The history of the WWE Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

On Raw, WWE Champion The Rock did away with the “spinner” design that has served as the WWE Title since 2005. The design — introduced by John Cena during his first title reign — has divided the WWE Universe since its inception. Now, eight years since the WWE Championship last changed, The Great One has unveiled a new look for the most coveted prize in sports-entertainment.

This is not the first time the WWE Title has been altered. There have been many prominent and unique variations of the championship since its inception some 50 years ago. In honor of the redesigned WWE Title, WWE Classics looks back at the championship’s evolution from the earliest versions to the customized championships of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Edge. 

See photos of the championship through the years |  Watch as the new versions are introduced

The first WWE Championships

The history of the WWE Championship

The WWE Championship went through a few redesigns in its early days. Bruno Sammartino wore several variations, including one that was shaped like the 48 contiguous United States of America. He eventually settled on a more traditional title late in his second reign as champion, which featured two wrestlers grappling above an eagle in mid-flight. This version was popular among champions and lasted through the reigns of both “Superstar” Billy Graham and Bob Backlund.

It was replaced in 1983 with a much larger design, though. This new green leather belt held giant gold plates adorned with a wrestler holding up a championship with the globe behind him — signifying that the holder of this title was World Champion. The title also recognized its history and lineage, with the side plates listing the reigns of every previous champion.

Introduced toward the end of Bob Backlund’s reign, this version of the WWE Championship was also held by The Iron Sheik and, most famously, Hulk Hogan. As WWE began its march from eastern territory to worldwide phenomenon, this title truly emphasized what it meant to be a World Champion.

Hulk Hogan’s 1985 WWE Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

After The Hulkster’s historic title win in 1984, WWE presented him with a new championship. This title was rooted in tradition. Smaller than its predecessor, it was similar in design to the NWA’s Television Championship. Underneath the letters “WWE” was an eagle, clasping a banner in its talons that declared the holder of this title the World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. The side plates were similar to the championship before it, bearing the names of those who held it as well as the start and end dates of their reigns.

Hulk Hogan was the only Superstar to hold this variation of the title, as it was replaced in 1986, right in the middle of his four-year reign as champion.

Hulk Hogan’s 1986 WWE Championship

Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant - WWE Championship Match: WrestleMania 3

Hulk Hogan shocks the world with a remarkable display of strength against Andre the Giant in the main event of WrestleMania III on March 29, 1987.

The WWE Title introduced in 1986 strayed from the design patterns of its predecessors. It was a simpler, more elegant championship. One of the few WWE Titles not to feature an eagle, it was adorned with a globe in the center, along with Roman columns and olive branches. The names and reigns of the previous champions were removed from the sides of the title, replaced with the flags of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Soviet Union and Italy. If there was any doubt that the WWE Championship was a true World Title, this championship erased it.

Once again, Hogan was the only Superstar to wear this particular championship. He proudly held it high during one of the most iconic moments in WWE history. After he used all his strength and will to bodyslam the massive Andre the Giant, Hogan mustered up what strength he had left to show the 93,173 members of the WWE Universe the championship he fought valiantly to retain.

Watch Hogan's WrestleMania III victory on WWE Network

Andre the Giant's customized WWE Championship

Jack Tunney introduces a new WWE Championship on "Piper's Pit": WWE Superstars - March 21, 1987

Jack Tunney introduces a new WWE Championship that was requested for Andre the Giant by Bobby "The Brain" Heenan on "Piper's Pit."

What if things didn’t go Hogan’s way in the Pontiac Silverdome? What if “The Eighth Wonder of the World” Andre the Giant had crushed Hulkamania under his gigantic boot? Surely, the leather that held The Hulkster’s WWE Championship would have snapped if anyone tried to secure it around Andre’s waist.

WWE officials were prepared for an Andre victory. Prior to WrestleMania III, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper hosted a special edition of “Piper’s Pit,” where WWE President Jack Tunney revealed a new version of the WWE Championship that was supposed to be presented to the winner of the Hogan-Andre showdown.

The title was similar in design to Hogan’s championship, but on a much larger scale to accommodate Andre’s size. The leather strap on the title was extended extra long to make sure it could comfortably fit around Andre the Giant’s considerable midsection. After The Hulkster’s victory, however, the title was never to be seen again. 

The "winged eagle" WWE Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

Introduced in 1988, the “winged eagle” is arguably the most popular variation of the WWE Championship. Debuting on The Main Event during the WrestleMania III rematch between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, the classic design represented the most coveted prize in sports-entertainment for nearly a decade. In addition to The Hulkster, a number of WWE Hall of Famers proudly carried the “winged eagle” into battle, including Bret “Hit Man” Hart, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

Watch the "winged eagle" title's first appearance on WWE Network

Although iconic, the “winged eagle” was not completely free from having its own variations. Although the majestic gold plates never changed, the title’s leather strap was altered to match the colorful personality of Ultimate Warrior. During his reign as WWE Champion, the manic Superstar wore white, purple and blue variations of the championship. 

