Hi folks! Today, we are looking at the history of the WWE Intercontinental Championship. We’ll be going through this by decade so we can talk about former champions in more detail. Some say the title’s early years was its golden era, as whoever held it was considered the company’s workhorse, and they would often be next in line to challenge for the World Championship. Let’s find out if this is true.
Sixteen years after the WWWF introduced its version of the World Championship, Ted DiBiase debuted with the company and was awarded the North American Heavyweight Championship. However, the company’s fifth secondary title was short-lived. Pat Patterson defeated DiBiase five months later and held it until the end of 1979. Seiji Sakaguchi beat him in Japan, who remained the champion up to 1981, when it was quietly deactivated.
During Patterson’s reign, management awarded him the Intercontinental title as the result of a kayfabe tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, unifying his North American title with a non-existent South American title. It’s unconfirmed, but it’s likely Patterson defended the IC title in America, and the North American title elsewhere, before losing to Sakaguchi. The WWF Intercontinental Championship originally represented the continents of North & South America.
It’s often overlooked that Pat Patterson had proven to be a fighting champion. He spent this time of his career defending the title against Ted DiBiase, Dominic DeNucci, Captain Lou Albano, and more. He’d also team up with André the Giant occasionally. Patterson’s 7-month reign was pivotal in cementing the title we see today. Decades later, he was still being credited as one of the greatest champions in the title’s history. He might not have carried on in to the World title scene, yet it opened the door for him to become one of the most influential backstage workers.
In June 1980, Pat Patterson lost the title to the prominent heel Ken Patera. PWI had voted him the most hated heel of 1977, and challenged the promotion’s top champions Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund many times.
As a former strongman, Patera brought the power game to his defenses against Pat Patterson and Rene Goulet. However, he was struggling to go over other big stars (Antonio Inoki, Tony Atlas, etc.) and management wanted to capitalize on the return of Pedro Morales. Much like Patterson, the Intercontinental title did not springboard Patera to superstardom, but it kept him in the conversation of reliable mid-carders. As a crossover star, he’s an often overlooked name of the eighties, although he’s known for being arrested in 1984 and sentenced to two years for assaulting a police officer.
WWF redesigned the title during 1980. Patera is holding the original design in the picture below.
In late-1980, Morales ended his feud with Patera by becoming the Intercontinental and company’s first-ever Triple Crown Champion. He had represented the company a decade ago as its World Champion, so he didn’t need the IC title as a stepping stone because he had already reached the top. However, despite it being a secondary title, Pedro treat it with a great deal of respect and brought pride and honor to it. You could say it was the first time the title had garnered prestige via a legitimate main event star.
There’s a good chance that if Pedro hadn’t done this, the IC title may have gone the same way as other deactivated championships. He defended it against many challengers, including: Sgt. Slaughter, The Hangman, Moondog King & Rex, and Killer Khan. The first major rivalry in the title’s history began in mid-1981 between Morales and the man who took it from him, “The Rock” Don Muraco. He would later make history again. Not only by becoming the first two-time champion, but by setting the record for the longest overall reign, which still stands to this day. Morales holds the redesigned title belt in the below picture.
After becoming a star in the NWA against legends like Jack Brisco & Barry Windham, Don Muraco burst on to the WWF scene by defeating Pedro Morales for the Intercontinental title. It began a feud over the championship, and the two fought in a Texas Death match which resulted in Pedro Morales becoming the first wrestler to reclaim it. Throughout 1982, Pedro fended off even more challengers, like Greg Valentine, Adrian Adonis, Mr. Fuji, Bob Orton Jr, Jimmy Snuka, and Buddy Rose. Meanwhile, Muraco split his duties between Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, Georgia Championship Wrestling, and New Japan. In January 1983, now managed by Captain Lou Albano, Muraco returned to the WWF and defeated Morales; this was Pedro’s last prosperous run.
Muraco moved on to a feud with Jimmy Snuka, which many will remember for the legendary steel cage match seen by a young, future Hall of Famer Mick Foley. Other than Snuka, Muraco had bloody feuds with WWF Champion Bob Backlund, Tony Atlas, and Rocky Johnson. He spent more than a calendar year as one of the WWF’s most successful heels, before losing the title to Tito Santana in February 1984. Muraco’s reigns didn’t lead to greater accomplishments, yet we could say that he was the first heel to hold the title for a long time. When fans remember him, they often look at the way he arrogantly dominated opponents in 1983.
It’s hard to describe how popular Tito Santana was to anyone who didn’t live through the times. While not on the level of WWF Champion Hulk Hogan, he was very well-liked by fans, and his 1984 reign helped to continue the flourishing legacy of the title. He defended it against all comers, including his rival Greg Valentine, and others like Paul Orndorff, J.J Dillon, and Bob Orton Jr. – What was different about this feud (compared to Morales/Muraco) was that Valentine kept trying and failing to claim the title, but he eventually pulled it off in September. Santana suffered a knee injury and returned in December with his sights set on reclaiming.
In July 1985, Santana finally got it back from Valentine in a steel cage. The feud continued between Santana & Valentine, but the title stayed on him. In October 1985, Santana went to a count out draw with Randy Savage, and in early ‘86, would lose the title to him. Santana failed in at least three more title shots against him, which ended his reign as a singles star, before moving on to working in the tag team division. To this day, Tito is cited as one of the greatest Intercontinental Champions of all time.
- It’s unknown when the WWF introduced the green title design. I would say it was just before or during Santana’s first reign.
