Not everyone can be the World Champion. Whoever has the book generally knows what kind of Superstar they want at the top and to be the face of their promotion. But as we all know, a wrestler’s rise to becoming the top star of their promotion is filled with both little and big steps towards the ultimate prize. One of the bigger steps is capturing a secondary title. Secondary because it’s not the world title, but no less important. Some of the greatest workers ever have won secondary titles and are known most for that, being recognized as the greatest (IC Champ, TV Champ, etc) of all time.
Some wrestlers might never achieve the top spot, but the below 15 should be considered some of the best of the secondary champions. Some helped establish what their belt should be and in some cases, made their title almost as, if not just as important as the World Championship.
Now then, let’s take a some of the wrestlers who helped establish these secondary championships.
15. Crash Holly: WWE Hardcore Championship
Sure, Crash Holly is a head scratcher to start our list off, but during The Attitude Era, Crash Holly and his run as the Hardcore Champion helped instill fun into the company, during a time where most of the wrestlers were rough and rugged. Granted, it might have been at the expense of what hardcore wrestling actually meant, but when the diminutive heavyweight announced he would defend the championship 24/7, the division went from blood and guts to a full-fledged circus. So many memorable moments came from the 24/7 rule: Gerald Briscoe pinning a sleeping Pat Patterson, the Hardcore Scramble match at WrestleMania 2000, and of course Crash himself being hunted by The Headbangers throughout an amusement park in Brooklyn. No, the 24/7 rule did not lend itself to making the Hardcore division a legitimate place for ECW alum and genuine tough guys to hang their hats on, but for all the fond memories the rule created, it’s innovator, Crash Holly makes the list.
14. “Macho Man” Randy Savage: WWE Intercontinental Champion
There are four former Intercontinental Champions on this list. Not only for their contributions to what the WWE’s workhorse title could be, but what it became and what each and everyone one of them made it. There was simply no way to exclude one of the four IC Champs without the other, as they’re not just the Mount Rushmore of this list, they might be the best four wrestlers of all time. First up, “Macho Man” Randy Savage. The Hall of Famer’s reign as IC Champ from February 8th, 1986 to March 29th, 1987 is not only the second longest reigning of all time, but we still talk to this day, almost 30 years later, about his amazing match at WrestleMania III. That match again Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat might be the measuring stick as far as matches go in general, let alone IC matches. Each IC Champ on this list has at least one quintessential match that is regarded as one of the best matches ever, and Randy’s was the first. Savage’s reign also broke down barriers as it allowed the brass to see him in a different light. Savage would become the first “smaller guy” during the Hogan era to break through and become World Champion.
13. John Cena: WWE United States Champion
If people are still chanting “Cena Sucks,” at this point, they’re either delusional or they’re in on the joke of chanting “Let’s go Cena / Cena Sucks,” because the guy does everything but suck. No, he is definitely not the most crisp in the ring, but his devotion to the craft, putting people over (as best as Vince allows him to), and doing his best to spread the gospel of pro wrestling all over the world to people of all ages allows him to be commended for all the good that he does. The “face that runs this place” experienced a career resurgence last year when he defeated Rusev for the United States Championship at WrestleMania 31. After the victory, Cena declared every match he worked to be part of the U.S. Open Challenge, giving anyone who stepped up to the plate, not just a shot at the strap, but a shot at running with the real Big Dog as well. “Big Match John” took on Sami Zayn, Cesaro, Rusev, Kevin Owens, and Seth Rollins as well as a plethora of others, all to reinvigorate the title, his career, and bring some guys up with these stellar matches.
12. Shinsuke Nakamura: New Japan IWGP Intercontinental Champion
Now that he is firmly entrenched in NXT culture, the WWE Universe cannot get enough of The King of Strong Style. He might be the first Japanese wrestler in a long time to have the longevity and crossover. similar to when his mentor Antonio Inoki first came to the United States many years ago. He was one of the youngest IWGP Champions of all time and even fought Brock Lesnar early in his career. But he had recently been making his bones as New Japan’s Intercontinental Champion, doing for that title what so many wrestlers have done for its stateside counterpart – make it relevant and important. With Nakamura’s mystique and charisma, he took the secondary belt and defended it in five-star wars against the likes of Kota Ibushi, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kevin Steen, and A.J. Styles as this past year’s Wrestle Kingdom 10 (what a difference a few months can make). Seldom has a competitor taken the championship reign and parlayed it into transitioning to the big leagues.
11. Demolition: WWE World Tag Team Champions
When the Hall of Fame inductions are announced every year, for some odd reason there is always one name that is omitted, one of Vince’s greatest homegrown creations: Demolition. Debuting in late 1987, on the surface Ax and Smash seemed like a ripoff of The Road Warriors. If they were, then they surpassed every negative connotation of what being a ripoff is. Demolition’s stomp to the ring is the stuff of nightmares – two masked, hulking animals in humongous outfits and ominous black masks – but that’s only the beginning. They would then take off their masks revealing twisted looking Kiss-inspired face paint. The team won the tag titles a then-record three times and on their first occasion held the straps for 478 days. What made their reign of terror special was that is happened during the Golden Age of tag team wrestling in the WWE. During this time, Bulldogs, Bees, Harts, Rockers, and a plethora of other teams were running around the locker room. They had one of the coolest entrance themes ever, a badass look, and were two brutes who knew how to work. Demolition would work in any day and age.
