Friday, April 30, 2021

Top Ten Things: Worst WWE Champions

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things here at, where I count down the ten best (or in this case, worst) of something.

Today what's on my mind is shitty WWE Champions.  The WWE (formerly WWF, formerly WWWF) Championship is the most celebrated wrestling title in the history of the business.  While it's not currently the most prestigious (as my colleague Joseph Chaplin and I discussed HERE), it has the richest overall lineage and is by definition the most well-known championship.  Just about every luminary to make his mark in North American wrestling the last 40 or so years has won or at least contended for that belt.  When WCW went belly-up in 2001, the WWF Title became the only recognized worldwide championship, and while WWE has had two top belts for most of the the intervening years, it's generally the WWE Title that's been presented as the most important.

But there have been times when a wholly undeserving fellow has been graced with a Title run, much to the chagrin and puzzlement of those of us with logical thought processes.  Then there have been times when a perfectly viable guy has won the belt but the company never really got behind him or presented him as worthy, thus his title reign was a big honkin' flop.  In each of these cases, the value of the Title has taken a nosedive or at least been temporarily damaged.  Below are ten examples of these two scenarios, in chronological order.

1. Stan Stasiak (1973)

The old WWWF was what they called a "babyface territory."  The promotion depended on a heroic, long-running Champion to sell tickets and drive revenue.  Thus whenever a heel won the belt, it was simply as a transition so they could quickly put the belt on a different babyface.  Case in point, the weakest of these early heel champs, Stan "The Man" Stasiak.  In 1973 Pedro Morales was enjoying a nearly three-year run as the face of the company, but fans began clamoring for their former hero Bruno Sammartino to win back the Title he'd held for 7-1/2 years (Still the longest title run in wrestling history).  Not wanting a babyface vs. babyface title change, the company decided at the last minute to book Stasiak in a "banana peel" win over Morales (The ol' spot where the babyface hits a belly-to-back suplex on the heel, but the heel raises his shoulder and the babyface pins himself).  Stasiak was now the unlikeliest of WWWF Champions.  So unlikely in fact that he dropped the belt to Sammartino just nine days later.  When you realize that Killer Kowalski (a major heel draw for the promotion) never held the belt but Stasiak did, it's even more baffling.

2. Sgt. Slaughter (1991)

WrestleMania VI was headlined by the hugely successful Hulk Hogan-Ultimate Warrior match, wherein Warrior scored an ultra-rare clean pin over the company's golden (more like golden-brown) goose.  The match was considered such an epic encounter (For the record I was never a fan of this match but I get why others liked it so much), that it seemed inevitable we'd see it again at WrestleMania VII.  It made perfect sense after all; 'Mania 6 drew a huge stadium crowd and the company wanted to fill an even larger venue (the 100,000-seat LA Coliseum) the following year.  What match could be bigger than the biggest rematch in WWF history?  But instead Vince opted to have perennial midcarder (and only marginally coordinated worker, who incidentally had just returned to the WWF five months earlier) Sgt. Slaughter defeat Warrior for the strap at the Royal Rumble, position him as an Iraqi sympathizer to cash in on the Gulf War, and let Hogan be the conquering American hero.  This booking was totally rushed and contrived, and it was the first time as a fan that I felt they had devalued the WWF Title.  Slaughter wasn't remotely believable enough in the ring to be the company's top champ, the exploitation of the Gulf War felt sleazy and cheap (and by the time 'Mania 7 rolled around the skirmish had been over for a month), and not surprisingly ticket sales for the event tanked, to the point they had to move 'Mania to the much smaller LA Sports Arena.  This was an epic failure that signaled the end of the 80s boom period.

3. Hulk Hogan (1993 & 2002)

This entry is a little different.  Yes I know Hulk Hogan was one of the company's greatest champions, but of his six WWF Title reigns, only three were any good.  The fourth lasted only a few days, as he was stripped of the belt due to a controversial win.  But his fifth and sixth reigns were downright insulting to the intelligence, and thus warrant inclusion on this list (Incidentally this entry pushes JBL off the list - you're welcome John).

