When it comes to WWE's mid-card titles, discussion often turns to how successful they've been in their chief objective: elevating talent. At their most effective, these championships that sit below the world titles in the pecking order can be used to elevate young superstars and help facilitate their development while adorning them with some level of importance along the way to the top. Trouble is, this idea doesn't always pan out. Nowadays conversation about these belts will inevitably feature some nostalgic wrestling fan lamenting that they no longer carry the prestige of bygone eras.
Take the Intercontinental Championship, for example. Even though current titleholder Deam Ambrose happens to be a former World Champion, he probably doesn't stack up favorably to the likes of past champions Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and Stone Cold Steve Austin for fans of a certain vintage and certainly doesn't match the gravitas afforded to the best when it was contested in a mat classic between Ricky Steamboat and Randy "Macho Man" Savage at WrestleMania III. Of course, these are impossible standards to uphold. Even the likes of Hart, Michaels and Austin were, at one time, young up-and-comers looking to move up the card. The current Raw feud between Ambrose and The Miz gives the title meaning by having it be contested between two talented, compelling characters who covet it.
Where the complainers have a point, however, is in the many stumbles WWE has had along the way in identifying who can be deemed worthy of a title run. The company would probably have you just as soon forget about some of the underwhelming IC title reigns over its existence. After all, when it comes to a belt that has been around ever since Pat Patterson won a fictional tournament in Brazil back in 1979, it only makes sense that there would be some misses along with the talented up-and-comers who used the championship as a stepping stone to move onto greater glory in the squared circle. This legendary title belt, which has been held by the likes of Pedro Morales, Mr. Perfect and Chris Jericho, has also been held by these guys.
14 Luke Harper
There remains a certain quality about Luke Harper that continues to make him a compelling character. His big man agility, coupled with a well-cemented wild man character, have helped him stand out on the roster and made him a natural fit to be associated with Bray Wyatt. But even after four years since being called up from NXT, it remains tough to forecast the future path of a wrestler who still struggles to connect to audiences beyond crazy eyes and an unkempt beard. The same could be said for Harper back in late 2014, as he had moved away from Wyatt to take part in an ill-fitting association with the Authority. As part of the angle, Harper was given his first singles title run, defeating Dolph Ziggler for the IC title. The win didn’t give him much traction, however, and he has since rejoined and split from the Wyatt fold. That he hasn’t sniffed another singles title run highlights how far his stock has dropped since his debut.
13 Lance Storm
It’s a good sign that charisma probably isn’t your strong suit when you are saddled with a gimmick centered around being boring. Without any real compelling personality traits to showcase beyond being an elite technical wrestler, Lance Storm was handed a gimmick in which other wrestlers would try to help him be more entertaining and he would begin each promo with the ironic catchphrase, “if I could be serious for a moment”. Storm’s Intercontinental title victory over Albert served to give the evil Alliance faction some momentum during the WWE-dominated Invasion angle, but it still didn’t make Storm interesting nor did it help make the WCW and ECW invaders seem like any more of a threat. For his part, though, Storm enjoyed a lengthy and decorated pro wrestling career that still sees him lace up the boots for the odd match. Mostly, he remains active in running the Storm Wrestling Academy, which counts WWE Superstars like Tyler Breeze and Emma among its alumni.
12 Rocky Maivia
Let’s be clear here – Dwayne Johnson is a two-time IC titleholder and 17-time champion, not to mention one of the most over Superstars in WWE history. But for all of the success he’s enjoyed in the squared circle and well beyond, Johnson still has to answer for his pre-Rock days in which he was the smiling, tassled babyface Rocky Maivia. His bland, white bread persona, coupled with a multi-generational pedigree that made him seem entitled rather then legitimate, quickly soured audiences on a wrestler they felt was being forced down their throats. His rejected babyface run did facilitate the heel turn that sparked his rise to the main event scene, but making him the youngest Intercontinental champ in history did him no favors with a fan base that felt he hadn’t earned the best on his own merit. And hey, whatever became of that Rock guy? Well, just an A-list Hollywood career as an action hero starring in blockbuster after blockbuster!
