Winning the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship often cemented legacies in the annals of professional wrestling history. But what happened once former NWA World Champions jumped ship to the WWWF, WWF, or WWE? We examine just how much success these past champions had up north, compared to their successes found in the NWA. As you’ll find, many of these legends never saw the same height of success once under the thumb of Vince McMahon.
1. Buddy Rogers
In 1961, Buddy Rogers won the NWA World Title from Pat O’Connor, ending a near 3-year reign for O’Connor.
Although Rogers is recognized as a 500+ day champion, he lost the title to Killer Kowalski a few times in Montreal. Despite this, Northeast promoters refuse to acknowledge these title losses.
“Officially,” Buddy Rogers lost the belt to Lou Thesz in January of ’63.
After Thesz defeated Rogers for the NWA World Heavyweight Title, Northeast promoters Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon, Sr. withdrew their membership from the NWA to form the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, now WWE). Mondt and McMahon, Sr. felt Thesz wasn’t a strong draw in their territory. Therefore the WWWF billed ‘The Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers as their first world champion after Buddy defeated Antonio Rocca in a fictional tournament in Rio De Janeiro.
Due to purported health issues, Buddy Rogers lost the WWWF title after 22 days, dropping the strap to Bruno Sammartino in a controversial 48-second match.
His time in the WWWF may have been short, but Buddy Rogers will always be a part of wrestling history and recognized as the first-ever world champion in WWE history. He is also one of only three wrestlers in history to have won both the NWA and the WWE title. We will get to the other two later in this list.
2. Dory Funk Jr.
A one-time NWA World Champion, Dory Funk Jr. held the NWA title for well over four years, making Funk’s reign the second-longest in NWA history.
On February 11th, 1969, the talented older brother of Terry Funk won the coveted NWA gold, beating Gene Kiniski with a spinning toe hold. After retaining his belt for 1,563 days, he was forced to drop the strap to Harley Race in 1973 due to a legitimate motorcycle injury that Dory sustained earlier that year.
After leaving the NWA, he spent the next decade and a half in All Japan Pro Wrestling.
In 1986, Dory moved over to the WWF to work alongside brother Terry and manager Jimmy Hart. Now going by the name “Hoss” Funk, his run in the WWF is largely forgettable.
Dory started teaming with kayfabe brother Jimmy Jack Funk soon after, feuding with the British Bulldogs. Dory had his final WWF match in August of ’87 – about half a year after his debut.
In the modern-day, he is mostly overshadowed by his younger brother Terry Funk, yet, Dory Jr. should be remembered for having a huge legacy of his own.
3. Terry Funk
The Funks are still, to date, the only brothers to hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
These days, Terry Funk is regarded as a hardcore legend who sacrificed his body for pro wrestling. However, in 1975, outside of his father’s Western States Sports promotion in Amarillo, Texas, he was much less well-known, so putting the title on Funk would cement a new star.
Funk was champion for 14 months, defending the title across the United States, Australia, Singapore, Canada, Japan, and more – facing off against the likes of Giant Baba, Pat O’Connor, and Jack Brisco.
Like Dory Jr., he lost the belt to Harley Race in Toronto in February 1977.
Terry Funk first wrestled for the WWF in 1985 and ‘86, often teaming with the other Funks, Jimmy Jack and “Hoss.” Terry was a solid performer who feuded with JYD, competed in the Wrestling Classic tournament, and even had some WWF title matches against Hulk Hogan.
After having memorable runs in WCW, Japan, and NWA Eastern/ECW, Funk returned to the WWF in 1998 as Chainsaw Charlie. Here, he teamed with Cactus Jack to memorably be pushed off the stage whilst inside a dumpster. They also beat the New Age Outlaws at WrestleMania 14 for the WWF Tag Team titles.
Terry Funk talks about the inspiration behind his Chainsaw Charlie persona in his book, More Than Just Hardcore:
“I got ready for my big debut on Raw that Monday night in December,” Funk began. “The plan was for me to come out of a box. Bruce Prichard, one of the backstage guys, was describing to me what they wanted me to do.
