So many wrestlers have competed for the WWE Universe over the years that it would be almost impossible to know each and every one of their names. However, when it comes to the 48 men who achieved the pinnacle that is winning the WWE Championship, you can best believe there are plenty of super fans who can name them all, in order, back and forth. Outside of those select few, hundreds more have challenged for the title and some even came darn close to winning it, but the powers that be, mostly Vince McMahon, ultimately decided they weren’t worthy.
While virtually every wrestler to enter the business may dream of one day being WWE Champion, the fact is, not everyone gets to hold the gold. It can still hurt to be one of the countless thousands never to truly succeed in the wrestling world, though, especially for those who were mere inches away from doing so. It’s one thing to challenge for the title and never win it, but it’s a whole different ball game for a wrestler to have it promised to them only for McMahon or some other executives to change their minds. The least we can do for these also-rans who almost were is remember their stories, and with that in mind, keep reading to learn about 15 superstars who were rumored to win the WWE Championship, yet never actually did.
15 Mr. Kennedy
Few wrestlers have been given as many chances as Mr. Kennedy, and all he’s done with them is prove he’s an expert at burning bridges. In all fairness, the first time around wasn’t his fault. Kennedy became the third Money in the Bank winner in 2007, and according to him, the victory was going to propel him to the WWE Championship, as it had done with the past two winners. Unfortunately for Kennedy, though, a minor injury was misdiagnosed as something major, and he lost the opportunity to Edge on an episode of Raw. Perhaps acknowledging fault, the McMahons gave Kennedy a second chance and apparently had big plans for him to become a major player in the company up until John Cena and Randy Orton started complaining about him being unsafe, effectively ending Kennedy’s WWE career. Though he never won the big prize in WWE, Kennedy would nonetheless become a two time TNA Champion before cutting ties with that company, as well.
14 Bam Bam Bigelow
A man covering his head in flames sends a serious message about his personality, and the incredible tattoo sported by Bam Bam Bigelow is merely one of the many reasons he seemed built to be WWE Champion. Given his immense size and relatively impressive agility, Bigelow was treated like a major talent everywhere he worked, albeit not one that regularly challenged for World Championship. Part of the problem was that Bigelow was a bit of a journeyman in his early career, rarely sticking around long enough to be a serious main eventer. During the mid ‘90s, it looked like Bigelow finally settled in with the WWE Universe, and was rewarded by headlining WrestleMania XI. Though he lost to Lawrence Taylor, it increased his profile more than ever, and all signs pointed towards a huge push and potential WWE Championship run. It isn’t entirely clear why things didn’t pan out, but the prevailing theory is that he ran afoul of The Kliq, and thus Bigelow was gone by the next year.
Now more than ever, wrestling fans are aware that Vince McMahon isn’t always the best at taking a hint. Despite Mabel having been instantly rejected as the worst King of the Ring in history, Vince and his staff powered through with him as the company’s top heel, leading to feuds against The Undertaker and then WWE Champion Diesel. Both of Mabel’s high profile programs were complete bombs, largely because of Mabel’s lack of mobility in the ring. Even so, according to the man himself, there were plans for Mabel to defeat Diesel at SummerSlam and win the belt. Once again, it was meddling by Diesel and his Kliq friends that prevented this from happening, although in this case most fans are probably thankful for it. On the other hand, Mabel winning would have been historic in a number of ways, as he could have been both the first black WWE Champion and youngest in history at 24.
12 William Regal
Proving that age alone isn’t that big of a factor on this list, the closest William Regal ever came to being WWE Champion was right around his 40th birthday. Regal had been in WWE for nearly eight years at that point, and there were another seven in WCW before that, all the while slowly building his reputation as one of the best wrestlers in the world. It looked like he finally broke through to the main event when he became King of the Ring in 2008, while he was already the Raw General Manager. Drawing allusions to King Lear, it would have been entirely plausible for Regal to take his power madness all the way to the WWE Championship, but by his own admission, the pressure started getting to him and he failed a drug test, losing it all in an instant. Regal was suspended for 60 days, and though he eventually returned, all the potential was lost, and it could be said WWE no longer had the faith in him to be champion.