In 1992 Hogan walked away from the business to pursue an acting career.  That didn't work out so well, and Vince brought him back in early 1993.  The WrestleMania main event that year was Bret Hart, the WWF's new top babyface vs. Yokozuna, its newest monster heel.  Yokozuna won the belt in cheap fashion, and then Hogan inexplicably ran down to the ring to protest the decision, despite never having interacted with Bret at all leading up to this.  Yokozuna even more inexplicably challenged Hogan to a match on the spot, and Hogan won back the Title in seconds.  Thus WrestleMania IX ended with both main event participants looking like chumps while the increasingly irrelevant Hogan stood tall with the strap.  The plan was for Hogan to face Bret at SummerSlam, but Hogan balked at the idea and aside from a handful of house shows, went home for two months.  Vince had to scramble to get the belt back on a full-time guy, and Hogan vs. Yokozuna II was booked at King of the Ring.  Hogan dropped the belt and left the WWF again for nearly a decade.  The ending to WrestleMania IX stands as the worst, most counterproductive PPV climax of all time.

In 2002, after the demise of WCW, Vince decided to resurrect WCW's most successful angle, the nWo.  Hogan, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash returned to the company at No Way Out and ran amok for two months.  This set up Hogan vs. The Rock at WrestleMania X8.  What no one bargained for though was the Toronto crowd giving Hogan a white-hot hero's welcome.  Those damn Canadians came unglued for Hogan, and during the post-match shenanigans the company turned him babyface, thus nullifying the nWo stable.  Vince was so blinded by the 'Mania crowd reaction in fact that he scrapped plans for new champion Triple H to defend against The Undertaker at Backlash, and had him face the 48-year-old Hogan instead (Incidentally, Hogan's win-loss record post-return was 1-1 at that point).  Hogan's sixth title win was wrong on multiple levels.  First, the WWF had redefined itself in the late 90s by showcasing young, edgy, exciting stars to combat WCW's focus on former WWF names from the 80s.  Putting the belt on Hogan in 2002 was completely inappropriate given how far past his prime he was, and how hard he'd tried to put the WWF out of business.  Second, the WWF audience had for years been conditioned to the top champion being a strong in-ring worker.  Bret, Shawn, Austin, Rock, Triple H, Taker, Angle, Jericho, all of the significant champions of the era could deliver restaurant-quality matches on a consistent basis.  Hogan could still entertain, but he was never an accomplished in-ring talent, and this was simply not acceptable for a WWF Champion in 2002.  Third, Triple H was just being established as the company's new top babyface.  Taking the belt off him only four weeks after his big WrestleMania win undermined everything they were trying to do with him.  Hogan's title run was understandably not well-received; he dropped the belt to The Undertaker a month later, and was gone again by August.  It's rare for a star of Hogan's caliber to have two terrible WWF Title runs, but by golly he did it.  

4. Sycho Sid (1996-97)

1996 was the year of Shawn Michaels.  The charismatic, super-athletic Heartbreak Kid had outlasted Bret Hart in a 60-minute Iron Man match at WrestleMania, and almost singlehandedly carried the company through the spring and summer months as the war with WCW raged on.  At Summerslam, Shawn faced the monster WWF newcomer Vader in a fantastic main event, and after Shawn's narrow escape the plan was for Vader to finally win the belt at Survivor Series.  But Vader had a couple miscues in the first bout, and Shawn put the kibosh on the rematch, insisting instead that real-life friend Sid Vicious be his Survivor Series opponent.  There was one problem though: Sid was pretty cosmically inept in the ring, lumbering through most matches with generic punch-kick offense and frequently looking lost between the ropes.  The Shawn-Sid match was a messy affair, and Sid's championship win felt like another instance of the belt being cheapened.  This was all to set up a rematch at the Royal Rumble in Shawn's hometown of San Antonio anyway, so I'm not sure why Shawn had such a problem dropping the belt to Vader temporarily.  But the company went with Sid, who not only had a mediocre match with Shawn, but a month later had an even worse match with Bret Hart.  When neither Shawn nor Bret can get a good match out of you, you're probably not championship material.  Sid dropped the belt to Shawn in January but won it again a month later, setting up a WrestleMania main event against The Undertaker, which stands as one of the weakest headlining matches in the event's history.  He left the company four months later and never returned except as a nostalgia act in 2012.

