Professional wrestling is rooted around championships. We’re long past the time when most fans take the business to be a real sport in which men and women are genuinely trying to hurt one another. Just the same, championships remain as both a central kayfabe storytelling device and objects we fans genuinely accept as meaningful measures of how successful a wrestler is. Titles represent a level of accomplishment, but also more practically indicate someone is being trusted with a position that’s going to get television time and PPV matches. Moreover, in a wrestling promotion telling the story that someone is worthy of holding a title, there’s the inherent story, too, that that wrestler is being formally recognized as an important talent to the company.
Different titles carry different levels of meaning. Most companies are more prepared to experiment with second tier or tag team titles than their top prizes. This is especially true of a place like WWE, the highest profile and among the longest standing continuous pro wrestling organizations in the world, and one that doesn’t have much history of booking its top title capriciously.
While it’s debatable whether the WWE Championship is more prestigious now than the Universal Championship, let alone other top prizes from the wrestling world today, it’s nonetheless hard to argue against its name recognition and its sense of credibility over the last two decades that encompass the last thirty WWE World Champions. This article takes a look at those thirty champions and ranks them in regards to a combination of level of real-life all-around importance, kayfabe accomplishments, and storytelling during the time(s) when the man in question held the title.
30 Vince McMahon
When we look back through a list of WWE Champions, Vince McMahon’s name sticks out as the oddball who wasn’t really a trained wrestler, not to mention he’s among the very few WWE Champions who never actually defended his title.
McMahon won the title on an episode of SmackDown, when Stone Cold gave him a major assist to defeat common enemy Triple H.
The moment of the title change was electric, before it set in that a non-wrestler had just won the top prize in the business.
McMahon gets a bit of a pass for having not only worked enough matches to kind of call him a wrestler, but more so being the most iconic businessperson in the history of wrestling. Still, evaluating him only as a champion, he was one of his company’s least impressive title holders.
29 Rey Mysterio
When Rey Mysterio debuted for WWE, there was no sense he’d ever be a world champion. He was just too small to thrive on top in big-man-centric WWE.
Mysterio’s most famous world title reign came with the World Heavyweight Championship that he won at WrestleMania 22. Despite its inspiring start, that reign is generally remembered tepidly. Even less remarkable, however, was his WWE Championship reign.
Mysterio won the vacant WWE Championship after CM Punk kayfabe walked out on the company and vacated the title. He pinned The Miz in the tournament final, only to have to defend the title later that night against John Cena. The reign lasted under three hours, so it’s difficult to give it much credit.
28 Rob Van Dam
Rob Van Dam was white hot in the dying days of ECW and when WWE brought him, in he emerged as an irresistible talent. RVD was among the small handful of guys introduced in the InVasion angle who had a lengthy WWE tenure.
In 2006, WWE pushed things a step further in letting him beat John Cena for the WWE Championship at One Night Stand, and thus start the relaunched ECW brand as WWE Champion and the de facto first ECW Champion. Unfortunately for RVD, he got into some legal trouble almost immediately after the biggest win of his career. For purposes of reputation and Wellness Policy, he had to drop his titles before either reign really took off.
27 Jinder Mahal
In 2017, WWE rolled the dice on Jinder Mahal, hot shotting a career mid-carder to the WWE Championship. There’s something to be said for experimentation, and rumors abound that WWE was working to serve business interests in India with this move.
Had Mahal risen to the situation, it could have made for a remarkable story.
However, his in ring talents and abilities on the mic never justified the push, and when he didn’t improve WWE’s business prospects either, WWE pulled the plug on him as a top guy. Now Mahal has all the makings of a historical oddity, totally out of place for his WWE Championship reign—and particularly a reign that lasted more than half of a year.
26 Bray Wyatt
Bray Wyatt was a compelling character from the start on the main roster, but faltered due to a lack of career direction. Finally, in early 2017, WWE seemed ready to commit to him with not only a world title win, but allowing him to carry the belt into WrestleMania 33.