10. Jay Lethal: ROH Television Champion
If you’re going to rip off someone’s character with a passable impersonation, it might as well be the legendary Macho Man. But the TNA alum, Jay Lethal has long since surpassed The Black Machismo hit to become one of the biggest reasons to watch Ring of Honor. Now, in the midst of his second reign as their World Champion, it was during his second reign as Television Champion that he elevated the title, even removing “Television” from the title, so the belt just read ROH Champion to signify that the belt and his reign meant as much as the world title. After defeating current NXT star Tommasio Ciampa for the belt in April 2014, Lethal joined The House of Truth and successfully defended the title for over a year against ROH stalwarts Matt Taven, Matt Sydal, and even Alberto Del Rio. He even got to work Japan’s prestigious January 4th Dome Show show in a successful defense against Michael Elgin. Lethal’s reign went down in history as he now holds every record associated with the TV Title. Not to mention elevating himself to top tier star status.
9. Mr. Perfect: WWE Intercontinental Champion
Ask almost any wrestling fan old enough to remember him and sure enough one of their top ten favorite workers would have to be Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig. From his early vignettes, showcasing his perfection in football, basketball, baseball, golf, and other sports, it was apparent that our second member of the IC Mount Rushmore, Mr. Perfect, was destined for big things. He won the Intercontinental Championship in a tournament for the vacant title after The Ultimate Warrior won the WWE Championship and vacated the strap. Mr. Perfect never looked back, having great matches with anyone he stepped into the ring with. Unfortunately, he did lose the title to Kerry Von Erich at the 1990 SummerSlam, but regained it several months later. He would work a few months after that, ultimately suffering a bulged disk and a broken tailbone, which spelled a brief pause to his career. He did return, however, strictly to lose the title to Bret Hart at SummerSlam in 1991 in what is one of the greatest matches in wrestling history, let alone for a secondary title.
8. A.J. Styles: TNA X-Division Championship
When TNA began way back in 2002, the company tried to differentiate themselves from the WWE with a six-sided ring and the X-Division, which originally began as a belt for the high flyers. Unlike the Cruiserweights division of yesteryear, the X-Division wasn’t about weight limits, it’s about no limits, as the tag line said. As one of the key attractions for the company, the belt was seemingly created for a guy like A.J. Styles. Nowadays, he’s finally educating the WWE Universe on just how Phenomenal “P1” really is, as since his TNA days, he’s been pulling out the stops each night. Most notably during a Three-Way match with Christopher Daniels and Samoa Joe that fans still hold near-and-dear to this day. Like many other titles on this list, the X-Division title means as much to TNA, if not more, than their world title, since it has always been a selling point for the brand. In its infancy, however, Styles used the belt as his showcase to make him and the title mean something, and even though his last reign was ten years ago, A.J. and his run with the belt goes down in history as TNA’s saving grace.
7. Shawn Michaels: WWE Intercontinental Champion
What hasn’t been said about Shawn Michaels? He’s pretty much universally accepted as the greatest wrestler that ever lived. While some of his greatest work and matches came at the World Championship level, Shawn Michaels was also one of the greatest Intercontinental Champions that ever existed, even before WrestleMania X and destiny came calling. His career, excluding missteps and mischief, included having PWI’s Match of the Year two years in a row, defending the IC title against Marty Janetty on Raw in 1993 and the Ladder Match with Razor Ramon one year later. HBK innovated exactly what a Superstar could be and it all started with his work as the Intercontinental Champion. His initial run as champion came during one of the best first years ever for a tag team guy becoming a singles star. First was the epic Barbershop betrayal, then defeating The British Bulldog for the title, and main eventing Survivor Series in 1992. This was first time ever Bret Hart and Shawn headlined a Pay-Per-View. While WrestleMania X will forever be in fans’ hearts, one year later at SummerSlam ’95, HBK and The Bad Guy did again in another memorable encounter, this time with The Heartbreak Kid coming out on top.
6. Ultimo Dragon: Lightweight Championships
The innovator of the second rope Asai Moonsalt is as much of an innovator for Cruiserweights as guys like Jushin Liger, Brian Pillman, or Rey Mysterio. But more so than his constituents, Ultimo Dragon in the mid-nineties was the single greatest Cruiserweight on the planet and he was draped with gold to prove it. He won the 1996 Super J-Cup in 1996 (think WWE’s upcoming Cruiserweight Classic), where the victor won unified Cruiserweight belts from eight different territories. He then added the NWA Middleweight and, most notably, the WCW Cruiserweight title to his waist, making him still to this day the single most decorated champion in any fight sport. It didn’t matter where the Dragon went, as he was respected, revered, and feared for his aerial prowess. Sadly, a few gaffs in his brief WWE run spelt its untimely end, but the man will still go down as one of the greatest that ever wrestled. Anyone in the business, not just the under 200 pounders, should study the work of the Dragon if they’re an aspiring wrestler just based on his matches with Dean Malenko and Rey Mysterio alone.
