There are, as of this writing, 50 men who have held the WWE World Championship, ranging for the original champ Buddy Rogers, to Jinder Mahal who unexpectedly won the strap at Backlash last month. Not all champions are created equally, though. Length of reigns ranges from over seven years for Bruno Sammartino to less than a single episode of Raw for Rey Mysterio. John Cena has held this specific title thirteen times, while there are plenty of guys who have only held it once. There were fighting champions who defended their titles multiple times a month on TV, and part timers who didn’t meet the spurious thirty day title defense rule. How to compare these 50 men who each, at one time or another, arrived at the top of the professional wrestling business?
This countdown is focused on what the wrestlers accomplished as champions. It’s not a ranking of the best kayfabe wrestlers, or best all-around performers over the course of a career. On the contrary, the countdown is restricted to what they accomplished as WWE World Champions. In developing the ranking, I considered quality of in ring and on the mic performance, drawing power, kayfabe success, longevity, and legacy. As is the case for any countdown of this nature, personal opinion is a factor, too.
Note: this ranking does not include the World Heavyweight Championship, The Universal Championship, the WWE ECW Championship, or world titles from any other companies. We’re looking at just one title, with just one lineage (though that lineage does get muddied at a few points—we’ll get into that below).
50 Andre The Giant
It feels like sacrilege to rank Andre the Giant at the bottom of any list. But in a countdown based purely on what a guy did as champ, Andre didn’t exactly live up to his legend when he was atop WWE. The Giant won the WWE Championship via collusion with newly arrived top heel The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase and an evil referee that DiBiase had paid off. From there, Andre promptly sold the title to Dibiase, only for WWE President Jack Tunney to void the transaction and declare the title vacant.
Andre didn’t really do anything as champion, and was a shell of the worker he’d been in his physical prime. For all of that, he finds himself at the bottom of this countdown.
49 Rey Mysterio
We go from the largest WWE Champion ever to the smallest.
The summer of 2011 belonged to CM Punk. Punk engaged in an electric storyline that bent reality, and featured him winning the WWE Championship only to walk out on the company, thus vacating the title. A tournament occurred and Rey Mysterio wound up the victor, defeating The Miz in the finals.
That outcome is all well and good, and there’s no denying Mysterio was an amazing talent, even years past his prime. This would wind up a painfully short run, however, when Mysterio was forced to defend the title he won at the start of Raw against former champion John Cena at the end of the show. Cena went over clean, Mysterio’s WWE Championship legacy suffered from one of the shortest reigns in history.
After a number of false starts as a WWE Superstar, Glenn Jacobs found his footing in the gimmick of Kane. After a year as a very effective monster heel, he found himself booked against WWE Champion Steve Austin in a First Blood Match. The booking was very sound from the perspective of stacking the odds against Austin, and fitting with Vince McMahon and the powers that be conspiring against him. Unfortunately, when a masked man with most of his body covered fought a guy with most of his body exposed in a First Blood Match, there was little way for the company to book its way out of a corner. There was little way for Kane not to be champion.
Kane did win the title and held it for a day, before dropping it back to Austin the next night on Raw. His entire time as WWE champion amounted to less than 24 hours. While Kane would go on to better reigns as ECW and Word Heavyweight Champion, this first time as a world champion didn’t exactly add much to The Big Red Machine’s legacy.
47 Vince McMahon
In the fall of 1999, Vince McMahon and Triple H got into a heated rivalry. While this feud was no Austin-McMahon, it did reveal a different dimension of McMahon, featuring him as less of a tyrannical businessman than a protective father. The storyline included Triple H crashing Stephanie McMahon’s wedding with Test, and memorable street fight at Armageddon 1999 that culminated in Stephanie turning on her father. Also, McMahon beat Triple H for the WWE Championship shortly before Unforgiven.
While on one hand, McMahon didn’t really have any business winning a world title, he was more than an iconic enough character to justify the run, and the title win on SmackDown offered an electric moment. McMahon would wind up vacating the title rather than ever defending it.
46 Stan Stasiak
Stan Stasiak may be one of the least remembered WWE Champions in history for holding the title for just a little over a week, during a time when WWE was still a regional promotion, before it had any weekly TV shows or PPV. Relatively little video footage of Stasiak—especially as champion—survives to this day. He was a legit champ, though, who defeated legendary face Pedro Morales before dropping it to even greater legend Bruno Sammartino, for Sammartino’s second reign atop the company.
Stasiak helped define an archetype as a transitional champion who moved the belt from one top face to another so that the faces never had to face off directly and muddy the waters of whom the fans should cheer for. For his part, Stasiak was a solid heel character and worker who would stay in and around the main event picture for years.
45 Jinder Mahal
It’s a bit unfair to evaluate Jinder Mahal in a countdown like this given he won the WWE Championship for the first time less than a month ago, holds it presently, and has plenty of time to define his legacy. Mahal hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, though.
A part of Mahal’s uphill battle as WWE Champion is that he arrived at the main event scene with so little build—an unexceptional worker who wasn’t particularly over, and who was on his second lower mid-card tenure with the company. Mahal won a battle royal to become the number contender to the WWE Championship and suddenly had the Singh Brothers assigned to the role of his sidekicks. This activity conspicuously aligned with rumors of WWE focusing on new business efforts in India, creating speculation he was getting pushed specifically to cater to that audience. No one seemed particularly upset about Mahal getting a title shot, but getting the title win over Randy Orton seemed much more problematic.
