A list like this is tricky. As Larry Matisyk summed in a book about the best wrestlers “common sense is NOT easy to come by in a venture like this.” To rank the 48 men who have held the WWE title over the last 53 years is daunting as there’s a lot to take in. It’s not just the star power, it’s the skill and what they brought to the title. Some had reigns that lasted years, other only days or shorter. To some, the title was a huge deal while other should never have gotten it. To try and rank them is a daunting task but the criteria can make it easier.
It’s not just the length of a reign or how many times they held the belt. It’s drawing power, how successful they could be and other factors. It’s tricky as some have a bigger regard for some champions than others do. Some might complain that more reigns didn’t equal a good champion while others should have gotten more of a push. However, each one has brought something special to the table to become champion. Here are the rankings of the WWE champions from worst to best and how they helped shape the company over the decades.
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48 Andre the Giant
Even at the height of his power, Andre was really little more than a sideshow attraction. Never a great worker, he was notable for his massive size that got the fans’ attention and pushed him as he traveled around. By 1988, Andre was worn down badly in terms of his physical being, barely able to move. His heel turn had given him new life, leading to his epic clash with Hulk Hogan but it was sad to see him as a shell of himself.
In February '88, he got his biggest moment as he and Hogan went at it on a live NBC special of Saturday Night's Main Event. Andre pinned Hogan despite Hogan kicking out to end Hogan’s four year reign as champion. After less than a minute, Andre handed the belt to Ted DiBiase to wear. This led to the title being vacated for the big tournament. Unfortunately, Andre’s only run with the belt was the most forgettable reign of all.
47 Vince McMahon
To be fair, Vince is hardly the first owner in history to put the belt on himself. Of course, many will still mock it, as WWE’s own DVDs have guys poking fun at Vince’s utter lack of wrestling skill. He’s a fantastic performer in many ways but a technician he most certainly is not. In late 1999, Vince was feuding with Triple H over Linda’s honor and this led to a no-DQ match on SmackDown between them. Triple H hammered Vince into a bloody mess until Steve Austin interfered to nail Triple H down as payback. He then put Vince on him to get the pin and the title. It was a wild moment he sold well but even Vince knew holding the belt long-term wasn’t a good plan.
Just days later, he vacated it and most just shrug it off as “his belt, he might as well have it once.” At least Vince knew holding it long term wasn’t a good idea but putting it on himself was still one of his more ego-stroking moments.
46 Rey Mysterio
He is one of the single greatest athletes of all time in wrestling. A fantastic performer, Mysterio rose up wonderfully as a cruiserweight, taking down the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and many more. In WWE, he was a hit with his antics and his masks a major seller for the company. The problem is that Mysterio is too small a guy to really work as a major champion. As a tag team and even IC champ he’s good, but a major heavyweight title doesn’t suit someone so small. That was proven in his run as World Champion that didn’t exactly do big business. His reign as WWE Champion is among the most forgettable ever.
After CM Punk left with the title in 2011, a tournament was held on RAW with Mysterio beating The Miz for the championship. But just two hours later, he lost the belt to John Cena who then faced a returning Punk. True, Mysterio as a headliner was a risk but having him hold the title for just two hours remains among the worst reigns in WWE history and why, for all his skill, he ranks so low.
45 Sgt Slaughter
At one time, Slaughter as WWE Champion would have been a great move and could have done terrific business. After rising up as a heel, Slaughter turned face with a feud with the Iron Sheik and was pushed more as a major “USA” hero. Convinced of his power, Slaughter famously went to Vince McMahon to demand a raise and vacation time and was instead fired. After years away, Slaughter returned in 1990 with the idea of him now supporting Iraq.
With tensions building, WWE used it as Slaughter faced the Ultimate Warrior at the 1991 Royal Rumble and (thanks to Randy Savage) won the title. From the start, fans hated it and not in the good way as they didn't buy Slaughter as champion. It was obvious the plan was for him to lose the belt to Hulk Hogan, with the tickets for WrestleMania not selling as well as planned. The match was muddled with Hogan winning, and beating Slaughter in rematches before Sarge turned face again. While he had a great character, Slaughter’s reign as champion just wasn’t among the best in WWE history.
44 The Iron Sheik
A decorated athlete and former Olympian, the Sheik was brilliant in using his Iranian heritage to play a hated heel. With a thick mustache, curled boots and great strength, the Sheik was a great performer who got the fans going with his tests of strength and running down America.
In December of 1983, the Sheik faced Bob Backlund for the title in what was thought to be just another Backlund match. The Sheik got him into his dreaded Camel Clutch with Backlund refusing to quit despite his pain. Suddenly, Backlund’s manager, Arnold Skaaland, threw in the towel to give the title to the Sheik. It was a major shock to see Backlund’s long reign end like this and the Sheik did well as a heel champion. His reign was less than a month before he lost it to Hulk Hogan in what was the kick-off of the WWE golden era as we know it. He had a run as tag team champion and today, he's hailed for his hysterical online postings but the Sheik’s time as champion was historic if nothing else.
Glenn Jacobs must be credited for managing to last so long. He’s been in WWE over 20 years, most of it as the masked Kane. He’s shifted the act from silent to speaking, masked, bald, and heel to face but remains an imposing figure. He’s held numerous tag team titles and can still surprise with a good match now and then. He’s held the IC belt and even served as an authority figure so many fans wonder why he hasn’t gotten a WWE title run.
