The world championship. The crown jewel of any wrestling organisation, the most coveted title a wrestler can ever hope to win and the centrepiece of some of the greatest feuds, rivalries and storylines in wrestling history. A world title, especially one as big as WWE’s, is a certified money-maker and this is clear with how it’s treated; world title feuds are often given the biggest stars, most promotion and the top billing on any major event. With the rise of the Pay-Per-View over the past few decades, it became commonplace for WWE to reserve their world title matches almost solely for the paying customers on Pay-Per-View and this proved to be an effective business strategy. With Pay-Per-Views coming less frequently that TV spots, more hype can be built towards a big title match, which means more interest will be generated, which should hopefully lead to more Pay-Per-View buys and more income for WWE and, if it wasn’t already clear to you, Vince McMahon is a pretty big fan of money. However, on occasions rarer than a coherent Bray Wyatt promo, WWE actually gives away a title match for free on their TV shows and, if we’re extra lucky, a title can even change hands on these shows. Sometimes this a good thing and sometimes this is a very, very bad thing, so, in the spirit of fairness, I thought I’d present you with a (almost) balanced account of the times audiences witnessed a WWE world title change, without paying a penny.
15 BEST: The Main Event I - Hulk Hogan vs Andre The Giant
We’ll start things off with a good one, despite it being one of the most controversial and confusing title changes in WWE history. The Main Event was an occasional WWF program that aired on Friday nights on NBC from 1988 to 1991. The first ever episode of the show aired on February 5th 1988 and to this day remains the highest-rated American wrestling television program ever thanks in no small part to the WWF championship match on the card that night. After recovering from the atomic Body Slam that almost killed him (apparently) at WrestleMania III, Andre The Giant (with manager Ted DiBiase at his side) took on then-champion, Hulk Hogan, in a rematch for the ages.
After just under ten minutes of the two titans clashing (well, as best they could, this was Andre), Andre hit Hogan with a Butterfly Suplex and went for the pin. Hogan got his shoulders up, but, to the shock and awe of the crowd and audience around the world, the referee counted to three, ending the match and Hogan’s 1,474-day title reign. It was later revealed that the referee was not Dave Hebner as it was advertised, but in fact his evil twin, Earl, who had paid off by DiBiase to give Andre the win. Jesus, Hogan had to be screwed twice to lose, talk about protecting your top star.
Andre’s title reign ended as quickly as it began however as he was stripped of the title shortly after the match following an attempt to sell the belt to DiBiase. WWF President Jack Tunney (who was President in the sense that I am President of Iceland – not at all) addressed the matter by organising a tournament for the upcoming WrestleMania IV, in which Macho Man defeated DiBiase to capture his first world title. The finish might have been screwy, but this match not only ended Hogan’s title run whilst protecting him, set up the Macho Man’s first world title run and remains the most viewed wrestling match in WWE history. All of this and more makes this one of the greatest title changes of all time. As for Earl Hebner, he learned his lesson and never screwed anyone ever again. Seriously. Just ask Bret Hart...
14 WORST: SmackDown Battle Royal, July 2007
From one giant victory to another, only this time a title reign that lasted way too long. After Edge was forced to vacate his World Heavyweight Championship on the July 20th 2007 edition of SmackDown, a 20-man Battle Royal was arranged as the show’s main event to crown a new champion, with superstars like Kane, Batista, Matt Hardy and, of course, the powerhouse that is Jimmy Wang Yang. Despite having numerous worthy candidates in the Battle Royal, the title, once held in the past by legends such as Triple H, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, was claimed by the seven-foot-tall Indian sensation, The Great Khali.
