For over half a century the biggest names in wrestling have competed to become the pinnacle of the industry by being able to call themselves the WWE Champion. Whole lifetimes have been dedicated in the hopes of one day being able to be 'the man'. But for some, climbing the mountain is not actually the most difficult part.
Despite their legendary status, stars such as Edge, The Big Show and even Mr McMahon himself have only ever managed to accrue short reigns at the top. The likes of Mick Foley, Stan Stasiak and The Iron Sheik have found themselves in the role of transitional champion. Some can count some of their less shorter reigns in mere minutes, as has happened to the likes of Yokozuna, Triple H and Randy Orton. The least fortunate - André the Giant, Kane and Rey Mysterio - can count their only time at the top in such short fashion.
To hold the WWE Championship for a lengthy period shows that a wrestler is undeniably the top dog. They have what it takes to carry the entire company on their shoulders, both in the ring and in outside commitments to promote the WWE. Or for some, they have been given the chance to prove their detractors wrong.
26 The Miz, 160 days
Many thought that Mike Mizanin would never win the big one, let alone hold the championship for as long as he did. The former Real World contestant became the first Tough Enough contestant to win the WWE Championship, despite many believing that it was his tag team partner, John Morrison who would reach the achievement instead.
Miz surprised the world when he won the 2010 Raw Money in the Bank contract. During the four months that he carried the briefcase, many banked on him to be the first to cash in unsuccessfully.
But on November 22nd, after WWE Champion Randy Orton survived a championship match against Nexus leader Wade Barrett, Miz successfully cashed-in and achieved his dream. He proved all his haters wrong. And not just the fans. During his run, Miz would make a point of the fact that he had been ostracized by his fellow wrestlers during his time and had no problem rubbing their faces in his triumph.
25 Randy Orton, 161 days
The most recent reign on this list may surprise some in its length as it was overshadowed by the insane popularity of another star - Daniel Bryan. Orton joined The Authority at SummerSlam 2013 when he cashed in his Money in the Bank contract immediately after Bryan finally won the WWE Championship. This would kick off months of title swapping between the two men until Hell in a Cell where the two would square off again for the right to call themselves the champion, but referee Shawn Michaels who would ultimately cause Orton to leave the victor.
From there Orton would unify the WWE Championship with John Cena's World Heavyweight Championship, defeating his nemesis cleanly in a TLC Match. WWE then saw Orton facing his former Evolution stablemate Batista as the main event of the WrestleMania XXX, with the returning star winning the Royal Rumble. But plans soon changed.
24 Bret Hart, 174 days
For The Hitman, his first WWE Championship was a case of right place, right time. The right time came thanks to then champion Ric Flair suffering a freak injury that forced an end to a planned lengthy reign. The place was Saskatoon, Canada where 18 years prior to his championship victory over Ric Flair at an untelevised event, Bret wrestled his first ever match.
It wasn't all good news for Bret though, as he didn't get to celebrate with his family in attendance. Instead, he went straight to the hospital due to dislocating his finger and rolling his ankle during the match. Things didn't get much better for him during his reign, as he admitted that he never felt like the title was truly his as he felt he could lose it at any time due to not buying the company's belief in him.
23 Stone Cold Steve Austin, 175 days
Ironically, Stone Cold's only reign of length came as a result of his decision to join up with arch-rival, Mr McMahon. Most people, including Austin himself, regret the decision to turn him heel at WrestleMania X-Seven but with the odds stacked in his favour for once, the Texas Rattlesnake finally got a tight grip on the championship.
Eventually Austin would prove that he really couldn't be trusted, as he would turn his back on Vince and the fans once more during the InVasion pay-per-view event, where he joined up with Shane and Stephanie McMahon's Alliance to try and put the WWE out of business. All while keeping the company's top prize around his waist.
22 Randy Orton, 203 days
Orton became WWE Champion twice during the course of No Mercy 2007, exchanging the championship with Triple H throughout the night. Instead of continuing the rivalry, Orton would find himself defending against a man who he had put out of action earlier in the year, Shawn Michaels. He succeeded in turning back the Heart Break Kid, before he was faced with another man seeking revenge for being taken out by The Viper.
