WWE History: Celebrating 20 Years Since Ron Simmons' Historic World Title Win
The site was Baltimore, Md. Not some big pay-per-view. Not even a Clash of the Champions. WCW had been fronting a main-event feud for months with Sting and Big Van Vader. At the time, it was Vader who was winning the feud and had the World title in his grasp.
This was back when Vader was nearly unbeatable in the ring. Back when he'd just devastate opponent after opponent (even stuff their heads in his ominous helmet following matches).
The Aug. 2 show was supposed to have Sting challenge Vader in a rematch for the belt. But a last minute change in the booking had Jake Roberts attack Sting before the match with Vader could take place, injuring him for the night.
This would catapult the feud with Sting and Roberts to their epic conclusion, the Coal Miner's Glove Match at Halloween Havoc that year (that's one where they needed to rig the gimmick wheel better when they spun it).
In the meantime, WCW President Bill Watts declared that a World Title match would take place that night and that a lottery would determine who would challenge Vader for his championship.
The name selected was none other than the Perry, Georgia native, Ron Simmons, who was about to find himself in the spotlight of history.
20 years ago today, this August 2, 2012:
The night Ron Simmons changed wrestling. We celebrate a career.
"In one sense, (Ron) Simmons reminds me of a cockroach. You don't worry so much about what a roach eats or totes off. It's what he falls into and messes up."
That was a quote from Bobby Bowden back in a 1980 Sports Illustrated article highlighting his All-American nose guard that, although might have been unorthodox and comical, was accurate in the sense that Simmons was a force in college football.
Simmons made an immediate impact on the defensive line when he began his playing career in 1977. By the end of his senior year, he had tabulated an impressive 25 sacks on top of 383 tackles and was voted ninth in the Heisman Trophy ballot of 1979.
Simmons' impact can also be summed up in the turnaround he led in the FSU-Florida rivalry, which at the time was dominated by the Gators. In Simmons' four years, the Seminoles went 4-0 against their in-state rival.
As dominant as he was on the defensive line, he was also resilient in the face of injury. During a game against Cincinnati in the 1978 season, Simmons fractured his wrist, and the team subsequently fell behind 21-7 in his absence.
Coming back into the game after halftime, Simmons gave the offense a chance to get back into the game while the defense held Cincinnati scoreless. FSU won the game 26-21.
Simmons' career at FSU was ultimately celebrated with the announcement in 1988 that his jersey, the number 50, would be retired by the school.
In the history of the football program, only seven players have been given that honor, including NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and Heisman Trophy winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke.
Although very successful during his tenure at FSU, Simmons had difficulty making the leap to the NFL and lasted only one season with the Cleveland Browns.
But with the creation of USFL, Simmons found new life in professional football as part of one of the more successful franchises in the short history of the league: the Tampa Bay Bandits, named for part owner Burt Reynolds' successful character from the Smokey and the Bandit franchise.
(A few worthy side notes from Simmons' career in Tampa Bay. It was also the first head coaching job for future Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. "Bandit Ball!," as he referred to his offense. And it also marked the first meeting between Simmons and his future WCW opponent, Lex Luger.)
Unfortunately, the USFL ended by 1986, and Simmons was once again out of football but quickly found an outlet for his athletic prowess when he transitioned to professional wrestling that same year under the training of Hiro Matsuda.
Simmons worked singles matches over the next couple of years on NWA/WCW television showcasing an arsenal that was dominated by power moves but also showed a range of wrestling holds and takedowns.
Simmons' stock really took off when he was paired with Butch Reed as the tag team Doom (most famously managed by Teddy Long), which led to a reign as the WCW World Tag Team Champions in January 1991.
Their run from 1989-1991 was during a continued heyday of great tag teams in professional wrestling. Continuously they were feuding or competing against the likes of the Rock 'n Roll Express, the Road Warriors, the Steiner Brothers, the Four Horseman, and the Freebirds.
By 1991, though, the decision had been made to split Doom, and Simmons and Reed were paired in a program against one another; the classic tag team split feud. Simmons was made the face and Reed the heel.
The culmination of their dispute came in a steel cage match at the premiere Superbrawl pay per view, a victory that boosted Simmons' status as a possible main event wrestler.
During this same period, Luger was beginning his WCW World Title reign as a top heel after aligning himself with Harley Race and Mr. Hughes. As summer moved to fall, Simmons was thrust into the main event scene as the No. 1 contender to Luger's title. Simmons lost the pay per view match to Luger at Halloween Havoc but stayed in the mix with a semi-lengthy feud with Cactus Jack in 1992.
