According to WWF/E history, there have been a total of 53 people who have won the WWF/E Championship. Do you know what that means? That means we can take those 53 people, divide them up, and rank them into suits of cards (with one Wild Joker) for no reason at all!
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The rules are simple: Every wrestler who has won the WWF/E Championship, starting with Buddy Rogers and ending with Bobby Lashley, will be categorized by how important they were to the Championship itself or to the company. Obviously, the word “important” is subjective, and really every bit of this is open to second opinions, but these opinions are mine and that makes them better than yours.
On to the ranking!
THE WILD CARD/JOKER
This is the odd duck, the one that doesn’t fit anywhere else, and the one that can insert itself into any situation to be used however is needed. Who better to play that role than the only non-wrestler to ever hold the WWF/E Championship: VINCE McMAHON himself. Several of the champions to come will be noted for their longevity and their ability to win the title across multiple decades and eras, but there’s no one but Vince that can say he’s been there from the beginning and throughout the duration of the WWF/E’s existence. His winning the world title might have felt cheap to some, but looking back over the whole of Vince’s career as the head of the company, it’s fitting that he got to strap the title around his waist, at least for a little while.
These are the lowest-rated champions. They may be good performers, and important characters in other ways, but when it comes to being “former WWF/E Champions” their reigns were pitifully pedestrian. STAN STASIAK is up first, being that he was the first “transitional” champion in the company history. He won the title solely to be beaten. He was there to move the title from one babyface champion to another. As such his reign, which followed Pedro Morales’ 1,000-day run, lasted only nine days before Bruno Sammartino took the belt from him. On the other hand, there’s KANE, who only held his WWF Championship for a day, having won it from Steve Austin at King of the Ring, before losing it back to him on the subsequent Monday Night Raw. That’s better than can be said for REY MYSTERIO and ANDRE THE GIANT, whose reigns with the championship lasted less than a day. The former lost his title to John Cena two hours after winning it, while the latter had it stripped due to shenanigans involving The Million Dollar Man. They get their names in the history books, but only with asterisks beside them.
The threes aren’t much better, but at least they could say they had a “reign” of some sort with their titles or something positively noteworthy about them. BUDDY ROGERS will forever be the first WW(W)F Champion, but his reign was still a mere month-long transition to the real flagship wrestler, Bruno Sammartino. IVAN KOLOFF and IRON SHEIK also lasted a mere month with their titles, both passing the torch to grander champions in Pedro Morales and Hulk Hogan. ROB VAN DAM also had a month-long run with the WWE Championship, but his reign ended ignominiously after getting busted for driving under the influence of marijuana (I know, I couldn’t believe it either).
The fours belong to a group of wrestlers that won the title but whose reigns were so uneventful or were overshadowed by other things that you could easily forget they ever won the belt. JEFF HARDY is probably more famous for holding the Big Gold title during his feud with CM Punk. BATISTA also had a short-lived WWE Title run that is easily overshadowed by his work as the World’s Heavyweight Champion. The less said about BRAY WYATT’s terrible transitional run the better, and SHEAMUS‘ title run was so uneventful most forget he actually had two of them.
The fives belong to big-time performers whose reigns are remembered but not for anything great. SGT. SLAUGHTER and SYCHO SID were two guys in the right place at the right time, when a heel needed to win the title on the road to WrestleMania. JINDER MAHAL had a lengthy reign that remains more a bizarre curiosity than anything, and BIG SHOW had multiple title runs, all of them forgetful…but, to his credit, at least he had several of them.
Three of these four guys were treated as big deals despite the fans never fully buying into their runs, the fourth is the current champion BOBBY LASHLEY, who is slotted here in the middle simply because of his run with the title is TBD. As for the other three, there’s DIESEL, who was pushed to the moon during a period of dwindling house show revenue. There’s also ALBERTO DEL RIO who got a big and unwanted push right in the middle of the Summer of Punk, and there’s THE MIZ, whose first run with the title was hated by fans despite the good work the performer put into his reign.
Now we’re getting into the upper half of the deck, while also not touching on the very best champions. There’s a lot of praise you can give DREW McINTYRE and ROMAN REIGNS but their WWE title reigns were hamstrung by outside factors that keep them from being higher on the list. The former had to carry the title during the “no attendance” pandemic era, while the latter was forced to play the role of underdog babyface. As his current Universal Championship run has shown, Reigns is definitely better suited as a dominant heel. Likewise, JBL and KOFI KINGSTON had lengthy title reigns that ultimately were let down by what came after; both lost their titles and immediately disappeared from the main-event scene, making their runs somewhat diminished in hindsight.
