Power Ranking the 10 Greatest Champions in WWE History

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2013

Power Ranking the 10 Greatest Champions in WWE History

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    This Sunday at WWE's Night of Champions, Superstars of all sorts will enter the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit hoping to leave with their titles intact.

    With the annual championship-centered pay-per-view upon us, talk naturally turns to the various titles and champions that make up WWE's long and illustrious history.

    Which title is the most prestigious? Who was the best WWE champion? Who was the best World champion?

    Who is the greatest champion in WWE history?

    That last one is a loaded question, one that has a hundred different answers depending on whom one talks to.

    Taking into account historical context, length of title reigns, importance to the company and the quality of their matches while champion, here is one look at the 10 greatest champions in WWE history.

10. CM Punk

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    From November of 2011 to January 2013, CM Punk enjoyed a WWE title reign thought to be impossible in today's wrestling landscape. For over one year, he served as the highest-ranking champion in the industry, even if he was not always treated as the sport's top star.

    During the course of his title reign, Punk worked with John Cena, Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan, The Big Show, The Rock, Kane and Alberto Del Rio and got outstanding matches out of all of them. His series with Bryan, in particular, was something few longtime fans could have ever expected to see in the company that, at one time, was considered the land of the giants.

    Punk being champion, like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart before him, assured fans that wrestling would be the focal point of the WWE title picture, and his reign was responsible for several television and pay-per-view matches that approached "Match of the Year" status.

    The 434-day title reign was not Punk's first.

    He won his first World Heavyweight Championship by cashing in Money in the Bank in 2008. His second came one year later the same way as the first.

    Prior to that he was the ECW champion, and in-between those three title reigns he enjoyed short Intercontinental and Tag Team Championship runs.

    It is far too early to place CM Punk ahead of others on this list. While he has been a superb performer for the majority of his career, and his WWE title reign was historic for a number of reasons, history will dictate whether he deserves to be mentioned alongside those men at a later date.

    Until then, fans can take solace in knowing that one of the greatest champions in WWE history is on their television each and every Monday night.

9. Shawn Michaels

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    As was the case throughout his career, and despite an impressive resume, controversy follows Shawn Michaels onto this list of greatest champions in WWE history. Michaels' place on this list is controversial because of the manner in which he lost two different championships.

    In 1997, Michaels delivered his infamous "lost my smile" speech and declared that a knee injury would force him to hand over the WWE title. A year and a half earlier, he handed over the Intercontinental belt after being assaulted in a Syracuse night club.

    Many questioned whether Michaels was legitimately injured, or if he used injury to get out of losing said championships. Regardless, it cast doubt as to whether Shawn was really one of the boys or if he was simply looking out for his own interests.

    Shawn's politicking throughout the 1990s has never really made any sense. Perhaps the greatest in-ring performer of all time, Michaels' work surely would have gotten him to the top eventually, and his phenomenal matches as champion would keep him there.

    His first championship win was never seen on WWE programming. With Marty Jannetty, he captured the Tag Team Championship from the Hart Foundation at a Saturday Night's Main Event taping.  Unfortunately, the top rope broke and the match quickly went into a downward spiral. The title change never aired and the decision was made to go in another direction.

    Speaking of Saturday Night's Main Event, Michaels would atone for the tag title reign that never was when he defeated the British Bulldog to capture his first singles title.

    In all, Michaels amassed 14 championships throughout his career, was a two-time Royal Rumble winner and was the company's first Grand Slam champion.

    He earned the nicknames The Showstopper, The Icon and The Main Event thanks in large part to the classic matches he delivered on a seemingly nightly basis.

8. The Rock

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    The Rock's first championship coincided with extreme backlash from a WWE fan base that absolutely despised the smiling, third-generation Superstar that was being pushed on them by Vince's promotion.

    When he won the Intercontinental Championship from Triple H on February 13, 1997, it set in motion a series of events that would eventually result in the young blue-chipper evolving from happy-go-lucky babyface to the arrogant, electrifying, always-entertaining megastar that fans know and love to this day.

    As Intercontinental champion Rocky Maivia, there was only so far Dwayne Johnson would go. It was a blessing in disguise, then, when he was defeated by Owen Hart in April of that year and later sidelined by a knee injury.

