Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
WWE uses the adjective “prestigious” to describe the Intercontinental Title so often that it sometimes sounds like the belt’s official name. Announcers invoke the names of famous past champions like the Ultimate Warrior and Steve Austin almost every time the title picture comes into focus. Implied in that description is the idea that the IC Title once had a loftier status that new challengers can hope to recapture by their association with it.
Looking back at those eras, it’s not entirely clearly that the IC Title had the prolonged halcyon days that WWE would like us to believe. For every Randy Savage and Bret Hart, there were less salutatory champs like the Honky Tonk Man and The Mountie. It’s not fair to define the prestige of the title by an individual champion because the title and champion tend to feed off of one another. To gauge the historical value of the title, it’s more useful to look at the eras in which it existed and the role it played in WWE.
Today I will examine the eras of the IC Title, from its inception in 1979 to the present. I will rate each era on a scale from 1-10, with 1 as the lowest possible prestige and 10 as the highest. While the quality of champions, matches, and storylines is obviously important to the rating, the value within the promotion is also an essential part of prestige.
For a list of all of the IC Champions, Click Here.
The Bygone Era – 1979-1985
The mere fact that the IC Title came into being in a non-existent tournament in Rio de Janeiro demonstrates how different the wrestling world was at the time of inception. A secret tournament would not pass today, nor would title reigns that regularly lasted from six to 18 months. Without a high profile TV show or big PPV specials, the IC Title traveled around the northeast in house shows and seldom changed hands.
Pat Patterson gave way to Ken Patera, who was a major star around the country at the time, Pedro Morales followed with a pair of reigns that totaled over 600 days and brought his legitimacy as a former world champion. Don Muraco, Tito Santana, and Greg Valentine passed the title between themselves for almost three years. Valentine’s win was notable because it was the first IC Title change to appear on TV.
Through this era, the IC Title was clearly secondary, but it was still significant. Bruno Sammartino, Superstar Billy Graham, and Bob Backlund were not leaving the main event to challenge for the belt. At the same time, the title matches were important draws for the company and the champions were valuable stars.
The Semi-Main Event – 1985-1990
The late ‘80s are the era most often cited as the prime of the IC Title, and with good reason. Randy Savage beat Tito Santana for the title in February of 1986 and held it for over a year. Savage had charisma and star power that the wrestlers before him lacked. He personally brought the IC Title additional prestige through his magnetism. His show-stealing match with Ricky Steamboat at Wrestlemania III overshadowed Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant and might have been the greatest moment in the history of the belt. The match also made it clear that the IC Title was important to the wrestlers themselves.
Even though the Honky Tonk Man was a step down in star power, his 454 day reign pitted him against major stars like Steamboat, Savage, and Jake Roberts. Even an older Sammartino and a prime Brutus Beefcake faced him during that run. Honky got real heat at that time and Hall of Fame manager Jimmy Hart enhanced the boos.
Honky gave way to the ascendant Ultimate Warrior, who won the title twice. Rick Rude’s lone reign was sandwiched between those two. Warrior ultimately vacated the title after he beat Hulk Hogan for the WWF Title at Wrestlemania VI, which marked the end of the era in which the IC Title was a legitimate second option for wrestlers just out of the main event picture.
Young Lions – 1990-1995
An important part of the IC Title’s reputation is that it is a “worker’s title” for some of the underrated or technically superior wrestlers on the roster. That reputation was solidified in this era when the IC Title match was often the best match on any show. Incidentally, many of these technical stars were also early in their careers and used the IC Title as a launching pad to greater stardom.
While wrestlers like Curt Hennig, Kerry Von Erich, and Roddy Piper achieved success before this era, they shared the spotlight with Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, and Diesel who were on the way to new heights. Eight out of the 11 champions in this timeframe went on to become Hall of Famers. Among the exceptions, Jeff Jarrett and Jacques Rougeau had impressive careers in their own right, and Marty Jannetty had a great deal of talent even if he never maximized it.
On top of the star power, several of the greatest IC Title matches in history took place in this era. The Hart-British Bulldog match at SummerSlam ‘92 and the pair of Michaels-Razor ladder matches stand out as two of the greatest. Hart, Hennig, and Michaels, in particular, had multiple, substantial title reigns that were chock full of very good matches.
A Step Down – 1995-1997
The company generally slumped in the mid ‘90s and the IC Title went in the same direction. The title was vacated four times in under three years. When it was held, it was too often held by guys like Bob Holly, Dean Douglas, and Marc Mero. That’s not to say the champions were not talented, but the star power, upward mobility, and the semi-main event status of the previous eras were out the window.
Another negative trait from this era was its shorter title reigns. I do not mean to say that every long reign is inherently better than every short one, but when they happen one after another, each successive triumph means less. By the time Razor Ramon won his fourth IC Title the day after Douglas won his first, the accomplishment was severely diminished.
On a positive note, the IC Title maintained a lot of its credibility as a worker’s belt during this era. No matter how many times the belt hot-shotted between wrestlers, you could be confident that the likes of Razor, Michaels, Goldust, and Owen Hart would put on a good match. The weaker champions tended to be guys who could work but lacked charisma- like Mero-, or youngsters who had not refined their in-ring style yet- like HHH and Rocky Maivia.
