WWE's current flagship champion is not a man of American descent, and no I'm not talking about Brock Lesnar. The WWE Champion as I type this is Jinder Mahal. The company have seemingly crowned the Modern Day Maharajah in order to really break into the Indian market, it is a country with a population of over a billion people after all. The WWE Universe is very split over whether Jinder as WWE's crown jewel is a good idea or not. It's certainly not the first time Vince McMahon has selected a champion based on their roots in order to break into a new market, in fact it's not even the first time they've tried it with India. Ten years ago The Great Khali was made World Heavyweight Champion for the same reason.
Mahal and Khali aren't the only foreign World Champions to step between the ropes in WWE, and making a non-American champion isn't necessarily always to please a foreign fan base. Canadians, Irishmen, Italians, Superstars from all over the world have had the opportunity to get their hands on one of wrestling's top prizes, and some of them have done it on merit alone. WWE do have to tread carefully when they depict foreign WWE Champions though, especially in the present day. We're no longer in the era of The Iron Sheik where WWE could effectively depict all foreigners as bad and have the fans dislike them simply because they're not from the same place that they are. This upcoming list will feature 15 occasions when WWE made a foreign Superstar their World Champion, eight times that it worked and seven times that it fell flat on its face.
15 Best: Rey Mysterio
Rey Mysterio may only be part Mexican, but he more than deserves a place on this list. The luchador truly broke the mold when it came to wrestlers of a smaller stature really making it in the business, at least in the US and bigger companies. Although he was stuck under the cruiserweight glass ceiling in WCW, Rey persevered and in WWE was rewarded for all of his hard work. While his one and only WWE Championship reign is a mostly a forgettable one, his World title win was not. Mysterio defeated both Kurt Angle and Randy Orton in a triple threat match at WrestleMania 22 to win the belt. It was a touching moment and one he will never forget as it came not long after he lost his close friend Eddie Guerrero.
14 Worst: Christian
Christian, like many entries to come on this list, is Canadian through and through. What most fans will remember Christian for is his time with best friend Edge during the late '90s/early '00s when the two of them enjoyed enormous success in WWE's tag division. A few years after their separation Christian decided to try his luck in TNA. He did okay, but like so many others he eventually came crawling back to WWE. Upon his return WWE was in somewhat of a lull, and even more so the World Heavyweight Championship had lost a lot of its credibility. All of that combined meant that when Christian did win the big gold belt, it didn't feel like that much of a big deal.
13 Best: Edge
On the contrary, his aforementioned best friend and former tag partner Edge took the ball and ran with it when WWE decided to get behind him. In his time as a singles star in WWE the Ontario native won an incredible eleven World Championships, no wonder he is now quite deservedly in the Hall of Fame. Plus imagine how high that number could have been had the Rated R Superstar not been forced into early retirement due to injury. The first of those many title reigns came at New Year's Revolution 2006. Then WWE Champion John Cena had just finished up defending his title in a grueling Elimination Chamber when Edge made his way to the ring, cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase, and defeated Cena for the championship.
12 Worst: Alberto Del Rio
Alberto Del Rio is currently a man who is not on great terms with WWE, and that would be an understatement. His most recent run with the company didn't exactly go to plan, for either party, and since his departure following a suspension he has been less than flattering about his former employers. The shocking thing is, you really don't need to rewind that far back at all to a time when Del Rio was clearly pretty revered by the higher ups at WWE. The current TNA star has a number of World Championship reigns to his name, but in this case the title did not make the man. Alberto was winning the belt at a time where John Cena and CM Punk had the fans in the palms of their hands, and more often than not Del Rio felt like an unnecessary third wheel.
11 Best: Eddie Guerrero
A few entries ago I wrote about Rey Mysterio's crowning moment in WWE, and how he dedicated his World Championship win to his late friend Eddie Guerrero. Well Eddie had a crowning moment in WWE of his own. Latino Heat actually followed a very similar career path to his friend Rey. Both of them first performed in WCW, both were overlooked by the company that would go on to fail, and both were made champion not only because they were great athletes, but to also help WWE in the Latino market. Believe it or not, Guerrero defeated the one and only Brock Lesnar to become WWE Champion back in 2004. You know that WWE has faith in someone when they let them slay The Beast. It was a great moment that was made even sweeter when Eddie celebrated with his friend Chris Benoit a month later when the two celebrated together with their World Championships at WrestleMania XX.
10 Worst: Yokozuna
Yokozuna is a legendary figure in pro wrestling history and is held in high regard by most of those who ever shared a locker room with him. Those more hardened wrestling fans among you may be throwing a flag on this entry, but hold back as there's no need. Despite his gimmick in WWE being that of a Japanese sumo wrestler, I am fully aware that Yokozuna did not actually hail from Japan at all. In fact Yoko was of Samoan descent, and a member of the famed Anoa'i family. Despite his lofty status among his peers, Yokozuna's first WWE Championship win is not looked upon fondly. It took place at WrestleMania IX against Bret Hart, a match that Yoko won but Bret was not happy with. Hart has since said that Yoko was extremely unfit which made for a terrible match. It got worse from there too. Hulk Hogan would come down after the match and have a title shot there and then, because apparently he had that power, and took the title from Yokozuna just minutes after he had won it from Bret.
9 Best: Bret Hart
Talking of Bret Hart, this seems like the perfect time to move swiftly on to perhaps Canada's greatest export. Throughout the early 1990s in WWE it was all about The Hitman. Hulkamania was beginning to wind down and the company needed a new Superstar to hang their hat on. Their first choice for that role was Bret, and for a while it was very much the right choice. The Yokozuna match mentioned in the previous entry was actually where Bret lost his first ever WWE Championship. He would of course win it again, in fact he would become a five time WWE Champion before eventually leaving for WCW. That first win actually came on an originally un-televised event against the one and only Ric Flair. While Hart didn't have a passing of the torch moment with The Hulkster, clearly he most certainly did with The Nature Boy.
