There was actually a time where any heel being WWE champion was a big deal. From Bruno Sammartino to Pedro Morales to Bob Backlund to Hulk Hogan, the champion was usually an unbeatable hero, only losing due to nefarious shenanigans committed by a heel.
Over time, this obviously changed, but there were still all kinds of weird surprises in store. Some wrestlers weren't necessarily seen as world championship material, and while some overcame that stigma, others floundered,
So, who stunned the fans? Who succeeded? Who failed? You'll find out as we go over the most shocking WWE Championship changes and reigns...
For the first thirty years or so of its existence, the WWWF/WWF/WWE Championship was usually held by nigh-unbeatable babyfaces. It all goes back to the success of Bruno Sammartino, who was finally inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame this year.
Sammartino was such a huge draw that he went on to hold the title for the better part of eight years with no sign of him losing in sight. The only reason that he decided to drop the title was that the champion's schedule had become too demanding and he needed to rest up.
This was the same reason he gave years earlier when the National Wrestling Alliance wanted him to beat Lou Thesz in a unification match several years earlier. Bruno had no problem doing outside dates for his favorite promoters like Frank Tunney in Toronto and Paul Boesch in Houston, but the schedule of the NWA champion was even more demanding than the one he had in the WWWF.
Of course, none of the fans knew this when Bruno defended his title against Ivan Koloff on Jan. 18, 1971. Bruno had dispatched Koloff before, so why wouldn't he be able to again?
Bruno charged Koloff in the corner, but got countered with a boot the the face. Ivan bodyslammed him, hit his trademark top rope kneedrop, and got the pin.
What puzzled everyone at first was the crowd reaction: Madison Square Garden was dead quiet (the above video has canned crowd noise and commentary dubbed over silent film). Bruno thought he had injured his eardrum. The referee realized it could be the calm before the storm, so he rushed Koloff out of the ring and made sure not to present him with the championship belt.
Koloff was originally supposed to be champion for about a year. He would build heat for the eventual moment where Pedro Morales dethroned him. Instead, due to worry about the reactions of both the fans in general and Bruno's more unsavory admirers, they did the switch to Morales three weeks later and rushed Koloff out of the territory.
Pedro Morales held the WWWF Championship for about three years. While he packed Madison Square Garden every month, he was not as successful as Bruno in other cities in the territory, as Morales appealed more to a sense of ethnic pride among the Puerto Rican fanbase, which was biggest in New York.
Still, the fans that showed up (and there were still plenty of them) loved Morales. When it was time for him to drop the belt so it could be transitioned back to Sammartino (short term in theory, four years in reality), there was a lot of fear that there could be a riot after the close call when Koloff beat Bruno.
Again, it seemed like a run-of-the-mill title defense. Eventually, Morales hit a back suplex and Stasiak got his shoulder up at the last second. The ring announcer let out a big "Let's hear it for a great champion, Pedro Morales!" and all was good in the world in Philladelphia.
Yes, he lost the title, they just tried to hide it to avoid rioting.
There were no illusions as to what Stasiak's job was here: He was a big tough guy who was theoretically credible enough to beat Morales as well as an impressive-looking opponent for Bruno. Nine days later, Sammartino was champion again.
In 1976, after repeated delays and compromises (like Bruno getting a part-time schedule), Bruno Sammartino gave Vince McMahon, Sr. an ultimatum: Groom someone to be champion or else.
McMahon wanted a "Jack Brisco type," a handsome young wrestler with an amateur background. St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick recommended Bob Backlund, but he needed seasoning and it would take time to get him over in the Northeast, enough time that they couldn't do the quick heel transitional reign again.
"Superstar" Billy Graham had been in and out of the territory for years, challenging Sammartino for the title on several occasions in addition to teaming with Ivan Koloff. When he was brought in for the run that would lead up to his title reign, notorious long term planner Vince McMahon, Sr. told him the exact days he would win the title from Sammartino and lose it to Backlund.
Baltimore was the site, as there were fears of what would happen if Bruno lost the title in Madison Square Garden again. Again, Bruno had beaten this guy before, so why would anyone have expected a title change?
After a hard-fought match, Bruno was seemingly in the middle of his comeback when Graham slumped over in the corner. As the referee pulled him away, Graham picked his leg, cradled him, put his own feet on the ropes for leverage, and got the pin.
Unlike Stasiak, Graham got an obvious victory, was handed the belt, and was announced as champion. Still, there was obvious worry about his safety, as he grabbed the belt and ran to the locker room before the official decision was announced.
