Power Ranking the 25 Greatest Champions in WWE History
In recent years, World Wrestling Entertainment has held its Night of Champions pay-per-view in September and it has, traditionally, been the one time of the year that emphasis has been put on the company’s championships.
In the past, titles were the centerpiece of rivalries, the ultimate goal of every man and woman that stepped between the ropes. Who will ever forget the “Ultimate Showdown” between Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, a champion versus champion match that was the main event of Wrestlemania 6. There was no personal hatred between the two. Neither wanted to do physical harm to the other. No, Hogan had the WWE title and Warrior wanted it. As Intercontinental Champion, he was next in line for a shot and the match that resulted is still remembered fondly today.
How about the Honky Tonk Man spending one full year as the Intercontinental Champion, selling out buildings as the heel everyone paid to see get beat up. Then there are Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, two of the greatest in-ring performers of all time, who carried the company in less-successful times. Stone Cold, The Rock and Triple H would see the company through its greatest period while John Cena would lead it into the future.
In recent years, the prizes have become little more than props, influencing fans to purchase replica belts for $300 (or more) at merchandise stands. In the ever-changing world of sports entertainment that places profit over history and prestige, that should not have been unexpected.
That does not mean that we cannot look back on the many champions that have come through World Wrestling Entertainment during its long and illustrious history. These are the men (and woman) that brought meaning to the titles and, in some cases, were elevated by the role as titleholder.
These are the 25 greatest champions in WWE history.
The Superstars on this list had to have met one of the following criteria: 1) the length and quality of their title reign, 2) did they revolutionize the sport while they were champion, or 3) are they the Superstar most immediately recognizable with their given title
25. MVP (United States Champion, 2007)
In May of 2007, Montel Vontavious Porter was clearly one of the WWE's breakout stars. Known simply as "MVP", he had risen quickly up the rank, feuding with Kane and then turning his attention to Chris Benoit and the US title. At April's Wrestlemania 23 and Backlash events, MVP was unsuccessful in his attempt to wrest the title away from the "Rabid Wolverine." At Judgment Day, in a Best Two-of-Three Falls match, MVP finally defeated Benoit to capture the title.
Porter would hold the title for the rest of the year and into 2008, a reign that lasted 343. During that period of time, he and Matt Hardy engaged in a storyline that lasted nearly as long as the reign itself. They competed in several singles matches against one another and even managed to win the tag titles from Deuce and Domino.
As the US Champion, MVP brought prestige and meaning back to a title that had traditionally been reserved for stars with nothing else better to do (ie. Chris Benoit, JBL). During his nearly year-long run with the belt, he single-handedly held down the mid-card scene on Smackdown and was one of the "blue brand's" top stars.
He would lose the title at 2008's Backlash pay-per-view to the returning Matt Hardy, paying off a rivalry that had begun the year before.
MVP did more to make the US Championship relevant than anyone since Eddie Guerrero won the tournament in 2003. And since he lost the title, it has not been quite the same, floating from one Superstar to another without meaning or consequence.
MVP never again achieved the success he did as US Champion.
24. Booker T (World Heavyweight Champion, 2006)
In 2006, Booker T underwent a character makeover when he won the King of the Ring and, like any delusional human being, took his title as "king" a little too far.
Dubbed "King Booker" and sporting a cape, crown, and scepter, he entered the arena to his wife Queen Sharmell's chants of "all hail, King Booker". He addressed the audience as if they were peasants and looked down on the rest of the WWE roster.
On July 23, 2006, he would challenge Rey Mysterio for the World Championship in the main event of that year's Great American Bash pay-per-view, a Smackdown brand exclusive show. The former WCW standouts had a very good match that saw Chavo Guerrero return and blast Rey with a chair, allowing Booker to pick up his first heavyweight title win since arriving in WWE.
In the months that followed, Booker ruled over the Smackdown brand, accompanied by William Regal and Fit Finlay. Feuding with Dave Batista for the majority of his reign as champion, Booker was constantly able to fend off challenges thanks to much outside interference. He became the obnoxious heel fans wanted to see get beat and, on the way there, became the villainous champion that fans wanted to see defeated.
They would get their wish at November's Survivor Series when Batista finally defeated King Booker to win the World Heavyweight Champion.
It ended a reign that saw a single Superstar become the center of the Smackdown universe, the piece in which everything else on the show revolved around. Not since JBL in 2004 had that happened and Booker proved more than capable of handling the pressure and exceeding expectations.
23. D'Lo Brown (European Champion, 1998-99)
By the time D'Lo Brown won his first European Championship in the summer of 1998, the title had been devalued significantly.
Originally won by the British Bulldog in a tremendous match against Owen Hart in Germany, the title initially meant something. With a constantly-expanding internationally reach, the champion would represent the countries that Vince McMahon's company would tour in the near future.
