The champions are the standard bearers of a professional wrestling company. To be fair, titles aren’t as clear cut indicators of someone’s standing as they once were. Consider WrestleMania III when world champion Hulk Hogan was undeniably WWE’s top star, when Intercontinental Champion Randy Savage was a top workhorse being groomed for the main event, and The Hart Foundation was quite arguably the best tag team in the company, if not the world.
Interpreting a world title reign as suggestive that someone is the top dog remains reasonable today, as AJ Styles is a fair enough face of SmackDown, Brock Lesnar is a big enough star to justify top billing on SmackDown, and Aleister Black looks like as sure of a bet to make an impact on the main roster as anyone in NXT today. While today’s Intercontinental and US Champions, Seth Rollins and Jeff Hardy, are fair enough picks for those roles, though, their titles have also seen the likes of Santino Marella and Orlando Jones hold them. Not to take anything away from their individual talents, but they were neither the top shelf workers, nor the eventual main eventers one might hope for from that position.
Nonetheless, the champions in WWE remain in high profile roles and worth keeping track of for any fan. Each have their own unique backgrounds and real life pursuits. This article takes a look at twenty little known facts about the current champions from WWE’s Raw, SmackDown, and NXT brands.
20 AJ Styles Goes All Out During Commercial Breaks
AJ Styles is the current reigning WWE Champion, and as such to the top guy on the blue brand. He may be the least controversial world champion in recent memory for WWE. He’s popular with casual and hardcore fans alike, and generally respected by colleagues and pundits as one of, if not the single best in ring worker active today.
In a visit to Chris Jericho’s podcast, James Ellsworth started a conversation about his experience working a program with Styles and revealed a unique quirk about The Phenomenal One’s in ring style.
Wrestlers traditionally slow down, apply holds, and more or less rest during commercial breaks in TV matches.
Styles, however, reportedly steps up the pace, getting more experimental and switching up who is on offense to have fun, try things out, and keep the live audience entertained. Ellsworth and Jericho both spent time in the ring with Styles in WWE and seemed to agree that this tendency was unusual and could be exhausting, but it also bespoke Styles’s conditioning and commitment to his craft. They additionally poked fun at Styles’s Georgia action and frenetic calling spots in the ring during such sequences.
Styles’s work ethic and willingness to do something different likely bespeaks his extensive experience with smaller promotions and internationally, for which he couldn’t necessarily rely on breaks the same way WWE Superstars do.
19 Luke Harper Started Out As a Backyard Wrestler
WWE fans first saw Luke Harper as part of the Wyatt Family stable, most often teaming with Erick Rowan. Harper and Rowan have never strayed too far from one another. In addition to debuting as a tandem, when they split they spent a chunk of time feuding with one another, and they’ve most recently been put back together and repackaged as the dominant Bludgeon Brothers. Together, they currently hold the SmackDown Tag Team Championships.
Harper was hardly a rookie when WWE fans first caught sight of him, though. He’d been wrestling for a decade with smaller promotions including family friendly Chikara, and brief stints with higher profile smaller companies like Ring of Honor, Evolve, and Dragon Gate.
Harper’s traditional ring attire—the dirty tank top and jeans he wore up until the Bludgeon Brother transition, bespeaks the roots of his wrestling, though. He started out as a backyard wrestler. He formed a makeshift tag team known as Huberboy #1 and Huberboy #2 with his brother, based on their real life surname Huber. Harper would go on to get properly trained and become a major figure in indie wrestling in his native Rochester, New York and the surrounding area before branching out to regional and national wrestling promotions.
18 Seth Rollins Was The Shield’s Designated Driver
WWE cast Seth Rollins as The Architect of The Shield. It was an appealing enough nickname, sure, but it was also indicative of his spot as the group’s kayfabe mastermind. That’s relative to Dean Ambrose’s spot as a lunatic with a penchant for violence, and Roman Reigns being the faction’s muscle. It was a fine enough spot for Rollins, if one that was rarely played up while they were together. The idea of him being the brains of the operation actually crystalized best in the breakup, when he revealed himself to be in cahoots with Triple H to launch a compelling run as a calculating heel.
