A wrestling champion is more than just another title-holder. He represents his company to the outside world. He carries the promotion and is (supposed to be) the primary draw on house shows, pay-per-views, weekly television shows and more. He is the guy you call when you need a radio interview or a morning talk show segment. He is the face at the center of the posters, tour buses and websites.
Sure, it’s pro wrestling, so it’s a worked-sport, with pre-determined winners. There’s politics and backstabbing and a lot of other things that go into who the champion is, and rarely does it happen that “the champ” is also the best over-all talent in the promotion. But being given the title is a signal from the power(s) that be that “this guy” is “the guy” that the whole show is to be built around.
With that said, sometimes the right guy becomes champion at the wrong time. Sometime the right time for a title change happens to feature the wrong champion being crowned. And sometimes, no matter how many times they try, some guys just don’t have “it” to wear the gold properly. It’s something every wrestling promotion in history has had to deal with and WWE is no exception. Looking back at the company’s 50 year history, there are a lot of head-scratching title changes.
These are the fifteen worst WWE title wins this century--so far--in order from least offensive to most. Not included are any title changes featuring the World Heavyweight Championship (the Big Gold Belt) that WWE featured from 2002-2013, even though there are a LOT to choose from in that short span. We’re keeping things strictly focused on the WWF and later WWE Championships.
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13 Big Show - Survivor Series 1999
Technically Big Show's first title win came at the end of last century, but his reign carried over into the new year, so call it an introduction to what we mean by “bad” title wins. Survivor Series 1999 was supposed to feature a dream triple threat match: Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock vs. Triple H. Unfortunately Austin had to take time off for neck surgery and Big Show was booked to replace him (keep in mind that PPV buyers were not told of the change until two hours into the show).
The Big Show was contractually obligated to win the title within his first year in WWE, so this win was kind of necessary…and kind of crappy too. One pointless feud with Big Boss Man is all the history books show of it before he dropped the belt back to Triple H on the first Raw of 2000.
12 Hulk Hogan - Backlash 2002
When “Hollywood” Hogan returned to the WWE in February of 2002 it was supposed to be his first run under Vince McMahon as a hated heel (as part of the nWo). Filled with nostalgia, however, the WWE fans refused to boo their homecoming hero and just a month later Hogan turned babyface on the night of WrestleMania X-8, following his loss to The Rock.
Looking to cash-in on the second coming of “Hulkamania” Vince booked Hogan to win the title from Triple H at the Backlash PPV in April. It sounded smart on paper, but it was quickly apparent that Hogan’s nostalgia run was best kept in the midcard. His matches were pitiful, and the ratings needle never moved with him holding the strap. He dropped it a month later to The Undertaker, never to be champ again. Throughout the rest of his 2002 run, he was kept in the midcard, before doing a job to Brock Lesnar on his way out the door.
11 Kurt Angle - Unforgiven 2001
Angle had been involved in a hot feud with champion (and heel) Steve Austin. They met at SummerSlam but, surprisingly, the title did not change hands, despite Angle arguably being at his most popular. Instead the match went to a DQ and a rematch was booked for a month later. In the meantime 9/11 happened and the USA experienced a resurgence in patriotism. Suddenly having an Olympic Gold Medalist on the roster mattered to Vince, who booked Angle to win the title at Unforgiven.
The problem was, Vince had no interest in keeping the title on Angle, who lost the strap two weeks later on RAW. Giving Angle the title wasn’t necessarily the wrong move, it just (1) should have happened at SummerSlam, (2) shouldn’t have happened as a post 9/11 gimmick, and (3) shouldn’t have ended so unceremoniously. Angle wouldn't win the title back until late 2002, and the WWE failed to strike while the iron was hot with Angle as a babyface.
10 Randy Orton - Hell in a Cell 2013
It’s easy to look back on the whole Daniel Bryan/Yes-movement saga that stretched from SummerSlam 2013-WrestleMania XXX and call it “the perfect storyline.” It just takes a lot of revisionist history to make it work. A lot of bad McMahon decisions had to go horribly wrong in order for Daniel Bryan to hoist the championship in the Superdome. Right in the middle of those bad decisions was Randy Orton’s title win at Hell in a Cell 2013. Bryan won the title at SummerSlam, lost it to Orton that night in a Money in the Bank cash-in, regained it a month later, and then had it vacated on a technicality the next night on Raw. Hell in a Cell should have been the blow-off, with Bryan getting his final win and moving on. Instead, Orton won and Bryan was supposed to have dropped down to the midcard. That didn’t happen (because reasons) but it was GOING to happen, which is a travesty.
