Like most companies that have thrived for over 60 years, WWE has had good years and bad years in the company’s long history. Unlike most businesses, which can point to management when things start to go south, the WWE is in the unique position where the World Heavyweight Champion is arguably as responsible the company succeeding during a given era in comparison to any member of management. Although becoming World Champion is often the dream that spurns the greatest wrestling careers, it can also be the albatross that destroys them on a personal and professional level if their time on top doesn’t go as well as everyone had hoped.
While there isn’t any clear-cut way to list the worst WWE World Heavyweight Champions of all time, one way to look at it is to gauge who made the company the least money. Exact figures are hard to find on that, as well, but there are some signs we can look at, including Pay-Per-View buy rates, Raw and SmackDown ratings, and attendance records, that start to paint a picture of which champions were performing a particularly poor level. Interestingly, plenty of the superstars to do the worst on a business level are the ones fans online generally purport to enjoy the most. Be that as it may, a few of the absolute least successful champions have negative reputations in line with how poor they were doing at the box office. Keep reading to learn about the 15 WWE Champions you didn’t know drew Vince McMahon the least money.
15 Eddie Guerrero
Excellence inside the ring clearly doesn’t relate to dollar signs in the case of Eddie Guerrero, one of the most talented athletes ever to enter the squared circle, and yet a surprisingly poor performing WWE World Champion on a financial standpoint. As euphoric as Eddie’s victory over Brock Lesnar was at No Way Out 2004, an unfortunately reality of that victory is that nearly 200,000 fewer fans purchased the show than had the previous year’s event. Once Guerrero’s time as champion began, numbers didn’t start going up, either, and it started to get to Eddie on a deep, personal level.
Although wrestling is predetermined, being the World Champion requires a great level of tenacity and dedication to the WWE machine, and Eddie Guerrero was open about having difficulty with the realities of his title reign not doing so well. SmackDown ratings weren’t hurting too badly, although Pay-Per-View numbers continued to decline, and Eddie was open about wanting out as champion, going to Vince McMahon directly and asking to give the title to someone else. Vince understood and granted Eddie’s request, but Eddie would soon find out it may not have been entirely his fault, because the next person on this list is…
14 John Bradshaw Layfield
Even given the circumstances, nobody expected career midcard tag team wrestler Justin Hawk Bradshaw would suddenly turn into WWE World Heavyweight Champion John Bradshaw Layfield. JBL accomplished the feat by beating Eddie Guerrero in a bull rope match at The Great American Bash, at Eddie’s own request, and astonishingly went on to hold the title for 280 days. The reason this lengthy reign was so astonishing is that JBL wasn’t exactly helping business as champion, and all of the pitfalls experienced during Eddie’s time with the top prize actually started getting much worse once JBL took the belt away from him.
SmackDown has long had a reputation as the inferior program to Raw, and the era of JBL as WWE Champion has a lot to do with that mindset. The ratings started going down in addition to the poor Pay-Per-View numbers, and they didn’t start going back up until the very end of JBL’s time as champion, when fans started to realize it was clear John Cena would finally beat him for the belt. JBL deserves a little bit of credit for taking part of the long haul, in that fans may not have been as elated for Cena had they not had to sit through JBL. Unfortunately, the poor ratings for the first half of JBL’s reign still exist, though, and thus he can’t be entirely kept off this list.
13 Bret Hart
Most fans are aware the wrestling industry has been in a slump as of late, with rapidly decreasing ratings and WWE panicking about how to deal with this. What they may not realize is that this isn’t entirely new to the company, as they faced the exact same pitfalls in the mid 90s when Hulk Hogan wasn’t as hot as he once was, and WWE started looking towards smaller, more technical wrestlers to take his place. Bret Hart’s first two WWE Championship reigns were successful enough, although the business in general was hurting due to Vince McMahon’s legal troubles at the time, causing an overall ripple effect that hurt Bret’s championship finances.
The real reason Bret Hart makes this list, however, was his third reign as WWE Champion, starting in November of 1995. Bret defeated Diesel for the title at Survivor Series, and though Diesel is mostly responsible for ratings have dropped consistently all year, as well as the fact Nitro was regularly beating Raw in the ratings, Bret can’t be entirely free of blame from the fact things didn’t turn around when he became champion. Survivor Series itself was one of the lowest drawing shows of the year, although this could be a sign the blame truly lies on the fact Bret was treated as somewhat of a lame duck contender during this period, despite his legendary reputation.
