Winning a championship is a sign of great accomplishment for an athlete in any sport. Professional wrestling uses championships as a way of marking those who are the best of the best that are worthy of the main event spotlight on television. Not only are superstars rewarded with world heavyweight championships, but there are also mid-card tier titles meant to highlight those with the potential to eventually become world champions.
One of the saddest things that can sometimes happen in a business like wrestling is when a champion has to be stripped of a title for a variety of reasons. There are many instances where a wrestler is not physically able to continue with being a champion, or there are situations where superstar is found to not be worthy of a championship.
The following are the top 15 wrestlers of all time who have been, for whatever reason, stripped of a championship in the world of professional wrestling. Wrestlers like Rob Van Dam will not be included in this list because the WWE actually had him lose the belt on television after being arrested for marijuana charges. Instead, these are wrestlers who were forced to vacate their titles without losing them in a match.
15 Tiger Mask
The history of Tiger Mask does extend multiple decades that include a run in the WWE during the early 1980s. Portrayed by Satoru Sayama, Tiger Mask would capture the attention of North American fans with a unique look that seemed like something straight out of an anime cartoon.
Tiger Mask would win the WWE Junior Heavyweight Championship with a win over the Dynamite Kid in 1982 – which was a rivalry that lasted most of the two years Tiger Mask would compete in a WWE ring. The championship reign ended after about four months when an injury led to the title being vacated. He would win the championship again about a month later and held onto it for nearly one year before another injury left the belt up for grabs in a match between Dynamite Kid and Kuniaki Kobayashi, fought to a no contest.
Tiger Mask held the belt one more time before vacating it a third time due to his retirement from the WWE in August 1983. While Sayama left the character behind, there have been other talented wrestlers to carry on the mask that included Mitsuharu Misawa.
Shortly after having defeated Randy Orton inside a steel cage match for the WWE Championship in 2009, the title reign didn’t last very long as Batista had reportedly suffered a torn bicep during the match at the Extreme Rules pay-per-view. This led to a big change of plans for the WWE as they had to strip him of the WWE Championship.
It was apparently an injury that never took place during the steel cage match itself. The company had a storyline angle where Orton and the Legacy stable attacked him to send him to the injured reserve. The injury kept Batista off of WWE television for several months. This wasn’t the first time an injury ended one of Batista’s championship reigns.
Batista actually tore his triceps during his first world title reign in 2006, which led to him having to turn in the World Heavyweight Championship during an episode of SmackDown. It was the first of two triceps injuries.
13 Chris Benoit
For most of his career in professional wrestling, Chris Benoit was usually someone who would be a staple of the mid-card of television wrestling – winning the United States and Television championships. What many wrestling fans may not know is that Benoit actually won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship in 2000 during the Souled Out pay-per-view.
The match was a decent one that lasted nearly 15 minutes before Benoit was able to put Sid Vicious in the crossface for a submission victory. However, the match result was reversed the next night on Monday Nitro when it was revealed that Sid’s foot was actually under the rope. In reality, Benoit was one of multiple wrestlers who was taking an offer from the WWE to make the leap during the final chapter of the Monday Night War. It was a short championship run that is almost forgotten about as Benoit would spend years on the WWE’s mid-card tier before finally winning the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XX.
12 Seth Rollins
This is one of the more recent situations in which a WWE Champion was stripped of a championship for an injury that kept him away from the ring. It didn’t come at a good time for Seth Rollins, who was building up so much momentum as the top villain in the WWE during 2015 -- a fair statement to make for the only wrestler in WWE history to cash in Money in the Bank for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship during the main event of WrestleMania.
The championship run looked like it could have gone a good distance until Rollins suffered a serious knee injury during a live event in Ireland in late 2015. The tears of his ACL, MCL and medial meniscus would force the company to drop Rollins’ match with Roman Reigns at Survivor Series.
Rollins was able to jump right back into the championship picture with a return a few months ago, which shows that the injury didn’t ruin Rollins’ overall stock in the WWE. Still, he lost momentum and we'll have to see if he ever gets on that kind of a roll again.