5. Vince McMahon (1999)

It's a pretty universally accepted fact that Vince McMahon's ego is out of control.  At no time was that more apparent than the year 1999, when Vince booked himself to win not only the Royal Rumble, but the company's top championship.  The 54-year-old chairman, who even after 30 or so years in the business still couldn't throw a believable punch, defeated Triple H on an episode of Smackdown, with the help of his former arch-nemesis Steve Austin (How heroic of the babyface chairman to beat the heel champion due to outside interference).  It's possible that this was the worst-ever instance of depreciating a championship at the time (Of course Vince Russo committed not one but two even more egregious offenses the following year, booking both himself and David Arquette to win the WCW Title).  There was simply no excuse for the company owner booking himself to win the belt.  Vince vacated the championship a week later and Triple H won it back in a 6-pack challenge at Unforgiven, but the damage had been done.  For a man who only months earlier stated on Conan O'Brien's show that he prided himself on presenting the WWF Champion as credible, this was a pretty appalling betrayal of that principle.  And don't forget, Triple H was just catching on as a main event guy; having him lose the belt to a non-wrestler 25 years his senior kinda made him look like a putz.  No wonder Hunter was so protective of his spot.

6. Big Show (1999 & 2002)

This one looked great in theory - Paul Wight jumping from WCW to the WWF in early 1999 was a major deal, as it signaled a true turning of the tide in the Monday Night War.  For the first time a young WCW headliner in the prime of his career left Turnerland in favor of Titan Tower, and the possibilities were exciting.  Imagine a Hogan vs. Andre scenario where the top babyface Steve Austin has to face the mountainous former Giant.  Well, we didn't have to imagine that for long, because Vince Russo gave that match away on free television only a month later with little buildup, and Big Show lost.  Eight months later a nagging neck injury sidelined Austin, taking him out of the Survivor Series Triple Threat match with the Rock and WWF Champion Triple H.  Enter Big Show, who shocked the wrestling world by capturing the WWF Title in his first year in the company.  Seemed like a risk that would pay big dividends.  But then the company booked him to continue his melodramatic feud against The Big Bossman (No idea what he did to earn a title shot, mind you), and Show's first (and only) PPV title defense in this reign was a three-minute afterthought.  A few weeks later, Show dropped the belt back to Triple H and was more or less back-burnered until 2002.

Show had been sent to developmental in late 2000 to lose weight and gain maturity, and he returned to the main roster in 2001 but was still used as a midcard attraction.  When the brands split in 2002, Show was a RAW-only talent who seldom appeared on PPV and lost just about every time he did.  He languished in the midcard until that fall, when he was sent to Smackdown and suddenly pushed as an unstoppable monster(??).  It was as though the company didn't realize most fans watched both shows.  You can't take a guy who lost every feud for months and months, and then suddenly book him as a threat just because he's on the other brand.  Show's first opponent on the Smackdown roster was the undefeated, mega-over new face of the company and WWE Champion, Brock Lesnar.  Their match at Survivor Series was presented as a situation where Lesnar's manager Paul Heyman was so scared about Brock's prospects against The Big Show, that he actually turned on Brock and cost him the Title, becoming Show's manager instead.  Now as I said, Brock was undefeated going into this, while Big Show hadn't won a major match in literally years.  Furthermore, Brock had this match won when Heyman turned on him.  Nothing about it made sense, but nevertheless The Big Show was the Champion.  Until a month later when Kurt Angle beat him and Heyman managed Angle instead.  Big Show went on to lose a two-on-one handicap match (with A-Train) against The Undertaker at WrestleMania, and he was rarely used as a main event guy ever again.

