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10 Times Wrestling Championships Were Unified

Randy Orton unified champion

On Tuesday, 4 January, WWE’s NXT 2.0 brand seen its Cruiserweight and North American Championships unified, as Roderick Strong and Carmelo Hayes defended their respective titles to crown an NXT North American Cruiserweight Champion in the latest title unification angle – with Hayes emerging victorious.

Championship unifications date back decades, with the first prominent example coming in the late-1980s. Nikita Koloff is to thank for this. e firstly unified his NWA United States Heavyweight Championship with Wahoo McDaniel’s NWA National Heavyweight Championship in 1986, before defeating Terry Taylor the following year to capture the Mid-South version of the UWF Television Championship. Koloff’s NWA World Television Championship was the second title defended in that example.

The aftermath of unifying two or more championships varies. The unification of the NXT Cruiserweight and North American Championships, as mentioned, will see either Roderick Strong or Carmelo Hayes move forward as the NXT North American Cruiserweight Champion. Elsewhere, however, one of the championships may be dropped. For example, when Rob Van Dam – the WWF Hardcore Champion at the time – defeated Jeff Hardy – the then-WWF European Champion – in 2002, the European Championship was abandoned in favour of the Hardcore Championship.

A few months before then, the WWF’s Survivor Series pay-per-view – the conclusion of the long-running Invasion story arc – saw both the WCW United States and World Tag Team Championships discontinued absorbed into the WWF Intercontinental and World Tag Team Championships, respectively. Edge would defeat Test, while The Dudley Boyz usurped The Hardy Boys in a Steel Cage match, thus ending the title histories of the two WCW-oriented titles, though the United States Championship would be brought back soon after as a WWE-branded championship.

The unifying of two-plus championships often feels like a big-time deal, whether they’ve gone down as legendary moments (such as the creation of the J-Crown in August 1996) or not (like the unifying of WWE’s two Tag Team Championships at WrestleMania 25 in a dark match). Before Roderick Strong and Carmelo Hayes collide on Tuesday, here are ten other instances in which professional wrestling championships were unified, ranging from WWE to IMPACT Wrestling to New Japan Pro-Wrestling.

Chris Jericho (WWF Champion) vs. The Rock (World Champion) – WWF Vengeance 2001

Chris Jericho WWE and WCW Champion

Unquestionably the most famous example of championships being unified, Chris Jericho’s monumental performance during the 2001 WWF Vengeance pay-per-view certified him as a bonafide WWE legend.

The pay-per-view is best remembered for Jericho, Kurt Angle, The Rock (the reigning World Champion), and Stone Cold Steve Austin (the WWF Champion) competing in three singles matches. The final winner would be crowned the inaugural Undisputed WWF Champion.

The future “Le Champion” saw off The Rock to become the World Champion, albeit via interference from Vince McMahon, while Stone Cold retained the WWF Championship over Kurt Angle. What followed was a wild, chaotic brawl between Jericho and Austin, complete with McMahon, Ric Flair, and Booker T intervention, but ultimately, it would be Chris Jericho who stood tall as the Undisputed Champion heading out of 2001.

Jericho aligned with Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley during his title reign, and would later drop the titles to Triple H – the 2002 Royal Rumble winner – at WrestleMania X8 the following March. The two titles would later be separated in September 2002 when Eric Bischoff brought back the classic WCW Big Gold Belt, branded simply as the World Heavyweight Championship, for the Raw roster. The WWE Championship, therefore, became a SmackDown-exclusive championship.

Shinsuke Nakamura (IWGP Heavyweight Champion) vs. Kurt Angle (IWGP Third Belt Champion) – NJPW Circuit 2008 NEW JAPAN ISM, Day Eight

Shinsuke Nakamura NJPW

The story of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in early-2008 is infamous to fans of Japanese wrestling lore.

Brock Lesnar became the IWGP Heavyweight Champion in October 2005, and was ultimately stripped of the title the following July after he failed to appear for a scheduled title defence. “The Beast Incarnate” cited VISA issues and being owed money by New Japan as the reasons for his failure to show up. Antonio Inoki, the founder of New Japan, created the Inoki Genome Federation organisation, recognising Lesnar as the official IWGP Heavyweight Champion. He’d end up losing the title to Kurt Angle on the company’s inaugural card, with Total Nonstop Action also acknowledging him as the actual IWGP champion.

