Although numerous titles in many different promotions have used the term "World Heavyweight Championship", it is almost exclusively used as a moniker for the title that is under competition between the main event wrestlers. Despite the name, the territorial nature of early professional wrestling meant that few promotions could actually claim the "World" part of the title, in the sense that the title could potentially be defended against any challenger anywhere in the world. Thus, few belts are considered to be "world championship" belts.
The presence of a title considered to be a World Heavyweight Championship is one of the factors that makes its promotion one of the major promotions in professional wrestling. However, it is to be noted that numerous major promotions have top championships that are not considered world (nor heavyweight) championships, and the presence of a world championship in a promotion's shows does not instantly make a promotion a major one, as a World Heavyweight Championship may be shared between several promotions.
Most of the recognized World Heavyweight Championships today are derived from the version held by Georg Hackenschmidt in 1905 and Frank Gotch in 1908. In particular, many of the titles considered major today have some connection to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, created in 1948. In particular, all three of North America's largest promotions in the 1990s (WWF, WCW, and ECW) had top belts that were spun off from the NWA lineage.
Nomenclature of World Heavyweight Championships
The term "World Heavyweight Championship" can apply to any major belt in general, or to a specific belt in particular. This often creates confusion, as is the case of Ric Flair, who is billed as a 16-time World Heavyweight Champion but does not have 16 reigns of any single world championship title.
The name of the promotion is often prepended to the phrase "World Heavyweight Championship" as the championship's complete name (as in the WWE World Heavyweight, WCW World Heavyweight, or ECW World Heavyweight Championships) - however some are correctly known simply as the "World Heavyweight Championship" without qualification, possibly because they are competed for in promotions where an existing World Heavyweight Championship is present (as was the case of the American Wrestling Association in the 1960s and 1970s and World Wrestling Entertainment today). The NWA Championship is often quoted as the "World's Heavyweight Wrestling Championship", and the physical title belt itself carries this moniker.
List of World Heavyweight Championships
Numerous promotions have claimed their top championship belts as "World Heavyweight Championships" but are not considered to be world titles. Unfortunately, due to no official universally accepted method of determining what constitutes a world title, there is no way to determine who truly has world title status. The most commonly agreed upon "World Heavyweight Championships" are those recognized by Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine
Meanwhile, other belts have recognition as a "world championship" despite not being a "World Heavyweight Championship". These other world titles often include various other classifications, including weight classes (e.g., World Cruiserweight Championship) or stipulations (e.g., World Television Championship).
Often, subordinate belts to world titles are designated as national, international, or regional titles. Examples of this include the WWE Intercontinental Championship (an international title subordinate to the WWE Championship), the NWA North American Heavyweight Championship (a regional title subordinate to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship), and the WCW United States Heavyweight Championship (a national title subordinate to the WCW World Heavyweight Championship).
Active World Heavyweight Championships
There are currently eight titles that are recognized as World Heavyweight Championships (according to Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine. These are championships that have been internationally defended.) These titles are:
- AWA World Heavyweight Championship - the top championship of what many consider to be the leading promotion of the 1960s. The title was defunct from 1991-1996, then was revived for AWA Superstars of Wrestling.
- TNA World Heavyweight Championship - claims lineage of Hackenschmidt's 1905 and Gotch's 1908 version, defended in multiple territories and promotions since 1948, currently being used in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. Although it was stripped of its World Title status by PWI in the 1990s, with the recent success of TNA, PWI restored its World Title status officially in its August 2006 issue. This status has changed over time and continues to have an on-again, off-again World title.
- ROH World Championship - Established in 2002 with the development of the new promotion, the title earned World Status in 2003 when it was defended in the United Kingdom by then-champion Samoa Joe.
- WWE Championship - originally titled the World Wide Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Championship, the belt was spun off from the NWA in 1963 when WWWF left the National Wrestling Alliance. The WWWF rejoined the NWA in 1971, and until 1983, the WWWF (later WWF) title was demoted to regional status. In subsequent years, all holders of the title during that time period have been recognized as having held a world championship. This title was temporarily known as the WWE Undisputed Championship when it was merged with the WCW World Heavyweight Championship and is now known simply as the WWE Championship (without "World Heavyweight" in its title) once Eric Bischoff reactivated the World Heavyweight Championship. It is currently defended on WWE's Smackdown! brand.
- World Heavyweight Championship (WWE) - spun off from the WWE Undisputed Championship, with disputed claim to the WCW World Heavyweight Championship lineage. This title was made for the WWE's RAW brand when the WWE Championship was made exclusive to their SmackDown! brand, but has since switched to RAW during the 2005 Draft Lottery.
Defunct/Discontinued World Heavyweight Titles
- WCW World Heavyweight Championship - NWA World heavyweight champion Ric Flair was recognized as the first WCW World heavyweight champion in January 1991, when WCW was in the process of separating from the NWA. Flair held both titles briefly before leaving WCW over a creative dispute in July of that year. The title was unified with the WWE Championship in 2001.
- WCW International World Heavyweight Championship - After withdrawing from the NWA, WCW changed the name of the NWA World heavyweight title to the WCW International World heavyweight title, declaring it to be the World heavyweight title of WCW International, one of its (fictitious) subsidiaries. It was awarded to NWA World heavyweight champion Rick Rude after WCW severed all ties with the NWA; then unified with the WCW World heavyweight title in 1994.
- WWA World Heavyweight Championship - The WWA World heavyweight title was the premiere title for World Wrestling All-Stars, a short-lived company that thrived in world title status due to the fact it was defended outside of its country of origin more than in it. It was then unified with the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in 2003.
- ECW World Heavyweight Championship - spun off from the NWA belt when Shane Douglas, after being crowned the NWA champion, rejected the NWA title in favor of ECW's own title. The title earned world title status in 1999. It was defunct from 2001-2006, but was recently revived by WWE for their ECW brand.
Other World Titles not recognized by PWI
Other titles claiming the name, but are not recognised by PWI include:
- 1PW World Heavyweight Championship – Formerly the top championship on the British promotion 1 Pro Wrestling. Claimed its status as a World Heavyweight title after it was defended in the United States but is now retired due to 1PW's liquidation.
- CZW World Heavyweight Championship – Combat Zone Wrestling's top title. Claims its status as a World Heavyweight title after it was defended in Japan, Germany, England, Mexico, Ireland and Italy - as well as America. The championship changed hands in all of those countries except Japan.
- NWA World Heavyweight Championship – Recognized by the National Wrestling Association from 1929 to 1949. It was unified with the National Wrestling Alliance's World title.
- Omaha World Heavyweight Championship – Recognized by promoters in Omaha, Nebraska in the late 1950s and early 1960s, following a dispute regarding the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. The Omaha version of the World Heavyweight Championship was unified with the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on September 7, 1963.
- PWG World Championship – The top championship in the Southern California promotion Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Claims its status as a World Heavyweight title after it was defended in Kent, England and Essen, Germany on the European Vacation tour of 2006.
- wXw World Heavyweight Championship – The top championship in the German promotion westside Xtreme wrestling. Claims its status as a World Heavyweight title after it was defended in the United States, Austria and various other European countries, the title changing hands in matches in the United States and Austria.
- XPW World Heavyweight Championship – Was never an official world title, yet called one, and had world on the physical title.