What most don’t realize is that Kane did, back in 1998 as he beat Steve Austin in a “First Blood” cage match. The very next night on RAW, Austin goaded Kane into a rematch for the belt and was victorious. So Kane’s only brush with the title lasted just 24 hours and despite being one of the most dominant figures in WWE for the last two decades, he has to rank low among the titleholders.
42 Rob Van Dam
In terms of great ability, RVD is a fantastic performer. In ECW, he was putting on terrific matches with his acrobatic style and his irreverent attitude made him a crowd favorite. Only a harsh ankle injury kept him from becoming champion and led to the company’s downfall. In WWE, RVD rose higher with reigns as tag team and IC champion and many fans insisted he should have a run as WWE champion as well but politics kept him down.
In 2006, he finally got his shot, facing John Cena at One Night Stand in a match where the crowd was easily on RVD’s side. He won the title and was also granted the ECW belt to boost both brands up. Sadly, just weeks later, RVD was arrested for possession of marijuana and had to give up the belt. It showed how WWE was right denying him so long and how some guys, no matter how talented, aren’t ready to carry a company.
41 Stan Stasiak
Here we have a bit of a blip during the early days of the title. The belt changed hands only four times between 1970 and 1975 with Bruno Sammartino’s epic run leading to a short run by Ivan Koloff, then Pedro Morales. Stasiak was a good worker, notable for his “heart punch” finisher and being a top heel. On December 1st, 1973, Stasiak fought Morales, the two going for the classic finish of a back to back suplex with both down, and Stasiak raising his shoulder up. He was the victor but knew from the start he was just a transitional champion to Sammartino again. Indeed, just nine days later, he lost the belt to Bruno and while he had a good career as a heel, he never got back to that level again. While he was historic coming in between two major champions, Stasiak’s own reign is among the more forgettable ever.
40 Ivan Koloff
One of the greatest “Russian” heels of all time, Koloff had a long career in various feuds. These included chain matches, bloody bouts, reigns as NWA tag team champion and more. He is historic for his reign as champion. On January 18th, 1971, Koloff faced Bruno Sammartino, executing a top rope knee drop to win the title, ending Bruno’s record seven-year reign. The shock was so huge that Bruno thought he’d lost hearing because of the dead silence from the crowd. Koloff had to leave under guard as the fans were ready to rip him apart. Perhaps because of that reaction, his reign as champion was short, only holding for 21 days before losing it to Pedro Morales. However, the fact that Koloff was between two such amazing champions is historic and showcases how the Russian Bear was one of the top heels of his time to pull off such an epic feat.
After a rough start in ECW, Sheamus got a bigger push on RAW. Sure, his milky white complexion led to various cheap shots and his work was rough but he rose up a bit better as a worker. At TLC 2009, he shocked many by winning the title off of John Cena, one of the few times Cena has done a job. He held it two and a half months before losing it back to Cena in an Elimination Chamber match. He got another title reign in a fatal four-way battle and held it a bit longer before losing it in a six pack challenge. The fact it took multiple guy matches to get the belt off him did add something to Sheamus as his matches improved with his mic work.
After five years, he cashed in MITB to beat Roman Reigns for the title although fans weren’t as excited for his run this time around. It only lasted 22 days and many feel Sheamus is a guy not quite meant for the big time but the Celtic Warrior did prove himself a champion ready to hang with other power players of the major title scene.
38 The Miz
Rarely has a single image summed up an entire fandom. A former reality TV star, The Miz was hired on in 2005 and quickly annoyed the hell out of everyone with his attitude and mannerisms. He would turn into a good worker as tag team champion and a few singles belts but not someone fans wanted in the main event. That’s why it was so loathed when he cashed in Money in the Bank to beat Randy Orton for the title. The shot of the little girl just glaring sourly became an instant meme and still summarizes how fans hated the entire thing.
Amazingly, The Miz kept up as the champion for quite a bit, including a win over Cena at WrestleMania after The Rock interfered. For once, fans were backing Cena when he finally beat The Miz for the belt and the man has rebounded as a good mid-card guy. However, his reign as WWE champion was seen as beyond his skill, reminding you some guys are better on the lower rungs.
From his debut, Sid was viewed as a 'next Hulk Hogan' type and looked intimidating enough. He was tall and well-built with the attitude of a guy ready to crush anyone in his path. What kept him back were his lack of technical skills and his attitude. His infamous run-ins and brawls with others backstage held him back, as well as his truly insane promos. While he had pushes at times, it looked like Sid would never get the big one.
However, at the 1996 Survivor Series, he managed to beat Shawn Michaels to win the belt and finally reach the top. His reign was a few months long before Shawn regained the title at the Royal Rumble. Sid then took advantage of Shawn giving up the belt to beat Bret Hart in a special match to regain the title. Again, he only held it briefly, just over a month, before losing it to The Undertaker. While he’s infamous for his horrible promos and nutty behavior, Sid’s reign as WWE champion did show he was able to hold the big belt if he had the chance.
36 Jeff Hardy
On paper, Hardy should have been a great WWE champion. Already a star as a tag team and IC champion, Hardy was a daredevil flyer who showcased himself wonderfully with brother Matt in the classic TLC matches of 2000. Incredibly charismatic, Jeff had tons of fans (many female ones) pushing him more and his mix of high-flying, technical work and willingness to put himself through massive pain for a match led to a huge following.