All of his previous accomplishments had been in the NWA, so predicting that Vince McMahon’s national expansion would succeed, he signed with the WWF. In terms of singles competition, Valentine’s best run was as the Intercontinental Champion, especially any time he faced off against Tito Santana. He was the first wrestler to defend the title at WrestleMania, although he did so controversially against the Junkyard Dog.
Following his steel cage match loss to Santana, Valentine lost his cool, destroyed the title belt, and went down the same road as his rival by turning to the tag team division. Management wanted to introduce a new title design, which would become the longest serving representation for 12 long years. Tito Santana was the first to hold this version of the title, as they purposely made it with him in mind. So far, nobody who had won the title had used it as a platform to win the WWF Championship.
It took over five years for a future WWF Champion to claim the Intercontinental. Often named the greatest IC champion of the era, “Macho Man” Randy Savage not only defined what it meant to defend a title, but what it meant to be a superstar in the making. After cheating to win over Santana (with a steel object), management thrust Savage in to the main event scene despite holding the secondary title. He had matches with Hulk Hogan and Bruno Sammartino, along with defending the title against George “Animal” Steele (at WrestleMania 2), Pedro Morales, Jake Roberts and Ricky Steamboat.
414 days into his reign, Randy Savage made history by becoming the first champion to defend the title at a second consecutive WrestleMania. The match with Ricky Steamboat went down in history as one of the greatest of all time, largely in part because of Randy’s highly choreographed style. Going in to WrestleMania III, it was all about Hogan vs. Andre, yet one of the major talking points afterward was the excellent performance by Savage & Steamboat. He may have lost the title, but the Macho Man had stamped his mark on it forever. One year later, he won a tournament to claim the WWF Championship, becoming the first man to use the IC title as a stepping stone to glory.
While Ricky Steamboat is one of the hardest workers of all time, his reign left much to be desired. Why did it falter? Because he was expecting his first son and wanted some time off. Vince McMahon didn’t like this because the company had built him up for a long time to be a top star. His biggest defense was against Randy Savage in a steel cage in May 1987.
They were going to make Steamboat drop the title to Butch Reed, but when he didn’t show up, they instead passed it on to Honky Tonk Man. The Dragon returned months later, but management didn’t want to push him (Steamboat has said in interviews that they didn’t appreciate his sabbatical or one upping the Hogan/Andre match), and he would leave the company in 1989. He is the shortest reigning intercontinental champion of the 80s.
Honky Tonk Man
In case you don’t know what a closet champion is, it means a heel who will do anything and everything to defend their title. If that means cheating, getting disqualified, or running away from a fight, it makes them a closet champ. The Honky Tonk Man didn’t mind cutting corners because it got him mountains of heat. Few can say they had the heat he got, which is why he’s often in the mix whenever fans talk about the greatest ever Intercontinental Champions. He didn’t have many memorable matches, but his character is remembered. Yes, he’s an Elvis Presley rip off, but he somehow made it his own and got over.
To this day, he holds the record for the longest single reign in title history. We want to talk about workhorses, yet it’s ironic that the record setter was anything but that. He kept the title by cheating against the likes of Randy Savage (many times!), Ricky Steamboat, Jake Roberts, Brutus Beefcake, Hillbilly Jim, Jim Duggan, and more. The only opponent he couldn’t handle? The next guy.
The Ultimate Warrior
The Ultimate Warrior has the distinction of being the least skilled wrestler to hold the title, while also being one of the most popular. He was undefeated on TV, and would only lose dark matches or because of a count out. At SummerSlam ‘88, he defeated the longest reigning champion, The Honky Tonk Man. However, he didn’t springboard to the top right away. To reach the next level, he had to learn how to bounce back from a loss, and that meant suffering defeat to Rick Rude at WrestleMania V. He had to fight to get back in to contention, and he reclaimed the title at SummerSlam ‘89. This marks the first time a wrestler has won the title at two consecutive SummerSlam events.
From this point on, his popularity soared so high it rivaled Hulkamania. The Ultimate Warrior challenged Hulk Hogan in a title vs. title match, and the winner would stand on top of the world as the undisputed champion. In his second reign, Warrior retained against many jobbers, Honky Tonk Man, André the Giant and Tully Blanchard. There’s no doubt that Hogan was his biggest opponent to date, and Warrior shocked the world by ending him to become both the WWF & Intercontinental Champion.
Nobody had done it before, and out of respect for the WWF title, Warrior dropped the IC title so he could focus on it. Therefore, the championship had achieved more than anybody imagined. A fresh face had taken it all the way to the main event of WrestleMania to become the World Champion. Would it ever happen again? Unlikely, but if it did, there’s no way it would ever match the hype of Warrior vs. Hogan.
The last man on the list is “Ravishing” Rick Rude, and few could say they defeated Ultimate Warrior for a title. Yes, he had help from Bobby Heenan, but he only lost the title because of Roddy Piper. So while he didn’t hold the Intercontinental title for as long as others in the 80s, he left an indelible impression on the business. It didn’t help him get on the path to the WWF title, but he won many others later in WCW. He lived off the reputation garnered during his run in the company between 1987 and 1990. Aside from defending the title many times against Warrior in dark matches, he retained against Jim Duggan and others.
In conclusion, the WWE Intercontinental Champions of the 1980s were some of the greatest. Six of the eight longest reigning (in order) of all time include: Pedro Morales, Don Muraco, Honky Tonk Man, Tito Santana, Ultimate Warrior and Randy Savage. However, only two of the eleven listed would win the WWF Championship. In a decade, the title went all the way from a fictional tournament in Brazil, to the main event of WrestleMania. Is this as good as it gets? Find out next time, when we look at the Intercontinental Champions of the 90s. See you then, and thank you for reading!
…To Be Continued.