In September of 1997, however, Shawn Michaels defeated the Bulldog and took the title. Both on-screen and off-screen, however, Shawn's eyes were on a bigger prize: the WWE Championship, held by Bret Hart. Soon, the European title became a prop, going undefended for nearly three months. When Shawn did defend it, he lost it to Triple H in a mockery of a match.
The future leader of DX would trade it back-and-forth with the late, great Owen Hart but the title was clearly a prop in their rivalry.
It would not be until D'Lo Brown defeated Triple H for the title just before July 1998's Fully Loaded pay-per-view and ignited a competitive rivalry with X-Pac over the title that it would find some of its prestige again. For months, two highly-talened Superstars did battle for the European title and the quality of their matches immediately helped to elevate the title back to prominence.
D'Lo would have four reigns with the title, each of differing lengths, none all that long, but that does not change the fact that Brown is most recognized for bringing prestige back to a title that had been used as the company's top star as a prop.
That alone makes him not only the greatest European Champion of all-time but one of WWE's greatest titleholders.
22. Kurt Angle (2000-6)
The 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle exploded onto the professional wrestling scene in 1999 and never looked back. Quickly accumulating championship after championship, it became apparent that Angle was groomed to capture the WWE title and become the company's next breakout star.
In October of 2000, he defeated The Rock to win the title. Angle would hold his first WWE title until February of the following year, when he lost it back to The Rock. The reign was marred by typical "cowardly heel" booking and matches filled to their brim with interference. A short reign in 2001 would be next, following a victory over Steve Austin at Unforgiven, a reign that was ultimately uneventful.
His next reign, in 2002, lasted three months but, again, was marred by outside forces. This time, a neck injury that prevented him from competing on a full-time basis. That said, Angle had one of the all-time great wrestling matches at Royal Rumble in 2003, defeating Chris Benoit to retain the title. Two months later, he dropped the strap to Brock Lesnar in the main event of Wrestlemania XIX.
After three months of recovery from neck surgery, Angle returned and defeated Lesnar and The Big Show in a triple threat match at Vengeance to win back the WWE title. It would be his last reign with the title, a reign highlighted by a tremendous Iron Man Match in September of 2003, which saw him lost the title back to Lesnar.
He would go on to win the World Heavyweight Championship in 2006 and defend it against Undertaker at No Way Out. After losing the title to Rey Mysterio at Wrestlemania 22, he would never again capture championship gold in WWE.
One of the company's best workers, Angle carried the WWE title with great pride, even if the booking of his storylines and matches left a lot to desire.
21. Jeff Jarrett (Intercontinental Champion, 1995-99)
During his reigns as Intercontinental Champion in 1999, Jeff Jarrett became the anchor of the mid-card of the hottest and most successful wrestling company in the world. He was its champion, the man who was trusted to hold down the fort while a hot young star popped up every month to challenge him. And, for the most part, he would dispatch of said challenger before moving onto the next one.
He was a hated villain, one who cheated to win and verbally assaulted the women in his life. With a catchphrase of "don't piss me off," he had no problem showing his opposition what would happen if they did.
His first reign as Intercontinental Champion came in 1995, when he defeated Razor Ramon at the Royal Rumble. Two more reigns would follow, the he would not hold the title again until 1999, when he defeated the Godfather for the title. It was after this reign that he would enjoy the most successful stretch of his WWE career, feuding with the likes of D'Lo Brown, Chyna, and Edge. The title switched hands on a few occasions but they were very momentary and, eventually, Jarrett wound up champion once more.
He would lose his last Intercontinental Championship, as well as his final WWE match, on October 17, 1999 when he was defeated by Chyna in a "Good Housekeeping Match."
Since then, Jarrett has appeared for WCW and owned and operated TNA Wrestling.
20. Bob Backlund (WWE Champion, 1978)
Bob Backlund was the All-American boy, a smiling and athletic former amateur wrestler from North Dakota State University when he walked into Madison Square Garden for the first time.
Immediately popular and immediately groomed for success, Backlund challenged then-champion "Superstar" Billy Graham on a number of occasions, often losing or winning based on count-out finishes. In 1978, he captured the WWE Championship, pinning Graham and beginning what would wind up being a five-year title reign.
During that reign, he defended against the likes of Billy Robinson, Antonio Inoki, and NWA Champion Harley Race. Backlund even teamed with former WWWF Champion Pedro Morales to defeat the Wild Samoans for the WWWF Tag Team Championships but was forced to forfeit them due to a rule prohibiting a champion to hold two championships.
Backlund would lose the title in December of 1983 to the Iron Sheik in one of the more controversial moments of early WWE. Trapped in the Camel Clutch, Backlund's manager Arnold Skaaland threw in the white towel on behalf of the champion, effectively ending the match and awarding the title to the Sheik.
Bob would once again win the title eleven years later after a stunning heel turn absolutely no one expected. He would only hold that title for three days before losing it to Deisel inside Madison Square Garden, the very arena he defended his title in countless times before.
