Ranking the Best WWE Championship Reigns of the Last Decade

Graham GSM Matthews@@WrestleRantFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2020

Ranking the Best WWE Championship Reigns of the Last Decade

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    Where does Drew McIntyre rank among the greatest WWE champions of the modern era?
    Where does Drew McIntyre rank among the greatest WWE champions of the modern era?Credit: WWE.com

    Since 1963, the WWE Championship has been the promotion's crown jewel, with 52 men having held the prestigious prize in that time. From Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock, almost every megastar in the company's illustrious history has won the title.

    From WWE's increased amount of programming to how they've been handled on the whole, most of its active championships haven't felt nearly as special in the past decade as they once did, including the world title. It has changed hands more than 40 times and has bounced back and forth between Raw and SmackDown on multiple occasions during two brand extensions.

    After the World Heavyweight Championship was introduced in 2002 and existed alongside the WWE Championship until their unification in 2013, there was a recent period when the WWE title felt like the promotion's most prominent prize. The creation of the Universal Championship in 2016 gave wrestlers another top title to vie for but also caused the WWE Championship to drop in value considerably.

    All in all, the WWE Championship has launched the careers of countless competitors and has been defended in many marquee matches. Some champions earned their places in the record books with the remarkable reigns they had, while others are better off forgotten.

    This list will look at the best WWE champions of the past decade and rank them based on how long they were in possession of the belt for, overall match quality, character development and the compelling storylines they were involved in, among other factors.

10. Roman Reigns (2016)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 77 days

    Best match: Reigns vs. AJ Styles at Extreme Rules 2016

    Low point: Winning the title from Triple H at WrestleMania 32

    For as over-pushed as a contingent of fans may claim Roman Reigns has been, he has yet to receive a real run with a world title in WWE. His most recent Universal Championship reign was cut short because of his leukemia diagnosis, and none of his three reigns as WWE champion exceeded the three-month mark.

    Although his third title run was rather brief at only 77 days, he was positioned as "the guy" in WWE for that two-and-a-half-month period and always generated a strong reaction from fans, regardless of whether it was positive or negative. The match in which he captured the championship against Triple H at WrestleMania 32 was wildly disappointing, and it was only uphill from there.

    His thrilling rivalry with AJ Styles in the spring of 2016 saw him have some of the greatest matches in his career up to that point. Their first one-on-one encounter took place at the Payback pay-per-view in May 2016, while the rematch stole the show at Extreme Rules later that same month.

    The babyface vs. babyface dynamic also made matters interesting in that feud, as well as how The Usos backed their Reigns while the debuting duo of Karl Anderson and Luke Anderson firmly supported Styles. Reigns helped cement Styles as a star despite The Phenomenal One's failure to take the title from him.

    His last matchup as WWE champion with Seth Rollins at Money in the Bank was a gem as well and ended his reign on a high note.

9. The Miz (2010-2011)

2 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 160 days

    Best match: Miz vs. John Morrison on the January 3, 2011, edition of Raw

    Low point: WrestleMania XXVII main event against John Cena

    The Miz walked into the new decade as United States champion and won the tag team titles with Big Show soon after. He then went on to become Mr. Money in the Bank and successfully cashed in the contract at the end of 2010 to capture the WWE Championship.

    It was easily the best year in the career of The Awesome One, but some fans still didn't see him as being main event material. He had to convince the masses that he was worthy of holding the gold by continuing to beat notable names such as Randy Orton and Jerry Lawler in addition to cutting fantastic promos week after week.

    Interestingly enough, Miz's best bout while WWE champion didn't occur on pay-per-view. Rather, it was on the January 3, 2011, episode of Raw when he and former tag team partner John Morrison clashed in a Falls Count Anywhere affair.

    His biggest accomplishment as champ also proved to be the biggest disappointment. He will forever be able to claim that he retained the title over John Cena in the main event of WrestleMania XXVII, but the match wasn't anything worth writing home about.

