Wrestling has always relied on amazing fan moments. It’s been the lifeblood of the business since it started. Even today, with WWE dominating and such, the need to see something truly special and astounding is what makes fans tune in and enjoy the show in droves. Championships have long been a part of that as back when titles truly meant something, seeing a favorite wrestler claim the gold was a massive moment that the fans loved to see happen. Often, it was the payoff to weeks or even months of build and showcasing how great promoters and wrestlers could combine their talents to make fans happy.
With an over-reliance on part-timers and an abundance of title reigns for top stars, a lot of the emotion is taken out of wins. The lack of emotional storylines also hinders how fans can feel about a win. Back when Eddie Guerrero won his first title, the whole story leading up to his bout with Brock Lesnar was how had had overcome his demons and the title shot was his chance at redemption. It was a simple premise but it worked so well because it felt real and was relatable. It was also a guy that had paid his dues and had earned the admiration and respect of the audience.
It’s faded a bit in recent years and yet every now and then, wrestling can still surprise you with a title victory that feels far more special than just another win. It’s a moment that makes you happy as a fan to see a worker you admire finally get his due and take it to the top. Sometimes the fallout doesn’t live up to that moment, a reign shorter and more disappointing than expected.
This list isn’t so much the aftermath but the moment itself and how it makes you feel as a fan to love the business so much. Here are 15 title wins that stirred fantastic emotions in fans and remind you of why you got into wrestling in the first place.
15 Tommy Dreamer and Raven win ECW Tag Team Titles
ECW was always known for moments that rocked fans’ emotions on multiple levels but this remains one of the best ever. On one of the first ECW broadcasts on TNN, the Dudley Boyz won the ECW tag titles, booed massively as everyone knew they were going to be leaving for WWE. The two did a promo putting ECW down and threatening to lay the belts on Vince McMahon’s table which brought out Tommy Dreamer to defend the company’s honor. Alone, Dreamer took on the duo, beaten down badly despite a valiant effort and set up for the Death Drop, managing to reverse it to a DDT on D-Von. Then, form out of nowhere, came the last man in the world anyone would have expected to come to Dreamer’s aid: Raven.
Fresh from walking out on WCW, Raven slid into the ring, hit a DDT on Bubba Ray and pinned him. The fans were rocked, cheering his return and the Dudleys losing the belts while shocked at Raven helping Dreamer out as Joey Styles was actually speechless. Dreamer was stunned too as Raven handed him one of the title belts and smiled, the fans chanting “welcome back” as Joey Styles summed up how Dreamer had finally won an ECW title but had to share it with his mortal enemy. Raven then left through the crowd with Dreamer stunned and the fans wild wondering what would happen with these two on the same side. A genius move to help ECW out and why the promotion was remembered so fondly.
14 Randy Savage Wins WWE title - Wrestlemania IV
Always regarded as a terrific worker and performer, the Macho Man had taken a backseat in much of his WWE run to Hulk Hogan. But his turn to face just elevated him to massive popularity, so much so that Vince McMahon decided that if anyone else could carry the belt, it would be him. At Wrestlemania IV, Savage went through the tournament for the vacant WWE title in style, beating Butch Reed, Greg Valentine, One Man Gang and finally facing Ted DiBiase in the finals.
It was a terrific battle with interference from Hogan and Andre the Giant but Savage was finally able to hit his flying elbow to win the match and the belt. He sold it wonderfully, carrying Elizabeth on his shoulders with her holding the belt, the fans cheering wildly as Hogan helped him celebrate, the usually wild Savage looking truly moved by the weight of the moment and how important it was. It was the crowning moment for Savage’s career, proving himself as a main eventer at long last.
13 A.J. Styles Wins X Division Title - Unbreakable 2005
A.J. Styles had truly taken off in TNA as “The Phenomenal One,” wowing with his high-flying and ability to take punishment, becoming the first ever X Division champion and reigns as tag team and NWA champ as well. In 2005, he was set with Samoa Joe to take on defending X Division champion Christopher Daniels and the results were what many consider the greatest match in TNA history.
