Hulk Hogan. Ric Flair. Randy Savage. Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Rock.
The aforementioned Superstars are among the greatest champions in WWE history. Their title defenses rank amongst the greatest matches in the company. They were all pushed and groomed to become champion, the subjects of a lengthy build-up to their eventual career-defining achievements.
There are other champions, however, who fans did not expect. They were unlikely to win their given titles and, in most cases, their success came as a surprise to many.
Some of these least likely of champions have gone on to have Hall of Fame careers, others have not and still others served little more purpose than as a novelty.
One is considered one of the finest in-ring performers of all-time and one is on his way there.
These are WWE's 20 least likely champions of all time, all memorable in their own way.
When a Superstar wins the Money in the Bank briefcase, it is almost a guarantee that they will win either the WWE or World Heavyweight Championship.
The Miz was a special case because fans expected him to cash in and win the WWE Title, but there was still a very isolated section of the fan base that questioned if the company would actually be willing to go all-in with the man more known for his appearances on MTV's The Real World than anything he had done in the professional wrestling business.
On Nov. 22, 2010, Miz became WWE Champion by defeating Randy Orton to close out a memorable episode of Monday Night Raw.
From there, he embarked on a five-month title reign that saw him become the company's top villain, feuding with the likes of John Cena, Randy Orton and even commentator Jerry "The King" Lawler. All the while, he became a face for WWE, a media ambassador unlike any outside of Cena.
His time with the gold came to an end at Extreme Rules in 2011, when he lost a triple threat cage match to John Morrison and the aforementioned Cena, but it was a major step forward for WWE, who had been looking to create a fresh new main-event talent.
Miz filled that role perfectly, even if he was overshadowed as a part of the WrestleMania 27 main event by The Rock.
When Hornswoggle won the Cruiserweight Championship in 2007 at the Great American Bash, fans across the globe collectively groaned.
Unless they were under the age of 10.
And then the Cruiserweight Championship died a horrible death.
Christian's World Heavyweight Championship win in the spring of 2011 was unlikely because, according to booking (supposedly) set up months ahead of time, Edge was slated to feud with Alberto Del Rio for a few months before dropping the title to the Mexican aristocrat.
Unfortunately, a career-ending neck injury forced Edge out of the program (and the ring) and resulted in his lifelong best friend Christian stepping into his role as babyface to Del Rio's heel.
Christian captured the World Heavyweight Championship in one of the legitimate feel-good moments in the sport and celebrated with Edge afterward.
And while his reign would last all of two days, having lost the gold to Randy Orton at the following Tuesday's Smackdown taping, it remained a title reign fans thought they would never see.
To say that the Spirit Squad was a bad idea would be the understatement of the century.
With that said, the men that made up the Squad, including current Money in the Bank winner Dolph Ziggler, were all very talented and worked very hard to try and get the gimmick over, which they ultimately did.
An appearance at Wrestlemania 22, interfering on the behalf of Vince McMahon in his match with Shawn Michaels, was followed up the next night with a World Tag Team Championship match against The Big Show and Kane.
The "World's Largest Athlete" and the "Big Red Monster" had been a dominant duo since winning the gold in September 2005 and looked unstoppable the night before at WrestleMania when they soundly defeated Chris Masters and Carlito.
Few would have expected the pretty-boy cheerleaders to unseat the behemoths as the tag title holders, but that is exactly what happened. The Spirit Squad would hold the titles until October 2006—a 216-day reign—that at first appeared as likely as Viscera or Eugene winning the WWE title.
In the spring of 2007, Umaga was a dominant Intercontinental Champion. With the McMahon family by his side, he appeared to be on his way to the top of the card, the company's monster heel.
Fresh off a mainstream media-friendly showdown with Bobby Lashley at WrestleMania 23, a match also featuring Vince McMahon and billionaire tycoon Donald Trump, Umaga was enjoying the hottest period of his career.