New Japan, meanwhile, saw Hiroshi Tanahashi crowned the new champion just two days after Lesnar was stripped of the official title, with the title history then going, in order, Yuji Nagata, Tanahashi, and lastly Shinsuke Nakamura. During this period, New Japan referred to the title as the Third Belt Championship, rather than the IGF version of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

It was Nakamura who then went forward to defeat Angle on 17 February 2008, unifying both championships. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship has remained New Japan’s primary championship ever since, absorbing the IWGP Intercontinental Championship in March 2021. More on that later on.

Randy Orton (WWE Champion) vs. John Cena (World Heavyweight Champion) – WWE Tables, Ladders & Chairs 2013

Randy Orton unified champion

The 2001 Vengeance pay-per-view wasn’t the first time WWE unified their two top championships, as they did so again twelve years later at Tables, Ladders & Chairs 2013.

Without a brand split in effect, WWE didn’t need two primary championships at stake, and thus, with Randy Orton serving as the WWE Champion and John Cena as the World Heavyweight Champion, the perfect opportunity presented itself to unify the titles in a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match between two future Hall of Famers.

The seeds of this were planted at the 2013 SummerSlam pay-per-view, where Orton dethroned Daniel Bryan of the WWE Championship by cashing in his Money in the Bank contract, mere minutes after Bryan had defeated John Cena for the strap. Once Cena returned from injury in October, he once again sat atop the mountain, defeating Alberto Del Rio for the World Heavyweight Championship.

Taking place in December 2013, Orton ascended the ladder to retrieve both titles, officially becoming the WWE World Heavyweight Champion as a result. This incarnation of the championship would remain until the summer of 2016, when WWE brought back the brand split. The WWE Championship – held by Dean Ambrose – would become SmackDown’s top title, while the newly-introduced WWE Universal Championship became Raw’s main championship.

Ric Flair (WCW World Heavyweight Champion) vs. Sting (WCW International World Heavyweight Champion) – WCW Clash Of The Champions XXVII

Ric Flair WCW Champion

In one of the earlier instances of unifying two wrestling championships, World Championship Wrestling promoted yet another clash between Ric Flair and Sting at the 27th Clash of the Champions event in June 1994, with the winner moving on as the sole World Heavyweight Champion within the company.

If nothing else, the bout acted as a means of eliminating the International World Heavyweight Championship from WCW’s present title lineage. It had caused nothing but annoyance for WCW, really; between Sting refusing to accept the title until he won it fairly (he didn’t want it awarded to him, in other words) and the career-ending back injury sustained by Rick Rude during his title reign, you can’t blame WCW for merging the title with the main WCW World Heavyweight Championship.

Ric Flair would move forward as the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, leaving Sting titleless and the WCW International World Heavyweight Championship officially defunct, though WCW opted to use the latter as its physical title belt. For the uninitiated, this title belt was the Big Gold Belt that remained WCW’s primary championship until its closure in March 2001. WWE, understandably, continued using the most famous championship in mainstream wrestling.

For the statistic fans out there, Clash of the Champions XXVII marked the 104th recorded match between Ric Flair and Sting. They’d wrestled a further thirty-five times, with their iconic series concluding in a subpar fourteen-minute clash on the 15 September 2011 broadcast of IMPACT Wrestling.

Bryan Danielson (ROH World Champion) vs. Nigel McGuinness (ROH Pure Champion) – ROH Unified

Bryan Danielson ROH World Champion

The mid-2010s was Ring Of Honor at its peak, with matches such as Bryan Danielson vs. Nigel McGuinness acting as a testament to this. This bout is widely regarded as the greatest of Danielson’s illustrious career, with the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer scoring it ★★★★¾.

Contested under traditional pure wrestling rules, as all Pure Championship contests are, the match had a unique stipulation that would mean both championships were eligible to change hands via count-out and disqualification. This came around after Nigel won a previous clash via count-out, which meant he didn’t capture the World Championship.

At the 2006 Unified event in Liverpool, however, it would be Bryan Danielson who unified the straps, retiring the ROH Pure Championship in the process. Before the former Desmond Wolfe held it, only five other grapplers had been the ROH Pure Champion; AJ Styles, Doug Williams, John Walters, Jay Lethal, and Samoa Joe.