Mahal may still prove himself worthy of the push of a lifetime, but has a long way to go to convince his naysayers.
44 Bray Wyatt
With any luck, at 30 years old and as a steady upper card talent for nearly four years, Bray Wyatt may still have WWE Championship reigns ahead of him to improve his standing amongst the title’s champions. For now, though, his first title reign wasn’t exactly great.
Wyatt won the WWE Championship at Elimination Chamber 2017. Over the month and a half to follow, Wyatt would weather challenges from AJ Styles, John Cena, and Luke Harper. Come WrestleMania 33, he’d have a chance to cement his championship legacy, defending the title against long time main event talent Randy Orton. When the lights were on brightest, and after Wyatt had spoken up in the media about how they ought to get the main event spot, expectations were high for Orton vs. Wyatt.
The match wound up most memorable for the odd choice to periodically project bugs on the mat and suggest they were under Wyatt’s control to play mind games with Orton. Rather than adding intrigue, the effect was poorly received as silly and ineffectual—a lame attempt at covering for a lackluster match that wound up being the end of Wyatt’s championship reign.
43 Alberto Del Rio
In between runs with the World Heavyweight Championship, Alberto Del Rio had two brief reigns with the WWE Championship in the second half of 2011. The first came when he cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase to take the title off of CM Punk at SummerSlam. He’d go on to trade the title with John Cena before dropping it more definitively back to Punk at Survivor Series.
Del Rio’s time as WWE Champion came across as less concerned with Del Rio’s success than with playing into Punk’s storyline as he was screwed out of the title, and spent most of all the fall feuding with Kevin Nash and Triple H before finding his way back to the title, all the more established as a main event guy. Del Rio never got much more than a month with the title. While he performed well enough in his role, he was never really the man while he held the top title.
42 The Miz
The Miz stands out as one of hardcore fans’ least favored WWE champions, not to mention one of the most unlikely WrestleMania main eventers, and on top of that, an odd pick to have actually won a WrestleMania event (over John Cena, no less).
For all of the questions about Miz’s credibility and whether he had any business as WWE’s top champ, we need to remember, he did get over in 2010 as the United States Champion, Big Show’s tag team partner, and them Mr. Money in the Bank. It was reasonably sound for him to get a spin at the WWE Championship and, to his credit, he held the title for nearly half of a year, successfully defending the title against John Morrison and Jerry Lawler, besides getting the better of Randy Orton and John Cena in more spurious victories.
41 Sgt. Slaughter
Sgt. Slaughter played both an American hero and a militaristic heel for WWE in the 1980s, before running afoul of Vince McMahon for purportedly asking for more money. Slaughter would make his return to the company—a familiar, credible star—in the early 1990s as the company crafted a new spin on the heel foreigner gimmick. As tensions boiled over leading to the real life Persian Gulf War, Slaughter was recast as an Iraqi sympathizer villain.
With an assist from Randy Savage, Slaughter won the WWE Championship at the 1991 Royal Rumble, besting The Ultimate Warrior. Slaughter would drop the title to Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VII. In a sense, Slaughter was a transitional champion to get the title from Warrior back to Hogan. Just the same, he did get a few months as champ and a WrestleMania main event out of the angle. Slaughter might rate higher had his angle drawn better, but rumors abound that his championship reign and story with Hogan were a flop that forced WWE to downscale expectations and venue size for that year’s WrestleMania.
40 The Iron Sheik
The day after Christmas, 1984, The Iron Sheik defeated long time WWE Champion Bob Backlund for the title. The match is infamous for its finish—Sheik locking in his dreaded camel clutch, Backlund refusing to submit, and Backlund’s manager Arnold Skaaland throwing in the towel to surrender on behalf of his charge.
Sheik would go on to reign for about a month, defending against Backlund in return matches, getting the better of Chief Jay Strongbow and Tito Santana and a handful of other faces in title defenses. In the end, though, for all of his credibility and talent, Sheik amounted to a high profile transitional champion. He’d drop the title to Hulk Hogan, late January 1985, to kick start the original Hulkamania run.
39 Ivan Koloff
Ivan Koloff holds the distinction of being the man to end the longest WWE Championship reign in history. Bruno Sammartino was coming up on eight years with the WWE Championship, and there was no reason for fans at the garden to think that he’d trop the title. Out of nowhere, the Russian Bear got the better of the Living Legend, pinning him after a top rope knee drop.
Koloff would only hold the title for three weeks, which undercuts the immensity of the accomplishment a bit, as he turned out to be more of a transitional champion than anything, getting the belt to hero Pedro Morales who would hold it for nearly three years. Just the same, Koloff was the real deal as a main eventer who would stay relevant, challenging Morales, and the next great face champion, Bob Backlund, too.
38 Rob Van Dam
Rob Van Dam was a quintessential example of a guy who came into WWE white hot based on his work elsewhere, and saw his electricity dissipate by degrees over the years to follow when WWE failed to pull the trigger on a big push. Then, in 2006, it happened.
In a perfect storm of fans turning on John Cena, and WWE relaunching its own version of ECW, Van Dam got a shot as both world champion and the new face of the new brand (capitalizing on all of his old potential from the old brand). RVD would defeat Cena for the WWE (and relaunched ECW) Championship in front of a raucous pro-ECW crowd at One Night Stand 2006.
RVD’s run would get short when he got busted for marijuana possession in real life, which led to his down fall on stage. After a little under a month holding both titles, he lost them both in close succession and would never regain a world title in WWE.