The trio went at it with stunning moves, fantastic reversals (Joe throwing Daniels to monkey-flip AJ who ranas Joe in mi-air), back and forth flow, each guy pulling off his own high-flying splashes and punches and the crowd on the edge of their seats for it all. For once, the “this is awesome!” chant was well deserved as a thrilling series of near-falls got fans on their feet before Styles reversed an Angel’s Wings into a pinfall. It was a huge moment as he claimed the belt once more, paying off a genius match-up that is still regarded as one of best things the company has ever done.
12 Bret Hart Wins WWE Title - October 1992
It was completely out of the blue. Bret Hart was getting ready for what he figured was a standard house show title match against Ric Flair in Saskatoon when Vince McMahon entered and told Bret he was winning the title. It was stunning but after double reigns as tag team and IC champ and paying his dues for so long, Vince thought Bret was just the guy to carry the belt for a new era. The fans in attendance had no idea history was about to be made as Bret and Flair had a great battle, Bret actually dislocating his finger and popping it back in (you can see Curt Hennig wince watching it) to continue.
Bret got Flair into the Sharpshooter, the fans expecting Perfect to cause a DQ but instead Flair submitted and the crowd went crazy. It was truly heartwarming to have Bret win the title in his home country in front of his always loyal Canadian fans and while he would claim many titles in the future, the first still remains the best to take Bret to a new level.
11 Goldberg Wins WCW World Title - July 1998
The debate still rages on whether or not WCW should have saved this for a PPV rather than giving it away for free on Nitro. But that doesn’t take away from the huge event it was. Goldberg had destroyed all in his path, taking his undefeated record to win the U.S. title and crushing contenders. A showdown with Hulk Hogan for the WCW title just made sense and when it was announced it would be held at the Georgia Dome, the place sold out in record time.
After beating Scott Hall in an opening match, Goldberg marched out to face Hogan, the arena chanting his name and his fireworks intro seeming far more important than usual. You could feel the intensity as he and Hogan battled it out, going back and forth with worries Hogan would find a way to escape with the belt. The nWo tried to interfere but DDP and Karl Malone helped fight them off, allowing Goldberg to hit the spear and then the jackhammer. It was a massive pop as the pin was made and Goldberg held both titles high to loud cheers, truly looking like the future of WCW. However it happened, the moment itself was one of the best in the company’s history and pushed WCW, for a time, to greater prominence.
10 The Ultimate Warrior Wins Intercontinental Title - Summerslam 1988
Fans today don’t get how incredibly annoying the Honky Tonk Man was. An average worker with a crazy Elvis gimmick boasting of his greatness, the fact that he was the longest reigning IC champion ever remains baffling. It was good business in a way as fans loved to pay to see him lose although annoyed it wasn’t happening. At SummerSlam, he was set to defend against Brutus Beefcake but Beefcake was taken out by Ron Bass, so HTM came out alone and basically told anyone to come along.
After a moment, a pounding rock beat echoed as the fans erupted and the Ultimate Warrior charged out. In a span of less than 30 seconds, the Warrior had destroyed Honky Tonk to win the title and the explosion of Madison Square Garden at seeing that reign end was spectacular. The Warrior was instantly a hero to everyone and the longest IC reign ended in record fashion on a big show to make fans so happy.
9 Ric Flair Wins WWE Title - 1992 Royal Rumble
As hard as it is to believe, as the ‘90s dawned, most thought Ric Flair was on his way out thanks to the rise of Sting and other younger stars. WCW seemed to believe the same, an attitude that would push Flair to leave the company in 1991. He jumped to WWE for the long-dreamed of feud with Hogan that ended up costing Hogan the belt which was soon vacated and the announcement that the winner of the Royal Rumble would be WWE champion.
Coming in at no.3, Flair would put on the performance of a lifetime, fighting every other guy in the match, taking wild bumps and flops, going at it big time and winning the New York crowd to his side. Bobby Heenan was helping out with his classic commentary begging for Flair to win. In the end, thanks to the fallout from Sid turning on Hogan, Flair dumped Sid out to win the belt and the fans cheered his amazing work as Heenan went wild. It was a reminder to all that in no way was the Nature Boy done and to see him add the WWE title to his accolades was a great addition to an already legendary career.
