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Who's the Greatest World Champion of the 21st Century?
In the summer of 1999 – serving as a stirring prelude to the arrival of Chris Jericho in a WWE ring for the very first time – a clock that proclaimed itself the “Countdown to the New Millennium" began to appear at WWE events.
Though the spectacle was certainly the perfect way to introduce “Y2J” to the WWE Universe, it also helped usher in an explosive new century of WWE action. And amidst the epic rivalries and monumental moments that would unfold over the next 12 years, a new breed of World Champion emerged as well.
But, who is the best of the best of the 21st Century? In search of the answer, WWE.com runs a countdown of its own, ranking the greatest World Champions of WWE from the year 2000 to the present.
Plus, check out a special “honorable mention” section at the end, featuring elite World Champions who may not have met the criteria to be ranked 1 -10, but are no less deserving of high recognition.
# 10: Booker T
While SmackDown color commentator Booker T lacks the title reign longevity of many of his World Champions contemporaries, his meteoric rise to the top on five separate occasions in just over one year’s time demands that he be included on the lofty pedestal of the 21st Century's prototypical titleholders.
Back when the world was bracing itself for the coming millennium in 1999, Booker had yet to reach the top of the mountain once. Instead, he made up one half of the explosive Harlem Heat combination – five months removed from meaningful singles competition. In the year that followed and amidst the chaos of WCW’s final days, however, the street-savvy competitor would shed his tag team roots to achieve incredible individual glory practically overnight.
By the end of the year 2000, Booker had won the WCW Title three times – and wasn’t done yet. The Bookerman seized the championship gold a fourth time on the final episode of Monday Nitro in March 2001 and reclaimed it again later that year while mixing it up with legendary rivals like The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. His championship pedigree also helped him lead the in-ring invasion of WCW and ECW competitors that called themselves “The Alliance.”
Five years later, the five-time WCW Champion reminded the WWE Universe of his undeniable talent as one of the squared circle’s greatest Superstars. A mere two months after becoming the 2006 King of the Ring, the newly crowned King Booker made it back to the top by defeating Rey Mysterio for the World Heavyweight Title at the Great American Bash.
These days, the majority of Booker's combat involves mixing it up with Michael Cole at the SmackDown announcer’s table, but his presence at ringside reminds all who step into the squared circle of what it takes to be an elite champion in the 21st Century. Now can you dig that, sucka?
# 9: Kurt Angle
The 1896 Summer Olympics, officially known then as the “Games of the Olympiad,” was celebrated in Athens, Greece. At the monumental event, wrestling was considered by many to be the most prestigious sport at the games as its roots date back thousands of years.
Wrestling’s first recognized professional World Championship can be traced back to 1905 when George Hackenschmidt defeated Tom Jenkins to become undisputed titleholder. In the more than 100 years since both the birth of the Olympic Games and professional wrestling, there has been one, and only one, Olympic Gold Medalist to hold the WWE or World Heavyweight Championship. That Superstar is Kurt Angle.
At the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Kurt Angle added a gold medal in freestyle wrestling to his two National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 wrestling championships. The Olympic Gold Medal was the crown jewel on a litany of amateur accolades he began accumulating shortly after donning his first singlet at age 6. Then, a little more than three years after becoming the greatest amateur wrestler on the planet in his own country while competing with a fractured vertebra in his neck, the American inspiration made his WWE debut in November 1999. In the almost seven years that followed, Angle dominated WWE’s rings with the same insatiable appetite for victories that he displayed for decades.
In addition to winning the Hardcore, European, Tag Team, United States and Intercontinental Championships, the grappling gladiator also added the WWE-owned WCW World Heavyweight Championship, four WWE Championships and the World Heavyweight Championship to his unmatched canon of conquests. Through it all, Angle’s fruits of battle carried with them the glory of the ancient Spartans that dominated their foes in Greece even before the birth of the Olympics.
Because of his accomplishments both at the Olympic Games and in WWE, Kurt Angle is indeed one of the squared circle’s greatest World Champions of the 21st Century.
# 8: Chris Jericho
Jericho made history when he became the first-ever WWE Undisputed Champion at Vengeance 2001, successfully unifying the WWE Championship and the WCW Championship. In one night, The Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla trumped two legends, defeating The Rock for WCW’s crown and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for WWE’s vaunted title, further cementing Y2J’s place among the very best of all time.
In addition to his WWE Championship, it’s no secret that Jericho has made a career of collecting championship gold, racking up three World Heavyweight Titles among a slew of other accolades. With the majority of his hardware claimed in the 2000s, Y2J is a no-brainer for this list. Despite losses in his most recent quests to add to his golden collection, Jericho truly is a lion among men.
# 7: Batista
For 282 days, Batista held the World Heavyweight Championship. 282 days.
That is the longest World Heavyweight Title reign in WWE history. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he was never defeated to end his reign. Instead, he vacated the title due to an injury.
