Hindsight is 20/20. This is particularly true of the professional wrestling business. In 1993, maybe WWE earnestly believed that Lex Luger could develop into the next Hulk Hogan. From the perspective 2017, the idea seems laughable. Turning Steve Austin heel at the end of WrestleMania X-Seven may have seemed like an opportunity to advance storylines and push a cast of new main event faces opposite Austin as a dominant heel champ. Looking back, we see that the turn squandered what may have been the final years of Stone Cold as the top face of the business, and fans actively didn’t want to boo Stone Cold enough that it turned some of them off from WWE altogether.
A similar logic applies to world championship reigns. No one is doubting Hogan or Austin as a worthy world champion, but for every runaway success, there are those that don’t work out so well. There are those cases of a performer who fails to draw as champ, or a wrestler who burns bridges later on to the point that WWE aims at scrubbing them from the company’s history.
On the flip side, there are those top talents who never garnered the world title recognition they deserved or at least not under the WWE brand. Whether it’s a matter of poor booking choices, or talents who showed up ahead of their time, these are the guys we look back at wonder why they never got the strap.
This article takes a look back at ten world champions WWE wishes it had never crowned, and five they wish they had.
15 Wish They Hadn’t: Jack Swagger
Jack Swagger had a lot of the requisite tools to be world champion material. Swagger was a big guy with an impressive physique. He was an excellent athlete with a legitimate amateur wrestling background and got a big push upon his debut as the ECW Champion.
From there, Swagger largely floundered. Out of nowhere, however, he got a Money in the Bank push coming out of WrestleMania XXVI, and soon won the World Heavyweight Championship. He went on to decent enough short reign, before dropping the title to Rey Mysterio. Swagger would be booked unevenly from there, getting one more main event level push going into WrestleMania XXIX, but never recapturing world title gold.
In his final years under WWE contract, Swagger would struggle to get TV time at all. It’s largely a mystery why WWE didn’t do more with Swagger though his interviews since leaving the company seem to suggest personality conflicts with management. Regardless, given how inauspicious the total of his WWE tenure wound up being, there’s little doubt WWE wishes it could erase his name from the ledger of world champions.
14 Wish They Hadn’t: Diesel
WWE underwent an identity crisis in the mid-1990s. While Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were incredible talents, neither could draw like Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage in their primes, and the company took stabs at pushing other top faces in the meantime. 1995 was Diesel’s year. He won the WWE Championship off of Bob Backlund at the end of 1994, and held it all the way until November.
Diesel had great size and a great look, and he’d go on to reveal a genuine superstar brand of charisma during his WCW run in the years to follow. As WWE Champion, however, the guy was mostly a flop. His only good title defenses came when guys like Hart and Michaels carried him, and his matches with Mabel, Sycho Sid, and The British Bulldog were largely bad. All considered, WWE would have been better off letting Backlund, Hart, and maybe The Undertaker carry the strap until they were ready to pass the torch to Michaels.
13 Wish They Had: Mr. Perfect
Curt Hennig is widely agreed upon to be one of the greatest all around professional wrestlers of all time. He was a tremendous athlete, a gifted technician, and a great talker to boot. While he won a world title in the dying days of the AWA, he’d never go on to win the big one in WWE.
It’s rumored that Nick Bockwinkel and Terry Taylor were each considered for the Mr. Perfect gimmick. Fortunately, it wound up with Hennig, who fit it like a glove and became a legend under the moniker. In a lot of eras—particularly one like today, with two separate world titles in WWE—he surely would have at least one world title reign on his resume. Unfortunately, there was just the one in Mr. Perfect’s heyday, and he came of age when Hulk Hogan dominated as a multi-year champion, and the period when WWE tried to get The Ultimate Warrior over as the next Hogan. Perfect never got his chance, and it’s a shame.
12 Wish They Hadn’t: Jinder Mahal
While it’s too soon to tell for sure how history will reflect on Jinder Mahal, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of supporters among contemporary fans. The prevailing theory is that Mahal got the big, and sudden push as WWE Champion to appeal to the budding audience in India. Mahal’s reign didn’t seem to affect business in India much, though, including disappointing ticket sales for this year’s visit to the country. Meanwhile, the Modern Day Maharaja was so poorly received domestically that he purportedly caused ratings and live ticket sales to sag while he was on top.
Mahal wasn’t built up to win a world title and, in the role, demonstrated little progress as an in-ring performer or talker. He was a major flop ,and the best news about his reign seems to be that it’s finally over.