8 Mankind Wins WWE Title - January, 1999
Throughout 1998, Mick Foley had been winning fans over more and more from the brutal Hell in the Cell match to his fun interviews and more. He was truly clicking and yet the idea of him holding the WWE title seemed ridiculous. But the fans were on his side as he and the Rock faced off in a no-DQ battle on RAW. The Rock had the Corporation backing him while DX helped out Mankind, the two going at it in a back and forth battle. When Mankind had The Rock locked in the Mandible Claw, Ken Shamrock interfered and set off a massive brawl on the outside.
At that moment, the sound of shattering glass filled the building and in one of the biggest pops imaginable, Stone Cold Steve Austin marched to the ring, smashed a chair over the Rock’s head and put Mankind on top of him. The ref made the pin and Mick Foley was the WWE champion. Foley milked it for all it was worth, getting on the mic to declare “Big Daddy-o did it!” and running around the ring with the title belt. WCW tried to ruin the moment with the infamous “butts in seats” line which only served to boost RAW’s ratings as Mankind proved anyone could achieve their dream of true stardom in wrestling and establishing one of the greatest moments of the Attitude Era.
7 Ron Simmons Wins WCW title - August 1992
Bill Watts’ tenure in WCW reeked of bad booking, pushing his son Erik and banning moves off the top rope. But he did manage to pull off a nice turn that made true history in wrestling. Vader had crushed Sting to win the WCW World title with a rematch set for Baltimore in August. However, Jake Roberts attacked Sting to take him out of that bout and thus a new challenger was needed. Drawing a name from a hat, Watts announced Simmons would be getting the title shot, a year after coming up short in his feud with Leg Luger for the belt.
Simmons and Vader had a massive hard-hitting battle that ended with Simmons managing to slip out of the power bomb and hit a power slam for the surprise pinfall. It was truly a big moment, the first black world champion and the fans in attendance cheered the history-making moment as Simmons celebrated, this veteran truly getting his due. His reign wouldn’t be as great as hoped but for one night, Simmons was on top of the world and still stands as a “damn” emotional moment for wrestling fans.
6 Ricky Steamboat Wins The NWA Title - Chi-Town Rumble
Long regarded as one of the greatest technical wrestlers ever, Steamboat had given some true classics with Randy Savage, holding tag titles and the Intercontinental Championship. But he’d been out of the business for a time and seemed unlikely he’d rise much further. However, in 1989, the Dragon made a surprise return to the NWA, pinning Ric Flair in a tag match and soon pushed for the title at a Chicago-based PPV event. T
he match was a clinical showcase as both men gave it their all, going back and forth with a ref bump and Flair going for the figure-four, with Steamboat reversing it for a small package as another ref counted the pin. Fans were wary of a “Dusty finish” but instead both refs agreed that Steamboat was now the world champion. It was a tremendous moment for fans of the man as he celebrated with his wife and young son. He would hold the belt for a few months before losing it back to Flair in a classic rematch but it’s still a high point for one of the best fan favorites ever to hold the big gold belt.
5 Chris Benoit Wins World Heavyweight Championship - WrestleMania XX
Obviously, the emotions are far different now. WWE’s own book on WrestleMania notes that the line of “future events would forever alter the perception of this moment” but still noting how powerful it was at the time. In one of the best triple threat matches ever, Chris Benoit faced Triple H and Shawn Michaels in front of a hot Madison Square Garden crowd, the trio putting on a fantastic show with the momentum shifting constantly and the crowd on Benoit’s side.
After teasing an HBK comeback, Benoit managed to get Triple H in the crossface and after a long wait, Triple H finally tapped. The crowd went crazy as Benoit celebrated with confetti falling and Eddie Guerrero coming out to hug his old friend and celebrate together as this veteran grappler reached the top. Jim Ross delivered one of his greatest calls (and that's saying a lot). At the time, it was a beautiful moment. Today, it’s a bitter reminder of how Benoit’s horrific end forever tarnished his legacy and robbed us of much of the joy of that night itself.