In all too typical WWE fashion, a champion had been crowned purely based on size; Khali could barely walk to the ring, let alone fight a convincing a battle. Yet, somehow, the giant picked up the coveted world title and didn’t event do so by pinning or submitting anyone, he just threw a few people over the top rope. I mean, I could probably do that. Khali’s uneventful reign ended after 61 days at Unforgiven, where Batista (the man who should have won in the first place, just saying) pinned him in a triple threat match also featuring Rey Mysterio. Khali’s fall from the world title scene to the bottom of the card was spectacular and did a lot to damage the reputation of the belt before it was retired in December 2013. Khali shouldn’t have been anywhere near the world title and to win the belt in such an uneventful way only amplified this, but at least no one had to pay to watch this awful moment. Silver lining, and all.
13 BEST: Raw June 1998 - "Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs Kane
Back to the good ones now and it’s back to the Attitude Era. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin never seemed like he’d amount to anything when he first started out. A midcard run in WCW, an uneventful run in ECW and a bizarre WWE debut as The Ringmaster, Austin never seemed like anything more than a background player. Then 1996 happened. A King of the Ring win, followed by the now-legendary “Austin 3:16” promo, set Austin’s career on a course to mega-stardom. A career-defining match with Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13 put Austin on the map as the company’s top fan favourite. All of this led to Austin facing Shawn Michaels in his first ever WrestleMania main event at WrestleMania 14 and, with a little help from Mike Tyson, Austin claimed his first ever WWE Championship and the fans loved every second.
When Austin’s first reign as champion came to an end at King of the Ring 1998 in a First Blood match against Kane, fans were desperate to see their hero hold the gold again, especially since the circumstances under which he lost were dubious to say the least. Well, apparently, WWE management were just as keen to have Austin as champion again, because, the very next night on Raw, Austin took on Kane in the main event and won back the title he’d lost 24 hours ago. The fans were jubilant to see Austin reclaim the title and the decision to have him win the title so quickly after he lost it shows just how popular Austin was. The Rattlesnake is a bona fide legend in WWE and this was one of his best showings on free TV. And that’s the bottom line!... because this is the end of the paragraph. Sorry, did you think I was going to say something else? My bad.
12 WORST: SmackDown May 2011 - Christian vs Randy Orton
From one championship reign ending soon after it began to another, only this time it couldn’t have been a more different story. Just eight days after defending the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 27, WWE legend Edge made a shocking announcement on Raw that he would retiring from pro wrestling as a result of a devastating neck injury. It was heart-felt, unexpected and deeply, deeply sad, but WWE fans took happiness in the fact that the Rated-R Superstar had retired a champion. However, this left the dilemma as to who would become the new champion. Enter Edge’s best friend (and one-time brother, lest we forget) Christian. In tribute to Edge and to honour a man who had served WWE tirelessly for years (except for when he went to TNA, but shut up), Christian defeated Alberto Del Rio in a ladder match at Extreme Rules, winning his first world title (except for the TNA one, but, hey, shut up) to a huge response from the crowd. Christian’s fairy tale had finally come true.
However, as he was trying to get this fairy tale through editing, his publisher said that the book was far too long, then attacked with a snake – a viper to be more precise. On the Smackdown following Extreme Rules, Randy Orton slithered out to the ring (not really, but someone definitely needs to make a GIF of that), challenged Christian for the belt and won it, ending Captain Charisma’s title run at just five days, two days when you consider Smackdown was taped on the Tuesday after Extreme Rules. Christian would regain the belt at Money In The Bank, but only after Randy Orton got himself disqualified (the stipulations of the match meant that Orton lost the belt because of this) meaning that Christian had become a two-time world champion without pinning anybody. Yay? Christian would lose the belt back to Orton at SummerSlam and wouldn’t be close to the world title scene again. It was devastating to see Christian lose the world title so quickly after he won it and was a clear indication that WWE only ever saw him as the other half of Edge and Christian. A poor decision that played out free for the world to see. Should have just stayed in TNA.