    Despite Miz overachieving in the role, WWE never again went with him as its top titleholder. In fact, he went right back to the midcard upon losing the belt, and thus it's tough to rank this run any higher on the list.

8. Brock Lesnar (2014-2015)

3 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 224 days

    Best match: Lesnar vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins at Royal Rumble 2015

    Low point: Being off TV from September 2014 through January 2015

    It's difficult to praise almost any world title reign Brock Lesnar has had since returning to WWE in 2012, but this WWE Championship run stands out because of the unstoppable aura he had at the time and how he was booked to be the company's most dominant champion in years.

    Lesnar won the title a few months after snapping The Undertaker's iconic undefeated streak at WrestleMania XXX. With the massive amount of momentum he had coming off that industry-altering victory, it was only logical for him to become champion.

    It was also the fashion in which he captured the championship that left fans speechless; he essentially squashed John Cena at SummerSlam 2014. Their rematch at Night of Champions lacked that same magic, but at least it ended in a successful title defense for The Beast Incarnate.

    This reign would be remembered more fondly had he been more active on the show from September through December, when he didn't appear at all. Granted, it made it a special occasion when he did resurface, but the show suffered without him.

    Thankfully, the rest of his reign was memorable. His Triple Threat with John Cena and Seth Rollins at the Royal Rumble is an all-time classic, and his WrestleMania main event with Roman Reigns was equally exhilarating.

    All of that, combined with how there was heavy speculation that he would be UFC bound on the road to WrestleMania 2015, made him the hottest commodity in wrestling while WWE champion.

7. Drew McIntyre (2020-Present)

4 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 84+ days

    Best match: McIntyre vs. Seth Rollins at Money in the Bank 2020

    Low point: Having to compete in empty arenas

    When Mr. McMahon proclaimed Drew McIntyre "the chosen one" way back in August 2009, it was because he believed he had all the tools necessary to be a world champion in WWE. What fans didn't know at the time, however, is that it would take his release and rehiring years later for him to realize his potential.

    McIntyre had been on the ascent long before he won the Royal Rumble, but it was that night that he officially arrived as a main event player in WWE, specifically when he eliminated Brock Lesnar. He has yet to lose a televised match since that monumental victory.

    One of the many impressive wins he has scored this year was at WrestleMania 36 when he knocked off Lesnar in a matter of minutes to become the WWE champion. He's knocked everything he's been given out of the park since then and has had fun feuds and matches with both Seth Rollins and Bobby Lashley.

    The only downside to his reign is something that is beyond anyone's control, and that's the current circumstances with no fans being in the building. It's impossible to tell how over he would be with the audience, but it's encouraging that the company is sticking with him as the face of the flagship show regardless and is booking him as strong as possible.

    Here's hoping his reign lasts long enough that he will be able to compete in front of an audience as WWE champion. So far, he's already well on his way to being among the best titleholders in the past few years.

6. AJ Styles (2016-2017)

5 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 140 days

    Best match: Styles vs. John Cena at Royal Rumble 2017

    Low point: Feud with James Ellsworth

    Few Superstars can lay claim to having a hotter rookie year in WWE than AJ Styles, who debuted in the 2016 Royal Rumble match as a surprise entrant and was WWE champion less than eight months later.

    That came to be following his fantastic feuds with Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns and John Cena. One month removed from defeating Cena in clean fashion at SummerSlam, Styles bested Dean Ambrose in an excellent outing at Backlash to secure his first WWE Championship.

    The Phenomenal One seemed to be a natural babyface when he arrived in WWE, but he showed during this reign that he made an even better heel. He was a terrific foil for Ambrose and Cena and reigned supreme with the gold up for grabs another two times at No Mercy and TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs.

    What made this title run so special was that he did what he set out to do: surpass Cena as the face that ran the place on SmackDown. He never ceased to deliver in the ring or on the mic and carried the blue brand to heights it hadn't reached in years.

    The biggest knock on this run was his rivalry with James Ellsworth, which was a waste of time and accomplished nothing. Thankfully, his incredible encounter with Cena at Royal Rumble 2017 more than made up for that.

