruno Sammartino kept his WWWF World Heavyweight Championship from April to June 1976 despite being injured by a botched body slam from Stan Hansen. In Mexico, this situation still occurs, but in Japan, it is becoming increasingly rare as champions are needed to be present in regular tours even when titles are not defended.
Professional wrestling championships are often split up into various different classifications, each of which designate varying levels of importance to the belts.
The world heavyweight championship (also just world championship) is the name given to the championship that is presented as being the most prestigious of those contested within a promotion. The wrestler holding a championship with this name is most commonly referred to as the "world heavyweight champion" or "world champion" (though some promotions may use synonymous/alternate terms, such as the AAA Mega Championship of AAA or the WWE Universal Championship, the world title of the WWE's SmackDown brand). Since pro wrestling is scripted, there is no promotion or group of people that recognized an official world title. Instead, each promotion can promote their top title as a World Title, with some of them promoting title matches around the world to claim the designation.
The first recognized world heavyweight championship was the World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship, created in 1905, and the inaugural champion was George Hackenschmidt. The lineage of many prominent contemporary world championships can be traced back to the World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship.
A very common championship variation. The championship usually specifies the location on where the promotion is based, an example being the WWE's United States Championship. Sometimes it may specify more like a specific state or territory. It is also common to be a smaller division of the world, an example being the WWE Intercontinental Championship, or the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship. It is very common for these variations to be the second most prestigious championship on a promotion, but exceptions have existed, like the now defunct WWE European Championship, which served as the company's tertiary singles championship, and the NWA United States Heavyweight Championship, which many NWA territories created versions of and promoted as their most prestigious championship whenever the NWA World Heavyweight Champion was not around.
Another common classification of championships are by weight classes. Given the scripted nature of professional wrestling matches, weight classes are not always strictly adhered to. Typically, promotions prefer to have a heavyweight title as their top prize, with other designations, such as cruiserweight, middleweight, or light-heavyweight titles. Promotions often have one sub-heavyweight classification, while others sometimes may have more. Mountevans' committee (a governing body that instilled rules for professional wrestling in the UK) created seven formal weight divisions:
Classifying championships into weight classes is also common practice in the lucha libre promotions of Mexico. Lucha libre has a detailed weight class system patterned after boxing. Each weight class has an official upper limit, but examples of wrestlers who are technically too heavy to hold their title can be found. The following weight classes exist in lucha libre, as defined by the "Comisión de Box y Lucha Libre Mexico D.F." (the Mexico City Boxing and Wrestling Commission), the main regulatory body in Mexico:
Gender occasionally plays a role in the classifications of championship belts. Due to professional wrestling generally being a sport dominated by men, only women's titles are given official gender classifications. Generally, only men are allowed to win the championships without a gender specification, though Chyna defeating Jeff Jarrett to win the WWF Intercontinental Championship in 1999 and Tessa Blanchard defeating Sami Callihan to win the Impact World Championship in 2020 are notable exceptions. In promotions featuring only a single gender (such as Women of Wrestling or Shimmer Women Athletes), gender classifications are often unnecessary as well. Titles specifically designated for women may fall into any of the other categories listed here (e.g. women's world's titles or women's tag-team titles).
Andy Kaufman once used gender classifications to his advantage, turning inter-gender competitions into a unique wrestling side-show. Kaufman declared himself the "Inter-Gender Champion of the World", and offered $1,000 to any woman who could pin him. None were successful during the run of the gimmick; though in other promotions such as WCW and WWE, women have successfully pinned men, most notably in a few isolated championship matches.
On rare occasions, a male wrestler will compete in championship matches for championships generally contested exclusively in the women's division. Such examples include Harvey Wippleman becoming the only male to capture the WWF Women's Championship in 2000, and Eric Young winning one half of the TNA Knockouts Tag Team Championship in 2012.
Gimmick match classifications sometimes factor into the creation of title belts. In these classifications, special skills in a certain type of match or a certain style of wrestling is the signature of the division, and the champion is considered to be the most skilled wrestler at that specific style.
Gimmick championships often take very differing forms. A common variation is the "hardcore championship", a title often defended in weapons-filled and bloody competitions with fewer rules (count outs and disqualifications are not usually allowed). An example of a hardcore championship is the WWE Hardcore Championship, which was active from 1998 to 2002. In 2019, the WWE introduced a new gimmick title called the WWE 24/7 Championship that is similar to their previous Hardcore Championship; its gimmick is that it can be defended anytime, anywhere, as long as a referee is present.
Another common variation is a "television championship" or "iron man championship", which involves more frequent title defenses as well as the stipulations that the belt can only change hands on television (as opposed to non-televised house shows) with title matches having a short, TV-friendly time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. These titles were originally introduced during a time when weekly TV shows were seen as a vehicle to promote the money-making live shows, where major title defenses took place. Television titles provided a championship that would be defended on the weekly television shows. Examples of a television championship include the WCW World Television Championship, the ECW World Television Championship, the TNA Television Championship, and the ROH World Television Championship.
Tag team championships are yet another different form of wrestling title. Some consider it to be a style championship, but tag team championships are unique in their ability to include multiple wrestlers on teams competing for multiple belts. The most common form of tag team championships are in 2-on-2 format, which is often implicitly understood. Other tag team championships include 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 formats, which are often explicitly stated within the championship name to distinguish them from the 2-on-2 championships.
Tag team championships are also often combined with regional modifiers, gimmick modifiers, gender modifiers, and weight class modifiers to further distinguish them. In such cases, the world tag team championships are often given higher priority, while the other championships are seen as secondary tag team titles. The world tag team championship is the name usually given to the primary tag team championships. Examples of tag team championships include the WWE Raw Tag Team Championship, the WWE Women's Tag Team Championship, the AEW World Tag Team Championship, and the Impact World Tag Team Championship.
The concept of championships, and their central role in wrestling, allows for the potential for angles. One such angle is an unsanctioned championship title. These are claimed by a wrestler and defended in sanctioned matches, but are not recognized as legitimate titles by the promotion.
Examples of unsanctioned championships include:
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