Sadly, Jeff’s personal habits cost him a lot. He was due for a title push in 2008 but was suspended for drug use and such issues hung around him for a while. He finally got to win the belt later that year but the company was clearly worried about his reliability and his reign ended after 42 days to Edge at the Royal Rumble. Jeff would have runs with the World Championship but those issues remained with him, pushing him to leave for TNA. He could have been a great champion but Hardy’s own issues pushed him down more to keep his time on top shorter than it should have been.
35 Roman Reigns
There’s an entire book to be written on how poorly Roman Reigns has been handled. It’s not that he doesn’t have it in him to be a champion. He has a good build and moveset, impressive look and has shown the ability to get fan heat behind him. The problem is in how he’s been booked and pushed, with idiotic promos making him look like a fool. The real problem is how WWE has been so insistent on shoving him down the throats of fans, ignoring how he wasn’t the right guy at the right time. They wanted Daniel Bryan to get back at the belt in 2015 but WWE had Roman win the Rumble and head for Mania despite a massive backlash.
Rollins would get the belt at Mania and it seemed Roman was due for a downturn. But then Rollins was injured and Roman won a tournament for the belt. WWE then made him look weak by losing it right off to Sheamus. He regained it on RAW and then was set up for an “against all odds” bit to try to make him a hero against the Authority. It didn’t work out right, Roman losing it to Triple H at the Rumble. Since his wellness policy violation earlier this year, he has been pushed down the card. The man might have become a good WWE champion but the company’s own efforts to push him just hurt his standing with fans.
34 The Big Show
With his imposing size and actually being lithe in his younger days (including drop-kicks), The Giant was a major star for WCW. Getting out before things got bad, he was signed to WWE and the Big Show got pushed fast. At first a heel, he was turned face and when Steve Austin went down to injury at the 1999 Survivor Series, Show was put in his place to win the belt. With his giant size and strength, he made an impressive champion to be sure and was over with the crowds. He reigned 50 days with some wild stuff like feuding with the Big Bossman and others. It ended with Triple H winning the belt and Show moving on to various programs.
At the 2002 Survivor Series, Show upset Brock Lesnar to win the title again. He only held it a month before losing it to Kurt Angle and went on to numerous runs with lesser titles. While his reigns were always short, Show’s massive size makes anything he does is a big deal.
Bradshaw himself is up front on how it was a struggle to be taken seriously as a champion. After years as a mid-carder and tag team guy known as a hard-drinking type, his transformation into a suited Wall Street heel was rough for fans. His push to the main event was so sudden, as he beat Eddie Guerrero for the title in July of 2004. His reign would be far longer than expected at eight months and during that reign, he faced slews of top challengers: The Undertaker, Booker T, Guerrero, Big Show and Kurt Angle all took on JBL in a variety of hard matches.
His penchant for getting himself disqualified to keep the belt or cheating to win did rile up fans but JBL did well with the heat and pushed himself as the arrogant champion. Thus, when he finally lost it to John Cena at WrestleMania 21, it was a massive deal that made Cena a legit champ right away. He would go on to be a fun announcer but JBL’s tenure as WWE champion was a chore to go through.
32 Alberto Del Rio
In terms of skills, Del Rio had some good backing. A great worker, he did well playing this aristocratic heel and the potential for a good reign was there. WWE pushed him by having him win the Royal Rumble and feuding over the World Heavyweight title. However, Del Rio just wasn’t that accepted by fans, many thinking of him as way too annoying and his constant boasting on his “destiny” just dragged him down. At SummerSlam 2011, Del Rio cashed in Money in the Bank to pin CM Punk for the title, a move fans hated. It wasn’t good heat, his reign lasting just 35 days before losing it to Cena. He regained it in a Triple Threat match, this time for 49 days before losing it back to Punk. WWE seemed to have little faith in him, dropping him lower as fans didn’t get behind him either.
Not helping was his suspension in 2014 after hitting a guy backstage after hearing a racist joke. Del Rio’s time as champion showed that pushing a guy too fast isn’t a good thing.
Never getting the respect due him, Yokozuna was a far better worker than most realized. It was easy to dismiss him as a slow fat guy but this big man showed amazing skill. He was incredibly fast for someone over 500 pounds and lithe with kicks and other moves. His “Banzai Drop” finisher looked truly devastating and he came off as a silent but imposing beast. Winning the 1993 Royal Rumble, Yoko then beat Bret Hart at WrestleMania for the title. That led to Hulk Hogan winning the belt just 30 seconds later. Yoko got it back at the King of Ring after a “photographer” hit Hogan with a fireball and would go on for a dominating reign.
Beating Lex Luger, The Undertaker and more, Yokozuna was a powerful champion and did much better than expected. It was a good move by WWE to give him a second shot and Yoko proved himself as a great heel monster champ at a tricky time for the company.
It’s easy to slam Diesel’s run as the key reason business in 1995 was so bad but it’s not totally his fault. Kevin Nash did take off majorly as tag team and IC champion in 1994 and the fans responded to his cool act and power bomb finisher. Soon turning face, he beat Bob Backlund for the title in just eight seconds to become the first man to win all three belts in a single year. However, he was marred because of how WWE tried to turn him into a classic babyface rather than the cool guy he had been before.
Not helping was that while he had some good challengers like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, he was often stuck in terrible feuds with the likes of Mabel and Sid. The terrible booking and presentation also exposed his limitations as a worker and he wasn't good enough on the mic to help cover it up. He finally dropped the title to Bret at the Survivor Series, turning heel which got him back over as a cool guy with fans. Nash would go on to epic fame in WCW with multiple title runs and while he’s slammed for his ego and bad work, his run as WWE champion did help him rise as one of the biggest stars of the 1990s.
