Titles for the various promotions that make up the professional wrestling landscape date all the way back to the beginning of the sport as a viable form of popular entertainment. It gives a flair to the entire spectacle, and can serve as a tool to give additional hype to high-profile matches. Needless to say, there have been some legendary wrestling names that have donned the gold belt over the years.
Because of the sheer amount of titles and promotions in the sport's history, the criteria for this kind of ranking could vary. For this list, wrestlers who exhibited the ability to capture the gold in numerous territories and promotions generally got the edge over ones who accomplished that in just one notable promotion. Obviously, this disqualifies names like The Rock and Goldberg right off the bat.
There are also names that were popular in their day, and certainly were a good draw throughout their career, but statistically never captured the necessary amount of titles to be considered in the top tier. Names like Roddy Piper and Jake "The Snake" Roberts are legendary talents, but were never really high profile, consistent champions for any promotion.
Finally, given the nature of "Hardcore" based titles, especially in WWE, they have been excluded from consideration as well. There was a period of time when they would seemingly (or literally) change hands every week. They are also somewhat of a recent development, and were never really afforded to wrestlers pre-1999 or so.
Ultimately, all the names on this list had some degree of longevity, and proved that they could have championship success in whichever territories applied to them. This is the cream of the crop when it comes to all-time title winning champions in wrestling.
Ranked below are the top 15 most decorated wrestlers in history.
29 "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
The "Texas Rattlesnake" falls lower on this list, because he only really found great success in two promotions in his career. However, those two promotions were WCW and WWE, and given that they were the two most prominent in the world during the 1990's, his title history carries more weight. Of course, Austin is a six-time WWE champion, but also captured four tag titles. In WCW, while he didn't capture the Heavyweight strap, he racked up multiple runs with the TV Title, United States title, and was a two-time tag champ with Brian Pillman as the Hollywood Blonds. He never ventured too much into the Indy scene, as his rise to popularity warranted his fast track into the mainstream promotions, but this kind of success can't be ignored. Austin is one of the most recognizable champions in the history of the sport.
27 Rob Van Dam
In addition to a plethora of Indy titles, Van Dam has found great achievement in TNA, WWE and ECW over his career. That makes three high-profile promotions he's excelled in, and between them all he's undertaken 17 different title runs (excluding Hardcore ones). On six different occasions, he held the WWE IC strap, which is impressive in any era. Van Dam may sometimes get the reputation of a one-trick pony in the ring, but no one can argue with the title success he's had over the years. After a short stint in WCW in the early 1990's, he absolutely exploded onto the scene, first getting a leg up in ECW, and remained in the spotlight for around 15 years. All in all, he lived up to the hype.
25 Shawn Michaels
Obviously, HBK's greatest title success came in WWE, where he's captured eight singles titles, and five in the tag division. What has been kind neglected in many discussions is his success in the AWA with Marty Jannetty as their first incarnation of The Rockers, before moving to WWE. In the AWA, which was a name-recognized promotion at the time, the duo captured the tag titles twice, and also did so in other Indy territories around the Midwest. Factor in the title legacy he's built for himself in WWE, and Michaels usually had possession of some gold for the better part of twenty years. Truly, "The Showstopper" is one of the most consistent champions of his generation.
23 AJ Styles
One could make the argument that Styles has been the pound-for-pound most consistent wrestler since the turn of the century. The list of titles he's won at all the various promotions he's wrestled for is too many to count, but there are some notable highlights. He's a three-time NWA Heavyweight champ, four-time NWA Tag title holder, two-time IWGP champ in New Japan, and he's held two titles in ROH. Overall, he's probably held the most titles of any singles competitor since 2000, and his career is still going strong in WWE. The only reason he ranks so low is because he isn't done yet. A few WWE title reigns to his name, and he'd likely be knocking on the top five on a list like this.
21 Harley Race
Some fans may only be familiar with Harley Race from his time spent with WWE, when he was near the end of his in-ring career. That wasn't an accurate representation of what he was capable of, as he's wrestled in territories across the country, and internationally, having some kind of title success in nearly all of them. In the Midwest, he captured the NWA Central States Title on nine occasions, and the NWA Heavyweight Title eight different times. He was a three-time NWA Tag champ in Florida, which was a big promotion in the South at the time, and a three-time AWA Tag champ. In short, Race has done it all in the business, and the amount of titles he's won speaks to his consistency. He fell out of his prime just as the wrestling business was going national, and as such never fully got the recognition he deserved.
19 Mitsuharu Misawa
It isn't a stretch to say that Misawa is the definition of wrestling royalty in Japan. A main event staple of AJPW and Pro Wrestling NOAH, he was one of the main figures who put Japanese wrestling on the map on an international basis. He was a five-time Triple Crown Heavyweight champion, and captured three heavyweight titles in NOAH. Though these were the two primary promotions he wrestled for during his career, he never ceased to have a drought of title runs. He remained consistently viable for almost 30 years as a championship contender, and for my money, is the best main event talent Japan ever produced.
