In WWE, the Intercontinental Championship is one of the cornerstones of the company. Established in 1979 with Hall of Famer Pat Patterson being the first wrestler to win the title, WWE decided there needed to be a secondary championship to accompany the WWE World Championship. The Intercontinental title became a hit as it would become perceived as the belt that would be the first step in one’s ascension to the main event picture. It also opened up a new space for the best in-ring competitors and workhorses of the company to have superb matches and tell stories in fight for the title.
Many stars heralded today in the Hall of Fame started their rise when winning the Intercontinental Championship. Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels are just a small percentage of the legends to make their early names in WWE holding the Intercontinental title before excelling into the world title picture and becoming the stars we fondly remember them as. The goal especially during the 90s used to be to win the Intercontinental Championship because it would mean great things were nearly guaranteed to come for them.
However, the percentages of Intercontinental title holders to go on to super-stardom and world title reigns would begin to diminish between the hotshotting of belts in the Attitude Era and more recently, the value of the title faltering over the last ten years. Through the last couple of years, the Intercontinental Championship has become somewhat of a curse where pushes end rather than begin a journey. With the title existing for this long and going through many positive and negative changes of the WWE landscape, we’re looking at the 20 wrestlers who flopped as Intercontinental Champion, whether having a poor reign or just failing to progress after holding the title.
20 Luke Harper
With The Wyatt Family a hit, WWE decided to separate the trio partly because they saw a potential singles star in Luke Harper. Bray Wyatt was already established and Erick Rowan’s potential was limited so the move was done in an effort to see how far Harper would go. Following the split, Harper would win the Intercontinental Championship in an attempt to raise his profile but it wouldn’t work. Despite having great matches with Dolph Ziggler, Harper’s career didn’t take off as many hoped and he lost the title before reuniting with Rowan and then Wyatt again.
19 Jeff Jarrett
Entering the business with the legacy of the Jarrett family, there was a world of promise and hope for Jeff Jarrett. Going on to have a very long and successful career in many promotions as a wrestler, owner and promoter, Jarrett still was never able to reach the top of WWE. Jarrett would go on to hold the Intercontinental Championship six times in his two tenures as a WWE superstar and they were almost always entertaining, but it never elevated him into the main event picture like it did to his counterparts during that time.
18 Billy Gunn
Another superstar that had a great career but never truly reached his potential was Billy Gunn. From his early days in The Smoking Gunns to his success in DX, Gunn always was a great tag team wrestler and a superb supporting player on the team of the WWE. Gunn would have a few opportunities at improving his standing as a singles star with pushes hoping to make him more relevant on his own. One of those times was in 2000 when Billy defeated Eddie Guerrero to become the Intercontinental Champion but it only lasted a few forgettable weeks and he lost to Chris Benoit.
17 The Godfather
During the Attitude Era, the Intercontinental title started to become less prestigious and the title holder was no longer a near guarantee for greatness. The Godfather was one of the few Intercontinental champs to not move up the card, deliver good matches or have a memorable reign. In 1999, Godfather won the title with his gimmick of being a pimp with his slew of “hos” walking to the ring getting him over. Godfather’s reign was almost two months but nothing of note would happen and his career would actually start to gradually decline from that point.
Throughout his career, it’s been evident that WWE saw something special in Albert. From his push vs. Undertaker on Smackdown in 2003 to his push vs. John Cena as Lord Tensai in 2012, WWE has tried to get the best out of him but the first glimpse of this was when Albert won the Intercontinental Championship in 2001. As a part of X-Factor with X-Pac and Justin Credible, Albert defeated Kane to win the title as the faction was designed to get him over. Things didn’t work out as hoped and he would drop the title to Lance Storm a few weeks later.