    The injury allowed Johnson to stay off television for a period, heal up and eventually come back better than he was before. It also allowed him to reinvent himself, which he did. He spoke out against the fans' hatred of him and displayed abilities on the microphone no one knew he had.

    From there, he would win the Intercontinental title once more, receiving it via forfeit from Steve Austin in December of 1997 and holding it until August of the following year. The match in which he lost it, a ladder match against Triple H at SummerSlam, would launch him into the main event scene.

    At Survivor Series in 1998 he captured his first heavyweight title, defeating Mankind in a controversial tournament final that exposed The Rock's association with Vince and Shane McMahon.

    He would star as the Corporate champion, the symbol of everything the rebellious fans of the Attitude Era hated.

    When Rock finally made his babyface turn in 1999 he became a Superstar whose popularity rivaled that of Stone Cold Steve Austin. He was a breakthrough mainstream star who represented the company well outside the ring and, equally as important, inside of it.

    In 2000, Rock and Triple H traded the WWE title throughout the spring and early summer. When he finally ended up with the title in June, he embarked on a nearly five-month run against incredible in-ring workers such as Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle, the aforementioned Triple H, the monstrous Kane and the American Badass, The Undertaker.

    January 2013 saw him return to the ring and knock off CM Punk to end his 434 days as WWE champion.

7. Macho Man Randy Savage

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    An iconic figure in the annals of professional wrestling history and a man taken from this world far too early, Randy Savage was a champion that brought legitimacy to every title he ever held.

    Shortly after debuting in World Wrestling Entertainment, Savage made an immediate impact by defeating Tito Santana to capture the Intercontinental title. In the year that followed, he carried on the tradition of a title previously held by respected in-ring workers such as Tito Santana, Greg Valentine, Pedro Morales and Don Muraco, all the while building a legacy for himself the likes of which few can match.

    At WrestleMania III, in a match that transcends the sport, Savage met Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat in an athletic display. The villainous champion who assaulted Steamboat with a ring bell, crushing his throat and nearly ending his career, Savage brought intensity to the match while Steamboat brought grace and class.

    After 14 minutes of nonstop drama, Steamboat caught Savage with a roll-up and pinned the champion's shoulders to the mat.

    Savage would rebound, becoming one of the top babyfaces in pro wrestling and earning a spot in the WrestleMania IV WWE Championship tournament. In a shocking turn of events, the workhorse Savage competed in four matches en route to winning his first WWE title.

    Over the years, Savage would continue to be one of the sport's great workers, regardless of whether he was a hero or villain.

    In 1992, Savage again answered the call, delivering an outstanding match with Ric Flair at WrestleMania VIII and capturing his second WWE title.

    Savage competed at a time when multiple title reigns were not an everyday occurrence, nor were rapid title switches, and thus his championship resume is not nearly as long as some of today's modern greats.

    His number of championships aside, Savage not only carried each title with great dignity and helped portray the importance of them, he also backed up each championship with outstanding in-ring performance.

6. Triple H

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    "The Game" belongs on this list based solely on his dominant World Heavyweight Championship reign of 2002-03. During that time, he outlasted the competition and brought stability to a company that was transforming on a week-to-week basis.

    The end of the Attitude Era brought with it the death of WCW and ECW. Steve Austin wrestled his final match at WrestleMania XIX in April of 2003 and The Rock had finished up as a full-time performer the year before. In an attempt to fill their spots on the roster WWE brought in several recognizable stars from WCW, including Scott Steiner and Goldberg.

    Triple H was the one consistent, the one elite performer the company could rely on to always be there, to not walk out or leave for Hollywood, and Vince McMahon recognized this. The entire Monday Night Raw brand was booked with him as the centerpiece, always in the title picture and never looking too weak.

    At a time of great unknown, McMahon stuck with the one star he knew he could trust. While many are quick to reference politics and Triple H's real-life relationship with the boss' daughter Stephanie as the reason he always managed to end up in the main event, his ascension came down to a lack of other Superstars that had the same relationship with fans that Triple H did. 

    That is not to say The Cerebral Assassin did not benefit from familial relationships and backstage power plays, of course.

    But Triple H worked hard to carry the Raw brand and he did so against wrestlers of all styles. One month he would defend against an unorthodox, high-flying competitor such as Rob Van Dam, and the next he would paired with the monstrous Kane.