    It's amazing to think that his reign was only four months long. With the roll he was on during that period, he could have held on to the belt for another six months, and SmackDown arguably would have been better off than it ended up being with Bray Wyatt, Randy Orton and Jinder Mahal winning it.

5. Kofi Kingston (2019)

6 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 180 days

    Best match: Kingston vs. Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 35

    Low point: Losing the title to Brock Lesnar in under 10 seconds

    There was a point when the idea of Kofi Kingston winning the WWE Championship was outlandish because of how he had been presented by the company as a midcard commodity for so long. Although he came close to breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling in late 2009, that main event push never came to pass.

    He spent the next decade slotted at the Intercontinental Championship and United States Championship level before finding success alongside The New Day in the tag team ranks.

    Still, fans wondered whether he would work as a viable WWE Championship contender because of how popular he remained. It was only after a spectacular showing he had during a Gauntlet match he wasn't originally supposed to be a part of on SmackDown in early 2019 that we finally got to find out.

    The reactions he received that night as well as at Elimination Chamber the following Sunday paved the way for him to fight for the prestigious prize against Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 35. The story was beautifully crafted from start to finish and featured one of the greatest payoffs in WWE history.

    It's commonplace for champions in WWE these days to lose more often than not, but that wasn't the case with Kingston. Aside from one or two losses in tag team action, he was heavily protected and never felt like he lost traction the longer he held the title.

    One major criticism of his reign was that unlike other champions you'll soon see on this list, Kingston never advanced his character beyond the throwing-pancakes stage and rarely showed off his serious side. His feud with Randy Orton ahead of SummerSlam 2019 was excellent, but the rest of the rivalries he had could have happened over the Intercontinental or United States titles, and no one would have known the difference.

    Dropping the belt to Brock Lesnar in under 10 seconds during SmackDown's grand premiere on Fox hardly helped, either. Much like The Miz, he hasn't tasted world title gold since losing it.

4. AJ Styles (2017-2018)

7 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 371 days

    Best match: Styles vs. Samoa Joe at Super Show-Down 2018

    Low point: Underwhelming WrestleMania 35 match with Shinsuke Nakamura

    It was surreal enough that AJ Styles was able to win the WWE Championship once, let alone for a second time in November 2017. The fact that it happened on a whim on an episode of SmackDown so close to Survivor Series partly added to the magic of the moment.

    In the year he held the title for, he was again positioned as the face of SmackDown and always rose the occasion like only he could. His series of matches with Samoa Joe were the best that he had during that time period, but his other championship defenses didn't quite reach the level of excellence that they should have.

    For example, his rivalry with Shinsuke Nakamura fell well below expectations. Their WrestleMania match underwhelmed, and while the rematches were a tad better, they weren't what they should have been given the talent involved.

    Another factor working against him was that he headlined only one pay-per-view as WWE champion in 2018, and that was before WWE did away with the brand-exclusive events. He constantly took a back seat to the Raw roster, which cemented SmackDown's status as the B-show.

    Nonetheless, at 371 days, his reign is nothing to scoff at. Length isn't always everything (look no further than Jinder Mahal's six-month run as WWE champion), but Styles played the role exceptionally well, and his popularity never wavered.

    AJ Styles was a great champion who could have been even greater.

3. Daniel Bryan (2018-2019)

8 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 144 days

    Best match: Bryan vs. AJ Styles at TLC 2018

    Low point: Rematch with Styles at Royal Rumble 2019

    When Daniel Bryan came out of retirement in March 2018, fans figured it was unlikely that he would reclaim his spot at the mountaintop of WWE as world champion. His previous two title reigns had ended because of injury, and it didn't appear as if the company would be ready to take that risk with him again.

    That changed when he defeated AJ Styles with a low blow to capture the championship in shocking fashion on SmackDown in late 2018, turning heel in the process. He wasted no time in reminding the world why he's among the best ever when he took Brock Lesnar to the limit in an instant classic at Survivor Series the following Sunday.