How long might that reign have gone, the WWE Universe will never know. But, one thing is certain: Batista set a new standard of excellence for an already proud title with one of the most impressive stretches of domination in WWE history.
It’s fitting that Batista won that first World Title in the main event at WrestleMania 21 against The King of Kings, Triple H. The Animal’s entire WWE tenure were marked by competing on the biggest stages, in the biggest matches, against WWE’s biggest Superstars.
Edge, The Undertaker, John Cena, Randy Orton and Chris Jericho are just some of the iconic Superstars Batista battled with WWE titles on the line. If one can be judged by the quality of his opponents, then few competitors faced greater challenges or scaled greater heights than the powerhouse known as Batista.
But he’s more than a four-time World Heavyweight Champion and two-time WWE Champion, more than the longest-reigning World Heavyweight Champion. He’s one of the greatest, most dominant champions of this young century. He’s The Animal.
# 6: Randy Orton
When categorizing the Superstar who has been known as “The Legend Killer,” “The Viper” and “WWE’s Apex Predator,” it’s all in the numbers: Third-generation squared circle competitor. Three-time World Heavyweight Champion. Six-time WWE Champion. WWE’s 17thTriple Crown Champion.
But Randy Orton didn’t claim the designation of being one of greatest World Champions of the 21st century simply by boasting impressive credentials; he snatched that lofty appellation with attitude, aggression and a take-no-prisoners approach in the ring. Becoming the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in WWE history at SummerSlam in 2004 at the age of 24 – an incredible record which still stands – Orton announced himself as a top-level competitor, and he has been a staple of WWE’s world title picture ever since.
From Raw to SmackDown, World Heavyweight to WWE Titles, Orton has faced and beaten the best. His classic battles with fellow legends like John Cena and Triple H have filled his trophy case, given the WWE Universe countless memorable moments and carried Orton all the way to the summit of WWE. Some Superstars might have held more than his nine world titles for more than his 558 days, but few did it with as much coldblooded intensity and few have made a bigger mark or been greater champions.
# 5: CM Punk
True, The Second City Saint’s five World Title reigns don’t stack up to some of the Superstars vying to be the best World Champion of the 21st Century in terms of length, but can you really make up a statistic to quantify what Punk has done in the last year? His time as WWE Champion has defied almost every WWE status quo there is, cemented the former “Internet darling” as a top-tier Superstar and changed the perception of what it means to be a WWE Champion.
CM Punk does not fit the traditional Superstar mold in almost any sense, and yet since he’s held the WWE Title, Punk has gone toe-to-toe with some of WWE’s most formidable ring warriors and come out smiling on the other side. Punk’s challengers have ranged from John Cena, who he won the illustrious prize from in the first place at Money in the Bank 2011, to Chris Jericho and Daniel Bryan, who challenged The Voice of the Voiceless in classic matches that truly brought out the best in each Superstar.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the infamous “pipe bomb” that preceded his rise, it’s tough to imagine Punk’s only been on top for 365 days. But it’s even tougher to imagine what WWE was like before he got there.
# 4: Undertaker
When one typically thinks of The Undertaker these days, they tend to think of The Streak and not World Championship victories. But The Phenom has held the World Heavyweight Championship on three separate occasions, with a total of 207 days to his name.
In addition to the epic battles he fought while holding his “holy grail,” The Phenom managed two impressive feats as pertained to the illustrious championship gold: He was one of the few Superstars to hold the Undisputed WWE Championship and he captured the World Title at two consecutive WrestleManias.
Undertaker brought his typical, ferocious style of combat and mind games to his championship reigns, looming large over the opposition as he added to his arsenal of maneuvers and toppled challengers in such a dominant fashion that Superstars would often have to resort to technicalities to defeat him.
While The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak may be what he is remembered for most, he will forever stand out as the most feared World Champions of all time, an immortal reputation that earns him a spot among the greatest World Champions of the 21st Century.
# 3: Edge
"In Orangeville, you have two choices: work in a factory in town, or, if you are really lucky, land a job in Toronto." – from Edge’s self-penned book “Adam Copeland on Edge”
With a little of that luck, combined with years of hard work, the skinny Canadian kid raised by his mom realized the improbable dream of becoming a WWE Superstar in 1998.
But once inside the hallowed WWE ring, The Ultimate Opportunist didn’t settle on simply making it. Instead, he fought tooth-and-nail to reek of awesomeness. Taking on formidable foes such as Jeff Hardy, John Cena, Chris Jericho, Randy Orton, Triple H, Christian and Undertaker, Edge became one of the most prolific champions ever. Among his 31 titles, The Rated-R Superstar captured an astonishing 11 World Championships. Along the way, he became master of one of WWE’s most perilous contests – the Ladder Match.
With Edge’s career soaring high, it was injury that would ultimately derail the ride in April 2011. In one of the most stunning Raw moments ever, the reigning World Heavyweight Champion announced his retirement just days after successfully defending his title at WrestleMania XXVII. No longer able to compete per doctor’s orders, Edge relinquished his title days later on SmackDown.
