For the past three decades, if not quite a while longer than that, the WWE Championship has been the ultimate sign of success in the professional wrestling business. Not every wrestler can achieve this peak, and most won’t even come close, yet everyone to consider a career in sports entertainment likely harbors some small fantasy of becoming the WWE Champion at some point in their career.
While there are other accolades and championships in WWE and elsewhere that wrestlers should still be proud to win, none come close to the prestige and importance of the title made famous by men like Bruno Sammartino, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, Bob Backlund, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Whether a wrestler holds the WWE Championship for seven years or seven seconds, by doing so they guarantee their name will be remembered forever as one of the top performers in company history.
Merely challenging for the WWE Championship one single time can mean a wrestler is destined for greatness, but this isn’t always the case. More than a few low key challengers to the gold have been named over the years, missing out on the history books through their inability to ever actually take it home. Keep reading to learn about 15 wrestlers you forgot challenged for the WWE Championship in singles matches without ever winning it.
16 Zack Ryder
Few wrestlers have had more confusing careers than Zack Ryder, who appears almost universally adored by his coworkers and beloved by fans, and yet can’t get taken seriously by management. There have been times in his career where he was placed in high level roles, starting with his WWE debut in late 2007 as one of Edge’s lackeys in La Familia. Ryder fast faded out of contention from there, not getting his first WWE Championship shot until August 2010. What’s worse, Ryder was treated as a total joke in the match, a handpicked opponent of Sheamus, who was attempted to circumvent the title’s mandatory 30-day defense clause. Circumvent he did, defeating Ryder in 11 seconds, one of the shortest WWE Championship matches in history. The definitive loss in no way affected Ryder’s popularity, though, nor has said popularity affected WWE writers from seeing him as a guy who loses in 11 seconds.
15 Spike Dudley
As the little runt of the family, Spike Dudley is the last resident of Dudleyville who WWE fans would expect got a shot at the top prize in the industry. He isn’t the only one to do so – big brother Bubba Ray earned a handful of attempts over the years, also never winning – but he still made the family proud by standing up to a vicious champion with no fear. Spike was a handpicked opponent of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who he wrestled on the July 14, 2001 episode of SmackDown. Austin wasn’t necessarily looking for an easy challenge, getting upset with Spike over a matter of respect also relating Spike’s girlfriend, Molly Holly. The match went as one would expect, especially considering Austin was in the midst of his turn as a cold blooded heel, manhandling weaker opponents in an attempt to make crowds hate him through sheer force of evil. In that sense, Spike was a great challenger, although it also meant he never stood a chance.
14 James Ellsworth
It’s a testament to A.J. Styles' talents in the ring how quickly James Ellsworth went from a nameless jobber into a bona fide superstar by challenging him for the WWE Championship. Outside of Styles making mistakes or Dean Ambrose interfering, Ellsworth never had much of a chance at winning the belt in his various SmackDown Live challenges throughout 2016. It was still impressive that he was challenging at all, though, having just made his debut a few months earlier as a hapless albeit highly energetic victim to Braun Strowman. That energy is likely what got him a WWE contract and several title shots, and the fact Ellsworth continues to maintain a positive attitude despite Styles repeatedly besting him is how he wound up with a full-time career out of what started as a joke. If his momentum keeps building, who knows, at some point in the future, Ellsworth might get another shot and actually pull it off.
Best known as the bodyguard/manservant of Ted DiBiase, career jobber Virgil suddenly became a huge babyface at the 1991 Royal Rumble when he finally turned on his abusive boss. The crowd went wild later in the year when Virgil defeated DiBiase for his Million Dollar Championship, and had his WWE Championship match come right after that, he might have had a better chance at winning. Unfortunately for Virgil, he lost the Million Dollar Championship back to DiBiase a few months later, and spent the next year resuming his status as a regular loser to rising stars. For some reason, he nonetheless earned a WWE Championship against Bret Hart during the Hitman’s tenure as “the fightingest champion in history,” aired on the November 21, 1992 episode of Superstars. Broadcast only four days before that year’s Survivor Series, no one expected Virgil to win, nor at any point did it look like he could as Hart treated him like a broomstick in his standard match.
