The United States title history dates back to the old territory era as many a promotion would use such a belt, sometimes as their main title. The Mid-Atlantic region was among the more popular and as it became Jim Crockett Promotions and then the UWF, the U.S. title became a bigger deal, soon seen as the secondary belt in the promotion and home to some great feuds and programs. The final Nitro had Booker T as champion when he beat Scott Steiner to hold both belts going into WWE. The title was unified with the Intercontinental Championship during the “Invasion” and that seemed to be its end. But in 2003, WWE revived it as a belt for SmackDown and it’s remained around since.
WWE has used it to elevate guys, John Cena especially given a nice push with his 2004 reign (with the “spinner belt”) to help make him a star. Other top reigns have included MVP, Kofi Kingson and Dean Ambrose as the title has had shots at being a big deal. Sadly, many reigns have been short and far too sour, some lasting only days and not doing a favor to either the worker or the title. Attempts are made now and then to build it up (John Cena’s open challenge last year) but they still seem to suffer as bookers seem to forget how to build the belt right. For a belt with such a good history to suffer this much doesn’t seem right and speaks to the state of WWE today. John Cena did some good things with the belt, having his "open challenge" but his reign didn't end with putting over a new star, but rather losing it to Seth Rollins thanks to Jon Stewart.
Here are 15 of the worst reigns for the WWE version of the U.S. belt and how poorly the championship has been treated over the years.
15 Mr. Kennedy
Ken Kennedy/Anderson may be one of the greatest examples ever of a guy who had “future superstar” written all over him only to be undone by injuries, his own temper and just pure bad luck. WWE really was pushing him in 2006 with his cool ring intro. He seemed ready for a big push by winning the belt in a Triple Threat match. This led to him arrogantly wanting to jump with the title to RAW and making him look like a real jerk. After only 40 days, Kennedy’s reign ended when he lost by submission to Chris Benoit thanks to a distraction from The Undertaker. It was the first of many setbacks that would harm Kennedy’s stardom to show a great career that could have been.
14 Kalisto/Alberto Del Rio
Hot-shotting titles has been a major issue for wrestling, often failing to help either the worker or the title. Such a case occurred earlier this year when Kalisto upset Alberto Del Rio for the title on RAW and it was made out to be a big deal with his triumph. Just a few days later, Kalisto lost the belt back to Del Rio on SmackDown, which seemed a real waste. He would regain the title a few weeks later and it's just baffling how WWE felt the need to shift the belt so fast just to spice the feud up a bit more and his ultimate win was not as great as hoped.
13 Booker T
He may have been good as a U.S. champ in WCW but Booker’s tenure with the belt in WWE wasn’t as good. He first won it in 2004 in an 8-way elimination bout but his tenure only lasted about two months, the latter half dominated by a “best-of-five” series against Cena which Cena ultimately won. Booker T won the belt off Chris Benoit in 2005 with the cool bit of going heel and a controversial match had the title held up for a “best-of-seven” series.
Midway through, Booker was legitimately injured so Randy Orton had to take his place to win the belt for him, Booker then defended it for a month before losing it back to Benoit. He can boast a lot of great reigns but the U.S. belt isn’t quite one of them for Booker.
12 Jack Swagger
On paper, the “All-American American” as U.S. champion should have made sense. Instead, Swagger (the classic case of a guy pushed beyond his standing) never quite clicked in that position. It didn’t help he beat the massively popular Ryder to win the title in the first place so fans were already against him even without the annoyance of Vickie Guerrero at his side. His reign had him off TV for some shows and not defending it on PPV before losing it to Santino of all people. No matter how many belts they tried with him, WWE could never quite get Swagger as over as they wanted to, a stigma that still haunts him.
His debut was made out to be a big deal as Carlito appeared in WWE to challenge Cena for the belt in Cena’s home of Boston and won it. This set up Carlito as an arrogant heel but the instant championship was also seen as “too much, too soon” as Carlito was still a bit raw and learning the ropes to the company. It was meant as a long tenure but after only a month and a half, an injury forced Carlito to drop the title back to Cena. While he would have success as IC and tag team champion, Carlito’s big debut as a U.S. champ wasn’t as cool as he’d hoped.
10 Orlando Jordan
Jordan was a fair worker but held back by his annoying mannerisms and WWE often seeming to not know what to do with him. After time as JBL’s “executive assistant,” Jordan was set up to beat Cena for the U.S. title in 2005, a way to fuel the Cena/JBL Mania WWE title match. Jordan, however, fell to the wayside, often forgotten despite being champion. His reign ended with him losing the belt by submission to Chris Benoit in only 23 seconds. This set up a series of rematches with Benoit beating Jordan in faster time each bout, making Jordan look even worse. Instead of being elevated as U.S. champ, Jordan’s career suffered, leading to his eventual release and no favors for his reign.
