To those in the professional wrestling industry, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship is one of the most prestigious titles you can ever hope to hold in your career. Its lineage can be traced back to Georg Hackenschmidt’s 1905 title, which was the first wrestling World Heavyweight Championship. Many wrestling legends have held the title throughout its history include Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Gene Kiniski, Dory Funk Jr., Harley Race, Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair Sting, and many others.

Now in 2013, Rob Conway looks to continue to build on that proud legacy having won the title from Kahagas on March 16th. SLAM! Wrestling caught up with Conway as he drove through the Smoky Mountains on his way to Keyesport, Tennessee to defend his title against Chris Richards.

For Conway, being the NWA World Heavyweight Champion is a dream come true in large part because he grew up watching the NWA, and when he started his career in 1997 it was with them.

“I have pretty much wrestled for them the whole time until I had a six-year span with WWE, and afterwards back to the NWA from 2007 until now,” explained Conway.

“So most of my career was in the NWA and I just never had an opportunity to even have a title match. It was something that I look back at old interviews, where I talk about wanting to get a shot at the NWA World Championship and for that to happen, to get a chance at it, to win it and to look back and think, man it’s been a 16-year mission to even get a chance at the championship and to win it just meant a lot.”

One of the things that made the title especially poignant for Conway is that it happened on the same day as the six-month anniversary of his father passing away.

“He was a huge fan of mine and everything I did,” Conway said.

“It meant a whole lot, and it’s something that still means a lot; and I’m very excited to represent the NWA as the World Heavyweight Champion.”

As far as NWA President Bruce Tharpe is concerned what makes Rob Conway a good choice as the NWA World Heavyweight Champion is a whole myriad of elements.

“After having been in a very high-profile position on WWE television Rob Conway brings a name recognition to the NWA Championship, and because of the relationships he has made in his career, Rob has been able to broker several high-profile challengers for the title,” Tharpe told SLAM! Wrestling.

Tharpe also said that he feels that Conway brings a credibility to the NWA Title due to his look, chiselled physique, a proven toughness and a wrestling ability that has been demonstrated in matches against top challengers in both the United States and Japan. Additionally, Tharpe stated that Conway being well spoken, and very fan friendly, has made him an excellent ambassador for the NWA.

NWA President Bruce Tharpe and Rob Conway. Photo by Lisa Bates, L&B Photography

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his title win is that Conway didn’t know he was even going to have a championship match that night. For the last while, Conway had been the commissioner in the NWA Branded Outlaw Wrestling promotion because he had torn a bicep and hadn’t wrestled in a while. As a result, the challenger for the title that night was supposed to be Jax Dane, but when he was injured prior to the match, Conway found himself challenging Kahagas for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

“I hadn’t seen Kahagas wrestle a lot,” Conway recalled. “We never had been on any of the same events before. I just had seen him on different television shows like everyone has, so I didn’t really know what to expect. He’s got a really physical style. I just remember mostly how he was always coming forward. He dominated the match to be honest. It was a pretty long match and those are usually pretty favourable for me because I do quite a bit of cardio conditioning and it’s just something I’ve always done. As the match got longer I started to get stronger and when I hit the Ego Trip, got the three count, and the place went crazy, it really sunk in that not only had I won the match, but I was now the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. I had all the memories of all the other people I’ve watched as champion and the fans were kind in shock and going crazy. It was a huge moment. I’ve had a lot of big moments in wrestling, but that’s definitely the highlight that’s for sure.”

Jax Dane, though, described the experience of that night as somewhat heartbreaking.

Jax Dane and Rob Conway, great friends, perhaps future foes.

“However, we were fortunate for [NWA powerbrokers] Bruce Tharpe and Chris Ronquillo to be in the building,” Dane explained to SLAM! Wrestling. “This allowed me to give my shot to The Ironman [Conway], which in turn he made the most of. Also, you have to give a lot of credit to Kahagas as well for accepting such a formidable opponent on such short notice. Frankly, Rob winning the World Title was almost as satisfying as if I were to win it myself. He’s been my best friend for a long time … so it’s no secret I want success for him almost as much as I do for myself.”

NWA President Tharpe further elaborated stating that the decision to give Conway the title shot was a spur of the moment decision. In fact, Tharpe described it as being as simple as Dane asking Conway to take the title shot for him, and sanctioning it on the spot because they didn’t want to deny the fans of a World Heavyweight title match.

For Conway, being the NWA World Heavyweight Champion has been a bit overwhelming; particularly when he went to Japan to defend it for the first time and saw how much respect it had in that country, and the respect that it is garnering again in North America.