37 Sycho Sid
From late 1996 to early 1997, Sycho Sid would get two WWE Championship reigns which added up to a little over three months. While Sid did fit in as a world champion—his look and power made him a main event draw for all of the 1990s—neither of these reigns were really about establishing Sid as the best in the business. The first go-round was more about giving Shawn Michaels a redemption story. Sid beat him for the title, then dropped it back in front of HBK’s hometown crowd in a stadium show for Royal Rumble 1997. The latter time was more of a temporary fix after Michaels unexpectedly went home, and WWE shuffled the deck going into WrestleMania season. Sid wound up with a second reign and a second WrestleMania main event, for which he dropped the championship to The Undertaker.
Sid doesn’t have any particularly great wrestling matches to his name, but there may have never been a wrestler with a better look for the business, and he seems well in place on a list of WWE champions as a character.
36 Jeff Hardy
In 2008, Jeff Hardy offered up an unlikely feel good story for WWE. After spending much of the year knocking on the door of the main event and thrust into a handful of title shot scenarios only to get beat back again and again, he finally made good on his promise. The popular, eccentric star rolled up Triple H in a Triple Threat match at Armageddon 2008 to finally capture his first world championship.
Hardy fans hoped he’d get to carry the title into WrestleMania, but it wasn’t meant to be. Hardy would end up dropping the championship to Edge at the following month’s Royal Rumble. Though he’d go on to some better successes in the World Heavyweight Championship picture, Hardy’s day in the son with this title was pretty limited, despite putting on great performances in that period.
35 Big Show
The Big Show is an iconic and long term WWE star. He’s closing in on two decades with WWE, and it’s hard to believe that he was only WWE Champion for just shy of a cumulative three month period (though, to be fair, he did have World Heavyweight and ECW Championship reigns to buffer that record).
Show first struck gold at Survivor Series 1999. As a kayfabe last minute replacement for Steve Austin, he defeated The Rock and Triple H in a Triple Threat Match to win the title. Show was only sort of treated as the top guy, defending the title mostly against mid-carder The Big Boss Man before dropping it back to Triple H on an episode of Raw two months later. Show would get another month with the belt in 2002 after Paul Heyman turned on Brock Lesnar to help the big man steal the strap.
In a sense, Show’s limited success with the WWE Championship is emblematic of his WWE legacy. He was always credible enough to be a threat, but never really the guy in WWE’s booking.
Make no mistake about it, Batista is very much the kind of star who did much better with the World Heavyweight Championship than the WWE Championship, and ends up on the short end of this ranking for that. Nonetheless, Batista was a two-time WWE Champion and worthy of some recognition.
The Animal won the title for the first time when he defeated Randy Orton at Extreme Rules 2009. Unfortunately, he got injured in the process and had to relinquish the title two nights later, amounting little more than an asterisk of a reign. He’d get his hands on the title again in 2010, winning it under far less auspicious circumstances—Vince McMahon kayfabe gifted him a title shot against an already exhausted John Cena. The storyline mostly served to position Batista as champ and as an obstacle for Cena to come at WrestleMania XXVI. For as predictable as that story may have been, Batista nonetheless played the part of physical monster, combined with arrogant douche character nicely to put over Cena after a little over a month with the strap.
33 Dean Ambrose
The Shield split up in 2014. While there was a time when Dean Ambrose was viewed as the top star of the group, by 2016, he was the lone member of the crew not to win a world title, nor fully establish himself as a consistent main eventer.
All of that changed at Money in the Bank 2016. Seth Rollins made his return to the ring and defeated Roman Reigns for the WWE Championship. Seconds later, however, Ambrose cashed in the Money in the Bank briefcase he’d won earlier in the night to serve up some poetic justice by stealing the title from Rollins. Ambrose would go on to successfully defend the title against not only Rollins in a rematch, but Reigns, too, in a Shield alumni triple threat match. The reign would extend into the fall, after Ambrose beat back Dolph Ziggler, too, at SummerSlam and got solidified as the face of SmackDown after the new brand split took offense. Unfortunately for Ambrose, he’d get eclipsed by another ascendant star, AJ Styles, whose incredible ring acumen had won over both management and the fans. Styles took the title off Ambrose at three-month mark.
Sheamus came out of nowhere as a WWE Champion. After a successful run on WWE ECW, he debuted on Raw and promptly found himself challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship. All signs pointed to Sheamus losing their match at the TLC PPV. It was a filler show before WWE hit the road to WrestleMania and Sheamus wasn’t yet all that established. He’d fill a spot as a fresh world title contender, get a whirl with a top talent, and perhaps get a world title reign down the road after he was better established.
To the surprise of most, Sheamus defeated Cena in a Tables Match—a pretty shrewd twist of booking that got him a title win without really hurting Cena because he’d neither been pinned nor forced to submit. Sheamus would get a couple months with the title in a respectable enough reign, before cycling out of the world title picture in time for ‘Mania. He’d win the title back later in the year, though the reign was largely overshadowed by the concurrent Nexus angle. Sheamus would go on to greater success with the World Heavyweight Championship in the years to follow, though he would have one more WWE Championship run to date, after he cashed in Money in the Bank at Survivor Series 2015 on Roman Reigns. This reign largely felt like a place holder until Reigns was over enough to get the title back—sure enough, Sheamus would only keep it for about a month.
