Since it was established in 1979, the WWE Intercontinental Championship has generally been regarded as the number two prize in Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment empire. Though it never matched the prestige of the WWE Championship, and both the World Heavyweight and Universal Championships would at points get introduced to take away the IC title’s luster, diehard long-term wrestling fans have never forgotten he classic wars waged over it, and what’s more, they’ve always made their complaints known when someone who wasn’t quite deserving had the chance to win it.
Obviously, not every wrestler who gets signed by WWE is going to wrestle in the main event, and the same is true about winning the Intercontinental Championship. It is for this reason fans get so annoyed when unworthy superstars win the belt, hampering the achievement for the lucky few who do the same in the future. Either due to an inappropriate gimmick, poor timing, or simply an outright lack of talent, certain wrestlers didn’t deserve to win the Intercontinental Championship, or any major title, for that matter. That didn’t stop some of them from winning it, though, thus preventing more talented athletes from getting the chance.
There’s no way to rewrite the past, so it’s impossible to take away wrestler’s Intercontinental Championship reigns and hand them to someone more deserving. What is possible is to reflect on which former champs may not have deserved the honor, while looking at a handful of newcomers who are starting to look like they do. Keep reading to discover 8 which Intercontinental Champions should have never won the belt and 7 current stars who should get a shot at it in the near future.
15 Undeserving: Marc Mero
There are few people in wrestling with a story quite like Marc Mero, who debuted in WCW after only a couple short months in wrestling, got saddled with one of the more bizarre gimmicks in history, and somehow became a hugely respected star in spite of this beginning. Of course, that all happened as Johnny B. Badd, and his fortunes took just as dramatic a downslide when he jumped to WWE as they did an unexpected boost when he was hired by Dusty Rhodes. Rather than continuing his Little Richard impression, Marc reverted to his real name in WWE and started hanging out with his wife, Sable, who lead him to win a tournament for the vacant Intercontinental Championship in the summer of 1996. Less than one month later, Sable’s former client, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, defeated Mero for the belt. Mero was still a talented wrestler even without the flashy gimmick, but just that alone wasn’t enough to give him the title. He wouldn’t really develop a full character in WWE until late 1997 when he started calling himself “Marvelous,” and by that point, injuries were already forcing him to alter his once impressive move set.
14 Need To Win: James Ellsworth
WWE stumbled into something unique and special with James Ellsworth, and they need to capitalize on it in a big way soon before the joke starts wearing thing. Ellsworth is the little jobber that could: smaller, scrawnier, and less noteworthy in stature than even Spike Dudley, yet he turned into one of the top stars in the company almost overnight. Despite getting destroyed by Braun Strowman in his debut, Ellsworth next engaged in a feud with WWE Champion A.J. Styles, earning multiple huge wins over The Phenomenal One. The underdog story is a classic already, and Ellsworth has been defining the term better than virtually any other superstar in history. It would be too much too soon for Ellsworth to actually defeat A.J. with the title on the line, but if he were to slide down the card into the Intercontinental Championship scene when his program with Styles is over, it could prevent him from turning into a forgettable flash-in-the-pan fad and make Ellsworth a bona fide WWE superstar.
13 Undeserving: Luke Harper
One of the pitfalls of being a born follower is that people have trouble taking a former minion seriously when they go solo. This played a big role in the problem with Luke Harper, who was quickly thrown into the Intercontinental Championship scene after the initial dissolution of The Wyatt Family, just as quickly defeating Dolph Ziggler for the title. Harper held the title for less than a month, during which he momentarily reverted to his role as a lackey, this time for The Authority. Harper may have made a decent champion had he truly been on his own, held the title a little bit longer, or in the very least switched up his character a bit from being a lemming simply reacting to what stronger characters are telling him to do. Harper lost the title back to Ziggler at TLC 2014, after which he essentially tread the waters for six months against Dean Ambrose, until ultimately The Wyatt Family was reformed and Harper’s solo run was almost entirely ignored.
12 Need To Win: Baron Corbin
At WrestleMania 32, Baron Corbin made one of the most bombastic jumps from NXT to WWE by winning the third Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal. The self-proclaimed “Lone Wolf” was described as a force of nature during his time conquering indie superstars in developmental, and yet despite his impressive debut, Corbin hasn’t managed to accomplish anything of note in the subsequent six months he’s spent on SmackDown Live. If anything, he’s been on a crash course to obscurity, having gradually dropped down the ladder from Dolph Ziggler, to Jack Swagger, to Kalisto, at best trading wins and losses and not necessarily winning the crowd’s support (or hatred) in doing so. WWE could change the course of Corbin’s career in a big way by giving him the Intercontinental Championship, and in certain ways, the belt is perfect for him to begin with: Corbin always complained wrestling fans focusing on highly regarded matches meaning anything compared to his destruction, and the Intercontinental title well known for the great matches contested over it. Perhaps it’s time he started having some of those matches himself.