4 Kerry Von Erich Wins The NWA Title
This was really a case of the emotion overwhelming the match itself. As 1984 began, most thought it obvious that David Von Erich was going to win the NWA World title from Ric Flair, the votes set and just waiting for the right moment to do it. But in February, during a tour of Japan, David suddenly died, a shocking blow to all the fans of World Class and of wrestling itself (even the Freebirds solemnly talked on camera of how much they admired him).
While mourning, Fritz Von Erich also saw the obvious money push and so set up the first David Von Erich Parade of Champions in May with the main event of Flair defending the title against Kerry Von Erich. The match itself wasn’t quite the classic many felt at the time as they went at it and reportedly, Kerry only won the belt with a backslide because Flair wasn't sure he’d be able to pull off something more complicated. However, it was still huge as the crowd went wild, the family celebrating and Kerry dedicating the victory to his late brother while holding a yellow rose with the NWA title. His reign was only a few weeks (the NWA board doubtful in Kerry’s reliability) and just makes the Von Erich tragedies sadder but at that moment, it was what the fans needed and thus a standout moment for WCCW.
3 Shawn Michaels Wins WWE Title - WrestleMania XII
We all know the stories of Shawn’s ego and backstage politics, many from Shawn himself. But fans today can overlook how huge a deal his first WWF title victory was. This was a guy who’d paid his dues a lot, rising from tag team wrestler to singles heel, IC champ and more. WWE made a huge deal of it, promoting a “boyhood dream” and it did come off as a big deal with Shawn training hard and finally facing Bret in the Iron Man matchup. Obviously, the encounter was a bit of a letdown due to neither man willing to take the first fall and thus we got to the sixty minute limit and then the “sudden death” bit. But it was still fantastic to see Shawn get the win, standing atop the wrestling world and truly loving it. Whatever else you can say, Shawn Michaels loves this business and proved it here with a victory that proved he was ready for the main event big time.
2 Daniel Bryan Wins WWE World Title - WrestleMania XXX
It’s even more emotional now given how it looks as if Bryan’s in-ring days are coming to an end. After a massive fan backlash when Bryan was pushed down so much by WWE in 2013, it’s easy to say it was politics that finally got him his due but that didn’t take away from the moment itself. WWE teased it with the possibility of Triple H beating him in the opening match of the show but Bryan was victorious with an injury, setting up more tension with his battle against Orton and Batista.
The result was a terrific match with the Superdome totally on Bryan’s side, going back and forth, fearing yet another screwjob but in the end, Bryan made Batista tap out to win. The sight of him with both titles as 75,000 people chanted “YES YES YES!” over and over was a classic moment and while the fallout sadly never lived up to expectations, still wonderful and the highlight of Bryan’s career.
1 Eddie Guerrero Wins WWE Title - No Way Out 2004
Still one of the most admired and respected performers ever, Eddie Guerrero had overcome so much in his life. He’d nearly died in a car crash in 1998, coming back from that with addictions to painkillers and alcohol that followed him to WWE. It caused him to hit rock bottom after another accident, fired from the company and estranged from his family. But he cleaned up his act, paid his dues in the indies and was welcomed back, getting over majorly with his “Lie, Cheat, Steal” persona that soon turned him into a face.
WWE played up the story of his battling addictions as eventually Eddie fought his way up the card and at No Way Out 2004 was set against the seemingly unstoppable Brock Lesnar for the WWE title. It was a hard-fought battle, both guys going at it hard in front of a wild San Francisco crowd with Brock getting the lead with a ref bump, Eddie trying to hit him with the title belt but Brock getting him into an F5. However, Goldberg ran in to spear Brock and Eddie managed to reverse an F5 into a DDT on the belt and followed it up with a Frog Splash. The three count was made and the place erupted as Eddie leapt into the crowd, embracing his mother, “surfing” with fans and standing atop the announcer table with the belt in one hand and the Mexican flag in the other.