For most wrestlers, winning a championship of any kind is proof the company they work for believes in them and a sign their career is taking off in wild and exciting ways. However, this isn’t always the case and quite a few wrestlers over the years have declined or even outright refused championships, both in kayfabe and in real life. The kayfabe versions are all pretty boilerplate cases of good guys not wanting to win the wrong way, while the real cases were almost always political moves that explain why winning a title isn’t always the best thing for a wrestler’s career. Both versions are interesting enough to discuss, considering it always takes a pretty good reason to refuse what is essentially a wrestler’s version of a promotion.
Regardless of the reasoning (or the reality), wrestlers have turned down championships in virtually every major promotion out there. Superstars have said no to the least prestigious title the company had to offer all the way up to the NWA and WWE World Heavyweight Championships, almost unquestionably the top prizes in the wrestling world. The amazing thing is, the majority of these wrestlers probably made the right move, in that almost none of their legacies suffered due to the fact they refused titles. Some of them even managed to benefit through the PR this sort of move can generate—as a matter of fact, there was at least one case where an entire wrestling movement was born by a wrestler throwing down a prize. Keep reading to learn which 15 wrestlers refused the chance to win a major championship.
15 Tommy Dreamer - ECW World Championship
As the innovator of violence, Tommy Dreamer was one of the preeminent legends of Extreme Championship Wrestling. Few superstars represented the hardcore spirit the way Dreamer could, always fighting back against ungodly amounts of punishment, including countless broken bones, bloodied faces, and even a cinderblock to the nether regions. Despite it all, and despite how powerfully Dreamer’s actions endeared him to the ECW crowd, both at the time and in retrospect Dreamer has been very open about never wanting to be ECW World Champion. Dreamer actually didn’t want to win any titles, although Paul Heyman eventually made him acquiesce on the ECW Tag Team titles when he presented a strong enough angle to justify Dreamer winning them. Even so, Tommy really didn’t want to be World Champion, not only because of the pressures as champion but also the simple fact he didn’t feel it fit his character. Dreamer ultimately caved in on this demand as well, winning the ECW World Championship at Cyberslam 2000. However, Dreamer was only willing to do so if he held the belt for the shortest time humanly imaginable, and therefore Justin Credible defeated Dreamer for the title less than 10 minutes later.
14 The Patriot - GWF North American Championship
Draped in red, white, and blue and acting as wrestling’s equivalent of Captain America, it should come as no surprise The Patriot was a stalwart warrior of truth, justice, and the American way. Del Wilkes is probably best remembered for his cup of coffee in the big leagues, briefly serving as a WWE Championship contender in late 1997. Wilkes also achieved minor championship success a few years prior in WCW, twice winning the Tag Team Championships with Marcus Alexander Bagwell, but the true peak of his career may have come right at the beginning, when he was the top star of the Global Wrestling Federation in Texas. Although short-lived, the GWF was broadcast on ESPN and featured many future stars including the future Raven, Cactus Jack, Booker T, JBL, and 1-2-3 Kid, and still The Patriot at the time the biggest of them all. Patriot confirmed his status by winning in inaugural GWF North American Championship tournament, only to immediately refuse the title upon learning his opponent, Al Perez, had his feet under the ropes during the deciding fall. Patriot then won a rematch with Perez and continued as the GWF’s first champion only a few weeks later.
13 Shawn Michaels - WWE World Championship
Wrestlers turning down championships in real life has a tendency to turn controversial and no story exemplifies that more than the day Shawn Michaels infamously lost his smile while WWE World Champion. HBK had recently began his second reign with the title after defeating Psycho Sid at the 1997 Royal Rumble, only to declare a few weeks later that he was returning the championship due to a knee injury and mounting personal problems, going so far as to say he was also considering retirement. At the time, many fans felt bad for Michaels and the pressure being champion was clearly putting on him, although things were less clear when he returned only a few weeks later, after the point he was supposed to have lost the championship in the first place. Many have speculated HBK was merely attempting to get out of losing the title to Bret Hart, with Bret himself having fueled the fire for years by claiming he believed Michaels was never injured.
12 Scott Steiner - WCW World Championship
Within months of Scott Steiner’s debut to help his brother Rick, The Steiner Brothers tag team was already considered one of the most dominant in the wrestling world. It took less than three years for the duo to win the NWA, WCW, and IWGP Tag Team Championships, making them international superstars with a global reputation as one of the most talented in-ring teams ever to lace their boots. Scott in particular was a standout for his powerhouse offense and it wasn’t long before WCW officials wanted him to consider a solo run. In light of the Steiners’ fame, certain sources have even indicated that Ric Flair named Scott as one of the few people he was willing to lose the WCW World Championship to when he left the company in late 1991. In a surprise display of integrity, however, Scott refused the championship out of loyalty to his brother, worried that Rick could fade into obscurity without the tag team. Not coincidentally, that’s almost exactly what happened when Scott got injured later in the year, so perhaps Big Poppa Pump knew what he was talking about on this one.