8 Worst: Andre The Giant
Andre The Giant's career, and let's be honest mere existence, is looked upon so fondly that it's made to sound like the stuff of legend. Andre truly was larger than life, both literally and figuratively. There are so many incredible rumors and stories about Andre. One thing that isn't mere rumor though is that Andre went an incredible fifteen years unbeaten in the wrestling business. Despite his incredible career and that insane record, Andre was only ever WWE Champion once, and it was one of the most forgettable reigns in history. Andre defeated then champion Hulk Hogan in a championship rematch of their legendary bout at WrestleMania III. Andre was declared the winner despite Hogan getting his shoulder off the mat before the three count, then would immediately relinquish the title to the Million Dollar Man as he had been paid off to do so. Not a good look for a man with an otherwise spotless record, and a title reign that we would like to scrub from the record.
7 Best: Kevin Owens
In 2016 Kevin Owens deservedly won a major championship in WWE. It was a long road for the Canadian that had taken him through any number of wrestling companies and one that culminated with him becoming Universal Champion. Who knows what WWE had planned for Owens had Finn Balor not gotten injured and had to give up the title, by the way a man who would have likely been on this list had his reign lasted more than 24 hours. Many fans gave KO a bad wrap for his time as the champ, although in hindsight it was probably more of a success than it seemed at the time. Most of it revolved around his friendship with Jericho, and now that we've seen the amazing ending that their story line was building to it's fair to say that Owens first major championship run in WWE was actually a success.
6 Worst: Jinder Mahal
Now on to a man who I would like to see Kevin Owens take the WWE Championship from, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, Jinder Mahal. The Modern Day Maharajah is the current WWE Champion and it's fair to say that fans haven't reacted well to Jinder's rapid ascent to the top. Only weeks before Mahal became number one contender he was first losing on Raw, then losing to Mojo Rawley when he moved to SmackDown Live. If there had been a better build and a little more substance to Mahal's road to the championship, the backlash from the fans wouldn't be nearly as bad. Unfortunately making Jinder champion is just a very transparent business move on WWE's part to help them successfully break into the Indian market, something I'm sure they care more about than not angering the fans that they already have.
5 Best: The Iron Sheik
The Iron Sheik is an archetypal representation of the perfect way to play a foreign bad guy in pro wrestling if you want fans in the United States to truly hate you. He may have only been a transitional champion for his one and only WWE Championship reign, but he had the belt for four weeks and that is basically an eternity in comparison to some of the short reigns we see today. Sheik took the belt from the beloved Bob Backlund, a man who had held the WWE Championship for an incredible six years, well he actually fell just short of the six year mark. He would then lose the title to Hulk Hogan a month later and go on to have a legendary rivalry with The Hulkster. Plus Hogan beating a 'foreign menace' for the belt truly helped launch Hulkamania.
4 Worst: Sheamus
There was a time when WWE and Vince McMahon truly believed that Sheamus was their next guy. The next top Superstar that was going to carry the company on his shoulders. Despite making him a World Champion and it not really taking, in typical Vince McMahon style he didn't take a hint and give up. In fact in Sheamus's eight years as a WWE Superstar he has been a World Champion four times, the latest of those reigns coming only eighteen months ago. None of the four times have been particularly successful, and while Sheamus is clearly a great talent WWE need to realize that he's not got the potential to be the very top guy. They've tried and failed four times now and it hasn't worked. The Irishman's current tag run with Cesaro is the perfect level for him, and hopefully WWE can see that now too.
3 Best: Chris Jericho
I did make a bold claim in an earlier entry that Bret Hart was Canada's greatest export. Well I might need to back track a little on that. Chris Jericho may very well be the greatest gift that professional wrestling has ever received. While he isn't often in the conversation discussing who the best of all time is, when you look at his track record he probably should be. Y2J has been wrestling for over 25 years now, and quite a large chunk of those years have been spent in WWE. Like Eddie and Rey, Chris was undervalued in WCW. He most definitely hasn't been in WWE. The self proclaimed Greatest Of All Time has been World Champion six times, the most impressive of those times being when he defeated The Rock and Stone Cold in the same night to become the company's first ever Undisputed Champion.
2 Worst: The Great Khali
Jinder Mahal's current ascent and run as WWE Champion isn't the first time WWE has attempted to use a wrestler with an Indian background to attract their countrymen to watch the product. Who could possibly forget the unsuccessful run of The Great Khali? The mammoth of a man was signed by the company in the mid 2000s and shot straight to the top. WWE spent no time at all in having Khali go after and subsequently make a fool of The Undertaker, something very few people get to do. Despite Khali's very limited wrestling ability, WWE were blinded by his size and his country of origin and went ahead and made him World Heavyweight Champion. He may not have made it to the very top of the tree and won the WWE Championship, but he was a World Champion in WWE nonetheless.
1 Best: Bruno Sammartino
The top spot in this list was always going to be reserved for one man. A man with an incredible life that held the WWE Championship for just shy of an amazing twelve years, Bruno Sammartino. While the WWE Hall of Famer is considered a Pittsburgh legend, anyone who has heard him speak will know he wasn't born in the United States of America. Bruno is actually Italian, and was actually born and lived as a child in Italy during the Second World War. Before moving to the States he actually had to live in a cave while hiding from the Nazis for about eighteen months. It really is a success story like no other, and before Hulk Hogan was the man in WWE Bruno Sammartino was the crown jewel of the company and will always be considered as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.