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WWE's 15 best World Heavyweight Champions
The title affectionately called the “Big Gold Championship” made its official WWE debut in September 2002, but its true lineage dates to the formation of the National Wrestling Alliance in 1948. Hoping to raise its prestige, the young organization named an NWA World Heavyweight Champion to reign over its member territories. By the 1980s, the title became synonymous with the NWA’s largest territory, Jim Crockett Promotions. When JCP morphed into WCW after Ted Turner purchased the company in 1988, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship likewise transformed into the WCW Championship.
Chris Jericho unified the WCW Championship with the WWE Championship in 2001 to become the Undisputed WWE Championship, seemingly retiring the championship held by legends like Lou Thesz, Jack Brisco, Harley Race and Ricky Steamboat. But when that new WWE Title became exclusive to SmackDown, Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff revived the only championship respectable enough to lead the flagship program. Bischoff revealed WWE’s version of the “Big Gold Championship” Sept. 2, 2002.
Days as champion: 84
Key wins: Triple H
Remembered as one of the most dominant Superstars in history, Goldberg became the first former WCW World Champion to win WWE’s World Heavyweight Championship.
Goldberg set his sights on Triple H and the World Title at SummerSlam 2003 in the Elimination Chamber. He eliminated three competitors, but The Game stole the victory thanks to help from his Evolution cronies. Goldberg finally earned a one-on-one match against Triple H at Unforgiven under the condition he would retire if he lost. The imposing Superstar overpowered The King of Kings, though, en route to capturing his only title in WWE.
The desperate Game responded by placing a $100,000 bounty on the champ. Still, Goldberg defeated The Cerebral Assassin at Survivor Series in a glorified Handicap Match, as Ric Flair and Batista stood in the Evolution leader’s corner, despite entering with a bum foot.
For having to fight off attacks from the entire Raw roster, Goldberg’s 84-day was certainly credible.
Days as champion: 105
Key wins: Big Show & Mark Henry, Elimination Chamber
It may seem like a bit of a stretch to call Daniel Bryan one of the best World Heavyweight Champions considering his 105-day reign ended in a whimper at WrestleMania XXVIII. His title defenses more than compensate for his 18-second loss to Sheamus, though.
After essentially picking up the scraps at WWE Tables, Ladders & Chairs by pinning an already weakened Big Show, the submissions expert made his first prominent World Title defense at Royal Rumble 2012 locked inside a steel cage with Show and Mark Henry. Bryan managed to outlast his much larger foes, however, to escape the cage.
Bryan followed the upset by retaining his title inside an Elimination Chamber. Granted, he benefitted from entering the match last, but that doesn’t discount that he had to outmatch fan-favorite Santino Marella, who was on another level that night.
Ultimately, two high-pressure title defenses make Bryan’s reign more reputable than his WrestleMania record suggests.
Days as champion: 138
Key wins: Christian
The youngest World Champion in WWE history, Randy Orton took home his first World Heavyweight Championship at 24. It’s certainly an impressive feat, but the reign left a lot to be desired. Orton showed his inexperience, losing the title to Triple H in his first defense.
The loss started The Viper on a seven-year drought away from the title, until he challenged Christian just days after Captain Charisma clinched his first World Title. Orton and Christian put on several instant classics during summer 2011, but The Viper ultimately finished on top, winning the title twice from Christian.
While his second reign ended because of his hotheadedness — Orton lost his cool, earning a disqualification loss and dropping the title due to the bout’s stipulations — his third also wrapped with the first defense.
No one can deny his three title victories deserve recognition, but The Apex Predator’s reigns lacked bite.
Days as champion: 154
Key wins: The Undertaker
It’s hard to dissect Kane’s only World Heavyweight Championship victory. Sure, he cashed in his Money in the Bank contract on Rey Mysterio after Jack Swagger beat up The Master of the 619. The title victory may have been cheap, but his reign was anything but. The key to Kane’s domination was his utter decimation of his half-brother The Undertaker. The Big Red Monster defeated The Deadman in a one-on-one bout (Night of Champions), a Hell in a Cell (Hell in a Cell) and a Buried Alive Match (Bragging Rights). While The Nexus assisted Kane at Bragging Rights, The Devil’s Favorite Demon certainly did not look like he wanted their help, as he tried to fight off the crew when they appeared.
Anytime you can defeat arguably the most respected Superstar in the history of WWE on three occasions, it’s a noteworthy title reign.
Days as champion: 160
Key wins: Edge, JBL, The Undertaker
CM Punk’s jump to the main event scene and the World Heavyweight Championship picture came courtesy of his pair of Money in the Bank contracts.
