THIS Sunday Jinder Mahal puts the WWE Championship on the line against Shinsuke Nakamura at Hell in a Cell.
Mahal is the 50th man to hold the title – but is Nakamura about to become the 51st?
To celebrate the most prestigious championship in wrestling – and a potentially historic title change – we look back and rank all 50 WWE Champions.
Note: this doesn’t include the Big Gold Belt/World Heavyweight Championship that was introduced in 2002, or Universal Championship that came in last year.
We’re talking the real WWE Championship – the title that dates back to 1963 in its various forms.
50. Rey Mysterio – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2011
Rey was never convincing as a top-tier champ and his pitiful run with the WWE title pretty much sums it up.
He won the vacant belt in a tournament on Raw to crown a new champ – after real champ Punk left with the belt – but Rey lost it to John Cena two hours later.
Bray Wyatt – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2017
He wasn’t WWE Championship level when he won it at Elimination Chamber and choked (not to mention lost) in his title match with Randy Orton at WrestleMania.
The belt has never meant less than in the hands of Bray Wyatt.
Vince McMahon – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1999
One of the more regrettable title switches during a time when WWE would hot potato the title on a regular basis.
Vince did have least win the belt in a typically Attitude Era match (i.e. fun with a hot crowd) and had the decency to vacate it immediately.
47. Buddy Rogers – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1963
Won a fictional tournament in April 1963 but lost the belt 22 days later (in just 48 seconds) after suffering an alleged heart attack.
The original Nature Boy was of the greats in his day, and earns extra points for being the first ever WWE Champion.
46. Sgt Slaughter – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1991
The unfortunate face of the worst ever WWE Championship storyline – when Sarge turning Iraqi sympathiser during the Gulf War.
A cynical effort to capitalise on the real-life conflict did poor business and signalled the beginning of the end for WWE original “boom” period.
45. Stan Stasiak – Reigns: 4 First Held: 1973
Stan The Man was a transitional champion, so WWE could move the title from Pedro Morales to Bruno Sammartino without the two babyfaces having to face off.
Stasiak beat Morales for the title but lost it to Sammartino just nine days later.
44. Ivan Koloff – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1971
The Russian Bear was a fearsome heel but also a transitional champ.
He switched the title between the very same babyfaces – expect the other way around, from Sammartino to Morales – two years earlier.
DEAD MAN RISING
WWE confirm the legendary Undertaker is making a comeback out of retirement
WWE confirm return of brutal WarGames match for first time in nearly 20 years
John Cena insists he will never fully retire from WWE after his No Mercy ‘exit’
From the Curb Stomp to the Styles Clash: The ten most controversial and banned moves in WWE history
43. Kane – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1998
Won the belt from Stone Cold at King of the Ring and lost it 24 hours later on Raw – but scores extra points for popping a TV huge rating for the rematch.
This was exactly what the Attitude Era was all about: breakneck, unpredictable storytelling that forced you to watch every show.
42. The Iron Sheik – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1983
Another transitional champ, but Sheiky Baby indirectly created Hulkamania when he lost the title to the Hulkster after reigning for just 28 days.
Also deserves credit for not breaking Hogan’s legs as he was offered money to do by a rival promoter. That would have ended Hulkmania and WWE’s 1980s boom before it began.
41. Andre the Giant – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1988
Beat Hogan in a WrestleMania 3 rematch with the help of an evil twin referee – then immediately sold the belt to the Million Dollar Man.
Despite giving up the title, the fact the match pulled 33 million TV viewers shows how much Andre meant to the title and its drawing power.
40. Sheamus – Reigns: 3 First Held: 2009
He was rushed to the WWE title after his main roster debut and cashed-in Money in the Bank for a whopping 22-day reign in late 2015.
A solid wrestler pushed into the title picture at the wrong time.
39. The Big Show – Reigns: 2 First Held: 1999
Show’s on-off booking dogged him from the start and his first reign came out of nowhere – when fans were more interested in Rock, Triple H, and Stone Cold.
Won the title again thanks to Paul Heyman’s nonsensical heel turn on Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series 2002. Has reigned for less than three months during 18 years.
38. Sycho Sid – Reigns: 2 First Held: 1996
The Master and Ruler of the World was no technical wizard but he was over big time in ‘96 – and beat Shawn Michaels in an exciting match at Survivor Series that year.
Also held the belt when WWE was laying the seeds for Attitude in early 1997.
37. Rob Van Dam – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2006
Hugely popular star at the time, he defeated John Cena for the title in a heated match at One Night Stand. Also the only man to hold the WWE and ECW titles simultaneously.
He let himself (and the title’s rep) down when he was caught in possession of various drugs, forcing WWE to book a title change after 22 days.
