Introduced in 2002 after the original brand split, the World Heavyweight Championship acted as an additional top tier “world championship” in the WWE until it was deactivated in 2013. The belt was famously a modified version of WCW’s “big gold belt”, representing the former top championship of the rival company which WWE had conquered year earlier.
During its 11 years in existence, the World Heavyweight Championship flirted endlessly between the two extremes of relevance and insignificance. At one point, immediately following its introduction, it undoubtedly became the premier championship within the company. Initially positioned as the Raw championship, the new title threatened to plunge the historic WWE Championship into second billing for good.
However, after continual drafts and superstar shake-ups over the years, the title eventually settled into its long-held position as the secondary world championship in WWE. Despite some suspect holders over the years, the title played this role well, effectively replacing the Intercontinental Championship as a stepping-stone to true main event status for its champions.
Following the 2016 brand split, there were strong rumours that the big gold belt would be re-introduced in order to provide Raw with a world title in the absence of the WWE Championship, which had landed on SmackDown Live. Instead, we were now infamously introduced to the much-maligned Universal Championship. Steeped in history, albeit some of it very questionable, the World Heavyweight Championship will always be remembered for its contribution to the WWE during its largest period of growth. This list ranks all those wrestlers who held the title from worst to best.
25 The Great Khali
Ten years prior to the Jinder Mahal experiment, WWE first attempted to break into the Indian market by putting the big gold belt on The Great Khali. Widely regarded as one of the worst wrestlers in history to have been a world champion in WWE, Khali won his solitary title in a Battle Royal on SmackDown in July 2007. This took place due to Edge vacating the title because of injury.
Khali’s reign was a total bust, as he struggled to put on decent matches with quality performers such as Batista and Rey Mysterio. After a short reign lasting a little over two months, Khali dropped the gold in a Triple Threat match at Unforgiven, where he was pinned by Batista. Following this, Khali had a steep descent down the card and saw out his career as nothing more than a comedy act.
24 Jack Swagger
There were high hopes for Jack Swagger when he was called up from developmental in 2008. An accomplished amateur wrestler, he was positioned as a natural successor to the likes of Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar. His ascent to the top of the card was swift as he first won the ECW World Championship, then earned a guaranteed world title opportunity by winning the Money in the Bank contract at WrestleMania XXVI.
At the end of March in 2010, Swagger cashed in the briefcase and defeated World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho to gain his maiden run with the big gold belt. Despite a major push, Swagger was not accepted as a legitimate champion by the fans and he lost the championship soon after to Rey Mysterio. Despite attempts to rebuild his character, he never recovered and was released earlier this year.
Christian was one of the most popular superstars ever to set foot in a WWE ring. His tag team partnership with Edge garnered him a cult fan following and a whole archive of legendary matches. Once their tag team split, Edge gained a significant singles push while Christian remained firmly entrenched in the mid-card. A move to TNA saw him win world championships in America’s number two promotion, but he eventually returned to WWE.
After returning to WWE, he won his first world title in emotional circumstances against Alberto Del Rio at Extreme Rules. However, his reign lasted only two nights as he was defeated by Randy Orton on the following episode of SmackDown. He regained the title from Orton again, but this reign only lasted three weeks. All in all, it was a pair of disappointing world title runs in WWE for one of its most beloved wrestlers.
22 Big Show
By the time that the Big Show won the World Heavyweight Championship for the first time in 2011, he was already way past his prime. And seemingly this was apparent to WWE too, as Show’s reign was the shortest ever at only 45 seconds. Immediately following his victory over Mark Henry, Show was laid out by a DDT from The World’s Strongest Man, which allowed Daniel Bryan to cash in his Money In The Bank briefcase.
Show won his second run with the big gold belt in late-2012 after defeating Sheamus. His 72-day reign was characterized by a long-running feud with the Celtic Warrior, although he eventually dropped the title to Alberto Del Rio. Despite his poor reigns with this belt, Show is still the only man to have held the WWE, WCW and ECW World titles.