Punk took home the coveted contract at WrestleMania XXIV and XXV, respectively, choosing to cash in against the reigning World Heavyweight Champion both times. First, he told Edge to “Go to Sleep” in 2008 after Batista beat up The Rated-R Superstar. Then in 2009, he spoiled Jeff Hardy’s first reign with the title by cashing in following Hardy’s brutal Ladder Match against Edge.
Despite being outsized by many of his opponents, Punk managed to retain against Batista, JBL and The Undertaker ━ even defeating The Deadman in a Submission Match.
His rivalry with Hardy during summer 2009 might best define his history with the championship. Punk defeated Hardy in a Tables, Ladders and Chairs Match and a Steel Cage Match, banishing Hardy from WWE.
Days as champion: 106
Key wins: Shawn Michaels, Batista, Elimination Chamber, Edge
The last WCW World Champion, Chris Jericho unified the title with the WWE Championship in 2001 to become the first Undisputed Champion.
The wily Jericho started his reign when he practically stole a last-second pinfall in a Championship Scramble at Unforgiven 2008. Though Jericho lost earlier in the night to Shawn Michaels, he found himself added to the match at the eleventh hour to replace the injured champion, CM Punk.
Jericho’s history with the title often involved unforgiving steel. His first reign included victories against Punk ━ in a Steel Cage Match ━ and Shawn Michaels ━ in an instant classic of a Ladder Match. His second reign started with a victory on the 800th episode of Raw in a Steel Cage Match against Batista. His third and final ━ for now ━ reign began in an Elimination Chamber Match in 2010, when he pinned reigning champ The Undertaker.
Days as champion: 105
Key wins: Chris Jericho, JBL, Edge & Big Show
Despite his close association with the WWE Championship, winning the title 10 times and introducing the current design, John Cena also found success with the World Heavyweight Title on two occasions. The Cenation leader first won the title from Chris Jericho at Survivor Series 2008 after tossing the champion onto his shoulders for an Attitude Adjustment. He retained his title against the tough JBL at Royal Rumble despite an interference by Shawn Michaels, who was then-employed by the millionaire. The Champ dropped the title in an Elimination Chamber Match the following month to The Ultimate Opportunist, Edge. But given the difficulty of Satan’s Prison, it’s hard to fault Cena for the loss.
His second reign started at WrestleMania XXV, when he hoisted Big Show and Edge simultaneously for an AA en route to victory. That’s nearly 700 pounds Cena carried on his shoulders.
The reign came to an abrupt end the following month, but it cannot overshadow the WrestleMania moment.
Days as champion: 91
Key wins: Randy Orton, Christian, Daniel Bryan
In 15 years, Mark Henry held two solo titles, the European and the ECW Championship, respectively. So when The World’s Strongest Man earned an opportunity at Randy Orton’s World Heavyweight Title, he was not going to let it slip through his massive fingers. The title victory laid the foundation of Henry’s “Hall of Pain” and proved — in case the WWE Universe had any doubt — other Superstars should quake with fear when they see him walking to the ring.
As if his dominant Hell in a Cell defense against Orton wasn’t enough to prove Henry was the toughest on the block, The World’s Strongest Man had the guts to risk his title despite a serious foot injury against Daniel Bryan in a Steel Cage Match. Henry could barely walk, but managed to deliver a World’s Strongest Slam from the second rope to secure the win and his legacy as part of WWE’s elite.
Days as champion: 140
Key wins: Kurt Angle & Randy Orton, JBL, Fatal 4-Way
He may be the smallest World Champion in WWE history, but Rey Mysterio’s two reigns with the World Heavyweight Title certainly made a big impact.
Miraculously winning the 2006 Royal Rumble Match after entering No. 2, Mysterio defeated Kurt Angle and Randy Orton in a dramatic Triple Threat Match at WrestleMania 22 for the championship. The Master of the 619 added thrilling wins against Orton at Backlash and JBL at Judgment Day to his historic reign before he lost the title at The Great American Bash to King Booker — thanks in part to Chavo Guerrero’s unexpected betrayal.
Like his first reign, the second ended under dubious circumstances, with Kane cashing in his Money in the Bank contract after Rey finished a grueling match against Jack Swagger. Mysterio’s reigns may not have been the most stellar, but he proved himself against big men like Big Show, JBL and Jack Swagger.
Days as champion: 210
Key wins: Daniel Bryan, Fatal 4-Way, Dolph Ziggler & Alberto Del Rio
It’s hardly surprising that a reign that began with an 18-second victory at WrestleMania XXVIII would be so dominant. It only took two hits for Sheamus to notch his first World Heavyweight Championship against Daniel Bryan at the Show of Shows: Sheamus hitting Bryan and Bryan hitting the canvas.
