The path to the WWE Championship is different for every wrestler to reach the top of the mountain. WWE hand-picks some of their ideal choices to have dominant runs, with names like Roman Reigns, John Cena and The Rock all panning out to become stars. Things don’t always go according to plan, though, as WWE can’t control variables like crowd reaction or progression of a talent.
We will look at the former WWE Champions that had to scratch and claw their way to the top, along with those that didn’t have long-term success. Unfortunately, some of these names had to fall back down the mountain.
10 Fought to the top: AJ Styles
The name value of AJ Styles was high when entering WWE and he won the WWE Championship within his first year, but that wasn’t expected. Styles struggled with adapting to the WWE style within the first few months of his run.
WWE thankfully saw how valuable Styles was during his feuds with John Cena and Roman Reigns. Styles would progress to the WWE Championship picture, defeating Dean Ambrose to win the prize. WWE has used AJ as a consistent main-eventer for most of his run since then.
9 Fell down the card: JBL
JBL could have fallen on either side on this list, but his friendship with Vince McMahon made his fight to the top less impressive. WWE pushed JBL after years of mid-card and tag team work as Bradshaw under a new gimmick. This arrogant and wealthy heel character would see JBL win the WWE Championship within a few months of his change.
WWE kept the title on JBL for almost a year as they viewed him as the right heel to make it a big moment when John Cena beat him. JBL would never win the WWE Championship again and fell back into the mid-card picture for most of his career.
8 Fought to the top: Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan was not the standard WWE choice by any means when entering the company. The long run in Ring of Honor and other independent promotions earned Bryan a reputation as the best wrestler in the world. WWE finally added him with the expectations of a mid-card run.
The fans rallied behind Bryan whenever he played a face and heckled him as a heel. WWE tried to slow down Bryan’s push as a face in 2013-2014, but the fans refused. Bryan would end up winning the WWE World Championship in the main event of WrestleMania XXX to become a legitimate top star.
7 Fell down the card: Sheamus
WWE tried to elevate Sheamus to the top of the card multiple times, with WWE Championship and World Championship reigns. The most recent WWE Championship reign is the one we’re looking at, since it’s the one that pushed him down the card.
Sheamus cashed in his Money in the Bank title shot to defeat Roman Reigns and win the gold. Fans cheered Sheamus out of dislike for Reigns, but there was no real momentum for Sheamus during this reign. WWE had Roman eventually beat Sheamus for the title, as the latter moved back down into the mid-card and tag divisions.
6 Fought to the top: Bret Hart
Bret Hart was an unexpected WWE Champion for the time given his smaller size compared to the likes of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and Ultimate Warrior. Vince McMahon tried experimenting with new stars while the veterans were getting past their prime and phased out.
Hart impressed McMahon with his work ethic and skills. The ability to get fans to treat him like a top star while in the mid-card picture made Bret a superstar in Vince’s eyes. Hart became a main eventer and has the legacy of an all-time great WWE Champion.
5 Fell down the card: Sgt. Slaughter
The WWE Championship run of Sgt. Slaughter showcased the ideal transitional reign. Fans never viewed Slaughter at the level of the other main-eventers. A heel turn took place before WWE decided to push him to the top.
Slaughter defeated Ultimate Warrior to become WWE Champion, only to drop the title to Hulk Hogan a few months later as the real payoff. WWE would move Slaughter down the card for the rest of his run. The short window where he was the WWE Champion was his peak.
4 Fought to the top: Kofi Kingston
Kofi Kingston’s journey to the top of WWE was a beautiful story that played out organically. WWE always used Kingston on television due to his talent, but the ceiling limited his opportunities. Kingston was known for his mid-card and tag team excellence until 2019.
An unexpected opportunity replacing Ali in the Elimination Chamber match and a gauntlet leading up to it reminded fans what a special performer Kofi is. The momentum would lead Kingston to his first WWE Championship win at WrestleMania 35, over Daniel Bryan, and the reign is still going strong.
3 Fell down the card: The Miz
WWE took a chance pushing The Miz to the top, following some momentum as a heel. Miz won the Money in the Bank title shot and cashed it in to defeat Randy Orton. The run of Miz would even see him retain the title over John Cena in the main event of WrestleMania XXVII.
Unfortunately, disappointing matches during his title run destroyed the value of it. WWE had Cena eventually beat Miz with the latter never returning to the same tier. Miz spent many years in the mid-card following this and has yet to truly return to the main event level.
2 Fought to the top: Eddie Guerrero
Not many wrestling fans would have bet a penny on Eddie Guerrero becoming WWE Champion after making the jump from WCW. His smaller size as a cruiserweight prevented Guerrero from a bigger push in WCW, but WWE did offer him a bigger opportunity.
Guerrero’s stellar work in the early 2000s made him one of the most important wrestlers to the company in the early days of the brand split. The momentum of Eddie would lead him to the iconic moment of defeating Brock Lesnar to become WWE Champion, cementing his status as a superstar.
1 Fell down the card: Jinder Mahal
Jinder Mahal both came out of nowhere and fell back into obscurity.Mahal's impressive physique and work ethic resulted in a huge push, following years as a lower card act.
Fans were surprised when he became the #1 contender, and even more stunned when he defeated Randy Orton to win the gold. The title reign of Mahal was viewed as a disappointment, though, with lackluster feuds against Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura. He would lose his spot on television within a year after losing the title.