21 Dolph Ziggler
The frustrating career of Dolph Ziggler can be summated in the microcosm of his two World Heavyweight Championship reigns. The first reign started and ended in the same evening when Ziggler was awarded the title as a result of Edge using a spear, a move banned by SmackDown GM Vickie Guerrero. After some typically-WWE chicanery, a rematch was arranged in the same night Dolph was awarded the title and he promptly dropped it back to Edge.
His second reign was far more notable and started with one of the greatest MITB cash-ins of all time on Alberto Del Rio. This led to a brutal feud with Del Rio which led to a double turn, and Dolph becoming a babyface for the first time in his singles career. Del Rio cut his reign short at only 69 days and Ziggler has never held a world title in WWE since.
When Bill Goldberg arrived in WWE in 2003, it had been nearly two years since the original purchase of Goldberg’s old stomping ground, WCW. He was one of WCW’s biggest stars and his eventual move to WWE was greeted with much excitement. Goldberg only signed a one-year deal and until 2016, he never wrestled beyond that.
Similar to his time in WCW, Goldberg was immediately portrayed as an indestructible monster and started a long winning streak at the top of the card. At the time, the big gold belt had been positioned as the top championship in the company and it was currently in possession of Triple H on Raw. Goldberg eventually defeated Hunter to win the title he had held in WCW and went on a run that lasted 84 days before he eventually lost to Triple H. It was sadly an underwhelming run from a huge global superstar.
19 Mark Henry
Mark Henry has had an amazing career in the WWE, but his first 15 years didn’t feature a single world championship reign. That all changed in 2011 when he defeated Randy Orton to win the big gold belt. He also became only the fifth African-American to win a world heavyweight title.
During this time, Henry employed his “Hall of Pain” gimmick to strong effect and he was a solid heel champion. His solitary reign ended after five months when he was defeated by longtime rival, Big Show. Henry left an indelible mark on the outcome of this match as he laid out Show with a huge DDT, allowing Daniel Bryan to cash in his MITB contract and end Show’s reign after only 45 seconds.
18 Rey Mysterio
Rey Mysterio’s program leading up to his first world championship is remembered for all the wrong reasons. At their exploitative worst, WWE creative used the recent death of Rey’s friend, Eddie Guerrero, to heat up an angle with Randy Orton. Eventually both men wrestled champion Kurt Angle at WrestleMania in a triple threat match for the bel,t and Rey was victorious. Due to his small stature, the title was briefly renamed the “World Championship.”
After a 112-day long run as champion, Rey was defeated by King Booker. Mysterio did have one further run with the big gold belt, when he defeated Jack Swagger for the championship in a Fatal Four-Way match in 2010. His second reign was four years removed from his first and lasted a paltry 28 days as he was defeated by Kane, who cashed in his MITB contract.
Kane won his second major world title in WWE some 12 years after his first run as WWE Champion. He won the Money in the Bank contract and cashed it in the same night on a fallen Rey Mysterio in 2010. The Big Red Monster had reinvented himself since unmasking and was having something of a career renaissance when he was handed a run with the big gold belt.
Despite being a dominant champion, Kane has never really thrived in the role of company flag-bearer and fans soon grew tired of his shtick as champion. After a long reign, which lasted 154 days, Kane lost the championship to Edge during a Fatal Four-Way Tables, Ladders and Chairs match. His world title days were firmly a thing of the past following this run.
16 Jeff Hardy
Despite winning the World Heavyweight Championship twice and the WWE Championship once, none of Jeff Hardy’s reigns lasted longer than a month. His first reign as World Heavyweight Champion was ended the same night it started. After defeating Edge in a thrilling ladder match to win the gold, Hardy lost the title immediately when CM Punk cashed in his MITB contract.