19. Triple H (WWE Champion, 2008)
In the spring of 2008, Triple H was drafted to the Smackdown brand, a shocking moment that most figured would never happen. After all, Smackdown was the number two show in the WWE and he was "The Game," the "Cerebral Assassin," the "King of Kings," he was Triple H and he would never lower himself to working the lesser program.
Add to that the fact that he was the WWE Champion and there was no expectation for him to leave Monday nights.
Not only was he drafted to Smackdown, he carried the brand as it switched networks from CW to MyNetwork TV. He was the face of the show on the new channel and much pressure was placed on his shoulders to carry it in its infancy there.
He did just that, most notably getting Jeff Hardy ready to carry the brand through a series of hard-fought, high-quality bouts over Triple H's WWE Championship. He worked with Hardy and elevated him to main event status not only in the eyes of the fans but in the eyes of those in power behind the scenes.
"The Game" also delivered the best match of The Great Khali's career at SummerSlam 2008, working the classic "big man" formula to perfection without relying on the bells and whistles of weapons or falls count anywhere matches.
The seven-month title reign, which began at Backlash in April, came to an end at November's Survivor Series, when Edge returned from injury and stole it in a triple threat match.
There is much said about Triple H's reigns as champion and why they happened but few can accuse him of taking nights off and not working hard because of his backstage power. There is no better evidence than his underrated run on Smackdown in 2008.
18. Pedro Morales (First WWE Triple Crown Winner, 1971-80)
Pedro Morales is not only one of the greatest champions in WWE history, he is the very first member of the prestigious "Triple Crown" club.
On February 8, 1971, he defeated the villainous Ivan Koloff to win the WWWF Championship, a title most expected him to feud with Bruno Sammartino over but, because of the lack of support for a babyface versus babyface program, was never meant to be. That title reign would last two years, until 1973 when, to prevent the dream Morales versus Sammartino match, he went down in defeat at the hands of Stan "The Man" Stasiak.
In December of 1980, Morales captured the Intercontinental Championship with a win over former Olympian Ken Patera. He would hold the title for roughly seven months, losing it to Don Muraco, a man that would become one of his more famous rivals. He would regain the title shortly thereafter, defeating Muraco in November of 1981. Never one to be outdone, Muraco would end the feud by taking back the title in January.
Finally, in 1980, Morales would complete his triple crown achievement, teaming with then-WWE Champion Bob Backlund to become Tag Team Champions, defeating the legendary, Hall of Fame inductees The Wild Samoans. Unfortunately for Morales, because of a long-standing rule that no one man could possess multiple WWE titles, which Backlund would, the duo was forced to forfeit the titles.
Pedro Morales accomplished something that, in the days prior to the trading of titles like candy, few thought was possible. He won every major championship Vince McMahon's company had to offer and etched his name in the history books as one of the all-time greats in the business.
17. CM Punk (WWE Champion, 2011-Current)
In today's WWE, there is no challenge more daunting than holding onto a championship for an extended period of time. Booking moves so quickly and the attitude has become so "what are you doing for me now" that the idea of an extended title run, lasting into double-digit months, is almost unheard of.
As of this writing, CM Punk is into his tenth month as WWE Champion. While that may be enough to rank him high on the list, there are extenuating circumstances that keep him from "all-time great title reign" status.
The fact that he has been in the main event of only one pay-per-view event since winning the title at last year's Survivor Series is something that has been well-documented. Often overshadowed by John Cena, Punk has come off as an afterthought at times and that is a situation no champion should ever find themselves in. That is more an indictment on the creative team than it is Punk so that one is forgivable.
The returns of legendary Superstars, such as Brock Lesnar, The Rock, Triple H, and The Undertaker are another hurdle Punk has not been able to clear during his reign. Those men, with the legacies they have in the business, have been treated just as they should be: as iconic figures. However, that treatment has come at the expense of the Chicago native.
The most damning evidence against Punk's ranking higher on this list is the competition he has defended his title against. Chris Jericho is all-time great. There is no argument there. Others, such as Kane, Daniel Bryan, and The Big Show are all incredible performers in their right, two of the three all-but guaranteed a spot in WWE's Hall of Fame whenever they call it quits.
As great as Punk's opponents have been, they are by no means the Undertakers, The Rocks, Shawn Michaels, Bret Harts, Stone Cold Steve Austins, or Hulk Hogans others on this list have had to defend against.
CM Punk certainly has time to climb up this list, especially if he is victorious against John Cena at Night of Champions and if the match against The Rock comes to fruition. If not, he may be remembered more for a string of high quality matches, against some of the finest workers in the business, rather than an iconic run with the belt.
16. John Bradshaw Layfield (WWE Champion, 2004)
In July of 2004, John Bradshaw Layfield became the WWE Champion, defeating Eddie Guerrero for the title at the Great American Bash. He was one of the most unlikely champions of all-time and, few knew then, but he would become of the great antagonistic heel champions in the history of WWE.