12 Salvatore Sincere
Definitely one of the most obscure names on this list, Salvatore Sincere was a stereotypical Italian played by Tom Brandi during the transitional period between the New Generation and the Attitude Era. Sincere had previously been a minor talent in WCW and ECW, winning the ECW Tag Team Championships with Tommy Dreamer in his only noteworthy accomplishment prior to his sudden WWE Championship shot. The golden opportunity came on the November 10, 1996 episode of Superstars, near the tail end of Shawn Michaels’s first reign with the belt. While Michaels was only a one-week away from losing the championship to Sid at Survivor Series, he handled what turned out to be his final successful title defense with his usual aplomb. How Sincere ever earned the title shot remains a mystery, and he faded back into obscurity immediately after the loss.
10 The Fabulous Moolah
No woman has ever won the WWE Championship, and as such, any of the few females to challenge for the gold could end up on this list. Considering her reputation (well, the positive one), The Fabulous Moolah might seem like of the most deserving women to get a shot at the belt…until you find out her championship opportunity happened when Moolah was 79 years young. Granted, this was a mere three years after her last reign as WWE Women’s Championship, specifically the November 28, 2002 episode of SmackDown. Moolah’s title shot barely happened, likely because it came against The Big Show, who probably would have sent her to an earlier grave had he actually so much as touched her. Predictably, Brock Lesnar ran into the ring and broke it up the second it began, making Moolah loser by disqualification.
9 Crash Holly
Introduced to the WWE Universe as Hardcore Holly’s goofy younger cousin, Crash Holly was considered a joke character from the moment he debuted. Luckily for Crash, the professional wrestling can be very kind to jokes, at least the good ones, and sometimes the best punch line can be a WWE Championship shot. Crash actually got two in a row, back-to-back shots on the November 11, 2000 episode of Heat and then the November 12 episode of Raw the very next night. Both shots were against Kurt Angle, out to prove he was the new “fightingest champion” in WWE history, although he forced Crash to tie one arm behind his back to get the second shot. Frankly, Crash probably could’ve added a few arms and made Kurt handcuff both of his and still lost, but he still gets points for trying.
It makes sense that a parody of the greatest homegrown WCW Champion would get a cursory shot at the WWE Championship, and it only took Gillberg nearly a year as the WWE Light Heavyweight Champion to earn the opportunity. Triple H’s brother-in-law Shane McMahon selected Gillberg as one of his first challengers on the September 2, 1999 episode of SmackDown. Predictably, the match lasted all of two minutes and saw Triple H no sell a flurry of spears, followed by a definitive and match winning Pedigree. Despite winning the WWE Light Heavyweight Championship back in November of ’98, it had been nearly five months since Gillberg had many any appearances with the company, and almost nine since he was last seen on Raw. That said, Gillberg’s appearances were all pretty random, so it’s reasonable enough his biggest moment would have fit the trend.
7 Al Snow
It takes a certain kind of crazy to carry around a mannequin’s Head and treat it like your best friend. Lucky for Al Snow, it was exactly the right kind of crazy to get him at least two shots at the WWE Championship more than a year apart. Of course, he wouldn’t come close in either of the attempts, against The Rock on Raw in November of 1998 and Triple H on SmackDown in October 1999. Both of Snow’s title shots came pretty much at random, The Rock encounter at least offering fans a memorable moment when The Great One planted a Corporate Elbow on Head. It wasn’t until shortly after his match with Triple H that Snow started to rise up the card as Mick Foley’s friend, yet he would never earn another opportunity at winning the biggest prize in the company.
6 The 1-2-3 Kid
Considering the euphoric reaction the Manhattan Center gave when The 1-2-3 Kid earned one of the most unlikely victories in history against Razor Ramon in May of 1993, WWE pretty much had to make him into a superstar. Only slightly over a year later, Kid had legitimized himself as far more than a jobber who could get an occasional upset, earning his first WWE Championship against Bret Hart on the July 11, 1994 episode of Raw. The Kid gave it his all in a nearly half-hour contest, ultimately falling victim to the Sharpshooter. Four years later, after changing his name to X-Pac, he’d get another shot at glory against The Rock at the British-only Pay-Per-View Capitol Carnage, again coming up short in his championship dreams. X-Pac won a number of other titles in WWE, including the European and Tag Team gold, but never again earned another one-on-one shot at the company’s top prize.