    While explaining why he did what he did to Styles, Bryan labeled the audience "fickle" and started developing an environmentalist character. It was essentially who he is in reality turned up to 11 and tweaked to make him come across as a heel.

    More than anyone else in the past decade, Bryan's evolution from "Yes!" man to The Planet's Champion as he was holding the WWE Championship was masterful. For someone so likable, he thrived at getting crowds to boo him and want to see him lose the title.

    Other than his stinker against Styles at the Royal Rumble, most of his matches during those five months were spectacular. His storyline with Kingston leading into WrestleMania 35 was beautifully told and was perfectly paid off, with Kingston emerging as the new champ to a thunderous ovation.

2. Seth Rollins (2015)

9 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 220 days

    Best match: Rollins vs. John Cena at SummerSlam 2015

    Low point: Feud with Kane

    Seth Rollins is a prime example of a relatively new star WWE built from the ground up and made a perennial main eventer. It started with his days as a member of The Shield and continued with his exciting singles run in mid-2014 after he won the Money in the Bank briefcase.

    His wars with Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, John Cena, Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton from there perfectly prepared him for the WWE Championship run that was about to follow.

    It couldn't have kicked off any better at WrestleMania 31 when he became the first man to cash in the contract mid-match and leave as champion. From there, he had a massive target on his back and took on all challengers to his championship, including everyone he had faced on his way to the top of WWE.

    Some were better than others, but Rollins' slimy heel persona made him a great champion in the sense that fans felt he could have lost the title at any time. Just when it looked like he had the odds stacked against him, he would find a way to escape with the gold in his grasp.

    His ladder match with Ambrose, Winner Take All gem with Cena and Raw bout with Neville were among the highlights of his run. He even holds the distinction of contesting Sting's last WWE matchup in the main event of Night of Champions because of the injury Sting suffered toward the end.

    Speaking of injury, that was what caused Rollins' reign to end abruptly. Granted, he was bound to lose it to Reigns at Survivor Series anyway, but the fashion in which he had to relinquish it was anticlimactic, to say the least.

    Rollins consistently outshone everyone on the roster as WWE champion but could have been booked better toward the end. His feud with Kane that October was especially dreadful and was the worst part of his title run by far.

1. CM Punk (2011-2013)

10 of 10

    Credit: WWE.com

    Length: 434 days

    Best match: Punk vs. Daniel Bryan at Over the Limit 2012

    Low point: Not main eventing any pay-per-views for the first 10 months of his reign

    The impact (or lack thereof) that CM Punk's "pipe bomb" promo had on the industry nine years ago is still debated among fans to this day, but what is almost undeniable is his placement atop this list as the greatest WWE champion of the past decade.

    This reign isn't to be confused with the one that commenced at Money in the Bank 2011, where he defeated John Cena in his hometown of Chicago to claim the championship. That run lasted all of a month, but even after having his momentum cooled down by the company, he managed to achieve greatness as WWE champion upon regaining the gold at Survivor Series.

    Fans were treated to several stellar matches during his feud with Alberto Del Rio in the remainder of the year. Despite not headlining most pay-per-views in 2012, he continued to bring out the best in his opponents, and he made magic with the likes of Dolph Ziggler, Chris Jericho, Mark Henry and Kane.

    The matches he had with Daniel Bryan were technical masterpieces, but it was when he turned heel that summer that he did his best character work. He demanded respect from the audience and played into how Cena was overshadowing his championship run.

    Unsurprisingly, their chemistry was just as strong the second time around. Punk also gave Ryback one of his best WWE outings on the first episode of Raw in 2013 when they battled in a TLC match.

    The Voice of the Voiceless was always going to lose the title to The Rock at the Royal Rumble 2013, but the buildup was so brilliantly done that Punk barely lost anything in defeat. He was a made man after that, and the WWE Championship felt more coveted and important than it had in several years thanks to his historic reign.

                       

    Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.