During his title reign, which lasted nearly ten months, JBL faces some of the most talented and popular stars in the WWE. From Guerrero to Booker T to The Undertaker to Kurt Angle and the Big Show, he was challenged by an array of future Hall of Fame inductees. Despite the challenge, and with the help of his "Cabinet", he managed to consistently sneak away with the WWE title in tow.
Like Booker T and Edge after him, JBL carried the Smackdown brand and proved that people would still pay to see a villain get beat up. And during his reign at the top of the number two show, no one took a better ass-kicking than John Bradshaw Layfield.
In a day of "cool bad guys," JBL was the perfect example of the old school, cowardly heel. He would spend the majority of the match getting his butt kicked by the hero but at the end of the day, the villain did just enough to escape with the gold.
It was a formula that hard worked before and situation that built every month until one Superstar would be able to step up and finally put an end to the reign of terror. That Superstar would be John Cena and, as you will see later in the rankings, everything worked out well for him in the end.
JBL exceeded expectations anyone ever had for him as a performer and a champion. He also held down the top of the card for a brand in Smackdown which was still recovering from the unexpected departure of Lesnar. And, most important, he was a very important stop on the road from one "next big thing" (Lesnar) to another (Cena).
His impact as champion is one that likely is only beginning to be felt today.
15. Trish Stratus (Women's Champion, 2001-6)
Trish Stratus is the greatest female performer to ever step foot in a WWE ring. That says a lot, considering the likes of the Fabulous Moolah, Lita, and Stephanie McMahon. But when one takes a step back and takes into consideration the fact that Trish Stratus utterly dominated an entire era of women's wrestling, an era unlikely to ever be revisited, it says a lot about her career.
Trish would win her first Women's title in November of 2001 at the Survivor Series, defeating the likes of Jazz, Ivory, Lita, Molly Holly, and Jacqueline in one night. It was clear, at the time, that she had a lot of growing to do between the ropes but over the course of her first reign, she worked with some of the best in-ring performers the business had to offer and she learned from the experience. Trish would lose the title to Jazz but reign number one was only a sign of things to come.
She would win the title SIX more times before her retirement in 2006. Matches with Victoria and Lita remain some of the hardest-hitting, highest quality encounters in the history of the WWE's Divas division while feuds with Molly Holly and Jazz helped shape her into the performer she would become.
Trish was a versatile performer, proving she could succeed as a face or heel. And as Women's Champion, she took an entire division of the WWE roster and carried it on her back for five years. That is a remarkable statement made by a remarkable sports-entertainer.
14. The Undertaker (WWE Champion 1990-2009)
It would be a lie to say that most believed The Undertaker would one day be the most respected Superstar in the history of WWE when he first entered the arena way back in 1990 at the Survivor Series. A big kid with a great look had been saddled with another of Vince McMahon's brainy gimmick ideas and most assumed he would fall flat on his butt, just as so many in his situation had in the past.
Those people would learn to never assume again.
Twenty-two years later, the Undertaker remains one of the most popular, most beloved performers in the history of the sport. He has a resume that rivals any other all-time great and longevity that is oh so rare in the sports-entertainment world. And at Wrestlemania 28, he accomplished his twentieth-straight victory at the most important show the industry has to offer.
But the Wrestlemania streak is not the only impressive achievement Undertaker can boast. He is also a seven-time heavyweight champion (4 WWE, 3 World Heavyweight), a six-time tag champion, and a hardcore champion.
He won his first WWE title at Survivor Series in 1991, stunning the world with a win over Hulk Hogan. In 1997, he would defeat Sycho Sid at Wrestlemania 13, winning his second title in the main event of the year's biggest show. In 1999, he defeated Stone Cold Steve Austin at the infamous Over the Edge pay-per-view and in 2002, he once again proved dominant over Hogan.
His first World Heavyweight Championship would come after a defeat of Batista at Wrestlemania 23 and his second, a year later at Wrestlemania 24 as he defeated Edge in an underrated main event. Another win over CM Punk, one year later, would only bolster his Hall of Fame credentials.
None of his reigns were particularly long but the length of a reign is only one factor in determining the greatness of a champion. His ability to consistently perform at a high level, to remain at the top of his game and relevant enough to remain a top draw in the business, must also be taken into consideration.
There is no one that better fits that criteria than Undertaker.
13. Shawn Michaels (WWE Champion, 1996-2002)
1996 was not a good year for Vince McMahon's WWE. They were consistantly the whipping boy for Ted Turner's WCW in the weekly ratings and were bleeding money. Add to that the fact that their long-time face, Bret Hart, was planning a hiatus and you have the ingredients for a disaster.
