The WWE championship is the holy grail of professional wrestling. It’s the belt that every aspiring, and current, wrestler dreams of holding. Having this honor bestowed upon you means you are the best that this business has to offer which in turn produced some of the most memorable feuds. Today, I will rank the top ten WWE champions of all time.
To say this list was hard to compile would be a huge understatement. 42 wrestlers over a 50 year time span made for several list changes. The thing to remember is that all lists of this type are subjective. You do the best you can with a criteria that makes sense to you.
For example, Money is extremely important, but being a big draw doesn’t define a wrestler. Iron Man 3 made over four hundred million at the box office but it’s not going to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
10. Bob Backlund: There is more to Bob Backlund’s story than the crazy presidential candidate with lunacy filled rhetoric. Backlund was a wrestlers wrestler who held the WWF title from 1978 to 1983 with two unrecognized interruptions in-between. This clean cut all American’s NCAA championship pedigree made him a longtime fan favorite. His list of successful title defenses boasts a who’s who of Hall of Famers including Don Muraco, Jimmy Snuka, Peter Mavia, Greg Valentine and Sgt. Slaughter. Champion vs. Champion matches were a hallmark of Backlund’s reign as he wrestled for the AWA, NWF and NWA world titles. Everyone knows about the controversy surrounding end of his title run when his manager Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel while he was trapped in the Iron Sheik’s Camel Clutch. Backlund left the WWE shortly thereafter and would not return until 1992. The company was a much different place by then and Backlund was a man out of time which caused him to get lost in the shuffle. Fortunes turned in 1994 when he defeated Bret Hart to win his second WWF title. While he lost it three days later to Diesel, him winning the belt eleven years after his first reign ended is another example of his great accomplishments that may never be duplicated.
9. Macho Man Randy Savage: Perhaps no one had a tougher act to follow than the Macho Man Randy Savage. Being the first babyface to hold the title after Hulk Hogan came with a lot of pressure. Would business drop or would Macho Madness hold its own? Savage was phenomenal as either a babyface or heel. The Mega Powers explosion is arguably the greatest storyline the WWE has ever produced. Savage’s intense performance made it click. His match with Ric Flair at WrestleMania VIII was an emotional classic. You truly believed Savage wanted to kill him. Savage was an elite performer no matter where he was on the card and putting the WWF title on him validated his worth.
8. CM Punk: In an era where wrestlers lose titles as quickly as they win them, CM Punk made the WWE title mean something again. Often times, in all forms of entertainment, the most talented guy doesn’t get the gig. Over the course of 434 days, Punk showed that talent still trumps all in the right circumstances. One of the unique things about his run as champion is that we got the best of both worlds. As a babyface, he was a fighting champion who took on all comers while as a heel, he was a spineless weasel who could justify any course of despicable action. While these scenarios are nothing new, Punk did it with a style that made the world take notice of the Chicago-made superstar.
7. Triple H: When I think of certain periods of time in professional wrestling, the year 2000 belonged to Triple H. His second run as WWF champion proved he was the best wrestler in the industry. No one could touch him. Some will scoff at his resume due to his marriage partner, but look at his body of work before he said “I Do.” His matches with Mick Foley, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin cemented his place as a perennial main event player. The eight times he held the WWE title produced great moments. Whether he was champion or challenger, the WWE title was always the apple of Triple H’s eye which augmented the importance of being champion.
6. John Cena: While hardcore fans just want him gone, there is no denying that currently, John Cena is the WWE. Even though he is not the most mechanically refined wrestler, he is very good at telling a story in the ring which is what sells tickets. Cena, more than most, can go with the flow and makes the best of every situation. ECW One Night Stand in 2006 was a perfect example of Cena giving everyone what they wanted. Diehards wanted his head, while loyal members of Cenation stuck to the ideals of hustle, loyalty and respect. The hostile environment inside the Hammerstein Ballroom was the orchestra and Cena played them like a fiddle by simply being himself. Cena doesn’t consistently earn five snowflakes from a newsletter. That doesn’t matter because there is a lot to be said for someone who brings smiles to children all over the world. Kids absolutely love this guy. Without that element, the business of WWE wouldn’t be as well off as it is today.
5. Shawn Michaels: HBK represented the best of both worlds. Not only was he charismatic on the microphone, but he could get it done in the ring. In my opinion, Michaels is the greatest pure athlete to hold the WWF title. He is also the most controversial. The Iron Man match at WrestleMania XII showed how great wrestling matches can be when the storyline is as simple as who is the best. His match with Mankind at Mind Games was a surprise hit that is heavily revered to this day. While his second reign ended as quickly as it began, his third and final turn with the strap became a test run for what became the Attitude Era. It’s a shame Michaels couldn’t take part in the company’s most prosperous period. Nevertheless, his role as champion can’t be denied because Shawn proved that professional wrestling was ready to follow in the cultural shift of the times.
4. Bret Hart: The thing that separates Bret Hart’s title reign from everyone else is that no one saw it coming. Hart was tearing it up as the intercontinental champion but another silver medal at the podium would be a moot point. The WWF needed to change their image from the muscle bound caricatures to performers with athletic merit. Some say he lucked into the championship due to the steroid scandal, but controversy creates opportunity. Hart was the perfect choice as he brought a respect and realism that was worthy of leading the charge. With Bret at the helm, the formula changed. Instead of using a wrestling match to get over a story line, the match itself became the story. I liken Bret Hart to Denzel Washington. He’s not always a massive box office draw, but he always turns in a critically acclaimed performance that speaks for itself.
3. Bruno Smartino: I was not alive during Bruno Smartino’s era. He is one of only two champions on this list that was booked by Vince McMahon Sr which is vastly different than being booked by the current incarnation of McMahon. After doing a lot of research, it is my estimation that Bruno not only defined his era, he was his era. People who bought tickets didn’t say they were going to see wrestling. They said, “I’m going to watch Bruno at the Garden.” Samartino carried himself with a class and professionalism that made him the real deal in the eyes of fans and celebrities all over the world. That is fame and respect you buy or manufacture. Samrtino held the title twice with the first reign beginning in 1963 and ending in 1971. The second went from 1973 to 1977. I think it’s safe to say that his impressive record will never be broken.
2. Stone Cold Steve Austin: In 1998, those who mocked wrestling years earlier suddenly found their eyes glued to their television. Wrestling was cool again and it was all thanks to Stone Cold Steve Austin. Of course, WWF flourished but WCW and ECW reaped some of the benefits too because people couldn’t get enough wrestling. Austin 3:16 T-Shirts were everywhere and people flipping the bird was as common as breathing. While his feud with Vince McMahon put it over the top, it all came back to one thing. The WWF title. He never had a lengthy babyface reign with the title, but that didn’t matter. Fans loved Austin as champion and they loved his chase for the gold even more. You could have put the title on a broom stick and people would pay in droves to see it broken in half with a Stone Cold Stunner. Also, how could anyone forget the “Smoking Skull Belt” that was a hallmark of Austin’s title reign?
1. Hulk Hogan: Hulkamania is ingrained in the fabric of pop culture and the WWF title was at the center of it all. For a long time, Hogan held the record for the most WWF titles held with five. However, in 2002, he had a career renaissance that earned him his sixth and final WWE championship. No one in the history of professional wrestling has had more legendary nights than Hulk Hogan. Piper, Warrior, Savage, Rock, the list goes on and on. These matches aren’t just great wrestling matches, but moments that will live on for generations to come. That faithful night in the Pontiac Silverdome against Andre the Giant is the biggest and most important WWF title match in history. No other match has come close.