15 Road Dogg
Road Dogg’s tag team work with Billy Gunn as the New Age Outlaws gave us one of the most successful tag team acts in WWE. Dogg’s mic work was among the best at a time when the company had its most charismatic roster (Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley and many others), but his promos would still leave a memorable effect on the fans. At one point in 1999, WWE tried the Outlaws as singles performers with Road Dogg winning the Intercontinental title. The only thing to come from the title reign was realizing he would never become a singles star in WWE. Road Dogg was a great tag team champion but terrible Intercontinental champ.
Despite being named a Hall of Famer, it would be hard to argue the merits of Rikishi as a top level performer but WWE badly wanted him to become one. Becoming a loved act as the leader of Too Cool, Rikishi would win the Intercontinental Championship in 2000 over Chris Benoit but wasn’t ever viewed as a credible champion. Failing to make an impact as the Intercontinental champ, WWE would still go forward with a Rikishi push revealing him as the heel that ran over Steve Austin with a car – a huge storyline. No one took him seriously and his storyline was quickly changed turning him into Triple H’s lackey.
Around 2005, WWE tried rebuilding their mid-card division with talented athletes such as Carlito, Shelton Benjamin and Johnny Nitro. While all were talented, unfortunately none of them would use their Intercontinental title reigns to catapult themselves into the main event picture. Carlito was the classic underachiever as he had all the talent and charisma to move up the card but often seemed unmotivated. During his time as Intercontinental champ, Carlito’s work saw a little bit of regression and he would eventually drop the title to a 56 year old Ric Flair before being a complete afterthought on the roster.
12 Ezekiel Jackson
The jacked physical specimen known as Ezekiel Jackson was seen as someone with a world of potential by WWE due to Vince McMahon’s fascination with wrestlers that have a bodybuilder’s type of physique. After a successful stint in WWE’s ECW as the last champion on the brand, Jackson would later feud with Wade Barrett before defeating him to become Intercontinental Champion in 2011. Jackson was exposed for his many limitations during his two month title reign before dropping the title to Cody Rhodes. Following the disappointing title reign, Jackson would flounder in obscurity before WWE decided to cut bait and release the big man.
11 Davey Boy Smith
“The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith is one of the more fascinating stories when it comes to this list. Smith is a future Hall of Famer and had a very good career in pro wrestling making an impact on many of today’s stars but his Intercontinental title reign was quite disappointing given the way he won it. Smith defeated Bret Hart in a classic match at Summerslam 1992 in front of over 80,000 hometown fans, leaving fans to wonder how bright his star would rise and if he was destined to become a future world champion. Unfortunately, his IC title run was uneventful and lackluster and he never became a world champ.
10 Wade Barrett
Viewed to be poised for greatness by the majority of fans and pundits, Wade Barrett’s career in WWE has not lived quite up to the expectations most had for him. Barrett debuted in a main event angle as leader of the Nexus and would main event many PPVs in his rookie year with WWE vs. John Cena. Barrett’s time as a main event star was short lived as his career has been full of ups and downs. As a three-time IC champ, Barrett has been unable to turn his title reigns into a bigger push or achieve a higher level of success in WWE. There's still time for his story to change and we hope it does, as he's a top level talent.
9 Marc Mero
One of the first talents WWE signed from WCW and attempted to push happened to be Marc Mero. Known as Johnny B. Badd in WCW, Mero entered WWE with a world of promise and was one of the most heavily featuring mid-carders at the time. Mero would win the Intercontinental Championship in a tournament when the title was vacated in 1996. Unfortunately for him, Mero couldn’t connect with the WWE audience but his valet and real life wife at the time Sable would become a huge star. Mero’s push ultimately turned into Sable’s push and she was eventually put in a higher profile as Mero’s career reached its end.
8 Texas Tornado
The late Kerry Von Erich was arguably the most talented member of the legendary Von Erich family. As a legend in Texas during the territory days, WWE signed Kerry and gave him the new name of Texas Tornado. Two months into WWE debut, Tornado would win the Intercontinental Championship over Mr. Perfect at the second biggest show of the year, Summerslam. It was surely a sign that WWE saw star potential in Tornado and wanted to mold him into a main eventer. Tornado’s title reign was not impressive and he lost it back to Mr. Perfect after about three months before slowly becoming an enhancement talent.
