A lot of historians will go on and on about the history of the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. It goes back to 1905 with Frank Gotch & George Hackenschmidt. Ed “The Strangler” Lewis. Lou Thesz. The Funk Brothers. Jack Brisco. Blah blah blah blah blah. I’m a history guy so I love studying that stuff. But the NWA, as much as Billy Corgan might like to think otherwise, is pretty irrelevant to your average wrestling fan in 2017. Most people would agree that the WWE Championship has become the most important title in all of professional wrestling during its fifty-four years in existence. The biggest title at the top of the biggest wrestling company, right? It only makes sense.
It all started with the original Nature Boy, Buddy Rogers. Vince Sr., Toots Mondt & other Northeastern promoters recognized him as the first WorldWide Wrestling Federation World Champion on April 25, 1963 while claiming that his loss to Thesz in Toronto didn’t count. He also allegedly won a tournament in Rio de Janeiro. While the promoters made this move on the surface to support Rogers, it would soon become obvious that they already had somebody else in mind as their standard bearer.
Bruno Sammartino’s records as champion will never be broken. Nobody will hold the championship for 2,803 consecutive days. Could you imagine that in today’s day and age? There isn’t a wrestler on the face of the earth that could stay on top for that long and still engage audiences across the world. While Bruno only had to worry about engaging Northeastern audiences, it’s still a credit to him that he was able to stay on top for that long (and another reign that lasted a mere 1,237 days) and not have the majority of the audience turn against him. I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure, but I’ve seen far more positive reports of crowd reaction to Bruno than negative, and people alive in that era still fondly remember him.
The most shocking change of any wrestling championship in history might have been when the Russian Bear Ivan Koloff beat Sammartino for the title on January 18, 1971. You could have heard a pin drop in Madison Square Garden after the finish. In the days before the Internet and a larger number of “smart” wrestling fans, most people just assumed that Bruno would keep winning forever and ever. Koloff would go on to have a remarkable career of his own all across North America, but his WWWF title reign only lasted 21 days before the next great hero took his spot.
I think I give Pedro Morales less credit than he probably deserves. He held the championship for 1,027 days and was a powerful drawing card for the Hispanic market & was the first man to hold the Heavyweight, Intercontinental & Tag Team Championships. But I remember him from his late-1980s appearances on Prime Time Wrestling & Coliseum Video tapes where he was pretty much cannon fodder for young heels establishing themselves at his expense. What also doesn’t help his case is that right after he dropped the title to Stan Stasiak, Bruno got it back and had another lengthy reign.
Stasiak’s reign lasted nine days and only existed for the purpose of getting the title from Morales to Sammartino without having them wrestle each other, much as how Koloff had the title so he could pass it from Bruno to Pedro. Superstar Billy Graham was the first heel champion to hold the title longer than twenty-two days, and his two hundred & ninety-six days as champion still ranks as the longest reign by a heel champion. (Randy Savage & CM Punk would have longer reigns, but they didn’t spend all of their timeas champion as a heel.)
Bob Backlund would be the next super-face to get the strap, and is credited with 2,135 days in his first title reign. There was a hiccup involving Antonio Inoki in Japan that is unrecognized by WWE. Fans were getting smarter, and Backlund’s reign wasn’t as well-received as the others had before. Bob became a cult favorite in later years, and even came back in 1994 for a transitional reign that a lot of us watching at the time wish had lasted longer. You can’t say Mr. Backlund is a God among men and I won’t hear otherwise.
Iron Sheik has gone down as the most memorable of all transitional champions, mostly because of who he lost the Championship to 28 days after he won it from Backlund. Sheiky Baby later became a cult favorite and is among the most beloved wrestling legends today. On one hand Sheik’s fame doesn’t have much to do with his title reign, but on the other hand the reign is still something people talk about today. More people remember Iron Sheik as a WWF Champion than most of the other titleholders.
The man that beat the Shiek, Hulk Hogan, would dominate the Championship for the rest of the 1980s & have a reign during the 1990s & the 2000s. Some even thought he might get a reign in the 2010s…well, the decade isn’t over yet, right? Hogan’s 1,474 day reign helped launch the WWF into the mainstream & establish the company as what people think about when you mention the word “wrestling”. Hogan deserves a lot of the credit for that. His first title loss to Andre the Giant is still one of the most-watched matches in wrestling history and was useful for adding one of the McMahon family’s most important employees to the list of Champions.