The mythology surrounding the larger than life nature of WWE Superstars took a bit of a hit on the April 16, 2007 episode of Raw. That was the day that, per the orders of Vince McMahon, a "random fan in the crowd" was brought into the ring to challenge fearsome IC titleholder Umaga for the belt. Thanks to outside interference by Bobby Lashley, a supposedly chosen at random Santino Marella began his WWE run as a mid-card champion. Now, Marella had a lengthy and highly entertaining run with the company, adding a US Championship reign to his title tally and being best remembered for his Glamarella pairing alongside Beth Phoenix. Still, the immediate IC title change didn't elevate Marella so much as defined down the belt. Marella didn't need the run to ultimately succeed as a comedy character and Umaga could have made an impact with one lengthy, dominant reign rather than winning the title back a few months after dropping it. Since retiring in 2014, Marella has worked in Venezuela to train athletes ahead of the 2015 Pan-American Games and appears regularly as a panelist for the Canadian wrestling show, Sportsnet 360 Aftermath.
11 Billy Gunn
It's easy to dismiss a wrestler who endures a failed singles run as a flop. But some, however, were simply never meant to be solo Superstars and did their best work as part of a tag team or stable. Billy Gunn fits into that group. From his early beginnings alongside Bart Gunn in the Smoking Gunns tag team to his best recognized role as part of the New Age Outlaws within DX, Gunn was always at his best with allies by his side. Heck, he even made things work as part of the infamous team of Billy and Chuck. Put him by himself, though, and that's where things got messy. Various re-packagings as "Mr. Ass" and "The One" Billy Gunn were soundly rejected by fans who were wise to his cozy relationship with Triple H and didn't feel he deserved spots like his 1999 King of the Ring win and a high profile Summerslam feud with the Rock. His IC title reign barely made a blip, as he lost the belt to Chris Benoit two weeks after defeating Eddie Guerrero for it. Since being fired from his most recent WWE run in 2015 on account of a Wellness Policy violation, Gunn has bounced around the indy scene and even had a New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) run last year.
10 Big E Langston
Big E has grown so deeply associated alongside Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods as part of the New Day that it's hard to recall him having the surname Langston affixed to his WWE persona, let alone the rest of his main roster career prior to joining the group. The quirky, charismatic, gyrating big man arrived in WWE full of potential and even became the second ever NXT Champion. But an early run that started in late 2012 and saw him linked to Dolph Ziggler and AJ Lee failed to provide any upward momentum towards the main event scene. A late 2013 babyface run as Intercontinental Champion did little to refresh his character or elevate the title. It didn't help that he was involved in go-nowhere feuds with the likes of Curtis Axel, Damien Sandow and Jack Swagger, but the run also offered precious few indications that Big E was poised to be a future main event player. He still hasn't hit the main event scene, but the door certainly isn't closed for the 31-year-old.
9 The Mountie
The early nineties saw a litany of eccentric, colorful characters stroll through what was then the WWE, from Koko B Ware to "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan to the Bushwhackers. Though all were memorable, none had any major title runs of note during their time in the spotlight. The blink-and-you-missed-it IC title reign of The Mountie may have illustrated why. Jacques Rougeau's campy take on a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police got him over as a loudmouth, mid-card heel but hardly gave him championship credibility. Nonetheless, he upset Bret Hart, who was supposedly suffering from flu symptoms (in reality, he was in the midst of contract negotiations), for the title. A mere two days later, ostensibly after Vince McMahon realized he had made a mistake, the Mountie dropped the belt to "Rowdy" Roddy Piper at the 1992 Royal Rumble. After shedding his RCMP outfit, Rougeau found some success alongside Pierre Ouellet as the Quebecers tag team. Today, the second-generation star tours as a motivational speaker while also running his Montreal-based Rougeau Wrestling School.