Big Show's 1999 title reign had potential.  His 2002 reign was idiotic.  Both runs severely damaged him as a top draw.

7. Sheamus (2009, 2010 & 2015)

Sheamus is another case of the right guy but the wrong timing and circumstances.  In 2009 the company was desperate to create some new stars after years of every PPV main event being some combination of Cena/Orton/Triple H/Edge/Batista/Taker.  Then a WWECW newcomer by the name of Sheamus O'Shaunessy caught Hunter and Vince's attention with his wild red hair, chiseled build and 6'5" frame.  Sheamus (minus the last name) got moved to RAW and went on a five-month tear, destroying lower card guys left and right.  He was then hotshotted to a feud with WWE Champ John Cena and booked to dethrone him at TLC.  Sounds like a Brock Lesnar-esque rise to the top.  Except that Sheamus won the belt in a Tables match, where the object is simply to put your opponent through a piece of furniture.  Hardly the dominant championship win anyone pictured, and it felt like the company was already hedging their bets.  Furthermore, Sheamus would lose the strap only two months later at Elimination Chamber and wasn't even the last guy pinned.  So that first run was a bit of a bust.  He won the title again that summer in a Fatal 4-Way match (again not the most memorable way to become WWE Champion), and lost it again three months later in a 6-Way match.  Sheamus would have a decent babyface run in 2012, winning the Royal Rumble and the World Heavyweight Title, but then floundered in the midcard for quite a while as the company's focus shifted to a new crop of developmental call-ups.

Finally in 2015 he was turned heel again and tapped to win Money in the Bank.  Great, I thought, his career is back on track.  Well no.  As with so many MITB holders, Sheamus was jobbed out repeatedly and even treated as comedic fodder, suffering a humiliating loss at Survivor Series after being deserted by his own teammates.  No matter, he came back at the end of the night to cash in on a newly crowned Roman Reigns.  Huh??  Roman, the guy Vince wanted as the next top babyface to replace John Cena, lost his first WWE Title after a scant five minutes to a briefcase holder who'd been booked like a total geek an hour earlier.  Not surprisingly no one bought Sheamus as a credible WWE Champ this time either, and a month later Roman regained the Title.  For being one of the best big men currently in the business, Sheamus really hasn't ever gotten booked the way he deserves.

8. Alberto Del Rio (2011)

Summer 2011 is remembered in wrestling as The Summer of Punk.  CM Punk cut his infamous "pipe bomb" promo, won the WWE Title, and left the company (in storyline anyway).  It was unlike anything we'd ever seen, and should've been one of the greatest angles of all time.  But as usual with WWE, the follow-through was dreadful.  WWE vacated the Title, it wound up back on Cena, Punk was brought right back two weeks later, and they had a rematch at SummerSlam.  Punk won again but Money in the Bank winner Alberto Del Rio cashed in on him and became the new champion, specifically because WWE was going to tour Mexico the following month and they wanted a Mexican champ.  This turn of events cooled Punk's white-hot momentum immediately and Del Rio's title run was met with a mix scorn and indifference.  One month later Cena beat Del Rio for the belt, and two weeks after that Del Rio won it again (pinning Punk for the second time).  Finally Punk got the last laugh in this clusterfuck, decisively defeating Del Rio at Survivor Series, but by this time the awesome novelty of The Summer of Punk had long been damaged.  And it was all for a half-assed attempt to cater to one secondary market.  More on that in a bit....