9 Triple H - Judgment Day 2000
Speaking of stalling out hot champions, The Rock had to wait until Backlash 2000, a full year after finally turning babyface, before finally regaining the WWE Championship. What should have been the beginning of a long title run with the company being built around him (the way it had been built around Austin for the past two years) instead turned into a one-month reign that ended in a fiasco. The Iron Man match between he and Triple H was very good, but it ended with miscues, the hour-long clock becoming out of sync with the action in the ring and the unexpected debut of “Biker Taker.”
In the end, Triple H—with help from DX and the McMahons—regained his title. The Rock won it back a month later (by pinning Vince McMahon of all people) but it was a title change that should never have needed to happen. The Rock never really had a long title reign and this break prevented him from having one in 2000, at his peak.
8 Triple H - No Mercy 2007
John Cena had been in the middle of one of those “long title runs with the company being built around him” when a torn pectoral forced him to drop the belt. He had been in the midst of a feud with Randy Orton and relinquished the championship just a week before his PPV title defense. Needing a main event, Vince inserted Triple H into Cena’s spot. But instead of doing what made sense (Orton, the heel, defeating Triple H for Cena’s title and then running with it until “the champ” returned), for some reason they decided to book two separate Triple H/Randy Orton matches, and have Triple H win the first (in the opening match of the night) and then have Orton win the second (in the main-event).
As a result, Triple H gets another marker on his list of accomplishments by having one of the most unnecessary title wins in WWE history.
7 Roman Reigns - WrestleMania 32
It had been clear for months that fans were not going to warm up to Roman Reigns as the next Cena. Nevertheless, Vince stuck to his guns and tried his best to protect Reigns from the fan’s unrest. This led to a WrestleMania title feud where the challenger was sidelined a month before the event, while a different competitor—Dean Ambrose—feuded for the title. Ambrose was remarkably over but his feud was just a place-holder. When Reigns returned, so did the fans’ bitterness. Instead of seeing the writing on the wall and calling an audible, Vince pressed on and ended WrestleMania 32 (marketed as the biggest ever) with a slog of a match featuring a challenger no one wanted to see win the title. By the time the title-switch happened, most were too bored to boo. Reigns' three-month reign was a disappointment of low-ratings and poor house-show numbers that ended with a wellness violation.
6 Rey Mysterio, John Cena RAW - July 25, 2011
CM Punk won the WWE Title in a five-star classic match that concluded the opening chapter to what should have been a five-star storyline (more on that later). He then flew the coop, just as he’d promised, taking the WWE Championship with him. Instead of dealing with the repercussions, Vince created a replacement title (which kind of nullified the drama that preceded it, no?) and booked a tournament to crown the new champion.
Rey Mysterio won the tournament and the title (his first and only “WWE” Championship) and then, the same night he won it, was challenged to defend it by John Cena…the same night he won it (jerk move, John). Cena won the title and then CM Punk returned, a mere eight days after leaving, rendering so many big events in the past 14 days moot. Just like that, a whole storyline was flushed down the drain.
5 Sheamus - Survivor Series 2015
Poor Sheamus. He’s a competent wrestler with a good workrate and a good look. But whenever he sniffs the main-event, he just blossoms a turd. His third WWE Championship win came a long five years after his second, so it’s not like he had been shoved down everyone’s throats for years on end. On the other hand, he had been a nobody for so long no one took him seriously as a threat to win Money in the Bank that June, and no one took him seriously as the MITB holder that summer and fall.
When he cashed in, even though it was against the maligned Roman Reigns, still no one took him seriously. His terrible reign lasted a mere three weeks before he dropped the title back to Roman Reigns. It’s not about whether or not Reigns should have regained the title; it’s the fact that Sheamus was the one doing nothing with it in the first place. Terrible all around.
4 JBL - Great American Bash 2004
Eddie Guerrero had been called the Latino Stone Cold. The reason was due to the incredible ratings he had been pulling for his segments on the SmackDown brand in 2003. When he won the title from Brock Lesnar in February of 2004, it looked like he had finally reached his well-deserved place at the top of the mountain. Just a few months later, however, Vince made the switch to JBL. No one who watched back then could deny how over JBL was as a heel, but as great as his character work was, his in-ring skills were subpar. Eddie had charisma, talent and momentum. He had it all. Title changes have to happen eventually, but Guerrero basically dropped out of the main event and never sniffed a world title again. He should have been a perennial title challenger/champion and main-eventer. But he wasn’t, and meanwhile JBL carried the belt for a too-long ten months. That’s a crime against wrestling.
