History was made on the August 29th, 2016 edition of Raw when Kevin Owens became the second ever Universal Champion in World Wrestling Entertainment history. Some fans posting on social media websites and in Internet forums were upset that Owens won that championship with the help of Triple H, who hit Seth Rollins with a Pedigree to allow Owens to secure the victory and the championship.
Owens immediately became one of the best heels working underneath the WWE umbrella starting with his first night on NXT when he turned on Sami Zayn. Owens’ work in the ring and on the microphone improved from there en route to Owens becoming the NXT Champion. While Owens spent far too much time in the midcard after receiving his call-up, there is no denying he is a deserving wrestler to carry the flag for the Raw brand heading into the fall of 2016.
By winning the Universal Championship, Owens joined a long line of deserving wrestlers actually given an opportunity to win a major championship while working in the WWE. In some instances, wrestlers depicted as characters seemingly destined to never win such a title and be given multiple chances to headline pay-per-view cards climbed to the mountaintop of the profession. One such individual became one of the biggest stars of the “Attitude Era,” a man who is routinely featured on WWE in the summer of 2016. Over a decade later, a different underdog forced those running the WWE to change their minds regarding certain storylines. That man, unfortunately, is no longer able to compete in a WWE ring today.
15 Shawn Michaels
WWE experienced multiple changes during the 1990s. Some of those changes resulted in men previously seen as undersized wrestlers earning major championships. "The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels was one such case, as he achieved his boyhood dream of becoming the WWE Champion when he defeated Bret “Hitman” Hart in a famous “Ironman Match.” That, of course, was only the first time Michaels hoisted a major championship as part of a WWE roster.
Michaels evolved into one of the best overall workers in the history of the WWE, particularly during the 2000s when he made an incredible return from a serious back injury. It is almost funny to imagine, two decades after the fact, that there was a time when some WWE officials would have believed Michaels was too small to win a major championship. Such mindsets have fortunately remained in history where they belong.
14 John “Bradshaw” Layfield
The WWE could use more classic and throwback heels like what we got from John “Bradshaw” Layfield in 2004 when JBL was working on the SmackDown brand and feuding with the likes of Eddie Guerrero. Unlike today, when many male and female wrestlers presented as heels receive cheers and positive reactions from fans, JBL was a perfect heel straight out of the 1980s. He cut promos on babyface workers and also on fans. He worked a style that was, for lack of a better description, somewhat boring, which is exactly what a heel should do. JBL was also a bully.
Nobody will confuse that version of JBL with Kevin Owens, as of the time Owens won the Universal Championship. That does not, however, mean that JBL did not deserve to carry a major championship during this portion of his heel persona. Go back and watch some of his work if you failed to appreciate the brilliance of JBL at the time.
13 Dean Ambrose
All three members of the stable known as The Shield deserved to win at least one major championship during their stints in the WWE. Wrestling journalists and also passionate fans of the industry realized that both Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns would receive championship runs not long after that group broke up. A fear among some fans was that Dean Ambrose would either be left behind, become a Tag Team worker or ultimately lead a different faction.
It took some time, but such fears eventually faded away in 2016 when Ambrose became the WWE Champion and was given the chance to serve as the top guy on the SmackDown brand. Ambrose is solid inside of the ring and even better on the microphone, regardless of if he is working as a babyface or a heel.
While it appears, heading into September 2016, that Ambrose may fall somewhat down the roster before the end of the year, the hope is that he will continue to thrive into the 2017 WrestleMania season.
12 Finn Balor
Fate can often be cruel for any athlete, including for those who work in the WWE. Finn Balor was seemingly set to become a major star in the summer of 2016. Balor, who spent way more time working on the NXT brand than he needed to “develop” before receiving his call-up to the main roster, was added to the Raw roster following the WWE Draft that occurred in July 2016.
Balor was then kept strong, as he never lost a single televised match and even earned a singles victory over Roman Reigns. The crowning of Balor occurred at SummerSlam when he defeated Seth Rollins and became the first ever Universal Champion. A lengthy title run was not in the cards for Balor, however, as he suffered a serious injury during the match against Rollins. Balor, a deserving winner of a major championship, was forced to relinquish his title less than 24 hours after he won it.