11 Ric Flair - Mid-Atlantic Television Championship
Ric Flair is on record as the man with the most World Championship reigns of any professional wrestler, an honor that acknowledges at least 16 and as many as 20 runs with various titles throughout the world. No one starts at the top, though, and there was a time when even The Nature Boy was fighting for smaller regional titles, including both the Mid-Atlantic US and Television titles. In early 1981, the similarly legendary Roddy Piper was at the same place as Flair and Piper had just managed to win the TV title in a tournament when he challenged Flair for the US belt. Piper walked away with both championships and in true condescending heel fashion, he offered Flair the less prestigious TV title as a consolation prize for having lost. Flair later became the dirtiest player in the game, but at this point in his life he was trying to go straight and thus he refused to earn any championship in an unscrupulous manner, regardless of how dismissively Piper treated them.
10 Shane Douglas - NWA World Championship
Each of the wrestlers on this list forever changed their own lives when they turned down the chance to be champion, but Shane Douglas took things a step further by changing the very course of wrestling history as we know it. Douglas was already the reigning Eastern Championship Wrestling Heavyweight Champion in August of 1994 when the NWA announced they would crowd their World Champion in a tournament sponsored by ECW, and Douglas ostensibly became a double champion in winning the competition. However, in an unforgettable moment Douglas claimed he had no interest in “carrying the torch for a dead organization” and threw down the NWA World Championship, instead renaming the belt he already had as the Extreme Championship Wrestling World Championship and indirectly giving birth to the extreme. The NWA was indeed faltering in significance up until this moment and many would cite Douglas’s speech as the nail in the coffin forever ruining the belt, while also creating an edgy movement that was bound to replace it.
9 Hulk Hogan - AWA World Championship
Hulkamania went down in history as the movement that made WWE a national success, but the truth is, Hulk Hogan’s manic energy was actually first unleashed to the upper mid-west by way of Verne Gagne’s AWA. Hogan had worked as a heel for many years, only for Rocky III to turn Thunderlips into the biggest face in the wrestling world in mid 1982. Hogan was working for the AWA when the movie was released and it was while there he turned into the most popular star in wrestling. Fans were rabid for Hulk to defeat Nick Bockwinkel for the AWA World Championship and the idea was apparently on the table at least a few times, only for both Gagne and Hogan to have hesitated for a variety of reasons. Hogan already had commitments around the world, including a busy overseas schedule in Japan he would need to drastically cut down in order to work exclusively for the AWA, and Gagne reportedly wasn’t happy with Hogan’s lack of technical wrestling skill. Verne was willing to let Hulk keep working in Japan if he had control of the schedule and a cut of the profits, but the idea of giving up money was enough for Hogan to balk and reject the whole thing, deciding he didn’t want the title if it meant losing money.
8 Nick Bockwinkel - NWA World Championship
Outside of Verne Gagne himself, Nick Bockwinkel is probably the wrestler most fans think of when they think about the AWA. Bockwinkel was a four time AWA World Champion, holding the belt through the lion’s share of the 1970s followed by three impressively long reigns in the 1980s despite approaching his early 50s in age. Bockwinkel’s time with the belt was legendary enough to send him to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007 and yet there was a chance his star could have burned even brighter were he willing to deal with a heavier schedule. Despite it’s standing as arguably an equal prize to the NWA World Championship, a perk of being AWA Champion was that whoever held the belt would rarely need to travel too far out of the greater Minnesota area. Bockwinkel was allegedly offered a run with the NWA belt more than once, only to repeatedly turn down the idea so he could stay closer to his family and spend less money getting from show to show.
7 Jerry Lynn - ECW Television Championship
The rivalry between Rob Van Dam and Jerry Lynn was one of the few elements of ECW that kept the company alive during its final few years and it was a bombastic match at Living Dangerously 1999 that initially got fans interested in their war. Despite controversy both at the time and in retrospect that the two often appeared almost too choreographed, fans willing to dig into their suspension of disbelief maintain to this day no two ECW superstars were as consistent in bringing out the best in one another as Lynn and RVD. At Living Dangerously, the two were competing for the ECW Television Championship, only slightly under one year into RVD’s record setting 700-day run with the title. 20 minutes into a grueling display, the time limit expired and the referee decided to declare Lynn in control of the match, and therefore award him the belt. Lynn wasn’t done fighting, though, and neither was RVD, Lynn to refuse the championship and the victory, instead demanding the match continue to a definitive victory. Unfortunately for Lynn, the referee granted the continuance, and RVD won the match only a few minutes later.