“I said, ‘That’s it? You just want me to come out of the box?’
“‘Well, yeah,’ he said. ‘Just come out of the box. Do you want to come out as anything?’
“Before my brain could fully process the question, my lips blurted out, ‘Chainsaw Charlie! Get me a chainsaw, so I can go out there!’
“I can’t explain it. It just popped into my mind.
“They asked me what I wanted to wear and then got me some Levi jeans and a pair of suspenders. I already had a red shirt, so I kept that. Then, they got me a woman’s pantyhose stocking and some baby powder to put on my head, all at my request (what an idiot). I guess I could have just gone out there without anything over my head, but I wouldn’t have been Chainsaw Charlie with Terry Funk’s head, would I? I’d have been Chainsaw Terry!
“I came out of that box with my chainsaw and my stocking over my head, and the crowd, expecting some great surprise, let out a sound that seemed strangely reminiscent of escaping gas. I had visions of coming out to a tremendous roar, but that wasn’t exactly the reaction I got.”
Ultimately, Terry did not do a whole lot while with the WWF. He’d soon be off to spend the majority of the rest of his career on the independent circuit.
4. Harley Race
Harley Race has his own special reserve in NWA history. The first recognized 4-, 5-, 6-, 7- and 8-time title-holder, Race was the first owner of the “10 Pounds of Gold” incarnation of the title belt. With all this, it is fair to say that Race carved out a huge legacy.
Holding the belt for a combined total of 1,801 days, simply put – Race was an icon of the National Wrestling Alliance.
Coming off his revolutionary run in the NWA and a stint in the AWA, Race landed in the WWF in 1986.
In this era, the company generally did not acknowledge other companies’ existence, so it had to find another way of instantly getting Race over – the King of The Ring tournament.
After being crowned “King Harley” at the second-ever King of the Ring in 1986, he donned a cape and crown and entered the ring to the sound of “The Great Gates of Kiev.”
WWF Entrance Video for King Harley Race Featuring the Song, “The Great Gates of Kiev”:
Harley Race was now established as a threat to the top tier of babyfaces, forcing his opponents to bow to him or kiss his feet. With Bobby Heenan at his side, Race beat JYD at the historic WrestleMania 3 before moving on to rivaling with Hulk Hogan.
Unfortunately, Race received an injury when hitting a table during a brawl with Hogan. A visible scar on his chest appeared after the metal edge forced itself into the abdomen of the former ‘Handsome’ one. This hernia put Harley out of action for nearly a year, with Haku taking over as the WWF’s resident king.
Race fought the future Meng upon his return for the royal honor but lost. This was the end of Harley Race in the WWF as the pioneer of the diving headbutt moved to WCW soon after.
5. Dusty Rhodes
The NWA’s biggest babyface Dusty Rhodes was a multi-time NWA World Champion, facing the top villains and fighting for justice. The ‘Common Man’ was just a blue-collar working Joe like the viewers, so Dusty endeared himself to the fans massively.
As one of the hottest prospects of the ’70s and ’80s, Rhodes made himself a household name for his memorable ‘Hard Times’ promo, determined-spirit, and matches against the likes of Harley Race, Ric Flair, and Nikita Koloff.
Watch Dusty Rhodes Deliver His Famous “Hard Times” Promo:
A three-time NWA Champion (four including a run as the Midnight Rider), The American Dream was still hot when the WWF snatched him up in 1989.
Rhodes had previously worked in the WWF as a top challenger to then-WWF World Champion Billy Graham, but in 1989, he was portrayed very differently.
Seemingly as a punishment for becoming a top star everywhere else, Dusty was now a dancing goof, donned with polka dots for the kids. This rib from Vince McMahon did not let Dusty reach the top of the WWF, and he was used mainly as a mid-card talent.
After finishing a feud with the Honky Tonk Man, Dusty gained a manager in that of Sapphire. Rhodes and Sapphire teamed up to defeat Randy Savage and Sherri Martel at WrestleMania 6 in a mixed tag match.