36. Alberto Del Rio – Reigns: 2 First Held: 2011
Great talent and gimmick – essentially a Mexican Ted DiBiase, or the Million Peso Man – but relegated to John Cena’s whipping boy by the time he got the belt.
He won the title for a second time in a sizzling Hell in a Cell three-way a few months later.
Del Rio’s image as champ has been tarnished by his poor attitude behind the scenes.
35. Jinder Mahal – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2017
Rushed from jobber to champion in a matter of weeks, Jinder’s reign has cemented the WWE Championship’s demotion to a mid-card title in this current era.
Despite shoddy booking – which isn’t really his fault – he put in decent performances against Randy Orton and employs classic heel tactics.
34. Dean Ambrose – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2016
Ambrose dragged the title down to the mid-card after the renewed brand split (though that’s partly to do with the launch of the Universal belt at the same time).
Cashing in MITB to win the title was a feel good moment, but his lacklustre defence against Dolph Ziggler at SummerSlam proved he’d stopped trying by then.
33. John Bradshaw Layfield – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2004
Given a main event and new Texan millionaire gimmick from nowhere, JBL never felt a credible champ (though the rep of the belt was on the downturn then too).
At nine months he was SmackDown’s longest reigning champ – which is something at least – but his matches were never up to much.
32. Diesel – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1995
Famous for being one of the poorest drawing champs ever, Diesel was lumbered with leading the company at its all-time creative low – plus dud opponents like Mabel.
But he was a believable champ and it still felt like the biz’s most important title over his shoulder.
Had great matches with HBK and Bret Hart at Mania and Survivor Series too.
31. Jeff Hardy – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2008
After beating Triple H and Edge in a blistering triple threat, Jeff held the title for little over a month.
But he gave the gold some extra shine because of what his 14-year journey – from jobber to WWE’s top babyface – meant to him and longtime fans.
30. Chris Jericho – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2001
Always out of his depth in the main event spot but Y2J earned his place in championship history by beating Stone Cold and The Rock to unify the WWE and WCW titles.
Despite a few Big Gold Belt reigns, it’s strange that after 18 years in the company he’s never had another run with the main WWE title.
29. The Miz – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2010
Unfairly chastised for his time as champ due to a stinker of a main event at ‘Mania 27 and his treatment at the hands of career-killer Cena.
But Miz was the most over heel and improved wrestler in WWE at the time. Also perfected the cowardly heel champ shtick.
28. Ultimate Warrior – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1990
Warrior beat Hogan for the title in a monumental ‘Mania moment, back when being the champion really meant you were WWE’s top star (unlike now).
But Warrior drew poor box office – mostly because he wasn’t very good and faced opponents who were never a real threat to his title, such as Mr Perfect and Rick Rude.
27. Yokozuna – Reigns: 2 First Held: 1993
The only monster heel to have a long WWE title run (it’s a babyface territory, of course) but had the unfortunate duty of holding the strap when business was on the decline.
Yoko played the unbeatable monster well – and his lengthy reign made it all more special when Bret Hart finally toppled him at ‘Mania 10.
Eddie Guerrero – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2004
Defeated The Beast Brock Lesnar to being champ in a surprise upset and defended against Kurt Angle in a fondly-remembered feud.
Extra kudos as his reign was seen as long overdue recognition that he really was one of the best wrestlers of his day.
25. Mankind – Reigns: 3 First Held: 1999
His time was brief – three reigns amounted to just over a month – but his first title win is one of the all-time great moments (watch it back just to hear the pop – incredible).
He then swapped the title back and forth with The Rock in one of the Attitude Era’s best feuds.
24. AJ Styles – Reigns: 1 First Held: 2016
Styles restored some prestige to the title with his incredible work-rate in matches against Dean Ambrose and John Cena.
His reign lasted just three months, but there’s nothing like putting a title around the waist of the world’s best wrestler to add a bit of value.
23. Daniel Bryan – Reigns: 2 First Held: 2013
His big win at WrestleMania 30 is the biggest feel-good moment in WWE history – and it was a victory for the fans too, who’d been desperate for a hero of their own choosing (i.e. not Cena).
His time as champ was short, but Bryan had the most significant babyface reaction since Stone Cold and The Rock.
22. Ric Flair – Reigns: 2 First Held: 1992
Came into WWE with the WCW/NWA title and proclaiming himself the Real World’s Champion – then proved it by winning the WWE belt in the 1992 Royal Rumble.
As longtime NWA champ, Flair wearing the WWE title was a major statement to the wrestling world. Also had great matches as champ with Macho Man and Bret Hart.
21. Roman Reigns – Reigns: 3 First Held: 2015
Boo him all you want but Reigns is a great worker and totally believable as the company’s top star.
