The world championship scene in WWE has become more crowded over the last 15 years since the purchase of WCW and ECW. The original brand split led to the introduction of a second top title in the World Heavyweight Championship (the old big gold belt from WCW). Eventually this was phased out in 2013 when the two world titles were merged and WWE had a solitary world champion for the first time in 11 years.
Following the second incarnation of the brand split in 2016, we were gifted with a second world championship once again, this time in the form of the heavily derided Universal Championship. Many fans feel that the prestige of any world title in WWE has been irreparably damaged following the expansion of the main event scene and several less than impressive title reigns have come and gone. By the same token there are those commentators who believe that having two world titles enhances the opportunities available for talent who may have previously been perennial mid-carders, particularly in the post-WCW era.
Despite this we have still borne witness to some truly exceptional world title reigns since the turn of the century. We’ve also seen some former world champions disappear almost as quickly as they first wrapped a shiny belt around their waist. In this article, we’ll focus on 8 of the best world title reigns in WWE history and 7 of the worst. For the purposes of remaining as current as possible, we’re only going to look at world champions from 2001 onwards.
15 AWESOME - Edge, December 2007 – March 2008
Edge’s legendary career featured 11 different reigns as world champion, including 7 as World Heavyweight Champion and 4 as WWE Champion. Had his career not been cruelly cut short by injury, it’s very likely that he would have accumulated a similar number of championship runs to John Cena. Having said all that, it’s also generally accepted that Edge’s title reigns were fairly average on the whole. This is with the exception of his World Heavyweight Championship reign in late 2007 to early 2008.
Edge won the title in a triple threat match at Armageddon with The Undertaker and Batista. It was here that his manipulative, win-at-all-costs attitude was highlighted when he used body doubles as a distraction to seal the win. His evil genius was showcased during this reign as he created the La Familia stable. Eventually he succumbed to The Undertaker in a classic WrestleMania encounter.
14 TERRIBLE – The Great Khali, July 2007 – September 2007
Yes, you read that correctly if you are new to the wonderfully weird world of pro wrestling fandom. The Punjabi Playboy and one of the most immobile wrestlers of all time did, in fact, hold the now defunct World Heavyweight Championship. Khali was pushed very hard from his debut and feuded with John Cena over the WWE Championship. The WWE were keen to make inroads into the lucrative Indian market and Khali was their gateway to a fan-base there.
Despite his very obvious limitations, Khali achieved main event status when he captured his first world title after Edge was forced to vacate the championship. A 20-man battle royal took place on SmackDown and Khali was victorious after eliminating Kane and Batista simultaneously. Thankfully, creative decided to pull the plug on his reign pretty quickly and Khali dropped the title to Batista 2 months later at Unforgiven.
13 AWESOME – AJ Styles, September 2016 – January 2017
The sight of AJ Styles walking towards a WWE ring at the 2016 Royal Rumble was a scenario that most fans had only fantasy booked with no real hope of it becoming a reality. At 39 years old and having completed a career-defining year on the independent circuit, Styles had finally made it to the big dance as an important part of the main roster. Still many observers feared that AJ’s talents would be grossly misused by his new employer.
Thankfully WWE were quick to realise that they had a genuinely world-class superstar on their hands. An acclaimed program with Roman Reigns over the world title followed his debut and then a shocking heel turn led to a dream feud with John Cena. After vanquishing Cena back to the movie studios, Styles soon turned his attention to WWE Champion, Dean Ambrose. A stellar debut year was completed when Styles won the title at Backlash and he put together a strong 5-month reign.
12 TERRIBLE – Chris Jericho, December 2001 – March 2002
After WWE’s purchase of WCW and ECW in 2001 and the completely wasted “Invasion” angle, it was a somewhat surprising choice that Chris Jericho was anointed as the first Undisputed World Champion. This was seen as an exciting move however, and an opportunity to create a new batch of main event superstars moving forwards. After defeating both The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the same night to win the title, Jericho’s reign soon went down like a lead balloon.
Jericho was booked as a weak, conniving champion who seemed unprepared to fight fairly. He was paired with Stephanie McMahon in another example of self-indulgent, McMahon-centric booking and was essentially the third wheel in a storyline centred around Stephanie and Triple H. His disappointing run as champion was brought to an end when he was defeated by Triple H at WrestleMania.
