When done right, there’s no greater thrill for professional wrestling fans than watching the WWE Championship unexpectedly change hands. For this reason, Vince McMahon generally saves these landmark moments for major Pay-Per-Views, the biggest of all coming in the main event of WrestleMania. Well, in theory, anyway. Believe it or not, even well after the Pay-Per-View era truly began, WWE has continued to give away a handful of World title switches on either Raw or SmackDown.
For the most part, fans have been conditioned to believe major title changes almost never happen on free TV, part of a strategy to ensure they pay for the PPVs where the potential actually exists. Once in a while, though, WWE decides to give it all away live on cable, potentially blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. On the other hand, they’re also creating incredible excitement, as fans genuinely tend to not see these changes coming.
Of course, the mere fact the WWE Championship occasionally changes hands on Raw or SmackDown for all to see isn’t always a good thing in and of itself. Sometimes, WWE prematurely blows its opportunity on what should be a dry run and ends up with a bit of a mess on their hands, damaging the prestige of their biggest prize in the process. Keep reading to sort the good from the bad with our list of the eight best and seven worst WWE World Title changes on free TV.
15 BEST: AJ Styles Beats Jinder Mahal On SmackDown
The most recent WWE Championship change on free TV as of this writing also deserves consideration as one of the best. After six long months of ratings dramatically dropping and critics harshly decrying WWE for pushing a wrestler with marginal talent at best, the reign of Jinder Mahal finally ended on the November 7, 2017 episode of SmackDown Live. Truth be told, the big moment wasn’t perfect, as the match against AJ Styles kind of came out of nowhere and could have used more promotion. On the other hand, ding dong, the witch was dead, and the most endlessly dull WWE Championship reign in modern history was finally over. Not only that, but as the new champion, AJ will actually be able to represent what the WWE Champion is supposed to be—the best wrestler in the world. Even in an average, under-promoted match, that alone deserves some applause.
14 WORST: Steve Austin Beats Kane On Raw
On paper, there wasn’t all that much wrong about “Stone Cold” Steve Austin defeating Kane for the WWE Championship on June 29, 1998, the night after that year’s King of the Ring Pay-Per-View. The match itself was fine, the crowd was very happy to see it, and Austin deserved to wear the gold around his waist. The catch is that Kane had only won the title the night before, from Austin, in a match that was so heavily weighed in Kane’s favor it was almost impossible for Austin to win. By him immediately regaining the belt the next night, Kane’s reputation was badly damaged, as he seemed like an undeserving champion who only won the gold to pop a rating when he lost it. Quite frankly, there was no reason for the title change to happen, because Austin never should have lost it in the first place.
13 BEST: Triple H Beats The Big Show On Raw
The "game" officially began on January 3, 2000, when Triple H defeated The Big Show for the WWE Championship in the middle of Monday Night Raw. Although it was technically The Game’s third reign with the belt, it was the first after he had aligned with Stephanie McMahon, and thus could be considered the true beginning of the McMahon-Helmsley era. Truth be told, the match itself was merely decent, and the decision to shove it in the middle of the card was rather spurious. The main event that night saw The Rock in a handicap match against members of D-Generation X, which doesn’t quite stand up against the idea of a landmark WWE Championship switch. However, that’s not enough to mar the importance of a victory that in many ways went on to define Triple H’s career. Also, as with the recent Jinder Mahal switch, fans just wanted the title off Big Show no matter what.
12 WORST: Sid Vicious Beats Bret Hart On Raw
Every now and again, WWE makes a move that have fans scratching their heads wondering what the heck the point of it all could possibly be. Over the span of 48 hours, they had one of those moments, by having Bret Hart win the WWE Championship at In Your House: Final Four only to lose it to Sycho Sid (aka Sid Vicious in WCW) the next night on Raw. The Hitman’s sudden loss stung no matter which way you slice it, as he had just proved the night prior how much more deserving a champion he was than Sid. Had Bret held on to the title, it would have meant his landmark I Quit match against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13 was for the gold, which is about the only way that match could have been even more legendary in retrospect. Sid’s reign as champion, on the other hand, was almost entirely unmemorable, the matches in which he defended the gold plodding bores. That includes the match in which he won the title, immediately elaborating what a bad idea the switch was.