Bradshaw was a big mid-carder best known for his work alongside Ron Simmons as the accolades. Then, all but over night, a move to the Smackdown brand led to the complete reinvention of his career. Suddenly Bradshaw was a New York millionaire cowboy who pontificated about his immigrant phobia. He was immediately established as a rival for Eddie Guerrero, and a challenger for Guerrero’s WWE Championship.
JBL as he was newly known was a classic right place right time champion who benefited from a new gimmick and a roster relatively thin of top heel charactersto quite suddenly get vaulted into the main event picture. Moreover, Guerrero purportedly wanted the title off of him, feeling too much pressure, thus setting up JBL for a title run he may or may not have otherwise been afforded.
JBL clicked at just the right time, in particular upping his game on the mic to become a character worthy of a main event push. He’d spend the better part of a year reigning over Smackdown, fending off Big Show, The Undertaker, Kurt Angle, and others before he finally succumbed the challenge of a young guy who’d never yet tasted world championship gold—John Cena.
30 Buddy Rogers
On one hand, the original WWE Champion has to get his proper respect on a countdown like this. It was Rogers’s credibility as an NWA Champion that allowed him to splinter from the national cooperative, and add immediate world title legitimacy to the WWE Championship. The origins and beginnings of the title and Rogers’s reign are spurious (he officially won the title in a phantom tournament in Rio de Janeiro) but he held the belt for about a month. Reports suggest Rogers was unpopular with the New York crowd—fair enough as a heel, though this may have also foretold WWE focusing on face champions. Moreover, there are rumors Rogers suffered from a heart attack shortly after being named champion, hence his prompt loss to Bruno Sammartino.
For credibility, being the first, and offering fans a sensational moment when he dropped the title to Sammartino, Rogers winds up toward the middle of the pack on this list.
29 Daniel Bryan
I would really love to rank Daniel Bryan higher on this countdown. Of his three reigns with the WWE Championship, however, the first two added up to a cumulative less-than-two-days. The last one—which probably should have been the one that defined his legacy—was cut short when he suffered career threatening injuries. Make no mistake about—Bryan was super over in 2014 and a sure bet for the top five workers and all around performers in this countdown for htat time period. Had his body allowed him to carry on to SummerSlam or beyond, he’d probably be knocking on the door of the top ten of this countdown. As it stands, however, he spent much of his two months as champion unable to compete as WWE sorted through his medical condition, before finally having to vacate the championship.
While it’s some solace that fans also have his fun, earlier work as World Heavyweight Champion to look back on, it’s a shame that he had to retire so soon after he reached his kayfabe peak.
28 Chris Jericho
I’d love to rank Y2J higher on this countdown. In terms of talent and longevity as a wrestler, he’s a surefire top ten, and maybe even a top five pick among the best all around performers on this list. For a countdown based purely on what he did as WWE Champion, however, we find ourselves quite suddenly limited to a three-to-four month patch from 2001 to 2002.
Jericho won the title in iconic (if not entirely clean) fashion when he defeated Steve Austin and The Rock in the same night to win a tournament that unified the WWE and WCW Championships. A great start for sure, and to his credit, Jericho did retain the title in defenses against Rock and Austin at the PPVs to follow. He found himself lost in the shuffle soon enough, though, as the WWE Championship storyline shifted from Jericho, to Triple H as a returning hero vs. Stephanie McMahon who heelishly backed Y2J. Jericho became an afterthought, losing the title at WrestleMania became a foregone conclusion. On top of all that, the whole affair got overshadowed by the return of Hulk Hogan to the WWE fold, and a nostalgia run for the Hulkster’s old face character.
Diesel was a force on the WWE landscape. He debuted as Shawn Michaels’s supersized bodyguard, and once WWE started him out wrestling, he quickly overshadowed his partner, especially as WWE hinted at dissent between the two. After a year and half of gathering steam, Big Daddy Cool very suddenly turned face and shocked the world when he defeated Bob Backlund for the WWE Championship in a squash at Madison Square Garden.
Diesel would hold onto the title for very nearly a year, fending off Michaels, Bret Hart, Sycho Sid, Jim Cornette’s cronies, and King Mabel. Diesel’s success was limited by his only so-so in ring game and that he was much better as a cocky heel than the white meat baby face character he got shoehorned into. Still, he was a long-term champion who was reasonably popular in his time, and one of the last gaps of WWE’s conviction in the need to have a big guy on top of the brand at all times.
During the Attitude Era, the world title changes could be fast and furious. Amidst the tumult, Mankind wound up a three-time WWE Champion, though it’s unfortunate for a legacy and an underrated all around great performer that he never got a reign that lasted longer than month.
Mankind’s first world title win was the most iconic—a pre-taped Raw match in which he overcame The Rock. WCW infamously spoiled the outcome to this match shooting themselves in the foot when they wound up leading a ton of viewers to the competition. The victory itself was shocking, fun, and entertaining. Mankind would end up trading the title with The Rock, running a gauntlet of gimmick matches from an I Quit Match to an Empty Arena Match to a Ladder Match on Raw. Mankind would wind up with one more title reign—ironically his most impressive win on paper for beating Steve Austin and Triple H in the main event of SummerSlam 1999, but his shortest reign of all when he dropped the tilte to Triple H the next night.
Despite never getting a long run, Mick Foley represented the everyman to a tee, appealed to fans, and underscored that anything could happen. Add all of that to his tremendous workmanship in the ring and his deceptively great game on the mic, and you have a good WWE Champion.
