The World Heavyweight Championship has always been the most prized possession in wrestling promotions. You need to have something to compete for. The NFL has the Super Bowl, the MLB has the World Series, the NBA has the NBA Championship and the NHL has the Stanley Cup. Wrestling is a year-round product with a predetermined outcome to all matches so it is completely different. However, the notion of the athletes wanting to achieve the biggest prize in the sport is desperately needed to make it work. Championships need to be treated with respect and wrestlers should benefit greatly from holding the world title.
WWE has been the top wrestling promotion in the world for the majority of the past four decades. The WWE Championship is associated with greatness. Most of the wrestlers to become WWE Champion have delivered Hall of Fame worthy careers. Some of the legends managed to have greater reigns than the others. There have been many failures too with the title. A couple of wrestlers failed to leave an impact or live up to the prestigious honor. The “World Championship” has been deemed a different title in the WWE landscape from the “WWE Championship” or variations of it. We’ll look at the history of the WWE Championship with the eight best and eight worst wrestlers to hold the title.
16 Best: CM Punk
The career of CM Punk in WWE is most likely over after he walked out in frustration to the political landscape. Punk is currently struggling to find relevancy in UFC and will likely never hold MMA championships, but he will be remembered for being a champ in WWE. The two official WWE Championship reigns of Punk went well with the latter being a memorable one.
Punk held the title for an astounding 434 days. It was the longest reign in almost three decades. Punk played both a popular face and hated heel during his tenure as the WWE Champion. The face stint saw him up there with John Cena as the most beloved star in the company. The heel turn worked to perfection with Punk playing an old school heel that had the fans invested in his every match. Punk may want to put the wrestling chapter of his life in the past, but the great work he delivered will live on for many years.
15 Worst: The Miz
The Miz is currently one of the bright spots on WWE television and arguably the best heel in the business today. You can’t debate the fact that Miz has always known how to tap into the annoying side of his personality to be an effective heel. It impressed WWE enough to have him win the WWE Championship and successfully defend the title in the main event of WrestleMania 27 against John Cena.
The problem is Miz never stepped up for the bigger position and came off like a good mid-carder trying to survive in the main event scene rather than thrive. Miz rarely had standout matches and changed almost nothing in his game to improve that. Fans lost interest in Miz as WWE Champion. The title reign ended shortly after WrestleMania 27 with Cena ultimately winning their feud. Hopefully Miz gets another chance to change his legacy as WWE Champion with him performing at a higher level these days.
14 Best: The Rock
The unbelievable charisma of The Rock made him a legend in both the pro wrestling and entertainment worlds. Rock held the WWE Championship on eight occasions but he never really needed it. Certain performers are talented and popular enough to be treated like the biggest star on the show regardless of if they are holding a world championship. Rock however did manage to make the title even more credible every time he held it.
All Attitude Era fans remember the visual of Rock standing on the top rope and holding the belt over his shoulder. The heel title reigns of Rock always stood out, with his arrogance making him an outstanding villain. Rock added another dynamic to the world championship picture and WWE in general. WWE even gave him the custom-made Brahma bull title to rock during one of his title reigns to help make it his own thing.
13 Worst: Sgt. Slaughter
Sgt. Slaughter is one of the more forgettable WWE Champions of all time. The title reign of Slaughter was clearly transitional to set up a new storyline. Ultimate Warrior was not doing well as WWE Champion. WWE decided to have him drop the WWE Championship to Slaughter for the new heel character to oppose Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 7. Slaughter’s heel run definitely added more relevance to his character, but the title never felt right on him.
Some wrestlers just look right with the championship belt and present themselves as a credible top guy. Slaughter came off like a transitional champion that was only there to lose to Hogan. If you look at the history books of that era, Slaughter stands out as the weakest name of the bunch. Aside from Hogan getting another win at WrestleMania and the patriotism storyline, Slaughter’s reign added nothing of note to the WWE Championship.
12 Best: Bruno Sammartino
The legend of Bruno Sammartino as WWE Champion is one many modern fans don’t treat with enough respect. Sammartino dominated the WWE main event scene from the 60s into the 70s. History still shows Sammartino as the longest reigning WWE Champion of all time - holding it for almost eight years during his first run. The second reign of Bruno went on for another four years.
