During the 1980s, professional wrestling’s landscape changed from a regionally televised sport into a globally televised empire that remains the most popular sports entertainment industry in the world. It all started when Vince McMahon Jr. decided to make a deal with his father to purchase the WWWF.
After purchasing the WWF from his father, Vince McMahon Jr. started to do things that were “unheard” of in the wrestling industry. Back in the '80s, and long before that as well, professional wrestling was more of a regional sports entertainment experience. Each area around the country would have its’ owners and they all respected the “territories” which included the locations, venues, and wrestling talent too. Vince did not think it was good for the future success of the industry so he immediately worked on getting the programming nationally televised while also going after the biggest talent from all over the globe, regardless of where they worked.
These smart decisions, along with many others, helped to turn the industry into something that would eventually become the biggest thing cable television has ever seen.
That explosion in popularity rolled right into the '90s where, by 1995, we would begin to see the sport reach its’ ultimate peak in popularity when WCW and WWE started to compete on Monday nights for viewers.
Let’s take a look at all of the WWE Champions of the '90s and see what they are up to today.
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20 Honorary Mention: Vacated Title (4 Times)
From 1990 to 1999, the WWE Championship belt was vacated four times, the most in any decade in WWE history. They were vacated at four different times, in four separate years: 1991, 1997, 1998, and 1999.
In 1991, Hulk Hogan had his WWE Championship title taken from him following two controversial matches between Hogan and The Undertaker. The second match caused the most controversy because WWE President, at the time, Jack Tunney, was there at ringside to prevent any interference until Ric Flair showed up. Flair tried to give The Undertaker a chair to use on Hogan but it failed and Hogan turned it around, using it on Flair and accidentally knocking out Tunney in the process. Jack came out the next night and announced that due to the controversial ending to the match, the title was to be vacated.
The next vacated title happened in 1997, just a few weeks after Shawn Michaels won it at the Royal Rumble. On the February 13th, 1997 episode of Raw, he came out and gave his infamous "I lost my smile" speech to the audience while relinquishing his belt. It was rumored that he was faking the injury that would make him do this just so he would not have to lose the belt to Bret Hart, whom he hated at the time, at the upcoming WrestleMania.
In 1998, at the peak of the "Stone Cold" Steve Austin explosion, during Breakdown In Your House, he was involved in a Triple Threat match for the WWE Championship against Kane and The Undertaker. However, he received a double chokeslam and was pinned by both men at the same time leading to the title being taken from Austin but not being granted to anyone else. That lead to one of the most memorable Stone Cold moments ever, the epic Zamboni incident on Raw the following night.
The 1999 WWE Championship title was relinquished by the man who won it where it was then put up for grabs during a Six-Pack Challenge match at Unforgiven in 1999. The man who vacated it was also our 19th man on this list.
19 Vince McMahon (1 Time)
When Vince McMahon won the WWE Championship against Triple H, it was right after the feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin had slowed down, in 1999. It seems a bit cheesy that the owner of the WWE would win his own Championship belt but they made it work.
Vince was out of wrestling for what was supposed to be forever after losing a match that stipulated he never return to live WWE television. But he returned on SmackDown and by the end of the night, he was being called out by Triple H to fight and he showed up in the ring, ready for a battle. It was a beatdown and by the end of it, Vince was a bloody mess.
It wasn't until Triple H was setting him up for a Pedigree that the infamous glass shattering music played and out came Stone Cold. He stunned both Chyna and Triple H before dragging Vince on top of Triple H for the pin, and the win. And just like that, Vince McMahon was a face.
18 Bob Backlund (1 Time)
On a WWE Superstars of Wrestling episode in July of 1994, Bob Backlund wrestler Bret Hart for the WWE Championship belt and won with a pinfall, or so he thought. The count was more like a 2.9 count, not a 3-count but he wasn't looking and thought he heard a 3-count. As Backlund turned to the crowd to celebrate, he whipped back around to grab Bret Hart and pick him up but the move was reversed and Bret got the win.