11 Shinsuke Nakamura
Earlier this year, the news was going around about the WWE signing Shinsuke Nakamura. He is obviously worthy of the attention, as he is easily one of the biggest stars Japan has seen in recent history. With the rumors starting to grow closer to becoming a reality in his final month with New Japan Pro Wrestling, the company apparently didn’t want to wait to allow Nakamura to drop the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.
The title was taken away from Nakamura, despite many expecting that he would drop the championship to Kenny Omega. While he was rumored to be making the jump to the United States with WWE, this was a bigger sign that the rumors were indeed true. Nakamura is likely okay with being stripped of the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, as he has already grown into a huge star in WWE’s NXT brand and continues to show why he is the King of Strong Style.
10 Ted DiBiase
Ted DiBiase, known best as the Million Dollar Man, might be considered by many pro wrestling experts to be one of the best talents to have never won a world heavyweight championship. By a technicality, he has held the WWE Championship once. You just won’t find it listed officially in the WWE record books.
DiBiase would hire Andre the Giant to win the WWE Championship on his behalf in 1988 in a nationally televised main event against then-champion Hulk Hogan. After having brought in a hired referee who counted the pinfall despite Hogan getting his shoulder up at one, Andre the Giant had won the championship, only to hand it off to DiBiase. For about a week, the Million Dollar Man was wearing the WWE Championship at multiple house shows.
Unfortunately for DiBiase, the WWE would later vacate the championship and refused to accept the way DiBiase won the championship. Champions are often stripped for other villainous tactics, but this is one of the rare moments where a title reign was omitted from a company’s history.
9 Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar has been able to win championships wherever he competed in the world of professional wrestling. Not only was he the youngest WWE Champion at the time with a win over The Rock in 2002, he also had a small stint working with New Japan Professional Wrestling and had won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 2005.
While he was definitely a draw overseas as Lesnar was able to defend the title on three separate occasions, his ties with Japan had to come to an abrupt end when there were problems with Lesnar’s work visa. This led New Japan Pro Wrestling to hold a tournament for the vacant championship. But the Inoki Genome Federation would continue to call Lesnar the “true” champion and he would defend the title against Kurt Angle.
Despite the successful defense, Lesnar would leave wrestling and go into mixed martial arts to win the UFC Heavyweight Championship – adding to an impressive resume.
Sting definitely had plenty of big moments during the Monday Night Wars and was fairly named The Icon while he competed in WCW during the 1990s. In the year leading up to Starrcade 1997, Sting was acting like a vigilante that continued to be a thorn in the side for the New World Order – setting up the long awaited Sting vs. Hulk Hogan bout for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship.
The match was fine until the end when Hogan came out and got the three-count, which looked normal, but not according to special guest enforcer Bret Hart, who claimed it was a fast count and restarted the match that saw Sting get the submission with the Scorpion Death Lock. It was not executed cleanly as many fans felt the original count by Nick Patrick was legitimate and the execution was flawed. It was announced by WCW executives that the championship would be vacated after the controversy from the Hogan vs. Sting finish.
7 Hulk Hogan
During the 1980s and 1990s, Hulk Hogan was essentially the WWE’s biggest star as he was a big part of popular culture at the time. Between his time spent in WWE and WCW, he had about 12 world heavyweight championship reigns in his long career. Even during the height of Hulkamania, he didn’t always play cleanly.
During a 1991 match as the challenger against The Undertaker for the WWE Championship, there was a lot of interference to help The Undertaker keep the belt. Hogan was essentially facing Undertaker, Ric Flair, Paul Bearer and WWE President Jack Tunney. Hogan would get the win, but not until he took ashes from Bearer’s urn and threw it into The Undertaker’s eyes while the referee was distracted.
Later that week, a vignette with Tunney would air that announced the WWE Championship would be vacated and placed as the prize for the 1992 Royal Rumble that was won by Ric Flair.
6 Bret Hart
There’s no one who would deny that Bret Hart was the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be. However, his time in WCW was a mere shadow of what he accomplished in the WWE. Still, Hart would win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship twice during his tenure, although those reigns probably came a couple of years too late to help his stock with WCW.
However, both of those championship reigns were very forgettable. It was his second championship reign with the WCW title that was meant to lead a new heel faction in the later years of WCW. The first run as WCW champion ended in less than a month when he suffered a very stiff kick by Goldberg that led to Hart suffering a concussion, which ended not only his title reign, but his career in professional wrestling.