Sammartino was a favorite of Vince McMahon Sr. and was trusted enough to be the face of the company for extremely long periods. Most of the WWE shows in Madison Square Garden featured Sammartino main-eventing the card by defending his title and the fans continuously cared about him. Bruno had a falling out with Vince McMahon Jr. that lasted many years, until he returned to the company for a Hall of Fame induction in 2013. It was a feel good moment for Sammartino to come back to the promotion he helped put on the map.
11 Worst: Alberto Del Rio
Alberto Del Rio is a very talented wrestler that just never connected in the main event picture on WWE television. The heel work of Del Rio was definitely effective, but he failed in the role as a world champion. It didn’t help that Del Rio won his first WWE Championship in the worst of manners. Del Rio cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase to defeat CM Punk for the title at SummerSlam 2011.
The fan base collectively groaned at Punk losing the title at his hottest run only for Del Rio to have a championship reign with little to no appeal. Del Rio’s character always lacked something special, which prohibited him from having a memorable reign. The reign of Del Rio ended quickly and he had another boring run later. Del Rio will be remembered as a terrible WWE Champion despite having a great deal of talent.
10 Best: Triple H
The WWE career of Triple H is associated with the dominant world title runs he had through the years. Triple H held the WWE Championship nine times and held it for a collective total of 609 days. Most longtime fans enjoyed the work of Triple H around the year 2000, with two of his WWE Championship reigns coming then. The character work, heel persona and outstanding in-ring work all came together for him to get to the next level.
Triple H stayed at the top level for the rest of his career. We have witnessed him have reigns under just about every character possible. The past few years of Triple H have seen him transition into a more corporate role, but that didn’t stop him from having one more reign. Triple H won the WWE World Championship at the Royal Rumble 2016 event before losing it to Roman Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania 32.
9 Worst: Stan Stasiak
The least memorable WWE Champion of all time has to be Stan Stasiak. If you’re ever participating in a trivia contest that forces you to name all of the men to hold the prestigious title, Stasiak is the one name most would struggle to remember. Stasiak defeated Pedro Morales to win the WWE Championship in 1973. He was one of the first transitional champs as he dropped the title just nine days later to Bruno Sammartino.
The only WWE title or noteworthy accolade of Stasiak during his WWE career was winning the WWE Championship. That is very rare, with most of the champs having a long list of accomplishments through a noteworthy career. Shawn Stasiak was the son of Stan and tried to make his name in WWE. It didn’t go as well for him primarily playing a jobber. Stan Stasiak had the only nine-day WWE Championship reign in the family.
8 Best: Bret Hart
The rise of Bret Hart as a singles star gave us one of the best representations of a world champion. WWE was desperate to build new stars following the end of the Hulk Hogan era. Hart rose to the occasion with one of the best in-ring reputations of all time. The likeable nature of Bret, along with his superb matches, saw him make the WWE Championship come off as a credible prize everyone was competing over.
The realism in Hart’s work and storytelling worked to perfection. His nickname of the “Excellence of Execution” is part of why he was an outstanding performer. Bret had five WWE Championship reigns and always did a great job. The last title reign of Hart saw him portray the anti-American character as the best heel in the company. Bret Hart always put his all into his title reigns and it made him among the best WWE Champions of all time.
7 Worst: Big Show
Big Show had two WWE Championship reigns and both came at times we didn’t want it. The first title reign saw him replace Steve Austin in the main event of Survivor Series 1999 to defeat Triple H and The Rock. Fans were excited about the top three stars in the industry having a dream match. Show entering the picture and winning the match was a complete disappointment. He lost it right back to Triple H less than two months later.
The second reign started when he shocked the world by defeating Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series 2002. Lesnar was an undefeated monster and suffered the shocking loss to Show. It was the wrong decision, with the win being rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things. No one viewed Show as a credible main-eventer and he lost the title just one month later to Kurt Angle. Both reigns were huge disappointments in scenarios where Show should not have been WWE Champion.