I feel like Randy Savage had a year with the title just so Hogan could do other things. It worked out pretty well for him, as Savage is still one of the most memorable characters in wrestling history. Savage was champion during his alliance with Hogan as the Mega-Powers, and while that alliance was doomed and led to Hogan getting the title back, Savage carried the ball well and business didn’t take the tumble that people thought it might with Hogan not main eventing all the shows.
Ultimate Warrior was supposed to be the next top star for WWF for years to come. Things didn’t pan out that way. Warrior didn’t catch fire the way people hoped, and 293 days later he would lose the title to Sgt. Slaughter, who was working an Iraqi sympathizer gimmick at the time. It was cheap heat at its cheapest, and Hogan getting the title back 64 days later was a welcome sight. Slaughter was a solid wrestler and a great personality in his own right, but his WWF title reign is something people try to forget about him.
Forgettable title reigns aren’t exclusive to Slaughter. The Undertaker is widely considered one of the greatest WWE superstars in history, but I don’t think most WWE fans could tell you that he was a four-time WWE Champion. Ric Flair won his first championship in the 1992 Royal Rumble Match, but nobody remembers much else about his two short title reigns during the year. While Flair has claimed that his year and a half in the WWF was the highlight of his career, most fans around at the time will disagree and consider him an NWA/WCW wrestler first.
Bret Hart was the first guy I saw work his way up the ranks from a tag team to secondary titles to the main belt, and I loved his time with the Championship. My favorite thing about Bret was he would defend against anybody. Papa Shango, Virgil, whoever was there. Being the first champion I regularly saw on TV helps his case. Bret took a sense of credibility to the Championship.
Yokozuna reigned as WWF Champion the same time Vader dominated the WCW title scene, and I think love for Vader hurts Yoko’s case. The Samoan working as a Japanese guy thing hurts him too. But Yoko was as agile a man his size as I’ve ever seen, and at his best looked just as dominant as Vader. His lengthy reign as Champion worked for 9 year old me. I do wonder if it would translate for an older me.
Big Diesel was a great idea on paper. Kevin Nash always had a lot of charisma and looked the part. But the character didn’t transition well to the role of good guy Champion. Way too much pandering to the crowd and a weak slate of challengers other than Bret sealed his fate. There was some sort of a graph that Nash used during his time at TNA to justify his reign, but let’s be real, it didn’t work for Big Diesel.
Sid Vicious was destined to be a champion from the moment he entered the business because he looked like one. He eventually got there. He had some effective moves, but his time as Champion was pretty unremarkable, and probably would have been longer if he could have been trusted. Honestly, Sid is one of those guys that probably wasn’t good but I still bought into for one reason or another.
Shawn Michaels’ run as Champion in 1996 wasn’t a box office success. But I’ve seen very few champions have the output of classic matches that Shawn did during his runs with the belt. So as far as I’m concerned, it was a good time. Shawn’s time with the Championship seems to be more remembered for his refusal to lose it than his great matches, however.
Shawn eventually put over the next face of the company, Steve Austin. Stone Cold was treated differently than other top guys. Hogan, Bruno, Pedro, Backlund…they all held the title forever. Not ol’ Stone Cold. His longest reign was 175 days, which pales in comparison to every other top guy in WWE history. Well, except one other guy that we’ll get to later. Austin and that fella came around in the days when the WWF didn’t think guys needed to hold the title forever. The more the title changed, the more interesting things became. Honestly, I agree with this mode of thinking. If you can get the title hopping between multiple guys that the audience cares about, people will care more about the Championship. Sometimes people lose interest when they don’t think the title will change hands…you have to keep them on their toes. Austin’s reigns did exactly that, and if we’re being honest, his character was better as a challenger. The fans wanted him as the champion, but things were more interesting when Vince McMahon found ways to keep the belt away from him.
I feel bad for Kane. Well, not really. He’s done his job well and has been drawing a paycheck from WWE for over twenty years now, so how can anybody feel bad for a guy like that? I just feel bad that we can’t talk about him more because he only held the WWF Championship for one day and never got it back. But that one day was part of one of the most talked about shows of all time (King of the Ring 1998) and his match with Austin the next night where he lost the title got a hell of a rating for Raw, so at least his one day with the belt was widely seen. Heck, more people probably saw Kane with the title than saw Shawn Michaels with it.