    The company lined up Steiner, Van Dam, Booker T, Kevin Nash and Goldberg and Triple H knocked them down. Was it always good for business? Maybe, maybe not. But it was the safest route to go at a time when the future of the industry was, at best, cloudy.

    The Game would finally lose the title on September 21, 2003 at Unforgiven when he was pinned by Goldberg in the night's main event.

    Triple H is an eight-time WWE champion, a five-time World Heavyweight champion, a two-time European champion, a five-time Intercontinental champion, a WWE Tag Team champion and a two-time World Tag Team Heavyweight champion.

    He was the 1997 King of the Ring and WWE's second Grand Slam champion, a title given to those Superstars who captured the WWE, Intercontinental, European and Tag Team titles.

    More importantly, he was the cornerstone of a company in transition.

5. John Cena

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    The former WWE champion has amassed 13 title reigns in just over eight years. He has become the face of World Wrestling Entertainment and has quickly etched his name in the record books alongside the greatest stars in pro wrestling's storied history.

    His first title reign came at the industry-changing WrestleMania 21. At that show, he defeated JBL and ushered in a new era for World Wrestling Entertainment. He was the young star the company had so desperately been searching for, and he rewarded their trust by working as hard as he could to become a performer warranting his spot on the card.

    Since his first title win back in 2005 Cena has become an internationally-recognized star. His charitable work and representation of the company, regardless of what his critics may say, are as much a part of his role as champion as the wrestling.

    He has filled the role as good, if not greater, than any champion before him.

    Add to that the fact that Cena is one of the truly great big match performers of the last ten years and you have a special performer whose contributions to the sport will be much more appreciated when he finally hangs up his, well, sneakers.

    Cena's matches with Edge, Triple H, Randy Orton, CM Punk, Shawn Michaels and Daniel Bryan are the stuff of legend and he has never made light of just how much the WWE title means to him, both professionally and personally.

4. Stone Cold Steve Austin

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    The leader of the Attitude Era, Stone Cold Steve Austin's title reign in 1998 and his subsequent rivalry with Mr. McMahon catapulted the sport to levels of success it had never seen before. Millions of fans tuned in to watch Monday Night Raw while the Texas Rattlesnake was the sport's unrivaled star.

    His first major singles title in McMahon's promotion came in 1997, when he defeated Owen Hart at SummerSlam for the Intercontinental Championship. Unfortunately, a severe neck injury caused by an ill-timed, poor decision by Hart would shorten Austin's reign. A second IC title reign in November of that same year would once again be cut short, this time because Stone Cold was clearly headed for bigger and better things.

    Backtracking a bit, Austin also collected two Tag Team titles in 1997. On May 26, he partnered with Shawn Michaels to defeat Owen Hart and the British Bulldog for the straps. Two months later, he teamed with Dude Love to again defeat Hart and Bulldog in what was one of the first examples of wacky, mismatched tag team partners winning championship gold.

    It would be the WrestleMania XIV main event win over Shawn Michaels, which netted Austin his first heavyweight title, that would result in one of the greatest runs by a single Superstar in WWE history.

    While none of Austin's championship reigns was overly long (the longest lasted only five months), the competition Austin faced was among the strongest any champion went up against.

    His six titles were won while battling all-time great Superstars. The Undertaker, Kane, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho and Triple H are all future Hall of Famers. Mick Foley already is and Chris Benoit never will be, even if his resume indicates that he would be under different circumstances.

    That opposition strengthens Austin's case for being named one of the 10 greatest champions in WWE history, even if there were others before and after him with lengthier reigns.

3. Bret Hart

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    There was something about Bret Hart that made fans look at him and say, "That is what a champion looks like." Perhaps it was the serious approach he took to his work, his attention to detail or the technical wrestling clinics he became known for. Whatever the case, Hart carried himself like a champion, even when he had no title around his waist.

    Hart, like Shawn Michaels, followed the old school path to world title glory.

    A member of the Hart Foundation with brother-in-law Jim Neidhart, Hart achieved tag team wrestling dominance by capturing the titles in January of 1987 and, again, in August of 1990.