11 BEST: Raw 800th Episode - Chris Jericho vs Batista
Not a particularly compelling story here, but it was a good match. On the 800th episode of Monday Night Raw, Chris Jericho invoked his rematch clause on Batista for the World Heavyweight Championship. The Animal had defeated Y2J at Cyber Sunday (AKA the best Pay-Per-View concept ever *insert healthy dose of sarcasm*) and Jericho wanted the belt back, presumably because it matched his scarf or something. A steel cage was set up for Raw and the two legends had a brilliant match. Batista’s strength matched well with Jericho’s quickness and tactics, Batista brilliantly sold an injured leg and the two men made the cage feel like it was part of the match, which so many cage matches fail to do.
The match ended with a great spot that saw Jericho and Batista sit atop the cage before Jericho unhooked a part of the cage itself and used it as a weapon, taking Batista out before scaling the cage and landing on the outside, winning the world title for the second time in his career. Maybe it was because it was a milestone (sort of) episode for Raw, but a match of this calibre definitely wouldn’t have felt out of place on a Pay-Per-View. We can all agree it was much better than that Punk/Cena match from Raw 1000, that’s for sure.
10 WORST: Raw July 2011 - Rey Mysterio vs John Cena
We have a lot to blame CM Punk for. An unrealistic standard of promos for WWE wrestlers today, endless twitter arguments and, of course, Roman Reigns. Also, we have this match and a childhood dream being scuppered in seconds. At Money In The Bank 2011, CM Punk defeated John Cena to win the WWE Championship in one of the most highly anticipated matches in recent years. Punk, who’s real life frustrations at the company were seeping onto screen, then left through his hometown Chicago crowd, taking the title with him, as he promised to do so. This left WWE in a bit of a pickle and that pickle was on fire and sinking into a vat of acid. With no WWE Champion on Raw, a tournament was created and, eight days after Punk ran away with the belt, Rey Mysterio won the WWE Championship on Raw for the very first time in his career. Seeing Rey win the big belt was an incredible moment for the perpetual underdog and the emotional response of Mysterio to winning the title made this one of the most uplifting title wins of all time.
However, the reason this night features on the bad side of this list comes in the form of a brightly coloured buzzkill waving its hand in front of its face. John Cena appeared to challenge Rey to a title match at the end of the night, which Rey accepted. Cena and Rey put on a great match, but it would be Cena who picked up the win, becoming a nine-time WWE Champion in doing so. Seeing Rey win and lost what would be his only WWE title on the same night was heart-breaking for the fans, especially since it was Cena, who was at the peak of his disapproval at this point, was the one who took the belt away. The night was saved by the dramatic return of CM Punk with the real championship, but seeing Rey defeated hours after his big moment was enough to make this night one of the most disappointing in Raw history. And that really is saying something.
9 BEST: SmackDown September 2003 - Brock Lesnar vs Kurt Angle
Believe it or not, things of note actually did happen on SmackDown once upon a time, and this was certainly one of the blue show’s finest moments. Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle had one of the greatest and muscly rivalries in WWE history across 2002 and 2003 that saw the two square off on many a stage, even the main event of WrestleMania 19 where Brock not only defeated Kurt, but also himself by botching a Shooting Star Press, but that’s for another time. Despite being a Mania main event worthy feud, one of Brock and Kurt’s best clashes came free on Smackdown on the 18th September, 2003, where then-champion Angle put the belt on the line against Brock in a sixty-minute Iron Man match.
The match was a classic with nine total pinfalls and submissions across the hour and the now legendary final shot of Brock enduring the Ankle Lock as the clock slowly ticked down to zero, winning the title by five points to four, put these two men firmly in the future Hall of Famer category. An incredible match that could have main evented any Pay-Per-View between two of the greatest of their generation, we can only hope that, when Smackdown goes live, we get something as good as this again...
8 WORST: SmackDown September 1999 - Triple H vs Vince McMahon
... but, in all honestly, we’ll probably end up with something like this. One of the biggest jokes had at the expense of now-defunct wrestling promotion, WCW, was that their world title was held by a few less-than-admirable competitors. Famously, Hollywood actor David Arquette won the belt to promote Ready To Rumble, which we can all agree was a film, and head writer Vince Russo to promote, umm, himself, I think, helping to degrade the belt and leading to the company being bought out by WWE in 2001. However, the next time you’re laughing at WCW, just remember that, on the 16th September 1999, on an episode of Smackdown, Triple H was defeated for the WWE title, the same title held by The Rock, Hulk Hogan, Bruno Sammartino, Stone Cold and many more illustrious competitors, by a 54-year-old Vince McMahon.