29 Buddy Rogers
In terms of wrestling skill, Rogers is one of the greatest of all time. The original “Nature Boy,” he has basically influenced every single heel to follow. Cocky, arrogant, boastful, he insulted everyone and got away with it because he backed his every word up in the ring. A master worker, Rogers had crowds in the palm of his hand everywhere he went as he embarked on a quest for the NWA title. This led to the rather complicated series of circumstances that caused Vince McMahon Sr. to break away from the NWA to form what would become WWE.
Recognized as their first champion, Rogers held the belt just 22 days before losing it to Bruno Sammartino. Rogers insisted he was recovering from a heart attack at the time but it was a short bit in any case. That ranks him lower but the fact he has inspired so many heels since and his genius as a worker puts him in a good spot for this list.
For a guy who got into wrestling later in life, Batista sure made up for lost time. After a poor start as “Deacon Dave,” he became a key member of Evolution and got boosted as a power guy. His reign as World Champion was effective, reigning even through injuries. He also proved himself better than most gave him credit for with his classic matches with The Undertaker among others. In 2009, he finally won the WWE title in a cage match but a torn bicep cut his reign to just two days. By the time he won the title back, he was getting in trouble for backstage issues and the fans were not buying him as a babyface. His reign would end to Cena at WrestleMania XXVI in a great match and not long afterward Batista quit the company.
His return in 2014 was meant to lead to another run but that ended up going to Daniel Bryan, Batista quitting again. With Hollywood stardom calling, Batista’s time as WWE champion is more forgotten although one wonders how much of a reign he could have had if he’d started sooner.
27 The Ultimate Warrior
Hindsight is easy to rip on the Warrior’s reign as terrible. But at the time, giving him the belt made major sense. After exploding onto the scene in 1988, the Warrior had fans going wild for his entrance and power moves. He was rough in the ring, needing short matches and his promos could be…unique but it added to his mystique. Holding the IC title twice, the Warrior was rising up higher and higher and giving him the main title was good business. He and Hogan had a fantastic battle at WrestleMania VI for Warrior to get the title and boost himself majorly.
However, he was undercut by a lack of good challengers and some poor booking. Hogan not going away took away from his popularity and WWE lost faith in him in the top spot. However, the Warrior was still truly over with fans, and his loss to Sgt Slaughter devastating. His runs later were rough with exits and returns and a lot of bad blood settled just before the Warrior’s death in 2014. His time as champion was rough but the sheer star power he brought to it put the Warrior high on the list of champions.
26 Dean Ambrose
As Jon Moxley, Ambrose got attention on the indie scene such as CZW as he was a good worker with a wild edge. He broke out in FCW and soon rose up as he joined The Shield, with a long reign as U.S. Champion making him a star. When they broke up, it seemed Ambrose would be the odd man out with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins feuding. Instead, his actions as a lunatic got the fans backing him, helped by his great ring work. Despite runs as IC champion, fans were backing Ambrose more for the big belt, far more over than Reigns was.
WWE finally listened as Ambrose cashed in MITB to win the belt in June of 2016 and add to his heat. While he dropped the belt to Styles, Ambrose still took off big time and proved himself a serious champion to pay off on the promise.
25 Ric Flair
Flair is so tied into WCW’s history that his WWE run is almost forgotten. After dominating in WCW for so long, Flair had a falling out with Jim Herd in 1991 and jumped ship to WWE. He and Hogan had their long-awaited feud with Flair showing off nicely and adapting well to the company. At the 1992 Royal Rumble, Flair came in at #3 and lasted nearly an hour to win the vacant WWE title in a sensational performance. He held the belt until WrestleMania where he lost it to Randy Savage, remaining in the hunt before regaining the belt in September.
He dropped it just a month later to Bret Hart and would leave WWE a few months later. However, it’s still Flair, the man who could wrestle anyone to a five star match, incredible on the mic and capable of holding a crowd better than anyone. Thus, while his reigns weren’t as long in WWE, they were still enough to rank among the very best and proved Flair was a legit champion no matter the company.
24 The Undertaker
It may be the best example ever of a gimmick that could have been so stupid but ended up being a smash hit. The Deadman was a huge success, whether taking on “monster” heels or battling top main eventers. From shifting his act to the American Badass to actually putting over others, Taker won huge respect from the locker room and loyalty for never jumping from WWE. His first title reign was in 1991 as he upset Hulk Hogan at the Survivor Series thanks to interference from Ric Flair. He dropped the belt just a few days later with it then being vacated. Taker had to wait until 1997 to get the belt again, beating Sid at WrestleMania and holding the title for 133 days against various comers. He lost it to Bret Hart at SummerSlam and entered a phase of epic battles with Shawn Michaels and Mankind among others.
In 1999, he got the title over Steve Austin and held it for just over a month. His final run came during his “biker” phase in 2002 over Hulk Hogan and holding it a few months before dropping it to The Rock. The Undertaker didn’t need to be WWE Champion to get over (The Streak proves that) but his runs as champ only helped add to an already amazing legacy.