6 Scott Hall - TNA World Championship
TNA has always suffered a reputation for being filled with fallen WWE stars who were eventually rejected by the McMahon’s for whatever reason. Never was this perception more true to reality than in the early days, when TNA didn’t yet have the chance to create new stars of its own. Because of this, the initial main event stars of TNA were names like Jeff Jarrett, Scott Hall, Rick Steiner, and the inaugural NWA Champion under the TNA banner, Ken Shamrock. Despite Shamrock getting the title nod, most fans would probably agree Hall was the biggest star of the lot at that point and rumors indicated he was offered the belt in the early days of the company due to this reputation. Hall refused, although his reasons were unclear, with the pressures of being champions, his uncertainty over whether or not TNA would succeed, and Hall’s infamous personal problems all having been speculated as potential causes.
5 The Midnight Rider - NWA World Championship
Pro wrestlers have been wearing masks practically as long as the industry has existed and yet only a very select few number of masked superstars have had the chance of competing for World Championships. The Midnight Rider is one of the few masked grapplers to get the chance, which shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone familiar with the Rider’s true identity: Dusty Rhodes. Dusty donned the mask to circumvent a suspension and the NWA allowed The Rider to challenge for the NWA Championship despite his secret identity being overwhelmingly obvious to the vast majority of the audience. The Rider managed to defeat Ric Flair for the title, only for NWA President Bob Geigel to cite a rule that claimed masked wrestlers needed to reveal their identity to the board of executives in order to reign as champion. If Dusty revealed himself, he would have been banned from the NWA for life, and he thus refused the championship rather than ruin his career.
4 Steve Austin - ECW World Championship
It quite literally only took Steve Austin a manner of minutes to become the top star in ECW when he made his debut for the extreme independent promotion in late 1995. Eric Bischoff had recently fired Austin from WCW while he was injured, amidst rumors that Bischoff didn’t think Austin was “marketable.” Austin responded by turning into the biggest star in WWE history, but along the way he made a pit stop in ECW, instantly becoming the most entertaining and most talked about wrestler in the company. Paul Heyman reportedly wanted to make Austin the ECW Champion as soon as possible, but the future Stone Cold rejected the offer, knowing his time in ECW was destined to be especially brief and feeling a quick title run wouldn’t fit his character. Austin did engage into a three-way feud for the title with Mikey Whipwreck and The Sandman, greatly raising both of their profiles in doing so, and his short ECW tenure has gone in history regardless of a lack of championship success.
3 Bobo Brazil - NWA World Championship
Ron Simmons made history in 1992 when he defeated Vader for the WCW World Championship and became the first African American to win a wrestling title of that magnitude. However, almost three full decades earlier, Bobo Brazil had the chance to predate Simmons’ legacy, only for his unshakeable babyface integrity to overwhelm his desire to make history. Brazil defeated the original Nature Boy Buddy Rogers for the NWA World Championship in October of 1962, only for Rogers to immediately claim he had been working injured when the decision was rendered. Rather than allow a historic moment to be tainted on technicality, Brazil returned the title to Rogers, and his reign went officially unacknowledged. Proving he was as classic a heel as Brazil was a babyface, Rogers later revealed he had been faking the whole time and it was merely a ploy to keep the title in his hands through any means necessary. Had Brazil accepted the title, there's no saying whether or not wrestling would still have as horrible a race problem as it does today.
2 Bret Hart - WWE Intercontinental Championship
The WWE Intercontinental Championship may be considered the second greatest prize in WWE, but if you call yourself the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be, chances are you won’t settle for second best. This was the logic upon which Bret Hart allegedly denied a chance at winning the Intercontinental title in early 1997, at which point he had already won the WWE World Championship four times. Not only did Hart think he was above the title, but he also believed the only reason he was being offered it was to take him out of the main event scene at the request of Shawn Michaels, who could then go on to take the spotlight for himself. There would also be a residual effect in that Hart would have defeated Rocky Maivia for the title, hurting The Rock’s career prospects by making him look weak against a legend so early in his career.
1 Eddie Guerrero - WWE World Championship
Eddie Guerrero is one of the most respected names in wrestling history and a big part of why the family legacy endures into the 21st Century lies on the hard work of Eddie Guerrero. Eddie was a standout talent even amongst his territorially famous brothers, and thus became the only Guerrero to win or even challenge for the WWE World Championship. Eddie’s achievement is especially impressive considering his long and storied battle with personal demons on his way to the top of the industry, and these same demons would unfortunately be the reason his time as champion only amounted to a few short months. Eddie was rather open about his worries that the pressure of being champion was getting to be too much for him and rather than allow himself to fall back on his old habits, he requested he lose the title to his friend JBL. WWE understood the request and had Eddie lose the belt, and somehow, the Guerrero name only grew stronger when fans learned the truth behind Eddie’s decision. Eddie continued to refuse the chance to win the title back throughout the rest of his career, despite allegedly being offered the ability to do so more than once.
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