At Wrestlemania XII, Shawn Michaels defeated Hart for the WWE Championship. He was the top star in the company during its darkest days and showed intense loyalty by not jumping ship to join his friends in WCW. He also carried the promotion while during Hart's hiatus and while young, unproven talent grew and evolved. The leader of a talented roster, Michaels welcomed the pressure and proved to fans across the globe why he was the best wrestler in the world.
He not only proved himself as the best wrestler in the world, he proved himself as the most adaptable. On a monthly basis, he defended his title against all types and sizes of challengers. The British Bulldog, Vader, Mankind, and Sid all challenged the Heartbreak Kid and, on each occasion, dealt him another style to compete against.
He would lose the title to Sid at November 1996's Survivor Series but quickly regained it the following January at the Royal Rumble, in front of his hometown.
His most notorious title win came at Survivor Series 1997 when he controversially defeated Bret Hart. He would hold that title until Wrestlemania 14, where he went down in defeat to Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The are two very prominent red flags keeping Shawn Michaels from being placed further up these rankings. The first is the fact that he has only had one real complete, lengthy title reign. The second reign ended dubiously, which we will get to in a moment, and his third was marred by a back injury that kept him out of the ring during most of it.
The second red flag is the way in which he lost the WWE title the second time. He did not lose it in a match. Instead, he handed it over following the infamous "lost smile" speech, the result of what may, or may not, be a legitimate knee injury.
The fact of the matter is that Shawn Michaels is known far more for matches that involved no championship than he is for any of his title reigns. The fact that he ranks as high as he does is a compliment to his first title reign, which featured such diversity that it is hard to discredit its quality.
He should be remembered as one of WWE's greatest champions but, for a number of reasons, is not.
The title of "greatest wrestler of all-time" is a hell of a consolation prize, though.
12. Batista (World Heavyweight Champion, 2005-8)
Dave Batista once referred to the World Heavyweight Championship as "his title" in an in-ring promo. Between 2005 and 2008, he had all the reason to believe that.
The fact of the matter is that Batista was the star of Friday Night Smackdown during those years, the top dog of WWE's number two brand. He carried the show for the majority of the period, sans when he missed time due to injury, and brought legitimacy and a big-match feel to the World Heavyweight Championship matches he was involved in.
At Wrestlemania 21, he defeated mentor and Evolution stablemate Triple H to win the title. He would hold the World Championship until January of 2006, when an ill-timed triceps injury caused him to forfeit it, missing out on Wrestlemania 22 and what was widely speculated to be a showdown with Randy Orton.
Things were slow to start when he returned from injury but, at Survivor Series 2006, he ended the reign of King Booker with an emphatic Batista Bomb. The unquestioned leader of Smackdown, he would face an insurmountable challenge in the form of the legendary Phenom, The Undertaker, at Wrestlemania 23. The Dead Man left Ford Field with the title but that did nothing to temper Batista's want, his need, for the title.
When injuries sidelined the Undertaker and his replacement champion, Edge, The Great Khali became champion. At Unforgiven 2007, Batista captured the World title for a third time,defeating the monstrous Punjab, India native in a triple threat match that also involved Rey Mysterio.
"The Animal" would enjoy one last reign as World Champion, defeating Chris Jericho at Cyber Sunday in 2008, just a few short months after being drafted to Raw. He would also enjoy two unmemorable WWE title reigns prior to exiting the company in 2010.
11. Randy Savage (WWE Champion, 1988-92)
"Macho Man" Randy Savage is a top ten all-time talent. He is one of the most popular stars in the history of the sport, one of its most recognizable, and his untimely death in 2011 has only feuled the fans' love for all things "macho."
One of his greatest moments came in 1988, at Wrestlemania IV, when he won a tournament to crown the new WWE Champion. Once considered too small to be the top star of the company, Savage let his larger-than-life personality and his connection with the fans be the determining factor that resulted in his title reign.
As champion, he was treated as Hulk Hogan's equal, teaming with the "Immortal" one in the Mega Powers team as they did battle with Andre the Giant and "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase. On a number of occasions, he did battle with Bad News Brown and managed to come out of those intense matchups with his title intact.
He would lose that title to Hogan in an emotionally-charged main event at Wrestlemania V, the result of his jealousy bringing the Mega Powers team to a definitive end.
He would have to wait a long time but, in 1992, he defeated Ric Flair to regain the title at Wrestlemania VIII. During a time of great transition for WWE, it testament to Savage's talent and experience that Vince McMahon trusted him during that period.
The reign would not last long but Savage's success as champion paved the way for smaller, talented in-ring performers such as Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, CM Punk, and Daniel Bryan to have the chance to realize their childhood dreams. Without him, it is hard to imagine what today's WWE would look like or if McMahon's empire even would exist today.
10. Edge (2006-11)
Edge is the greatest heel of the 2000s. That is a huge statement to make, considering Triple H and JBL's success during the decade but it is a testament to the "Rated R Superstar's" talent at working a crowd, at understanding how to manipulate a situation to get the reaction he wants, and his ability to make his opponents look far better than they did before they got into the ring with him.