Bob then shook Bret's hand before slapping him across the face and putting him in a Crossface Chickenwing until he was pulled off of him. Bob turned into a heel that day and the feud between Bob and Bret Hart began.
It came to an end at '94 Survivor Series when Bob got the win over Bret in a special "Throw in the Towel" Submission match to win the WWE Championship, which only lasted three days.
17 Sgt. Slaughter (1 Time)
The first Royal Rumble was on January 24, 1988. It featured four matches including the first ever 20-man Royal Rumble elimination match. But it wasn't until the 1991 Royal Rumble that the WWE Championship belt would be on the line at the event.
Sgt. Slaughter is a legendary WWE wrestler and when he turned into a heel, he became even more popular. He turned heel by showing support for Iraq and turning his back on America. He faced off against The Ultimate Warrior, who was the current WWE Champion, in one of the best matches the Royal Rumble has ever had.
It was good vs. evil and whenever that buildup happens in wrestling, successfully, it ends up causing one of the loudest pops and another great match. The Ultimate Warrior made this more of a USA vs. Iraq battle by wearing USA colors.
After The Ultimate Warrior handled all of the interference and distractions, the crowd was going nuts. He was setting himself up for a huge win. However, when he turned his back, Sgt. Slaughter took advantage and got the win, to the shock of the crowd.
16 Sycho Sid (2 Times)
As far as Survivor Series matches go, the 1996 match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bret Hart is one of, if not the, greatest match in Survivor Series history, which dates back to 1987. But that wasn't the only match at the '96 Survivor Series, there was one more that mattered, the one between WWE Champion Shawn Michaels and Sycho Sid.
The match was one of Sid's best too. The last five minutes were crazy and dramatic enough to raise the anxiety level of any wrestling fan. After Sid uses a camera he stole from the cameraman standing ringside, he knocks out Jose Lothario, Shawn's manager and a father figure to him his whole life. This distracted him long enough to allow Sid the time to take over the match and finish him off, winning the WWE title for the first time in his career.
After losing the title in January of '97, Sycho Sid got his shot against Bret Hart on Raw, a night after Bret won it at In Your House 13: Final Four. During his match, Bret Hart's feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin came back to haunt him and just when Bret put him in the Sharpshooter, Stone Cold came out there and hit Bret with a chair and allowing Sid to powerbomb Hart for the title.
15 Kane (1 Time)
Stone Cold Steve Austin wasn't popular because he was a good talker or simply because he stood up against the "man." He was one of the greatest of all-time because he was a great wrestler that created some of the best matches any of us have ever seen, including the time he faced Kane at 1998 King of the Ring in a First Blood match.
This was the first time in Kane's career that he would get a shot at the title and the only thing he had to do was make Stone Cold bleed, first. The match itself was one of the better ones that year but because it followed the most amazing Hell in a Cell match of all-time, between Mankind and The Undertaker, many fans forgot about it. It was the first time Kane would win the WWE Championship, which he ended up losing to The Undertaker the following night on Raw.
14 Big Show (1 Time)
Going into the 1999 Survivor Series, the main event that was scheduled was supposed to be a Triple Threat match between Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H, and The Rock. However, as Stone Cold was doing a promo live on the PPV, Triple H interrupted it which caused Stone Cold to chase him backstage until a car took out Austin. No one knew who was driving but it wasn't Triple H so the scheduled match would remain on the card as the main event with a substitute to be named later.
That replacement ended up being Big Show, a man larger than life, which ended up causing some amazing moments during the match including when Triple H and The Rock teamed up to suplex Big Show onto one of the commentator's booths.
Things got a little insane at this point and eventually, Shane McMahon came out to step in as the referee while the original ref was knocked out, unable to perform. Once Big Show recovered from the Suplex through the booth, he got into the ring, removed Shane McMahon from the equation and began beating down Triple H before D-X came out, followed by Vince McMahon, who grabbed the Championship belt and hit Triple H, knocking him out. This allowed Big Show a chance to Chokeslam Triple H and win the title.
