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.
Proving himself continued during his reign, and he did so by retaining against the man who had been labelled the Shawn Michaels of their team, John Morrison. The coup-de-grace came at WrestleMania 27, where Miz took advantage of The Rock's return to defeat John Cena in the main event. The leader of the CeNation would be successful a month later, but Miz still got to enter and exit WrestleMania as WWE Champion.
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.
Fans were disinterested in Batista's return, and loudly shared their opinion. Meanwhile, their support for Bryan remained unshakable and became known as The Yes Movement. Eventually WWE management had no choice but to give the leader of the revolution a chance to main event. Bryan would complete his journey left at WrestleMania by ending Orton's reign.
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.
Despite getting the belt in unexpected circumstances, Bret would hold it until WrestleMania where he faced off against imposing newcomer Yokozuna.
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.
Austin's reign would've lasted even longer if not for the tragic events of 9/11. With America left devastated by the World Trade Center attacks, WWE wanted to give them a feel-good moment. Enter American hero, Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle. Already a rival of Austin, Angle entered his championship match clad in a singlet of the American flag and would emerge victorious in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
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.
A month later, he would drop the championship to the man who he had exchanged the championship with before his lengthy reign, Triple H.
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.
Jeff would receive a couple of championship matches against The Game but fell short in both of them. Jeff would receive another shot at Survivor Series, along with Russian destroyer Vladimir Kozlov. Unfortunately Jeff was found unconscious at his hotel, in a news story that made major media. General Manager Vickie Guerrero would come out during the match and announce that "He's here!" and the match was once again a Triple Threat. However, Edge was the new entrant, and would capitalize on the situation to take the gold.
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.
Despite Lesnar holding the title for 224 days, he only defended it three times, losing it thanks to a Seth Rollins cash in during his match with Roman Reigns at this year's WrestleMania.
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.
Management had different ideas though, and instead of the standard rematch as a result of the disqualification finish, HBK defended against Sycho Sid at Survivor Series. He would drop the title that night, but worse, the Madison Square Garden crowd completely turned on him. As a result, he soon dropped the smiling goody two shoes act that had turned the crowd, and began antagonizing them instead.
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.
A Submission match was set with a stipulation that the wrestler's representative must throw in the towel. Backlund would lock Bret in his signature Crossface Chicken Wing for what seemed like an eternity. Owen would appear to have a change of heart, convincing his parents to throw in the towel for Bret's safety. But as soon as the bell rang, Owen celebrated Bret finally losing the title.
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.
Hogan would soon be presented with another threat, as Ric Flair came across from WCW with their championship declaring himself the "real World Champion." Despite looking to be headed towards a unification bout to decide the better man, Hogan would fall the same way as Bret. His rival would cost him the title at Survivor Series, as The Undertaker became new 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.
JBL would face Guerrero again, as well as The Undertaker, on his way to having the longest WWE Championship reign in SmackDown history. A record that still holds to this day before he dropped the belt to a future mega star.
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.
Despite seeing off an impressive plethora of superstars, including Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, Christian, Randy Orton and Kurt Angle, the crowd began to turn on him. This came to a head when he lost the championship to the first ever Money in the Bank cash-in. After retaining his title inside the Elimination Chamber, Cena was faced with Edge baring down on him. Worse still, he was faced with an entire crowd that were ecstatic to see the Rated R Superstar put an end to his reign.
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.
But in the main event, he would defend against the man he beat the previous year, with the second match of the night once again proving costly for the big man. Bret, coming in with an injured leg after a loss to brother Owen in the opening contest, had enough left in him to finally overcome and end Yokozuna's reign of terror.
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.
Warrior would win in what should have been a career defining moment, as Hogan passed the torch to the newer, fresher star. But his only defence of note came inside a steel cage against Ravishing Rick Rude at SummerSlam, before he would drop the belt to Iraqi sympathizer Sergeant Slaughter thanks to distraction from his new-found rival, Randy Savage.
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.
The fans would eventually start cheering Graham, despite his heel antics, due to the entertainment value he brought ahead of his fellow superstars. Perhaps he was too far ahead of his time though, as WWE chose to have him replaced as champion by Bob Backlund. Graham wasn't happy at even having to fight someone he considered so bland, and in protest he left behind his usual tie dye and wore plain white for the loss.
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.
Diesel would eventually lose to Bret Hart at Survivor Series. The match was competed under No Disqualification rules meaning that weapons were used plentifully in the contest, a true rarity for the time. As a part of it, it saw the first televised occasion a superstar was put through a table.
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.
Hogan would win the Royal Rumble, which at the time was not for an opportunity for the belt. Meanwhile, the fans were enamored with a new superstar. Ultimate Warrior would end Hogan's undefeated WrestleMania streak and championship reign.
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.
Eventually Savage had enough and after Hogan abandoned him to look after an injured Elizabeth during a tag match, Savage snapped and attacked the Hulkster. This led to the two meeting at WrestleMania V, where Hogan officially took the spotlight - and championship - from Savage.
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.
He got off to a shaky start, losing the Champion vs. Champion vs. Champion match at Cyber Sunday. However he would end the undefeated streak of the Samoan Bulldozer, Umaga to keep hold of his title before overcoming the legendary Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania. He would continue to fend off the likes of Edge, Randy Orton, Great Khali and Bobby Lashley on his way to the first WWE Championship reign in over 15years to last more than a year. Cena's reign came to a premature end with a torn pectoral tendon.
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.
On that historic night, Punk felt overshadowed by The Rock, having already been unhappy with him getting the closing match at WrestleMania - after his WWE Championship defence. He attacked Rock and turned on the fans, soon aligning with Paul Heyman. Despite a new outlook, his grasp on the title didn't loosen, knocking off Big Show, Ryback and John Cena before his showdown with The Great One at the Royal Rumble, which would ultimately see the title leave his waist. Still, Punk has the honour of being the longest reigning WWE Champion of the last 25 years.
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.
It would be another opponent who would provide a frequent challenge, and eventual demise, of his reign. Stan Stasiak, who defeated him in a non-title match in 1971, but Morales saw him off in a Texas Death Match later that year and a few more times over the next couple of months. But in December 1973, Stasiak finally bested his foe for the belt.
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.
An accumulation of injuries brought about the end of his second reign, dropping the championship to Superstar Billy Graham.
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.
A celebration of Hogan's reign reaching the three-year mark would launch his biggest challenge, overcoming his former friend André the Giant. André had received a considerably smaller trophy to celebrate his 15 year undefeated streak, and was rightly angry. Hogan overcame his adversary in front of a record crowd at WrestleMania III but it his reign would fall to him in February of the following year as André won the championship, only to hand it to Ted DiBiase - who had been trying to buy it from Hogan.
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.
Backlund would represent WWE as champion against NWA Champion Harley Race in a Winner Takes All Match that ran to a 60-minute time-limit draw. He would also face off against NWA Champion Ric Flair and AWA Champion Nick Bockwinkel. But the purchase of the company by Vince McMahon Jr. saw the downfall of Backlund, as the younger McMahon was interested in larger than life characters with a global appeal. A few years late for Billy Graham, but his point was eventually agreed with.
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.