Eventually, the Savage/Rhodes rivalry wrapped up (with Savage having won most of the matches), and the American Dream lost ‘Sweet’ Sapphire as the Million Dollar Man bought her out.
Dusty brought his son in afterward as he and a young Dustin Rhodes battled rivals Ted DiBiase and Virgil, culminating at the 1991 Royal Rumble before Dusty moved to WCW.
Whilst he was certainly popular, the WWF audience never truly got to see what could be achieved by 289-Pounds of Blue-Eyed Soul. Completely revamping Dusty into a comedic relief due to petty resentment, rather than making him a top star like he had been prior, was a missed opportunity. A certified main eventer in the NWA, a booker in WCW, and a legend in TNA and ECW – he never quite made it in WWE. However, he is rightfully treated like a deity in the years since being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, having an annual NXT tag tournament named after him, and having a gold statue created in his image.
6. Ric Flair
Ric Flair is the biggest star to ever come out of the NWA. With 14 documented title wins, Flair was the foil to almost every babyface that passed through.
Drawing wherever he went, Flair had a larger-than-life personality, astounding promo skills, and brilliant in-ring work. Whether he was main-eventing the first-ever wrestling pay-per-view (Starrcade), battling Ricky Steamboat in their epic trilogy, or dictating over the company in the Four Horsemen – Flair was the man; and in the NWA, to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.
After a disagreement with WCW booker Bill Watts, Flair jumped to the WWF in 1991, memorably bringing the Big Gold Belt NWA title along with him. He was immediately established as a top guy in the company.
Before 1992’s Royal Rumble, it was announced that the winner would win the vacant WWF World Heavyweight Championship. After entering at #3, the “Real World’s Champion” Ric Flair lasted just over an hour to become crowned the WWF World Champion.
In his book, To Be The Man, Flair mentioned that he didn’t know he would win the title until arriving at the arena the day of the event. He felt that he was brought in at #3 in a bid to showcase his skills and endurance to the WWF audience, who may not have watched his work in Jim Crocket Promotions/WCW.
Watch Ric Flair Celebrate his 1992 Royal Rumble WWF Championship Victory:
Flair would return to WCW in 1993 for eight years and later come back to the WWF on November 19, 2001, after an eight-month hiatus from the ring.
During this stretch, he was a member of Evolution and a constant presence until his "retirement" from wrestling in 2008.
By the end of his WWE run, Ric Flair was a two-time WWF/E Champion, a Royal Rumble winner, a three-time Tag Team Champion, an Intercontinental Champion, a two-time WWE Hall of Famer, the 13th Triple Crown champion, as well as being honored with a bronze statue.
Flair’s legacy has since grown to celebrity status in a way that would not have been possible had it not been for his time in the WWF/WWE.
7. Kerry Von Erich
When one mentions wrestling families, the Von Erichs are sure to be high on that list. The Von Erichs became one of the most respected, beloved, and high-profile acts of the NWA, largely due to their rivalry with the Fabulous Freebirds.
One of the most popular and successful members of the family was Kerry Von Erich. The fans so revered the honorable Kerry that he instantly made whoever he was feuding with the company’s most hated wrestler.
Kerry’s biggest career highlight was on May 6th, 1984, when he defeated Ric Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in a historic match in front of over 45,000 fans at Texas Stadium. Kerry’s victory was a tribute to his brother David, who had tragically died three months earlier. The arena erupted when Von Erich got the win, proving just how revered and respected the brother was.
Kerry would drop the title back to Flair 18 days later in Yokosuka, Japan. This match had a controversial finish as Von Erich’s feet were on the bottom rope following a reversed roll-up, but the referee ignored this and made the count in Flair’s favor. Kerry has the 12th shortest NWA World Championship reign in history.
After finishing up his multi-company feud with Jerry Lawler, Von Erich moved on to the WWF, being redubbed “The Texas Tornado.”