12 The Ultimate Warrior
Sometimes the hunt is far more satisfying than whatever comes next, as was the case in the meteoric rise and shocking fall of The Ultimate Warrior. Upon first appearances, the WWE Championship reign of The Ultimate Warrior was a huge success from day one, considering the incredible amounts of money earned through WrestleMania VI, viewed live by some 67,000 fans and an addition 550-600,000 at home. Very quickly, however, it became clear that Warrior wasn’t going to be a replacement for the man he defeated for the title, Hulk Hogan. Part of the problem was that Hogan himself would stick around during Warrior’s time on top, but a bigger issue was that Warrior simply didn’t draw as big a crowd while champion as he did while on his way towards the top.
One of the aspects that made The Ultimate Warrior stand out as wild and unique was how rarely he could be defeated. The only man with significant victories over him prior to his WWE Championship win was Rick Rude, and thus it made sense for the two to feud. Unfortunately, rehashing an old feud in which Warrior looked weak only made him look weak once more, and SummerSlam that year did much worse with Warrior as champion than in the previous years with Hogan on top. Warrior’s reign was merely the first warning sign that the post-Hogan years would be a consistent downward slope for WWE, and yet he still remains on this list because of it.
11 Chris Benoit
Prior to the horrific manner in which he ended his life, Chris Benoit was considered one of the greatest wrestlers in the world, and his slow rise to winning the World Heavyweight Championship against Triple H and Shawn Michaels felt like a culmination of a lifelong journey towards greatness. Regardless of how good fans felt when Benoit and his best friend Eddie Guerrero celebrated at the end of WrestleMania XX, neither of the two set the world on fire in terms of ratings, and the fact Benoit’s reign lasted longer only meant it was overall less successful from a financial standpoint.
The wrestling business was already in decline when Benoit won the title, and it continue to dive off a cliff once he was on top. Every Pay-Per-View with Benoit on top did lower numbers than the same offering the year prior, with around 50,000 fewer fans watching each subsequent show. WWE had little faith in Benoit as champ to begin with, and continued to book the Shawn Michaels/Triple H feud above his title defenses, which also contributed to the failure of his title reign. Of course, given his terrible crimes, WWE doesn’t care so much about the business aspect of it and simply wants Benoit forgotten for more important reasons.
10 CM Punk
It doesn’t many how many fans agree with CM Punk’s assertion that he was the best in the world at what he did during his record setting 434-day reign as WWE Champion from November 2011 to January 2013. The fact of the matter remains Punk’s big Money in the Bank performance didn’t bring WWE a huge buy rate, and TV ratings remained stagnant during his subsequent run with the belt a few months later. Of course, it is also true that WWE never seemed to have any faith in Punk as the champion, as John Cena was regularly booked in main event matches above Punk trivializing the role of champion in the first place.
Punk still takes some of the blame, though, and the fact WWE needed to put Cena on top of him actually could have been a sign the company was right about his abilities. Pay-Per-View numbers were comparatively decent during Punk’s time as champion, although he ends up on the list nonetheless due to the fact the wrestling business in general had long been suffering by the time Punk was a championship contender. Even with his various excuses, though, Punk must take some of the blame for the fact the industry didn’t turn around with him on top, as plenty of champions have proven the ability to start making serious money when they win the title, and Punk didn’t have that power.
9 Sgt. Slaughter
Becoming WWE World Champion should be a culmination of one’s efforts as a sports entertainer, which is the quickest way to explain why the reign of WWE Hall of Famer Sgt. Slaughter was a complete failure on every level. Slaughter was a huge star in the 1980s through his character as an unrelenting army drill sergeant, able to make fans hate him through his unscrupulous tactics or turn into a massive hero through his clear patriotism. WWE could have gone in either direction when they made him World Champion in 1991, but they instead turned him into an Iraqi sympathizer months before he defeated The Ultimate Warrior for the belt, making it pretty obvious why the whole thing failed in hindsight.