    From there, Hart embarked on a singles career that saw him defeat Mr. Perfect for the Intercontinental title in an instant classic at SummerSlam 1991. After losing the championship in January of 1992, he would regain it that April.

    By November of 1992, he had developed a reputation for being one of the great in-ring technicians and Vince McMahon, wanting to take his company in a new direction, handpicked Hart to lead the new generation of WWE Superstars.

    Hart would win the title in his home country of Canada, defeating Ric Flair with his trademark Sharpshooter. It would be the first of five WWE Championship reigns for Bret.

    Like Michaels, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and CM Punk after him, Hart put an emphasis on the in-ring product. Not only was he an excellent spokesperson for the promotion and a global hero to millions, he backed up all of the hype surrounding him as champion with matches that are remembered to this day as classics.

    While there were other champions that did better business for World Wrestling Entertainment than Hart, few garnered as much respect from the fan base than The Hitman.

2. Hulk Hogan

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    Hulk Hogan is a professional wrestling legend and a pop culture icon. He was a larger-than-life figure that transcended the business and etched a legacy for himself that will live on well after he is gone.

    As WWE champion, he carried Vince McMahon's promotion through the boom period of the 1980s and became a household name. His appearances on talk shows, Saturday Night Live, MTV and other media outlets made pro wrestling cool and had a global audience tuning into WWE programming on a weekly basis.

    Hogan's championship defenses became major happenings. His much-talked-about match with Andre the Giant at WrestleMania was the headliner and selling point of an event that drew 93,000 fans to the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit.

    The rematch set ratings records for NBC.

    With Hogan on top, WWE experienced phenomenal financial growth and global expansion.

    Hogan would win five heavyweight titles from 1984 until 1993 before leaving the company and eventually signing with WCW in 1994.

    When Hogan returned in 2002, he did so to great fanfare. The same fans who had cheered him as children welcomed him back to WWE with open arms. It was a nostalgia act and the company decided to strike while the iron was hot.

    In April of 2002, Hogan won his sixth WWE Championship, defeating Triple H in the main event of Backlash.

    Unfortunately for Hogan, his final heavyweight title victory also signaled the end of all of the good will he had built up from the fans. No one believed that the older Hogan could realistically compete with the younger, faster, evolving stars in WWE and as a result his reign lasted only one month.

    But Hogan realized his limitations and helped put over younger talent throughout the year. He teamed with Edge to win the his first, and only, tag title before doing the job for Brock Lesnar on a memorable episode of SmackDown.

    Because of the work he has put in over the years, and the memories he created for fans throughout five different decades, Hogan will always remain relevant.

1. Bruno Sammartino

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    While he was nowhere near as flashy as the other Superstars on this list, Bruno Sammartino was a champion's champion.

    Over the course of an eight-year title reign, Sammartino became the people's champion long before The Rock referred to himself as such. An Italian-American, Sammartino was as much a cultural icon as he was a wrestling superstar.

    The people of New York would flock to Madison Square Garden to witness the champion's latest title defense. They would live vicariously through their hero, celebrating his victories and stressing when he was on the receiving end of a beating.

    No matter the challenge, Bruno always managed to fend off his opposition and leave the Garden with the title. 

    From 1963, when he defeated "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers to win the strap, until 1970, three things in life were certainties: death, taxes and Bruno retaining his title.

    Then came that fateful night in January of '71, when the sports world stood still. Ivan Koloff defeated Sammartino for the WWWF title and brought an end to the most historic title reign wrestling had ever seen.

    The fans in New York were crushed, openly crying as Bruno made his way to the locker room. It was a major shock to all of those inside MSG that night and everyone who found out about the result at a later date.

    Bruno would square off against WWWF champion Pedro Morales at Shea Stadium in a match that ended in a 75-minute draw on September 1, 1972.

    Sammartino's second, and final, heavyweight title reign would begin in 1973 with a win over Stan Stasiak and not end until four years later, when he was defeated by "Superstar" Billy Graham.

    In an era where attention spans are short and everyone is constantly looking for the next best thing, the idea that one man could have two title runs totaling 12 years is unfathomable.

    But it happened. 

    Sammartino was a once-in-a-lifetime performer who had such a connection with the people that they supported him for over a decade, through the thick and thin, and helped to make him the greatest champion in WWE history.