The 10 Most Shocking Title Changes in WWE History
This past Sunday's SummerSlam pay-per-view featured a shocking conclusion during which Randy Orton cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase moments after Daniel Bryan's WWE title win over John Cena in the night's main event and, with the assistance of Triple H, became the new champion.
While Orton cashing in may not have been shocking, the fact that Triple H showed his true colors in helping his former Evolution protege do so and screwing over Bryan in the process was.
WWE's history is dotted with title changes that, for one reason or another, shocked and stunned fans across the globe.
These are the 10 most shocking title changes in WWE history, ranked according to date and in no specific order.
January 18, 1971: Ivan Koloff Ends the Living Legend's 8-Year Title Reign
Imagine for a moment a champion so popular that he is as much a cultural hero, if more so, as he is a sports icon. Now imagine him losing a match and the crowd becoming so silent and despondent following the loss that they simply sit in shock and awe as their hero watches the title he carried for eight years slip away.
On January 18, 1971, that scenario played out, as Bruno Sammartino's legendary eight-year (eight years) World Wide Wrestling Federation Heavyweight title reign came to an end at the hands of Ivan Koloff.
Koloff was a Russian villain at a time when the Cold War tension between the United States and Russia was near its height. As perfect a heel as he may have been for that time, no one really expected he would even dethrone Bruno. In the eyes of the fans inside Madison Square Garden, Sammartino was an unstoppable force and immovable object all rolled up into one.
Perhaps no star before nor since has had such a connection with the fans that they lived and breathed his every performance in the way the fans in New York City did with Bruno.
The idea that any challenger could ever beat him and take the WWWF title from him was so unthinkable that when it finally happened, the men, women and children that so passionately supported their hero had no real way of reacting.
As Bruno walked to the locker room and fans came to understand what they had seen, they began to cry, openly weeping.
That is devotion to a single performer, the likes of which may never be seen again.
For that reason, Ivan Koloff's 1971 win over Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Championship remains the most shocking in the sport's illustrious history.
November 11, 1991: The Undertaker Lays to Rest Hulk Hogan's 4th Title Reign
The Undertaker's debut at the 1990 Survivor Series set in motion a career that would arguably become the most iconic is World Wrestling Entertainment history. A performer absolutely devoted to his character, the Dead Man made a tremendous impact in his first year of competition, and just one year after entering the promotion, he found himself challenging Hulk Hogan for the Heavyweight title at Survivor Series 1991.
As had been the case in years past, most expected The Phenom to put up a fight but ultimately succumb to the big boot and leg drop, courtesy of The Hulkster.
Instead, The Undertaker dominated his match with Hogan and, thanks to interference from "real world champion" Ric Flair, captured his first WWE Championship after a Tombstone Piledriver onto a steel chair.
It was a very real possibility that The Undertaker would eventually win the Heavyweight title. What no one could have predicted was that he would win it so early in his career and that he would do so by beating Hogan, who was still at his peak as a performer.
Twenty-two years later, The Dead Man is a surefire Hall of Famer and one of the most respected stars in the history of the business, both among his peers and wrestling fans.
October 12, 1992: Bret Hart Beats Ric Flair, Wins First WWE Championship
In the fall of 1992, Bret "Hitman" Hart was coming off of a history-making Intercontinental title match against the British Bulldog at SummerSlam, a match in which he lost in front of 80,000 of Bulldog's fellow countrymen in London.
Hart was making a name for himself as arguably the finest in-ring technician in the sport and was relied upon heavily to deliver great matches on a nightly basis. Most of the time, he more than delivered on expectations.
When heavyweight champion Ric Flair suffered an inner-ear injury and needed to drop the title, Vince McMahon made a bold decision and chose Hart as his company's next main event babyface.
In a match in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, Hart applied the Sharpshooter to Flair, forced a submission and celebrated his first WWE Championship victory in his home country.
Hart's win was shocking for a few reasons. First, no one knew he was challenging for the title until the night of the match. It was not televised, nor was it hyped prior to that night's event.
Secondly, Hart was the exact opposite of what McMahon's promotion had touted as its champion for years. He was smaller and more versed in the in-ring artistry of the business than the muscle-bound, hulking superheroes of the past. He was a reliable hand and one who, regardless of what most believed he was capable of, seemed destined to thrive in the midcard as Intercontinental champion forever.
"Macho Man" Randy Savage had cracked the mold before him, but Hart would break it into a thousand pieces.