From the minute he won his first WWE Championship at New Year's Revolution in 2006, until his untimely and shocking retirement in 2011, Edge proved himself to be among the smartest wrestlers in the world. He was ahead of the curve and understood the psychology of the performance art-form. Through promos, facial expressions, and physical movement, he could relay any story to the audience that he wanted to.
After his first title reign lasted only a month, ended by the man he defeated for it, John Cena, at Royal Rumble, Edge waited six months before he would taste gold again. On Independence Day 2006, he defeated Cena and champion Rob Van Dam to win his second WWE title. He would lose it in September at Unforgiven, in a TLC match against Cena.
Beginning in 2007, and lasting for most of the rest of his career, he would dominate Smackdown as its lead villain, the bad guy everyone wanted to beat up while secretly wanting to be. He was cool and edgy (pun intended) but he was also one step ahead of the more generic "good guys" that challenged him.
He would win the World Heavyweight Championship seven (SEVEN!) times between 2007 and 2011, a streak only rivaled by John Cena. He was the face of Smackdown, facing a rotation of top stars, including Undertaker, Batista, Triple H, and Jeff Hardy.
As a babyface, he feuded with Alberto Del Rio and notched an impressive upset victory at Wrestlemania 27 to retain his World Championship.
While it would not be out of the realm of possibility that Edge could have landed even further up the list had he not been forced into retirement, it is more important to take into consideration what was rather than what could have been.
9. The Rock (Intercontinental Champion, 1997-8)
The Rock is an iconic figure in the wrestling business. In recent years, he has become iconic in the world of film, as well. And while his impact on the world of sports-entertainment has been profound, and he collected his fair share of heavyweight championships, it is because of his second reign as Intercontinental Champion that he is on this list.
In 1997, the future was cloudy for Dwayne Johnson. His first year in the World Wrestling Federation was anything but smooth, the blue chipper "Rocky Maivia" character failing miserably to make the connection with the audience. As the summer months approached, Johnson's career was at a very early crossroads.
Then he turned heel and joined the Nation of Domination, adopting the nickname of "The Rock." He was awarded the Intercontinental Championship when Stone Cold Steve Austin forfeited it. From there, he began referring to himself as the "People's Champion" and grew as a performer, both in the ring and on the microphone.
As the Intercontinental Champion, Rock faced the challenge of two very different competitors. Against Ken Shamrock, he was faced with the challenge of a man known for snapping at an instance. He was a world-class mixed martial artist who adopted an ankle lock capable of breaking anyone's ankle at any time.
In Triple H, he faced a Superstar nearly as cocky as he was but who was more experienced and more cerebral. He was a student of the game and knew exactly what buttons to push to irritate the typically cool Intercontinental Champion. The D-Generation X parody of the Nation springs to mind.
Through two very high profile feuds over the Intercontinental Championship, both of which treated as a big deal despite being over the company's secondary title, The Rock carved out a legacy as one of the championship's greatest holders.
The feud between he and Triple H was a part of a much larger battle between The Nation and D-Generation X that served as the second biggest rivalry during the critically acclaimed Attitude Era. The rivalry, as well as he title reign, resulted in the breakout star for the company and shortly after losing the Intercontinental Championship, Rock won the WWE Championship in the Deadly Game tournament at the 1998 Survivor Series.
8. Demolition (WWE Tag Team Champions, 1988-1990)
For a team that started as Vince McMahon's rip-off of the legendary Road Warriors, Demolition wasted little time in becoming one of the greatest tandems to ever compete for World Wrestling Entertainment.
Ax and Smash dominated tag team wrestling from 1988 until injuries to Ax led to the dissolution of the original team. Saving their first championship victory for the biggest stage in the sport, Demolition defeated Tito Santana and Rick Martel for the tag team titles at Wrestlemania IV. It was a huge victory over a flashy team that seemed the perfect fit for 1980s WWE.
They would hold the titles until July 29, 1989, losing them to the Hall of Fame duo of Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, two of the four original Four Horsemen known in McMahon land as the Brain Busters. They would regain the titles in November of that year before turning their attention towards the Colossal Connection, the monstrous team of Andre the Giant and Haku.
The Connection would win the titles from Ax and Smash but, at Wrestlemania VI, Demolition would regain the titles, their last reign in WWE.
Demolition was a success story in that few saw anything coming from them when they debuted. They took the tag team wrestling scene by storm and, using brute force and punishing tag team maneuvers, set themselves apart from the cartoonish nature of 80s WWE.
7. Triple H (World Heavyweight Champion, 2002-4)
"The Game" makes his second appearance on this list, a fact that will be controversial, to say the least.