11 Undeserving: Albert
Considering his later divergent personas like the mysterious Lord Tensai and the goofy Hip Hop Hippo, it is was especially strange for Matt Bloom to have won the Intercontinental Championship when he was simply known as Albert. While he eventually became a respected talent during his run in New Japan Pro Wrestling, transitioning that into his role as the head trainer at NXT, at the start of his career, Albert was just Albert. He was a former tattoo artist who started hanging out with X-Pac, and somehow this was enough for him to defeat Kane and win the Intercontinental Championship on an episode of SmackDown in the summer of 2001. Albert only got away with winning the belt due to the rest of the roster being busy with the Invasion storyline, losing the belt to Lance Storm less than one month after he won it. At a different time or in one of his different gimmicks, Albert could have been a successful dominating monster. Unfortunately, all he was as Intercontinental Champion was Albert.
10 Need To Win: Apollo Crews
During his four years working for various independent promotions, most notably Dragon Gate USA, Uhaa Nation fast achieved recognition as one of the most promising newcomers of the decade. With his unique blend of power wrestling and high flying, Uhaa continued impressing and improving in Japan, but since he joined WWE as Apollo Crews in 2015, the once propitious future started falling apart when fans simply couldn’t connect with him no matter how hard he tried. Crews' problem in NXT and WWE has been the same, specifically that having an impressive move set and smiling a lot isn’t nearly enough to constitute a gimmick in a company owned by Vince McMahon. What Crews really needs is to develop some sort of character, but barring that, he could at least remain viable and exciting by winning the WWE Intercontinental Championship. Hopefully, he’ll develop more than simply a picturesque smile along the way, lest he wind up on the other half of this list in doing so.
9 Undeserving: The Godfather
Although the controversy behind the gimmick was appropriate and unavoidable, it’s hard for wrestling fans alive during the Attitude Era to deny the popularity of The Godfather. The resident WWE pimp rode the ho train to extreme popularity in the late ‘90s, reaching heights Charles Wright had never even dreamed of as Papa Shango or Kama Mustafa. The Godfather was so popular he was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2016, and honestly there’s no use in arguing that decision considering the random qualifications required for entry. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to poke holes in the idea of Godfather as IC champ, especially considering he barely held the title over a month before losing it to Jeff Jarrett. He was supposed to lose it even earlier, only for Owen Hart’s death to prolong his reign by an extra week. While The Godfather was fun and undeniably popular, his matches rarely lasted longer than a few minutes, and his character had no reason to care about titles in the first place. The only logical part of his reign as champion was that it didn’t last long, one of the rare times in the era when this was a good thing.
8 Need To Win: Neville
Nicknamed “The Man That Gravity Forgot,” Neville has exactly the sort of style that used to be associated with the Intercontinental Championship. Neville might not have much in the way of microphone skills, but his move set is so exciting and flashy he won fans over through sheer sense of will, and a handful of high profile angles have put Neville in position to either become a big star very soon, or fade away into obscurity due to his lack of championship success. Despite a successful reign as NXT Champion, Neville isn’t quite ready to be the WWE or Universal Champion, having yet to assert himself as a main eventer on the main roster. Wrestling incredible matches for the Intercontinental Championship could be the final step on his journey to greatness, creating incredible matches in line with the belt’s tradition while doing so. If Neville doesn’t win one belt or another soon, he could wind up like former NXT Champion Bo Dallas, embarrassing the brand with his inability to adapt his minor glories to the mainstream.
7 Undeserving: The Mountie
In all fairness, with only two days as champion, The Mountie has the third shortest Intercontinental Championship reign on record, so he only barely makes this list. In some ways, it could be argued Jacques Rougeau’s absurd gimmick was actually perfect for the short reign, as he was merely the link to Roddy Piper winning the belt at the 1992 Royal Rumble in a legendary moment, never intended for a long run as champion. Rougeau was also a deceptively talented wrestler, winning over plenty of fans during his time in his native Canada and in tag teams such as The Quebecers and The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers. However, The Mountie gimmick was simply too silly for Rougeau to be taken seriously as a champion of any kind. Great though Piper’s victory was, it could have been an even bigger moment had his opponent not been such an obvious joke. Plain-old Jacques Rougeau wouldn’t have been a bad choice, but The Mountie was as undeserving as a champion can come.