13 Yokozuna (2 Times)
WrestleMania IX was a wild ride and it ended with one of the most bizarre finishes in PPV history.
Yokozuna, along with his manager Mr. Fuji at ringside, faced Bret Hart for the WWE Championship in just his 173rd day with the company. After another great match at WrestleMania, Bret Hart was setting himself up for the win and had Yokozuna in a Sharpshooter before Mr. Fuji threw salt in his face, allowing Yokozuna to escape the hold and get the victory. As the two men celebrated their win, out comes Hulk Hogan and Mr. Fuji then challenged Hogan to wrestle for the belt, right then and there.
After four minutes and 28 seconds, Hogan beat him for the title leaving Yokozuna holding the third shortest WWE Championship reign in history. This would begin a feud between Hogan and Yokozuna that would culminate with Yokozuna taking back the belt, after cheating of course, at the 1993 King of the Ring.
12 Diesel (1 Time)
After Bob Backlund won the WWE Championship belt from Bret Hart at the 1994 Survivor Series, it only took Vince McMahon three days to schedule another title match and this time Backlund's opponent would be Diesel. (For those of you younger fans, Diesel was the original name for the wrestler you might know today as Kevin Nash).
This match was originally supposed to be between Bret Hart and Backlund but after getting injured during his PPV match, they had to replace him because he would not be available to wrestle anytime soon.
Besides the Fingerpoke of Death moment on WCW Nitro back in January of 1999, the match between Diesel and Bob Backlund is the absolute worst thing we have ever seen, especially for the WWE Championship. The match lasted eight seconds. That isn't an error, the match was so fast, you could have literally sneezed and when you looked up, it was over. That began a year long title run for Diesel that many WWE fans would consider to be one of the worst simply because of how much it felt forced on us.
11 Ric Flair (2 Times)
From the moment Ric Flair arrived in WWE, he was already one of the industries biggest stars. Everyone knew who he was and that he was fired by WCW. The WWE did not have to set him up or waste millions introducing him to television audiences, they had a made man they could toss into the mix immediately, and that they did.
He won the 1992 Royal Rumble, where the prize was the WWE Championship belt after it was vacated, and after spending over an hour in the ring, which at the time was a WWE record. His win happened during his 113th day with the company which remains the record for quickest rise to the title belt in WWE history.
His second reign would be his last with the company. He beat Randy Savage on September 1st to regain it but he left shortly after that to go back to the WCW.
10 Triple H (2 Times)
Triple H is a nine-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion having just won the belt earlier this year at the Royal Rumble.
After spending the last few years creating D-X and becoming the ultimate bad boys of the company, Shawn Michaels and Triple H eventually had to chase their own dreams after Shawn was forced into retirement after suffering from a serious back injury that he has had for quite some time. This separation lead Triple H to his first WWE Championship against Mankind during a crazy match where Shane McMahon ended up being the guest referee.
As it turns out, having Shane McMahon around wasn't such a bad thing as he ended up hitting Mankind with a chair before tossing him back into the ring to be Pedigreed by Triple H. He would lost it less than a month later, to Vince McMahon, on SmackDown!.
He would later win it back at Unforgiven during a Six-Pack Challenge match involving five other mainstream wrestlers.
9 Mankind (3 Times)
Of all the WWE Champions, Mankind was the most deserving. That might seem a little unfair to a lot of these guys but who cares. Mick Foley is one of the most honest people in the business and during the late '90s he finally got his shot at the belt thanks to the millions of fans all across the world. He was never supposed to win that thing but Vince McMahon cannot ignore the underdog story.
Mankind opened the door to winning a WWE Championship for people like Daniel Bryan. He proved you could do it and be true to yourself the entire time, both in and out of the ring.
