Greg “The Hammer” Valentine had a strong career. Entering the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, he saw success everywhere he went, winning the countless championships in the Mid-Atlantic, WWC and across different territories. Perhaps his most well known success was his run in the WWE in the 1980s, as Vince McMahon Jr. began to take the company global, at which Valentine was at the forefront in a lengthy tag championship with Brutus Beefcake and an Intercontinental Championship run.
One thing that most don’t know, however, is that Valentine was once declared the World Wrestling Federation Champion at Madison Square Garden, a pinnacle that very few superstars have been fortunate enough to reach. Bob Backlund won the WWWF Championsihp in February of 1978, and held it as the company re-branded to the WWF in 1979 before losing it to Japanese legend Antonio Inoki. Inoki vacated the championship and Backlund defeated Bobby Duncan to regain it, but the WWE recognizes it as a continuation of the first reign, which ultimately sees Backlund’s first run as WWE Champion at 1,470 days, far superior to the grand total of 3 days he’d hold it during his second reign in 1994.
The match with Inoki isn’t the only time during the initial championship reign that Backlund technically lost the gold. Throughout the first run, he’d work with Greg Valentine a number of times, but perhaps none has established itself in wrestling lore more than the match at the “World’s Most Famous Arena” on October 19th, 1981.
The world in 1981 was a far different place. Throughout the ’80s, the WWF would run a house show loop in arenas such as MSG, The Meadowlands, the Boston Garden, The Philadelphia Spectrum, etc and have different storylines that would air on local syndication in just those cities to hype when the show would come to town next. The internet was still a year and a half away from even being in its most early form, as TCP/IP wasn’t adopted by ARPANET until January of ’83. The WWF hadn’t even introduced the All American Wrestling program yet, so other than Championship Wrestling and All-Star Wrestling, the WWF wasn’t even accessible. During this time period was when wrestling magazines were a giant deal because guys like Bill Apter would keep you up to date on what’s going on around the globe, in color, just a few months late. So, by the time this program was over, it was just now hitting the national market.
In Madison Square Garden, the two sold 18,120 tickets, as the audience witnessed Greg Valentine apply his patented airplane spin on the champion, as Backlund’s legs ricocheted off of the referee. A dizzy Valentine lost his footing. Backlund fell on Valentine, as the dazed referee counted to three. When the official got up and saw Backlund out but Valentine on his feet, he assumed it was Backlund’s shoulders pinned to the mat and declared Greg Valentine the WWF Champion. After a few minutes, the championship was declared vacant and a rematch was booked. The interest thing, however, is that it was only vacant in the city of Manhattan. When the WWF would go to another town, Backlund would defend in business as usual. The WWF hyped up a big rematch for the championship which drew a capacity 21,104. The match was won by Bob Backlund. The shows were about five weeks apart.
The WWE, in the days before the web, would put championships on superstars all of the time, to gauge what kind of response the switch would garner. Notably, Lex Luger defeated Yokozuna in late 1993, Owen Hart defeated his brother Bret in 1994 and neither are recognized as former WWE Champions. They even did it with the championship on an episode of Raw with Chris Jericho defeating Triple H. Bruno Sammartino would regularly lose to guys such as Bruiser Brody, to have the decision overturned and a feud would cultivate from it. Teams such as the Rockers and Rougeaus “won” the tag team championships, and there’s a plethora of different incidents you can point to. The once commonplace schmoz couldn’t happen in today’s age where everything goes through the grapevine seemingly within seconds, but the strategy made the WWF (and other promotions) a lot of money way back when.
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