Unfortunately, the Intercontinental Championship isn’t what it used to be. Frankly, until very recently, the IC belt hasn’t meant much. It certainly mattered little during the Attitude Era, while during the Ruthless Aggression Era, it was merely a mid-card trinket that got passed around like the bread basket at dinner. Because all of this, few wrestlers since 2006 have managed to even reach the ankles of past IC champs like The Honky Tonk Man, The Ultimate Warrior, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Still, there have been a few flashes of Intercontinental brilliance since 2006. For starters, The Miz is currently doing the best work of his career as IC champ, while Zack Ryder’s victory at this year’s WrestleMania was a genuine (and genuinely pleasant) surprise. Other names, from “Bad News” Barrett to Dolph Ziggler, have done well as Intercontinental champions. The belt is slowly making itself meaningful again, although it has a long way to go in comparison to the U.S. title.
The fifteen wrestlers on this list all did their part to maintain the storied legacy of the Intercontinental Championship. Some were better than others. All were better than Ezekiel Jackson and Santino Marella.
15. Rob Van Dam
If the scope of this article was wider, then RVD would be much higher on the list. However, Van Dam’s sixth and final reign as IC champ occurred in late April 2006. At that time, Van Dam was being groomed for a long-awaited main event push as the unified WWE and ECW champion. Sadly, after Van Dam and longtime ECW tag team partner Sabu were pulled over with weed in their car, the WWE decided to punish “Mr. Monday Night” by cutting off his WWE title reign at a mere 22 days. As for the ECW title, which was a belt that Van Dam should’ve won much earlier, RVD’s reign concluded after just 21 days.
While Intercontinental champion, Van Dam always had exciting matches and did much to restore the legitimacy of the title. Unlike many of the Attitude Era holders of the belt, Van Dam could compete in long matches against the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, William Regal, and Shelton Benjamin. Also, with six reigns under his belt, few wrestlers have held the Intercontinental Championship as many times as RVD.
14. Curtis Axel
The story of Curtis Axel is a frustrating one. Despite the kind words given on his behalf by Bret Hart, Axel, the son of the late, great “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, has done little on the main roster. After a successful career in FCW, which was followed up by a lukewarm reception in NXT, Axel got his first major push in WWE when he was crowned the IC champion at Payback in 2013.
For a time, the WWE crowd was really behind the idea of Axel as champion. The brass in Connecticut seemed to concur as well. However, despite his impressive 155-day reign as champion, Axel rarely wrestled on pay-per-views and for the most part his reign as champion was not terribly celebrated. After losing to Big E Langston (a former NXT champion whose 167-day reign belies as lackluster run), Axel went from bad booking decision to bad booking decision. He’s currently trying to dig himself out of this hole, but for the most part he wrestles on Main Event or Superstars.
13. Rey Mysterio
Rey Mysterio‘s time as the Intercontinental champion was bookended by two interesting feuds. First, after Mysterio won the belt at WrestleMania XXV in record time, he effectively ended the in-ring career of John Bradshaw Layfield, who took to the mic to announce his retirement at the “Grandest Stage of Them All.”
Next, during his time as champion, Mysterio and Chris Jericho battled over the belt in what was one of the more entertaining storylines of 2009. The pair traded the belt back and forth at Extreme Rules and The Bash, which, considering the fact that previously the Intercontinental Championship was M.I.A. at pay-per-views, was an accomplishment in and of itself. All told, Mysterio’s two reigns as champion lasted a combined 128 days.
12. Kofi Kingston
For most fans, Kofi Kingston’s legacy has already been sealed with The New Day. The team is not only on track to break Demolition’s record 478-day reign, but they’ve single-handedly revived what had been a moribund tag team scene. That being said, prior to the inception of The New Day, Kingston was one of the best utility players on the WWE roster. Kingston proved his worth as a tag team specialist by capturing gold with partners as disparate as CM Punk, Evan Bourne, and R-Truth, while at the same time Kingston proved that he could be a viable mid-card champion. He is a former three-time United States champion and a four-time Intercontinental champion.