6 Best: Hulk Hogan
WWE truly started to evolve in the powerhouse it has become when Hulk Hogan became the face of the company. Hogan won the WWE Championship in 1984 and brought in millions of new fans. The larger than life superhero character Hogan portrayed made him appeal to all demographics. Everyone and their mother knew who Hogan was. That was rare for the wrestling business and it changed for the better thanks to it.
Hogan dominated the world title picture for almost a decade. Most of the WrestleMania events of the era were main-evented by Hogan. The title reigns of Hogan grew stale at times but it benefited the company big time. Hogan always made the championship more noteworthy by holding it. WWE rode the gravy train for quite some time until Hogan finally reached the end of the line in 1994. Hogan had one late career reign in 2002 for fans to celebrate him a final time as the first true superstar in WWE history.
5 Worst: Sheamus
The career of Sheamus has seen WWE believing in him, but it never works out for him as a top star. Sheamus won his first WWE Championship in a shocking moment by defeating John Cena in a Table Match. They wanted to take a drastic risk by putting a young star at the top of the company, but Sheamus never stood out as a champion. Fans grew apathetic towards him with the inability to care about anything he did.
Unfortunately for Sheamus, that lasted for the rest of his career and is still a problem today. WWE tried establishing Sheamus again as the WWE World Champion when he cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase to defeat Roman Reigns last year at Survivor Series 2015. Sheamus was once again painfully irrelevant and diminished the interest in the title. WWE had Reigns defeat him for the title just over a month later.
4 Best: Steve Austin
The ascension of Steve Austin changed the wrestling industry and the future of WWE. WCW dominated the Monday Night Wars until Austin became the most popular star in the industry. Austin organically connected to the fan base as the anti-hero they wanted to cheer for. The first WWE Championship win of Austin at WrestleMania 14 officially started his era - and it led to record breaking success in ratings and buy rates.
Austin carried the belt with prestige, having six title reigns over his stint as a top guy. The great storylines against Vince McMahon, The Rock, Kurt Angle and numerous others made you remember why the title was so important. Austin viewed it as his purpose as a professional wrestler and it was all he craved during his time in the company. The fact that he made you believe his desire for the WWE Championship was real is something that helped make WWE, Austin and the title all mean something more.
3 Worst: Diesel
Kevin Nash is a noteworthy talent that achieved a great deal of success over his career. Under the name of Diesel, he made it to the top of WWE in 1994 when he won the WWE Championship by defeating Bob Backlund. Diesel had the star presence at times but it just never connected. Many of the stats showed Diesel was one of the lowest drawing champions in WWE history and helped open the door for WCW to start the Monday Night Wars.
Diesel managed to have some good matches against the likes of Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart but, let’s be honest, a broom could have had a great match with those two. The in-ring work of Diesel hurt the title with poor matches against other big men like Sycho Sid and Mabel. Diesel failed to step up as WWE Champion and it led to disappointment in every aspect of business.
2 Best: John Cena
This will be a controversial choice but no one has represented the WWE Championship better than John Cena. WWE has made Cena the face of the company over the past decade. Many fans love him. Many fans hate him. All fans care about him. The popularity of Cena has helped keep the company growing during the lull period of other stars being able to sustain consistency as a top star.
Not only did Cena appeal to the masses, but he backed it up in the ring as time went on. Cena is the man to have the standout WWE Championship matches that helped build CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. If they were facing anyone but Cena, those performances would not have been as important. Cena held his own as a wrestler, character and ambassador for the company. No one should be more synonymous with the WWE Championship at the end of the day than John Cena.
1 Worst: Vince McMahon
Wrestling fans rightfully call out the instances of Vince Russo and David Arquette holding the WCW Championship. Vince McMahon somehow gets excused, but he did the exact same thing as an early instance of a non-wrestler holding the most valuable wrestling prize. McMahon was a great character and he did warrant having matches at times, but there was no reason for him to ever become the WWE Champion. The shocking moment saw McMahon defeat Triple H to win the title in 1999.
This was the first and only example of a non-wrestler holding the title in WWE. The company always tried to keep the championship at a high level to earn respect of the fans. McMahon winning the title damaged that. To make matters worse, he vacated it just a week later instead of losing it. The star power of McMahon could have helped create a new star in this predicament, but no one benefited at all from him being WWE Champion.