Slaughter didn’t hold the WWE Championship for long, although it only took two months before a huge warning sign occurred that proved how terrible he was doing as the top superstar of the company. WrestleMania VII was originally set to take place at the LA Memorial Coliseum, which could have expanded to house some 100,000 wrestling fans if necessary. However, even with Hulk Hogan challenging Slaughter for the belt, ticket sales were so abysmal the event was moved to the much smaller LA Memorial Sports Arena, with barely over 16,000 fans actually attending. WWE long spun a lie about death threats necessitating the move, somehow almost turning rumors into facts despite how obvious it was Slaughter simply wasn’t championship material at that point in his career.
8 Seth Rollins
The support of The Authority may mean everything in kayfabe, but it would appear it doesn’t exactly translate to ratings in the case of Seth Rollins’s WWE World Championship reign. Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract during the main event of WrestleMania 31, ultimately defeating Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns to win the company’s top prize. Rollins held the belt for slightly over seven months before having it taken away from him due to a severe injury, although perhaps WWE should have ablated things a bit earlier due to the fact ratings were consistently dropping throughout Seth’s entire reign.
The pro and con a longer WWE World Championship reign like the one Seth enjoyed is that the longer things go, the more the champion deserves credit for the overall success or failure of the company. At first, the poor Raw ratings could have been indicative of industry trends that imply wrestling simply has fewer fans than it once did. However, the fact Rollins kept the title as long as he did and ratings only kept getting lower meant he must have had something to do with it himself. Granted, they still haven’t gone back up since, although that could be more the fault of some people we’ll get to later in the list.
7 Shawn Michaels
The boyhood dream came true in March of 1996 when Shawn Michaels defeated Bret Hart for the WWE World Championship at WrestleMania XII. For a brief moment, it seemed like Vince McMahon’s dreams were coming true too, because Raw defeated Nitro in the ratings for the first few months of HBK’s title reign, although WrestleMania itself didn’t perform as well as it did the year before. Making matters worse, two months in Shawn’s reign, WCW introduced the nWo storyline, and although it wasn’t exactly the fault of anyone in WWE, this resulted in Shawn’s reign being exponentially less successful as it went on.
It was during HBK’s time as champion Nitro began the winning streak that would last 84 consecutive weeks, and though there were many factors to that on both sides, Shawn’s championship reign can’t be forgotten as one of them. SummerSlam with Shawn as champion didn’t do well, either, even in comparison to the particularly bad event the previous year with Diesel and Mabel in the main event. WWE started catching fire again during HBK’s third and final reign with the championship, but his first two definitely indicate he deserves his placement on this list.
6 Roman Reigns
It practically goes without saying that the WWE Universe has been giving a mixed reception at best to so-called top superstar Roman Reigns. At least half of the fans in any given audience refuse to accept the notion he is a top star capable of winning the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, and yet he managed to accomplish that feat anyway on at least 3 occasions thus far. Roman’s championship reigns have been marred by crowd’s refusing to accept him, as well as the continually slump in ratings that had placed his recent predecessors like Rollins and Punk on this list.
The saga of Roman Reigns isn’t one that is easy to pin on one person, tempting though it may be for fans to blame Roman himself. The reality is that Vince McMahon and the other WWE executives pushing Roman down fans throats could be equally responsible for why fans turn away while the company continues to do so. The fact things have gotten even worse since Roman is out of the title picture could redeem him more than any shifting of the blame could do, however, and we’ll get to the specifics of that as the list goes on.
5 The Miz
Few WWE superstars have a story anything like The Miz, who became a wrestler after achieving fame as a reality TV star who dreamed of, you guessed it, being a wrestler. It was a long road to credibility for the self-proclaimed “Awesome” superstar, and although some fans may argue he has finally started to achieve that credibility by 2016, in 2011, far fewer people felt as though Miz was ready to reach the top of the mountain. Miz’s entire title reign was designed to set up a match between John Cena and The Rock a full year later, so perhaps his lack of believability as champion isn’t entirely at fault, although WWE is nonetheless implicit in the destruction of their own champion.
The Miz was WWE Champion when Raw ratings first started to average beneath the 3.0 range, and they’ve been in a constant spiral towards the bottom of the charts ever since. TV ratings only paint a small part of the picture, though, and what puts Miz beneath his followers who received lower TV attention is the fact his merchandise didn’t sell, either, and he deserves special attention for being the one who started the downslide.