8 D’Lo Brown
The Attitude Era in WWE is generally celebrated as something of a golden age for the company, helping catapult them over a hard-charging WCW during the Monday Night Wars. But not everything that the decidedly non-PG era touched turned to gold. Along with the rise to stardom of Steve Austin, The Rock and DX, the era also featured a Kennel From Hell match and a character named Beaver Cleavage based on "Leave It To Beaver" who lusted after his mother. Another failure of the Attitude Era came in the attempts to push D'Lo Brown, a swaggering, high-flying big man who just didn't connect with the crowd. He joined rare company by holding the Intercontinental and European Championships simultaneously, becoming the first of a group that would come to include future main eventers Jeff Jarrett, Kurt Angle and Rob Van Dam. Brown, who carried little evident personality outside of a strange head bob, would never reach such lofty heights in WWE. These days, Brown still trains future Superstars at the D'Lo Brown Wrestling School in Las Vegas and still takes the odd independent booking.
Give Matt Bloom credit - he got every ounce of potential out of a series of character that, if we're being honest, never seemed to have much upside. Whether Albert, A-Train or one of his many other aliases, he never failed to draw attention on his big, hairy, tattooed physique and heavily vocal in-ring presence. The only trouble was that he just wasn't a very good wrestler or a particularly compelling interview. The company did their best to hide his deficiencies through the use of managers and factions like his T&A tag team alongside Test and a short-lived group known as X-Factor. But when Bloom, as Albert, beat Kane for the IC title in 2001, it took less than a month for the bookers to come to their senses and realize he wasn't singles title material. Even more bewildering, Bloom returned to WWE in 2012 on the strength of a main event push as the destructive heel Lord Tensai. Needless to say, it didn't work out and Bloom soon found himself falling down the pecking order until ultimately retiring. He remains active in an off-camera role in WWE, serving as the head trainer at NXT.
6 Marc Mero
Believe it or not, there was a time when the addition of the "Wild Man" Marc Mero was thought to be something of a coup for WWE. Mero had made a name for himself in WCW as a flamboyant, Little Richard rip-off named Johnny B. Badd and WWE came calling for the charisma-oozing superstar. Simply put, it didn't pan out. Mero worked his way through a series of different characters, but didn't really catch fire with any as he failed to connect with the audience. The only successful aspect of his act quickly became his valet and real-life wife, Rena "Sable" Mero. Even after winning a tournament to crown a new IC Champion after Ahmed Johnson had vacated the belt due to injury, Mero found himself overshadowed by the blonde bombshell who would later go on to marry Brock Lesnar. This would ultimately be turned into a storyline, with Mero turning heel and growing jealous of Sable's popularity, but it still failed to elevate the former WCW standout. After dropping the belt to Hunter Hearst Helmsley a month after winning it, his WWE fortunes took an immediate downturn before ultimately leaving three years into his run. Though no longer with Sable, Mero has found success as an outspoken anti-drug advocate and a wrestling trainer.
5 Ezekiel Jackson
Tazz, Sabu, Tommy Dreamer, Rob Van Dam... Ezekiel Jackson? Yes, the big Zeke remains the embarrassing answer to the trivia question, "who was the last ECW World Heavyweight Champion?" But WWE's attempts at re-creating ECW is a whole other story - we're focusing here on the other title Jackson won during his six-year tenure with the company. Shortly after WWE pulled the plug on ECW with Jackson as its champion, the big man made his way to Smackdown, where he immediately joined the Wade Barrett-led stable known as The Corre. It wasn't long after that the group turned on Jackson, prompting a feud between he and Barrett, who was Intercontinental Champion at the time. The feud offered the satisfying payoff of Jackson getting his revenge by taking Barrett's title, but then fans were faced with a mid-card champion who couldn't wrestle and carried precious little personality. His two-month championship reign barely made a blip on the radar of most fans and, after dropping the belt to Cody Rhodes, he was not involved in another major angle within WWE for the rest of his tenure. Today, he continues to float around the independent scene after stints in both TNA and Lucha Underground.
