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This Day in Wrestling History (Feb. 26): The WWF European Championship is Born

this day in wrestling history

50 years ago today in St. Paul, Minnesota, Verne Gagne celebrates his 41st birthday by winning the AWA World Heavyweight Championship for the eighth time, defeating Mad Dog Vachon.

20 years ago today at a Monday Night RAW taping in Berlin, Germany (WWE Network link), The British Bulldog defeated Owen Hart to become the first ever WWF European Champion.

The tournament, taking place over a week-long tour of Germany, included Flash Funk, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Bret Hart, Rocky Maivia, Mankind, and Vader.

The European Championship doesn’t have a long shelf life in the company; the title is abandoned briefly in April 1999 when Shane McMahon retired as undefeated champion, and retired for good in 2002 when it’s unified with the Intercontinenal Championship. 27 men held the title, with just six of them (Bulldog, Triple H, Eddie Guerrero, and X-Pac with two each, William Regal and D’Lo Brown with four each) holding it more than once. Bulldog’s inaugural reign is by far the longest in the title’s history at 206 days.

Airing March 3, the episode was critically lauded for its matches (the main event especially), but was panned for its poor production. Not helping matters, the pretaped show would get a 1.9 rating, at the time the second lowest in the show’s history (only an October 1996 episode rated worse). RAW would get a complete overhaul, with a new set and new theme music (and a new name, RAW is WAR) introduced in time for its 200th episode on March 10.

Of note, this taping also featured the 546th and final episode of WWF Superstars of Wrestling before it became a highlight show for the remainder of its run, concluding in 2001. For the sake of completion, in the last ever WWF Superstars match, Ahmed Johnson defeated Leif Cassidy.

17 years ago today at an ECW on TNN taping in Cincinnati, Ohio (WWE Network link), Tommy Dreamer and Masato Tanaka defeated The Impact Players (Lance Storm and Chris Candido) to win the ECW World Tag Team Championship.

17 years ago today in Newark, Delaware, Christopher Daniels defeated Scoot Andrews to win the East Coast Wrestling Association Super 8 tournament.

17 years ago today in Los Angeles, California, Chris Candido defeated Damien Steele in a falls count anywhere match to win the XPW World Heavyweight Championship. Candido vacates the title just three weeks later when he signs with WCW.

15 years ago today at a Smackdown taping in Boston, Massachusetts (WWE Network link), Goldust defeated Maven to win the WWF Hardcore Championship.

10 years ago today on RAW from Fresno, California (WWE Network link), John Cena and Shawn Michaels defeated Rated RKO (Edge and Randy Orton) to win the World Tag Team Championship.

7 years ago today, WWE cleans house as a slew of talents get released: Charlie Haas, Gregory Helms, Maria Kanellis, Paul Burchill, and referee Scott Armstrong.

Haas, whose release wasn’t announced until two days later, briefly returned to Jersey All-Pro Wrestling before joining Ring of Honor in September 2010. Haas briefly retired in 2013 and is considered semi-retired.

Helms wrestled on the independent circuit over the next few years, most notably for Lucha Libre USA in 2011. Helms’ career was interrupted when he and his girlfriend were involved in a motorbike accident in May 2011. He returned to the ring in 2013. Helms is now with TNA as an agent and manager.

After releasing an album in 2010, Maria returned to wrestling with her then-boyfriend (now husband) Mike Bennett for Ring of Honor in 2011. On her 30th birthday, Maria won her first title, the Family Wrestling Entertainment Women’s Championship. After five years with ROH, Maria and Mike joined TNA in January 2016. She is currently the leader of the Lady Squad and is the company’s on-screen Knockouts division commissioner. Maria was briefly TNA Knockouts champion in the summer and early fall of 2016.

After departing WWE, Burchill returned to the independent circuit. Burchill retired in 2014 and is now a firefighter in Kentucky.

Armstrong returned to WWE at Elimination Chamber in February 2011, almost a year to the day of his release. Scott, now a producer for the company, occasionally appears on WWE programming as a crooked referee.

6 years ago today, Ring of Honor presented their 9th Anniversary Show from Frontier Park Fieldhouse in Chicago, Illinois.