Had solid matches with Dean Ambrose, Sheamus, and Triple H (yes, we mean the Trips bout at Mania 32 – very underrated) and a dynamite series with AJ Styles.
He blew it with a failed drugs test, but trust us – he’ll be much higher in this list by the time his career is done.
20. Seth Rollins – Reigns: 2 First Held: 2015
He cashed in MITB to steal the title at WrestleMania 31 in a great ‘Mania moment, when there was only one top title (and superstar) in WWE.
Put in superb performances against John Cena and Sting but was lumbered with a few dud opponents (such as the past-it Kane).
His first reign cut short by injury and his second reign ended after just minutes when Ambrose cashed in on him.
19. Randy Orton – Reigns: 9 First Held: 2007
Orton has been a solid hand over the years, though nine reigns are way too many – he’s never really lived up to WWE’s hype.
Had decent feuds with Jeff Hardy, John Cena, and Shawn Michaels during his first run in 2007/08 – and was vital as the heel champ against underdog Daniel Bryan’s journey to the title.
18. Batista – Reigns: 2 First Held: 2009
Though more synonymous with the World Heavyweight Championship, The Animal had a cracking run as heel WWE Champion in 2010.
Battling John Cena, Batista’s conceited villain persona was a hoot and resulted in fun showdowns with Cena at ‘Mania 26 and Extreme Rules.
Superstar Billy Graham – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1977
The charismatic bodybuilder defeated Bruno Sammartino and held the title for ten months, fending off Gorilla Monsoon, Don Muraco, and Pedro Morales.
Famously Vince McMahon’s favourite wrestler, he was the blueprint for the larger than life characters such as Hulk Hogan.
A huge influence on what we now know as sports-entertainment.
16. Undertaker – Reigns: 4 First Held: 1991
It seems like a low spot for the legendary Deadman, but his best title runs were with the Big Gold Belt, not the WWE Championship.
Held the title for just a few days the first time around but had a longer run in 1997, which included a classic with Bret Hart at SummerSlam.
His other reigns were typically short Attitude Era-style stints.
15. Edge – Reigns: 4 First Held: 2006
Traded the title with John Cena, Jeff Hardy, and Triple H and had fairly short reigns as WWE Champion.
But he was WWE’s very best heel at the time and gave the belt some character (not to mention a “Rated-R” spinner) after fans had turned on the chosen one Cena.
14. Bob Backlund – Reigns: 2 First Held: 1978
It’s almost impossible to compare wrestlers like Backlund to modern-day champs as the style and business itself is so drastically different.
But Backlund held the belt for almost six years, and had a legit amateur background.
Fans grew tired of his all-American act towards the end – which tarnished the title’s rep.
He lost the title in controversial fashion when his manager threw the towel in – then won it back in the same way from Bret Hart after turning heel in 1994 (but only held it for three days).
13. Pedro Morales – Reigns: 1 First Held: 1971
The Puerto Rican wrestler was WWE’s second major babyface star after Bruno Sammartino and was well loved by fans. In those days a champion really was the very best and Morales fended off all challengers.
Morales wrestled former champ and tag partner Sammartino in a 75-minute technical classic (which ended in a draw) and would hold the title for almost three years.
12. CM Punk – Reigns: 2 First Held: 2010
Punk made the Championship feel crucial to WWE when he beat Cena and walked out of the company with the belt – the hottest storyline in years.
His second reign lasted 435 days – an incredible feat in the modern era. Shame he was booked beneath Cena on the card for most of it.
11. Kurt Angle – Reigns: 4 First Held: 2000
Became WWE Champion in his rookie year and held the title for four months (a decent run for the title change-happy Attitude Era).
Though never “the guy” his quality of his matches as champ is undeniable.
But Angle’s work – particularly in the Ruthless Aggression era – was almost clinical and lacked the emotion that other champs brought to big matches.
10. Brock Lesnar – Reigns: 4 First Held: 2002
His first title win against The Rock signaled the beginning of a new era – a testament to how fast his star was rising he was in 2002.
His more recent run made the belt feel special too, thanks to Lesnar’s mainstream appeal and limited appearances.
Also put in blinding performances as champ in a triple threat against Cena and Rollins at Royal Rumble 2015 and facing Roman Reigns at ‘Mania 31.
9. The Rock – Reigns: 8 First Held: 1998
In his first three stints in 1998/99 – as the heel Corporate Champ – he was the perfect foil for peak Stone Cold and fan favourite Mankind.
The next year, Rock was the biggest babyface in wrestling and feuded with Triple H non-stop, swapping the title back and forth.
It’s tough to talk down the world’s legit most popular man as champion, but Rock was a transitional champ – and always better chasing the title.
