WWE's Attitude Era is remembered by both fans and industry insiders as not just a boom period for the business, but also a time when just about anything could (and often did) happen. From shocking, often profanity-laced promos to unpredictable, over the top matches, no one could ever be quite sure what they'd see next on WWE programming. But while the company often kept viewers guessing, only a select few wrestlers were ever truly able to climb to the top of the heap during that period and enjoy memorable reigns as world champ.
Still, in an era full of some of the most popular talents in wrestling history, it's arguable that more than a few other capable wrestlers should've been given their moments in the sun. Here are eight Attitude Era wrestlers who didn't quite manage to reach that coveted main event status, along with seven world title reigns we'd rather forget.
For the purposes of this list, the Attitude Era is defined as beginning when Stone Cold Steve Austin coined his famous "Austin 3:16" catchphrase (King of the Ring, June 23rd, 1996), and ending when the company formally changed its name from the World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment (May 5th, 2002).
On paper, D-Lo Brown possessed all the raw materials necessary for a world champion. He had strength, agility, and that coveted "it factor." As a fan favorite, he was popular, and as a heel, someone fans loved to hate. Brown was a long-running member of The Nation of Domination and later developed a reputation for using a chest protector to make his finishing move, the "Lo Down," more effective.
D-Lo enjoyed considerable success in WWE's midcard, wearing the European title on four different occasions and, at one point, simultaneously holding both the European and Intercontinental championships (a feat only ever accomplished by three other wrestlers). But, though he remained an active part of the WWE roster for six years, he was never quite able to rise above upper-midcard status.
Nothing against Big Show, but in a history of championship reigns featuring the likes of Steve Austin, Triple H, The Rock, and Mankind, his world title win at 1999's Survivor Series sticks out like a sore thumb. The other men to hold the title around that time were all established as major stars, who'd helped WWE overtake WCW in the Monday night ratings wars. While Show was a bonafide big deal down in Atlanta, it took a while for him to really come into his own on WWE programming.
Of course, a memorable run as champion is a great way for a wrestler to establish him or herself as a force to be reckoned with. That wasn't what happened when Show captured his first WWE world title. He held on to the belt for a mere 50 days – which, granted, wasn't unusual at the time. But he failed to rack up any impressive title defenses, and his eventual loss to Triple– which came not on pay-per-view but on Monday Night Raw – is something of a footnote in WWE's world title history.
With a muscular physique, great look, and plenty of in-ring ability – not to mention his undeniable connection with the fans – it seems like a huge oversight that Davey Boy Smith (better known as The British Bulldog) never enjoyed a run with WWE's top prize.
As WWE programming became increasingly popular in Europe in the early '90s, Smith proved hugely popular with UK audiences. To capitalize, WWE scheduled 1992's SummerSlam to take place at Wembley Stadium. In the show's main event, Smith (with British-Canadian boxer Lennox Lewis in his corner) defeated Bret Hart to capture the Intercontinental championship. Unfortunately, Bulldog's momentum was cut short when, later that year, he was implicated in a steroid scandal and subsequently released from his contract.
Bulldog would go on to have two more runs with WWE, briefly departing the company for WCW following The Montreal Screwjob. But while he did find some success as European champion, as well as in a tag team with Owen Hart, personal struggles and unfortunate circumstances always seemed to keep him from getting near the main event.
Did you know that Kane wore WWE's top championship during the Attitude Era? If you didn't, don't feel too bad. Kane's title win occurred under ridiculous circumstances and his reign as champ – which occurred long before Money in the Bank made minutes-long title reigns possible – was almost obscenely short.
Unfortunately for Kane, his tainted title victory took place at 1998's King of the Ring event – the same night as the fabled Hell in a Cell match between Mankind and Kane's "brother," The Undertaker. That instant classic included the jaw-dropping moment when Mankind was hurled off the top of the cell and through the ringside announce table. In that show's main event, Kane challenged Steve Austin for the WWE title in a First Blood match.
The finish involved interference from The Undertaker and Austin accidentally busting himself open while trying to hit Taker with a chair. After winning the belt by little more than a technicality, Kane lost it in a rematch the following night. It's almost like it never happened.
In all likelihood, the Val Venis character was a double-edged sword for the Ontario-born Sean Morley. In a wrestling landscape where seemingly nothing could be too shocking, the persona of an adult film star immediately resonated with fans. On the wings of this popularity, Venis won the Intercontinental championship less than a year after his WWE debut. But though he'd continue to have success in the midcard – and, later, as a tag wrestler – "The Big Valbowski" could never cut quite break through to the main event.
It wasn't for lack of a connection with the fans or his technical ability. Morley has always been a well-rounded performer and he even wore the top title in Mexico's CMLL prior to signing with WWE. No, the gimmick itself was likely the problem.
