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 (AWA) 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.
Criteria of a World Heavyweight Championship
To be considered a World Heavyweight Championship a championship must have the following:
- Is the championship of one of the top past or present promotions in the world.
- Has the championship been defended around the world.
List of World Heavyweight Championships
Active World Heavyweight Championships
- NWA World Heavyweight Championship - claims lineage of Hackenschmidt's 1905 and Gotch's 1908 version, defended in multiple territories and promotions since 1948. Gained it's prestige from 1948 until 1988, regained prominence in the early 2000s when it was used by Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. Although it was stripped of its World Title status by PWI in the 1990s, with the success of TNA, PWI restored its World Title status officially in its August 2006 issue.
- 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.
- Impact World Championship - The World Championship in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling later renamed Impact Wrestling, created when the NWA stripped their world championship from Total Nonstop Action Wrestling on May 13, 2007.
- 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.
Defunct/Discontinued World Heavyweight Championships
- AWA World Heavyweight Championship - the top championship of what many consider to be the leading promotion of the 1960s. The title was retired when the AWA folded in 1991.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 switched to RAW during the 2005 Draft Lottery. It was unifed with the WWE Championship in December 2013, though the physical belt was used as a component of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship until August 2014.