Considering Tiny Lister is an actor who wrestled five matches in his entire wrestling career, it would be fair to look at Zeus and think there’s no way he could ever be WWE Champion. On the other hand, Vince McMahon firmly believed No Holds Barred was going to be a hit movie, and even more so that the subsequent Zeus-Hogan feud would be a no-brainer that packed enraptured moviegoers into wrestling stadiums. Neither of those things came close to happening, but according to Lister, this didn’t stop McMahon from offering him the WWE Championship for an entire year. The only thing that stopped it was Lister’s agent, also Hulk Hogan’s agent, who talked him out of it due to what Lister now believes was a conflict of interest. If that was the case, we may have to thank that agent, because an untrained actor as World Champion for a full year sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
10 Mr. Perfect
With a name like Mr. Perfect and a gimmick implying he more than lives up to it, especially when it comes to athletic endeavors, it’s almost false advertisement that Curt Hennig was never WWE Champion. There were at least a few times he came close, although the full extent of these rumors may be just that. Hennig almost certainly was booked to win the 1991 Royal Rumble before Hulk Hogan decided he wanted the honor, but whether or not that would have put him in line for a World title run down the line has never been confirmed anywhere. A little over one year later, WWE was making an effort at pushing smaller stars than the musclemen of the past, and again rumors claimed Perfect was in contention to win the title either from Randy Savage or Ric Flair. While he would stay in programs with them until Flair left the company, the title win went to Bret Hart instead, and Perfect’s record remained imperfect as far as the WWE Championship was concerned.
9 Owen Hart
Prior to the Internet becoming mainstream, WWE and other wrestling promotions were able to try out innovative angles on house shows without fans really knowing about it, picking and choosing what really happened by airing it on television. This trend continued into the mid ‘90s, although examples like Owen Hart’s phantom WWE Championship reign might explain why they gradually petered out. Owen defeated his brother Bret in a lumberjack match to win the title, only for the decision to get reversed and title returned when referees noticed Owen cheated. Fans found out about it anyway, and because it never aired on television, many believed it was a trial run for Owen eventually winning the belt for real on a Pay-Per-View. Chances are those plans never actually existed, but enough pictures of Owen with the belt persist that people who see them believe it could have happened. It definitely would have been a fun change of pace, and Owen is nonetheless one of the best non-champions the company has ever seen.
No woman has ever been WWE Champion, and depending on where you stand on the men wrestling women debate, that’s either a good thing or a tragedy. Rather than weigh in on that controversy in general, we’ll simply point out that the closest any woman has come to breaking that glass ceiling was unsurprisingly Chyna. She had been breaking gender barriers from the moment she debuted, and 1999 in particular was a trailblazing year for Chyna and women everywhere. In a few short months, Chyna became the first woman to compete in the Royal Rumble and King of the Ring tournament, and by the end of the year she was the only female Intercontinental Champion in history. Along the way, she earned a few shots at the WWE Championship, and at one point was booked to main event SummerSlam 1999 for the title. Though those plans changed before the match even happened, Chyna later claimed she was told a title run was very possible down the line. However, Vince McMahon told her doing Playboy meant that opportunity was going away, and thus no woman has ever held the belt to this day.
7 Ted DiBiase
Give credit where credit’s due—though none of the wrestlers on this became WWE Champion, thanks to his great wealth, Ted DiBiase was the only one to do something about it. When he couldn’t win the belt himself, he paid André The Giant to do it for him. Unfortunately for DiBiase, this broke the rules, and Jack Tunney vacated the title to set up a tournament at WrestleMania IV. In perhaps the best known rumor on this list, Ted DiBiase was then set to win the tournament and become champion, but plans changed to “Macho Man” Randy Savage thanks to meddling by The Honky Tonk Man. It’s a long story. Point is, DiBiase took the loss in good nature, simply creating his own Million Dollar Championship to make up for it. An odd side effect of his new belt was that DiBiase soon fell out of the main event status, and thus he never had another serious chance at winning the real one.
6 Lex Luger
Long before he entered the WWE Universe, the so-called “Total Package” Lex Luger already had the stink of being a choker due to his time in the NWA. On multiple occasions, he came extremely close to winning the NWA Championship, and though he eventually won the WCW Championship, that success didn’t continue through his pit stop working for Vince McMahon. Oddly, all of this is despite McMahon allegedly seeing Luger as the second coming of Hulk Hogan, and booking him as an All-American hero because of it. Despite all the aplomb, Luger repeatedly failed to defeat Yokozuna for the WWE Championship, first at SummerSlam and then at WrestleMania X. It was the second time around that rumors floated Luger would win, emboldened by urban legends of him drunkenly saying as much on a radio show and/or in a bar. As it turns out, the odds of Luger winning the belt were as real as him talking about it when he was drunk, which he later revealed would have been impossible due to his schedule.