Then came a fateful night in Italy, where the company decided to debut a brand-new developmental star in hopes of making an immediate impact.
Santino Marella was in the role of local fan who was picked from the audience to face Umaga for the Intercontinental Championship. Thanks to the well-timed interference of Bobby Lashley, Santino scored the upset of the year, capturing the Intercontinental title in his "very first match."
Unlike others, who used their title win the gain traction with the fans, Santino's first reign with the company's secondary title would not provide the initial boost to his character the company had hoped.
He lost the strap back to Umaga at June's Night of Champions pay-per-view and then became a comedy villain, being over-possessive of his on-screen girlfriend, Maria Kanellis, before ultimately aligning himself with Beth Phoenix and really taking off as a character in the WWE Universe.
In December 1999, Ivory was the World Wrestling Federation Women's Champion, a legitimate wrestler attempting to carry a division of big-breasted blonds with little or no in-ring experience. By the time the Armageddon pay-per-view rolled around, Vince McMahon took a look at the women he had and decided to take the division in a different direction.
Knowing he had no real wrestler for Ivory to compete against, except for Jacqueline (and maybe Tori), McMahon decided to take a shot on a brand-new petite blond that had made a name for herself as a valet, first for Jeff Jarrett, then Chyna. She was sexy and had the attention of the fans when she appeared in front of them.
She was also the real-life girlfriend of commentator Jerry Lawler.
At Armageddon, in the very first (and, likely, very last) Evening Gown match held inside a swimming pool, The Kat defeated Ivory, BB and Jacqueline to become the new Women's Champion. Her title reign would last all of a month before losing it to Harvey Whippleman, dressed in drag, another unlikely WWE champion.
The Kat's title reign remains a footnote in history, unremarkable except for her flashing her bare breasts just seconds after winning the title. That does not, however, erase what was one of the most unlikely title reigns of the WWE's hottest period.
With Vengeance 2001 approaching, and the announcement of the unification of the WWE and WCW Championships to take place at the event, fans everywhere expected the long-awaited rematch of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock.
Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle were also involved in the two matches set to crown the first Undisputed Champion, but neither were seen as being at the level of being worthy of such a monumental achievement. Both men were widely considered two of the best wrestlers in the business, but neither had the star power of an Austin or Rock.
At Vengeance, Chris Jericho shocked the world by defeating The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin in back-to-back order to become the first Undisputed Champion in WWE history.
The decision stunned most fans who had expected The Rock to gain a measure of revenge for WrestleMania X7 or Stone Cold to continue his winning ways against "The Great One."
Jericho was an unlikely Undisputed Champion, an ultra-talented in-ring hand who had not proven himself capable of carrying the company as its top heel.
He would hold the title until WrestleMania X8, where he lost it to Triple H after a debacle of a storyline that did far more damage to his character than the actual loss ever could.
Billy Gunn and Jesse James were in the black hole that was the undercard of 1997 World Wrestling Federation. Both had endured pushes that had bogged down and failed, and neither had very bright futures as the company inched closer and closer to the business-changing Attitude Era.
Then they were teamed together, undoubtedly because the company had nothing else better to do with them. Along the way, however, they began to flash hints of the attitude that would define their team and make them perfect candidates for inclusion in D-Generation X a year later.
The booming vocals from James during their entrance and cool nicknames such as "the Road Dogg" and "Bad Ass" caught the attention of fans in a manner that no manufactured gimmick ever could.
The team became so over with the WWE's audience that Vince McMahon and his staff had no choice but to put the tag titles on them, marking one of the most unlikely rises in the sport.
The Outlaws captured the titles from the legendary Legion of Doom in a major upset, jump-starting one of the great tag team careers in WWE's long and storied history. For the better part of the next two years, Billy Gunn and Jesse James would reign as tag team champions, an indictment of their success and ability to remain over with the fans.