In the end, Wyatt’s reign only lasted about a month, with no great matches and a historically bad bout at WrestleMania where his magical theatrics fell awfully flat in an otherwise forgettable bout with Randy Orton. Wyatt’s that unfortunate case of a guy with the tools to have potentially thrived, who got a very limited window of opportunity.
25 Alberto Del Rio
After a big debut and initial push that included beating a number of top stars, winning a Royal Rumble, and winning Money in the Bank, Alberto Del Rio made good on his destiny of WWE Championship glory at SummerSlam 2011. Del Rio would win two WWE Championships in a two month span, and neither reign would last more than two months as he traded the title with the likes of John Cena and CM Punk.
Del Rio would have better luck with the World Heavyweight Championship. The general sense is that he missed out on the WWE Championship reign intended for him because CM Punk caught fire, and WWE ran with him as a featured player and longer reigning WWE Champion instead.
Sheamus has three WWE Championships on his resume, and it’s worth mentioning that he defeated no lesser stars than John Cena (twice) and Roman Reigns to pick up those titles. Sheamus has spent more of his career as an upper mid-card talent, though, and has been locked into the tag team scene for nearly two years now.
Rather than a fall from grace, Sheamus’s current and prevailing status are indicative of the kind of star WWE has treated him as.
Despite his distinctive look and reasonable all around skills, he’s never really been the guy, and when WWE has experimented with him on top, it was always for short-term reigns that started in fluky fashion.
23 Hulk Hogan
Make no mistake about it—this ranking doesn’t speak to the 1980s, early 1990s Hulkster who’d easily earn a top five placement, and maybe the number one spot. Rather, this ranking is only for his most recent WWE Championship reign in 2002. Hogan was riding a wave of nostalgic momentum coming out of his blockbuster match with The Rock at WrestleMania X8 and was booked to beat Triple H for the title.
For as fun as this reign was in its moment, it always had an expiration date on it as the Immortal one was showing his age, and wasn’t really equipped to be a world champion by 2002 standards. That he dropped the title to The Undertaker, the same man who’d made a meaningful strike toward ending Hulkamania back in 1991, felt like symmetry and lent some good closure to this championship storyline.
It’s unclear whether WWE ever intended for JBL to be a world champion. When a draft split him from longtime tag team partner Faarooq, he quite suddenly transformed from a barroom brawler to a corporate suit heel, and from a career mid-carder and tag guy to challenging for the WWE Championship.
Word is that Eddie Guerrero said he couldn’t handle the pressures of being champion at that moment, and asked to drop the title. So, whether WWE meant for JBL to be the guy, or if he was just in the right place at the right time as challenger, he got a lengthy run with the strap. While it’s hard to call JBL an all time great champion, he nonetheless grew into his lead heel role nicely, especially on the mic, for a respectable run.
Batista started wrestling late and opted to walk away from a full time place in the business before he’d left his prime.
Had Batista hung around longer, he almost certainly would have had more title reigns.
As it stands, Batista only had two brief reigns with the WWE Championship, the first a face before he had to vacate the title to injury, the second as a heel in a storyline very much set up for WrestleMania and a program with John Cena. The latter case in particular sets up Batista for a spot just outside the top 20, as he quite arguably showed his unique personality more in that last full-time heel run than any other point.
20 The Big Show
For as long as the Big Show’s career has been and as much as he has spent orbiting the main event picture, it’s interesting that he only actually had two short runs as WWE Champion. The first one looked to properly feature him as a supersized face, but, in retrospect, was largely there for Triple H to prove just how good he was in taking down the giant.
Show’s second reign was more of a storyline device than a coronation. His alliance with Paul Heyman set him up to steal the title off of dominant young Brock Lesnar, and turn Lesnar face for the first time. Show would drop the title inside a month as WWE shifted focus to Kurt Angle feuding with The Next Big Thing.