As The Rock was becoming an international success, everything came crashing down as he turned from fan favorite to villain, at the 1998 Survivor Series. That was also the moment the world began loving the three-time WWE Champion Mankind. His three title reigns in the '90s would be his only three in his WWE Career.
8 The Ultimate Warrior (1 Time)
Before The Ultimate Warrior became one of the industries biggest backstage problems, he was actually an entertaining professional wrestler that grew quite the following. His fans loved the war paint on his face, the speed at which he would fight his matches, and even the way he entered the arena. He cemented his legacy in professional wrestling history after just a few years in the business.
Just ask anyone that no longer watches wrestling, or maybe they never did, to name a few wrestlers and we promise you that The Ultimate Warrior's name will get dropped more often than you would think.
At his peak, in 1990, The Ultimate Warrior got a shot at the WWE Championship when he faced off against Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI. He was already the WWE Intercontinental Champion and brought that belt to the SkyDome in Toronto with every intention on coming home with both titles. Without his match against Hulk Hogan, where he won the title that night, WrestleMania VI was less than memorable.
7 "Macho Man" Randy Savage (1 Time)
Just like The Ultimate Warrior, "Macho Man" Randy Savage was one of the most iconic professional wrestlers of the '80s and '90s. Of course, it might have been partially because he was the Slim Jim guy. everyone remembers that if you snap into a Slim Jim, he might show up and drop his classic catchphrase, "Oh yeah!"
As far as WrestleMania matches are concerned, the one between Randy Savage and Ric Flair at WrestleMania VIII is one of the greatest of all-time because it involved Randy's real life wife, Miss Elizabeth, and a scandal involving her with Ric Flair. It was almost too real for fake wrestling and fans actually believed it until WWE Magazine told the truth about the situation.
However, the match was even better than the second main event match between Hulk Hogan and Sid Justice. It was the Macho Man's second time holding the title and he held it for the next several months.
6 The Undertaker (3 Times)
When he was just 26 years old, The Undertaker won his first of four WWE Championship titles. At the time, it was a WWE record for being the youngest professional wrestler to win the WWE Championship before it was later beaten by Yokozuna in 1993.
After holding the title, after beating Hulk Hogan at the 1991 Survivor Series, for just six days, he lost it right back to Hogan at This Tuesday in Texas. He would have to wait another six years before winning it again, this time at WrestleMania 13.
He spent a few years getting close to it but never coming out victorious. He defeated Sycho Sid to win it for the second time, followed by a 1999 win at the Over the Edge PPV where he got it from Stone Cold.
5 The Rock (3 Times)
By the late '90s, The Rock was becoming one of the WWE's biggest Superstars mainly because of his ability to captivate a crowd better than just about anyone the industry had ever seen before. He could grab the microphone and go from heel to face in one speech, or vice versa. So when the '98 Survivor Series came around, he defeated Mankind in the final match of the 14-man tournament for the vacant WWE Championship belt.
He held that title for 44 days before things got a little weird in the WWE. The Rock and Mankind went back and forth, exchanging the WWE Championship a few times at the beginning of 1999. Mankind won it from The Rock during a January 4th episode of Raw before losing it back to him at the Royal Rumble a few weeks later. He only held it for two days before losing it back to Mankind during the WWE Super Bowl halftime special show, Halftime Heat.
The Rock ended up winning it three times before the turn of the century. He would then go on to win it another five times between 2000 and 2013.
4 Shawn Michaels (3 Times)
Even though Shawn Michaels is one of the most legendary professional wrestlers in WWE history, he has only won the title three times throughout his entire career due to a back injury that nagged him for several years and eventually kept him from taking bumps inside the ring anymore.
But before he had to stop wrestling, he won the belt at WrestleMania XII in 1996. He was feuding with Bret Hart, as he did for most of his career, and it led to one of the most amazing matches the WWE fans had ever seen. It was a 60-minute Iron Man match that went all 60 minutes before a sudden death overtime win was secured when Shawn Michaels landed his famous Sweet Chin Music kick to the face of Bret Hart to secure the belt.