11 AWESOME – Kurt Angle, December 2002 – March 2003
Two years after first winning the WWE Championship, Kurt Angle was in career-best form as a strong focus was being placed on his natural athletic ability. This was in large part due to the emergence of fellow amateur wrestling alumni, Brock Lesnar. The two superstars engaged in a highly entertaining feud between late 2002 and early 2003. Angle had initially won the title with the assistance of Brock at Armageddon, only to turn on Lesnar after siding with Paul Heyman.
After Brock won the 2003 Royal Rumble match, the two built a feud centred around who was the top superstar on the SmackDown brand. The interactions between the two were highly entertaining and highlighted their legitimate athletic qualities. During their main event match at WrestleMania XIX, the two pulled out all the stops in a barnstormer of a contest. Probably still best remembered for Brock’s botched shooting star press, the match ended after Lesnar pinned Angle and brought his 4-month reign to an end.
10 TERRIBLE – Jack Swagger, April 2010 – June 2010
Recently released superstar Jack Swagger will always be able to comfort himself with the fact that he managed a solitary world title reign in WWE. Many greats in the industry never had this honour bestowed upon them. But this was a serious error in judgment on the part of the creative team and it was seized upon almost as soon as it happened.
Swagger received a mega-push after his debut and was seen as a like-for-like replacement for the recently departed Kurt Angle. Sadly, Jack just did not ooze the natural charisma and raw talent of Angle. After winning the MITB contract, Swagger teased cashing in on WWE Champion John Cena, only to successfully do so against World Heavyweight Champion, Chris Jericho. The big gold belt’s credibility suffered significantly as a result of Swagger’s reign and he dropped the belt to Rey Mysterio at Fatal 4-Way, only 2 months after winning it.
9 AWESOME – Triple H, December 2002 – September 2003
For all the criticisms levelled against him, Triple H is still one of the greatest superstars to have graced the squared circle. It’s true that he may have forced his way into main event superstardom with a few political power-plays, but The Game has provided fans with a host of entertaining moments throughout the years. Of his 14 world title reigns, his best came after defeating Shawn Michaels to win his second World Heavyweight Championship.
Trips started a run lasting 280 days following his defeat of HBK and this led to the formation of Evolution, a stable in the mould of the legendary Four Horsemen. His reign included a victory over Booker T at WrestleMania XIX (although this match had horrendously racist undertones), before he lost the belt to Goldberg at Unforgiven. In a career filled with championship reigns, this stands out as Hunter’s best work as a world title holder.
8 TERRIBLE – Rey Mysterio, July 25th 2011
Rey Mysterio’s solitary reign as WWE Champion lasted only 2 hours and is viewed as one of the most ridiculous pieces of booking ever administered by the much-maligned WWE creative team. After CM Punk left the company with the WWE Championship after his contract expired as part of a storyline geared towards his mega push, a tournament was created to find a new champion.
On the July 25th episode of Monday Night Raw, Rey won the tournament and his first WWE title by defeating The Miz in the final. His title run was incredibly short-lived though as he was challenged later that night by the returning John Cena and lost the championship after a reign lasting just 2 hours. Cena went on to feud with Punk to determine the undisputed champion, while Mysterio never reached main event status again. This is another example of terrible foresight being shown by WWE and a superstar being completely buried in the space of a few short hours.
7 AWESOME – John Cena, September 2006 – October 2007
The record-equalling 16-time world champion produced his best reign after winning his third WWE championship from Edge in a TLC match at Unforgiven in late 2006. Cena then went on to hold the title for over a year, the longest reign in 19 years, prior to being forced to vacate the title after suffering a torn pectoral muscle.
While Cena was heavily criticized at the time for his limited style, history has been kind to Big Match John and this reign is now appreciated in a far more positive light. His run included rivalries with champions from the SmackDown and ECW brands as well as feuds with Umaga, Randy Orton and Edge. His best work during this reign, though, was during his feud with Shawn Michaels which culminated in an outstanding match at WrestleMania 23, in which Cena retained the title. After his reign was cut short by injury, he made one of the most dramatic returns in history as the surprise number 30 entrant in the 2008 Royal Rumble and going on to win the match.
6 TERRIBLE – Roman Reigns, April 2016 – June 2016
Poor old Roman Reigns just cannot get over with the WWE audience as a babyface. This was his third world title reign and it was undoubtedly his weakest yet. His first run lasted only 5 minutes and 15 seconds, while his second garnered some crowd support before he lost this and his title to Triple H at the Royal Rumble. In one of the most heavily rejected WrestleMania main events of all time, Reigns regained his title from Trips to become a three-time champion.