In the fall of 2002, the Raw brand was lacking star power. Sure, it had Rob Van Dam, Booker T, the Big Show, and Chris Jericho running around but it lacked that one major box office attraction that the flagship show of WWE. Stone Cold Steve Austin had left the company, Brock Lesnar and Undertaker had moved on to Smackdown, and The Rock returned to Hollywood.
Triple H was the most logical choice and in order to give Raw it's own identity, the World Heavyweight Championship was brought out of mothballs and handed over to "The Game." That should have been enough to warrant ranking him further down the rankings but a string of victories over some of the most talented stars in the sport, and utter dominance over the brand, negated that.
Between 2002 and January of 2004, Triple H defeated the likes of Rob Van Dam, Kane, Chris Jericho, Booker T, Scott Steiner, Bill Goldberg, and Kevin Nash to retain the World Championship, totalling three reigns in that two-year span, one of which lasted nine months.
2002 was a scary time for WWE as it was coming off of its hottest period ever, had lost the rights to its WWF name, faced decreasing television ratings, and had lost the biggest star it had ever had. As a heel champion, in the same vein as Ric Flair during 1980s NWA, Triple H carried the Raw brand for two-plus years before Dave Batista and John Cena developed into performers capable of carrying the company into the future.
There will always be controversy surrounding Triple H's position in the McMahon family and the power that comes with it. There will always be talk of political power plays, which undoubtedly existed, but at what point does one separate off-screen happenings from entertainment and take Triple H's successes at face value?
6. The Honky Tonk Man (Intercontinental Champion, 1987-9)
I know what you are thinking. "The Elvis guy is the sixth greatest champion in WWE history?" Yes; and here's why:
Between June 1987 and August 1988, the Intercontinental Championship meant nearly as much as the WWE Championship because a villain like the Honky Tonk Man, its holder at the time, was so hated that people would pay money in hopes of seeing him lose it to a hot mid-card babyface.
Vince McMahon would send Hulk Hogan out to headline one set of house shows and then would set up Intercontinental title matches between HTM and a challenger for another set. He could do this because he knew that Honky Tonk Man was so hated by the fans that he could program someone such as Koko B. Ware or Tito Santana to challenge for the title and, regardless of who it was, fans would show up and cheer rabidly for that man to win the championship.
This went on for over a year, the fans never tiring of it. As every month passed, anticipation for the day that HTM would finally lose the title grew. And at SummerSlam 1988, in Madison Square Garden, that anticipation reached its boiling point. An injury to Brutus Beefcake resulted in him being taken out of his title match and replaced by a mystery opponent.
That opponent would be a warrior. And ULTIMATE warrior.
The fans erupted as the Ultimate Warrior raced to the ring and dispatched of Honky Tonk Man in under one minute. It started a meteoric rise for Warrior and ended one of the great championship reigns in wrestling history, by one of the more unlikely Superstars.
5. Bret Hart (WWE Champion, 1992-97)
After a decade of larger-than-life, muscle bound specimens holding the WWE Championship, Bret Hart defeated Ric Flair in October of 1992 to win his first heavyweight championship. It was a monumental moment for Vince McMahon's company as it was the first time that a WWE Champion was not a prayer-saying, vitamin-taking icon or an established all-time great, such as Ric Flair, since Randy Savage won the title four years earlier.
Hart would hold the title until Wrestlemania IX in April, workrate between the ropes being the focus of his reign. Yokozuna, then Hulk Hogan, would end Hart's run with the belt but it would be only a year before Bret would regain his title.
At Wrestlemania X, Bret would get his win back against Yokozuna, defeating him in the main event to regain the WWE Championship. Earlier in the night, however, Bret lost to his younger brother Owen, igniting a rivalry that would define his second reign as champion. Bret would have a number of classic matches with Owen over the course of the spring, summer, and fall of 1994, a steel cage match at SummerSlam becoming a classic.
Bob Backlund would defeat Bret for the title at Survivor Series '94 when Owen interfered, ending a title reign that had seen Bret single-handedly carry WWE through a period where business was down and would only get worse.
1995 would feature another title reign for Bret and 1997 would feature two more but none of those three would be of the quality of his second reign. A professional and personal rivalry with Shawn Michaels, as well as a contractual falling out with Vince McMahon, would ultimately result in Hart leaving WWE in favor of WCW, ending one of the greatest careers and success stories in WWE history.
4. John Cena (WWE Champion 2005-11)
In April of 2005, John Cena defeated John Bradshaw Layfield to win his first WWE Championship. He would hold that title until January of 2006, nearly nine months. He would regain it in short order before dropping it to Rob Van Dam in one of the most hostile environments of all-time, that being a very pro-ECW crowd at 2006's ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view.
It is his third reign with the title that should receive the focus here, however. In September of 2006, John Cena defeated Edge to win the WWE Championship, defeating the "Rated R Superstar" in his hometown of Toronto, in his own specialty match, the TLC Match.