  • Davey Richards defeated Colt Cabana.
  • Mike Bennett defeated Steve Corino, Kyle O'Reilly, and Grizzly Redwood in a Four Corner Survival match.
  • El Generico defeated Michael Elgin.
  • Roderick Strong defeated Homicide in a No Holds Barred match to retain the ROH World Championship.
  • Sara Del Rey defeated MsChif.
  • The Kings Of Wrestling (Chris Hero & Claudio Castignoli) defeated The All Night Express (Kenny King & Rhett Titus) to retain ROH World Tag Team Championship.
  • Christopher Daniels and Eddie Edwards fought to a 30-minute time limit draw tied 1-1 in a best of three falls match for the ROH World Television Championship.
  • Wrestling's Greatest Tag Team (Charlie Haas & Shelton Benjamin) defeated The Briscoe Brothers (Jay & Mark Briscoe).

1 year ago today, Ring of Honor presented its 14th Anniversary Show from Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall in Las Vegas, Nevada.

  • In a preshow dark match, Silas Young defeated Cheeseburger, Gedo, and Will Ferrara in a Four Corner Survival match.
  • Tomohiro Ishii defeated Bobby Fish and Roderick Strong in a three-way match to retain the ROH World Television Championship.
  • Adam Page defeated BJ Whitmer.
  • Hirooki Goto defeated Dalton Castle.
  • Alex Shelley defeated Christopher Daniels.
  • Hiroshi Tanahashi & Michael Elgin defeated The Briscoes (Jay Briscoe & Mark Briscoe).
  • Kazuchika Okada defeated Moose.
  • BULLET CLUB (Kenny Omega & The Young Bucks (Matt Jackson & Nick Jackson)) (c) defeated ACH, KUSHIDA, and Matt Sydal to retain the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship.
  • War Machine (Hanson & Ray Rowe) defeated The All-Night Express (Kenny King & Rhett Titus) in a no disqualification match to retain the ROH World Tag Team Championship.
  • Jay Lethal defeated Adam Cole and Kyle O'Reilly in a three-way match to retain the ROH World Championship.

It’s (albeit a day late) a happy 37th birthday to Shinsuke Nakamura.

Born in Mineyama, Kyoto, Japan, Nakamura joined New Japan Pro Wrestling in March 2002. He would be nicknamed “Super Rookie” for his unique combination of speed, technique, and strength. Nakamura was highly thought of; alongside fellow “super rookies” Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata, the trio were dubbed “the new Three Musketeers”.

In Nakmura’s early years, he also dabbled in mixed martial arts. After training in vale tudo, Nakamura made his MMA debut at Inoko Bom-Ba-Ye on New Year’s Eve 2002 with a submission defeat to Daniel Gracie. He would win his next two fights, both via submission.

On December 9, 2003, Nakamura, just 23 years and nine months old, defeated Hiroyoshi Tenzan for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. The win made him the youngest man to hold the title (the record still stands). He would unify the title with the NWF Heavyweight Championship by defeating Yoshihiro Takayama in January at Wrestling World 2004. Just a month later, Nakamura had to vacate the title due to injury. In his return bout in May 2004, he was unable to defeat Bob Sapp for the title.

In December 2004, Nakamura would win tag title gold for the first time, winning the IWGP Tag Team Championship from Kensuke Sasaki and Minoru Suzuki. The two partners faced off at Wrestling World 2005 with Nakamura defeated Tanahashi for the IWGP U-30 Openweight Championship. The duo would compete for CMLL during their title run, feuding with Los Guerreros del Infierno. Nakamura and Tanahashi would hold the tag titles until they were defeated in October 2005 by Masahiro Chono and Hiroyoshi Tenzan.

At Toukon Shidou Chapter 1 on January 4, 2006, Nakamura was defeated in an IWGP Heavyweight Championship by Brock Lesnar. Two months later, Nakamura departed New Japan again for a worldwide wrestling excursion; the excursion including training at Brock Lesnar’s personal gym. His travels included Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and the United States; there were rumors that he was to be loaned to WWE, but nothing came of them. Even if they did, it wouldn’t be a long stay, as Nakamura was eventually called back to New Japan following the sudden departure of its champion Brock Lesnar.

