Ranking the Greatest WWE Championship Matches of the 21st Century
There is no greater prize than the WWE Championship. It is a special honor to be crowned as a world champion, and everyone seeks just the opportunity to challenge for the most prestigious prize in WWE.
The greatest stars in the business have held the world title countless times. Hulk Hogan, The Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, John Cena, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Randy Orton and many more have had legendary battles for the belt.
Over the years, the WWE Championship has evolved from one title to two for separate brands. At the present time, the world championship encompasses both the WWE and universal titles. In the last decade, the World Heavyweight Championship has also been the second world title.
In just the 21st century to date, some of the greatest matches wrestled have been for the world title. No one will forget some of the best efforts of future and current Hall of Famers fighting for the ultimate prize.
From veterans finally getting their due like Christian and Kofi Kingston to stars who only continue to elevate their standing such as Daniel Bryan and Chris Jericho, many have fought with their heart and soul to stand tall among legends.
The history of the WWE Championship is legendary, and these are just a few of many incredible matches for the title.
Narrowing the list down was a painstaking task, leading to many incredible matches missing the top 10. Many factors went into deciding what makes one bout greater than another, but ultimately it is all subjective. These are a few incredible contests that just missed our list.
CM Punk (c) vs. Daniel Bryan (Over the Limit 2012)
In 2012, a legitimate argument could have been made that CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were the two best in the world, so a technical contest between them was a dream match for many. This was all about these two men establishing themselves in WWE beyond their success outside the company.
They did just that in a physical and intense struggle in which both had moments of dominance. The pacing and technique here makes it a quiet classic, though it was never treated that way by WWE.
Brock Lesnar (c) vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins (Royal Rumble 2015)
Anyone who has wondered what WWE sees in Brock Lesnar only needs to watch this match. The Beast Incarnate was an absolute force of nature that John Cena and Seth Rollins could only hope to contain.
This was a quintessential Triple Threat match between three men with peak chemistry. It is clear how much they all wanted to carry the WWE Championship into WrestleMania 31, but only one man could. It had to be Lesnar. This is a modern classic with all the bells and whistles.
Lesnar (c) vs. Roman Reigns (WrestleMania 31)
Despite a painfully awkward build, The Beast Incarnate and Roman Reigns came to work at WrestleMania. This shocking classic has layers behind its story that few other 'Mania matches could even reach.
Lesnar beat down and bloodied Reigns in what looked to be a one-sided affair until The Big Dog found his moment. However, his comeback was more about survival than winning.
Then Rollins came running down the aisle and added one of the greatest Money in the Bank cash-ins of all time to his resume.
Sheamus (c) vs. Daniel Bryan (Extreme Rules 2012)
While Sheamus' 18-second debacle of a victory over The "Yes" Man at WrestleMania 28 is more widely remembered, the two made up for the disappointment with a classic just one month later. This 2-out-of-3 Falls clash was built on the ingenuity of Bryan.
It was at this time that he was beginning to show the WWE Universe he was one of the best of all time. He got himself intentionally disqualified to do lasting damage to Sheamus, leaving the champion vulnerable, but The Celtic Warrior escaped with the final fall.
Christian (c) vs. Randy Orton (SummerSlam 2011)
This match is arguably one of the most underrated title matches of all time. Competing on the same night as Cena and Punk, Christian and Randy Orton outshined the rematch of the decade. This clash was brutal and personal from the opening to the closing bell.
Captain Charisma put in perhaps the greatest performance of his WWE career, taking every opportunity to wear down The Viper. Orton fired back with some of the most motivated work of his career before sealing a career highlight with an RKO on the steel steps.
10. Kurt Angle (c) vs. Undertaker (No Way Out 2006)
Few runs in WWE are as iconic as The Streak. Over 21 straight WrestleMania matches, Undertaker defined his legacy as a legend in the business. However, one of the greatest matches he had in his career happened just before The Show of Shows.
World heavyweight champion Kurt Angle had run through some of the best wrestlers in the world, but he had one last hurdle to jump before he made it to WrestleMania 22. The Deadman was calling. He wanted another chance at gold.
Over nearly 30 minutes, these legends battled. The Olympic Gold Medalist had to overcome 'Taker's power advantage with speed, but The Deadman has always been shockingly fast as well.
In order to weaken The Phenom, Angle took him outside the ring, using his surroundings to injure and wear down his legs. Eventually, the two returned to the ring, both looking to win on a submission.
Undertaker trapped Angle in a triangle choke, but the champion managed to use the hold to his advantage, shifting his weight into a surprise roll-up for three.
Does it get any better than this? The answer is rarely. Two all-time greats went to war in a contest that would have stolen the show that year at 'Mania. Both men brought their best to the table, showing surprising chemistry for infrequent opponents.