Almost immediately, he won the Intercontinental Championship, defeating Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam 1990.
Holding the workhorse belt for three months, he eventually dropped it back to Perfect.
The ‘Modern Day Warrior’ had great performances at the next big four pay-per-views, but afterward, he began to freefall down the card.
After facing Ric Flair on UK house shows, Kerry had his first lopsided loss when squashed by the Undertaker in a sub-four-minute match. In little time, Kerry was put on the same card placement as the likes of Skinner, The Berzerker, and Colonel Mustafa before having his last pay-per-view match at 1992’s Royal Rumble. Von Erich was soon facing, and often losing to, low-card performers before exiting the company in 1992.
The former NWA Champion was originally pushed strong in the WWF before his personal demons led to them losing interest in him. Other factors working against Kerry include the stripping of his name (the very thing that made him famous) as well as a previous motorcycle incident that led to the amputation of his right foot in 1986. He was secretly working his entire WWF run with a prosthetic leg. Tragically, Von Erich would take his life only a year after his exit from the WWF – leaving behind a massive legacy as the face of WCCW but never reaching his full potential up north.
8. Ronnie Garvin
Ronnie Garvin is quite the oddity in terms of NWA World Heavyweight Champions. ‘Hands of Stone’ was a one-off transitional NWA champion in 1987.
With that year’s Starrcade going up against Survivor Series, the NWA wanted to have Ric Flair win the world’s title at the company’s biggest event of the year, but the issue was that the ‘Nature Boy’ was already the champion. Nobody wanted to be the transitional champion at this time, so Garvin stepped in. Ronnie was 42 at the time and saw this as perhaps his final opportunity at a major title.
Ronnie would lose the strap two months later to Flair.
‘Rugged’ Ronnie Garvin debuted in the WWF in 1988 but was not used as if he was a world champion elsewhere. He would last less than three minutes in the 1989 Royal Rumble and would lose to Dino Bravo at WrestleMania 5 in just over 3 minutes. Afterward, Garvin moved onto the biggest feud of his WWF run against Greg Valentine.
‘The Hammer’ would eventually defeat ‘Rugged’ Ronnie in a retirement match in April 1989, forcing Garvin into a role as a referee.
Ronnie Garvin would eventually be fired from his role as referee due to his physicality on the wrestlers.
At SummerSlam 1989, Garvin was the guest ring announcer for Greg Valentine’s match against Hercules. Ronnie would insult Valentine and not declare Greg as the winner before knocking out ‘The Hammer’ with a single shot.
Garvin returned to action at that year’s Survivor Series in a losing effort with his team.
At the 1990 Royal Rumble, Garvin emerged victorious over Greg Valentine in a submission match, thus putting an end to this feud. Garvin would leave the WWF in November 1990, amidst a feud with Rick Martel.
9. Barry Windham
Although he had previously wrestled in the WWF, it was the NWA where Barry Windham really made his name. As an integral member of the Four Horsemen, he is one of the most memorable wrestlers of that faction’s eclectic talent pool.
When Ric Flair left for the WWF, Barry became a solo star.
At SuperBrawl III in 1993, Windham defeated The Great Muta to win the NWA World Title before losing it to a returning ‘Nature Boy’ five months later.
A few years later, Windham returned to the WWF for a third run.
Returning as a former jungle soldier with camouflaged attire and face paint, Windham was repackaged as “The Stalker.”
Watch a WWF Debut Vignette for “The Stalker” Barry Windham:
Surprisingly depicted as a fan favorite, Windham only had a single pay-per-view appearance under this gimmick at Survivor Series 1996.
Goldust eliminated him in a match most memorable for the debut of Rocky Maivia (later known, of course, as The Rock).
After “The Stalker” experiment failed, Windham teamed up with Bradshaw to form the New Blackjacks to honor Barry’s father, Blackjack Mulligan.
In this role, the former Horsemen dyed his hair and mustache black. The duo had multiple tag title opportunities but to no avail. Eventually, Barry turned on JBL to join the short-lived Jim Cornette NWA faction before Windham left WWF months later.
