Show Stopping Perfection: The Golden Age of the I-C title.
While sharing a birthday Ice Cream Sundae with a friend at a Red Robin the other day… Wait. Sorry. Try again. While sharing a whiskey with a friend at the bar the other day, it was mentioned that the current WWE Intercontinental champion was Kofi Kingston.
We forgot, too.
Let’s be clear, in the wonderful world of pro wrestling, championships are props. Nothing more, nothing less. They are used to recognize wrestlers as the top stars, best draws, or future legends. They are how you start feuds, draw heat, or give life to a dying storyline. Yet for the people who tune in week in, week out and have done so for years and years, the various championships of pro wrestling mean absolutely everything. They have a legacy that we choose to recognize, celebrate, and debate. The WWE’s Intercontinental Championship has long been one of my personal favorite titles and the fact that I drew a blank on who dethroned Dolph Ziggler is a sad comment on the current state of a great title and it got us talking about the glory days of the I-C title and the Golden Age of 1990 to 1994.
A Perfect Champion…
When the Ultimate Warrior defeated the Immortal Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI, he was passed the torch of the World title (A torch he quickly dropped, of course.) and was forced to vacate the Intercontinental title. The ensuing tournament to crown the new champ ended with Mr. Perfect defeating a former I-C champ in Tito Santana, thus beginning the Golden Age of the title. While the previous five years saw the great Savage-Steamboat title match, the Rude-Warrior feud, and the “greatest Intercontinental champion of all-time” in the Honky Tonk Man, Mr. Perfect was a modern champion and with him the title took on a new importance. While he would try to make a run at the World title from the number one contender spot the I-C title gave you, (Remember THOSE old Torch rankings?!?!) Mr. Perfect carried the belt around his waist in way that resonated with the fans. The music, the purposeful walk to the ring, and that Perfect-Plex all pointed to the fact that this was a champion in and of himself.
With the small exception of a small Texas Tornado interruption, Perfect reigned supreme for over 400 combined days during 1990 and into 1991. There was no one else you associated more with the I-C title than Mr. Perfect. In my circle of friends, he became more of a favorite than the Red and Yellow legend we had been raised to worship. We never threw our gum away… we spit it out and swatted it away. (Never quite mastering that skill. My apologies to my Junior High School janitor who had to scrap all that gum off the ground around our lunch table.) Years before Stone Cold and HBK mastered the art of the “tweener”, Perfect was the bad guy you loved. A bad back robbed Perfect of his prime years and without the time lost due to injury he certainly would have added one or two more reigns to his resume. It still seems weird to see how many wrestlers have had more I-C reigns then Perfect. In many ways… it just doesn’t seem right, but that is a testament to the weight Perfect brought to the title. A weight that made it quite a big deal when a former tag team expert went solo and captured the belt from the Perfect Champ at SummerSlam 1991.
Bret “Hit Man” Hart was already a well-known quantity when the Hart Foundation split apart in 1991, but to get him the singles cred he needed Hart was sent straight into the I-C title picture. With Perfect’s back ailing, Hart slapped on that Sharpshooter and grabbed his first bit of solo glory. The main event of that pay-per-view was a plodding, uninteresting battle with Hulkster and Warrior taking on Sgt. Slaughter, Not Iron Shiek, and General Adnan, who appeared to be an arm drag away from death. The next day, though, the talk of the schoolyard wasn’t the blow off match of the Slaughter versus America feud or the Savage-Liz wedding, it was of the nearly twenty minute match between Perfect and Hart. Rooting for Hogan may have got a generation into wrestling, but the faster paced more athletic Intercontinental title matches were fostering a deeper love of the game.
Hart was a great champion that carried on that “cool” factor that the World title scene was lacking, which was why it was nothing short of a shocker when the news broke that The Mountie had walked away with the title at a live event two days before the ‘92 Royal Rumble… because title changes really, really meant something back then. A new champion was a changing of the guard and you always couldn’t wait to see what the new champ would look like coming to the ring with the belt on. The Mountie actually looked pretty good with it… I think. Tough to remember. If you blinked you would have missed his two day title run as one of the greatest things happened at the Rumble; “Rowdy” Roddy Piper finally became a WWF champion. Sure, it wasn’t the World title (which he didn’t need. Piper could draw without it.), but the fact that Piper, by now as large as an Icon as any one, was finally wearing gold was not viewed as a “charity” run with a secondary belt. It was viewed as a well-deserved honor. The reign was short, but sweet and it ended with perhaps the best “wrestling” match of Piper’s storied career at WrestleMania VIII when Hart recaptured the title.
Hart’s second I-C reign was as long as his first and ended with the legendary match against his brother-in-law The British Bulldog. The match was the main event of SummerSlam ‘92. The main event! While it would be easy to say the match got that spot because Bulldog was performing in front of his home country, time should not be allowed to water down the simple fact that the main event of a major pay-per-view was an Intercontinental title match. There was enough faith in that title’s importance to let it happen. Right now, that notion could not even be comprehended. We’ve seen recent pay-per-views WITHOUT an appearance by the I-C champ.
On top of the ladder…
The Intercontinental championship was riding high coming out of SummerSlam ‘92 and was probably at its peak. So, it makes sense that the belt would soon find its way into the clutches of the next big superstar, the newly christened Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels. Michaels would hold the title for over 200 days before losing it to his former partner Marty Jannetty. (Which, believe it or not, kids, was actually a pretty cool moment.) Twenty days later, Michaels was back on top and was well on his way to one of the most successful career transitions ever witnessed. Before he was a dominate I-C champ, Michaels was a popular tag team specialist best known for never winning the tag titles and hitting a nice moonsault on one of the members of the Orient Express in the opening bout of the ‘91 Royal Rumble. After driving Jannetty’s head through a “window” on the Barbershop, Michaels almost stalled out with a feud with The Model and a failed attempt to take the title from Bret Hart in July 1992. But once he became the Intercontinental champion, the “Boy Toy” started to become the “Show Stopper.” His second reign ended with a suspension for not defending the title within a 30 day period. (*Cough* Failed test. *Cough*)
Razor Ramon captured the vacated title by defeating Rick Martel in a match after the two were the last two in tournament battle royal. (Man, those Strike Force boys just couldn’t get over the tournament hump in the early-’90’s.) Ramon’s reign was long enough to matter, but certainly lacked some of the luster… the Golden Age was waning. Yet there was one final moment to add to the I-C title’s history books. Michaels returned, claiming to never have been defeated as champ. This set up the legendary… or was it vintage… ladder match. Yes, Bret, there were ladder matches before this, but this ladder match was the show stealer of WrestleMania X and wasn’t so much ahead of its time as it was an ushering in of a new age of big match expectations. Since this match ladders have been used in way more breathtaking and inventive ways, but sometimes it’s not about being the best, it’s about being first. The Michaels-Ramon ladder match was a very, very important first. Once again the Intercontinental title and the match contested to determine who should hold it was The Match of the night, the year, and the era.
From that point on, the title would fall into the hands of plodding big men, a wannabe country singer, and even a woman. For awhile it was a hot potato title that changed hands faster than you could remember who had it. It certainly carried some importance at times and there would be big matches yet to come, but it never quite seemed to be the title that everyone talked about. The WWE landscape and it’s titles have changed… maybe forever… but you have to yearn for those glory days when the wrestler wearing the Intercontinental title was never overlooked or forgotten.
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