In subsequent interviews, Simmons claims he had no idea what the plans were the night of Aug. 2 in Baltimore. He was not aware of the rework of the Sting/Vader angle where Sting was to be "injured" by Jake Roberts. Nevertheless as the show played out, Bill Watts announced that Simmons would challenge Vader for the World Title.
In building drama around the match, it only helped to have Jim Ross on commentary, who utilized the classic underdog catchphrases to create the push for Simmons during the television broadcast.
It's the typical kind of Vader match. Tons of stiff shots in the corner and the inevitable set-up for the Vader bomb. But Simmons also demonstrated incredible strength being able to maneuver the larger Vader, something lacking in some of the matches with Sting.
And then with one Irish whip, he caught Vader with a power slam that kept the champion down long enough for a three count.
The arena went crazy.
The other fan favorites in the locker room stormed the ring and congratulated a visibly shaken and emotional Simmons as he held the World Heavyweight Title.
Surprise title changes are always an exciting part of the business, but in this case, it was a historic win because Simmons became the first recognized African-American World Heavyweight Champion in the history of professional wrestling.
"I've never felt what I felt that night with that match,…and the adulation and the crowd response to this day still give me chill bumps…And it wasn't just from a standpoint of being a wrestler. It was just from the standpoint with black people, with white people that 'Damn, this is something we want to see.'…And if you go back and look at those tapes, you can see people crying throughout the audience and everything. That's a feeling that's just a once in a lifetime, and you're lucky to even get it." - (taken from 2010 interview with www.inyourheadonline.com)
Even leading into his World Title victory, Simmons was becoming more of a face on WCW television, and his position as a face was not so much as a character but as a representation of himself and his background.
An interview with Jim Ross concerning his feud with Cactus Jack showed Simmons as not only the World Champion but also as the same kid from Perry, Ga., who grew up amongst tragedy on the streets and overcame obstacles.
But despite the good press a champion like Simmons got for his contribution to the community and as a role model to inner-city kids, his title reign was ultimately cut short in December of 1992 when Vader won a rematch against Simmons a few days after the Starrcade pay per view.
"Putting the world title on Ron Simmons was one of Cowboy Bill Watts' first orders of business after taking over WCW. Watts had a reputation of championing African-American wrestlers such as Ernie Ladd and Junkyard Dog and building his promotions around them. Unfortunately, Simmons never really took off at the gate," said Mike Mooneyham, long time professional wrestling columnist for The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.
The reality was, as good a story as it was to have Simmons as champion, he wasn't a box-office draw for the company. Thus with Vader once again as champion, WCW brought Sting back into the title picture to resume their feud throughout most of 1993, while Simmons was downshifted to a mid-card role in unsuccessful campaigns for the United States and Television titles.
He left WCW in 1994.
The way the rest of the story goes, Simmons was signed by the WWE in 1996 and began a run where he destroyed Ahmed Johnson's kidneys and wore a goofy outfit and a silly mask under a new character name: Faarooq. (Simmons wasn't the only one to fall into this trap of mediocrity as seen through the years.)
His character was soon repackaged into the leader of The Nation of Domination and had mid-card feuds with other tag teams and stables. Of course, as The Rock began a steep climb to main event status and popularity, Faarooq found himself abandoned by his stable and once again thrust into the purgatory of throwaway mid-card feuds in singles and tag team competition.
Initially, his teaming with Bradshaw yielded little more than lackey work for the Undertaker as part of the Ministry of Darkness, but after the stable split up, Simmons, as well as Bradshaw, opened up as characters in their own stand-alone tag team.
Their run as the APA was a hilarious cornerstone of the Attitude Era. Episodes of Raw and SmackDown were not complete without cut aways to both men drinking beer, smoking cigars and beating people up.
But as the APA would end in 2004 (of course with reunions over the years), so would Simmons' career for the most part. He retired from in-ring competition in 2009 but still made occasional appearances to utter his popular, signature "Damn" catchphrase during unexpected moments.
This past WrestleMania in Miami, Simmons would be a part of the 2012 class of the WWE Hall of Fame, despite not being spotlighted like fellow inductees Edge and the Four Horsemen. True, his career might not have been as dazzling as Edge's in terms of resume, and maybe he wasn't as recognizable as the Four Horsemen.
But it was that fateful night in Baltimore 20 years ago that Ron Simmons shook the world and cemented his place in wrestling history.
No arguments there.
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