Barry Windham managed to stand out amongst some of the biggest wrestlers of the era in the NWA. However, the WWF just never seemed to know what to do with him.
10. Shane Douglas
Shane Douglas may be the shortest reigning NWA World Heavyweight Champion, holding it for only a matter of minutes, but he is one of the most memorable and significant ones.
Winning the vacant belt in a title tournament on August 27th, 1994, Douglas defeated Taz, Dean Malenko, and finally 2 Cold Scorpio to earn the strap before grabbing a microphone.
Douglas named former NWA Champions such as Ricky Steamboat, Dusty Rhodes, and Harley Race before claiming they can all kiss his ass and throwing down the belt. Stating he did not want to be the world champion of a "dead promotion," he held up the ECW belt, declaring it a world title. The newly named Extreme Championship Wrestling became its own entity, breaking off from the National Wrestling Alliance.
Landing in the WWF in 1995, the mega-popular ECW star was now repackaged as Dean Douglas with a paddle-wielding teacher’s gimmick.
The former Dynamic Dude had actually wrestled for the WWF in 1990-1991 as Shane Douglas – a lower card babyface. The college dean was quickly placed in a feud with Razor Ramon, whom Dean beat at In Your House 3.
Likely the most memorable moment of Douglas’s WWF run, he was supposed to face Shawn Michaels for the Intercontinental Championship at In Your House 4. However, due to the Syracuse incident where several marines allegedly assaulted HBK, Michaels had to relinquish the belt to Douglas.
Dean lost it after 14 minutes after a controversial finish. Nonetheless, it was a win for Razor Ramon.
He was the first eliminated in his match at Survivor Series before slipping down the card. Eventually, a serious muscle spasm in his back was discovered, and despite doctors telling Vince McMahon of its severity, Vince tried to intimidate Douglas into denial. He would soon later be fired and has claimed he will never work with McMahon ever again. Douglas has often sighted The Kliq’s backstage politicking as something that hindered him and kept him down.
Today, Douglas is seen as one of the most integral wrestlers in ECW history and has had a popular run in WCW and later in TNA. His run in the Federation is generally regarded as one of the biggest wasted opportunities of a hot prospect elsewhere. Douglas proved you could be successful outside of WWE. He may not have been the greatest NWA champion, but he is certainly one of its historically significant titleholders.
11. Dan Severn
One of the most legit and toughest wrestlers of all time, Dan Severn was one of the first to cross over from the UFC, jumping between the octagon and the squared circle.
In 1995, Dan Severn won the NWA World Title, defeating Chris Candido in Smokey Mountain Wrestling.
Watch Dan Severn Become NWA World Heavyweight Champion Against Chris Candido on February 24th, 1995:
Holding the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for over four years, Severn had his own customized design. He fought in the UFC and WWF during this reign. He again won the belt in 2002, holding it for 80 days before being stripped of the title due to no-showing the inaugural NWA: TNA pay-per-view. Severn is significant for being the last pre-TNA NWA Champion.
Flanked by Jim Cornette, Dan ‘The Man’ Severn had a distinctive look and believably shoot-style. With a plain grey shirt, heavy theme song, and a plethora of titles (including the NWA title), he was presented as a huge deal with a huge impression.
Debuting during the NWA invasion of WWF, he competed in WWE’s shoot-fight competition Brawl for All, disposing of The Godfather in the first round before withdrawing from the bracket to avoid ruining his reputation. Dan also competed in the King of the Ring tournament in 1998 (eventually won by arch-rival Ken Shamrock), losing to The Rock in the semi-finals.
During this time, he was unhappy with his booking, so ‘The Man’ threatened to shoot-win the Royal Rumble in 1999 (in other words, legitimately fight his way to a Royal Rumble win despite Vince McMahon being booked to win it).
This never happened, and Dan wasn’t around long after this. After being asked to get a 666 tattoo across his forehead as part of a pitch to join the Ministry of Darkness, Severn left after making only a small splash in the company.