These four had special qualities that elevate their place in the deck: PEDRO MORALES is probably the most overlooked one-thousand-day champion in WWF/E history. To date, only five people have held the top title for over a thousand days and Morales is the only one to do it in a single reign. Maybe that’s why he’s so easily forgotten. He’s worth remembering, however, as his reign was critical to expanding the reach of the WWWF’s popularity in Latin American communities. Along the same lines, EDDIE GUERRERO was sort of a modern-day Pedro Morales, and even though his lone championship reign was far shorter, it was still an important one in terms of WWE’s demographic popularity. SUPERSTAR BILLY GRAHAM might seem too highly ranked for a one-time champ that only held the title for three hundred days, but his placement is appropriate, I think, because Graham was the first “transitional” champ to be so popular, the actual “transition” was delayed and delayed to give him more time with the belt. On the flip side, CHRIS JERICHO has only ever been a transitional champion and his one run with the top title amounted to very little other than a WrestleMania main event. That being said, the man can claim to be the first person ever to hold the WWF and WCW world titles at the same time, having beaten two of the greatest of all time to do it. That’s worthy of a high placement, I think.
The nines are big names, whose fame exceeded their runs with this title, while still having memorable championship reigns. ULTIMATE WARRIOR ended up being a bit of a bust with the WWF Championship, but there was no denying his popularity at the beginning of his reign. He flamed out faster than Hogan, but when he was burning the brightest, he was just as hot as Hogan. YOKOZUNA is perhaps the greatest transitional champion in WWF Title history. Much like Superstar Billy Graham, he carried the title far longer than expected, all the way to the big anniversary show, WrestleMania X, where he finally dropped the title to the true face of the company, Bret Hart. RIC FLAIR will forever be remembered with the Big Gold Belt around his waist, and while his two WWF Title runs were nothing remarkable, they gave an extra dose of credibility to the belt’s lineage, being able to say that one of the greatest of all time held it. EDGE slides in as a 9 and no higher because he, like Ric Flair, is better associated with the Big Gold. Still, his two runs with the WWE Championship established him as the best main-event heel of his era and the perfect foil for the new face of the company, John Cena.
The top number belongs to the guys who are almost good enough to be face cards…but aren’t. SETH ROLLINS had one excellent run with the WWE Championship in which he, like the aforementioned Edge, established himself as the heel for his generation. AJ STYLES had two excellent runs with the WWE Championship, the second of which lasted for over a year, during which time he beat the seemingly unbeatable John Cena, clean as a whistle. CM PUNK is maybe ranked too highly as a 10 since his WWE Title runs were constantly hamstrung by the front office, but on the other hand, Punk managed to bring new eyes to the product and fresh energy to Monday Night Raw during his reign as champ despite so much working against him. Imagine how great things could have been had he not been frequently handicapped. TRIPLE H probably thinks he belongs among the kings, but he’s always been a guy whose career is artificially inflated (an ironic thing to say considering the world of pro wrestling). He is best remembered as the guy who worked with the top guys, while he was merely a very good performer. Still, his longevity and some memorable feuds earn him as high a spot like this.
RANDY SAVAGE should have carried the title for two, three, four years, akin to Hulk Hogan. He should have been the next guy and not just a glorified transition back to the Hulkster. His first run was magical. His second was cut off at the knees, but it could have been even better than his first had he been properly pushed as the top attraction, and not just “one of many.” Still, Savage is synonymous with pro wrestling and deserves to be regarded among the great champions…as does MICK FOLEY, but for totally different reasons. Foley’s handful of title runs were nothing special, but it’s what they represented that matters so much: Foley was the first Daniel Bryan. He was the guy no one thought would ever be allowed to win the top title and whose win created a wellspring of popularity and love from typically disgruntled fans. DEAN AMBROSE will probably not go down as the most important member of the Shield, according to WWE Historians, but his runs with the WWE Championship were instrumental in carrying the Smackdown brand during a time when WWE’s TV shows were otherwise abysmal. THE UNDERTAKER is the ultimate example of someone “bigger than the title,” but that only means when he actually did win the strap, it was as big a deal as it could be. His reigns were never remarkable, but he always was.