John Cena would make a shocking return to win the Royal Rumble, and even more shockingly, use his championship match at No Way Out instead of WrestleMania. It would prove a bad decision, as Orton retained by disqualification. This would lead to Orton having to defend against Cena and frequent rival Triple H at the big event. However he would surprise many by keeping hold of his championship by pinning Cena.
21 Triple H, 210 days
To make matters worse for Orton, Triple H's victory would kick off a reign that would defeat his length. By one week. Orton did have two pay-per-view opportunities in a row to win back his championship but was unsuccessful, even getting injured in the latter, a Last Man Standing Match between the two.
Triple H would get drafted over to SmackDown, taking the title with him. There he would face a high level opposition including John Cena and Edge. He would even survive in the only Championship Scramble match in the history of the belt, but it would be the beginning of the end of his reign.
20 Brock Lesnar, 224 days
Most will better remember Brock's first championship success as he defeated The Rock to become the (then) youngest World Champion in WWE history or when he won the title in the main event of WrestleMania XIX.
The record actually comes from his most recent championship win, where Lesnar captured the gold from John Cena in one of the most one-sided matches in WWE history, beating Cena for the title at last year's SummerSlam.
18 Shawn Michaels, 231 days
Like Bret Hart before him, for Shawn Michaels it seemed like just a matter of time until he finally captured the big one. Unlike Bret, Michaels got to do it on the grandest stage of them all, WrestleMania. Not on the first try though. Michaels won back-to-back Royal Rumbles, but was unsuccessful against Diesel at WrestleMania XI.
Michaels would make history. He would capture the gold in the WWE's first ever 60-minute Iron Man Match at WrestleMania XII. No previous WWE Championship match had even beaten the 25-minute mark.
Unfortunately for Shawn, his timing as champion was terrible. It was during his reign that WCW began their 84--week ratings domination. As the current top dog, Michaels was blamed for WWE's failures, leading to him lashing out at the locker room and the company itself for lacking the cutting edge that their competition displayed with their nWo story. In an attempt to prove this, Michaels put on a brutal match with Mankind at In Your House: Mind Games.
17 T16. Bret Hart, 248 days
After being declared joint winner of the 1994 Royal Rumble - with Lex Luger - Bret Hart would face Yokozuna in a WrestleMania championship match for the second year in a row. This time though the role of challenger and champion would be reversed, as would the result. Once again he was unable to celebrate immediately, as his wife Julie asked for a divorce in the locker room after his win.
His ongoing rivalry with his brother Owen led to the biggest defence of this run, when the two met again inside a steel cage at SummerSlam. Owen would eventually cost Bret the title in a match against Bob Backlund at Survivor Series.
16 T16. Hulk Hogan, 248 days
In the same vein as Kurt Angle's win to end Stone Cold's reign, Hulk Hogan was looking to win for America. At the 1991 Royal Rumble, American turncoat and Iraqi sympathizer Sergeant Slaughter had captured the WWE Championship from the Ultimate Warrior.
Slaughter had become such a hated figure that he needed around the clock security, to the point that even the venue for WrestleMania needed to be changed. Instead of taking place in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and breaking the attendance record, the event was moved to the indoor Memorial Sports Arena, allegedly due to a bomb threat. Hogan defeated Slaughter to become the first ever three-time WWE Champion.
15 T13. John Bradshaw Layfield, 280 days
If The Miz surprised people, the man formerly known as Bradshaw would perform a near miracle. At nearly 40 years of age, Bradshaw had never progressed from the midcard and had found himself placed in the tag division for the past six years because there was "no other use" for him. Bradshaw himself has even admitted that due to years of damage to his body, he couldn't even perform at a top level.
Nonetheless, Bradshaw rebranded himself as a self-made millionaire and became the most hated wrestler in the company. One month later he found himself in a WWE Championship match. Bradshaw wasn't successful in capturing the belt, but another month later he would win the iconic Texas Bullrope Match that saw champion Eddie Guerrero bloodied to a level rarely ever seen in the squared circle.
14 T13. John Cena, 280 days
In 2005, John Cena and Batista were the biggest stars on the rise. WWE seemed to view the latter as the bigger potential star, having him come out on top when the two were the last man in the Royal Rumble and getting the closing match of WrestleMania 21. Cena would prove them wrong, as the crowd showed a lot more support for him taking JBL's WWE Championship.