His second win was at the 1997 Royal Rumble but no one cares about any of that because his third win was one of the most talked about moments in Survivor Series history. That was the Montreal Screwjob. The time Shawn Michaels defeated Bret Hart for the WWE Championship because Vince McMahon ordered it to be that way since he knew Bret was leaving for the WCW and he did not want to let him win it in Canada.
3 Hulk Hogan (3 Times)
Love him or hate him, no other professional wrestler has done more for the industry than Hulk Hogan. He helped so many wrestlers get over it is unreal. Although he has been known for ruining storylines and creating angles that often helped himself more than anyone else, the man was still one of the best. It would be later revealed that when he was with the WCW, he had complete creative control over himself meaning that anything you saw him do when he was with the company, he either chose to do it, wrote it himself, or agreed that to do it after being asked by upper management.
So you can hate the guy, and a lot of people do, but you should still respect him for helping carry wrestlers and companies for such a long time. Without Hulk Hogan, the WWE would not be where it is today. Regardless of what Vince McMahon says, Hogan's popularity in the '80s and '90s were a big part in the new Era in wrestling.
He would also bounce between companies throughout his career, winning the WWE Championship belt three times from 1991 to 1993. In two of the wins, he was the headliner of WrestleMania.
2 Bret Hart (5 Times)
Of all of the legends in professional wrestling, Bret Hart won the WWE Championship more times between 1990 and 1999 than anyone else. The first time he won was in 1992 and was not even broadcast on television. It was an episode of Superstars that was taped, and later released on VHS home videos, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. But even without the first title being shown on television, the win put Bret Hart on the top of WWE and he retained that belt several times before losing it at WrestleMania IX, his first WrestleMania.
His second reign was supposed to happen at SummerSlam in 1993 but, according to Bret Hart, Hulk Hogan did not want to lose it to him, rather he chose Yokozuna instead forcing Bret Hart to wait until WrestleMania X to regain the title belt followed by a successful 248 day reign before dropping it again. This led to his third title win at 1995 Survivor Series in a "No DQ" match against Diesel.
For his fourth reign, he had to face-off against Stone Cold, Vader, and The Undertaker in a Four Corners Elimination match. This win was his shortest as he lost it the following night on Raw.
Of all his title reigns during the '90s, the fifth was his best. After building up the main event of '97 SummerSlam by having Bret Hart and his brothers feud with Vince McMahon and The Undertaker and Stone Cold, it led us to an amazing main event with Shawn Michaels as the guest referee in quite possibly Hart's greatest match ever.
1 Stone Cold Steve Austin (4 Times)
By the end of 1996, fans of the WWE knew that about the companies next huge star, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Earlier in the year he beat Jake "The Snake" Roberts during the 1996 King of the Ring and during his post-match interview, he landed the infamous, "Austin 3:16 said I just whipped your ass," line that ended up propelling the company into the Attitude Era, the most successful years of their entire existence.
But instead of just handing him the WWE Championship belt, the WWE spent two years creating some incredible feuds and storylines involving Stone Cold and Vince McMahon. He would finally get a shot at WrestleMania XIV, after months of hyping up the main event match between him and Shawn Michaels, with Mike Tyson as the guest referee in one of the best angles the company has ever written.
He would continue his feuding with Vince McMahon which resulted in him losing the title to Kane at King of the Ring just a few months after WrestleMania XIV. The night after his first loss, he got his shot and won it for the second time, keeping it for the next three months. He wouldn't get his third title until WrestleMania XV when he beat The Rock.
His fourth and final reign happened after he defeated The Undertaker on Raw during the summer of 1999 in a memorable match to say the least. He gave out so many Stunners that night but the best was when he laid out Vince McMahon. The crowd pop that night was easily one of the loudest ever. He ended up only keeping it until he lost it at SummerSlam later that same year.
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