To say that Daniel Bryan’s entry into World Wrestling Entertainment went less-than-smoothly would be an understatement. A member of the NXT roster, he was among the first potential Superstars eliminated from the contest, despite a wrestling background well-known to the most passionate of fans.
From there, he was a key member of the Nexus invasion in the summer of 2010, but an ill-timed choking of ring announcer Justin Roberts led to his dismissal from the company.
Weeks later, he returned to WWE at SummerSlam, teaming with Team WWE against Nexus. From there on out, he accomplished his fair share, capturing the United States Championship from his NXT mentor The Miz and having tremendous matches with the likes of Dolph Ziggler and Ted DiBiase.
But he had yet to truly make his mark until the 2011 Money in the Bank ladder match, where he captured the briefcase and ensured himself a World Heavyweight Championship match.
The Money in the Bank winner is almost always guaranteed to win the championship he chooses to cash in for. With that said, there was still strong doubt that Vince McMahon would pull the trigger giving an indie darling such as Bryan his company’s second most prestigious title.
Unlike CM Punk, Bryan had yet to show any measurable charisma and really had not made an impact on the fans that would warrant such a title push.
Daniel Bryan pinned The Big Show at TLC in 2011 to capture the World Heavyweight Championship. From there, he would become one of the most over characters in the company, an overbearing and braggadocious villain who over-celebrated and verbally abused his girlfriend, AJ Lee.
Holding the title for nearly four months, Bryan used the success he enjoyed as champion to remain in the main-event scene for the rest of the year.
Prior to 1999, Matt and Jeff Hardy were little more than enhancement talent for Vince McMahon's company. They did a remarkable job of bumping around the ring for some of the top talents in the company, making them look like world beaters while collecting a check and being happy to gain the experience.
Then, as the summer of 1999 ramped up, the Hardys became a featured talent, having shown those in power that they had evolved past the role of "jobbers to the stars." A feud with Edge and Christian resulted in tremendous matches and were indicators of great things to come for all involved.
Having earned a tag title match, the Hardys challenged Bradshaw and Faarooq who, as a part of the Ministry of Darkness, made up the dominating tandem The Acolytes. No one expected Matt and Jeff to succeed.
After all, the Ministry storyline had been so hot for so long leading up to the bout that fans expected Faarooq and Bradshaw to make quick work of the North Carolina brothers before moving on to the next team in line.
On June 29, 1999, the Hardy Boys defeated the Acolytes to win the WWE Tag Team Championship.
It was a short-lived title reign, testing the waters to see if the fans would accept Matt and Jeff as the champions of the tag division and setting up the dissolution of the Hardys' relationship with manager Michael Hayes.
It was a harbinger of things to come as Matt and Jeff would ultimately become the most popular tag team team in the history of WWE, winning multiple tag titles and achieving star power on the level of Steve Austin, The Rock and Triple H.
The 2004 Diva Search is reviled by most wrestling fans, considered a waste of time that introduced the world of sports-entertainment to untalented models.
Two future Women’s and Divas Champions came from that competition.
One of them, Michelle McCool, captured multiple Divas and Women’s Championships. The other, Candice Michelle, surprised even her harshest of critics when she worked hard to improve her in-ring work and, in June 2007, defeated Melina Perez to win the Women’s title.
No one expected that the “Go Daddy” girl could accomplish anything in the professional wrestling business outside of showing up, sensually crawling under the bottom rope and taking her clothes off for Playboy magazine.
She proved her doubters wrong and her hard work toward becoming a better wrestler was rewarded with a run as Women’s Champion. She would have a number of quality rematches with Melina before turning her attention towards a dominating challenger, the self-proclaimed “Glamazon” Beth Phoenix.
Candice performed well as the overmatched underdog, stunning Beth with an upset win at Unforgiven in September of 2007 before dropping the title to Phoenix at No Mercy one month later.
Candice appeared poised to fill the role that Trish Stratus had filled for years but, unfortunately, she suffered a vicious clavicle injury that would put her out of action.