Shinsuke returned to New Japan in September 2006 as a member of Masahiro Chono’s Black stable. Chono wanted to remake the promotion in his image with himself in charge and Nakamura as its ace. The bigger Nakamura challenged for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in December, but lost to former tag team partner Hiroshi Tanahashi. That August, Nakamura reached the final four of the G1 Climax tournament, but was eliminated due to referee stoppage in the semifinals. The shoulder injury he suffered in the bout sidelined him for about three months. Upon his return, he assumed the leadership role of Chono’s Black stable and renamed it RISE (Real International Super Elite; Chono formed a new stable in Legend, featuring a group of New Japan legends).

At Wrestle Kingdom II in January 2008, Nakamura defeated Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for a second time. A month later, he unified it with the IGF version of the IWGP heavyweight title (the one Brock Lesnar took with him when he left the company) from Kurt Angle. He would hold the title until being defeated by All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Keiji Mutoh in April.

After failing to win the tag titles in September, RISE members Giant Bernard and Rick Fuller attacked Nakamura and Hirooki Goto and aligned with Togi Makabe’s GBH (Great Bash Heel) stable. But in April 2009, the tables would turn on Makabe, as the group mutinied against him. Nakamura turned heel and joined the former GBH members as Chaos.

Shinsuke would also begin to work a more physical style, using strong strikes, including a stiff running knee strike known as the Bomaye. He would ride that maneuver to a perfect 6-0 record in his block in the 2009 G1 Climax. He would knock off Hiroshi Tanahashi (and fracture his orbital bone, forcing Tanahashi to vacate the IWGP heavyweight title) in the semifinals before falling to Togi Makabe in the final. He would avenge the loss in September to win the vacated IWGP heavyweight title.

After winning the title, he drew the ire of New Japan founder Antonio Inoki, saying he wanted to bring back Strong Style to the company, and replace the current version of the IWGP heavyweight title belt with the original, even if he had to beat Inoki for it (the match never happened, obviously). Nakamura held the title until Wrestling Dontaku in May 2010 when Togi Makabe defeated him for the title. That summer, he went 4-2-1 in the G1 Climax; he defeated eventual tournament winner Satoshi Kojima, but a 30-minute draw against Pro Wrestling Noah’s Go Shiozaki cost him a slot in the final.

After a stint in CMLL in the spring of 2011, Nakamura entered the G1 Climax again in August 2011. He went 7-2 in the round robin, and defeated Tetsuya Naito in the final to win his first G1 Climax tournament. He got to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in September, but would lose the title bout to Hiroshi Tanahashi. In the fall, Nakamura and Toru Yano entered the G1 Tag League as Chaos Top Team. They would go a perfect 5-0 in the group round, but were knocked out in the semifinal by the eventual tournament winners, Minoru Suzuki and Lance Archer.

In July 2012, Shinsuke Nakamura would win his first IWGP Intercontinental Championship. That summer, Nakamura would face IWGP Heavyweight Champion and fellow Chaos member Kazuchika Okada during the G1 Climax. Nakamura pulled the upset win over the IWGP heavyweight champion, essentially making him the clear-cut leader of the group. Shinsuke would only go 4-4 in the tournament, but narrowly missed the final when he was defeated in a must-win by Hiroyoshi Tenzan. Later in the month, he would throw out the ceremonial first pitch for a Major League Baseball game between the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays.

Nakamura held the Intercontinental Championship until May 31, 2013 at Fantastica Mania when he was defeated by CMLL’s La Sombra; Nakamura’s eight defenses and 313 days as Intercontinental Champion are both the longest in the belt’s history (the championship was born in 2011 ahead of New Japan’s first tour of the United States). Shinsuke would win the title back on July 20 at Kizuna Road. Later that summer, Nakamura went 5-4 in the G1 Climax, again narrowly missing the final after suffering a loss on the final day of round robin. He lost to Shelton X Benjamin, but would get his win back at Destruction in September in a successful Intercontinental title defense. Nakamura held the title until losing it in the fan-voted main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8 to Hiroshi Tanahashi.

