AEW Battle of the Belts: An Overlook of a Forgotten NWA Tradition

AEW Battle of the Belts

On Saturday, All Elite Wrestling (AEW) presents one of its planned quarterly Saturday night specials on TNT, Saturday Night Fights, with the premiere of AEW Battle of the Belts. While many have drawn comparison to the former NWA/WCW event Clash of Champions (which is currently a trademark of WWE), the name is actually one of the former NWA trademarks that WWE doesn’t hold in regards to previous NWA events. Battle of the Belts was actually one of the marquee events of the NWA territory in Florida, Championship Wrestling From Florida (CWF), which ran from 1985 to 1987 (when the territory was acquired and absorbed by Jim Crocket Promotions into what would become WCW in 1988).

While the event was officially run by Championship Wrestling From Florida and sanctioned by the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), it was also an event that featured somewhat of a “forbidden door” opening as well – the event also saw champions and/or stars from the American Wrestling Association (AWA) compete on the cards. But why would AEW choose an annual tournament from Championship Wrestling From Florida that only ran for three years before the territory folded? Well, it just so happens that during those three years, a certain AEW EVP’s father was part of the ownership of CWF, so it’s possible it was one of the trademarks Cody Rhodes acquired in late 2019 when he began to reclaim his father Dusty Rhodes‘ legacy in pro wrestling (it’s believed he “traded” some of those back to WWE in 2020 to acquire the trademark for the Cody Rhodes name – but with WWE already owning Clash of Champions, they would have had no use for the lesser Battle of the Belts). With AEW’s first installment of Battle of the Belts happening on Saturday, here’s a quick look at the history of the event.

NWA Battle of the Belts I, September 2, 1985

Live from The Sundome in Tampa, Florida, the first Battle of the Belts was headlined by a Best-Two-Out-Of-Three Falls Match for the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship, with Ric Flair defending his belt two-to-one against NWA United States Champion Wahoo McDaniel. AWA star (and former multiple time AWA World Champion) Nick Bockwinkel defeated rising star Frankie Lane (Lane would have a lengthy run in WCW in the 1990s as jobber Frankie Lancaster), while the AWA World Tag Team Championships were also defended on the card, with The Road Warriors (Animal & Hawk) fending off a challenge from the hard-nosed duo of Harley Race & Stan Hansen. CWF’s top two singles titles were also on the card, as Rick Rude defended his NWA Florida Southern Heavyweight title against Billy Jack Haynes, while Kendall Windham defeated Jack Hart to win the NWA Florida Heavyweight title (Hart would gain more recognition as legendary WWF jobber Barry Horowitz). In the opening match, Los Guerreros tandem of Hector and Chavo Sr. defeated Rip Oliver & The Grappler (Grappler would go on to be “Dirty White Boy” Len Denton in WCCW), while Cocoa Samoa defeated Rip Rogers in the other match on the card.

NWA Battle of the Belts II, February 14, 1986 “Big Gold Debuts”

No matter the matches on the card, the biggest historical takeaway from Battle of the Belts II was the worldwide debut of “Big Gold”, the much-beloved NWA Worlds Championship belt held by Ric Flair that later became the WCW World Heavyweight Championship and then the World Heavyweight Championship in WWE during the 2000s. Prior to this event, Flair was still carrying the “Ten Pounds of Gold”, but in an effort to modernize the title that had been used since 1973, Jim Crockett Jr. had “Big Gold” made. It actually made its WWF debut in 1991 following Flair’s departure from WCW, when he brought it with him to WWF as “The Real World’s Champion”, before it returned to WCW and became the WCW International World Championship in 1993 (it was unified with the WCW World title in 1994). Flair once again headlined the card as World Champion, retaining it against Barry Windham in a double count-out after 40 minutes. In other title matches, Lex Luger defeated Jesse Barr for the NWA Florida Southern Heavyweight title (Barr would jump to WWF soon after and become Jimmy Jack Funk, the “little brother” of Terry and Dory Funk Jr.), while Kendall Windham defended his NWA Florida Heavyweight title against Prince Iaukea (not to be confused with WCW’s cruiserweight of the same name in the 1990s, this Iaukea, who also competed as Rocky Iaukea, was actually the son of King Curtis Iaukea). The NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship was also defended, with champion Denny Brown taking down young Japanese star The White Ninja (who would find much greater success years later as Keiji Mutoh, or The Great Muta). The opening contest saw Tyree Pride defend the NWA Bahamas Championship against Ron Slinker. In non-title matches, Bruiser Brody and Wahoo McDaniel fought to a double count-out, while The Road Warriors & Blackjack Mulligan lost to the Army of Darkness unit lead by Kevin Sullivan that featured Maha Singh (aka Bob Roop) and Purple Haze (Mark Lewin), with Luna Vachon at their side.