25 Roman Reigns
Roman Reigns is the current face of WWE, but has had an up and down experience in that role. On one hand, he’s Vince McMahon’s choice to be the face of the company, and his booking has afforded big opportunities. He won a Royal Rumble, main evented three straight WrestleManias, and had the chance to defeat no lesser names than Triple H and the retiring Undertaker in those matches. For all of those successes, Reigns also got booed out of the building when he won the Rumble, and wound up not winning his first WWE Championship at WrestleMania as many expected, when WWE shifted to positioning Seth Rollins as champion first.
Reigns would have his day, though, in two very short title reigns to close out 2015 and start 2016. First he won a tournament for the vacant title then immediately lost the strap to Sheamus minutes later via Money in the Bank cash in. Then he won it off Sheamus and held it for an uneventful month, and before he was forced to defend the title in the Royal Rumble match. After he defeated Triple H to regain the title at WrestleMania 32, Reigns finally got a proper reign, beating back AJ Styles in a strong series of matches, before putting over Rollins clean for the title. It’s that last reign that shores up this spot on the countdown.
It’s easy to underrate Yokozuna’s work as WWE Champion. For one thing, he presided over WWE during a true low point for the company, given business was down in 1993 and 1994, and that era generally gets panned by critics. He also seemed to come upon the title almost by accident a bridge to get the title from Bret Hart back to Hulk Hogan, and the guy left holding the strap after things didn’t work out for Hogan’s first come back run. While he may not have been WWE’s original choice, Yokozuana was nonetheless a solid heel champion, not to mention a remarkably agile big man, and one of the last great heel foreigner acts.
Yokozuna first won the WWE Championship at WrestleMania IX over Hart, before immediately dropping the title to Hogan. He’d get the strap back at the King of the Ring PPV and wind up holding onto it for nearly ten months, fielding challenges from Lex Luger and The Undertaker, before returning the favor to Hart at WrestleMania X. Along the way, he was the classic heel champ for top faces to chase, and drew in the sense that his work helped to get Luger, The Undertaker, and Hart all the more over for their efforts against a five hundred pound giant.
23 Eddie Guerrero
Eddie Guerrero scored one of the greatest pro wrestling upsets of all time when he defeated Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship at No Way Out 2004. Guerrero electrified the crowd as an underdog character, and his infectious personality was particularly entertaining during this period. He’d go on to successfully defend the title for four months, including a classic WrestleMania match against Kurt Angle, before Guerrero finally dropped the title to JBL in a Bull Rope Match. Rumor has it Guerrero asked for the belt to be taken off him then because the pressure was too much, and hoped to get back to it later. Sadly, he never got the chance, after he passed away in 2005.
With Guerrero only having one reign, and it only lasting as long as it did limits his placement on this countdown, his quality of performance in the ring and on the mic still position him squarely in the top twenty five.
Though Edge would arguably enjoy greater success (and certainly more reigns) with the World Heavyweight Championship, he was a respectable WWE Champion to boot, with four separate runs with the belt. Edge got things started with the original Money in the Bank cash in that shocked and delighted fans as he threw the world title picture into disarray going into WresleMania 22. That first three-week run was enough of a ratings and critical success to justify a two-month run in the summer. Edge would get two more short runs in 2008 (returning as a surprise challenger to Triple H) and 2009.
While Edge didn’t ever get a marathon run with the WWE Championship, his reigns were all about the electricity of surprise—emerging from the mid-card via Money in the Bank, and later returning from injury. Edge inevitably got people talking, besides consistently delivering in the ring.
21 The Ultimate Warrior
The Ultimate Warrior was pegged to replace Hulk Hogan as the face of WWE as Hogan set his sights on Hollywood and WWE sought to keep the prosperity of the 1980s rolling into the 1990s. Warrior was an iconic character and a reasonable WWE Champion who held the tile for nearly ten months, but never managed to match Hogan’s level of legend. Admittedly, some of that is related to Hogan never fully stepping aside, and not exactly having cream of the crop challengers to fend off. For as good as Mr. Perfect, Rick Rude, and Ted DiBiase were, none were truly sold as threats to Warrior at that point.
What Warrior lacked as a ring general and iconic moments while champion, he does earn some credit for having a sustained run and for how memorable he proved to be for a generation of fans.
20 AJ Styles
For roughly a decade AJ Styles was generally agreed to be one of the best stars not to have appeared in WWE. As we reached the mid-2010s, the consensus was that Styles’s career would go down with that asterisk—that he was on the shortlist of guys who’d just barely had a cup of coffee in the Monday Night War ear and gone on to a great career while never appearing with the biggest wrestling company in the world.
Things took a sharp turn in January 2016 when Styles was a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble. Foregoing NXT, Styles was an immediate main roster member. While he floundered a bit without a clear direction in those first few months, by summer, he’d found himself in a heel gimmick and was going toe to toe first with Roman Reigns, then John Cena, en route to defeating Dean Ambrose for the WWE Championship.
Styles would hold the title for nearly four months. While that’s not longest reign, he was nonetheless the man as champ who pulled the very best out of Dean Ambrose, was the workhorse for a more entertaining program than James Ellsworth had any right to, before dropping the title John Cena in an early match of the year candidate at the Royal Rumble 2017.
19 Ric Flair
There are many metrics by which Ric Flair could be called the greatest world champion in professional wrestling history. Unfortunately for him, this countdown doesn’t count NWA or WCW World Championship runs, but rather only the WWE Championship, which Flair held twice for a cumulative four month period in 1992.