Thankfully, there was no fear of murder this time once he was champion, so Graham went on to hold the title for a year as promised and lost the title on the day he was told he would lost it before he ever won it.
This is where we start to shift away from the pattern of the early heel title wins. There were no real worries of rioting: Fans liked Backlund, but they didn't worship him the way they worshiped Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales. While the Iron Sheik had challenged Backlund before, it was over four years earlier, under a different name (Hussein Arab), and he was a "one and done" challenger as opposed to having the usual three match series at Madison Square Garden.
Where it gets interesting is that the Iron Sheik was not an especially big star in pro wrestling at the time, especially compared to other 1983 challengers like Don Muraco, Ivan Koloff, Sgt. Slaughter and the Masked Superstar. He was about a year removed from working preliminary matches in Jerry Jarrett's Memphis territory and was coming off of solid but unspectacular runs in Georgia Championship Wrestling and Mid-South Wrestling.
While angles on the weekly WWF TV shows were rare back then, it still didn't seem like that big a deal when Sheik attacked Backlund with his Persian Clubs. Well, at least until Backlund started selling a neck injury from the opening bell.
Sheik dominated Backlund for most of the match, leading to one of the most famous finishes in wrestling history. The champion attempted a comeback with his signature O'Connor Roll pin, but couldn't maintain the bridge due to the neck injury. Sheik kicked his neck, put him in the camel clutch, and when he wouldn't give up, manager Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel.
As I'm sure many of you know, this still turned out to be another transitional reign: Hulk Hogan debuted as the new top star in the company the following week at TV tapings in St. Louis (where war was declared by buying out the local NWA promotion's TV and arena deals) and Pennsylvania, and he defeated "Sheiky Baby" the following month. From there, the company was primed to expand nationally.
One day in the middle of October in 1992, my dad handed me the "Wrestling" portion of the sports results in the New York Daily News. There was just one match listed from a WWF event that week in some place named "Saskatoon." It said Bret Hart beat WWF champion Ric Flair. Must have been a non-title match, I wonder why that's there.
A few days later, WWF Superstars opened with Hart being introduced as new champion. WHAT?!?!?!
I suspect a lot of people had similar reactions. Yeah, Hart was super popular and had just headlined a major pay-per-view event (SummerSlam '92, losing the intercontinental title to Davey Boy Smith), but he didn't fit the mold of what a WWF champion was supposed to look like.
Well, that was the idea. Hulk Hogan had gone on hiatus a year earlier to get away from the steroid scandal that exploded with him at the center. A Ric Flair vs. Randy Savage feud over the title didn't draw. The Ultimate Warrior was pegged as next champion, but he was a few weeks away from being fired and Vince McMahon needed an outside of the box solution.
Hart was one of the most popular stars in the company, reliable, a great worker and did not look like a steroid guy. Now it's obvious why he won the title, but at the time and in the way it was revealed (the title change never aired on TV)? It was one of the most shocking things I've ever seen on a weekly wrestling show.
In the "Hulkamania" era, the WWF and the pro wrestling business in general had obviously changed a lot, but the same basic philosophy of a dominant babyface champion was followed. As WrestleMania became the biggest show of the year, the idea that a heel would win the main event seemed borderline insane, as Vince McMahon (the current one) and the WWF made sure to send the fans home happy. Even at WrestleManias where there was some kind of double main event, the babyfaces won both.
This changed with WrestleMania 9 in 1993. Sort of.
Bret Hart was a dominant champion, defending his title frequently on television. WrestleMania was to be his toughest test yet in the form of Yokozuna. Hogan had returned, but he was just challenging for the tag titles on the undercard.
Since it was WrestleMania, the outcome wasn't really in doubt. Hart would slay the monster and get over even more, being halfway into what was promised as being "at least" a year-long title reign. Hogan would go back home. It didn't happen that way.
Hart managed to get the 500-plus pounder into the Sharpshooter, but Mr. Fuji threw salt in his eyes, somehow crippling him in addition to blinding him, and Yokozuna covered him for the pin. Hogan ran out to complain, Fuji issued an inexplicable challenge (which Hart "urged Hogan to accept") and accidentally threw salt in his charge's eyes, and Hogan won the title.
It left the wrong taste in fans' mouths, as it came off like Hogan stealing the title from his friend. Yokozuna got the belt back a few months later and held it through WrestleMania 10, where he finally lost the belt back to Hart.
During the Summer of 1994, Bret Hart defended the WWF Championship against Bob Backlund in Backlund's "first title shot in 11 years." Backlund came close with a near-fall that he thought was a three count, but ultimately lost the match. Afterwards he "snapped," procured the cross-face chickenwing on Hart, and turned heel.