Hyperactive Attitude – 1997-2003
Like it did in the mid ‘90s, the IC Title reflected the direction of the company at the end of the decade. The sensory overload booking brought more violence, more character development, more sexuality, more high risk, and more of just about everything to WWE. With it came more title changes. Oh, so many title changes. In the calendar years 1999-2000 alone, there were 24 IC Champions. It’s difficult to get invested in a wrestler or a title if a month is the upside of the storyline.
At the same time, the IC Title floated between some of the best wrestlers in the world. Early on, HHH, Steve Austin, and The Rock shared it. Over the following years, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, William Regal, and Rob Van Dam had turns with the belt. Once again, the prevailing style of the era prevented these wrestlers from putting on true mat classics, but they still managed to put on a good show month in and month out.
If not for the all-time tacticians of this era, it might otherwise represent a low point in the title’s history. With the European Title, Hardcore Title, and Light Heavyweight Title, WWE had a major problem with watered down belts in the late ‘90s. Later in this period, a second world title and the US Title had a similar effect. When HHH beat Kane in 2002 to “unify” the World Heavyweight Title and IC Title, the latter technically disappeared for over six months.It had fallen so far that it was hardly missed.
Steadier Hands – 2003-2007
After the roller coaster ride that was the Attitude Era, the IC Title picture calmed down over the following years. In the same year that the belt was reintroduced, Randy Orton put together the first title reign over 200 days since The Rock in 1997. That cycle was emblematic of the title in this stretch- a series of solid mid-card workers surrounded lengthy runs by younger wrestlers. After Orton, Shelton Benjamin, Jeff Hardy, and Johnny Nitro each had reigns that lasted at least three months.
The biggest problem during this timeframe was the problem with WWE in general- it swung and missed on several of its top prospects. Past eras succeeded because they featured IC Champions who would go on to become legendary main event stars. This one was marked by the unfulfilled potential of Benjamin, Nitro, Carlito, and Umaga. Even Hardy, who made it to the top of the wrestling mountain briefly, fell short of his ultimate potential.
For all of the big picture misses over this stretch, one of the most memorable champions was Ric Flair. As his career wound down, Flair held the belt for over five months- the only time he had the IC Title in his career. By that time, Flair was not the worker he once was, but fans were more than happy to see him play his greatest hits night after night.
The booking and wrestling during this time were solid. The shortcoming was that the stars-in-the-making never hit their peaks. Only Orton could be considered a Hall of Famer out of the group of young wrestlers to win the title during this era.
Prestigious Resurgence – 2007-2011
For all the times WWE has talked about restoring the prestige to the IC Title, there have only been a few times when the company took noticeable steps to do so. Starting around 2007, the promotion invested time in the IC Title storylines. Perhaps more importantly, more established wrestlers got back into the mix and helped bring their gravitas to the division.
While there was still some carryover from the previous era’s hit-and-miss youngsters (Kofi Kingston, Santino Marella, Drew McIntyre), even they had more interesting storylines during their runs. Marella’s “Honk-a-Meter” measured his run against Honky Tonk Man’s record reign. McIntyre had an interesting introduction as the “chosen one.”
More importantly, there were several storylines that were near main event caliber. The best was the story between Rey Mysterio and Chris Jericho. Jericho was at his late-stage heel best with his Anton Chigurh-inspired character and carried on a highly compelling rivalry with Mysterio centered around Rey’s mask. The fact that both were former world champions with Hall of Fame resumes also helped elevate the belt.
Also in this era, CM Punk and JBL won IC Titles to enhance impressive resumes. JBL memorably dropped his belt to Mysterio at Wrestlemania in a squash that turned out to be his final match. Dolph Ziggler had his first run as IC Champion that lasted for almost six months. With established wrestlers carrying the division, it was meaningful for the rising stars who mixed in to compete with them and beat them. Add in the fact that almost every champion was an elite worker and it made for a true bounceback stretch for the belt.
Mid-Card Stability – 2011-Present
Ironically, the storyline in which Cody Rhodes brought back the white IC Title belt was the start of a period of stasis for the championship that relegated it to the mid-card. While not as acute, several of the elements of the worst IC Title eras have been present in the recent past. There were one-day reigns for The Miz and Zack Ryder that delegitimized the belt and the wrestlers. There were young wrestlers who did not maximize the opportunity, like Curtis Axel and Ryback.
Some of the high points in the last five years have been times when WWE actively tried to reset the division. Dolph Ziggler beat The Miz at SummerSlam and had two reigns that represented career high points. Daniel Bryan’s Wrestlemania XXXI win felt like a huge turning point for the IC Title, but it was rendered moot when Bryan’s injuries forced him to vacate it shortly thereafter. The Miz and Wade Barrett have combined for 10 IC Titles since 2011. Since neither is a main event-level star, the belt feels as secondary as the wrestlers who routinely exchange it.
Going forward, there is a real chance that we are in the early stages of a more positive stretch for the belt. Kevin Owens has been linked to it for the better part of a year and has helped make it feel desirable and relevant. Cesaro has returned from injury to do the same. If the upcoming WWE brand split leaves the IC Title as the top title on either Raw or Smackdown, it could entrench its value. Even if a one world champion goes between shows, it could look more like a main event, regional title in the territorial days.