There were elements of reality embedded in these character dynamics. Of the three, Rollins was the most polished and experienced veteran of the indies as well as WWE’s developmental system, and thus may well have had the best wrestling head on his shoulders. It’s also noteworthy that, as revealed on an episode of the WWE Network’s Table for 3, Rollins was the group’s driver when they hit the road. Apparently, WWE compelled them to travel separately after the stable broke up, which forced Reigns and Ambrose to seek out a new wheelman when they were out on tour.
17 Jeff Hardy Was One Of The Youngest Wrestlers To Ever Work For WWE
Jeff Hardy notoriously started his wrestling career in his backyard alongside his older brother Matt. It’s remarkable how far he came from those humble beginnings to being one of the best featured tag team wrestlers of all time, to a WWE mid-card staple to a guy who’d ultimately enjoy main event status as a world champion for both WWE and Impact Wrestling. After another fun tag run with his brother, followed by missing half of a year due to injury, Hardy is back on the WWE main roster, reigning as United States Champion on the SmackDown brand.
After starting out his wrestling career informally as a teenager, Hardy got a deceptively early start in wrestling that included working as an enhancement talent for WWE when they came through his local market.
Footage from 1994 shows him losing to upper mid card mainstay Razor Ramon. It was a different era, and in retrospect Hardy has made no bones about the fact that he lied about his age to get that spot—he was actually only 16 years old the first time he set foot in a WWE ring. It’s entirely possible other young men around the country made similar plays, but it remains likely that Hardy was the youngest wrestler to ever get physical for WWE (though Nicholas threatened to wreck the curve at WrestleMania 34!).
16 Carmella Wanted To Stay With James Ellsworth
Carmella had a relatively humble start with NXT. She was treated as a bit of an afterthought behind the so called Four Horsewomen—Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Bayley. There’s a pretty fair argument she was better known as a manager to the tag team of Enzo Amore and Big Cass than as a wrestler in her own right. However, she would ultimately make her way up to the main roster when WWE needed additional talent for its 2016 brand split. When she didn’t get much of a reaction as a face, WWE shrewdly turned her heel and she found her footing as an outspoken, arrogant antagonist.
One of the most memorable elements of Carmella’s early days as a heel was her partnership with James Ellsworth. Ellsworth played her doofy, smitten henchman. Carmella reaped the benefits, including infamously having Ellsworth retrieve the Money in the Bank briefcase for her in the first women’s Money in the Bank Ladder Match.
WWE wound up releasing Ellsworth before his angle with Carmella had a proper pay off. Ellsworth discussed the situation in an interview for Chris Jericho’s podcast, and theorized that the company felt his character had run its course. He also reported, though, that his real life friend and creative partner Carmella had called him as soon as she heard to offer her support and make it clear that she hadn’t wanted their partnership to come to an end.
15 Roderick Strong Went To College On An Academic Scholarship
After over a decade on the indies, working for Impact Wrestling, and traveling overseas, Roderick Strong at long last earned a WWE contract in 2016. He worked as a tough as nails face on NXT, had a guest stint on 205 Live in the 2016 tournament to crown a new champion, and made a surprise appearance at The Greatest Royal Rumble. His work is still centered in NXT, though, where he turned heel to join the Undisputed Era faction at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans over WrestleMania weekend. In doing so, he won his first gold under WWE contract as an NXT Tag Team Champion.
It’s not so uncommon to learn that WWE Superstars earned college scholarships for themselves. Their size and athleticisms make them natural to have thrived on the football field before transitioning to sports entertainment, while others earned athletic scholarships for basketball or even amateur wrestling. Strong is among those wrestlers who went to college on a scholarship, but his was academic. The Messiah of the Backbreaker earned his spot to study business at the University of Southern Florida, though he’d never wind up completing his degree. He instead set out on his wrestling odyssey, that, according to interviews with Strong, included training under Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart.