Though WWE was perfectly fine with having a wrestler portray himself as an adukt star, there was no chance of such a character being top dog – even in an era which fed on controversy. It's a shame, too, because Morley clearly demonstrated that he had all the raw ingredients to be a serious performer. For proof that he didn't need a controversial persona to shine, just watch his 2003 run as the no-nonsense "Chief Morley."
In the first 33 years the WWE heavyweight championship existed, it was only held vacant twice (three times if you count Antonio Inoki's defeat of Bob Backlund, which WWE doesn't). The title was held by 20 different men during that time period, many of whom are now WWE Hall of Famers. Still, with just two exceptions – both involving controversial finishes to Hulk Hogan matches – the company always had a defending champion throughout those 30-plus years.
Between 1997 and 1999, the WWE world title was vacated on three separate occasions. The first vacancy occurred when Shawn Michaels "lost his smile" in February 1997. Officially, HBK had a knee injury, but rumors suggest he simply didn't want to lose the title to Bret Hart. Then, in September 1998, a controversial finish to an In Your House event saw the belt held up for a second time. A third vacancy occurred when someone higher up on this list opted to voluntarily relinquish the title.
This topsy turvy period, though seldom boring to watch, enabled a decade long game of WWE title hot potato from which the company has still yet to fully recover. It's actually gotten to the point where lengthy title reigns are now almost seen as boring.
Long before Brock Lesnar, "The World's Most Dangerous Man" Ken Shamrock brought mixed martial arts legitimacy to the WWE ring. Like Lesnar, he held UFC's top title (then called the UFC Superfight Championship) and, like Lesnar, he began his career in pro wrestling – competing first on the U.S. independent circuit and then in Japan. Though he'd originally trained with the legendary Buzz Sawyer, he even temporarily relocated to Calgary after signing with WWE, to work on his technical skills with the Hart family.
In other words, Shamrock was about as credible a champion as a promotion could have. In fact, Bret Hart later said that, when he left WWE, Shamrock was on the short list of wrestlers to whom he'd have gladly passed the torch. That's no small endorsement.
Still, though Hart (and many fans) would have loved to see Ken wear the gold, he was never given the chance. He did, however, become champion for another promotion – capturing the vacant NWA championship on the first ever TNA show in June 2002.
While no one would argue that Hulk Hogan played an integral part in establishing WWE as an international cultural phenomenon, his moment as the face of WWE ended well before the turn of the millennium. When The Hulkster defeated Triple H at Backlash in April 2002, it seemed less like a former champion reclaiming his glory and more like a cheap attempt at cashing in on a wave of nostalgia.
It was a bit unsettling to see a 49-year old, babyface Hogan wearing the WWE title while sharing the locker room with Attitude Era pioneers like The Rock, Steve Austin, and Kurt Angle – not to mention many other worthy talents who never had a chance to main event. Hulk's WrestleMania X8 showdown with The Rock was a great moment, but his subsequent world title win was just gratuitous.
In an era of outsized personalities and over the top storylines, Owen Hart was an unlikely candidate to become WWE's standard bearer. Still, there's little doubt he was capable of being a main event attraction. Owen was a solid in-ring technician with lots of charisma and enjoyed a great deal of respect from the other boys in the locker room. And from his 1994 feud with his brother Bret to challenging Shawn Michaels for the strap on the December 27th, 1997 edition of Raw, Stu Hart's youngest boy did come close to the big time on multiple occasions.
In the latter scenario, so soon after the infamous Montreal Screwjob, Owen plainly had the fans in his corner. Had he won the title that night, it might've earned WWE brass some good will with its audience, not to mention the Hart family. But it was not to be. Owen's life was tragically cut short on May 23rd, 1999, after a fatal accident at WWE's Over the Edge pay-per-view. While reminiscing about this great performer (and, according to his peers, an equally great man), fans can only wonder "what if?"
Regardless of his accomplishments as a world class promoter, Vince McMahon is no wrestler and he had no place wearing wrestling's top prize. Many rightly criticized WCW for putting its championship on actor David Arquette, since it undermined the performers who'd toiled for years hoping for such an opportunity. In WCW's defense, though, at least Arquette's win provided some crossover promotion for the film Ready to Rumble. Vince McMahon's 1999 WWE title win accomplished no such thing.
With McMahon's future son-in-law Triple H enjoying his first reign as world champ, fans might have guessed that the reign would be ended by Steve Austin or some up-and-coming challenger. Instead, Triple H became embroiled in a feud with no less than the man who was providing his paychecks – and who, until Trips crossed him, had been on a two year tear as the evil Mr. McMahon.