19 Jeff Hardy
Jeff Hardy always walked a tight rope. On one hand, he had such a distinctive approach to wrestling, look, and organic connection with the crowd, that it seemed he would have to be a big star. On the other hand, he definitely didn’t fit any WWE cookie cutter and battled with personal demons a lot throughout his career.
As such, it’s a big deal that Hardy got to win the WWE Championship, but telling that he only held it once, for a little over a month. He’d have some more success with the World Heavyweight Championship later on, but for this one he defeated Edge and Triple H to complete a nice story of his ascension to the top of the card through 2008. He’d end up dropping the title back to Edge so he could carry it into WrestleMania, while Jeff transitioned to a program with his brother.
18 The Miz
It was en vogue to hate on The Miz during his WWE Championship reign. To be fair, WWE probably ushered him into the spot a bit sooner than he was ready for it. It didn’t help matters that he held onto the title into a WrestleMania main event spot he definitely wasn’t equipped for, and in which he was overshadowed by not only opponent John Cena, but the returning Rock.
Still, Miz did an adequate job with his reign, including a very good defense against John Morrison on Raw, and a fun feud to legitimize Miz opposite Jerry Lawler.
There was a ceiling over his head for WWE never seeming willing to put Miz decisively over full-on top guys like Cena and Randy Orton.
Nonetheless, he did what he could with his spot and, interestingly, seven years later fans would much more willingly accept his as world champ.
17 Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan was a key example of a guy who connects with fans, works hard, and organically gets over enough that he can’t be denied. Because of how over he got, and particularly for the tremendous matches and moments of his first and third WWE Championship wins, he broaches the top half of this countdown.
Unfortunately for Bryan’s ranking, he never got much of a chance to actually reign as champion. His first WWE Championship reign ended in mere minutes due to a Money in the Bank cash-in, and the second only lasted one day on account of a technicality and The Authority declaring the title vacant. Bryan’s third reign was his most infamous, as he won the WrestleMania XXX main event for an all-time feel-good moment, but only got to defend the title once before forfeiting the title due to the head injuries that would lead to his 2016-2018 retirement.
16 Roman Reigns
For all the talk of Roman Reigns being Vince McMahon’s chosen one, he’s actually spent markedly little time as a world champion. His first WWE reign lasted mere minutes before Sheamus cashed in Money in the Bank on him, and the second reign got less than two months to gestate before Reigns dropped the title at the Royal Rumble to set up his WrestleMania angle. His third reign earns him this spot on the countdown, as he at last had the time to be properly featured as champ, including a strong series of matches with AJ Styles.
It seems Reigns will build the next leg of his world champion legacy with the Universal title, and it will interesting to see if he does better with that strap.
15 Dean Ambrose
When the original Shield split up, Roman Reigns was set on a clear course to become the top face in WWE. Meanwhile, Seth Rollins was nicely positioned as a top heel.
Dean Ambrose, however, threatened to get left in the dust as the third guy without any clear road to the main event.
To the surprise of many fans, two years later WWE pulled the trigger on a huge push for Ambrose that included him not only winning the WWE Championship, but successfully defending it against his former partners in a Shield alumni Triple Threat.
Ambrose cooled off as champ, but had a respectable go of it as the face of SmackDown for a time, including programs with Dolph Ziggler and AJ Styles.
14 The Rock
The Rock is one of WWE’s biggest icons. Before he successfully crossed over to Hollywood, he arrived as one of the most celebrated talkers in all of wrestling, and that rare talent who could combined unparalleled mic skills with a great look and in ring talent that held up to his other skills.
The Rock reigned as a WWE Champion a total of eight times, but most of these reigns came during or in the immediate aftermath of the Attitude Era when WWE notoriously made frequent title changes to drive ratings and pop crowds. So, while The Rock certainly was a noteworthy champion, he falls lower on this countdown than one might think because he spent much more time chasing the title than actually holding and defending it. Additionally, given the consideration of the last thirty champions, Rock loses credit for his first world title reigns.