14 A Drunk Driver Threatened To End Nia Jax’s Career Before It Properly Started
After a respectable run as a monster heel in NXT and then on Monday Night Raw, Nia Jax got to the next level for WrestleMania 34 with a face turn that led to her unseating Alexa Bliss for the Raw Women’s Championship. Her star looks to rise further as she’s booked to defend her title against Ronda Rousey at the Money in the Bank PPV. Win or lose, Jax will, at least in the short term, push a bit further and threaten to crossover to the mainstream public consciousness by association with Rousey.
Jax was, in many ways, earmarked for WWE success based on her familial connections. She’s a younger cousin of no lesser star than The Rock, and a part of the famed Anoi’a wrestling family that also includes such luminaries as Yokozuna, Rikishi, and Roman Reigns. When she was looking to transition from modeling into the world of wrestling, though, Jax nearly had her wrestling aspirations cut off before she could start in earnest.
Jax was riding with her aunt (The Rock’s mother) when their car was hit head on by a drunk driver.
Jax discussed on a WWE Network episode of Ride Along that the accident was serious enough for her to have a steel plate surgically inserted into her clavicle, though it mercifully didn’t end up affecting her long term wrestling career prospects.
13 Bray Wyatt’s Dad No-Sold His WWE Championship Win
For WrestleMania 33, Bray Wyatt finally realized the main event potential that many fans saw in him. He won the WWE Championship in an Elimination Chamber at the preceding PPV, and then carried the title into ‘Mania to defend it against arch rival Randy Orton.
Wyatt is the son of Mike Rotunda, a famed WWE star in his own right, best known under his heel gimmick Irwin R. Schyster. Rotunda also works backstage with WWE in an agent role, helping current talents plan out their matches and key spots. Thus, Wyatt was in a unique spot to come backstage and have his dad present in the locker room. Wyatt, a third generation star whose brother Bo Dallas is also on the main roster, had become the first member of the family to win a proper world title.
While some reports, including one from ESPN at the time, suggested Rotunda greeted him with a big smile, in an interview after his title win, Wyatt suggested that things went differently. He claimed that his father no sold the moment, not so much as congratulating him, because he was busy at work on other tasks during his son’s big moment. Surely, Rotunda was proud, but didn’t give his son the hero’s welcome he expected in the locker room.
12 Aleister Black’s Father Grew Up In A Religious Cult
Aleister Black is the current NXT Champion. While no championship necessarily guarantees a wrestler’s long term success or legacy, few have a better track record than this one as a stepping stone. Everyone to hold it has found his way to the main roster, and holders like Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, and Seth Rollins have become proper world champions, while Shinsuke Nakamura, Sami Zayn, and Samoa Joe are among those knocking on the door. Even the least successful guys to hold NXT’s top prize like Bo Dallas become main roster mainstays or, like Neville, had a time in the spotlight as the face of a sub-division.
It’s foregone conclusion that Black will move up and likely as not debut as at least an upper mid-card talent. His combination of innovative and believable striking offense, plus a punk rock sensibility, plus a macabre persona all make him stand out and connect with the WWE audience. Interestingly, the darker edge to his character isn’t entirely gimmick. In an interview for Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast, he discussed that his father was actually raised in a religious cult. While he’d put that part of his life behind him by the time he was bringing up Black, Black nonetheless used his father’s experience as source material to help inform his wrestling character.
11 Brock Lesnar Violated The Terms Of His First WWE Contract
When Brock Lesnar wrapped up his original run with WWE, it as a messy situation on a number of levels. WWE had not only pushed him as a main eventer, but invested in him as 'the guy' for his generation of stars, including decisively winning a feud with The Undertaker, beating The Rock for his first world championship, and winning a WrestleMania main event. There was a lot of disappointment when he left to pursue pro football (which would lead him down the path to MMA), and even a legal dispute that probably would have been a much bigger deal had the Internet wrestling news community been better established in 2004.
Reportedly, Lesnar’s original WWE contract kept him exclusive to WWE as far as pro wrestling goes until 2010.