23 Superstar Billy Graham
Graham changed the way wrestlers were presented. He came along with a fantastic muscled physique unlike other workers at the time, wearing bright and colorful outfits for flash. He also was a master on the mic, delivering outrageous rhyming promos that would influence everyone from Hulk Hogan to The Rock and truly one of the first heels fans loved to cheer for. Having him as WWE Champion was only natural as he defeated Bruno Sammartino in 1977 and took off majorly. Reigning for nearly a year, Graham was huge business, fans packing mostly to boo him but he got cheers as well. He took on numerous stars including Dusty Rhodes and others, handling himself wonderfully and the fans loved to boo him on.
He lost the belt in 1978 to Bob Backlund and is sadly better known as a warning of overt steroid use. However, in his prime, no one could touch the Superstar in terms of drawing heat and his reign as champion glorious to watch.
Mick Foley is one of the most amazing performers in WWE history. He rose up in WCW as Cactus Jack and deserved more of a run but the politics kept him down. He won fans over in ECW with his fun promos and blurring the lines of reality as well as his ability to absorb massive damage. In WWE, he started as heel Mankind but interviews on his past opened him up and he added to it as both Jack and Dude Love to show his fun side. A winner with fans (especially after the Hell in the Cell match), his star was rising but he never seemed like main event material.
But WWE took a chance as Mankind beat The Rock on a wild RAW match that became infamous as a turning point of the Monday Night War. It was a great moment that Mankind milked nicely although he would lose the belt back to The Rock at the Royal Rumble. They traded it twice more and at SummerSlam, Foley got another run as champion that lasted only a day before losing it to Triple H. However, his run at the top was a key moment for WWE and Foley’s wonderful style and humor carried him well to make his brief runs oh so memorable for fans.
21 Pedro Morales
He’s a bit forgotten today, which is surprising given how big of a star he was. Morales was the first man ever to hold the IC, tag team and WWE titles, a good worker who was a hero for the Latino fans of New York. He beat Ivan Koloff in February of 1971 and would hold the belt nearly three years. A tough guy, Morales had fans going by playing the beaten face before making a huge comeback, his technical work amazing and he had massive sellouts for his reign. He and Bruno had a classic 60 minute match as Morales took on every major heel from George Steele to Ernie Ladd and more in between. He lost the belt to Stan Stasiak and slumped a bit but remained a groundbreaker for Latino wrestlers and a sensational star at the time to prove WWE could be more diverse in who held the belt.
20 Eddie Guerrero
The beloved Mexican worker came from a wrestling family so it was in his blood. In WCW, he became notable for his work as a high flyer and Cruiserweight champion but held back by personal addictions. In WWE, he was pushed as European champion and more but had a harsh fall to drugs and was fired. But Eddie got himself clean and sober and earned a second chance with the company. He and Chavo took off as tag team champions and a run as US champion also helped as fans loved his “lie, cheat, steal” persona and his humor.
At No Way Out 2004, Eddie hit the top, beating Brock Lesnar for the WWE title in one of the most emotional championship wins ever. Guerrero had great matches as champ against Kurt Angle at WrestleMania and a bloody feud with JBL. According to reports, Eddie was worried the pressures of being champion might drive him back to his old habits and agreed to drop the belt to JBL. He remained a major star, ready for a run as World Champion before his sudden death in 2005. While tragic, Eddie also stands as a great story of a man who overcame his troubles to get back on top and that inspiration should be well remembered.
19 Daniel Bryan
His high ranking is mostly due to his terrific skills as well as how he overcame the odds to get there in the first place. Already a major star in ROH, Bryan broke out with NXT and was part of the initial Nexus invasion. He was fired for going too far in a segment, choking Justin Roberts but was hired back fast and soon pushed with his fun tag team with Kane. In singles work, Bryan was a favorite of the fans but WWE refused to give him the big shot that was wanted. He finally got the shot, beating John Cena at SummerSlam 2013 to win the title. But then WWE ruined it by having Randy Orton cash in MITB to beat him for the belt. By 2014, the “YES” movement was in full swing, massive and even WWE couldn’t ignore it. At WrestleMania XXX, Bryan beat Batista and Orton in a thrilling match to finally win the championship. It was an epic moment as he had some good matches afterward and ready for a long reign.
But after just two months, a terrible neck injury forced Bryan to give up the belt. He returned but WWE refused to repeat the story with him regaining the title and another injury would push him out for good. He gets a high spot for his brilliance as a worker and how he took off so huge with fans, although his actual time on top is lower than others.
18 Bob Backlund
One would think his holding the belt for five and a half years would rank higher on this list, but there are factors to consider. While an utterly brilliant technical worker, Backlund was a bit “white-bread,” not the flash or style as others of the time. Also, while he did have good matches with the likes of Ken Patera and Jimmy Snuka, many of Backlund’s defenses were against lower guys not deserving of a shot like The Wild Samoans. He had clashes with Harley Race and a confusing bit of “losing” the title to Antonio Inoki in Japan but it was never recognized officially. Backlund was a terrific worker but lacked the flash of others on this list as shown by how the belt was raised when Hogan got it.
In 1994, Backlund made a comeback as a lunatic “snapping” on guys and won the belt off of Bret Hart. It only lasted days and Backlund more of a joke afterward but still notable how long he lasted as champion. He was old school but it fit for the time so while he may be overwhelmed in terms of power, Backlund as champion was big for his time.
17 Chris Jericho
His entrance into WWE remains iconic. After realizing WCW was never going to give him the shots he deserved, Jericho jumped ship in 1999 and a huge debut. He had to work hard before getting to the IC title and then beating Triple H for the belt in April of 2000. It was reversed minutes later, with many feeling it should have gone longer. Jericho went on to become one of the greatest performers around, absolutely fantastic on the mic while holding his own well in the ring.