Now in the midst of some kind of crazed mid-life crisis, Backlund became the new top heel in the WWF and went on to beat Hart for the title at Survivor Series in a submission match when Bret's mother was manipulated into throwing in the towel. During the show, it seemed like they were just building to a rematch.
Meanwhile, in the opener, Diesel (Kevin Nash) turned babyface and broke up with his tag team partner Shawn Michaels. Since Hart was "injured," Diesel replaced him in the scheduled rematch against Backlund three days later at Madison Square Garden. Remind you of anything?
The bell rang, Diesel kicked Backlund in the gut, hit the jackknife powerbomb, and pinned him in eight seconds. Diesel was the new WWF champion.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Diesel was hot off the turn and very coachable, while Backlund was awkward in the ring and only had good matches with Hart.
Unfortunately, he reason Diesel was turned (the fans loved him as a giant, usually silent but occasionally sarcastic badass) didn't matter anymore. He was now a bland, always-smiling generic babyface. If there was no turning back, the experiment should have ended there, but he held the title for a year before finally losing it to Hart to set up a heel turn.
The idea that the WWF Championship would change hands on this show was not really surprising. The belt was in hot potato mode with Vince Russo as the head of the creative team. By the time the match went on, I don't think anyone conceived of it happening, as this was the show where Owen Hart died when the harness for his rappelling entrance malfunctioned.
While they hadn't been formally informed of Hart's death like the viewers at home were, the fans in the building had still seen something awful and were silent by the standards of the raucous "Attitude Era" crowds for most of the match. The action got the crowd back down the home stretch, and then Austin lost the title to pro wrestling's living embodiment of death in a sloppy looking finish where Shane McMahon screwed him.
Once it was clear that the show was going on, I guess it wasn't necessarily surprising that they'd still do the title change. But having The Undertaker win the main event of a show where a guy died? What the hell!?!?!
The SummerSlam '99 main event seemed like a forgone conclusion for months: Triple H, the new top heel, would beat Steve Austin (who needed to fix his injured knee) for the WWF Championship as he rocketed to the top. There were a monkey wrench thrown into that plan:
Jesse Ventura, then sitting governor of Minnesota, where SummerSlam was held, was special referee, which got the show a ton of publicity. A babyface needed to win, but Austin still needed to lose.
Enter Mankind. He was resting his own injuries, but with The Rock occupied and needing to be protected, he was the best man for the job. It became a Triple Threat match and Mankind cleanly beat Austin with the double arm DDT to win the title. It was made even weirder by Ventura's inept refereeing, holding up his fingers as if it was a near-fall, confusing the crowd. They didn't react until Mankind was announced as new champion.
Making it all the more confusing were a bunch of false rumors saying Austin had refused to lose to Triple H. Everyone figured Mankind was there so Triple H could win without beating Austin. Well, that WAS sort of why he was there, just not for those reasons. He lost to Triple H the next night.
The Latino Steve Austin.
That's what everyone was calling Eddie Guerrero in late 2003 and early 2004. He had exploded in popularity on the back of his "lie, cheat and steal" gimmick, with noticeable shifts in ratings and house show attendance. He was about to be pushed as one of WWE's very top stars and got the rocket strapped to him when he beat Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship at No Way Out 2004.
He got off to a good start, beating Kurt Angle at WrestleMania 20 in one of the show's four main events. From there, disaster struck: Lesnar left the company and Angle had to take months off to heal his neck. What was left of the SmackDown roster was decimated in that year's WWE draft.
SmackDown needed a new top heel immediately, and Guerrero went to the bat for his friend John "Bradshaw" Layfield, who went from a mid-card babyface cowboy to an evil, xenophobic heel patterned after the J.R. Ewing character from "Dallas." Layfield raised his game, cut some great promos, and had great matches with Guerrero, but it didn't click with fans.
As champion, Guerrero felt the drop in business was 100 percent his responsibility, and the stress got to him to the point that he had to lose the title. There was only one person for him to drop it to, and that was Bradshaw.
He ran with the ball and did great work as champion, but he just wasn't what most fans wanted to see. Still, since John Cena was being groomed as a new top star and they wanted to wait for WrestleMania, Bradshaw remained champion for the better part of eight months.
It's too bad the timing wasn't right for Bradshaw to succeed at that time, but the gimmick breathed new life into his career. Without this run, we likely wouldn't have him as a color commentator on Raw and SmackDown every week, as he'd still be colorless cowboy Bradshaw.