JBL was always slammed by fans for his sudden elevation from longtime mid-card tough guy to main event champion heel. That had lowered by 2006 but still fans didn’t take to him as a serious threat too much. So you can imagine how annoyed they were at WrestleMania 22 when JBL beat Chris Benoit for the title, using the classic “ropes as leverage” for the pin. By this point, his in-ring tenure was winding down by injuries and it showed in lackluster defenses, usually winning by cheating or getting himself disqualified. It built up to a SmackDown where he lost the belt in just minutes to Lashley and then “retired” to become a commentator. While that was fun, having him ending his run as a champ was seen by many as annoying for a guy already raised beyond his station.
Truth has had a few points here and there like the period he was a nutcase and tag team championships with Kofi and others. But aside from his rapping entrance, he wasn’t that special, an okay worker but nothing spectacular. His victory over The Miz for the vacant title in 2010 was a baffling move, he wasn’t that over and an odd choice to hold the belt. It didn’t seem right for him as shown in bad rematches and he ended up dropping it after a few weeks in a four-way battle won by Miz. Not a bad worker but just not right for this spot.
7 Santino Marella
Santino had settled into a nice slot in 2012 as the loveable idiot whose goofball antics got the crowd laughing. He had a bit as IC and tag team champion but he was much better as a comedy worker with his “Cobra” and the odd victory meant as a big deal. His victory for the title in 2012 was a major surprise, kicking off a RAW show and seemed intended as a short deal. Instead, he held the title for five months, one of the longer reigns of recent years. It was presented straight, not the wacky antics of the past and his defenses mostly being beaten around before eking out a surprise win. Great as a comedy guy, Santino just wasn’t believable as a serious champion so his dropping the title wasn’t a bad thing to end a reign much longer than should have been.
6 Matt Hardy
The 2008 feud between Hardy and MVP was actually well done with them as “wacky tag champs who hate each other” before their split and feud for the belt. Hardy won it in a two-out-of-three falls match and then took the title to ECW. That was as bad as you can imagine, already making the poorly-received brand look worse and robbing SmackDown of a key belt while Hardy’s bouts there were hardly what one would call stellar. He dropped it to Shelton Benjamin to return to SmackDown but Hardy has to hold a label of one of the lower points of the title’s legacy.
5 The Big Show
Historically, it’s important as the first change of the WWE version of the title. But it’s also annoying that after becoming the first WWE U.S. champion in 2003 and doing a great job at it, Eddie Guerrero dropped it to the Big Show. It was meant to be a “David vs. Goliath” bit and Eddie mocking Show in promos but came off a bad turn in a poor match. Show never looked right with the title draped on his shoulder and it was often ignored in his various matches.
He did do the right thing dropping it to Cena at Mania which helped push Cena to the big time yet it’s annoying Show had to be only the second U.S. champ in WWE when he’s better off without such a secondary title.
4 Seth Rollins
When John Cena started his “Open Challenge,” it looked like the U.S. title was in for some good stuff. Kevin Owens had a good challenge for it and various others and it seemed logical that when someone beat him for the belt, it would be a big deal. Of course, WWE and “logic” don’t go together much now as proven when Cena dropped the belt to World champion Seth Rollins at SummerSlam and Rollins went around with both titles. It seemed a bit fun at first, to boast of being a dual champion but it also reduced the U.S. title to a forgotten bit which was proven when Cena beat Rollins to get back only that belt a month later. Not the most shining example of the title standing on its own.
3 Zack Ryder
This is one of the most damning indictments of WWE’s tendency to cut the legs off a guy they’re not backing. Getting over massively on his own with his online videos and appeal, Ryder seemed to be going great as 2011 ended, hot with the crowds, fans buying merchandise and his promos a highlight of the show. At TLC, he beat Dolph Ziggler to win the belt and the crowd popped massively, cheering him the next night, Ryder clearly on his way to being a major thing. Yet for some reason, WWE refused to see what the crowds wanted and so Ryder was cut off majorly, losing the belt to Jack Swagger after just a few weeks and then his slow, sad decline. It’s still remarkable how badly this was blown and how WWE seems to ignore the fan wishes so much.
2 Bobby Lashley
Bobby Lashley was seriously meant to be a big deal for WWE with his build, drive and supposed skill and they did their best to push him. This included crushing JBL for the U.S. title in 2006 and it was intended to be a big run. However, medical issues would hurt Lashley with the threat of a suspension and his title defenses only showcased how limited he was as a worker. Thus, after just two months, Lashley lost the belt to Finlay in a rough match before spending time off and then to ECW. He never connected in WWE as hoped and thus his reign as U.S. champ was recognized as a bad attempt to sell a bad worker.
1 Bret Hart
This is not a slam on the Hitman himself to be sure. However, it was clear to everyone in 2010 that having Bret as an in-ring competitor was a terrible move. After his stroke and so long on the shelf, the one-time Excellence of Execution was a shell of his former shelf. After his messy bout with Vince McMahon at Mania, Bret was set up for a nostalgia run that included challenging The Miz at a show in Toronto. It was obviously just to reward Bret after the years of bad blood and the need of the Hart Dynasty to help him win just showed how bad off Bret was. He vacated it fast to make this nothing more than a brief blip in his legacy rather than a grand send-off and a reminder how even one as great as The Hitman isn’t immune to age.