Jericho finally had his bigger shot, becoming the first “Undisputed” champion in December of 2001 beating The Rock and Steve Austin for it. He seemed primed for an epic run but was marred as Triple H returned and got a major push with Jericho as a heel for it. Hunter won the belt at WrestleMania and, amazingly, this was Jericho’s lone WWE title run. He would hold just about every other belt in the company, including several runs as World Heavyweight Champion while balancing out wrestling, rock star and author. However, Jericho should have gotten a lot more of a shot as WWE Champion given his genius as a performer and a shame the company couldn’t recognize it.
16 Seth Rollins
Rollins had already proven himself as Tyler Black in ROH, holding the belt there for some epic matches. In WWE, he was pushed fast as a member of The Shield, the trio running roughshod on the entire company and Rollins great on the mic. His heel turn was jarring but he made it work, arrogance coming forth to become a major heel for the company. Winning MITB, he held onto it for months before finally cashing it in at WrestleMania 31 to beat Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns for the title. He took off majorly with numerous matches against both, Dean Ambrose and others, clicking wonderfully as fans were cheering him as much as booing him and dominating well.
It took a horrible injury to end that with Rollins taken out and fans missing him badly. His return was hot and led to him winning the belt back off of Roman only to lose it minutes later to Dean Ambrose. But Rollins remains in the hunt, far more over with fans than Roman and ready to prove himself once more as a heel champ for the modern age.
15 Kurt Angle
As an Olympic gold medalist, Angle had major expectations when he debuted in WWE in 1999. But he surpassed them all, holding both the European and IC titles and King of the Ring. In October 2000, he upset The Rock to win his first title and soon took off, fans loving to boo him with his arrogant boasting of being a “beloved” American hero. But they also respected his incredible skill in the ring, capable of going from a technical masterpiece to a hardcore brawl and fans loving to watch him. His first reign ended in February of 2001 against The Rock and won it back in September.
He regained it in late 2002 and held it until WrestleMania, including a classic match with Chris Benoit. He and Brock Lesnar had an epic feud for the title, trading it back and forth, including an Iron Man match on SmackDown. Angle would hold the World title as well and continue to put on fantastic matches before leaving WWE in 2006. While his TNA run has been good, many remember him for his WWE work and Angle is one of the best all-around workers to ever hold the belt.
14 AJ Styles
If ever someone has lived up to his name, it’s the Phenomenal One. From his early work in the indies and then ROH, Styles showcased an amazing technical style alongside high-flying moves few have ever seen before. His TNA run showcased him as one of the absolute best in the company, holding every title several times and putting on classic matches. Even with stupid stuff (Claire Lynch), Styles gave his all and his exit from the company was seen as a major downturn for TNA. Fans had long dreamed of Styles in WWE but he seemed happy without them.
It finally happened with an epic debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble that led to a feud with Chris Jericho. Fans were doubtful WWE would give someone as “small” as Styles the belt but he was put over Dean Ambrose and has been doing a great job as champion. Styles is capable of putting on a classic battle with most anyone, still sensational with his high flying and doing better as a heel than expected. It’s been a long wait but seeing the genius worker Styles is as WWE Champion is a great sight to elevate him high on this list.
13 Randy Orton
The rare case of a third generation wrestler being the best, Orton came into OVW in 2001 and rising well as a talent. His early WWE stuff was rough but got himself over as an arrogant heel, leading to Evolution and a reign as IC champion. He won the World title in 2004 but ruined by a bad face turn that pushed him down. However, Orton’s talent (and his fantastic RKO finisher) kept him over and he bounced back to win, lose and win the title at No Mercy 2007 (it was complicated). This would be a long reign of 203 days against all comers, including Jeff Hardy and even emerging from WrestleMania still the champion over Triple H and John Cena.
He won the belt in 2009 in a complex tag team match, holding it for a month and a half before losing it to Batista. A few more reigns followed as Orton was terrific as champion, sometimes a face but usually the heel that fans hated. No matter what his persona, “The Viper” was a terrific star, even though injuries and he has dominated over some of the biggest talents around.
12 CM Punk
Always with his own unique style, Punk had been a star in ROH and his entry to WWE a major deal in 2005. It was a slow road, put in ECW for a while and then the World title scene in 2008 with the fans massively behind him. A technical master and brawler, Punk won folks over with his great promos and either face or heel, was a huge star. In 2011, Punk rocked the entire industry with his “pipe bomb” promo trashing WWE, Vince McMahon, Triple H, John Cena and more. It made him an instant icon, the fans loving him totally for speaking his mind and it was one of the best “worked shoots” in history. This led to him beating John Cena for the belt before his hometown of Chicago and then “leaving” with the title.
He came back fast to face Cena and it took Kevin Nash and an MITB cash-in to drop the belt to Alberto Del Rio. After getting it back a few months later, Punk launched the longest WWE title reign in over 20 years. For 434 days, Punk defended against Cena, Kane, Daniel Bryan, Chris Jericho and so many more and the fans loved seeing him reign for so long. He dropped the belt to The Rock and famously walked out on WWE over his direction in 2014. That just added to his appeal as Punk’s long reign ranks him high on this list as a man who did his own thing no matter what, including being champion.