13 Randy Orton
Randy Orton occupies an odd space in wrestling history. Many signs suggest WWE intended him as the face of the company, before John Cena caught on more and had fewer controversies attached to him. While there’s certainly a segment of fans that resent him for perceived favoritism from management and his methodical style, Orton has nonetheless also earned respect for his talking skills, smooth work in the ring, and longevity.
Despite having few long, signature title reigns to hang his hat on, Orton has orbited the WWE Championship picture for a good portion of his career. He may have had his most noteworthy reign a decade into his career, playing the preeminent establishment heel for Daniel Bryan to chase.
12 The Undertaker
There’s little question that The Undertaker is an all-time great in WWE.
He has often been the kind of talent who doesn’t need a championship, as his gimmick, size, and in time his length of tenure made him over regardless of whether he had any gold around his waist.
Moreover, some of The Phenom’s best work in a title picture came with the World Heavyweight Championship at stake.
The Deadman has had his WWE Championship reigns within the period under consideration for this countdown, though, including trading the title with Steve Austin, and notably winning the title from Hulk Hogan only to drop it The Rock, working a true who’s who of WWE icons.
11 Eddie Guerrero
Eddie Guerrero may have one of the most fondly remembered runs as WWE Champion, based in no small part because the reign was too short, as was Guerrero’s life—heading off the possibility of him regaining the title. Nonetheless, Guerrero did a good several months as champ, pulling off a monster upset when he pinned Brock Lesnar at No Way Out 2004 and surviving a challenge from Kurt Angle at WrestleMania 20 before ultimately dropping the title to JBL.
In the end, Guerrero’s time as champion feels emblematic of his career—full of great matches and moments from a charismatic, athletic champion, and over just as fans, en masse, caught on to how great it was.
10 Chris Jericho
For as decorated as Chris Jericho’s long career has been, it’s odd to note that he only had one reign as WWE Champion (he of course, had others with the World Heavyweight, WCW, and numerous secondary and tag team titles). That reign was a vitally important one, though, in establishing Jericho as a top tier wrestling star.
Jericho won the WWE Championship at Vengeance 2001, famously beating The Rock and Steve Austin in the same night to unify the WCW and WWE Championships. He’d reign for several months and get to carry the title into WrestleMania X8 before dropping it to no lesser star than Triple H in the main event.
Though Edge ultimately built more of a legacy for himself with the World Heavyweight Championship than the WWE Championship, he nonetheless kickstarted his main event status with the belt in question, famously becoming the first man to cash-in Money in the Bank, and thus taking the strap off of John Cena.
The Rated R Superstar would go on to a total of four WWE Championship reigns, trading the title with big names like Cena, Triple H, and Jeff Hardy.
In the process, Edge cemented his own status as not only a worthy Hall of Famer, but a worthy choice to headline his induction class.
8 Seth Rollins
Seth Rollins has had two WWE Championship reigns, though if you blinked you might have missed the second after Dean Ambrose took the title off of him via Money in the Bank cash-in.
It’s that first reign that earns Rollins his placement on this list, and it ironically started via his own cash-in—one of the best of all time, mid-main event match at WrestleMania 31. Rollins would go on to be a fine fighting champion in the tradition of slimy heels he less fight off challengers than escape them. Rollins survived Randy Orton, John Cena, Sting, Kane, and Ambrose all chasing him as he came into his own as a singles performer under the brightest spotlight possible.
7 Triple H
It’s telling that Triple H is not only a nine time WWE Champion (excluding his World Heavyweight Championship reigns) but that over 16 years fell between his first and his most recent times winning that title, and that he’d headline WrestleManias defending that title 16 years apart. He’s a WWE mainstay for sure, and while fans have persistently mixed opinions about him and how he rose to the top, it’s hard not to respect the man’s longevity and ability to stay in peak shape and evolve his character over that time.
Triple H earns most of his credit for his earlier reigns as the definitive heel of the Attitude Era, positioned as a constant thorn in the side of The Rock and Steve Austin.