Despite the fact that McMahon hadn't earned a shot at the title, he got one on the September 16th, 1999 edition of SmackDown. And, with the unlikely help of his longtime rival Stone Cold, he became champion. Of course, Vince knew he had no right to wear the gold and so he immediately forfeited the championship the following Monday – only for Triple H to win it back a week later, in a six-pack challenge. The whole thing felt like a strange fever dream, but it's now an irrevocable part of WWE's world title lineage.
It's frankly puzzling that a man of Vader's size, agility, and charisma never won any gold in WWE. Standing in at 6'5" and weighing nearly 400 pounds, he had the size (not to mention legitimate toughness) that Vince McMahon reportedly can't get enough of. Plus, Vader was previously a world champion in WCW and also held the IWGP heavyweight title (New Japan Pro Wrestling's top prize) on three separate occasions.
Indeed, Vader was briefly in contention for WWE's world title. After becoming embroiled in a feud with The Undertaker in early 1997, he faced The Deadman" for the WWE Championship on two separate pay-per-views – first, at In Your House: Final Four and, several months later, at In Your House: Canadian Stampede. Although he seemed a legitimate challenger at the time, Vader quickly became lost in the mix. By November 1997, he'd departed the company, returning to Japan not long after. He wouldn't make another WWE appearance for eight years and, by then, he was far more of a nostalgia act than a credible threat to anyone's championship.
This may seem like a controversial position to take, but, in the larger scheme of things, Chris Jericho's much celebrated first world title win feels like much ado about nothing. When he defeated both Steve Austin and The Rock in the same night at Vengeance 2001, unifying WWE's and WCW's heavyweight titles, it should've been a milestone in wrestling history. In actuality, Y2J's reign was pretty anticlimactic. He unceremoniously lost the belt to Triple H at WrestleMania X8 (arguably, overshadowed by the marquee Rock vs. Hogan match beforehand) and, by the fall, there were once again two world titles being defended on WWE programming.
It's not that Jericho wasn't world championship material – he went on to have several memorable title runs for the company. But, in retrospect, his reign as "Undisputed champ" feels more like the prologue to a great Triple H story than the career defining tale it should've been for Y2J.
Brian Pillman was a star football player and, when he transitioned to wrestling, his natural athleticism and dynamic personality made him an instant fit for the business. But though he'd always been a great performer, in the last few years of his life, Pillman legitimately established himself as a "Loose Cannon."
Fans could never be entirely sure what would happen when Pillman was around, but he was never boring. Following an increasingly unpredictable set of appearances for WCW and ECW, he also made it so that fans were never entirely sure what was part of the show, and what was real. When Brian signed to WWE in the summer of 1996, he continued to blur the lines between reality and fiction.
Seeing as Pillman was formerly one-half of The Hollywood Blonds with Steve Austin, it seemed inevitable that the two would lock horns. When the two began their on-screen feud, it quickly got out of hand, resulting in an infamous segment where Austin entered Pillman's home. Brian pulled out a gun and, caught in the moment of the scene, managed to drop an F-bomb on live television. The feud was quickly axed, as was The Loose Cannon's brief flirtation with WWE's main event. Still, if not for his untimely death the following year, it's likely that Pillman's undeniable charisma would've eventually carried him to the top.
Though his 1992 feud with Hulk Hogan seemed to indicate he was primed for main event status, Sycho Sid's sole reign as WWE Champ came later, during a transitional phase in the company's history. The Attitude Era was in its infancy and Sid was something of a holdover from what came before – a violent giant from an era when giants ruled a cartoonish WWE landscape. In other words, Sid was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
With an assist from Steve Austin, Sid defeated Bret Hart for the WWE title on the February 17, 1997 edition of Raw. He'd go on to hold the belt for 34 days, before promptly dropping it to The Undertaker at WrestleMania 13. Since then, Sid has come to be remembered less as the defending champion at WrestleMania and more as one of the many men Taker defeated during his legendary Mania undefeated streak.
When Ron Simmons signed to WWE in the summer of 1996, it was a new start for WCW's first African American world champion. After lacking direction in WCW and briefly (albeit unsuccessfully) chasing ECW's world heavyweight title, things were looking up. When his first WWE character, the cartoonish gladiator Faarooq Assad, wasn't doing him any favors, Simmons dropped the surname and ridiculous outfit. Soon, he formed The Nation of Domination – a successful faction who only grew stronger over time.
Flanked by The Rock, Mark Henry, Kama, and D-Lo Brown, Farooq found himself a major fixture of WWE programming. As a respected veteran wrestler, with an impressive athletic background, Farooq would've been a good candidate to hold any title. But, instead, the group wound up feuding with rival factions, including D.O.A., The Legion of Doom, and Los Boricuas. Once it was clear The Rock would emerge as the Nation's true star, Faarooq was ousted from the group. And though he and Bradshaw later did well as a tag team, it's worth wondering how differently things might have turned out if Rocky hadn't kicked Simmons out of the group he'd founded.