When considering world title matches, this is the type of contest that comes to mind. Two men at the top of their game fighting to show who was the absolute best. It was not decided this night, but both further cemented Hall of Fame careers.
9. John Cena (c) vs. Umaga (Royal Rumble 2007)
Many great rivals come to mind when talking about the career of John Cena. However, one unlikely name is often left out. Umaga was the ideal opponent for Cena, and they had a far-too-often-forgotten classic at the Royal Rumble in 2007.
At this point in his career, The Champ was well-established. He was the man who would not give up. He was the man who could topple monsters. He had just never fought a monster like Umaga.
The Samoan Bulldozer was powerful, fast and lethal. He could take out anyone with a strike from his deadly thumb. While his character work was limited, he was captivating in the ring. If not for his personal demons, he could have changed the game as a deadly monster heel.
Cena had ended Umaga's unpinned streak at New Year's Revolution with a roll-up, but the win was called a fluke. The Champ agreed to a Last Man Standing match, a dangerous and brutal choice against a behemoth.
Umaga dominated early, but Cena refused to stay down. Using weapons and vicious strikes, The Samoan Bulldozer would not let The Champ stay on his feet. Eventually, he badly busted open Cena.
Down and out, barely moving, Cena got one last opportunity. He caught the bottom rope and used it to choke out The Samoan Bulldozer in the STFU. Umaga passed out, and Cena was able to stand tall over his challenger for the win.
Much of Cena's early run as champion was mired in bad booking and poorly paced matches. This was completely different. It was a spectacular underdog story that sold The Champ as out of his depth. Umaga dominated without ever losing the pacing of the match.
This contest may be forgotten at times, but it defines the best qualities of Cena as a resilient champion. This shows what he could do with the best competition. It defines his legacy as a babyface who never gives up.
8. John Cena (c) vs. CM Punk (Money in the Bank 2011)
Few moments are more iconic than the night CM Punk sat on the stage and aired his grievances with WWE. The Voice of the Voiceless told the world he was done playing the company's game, and he was taking the WWE Championship with him on his way out.
It set up one of the most anticipated matches of the 21st century. Punk wanted to destroy John Cena as the symbol of WWE's corruption, and the fans were fully behind him. The WWE Universe had craved an opportunity like this.
Vince McMahon told Cena if he lost, he would be fired. Punk said he would walk away without a contract after Money in the Bank, defending the WWE title all around the world. This clash was in Chicago, where The Voice of the Voiceless was born and raised. He was a hero that night.
Much can be said of this contest. It was not the best technical wrestling match they could have had, but it was atmospheric. It was a true championship clash. The air in Chicago said this was a bigger fight than anything at WrestleMania.
It was a turning point because it changed the perception of the business and even Cena himself. The Champ worked hard throughout, putting in the work to keep up with and even outperform Punk in moments.
The Voice of the Voiceless had The Champ's number. He countered everything including a shocking reversal of the Five Knuckle Shuffle. Punk kicked out of two Attitude Adjustments. Vince gave up on Cena and demanded a win at all costs.
In the ensuing chaos, Punk hit a GTS on Cena and walked out as the WWE champion. He even dodged a Money in the Bank cash-in attempt from Alberto Del Rio. He celebrated with a raucous crowd that loved every second.
The right scene came at the right moment. It could be argued there were better-worked matches even that year, but nobody had this much energy and fire from a crowd. No contest had this much anticipation behind it.
This was the night that revitalized WWE in many ways. It changed the game for the company in a way that opened up the modern era of pure technical wrestling we now have.
7. Triple H (c) vs. Cactus Jack (Royal Rumble 2000)
Mick Foley's many faces have defined WWE over the years. He had legendary fights with many of the best in the business, but one of his last true classics was against Triple H in 2000. He brought Cactus Jack to WWE, including all his brutality and violence.
Jack has always worked best off a fellow brawler, which is why this was such an inspired clash. Foley was willing to do anything to take down HHH, but The Game was willing to end Jack's career for good. This was always going to be brutal.
Despite his supposed lack of fear, Triple H was not ready at the start of this match for what Jack was willing to do to win. The hardcore legend swung with barbed wire and steel chairs. He even brought thumb tacks for the grand finale.
Like most classic Foley matches, Jack took most of the punishment in the end. The Game was unafraid of bloodying and breaking the Hall of Famer. At several points, it looked like Jack might just break from all the physical torture.
In a nervous fight back down the stretch, the hardcore legend got his groove back. He hit a piledriver and pulled out a bag of thumb tacks. However, HHH body-dropped and Pedigreed him onto the tacks to win.
As with their later Hell in a Cell match, this was absolute brutality, a classic in every sense of the word. While it was more of a brawl than a championship clash, the WWE title was on the line.