A 1,479-day NWA World Champion, Severn was given very little to do in the WWF. As one of the first crossover stars from the shoot-fighting world to wrestling, he was utilized and portrayed as a legitimate badass in the NWA and SMW. Despite his success elsewhere, he never reached the same success in the WWF as shoot-fighters Ken Shamrock and Steve Blackman.
12. Ron Killings
At NWA-TNA 8 on August 7th, 2002, Ron Killings defeated Ken Shamrock, thus becoming the first-ever, and to date, only recognized African-American NWA World Heavyweight Champion in history.
Having previously worked in the WWF as K-Kwik, Truth added some name value to the newly-founded company.
Aligned with Jeff Jarrett and Brian Christopher, ‘The Truth’ cut a savage heel promo on July 17, 2002‘s pay-per-view event, claiming he had been kept down due to his race.
Defeating Ken Shamrock at TNA’s 8th weekly pay-per-view event, Truth went on to hold the belt for over 100 days, successfully defending the belt against Jerry Lynne, Scott Hall, and Curt Hennig. He would eventually lose the belt to Jeff Jarrett.
In 2004, Killings had another run with the strap, lasting 14 days, winning it from AJ Styles before dropping it again to Jarrett.
Killings returned to WWE in 2008 and was immediately placed into a lower card position, often contending for the United States, Intercontinental, or Tag Team titles.
As R-Truth, he had some big matches but never truly had a break until having a main event run in 2011 alongside The Miz, main-eventing for the WWE World Championship at Capitol Punishment, and main-eventing Survivor Series against John Cena and The Rock.
R-Truth became comedic fodder from then on, occasionally competing in significant multi-man matches and winning a few titles along the way – always staying a constant presence.
Having recently reinvented his character in the WWE 24/7 Championship scene, R-Truth has won the strap (as of writing) nearly 50 times. Despite his lack of serious gold, Truth has become a staple of the lower and mid-card and seems to have a job for life in the WWE.
Whilst he has never sustained a position as high up the card in the WWE, he has had a successful run, staying with the company for over ten years, and in that time, gaining a reputation as a reliable favorite of Vince McMahon’s.
13. AJ Styles
One of the biggest talents to come out of TNA/Impact Wrestling, AJ Styles made a huge impact (pun intended) on the wrestling world due to his fast-paced action and athleticism.
With only three NWA Championship reigns, totaling over six months, he easily revolutionized wrestling – a large reason for a wrestling revolution in the 2000s.
Whether world champion or not, his clashes with Jerry Lynne, Samoa Joe, and Christopher Daniels made AJ one of the biggest wrestlers on the planet, as well as firmly putting TNA on the map, and for a short period, a variable competitor to the WWE.
Shockingly debuting in WWE’s 2016 Royal Rumble, Styles went on to have one of the greatest debut years of any wrestler in the WWE – forming The Club, cleanly defeating John Cena, and winning the WWE Championship.
After 140 days, Styles dropped the company’s top title but still stayed prominent on the card.
After two short reigns with the United States Championship, he won the WWE title again from Jinder Mahal on an episode of SmackDown in the only recognized WWE Championship change outside North America.
AJ held this title for over a year, turning back challenges from Rusev, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Kevin Owens. Styles lost it after 371 days and has since gone on to hold the United States and Intercontinental titles and being trusted enough by Vince McMahon to end the Undertaker’s in-ring career.
A reliable performer, Styles may be the most successful indie darling to move over to the WWE.
‘The Phenomenal One’ has proved that it is possible in the modern era to crossover from enemy lines to WWE, opening the door for those who followed. Styles has overcome possible doubt or resentment to become one of the WWE’s biggest and most dependable wrestlers. He may not be the tallest or largest wrestler, but he has managed to keep himself important in the eyes of fans. It seems he is satisfied with his success in the WWE, soon planning to retire there, which would be a fitting end to the career of AJ Styles.
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