His shocking title win changed the course of WWE forever. Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan all have Hart to thank for proving successful in his first opportunity to lead the company.
November 24, 1994: Family Drama Breaks Bret's Heart
By the time the 1994 Survivor Series hit the pay-per-view airwaves, Bob Backlund was 45 years old.
In the middle of a career renaissance, Backlund had become one of the top villains in the sport thanks to a character change that saw him become a mentally deranged veteran who was capable of snapping at any time.
The first target of his uncontrollable anger was Bret Hart, whom he attacked after a memorable championship match on an episode of Superstars. Backlund snapped after the match and applied the Cross Face Chicken Wing to Hart, refusing to break the hold despite several referees and management officials' attempts to pull him off.
Eventually, a championship match was booked for the Survivor Series show under Submission match rules. Furthermore, "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith would second Bret while Owen Hart would accompany Backlund. Both men would have a towel to throw into the ring in the event that they felt their Superstar could no longer take the pain.
As one would expect, those towels and those Superstars would come into play.
After 35 minutes of action, Backlund locked the champion into the Chicken Wing submission and refused to break the hold. Bret fought and fought but could not break Backlund's grasp. On the outside of the ring, the devious Owen knocked Smith unconscious before turning on the waterworks and pleading with his own mother to throw the towel in on behalf of Bret.
She did just that, and the wrestling business was stunned as, in the middle of a new initiative by WWE to promote the so-called New Generation, a star from the late 1970s/early 1980s was suddenly the heavyweight champion in the sports entertainment industry's No. 1 promotion.
November 26, 1994: Diesel Runs over Backlund in 8 Seconds at the Garden
Just two days after Bob Backlund's shocking WWE title win over Bret Hart at the Survivor Series, the wrestling world was once again shaken when Diesel, also known as Kevin Nash, delivered a thunderous jackknife powerbomb to Backlund and beat him for the gold in only eight seconds.
Diesel's title win was considered a surprise because, much like Bret Hart's victory two years earlier, the fact that the freshly turned babyface was even challenging for the title was a surprise to most. There was no advertising, no real hype for the match. It very much came from out of nowhere and signaled the beginning of the Clique-dominated era in World Wrestling Entertainment.
The seven-foot tall athlete would hold the title just under one year before losing it to Hart at the 1995 Survivor Series.
Unfortunately for Diesel, he would also be the lowest-drawing champion in WWE history, a distinction no one wants following them around.
December 29, 1998: 'Big Daddy-O Did It!'
As 1998 came to a close, most believed the main event of WrestleMania XV was destined to be the corporate champion The Rock defending the WWE Championship against "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. On the road to that year's event, however, a wrench was thrown into the company's plans.
Somewhere along the line, Mankind became a far more popular performer than the company could have imagined. He was the complete opposite of what Vince McMahon wanted his corporate champion to be and was merely a pawn in McMahon's game with Austin to keep the Texas Rattlesnake from regaining the title.
With Austin out of the way, McMahon and The Rock screwed Mankind out of the title. The unconventional Superstar proved to be smarter than he was given credit for. He was a major thorn in the side of McMahon and his cohorts, eventually working his way into a title match with The Rock.
Taped on December 29 in Worcester, Mass., that match would feature a chaotic scene around ringside involving D-Generation X and McMahon's Corporation faction, as well as Steve Austin hitting the ring to cost The Rock the title amid one of the biggest pops of all time.
Mankind, known better to today's fans as Mick Foley, captured the title in one of the truly great feel-good moments in WWE history.
He took the time, just moments after the crowning achievement of his Hall of Fame career, to speak to his children, Dewey and Noel, telling them "...Big Daddy-O did it!"
The match would air on January 4, 1999 and would play a pivotal role in the Monday Night Wars.
Just ask poor Tony Schiavone.
March 15, 1999: The New Age Outlaws Switch Things Up on the Road to WrestleMania
The road to WrestleMania XV was littered with twists, turns and surprises, but few could have expected what came on the March 15 edition of Monday Night Raw, mainly because it was planned that way.
For weeks, Billy Gunn had been mixed up in an angle involving Val Venis and Ken Shamrock over the Intercontinental Championship. All signs seemed to point at a Triple Threat match for the title in Philadelphia at WrestleMania.
Road Dogg, on the other hand, had been a solid edition to the hardcore division, having won the title previously. As WrestleMania approached, he was one of several wrestlers that had been targeting Hardcore Holly and the championship.