Flair entered WWE supremely established to the point WWE made no bones about letting him keep his WCW name and gimmick, and plugging him straight into the main event scene. He proved himself with an iron man run to win the vacant title in the 1992 Royal Rumble, and proceeded into a strong feud with Randy Savage that lasted most of the rest of Flair’s tenure, including a WrestleMania classic.
The matches in which Flair won and lost that first title were undeniably his best work as WWE Champion. Unfortunately, this was an era when PPVs only happened four times a year, and an era before WWE Championship matches happened much on free TV, so most of the reign’s other ring work, and much of its luster is lost to house shows.
18 Randy Orton
While it’s only fair to say that John Cena was the face of not only WWE, but the WWE Championship for a solid decade, Randy Orton is worthy of recognition, too, for so persistently remaining a factor in the WWE Championship scene for more or less the same period of time. Orton’s first world title was the World Heavyweight Championship and he’d work his way into that title picture quite a bit, too, from 2007 to 2017 he’s had a total of nine reigns and cumulatively almost two years holding the WWE Championship.
Orton first got his hands on the title in the fall of 2007 and held it for over half of year before dropping it to Triple H the following spring. The Viper would go on to trade the title with John Cena and Batista in 2009, and get another two-month reign in 2010. The most remarkable part about Orton’s legacy with the title may be how easily he could slid back into it over time, however. Out of no where, he was inserted into the top heel part alongside the Authority as WWE Champion in 2013. Then again, in 2017, he and Bray Wyatt rose up to the main event together for Orton to start his most recent run at WrestleMania.
While Orton has his naysayers for his sometimes boring in-ring style, he remains a title threat and instantly credible world champion whenever WWE needs him.
17 Seth Rollins
Seth Rollins is a two-time WWE Champion, though the second reign is easy to overlook for having lasted under ten minutes (he beat Roman Reigns, then Dean Ambrose cashed in Money in the Bank). Despite his first win starting less honorably—cashing in Money in the Bank himself—Rollins’s first reign is what earns him a top twenty spot on this countdown. He had one of the most memorable cash-ins in history when he put the briefcase to work in the middle of the WrestleMania 31 main event. From there, he was the man in WWE for over seven months.
Not only did Rollins have a good long reign during a period when the champion appears on TV almost every week, but he showed off his talent as a legit in ring virtuouso during this time, putting on excellent matches opposite Dean Ambrose and John Cena, while also getting the very last main event out of Sting and working an absurd program that worked in spite itself against Kane. Through it all, Rollins made a case for himself as the best pro wrestler alive at that time, and undoubtedly WWE’s MVP for the year 2015.
16 Pedro Morales
In the early days of WWE, when the company was most heavily focused on its New York audience, the promotion leaned into ethnic champions whom they believed the fans might support as one of their own. Bruno Sammartino represented a thriving Italian population. Pedro Morales, was, in a sense, his successor as a great star for the Puerto Rican fanbase in particular to get behind.
Morales was very popular and a skilled wrestler for sure. Though his legacy tends to get lost for getting bookended by multi-year reigns by Sammartino, and followed by Bob Backlund, Morales nonetheless spent nearly three years on top himself. That puts him behind only Sammartino, Backlund, and Hulk Hogan for the longest continuously reigning WWE Champion of all time. Along the way, Morales successfully defended against Blackjack Mulligan, Bulldog Brower, and a host of other top heels of the day.
15 The Undertaker
The Undertaker enjoyed mind-boggling longevity on the WWE landscape. Need proof? He debuted in 1990 and won his first WWE Championship in 1991 over Hulk Hogan. He’d win his second WWE Championship at WrestleMania 13, at the beginnnings of the Attitude Era. The next reign came two years later, in the heat of Attitude and he’d pick it up one last time in 2002. Twelve years in the WWE Championship picture is impressive, though it is more impressive to think he had 15 more years, a lot of which he spent in contention for (including three reigns with) the World Heavyweight Championship.
The Deadman never really had a long, signature—his biggest and best running from WrestleMania 13 to SummerSlam 1997. Just the same, he was always a credible main event guy and translated well to the title picture across multiple eras of WWE programming.
14 CM Punk
As we work our way through the top twenty and approach the top ten, more and more we see classic champions who held the belt for multi-year periods. CM Punk was the longest reigning champion since Hulk Hogan’s first world title run, holding onto the strap for 435 days. That might seem like small potatoes relative to the guys with two-year plus reigns, and I’ll concede that Punk was functioning an era of two world titles, and often as not played second fiddle to guys like John Cena and The Rock. For all of those qualifiers, though, Punk was also operating in an era when he had to appear on TV every week, and he succeeded in putting on outstanding matches opposite Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan, Cena, and a variety of other talents. Add onto that that he was one of the best talkers in the title’s history.
Punk’s legacy will always be limited by his early, abrupt departure from WWE, and more casual fans will probably only remember him for the Pipebomb. Nonetheless, he was one of the great wrestlers and great champions of his time.
13 Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle had a total of four separate reigns with the WWE Championship. One of the most interesting parts of that championship resume is the transformation that took place between his first and last reigns. His first WWE Championship reign capped his rookie campaign on the WWE main roster. Though Angle was clearly wildly talented, he was a bit underwhelming from at least a kayfabe perspective, relative to guys like Steve Austin, The Rock, and The Undertaker who existed on the WWE landscape around him. On the flip side, Angles last two WWE Championship reigns, less than three years later, saw him working as an established veteran main eventer, helping to establish upstart Brock Lesnar.