The ROH World Championship stayed as the main title on offer in ROH, being held by a who’s who of today’s top talent. Jonathan Gresham sits as the current champion, having bested Foundation partner Jay Lethal for the vacant strap at the Final Battle pay-per-view. The Pure Championship, meanwhile, remained retired until late-2020, with Gresham winning a tournament to capture the revived title.

Kota Ibushi (IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion) vs. El Desperado – NJPW 49th Anniversary Show

Kota Ibushi after winning both the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships

A more recent example, New Japan Pro-Wrestling unified its IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships during their 49th Anniversary Show in March 2021. In this case, however, both titles were already held by the same person; Kota Ibushi.

During Wrestle Kingdom 14 the previous January, Ibushi, Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, and Jay White competed across both nights in a similar situation to that of WWF Vengeance 2001. On night one, Naito captured the Intercontinental Championship from White, while Okada retained the Heavyweight Championship over Ibushi, with Naito pinning “The Rainmaker” on the second night to hold both titles. The following year, at Wrestle Kingdom 15, Ibushi would defeat Naito to win both titles, but they still remained singular championships.

It wasn’t until the 4 March 2021 Anniversary Show that the titles were formally unified to create the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Unlike other examples, this took on its own title history, thus retiring both the Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships. Refusing to become the inaugural champion by default, Ibushi opted for an official unification match to take place, where he defeated Suzuki-gun’s El Desperado to formally become the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion.

This title remains in place today, though Kazuchika Okada was granted his request upon winning the 2021 G1 Climax of having the previous IWGP Heavyweight Championship awarded to him, rather than the traditional briefcase. It’s worth stating, however, that the title is still officially recognised as being inactive.

Multiple IMPACT and GFW titles – IMPACT Wrestling Slammiversary 2017

Alberto el Patron GFW IMPACT champion

2017 was a year of change for IMPACT Wrestling, with Scott D’Amore and Don Callis coming into the company at the tail-end of the year as its new Executive Vice Presidents. Earlier in the year, however, IMPACT officially merged with Jeff Jarrett‘s Global Force Wrestling promotion, resulting in the GFW Global, Women’s, and World Tag Team Championships all being merged with IMPACT’s championships at the fifteenth Slammiversary pay-per-view.

Most notable was Alberto el Patron, the reigning GFW Global Champion, defeating (Bobby) Lashley in the evening’s main event to capture the IMPACT World Championship, officially becoming the Unified GFW World Heavyweight Champion. The title would maintain the GFW aspect until the following spring, being deemed the GFW and then the IMPACT Global Championship.

The same applied to the other unified titles. Sienna, the GFW Women’s Champion, defeated Rosemary, the IMPACT Knockouts Champion to unify the titles and become the Unified GFW Knockouts Champion (later the GFW and the back to the IMPACT Knockouts Championship), while Ortiz and Santana – who already held both the IMPACT and GFW World Tag Team Championships – became the unified champions by retaining both in a four-team bout at Slammiversary. Similarly, the titles took on the GFW moniker before returning to the IMPACT prefix.

Nowadays, the titles exist as the IMPACT World, Knockouts World, and World Tag Team Championships, each having gone through design changes over the years.

Taz (ECW World Heavyweight Champion) vs. Sabu (FTW Heavyweight Champion) – ECW Living Dangerously 1999

Taz Sabu

Whenever a wrestler introduces their own championship, it’s typically hit or miss. James Storm’s World Beer Drinking Championship in TNA, for example, was absurdly wacky, but never poised for greatness. Taz’s FTW Heavyweight Championship was its polar opposite.

Originated in Extreme Championship Wrestling by “The Human Suplex Machine”, the story was that Taz introduced the title after being unable to challenge Shane Douglas for the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. Douglas was legitimately injured, you see, so Taz dubbed himself the real World Champion with the eye-catching FTW Heavyweight Championship over his shoulder.

It lasted less than a year, as Taz – who was now the official ECW World Heavyweight Champion – dethroned Sabu of the FTW title at the 1999 Living Dangerously pay-per-view. Quite hilariously, and befitting of the Taz character, Taz had only lost the title to Sabu the previous December because he dragged him on top of his own body. Taz was so confident in capturing the ECW World Heavyweight Championship that he no longer required the FTW title.