This brought forth an outstanding feud between Hardy and Punk, where the latter used Hardy’s real-life substance abuse problems to create an angle that sailed very close to the edge. Hardy eventually regained the title from Punk at Night of Champions, but only held it for 28 days before dropping it back to the Straight Edge Superstar at SummerSlam. Soon after, Hardy was on his way out of the company following repeated issues with drugs. Could we see another world title reign after his recent return to the company?
15 Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels was the second man to hold the World Heavyweight Championship in WWE. He won the title from Triple H in the first ever Elimination Chamber match in 2002 to complete a remarkable return to action following his seemingly career-ending back injury.
A short, but emotional reign marked HBK’s final run as a world champion in WWE. His bloody and brutal feud with old friend, Triple H, continued following his win. After only a month sitting atop the mountain, HBK was defeated at Armageddon by Hunter in a Three Stages of Hell match. This was probably the least memorable world title run in HBK’s career, but it provided a nice piece of nostalgia and a satisfactory image of HBK carrying championship gold after it seemed he’d never step in a wrestling ring again.
14 Alberto Del Rio
During his first run in the WWE, Alberto Del Rio became synonymous with the big gold bet as he earned two runs as champion with a total accumulated 224 days. Despite enjoying his first world title reign with the WWE Championship, Del Rio’s finest work as a top-tier title holder came with the secondary championship.
Having been unsuccessful in multiple attempts at becoming champion, Del Rio finally won the belt in early-2013 when he defeated Big Show on an episode of SmackDown. Del Rio had transitioned into a babyface role for the first time in his WWE career and was thriving in the role. His title run was abruptly halted after three months when Dolph Ziggler stunningly cashed in his MITB contract. After a heel turn, he won the title back from Dolph and started a 133-day reign as champion prior to dropping the belt to John Cena.
13 King Booker
Booker T had actually held the big gold belt on five separate occasions prior to his first reign as champion in WWE. This was, of course, when the belt still represented the WCW World Champion. Despite being a bona-fide main event player in WCW, Booker had largely resided in the mid-card since joining WWE in 2001. It took five years and a gimmick tweak before he was finally elevated to main event status in WWE. Having won the King of the Ring tournament, Booker had adopted a regal gimmick and was thriving in the role.
He earned his first and only reign as World Heavyweight Champion after defeating Rey Mysterio at The Great American Bash. After a long and eventful feud with Batista which spilled over into real life, Booker eventually lost his title to The Animal.
During the early part of 2012, Sheamus was being pushed as the next mega babyface in the company. With his popularity on the rise, he won the Royal Rumble and headed to WrestleMania, where he was due to face Daniel Bryan in an eagerly anticipated title match. Sadly, that match is best remembered for only lasting 18 seconds, after Sheamus knocked out Bryan with a Brogue Kick.
Despite the questionable start to his reign, Sheamus ended up holding the title for 210 days, the third-longest reign in the title’s history. His run included long-term feuds with Alberto Del Rio and Dolph Ziggler, as well as matches with Chris Jericho and Randy Orton. He was defeated by Big Show at Hell in a Cell, ending his lengthy run.
11 Daniel Bryan
The beloved legend that is current SmackDown General Manager Daniel Bryan had the first of his four world title runs in WWE with the big gold belt. Bryan earned his shot at the title by winning the SmackDown MITB contract and cashed in his briefcase at TLC after Big Show had just defeated Mark Henry for the title. This kickstarted a feud between the two and a slow burn heel turn for indie favourite Bryan.
With a freshly minted persona swimming in arrogance and with the beautiful AJ Lee by his side, the upstart Bryan went on a tear through the roster as world champion. He eventually received his comeuppance at WrestleMania when he was infamously defeated by Sheamus in 18 seconds. Incidentally, Bryan was also the first wrestler from NXT to hold a world title on the main roster.
10 Kurt Angle
In his storied career, Kurt Angle has actually held the big gold belt twice, but only one of those reigns was in the guise of WWE World Heavyweight Champion. His first reign occurred in 2001 during the Invasion angle when the title was still known as the WCW World Heavyweight Championship.