After failing to win back the title in February, Nakamura won the New Japan Cup, an annual single elimination tournament where the winner would earn a championship match of his choosing at Invasion Attack. He challenged Tanahashi for the Intercontinental title and would win it for a third time at Invasion Attack. Over the next two months, he would score a non-title win over Ring of Honor’s Kevin Steen and Nakamura’s first MMA opponent Daniel Gracie. In June, Nakamura was defeated by the man he beat to win the New Japan Cup, Bad Luck Fale. In August, Nakamura went 8-2 in the G1 Climax, but would fall in the final match to stablemate Kazuchika Okada. In September, Nakamura won the Intercontinental title for a fourth time from Fale. At Wrestle Kingdom 9, he successfully defended it against Kota Ibushi; the bout ,rated five stars from Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer, would win the publication’s match of the year award. Nakamura would be defeated for the title at Wrestling Dontaku by Hirooki Goto.

Despite suffering an elbow injury, causing him to forfeit a match, Shinsuke made his second straight G1 Climax final and third in five years in August 2015, going 7-2 in the round robin. Nakamura was defeated in the final by Hiroshi Tanahashi. In September, Nakamura defeated Hirooki Goto to extend his record for IWGP Intercontinental title reigns to five (Goto is the only other man to hold it more than once). He held the title for the remainder of the year and successfully defended it at Wrestle Kingdom 10 by defeating AJ Styles.

Just hours after the event, news broke that Nakamura had given notice that he was leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling for WWE. Tokyo Sports confirmed the news on January 6. A week after the announcement, Nakamura was stripped of the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, but the promotion considers his run to end on January 25, when he handed over the title belt. In his final match on January 30, Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, and Tomohiro Ishii defeated Hirooki Goto, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Katsuyori Shibata. Nakamura leaving for WWE forced Ring of Honor to pull Nakamura from their upcoming 14th Anniversary Show.

On January 27, 2016, WWE announced Shinsuke would be a part of NXT Takeover: Dallas. Four days later, Nakamura began the process of reporting to the WWE Performance Center. Three weeks later, WWE confirmed Nakamura’s signing in a press conference in Tokyo. At Takeover: Dallas on April 1, Nakamura in his debut match for NXT defeated Sami Zayn. He would make his NXT TV debut 12 days later with a win over Tye Dillinger. Three months later, Nakamura defeated another outgoing NXT champion in Finn Balor.

In August at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II, Shinsuke would win the NXT title for the first time, defeating Samoa Joe. In his only televised defense two months later at NXT Takeover: Toronto, Samoa Joe won the title back. Joe wouldn’t hold the title long; Nakamura would win it back at a live event in early December. He held it until last month when he was knocked off by Bobby Roode at NXT Takeover: San Antonio.

Nakamura with Kazuchika Okada is featured in the Japanese version of the music video for Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, released in May 2014. The same month, he released an autobiography based on the first quarter-century of his life, King of Strong Style 1980-2004. He is married to Harumi Maekawa; the two met while in university. The couple will celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary on September 1.

It’s a happy 78th birthday of Charles Wepner or Chuck Wepner for short.

Wepner is best known for going (almost) the full fifteen rounds with then-world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The March 24, 1975 bout would be the basis of the Rocky film series.

Wepner fought boxer versus wrestler bouts against Andre the Giant at Showdown at Shea in 1976 and Antonio Inoki in 1977 (both in losing efforts). He called it a career in 1978, posting a 35-14-2 record. One more wrestling connection: in 1999, he appeared at Wrestlemania XV as a judge for the Brawl for All match between Bart Gunn and Eric "Butterbean" Esch.

Today he runs a liquor store with his wife Linda in Carlstadt, New Jersey. A film based on his life, The Bleeder, is in production. Wepner is suing Mary Aloe and Aloe Entertainment for allegedly working on a copycat film.

Today would have been the 91st birthday of Laverne Clarence Gagne, best known to wrestling fans as Verne Gagne.

Born in Robbinsdale, Minnesota and growing up on a farm in Cocoran, Minnesota, he was a three-sport athlete in high school, but his best by far was wrestling (he had won district, regional, and state titles in high school wrestling). A member of the All-State football team in high school, he was recruited to play for the University of Minnesota and made the All-Big Ten Team three times.

Gagne enlisted with the Underwater Demolition Team after his freshman year, a Special Forces Naval unit, but ultimately returned to the University of Minnesota. He would be a two-time NCAA champion in wrestling and was an alternate for the US freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games.