5. Rob Van Dam: ECW Television Champion
Despite what uninformed fans think about the blood and guts promotion, Paul Heyman’s Island of Misfit Wrestlers known as ECW had plenty of guys who actually knew how to work a match, but none were as unique and skilled as Rob Van Dam. At one point, Mr. Pay-Per-View was so popular, his entrance would take about ten minutes, as the fans all wanted a piece of him. But his popularity skyrocketed once he turned face and took out Bam Bam Bigelow for the ECW Television Championship in April of 1998. From there, the Whole F’in Show went on a tear not seen since the days of Bruno Sammartino. For 700 days, he was the true workhorse of the company. Because he was braggadocios, RVD was the epitome of a fighting champion – he just knew he could beat anyone that stepped into the ring with him. His list of opponents that have provided a crash pad for the Five Star Frog Splash is a who’s who of hardcore icons and wrestling workhorses, like Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, Lance Storm, and, most notably towards the end of his run, Jerry Lynn. Unfortunately, at 700 days, a month shy of two full years, RVD suffered an injury which forced him to relinquish the title.
4. The Dudley Boyz: Tag Team Champions Everywhere
If you can’t see just how brilliant the resume of The Dudley Boyz is, then you have probably been hurled through one too many tables. They are one of the only tag teams in the history of the sport that have conquered literally every territory they’ve been to. First formed in ECW as part of the ginormous Dudley Family stable and based on the nasty Hanson Brothers from Slap Shot, D-Von and Bubba Ray have spent 20 years showing they are the pride of Big Daddy Dudley’s litter, obliterating opponents in ECW, WWE, TNA, and New Japan. Their use of tables, fire, and profanity made them the vilest heels ECW ever saw and their skills in the ring have made them the greatest tag team of all time. That was only the start because after their momentous last night at the Elks’ Lodge in Queens, NY, the brothers took the WWE by storm, helped create the entire TLC genre of mayhem with The Hardy Boyz and Edge and Christian and further cemented their legacy.
3. Chris Jericho: WCW Cruiserweight Champion
Yes, there are several other Cruiserweights who were better in the ring than Chris Jericho. Rey Mysterio and Juventud Guerrera come to mind immediately. But what The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla brought to the table and to the division was character, actual feuds and storylines. Before The Highlight of the Night came to WCW, the Cruiserweights were competing in an endless circle of high risk matches. While they were all entertaining, it would have eventually gotten stale. First, Lionheart was just a white-meat babyface, but then he turned heel and started collecting items from his opponents, like Juvi’s mask, for example. The masterful piece of wrestling humor, “The Man of 1004 Holds” also happened during this time. Jericho’s feud with Dean Malenko was one of the hottest things in WCW and the roar that Malenko got when he snuck into a Cruiserweight Battle Royal disguised as Cyclope showed what a great heel Y2J was while helping with the springboard that Jericho needed to get to the WWE.
2. Bret Hart: WWE Intercontinental Champion
Why is Bret Hart universally regarded as being the best technical wrestler that the world has ever seen? Because he is, that’s why. Once Bret Hart became a full blown singles competitor, it was a just a matter of time before the hardest working man in the industry would win the title that all the workhorses coveted. At SummerSlam 91, Madison Square Garden, one of the best technical wrestling matches ever took place between the Intercontinental Champion, Mr. Perfect, and the challenger, Bret Hart. After capturing the gold, Bret was a fighting champion, taking on all comers. A contract dispute would lead to Bret dropping the belt to The Mountie and after he was bested by Roddy Piper, he would again challenge for the gold. This time against Hot Rod at WrestleMania VIII in the second-most revered IC match in ‘Mania history. In his second reign, Bret began to really showcase the skills that would catapult him to the WWE Championship, including main eventing SummerSlam in Wembley Stadium against The British Bulldog in a match that some consider the greatest IC match of all time.
1. Arn Anderson: NWA Television Champion
As far as secondary champions go, the award for the greatest secondary champion of all time needs to go to the guy who made his entire career being the second–in–command for The Four Horsemen. The Enforcer, Double A, Arn Anderson was the stalwart workhorse for both The Horsemen and The Dangerous Alliance, and those who can truly appreciate the art that the business is can also truly appreciate just how silky smooth Arn was in the ring. He was a masterful heel who knew how to bend ever single rule in the business and make it all look so easy. Then he became the NWA Television Champion. In that territory, the belt had a 15 minute time limit to TV title matches. Double A, who used love begging the refs for a time out, knew how to work the clock like a seasoned quarterback. We had the entire Mount Rushmore of IC champs on this list, and Arn is front and center as the single greatest Television Champion in history.
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