Five years later and after multiple career-threatening injuries, Angle had developed a meaner persona that defied his previous comedic act. He won the vacant World Heavyweight Championship in a 20-man battle royal on SmackDown and would hold it for several months leading up to WrestleMania 22. His triple threat match with Rey Mysterio and Randy Orton, in which he dropped the gold to Rey, is best remembered for WWE’s gratuitous exploitation of the recent death of Eddie Guerrero. Despite this, Angle’s reign was the precursor to his awesome “Wrestling Machine” gimmick prior to departing the company.
9 Chris Benoit
Forgetting how his life ended for a moment, it’s worth acknowledging that Chris Benoit was an exceptional in-ring performer. Having won the 2004 Royal Rumble, the Rabid Wolverine decided to challenge Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship, which was at the time being positioned as the company’s top title.
An outstanding build to WrestleMania XX led to a Triple Threat match being booked between Benoit, Triple H and Shawn Michaels. In a classic and brutal encounter, Benoit succeeded in winning his first world title and celebrated in the ring with best friend Eddie Guerrero in an emotional moment. He held the title until SummerSlam of that year where he dropped it to the youngest world champion in history, the one and only Randy Orton.
8 Chris Jericho
After his monumental exploits over the last two years, Chris Jericho can legitimately be heralded as one of the greatest superstars of all time. In 2008, Y2J developed one of the best gimmicks of his career as a “self-righteous honest man” and won his first World Heavyweight title at a Championship Scramble match at Unforgiven of that year. He continued an outstanding feud with Shawn Michaels during this run, before dropping the belt to Batista. Only eight days later, Jericho regained the title from The Animal and he held the title until the end of the year, before losing it to the returning John Cena.
His third and final reign with the big gold belt occurred after he won the Elimination Chamber bout in 2010. He defended successfully against Edge at that year's WrestleMania, but lost the title when Jack Swagger cashed in his MITB contract.
7 CM Punk
CM Punk’s ascent to the top of the card in the WWE was an arduous and frustrating journey, but it all started with a run of World Heavyweight Championship reigns. His first victory came after he cashed in his MITB briefcase on Edge in 2008. He held the title for just under three months before having to vacate the belt in nefarious circumstances at the Unforgiven pay-per-view.
Following Punk’s second MITB victory, he cashed in his contract immediately following Jeff Hardy’s maiden World Heavyweight title victory at Extreme Rules in 2009. This led to a heel turn where Punk leaned heavily on his straight edge lifestyle, creating a vicious feud with Jeff Hardy. Despite losing the title to Hardy at Night of Champions, Punk regained the belt only a month later at SummerSlam before he eventually dropped the gold to The Undertaker.
6 John Cena
Three of John Cena’s record equalling 16 world title reigns in WWE have been with the big gold belt. Having become so irrevocably linked to the WWE Championship throughout his career, it was somewhat of a surprise when Cena won the secondary title for the first time at Survivor Series 2008. The title's credibility had been on something of a downswing and putting it on Cena was seen as a sure-fire way to repair this. After losing the title to Edge a few months following this, he regained it at WrestleMania XXV.
Cena's brief reign was ended by Edge again during a strong feud, and he then had a four-year wait prior to his third reign with the big gold belt. After defeating Alberto Del Rio for the gold, Cena actually became the final holder of the World Heavyweight Championship as an individual title. He lost the belt in a title unification match against WWE Champion Randy Orton at TLC in 2013.
5 Randy Orton
A 13-time world champion during his storied career, Randy Orton has been World Heavyweight Champion on four of those occasions. His first-ever title run came at SummerSlam in 2004 when he defeated Chris Benoit to become the youngest world champion in WWE history at the age of 24. This potentially game-changing reign was cut short after only a month when Orton lost the title to his former Evolution stable-mate, Triple H.