His quick victory aside, the credibility of Sheamus’ reign came from his willingness to accept all challengers — no matter the size or the number. He faced Alberto Del Rio, for example, one-on-one, in a Triple Threat Match and in a Fatal 4-Way Match. He’s retained the championship gold against five former World Champions — Bryan, Del Rio, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho and Dolph Ziggler.
That’s not to mention the various injuries he battled with and the challenges he accepted throughout his reign. To say Sheamus is the gutsiest World Heavyweight Champion in history may be an understatement.
Days as champion: 126
Key wins: Fatal 4-Way, Big Show & John Cena
After bouncing around the mid-card and tag team scenes in his first five years in WWE, Booker T finally cemented his place in the main event by winning the 2006 King of the Ring. The five-time WCW Heavyweight Champion carried that momentum to his first World Championship reign in WWE, defeating Rey Mysterio for the World Heavyweight Title at The Great American Bash.
King Booker survived a Fatal 4-Way and a challenge by Batista in his first defenses. More impressively, though, Booker found himself in a rivalry with WWE Champion John Cena and ECW Champion Big Show over which championship was the most prestigious. A vote by the WWE Universe at Cyber Sunday forced Booker to defend his title against his fellow World Champions. Thanks to a timely assist from Kevin Federline, Booker held onto his title and escaped Cyber Sunday as the best World Champ in the company.
Days as champion: 207
Key wins: Batista, Edge, Fatal 4-Way
Controversy surrounds The Undertaker’s three-reigns with the World Heavyweight Championship. After securing the title at WrestleMania 23 against Batista, The Deadman dropped the title when Edge cashed in his Money in the Bank contract after he waged war in a Steel Cage Match. His second reign ended when Vickie Guerrero fired him in 2008, vacating the title. An interference by Shawn Michaels at Elimination Chamber 2010 cost him his third and final reign.
Questionable losses aside, The Undertaker won the title at WrestleMania twice (23 and XXIV, respectively) and in a Hell in a Cell against CM Punk. As anticipated from The Undertaker, he accepted all challenges, defending the “Big Gold Championship” in a Last Man Standing Match, a Chairs Match and a Triple Threat against former WWE Tag Team Champions Jeri-Show, Chris Jericho and Big Show. It’s an impressive set of victories for an already impressive resume.
Days as champion: 409
Key wins: The Undertaker, Batista, John Cena, Elimination Chamber
No one held the World Heavyweight Championship more than Edge, as The Rated-R Superstar won the title seven times.
Granted, when a Superstar wins a title seven times, that means they also lose it seven times. In Edge’s defense, he vacated the title twice, was on the receiving end of a Money in the Bank contract cash in and was stripped of the championship by Vickie Guerrero. He’s only lost it three times under fair competition.
The WWE Hall of Famer’s title victories came against serious heavies like The Undertaker, John Cena and Batista, just to name a few. His most memorable defense, though, may have been at WrestleMania XXVII when he defeated Alberto Del Rio to retain. Little did the WWE Universe know it was his last match. Edge retired the following Monday on Raw and surrendered the the title that Friday on SmackDown.
To retire as champion may be the highest honor one can receive.
Days as champion: 507
Key wins: Triple H, JBL, Eddie Guerrero, The Undertaker
Evolution’s enforcer refused to wait for Triple H to step away from the spotlight, and in the process, became one of the best World Heavyweight Champions in history.
Batista defeated his mentor Triple H at WrestleMania 21 to win his first World Title, launching him on an epic reign that featured two more victories against The Game, including a brutal Hell in a Cell Match. After his victory in The Devil's Playground, he took the title to SmackDown, where it’s since remained for all but 10 months. He bested JBL and Eddie Guerrero before tearing his tricep muscle. Batista emotionally surrendered the championship Jan. 10, 2006, ending his 282-day reign, still the longest in the title’s history. The four-time champion defeated King Booker, The Great Khali and Chris Jericho to kick off the rest of his spells as champ, but the first was the most memorable.
Days as champion: 616
Key wins: Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair, Elimination Chamber
No one controlled Raw quite like Triple H did from 2002 to 2005.
The Game became the first World Heavyweight Champion Sept. 2, 2002, when Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff presented him with the title. Sixteen-time World Champion Ric Flair took exception to the gift, challenging Triple H to “earn” it. After beating The Nature Boy, The Cerebral Assassin ran through a myriad of former WCW World Champions, defeating Flair, Scott Steiner, Booker T, Kevin Nash and Goldberg.
The honors achieved during Triple H’s five reigns include defeating Kane to unify the title with the Intercontinental Championship, besting Shawn Michaels in Three Stages of Hell and Last Man Standing Matches, and winning two Elimination Chamber contests.
His 616-day mark as champion is more than 100 days longer than that of the closest Superstar, Batista.
His reigns may have earned the WWE Universe’s ire, but Triple H knew how to hold onto the “Big Gold Championship.”