Gagne was drafted in the sixteenth round of the NFL Draft (145th overall) in 1947. But with Bears owner George Halas not exactly approving of Verne being both a footballer and a wrestler (Bears great Bronko Nagurski went a similar route), Verne had to make a choice. He went with wrestling. In a 2006 interview, Verne's son Greg said that wrestling paid much better than football during that time.

In 1949, Verne turned to professional wrestling. He started in Texas. In his pro debut, he defeated Abe Kashey (in a bit of trivia, former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey was the referee). Success came quickly for Gagne, as he would win the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship in November 1950. In 1953, he added the NWA United States Championship (Chicago version). His superior technique made Verne a hit with home audiences in television's early days. It's speculated that Verne during this time made about $100,000 a year (nearly $1 million in today's dollars).

In August 1958, Gagne defeated Edouard Carpentier for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. This was a bit of a dispute, as some territories still considered Lou Thesz as the champion. Gagne dropped the title just three months later to Wilbur Snyder. With more than enough money in the bank, Gagne tried his hand at promoting.

In 1960, Verne formed the American Wrestling Association (AWA for short) and became its top star. Then-NWA champion Pat O'Connor was its first champion, but after the NWA put the kibosh on a Gagne-O'Connor title match (as in they pretty much ignored it), Verne awarded himself the title. Gagne's basis for the AWA was a technical, grapple-based style as opposed to a flashy sports entertainment style that would be popularized in the 1980s. Gagne would hold the AWA world championship ten times; his ninth reign lasted from August 31, 1968 to November 8, 1975, a span of 2,625 days (not just the longest ever, but longer than the next two longest reigns combined).

Gagne wrestled as a face his entire career, feuding with the likes of Gene Kinski, Dr. Bill Miller, Fritz Von Erich, The Crusher, Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry Hennig, and Nick Bockwinkel. Gagne not only wrestled and promoted, but he also trained wrestlers on his farm in Cocoran, Minnesota. He would have a hand in training nearly 100 wrestlers including his son Greg, Larry and Curt Hennig, Gene and Ole Anderson, Ric Flair, Bob Backlund, The Iron Sheik, and Baron Von Raschke.

Verne's insistence on not embracing sports entertainment would come to haunt him in the 1980s. Hulk Hogan, at the time the company's biggest draw (thanks in part to his cameo in Rocky III), was not seen as championship material as he had a powerhouse style. That was pretty much the opposite of Gagne's booking philosophy. Hogan did get to feud with then-AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel, but refused to concede revenue from merchandise sales and what he made from his bouts in Japan. Late in the year, Hogan left Gagne's AWA for the World Wrestling Federation. Verne was none too happy about it, as he tried to bribe one of his trainees The Iron Sheik to break Hogan's leg (both Sheik and Hogan confirm this allegation).

Despite a mass exodus of talent from the company, the AWA was ahead of most every other promotion outside of the WWF in expanding nationally. They got a five-day-a-week timeslot on ESPN, AWA Championship Wrestling. But the show was hardly a priority for the sports network as it often was either pre-empted for live sports events or moved around the schedule with little or no warning or advertising. As over-the-top, charismatic performers took over the wrestling landscape, the AWA lagged further and further behind in the minds of wrestling fans. With live attendance and ratings virtually nonexistent compared to the WWF and the rechristened WCW, the AWA shut down in 1991. Gagne himself would file for bankruptcy in 1993.

In April 2006, Verne Gagne was inducted by his son into the WWE Hall of Fame. Gagne is just one of six men inducted into the WWE, WCW, Professional Wrestling, and Wrestling Observer Newsletter Halls of Fame.

In 2009, Gagne, at the time 72, got into an altercation with 97-year old Helmut Gutmann at a nursing home in Bloomington, Minnesota. The altercation resulted in a fall of some sort. Neither man had recollection of the incident (Gagne suffered from Alzheimer's disease or CTE due to numerous head injuries), and Gutmann died of his injuries a few weeks later. The death was ruled a homicide. However, Gagne was not charged as it was ruled he did not have the mental capacity necessary to have harmed Guttman intentionally.

Verne continued to make public appearances with his son Greg in his final days. On April 27, 2015, Gagne passed away at his home in Bloomington, Minnesota. He was 89. At the time of his death, he was survived by four children and six grandchildren.

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