4 The Undertaker
The legacy of The Undertaker may never be again matched in sports entertainment, although one thing that is often forgotten is that in the course of his 26+ years in WWE, The Undertaker wasn’t always the most successful performer from a financial standpoint. This doesn’t mean The Undertaker was never a draw, however, in that his WrestleMania undefeated streak remained one of the biggest selling points to that event until Brock Lesnar put it to an end at WrestleMania XXX. On the other hand, the first few times The Undertaker was WWE World Champion were dark days for the company in more ways than one, and it’s almost a surprise The Dead Man was able to claw out of his grave and carve a fantastic career for himself after suffering through them.
In stark contrast to how important The Undertaker would be to WrestleMania in the future, the event at which he won his second WWE World Championship is actually considered perhaps the worst the company ever produced. WrestleMania 13 holds the embarrassing distinction of being the only WrestleMania that wasn’t a sellout, and it had an abysmal buy rate that showed this lack of interest wasn’t confined to Illinois. It is worth pointing out Taker’s reign took place dead in the center of WCW’s nWo storyline, although that doesn’t entirely absolve him from how bad things were. The Undertaker does, however, deserve a reprieve from this poor era due to the fact his later tenure with the belt in 1999 has the distinction of earning WWE the highest average Raw ratings of any champion.
A person doesn’t need to be perfect to be a perfect pro wrestler, and Sid most certainly isn’t perfect. Maybe he isn’t a perfect pro wrestler, either, but he certainly had the look down from day one, and his fans agree there’s an odd aura surrounding the Master and Ruler of the World that made it a half-brainer he would one day be WWE World Champion. Sid accomplished the feat at the 1996 Survivor Series by defeating Shawn Michaels, and though the show at which Sid won the belt did better than the 1995 Survivor Series, that was about it in terms of successes attached to Sid’s title reigns.
Sid only experienced two brief runs with the WWE World Championship, separated by less than one month, and more importantly, separated only a few months from the start of the nWo in WCW. Few champions seemed to suffer as harshly as Sid by this competition, and the reason is almost definitely found within Sid himself, and his inability to draw as a champion. WrestleMania 13, where Sid lost the belt, is generally considered the worst Mania of all time, and most of that reputation falls on Sid not deserving to be the man on the top of the show.
2 Kevin Owens
Fans might be upset that we’re calling Kevin Owens one of the lowest drawing champions in history only a few weeks into his first reign as WWE Universal Champion, the current Raw equivalent to a World Heavyweight Champion, but a few steadfast facts prove The Prizefighter probably won’t start making millions of dollars for his company any time soon, to say the least. Most important amongst these facts is that since Owens won the title, Raw has consistently been earning the fewest viewers in the show’s history. Ratings have been in a downslide for years, but the fact it was immediately after Owens won the title that the record lows started being hit clearly points to him winning the belt as a big part of the problem.
The issue isn’t that Kevin Owens is a bad wrestler or unprepared to perform at a main event level. Owens infuriates fans in all the right ways and was the talk of the wrestling world during his tenure as NXT Champion, however, the strange circumstances of his title win regarding the involvement of Triple H left fans confused enough to completely tune out. Time will tell if Owens can somehow make us eat our words, but for the time being, it feels pretty safe to assume Owens will remain one of the lowest drawing champions at least for the duration of his initial tenure on top.
From beginning to end, 1995 is considered one of the worst years in WWE history, with almost nothing going right for the company on camera or behind-the-scenes. Not coincidentally, 1995 was also the year dominated by the 358-day WWE World Championship reign of Big Daddy Cool Diesel, often referred to as the lowest drawing WWE Champion of all time. Diesel’s reputation may be a bit overblown in this regard, although it can’t be understated that his historically long reign was just as historical in how much of a failure it was from an audience standpoint.
Kevin Nash can take solace in the fact house shows were doing well during his championship, and he definitely turned into a great draw in WCW a few years later as one of the Outsiders. However, the keynote Pay-Per-View numbers were down across the board during Diesel’s reign, with the Survivor Series where he finally lost the title doing the worst of all. It was on the weakness of Diesel as World Champion WCW was able to debut Nitro and get in a few early wins to show how shaky the foundation of WWE was at the time. With all of this in mind, though, a reign like Diesel’s proves that WWE can survive pretty much anything, so perhaps none of these champions have any reason to feel bad about their apparently inability to make fans care about them.
Sources: WWE Buyrates