To be fair, Kingston was a better U.S. champion than Intercontinental champion. That being said, Kingston’s four reigns lasted a combined 266 days. This number puts him close to men like Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Jeff Jarrett, and The Rock. Kingston, like RVD, made the Intercontinental title synonymous with high-impact wrestling, flashy moves, and entertaining matches that told stories in the ring, not backstage.
11. Drew McIntyre
Drew McIntyre was supposed to be the next hot commodity in the WWE. A handsome, tall Scotsman who got Vince McMahon‘s seal of approval on live TV, McIntyre quickly jumped up the ladder and found himself wearing the IC title. At the 2009 edition of TLC: Tables, Ladders, and Chairs, McIntyre defeated John Morrison, a quality Intercontinental champion, and began his 161-day reign. Although a storyline involving both Theodore Long and Vince McMahon briefly vacated the Intercontinental Championship, the WWE officially recognizes McIntyre’s single reign as unbroken.
Unfortunately for McIntyre, he was pushed too hard and too soon. His heel heat was just not there, as much of the crowd was disinterested in him. His tag team title run with Cody Rhodes was decent, but mostly forgettable. McIntyre, who now wrestles under his real as Drew Galloway, has found great success on the independent scene, capturing the Evolve World Championship and the TNA World Heavyweight Championship.
10. Cody Rhodes
Cody Rhodes is the epitome of a great wrestler who was misused by the WWE. Despite being the son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, Rhodes flitted around the mid-card for much of his career. Although his time with Legacy was the closest he ever came to the main event scene, Rhodes’s time as a heel Intercontinental champion will go down as his best work with the WWE.
After defeating Ezekiel Jackson, Rhodes undertook an impressive 236-day reign. At that time in 2011, such long reigns with mid-card titles were unheard of. Rhodes also put a personal stamp on the belt by doing away with the ugly Attitude Era design and replacing it with the Golden Era design with a white leather strap. This move alone makes Rhodes’ time as champ memorable.
The one downfall of Rhodes’ time as champion was his uninspiring feud with the Big Show. Big Show essentially broke up Rhodes’ first reign just so that the WWE could make a stink about the fact that the Big Show had now won every major title in the company. Rhodes’ legacy of 257 days combined as champion deserved a better ending.
9. Dean Ambrose
Numerically speaking, Dean Ambrose‘s 64-day reign as Intercontinental champion is not impressive. However, the numbers don’t tell the key story of Ambrose’s time as champ. Namely, as IC champion, Ambrose was clearly being groomed for the WWE World Championship. After a string of main event losses on pay-per-view, Ambrose went back down to the mid-card in order to increase his worth as main event player. Following a terrible match against “Bad News” Barrett at Fast Lane in 2015, Ambrose finally captured gold at TLC: Table, Ladders, and Chairs. By the next month, Ambrose was toe-to-toe with Triple H as the last two men standing during the Royal Rumble.
While an argument could be made that Ambrose’s stock as a singles wrestler was already established during his record 351-day reign as U.S. champion, it was his small run as the Intercontinental champion that really solidified Ambrose’s credentials. The case could be made that Ambrose should have won the main belt in late 2015, for that was the height of his popularity.
8. Kevin Owens
Like Ambrose, Kevin Owens has been groomed for the main event scene for quite some time. However, after his incredible three-match feud with John Cena, Owens seemed like a directionless man for much of 2015. Despite appearing on every pay-per-view, and despite always getting some of the loudest pops, Owens mostly wrestled non-title matches, many of which he lost. (His feud with Sami Zayn produced excellent matches, and yet neither man really benefitted from it.)