“You know sometimes you’ve only got to look forward, but it’s hard to kind of not look back and think ‘Wow,'” Conway expressed.

“I’ve got my name on a list that you can’t ever take away from me, with some of the guys I’ve always looked up to, and maybe hopefully one day there’ll be guys looking up to me and want to be the champion because I’m the champion.”

As the NWA Champion, Conway, first and foremost when he goes to wrestle for any promotion, in front of any of the fans, wants to be thought of in a positive light; and as someone who represents himself with class and style, and is approachable.

“I think the championship is a reminder to treat all the other wrestlers well, shake their hands, be one of the first guys in the building, to set an example for the rest of the younger wrestlers who are getting into the wrestling business, and always going out of your way to accommodate the promotion and the fans of that promotion,” explained Conway.

“I think sometimes performers and wrestlers kind of forget that the promoters and the fans are what make us champions and allow us to do this for a living. Going forward I really want, other than continuing to be NWA World Heavyweight Champion — still sounds weird to say it — to be the guy that now the NWA is on the move and it’s positive, and hopefully I’m the champion when we get a national television deal, the NWA will be in homes all over the country and eventually all over the world.”

Rob Conway is a hard worker in the gym.

Since becoming NWA Champion, though, Conway has noticed one way in which his perception has changed.

“When I had my chance at the NWA World Championship it was a big deal,” Conway elucidated.

“It was a big match for me. Every match I have now is a big match for me, but it’s probably the biggest match in the career of my opponent. Every time I wrestle somebody it’s a date they’ve had marked on their calendars for months. There was something usually they had to win to get that opportunity and they’ve known they’re going to get that chance for some time. While for me I might have had to wrestle Thursday, Friday, Saturday and defend it, when I come into their promotion they’ve had a lot more time to watch me than I’ve had to watch them and I get everybody’s best shot every time I go in to wrestle.”

Since winning the NWA Title, Conway has defended it against quite a few challengers including Satoshi Kojima, Chris Masters, Manabu Nakanishi, Chase Stevens, Ricky Morton, and Kristian Hayden. Out of those challengers Conway felt that Ricky Morton was a pretty good test.

“We were about 27 minutes in, and his protégé Chase Owens, who is the NWA Junior Heavyweight Champion came out and cost him that match out of sheer jealousy,” Conway recalled.

“I’ve been honored to be in the ring with Ricky Morton, Chris Masters, and Chase Stevens, and to go against Kojima in front of 12,000 people in Tokyo was a hard, hard fought match. It’s definitely a very physical style, and Kojima is really good at mat wrestling too. We were almost in contact with each other the whole match. There was really no downtime or playing it up to the crowd. To have an entire country and 12,000 people live, and everybody there wanted to see you lose, I really felt the pressure. It was the first time the NWA Championship had been defended in Japan in many years, for the biggest promotion in Japan, to go out there and defend it, and put on a good match doing it; it was one of the biggest single matches I’ve had in my career.”

Another challenger who has impressed Conway is Chris Masters, as he felt that most people don’t realize how well Masters can actually wrestle.

“He’s not a guy who can just go out there, pose, showing off his body,” said Conway. “He can really wrestle. He was using different holds that I had never seen him use before. It’s amazing how good the wrestlers are around the world, and when you maybe only saw them on Sports Entertainment you’ve never really seen them doing what we were considered as professional wrestlers for. They’re much better in person compared to what you see on TV.”

One of the issues as Conway sees it is that anyone who has watched wrestling on television over the last 10 years has only seen Sports Entertainment and hasn’t seen professional wrestling as many know and remember it.

“I would like to be an example of a professional wrestler, and have professional wrestling matches all over the world,” explained Conway.

An upcoming show in San Antonio, Texas.

“Ring of Honor does a lot of hard hitting, and really a good style of wrestling, but not a lot of big guys because there are not a lot of really big heavyweights around there outside of the NWA. I mean, I’m one of the smaller guys at 230 pounds. The guy I’m wrestling tonight, Chris Richards is 314 pounds. That’s one thing that the NWA exposes, which is big guys who can actually wrestle.”

A past NWA Champion that Conway would like to defend against is Adam Pearce, whom Conway feels has been very significant over the last five to six years as far as the history of the NWA is concerned.

“Adam Pearce is the glue that held the NWA together nationally and worldwide for quite some time and I don’t think he gets enough credit,” Conway explained.

