COMMENTARY | Many contemporary fans consider Ric Flair to be the greatest professional wrestler in history because of his numerous World Heavyweight Championship title reigns.
Depending on which source you believe, Flair won the top prize of a major wrestling promotion anywhere from 16 to 21 times. Flair's ability to promote a big match on the mic, draw wrestling fans to arenas and televisions, and then work the match like no one else made him a favorite to carry the moniker of World Heavyweight Champion in every major promotion in which he plied his trade in his prime.
However, Ric Flair's detractors will point out that the only way he could have well over a dozen World Heavyweight Championship reigns is if he lost the title well over a dozen times as well. In fact, Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz, who were two and six-time World Heavyweight Champions respectively, each held their titles for more combined days than Flair did. Thesz's first World Heavyweight Championship title reign lasted 1,941 days and Sammartino's first reign lasted 2,803 days.
Before this debate goes any further, it's important to make several points clear. First, we are talking about scripted entertainment in which the outcomes, including the length and number of title reigns, are completely predetermined. Second, Thesz's long title reigns and Flair's numerous shorter title reigns are both products of different eras. In earlier times, wrestling fans had longer attention spans and did not get bored with the product as easily as they do today.
But perhaps the most important distinction between pro wrestling today and the industry of Lou Thesz's time is the territory system. Decades ago, the NWA World Heavyweight Champion could have a longer title reign without angering the other wrestlers backstage because they were still regional champions. In fact, an impressive match, even in a losing effort, against the World Heavyweight Champion, would help a wrestler get over with local fans.
Without dozens of regional champions pledging allegiance to the number one promotion of today, WWE, all the top WWE wrestlers are competing for the industry's top prize. To avoid backstage mutinies, the bookers and the creative team have to give all the top wrestlers a WWE title reign. That's why CM Punk's recent 434-day reign as WWE Champion seemed so long, even though it was still over six times shorter than Sammartino's longest title reign.
Despite the differences between pro wrestling of today and yesterday, I favor long title reigns over many short title reigns. When I was a kid, I remember thinking how pitiful it was that Tommy Rich was NWA World Heavyweight Champion for only a few days. But since the mid-1990s, all the top wrestling promotions have had many title reigns that were much shorter than Tommy Rich's.
Although I prefer long title reigns over many short reigns, in no way do I mean to disrespect Ric Flair or other contemporary wrestlers who have had these short title reigns. If Bruno Sammartino were wrestling today, he'd probably be a 20-time WWE Champion. But a World Heavyweight Championship reign that lasts for the better part of a decade is more impressive than having many short title reigns.
Patrick Michael lives in New Orleans and has always been a big fan of pro wrestling. Patrick's favorite wrestling promotion was Mid-South Wrestling back in the 1980s. Patrick's favorite wrestling angle of all-time was the NWO and his favorite wrestler is Roddy Piper. Follow Patrick Michael on Twitter at patmichael84.
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- Sports & Recreation
- Ric Flair
- Lou Thesz
- NWA World Heavyweight Champion