By September 2015, it was time to make a major choice about Owens. WWE ultimately made the right decision. At Night of Champions, Owens beat Ryback, an underwhelming champion, for the IC strap. From there, Owens entered into a good and beneficial feud with Ambrose. Finally, it was Zack Ryder who ended Owens’ second and final reign as champion in a way that worked for most parties involved. At a combined 132 days, Owens’ time as the Intercontinental champion once again reminded people that that belt should be the stepping stone to the world title.
7. Chris Jericho
Again, if the scope of this list was twenty years instead of ten, Chris Jericho might be at the very top. A record nine-time champion, a majority of Jericho’s reigns occurred between 1999 and 2004. Many of these reigns were garbage, including one reign that lasted less than a day. But, despite never holding the belt more than 100 days during this time period, Jericho established himself as one of the top tier workers and personalties in the company.
Cut to 2008. A new and improved Jericho underwent a career renaissance. Famously, Y2J turned heel in order to reignite his feud with Shawn Michaels. To many, Jericho versus Michaels is one of the greatest feuds in the history of pro wrestling, and the feud was at its peak in 2008. Also, between September and November 2008, Jericho held the World Heavyweight Championship twice for a combined 69 days. Finally, in 2008, Jericho captured the Intercontinental Championship once, thus putting his overall number of title reigns at eight.
6. Jeff Hardy
Both of the Hardy brothers are currently on top of the pro wrestling world, even despite the handicap of wrestling for the perpetually bankrupt TNA organization. Although they always functioned better as a tag team, both Matt and Jeff have consistently proven over the years that they are capable singles wrestlers.
During his final run with the WWE, Jeff Hardy experienced his greatest level of championship success. He held the World Heavyweight Championship twice for a combined 28 days, while in December of 2008 he managed to win the WWE World Championship at Armageddon. More importantly, the feud between CM Punk and Jeff Hardy over the World Heavyweight Championship was one of the best feuds in history, mostly because it centered around Hardy’s real-life issues with controlled substances.
Around this same time, Hardy won the Intercontinental Championship three times. His fourth and final reign lasted 190 days until he was dethroned by Chris Jericho. As the IC champ, Hardy had stellar matches with John Morrison, Umaga, and Jericho.
5. John Morrison
Despite first being saddled with the awful name of “Johnny Nitro,” John Morrison managed to get himself over thanks to his highly athletic style in the ring. Once he left the well-decorated tag team of MNM, Morrison found success as a singles competitor. Although he captured the ECW Championship in the summer 2007 and did much to help elevate the newcomer CM Punk, Morrison’s best days in the WWE came when he was the Intercontinental champion.
During the summer and fall of 2006, Morrison had an excellent feud with Jeff Hardy that saw the two play hot potato with the IC belt. Then, on September 1, 2009, Morrison became a three-time Intercontinental champion after defeating Rey Mysterio. During his final reign, Morrison would hold the belt for a commendable 103 days. The acrobatic Morrison further solidified the IC title as the mid-card belt for gifted in-ring performers. His combined 209 days as champion will probably remain Morrison’s key contributions in the WWE until his much awaited return.
4. Shelton Benjamin
When it comes to great in-ring workers who held the Intercontinental Championship on multiple occasions, Shelton Benjamin stands head and shoulders above the pack. Although his longest reign (244 days) occurred between the years of 2004 and 2005, and as such his most meaningful time as champion took place outside of the purview of this list, Benjamin should still be remembered as one of the greatest IC champions of all time.
A highly gifted performer whose only drawback was his sup-bar mic skills, Benjamin was capable of producing great matches against Shawn Michaels, RVD, Carlito, and Ric Flair. Benjamin beat “The Nature Boy” to earn his second reign as IC champ in February 2006. From there, Benjamin would hold the belt once more, thus bringing his combined days as champion in 2006 to 110 days. Only RVD’s pitiful 15-day reign as champion kept Benjamin from becoming a full-fledged mid-card monster.