NWA Battle of the Belts III, September 1, 1986

Barry Windham main evented the third and final Battle of the Belts held by CWF, defeating “Outlaw” Ron Bass for the NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship (Bass had beat Barry’s brother Kendall for it less than two months previous). NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair retained his title in another Best-Two-Out-Of-Three Match, this time against Lex Luger, but it ended in a time limit draw after 30 minutes when both men remained tied at one fall each. For the first time, the AWA World Heavyweight Championship was also defended on the card, as World Champion Nick Bockwinkel retained after his opponent, Kendo Nagasaki (Kazuo Sakurada) was disqualified. The White Ninja (Muta) defeated Tim Horner to win the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship, while The Fabulous Ones (Stan Lane & Steve Keirn) defeated The Sheepherders (Butch Miller & Luke Williams) to remain NWA Florida United States Tag Team Champions (a year later, the Sheepherders headed to WWF to become The Bushwhackers). Kendall Windham won himself more gold, defeating Chris Champion to become NWA Bahamas Champion. The Road Warriors returned for a third straight event as well, this time defeating Oliver Humperdink‘s Shock Troops (Ed Gantner & Kareem Muhammad). This was the final Battle of the Belts event held by CWF, as they folded at the end of 1987 and were absorbed by Jim Crockett Promotions.

ECW Battle of the Belts, January 23, 1993

While 1986 was the last time Battle of the Belts was held in Florida, it wouldn’t be the last time it was held in the NWA. Although by the time it happened again, seven years later in 1993, it was in a promotion far less prestigious or widely known as CWF. Philadelphia’s Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW) was trying to help bolster an NWA that was sadly falling apart, both in legacy and membership. Nearly all of the NWA’s main territories were now absorbed under the WCW banner, leaving only a scattering of independent promotions around the country (with WCW finally leaving the NWA for good later that September). But ECW was no CWF and its small stature virtually guaranteed none of the top NWA Champions would be on hand for the event. The Great Muta (formerly The White Ninja at past Battle of the Belts) had just won the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship at the Tokyo Dome on January 4, the NWA Television Championship was now defunct, and the NWA World Tag Team titles had just been unified with the WCW World Tag Team titles, with Ricky Steamboat & Shane Douglas defending them on WCW television. While the ECW event was headlined by Terry Funk beating Eddie Gilbert in an “I Quit” Match, and featured stars like Davey Boy Smith (who had just left WWF and was en route to WCW), Kerry Von Erich (who had left WWF the previous year), and Demolition Ax (returning in his Masked Superstar gimmick from the early 80s). ECW also had no AWA to partner with (they’d folded two years previous) and instead worked with Larry Sharpe‘s World Wrestling Association (WWA), with a co-main event of ECW Heavyweight Champion The Sandman facing WWA Champion The Spider in a match that went to a double count-out (Spider would find more notoriety years later as Headbanger Thrasher in the WWF during the Attitude Era). Luckily for ECW, a year later they would also leave the NWA, rebrand themselves as Extreme Championship Wrestling, and revolutionize the U.S. indies.

NWA Battle of the Belts (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002)

By the turn of the new century, the NWA was a far cry from its dominant reign over professional wrestling from the 1940s until the late 1980s. While larger in size by membership, it was entirely built upon a collective of independent promotions around the U.S. and in various international markets. While many of the promotions would ultimately become important breeding grounds for many stars of today, at the time, the NWA was simply a non-entity to most of the mainstream world. Without the streaming services and accessibility of independent wrestling today, most only discovered NWA news in wrestling magazines. From 1999 to 2002, the NWA brought back Battle of the Belts as the theme of their annual Anniversary Shows (51st in 1999, 52nd in 2000, 53rd in 2001, and 54th in 2002). Gary Steele became the first British-born NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion in 1999, while Mike Rapada defended the NWA World title against “Wildcat” Chris Harris in 2000. In 2001, NWA World Champion Steve Corino went to a no-contest against challenger and former 3x IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinya Hashimoto, on a card that also saw the very first match-up between two young stars named AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels. By the time the 2002 card happened, the NWA had formed an alliance with upstart Total Nonstop Action (TNA), and the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion Ron “The Truth” Killings defended his title against Hernandez in the main event, while NWA World Tag Team Champions America’s Most Wanted (James Storm & Chris Harris) defended against AJ Styles & Rocky Reynolds. It marked the final Battle of the Belts under the NWA banner.

So far, AEW has only announced two matches for this Saturday’s AEW Battle of the Belts, AEW Women’s Champion Britt Baker D.M.D. vs Riho and TNT Champion Cody Rhodes vs. Sammy Guevara, but expect more matches to be announced this week, and come back to Last Word on Pro Wrestling for our official preview!

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world. As well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.  You can catch AEW Dynamite Wednesday nights at 8 PM ET on TBS and AEW Dark: Elevation (Monday nights) and AEW: Dark (Tuesday nights) at 7 PM ET on YouTube. AEW Rampage airs on TNT at 10 PM EST every Friday night.