Professional wrestling has seen a lot of colorful characters and a lot of titles in a lot of different organizations through the years. Today, there is one…Seth Rollins and the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. However, when we talk about any historical list of world champions, it’s important to set the ground rules as to what “World Champion” actually means.
While TNA and Ring of Honor both claim to have world champions, recognizing their titles as “world” titles would be like recognizing New Japan’s titles as world titles. They are not, regardless of their name.
Neither the Intercontinental nor the US Heavyweight Championship are world titles. They have always been seen as secondary stepping-stone titles (Randy Savage) at best, consolation lifetime achievement award prizes (Roddy Piper) at worst, and a joke prop (General Rection) at the worst of the worst. For the purposes of this list, tag team championships and women’s championships are not considered. While those lists would be equally long, this is about single men’s competition.
We could also go back to the early part of the 20th Century, but reminding you of Dick Hutton’s 400+ day reign as the NWA Heavyweight Champion in 1957-58 isn’t a case of forgetting…it’s a case of never knowing, so we’re going to limit ourselves to recognized world champions after 1982, when Vince McMahon took over control of the WWE from his father.
The only other caveat we’ll make is that you will remember some of the people on this list, but you’ll remember them for holding world titles for a different company or under a different character name. With all that said, here are the Top 15 Wrestlers You Forgot Were World Champions
15. Kane – WWE Championship
Despite the goofy schizophrenic sideshow his career has turned into over the last five years, it seems strange to think that aside from Andre the Giant’s minutes long reign, Kane has the shortest title reign of any WWE champion ever at one day. Everybody remembers Steve Austin taking the championship from Shawn Michaels with the help of Mike Tyson at WrestleMania XV, but few remember Kane as the person who took it off Austin just a few months later in a first blood match at that year’s King of the Ring. The next night on Monday Night Raw, The Big Red Machine dropped the title back to Austin, never to wear the world championship again.
14. Bret Hart – WCW World Heavyweight Championship
There isn’t a person who thinks Bret Hart’s tenure in World Championship Wrestling was anything less than a disaster, but few remember it actually contained two world title reigns. After exiting WWE following the Montreal Screwjob, the Excellence of Execution was positioned to be the top star of WCW’s new Thursday Night Thunder program, but it never worked out. Hart held the title for 29 days, having defeated Goldberg, before vacating it after a controversial finish and a short time later, held it for another 27 days but was forced to vacate due to injury. He would end the failed WCW experiment shortly after.
13. John Bradshaw Layfield – WWE Champion
Between his days as a butt-kicking member of the APA and as the cerebral, obscure reference dropping commentator we now know on Monday Night Raw, John Bradshaw Layfield spent almost a year as the WWE World Champion, playing a character that was basically a nod to the character of J.R. Ewing. Nobody explained why the guy who was a bodyguard with Ron Simmons was suddenly an oil tycoon, but it’s wrestling, so they don’t need to. The character was equal parts Million Dollar Man and Texas cowboy, and it showed just how desperately WWE needed bad guys at the time to give Layfield this kind of extended run with the title. He held the belt for 280 days in 2004-05, dropping it to John Cena at that year’s WrestleMania.
12. Rob Van Dam – WWE Heavyweight Championship
You wanted more from Rob Van Dam’s career, but it seemed like every time he was about to turn a corner, something got in his way. First, after a long run as the ECW TV Champion, Van Dam was being prepped to be that organization’s No. 1 guy before a broken leg took him out. He actually reached the peak, for a few minutes, after beating John Cena at the 2006 One Night Stand pay-per-view that gave birth to WWE’s version of ECW. A couple of weeks later, Van Dam was caught with marijuana and he quickly dropped the belt to Edge, moving to a life in the midcard.
11. Bam Bam Bigelow – ECW World Heavyweight Championship
With memorable runs in just about every major wrestling promotion in his career, Bam Bam Bigelow should have become much bigger than he was and his only world championship reign was a short stint in 1997 when he captured the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. Bigelow seemed to be one of the last true independent wrestlers, sharing the wanderlust of guys like Bruiser Brody before him by not staying in any place too long. Bigelow was actually the wrestler who dropped the strap to Shane Douglas, who went on to the longest streak holding ECW’s main title, at over 400 days.
10. Rick Martel – AWA World Heavyweight Championship
Had Verne Gagne had Vince McMahon’s foresight, we’d probably be talking about the American Wrestling Association the way we talk about WWE today. Gagne was unwilling to change with the times which led to his company’s inability to go national and its ultimate demise. It’s a shame because more top names of the 1980s and 90s came out of the AWA than anywhere else. Gagne just didn’t know what to do with them. Most remember Canadian Rick Martel for his model character in WWE, but he held the AWA’s biggest prize for over a year-and-a-half. Martel dropped the belt to Stan Hansen before heading onto more lucrative opportunities, but was probably the most loved AWA champion after Gagne in the promotion’s history.