Candice Michelle was never the same performer she was prior to the injury. Hesitation, lack of development and proneness to injury would keep her from ever reaching the same level of success she did in the summer and fall of 2007.
By the time Chyna captured the Intercontinental Championship from Jeff Jarrett at No Mercy in 1999, everyone expected it. She had been pushed for over two months toward the title and the only logical payoff was for her to finally overcome the chauvinistic Jarrett, becoming the first woman to ever hold the title.
Chyna was an unlikely champion because she was not even supposed to be in Vince McMahon's company. Vince fought against the idea of her employment and against the idea of her beating up on male Superstars. He simply did not want to sign her to a contract, feeling she served no purpose.
Two years later, when she had gained her own popularity, there was still hesitation to pull the plug on the title switch. After all, a woman winning the Intercontinental Champion, regardless of whether or not she could hang with the men between the ropes, could do irreparable damage to the title and the men she beat as champion.
At No Mercy, in the first-ever "Good Housekeeping" Match, Chyna defeated Jarrett to win the title. It was a monumental event that brought an end to Jarrett's career in McMahon's company and elevated Chyna to superstardom.
She would lose the title two months later to Chris Jericho, but not before proving that she was a worthy champion, defeating Jericho at the Survivor Series. Chyna would go on to co-hold the title with Jericho in January 2000 and on her own in September of the same year.
2004 was an interesting year for World Wrestling Entertainment, in that they were developing new talent and really had no star truly ready to breakout.
Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit were finally given their chances to carry the company at the top as the WWE and World Heavyweight Champion, respectively.
Randy Orton, John Cena, Batista and Shelton Benjamin were all being steadily built for bigger and better things but there was no real fresh option to step up and challenge either Benoit or Guerrero.
John Layfield was a career mid-carder who made a name for himself in the tag team ranks. A big, corn-fed Texan, he was a stiff brawler more recognized for the punishment he dished out rather than the quality of his matches.
Under the moniker "Bradshaw" and with Faarooq as his partner, the APA dished out beatings on a regular basis, exchanging their services for beer money.
In 2004, Faarooq (real name Ron Simmons) would be fired from the company, leaving Bradshaw alone. A very talented talker and highly successful in the financial world outside of wrestling, there was far more to Layfield than his character indicated.
They repackaged Bradshaw, renaming him "John Bradshaw Layfield" and retooled him to become a successful New York businessman. He was a loud, physical reputation of the Republican way of mind that, by 2004, most Americans had had their fill of.
He became the top heel on Smackdown and feuded with real-life friend Eddie Guerrero over the WWE Championship. At Judgment Day, the two men competed in one of the bloodiest battles in company history.
Then, at June's Great American Bash, the unthinkable happened.
Layfield defeated Guerrero in a Texas Bullrope match to become WWE Champion. He would hold the title until April of the following year, when he lost the strap to John Cena.
The last great wrestling heel, JBL far exceeded any of the expectations set for him and became one of the company's least likely, yet most entertaining, champions of all time.
When the calendar switched over from 1999 to 2000, Stephanie McMahon was wrestling's most hated woman. She was the "Billion Dollar Princess," the daughter of the billion-dollar owner of WWE who turned on her father and aligned herself with his rival, Triple H. She was running the company alongside her on-screen husband and was a power-hungry character whose decisions were in her best interest.
Just prior to WrestleMania 2000, Vince McMahon returned to television after a two-month hiatus. Enraged that his daughter turned on him and married his heated rival, he decided to punish her with a Women's Championship match against the well-versed, stiff fighter Jacqueline.
With the help of D-Generation X's Tori, Stephanie scored a stunning upset and captured the Women's title.
Stephanie McMahon winning the Women's Championship was unlikely in that someone in her position, a top level, non-wrestling character was considered to be above a title as meaningless as the Women's title was in early 2000. She was an authority figure, over enough on her own because of the way her character was portrayed.
