Winning a World Championship is supposed to be the highlight of a professional wrestler’s career. Nine times out of ten, it’s exactly that, with grapplers using the accomplishment as a launching point to further greatness. In this sense, winning a World Heavyweight title or equivalent is the first step in a wrestler’s journey towards the Hall of Fame, and the sky is the limit to the opportunities it could potentially bring them.
Unfortunately, a small percentage of World Champions over the years weren’t so lucky, their reigns as champion weak, and the impact holding the title had on their careers wholly negative. Ideally, becoming World Champion is supposed to signify a wrestler is the best entertainer in their given promotion, or at least very near the top of the roster from a technical standpoint. The audience should already either adore or hate the superstar with the gold, as crowd response is the only litmus promoters really need to decide who to push as their top stars.
That said, plenty of sports entertainment executives have awarded these accolades to athletes who weren’t ready for it, and this usually means everything to happen in their subsequent careers ends up looking like a huge step down from their time in the spotlight. Keep reading to discover 15 pro wrestlers whose careers went downhill after they won a World Championship.
16 Dolph Ziggler
Quite frankly, the only reason Dolph Ziggler’s career has been on a downward spiral since he won the World Heavyweight Championship in 2013 is that Vince McMahon refuses to give the guy a chance. Ziggler actually had his second run with the World Championship that year, though his first barely counts, awarded to him by then SmackDown General Manager Vickie Guerrero and lost to Edge later that same night. The second time around, Ziggler at least got to experience a few months with the gold, yet he was always booked as an afterthought in comparison to the WWE Champion at the time, John Cena. This problem was emblematic of the World Championship in general, though Ziggler still seemed to get it worst of all, with some fans forgetting the guy ever held a top title in the first place.
15 Sgt. Slaughter
Timing can often play a major role in the success of a given sports entertainer. 1991 was simply too late in the career of Sgt. Slaughter for him to win his first World Championship, and reaching his peak after his skills had significantly diminished only served to tarnish his legacy. Ten years earlier, Slaughter was highly praised for his innovative Street Fights against Pat Patterson and The Iron Sheik, and could have easily been a top star had Hulkamania not overshadowed everything else in the business. Worse than the fact time had past, Slaughter also switched gears from an American hero to an Iraqi sympathizer, destroying everything he had built up to that point. This made him a horrible choice for WWE Champion twice over, yet ironically this time it was because of Hulkamania that Vince McMahon gave Slaughter the gold anyway, so the Hulkster could have a foreign menace to topple at WrestleMania VIII.
14 Rob Van Dam
It isn’t always what a wrestler does as World Champion that makes their reign a bust. In Rob Van Dam’s case, it was what he did outside of the ring shortly after earning the title. Backing up a bit, in 2006, RVD was one of the most popular superstars in the business after slowly rising through the ranks of the WWE Universe for five years. He capitalized on this fame at the second ECW One Night Stand, defeating John Cena for the WWE Championship. All of three weeks later, he was arrested for marijuana possession alongside his friend and fellow superstar Sabu, which resulted in WWE immediately having Edge defeat him for the title on the next episode of Raw. RVD rapidly fell down the card from there, and never again reaching World Championship status while working for WWE. Despite all this, RVD claims he doesn’t blame the weed arrest for his downfall, thinking his days as champ were numbered from the start.
13 Daniel Bryan
As unfortunate as it is for a wrestler to fall from glory due to circumstances outside the ring, it’s even worse when they have no choice in the matter whatsoever. Daniel Bryan didn’t necessary meet his downfall because he won the WWE Championship, but reaching that height was nonetheless the beginning of the end for his career in general. Unlike most on this list who were at least partly to blame for their descent, Bryan’s sole issue at the time of his career peak was neck injuries, which would soon balloon into other problems that lead to his retirement. These wounds likewise affected Bryan’s short tenure as WWE Champion, which saw almost no title defenses of note, and thus could easily be considered him ending not with a bang but a highly disappointing whimper. Even if Bryan had recovered, chances of WWE making a serious effort of bringing him back to the top were slim, as seen in his short return attempt before retiring outright.