5 Stephanie McMahon
Knowing what happened when Stephanie McMahon’s father Vince challenged for the WWE Championship in late 1999, perhaps the most surprising thing about the Billion Dollar Princess’s golden opportunity was that she lost the match. Stephanie’s lone WWE Championship match came eight days after WrestleMania X8, on the March 25, 2002 episode of Raw in a triple threat match against Chris Jericho and her husband, then champion Triple H. Because a WrestleMania rematch for the WWE Championship wasn’t implicitly about her, Stephanie made sure her match also had a bonus stipulation that she’d be banned from television if she lost, which she did. The ban obviously didn’t last long, a mere four months in fact, when Stephanie returned as the GM of SmackDown. Though she has remained in the spotlight pretty much ever since, Stephanie would never again challenge for any title, let alone the WWE Championship.
4 Papa Shango
While most of the world still cites “evil voodoo master” as one of Vince McMahon’s worst ideas, that didn’t stop him from pushing Papa Shango as a major player immediately upon arrival in 1992. After getting involved in the WrestleMania VIII main event, Shango feuded against The Ultimate Warrior. The smoke and mirrors voodoo magic that annoyed crowds apparently impressed company officials, enough so to give Shango a WWE Championship match against Bret Hart at the November 14, 1992 version of Saturday Night’s Main Event. Unsurprisingly, Shango didn’t come close to winning, nor would he ever get another shot at the gold. However, the man behind the gimmick did come close once more, when The Godfather defeated Triple H in a non-title match on the March 14, 2000 episode of SmackDown. It was too unexpected to actually lead anywhere, though, and Godfather never even got a follow up match with the belt on the line.
3 Taka Michinoku
Long before James Ellsworth won over SmackDown Live crowds by coming close to defeating A.J. Styles, charismatic lightweight superstar Taka Michinoku did the same thing on the April 10, 2000 episode of Raw. Wildly talented and innovative in the ring, Taka was still considered a hugely unlikely challenger to Triple H’s WWE Championship due to his small stature, especially less than two weeks removed from The Game defending the gold at WrestleMania. Michinoku wasn’t without his friends in the business, though, including Kai En Tai partner Funaki and his old tag team partner and then bodyguard for hire Bradshaw, along with Bradshaw’s APA buddy Faarooq, all three of whom standing in Taka’s corner during the match. At times it looked like Michinoku could have pulled the biggest upset in WWE history and actually won, but Triple H ultimately did the inevitable and definitively ended things with a Pedigree.
2 Dan Dubiel
Even the most dedicated wrestling fan alive could be reading this list and think to themselves, “Who the hell is Dan Dubiel?” The reaction would be completely normal, as Dubiel was even more of a jobber than the other jobber-to-the-stars on this list. Dubiel had no gimmick, never cut a promo, and has no noteworthy wins on record, but he somehow earned a shot at the WWE Championship on the January 3, 1994 episode of Raw. It goes without saying Dubiel stood absolutely no chance against then champion Yokozuna, and there was absolutely nothing special about the match or any related angles to justify why the match happened in the first place. Jobber matches happened more frequently at that point, but the WWE Champion was usually kept out of it. If he did squash a nobody, it would usually be a non-title affair. Dubiel must have been special, though, because he made the cut. Bizarrely, another total jobber named Cory Student did the same thing a few weeks later on The Wrestling Challenge.
1 “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
All joking aside, for every unlikely left-field challenger to the WWE Championship who never stood a chance, there was also an athlete who deserved a run with the belt and never got one. High atop this list is “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who waged war waged against Hulk Hogan throughout the mid-80s over the title. The two battled many times with Hogan’s belt on the line, most notable on February 18, 1985 at Madison Square Garden, broadcast on MTV as The War To Settle The Score. Seven years later, Piper earned a number of shots again Ric Flair on house shows, but the series with Hogan was actually the only time his WWE Championship matches were televised. Not that it mattered, as Piper never managed to win it regardless of who he faced. It didn’t hurt his legacy, either, as he remains one of wrestling’s all time greatest performers as both a heel and face.
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