With a big interference from Steve Austin, Vince McMahon pinned The Game to become the oldest man ever to win the WWE title and the first to win the title on Smackdown. Vince would vacate the belt the next week on Raw, leading to a Six Pack challenge at Unforgiven where the title was won by... Triple H. What the hell was the point? It was a stupid move designed only to put Vince over for a night and, while it did get a pop at the time, it has damaged the reputation of the belt. And Triple H? He never recovered. Ever.
7 BEST: Raw November 2010 - The Miz vs Randy Orton
Money In The Bank offers the chance of a lifetime that guarantees the holder that they will become world champion one day. Unless your name is Damien Sandow. I believe those words are actually in the Money In The Bank contract. Money In The Bank injected uncertainty and tension into the WWE when it debuted at WrestleMania 21, spawning its own Pay-Per-View in 2010 and the creation of two seperate briefcases, one for the WWE title and one for the World Heavyweight Championship. Kane won the world title briefcase and cashed it in later that night, leaving the WWE title briefcase in the hands of the Awesome One himself – The Miz. Miz was a competent midcarder up until this point, but winning the briefcase cemented him as a top heel in the company and left many fans desperate to see what Miz would be like as the world champion. Well, they would have to wait until the night after Survivor Series to find out.
After a title defence against Wade Barrett on Raw, during which he was viciously attacked by Barrett’s Nexus henchmen, WWE Champion Randy Orton found himself defending the title a second time when Miz rushed down to the ring and cashed in his briefcase. Whilst most Money In The Bank cash-ins are short affairs, with briefcase holders cashing in after attacking the champ or waiting until they were already laid out, Miz and Orton had a decent bout before Miz countered Orton’s RKO into a Skull Crushing Finale to pick up his first world title, making the title win look convincing and making Miz look strong. The shock of Miz’s cash in and the fan reaction (including one very angry little girl) to the win proved just how game-changing the former Tough Enough star’s title win was and it all happened for free. Now that’s awesome.
6 WORST: Raw February 1997 - Sycho Sid vs Bret Hart
Boy, the first half of 1997 was not a good time for WWE. WCW was walking all over them in the ratings, there was a whole host of backstage issues and they were months away from one of the worst WrestleManias of all time. The path to this Mania began on the February 17th edition of Raw that year. Shawn Michaels had won the WWE title from Sycho Sid at the Royal Rumble and the wheels were firmly in motion for the Heartbreak Kid to take on Bret “The Hitman” Hart in WrestleMania XII rematch, only this time with Bret going over. However, since this was the late nineties, Michaels was full of booze, pills and oh, so much hate for literally everything. So, naturally, instead of losing to Bret, Michaels decided to throw what is professionally known as “a strop” and delivered his now-infamous “lost my smile” promo, claiming a knee injury would force him to vacate the belt. A new champion would be decided at In Your House 13: Final Four, where Bret Hart would win the title in a fatal four way match against The Undertaker, Vader and Steve Austin. Hart was a top face at the time and seeing the belt on him gave fans hope for the future months. However, the next night on Raw, who should show up to ruin the party, but jaded former champ, Sycho Sid.
Sid challenged Bret to a match for the belt and, after interference from Steve Austin, Sid defeated Hart to become world champion for a second time. Whilst the match itself was fine and Austin’s interference did lead to him and Hart’s now-legendary Submission match at WrestleMania XIII, it did also lead to the quite-frankly awful Sid vs Undertaker match at the same show. Bret Hart was robbed of his big WrestleMania title match, not only by Shawn Michaels, but by Sid on this episode of Raw. Hart was clearly the man to lead WWE forward, but, in a move all too familiar to WWE fans, the little guy was pushed aside in favour of the big, strong brute. Ah well, at least he got five stars from Dave Meltzer, which is worth something, right?