17 Booker T
His success in the tag division alone warrants Booker being on this list, but consider that he's won 17 singles titles between his time in WCW and WWE, and he's a certified superstar as a champion. He's the epitome of an underdog story; going from a strict tag competitor in Harlem Heat, to a heavyweight singles champion, who could be relied upon to provide a quality title run at any given time. Booker T should always be considered one of the upper-tier champions in the history of the business, even if he isn't the first thought that comes to mind when considering the topic. The facts and statistics bear out, and nearly 30 different title runs between the singles and tag divisions don't lie.
15 Verne Gagne
The criteria may have to be altered slightly for this entry, but Gagne is simply too much of a pillar of championship success in Midwestern wrestling for him to be left off. He founded the AWA, and ten different title runs in such a major promotion (at the time at least), is just too much to ignore. On top of that, he was an eight-time tag champ, two time U.S. champ, and also captured the NWA Junior Heavvweight strap early in his career (circa 1950). He essentially built wrestling into a relevant form of entertainment for an entire region of the country, and in the early days of the AWA was it's top star. He's been criticized at times for his unwavering "old school" train of thought, but he's undeniably one of the greatest title holders of his era.
13 Bret Hart
The "Hitman" had superstar runs as champion in not only WWE and WCW, but also Stampede Wrestling, which was obviously run by his father, Stu Hart. Between the singles and tag divisions, Hart seemed to hold a title of some kind for over twenty years, and in the case of WWE, was one of the reasons the company stayed afloat during a downturn in quality in the mid-1990's. Some may think this is too high a ranking, but there wasn't a time during Hart's active, full-time career where he wasn't at least in title contention. As a result, he captured a total of 23 singles titles, and eight tag belts between the three promotions.
11 Stan Hansen
A true crossover star to the international wrestling scene, Hansen was successful on a championship level in nearly every promotion he was ever in. He was one of the first American wrestlers to go to Japan full time, and became a superstar for that audience, capturing four Triple Crown Heavyweight Titles. However, he also won Heavyweight and tag gold in Georgia, Texas and the Mid-Atlantic territories during his time in the states. His relatively brief time spent in WWE didn't yield the same results, but that's basically a result of booking decisions rather than ability. Without a doubt, Hansen is one of the premier title holders of all time, and deserves far more recognition than what he generally receives.
9 Rey Mysterio Jr.
For a cruiserweight, Mysterio defied all odds and became a major star in mainstream promotions in North America. Cutting his teeth on various promotions in Mexico (AAA namely), he quickly rose through the ranks and made his most during his time in WCW and WWE, winning 21 titles during his time with both promotions. It's a remarkable story, especially considering his generally masked character was an atypical model for success in North American promotions. He's been successful anywhere he's gone, and is an example of one of the most unique perennial title holders in the history of the sport.
7 Terry Funk
Funk has been the definition of a lifer in the world of professional wrestling, and his nomadic approach to the business has seen him capture many different titles, in a plethora of promotions since his debut in 1965. Highlights include great championship success in Georgia and Florida, which were major territories during the 1970's and 80's, as well a WWE Tag Title run, and becoming a two-time ECW Heavyweight champ. Factor in the dozens of belts he's won with other Indy and smaller promotions nationwide, and Funk is nothing short of wrestling royalty. He was never a prototypical champion, but his guts and sacrifice in the ring made it work, and Funk has appeared with the gold in dozens of territories.
5 Jeff Jarrett
Over the years, Jarrett has accumulated a laundry list of titles, and been one of the most recognizable names in the industry. He's seen gold in both mainstream and Indy promotions in the states, as well as title runs in Mexico for AAA. Naturally, as a founder of TNA, he's a six-time NWA Heavyweight champion, but also captured the IC gold for WWE six different times. On top of that, he's had tag success (four-time AWA Southern champ), and mid-tier promotion accomplishments (nine-time USWA Southern Heavyweight title holder). In short, he's one of the most established and recognized title holders in the business. Some may be quick to criticize TNA, but that has no bearing on Jarrett's career, as it's tough to find another wrestler who's had as many title runs in various promotions over the years.
3 Hulk Hogan
Perhaps a controversial second choice, but it's difficult to separate the words "champion" and "Hogan" since his rise to popularity in the mid-1980's. Given the phenomenon he was, Hogan wasn't going to be wrestling for dozens of Indy promotions, in many different championship divisions. For essentially his entire career, he's been in the main even heavyweight class in the two biggest promotions in the world, WCW and WWE. Between the two, he's won a combined 12 heavyweight titles, but he's done while consistently in the spotlight, and facing backlash from many fans. The fact is that for about a 20-year period, Hogan was the go-to title holder for the two biggest belts in North American wrestling. That warrants his spot on this list.
1 Ric Flair
Of course, neglecting the "Nature Boy" as the most decorated wrestler of all-time would be asinine. Before holding dozens of belts for WCW and WWE, which has been well-documented, he was a staple for the Mid-Atlantic territory, winning the U.S. strap six different times, the T.V. title twice, and the tag belts on three occasions. For years, Flair wrestled in dozens of territories as the NWA Heavyweight champ (a belt he won on nine occasions) to take on the top talent in every region across the country. This effectively established him as the most well-known champion in the country, and he became synonymous with the title he held. Without a doubt, Flair set the benchmark for big-time title reigns, and it hasn't been duplicated in the same fashion since.