Hart would wrestle another few matches before leaving the ring for about a decade before the WWE would bring him back for a match with Vince McMahon in 2010.
5 John Cena
During the height of his career in WWE, John Cena looked like an unstoppable force who could have had a shot at setting modern day records for the longest run as the WWE Champion. In fact, Cena’s third reign as the WWE Champion lasted well over a year and didn’t seem to have any chance of slowing down. But Cena suffered a severe injury to his pectoral muscle where it was torn completely from the bone, which led to a recovery timetable of about a year.
The WWE would have Vince McMahon announce the title being vacated since the minimum amount of time one would usually miss from a torn pectoral muscle was typically no less than a year. In typical, Cena fashion, he recovered well ahead of schedule, returning after just four months to win the 2008 Royal Rumble. The injury didn’t really slow down Cena’s momentum as he is still one of the most decorated wrestlers in WWE history, with 15 total world championship reigns – one shy of tying Ric Flair’s record of 16.
4 Shawn Michaels
Wrestling fans who have read Shawn Michael’s book, Wrestling for My Life, would know that the younger Heartbreak Kid did not always make the best decisions in his life outside of the ring. This included having used different substances, a habit that he would fortunately kick when he became a born-again Christian. But in 1993, Michaels had failed a drug test that would lead to him being suspended 30 days.
While it was obviously going to lead to the Intercontinental Championship being stripped away from Michaels, it was something the company tried to avoid discussing. In fact, they explained to fans that Michaels was not meeting the required number of title defenses within a 30-day window. There were other moments where the WWE Tag Team Championships had to be vacated due to conflicts with his tag team partnerships with Diesel and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
His second run in the company wasn’t about gold as he was able to establish himself as someone who didn’t need championship gold to be a main event superstar.
3 Steve Austin
One of the toughest men to have competed in the Attitude Era was able to compete for six WWE Championship reigns during the height of the Monday Night War, defeating the likes of The Rock, Undertaker, Kane and Shawn Michaels. However, one of the most memorable moments in the Attitude Era was when Vince McMahon took the WWE Championship away from Austin in 1998.
The title was vacated when Austin was pinned by both Kane and Undertaker at the same time, which left the match in a no-contest. McMahon would make the decision to make the title vacant. During a special championship presentation, Austin would drive a Zamboni into the arena before leaping into the ring and attacking Mr. McMahon. It was moments like this and the infamous beer bath scene that made Austin the symbol of that era of wrestling history, which made a lot of fans fall in love with the WWE’s anti-hero.
When a superstar like Edge has been in so many different ladder matches where he crashed through tables and onto piles of chairs, the body can only last so long. Leading up to WrestleMania XXVII in 2011, World Heavyweight Champion Edge suffered another injury when he attempted a spear to Brodus Clay outside the ring as part of the growing buildup against Alberto Del Rio.
It was not clear whether Edge would compete at WrestleMania XXVII, though he did and it ended with a successful win. But Edge would make the announcement a few days later during the taping of SmackDown that he would have to retire from in-ring competition due to a neck injury from that spear to Clay. It was an untimely end to the Rated-R Superstar’s 11th world championship run in the WWE.
Edge was always dealing with neck problems that dated back to needing spinal fusions in 2003, but he was dealing with numbness and trembling in his extremities that led to the decision that he could have easily become paralyzed if he continued to wrestle.
1 Daniel Bryan
Imagine being able to be the king of the world in professional wrestling by being the subject of a true underdog story, ending with winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXX. That was Daniel Bryan, and it was part of the “Yes Movement” that made it possible for Bryan to be a late addition to the championship picture against Batista and Randy Orton back in 2014.
The sad news is that Bryan would have to be stripped of the championship only a few months later due a neck injury suffered shortly after the biggest win of his career. Fortunately, Bryan would return in time to be part of the Intercontinental Championship ladder match at WrestleMania 31, which was another great moment for Bryan.
Unfortunately, that moment didn’t last long either as he suffered another neck injury, as well as a concussion and was stripped of the Intercontinental Championship. This would be the injury that essentially ended Bryan’s wrestling career, which is sad considering he was finally able to rise to the top of the WWE ladder and prove he was a top guy.