This was one of the final bouts of Foley's career, and he was as wild as ever. He took bumps no man should agree to take, and it is why he will forever be eternally loved. He adores the business and will do anything for it, making him truly championship caliber.
6. John Cena (c) vs. Daniel Bryan (SummerSlam 2013)
Which match truly made Daniel Bryan? It's arguable because he always brought his A-game. His technical acumen is second to none, but he is also delightfully charismatic. He was pushed down the card for his size, but the WWE Universe refused to let him stay down.
The first match to truly solidify him as a main event player was his SummerSlam 2013 clash with John Cena. Down the stretch, The Champ was treated like a true legend in the business. He was the guy everyone wanted to beat, but no one could.
Cena asked the fans to choose his next opponent, and the answer was unanimous. Everyone wanted The "Yes" Man to get his shot. Bryan took that shot and ran with it. This was an absolute classic that would have stolen the show anywhere in the world.
Bryan told his opponent before the match that he did not respect him, and he showed that early. Bryan outwrestled Cena, who was trying to prove he could keep up. In many ways, it felt like The Champ wanted to show the challenger he was worthy of this fight.
Cena did just that in time. He battled through Bryan's grapples, using his speed and power to overwhelm The "Yes" Man. The strikes alone in this match made the audience cheer, and a devastating clothesline set the stage for the final stretch.
Finally showing he respected Cena, Bryan fought off the Attitude Adjustment and connected on his signature running knee for the victory. Triple H and Randy Orton ended up ruining Bryan's moment with a surprise Money in the Bank cash-in but not before everyone showed the new champion respect.
This was a star-making title match on the level of many of the truly great passing-of-the-torch classics. Bryan did not just have a great match but he also elevated one of the all-time greats. This is arguably the best technical showing of Cena's career.
Both men put their all into telling this story, and Bryan became a true main eventer after this performance. There were bumps in the road, but the ultimate result was Cena's lasting moment of respectfully handing over the torch.
5. Daniel Bryan (c) vs. Kofi Kingston (WrestleMania 35)
One of the greatest stories WWE can tell is that of the veteran finally getting his due. The most recent match on this list was Kofi Kingston's journey to the WWE Championship, which began with an incredible performance in a gauntlet match he was never supposed to be in.
The true foundation of Kofi's run, though, was his match with Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 35. It was nearly perfect from start to finish. It helped that The New Day veteran was facing The Planet's Champion, a man who shows up repeatedly on this list.
However, this was Kofi's moment, and he was working with nothing less than his absolute best. While Rowan, Big E and Xavier Woods got involved at times, the heart of this contest was the resilience of the challenger against a dangerous technical master.
Bryan wore down Kofi. He found every opportunity to keep him grounded. He locked in the LaBell Lock with such fervor three times that most would have tapped out. On this night, Kofi could not and would not quit.
After kicking out of the running knee and surviving a third LaBell Lock, the challenger rallied. He fought through the pain and stomped Bryan into the mat. This set up Trouble in Paradise for the defining victory of Kofi's career.
It is rare that any match rises to this level in WWE. The talent involved did not just perform at their usual level of quality, but they also rose to the occasion at WrestleMania, fighting frantically and telling the perfect underdog story for the moment.
This match may fade more with time due to the aftermath, but contests like this should live on. It is rare to ever get such a perfect bout. On The Grandest Stage of Them All with the title on the line, Bryan and Kofi put on perhaps the greatest individual performances of their WWE careers.
4. 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin (c) vs. Kurt Angle (SummerSlam 2001)
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin forever changed WWE. His work as a champion defined the business, even at times when he was not treated like the top star in the company. While his heel turn is a hotly contested topic, no one has doubted The Texas Rattlesnake's ability in the ring.
In 2001, he was still in peak form, but he was at his best working with the best. He got just that chance when he battled Kurt Angle at SummerSlam. This fight built off a perceived jealousy between the two men over who was WWE's top star.
The match itself was as pure an Angle contest as one can get. It was a technical war mixed with a pure brawl. Austin did everything in his power to avoid the Ankle Lock by battering The Olympic Gold Medalist including hitting a pair of Stone Cold Stunners early.
After brawling outside, Angle was left a bloody mess, but he had too much focus to lose. He kicked out of another Stunner, and Austin kicked out of the Angle Slam.
The Rattlesnake could feel he was losing control of the match and intentionally got himself disqualified by hitting a Stone Cold Stunner on referee Mike Chioda and then decking the second ref Tim White with the WWE Championship.
While the greatest title clashes do not include a DQ finish, this was a rare exception. It was such a perfectly wrestled match that even the finish made sense. Austin was too scared to finish the fight clean with Angle.
In the grand scheme of title matches, this may not be at the very top, but it should always be widely recognized as among the best WWE Championship matches ever wrestled.