11 Rob Van Dam
Some fans who grew up watching Extreme Championship Wrestling during the heights of that company in the 1990s may remember things more fondly than they actually were in that decade. With that said, Rob Van Dam was a proven star who drew great reactions from the WWE fans after the promotion purchased ECW and featured the promotions workers on shows in 2001.
The WWE clearly did not believe all that much in Van Dam at that time, however, as it was not until June 2006 when Van Dam finally won the WWE Championship after he defeated John Cena at that year’s One Night Show pay-per-view. Van Dam could have been one of the top acts who legitimized the “Invasion” storyline had the WWE not chosen to instead put WWE workers such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Kurt Angle on that portion of the roster. Van Dam eventually received his title run, but he held that title for less than a month due to a drug bust.
10 Jeff Hardy
It was July 2002 when Jeff Hardy received a chance to wrestle for the Undisputed WWE Championship against The Undertaker during an edition of Raw. On that night, Hardy went from being a beloved midcard babyface to a serious worker capable of winning a major championship.
Hardy did not achieve his dream on that particular night, but he eventually won multiple major titles as a member of the WWE roster. Hardy left no doubt that he could be a big draw as a singles worker and outside of The Hardy Boyz tag team, as he has enjoyed a successful singles career in the WWE and also as part of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.
The truth of the matter is that it would be nice to see Jeff Hardy and “Broken” Matt Hardy have one final run together in the WWE while they are still able to work in the ring. Whether or not that will ever happen is unknown at this time.
9 Shinsuke Nakamura
Pessimistic WWE fans around the world were worried that the company would somehow squander the signing of Shinsuke Nakamura once he debuted at the NXT Takeover: Dallas show. That not only has not been the case, but Nakamura has been treated like a Superstar and a big deal even before his first match, and the company has done well to keep Nakamura strong and undefeated up through the start of September 2016.
Nakamura defeated Samoa Joe for the NXT Championship at the NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II show, a match that could send Joe to the main roster and one that cemented Nakamura as the top star of NXT. Yes, most fans realize that Nakamura should be in main events on one of the top two brands in the WWE. Others before him started out as NXT Champion and the hope moving forward is that Nakamura will headline a WWE pay-per-view sooner rather than later.
8 The Miz
Do not think of the version of The Miz who has become nothing more than a midcard worker who does not seem to be anywhere close to winning the WWE Championship or Universal Championship at any point in the foreseeable future. Instead, remember how awesome The Miz was back in the fall of 2010 when he cashed in his “Money in the Bank” privileges and became WWE Champion for the first time. Granted, Miz was not some revolutionary worker who pulled off highlight-reel moves and who excited crowds with his wrestling style. Miz was merely a great heel who fans wanted to see lose to top stars. Such characters are needed for any successful wrestling promotion.
The Miz’s title run was disappointing in many ways, but he should not be blamed for that. Miz remains an entertaining heel, something he proved when it was teased in August 2016 that he and Daniel Bryan could feud in some manner.
7 Chris Jericho
For the purposes of this piece, let us all agree to not focus on the first major WWE championship run of Chris Jericho’s career. Instead, just remember that Jericho was the first ever Undisputed Champion in the history of the company. Nobody can ever take that away from Jericho regardless of how the company treated him after he defeated The Rock and Steve Austin on the same night to win that championship.
Jericho has, as passionate wrestling fans know, gone on to better things and much better title runs during his time in the WWE. Just as impressive, Jericho continues to find ways to evolve his character even now in 2016. Who could have imagined that Jericho referring to fans and opponents as “stupid idiots” would help him reinvent his heel persona? That says plenty about the natural talent had by Jericho. Here’s to hoping we see Jericho feud with Kevin Owens at least once before Jericho takes his next break from wrestling.
6 CM Punk
Fans can’t help but remember CM Punk for the way that he left the WWE and then chose to pursue a career in mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Don’t forget, though, that Punk remains one of the most accomplished WWE Superstars of the past decade. Punk won the ECW Championship as a member of that brand. He held both the World Heavyweight Championship and the WWE Championship. Once believed by fans to be an afterthought among those running the WWE, Punk was even given a chance to play out the “Summer of Punk” Ring of Honor storyline in the WWE.