The Rock got his hands on the title in November 1998, and aren’t we all glad that he did? Rock held the championship eight times, which places him fourth all time. Unfortunately for the Brahma Bull, those eight times barely lasted more than a year combined. He was one of the focal points of the Attitude Era, where length of title reigns was one of the many things sacrificed for Crash TV. I gotta tell you, I didn’t mind it. Rock trading the title with Mankind was great for business, and great for Mick Foley, a man who in my eyes deserved the Championship as much as anybody in the history of pro wrestling. Foley’s three reigns barely lasted more than a month, and the longest started on arguably the GREATEST NIGHT IN THE HISTORY OF OUR SPORT, when Tony Schiavone laughed at the idea of him putting butts in the seats. Well, it happened.
Foley was also the main reason Triple H became a main event-level talent. Mankind’s third and final reign was a one day deal to switch the title from Austin to Triple H, and apparently only happened to keep special guest referee & Minnesota’s then-Governor Jesse Ventura from raising the hand of a heel. Like Jesse would have given a rat’s ass about that. The Game would become more identified with the World Heavyweight Championship over the years since it was initiated by Eric Bischoff handing it to him, but he did hold this championship nine times.
I think there’s a pretty good chance that Vince McMahon became the WWF Champion in 1999 so he could always be the go-to answer for “Worst WWF Champion”. WCW gets a ton of crap for giving David Arquette the title a year later, and it’s certainly well-deserved, but it’s not like the WWF wasn’t doing some silly stuff with their belts too. Vince didn’t even put anybody over when he lost the strap, he vacated it like he was Shawn Michaels & lost his smile or something. Brutal stuff.
Big Show has had his ups and downs in WWE and has held pretty much every championship under the sun. His two runs with this Championship weren’t particularly memorable, however. He won it for the first time by being randomly inserted into a Triple Threat with Rock & Triple H after Austin got hit by a car & couldn’t compete. He spent that reign continuing his mid-card feud with Big Boss Man, which while the feud was memorable for all the wrong reasons, didn’t do a lot for the standing of the championship. His second reign was another shoulder-shrug type of win & title reign, which kind of sums up Big Show’s career to me. Not bad, but with his physical gifts it could have been a lot more.
Kurt Angle had four reigns with the WWF Championship. Two as a heel, two as a babyface, pretty much in line with his career where he spent pretty equal time in each role. He was always a solid title contender that had no problem being bought as champion, and had good championship matches whenever given the chance.
Chris Jericho has done way too much during his career to keep track of, but it’s the beginning of his only WWF Championship reign that I remember most. You might remember it too…he beat Steve Austin and the Rock in the same night to become the first Undisputed Champion, unifying the WWF & WCW/World Championships. The rest of his reign was pretty unremarkable, especially towards the end when he was cleaning up after Stephanie McMahon & Triple H’s dog. But it’s the accomplishment of beating two of the biggest stars ever in a single night that we remember.
Brock Lesnar has always been a beast of a champion. I have to admit that I prefer three out of four of his title reigns because he was actually around to defend the Championship, and that’s something I like in a Champion. His fourth title reign in 2014-15 was by far the longest, bumping him up the list of longest-serving champions.
Brock’s most memorable title defense to me was the night Eddie Guerrero beat him for the Championship in San Francisco’s Cow Palace. It was the apex of Eddie’s long & winding road of a career that had way too many speed bumps for its own good. Guerrero seemed to have difficulty taking on the responsibilities of Champion during his 133-day reign, but in the ring few could equal him when he was at his best.
The 280-day Championship title reign of JBL has been the subject of much conversation lately, as it usually is when somebody new is given the Championship. In defending the new champion, people will often point at JBL as somebody that wasn’t qualified to be champion but grew into the role. I feel those people don’t give Bradshaw enough credit, as he had been part of a very well-respected tag team championship team with Ron Simmons & had also held the European & Hardcore titles. Yes, they were secondary titles, but they count too. JBL did get a lot of backlash at the time, but I feel that was more to do with IWC love for Eddie Guerrero than anything else. His reign didn’t exactly send business through the roof, but it did result in some entertaining moments.
