Ranking the 5 Greatest WWE Championship Runs in Recent History
Long championship reigns are hard to come by nowadays in WWE, and even those elite few fortunate enough to maintain possession of a prestigious prize may not defend their title as often as fans would like. Carrying the title like a true champ also plays an important role in the success of their run on top.
The WWE Championship, in particular, has gone through almost every top star who has ventured through the company since the creation of the title in 1963. It was commonplace for stars such as Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan to hold the gold for years at a time, but that hasn't been the case in several decades.
In the last 10 years or so, the WWE title has gradually gotten away from what it was originally intended to be: the centerpiece of the company. Thanks to a handful of exceptional WWE Championship reigns, however, the belt has begun to mean something again and return to the heights it was once at.
An exemplary WWE champion is more than just about the length of their reign. Factors such as number of successful defenses, quality of matches, memorable feuds and character development must all be taken into consideration as well. As such, it should be a notable happening when they inevitably drop the strap.
A long list of esteemed competitors have had the honor of calling themselves the WWE champion at one point or another over the past 55 years, but these recent reigns have stood above the rest for being the best of the best.
AJ Styles (2017-2018)
Had you told anyone three years ago that AJ Styles would be in WWE, let alone leading the charge on SmackDown Live as its world champion, you would have been labeled a lunatic.
However, here we are nearly three years removed from the WWE arrival of The Phenomenal One and it's amazing to note that he has been reigning as the WWE champion since November 2017. The only other man to have held the title longer in the last decade is CM Punk.
His first reign as champ saw him contest several Match of the Year candidates with the likes of Dean Ambrose and John Cena. Although it ended too soon, he was given another chance to shine as SmackDown's crown jewel when he knocked off Jinder Mahal for the belt late last year.
Since then, Styles has defended against all comers, including Mahal, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin, Dolph Ziggler, Shinsuke Nakamura, Rusev and Samoa Joe. Most of those matches ranked well above average and were among the best bouts of the night each time.
The only real knock against Styles' second stint with the title is that he hasn't headlined any WWE pay-per-views since Fastlane in March 2018. He has constantly been relegated to the undercard in favor of Roman Reigns and the rest of Raw's main event players.
Nevertheless, Styles contributions to the blue brand as champion can not be stressed enough, as he has helped elevate both the belt and the show itself during his time on top. He is already 10 months into his WWE Championship reign and has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon.
John Cena (2006-2007)
From the moment John Cena dethroned JBL as WWE champion at WrestleMania 21, it was apparent that Cena was being groomed to be the future of the company. He proved that over the next 10 months by holding on to the gold through thick and thin and beating everyone who stepped up to challenge him.
However, it wasn't until he captured the championship for a third time at Unforgiven 2006 that he cemented his status as "the man" on Monday Night Raw.
He went on to wage war with the likes of Edge, Umaga, Shawn Michaels, The Great Khali and Bobby Lashley over the year that followed, finding a way to win on every occasion.
The longer he held the gold, the more fans wanted to see him lose it. Cena was never known for having instant classics early on in his main event run, but this reign as WWE champion showed he was more than capable of contesting incredible matches and bringing the best out of his opponents, no matter their experience level.
By late 2007, Cena had become synonymous with that WWE Championship and didn't appear to be on the verge of dropping it to anyone. It was only after suffering an injury at the hands of Orton that he was forced to vacate the title and sit on the sidelines for the next three months.
Cena has reigned as WWE champion many times since then (even tying Ric Flair's record for 16 world titles in 2017), but none of those runs did as much to solidify Cena as the face of the franchise like the third one did.
Randy Orton (2007-2008)
Randy Orton did a terrific job of picking up where John Cena left off as WWE champion in late 2007. He had already reigned as world champion once before three years earlier, but that run was far too brief to be anything of importance.
This time around, however, Orton had evolved into the Apex Predator of WWE, sliding his way into the top spot on Raw by beating Triple H at No Mercy in an impromptu Last Man Standing match to become champion.
He had a massive target on his back from that point forward and invited all challengers to try to take that title from him.
Prior to that point, he had never before been positioned as the lead heel on any show, but he took to that role fairly quickly upon capturing the championship. He then engaged in feuds with the illustrious likes of Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho and Jeff Hardy and successfully defended the gold against them all.
It would have been easy for WWE to bump Orton back down the card as soon as Cena returned from injury at Royal Rumble 2008. Instead, Orton emerged victorious in his back-to-back outings with his archrival at both No Way Out and WrestleMania 24, a feat few can lay claim to.
The Age of Orton was an exciting six-month period on Raw that served as a major turning point in the career of The Legend Killer. Many more world title wins would stem from this one reign of Orton's, making him a perennial player in the main event scene in the process.
Seth Rollins (2015)
It was unknown how Seth Rollins would fare in the heel role upon breaking away from The Shield in mid-2014 since he had been a babyface for the better part of his career up to that point.
Despite that, his alliance with The Authority made it easy for him to elicit heat and become one of the most despised competitors on the entire roster.
As Mr. Money in the Bank, he spent the rest of the year being built up as a credible threat in the world title picture and biding his time until the perfect moment arrived for him to cash in his contract.
Sure enough, WrestleMania 31 proved to be the right place at the right time, and his shocking WWE World Heavyweight Championship victory over Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns couldn't have been better executed.
Not only was Rollins a fresh face in the main event scene, he was also the best all-around performer in the company in 2015, and thus it made sense to run with him as champ. His matches never ceased to steal the show on pay-per-view, and his promos were a recurring highlight on Raw from week to week.
After escaping wars with Randy Orton, Dean Ambrose, Brock Lesnar, Sting, Kane, Neville and John Cena with his title intact, he started to lose more and more matches in non-title action, hurting his stock considerably. To make matters worse, he then suffered a near-career-ending injury that put an abrupt end to his time on top.
Had the final month or two of his title reign been booked better, perhaps his stint with the strap would be remembered more fondly. Nevertheless, it was an overall amazing run that launched Rollins into superstardom.
CM Punk (2011-2013)
CM Punk's grand WWE Championship victory versus John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011 will never be forgotten by fans, for it acted as a changing of the guard in WWE and ushered in a new era that had been long overdue.
Let's not forget, Punk's premiere reign as WWE champion was short-lived thanks to a Money in the Bank cash-in from Alberto Del Rio the next month at SummerSlam. Thankfully, he was given another opportunity to rule the main event ranks when he regained the gold at Survivor Series later that year to kick off a historic 434-day title run.
Similar to Seth Rollins, every match Punk was a part of during his time spent as WWE champion was must-see, even if he wasn't always headlining pay-per-views.
The first few months of his reign were fairly basic, but he proved his worth in the role once he transitioned into a feud with Chris Jericho and successfully retained his title on the grand stage of WrestleMania.
His program with Daniel Bryan also led to a stellar series of matches in the summer of 2012. After exhausting all options as a babyface, he turned heel at Raw 1000 and breathed new life into his lengthy WWE Championship run by pairing up with Paul Heyman and counting the days he was in possession of the prestigious prize for.
He broke many records along the way and became the longest-reigning WWE title holder in nearly 25 years. Although his streak was snapped by The Rock at Royal Rumble 2013, Punk's remarkable WWE Championship reign (and the many memorable matches, feuds and promos that came along with it) will be tough to top in the years to come as one of the best in the modern era.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, is an Endicott College alumnus and aspiring journalist. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.