Through these reigns—plus one other brief, inspirational run as a face opposite Steve Austin and The Alliance in the aftermath of 9/11—were highlighted by Angle’s undeniable talent. He had sensational amateur credentials, yes. But Angle also took to both the physicality and the character elements of professional wrestling with amazing speed and skill to emerge as one of WWE’s greatest champions.
12 Superstar Billy Graham
Superstar Billy Graham was the man to end Bruno Sammartino’s second and final WWE Championship, and went on to hold the strap as a heel for over nine months. Over that period, Graham successfully defended the title against the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Jack Brisco, and Sammartino in return matches, before he finally succumbed to Bob Backlund.
Graham earns high marks for a run that was ahead of its time and wildly influential. His Herculean physique would foretell stars like Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior as larger than life stars at the top of WWE. Moreover, his talking game got over with the fans, and though conservative bookers at the time refused to turn him face, he may well have gotten even more explosively had they pulled the trigger on that.
11 Brock Lesnar
There are those talents for who win world championships early and it’s quickly apparent they peaked too soon. That’s not Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar was, at the time, the youngest WWE Champion ever when he first won the title as a monster heel in 2002. He’d go on to drop the title to The Big Show and then trade it with Kurt Angle, first as a super-face, then as a more smarmy heel character. Lesnar left the wrestling world from there, a mere two years into his main roster tenure, and after remarkably having spent nearly half of that run as world champion. Fans figured he was gone for good when he traded NFL ambitions for UFC heavyweight championship gold.
Against the odds, Lesnar would find his way back to wrestling. And while his size, power, athleticism, and amateur pedigree had made him a force before, the addition of MMA credentials pushed him over the top to become an unparalleled monster heel. While detracts might suggest that being a part timer while he next held the WWE Championship took away from the accomplishment, Lesnar was nonetheless outstanding in the role of WWE’s “final boss.” His SummerSlam 2014 title win over John Cena was iconic for its one-sided brutality. His Triple Threat Match with Cena and Seth Rollins at the following Royal Rumble was sensational. And finally, Lesnar-Reigns at WrestleMania 31 was better than anyone would have expected to cap a unique seven-month-plus reign.
10 Triple H
Triple H is an eight-time WWE Champion who has run the gamut from dominant heel champion from fall 1999 into much of 2000, to increasingly part time, legendary face who could re-enter the title picture whenever WWE needed him, to his most recent run in the build to WrestleMania 32 as a heel legend and authority figure. The scary thing about Triple H’s last reign? He didn’t look like he was slowing down. He looked great.
Triple H has settled more into a board room role, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never won the WWE Championship again. By the same token, he’s historically over, a historically great all around performer, and still phenomenal enough shape that you can never rule out Triple H getting back in the mix.
9 Shawn Michaels
There are great in ring WWE Champions. And then there’s 1996 Shawn Michaels. While some will argue that Michaels was a more complete and more likeable figure after his late 1990s to early 2000s sabbatical from the ring, few wrestlers before or since have reached the level of artistic artistry of Michaels in his first reign. While WWE was in a bit of a creative glut, Michaels positively thrived defending the title against The British Bulldog, Vader, and Sycho Sid.
Michaels would get two more WWE Championship reigns—a short coda to the first, and then a heel run in which he somehow simultaneously played the establishment all time great champion and the face of the rebellious young D-Generation X. Through it all, Michaels was truly a top tier champ.
8 Bret Hart
While Bret Hart may have been limited by the cast of characters surrounding him in his heyday, and may have never been the great promo that some of the guys on this list were, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better pure in ring worker than Bret Hart as WWE Champion. From 1992 to 1997, Hart held the title five times, and his technical proficiency carried the title to heights it had rarely seen before.
While Hart’s face work was truly excellent, I’d be remiss to not acknowledge his final run with the title as the heel leader of the Hart Foundation stable. Playing up his Canadian pride, Hart was an awesome foil for The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, and a bevy of others for a unique turn in his character. It’s a shame Hart’s last run with WWE got cut short when they couldn’t afford to pay him, leading to his defection to WCW. It seemed he may have landed on the hottest point in his career just in time to leave WWE and squander so much of his momentum in WCW where the powers that be didn’t know what to do with him.
7 Bob Backlund
When it comes to pure babyface champions, few acts can compete with Bob Backlund in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over the course of a nearly six year reign, he fended off a variety of heel rivals from Big John Studd to Don Muraco to, Jimmy Snuka. Along the way, Backlund became particularly known for heated comebacks to cap big time matches.
By the end of Backlund’s first title reign, fans reportedly began to weary of him for being a bit too clean cut and not as charismatic as Bruno Sammartino—the only other man to hold the title for over five years straight. The character picked up where it left off after nearly a decade away from WWE. Backlund was still a skilled, deceptively powerful wrestler, but fans were lukewarm on him until he underwent a historic heel turn as a crazed old man who used the crossface chickenwing with vicious reckless abandon. In that gimmick, Backlund got one more very short run with the title, largely in service of transitioning the strap form Bret Hart to Diesel.