WWE soon noticed that the crowd had embraced Cena more than Batista, and the two swapped shows, with Cena bringing the WWE Championship back to the flagship show, Raw. It would not all be smooth sailing for Cena though, as he would draw a lot of criticism from 'traditionalists' for his custom made championship belt that featured a spinning WWE logo on it. It could even be said that the 'blinged' gimmicky title was the beginning of a crowd revolt against the up-and-comer.
13 T13. Yokozuna, 280 days
Two months after losing the championship minutes after winning at WrestleMania IX, Yokozuna regained it from Hulk Hogan. This time he would keep hold of the championship for much longer. During his 10 months on top, Yokozuna would continue to grow his already large stature, reaching 568 pounds.
He would defend his championship against the likes of Lex Luger and The Undertaker until WrestleMania. Due to the Royal Rumble having two winners, Yokozuna would have to defend his belt twice during the night. In doing so, he competed in two WrestleMania matches for the second year in a row. He also got the distinct honour of being the first man to successfully defend the WWE Championship against the Royal Rumble winner at WrestleMania, defeating Luger in his first defence.
12 Ultimate Warrior, 293 days
The beginning of Warrior's reign is as memorable as it gets for his only WWE Championship run. In the first WrestleMania outside America, hailing from Toronto's Skydome, the Intercontinental Champion challenged for the WWE Championship for the first time ever. Ultimate Warrior versus Hulk Hogan.
11 Superstar Billy Graham, 296 days
Billy Graham was years ahead of his time. While everyone around him was the straight laced type, The Superstar was a flamboyant and charismatic change of pace. He would resort to dirty tactics, using the ropes to aid his pinfall, the first time such an act had won the championship. As such, he found himself to be the first heel to win the belt as more than just a transitional champion.
He went on to set attendance records in both the Boston Garden and the Philadelphia Spectrum, as well as selling out 19 of 20 Madison Square Garden main events. Graham would also compete outside the usual WWE territory, even in Japan. He would defend the title against Dusty Rhodes in a Texas Bullrope match in Florida and represented the company as champion against the NWA Champion Harley Race in Miami's Orange Bowl.
10 Diesel, 358 days
Kevin Nash may have only held the WWE Championship once, but he sure made the most of it. Ending Bob Backlund's second reign after only three days, in a match that lasted only eight seconds, he began with a major statement.
His reign would mostly consist of defending against considerably smaller men than he was used to facing. Not that the change of scenery hampered him. Diesel retained the WWE Championship at WrestleMania against the first man to win the Rumble from entry no.1 and former running mate, Michaels.
9 Hulk Hogan, 364 days
One of only two reigns to begin and end at separate WrestleManias, Hulk Hogan became the second two-time WWE Champion at WrestleMania V by defeating former partner Randy Savage. Soon after winning the belt, Hogan would begin another attempt to crack Hollywood when he went to film No Holds Barred. There began a rivalry that would spill over into the ring, as he fell out with co-star Zeus who then had a brief run with the company. The rivalry would take over most of the calendar year, despite it preoccupying the WWE Champion with what was essentially a non-wrestler.
8 Randy Savage, 371 days
The other man to have his reign begin and end across WrestleManias was Randy Savage. At WrestleMania IV, the vacant WWE Championship was contested in a 14-man tournament. The Macho Man would leave Atlantic City as the new champion, finally achieving what many felt was a long time coming.
Savage's run found itself centering around Hulk Hogan, something that would come to anger the charismatic superstar. Hogan rained on the celebration at WrestleMania, and the two would have a brief run as a team named The Mega Powers until Savage grew sick of Hogan hogging the spotlight and the attention he was showing his wife Elizabeth.
7 John Cena, 380 days
If fans were getting fed up of John Cena by the end of his first run, following it eight months later with another reign of record length (as well as a 133-day reign in-between) was the final straw. Cena won his third WWE Championship from the man who he had spent the majority of the year feuding with, Edge, in front of his partisan native crowd in Toronto.
6 CM Punk, 434 days
CM Punk may have walked out on the WWE, likely for good, but it was the time his contract expired on an electric night in Chicago that set in motion this monumental reign. At Money in the Bank 2011, in front of his passionate home town crowd, CM Punk won the WWE Championship. Meaning that on that night, the WWE Champion no longer worked for the WWE.