11 Wish They Hadn’t: Alberto Del Rio
WWE’s choices in pushing Alberto Del Rio made perfectly reasonable sense. He was a very good in ring talent, with a great look, and solid mic skills not to mention that he appealed to the coveted Latino fan demographic.
Del Rio’s actual world title reigns weren’t awful, but they also never exactly set the world on fire. He’d probably go down as a passable world champion, and eventual mid-level Hall of Fame inductee, had that been the end of the story.
However, Del Rio left WWE under rough circumstances the first time, let go for striking a backstage employee, with the context that that employee had made a racist comment that offended Del Rio. It was an ugly split, but it seemed feasible both sides would get over it. Surprisingly, Del Rio made a surprise return to the company. That second tenure was pretty awful all around, with Del Rio booked erratically, and reportedly butting heads with management—particularly Triple H—over and over. The general perception was that the WWE brass saw Del Rio as a partier and a bad influence, while Del Rio saw WWE management as too controlling and misguided in their creative direction.
It was little surprise when Del Rio walked from WWE as soon as he could. He has proceeded to bad mouth the company and Triple H at every turn. There’s little doubt now that WWE would just as soon forget about its connection to the Pride of Mexico.
10 Wish They Had: Rick Rude
Rick Rude was a great worker with a sensational look, who played a lady’s man gimmick better than any performer before or since. Rumor has it that Hulk Hogan rejected the idea of a program with him, but Rude did get one chance at a main event stand in WWE, challenging The Ultimate Warrior for the WWE Championship. He’d never capture the gold, though, peaking as the Intercontinental Champion instead. He went on to hold WCW’s confusing International Championship with kind of shared a history with the NWA title, and was thus sort of a world title, but never packed the same prestige.
Rude is the kind of special talent who kept his nose clean in terms of personal issues and, in retrospect, it seems particularly absurd that he never got a world title reign.
9 Wishes They Hadn’t: CM Punk
CM Punk was the sort of organically over star whom it seems clear WWE never planned on. He didn’t have the look of a WWE headliner—slimmer and covered in more tattoos than WWE traditionally prefers. Punk was a very good wrestler, though, and a particularly exceptional talker who forged a connection with the WWE audience. As such, he earned World Heavyweight Championship opportunities before ascending to the next level as a WWE star after he dropped his Pipebomb promo. From there, he’d go on a 434 day reign as WWE Champion that placed him in the conversation of all-time great WWE legends.
A number of guys have left WWE on less than pleasant terms. Few have burned bridges with Punk’s verve, however, as he unilaterally chose to walk out after he’d worked his contractually obligated number of dates. Months later, he’d attack a number of figures within the WWE corporate structure in a tell-all podcast with Colt Cabana. Lawsuits followed and one thing is clear—WWE wishes it had never worked with Punk at all, let alone put world title belts around his waist.
8 Wish They Hadn’t: Chris Benoit
Chris Benoit was one of the most talented wrestlers of his generation. He ultimately got the recognition that many fans and peers felt he deserved when he defeated Triple H and Shawn Michaels in the main event of WrestleMania XX to capture the World Heavyweight Championship. The reign was fine, if a bit forgettable, coming to a close when he passed the torch to Randy Orton.
Benoit etched his name among WWE’s all time worst representatives—perhaps the worst ever—when he killed his wife and son before committing suicide. He was under WWE contract at the time, and placed the company under intensive scrutiny for steroid use and head injuries—each alleged to have played a role in his violent breakdown.
7 Wish They Had: Razor Ramon
Razor Ramon was one of the most iconic figures of the mid-1990s, and stands out as one of wrestling’s most recognizable figures who never won a world championship. While Ramon, of course, had his well-documented issues with substance abuse, he seemed stable enough to consistently do his job during his run from 1992-1996. It was a period of time known for lackluster top faces like Lex Luger and Diesel. Ramon had size and a great look to rival either of them, not to mention that he was hands down a better worker and talker. It seems like a misstep in retrospect to have never seen Ramon get a shot on top.
Who knows? Maybe if Ramon had gotten a world title opportunity, he wouldn’t have left when WCW offered him a big money deal. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a New World Order—or at least not as successful of a version—and the path of the Monday Night War might have been very different.
6 Wish They Hadn’t: The Great Khali
The Great Khali was physical spectacle—a legit seven footer and a former body builder who was instantly over as a main event level heel. The trouble is, the guy was an embarrassingly bad worker between the ropes, not to mention that he couldn’t cut a promo in English. In an earlier era, he may have been a more acceptable top player, but by the mid-to-late 00s, WWE was a more work rate oriented promotion.