Ultimately, JBL was there to pass the torch to the next top guy. John Cena has dominated the WWE Championship scene for most of the 21st century, even introducing the belt that would represent the championship for years to come. But it further established the WWE Championship as John Cena’s championship, and considering he’s held it more times than anybody else & has the fourth most days as champion to his credit, he certainly deserved it. Younger fans must have a hard time believing that John Cena wasn’t always in the mix for the WWE Championship.
Edge was one of the few guys that could occasionally get an upper hand on Cena, and cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase at January 2006’s New Year’s Revolution to get his first WWE Championship. With four title reigns combining for 139 days, Edge never had that signature WWE Championship run. He would become more associated with the World Championship, winning that big gold belt seven times, mostly as part of the SmackDown brand.
Rob Van Dam had a great opportunity in 2006 when he beat Cena for the Championship at ECW One Night Stand 2. He was awarded the ECW title soon after and was at the top of the new brand along with WWE, but an arrest for drug possession brought all of that to a screeching halt. RVD lost both titles and would never get close to this championship again. It was a shame, but goes to show that you can’t make a mistake like that when you’re the face of the company.
Randy Orton is a nine-time WWE Champion, but do you remember anything about any of his title reigns? His longest reign of 203 days came after 2007’s No Mercy PPV, which featured the Championship changing hands twice between Orton & Triple H, and ended at the hands of Triple H at Backlash 2008. The rest of Orton’s reigns have mostly been under 100 days and unmemorable. Consider the time he beat John Cena to unify the WWE & World Championships, and the most remembered part of the build was the Seattle crowd derailing a promo designed to build up the Biggest Match in WWE History to chant for Daniel Bryan.
Jeff Hardy finally got to the top of the mountain in December 2008, when he beat Edge & Triple H in a Triple Threat at Armageddon. It was a great moment for his fans, but 42 days later Edge had the belt back. Jeff would get two World Title reigns before leaving the company and going to hell and back before getting back on track recently.
Batista is more closely associated with the World Heavyweight Championship, but he did have two runs with this championship in 2009-10. They were 37 days combined, but the second one was great because he was working as a heel and calling John Cena’s fans “fat girls”. I remember that period of Batista’s career more fondly than any other part of it.
Sheamus had been tearing through people on ECW before moving over to Raw, which was pretty cool, but his sudden elevation to the WWE Championship scene seemed a bit rushed. A victory over John Cena at 2009’s TLC ushered him into the championship club. He’s had three WWE Championship reigns, which doesn’t seem to get mentioned much these days while he’s teaming with Cesaro & putting over those Hardy Boyz.
The Miz had one of the more memorable MITB cash-ins in November 2010, mostly because a lot of us had convinced ourselves that he wouldn’t be able to go through with it. Sure enough, he did, and he had a fairly entertaining 160-day reign that’s somewhat tainted by having one of the worst WrestleMania main events with John Cena towards the end of it. The Jerry Lawler matches were pretty cool. Miz winning the title gave him just enough credibility but not too much, which is ideal because his character is better when nobody thinks he can do anything.
Fans had been waiting for CM Punk to get his hands on the Championship for a long time. His first title win at Money in the Bank in Chicago was one of the most memorable title wins I’ve seen. After a brief booking hiccup, Punk’s second title reign would last 434 days and would probably still be well remembered today if he still existed. Punk had the longest title reign since Hulk Hogan’s first title run, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment.
Punk’s temporary departure from WWE after MITB helped Rey Mysterio make the list due to winning a Championship Tournament on Raw, but considering he then lost the title to Cena later in the evening, Rey’s run as WWE Champion was even more forgettable than his time as World Champion when every big guy on the roster beat him like a drum in non-title matches. Champion wasn’t the role for Rey.
Alberto Del Rio was another man that first won the Championship by cashing in his Money in the Bank. You may be noticing that title reigns starting that way aren’t well-remembered, and neither are either of Alberto’s title reigns in late 2013.
Daniel Bryan technically had three reigns as champion, but two of them were cut short by a MITB cash-in and some other ridiculousness leading to Abeyance holding the title for a little over a month. He finally got his proper coronation at WrestleMania XXX, but injuries would cut his reign short and eventually end his career. Another instance where the chase ended up being a lot more interesting than the reign itself.