With a much needed heel turn seemingly not in WWE’s plans, Reigns was treading water as champion and the supposed face of a new era. It seemed like WWE were sticking to their guns and we were preparing ourselves for a long Reigns championship run. That was, until, he was handed a 30-day suspension for a Wellness Policy violation. This was the catalyst for Roman dropping the title to Seth Rollins at MITB, only for Seth to lose it almost immediately to MITB briefcase holder, Dean Ambrose.
5 AWESOME – Randy Orton, May 2011 – July 2011
With 12 world title reigns under his belt, Randy Orton has cemented his status as a WWE legend and future Hall of Fame entrant. Despite his success, much of Orton’s career has been overshadowed by his great rival, John Cena, and this has led to some less memorable title reigns. He is most often associated with the flagship title, the WWE Championship, but his best title reign actually came with the now-defunct World Heavyweight Championship.
Orton had become the youngest ever World Heavyweight Champion when he won the big gold belt in 2004 and he regained it for a second time in 2011 when he ended Christian’s reign after only 2 days. The two engaged in a highly entertaining feud throughout the summer with Orton dropping the belt back to Christian after being disqualified when Christian spat in his face at Money In The Bank.
4 TERRIBLE – Sheamus, November 2015 – December 2015
After Seth Rollin’s woeful world title reign was brought to a premature end following a knee injury, a tournament was set up at Survivor Series to determine the new champion. After dispatching of former stablemate, Dean Ambrose, in the final, Roman Reigns won his maiden world championship. With Reigns still struggling to get over with the crowd, WWE creative decided to try and pool some sympathy for him by having Sheamus cash in his Money In The Bank briefcase on the new champ only 5 minutes and 15 seconds after winning the belt.
Sheamus immediately felt like a transitional champion designed to build support for Reigns. He created a hastily formed stable, The League of Nations, and aligned himself to authority figures including Mr McMahon himself. A poor reign did build support for Reigns, albeit briefly, and his title win over Sheamus on a December episode of Raw in Philadelphia provided his most positive crowd reaction yet.
3 AWESOME - Brock Lesnar, August 2014 – March 2015
When WWE decided to merge their two world championships once again, there were concerns as to whether the world title could be made to feel prestigious again. After Daniel Bryan’s unfortunate injury put paid to what surely would have been a long reign as champion, John Cena took ownership of the vacated title. In one of the most surreal matches of all time, Cena was soundly defeated at SummerSlam 2014 by Brock Lesnar after eating a succession of suplexes.
Lesnar only defended his title sporadically during his reign due to his part-time status, but this actually made the title feel special again. The champion was now a special attraction. Brock was booked as a dominant monster during his reign and only lost the title after Seth Rollins pinned Roman Reigns during their impromptu triple threat match at WrestleMania 31. Let’s hope that Lesnar’s likely Universal Title reign will add some much needed prestige to that championship.
2 TERRIBLE – Seth Rollins, March 2015 – November 2015
Seth Rollins breaking away from The Shield was a tough pill to swallow for the hardcore wrestling community. The WWE had finally created an act that appealed to the “smarks” only for it to be torn apart when it seemed to be gathering some serious momentum. It felt like a low blow to the vocal adult male audience when Rollins was aligned with the much derided Authority faction. Nonetheless, his push was greeted with excitement as another former indie favourite appeared to be ascending the WWE talent ladder.
After winning the Money In The Bank briefcase, Rollins held on to his title shot for a total of 9 months. In a wonderfully booked moment, he cashed in his contract at WrestleMania 31, winning the title during the main event between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns. Sadly, his title reign was booked horrendously as he was portrayed as a weak and whiny champion. He was forced to vacate the title after injuring his knee during a house show match with Kane and this was probably for the best.
1 AWESOME – CM Punk, November 2011 – January 2013
CM Punk has etched himself into the annals of wrestling history with his work during his final three years in WWE. A long-time indie darling and already a three-time World Heavyweight Champion in WWE, Punk and his fans still felt that he was under-appreciated by the company hierarchy. His unbridled passion for the wrestling business coupled with his discontentment led to one of the most game-changing moments in modern day professional wrestling. In June of 2011, Punk dropped his acclaimed “pipe bomb” promo on an episode of Monday Night Raw, effectively exposing the inner workings of the WWE.
Following this pivotal moment, Punk received a monster push which involved two reigns as WWE Champion, the second of which lasted a record 434 days. Despite this legendary run, he never headlined WrestleMania and dropped the title to returning part-timer, The Rock, at the Royal Rumble in 2013. This would prove to be the catalyst for him eventually leaving the company, but his record title reign will live on in the history books.