7 Big E
Current WWE superstar and tag team standout with the New Day, there was a time not too long ago that the company viewed Big E as a main event prospect. Around the end of 2013, Vince McMahon actually thought Big E would be the next big star and was hoped to be what would eventually turn into Roman Reigns current spot. Big E would win the Intercontinental Championship and hold it longer than anyone else has in the last three years but his momentum and fan support gradually slowed down over that time and his main event hopes washed away. Big E was barely even on television after that until New Day was formed.
In his debut as a WWE superstar, Santino defeated the monster then known as Umaga for the Intercontinental Championship in Italy. Posing as a fan in the crowd, Santino was challenged by Umaga before pulling off the upset known as the “Milan Miracle.” The future was bright for Santino but quickly, the surprise win and new face would become less accepted by fans as many would start to boo him at live shows and TV. Not too long after a debut as a new loved face, Santino would turn into a comedic heel. While highly entertaining at times, his debut and IC title win were with hopes of much more.
5 Shelton Benjamin
To this day when fans talk about the most underrated performers during the mid-2000s, Shelton Benjamin is the most popular subject. Benjamin entered WWE as one of the most highly touted prospects due to his outstanding athletic skill and an excellent pedigree of collegiate wrestling. With his singles push starting in an upset over Triple H, Benjamin would go on to become an IC champ a few months later. Benjamin’s reign was very entertaining and many were satisfied with his work but his charisma would hold him back from becoming a main eventer. With three IC title reigns, Benjamin was very good but failed to live up to his true potential.
4 Curtis Axel
When Paul Heyman announced he would be naming a new “Paul Heyman guy” in 2013, rumors were swirling over what big star it would be. The reveal was Curtis Axel and it perplexed many fans as Axel was never seen as anything more than an enhancement talent. Heyman wanted to get the best of his potential and it started off well with Axel winning the IC title on Father’s Day, in a great moment celebrating his late father and legendary Intercontinental champ, Mr. Perfect. After the impressive start, Axel would fall back down the card and back into obscurity while holding the title and has yet to crawl out of the hole since then.
3 Drew McIntyre
In 2009, the top prospect in WWE was Drew McInyre. With Triple H and Shawn Michaels having influence, both men were very high on the potential of McIntyre and Sheamus. While Sheamus became a multiple time world champion and is still very significant on the current product, McIntyre fell the opposite way. McIntyre was dubbed “The Chosen One” by Vince McMahon on television and was given a heavy push with the stamp of approval as Intercontinental champ. What followed was a lackluster reign where the fans wouldn’t connect or react to him. After the reign failed, McIntyre was seemingly pushed to the side and never given a chance like that in WWE again.
The only female Intercontinental Champion in WWE history, Chyna was one of the hottest acts in WWE at the time and the company decided to put the second biggest belt on her. One of the rare women in WWE to wrestle against men, Chyna defeated Jeff Jarrett to win the IC title in a very memorable match. After the great moment, Chyna’s magic started to run out as her feud with Chris Jericho led to them becoming co-champions. The storyline was bad enough to slowly tune Chyna out of the IC title picture and into a love story with Eddie Guerrero before going back to the women’s division.
1 Ahmed Johnson
One wrestler that Vince McMahon was absolutely supportive of being a main event act was Ahmed Johnson. Being aligned with then top face Shawn Michaels and treated like a star on television, Johnson was designed to become a world champion. Johnson’s biggest win came over Goldust to capture the Intercontinental Championship at the King of the Ring 1996. Between his lack of progression in the ring, his limited skills on the microphone and an injury forcing him to relinquish the title, that was the final high point for Ahmed. When healthy again, Johnson was given a couple of more chances but his poor IC title reign exposed him and he never viewed the same by the WWE or its fans.