11 BEST: Triple H Beats Mankind On Raw
The only moment in Triple H’s career that could be considered more pivotal than his third WWE Championship win would naturally be his first. Coincidentally, it also began on an episode of Monday Night Raw, airing the night after SummerSlam 1999. The night prior, Triple H competed in a triple threat match for “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s gold, which was won by Mankind. Austin was injured in the match and took a few months off, but Triple H and Mankind were far from finished fighting, leading to an immediate one on one rematch. Less than 24 hours after competing in one great match with Austin involved, the two did it again with a knock down drag out brawl around the arena that finally cemented the Game as a top star. The only downside was the fact Mankind’s final reign only lasted a single day, but at least there was a logic this time around as opposed to when WWE just does it for ratings.
10 WORST: Roman Reigns Beats Sheamus On Raw
Just about everything WWE has done with the career of Roman Reigns over the past three years has been a total misstep, up to and including the one night they actually got people to cheer him. While the audience reacting “the right way” is probably all it takes for Vince McMahon to disagree with this and call it one of the best title changes in Raw history, the mere fact they stopped applauding almost instantly should be a clue they didn’t quite stick the landing.
On the December 14, 2015 episode of Raw, Reigns won the WWE Championship for the second time by defeating Sheamus, the same man who beat him for the gold all of three weeks earlier at Survivor Series. All this did was make both men look bad, as neither seemed like they could hold the gold for more than a few days, or minutes. The match wasn’t that great, either, overshadowed by Vince himself making a special appearance at ringside.
9 BEST: Brock Lesnar Beats Kurt Angle On SmackDown
Because iron man matches are by definition quite long, not all wrestling fans appreciate them regardless of their quality. That said, if any two athletes were perfectly suited to grapple one another for a solid half hour or more, they were Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar. Both expert amateur wrestlers turned even better pros, Angle and Lesnar were perfect rivals, each of them easily find new and innovative ways to punish the other for hours on end. They finally got the chance to do so for a solid 60 minutes on the September 16, 2003 episode of SmackDown, where they created an all-time classic as many expected they would. The match was nonstop action from start to finish, with Lesnar only managing to win the gold by holding out on an Ankle Lock until time expired to pick up a 5-4 victory. Lesnar never looked more dominant or indestructible as champion, and Angle’s last reign with the gold ended on an extremely honorable loss.
8 WORST: Mankind Beats The Rock On Halftime Heat
To make it entirely clear from the very start, the entire reason the infamous empty arena match between Mankind and The Rock that took place on Halftime Heat is on this list can be found in the contest’s last 15 seconds. Up until that point, everything was actually going quite well. Empty arena matches don’t happen often, and as two of the preeminent brawlers in WWE at the time, who both happened to be outrageously popular, the future Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection were the perfect choice to have one. In fact, the duo was so popular as rivals that the match earned a 6.6 television rating, on Super Bowl Sunday no less.
Mankind's winning also fit the storyline, as the ability to use an entire building as a weapon was definitely enough leverage for him to topple The Corporation. Unfortunately, he also used a g*ddamn forklift when he pinned The Rock, which had a camera in it for some reason, invalidating the whole thing and making wrestling look like a huge farce in front of a gigantic audience.
7 BEST: The Rock Beats Mankind On Raw
Now, this is more like it. Only a few weeks after their far too goofy contest on Halftime Heat, Mankind and The Rock had yet another contest for the WWE Championship, this time also involving a 20 foot ladder. The two of them had already wrestled a half dozen great matches at this point, each more intense than the last, so it was going to take something special for fans to accept watching it yet again. In addition to Halftime Heat, the Royal Rumble, and a handful of Raw matches, they had just wrestled one another the night before at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in a match that ended with a double disqualification. By putting one another through hell, the two found a way to one up themselves once more. Rock winning the title back was icing on the cake, as it set up the perfect main event for WrestleMania XV, where he defended the gold against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for the first time.
6 WORST: The Miz Beats Randy Orton On Raw
At this point, it could be said The Miz has more than earned his status as one of the top superstars in WWE. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case back in November of 2010, when he cashed in his Money in the Bank contract and won the WWE Championship from Randy Orton. In classic cash-in fashion, Miz capitalized on Orton receiving a beating from Wade Barrett during another title defense, seizing the ultimately opportunity and winning the gold without putting in much effort. Miz continued to put in minimal effort over his next five months as champion, not yet possessing the in-ring or microphone skills necessary to carry the entire company. Throughout his whole reign, Miz was greatly overshadowed by men like John Cena, CM Punk, and even Orton, with his victory doing nothing to cement him as a big deal in the eyes of most fans.
