Ranking the 10 greatest WWE Champions of all time
When Jinder Mahal won the WWE Championship from Randy Orton at the Backlash pay-per-view on May 21, he became the 50th man to hold the title.
To mark the milestone, here’s a list of the 10 greatest WWE Champions of all time, going back to 1963 when “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers was declared the inaugural WWWF Champion (the title was later renamed the WWF Title before becoming the WWE Title).
The rankings are based on overall impact as champion, including drawing power, longevity as champion and historical significance. Only what the performers accomplished during their time as WWWF/WWF/WWE Champion is considered rather than their career as a whole. Because of that criteria, some of pro wrestling’s biggest stars did not make the list.
Days as champion: 367
I’m sure a lot of fans think The Rock should be higher on the list. Well, it doesn’t matter what you think! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
It goes without saying that Rock not only is one of the biggest stars in wrestling history, but he’s also one of the very few who has been able to transcend the business.
That said, he was never a long-term champion. While only three men held the title more times than Rock, the average length of his reign was less than seven weeks and his longest run as champ was four months. He is the very definition of a guy who didn’t need the title to get over.
Days as champion: 520
At WrestleMania IV in 1988, the “Macho Man” became the first champion to win the title in a tournament (no, Buddy Rogers did not win a tournament in Rio de Janeiro to become the first WWWF Champion).
Savage also was the first WWF Champion to turn heel during his reign as champion. The implosion of the Mega Powers (the alliance between Savage and Hulk Hogan) remains one of the most memorable angles in WWE history, culminating in Savage dropping the title to Hogan at WrestleMania V to end his reign at 371 days, the eighth-longest reign of all time.
Savage regained the title in 1992 and held it for five months.
Days as champion: 654
During the “New Generation” era (1992-1997), the WWF emphasized in-ring action over larger-than-life superstars, and ring technician Hart was at the forefront of the movement. “The Hitman” held the championship more times and for more days than any other performer in that span.
It’s true that business wasn’t booming those years, but that was largely due to the company feeling the residual effects of its sex and steroid scandals.
Despite domestic business having dropped off, however, the WWF was still strong internationally thanks in large part to Hart.
Days as champion: 1,027
Because Morales was never as big a star after he lost the title in December 1973, his reign of just under three years often is overlooked. It also doesn’t help that his reign — which began in Feb. 1971 with a win over Ivan Koloff and ended with a loss to Stan Stasiak — occurred between the legendary Bruno Sammartino’s two lengthy reigns.
The fact is that Morales had a very successful run as champion and was a huge draw at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he had a rabid fan base composed largely of his fellow Puerto Ricans.
"Superstar" Billy Graham
Days as champion: 296
With his sculpted physique, bleached-blond hair, colorful ring attire and entertaining promos, Graham was an anomaly as WWWF Champion at the time. Until he shocked the wrestling world by winning the title from Sammartino in April 1977 and holding it for nearly 10 months, heel reigns had only lasted days or weeks, as humble babyfaces Sammartino and Morales ruled the title scene.
Graham’s reign remains the longest for a heel in WWE history. Not only was Graham a big draw as champion in the WWWF territory (the Northeast), but he also defended the championship in NWA promotions such as Florida, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Houston and Detroit.
Graham was the first WWWF Champion to participate in a double title match with the NWA World Champion (Harley Race). Unfortunately for Graham, his reign ended well before it should have, as WWWF promoter Vince McMahon Sr. stuck with his long-term plan of putting the title on Bob Backlund in February 1978.
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin
Days as champion: 529
Nine men have held the title more days than Austin, but there’s no denying that "Stone Cold" is one of the most significant champions in WWE history.
Austin’s ascent to the title in 1998 and his subsequent feud with Mr. McMahon — who was constantly trying to screw Austin out of the championship — ushered in the “Attitude Era” and were the main factors in the WWF winning the wrestling war against WCW.
Austin was a box office and merchandise-selling powerhouse during this boom period in wrestling, but the “hot-shot” nature of the business at that time meant frequent title switches, so Austin — whose final reign ended in December 2001 — never had a reign longer than 175 days.
Days as champion: 2,138
There’s been a lot of debate over the years as to whether Backlund was a draw as champion, but the bottom line is that “The All-American Boy” held the title for nearly six years (from Feb. 1978 to Dec. 1983, the second-longest reign in company history), and no wrestling promoter is going to keep the championship on someone that long if it’s bad for business.
Moreover, according to Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer, Backlund was the No. 1 draw in wrestling four years in a row (1979-1982) and set a record in 1982 for the most big gates in a calendar year. Sure, it’s easy to make fun of Backlund’s white-meat babyface character and resemblance to Howdy Doody, but there’s no denying that he was one of the biggest stars in the business during his long title run.
Remarkaby, after being out of the spotlight for a decade, Backlund regained the title as a maniacal heel in 1994, although he held it for just three days.
Days as champion: 1,254
The days of champions holding the title for years at a time ended in the 1980s, but Cena’s longevity in the title scene during the modern WWE era is unparallelled, as he has dominated the WWE championship over the past 12 years.
During that span, Cena — wrestling’s most polarizing figure — held the title for nearly twice as many days as the second-longest reigning champion, Randy Orton. Cena’s third reign (Sept. 2006 to Oct. 2007) lasted 380 days, which was the longest title reign in nearly 20 years and ended only because Cena suffered a torn pectoral tendon and had to relinquish the championship.
Days as champion: 2,185
“The Hulkster” was already a big star in wrestling when he returned to the WWF late in 1983, but he became a pop culture icon after defeating The Iron Sheik for the championship on Jan. 23, 1984. With Hogan as champion, the WWF rose to unprecedented mainstream success, including returning pro wrestling to network television (NBC) for the first time in 30 years.
Hogan’s first reign lasted more than four years, the third-longest reign in WWE history, and his cumulative days as champion are second all-time. He successfully defended the title against Andre the Giant at the Pontiac Silverdome at WrestleMania III in 1987 in what is arguably the most famous wrestling match of all time.
Hogan’s sixth and final title reign occurred in 2002, nearly nine years after his fifth reign ended.
Days as champion: 4,040
No surprise here. Sammartino was synonymous with the WWWF Championship during the company’s first 14 years in existence, as he held the title for 11 of those years. “The Living Legend’s” first reign lasted seven years and eight months (May 1963 to Jan. 1971), still the longest reign for a world champion in wrestling history.
There’s no telling how much longer he could’ve been champion, as it was his call to drop the title because he no longer wanted to do the grueling schedule.
When Morales, Sammartino’s replacement, had run his course as champion, McMahon Sr. convinced Sammartino to come back for another title run. Sammartino became the first man to regain the championship, winning it in December 1973 and holding it until April 1977.