Lesnar took WWE to court to challenge the terms of the agreement, only for WWE to take legal action because Lesnar had violated his contract already by appearing for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Both sides dropped their filings in 2005, with rumors that new negotiations had begun to bring Lesnar back to the WWE ring then. The Beast Incarnate wouldn’t end up returning to WWE or pro wrestling at large until spring 2012. The past legal issues add an important sub-text to the more recent rumors of contractual negotiations and disputes between Lesnar and Vince McMahon.
10 Matt Hardy Met Lita Before She Was Signed With WWE
There was a time when Matt Hardy and Lita were largely synonymous with one another. On air, she served as the manager and occasional tag team partner to Matt and his brother Jeff, as a popular Attitude Era trio billed as Team Extreme. Behind the scenes, Matt and Lita had a serious romantic relationship until Hardy intercepted suspicious text messages between her and Edge, who was a friend to both and frequent in ring opponent for Matt. This led to a heated worked shoot feud between the two sides.
Most fans would assume that Matt and Lita met in the WWE locker room, and in particular when they first worked together when Lita was introduced to WWE fans as the manager to forgotten cruiserweight Essa Rios. However, Matt has revealed in interviews that he actually caught sight of and first connected with Lita at an NWA show before she had signed with WWE, and not long into his own full time tenure with the company. Matt didn’t think she was very polished (in one interview, he described her match as a “train wreck,” but admired her ambition, creativity, and courage in executing fresh aerial offense like her signature moonsault, which women weren’t really doing at that point in American wrestling.
9 Erick Rowan Plays Guitar
Erick Rowan was, for quite some time, dismissed as the least noteworthy member of the Wyatt Family. He was big, with a unique look, but lacked Bray Wyatt’s charisma, or Luke Harper’s deceptive polish as an all along performer. Particularly one Braun Strowman was incorporated into the mix as the biggest Wyatt of all, Rowan didn’t have a lot going for him as a WWE star. He has demonstrated improvement over the years, though, and WWE was shrewd enough to keep him connected to Harper for most of his tenure. Rowan seems to have truly hit his stride now as half of the Bludgeon Brothers, a dominant tag team that could quite believably hold onto their SmackDown Championships for an extended run.
While Rowan had generally been portrayed as a fairly one dimensional big bruiser, there was a brief period when WWE hinted as greater depths for him, like during his brief face run when he incorporated a Rubik’s Cube in his gimmick to suggest he was secretly brilliant. While WWE may have been taking liberties there, Rowan does have more to him than he necessarily lets on. For example, he’s a trained guitarist. Lest anyone get up in arms about Elias getting the musician gimmick over him, Rowan was actually in the WWE developmental system earlier and not offered such a gimmick, thought it’s interesting to speculate about what might have been.
8 Shayna Baszler Is An Amateur Magician
Shayna Baszler faced some initial resistance from hardcore wrestling fans. She’s real life friends with Ronda Rousey with a background in mixed martial arts. One of the prevailing theories around her was that WWE was pushing her too hard out the gate simply because of these associations, rather than on account of her talents or how over she was with fans. Despite her critics, Baszler proved herself as a bully of a heel over the course of the Mae Young Classic tournament.
Baszler’s bully shtick has served her well in her transition to NXT proper, where she has overwhelmed opponents like Dakota Kai, Ember Moon, and Kairi Sane via a wicked combination of legitimate grappling skill and a put-on mean streak. This gimmick and her work within it have taken her to the NXT Women’s Championship, and there’s every likelihood she’ll move up to the main roster within a year or so, where the only real question is if she’ll be an ally or challenger to Rousey.
For all of the severity of Baszler’s gimmick, fans wouldn’t necessarily expect that she’s an amateur magician.
It turns out that her two main monikers—The Queen of Spades and the Submission Magician—each stem from her backstage antics with card tricks, though.
7 Kyle O’Reilly Worked As A Cook While Training For Wrestling
While Kyle O’Reilly is largely an overlooked party in NXT’s Undisputed Era, behind charismatic leader Adam Cole, and freshly heel Roderick Strong, O’Reilly is an established wrestling veteran and considerable talent in his own right. He debuted in the ring in 2005 and has an indie resume that includes winning the top singles titles in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerilla, besides striking tag gold with Bobby Fish in ROH, New Japan, and most recently NXT.
