Traveling champions

I was born about a month after Flair won his first NWA championship, so he was always at the forefront of the NWA/proto-WCW title picture in my experience. I’ve read quite a bit about how the NWA model revolved around a so-called "traveling champion" and why having a heel carry the belt for prolonged periods was (*GROAN*) best for business in that particular era. That said, a couple questions:

*Did any faces enjoy lengthy world championship reigns during the pre-Flair era? (I’ve read the title lineage, but can’t divine who was a face/heel at what point.)

*If so, how–if at all–did the various territories react? Seems the tried-and-true Flair model boiled down to "red-hot regional hero steps up to hated heel champion, goes down fighting/gets screwed over/scores upset victory/etc." With a babyface champion making the rounds, did more promotions push a heel into the top spot, or did they simply run face vs face title matches?

​Lou Thesz was mostly a babyface in his home territories, but when he was doing the travel he wrestled as a "rough babyface" who would be mostly a heel. Really, the logic is sound, because local fans want to see their top babyface challenge for the title, not their top heel. Flair was obviously a much more exaggerated heel for a new era, but typically the longest title reigns were guys who get heat in the local area because the formula worked so damn well. But yes, in the case of babyface champions, they’d just do scientific face v. face matches. ​

  • Tough to come into a town and beat up their guys and be the face, I would wager.

    • The G*d D*mn John Petrie

      It was all about their rep. Guys like Harley Race, or the Funks, they were mostly seen as real tough sumbitches. You might boo him going up against your local guy, but you respected them as champion.

      • tzunset

        And anyway, how often did guys like Funk and Race actually cheat? They wrestled dirty, but they were booked to be credible.

    • Rick Ross

      Alternatively the traveling face champion could be the babyface after being challenged by the local heel.

      • Telthorst

        Except you completely missed Scott and history’s point….yes, the local heel could be the challenger but the “local guy” is always going to be a face in some respect (who doesn’t want to cheer “their” guy vs. the national champ?). Knowing this impulse was true, it was much better for ticket sales to have the national guy already be a heel, so “their guy” was a face, making him even more desirable to cheer.

  • tzunset

    The one I’m curious about is Gene Kiniski.

    Here was a big, Killer Kowalski-type brawling heel in an era when traveling champions were usually smaller technicians. Was he booked the same way that Thesz had been (and that Dory Jr. and Brisco would be later)?

  • Rick Ross

    I always had a problem with the dominant heel champion model. My main issue with it is that it makes the babyface’s look like idiots who always get outsmarted. The second problem is that it displeases the fans who you want to go home happy.

    The New York method of having dominant babyface champions like Bruno and Hogan meant that fans had somebody to get behind long term. Instead of having a babyface dork of the month lose constantly, you built up a new monster challenger for the well loved champion to get behind. This strategy was also proven to draw more money/merchandise.

    • markn95

      I agree with you but the *travelling* heel champion business model had its place in the territory days. You’d only see the NWA World Heavyweight Champion 6-7 times a year in your local promotion so he didn’t suck all the oxygen out of the territory. In the meantime, I’m sure most territories ran with a face as their week-to-week top star. That face probably also dominated the territory’s top belt (e.g., the Mid Atlantic and Florida titles). Sure, the top guy would often come up short against the NWA champion, but with DQ’s, countouts, time limit draws, 2/3 fall matches and even “biased NWA referees”, local bookers had plenty of ways to protect their top stars.

    • The_Bo

      Don’t forget, a lot of the time these matches would end in 60 minute draws with the face looking dominant. I’m sure fans still went home happy.

      Also, I don’t think they bothered with merch in the territory days.

      • I think you’re forgetting the famous George Hackenschmidt foam finger…

    • DNice

      It’s actually all the same model. New York was a territory, just like Georgia, Memphis, Dallas or Florida. In a territory, the faces would typically have the belts so that the house shows would end on a positive note like you mentioned. And back then, there was definitely no merchandise, so the only thing that mattered was how much money came in from tickets sold.

    • PatJames387

      The wwe really should go back to this

      • Daniel Swinney

        I think they want to but they want it to be the guy they pick, not the guy(s) the fans pick.

        • brak_attack

          I was just about to say this. Who was the last face champion they had that was universally liked by the live audience? Dean Ambrose? And before that….who? Daniel Bryan? And before that, Punk? Few and far between when you consider the length of time.

    • Bill Yanney

      Babyface usually won by DQ/countout to send crowd home happy.

  • Hbkslush

    Jack Brisco would definitely be the NWA champ who I would think of as the “travelling babyface”. Was pretty hard to boo him at that point in time, though he was able to do so later when tagging with his brother Gerald (gee, I wonder why?).

    • The Silver Fox

      That Steamboat/Youngblood vs The Briscos was a very good, and surprisingly, emotional feud.

  • slapdabass

    I heard a story the other day about the Funk/Brisco feud. They would play with the audio of the clips they showed on local TV so it sounded like Brisco was the face in Florida and Funk was the face in Texas no matter what the actual crowd was doing.

  • Supermark25

    I was born the same day Flair won his first title. About 100 Mikes away as a matter of fact. Go us old men, emailer.

    • Comdukakis

      That’s only about three mikes less than we have posting on the blog

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