9. Kerry Von Erich – NWA World Heavyweight Championship
It would take a flowchart to explain how the NWA World Heavyweight Championship basically turned into the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, despite the fact there is still an NWA belt floating around the indies somewhere with a valid claim to lineage. Kerry Von Erich, who would go onto be known as The Texas Tornado in WWE, took the title from Ric Flair at the Parade of Champions show, his home territory’s version of WrestleMania in 1984. Just 18 days later, he dropped the belt back to Flair in Japan. Many have speculated that the championship run was slotted for Kerry’s brother, David, who had died just months earlier, in a sad sign of things to come for the family.
8. The Giant – WCW World Heavyweight Championship
We know him today as Big Show in WWE, but aside from his impressive debut in WCW, where he defeated Hulk Hogan in his first match, his time working for Ted Turner has largely been forgotten. Perhaps he got lost in the nWo machine that was steamrolling through the company, but The Giant actually held WCW’s top belt on two occasions, once for eight days and once for 110 in the mid-90s. The fact that the second title win aired on tape delay a week after it had happened shows you the prestige world titles had at that point in wrestling.
7. Jeff Hardy – WWE Championship
Jeff Hardy – and Matt Hardy, for that matter – can win 1,000 singles titles but will always to remembered for The Hardy Boyz tag team run in WWE and the amazing TLC Matches with The Dudley Boyz and Edge & Christian. Jeff Hardy actually had a fairly successful singles run before leaving WWE, including capturing the WWE Championship in 2008. He would also win WWE’s No. 2 belt, the World Heavyweight Championship, twice in 2009, which was technically being treated as equal until unification with the WWE Championship, but was still considered slightly less prestigious.
6. Scott Steiner – WCW World Heavyweight Championship
In the waning days of WCW, the World Heavyweight Championship was a hot potato traded like a penny stock every other week on Monday Night Nitro. The fact that Scott Steiner held the title 120 days says more about the fact that the sale of the company was up in the air and no major changes were going to happen than it does about the booking team’s ability to stick with one storyline for more than a few days. While Booker T was technically the last WCW Champion before WWE bought the company, it was Scott Steiner who dropped the belt on the last episode of Nitro.
5. Kurt Angle – WCW Championship
Before it was renamed the World Heavyweight Championship, the WCW Championship was actually defended on WWE shows shortly after Vince McMahon bought his competition. The WCW name only stuck around for four months and Booker T held it for the bulk of that time. Angle, however, did hold the title for six days during the months it was WCW-branded and was the first person who never worked for WCW while it was owned by AOL/Time Warner to capture one of the organization’s titles. McMahon, being who he is, had to kill the WCW name to prove he is the king of the professional wrestling mountain.
4. Chris Benoit – WCW World Championship
He whose name should never be spoken was actually a terrific wrestler and had seemed to find a little bit of charisma late in his WCW tenure, having come off an idiotic “real life” storyline with Kevin Sullivan involving their mutual interest in Nancy Benoit. Rumors of a group of WCW wrestlers, including Benoit, jumping to WWE had been circulating through the WCW locker room and the move to put the title on Benoit was seen as a gesture to show that group of wrestlers that there was no glass ceiling set by the nWo. It didn’t matter as one day after winning the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, Benoit (along with Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn) walked away from WCW and showed up in the front row on an episode of Monday Night Raw.
3. Justin Credible – ECW World Heavyweight Championship
Known as a member of The Impact Players in ECW, Justin Credible was one of those guys who had decent charisma on the microphone and was a good wrestler, but never was able to bring it all together for an extended run at the top of the card for any major wrestling company, perhaps with the exception of his time as ECW World Heavyweight Champion in 2000. Unfortunately, by this point, the writing was on the wall for Paul Heyman’s brainchild and it died not long after Credible dropped the belt to Jerry Lynn in late 2000. Credible’s 162 days as champion was longer than any other wrestler to hold that championship that year.
2. The Great Khali – World Heavyweight Championship
If you’ve ever been to a WWE event and seen The Great Khali walk to the ring, you know it’s an impressive sight as the giant towers over everyone in the building. If you’ve ever been to a WWE event and seen The Great Khali wrestle, you deserve your money back. People like Khali and Big Show probably would have thrived in the territory era the way Andre The Giant was a huge attraction by not staying in the same place too long. Andre was a bad wrestler, just like Khali, but unfortunately for him, the territory system is dead and when you stay in one place too long, your shortcomings become very obvious. Still, this wasn’t enough for WWE’s creative team to try a two-month experiment of putting the belt on Khali in 2007. He appropriately won the strap in a 20-man battle royal in what had to be the highlight of his career.
1. Jack Swagger – World Heavyweight Championship
Whether it was his babyface looks or amateur wrestling pedigree, Jack Swagger seemed like a guy on paper who should hold a major Championship at some point and he did just that for 82 days in 2010. Swagger, however, lacked the presence and charisma to make his title reign mean anything. He needed tag team partners and managers to give him that little extra something that makes crowds love or hate him, but for a few months he was considered a blue-chip prospect. Hopefully he’ll gain the traction he needs to move back toward the top of the card, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever see another title around his waist.
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