Getting the wrestling bug in early, Adam Copeland wanted to be a WWE star all his life. He finally got his shot in 1999 as this outsider before he and Christian formed one of the best tag teams around. After numerous reigns, Edge broke out as a singles star holding the IC title. In 2005, his affair with Lita became public and launched him to a new level of stardom. Edge did the first ever MITB cash-in to beat John Cena for the WWE title at New Year’s Revolution. His reign lasted just weeks before losing it back to Cena. He regained it later that year and had a good feud with Cena over the belt before losing it back. Another short reign followed in 2008 but Edge balanced it out with reigns as World Heavyweight champion as well.
That’s not to mention his excellent skill on the mic to rile up fans and make them laugh as well while engaging in sensational matches against every major star in the company. Injuries cut his career too short but his reigns as WWE champion made “The Ultimate Opportunist” among the best champions of the last decade.
10 Randy Savage
From the start of his career, Savage had it. Amazingly skilled, he was also great on the mic, intense and snarling for epic promos that had fans going wild. Entering WWE in 1985, he took off with his flashy robes, his stunning flying elbow and gorgeous manager Elizabeth giving him more heat. His year-long reign as IC champion featured classic battles with Ricky Steamboat, Jake Roberts and more as Savage’s insistence on planning out bouts in advance meant he never produced a dud. By 1988, his popularity was massive to the point where WWE let him win the title over Ted DiBiase at the big WrestleMania IV tournament.
Savage was big business as champion against DiBiase, Andre and many more, still wonderfully over and tearing it up in great matches. This led to his attack on Hogan and losing the belt at WrestleMania V but Savage’s heat let him stay on top for a few more years.
A face again, he won the belt off of Ric Flair at WrestleMania VIII for a shorter but still notable reign. Moving on as an announcer, Savage had another run in WCW for several years but it’s his time in WWE that makes him among the best champions of his era.
9 Brock Lesnar
Starting in OVW, Brock showed he had some serious stuff. A monster worker, he was also a technical genius who could take to the ropes with ease, the all-around package. Knowing they had something, WWE pushed him with Paul Heyman and soon “The Next Big Thing” was living up to his name, crushing all in his path. At SummerSlam 2002, he stunned everyone by pinning The Rock cleanly to win his first WWE title. He defended it in epic feuds against The Undertaker and others, losing it to the Big Show but then engaging in a sensational feud with Kurt Angle over the belt. They traded it back and forth before Brock had a long 152 day reign ended by a loss to Eddie Guerrero.
He infamously walked out on WWE but returned in 2012 and 2014 saw him destroying Cena for the title in a prolonged squash match. His defenses were few and far between before losing it to Seth Rollins but his ending “The Streak” added a lot more to his pull. Today, Brock remains a major draw (his UFC career short but memorable) and whether in a fantastic technical match or destroying opponents, “The Beast” has proven himself among the most powerful WWE champions ever.
8 John Cena
Cena is a very divisive figure to be sure. He is a much better worker than given credit for and has proven himself as a champion and carrying the company. But he is criticized for lack of an appealing character and the constant pushes to be in the spotlight all the time. Still, one has to admire how Cena rose from a so-so guy to a favorite with his rap act and by 2005, having him win the WWE title made sense. He was truly hot as the champion with various battles against JBL and others and proving himself as the face of SmackDown, then RAW.
Since then, Cena has held the title 12 times (not to mention reigns as world champion) and the sheer number of guys he faced in that time speaks volumes. It’s basically impossible to find a major star over the last decade who hasn’t faced Cena and him usually coming out on top. He has proven himself in brawls, cage matches, even 60-minute bouts with excellent conditioning and capable of holding a crowd no matter what. The fact he has had short reigns does work against him and some complain about Cena hogging the top spot. However, the man has shown he can handle the pressures of being the face of WWE quite well and not giving up despite injuries or hassling of fans. All that adds up to a man who deserves to be among the best champions despite his many detractors.
7 Triple H
Contrary to what many think, Hunter was on the way to stardom long before meeting Stephanie McMahon. From the start, he was a great worker with a good mastery of getting crowds against him and doing well as IC champion. After elevated leading DX, Triple H turned heel and finally got the WWE title in 1999. He traded it back and forth before 2000 where his reigns were truly big business with his terrific ability to carry major matches and getting the crowd both booing and cheering for him. He was altered by his 2001 injury, shifting his style and a bit slower but still got another reign as champion in 2002.
Afterward, Triple H moved on to dominating as World Heavyweight Champion for some time with a backlash on him hogging the belt so much. In 2009, he won the WWE title again in an Elimination Chamber, dropping the belt to Randy Orton just a few weeks later. A few more reigns followed and then Triple H won the belt at the 2016 Royal Rumble in what just a way to try to push Roman Reigns up more. Some can complain about his wanting to stay on top but Triple H has proven himself one of the biggest stars in the company and thus notable how his runs as champion helped push the Game to bigger heights.
6 The Rock
It was hard to look back 20 years and imagine Rocky Maivia as a future mega-star. He was an okay worker with some amazing athleticism but was pushed as such a vanilla babyface the fans hated him. An injury led to his heel turn and his transformation into The Rock turned him into a fan favorite. His matches were good but better were his fantastic promos that had the crowd going nuts. He won his first WWE title at the 1998 Survivor Series with aid from the McMahons, trading it back and forth with Mankind for a bit. Losing it to Steve Austin at WrestleMania XV, The Rock turned face to get even bigger. He beat Triple H to win the belt again in 2000, trading it back and forth and had another reign in 2001.