This was two legends at their best, fighting with everything in their arsenal. It was one of the last great performances from Austin and an inspired effort from Angle on the verge of cementing his legacy as one of the best to perform in a WWE ring.
3. Chris Jericho (c) vs. Shawn Michaels (No Mercy 2008)
Nobody dominated 2008 quite like Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels. This inspired feud had everyone talking, and every single time they fought, it was among the best of the entire year. It was only right that the story ended with a title match.
After HBK defeated Y2J in an Unsanctioned match, Jericho went on to become WWE world heavyweight champion on the same night thanks to a surprise appearance in the main event Championship Scramble. Michael demanded a final shot at Jericho in a ladder match.
Ladder matches can often vary wildly in style and substance, but these two men are among the truest pioneers of the stipulation. That showed in this knockout, drag-out brawl that used the ladder as a weapon more than a stunt prop.
The contest was dominated by subtle callbacks as Jericho went after HBK's eye and Michaels wanted to maim his rival by focusing on his leg. The late Lance Cade made a memorable save, but ultimately this was down to just these two men on top of a ladder.
The belt was unhooked by both at the same time. A perfectly timed headbutt from Jericho sent HBK to the floor, leaving the champion alone with his title.
Often, championships can be crutches to a feud, forcing the entire story to revolve around winning gold. This ladder match showed why title fights are so much better than those between heated rivals.
Jericho and Michaels fought like their lives depended on it. While both wanted to be champion, what mattered most was to end up the definitive victor. Y2J survived and triumphed.
It does not get much better than this. Jericho and Michaels are among the greatest wrestlers to perform in a WWE ring. They have so many impressive performances as champion and challenger, but few quite match up to this classic.
2. Randy Orton (c) vs. Daniel Bryan vs. Batista (WrestleMania XXX)
In this century, no one has been a more memorable and impactful championship performer than Daniel Bryan. His name is on this list more than Steve Austin, John Cena, Kurt Angle and The Undertaker.
While he has had many incredible performances over the years, one stands above the rest. In 2014, everyone knew Bryan was a star except perhaps WWE at times, but it took an incredible push by the fans to make WrestleMania XXX the crowning moment for The "Yes" Man.
Forced to fight Triple H before even getting a title shot, Bryan defeated The Game with a running knee. This contest was on its own an all-time great one for The Show of Shows, but it was the performance afterward that will live on forever.
The main event between Bryan, Randy Orton and Batista was a brutal fight with so much going on, but everyone played their part. This was about The "Yes" Man overcoming every challenge to rise above his supposed "B-plus player" status.
He did just that but not after taking a Batista Bomb/RKO combination through the announce table. The Animal and The Viper had to save each other because Bryan was working on a higher level. Triple H had to run down and attempt to help.
In the end, no one was stopping Bryan. Orton took a running knee and Batista Bomb to take him out. The "Yes" Man then caught The Animal with a running knee before locking in the Yes Lock, forcing a tapout.
This was Bryan's crowning moment. He was unstoppable, and all the bells and whistles only aided the story of the Triple Threat.
1. The Rock (c) vs. 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin (WrestleMania X-Seven)
When fans think of WWE, a few names come up first. While the list may change, two names are never forgotten: The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. They were integral to the success of the Attitude Era, defining the legacy of the company in its most successful years.
The two men also met three times at WrestleMania, each helping to define what a main event looks like. And WrestleMania X-Seven was the crowning achievement, the pinnacle of championship excellence between the best in the business.
When Austin won the 2001 Royal Rumble, only one man could be champion to face him. Rock defeated Kurt Angle to face down The Texas Rattlesnake. Adding Austin's wife, Debra, into the mix made this an even more personal battle with everything on the line.
The brawl started before the bell, and neither man was willing to take a second to breathe. Austin was not holding back and bloodied The Brahma Bull early. His attitude was that of a man who would do anything to win, and he did just that.
Rock was a bloody mess throughout this match, as was Austin. Both knew this was a chance to define their legacy. Vince McMahon came out to watch up close. He got in the way of The Brahma Bull, helping Austin turn the tide.
McMahon handed Austin a chair, and the challenger snapped, battering Rock. Over and over, Rock took steel chair shots to the back. This was enough to finally keep him down for three. Austin would end the night drinking beer with his bitter rival, Mr. McMahon.
This is the definition of a WWE Championship match and a WrestleMania main event. While wrestling matches come in all shapes and sizes, the intensity and excitement behind this clash was electric at a level no one else could hope to top.
Austin's heel turn would turn out rocky, but the story behind it was brilliant. The night was right for him to shock the world, and the match showed just how dangerous a desperate Rattlesnake can be.
This was an all-time great WWE Championship match. Austin vs. Rock is the gold standard, and even with decades of wrestling still to come, no one may ever top it.