But all was well that ended well. Stephanie serving as the Women's Champion allowed her to be a key player in reigniting the Women's division. Several matches with Lita ended in Trish Stratus interfering and Stephanie sneaking away with her title intact. This continued for months until Lita finally defeated Stephanie for the title on the final episode of Raw before SummerSlam 2000.
Lita and Trish, along with a very talented roster of women, would build a women's division that is still remembered fondly to this day.
Bruno Sammartino held the World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion for over seven years. A strong Italian competitor, his heritage made him the top star in a promotion run by the late Vince McMahon Sr.
One of the most celebrated stars ever to step foot inside Madison Square Garden, Bruno's matches were must-see affairs inside the sport's most famous arena.
He was so very successful for McMahon that one figured that the day he finally lost the title, it would be to someone expected to carry business in the same manner Sammartino had.
That was not the case.
On Jan. 18, 1971, Ivan Koloff defeated Bruno Sammartino to capture the WWWF Championship inside Madison Sqaure Garden.
It was a major occurrence. For the first time in seven-plus years, Bruno had been defeated by another man and had lost the title he carried with great dignity and pride. It was a questionable decision on the part of McMahon, who was looking to transition the title from Sammartino to the very popular Pedro Morales without the two babyfaces having to compete for it.
Koloff was just the evil Russian to do it. McMahon understood that the fans would hate the evil Koloff so much for beating Bruno that they would pay to see Pedro take the title off of him. Ivan would hold the title for just 21 days but would go down in the history books as the man that ended the never-ending reign of one of the sport's all-time greats.
Bob Backlund was, at one time, one of the great World Wrestling Federation champions. The all-American "golden boy," Backlund was a physical specimen with a technical wrestling background rivaled by few. He could pin or make any pro wrestler submit at any given time and was managed by Hall of Famer Arnold Skaaland.
His loss of the title to the Iron Sheik, via Skaaland throwing in the white towel, is an iconic image in professional wrestling history.
After an impressive comeback to Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation in 1993, many believed Backlund could be a talented veteran who helped get the younger, newer generation of Superstars ready for bigger and better things.
Then a fateful match in 1994 occurred, a match between Backlund and then-WWE Champion Bret "Hitman" Hart. It was a very old-school, technically-sound match that saw Hart just barely survive Backlund's challenge.
Denied a title, Backlund snapped and applied the crossface chicken wing to Hart, leaving an array of WWE officials to try to pull him off of the champion.
At Survivor Series of the same year, Backlund would challenge Hart for the WWE Championship in a Submission match. It was a long, well-thought-out match that some fans enjoy, some do not.
But the finish saw Bret's brother, Owen, guilt trip his own mother into throwing in the towel on behalf of Hart, ending the match and awarding Backlund with his second heavyweight championship.
Bob would hold onto the title for a week before losing it to Diesel inside Madison Square Garden in only eight seconds.
At WrestleMania III, Ricky Steamboat ended a year-long rivalry with Randy Savage over the Intercontinental Championship by capturing the title in one of the greatest matches of all time.
Weeks later, Steamboat requested time off to be with his wife while she was pregnant and was told he would have to drop the Intercontinental title. He agreed to those conditions and a match was made between him and...the Honky Tonk Man.
Prior to the huge title match, Honky was a gimmicky comic character, a rip-off of Elvis Presley with no real hope of succeeding past mid-card status. When he defeated Ricky Steamboat and captured the Intercontinental title, it was as if HTM took the proverbial ball and ran with it.
He became one of WWE's most successful heel characters of ever, a performer fans paid their money to see get beat up. The promotion sold out house shows across the country because fans believed that maybe, just maybe he would finally lose the title in their hometown to the latest challenger.
While Hulk Hogan was the featured talent on the A-shows, Honky Tonk Man would headline the B-shows, defending his Intercontinental title in the main event.