6 Brock Lesnar
There’s a fair argument to be made that Brock Lensnar is nothing if not the most unique WWE Champion of all time. His first run with the company saw him tear through the ranks and win his first WWE Championship by pinning The Rock in the main event of SummerSlam, to become the youngest WWE Champion of all time after just four months on the main roster. Twelve years later, he’d accomplish the unlikely when he all but squashed John Cena in the main event of another SummerSlam to become the first long-term, part-time WWE Champion.
Over the course of four reigns to date, Lesnar has spent 578 days as WWE Champion.
Whether he was the monster heel he’s best recognized as, or the super hero face he played to take the title off of Kurt Angle at WrestleMania XIX, Lesnar always left his distinctive stamp on the title.
5 CM Punk
From the summer of 2011 to January 2013, CM Punk was the definitive player in the WWE Championship scene. That included the surprise of him catching fire in the build to Money in the Bank 2011, beating John Cena in front of a molten crowd in Chicago, and then beating Cena again at SummerSlam. A convoluted storyline of him walking out on the company, followed by having Money in the Bank cashed in on him puts a damper on his first reign that summer.
Punk’s next reign was the one that stuck though, starting by defeating Del Rio at Survivor Series 2011, and extending through all of 2012 as Punk the face beat back challenges from Dolph Ziggler and Chris Jericho, and Punk the heel survived Cena and Ryback, only for The Rock to end his year-plus reign.
4 Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle is universally agreed to be among the best all-around performers in wrestling history, and garners particular praise for how quickly he transitioned from amateur ranks to WWE, including winning ever title he eligible for in his first year on the main roster. That included his first reign as WWE Champion, at a point when a number of fans felt he wasn’t ready for it.
Fast forward even a couple yeas, and it was absurd to think of Angle as unqualified for any accolade or opportunity. He held the WWE Championship four times, and probably would have added several more reigns to his resume had personal issues not led him to leave WWE in favor of Impact Wrestling.
3 John Cena
While some fans will suggest that John Cena pales in comparison to other faces of the company like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and Bruno Sammartino, Cena actually holds up reasonably well, particularly for his legacy as WWE Champion.
In an era with more television exposure than ever, Cena was a high profile champion racking up 13 reigns over the course of a 12 year period.
He has a deceptively strong track record of matches, too, including not only the more obvious classics with guys like Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles, CM Punk, and Shawn Michaels, but also giving guys like The Great Khali and Umaga arguably their best matches in a WWE ring.
For his work in the ring and on the mic, and his longevity without ever becoming a problematic figure for WWE, Cena easily ranks among the company’s greatest champions.
2 AJ Styles
AJ Styles’s WWE Championship reigns have each happened during the new brand split. It’s arguable that Styles has had more of an opportunity to reign under the two brand model than he ever would under just one—getting the chance to lead SmackDown as the secondary show, and balancing a higher profile but less ring savvy champs from the red brand like Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns.
Styles hasn’t had the responsibility of carrying WWE as its lone top champion, nor has he had the number of main events one typically expects from a long-standing WWE Champion. He has, however, made the most of opportunities, including good to great matches and feuds with the likes of Dean Ambrose, Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, and others. He’s presently the longest reigning SmackDown-exclusive world champion ever, and looks to add to his credentials in the months, if not years ahead.
1 Stone Cold Steve Austin
Steve Austin may not have had Hulk Hogan or John Cena’s longevity, and by the time WWE most featured him, his body may not have been up for delivering at the level of a Shawn Michaels or AJ Styles. He was, however, one of the most powerfully over wrestlers ever, fundamentally connecting with WWE fans like hardly anyone before or since.
Austin’s title reigns saw him engage in classic storylines and matches with stars like The Rock, The Undertaker, and Kurt Angle. Austin was explosively over as a face and despite fans not wanting to boo him, otherwise played an objectively great heel character in 2001, too. Austin may be best remembered for defying Vince McMahon’s authority and chasing world titles, but one would be remiss not to acknowledge him as the all-time great champion he was in his own right.