5 BEST: SmackDown 2010 - Jack Swagger Cashes In
Back to Money In The Bank now and probably the most dramatic cash-in in history at the time. At WrestleMania XXVI, Jack Swagger bested nine other men to win Money In The Bank, the final match of this nature to be held at WrestleMania. Later on that night, World Heavyweight Champion, Chris Jericho, successfully defended the title against Royal Rumble winner, Edge, in the culmination of a bitter rivalry.
The next Friday on Smackdown, Jericho was in the ring taunting Edge about his defeat, when the Rated-R Superstar delivered a vicious Spear to Jericho, damaging his heavily taped ribs. In the aftermath of this assault, Swagger’s music hit (which was way, way better back in 2010 by the way) and the All-American American made his way to the ring, briefcase in hand. After a Gutwrench Powerbomb (Swagger’s finisher was also much better back in 2010. Damn, what happened to you Jack?), Swagger made the cover and picked up the win and the belt for the first time in his career, just five days after winning the ladder match. Seeing the briefcase chased in so quickly after it was won was shocking to the WWE audience at the time. Throw in the fact that it wasn’t even following a match and the shock value just increases, making this one of the most memorable moments in Smackdown history and one of the best title changes on free TV. Just a shame that this was pretty much as good as it got for Swagger, except maybe that time he had Chavo Guerrero come to the ring with him dressed as an eagle. That was fun, I guess.
4 WORST: SmackDown 600th Episode - Edge vs Dolph Ziggler
From one young up and comer’s first title win on Smackdown to another, only this one wasn’t nearly as good. On Smackdown’s 600th episode, it was revealed that Vickie Guerrero (Smackdown GM at the time) had stripped Edge of his World Heavyweight Championship for using the Spear, a move she deemed “dangerous”. In actual fact, this was done so that her then-boyfriend, Dolph Ziggler, could be awarded the title instead, without even wrestling a match. I guess going out with Vickie does have its perks, somewhere, deep down, maybe. Ok, it’s not worth it. Sorry guys.
Anyway, back to the point. Later that night, Edge won the title back for what would be the final time in his career, ending the promising young star’s first world title reign on the same night it began. The story was confusing, ultimately meaningless and made Ziggler look foolish while putting over the guy who world champion in the first place. In an attempt to make the 600th episode of Smackdown memorable, all WWE did was ruin the potential of one of their brightest prospects. They would have to wait two years until given another opportunity to get it right with Dolph on free TV...
3 BEST: Raw April 2013 - Dolph Ziggler vs Alberto Del Rio
...and boy, did they hit it out of the park. Ziggler’s two title reigns couldn’t have begun in more different ways. Whilst his first will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, his second was a truly incredible moment of television. Dolph Ziggler picked up the Money In The Bank contract at the 2012 and kept the briefcase for months and months, becoming more and more popular as fans eagerly awaited the day WWE would pull the trigger on the Show-Off. After failing to capture the WWE tag team championships with his partner, Big E, at WrestleMania XXIX, things looked pretty bleak for Dolph. He had no titles, had failed on the biggest stage of all and he still had the truly awful name of Dolph Ziggler. Seriously, who thought this up? Fire them.
However, therein lies the beauty of wrestling; since it’s pre-determined, a wrestler’s fortunes can change entirely overnight. The next night on Raw, Alberto Del Rio successfully defended his World Heavyweight Championship in a rematch from the night before against Jack Swagger (still trying to figure out what happened to him. Anyone? No?), but, in the process, injured his legs. As Del Rio’s music was playing at the end of the match, suddenly, somebody announced that he was here to show the world, here to show the world, COME ON!!! BRING IT ON!!!! Sorry, got carried away. Ziggler’s music is great. Out came Ziggler, briefcase in hand, to huge applause from the hot-as-hell Raw crowd. After an agnosing wait, Ziggler delivered his patented Zig Zag, made the cover and picked up the win. The crowd erupted for Dolph; it’s one of the best Raw moments in recent years and just goes to show how popular Dolph was all those years ago. An injury may have cost him the lengthy title run he deserved, but Ziggler will always be known as the guy who helped make the Raw after WrestleMania one of the best nights of the year. That, and the fact he was in the Spirit Squad. Remember that? That was fun.
