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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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