8. Macho Man Randy Savage – Reigns: 2 First Held: 1988
In 1988, Savage was the finest wrestler to ever wear the title – a meticulous and emotionally charged worker – and played his role brilliantly in the Mega Powers.
(The Savage and Hogan bust-up is still one of the top three storylines WWE has ever produced – and did huge PPV numbers at WrestleMania 5.)
He won the title again in 1992, but it’s his first reign that set the bar. It changed the work rate that fans expected from their champion.
7. Triple H – Reigns: 9 First Held: 1999
He’s taken some flak over the years, but in 2000 – WWE’s best ever year creatively – Triple H really was The Game and the absolute best in the business.
He carried the title in sizzling feuds against Mankind/Cactus Jack and The Rock, though in later years played the role of champ to get Randy Orton and Roman Reigns over.
Loses a few places for a couple of ‘Mania main event turkeys, particularly against Jericho at 18 and Orton at 25.
6. Bret Hart – Reigns: 5 First Held: 1992
Bret’s one of the greatest wrestlers to ever lace up a pair – and the man WWE relied on in the mid-1990s while it searched unsuccessfully for the next Hulk Hogan.
Hart’s best reign came as anti-American heel in 1997. But Bret wasn’t the box office draw he’d have you believe – and was booked as a semi-main event champ under other stars.
Bret took himself seriously as a champion – to his detriment, perhaps – as refusing to drop the title to Shawn Michaels and the ensuing Montreal Screwjob proves.
5. Shawn Michaels – Reigns: 3 First Held: 1996
HBK’s boyhood dream to win the WWE Championship created the mould for every sentimental title win that’s come since.
(How many times has Sasha Banks and other young talents blathered on about “having a dream”?)
As champ he carried the company through hard times in 1996 – when WCW was winning the war – by having outstanding matches with Diesel, Mankind, British Bulldog and Vader.
He also helped usher in the Attitude Era as champion in the run up to WrestleMania 14 when he was the leader of DX.
4. John Cena – Reigns: 13 First Held: 2005
Cena fans would say that being a 13-time WWE Champion automatically puts him in the number one spot.
(And just to clarify, WWE calls him a 16-time world champ but that includes three reigns with the Big Gold Belt – which doesn’t count here.)
But holding the title that many times only means one thing: the WWE Championship is worth less than it used to be.
But Cena has been ‘the guy’ in WWE for 15 years – and his reputation as a workhorse champ who wears the belt with pride is well earned.
He’s also had many more great matches that he gets credit for. Check out his incredible defence against HBK at Mania 23.
3. Bruno Sammartino – Reigns: 2 First Held: 1963
The plodding 1960s and ‘70s ring work is a tough watch for younger fans conditioned by modern wrestling, but his place as WWE champ can’t be understated.
The Living Legend held the title for almost seven years – a feat that will never be repeated – and then again for another three years-plus.
Charismatic and wildly popular, Bruno won over fans with his power moves and tough brawling style.
He headlined Madison Square Garden on a monthly basis with main events against heels such as Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon, and George The Animal Steele.
2. Stone Cold Steve Austin – Reigns: 6 First Held: 1998
Stone Cold turned WWE in a money-making, merchandise-spewing juggernaut after winning the title at WrestleMania 14.
He wasn’t just a champion – he defined the entire Attitude Era and led the company into its most successful ever period, changing the landscape of pro wrestling completely.
His matches were red-hot too, particularly against The Rock and Triple H.
And his feud with Vince McMahon – always trying to steal the title away from Austin – evolutionised WWE’s storytelling and characters.
In fact, the company still hasn’t got over it.
1. Hulk Hogan – Reigns: 6 First Held: 1984
The title has never meant more than around the waist of the Hulkster.
As champion, he transformed WWE into a worldwide phenomenon.
Hogan reigned for four years straight from 1984-88 and headlined Manias 1-7 as champ or challenger.
Hulk’s battle against Andre at Mania 3 is still WWE’s most important match.
An underrated worker and master of crowd manipulation (no one played the fans like Hogan), he remains the biggest draw in the history of professional wrestling.
WrestleMania – or anything else, including the Attitude Era, Stone Cold, or John Cena – just wouldn’t exist without him.
So whether you’re talking ticket sales, classic matches, or legacy, Hogan will always be WWE’s greatest champ.
It’s true what he says: Hulkamania will live forever, brother.
Watch Hell in a Cell this Sunday October 8 on the WWE network or pre-order on double-
feature DVD from WWEDVD.co.uk now.
The WWE Universe was saddened this summer when the legendary Bobby “The Brain” Heenan sadly passed away.
He was involved in some of the greatest-ever moments both in and out of the ring – and you can check out the top ten here.
And if it is fight action you are after, check out the most controversial and banned finishing moves in WWE history.