In 2010, Benjamin, then calling himself the “Gold Standard,” held the U.S. title for an impressive 240 days. Following his release from the WWE, Benjamin has found success in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Many fans look forward to his upcoming return to the WWE’s SmackDown brand.
3. Dolph Ziggler
Dolph Ziggler is the king of halted momentum. Few superstars have gone from being so hot to so cold quite like Ziggler. Give the man credit – he’s stayed with the company despite his many aborted pushes. A much lesser man would’ve left after his second and final reign as the World Heavyweight Champion was cut off after only 69 days, even despite beginning with one of the loudest and most joyous pops in WWE history.
As Intercontinental champion, Ziggler has done some of his most laudable work. His first reign, which is his longest at 160 days, propelled him into the upper mid-card. Although sandwiched between two reigns by Kofi Kingston, Ziggler’s first run as IC champion certified his credentials as a great heel and even better in-ring worker.
Ziggler’s subsequent four reigns as champion have all occurred since the summer of 2014. During that time, Ziggler’s never-ending feud with The Miz got major traction, while a position as one of the company’s top babyfaces was hinted at during the 2014 Survivor Series. However, Ziggler’s longest reign during this time period only lasted 56 days. Similarly, when Ziggler lost the belt to Luke Harper and “Bad News” Barrett, neither decision made too much sense. Still, with a combined total of 310 days as champion, Ziggler has been one of the most impactful champions of the last decade, plus his recent storylines with Dean Ambrose and The Miz have been some of the best work on SmackDown post-brand split.
2. Wade Barrett
Between 2011 and 2015, Wade Barrett, alias “Bad News” Barrett, absolutely owned the Intercontinental title scene. While John Cena effectively ended his main event push at SummerSlam in 2010, Barrett was remade into one of the company’s top talents on the upper mid-card. Barrett’s first run as champion was fairly pedestrian. He defeated Kofi Kingston on the March 22, 2011 episode of SmackDown, then lost the belt 89 days later to Ezekiel Jackson.
Barrett’s second and third reigns were much more meaningful. After beating Kingston on the December 29, 2012 edition of RAW, Barrett would hold the belt for 99 days. Next, on the RAW after WrestleMania 29, won back the title from The Miz twenty-four hours after losing it. This third reign would last for yet another 69 days.
After being rechristened as “Bad News” Barrett, Barrett would win the Intercontinental Champion two more times and hold the belt for a combined 140 days. During this time, Barrett played the role of Cena and stopped two title pushes – one for Big E and one for Dolph Ziggler. Although the company could have done much more with him, Barrett’s combined 397 days as Intercontinental champion places him at number ten all-time in terms of combined days as champion. This means that Barrett is ahead of men like The Rock, Chris Jericho, RVD, and Bret Hart.
1. The Miz
The current Intercontinental champion is one of the main reasons to watch SmackDown every week. A rare pure heel in the modern era, the team of The Miz and his wife Maryse have brought an old school quality to the contemporary product. Furthermore, while his feud with Dolph Ziggler is rapidly growing stale, it cannot be denied that the pair have put on some of the best matches of the decade.
When The Miz won his first Intercontinental title on the 1,000th episode of RAW, his career was sort of on the downturn. Following a surprising run with the WWE World Championship between 2010 and 2011, The Miz moved back down to the mid-card. While his first run as the IC champion lasted a decent 85 days, his subsequent title reigns were pure garbage. Indeed, Miz’s second and fourth reigns both lasted only 24 hours.
The Miz’s fifth reign as champion put him over the top as one of the best workers in the WWE. For 188 days, The Miz cheated his way to victory after victory. More importantly, he’s still embroiled in a long-simmering feud with Daniel Bryan. The Miz’s promo against Bryan on Talking Smack briefly set the internet on fire, which only further served to position The Miz as the best mid-card talent in the WWE. Now in his sixth reign, The Miz is just one meaty reign away from cracking top ten in terms of combined days as the Intercontinental champion.