Plowing through his victims like a baby bull, wrestling has never seen a force quite as destructive as the man they call Vader. After outright dominating all around the world and winning championships in WCW, Japan, Mexico, and Germany, it seemed obvious that Vader would continue his success in WWE when he jumped ship in 1996. He debuted at the Royal Rumble by beating up just about everyone on the roster, then attacked Gorilla Monsoon the next night, making him a monster in every sense of the word. When Vader was set to challenge Shawn Michaels at SummerSlam, it seemed like the inevitable was about to happen, and indeed most rumors claimed he was going to take home the belt. Unfortunately for Vader, the Heartbreak Kid took a page out of his buddy Diesel’s book and successfully convinced Vince McMahon that Vader didn’t earn the gold. Michaels even went one further in giving the transitional role to his other friend Sid, keeping it all in the Kliq and pushing the Mastodon to the side.
4 Masked Superstar
To modern day fans, there’s almost no question that Masked Superstar will be the most obscure name on this list. It might help if we refer to him by his better known WWE moniker, Ax of Demolition, although that slightly complicates things, because there’s no way Ax ever could have been a singles champion. That said, as Masked Superstar, rumor has it he came extremely close, and could have served as the transition between the Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan eras. The Superstar was pretty much your run-of-the-mill monster heel, and there was never any chance of his title reign lasting more than a few weeks, so it really wouldn’t have had much of an impact on history if things went down in this fashion. On the other hand, The Iron Sheik was a much better villain, especially against the All-American Hulk Hogan, and it was for that reason he was ultimately chosen over Masked Superstar.
Strap in, folks, because this one is pretty ridiculous, and yet it comes from a respected source who would definitely know the full story. According to longtime WWE writer and producer Bruce Prichard, not only did Vince McMahon have plans for Tugboat, aka Typhoon, aka The Shockmaster, to become WWE Champion, but said plans also involved Tugger turning his back on America and essentially taking Sgt. Slaughter’s role in the much maligned WrestleMania VII and SummerSlam ’91 main events. Also, he would slightly change his name to Sheik Tugboat, presumably because “WWE Champion Tugboat” just didn’t seem silly enough. In all fairness to Tugboat, he did fine for himself when McMahon came to his senses and instead decided to turn him into Typhoon as one half of the Natural Disasters, but a solo run as the top star of the company could have been even worse than Slaughter the turncoat.
2 Bill Watts
The world will never know exactly how true any of the rumors mentioned on this list are, yet it goes without saying that some of them are more believable than others. Perhaps hardest of all to imagine would be “Cowboy” Bill Watts claim he was originally booked to defeat Bruno Sammartino during his landmark 7-year reign as WWE Champion. The two were indeed engaged in a highly publicized feud throughout the mid-60s, once causing a fan riot through Bill’s nefarious actions. During the commotion, Watts apparently punched a fan, taking away his chances of being champion. Well, that’s how Watts told it to JR on an episode of his podcast, anyway. Most fans find the whole story hard to believe, considering Sammartino was still massively popular and went on to hold that belt another five years. At the same time, Watts doesn’t serve to gain anything from lying about it half a century later, so who knows what to believe on this one?
1 Tito Santana
Arriba! Okay, truth be told, there’s a way to look at Tito Santana and see him as equally unlikely to have been WWE Champion as Bill Watts, Mabel, Chyna, and the other truly out there names on this list. However, the specifics of the case bring it all together, as WWE was allegedly considering a rapid expansion through South America in the early 1990s. Nothing could accomplish that feat like a major Latino superstar headlining the promotion, and it was in that vein Santana was considered to defeat Ric Flair circa 1992. Instead, the company looked north to Canada, and thus the role went to Bret Hart. Granted, the story is still a little suspect even with that story, since Santana was basically a jobber to the stars throughout this era. That’s not to say the right booking couldn’t have made it possible, and it sure would have been an interesting alternative history.