4 Curtis Axel
Few wrestlers are as fondly associated with being Intercontinental Champion as is "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig. Despite his status as a beloved and exceptionally popular superstar with a memorable gimmick, his two IC title reigns still represented a career high point, as injuries and the backstage politics of Hulk Hogan kept him from a world title run. Like his father, Curtis Axel is also among the ranks of former Intercontinental Champions, although that's where the similarities end between father and son. With a rename borne out of tribute to his dad and grandfather, Larry "the Axe" Hennig, Axel never quite caught on despite a considerable push by WWE. At the time of his IC title reign, the one-time Nexus member was aligned with Paul Heyman and registering wins, however undeserved and fluky, over the likes of Triple H and John Cena. WWE ultimately came to their senses regarding the charismatically-challenged Axel, but not before a 155-day title reign. Axel continues to reside as a little-used member of the roster, appearing occasionally on B shows like Superstars or as filler in Battle Royals.
3 Marty Jannetty
The famous breakup of the Rockers, with Shawn Michaels memorably throwing Marty Jannetty through the plate glass window of Brutus Beefcake's barber shop, should have been a major jumping off point for Michaels and Jannetty alike. For Michaels, the heel turn sparked what would ultimately be a legendary career as a main event superstar and WWE icon. For Jannetty, the split proved less fruitful. What should have been a major momentum builder for his solo babyface run lost steam when it became clear who was the more talented of the two Rockers. But that didn't mean that WWE didn't try to make it work. Although the feud between the two was jeopardized by Jannetty's repeated brushes with the law, the company forged ahead by giving him a revenge win over Michaels for the latter's belt. The reign only lasted a few weeks before Jannetty lost it back to his former partner, regressing into the undercard before being dropped from the company altogether less than a year later. Jannetty last appeared for WWE back in 2009, having since joined a class action lawsuit against them alleging traumatic brain injuries incurred while competing for the company.
2 Ahmed Johnson
There are few safer paths to the upper echelon of WWE than the one forged by Ahmed Johnson in the mid-nineties. Essentially, Johnson achieved Vince McMahon's wet dream by being a former NFL linebacker and, well, a really, really jacked dude. Given those qualities, his immediate push up the card was hardly surprising. In fact, his reign as the first African-American IC Champion was seen as merely a step along the superstardom. Unfortunately, ill-timed injury issues and kidney problems, coupled with a clear lack of polish, derailed his push. The kidney issues, in particular, forced Johnson to miss a major Intercontinental title defense against Farooq at SummerSlam and a subsequent world title match the night after that he had earned in a battle royal. While his IC title reign serves as a sobering "what if?", Johnson didn't do himself any favors after the fact by gaining extreme amounts of weight and never working himself back into a condition that would see him taken seriously by WWE. Johnson now works as a trainer at Booker T and Stevie Ray's Pro Wrestling Alliance wrestling school.
1 Dean Douglas
Recognized as the first World Champion of Extreme Championship Wrestling, Shane Douglas was both a focal point and a lightning rod in the explosive early years of the promotion. Capitalizing on that momentum, WWE signed Douglas in 1995 and... turned him into a college professor? Introduced via vignettes taking place in a classroom, Dean Douglas would generate heat by offering critical reports on the performances of babyface wrestlers. A little over a month after his in-ring debut, Douglas was essentially handed the IC title when Shawn Michaels was forced to forfeit the belt during his infamous bar fight where he was either assaulted by 12 marines or beat up by one guy, depending on who you believe. Nonetheless, Douglas' "reign" lasted all of 11 minutes, as he was placed in an impromptu title match with Razor Ramon that he promptly lost. The Dean was never able to get back the title, nor whatever shred of heat he might have had with a failed gimmick. By December of that same year, he had left the promotion and made his way back to ECW. In the twilight of a decorated wrestling career, Douglas still occasionally laces up the boots and remains a teacher and motivational speaker while attempting to start up his own wrestling promotion.
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