5 BEST: Steve Austin Beats Kurt Angle On Raw
In retrospect, one of the greatest feuds of the late Attitude Era was also one of the least expected given the circumstances. When Kurt Angle started his war against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, he had barely two years of experience under his belt as a pro, and Austin was inching ever closer towards retirement due to severe problems with his neck. And yet, the two managed to wrestle a truly classic series of incredible matches, ending with this title change that took place on the October 8, 2001 episode of Raw. It was at least the third classic contest between the two, the first having come at SummerSlam that year and the second two weeks before this title change at Unforgiven. It was in that latter contest where Kurt Angle defeated Austin for the gold, but some fans felt underwhelmed by the match, thinking the earlier bout was better. To make up for it, the two went all out for their third battle on free TV, giving fans more than their money’s worth.
4 WORST: Rey Mysterio Beats The Miz / John Cena Beats Rey Mysterio On Raw
It feels wholly appropriate to simply mash these two matches into one, as they both took place on the same July 25, 2011 episode of Monday Night Raw. Another thing the matches shared is that they were both completely pointless, neither of them mattering in the long run or really counting towards the WWE Championship history. The first contest, won by Rey Mysterio, was the final match in a tournament to crown a new champion after CM Punk’s infamous walkout at Money in the Bank. The second, taking place moments later, was an unearned shot given to John Cena because, well, he’s John Cena. Once both matches were over, the real champion Punk made his “long awaited” return all of two weeks removed from his big kiss off, cheapening it’s shock value and making the whole thing feel extremely rushed. On top of it all, neither match was all that great.
3 BEST: Steve Austin Beats The Undertaker On Raw
Despite what WWE may have told you about " The Rock: This Is Your Life," the highest rated segment in the history of Monday Night Raw was actually a certain WWE Championship match between two of their all time greatest superstars. On June 28, 1999, the night after King of the Ring, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin challenged The Undertaker for his gold and went on to wrestle one of their all-time best matches. In the end, after 12 minutes of incredible action, Austin planted the Dead Man with his Stone Cold Stunner and regained the World title to an incredible ovation from the crowd. During this time frame, WWE was batting on all cylinders, and this moment culminated months of storylines about Austin chasing Undertaker and his allies in the Corporate Ministry, and by extension, Vince McMahon. The only downside is that Austin barely defended the title after winning it, but with a moment this huge, he needn’t do anything to prove he was the biggest wrestling superstar on the planet.
2 WORST: Vince McMahon Beats Triple H On SmackDown
In the interest of fairness, on September 14, 1999, when Vince McMahon pinned his future son-in-law for the WWE Championship with the help of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the crowd, as they say, went wild. Unfortunately, once that ovation quietly subsided, they realized they were left in a world where a 54-year-old business executive held the most respected title in all of wrestling. Removed from all the pomp and circumstance, the match in which he won the gold also happened to be pretty terrible, an embarrassing mess where a sweaty McMahon flopped around the ring as Triple H basically wrestled himself. The only reasons fans cheered at his victory were that Steve Austin happened to be there, and a hated villain in Triple H was getting toppled. Even McMahon soon came to his senses and admitted how bad an idea it all was, voluntarily vacating the title days later on Raw.
1 BEST: Mankind Beats The Rock On Raw
Not only was Mankind defeating The Rock for the WWE Championship on the January 4, 1999 episode of Monday Night Raw the best title change in the history of free TV, it may well be the greatest moment WWE has ever seen, period. That night was the absolute peak of the Attitude Era from top to bottom, with the main event in particular packing everything great about pro wrestling into ten quick minutes in front of an absolutely rabid audience. In addition to Mankind and The Rock, both D-Generation X and The Corporation were in attendance at ringside, and it was the last minute appearance of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin that truly set the match over the top and into the stratosphere. The crowd didn’t stop screaming with joy the entire contest, and the roof blew off the place all over again when Mankind did the unthinkable and picked up the gold.
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