2 WORST: Raw December 2015 - Roman Reigns vs Sheamus
Our final “bad” entry on the list and, whilst the title change at the time wasn’t that bad, it’s the match’s consequences that put it on the negative side of this list. Roman Reigns was not a popular man after leaving The Shield. His push to the top of WWE was about as subtle as someone bursting into flames in the middle of a library and the fans hated him for it. The main event of WrestleMania 31 was changed just to stop the fans rioting at a Reigns win (thank Heaven for Cross-Fit Jesus) and he only decreased in popularity over the next few months. However, WWE remained high on The Guy (totally didn’t mean for that to rhyme. Guess I’m a poet and I didn’t even... realise) so, when Seth Rollins got injured in November 2015, they pushed Reigns to the title, culminating in Reigns winning the title for the first time at Survivor Series that year. Then Sheamus cashed in Money In The Bank and everyone laughed.
An obvious attempt to make us feel sorry for Roman, this backfired hilariously, because nobody cared. Fans had become so disinterested with Roman that even him crying on live TV didn’t make us like him. All it did was spawn a thousand internet memes and screensavers. However, fans eventually got sick of Sheamus (because he’s Sheamus) and, when Reigns defeated Sheamus for the world title the night after TLC, after overcoming the insurmountable odds put in his path by Vince McMahon, fans actually started to show support for the Big Dog. So, naturally, WWE saw this as a go-ahead to shove him down our throats again. Overlooking real fan favourite Dean Ambrose, Reigns was pushed to the main event of WrestleMania 32, defeating Triple H to win the world title to a chorus of boos from the loudest WrestleMania crowd ever. God it was hard to watch. Whilst fans may have been hot on Roman following this win, WWE blew it and pulled the trigger way too soon, ruining any chances of fans actually liking him. Now he’s been suspended and with rumours flying around that he’s lost a lot of his backstage support, looks like the fall of the Roman Empire could be pretty soon.
1 BEST: Raw January 1999 - Mankind vs The Rock
Well, taking about Roman Reigns depressed me a little bit, so let’s end the list on a high shall we? Mick Foley is one of a kind. An average looking guy in a business dominated by super-athletic beasts has somehow become one of the most well-respected, successful and adored wrestlers of all time. Arguable his greatest moment came on the January 4th episode of Raw is War, where he was scheduled to face The Rock in a match for The Great One’s WWE Championship. After being screwed over by The Rock and his corporate backer, Vince McMahon, over the past few months, Foley, then performing under the guise of the twisted Mankind, had exploded in popularity, with the entire arena invested in their hero as he battled to overcome the evil McMahons. After coming close on numerous occasions, Foley was laid out after being attacked by The Corporation. After a brawl on the outside between D-X and The Corporation at ringside distracted the referee, it looked like Rock was about to put Mankind away for good. Then the glass broke. The crowd popped like a porcupine loose in a balloon warehouse as Stone Cold made his way to the ring. Entering the ring, he struck Rock with a chair, place Mankind on top of him and left, leaving the ref to count the pinfall.
1. 2. 3.
The crowd exploded. Mick Foley, the everyman, the one who had been so close yet so far so many times had finally, finally, won the big one. It was one of the most uplifting moments in WWE history and having on free TV was one of the decisions that put WWE ahead of WCW in the ratings and kept them there for good. Mick Foley is a legend in pro wrestling; he helped save WWE in its darkest hour and, on this night, WWE paid him back and then some with one of the best moments in WWE TV history. You can bet Mick had a nice day that day.
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