HTM would lose the strap to the Ultimate Warrior at SummerSlam 1988, just over a year after he won the title. Widely considered the greatest Intercontinental Champion of all time, Honky Tonk Man proved what could be when the company found a mid-card champion they invested time and energy on.
To say that Vince McMahon has his own, specific vision of what a WWE Championship should look like would be an understatement. Always one to prefer the biggest, stronger, more physically attractive Superstars, few would have ever expected the overweight, long-haired, unshaven mass that was Mankind to ever capture the sport's most prestigious prize.
That is exactly what happened on Dec. 29, 1998.
Mankind defeated The Rock, with the assistance of Stone Cold Steve Austin, and won the WWE Championship in one of the most significant moments in WWE history. The victory was an announcement to the world—by McMahon—that if you could perform at a high level and get the people to buy into you on a consistent basis, then you could be WWE Champion.
It set up one of the great rivalries in WWE during the Attitude Era, that being Mankind vs. The Rock, and laid the groundwork for their eventual partnership later on. It also led to a slew of No. 1 bestsellers from Mick Foley and cemented his legacy as one of the most unique and beloved performers in the sport's history.
It was the stamp of approval Mick Foley needed to be remembered as one of the best sports entertainers of all time.
In the fall of 1991, Hulk Hogan was still the top guy in the industry. His popularity was waning and fans were getting bored with the "say your prayers, take your vitamins" routine, but he was still professional wrestling's top star.
The Undertaker was one of Vince McMahon's infamous gimmick characters—a man in a costume who was supposed to be something he clearly was not. Few expected it could last, let alone be successful.
Luckily for McMahon, the performer was so in tune with the character, so committed to making his portrayal of this coffin-making dead man work, that fans could buy into the performance.
He became incredibly popular, so much so that, when he stepped foot into the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, fans met him with a reaction far louder than the one they gave Hogan.
Undertaker would not only perform up to the level of Hogan, he would ultimately win the WWE Championship from the "Immortal" one, though not without the assistance of Ric Flair.
The Phenom's victory served two purposes: it allowed the company to gauge the crowd's reaction to Undertaker winning the gold and it set up an experimental Tuesday night pay-per-view, which would see the rematch between the sports-entertainment icons.
Fans could not have expected such a major occurrence as Undertaker taking the title from Hogan. He was untested, unproven and had absolutely no experience in the spot he was suddenly thrust into.
It was a testament to the performer and the booker that he was given the opportunity that he was, regardless of how short it may have been.
In 1992, the main event picture in Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation was still populated by the biggest stars of the previous decade. Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior were firmly entrenched and competed frequently for the company’s top prize.
Bret Hart was the Intercontinental Champion for most of the year and had been praised for a number of great matches, including his WrestleMania VIII bout against Roddy Piper and the SummerSlam classic against “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith.
In the fall, it became clear that Flair was on his way out of the company, and, as the company’s champion, would need to drop the title to the next in line. Hogan was only working on a part-time basis by then and Warrior had been fired, again, by McMahon as the company moved in a decidedly non-steroid direction.
That left Randy Savage, who had feuded with Flair earlier in the year and had proven himself capable of carrying the company in the past.
With business down, however, and McMahon pushing toward a new generation, he decided to go all-in with the one man that had proven himself capable of having the best match on any given card: Bret Hart.
Those in power behind the scenes protested the decision, citing Hart’s lack of size and promo skills as a major red flag in his progressing any further up the card. But McMahon had made his decision and on Oct. 12, switched the World Wrestling Federation Championship from the “Nature Boy” to the “Hitman” in a non-televised match.
While no one could have seen the Hart title victory coming, twenty years later, he is widely considered one of the all-time great in-ring performers, with five WWF Championships, two Intercontinental Championships, two Tag Team Championships, a split-victory in the 1994 Royal Rumble, a 1991 and 1993 King of the Ring tournament win and an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.