3 The Miz - RAW, November 22nd, 2010
As with JBL, no one can deny how good Miz’ character is at getting under fans’ skin. For years he’s been one of the most underrated heels in wrestling. But he’s never been a great “wrestler.” His look is also a little too average, especially when compared to a real-life Superman like Cena, or a colorful character like CM Punk or Daniel Bryan. Still, he won the Money in the Bank briefcase and as others had before him, he cashed in at the right time to win the title. In and of itself, his title win is no great tragedy, but the fact that it took the place of other more deserving champions at the time, especially CM Punk (who cited Miz’s WrestleMania main-event title match as fuel for his desire to leave in 2011), earns it a high and lofty spot on the countdown.
2 John Cena - Royal Rumble 2006
For over 10 years Cena has been the poster-boy for WWE, so naturally there are a lot of title-wins that go along with that (the man’s a 12-time WWE Champ and 15-time World Champion, after all). Only a few of those wins have made this countdown, however, which speaks to how natural and normal WWE has made his winning the title feel. There are a few times though when it was certainly the wrong move. In early January, 2006, Cena lost the WWE Championship to Edge, in the first-ever Money in the Bank cash-in. His one-month reign saw RAW’s ratings increase exponentially, as lapsed fans of the Attitude Era tuned back in to see one of their own as the new top guy on the show. Alas, it was not to be.
Instead of a three month reign ending in a WrestleMania 22 rematch, Cena plowed through Edge (and Lita) for three weeks before winning back his title at the Royal Rumble. Obviously Cena should have regained the title eventually (he’s the hero, after all), but he should not have won it so soon. Obviously Edge was going to drop the belt eventually (heels are bred to lose, after all) but he should not have lost it so soon. This was a bad decision all the way around.
1 Big Show - Survivor Series 2002
Speaking of title runs that ended too soon, Brock Lesnar should have been WWE Champion for a year before losing it. All of the work put into him during his rise to the main event (beating everyone from Hardcore Holly to Hollywood Hogan), plus the work of The Rock in his title match, and The Undertaker in his first big title feud, all of it was thrown away when Big Show (too fat to wear a singlet; he wrestled in pants) won the belt.
Originally, Brock Lesnar was to face Hulk Hogan in a steel cage, at Madison Square Garden at the 2002 Survivor Series. It doesn’t get more “pro wrestling” than that. But Hogan didn’t want to do the job, so plan-B was…Big Show? Big Show winning? Worst plan-B ever. What an incredible waste of an undefeated streak this was. Has an undefeated streak ever ended to build a new star?
2. Alberto Del Rio, John Cena, Then Alberto Del Rio - SummerSlam 2011 to No Mercy 2011
Back to the glorious catastrophe that was WWE’s Summer of Punk. Punk returned a couple weeks after leaving, challenged Cena to a title vs. title match at SummerSlam 2011 and won. Easy-peasy. Except, nope, Kevin Nash (?!) returned and attacked Punk, leaving him vulnerable for Del Rio to cash in Money in the Bank and win the title. Okay, fine. That can lead to Punk vs. Del Rio and then we can pick up Cena vs. Punk later. But nope. Del Rio feuded with Cena and Punk got stuck in the wrestling equivalent of the black and white Twilight Zone spiral thingy, quasi-feuding with Nash (a heel) and Triple H (a face).
By the time he got back into the title picture, he had lost a ton of momentum. In the meanwhile, Cena and Del Rio traded title wins for two months and no one cared. Horrible booking all the way around.
1. Literally All Of 2009
In the annals of WWE History there is no year that has been worse for title changes than 2009. The belt changed hands nine times that year (second only to the nadir of Vince Russo’s booking, 1999, which had 12 changes), with one vacancy half-way through, and all of it sucked.
It began with Edge winning it in January. He did nothing with it before Triple H defeated him for the belt a month later. He managed to hold on to it through WrestleMania (because of course he did), before losing it to Orton in April. Orton then dropped it to Batista in June, who held it for a dignified TWO DAYS before bowing out with a bicep injury. Orton then reclaimed the title only to lose it to John Cena…who lost it back to Orton…who lost it back to Cena. This all happened between June and October and none of the matches were any good. None of them. They all sucked. Sheamus then burped in Cena’s face, who jumped like a frightened deer onto a table, awarding the title to the Celtic Warrior. Sheamus closed out the year with the belt, a year that saw tanking ratings, diminished PPV buyrates and a whole lot of fan apathy.
For a company that says its World Championship is the richest prize in the industry, 2009 was the year when they YOLO’d that thing around like potato salad on the Fourth of July. Lately they have tried to treat the title with a little more respect, but it’s only a matter of time before we get another “what, why?” title reign. As long as Big Show or Sheamus are on the roster, and Randy Orton is lingering around catering, there’s always the possibility.
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