Between 2007 and 2011, Orton won the WWE Championship on six separate occasions and created a personal legacy with that title. In mid-2011, his attentions shifted back to the big gold belt, and he secured his second run with the title by defeating Christian. A solid feud with Christian resulted in Orton losing the title and then winning it back for a third time. This short reign was ended by Mark Henry after just over a month. Orton became the final man to ever hold the World Heavyweight Championship when he defeated John Cena at TLC in 2013 to unify this title and the WWE Championship.
4 The Undertaker
The Undertaker racked up a few world title reigns in the final decade of his legendary career, and three of these came by claiming the big gold belt. His first reign lasted just over a month after he defeated Batista for the gold at WrestleMania 23. He lost the title courtesy of Edge cashing in his MITB contract. This eventually circled back to an all-time classic WrestleMani bout between Taker and Edge the following year, where the Deadman won his second World Heavyweight title.
Undertaker’s second run as champion was cut short again when he was stripped of the title after using the banned Hell’s Gate submission hold. His most notable run with the gold came in 2009 when he defeated CM Punk to win the title in a run that lasted 140 days. He eventually dropped the belt to Chris Jericho in an Elimination Chamber match where Taker was infamously burned by the pyro during his entrance.
Batista is a six-time world champion in WWE, with four of his reigns having occurred with the big gold belt. He rose to prominence by winning his first World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 21 when he defeated his former Evolution mentor, Triple H. This led to the longest reign with the belt in its history as he held the title for 282 days before having to vacate it due to a legitimate injury.
He won the title for a second time following his comeback after he defeated King Booker. His second reign was also lengthy, lasting 126 days, before he lost to The Undertaker at WrestleMania. His third reign brought to an end the awful run of The Great Khali as champion, before losing the belt to Edge three months later. His final reign came after defeating Chris Jericho in 2008. However this run lasted only 8 days after Jericho won the title back in a rematch on an episode of Raw.
2 Triple H
Triple H became the inaugural World Heavyweight Champion when he was simply handed the belt by Eric Bischoff on an episode of Raw. He went on to become a five-time champion and has the longest combined reign of any champion, totalling 616 days.
His first reign was ended by his old adversary, Shawn Michaels, although he won the belt back only a month later. His second reign lasted a monstrous 280 days before he was dethroned by Goldberg. He won the title for a third time at the end of 2003 when he defeated Goldberg and Kane in a triple threat match.
After losing the title to Chris Benoit in a classic match at WrestleMania 20, he regained it against former Evolution teammate, Randy Orton. He vacated the title after Chris Benoit and Edge simultaneously pinned him in a triple threat match before regaining the vacated title in an Elimination Chamber match. His fifth reign and his stranglehold over the big gold belt was eventually ended when he lost to Batista at WrestleMania 21.
Prior to his early retirement from wrestling, Edge accumulated 11 world championship reigns. Seven of his championship victories came with the big gold belt, making him the man to have held the title on the most separate occasions in history. He started his remarkable relationship with the belt by becoming the ultimate opportunist and cashing in his MITB contract on The Undertaker in 2007. Having been forced to vacate the title due to injury, Edge regained it six months later at Armageddon and held the belt for 106 days, his longest run with the gold.
Following an epic WrestleMania confrontation, Edge and The Undertaker traded the title back-and-forth before Edge lost the title due to an MITB cash-in from CM Punk. He had to wait nine months before his fourth reign when he won the title in an Elimination Chamber contest. This led to a feud with John Cena where he lost the belt and won it back again. His fifth reign was ended by Jeff Hardy after 42 days.
It was 18 months before Edge won the title for a sixth time, this time dethroning Kane in a Fatal Four-Way match. This run was cut short when he was stripped of the title after using the Spear, which had been banned by SmackDown GM, Vickie Guerrero. However, he won the title back the very same night when he defeated Dolph Ziggler. His seventh and final reign was ended after 56 days when he was forced to vacate the title due to his retirement. His career was ended far too early, but Edge is surely the greatest World Heavyweight Champion in its short history in WWE.