These days, the FTW Championship can be found in All Elite Wrestling, where it’s held by Ricky Starks, one of Taz’s goons in Team Taz. Taz had brought the title into AEW in a similar manner; Brian Cage, a former Team Taz member, was unable to challenge Jon Moxley for the AEW World Championship due to quarantining after Renee Paquette’s positive COVID-19 test result. Thus, Cage became the FTW Champion.

During a chat with Inside The Ropes’ Kenny McIntosh, Ricky Starks heaped praise on the legitimacy of the FTW Championship:

“Well, you know, now that I’m FTW Champion, there’s things that I want to be put in place and put in motion, obviously. I’m not a type of talent that you can just have off TV for long lengths of time. So I think Rampage is a good opportunity to at least maybe – I’m willing to say it, I’m willing to be the one to go on and defend the title, whether it’s recognised or not, it’s still a championship title that people know of.
So I would love for that. I would love for Rampage to be that platform and I would love for Dynamite to be a platform, and I would love for Dark – let’s hit all three, you know? So I think it’d be cool in a big setting to have the FTW title featured on there, especially on Fridays. Where I’m from, ECW used to air on Fridays on another channel. So, you know, I think that would be pretty cool to have.”

Melina (WWE Divas Champion) vs. Michelle McCool (WWE Women’s Champion) – WWE Night Of Champions 2010

Michelle McCool Layla

On paper, WWE’s decision to unify both the Divas – held by Melina – and Women’s – held by Michelle McCool – Championships at the 2010 Night of Champions pay-per-view should have been a good thing. At the time, they didn’t have the women’s division to justify having two championships defended, plus the Divas Championship was an absolute disgrace to women’s wrestling.

But, WWE decided to discontinue the Women’s Championship after fifty-four years in favour of the two-year-old – and ugly butterfly – Divas Championship. Because of course they did.

Still, the match in question was fine, did what it needed to, and unified the titles successfully. Almost as if to say this was going to be an absolute waste of time, the first Unified Divas Champion would be not only McCool, who was the one to actually defeat Melina, but also her Team LayCool partner Layla. Yes, WWE decided to have co-champions for a championship no-one really cared about.

The Divas Championship would ultimately be retired in favour of a new Women’s Championship at WrestleMania 32, with Charlotte Flair acting as the first champion for what would become the Raw Women’s Championship that summer. A SmackDown Women’s Championship was subsequently introduced, with Becky Lynch becoming the first champion.

Rich Swann (IMPACT World Champion) vs. Moose (TNA World Heavyweight Champion) – IMPACT Wrestling Sacrifice 2021

Rich Swann

The most recent mainstream example of two championships being unified came during IMPACT Wrestling’s Sacrifice special in March 2021 on IMPACT Plus, where Rich Swann defeated Moose to become the official IMPACT World Champion.

The seeds for this were planted the previous April during IMPACT’s inaugural set of empty arena shows, when Tessa Blanchard’s scheduled World Championship defence against Eddie Edwards and Michael Elgin was postponed due to neither Blanchard nor Edwards being in attendance, owing to COVID-19 protocols. Moose instead introduced the old TNA World Heavyweight Championship in Tessa’s absence, though he kept the title alive even after Eddie won the vacant World Championship that July.

Rich Swann, meanwhile, captured the IMPACT World Championship from Eric Young, almost immediately launching into a feud opposite Kenny Omega, who also proclaimed to be the real World Champion. At Sacrifice, Rich defeated Moose to lift the TNA title, which had been officially sanctioned as an active championship by Scott D’Amore in the days prior to Sacrifice in what was a hell of a main event.

Swann advanced to the Rebellion pay-per-view at the end of April, losing both straps to Kenny Omega with Omega’s AEW World Championship also being defended. The IMPACT title remains in place today with Moose as its current holder, while the TNA World Heavyweight Championship belt was retired by Christian Cage once he lifted it from Omega on the inaugural AEW Rampage broadcast.

Roderick Strong will face Carmelo Hayes to crown an NXT North American Cruiserweight Champion on NXT 2.0: New Year’s Evil, airing live on Peacock at 8pm EST and one week later on the WWE Network.