11 Larry Zbyszko
Every wrestler on this list experienced their own downfall because of winning a World Championship, but only one of them stunk so bad on top that he killed an entire promotion. Once upon a time, Larry Zbyszko was indeed a main event-level heel who sold out arenas against Bruno Sammartino, though this was about nine years prior to Verne Gange deciding his then son-in-law should be AWA World Champion. The AWA had already been on a downslide in general after the disaster of SuperClash III. It’s possible the company still could have recovered on name value alone, until Zbyszko was chosen as the man to take them into the next decade. Unfortunately, his slow and plodding pace combined with weak promo skills when talking about anything other than Sammartino made Zbyszko a weak champion, and fans petered out until Gagne was forced to sell the company. It should go without saying no other company ever consistently booked him in the main event again after he sunk what used to be a huge one with his first go-around on top.
10 Mike Awesome
In retrospect, it’s pretty hard to blame Mike Awesome for the actions that directly lead to the ultimate demise of his career. While reigning as ECW World Champion for the second time, Awesome had to weigh the fact his boss Paul Heyman wasn’t paying him with the fact he had a massive money offer from the bigger rival promotion WCW. Practically anyone in that position would make the same choice he did, leaving what wasn’t supposed to be volunteer work behind for a gig that actually provided restitution for his services. However, the fact he appeared on Monday Nitro while still ECW Champion caused many fans to react with pure rage, and promoters no doubt felt he simply couldn’t be trusted from there. Arguably worse than that, the gimmicks WCW would force upon him were outright embarrassing, bringing question to whether or not the money was even worth it.
9 Jerry Lynn
The dying days of ECW were an exceptionally strange time for the hardcore Philadelphia promotion. The owner and alleged head booker Paul Heyman rarely showed up to work or paid his talent, and his close friend Tommy Dreamer was pretty much running the show. All the top stars had either left for WCW or WWE, or were too injured from the ultraviolent style the company was known for to keep up a consistent schedule on top. And so, Jerry Lynn somehow became the ECW Champion for a month in late 2000. In fairness, Lynn was a great performer from a technical standpoint, but he never had the charisma required to be a star in mainstream American wrestling. This became particularly evident when ECW closed and he wound up in WWE, barely appearing outside of the Light Heavyweight division during his time there. Lynn simply achieved too much in the small time ever to feel like an accomplishment when he hit the big leagues.
8 Bray Wyatt
All right, so there’s still plenty of time for Bray Wyatt to turn things back around and reignite his star, but let’s be honest—things aren’t looking too hot for the Eater of Worlds. Since Bray and his Wyatt Family made their debut, the New Face of Fear stood out for his incredible work on the microphone and hard-hitting style in the ring, long making fans beg for him to finally become a top star. That dream finally came true at Elimination Chamber 2017, when Bray won the event’s titular match to become WWE Champion. Bizarrely, every single move WWE has made with Bray from there has completely destroyed his character, changing him from a serious threat to an absolute joke. In his feud with Randy Orton, Bray looked less like a champion and more like a cartoon villain no one found scary with each subsequent match, and at this point, it doesn’t look like he’ll ever overcome the damage they did to his character.
7 Kerry Von Erich
Regardless of his family’s immense popularity in the southern United States, the “Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich’s days as NWA World Champion were bound to be highly limited from the day he defeated Ric Flair for the gold. The fact was promoters of the era simply felt Von Erich couldn’t be trust on top, with his well known substance abuse issues posing a threat to their integrity as a company. Because of this, Von Erich lost the Big Gold Belt back to Flair a mere 18 days after he won it, and never again would Von Erich come anywhere near achieving such an accomplishment. For the most part, he was forced to keep wrestling exclusively for his father Fritz’s World Class Championship Wrestling, a company that got progressively smaller with time, and Kerry’s fame along with it. Not even jumping to WWE would reignite Kerry’s prospects, as he only spent two short years in the promotion with limited success.
6 Ron Garvin
Rumor has long held that the only reason Ron Garvin ever won the NWA World Championship is that no one else was dumb enough to take it. Everyone knew the change was just a formality that would allow Ric Flair to recapture the belt at the upcoming Starrcade 1987, and indeed, that’s exactly what happened. However, in previous years even wrestlers who reigned as NWA Champion for a few short days used the prestige of doing so to remain in the main event for a long time to come. Garvin, however, had more or less reached jobber to the stars status by the time of his win, winding right back up at the bottom after his stint with Flair was all said and done. Sure, his named gained a little respect in NWA, but when Garvin jumped to WWE a year later, that was entirely forgotten about. Instead, Garvin was presented as almost a joke, again prone to opening matches, and never main events.