His run in 2002 ended to Brock Lesnar and it was afterward Dwayne Johnson began to find movie stardom. His return in 2011 was a huge deal, facing John Cena and while many can argue he didn’t need it, seeing The Rock end CM Punk’s record title reign to be champion again in 2013 was a big deal. Today, The Rock is set in Hollywood but the sheer star power he brings makes his reigns as WWE champion notable on many levels.
5 Shawn Michaels
After years as a great tag team wrestler, some doubted Michaels’ ability when he went into singles work in 1992. However, the Heartbreak Kid was not only great in the ring but backed it up with a great heel persona and terrific mic work. It paid off with long reigns as IC champion, the latter ending only by a suspension. By 1996, Michaels was pushed more and more, a huge crowd favorite and thus winning the title in the Iron Man Match at WrestleMania XII was a major achievement. His reign had good matches with Vader and Mankind it wasn't his fault WWE was in harsh straits from WCW at the time.
He infamously gave up the title to injury in early 1997 and then regained it in the Montreal Screwjob which added to the heat to create DX and inspire the Attitude Era. His back injury put him out for years but his comeback in 2002 astounded everyone as Shawn was better than ever before. He also had put aside the ego and attitude that hurt his earlier runs and when he finally retired in 2010, it was with massive respect. The Showstopper lived up to that name in the ring and thus his runs as WWE Champion are just icing on the cake of one of the greatest performers in the company’s history.
4 Bret Hart
Maybe he really isn’t “the best there is, was or ever will be” but there’s no denying how amazing the Hitman was in his prime. Already a star in Stampede, Bret came to WWE as part of the Hart Foundation who reigned as tag team champions twice. Finally getting his singles shot in 1991, Bret won the IC title and did a wonderful job elevating his matches with his technical skill and storytelling. His victory over Ric Flair in September of 1992 for the WWE title was a shocker but it worked as Bret was a great performer and did fantastic work as champ.
His first reign ended badly to Yokozuna but Bret kept at it to remain a star and in 1994, he got another run. This was better, defending against brother Owen and others and keeping WWE on top at a rough period. His next reigns were in late '95 to early '96, then 1997, pushing the “Canadian hero/anti-American” bit and setting up the events of Montreal. That led to his major exit and his time in WCW was terrible. But despite the bad press about his attitude, Bret remains one of the single best performers in WWE history and thus his time as champion elevating the company to prove you didn’t need to be a muscleman to be on top.
3 Steve Austin
From his debut in 1990, everyone who saw him knew Steve Austin was going to be a star. He was quite good in the ring but backed it up with terrific charisma, a great promo style and intensity in the ring. Let go from WCW, Austin put up with the dumb “Ringmaster” gimmick but the iconic “Austin 3:16” speech made him an instant star. He was slowed by his nasty neck injury in 1997 that forced him to alter his style to more of a brawling style.
In 1998, he finally reached the top, beating Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania for the belt. He then embarked on the epic feud with Vince McMahon that became the backbone of the Attitude Era and elevated the entire company massively. Austin would trade the belt over the next few years to The Rock, Kane, Undertaker and others, slowed by injuries but still the biggest star.
His heel turn in 2001 for another title run was jarring and not that successful which even Austin admits. However, it’s impossible to discount how Stone Cold transformed WWE and all of wrestling, a heel fans adored as a hero and thus has to rank high on the list of the best champions as well as best performers.
2 Hulk Hogan
Yes, there is the massive ego, the need to always be on top, the spotlight hogging and politics and personal issues. But one cannot deny that for so long, Hulk Hogan embodied everything WWE was about. When he won the title in 1984, it launched a new era, pushing wrestling into the mainstream as Hogan was truly larger than life. His promos were terrific, his charisma off the charts and the media adored him. Fans today ignore how monster over Hogan was, crowds going crazy at his entrance and cheering him on during his epic comebacks. Maybe he wasn’t a great worker but he knew his strengths and how he worked matches became notable. It was Hogan who made WrestleMania work with his main events, carrying WWE and his merchandising earned the company tens of millions of dollars.
His first run lasted four years and his remaining ones still notable for how fans responded to him as champion (even his bad one in 1993). His comeback in 2002 was much better than expected, fans welcoming him as a hero and led to another run on top as champion. Today, his name is a bit muddy but there is no way Hogan can’t count among the biggest WWE champions of all time as his reign was when WWE truly became the face of wrestling and Hogan the man to carry it all.
1 Bruno Sammartino
There probably wouldn’t BE a WWE today without him. Already a good worker, Bruno won the title off of Buddy Rodgers in 1963 and proceeded to have what remains the longest title reign ever. For seven years, Sammartino held the belt and every one of those years was packed with sellout Madison Square Garden crowds. A strongman, Bruno was an expert at letting the heels pick away at him before making his comeback and the fans loved to watch him. He was a major hit with Italians and other ethnic groups, a “common man” they backed up well. Bruno faced just about every major heel around like Ernie Ladd, George Steele, the Sheik, Killer Kowalski and so many more.
When he finally lost the title in 1971, the shock was so huge that the Garden was literally dead silent. Still on top for crowds, Bruno regained the title in 1973 and held it for another four years, meaning he had the belt around his waist longer than most guys on this list combined. Finally retiring in 1982, Bruno had a falling out with WWE but returned in 2013 to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame and his legacy recognized. He deserves it as Bruno helped make the company what it is and thus has to rank as its biggest champion ever.
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