At WWE Royal Rumble 2017, John Cena tied Ric Flair's long-standing record when he won his 16th world championship after defeating AJ Styles in an instant classic. It was a special moment that acknowledged how important Cena has been to WWE over the past 15 years.
Just two weeks later, Cena lost the championship, ending this legacy-defining reign at a mere 14 (or 15 according to WWE.com) days. By switching the title twice in two weeks, WWE once again acknowledged a fundamental issue with recognizing Cena's 16 world championship reigns as equal to Flair's legendary mark.
While both wrestlers have held the top prizes in the business 16 times, there is a wide gap between the prestige of their individual reigns. In fact, the difference in numbers between the two men is staggering. Flair was world champion almost two-and-a-half times longer than Cena has been.
Why does this matter? Because it showcases just how much more Cena would have to do in his career for his title reigns to truly match up to the legacy of Flair. This is not as much an indictment of Cena as a showcase of just how incredible Flair's world championship legacy is, defined by much more than just one number (16).
The wrestling business has changed significantly since Flair debuted in 1972. Just a few years prior, Bruno Sammartino was in the midst of a 2803 day reign with the title now known as the WWE Championship and Dory Funk Jr. was carrying the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for 1563 days.
The role of champion was that of the headliner, traveling all over the world to face the best in the business. By 1981, Flair had taken up that exact role in the National Wrestling Alliance and began carrying the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for years at a time.
However, Flair did not exclusively reign as champion in the early 80s as he held world championships in three separate decades, earning his 16th championship in 2000. In his final full-time run atop the business, WCW was quite generous with their world championship to a degree even more pronounced than WWE today.
These days, the rate of title changes have gone down, but the saturation of WWE television still dictates the need for frequent title changes. Even while The New Day reigned for an unprecedented 483 days this past year as tag champs, the WWE Championship changed hands eight times at an average of two months per title reign.
Longevity as champion has changed in meaning over the years, but it still showcases who the top stars are in WWE.
|Comparing Legacies - Flair vs. Cena|
|Total Championships||Total Days as World Champion||Average Days as World Champion||Longest Reign as World Champion|
Flair's Legacy Compared to Cena's
Ric Flair's own championship record has been often been misrepresented. He is credited by some as a 19-time world champion, but WWE does not recognize three of those championships reigns: his first and third WCW World Heavyweight Championship reigns as well as his eighth reign with the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. This is also not including six unofficial title changes across the world.
Therefore, the official WWE-sanctioned championship legacy of Ric Flair reads as follows: eight-time NWA world heavyweight champion, six-time WCW heavyweight champion, two-time WWE champion.
During those official reigns as champion, Flair held a world championship for 3456 days. In comparison, Cena's 16 championship reigns total 1411 days. While that time is certainly impressive, it still pales in comparison to Flair's mark.
Cena has held the WWE Championship 13 times while holding the World Heavyweight Championship three times. Cena's first three reigns were impressive outliers, particularly in the 21st century, as Cena was champion for 793 days over three reigns. However, he has not even come close to that mark since.
Both Cena and Flair have had their great reigns. Cena was WWE champion for 380 days, while Flair was NWA champion for 793 days (matching Cena's best three reigns combined). They have also both had dubious less-than-one-day reigns. Even with that dishonorable distinction, Flair's average is 216 days as champion per reign.
In comparison, in order for Cena at his current rate to match the championship pedigree of Flair, he would need to win a WWE-sanctioned world championship another 23 times.
|Comparing Legacies - The Greats|
|Title Reigns||Total Days as World Champion||Average Days as World Champion||Longest Reigns as World Champion|
|Stone Cold Steve Austin||6||533||89||175|
Comparing Cena's Legacy to Other Legends
Ultimately, the goal here is not to belittle the Cena's accomplishments. In fact, Cena's time as champion compares favorably to almost every major star in professional wrestling's history.
No one will ever match the legendary marks of Sammartino and Lou Thesz, who were so omnipresent that they both spent over a decade as world champion. This is a testament to how huge their legacies were.
For the sake of comparison, if Sammartino had Flair's average time as champion over his career, he could be considered a 19-time world champion. With Cena's average time as champion, he'd be a 46-time world champion.
Beyond these two legends, only Hulk Hogan, whose 12 reigns total to 3362 days as champion, could lay claim to a greater championship legacy than Flair. Hogan needed a mere 95 more days as champion (far under his incredible 280 days per reign) to pass Flair's mark as the third longest reigning world champion in wrestling history.
The true testament to Cena's legacy is just how few legends can stack up to him. Harley Race, Bob Backlund and Dory Funk Jr. have some claim, but, while their total time as champion is greater, they were only champions a few times in an era where year-long title reigns were the norm. They also do not have the decade-plus longevity at the top that Cena can claim.
Based on Cena's longevity to make it to 16 with an 88-day average, he far outshines the championship pedigrees of many of WWE's greats, including Bret Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. Triple H had a similar pedigree to Cena but still only made it to 14. Cena's most direct modern rival, Randy Orton, may have 12 world championships to his name, but his 62-day average cannot hope to match Cena's.
The average time a wrestler is world champion in WWE has steadily decreased over the years, which makes it far more likely someone will eventually be crowned so many times they pass Flair's record by brute force. Therefore, it would be appropriate for Cena to be the first to do so as he is the closest performer in WWE to the dominant longevity of Flair.
Still, it should be remembered that, when Cena becomes a 17-time world champion only to lose the title after a month, Flair's record is far more than the number of times he was champion. Flair's legacy was that of a wrestler who traveled the world representing the NWA, WWE and WCW for decades as the best in the business.
The numbers show how Flair's championship legacy has already been eclipsed in some aspects and never will be in others. We will never again see a wrestler as world champion for almost nine-and-a-half years over three decades, carrying the top titles of three different promotions.
Flair's 16 world championship reigns were a testament to the Hall of Famer's legacy as a performer—proof of his unbelievable longevity. Cena has shown he has that same makeup, and it is possible he could have been in Flair's or even Sammartino's position back in the day with longer title reigns to his name.
Still, because of the era he has helped to define, his world championship legacy will never quite eclipse Flair's even if he can pass the mark of 16 world championships.