“I think people always want to look in the past and talk about Harley Race, and Ric Flair, and Terry Funk and Dory Funk, and I loved those guys and grew up watching them, but I think of a guy like Adam Pearce; he still travels to Australia and Mexico and wrestles all over the United States. I would love to wrestle Adam Pearce. We teamed together years ago a couple times and he recently wrestled for the NWA Branded Outlaw Wrestling, which is where I won the championship, and he won the main event. He beat Sho Funaki. Given the opportunity he’s a class act and I would love to test myself against someone who is a former champion like him.”

When asked if there was any past or present wrestler that he would like to wrestle the most, Conway stated without hesitation that it would be the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

“He’s one of the rare legends of wrestling I never met. I actually pulled over to the side of the road when I heard he passed away. It was like I knew him. He was someone I looked up to and is a past wrestler I’ll never get the chance to wrestle and just got a chance to watch. Looking forward, one of my best friends in the wrestling business, who was supposed to get the match I got before he got injured, his name is Jax Dane, and he accompanied me to Japan on my first title defence, and I think he’s a guy that deserves a shot at the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. He’s pretty much run through every place he’s been and I don’t know if he’s been defeated in the last couple of years in the NWA. I’ll be excited for that match when the time comes and they put us together. There are a lot of good guys and past champions who are still great. I would love to wrestle Jeff Jarrett; I would love to wrestle Rhino. Looking at the past Terry Funk, Dusty Rhodes, it would be amazing to get to wrestle any of those guys. I imagine going into Dallas to wrestle Kerry Von Erich. How awesome would that have been?”

Jax Dane confessed he has little desire to challenge Conway for the NWA Title. “It’s in a good spot,” Dane said. “Being the number one contender comes with a lot of responsibility as well. However, I know there is a National and a North American title within the NWA and I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on one of those. If opportunity knocks I’m kicking the door down.”

Bruce Tharpe, though, indicated that a match between Dane and Conway may be inevitable.

“That is going to be a difficult match to put together because they are so close as friends, but as time goes on I am hearing more and more noise about a match between these two,” explained Tharpe. “I think that eventually, whether I like it or not, the fans are going to demand a match between Rob Conway and Jax Dane and those guys will have to settle it in the ring.”

As for when he might be coming to defend the NWA Title in Canada, Conway admitted that as of right now there is no date or plan for it.

“I’ve talked to the NWA promotion up in Canada and I’m hoping to still be the champion and come up and defend in early 2014, but I’m pretty busy,” Conway said.

“That’s one of the things about being the champion is that so many places ask you come in and I don’t have any openings until next year. I’ve got one weekend September 14th and 15th that’s not booked and I’m supposed to go do an autograph session in Lexington, Kentucky, but if a big match comes up I would much rather wrestle instead. As of right now I’m only going back to Japan, in terms of matches outside of the U.S. We’re in talks right now, there’s a new promotion in Australia, AAW, that’s signing up, there’s also a promotion in Brazil, I don’t know if they’ve signed the paperwork yet, but hopefully they’ll join us. The NWA management is taking a more cautious approach compared to the past and they’re looking at two to three promotions in an area and looking at who is the best fit for the NWA going forward.”

With regards to that cautious approach Conway stated that part of the reason is that the NWA doesn’t want to rush into something and not have it be successful. In fact, Bruce Tharpe and Chris Ronquillo have only been in charge of the NWA for less than a year, and going forward Conway stated that they want to focus on long-term success. To achieve it Conway believes they will continue to move at a slow, methodical pace, especially in light of the NWA national television deal is in its infancy stage.

Tharpe said that one of the most frustrating parts of his job is being patient, but ultimately there are only so many hours in the day. Since he and Ronquillo have been in control of the NWA they have re-signed approximately 35 Licensee Promoters across the U.S. and internationally, placed all NWA Board-controlled titles on wrestlers that they consider capable, credible and colorful, gotten the website up where they promote the NWA brand and merchandise, developed a strong relationship with New Japan Wrestling which will see Conway going over to Japan six times a year to compete, and put on a successful Supercard in Houston, Texas in April.

With regards to a television deal, Tharpe indicated they are continuing to work hard on developing one, but that they wanted to ensure they were in a position to put together the best television product possible.

For Conway though the long-term goal is to hang onto the NWA title and continue to grow the NWA brand and his own brand in as many states and countries possible.

“I think there’s a lot of places out there that had wrestling, but haven’t been exposed to some of the tradition that the NWA has. I would like to bring the championship there and bring the NWA all over the world.”