6 The Rock
The Rock is an eight time WWE Champion who thrived in the Attitude Era, then managed to return to glory over a decade later. In his early days as champ, he was a brash heel, contending with Steve Austin and Mick Foley. Later, he’d be a top face, largely focused on rivalries with Triple H and Kurt Angle. Through all of these efforts, Rock emerged as an all time great entertainer who connected with the crowd like few wrestlers before or since.
Rock earns extra credit, and climbs even higher on the countdown for his later work. First, he had a short title reign as he transitioned away from full time wrestling, to put over rookie Brock Lesnar. Then, Rock reigned again in WrestleMania season 2013, putting on a pair of excellent matches with CM Punk, before putting over John Cena clean at ‘Mania XXIX. Rock emerged from these efforts a bona fide legend and one of the best WWE Champions of all time.
5 Randy Savage
Randy Savage had two WWE Championship reigns. The first time he was a fresh world champ who reigned for a year and who functioned in perfect contrast to Hulk Hogan. He was more technical than The Hulkster in ways that catered to old school fans. He was a high flyer in ways that foretold the kind of stars that would catch fire a decade later and beyond. Savage was Hogan’s understudy who took over the title scene while Hogan filmed No Holds Barred. Savage was Hogan’s palate cleanser in between two long runs atop the company. Savage was Hogan’s plot device—an arch-rival who could rival his charisma and give him one of his career best matches at WrestleMania V.
Savage’s second run was shorter and less memorable—less a part of the flow of WWE than a stop gap between eras. Savage bested Ric Flair in a great match at WrestleMania VIII, then dropped the title back to The Nature Boy so he could lose it to Bret Hart, as the company more firmly picked a direction.
It's tough to rank Savage any higher as a champion given how often he was setting up someone else’s big story rather than being the definitive man in his own right. Just the same, for how awesome Savage was in the ring, on the mic, and in all manner of intangible, charisma-related categories, he certainly belongs among the top five.
4 John Cena
There are a lot of John Cena haters, and I understand them. Cena was the company’s choice for so many years when there were more interesting, more ambitious options around him. He was, in his way, a Hulk Hogan retread as the all-American hero, and it is frustrating that he never turned heel after he won that first world title. We’ve been waiting over a decade.
While Cena is not the in-ring virtuoso that Daniel Bryan was, nor as compelling a personality as CM Punk, nor the lovable underdog champ that Kofi Kingston, Evan Bourne, or Cody Rhodes might have been if given the chance. Cena was, however, rock solid in his talking and his wrestling game, consistent, and rarely hurt and quick to recover from injuries. On top of all of that, there’s the uncomfortable truth that Cena actually did turn into a very good wrestler, particularly in the main event style of WWE.
Few were ever better than Cena and, with the arguable exception of two out of the three guys ranked above him here, no one remained more relevant for longer in the WWE Championship picture than Cena.
3 Steve Austin
There are professional wrestling icons. And then there’s Stone Cold Steve Austin. From the late 1990s to early 2000s, Austin captured the imagination of wrestling fans and I’d argue he was hotter than anyone else has ever been for a five year period.
Austin’s limitations show up in longevity—because he was a mid-card heel for most of his career before finally busting loose in the Stone Cold gimmick, only to wind up having to retire while the character still had a good bit of mileage. For the time he had, however, Austin was a six time WWE Champion, whose cumulative reigns added up to nearly a year and a half. He won the WWE Championship in three separate WrestleMania main events—a mark only John Cena and Hulk Hogan have matched. On top of all of that, Austin is that rare star who appealed to hardcore fans, mainstream fans, the WWE brass, alike for his tremendous character work atop the company, combined with stellar in ring work.
In a sense, it pains me to list Austin at only number three, but there two men whose work as WWE Champion edged him out in my book.
2 Hulk Hogan
If you were to ask a non-wrestling fan, anytime from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s—one of the hottest periods in wrestling history—to name a wrestler, the odds are, they’d say Hulk Hogan. Hogan is that exceptionally rare wrestling star who transcended the wrestling business to be known for being a wrestler (as opposed to say, The Rock, who legit succeeded as an actor and became a household name for that on top of being a famous wrestler). It was Hogan on screen and McMahon behind the scenes that launched WWE as a truly national brand and a business juggernaut.
No, Hogan wasn’t a technical wizard in the ring, but he connected with fans in a way virtually no wrestler has before or since (Stone Cold Steve Austin was probably the only one who came close). He spent the majority of his glory years as world champion, amassing six WWE Championship reigns that added up to over six years with the strap. Add onto that an additional nostalgia run as champ, coming out of his homecoming performance and face turn at WrestleMania X8 and you have a solid argument for the greatest WWE Champion of all time. I’d only rank one champ ahead of him.
1 Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Sammartino and his legacy have their limitations. He was WWE’s top star before it became a national, much less international company. His look was, in retrospect, strangely average, and even going back to watch his matches, he’s not exactly a joy to observe in the ring in most cases. For all of the ways in which history has not been kind to Sammartino however, he was the longest reigning champion in WWE history at nearly eight years. He added another four-year reign to his resume a few years after that.
All in all, Sammartino is the legend who carried the ball through WWE’s early years and allowed great champions like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and John Cena to follow him. Without Sammartino’s longevity and ability to connect with the fans, it’s arguable WWE on the whole never would have stood the test of time as its own entity, separate from the National Wrestling Alliance. In fending off monsters like Gorilla Monsoon and Killer Kowalski, and great challengers like Bill Watts and Stan Hansen, Sammartino made himself a hero to wrestling fans, and WWE’s greatest champion.
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