9. Bray Wyatt (2017)

In 2013 Bray Wyatt was the hottest heel in the company, having shed his generic Husky Harris persona in favor of a genuinely creepy backwoods cult leader gimmick.  He was called back up to the main roster that summer and pushed hard from the get-go, easily defeating Kane in their feud and even getting the better of Daniel Bryan.  The company was building him up for a WrestleMania 30 showdown with John Cena, which seemed to be a major vote of confidence in the bright young star.  But then he came up short at 'Mania and went 1-for-3 against Cena on PPV.  He spent the rest of 2014 as a mid-level heel before being built up again toward the end of the year (winning a feud with Dean Ambrose) to prep him for a 'Mania 31 match with The Undertaker.  And then he lost that one too.  He feuded with Roman Reigns later that year and ultimately lost that rivalry as well.  In late 2016 he began a feud with Randy Orton that resulted in Orton joining Wyatt as his henchman.  The two made a pretty successful pairing, winning the Smackdown Tag Titles briefly, and winning the de facto Survivor Series main event for their squad.  Then Orton won the Royal Rumble, and a month later Wyatt won the Elimination Chamber to capture his first WWE Title.  But something felt off.  This reminded me of Booker T and Rob Van Dam winning top championships in 2006, years after being marginalized, their initial 2001 pushes having long since cooled.  It seemed like another case of "too little, too late."  Orton turned on Wyatt and burned down his sister's grave (which apparently somehow made Orton the babyface?), announcing that he would be challenging Wyatt for the WWE Title at WrestleMania 33.  The match was a phoned-in, eleven-minute snoozer made unintentionally funny with the use of projected worms and maggots covering the mat.  Wyatt's theatrics, originally eerie and frightening, were now a laughingstock.  Worse, Orton handily defeated Wyatt for the belt, limiting his title run to a scant three weeks, and confirming that the company had no intention of finally making Bray Wyatt a legitimate threat to anyone.  In the end Bray Wyatt was just another fluke champion. 

10. Jinder Mahal

And speaking of fluke champions, that brings us to career jobber-turned-Indian ambassador named Jinder Mahal.  Mahal made his main roster debut in 2011 and spent three years as a bottom-card guy, losing every singles feud and then becoming a member of heel comedy trio 3MB with Heath Slater and Drew McIntyre.  Mahal was released in 2014 but returned two years later in the same role as before - jobber to the stars.  Then in early 2017, much like The Big Show and JBL before him, Mahal went from RAW also-ran to Smackdown main eventer in the span of a single month, winning a #1 Contender Battle Royal and earning a WWE Title shot out of nowhere.  The backstage reason for this was that Vince wanted to tap into the India market (pro wrestling is big business in India), and rather than actually finding a great Indian wrestler, Vince just went with the first wrestler of Indian descent he could find (much as he'd done with The Great Khali a decade ago).  And as it turned out Jinder's WWE Title run actually HURT business in India.  Man, do I wish I could've said "I told you so" to Vince in person....  Jinder beat Randy Orton for the belt despite not having improved at all since his return (except conspicuously in the physique department) and remained Champion for roughly five months before cooler heads prevailed and he dropped the strap to AJ Styles.  Mahal's push incorporated the worst aspects of many of the aforementioned title reigns on this list.  He was pushed with zero buildup (like Stan Stasiak), thanks in large part to a roster change (like Big Show), just to pander to a specific market (like Del Rio), his in-ring skills are laughably inadequate (like Sycho Sid), his gimmick employs cheap anti-American heat (like Slaughter), and putting the belt on him stretched credibility to the breaking point (like Vince McMahon).  During Jinder's big run I read countless comments about how Jinder deserved this push because he worked hard in WWE for years.  So by that rationale X-Pac should've been WWE Champion?  Or how about Zack Ryder?  Or Charlie Haas?  Or Bob Holly?  There's a reason WWE has secondary titles: Not everyone is WWE Championship material.  You can't book a guy to lose 80% of his matches and then suddenly expect people to take him seriously as the top champion.  Storytelling doesn't work that way.  As with many of the other entries on this list, Jinder simply didn't demonstrate that he was worthy of this spot, and the fact that he's been nowhere near the Title since kinda proves my point.

Well that's the list.  Comment below with your thoughts, and with some WWE Champs you think were overly weak.  Thanks for reading, and join us on Facebook, MeWe and Twitter!

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