In the end, no one was able to take away what Edge earned, and he walked away from the squared circle a reigning champion. The final chapter of his story book career came in 2012, when he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Other Superstars can only hope to be so lucky.
# 2: Triple H
Triple H is the undisputed King of Kings. Moreover, when considering the greatest World Champions of the 21st Century, The Game’s monumental list of accolades demands he sit on his thrown as one of the countdown’s definitive titleholders.
Out of The Cerebral Assassin’s WWE record 13 World Championship – consisting of eight WWE and five World Heavyweight Titles – 11 of them came after the beginning of 2000. What’s more, the intense competitor was the first World Heavyweight Champion in WWE history, setting the golden benchmark for all who came after him.
Still, being a great World Champion is about more than the title you carry into battle. It’s about the warriors you face when you get there. Already a prominent competitor at the turn of the century, Triple H helped shape his 21st Century legacy by waging war on a slew of the greatest World Champions of all time, including John Cena, Mick Foley, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Chris Jericho, Kane, Randy Orton and Booker T.
Furthermore, The Game has, without a doubt, held the pulse of the WWE Universe from the year 2000 on – playing a key role in the McMahon-Helmsley Era, Evolution, the reforming of D-Generation X and even entering WWE’s front offices by becoming the powerful COO.
When counting down the elite World Champions of the century, Triple H is indeed “that damn good” – truly one of the squared circle’s all-time greats.
# 1: John Cena
Since the fateful moment he debuted in 2002, John Cena has made a definitive impact in WWE and proven that he is, without question, the Greatest World Champion of the 21st Century.
In only his second appearance ever at The Show of Shows, The Champ won his first WWE Championship at WrestleMania 21. He went on to hold that title a record-breaking 10 times for a total of 1,058 days – which is 400 days more than any other 21st Century World Champion – as well as garnering two World Heavyweight Championships. What that means it that John Cena has been a World Champion for more than three calendar years!
The fearless leader of the Cenation has defeated other great World Champions such as Triple H, Randy Orton and Batista; WWE Hall of Famers Shawn Michaels and Edge; as well as current WWE Champion CM Punk. He’s competed and thrived in grueling bouts including WWE Iron Man, Last Man Standing and “I Quit” Matches.
With his “Never Give Up” attitude, Cena has thrived as one of the most charismatic, outspoken and dominant Superstars in WWE. Love him or hate him, Cena has proven 12 times he’s the Greatest World Champion of the new Century.
Did we get it right? To cast your vote for the greatest World Champion of the 21st Century, click here.
Was your favorite World Champion of the 21st Century not on the list? Check out the “honorable mention” section on the next page – featuring elite World Champions who may not have met the criteria to be ranked 1 -10, but are no less deserving of high praise.
Since the turn of the century, there have been many distinguished champions spread out among the 100-plus title changes between the WWE Championship and World Heavyweight Championship combined. So when WWE.com editors decided to rank the greatest World Champions of the 21st century, there were some expected points of contention when narrowing down the list to 10. Below are the champions who didn't make the cut, but certainly deserve an honorable mention for their memorable accomplishments and noteworthy title reigns.
The Rock – While The Rock rose to prominence in the late 1990s, the larger share of his seven WWE Championships actually came in 2000 and later. The Great One captured the WWE Title four times between 2000 and 2002, including unforgettable wins over Triple H, Undertaker and the entire McMahon-Helmsley Faction when he pinned Mr. McMahon at King of the Ring 2000.
JBL – JBL's championship portfolio is even more impressive than his financial one. He held the WWE Championship for an outstanding 10 months from 2004 to 2005. At the time, it was the longest WWE Title reign since Diesel’s in 1995, and during that reign, JBL racked up huge victories over Undertaker, Booker T, Kurt Angle and Big Show.
Brock Lesnar – Few Superstars made a major impact as quickly as Brock Lesnar. The man touted as "The Next Big Thing" became the youngest WWE Champion in history by defeating The Rock at SummerSlam 2002 and followed that up with two additional WWE Titles within just more than a year after that historic milestone. Talk about a dominating run.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin – The new century brought big developments for "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and a reminder that you can never trust The Texas Rattlesnake. Austin kicked off the longest reign of his six WWE Championships when he resorted to a relentless steel chair onslaught to beat The Rock at WrestleMania X-Seven and shocked the WWE Universe further by aligning with Mr. McMahon. The new-look "Stone Cold" held the title for 175 days and won it once more shortly after that long reign ended.
Eddie Guerrero – If you want to know what it means to be a WWE Champion, watch Eddie Guerrero's deeply moving reaction to pulling off an electrifying upset over Lesnar at No Way Out 2004. "Latino Heat" ended the behemoth's 152-day reign and went on to hold the WWE Title for 133 days, while Brock soon made his exit out of WWE following WrestleMania XX.