Assuming Punk has been honest about multiple portions of his WWE career, the “Straight Edge Superstar” was disrespected at different points of his run in the company. While Punk is now training for at least one UFC fight that is scheduled to take place on September 10th, 2016, wrestling fans are still hoping Punk will return to wrestling for at least one show.
5 Rey Mysterio
One could not be blamed for forgetting Rey Mysterio actually won a major championship while working for the WWE. Mysterio, arguably the greatest babyface in peril to ever work in the WWE, was buried about as much as any World Champion could be buried by a wrestling promotion during his run as champion.
Some pockets of fans continued to support Mysterio even though it was clear to any and all observers Mysterio was never going to be allowed to become the top babyface and top star in the WWE. It’s a shame, as the WWE wasted what could have been an entertaining title reign and also entertaining feuds featured on shows such as SmackDown.
Mysterio should have been one of the best overall WWE workers of the 2000s. That he wasn’t can be blamed on the WWE rather than on the wrestler and Mysterio’s title run remains a reason why some fans fear when certain workers win championships.
4 Sasha Banks
Sasha Banks may very well be the most popular female wrestler to work in the WWE since the days of Trish Stratus and Lita. Banks first made her name among WWE audiences as a member of the NXT brand, where she had multiple memorable matches and where she won the first ever championship of her WWE career. Banks also had a role in what may have been the best WWE match of 2015 when she and Bayley put on quite a show during the NXT Takeover: Brooklyn show.
After she lost her NXT title, Banks was added to the WWE main roster as one of the key components of the “Divas Revolution.” Banks defeated Charlotte for the WWE Women’s Championship in the summer of 2016, but her title run was short-lived due to an injury. We expect to see Banks once again compete for that championship before the end of the year.
3 Eddie Guerrero
Eddie Guerrero was a tremendous story of perseverance and of defeating personal demons throughout the last several years of his WWE career. Guerrero overcame struggles outside of the ring and also as a member of the WWE roster en route to earning the opportunity to win a major WWE championship. While climbing the figurative ladder and becoming a World Championship, Guerrero also evolved into a beloved babyface even though his character lied, cheated and stole every now and again.
This story sadly ended in sorrow and tragedy, as Guerrero passed away in November of 2005 at the age of 38 years old. Guerrero could and should have had multiple runs with the two major WWE Championships of the time, but it was not meant to be for a variety of reasons. While Guerrero’s run as a main event wrestler in the WWE lasted only a few years, he was a part of what may have been the greatest ever SmackDown roster to date.
2 Daniel Bryan
One could not create a serious piece about a deserving WWE wrestler winning a major championship without putting Daniel Bryan at or near the top of the list. Bryan was, to steal the phrase used on television programs, seen as a “B-plus player” both in storylines and behind the scenes, and the belief was that the WWE would never give Bryan an opportunity to shine ahead of wrestlers such as Batista, Roman Reigns and Randy Orton.
Bryan ultimately proved each and every doubter wrong when he won the World Championship on multiple occasions. The biggest victory of his career occurred in the main event of WrestleMania XXX when Bryan ended that show with a pair of championship titles in his hand to the delight of the thousands of fans in attendance.
Injuries cost Bryan his championship, and eventually cost him his career, and the former champion now works on WWE shows as both an announcer and as the storyline General Manager of SmackDown.
1 Mick Foley
Mick Foley was perhaps the WWE’s first ever version of Daniel Bryan or Rey Mysterio. Foley, known as an icon of hardcore wrestling who played multiple personalities on WWE programming, fit in on the WWE roster as somebody who could play heel or babyface but also as somebody who would never carry the WWE Championship ahead of The Rock, Triple H or others.
The WWE saw that fans embraced Foley’s Mankind character before the start of 1999 and the company wisely chose to award Foley with the WWE Championship. Mankind won that title multiple times during a period when the WWE switched champions far too often and thus he never enjoyed a lengthy run as the company’s top wrestler.
Foley nevertheless serves as proof that a wrestler does not need to possess cover-model good looks or the physical frame of a former football player to become WWE Champion.