O’Reilly’s considerable talent and experience are each evident to careful viewers, as he’s prone to genuinely impressive offensive flurries that highlight his speed, striking ability, and deceptive strength. He’s a fitting anchor for The Undisputed Era, and while he may linger in Cole’s shadow, he’s more than worker enough to hold his own in that spot and potentially break out on his own if the group ever splits up.
It’s not unusual for wrestlers to have worked odd jobs while they were aspiring or in training. In particular, there’s no shortage of wrestlers with jobs like being a bouncer or a bodyguard on their resumes. O’Reilly, however, worked part time as a chef while he was cutting his teeth in the wrestling business. It’s an avocation that bespeaks his hidden layers and having more to him than the stereotypical meathead wrestler.
6 AJ Styles Rejected His First WWE Contract Offer
AJ Styles’s path to WWE was anything but direct. He’s best known to have been a top star for Impact Wrestling, New Japan, and Ring of Honor before coming to terms with WWE and eventually arriving as a two time and reigning WWE Champion and the face of SmackDown. In a chapter that fans tend to forget from his career, Styles was actually signed to WCW in its dying days, and worked as part of tag team there.
When WWE bought out WCW, it was a tumultuous situation. A number of top talents rode out their existing contracts, getting paid more money to sit at home than WWE would have paid them. It’s why guys like Ric Flair and Kevin Nash weren’t seen in WWE for the better part of a year after the deal went down. Most of the WCW alumni involved in the InVasion angle were mid-carders or lower who didn’t enjoy much success in their new company.
Styles has discussed in a number of interviews that he actually was offered a WWE contract, but only on a developmental basis and thought he could do better for himself.
No one could have predicted Styles’s arc, but having developed his reputation and skills over the course of nearly two decades, only to arrive at WWE at a time when it was more receptive to smaller wrestlers and a more indie style were probably the best things that could have happened for all parties involved.
5 Cedric Alexander’s Brother Played In The NFL
WWE’s Cruiserweight Division has been nothing if not tumultuous since its relaunch, particularly at the championship level. TJ Perkins held the title first after an inspired run in the original Cruiserweight Classic tournament. He’d quickly flounder on the main roster, and the division on the whole would struggle to find its footing until Neville returned, turned heel, and started a celebrated stretch with the title. The division took a sharp turn with Enzo Amore given the belt, according to rumor changing up the direction of 205 Live with a more personality driven champion. Before long, Neville was in a heated dispute with management that has had him out of the ring ever since, while Amore departed abruptly under allegations of sexual assault.
WWE hit the rest button with a tournament to crown a new champion, reportedly under Triple H’s creative direction. Cedric Alexander emerged the new face of the division. As an innovative and talented athlete, he nicely captures what seems to be The Game’s vision for this niche product.
Alexander honed his craft in residency with ROH, and is now starring as a premier athlete for WWE. Athleticism seems to run in the family as Alexander has discussed in interviews his own life long success playing sports, not to mention the fact that his brother played football professionally, making it all the way to the NFL. According to the NFL’s website, Dominique Lindsay played running back for the Tennessee Titans.
4 Adam Cole Was Part Of The Bullet Club
Adam Cole had one of the biggest nights in NXT history at the TakeOver: New Orleans special over WrestleMania 34 weekend. He opened the show by becoming the first North American Champion, winning a ladder match against a star studded cast of NXT mainstays and new arrivals. From there, he successfully defended the tag titles in a three-way match later in the night when Roderick Strong turned heel to join Cole’s Undisputed Era faction.
Being part of a successful faction isn’t entirely new to Cole. While AJ Styles, Finn Balor, Karl Anderson, and Luke Gallows have seen their histories with the Bullet Club become a part of their characters, and have forged kayfabe alliances based on that history, it hasn’t come up in Cole’s case. He was, however, a part of the group for a year from 2016 to 2017. While he may not have been as featured as proper leaders of the group like Styles, Balor, Kenny Omega, or now Cody Rhodes, it was a good symbiotic partnership for putting an extra feather in Cole’s cap while lending his raw ability and charisma to the group. Ironically, members of The Bullet Club feuded with Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish as ReDragon, while the twosome would come to work alongside Cole in the Undisputed Era.
