At WWE's 2013 Night of Champions pay-per-view, Daniel Bryan became a two-time WWE champion. While most would be inclined to suggest that Bryan deserves this accolade, his recent WWE Championship victories have underlined a change in how we recognize the successes of pro wrestlers—a change that has been brewing in recent years.
"Macho Man" Randy Savage, like Bryan, is recognized as a two-time WWE champion, but he held the title for a combined total of 520 days in the late '80s and early '90s. More recently, CM Punk became WWE champion for a second time, a reign which lasted for 434 days.
While, traditionally, performers who were recognized as holding the most world championships were thought to be the most successful and prolific in the industry, it seems more appropriate in contemporary pro wrestling to use a different measuring stick, such as the combined length of title reigns.
The age-old argument is the example of "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, who on paper appears to be one of the most successful and decorated champions of all time. However, it is clear that to win a world championship 16 times, equally, you must be beaten for it on a multitude of occasions.
In recent programming, WWE has given off a sense of embarrassment at the extent of John Cena's success within the company. Usually, commentators will play up the accolades of a champion, but during his last WWE title reign, Michael Cole would often refer to Cena as "the 11-time WWE champion," whereas in all actuality, Cena boasts 13 top-tier title reigns if you include his two runs as World Heavyweight champion.
The 2002 inception of WWE's second world championship, the World Heavyweight title, has been the primary cause of the inflation of multiple-time world champions within the WWE, not to mention the frequently shorter reigns that began in the mid-90s.
People often point to Shawn Michaels' four world title reigns as an underachievement for a Superstar that closed out WrestleMania on five occasions. In any other sport, however, being a four-time world champion is an unbelievable achievement; it is not so much that greats like Michael's underachieved (within kayfabe) but that current performers, such as the reigning four-time world champion Alberto Del Rio, are overachieving thanks to WWE having too thin a roster for two world championships.
Ultimately, if ranked by number of WWE Championship reigns, the top five of the modern era are:
- John Cena
- The Rock/Triple H
- Randy Orton
- Hulk Hogan/Steve Austin
- Bret Hart
While absolutely all of the above are deserving as being considered some of the greatest of all time, it is important to remember that this is not the only measure of success in pro wrestling.
If it was, then CM Punk and Daniel Bryan have had equal success in the WWE Championship scene, both being two-time champions. Even Punk's most ardent critics can empathize with the argument there.