A lot has been said recently about the lack of pushes toward certain wrestlers and the number of great wrestler who were never world champion. Both are great lists (found here and here) in that they bring up the age old arguments of who the WWE pushes, why they push some in respect to others, and why some just never seem to get their due. I highly recommend browsing through both of them.
Championship belts anymore are often compared in the IWC to worthless ornaments used to further storylines or push mid-card talent, not as wrestling's top prize meant for the best and only to be held and sought by the best. In this age of quick belt changes and champions with no staying power, it seems everybody who achieves a relative amount of success in the mid-card is guaranteed a belt. Eugene is one of many examples of wrestlers who have held belts when other more worthy superstars floundered. Let's look at some of the best wrestlers out there who, regardless of ability and popularity, never held a single belt in the WWE.
Besides Christian, no one one the mid-card recieves as big a pop when their music hits as Evan Bourne. His style is unique, he is over with the fans, and he continues to wow a crowd every night with his shooting star press. Yet gold has alluded him for the last 3 years. While some saw the recent Money in the Bank as the moment for Bourne to shine, it's now obvious his push is stunted. Eventually, I see gold in the man's future, but he has to cut a promo first....
That takes us out of the last 15 years, as that's how far back we have to go to find wrestlers who achieved a level of success without ever getting a belt. Some will remember Savio Vega. He wrestled from 1993-1998, with his biggest year being in 1995-1996 where he made it to the finals of the King of the Ring, feuded with Jeff Jarrett for the Intercontinental Championship, and wrestled "The Ringmaster" Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XII, but his flame faded shortly after that.
2 Cold Scorpio is the man who first brought the 450 splash to a larger audience. He wrestled in the WWE from 1996-1999 with a gimmick later perfected by The Godfather. Regardless of his in-ring ability, he never achieved much success in the WWE.
While one can argue that the previous two from the 90's are forgotten wrestlers from the mid-card not worthy of a belt, the biggest travesty of the 90's seems to be Big Van Vader. Before Kane, there was this big red machine who was reduced to jobbing. His debut was highly anticipated and his debut was destructive, destroying many in the 1996 Royal Rumble, being eliminated, going back in, and taking out many more. He feuded with some of the biggest superstars in the mid 90's, including Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker. He came in like a lion, and left quietly like a lamb in 1998.
Another big wrecking machine who never held gold in the WWE was Bam Bam Bigelow. For many, myself included, this was the introduction of the 'agile big-man'. He was a powerhouse, but he could hit you with this cartwheel that would knock you out (as I learned from the Wrestlemania game for the NES). He wrestled for a year in 1987-1988 before taking time out for surgery. He wrestled in Japan and the NWA until returning to the WWE in 1992, feuding with The Big Boss Man and Tanaka. Sadly, his biggest WWE claim to fame was losing to Lawrence Taylor in Wrestlemania XI. Bigelow passed away in 2007 at the age of 45.
In the late 80's to early 90's, one of the most entertaining tag teams to watch was The Bushwackers. Their comedic style of wrestling went over well with the fans, and they were crowd favorites for many years. They feuded with the Bolsheviks and the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers, who they defeated at Wrestlemania V. They received a shot at the belts against the Nasty Boys, but were unsuccessful. By the early 90's, the team was reduced to jobbing to before leaving in 1996.
Another popular team who never held the Tag belts were The Rockers, Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty. While both went on to singles championships, particularly the legacy that is Shawn Michaels, this team went two years as one of the most over tag teams and they never held gold together.
However, it turns out the team did hold the belts, but their reign is not recognized by the WWE. In October 1990, the Rockers beat The Hart Foundation in a two out of three falls match. However, the top rope happened to break during the match, causing a chaotic mess that simply couldn't work for television. In a strange move, the Rockers held the belts for a month, defended them against Paul Roma and Hercules before having WWE give the belts back to the Hart Foundation in November 1990 with no explanation. The footage of the match can be found on the Shawn Michaels DVD, but WWE still does not recognize their short reign. Hmm??
The Yellow and Black Polka dot attack that was WWE's Dusty Rhodes never held a belt either. This multi-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion, US Champion, and WWE Hall-of-Famer never held gold in the 2 short years he shared with the company. His biggest success was a feud with the Macho Man and The Million Dollar Man. He came back into the company in 2005 as a member of the Creative team, so if at this time there were any referees knocked out during a match, only to have a second ref make a call the first ref would disagree with, you can be sure to blame Dusty Rhodes.
Mr. USA himself. In his time from 1987-1992, his biggest claim to fame is to be the first winner of the Royal Rumble. Adored by audiences, gold was something that wasn't in his future. He never even had a discernible feud except for his short stint of winning the crown from King Haku, only to lose it to the Macho Man, creating his 'Macho King' heel gimmick, but he was loved by millions.
Before the Undertaker, this man was the most intimidating wrestler in the WWE. Any man who could scare Andre the Giant deserves that title. Jake the Snake Roberts had it all. He was an excellent mat tactician, he was the person who really introduced psychology to the wrestling persona, and his presence was much larger than the man himself. He had high profile feuds with Ricky Steamboat, Rick Rude, Randy Savage, and the Honky Tonk Man-- all of these feuds for the Intercontinental Championship, and all of these out of his grasp. Roberts eventually ended his career with a feud with The Undertaker, but came back from 1996-1997 as a charismatic preacher, most famous for putting over Steve Austin in the infamous "Austin 3:16" moment.
For me, the biggest surprise was learning it was none other than Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, who never held gold in the WWE. This is the man that defined high-flying for a generation, and his leaps from the top of a cage in matches against both Bob Backlund and Don Morocco in the early 80's, the latter featuring many ECW alumni like Tommy Dreamer, the Sandman, and Mick Foley in the audience, will always be features of the highlight real of wrestling's time capsule. His match with Backlund received the Pro Wrestling Illustrated 'match of the year' award, but despite his influence, he never held gold in the WWE.
I suppose the biggest thing I learned while compiling this was that a person's status with a belt doesn't equate to a legacy. Many wrestlers, especially wrestlers in the 80's when title changes were much more infrequent, achieved a high level of success and popularity without ever having gold. Honorable mentions would go to Brutus the Barber Beefcake and The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, but both held Tag belts, though DiBiase's was arguably after the prime of his career. He was the top heel in the WWE in the late 80's, yet he never held a single's championship. One wonders if this was one of the tradeoffs for the kayfabe lifestyle his character required and lived at the time.
The biggest honorable mention should be Andre the Giant. This man was the face of wrestling before Hulk Hogan and is among the top 5 wrestlers of all times in terms of popularity and face recognition. Yet his accomplishment for gold in the WWE was beating Hogan for the belt on Saturday Night's Main Event, in a memorable but controversial referee angle, only to hand the belt over to The Million Dollar Man minutes later before the title was vacated, leading up to the tournament in Wrestlemania IV won by Macho Man Randy Savage. Besides a minute as World Champion, he held the Tag Team Championship for a mere 3 months in 1990 with Haku.
Sad commentary on one of the best wrestlers, but it does highlight that it's not the belt that makes the wrestler-- it's the wrestler.