3 Seth Rollins Watches CrossFit Videos For Fun
Seth Rollins is a truly sensational athlete. He’s a particular treat to watch in gimmick matches like the Triple Threat in which he won his Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania 34, or the Greatest Royal Rumble four way ladder match in which he successfully defended belt. A lot of Rollins’s appeal is based on the way he combines speed, precision, and endurance to work intense matches over more than respectable stretches of time, and always have enough in the tank for a satisfying finish.
A number of Rollins’s colleagues have cited that his tremendous athletic ability and stamina stem from his commitment to CrossFit training.
More than getting and staying in shape, The King Slayer reportedly sees CrossFit as a lifestyle. That’s not limited to his own fitness either, but rather fellow wrestlers have cited that Rollins even watches CrossFit for fun, and insists on showing the boys videos of it that he finds particularly entertaining or impressive. In a locker room environment now notorious for video game and movie enthusiasts, Rollins is the odd man out for how he has fun, though his WWE 24 special about his recover did reveal he also partakes in some video game football when he’s not able to train how he’d like.
2 Brock Lesnar Lost a Shoot Match To Kurt Angle
Brock Lesnar has held the Universal Championship for over a year and is on track for the longest world title reign of WWE’s contemporary era. There’s an asterisk next to that accomplishment for the Beast Incarnate only working a part time schedule, totally eschewing the traditional rule that champions must defend their titles at least once every 30 days. Nonetheless, the long reign is a testament to just how over Lesnar is as a main event talent, largely based on his credibility as a former UFC heavyweight champ, and NCAA amateur wrestling champion.
For all of Lesnar’s credentials, not to mention his size, strength, and obvious athleticism, one would readily believe he’s the baddest man in the locker room, and probably has been for the length of his WWE tenure. However, there’s a widely spread story of Kurt Angle beating him in a shoot wrestling match off air. Angle discussed the full story in a visit to Jim Ross’s podcast, describing that fellow wrestlers asked Lesnar, during his first WWE tenure, who’d win an amateur match between him and angle. Lesnar suggested he’d obviously win based on his size advantage, which was an affront to Angle who knew he couldn’t match Lesnar’s strength or weight, but was also confident that with his Olympic level training, he could take him.
Angle reports having dogged Lesnar about it for some time, before finally having their unofficial match. Angle indicates he did get the best of it, though management wasn’t happy the match had happened at all.
1 Triple H Saw Potential In Carmella
After Carmella won the first women’s Money in the Bank contract, there were some very real questions on fans’ minds. In a landscape that included Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Alexa Bliss, and Asuka, with Ronda Rousey on her way, how could WWE justify crowning Carmella as champion on either brand? Moreover, could WWE afford to have the first Ms. Money in the Bank not cash in successfully?
For better or worse, Carmella did convert her briefcase into championship gold, taking advantage of Charlotte Flair in a weakened state after a WrestleMania showdown with Asuka, and more to the point, after a beatdown from the freshly debuted Iconics. While the jury is still out on her as champ, ‘Mella has at minimum succeeded in drawing heat with her arrogant, trash talking gimmick.
In WWE 24 special centered on the Raw after WrestleMania 32, it was revealed that Triple H specifically didn’t want to call up Carmella alongside real life boyfriend Big Cass, and Enzo Amore whom she was also managing at the time in NXT.
This wasn’t because The Game didn’t believe in Carmella, but rather he suggested she had potential beyond being the team’s sidekick, but she would need to more time come into her own in NXT. While she’d end up on the main roster mere months later when WWE needed more talent for the new brand split, the spirit of Triple H’s argument nonetheless held up. While the Enzo and Big Cass tag team dissolved, and Amore was later let go from WWE, Carmella is arguably the biggest success story of the three as reigning SmackDown Women’s Champion.