Cena would defend that title for the next year, defeating the likes of Umaga, Shawn Michaels, the Great Khali, Randy Orton, Bobby Lashley, and Mick Foley. At a time where championships still had some meaning but were beginning to switch hands at a faster pace than in the past, Cena was the one consistent for the company, carrying the title with dignity (even if it was, and still is, that God-awful spinner belt).
Unfortunately, the reign would be cut short by an injury that would sideline Cena for five months.
John would go on to win the title countless times over the next five years, becoming one of the most decorated champions in wrestling history. But none of those reigns packed the same punch that his year-long run in from 2006 to 07 did.
3. Stone Cold Steve Austin (WWE Champion, 1998-2001)
The greatest Superstar in WWE history is also one of its greatest champions.
Austin defeated Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania XIV to win his first title, an era-defining moment that still lives on today. The biggest star during the greatest period in WWE's history, Austin was the face of professional wrestling in the Attitude Era, his likeness and catchphrases splattered across shirts that anyone could find anywhere in the late-nineties.
A second reign in 1998, followed by two more in 1999 and two in 2001 only added to his legacy as one of the greatest of all-time but, more than anything, it was his must-see title defenses and his authority-defying attitude that made him as big a star as he became.
Austin defended against some of the greatest Superstars in history. The Undertaker, Kane, The Rock, Mick Foley, Triple H, Kurt Angle, and Chris Jericho are all future Hall of Fame inductees. Perhaps no other Superstar on this list, outside of Triple H and The Rock, have defended against that quality of opponent, both of which were also major stars during the Attitude Era.
The pandamonium that surrounded his title defenses, the fan interest in him, made every championship match that much more important.
Steve Austin brought a lot to the WWE Championship, a star who did not need the title but, at the end of the day, elevated the championship to heights it had not seen.
2. Hulk Hogan (WWE Champion, 1984-2002)
Hulk Hogan made professional wrestling an acceptable form of entertainment. Celebrities flocked to Madison Square Garden to watch the Hulkster defend his WWE Championship and as a result, increased the visibility of the sport.
He was a larger-than-life character, one people could not help but take notice of, to be interested in, and to watch whenever he came on the screen. His presence increased viewership and made professional wrestling a must-see attraction when it rolled into town.
No other Superstar did more to prop up the wrestling business than Hogan.
His title wins and defenses against the likes of Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, Ted DiBiase, the Ultimate Warrior, Sgt. Slaughter, The Undertaker, King Kong Bundy, Roddy Piper, and Paul Orndorff are the things of legend. While not the great in-ring performer that most would want from a champion, Hogan always brought his A-game when it came to big-time title defenses and it resulted in matches that captivated audiences and shaped the business for decades to come.
In 1987, 93,000+ flocked to the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan to watch Hogan defend his title against Andre the Giant, the biggest and most important match in WWE history. Were there better matches that night? Yes. But it was Hogan and Andre that sold the place out, that made Wrestlemania III the most successful event for the company to that point. The WWE Championship match did that and for that reason alone, the champion deserves an unmeasurable amount of credit.
Hogan's last title reign in WWE would be in 2002 following an improbable comeback that few could have imagined. He defeated Triple H and held the title for a month before dropping it to Undertaker. Despite its short length, Hogan proved he could still live off the reaction of the crowd and deliver when asked.
Hulk Hogan's title reign is one of the two greatest in company history, rivaled only by the man ranking at number one on this list.
1. Bruno Sammartino (WWWF Champion, 1963-1977)
A lot can happen in eleven years.
For Bruno Sammartino eleven years represents the two greatest championship reigns in professional wrestling history. From 1963 until 1971, a seven-plus year span of time, Bruno was the WWWF Champion, selling out Madison Square Garden for nearly every defense of his title. He was wildly popular with the New York audience, an Italian-born champion surrounded by fans proud of their own Italian heritage.
He was the champion any promotion would have been proud to have, one who carried his title with great pride and brought legitimacy to it. Eventually, whoever defeated him and ended the historic reign would be a made man.
That man would be Ivan Koloff, a villainous Russian who upset Bruno and took the title in 1971. He would lose it to Pedro Morales shortly thereafter, Pedro being the man groomed to be the next champion after Bruno in the first place.
Bruno would bounce back and, two years later, would regain the championship, defeating Stan Stasiak. Sammartino would hold the title for four years, a feat that most believed impossible. But the fans never stopped believing in Sammartino. They never became bored by him or his title defenses and as a result, the second reign was as successful as the first.
In today's world of wrestling, where things move so quickly, fans tend to become bored with the same champion after as little as four months. It is a great testament to Bruno and his connection with the people that he could reign as champion, representing the company and its fans, as long as he did without any backlash.
For all of his accomplishments, for his matches against Hall of Famers, and his longevity in a constantly-changing sport, Bruno Sammartino remains the greatest champion in WWE history.