5 The Great Khali
To put it bluntly, The Great Khali is almost universally considered one of the worst wrestlers ever to win the World Championship. Yes, the man is very, very tall, but that is his only attribute as a performer. Beyond that, Khali is slow, plodding, and barely mobile whatsoever, making his matches a chore to sit through. Nonetheless, Vince McMahon likes tall dudes, so Khali won a battle royal in 2007 and won SmackDown’s Big Gold Belt. Khali finally lost the title to Batista two months later, though he would stay in the main event scene slightly after that by challenging Triple H for the WWE Championship to no avail. Once that was all said and done, Khali almost instantly dropped all the way down to a role as a straight up comedy character, dancing and kissing random women as “The Punjabi Playboy.” He was never again seen as any sort of a threat to any championship, and certainly not a major one.
4 Vince Russo
Oh, ego, what hath ye wrought? Sure, Jeff Jarrett made himself NWA Champion a half dozen times, but at least the guy was a wrestler his whole life. And yeah, Vince McMahon was WWE Champion at 54 years old no less, but let’s be honest, the guy looks pretty jacked, and it was far from his first rodeo. What does Vince Russo have, aside from a dubious reputation as head writer of WWE during the Attitude Era? A distinction that merely means he talked to Vince McMahon more than any other writer, not necessarily that McMahon used his ideas exclusively, nor that what fans saw on TV was all because of him. Despite having done nothing to earn it, Russo booked himself to defeat Booker T for the WCW World Championship, and then retire undefeated the next week. Russo was still somewhat respected for his work in WWE, but making himself the champion was pretty much the nail in the coffin for his mainstream career, as he’s now considered one of the main reasons WCW went out of business.
3 Stan Stasiak
The idea of transitional World Championships is largely a thing of the past, in part because of wrestling’s current television production schedule and in part due to men like Stan Stasiak elucidating what a horrible concept it used to be. With all due respect to Stasiak, his name would be little remembered today if not for the 9 days he randomly held the WWE Championship in between Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino. Not that Stasiak would necessarily disagree, as he was rumored to have reacted in shock when told he was getting the honor. While a hated heel for a short period of time, Stasiak simply never achieved main event status outside of that random week and a quarter with the top title, and doing so didn’t change the fact in the slightest. It’s not that his career had a downfall, it’s just that the peak came so out of nowhere he was right back into obscurity when it was over.
2 Ron Simmons
Given the incredible historical significance of his victory, it’s extra-surprising that Ron Simmons’s career started to wind down almost immediately after his reign as WCW World Champion ended. It would have been one thing if his career were almost over, yet Simmons still had another decade left in him, which saw him gradually fall down the card until he reached borderline jobber status. Simmons won and lost the title to Vader in late 1992, making him the first, and for a long time, only African-American to have reigned as World Champion. While this should have made him a huge star, once he lost the title, he was largely confined to the tag team division wherever he went. Simmons did earn one more shot at the spotlight after switching his name to Faarooq, challenging The Undertaker for the WWE Championship to no avail, yet this one match hardly outweighs a full decade of needing a partner. In fairness, Simmons did pretty well for himself in the tag ranks, especially when paired with Bradshaw in The Acolyte Protection Agency.
1 Jack Swagger
Some critics say WWE has lost the ability to surprise its fans in the modern era, and in return, we have the sudden 2010 World Championship reign of Jack Swagger. Although the All-American American had won the Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania XXVI, no one saw it coming when he cashed in and defeated Chris Jericho for the gold on that week’s SmackDown. The reason for this is that audiences also felt Swagger was far from ready for such an honor, and assumed he would have a gradual rise to the top before finally cashing in his briefcase to pay off an angle. Instead, Swagger’s rise came so unexpectedly that people didn’t buy it, never accepting the guy as World Championship material. Far less surprising was what happened after he lost the gold, that being a fast slide down the crowd characterized mostly by increasingly embarrassing gimmicks like his team with Zeb Colter.