SHAWN MICHAELS had two Hall of Fame careers with a back injury in between, but it was only during his first HOF run that he held the WWF Championship. His reigns were always intended to be bigger deals than they were and he never quite pulled the company to the heights of popularity that Vince McMahon wanted. He was still pretty important, though, both for famous and infamous reasons. RANDY ORTON deserves so high a place simply because he has managed to stay at or near the top of the card, winning the top title semi-regularly, for nearly twenty years. He’s the ultimate “Mr. Dependable.” DANIEL BRYAN’s first run with the title was good enough to make him a Jack, but then he returned from injury-forced retirement and had a second run. The fact that his first featured him as the most beloved babyface in a decade and his second run made him a despised heel that fans actually booed is a testament to his ability to craft a pro wrestling character. BOB BACKLUND belongs higher up on the list, but there can only be four slots per ranking and something had to give. The theme of the Queens is longevity; Michaels had two big careers, Bryan returned from injury, Randy Orton has been going strong for two decades…but Backlund did it first. He was a relic of the past who returned to the New Generation and, remarkably, fit in perfectly with the rest of the cartoon characters of the day. His second run with the title was a bit of a joke, but it wouldn’t have meant anything if his first had not been so pivotal; he was the face of the company after Bruno and, amazingly, managed to live up to that lofty responsibility.
These four are the best ever to do it…if not for the four that will be mentioned at the end. Under any other circumstance, these are the four you would want if you were starting a pro wrestling company. BROCK LESNAR is a one-of-a-kind freak of nature talent with grossly underrated character skill. He’s shockingly funny, works well as a babyface (though he rarely gets the chance anymore), and is one of—if not the—greatest “final boss” monster-heels in pro wrestling history. BRET HART is the consummate pro wrestler. Bret Hart is the greatest “pure” pro ever to lace up the boots. There’s nothing else that needs to be said. JOHN CENA is the kind of workaholic, underrated performer, master on the mic that you build a company around. KURT ANGLE is, in my biased opinion, the best ever to do it, a legit Olympic gold medalist who not only became a pro wrestler but became a fantastic character and mic worker, able to play babyface, heel, goofy, serious, whatever you need. He’s the GOAT as far as I’m concerned, but he doesn’t make the aces because I’m trying to be objective…
THE ROCK is the amazing enigma of being the most popular entertainer in the world but only being the second most popular sports entertainer of all time. He was always 1B to Steve Austin’s 1A and his runs with the WWF/E Championship always seemed more of the transitional type, whether it was keeping the title warm for Steve Austin at Mania 15 and 17 or moving it to Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2002, or giving John Cena the rub at Mania 29, there was always the sense that the title needed him more than he needed the title, and since he was, ya know, “The Rock,” that’s not a bad spot to have.
While STEVE AUSTIN was on top, he moved more merch and sold out more shows than anyone. Ever. Injuries and a short attention span in the late 90s vs the 80s made it impossible for him to supersede Hulk Hogan in terms of longevity at the top, but at least during the time when he was on top, there was no one bigger. Pro Wrestling was a huge fad thanks to Hulk Hogan, but Steve Austin took it from a fad to the engrained, mainstream entertainment genre it is today.
HULK HOGAN is pro wrestling. There’s a lot not to like about him, but in terms of branding, Hogan is Kleenex. Hogan is Coca-Cola. Hogan is Band-Aid. It’s impossible to think of the generic without thinking of the specific; Hulk Hogan is what people think of when they think of pro wrestling; loud, garish, over the top, theatrical, carny, and on the list goes. His initial four-year run with the title cemented the WWF as the most popular brand of pro wrestling. Every subsequent title run lasted a little less and meant and little less too but he was always the centerpiece when he had the title around his waist. When he returned from WCW, one of the first things that happened, despite his age and presumed diminished importance, was to win the WWE Championship. In fact, he was the titleholder when the company switched from WWF to WWE, making him the last champ to carry the former name and the first to carry the new. If you don’t think that was intentional, you’re wrong. Hogan made the WWF mainstream.
BRUNO SAMMARTINO simply made the WW(W)F. He wasn’t the first champion, but he was the first one to carry the company, holding the title for seven years before taking a sabbatical and returning to hold the title for another five years. His two runs measure up to the combined length of 34 of the 52 other champions’ title reigns. You can say that the WWF would not be a household name were it not for Hulk Hogan. And you can say the WWF would have died were it not for Steve Austin. Both are likely true. But it’s also true to say there would be no WWF at all were it not for Bruno. He is the Ace of Spades and the greatest champion of them all.