To be fair, Khali winning a world title wasn’t necessarily the plan. A string of bad luck—most notably injuries to The Undertaker, Mr. Kennedy, and Edge, threw the company’s plans into disarray. WWE may well have thought it was out of options. Just the same, Khali stands out as one of the least impressive pro wrestling talents on the list of guys who’ve been given the chance to carry the world title.
5 Wish They Hadn’t: Rob Van Dam
Rob Van Dam was an explosively over talent. During the widely panned InVasion angle, he was among those rare talents who stood out, and was actually over on the Alliance side of the angle. From there, he was a popular talent who looked as though he’d wrongfully never get his chance at the top of the card.
In 2006, WWE made the choice to offer RVD the push of a lifetime. He won the Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania 22. That segued to beating John Cena to not only win the WWE Championship, but launch the new ECW brand as its champion, too.
Everything went up in smoke when RVD got in trouble with the law for marijuana possession weeks later. In short order, RVD dropped the WWE title to Edge and the ECW title to The Big Show, never again to get another opportunity on top. The RVD experiment was deemed a failure, just as the ECW relaunch ultimately flopped.
4 Wish They Had: Roddy Piper
When it comes to evaluating the top WWE stars who helped kick off the Rock N Wrestling Era that allowed for WWE to explode onto the national scene, there are a handful of wrestlers who really stand out. There’s Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. There’s Wendi Richter. And then there’s Roddy Piper.
Piper was the top heel WWE had in this time, and his skills as a talker in particular made him an optimal rival for Hulk Hogan en route to the original WrestleMania.
Piper hung around. He eventually became a beloved face legend and finally won a title in WWE in 1992, when he beat The Mountie for the Intercontinental Championship. He’d never capture a world title, though, and may be the single most important wrestler in WWE’s history to have never done so.
3 Wish They Hadn’t: The Miz
The Miz has enjoyed surprising longevity with WWE. He started with the company in 2004 as a contestant on Tough Enough, who seemed to earn the opportunity more out of his previous reality TV exploits on The Real World than wrestling merit. He hung around, though, sticking it out in WWE’s developmental system, before getting low-level wrestling, and higher level talking opportunities on the main roster.
The Miz made the most of the chances afforded to him, emerging as an entertaining tag team wrestler and mid card act. When he won the Money in the Bank briefcase, it wasn’t out of left field, and when he won the WWE Championship via cash-in, even, it was a surprise, but didn’t come across as an absurdity.
When Miz carried the title into the main event of WrestleMania XXVII, however, he felt awfully of place. It particularly stood out the degree to which he was overshadowed by both challenger John Cena and guest host The Rock.
The Miz is still kicking around, and especially over the last two years, has cemented his spot toward the tip-top of the mid-card. Just the same, his name still looks odd on a list of former world champions and the fact that he was champ in 2011, and how poorly received that reign was, may well hold him back from ever getting a world title opportunity now, as a more experienced performer.
2 Wishes They Hadn’t: Stan Stasiak
The early roster of WWE Champions is chock full of all time legends. Buddy Rogers, the original Nature Boy, held the title first, and then Bruno Sammartino had his eight years in the sun. Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund were legit top faces of their days, Billy Graham was a trailblazer ahead of his time, and Ivan Koloff represented the monster heel ideal for his day.
And then there’s Stan Stasiak.
While Stasiak is generally remembered as a respectable pro wrestler, he’s not a legend on the scale of his fellow champions. He was largely a utility player to transition the title from Morales back to Sammartino for his second reign after a week as champ. In retrospect, though, you have to wonder if WWE may wish the history books had a more clear cut Hall of Fame name like Gorilla Monsoon in that spot.
1 Wish They Had: Ted DiBiase
In the late 1980s WWE introduced Ted DiBiase in the Million Dollar Man gimmick. He was quickly positioned as the new top heel in the company, and in retrospect he was a bit of a prototype for Mr. McMahon. The character was all about buying his way to victory, with added bonus that he actually was an exceptional in ring talent and talker.
DiBiase did sort of taste world title gold when he bought the WWE Championship from Andre the Giant. He was immediately stripped, though, on the premise that the title couldn’t be bought or sold, and so fans don’t generally consider him to have ever won the title.
There’s a fair enough argument that DiBiase didn’t need the title, but he nonetheless stands out as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time never to win a world title. Had he not arrived during Hulkamania and had WWE not opted for Savage to win the title at WrestleMania IV (it’s widely rumored DiBiase was originally supposed to win, then drop the title to the Macho Man) he might have received his just deserts.