Common sense was sacrificed for the sake of shock value as Road Dogg inexplicably won the Intercontinental title from Val Venis on March 15. Later in the evening, Gunn defeated Holly for the Hardcore title.
The title changes on March 15 were a prime example of a surprise done incorrectly. The best, most shocking title changes often are the most organic. When Road Dogg and Billy Gunn suddenly changed course for no reason other than to catch the fans off-guard with a nonsensical booking decision, it hurt the continuity and the quality of the stories being told.
The changes were shocking, yes, but more so because of their stupidity.
April 10, 2001: Extreme Shocker in Philadelphia!
Shortly after WrestleMania X-7, WWE was trying desperately to get Steve Austin over as a heel. The anti-authority hero of the Attitude Era had made a controversial turn to close out the biggest show of the year and was struggling to connect with an audience that did not necessarily want to boo him.
On the April 9 edition of Raw, Austin and Triple H partnered with Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley in a six-person tag match against the Hardy Boyz and Lita. The babyfaces would score the upset win but would pay for it immediately afterward, becoming the victim of a heinous steel chair attack that even saw the heels beat and batter Lita with the weapon.
At the SmackDown tapings the following night, Jeff Hardy attempted to gain a measure of revenge for his brother and their female companion. He attacked Triple H and Austin early in the evening before challenging The Game for the title later in the evening.
In a shocking turn of events, Hardy scored a major upset and captured the Intercontinental title to the dismay of the duo dubbed the Two-Man Power Trip.
The win was especially unexpected considering that Hardy was primarily a tag team wrestler while Triple H was an established main event performer in the middle of a major push at the top of the card.
Hardy's reign would be short-lived, as he lost it back to Triple H the following Monday.
While his run with the strap may not have been one of great length, it was one that had the entire wrestling world buzzing the day after.
November 17, 2002: Well...it's The Big Show?
In the summer of 2002, Brock Lesnar took World Wrestling Entertainment by storm, defeating every top star put in his way en route to winning the WWE Championship at SummerSlam.
An angle with The Undertaker would cement him as one of the top stars in the industry, and it became clear by the time Survivor Series rolled around that the fans of the company were ready to get behind the young, freakish athlete.
Enter The Big Show, who would help to constitute the Lesnar face turn and would provide him with his largest (size-wise) challenge to date.
The giant competitor had spent most of 2002 floating around the Raw brand with little or no direction, a big-name talent who could be used to put other Superstars over. In the fall, he was traded to SmackDown and immediately rebuilt into a dominant monster of a competitor who laid waste to any man in his way, including Lesnar.
As well as he was booked leading up to the event, however, few expected that he would be the one to hand Lesnar his first pinfall defeat. After all, Big Show had been given a title reign previously and did not live up to expectations.
At Survivor Series, fans were left in shock, as Lesnar's manager, Paul Heyman, turned on his client and aided Show to his second heavyweight title.
Suddenly, the man who had lost to Spike Dudley on Raw earlier in the year had defeated the unstoppable machine Brock Lesnar and was now the second-most important champion in the company, behind Raw's Triple H.
June 27, 2004: A Wrestling God Ascends
The spring of 2004 was an interesting one for World Wrestling Entertainment.
The company attempted to go in a new direction with Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero as its World and WWE champions, respectively, but ratings were stagnant and neither had proved to be the breakout star management had hoped for.
Guerrero, in particular, was having a hard time coping with the tremendous pressure he was under to carry the SmackDown brand.
Longtime tag team wrestler Bradshaw had recently undergone a character makeover. Gone was the beer-drinking, ass-kicking Acolyte Protection Agency member and in its place was suave, loud-mouth American businessman John Bradshaw Layfield, and he was hell-bent on speaking his mind and capturing the WWE title that eluded him throughout his career.
No one really believed that Bradshaw, a midcard performer (at best) for the majority of his career, would actually win one of the two most important prizes the company had to offer.
Then, at the Great American Bash on June 27 of 2004, it happened.
JBL defeated Guerrero to win the title in a Texas Bull Rope match.
Wrestling fans had treated Bradshaw's potential title victory with a "we'll believe it when we see it" attitude and when it happened, they could not help but be stunned at the direction the company had taken.
JBL would go on to have a lengthy, quality title reign that saw him pick up wins over the likes of The Undertaker, Big Show, Kurt Angle and Booker T before seeing it come to its end at WrestleMania 21 at the hands of a young upstart named John Cena.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!