A month later he win a match against John Cena to crown the true WWE Champion, but would get screwed out of it by Mr. Money in the Bank Alberto Del Rio. Punk would get revenge, and the championship back, at Survivor Series. From there he would hold the championship for well over a year. Contenders included Miz, Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan, Kane and more before the events of Raw 1000.
5 Pedro Morales, 1,027 days
Pedro Morales was a hero to the people of Puerto Rico, and as such represented them to not only be the most successful WWE superstar from the island, but one of the longest WWE Champions ever. He won the WWE Championship from Ivan Koloff one month after winning his first singles championship with the company, the United States Championship - which he would forfeit as a result of winning the WWE Championship.
Bruno Sammartino, the man Koloff had defeated for the belt three weeks earlier, would run to the ring to congratulate him on his success. The two would have the first ever match between two fan favourites for the championship in 1972, battling to a time-limit draw, lasting over an hour. Despite being celebrated by many as "the Match of the Century" fans at the time were displeased at the lack of a resolution.
4 Bruno Sammartino, 1,237 days
Sadly for Stasiak his reign would only last nine days, as Bruno Sammartino defeated him to become the first ever two-time WWE Champion, a feat that would not be repeated until Hulk Hogan managed it 18 years later. The Italian Strongman was synonymous with the WWE Championship in the promotion's early days and was the most popular man in wrestling. Sammartino would defeat a laundry list of legendary opponents but one would stand out the most.
In April 1976, Sammartino broke his neck in a match with Stan Hansen due to a botched bodyslam. He continued the match for another 15 minutes and completed it, with the contest eventually being called off by the referee due to excessive blood loss on his part. He returned to the ring a mere two months later, due to Vince McMahon Sr. fearing a disastrous level of ticket sales without him, giving Hansen a merciless beating that led to him fleeing to the safety of the locker room and being counted out. The two would eventually settle their feud inside a Steel Cage where Sammartino would emerge victorious.
3 Hulk Hogan, 1,474 days
Hulk Hogan's first championship victory gave him his longest reign. He won it from the Iron Shiek amongst controversial backstage circumstances. AWA owner Verne Gagne had offered Shiek $100,000 to break Hogan's legs and bring the championship to the fledgling AWA due to Hogan's sudden jump from his company to the WWE. Shiek remained loyal to the WWE and the rise of Hulkamania went off without a hitch.
Hogan's reign brought celebrities to the WWE, both in the audience and participating, and he became the first wrestler to make the cover of Sports Illustrated, bringing a credibility to pro wrestling. A year into this, Vince McMahon Jr. decided to capitalize and take a huge risk: WrestleMania. The big marquee event was a success and launched the annual juggernaut that is wrestling's SuperBowl.
2 Bob Backlund, 2,135 days
Superstar Billy Graham may have had a problem with the "bland" image of Bob Backlund, but the WWE sure didn't. After he won the championship from Graham, Backlund would go on to have the second longest reign ever, although it is on a bit of a technicality. A year and a half into the reign, Backlund lost the championship in Japan to Antonio Inoki. He won the rematch, but due to the high level of outside interference, the win was voided. Inoki refused to have the belt handed to him and so it was vacated. Back in the United States, Backlund regained the championship and due to the controversies overseas, WWE chose to not acknowledge that Backlund ever dropped it.
1 Bruno Sammartino, 2,803 days
Sammartino has a combined 11 years as WWE Champion across his two reigns, perhaps not surprising, considering that his first one ran for seven years, eight months and a day. He was the second ever WWE Champion, defeating Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds but the story surrounding it varies depending on who tells it. Rogers, amongst others, claims he had suffered a heart attack the previous week and had to be taken out of hospital for the match. While others, including Sammartino, claim that Rogers had to be tricked into the match and was informed in the ring by his challenger that he would drop the belt and how.
Instead of the two ever having a rematch, due to Rogers retiring before it, Sammartino embarked in a big feud with the legendary Gorilla Monsoon. His most iconic rivalry was with Killer Kowalski, including the iconic Stretcher Match between the two in Fenway Park. The Italian Superman was so popular that talks supposedly took place to merge the WWE and NWA Championships, but he turned it down due to the heavy travel commitments it would have required.
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