The three men that formed the Shield were considered the future of WWE, so it’s no surprise that Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns & Dean Ambrose have all had runs with the Championship. Rollins’ title reign of 220 days seemed like it would go quite a bit longer before injury got in the way. Reigns’ first of three title runs was ended in minutes thanks to a MITB cash-in from Sheamus, and I’m still not sure his credibility as a tippy-top guy has recovered from it. Even if people buy shirts and chant his name or that he sucks, I think he’d be further along right now if that hadn’t happened. Ambrose’s 84-day reign might mostly be remembered for an appearance on the Stone Cold Podcast where he seemed aloof and indifferent & earned the ire of the Texas Rattlesnake. Along with WWE brass if speculation is to be believed.
AJ Styles had done everything there was to do outside of WWE, so winning the WWE Championship felt like the culmination of his career to those of us that had followed him since the early 2000’s. His matches with John Cena for the Championship helped elevate the title to heights it hadn’t seen in quite some time. His 140-day run helped SmackDown Live shed itself of the label of “B Show”, at least temporarily.
The crowning of Bray Wyatt as WWE Champion back in February really felt like the beginning of something new. Turns out that it wasn’t. Bray lost the title at WrestleMania and moved to Raw shortly after, which kind of shows how WWE feels about the Championship in 2017.
Forty-nine men preceded him, and Jinder Mahal finds himself as #50.
Mahal probably has less kayfabe credibility going into his reign than any previous WWE Champion other than Vince McMahon. I’d also say he’s a better in-ring worker than Vince was, but once you get past him it’s tough to find guys worse. I’m a bigger Sid fan than most, the chokeslam & power bomb were over like rover. Andre was probably worse at the time he got the belt, but he had it for like two minutes so that wasn’t especially important.
As for promos…well, I can’t think of any great money promos Jinder has cut. If you can think of any great promos he’s had, or any great matches he’s had, let me know. Because I can’t think of any. And I’d at least like to see some before I jump on the bandwagon with the rest of Wrestling Twitter.
If the history of the WWE Championship has taught us anything, it’s that we probably shouldn’t waste too much time getting worked up over this. Whether Mahal’s reign “works” or not, it probably won’t last very long. He could be another Iron Sheik, Stan Stasiak or Ivan Koloff, keeping the belt warm for the next great hero.
The attaining of the championship is often the most memorable part of a WWE Championship reign. Say what you want about Jinder winning the championship…for better or worse, we’ll remember him winning it. When you think about it like that, it places it in good company among other title reigns.
Jinder’s main source for hope: Ethnic champions have a solid history. Bruno & Pedro stayed on top so long because they could bring in people from their demographics. Hulk Hogan got his name because Vince Sr. wanted an Irish name on top. Heck, Canada was a strong market for the WWF before Bret Hart got on top, but it got even stronger thanks to the Hitman.
Jinder can also hope for a long heel run of the top face chasing him for the belt. But guys like that need a great heel to work off of. Is Jinder that guy? I haven’t seen it yet. I’d love to say that I have, but I haven’t.
I suspect that we’ll see a somewhat lengthy reign for Jinder, as the people that wanted him as champion will want to make it work. And the people that support it now will continue to do so. People like me with open minds will try to give it a chance. If it works, people will bash us for not jumping on the bandwagon right away. If it doesn’t work, people will call us haters and insist it worked even though ratings went in the toilet and nobody went to the house shows. This is how things go in the world of wrestling.
I hope it works. Wrestling is better if the people holding the championships succeed. People want to diminish the importance of the championships, but we all want to know who’s the best at something. Sports fans want to know who the best team is, and that’s why there are playoffs. TV & movie fans want to know what the best TV shows and movies are. Music fans want to know who produces the best music. That’s why we have award shows.
As long as people care who is the best at something, awards and championships will exist. That’s why wrestling needs to reward the best with the titles. WWE has done a good job with it for the most part…surely people reading this will come up with many names of great competitors not mentioned in this column that weren’t Champion. Don’t blame me. I didn’t make these decisions. I didn’t say Jinder Mahal was the best in the world and *fill in the blank* wasn’t. That’s on WWE.
Fifty champions later, here we are. Are we heading in the right direction? We’ll soon find out.