6 Need To Win: Darren Young
The Prime Time Players were never the most popular or dominant tag team in WWE; their breakup has resulted in diminishing returns for both Darren Young and Titus O’Neil. Neither are hopeless in the ring, but neither are setting the world on fire, either, with a big part of the problem being WWE’s inability to allow either man to stand as a solo act. They made a good start by pairing Young with Bob Backlund, earning a huge crowd response when the former WWE Champion managed Young to a victory in a July 2016 battle royal. Young earned a shot at the Intercontinental Championship for the accomplishment and came up short, almost forgetting about his near success to resume his feud with O’Neil. Had Young won the title, his team with Backlund would have become even more popular, and the whole ordeal could have been salvaged. Truth be told, the ship may have sailed on this one, considering how hard it is to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
5 Undeserving: Billy Gunn
With 10 reigns as WWE World Tag Team Champion with three different partners, Billy Gunn dominated the tag team division in WWE for over a full decade. He wasn’t quite there in 2000, but he already had a number of championships behind him, stemming from his two most famous teams, The Smoking Gunns and The New Age Outlaws. Throughout Gunn’s entire career, WWE seemed to poise him as a future solo star, a fact that should have been solidified when he defeated Eddie Guerrero for the Intercontinental Championship in November of 2000. He had been moving back and forth between the tag and solo divisions for some time, and the victory came after over a year of trying to win the belt, but fans still didn’t accept Gunn as champion. Less than three weeks later, Chris Benoit defeated him for the title at Armageddon. While Gunn ultimately recovered by returning to the tag division to team with Chuck Palumbo two years later, his run as a solo was a complete bomb, Intercontinental Champion or not.
4 Need To Win: Tye Dillinger
Not everyone in NXT debuts on the WWE roster tailor-made for a run in the main event. Fans might want that for superstars like Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode, and Samoa Joe, but for most NXT wrestlers, the best they can hope for is making a splash in the midcard upon arrival. There’s no better way to do that than entering the Intercontinental Championship scene, and for this reason Tye Dillinger seems perfect for the spot in at least 10 ways, if not plenty more. Dillinger’s comic gimmick means a run with the WWE World or Universal Championships is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but one of the great things about the Intercontinental Championship is its history of turning gimmicky characters into full fledged stars. Granted, a few of them wound up on the other half of this list. The other half are signs of good things to come for people like Dillinger, which is why he needs to win the Intercontinental Championship himself and keep the trend alive.
3 Undeserving: Curtis Axel
In theory, any of the superstars on the undeserving half of the list might have been saved had they had the right manager backing them up and saving them from making the mistakes that turned their championship reigns into duds. In practice, however, the example of Curtis Axel proves that idea is just as likely to be false, since he had one of the best managers in history backing him up, and his time as Intercontinental Champion was still a complete bust. Axel also had the benefit of lineage, being the son of Mr. Perfect, one of the greatest Intercontinental Champions WWE had ever seen. However, neither Heyman nor Perfect’s influence was enough, even with nearly five months as champion for Axel to have found his footing. Axel defeated Wade Barrett for the championship, starting things strong, and Heyman’s microphone support at least stopped things from being completely embarrassing. However, Heyman himself admitted the pairing simply didn’t work, and most fans were relieved when Axel finally lost the belt to Big E.
2 Need To Win: Sami Zayn
Some fans might argue Sami Zayn is one of the special superstars who get to leap frog the Intercontinental title scene straight into the main event, and that might be the case. Especially considering Zayn has plenty of friends in the right places, he could easily start competing for the WWE or Universal Championships without fans batting an eye, but if WWE decides to take it slow with his rise to stardom, a run as Intercontinental Champion would be the perfect stopgap on his way to glory. Part of Zayn’s charm is his fighting spirit, and as this list has made clear, the fights contested over the Intercontinental title tend to be of an even higher caliber than the main belts in WWE. His tenure as NXT Champion stood as proof he could leapfrog the Intercontinental division altogether, but should he choose not to, there probably won’t be too many fans complaining about it. He’s already had a few shots where he came up short, and the next one could well be the charm.
1 Undeserving: Ryback
Months of Ryback begging WWE to feed him more culminated with him winning the vacant Intercontinental Championship at Elimination Chamber 2015. Ryback had huge shoes to fill, as the belt had just been taken away from Daniel Bryan due to what ultimately proved to be career ending injuries, and the WWE Universe wasn’t going to accept just anyone in his place. They especially wouldn’t allow Ryback to take the spot, with his slow and plodding offense the exact opposite of men like Bryan, who defined the Intercontinental Championship by regularly wrestling the best match on the card. Ryback held the title slightly under four months before losing it to Kevin Owens, who quickly made it clear power wrestling and match quality were far from disparate concepts. Getting sandwiched in between two masters of the art form only made it more obvious Ryback wasn’t deserving of the belt, and given the embarrassment caused by his exit from the company the next year, WWE probably agrees they never should have gave him the honor in the first place.
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