The "Attitude Era" WWE Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

After nearly 10 years, the “winged eagle” design was retired and the WWE Title of The Attitude Era was presented to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin by Mr. McMahon on the March 30, 1998, edition of Raw. The design was similar to the previous version, but the title’s centerpiece was now fully rounded and the side plates were updated. This title originally featured a blue leather strap, but the color was eventually changed to black. The only other variation to this design during its tenure was the updating of the WWE logo in 1998.

Through 2001, Austin, The Undertaker, The Rock, Mankind, Kurt Angle, Triple H, Big Show and even Mr. McMahon were the proud owners of this WWE Championship. Six of The Great One’s eight WWE Title reigns featured The Attitude Era championship, making this particular variation the one most closely associated with The People’s Champ.

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin's "Smoking Skull" WWE Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

The most significant change in the design of the prestigious WWE Championship occurred when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin commissioned his own personalized WWE Title much to the ire of Mr. McMahon. The “Smoking Skull” was an instant hit with the WWE Universe as the title perfectly captured the rebellious nature of The Texas Rattlesnake.

The design itself was the perfect fit for the WWE Hall of Famer. The majestic eagle and globe were gone from the centerpiece, replaced by a skull with smoke billowing from the eyes and two rattlesnakes flanking the skeletal visage on either side. The design was controlled chaos, not only representing Austin, but also the erratic nature of The Attitude Era as a whole. Adding to the allure of this variation, the “Smoking Skull” was only held by The Texas Rattlesnake, although The Rock once stole it from Austin and threw it off a bridge.

The Undisputed WWE Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

At Vengeance 2001, Chris Jericho defeated “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock in consecutive matches to win both the WWE and WCW Championships. As a result, the titles were unified and Jericho became the first-ever Undisputed Champion. For the next three months, Y2J carried both The Attitude Era version of the WWE Title and the WCW Championship to the ring. At WrestleMania X8, Triple H defeated Jericho to claim the Undisputed Championship for himself. Following The Game’s victory, the two titles were merged and replaced with a singular title.

With its large globe and majestic eagle, the Undisputed WWE Title captured the spirit of not only the “winged eagle” and Attitude Era designs, but also all the championships that predated it. Triple H, The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan and Brock Lesnar are a few of the legendary competitors who carried the Undisputed Championship. When reigning champion Lesnar signed an exclusive contract to SmackDown, however, he took the title with him. As a result, Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff commissioned the World Heavyweight Title. Although the design of the Undisputed Championship did not change, it became the new WWE Championship.

Watch Hulk Hogan win the Undisputed Championship on WWE Network

The "spinner" WWE Championship

John Cena introduces a spinner WWE Championship

After embarrassing the former champion, WWE Champion John Cena introduces his new, custom "spinner" WWE Championship.

John Cena had shown the WWE Universe that he preferred his championships extra flashy when he introduced a blinged-out United States Championship in 2004, complete with spinning center plate. When the Cenation leader was on the precipice of becoming WWE Champion, he guaranteed that he would give sports-entertainment’s most coveted prize a similar makeover.

After he defeated JBL at WrestleMania 21, Cena arrived on the following SmackDown ready to unveil his new championship. After a brief interruption by the Texas tycoon, the new champion had his title lowered from the ceiling. Completely rewriting WWE Championship history, the extravagant title featured an eagle soaring above a massive, diamond-encrusted WWE logo, which spun as the arena lights reflected off the jewels.

Despite the fact that the title was created for Cena, Superstars who succeeded him as champion like Randy Orton, CM Punk and Sheamus retained this variant. 

Edge's "Rated-R" WWE Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

Edge couldn’t help but take a few extra jabs at John Cena after defeating him to retain the WWE Title at SummerSlam 2006. He had his main squeeze, Lita, toss Cena’s prized WWE Championship into the Long Island Sound on the following night’s edition of Raw. To add insult to injury, Edge presented his own unique spin on Cena’s design to the WWE Universe.

From a cloud of smoke emerged a new version of the spinner title, but in place of the bejeweled WWE logo was a giant version of The Rated R Superstar’s personal logo. Edge smugly showed his title off to the WWE fans in Bridgeport, Conn. Although Cena eventually ruined Edge’s night by tossing him into the Long Island Sound, Edge had the upper hand for the next month, until the Cenation leader regained his championship.

The modern WWE Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

After defeating CM Punk and retaining the WWE Championship at Extreme Rules, The Rock unveiled the latest design of the prestigious title. The modern update to the title was vastly different from the “spinner” version, and announced a new direction for sports-entertainment’s most famous piece of hardware.

Photos of the championship |  Watch The Rock unveil the new title

The People’s Champ wanted a new look that was representative of the WWE Universe as well as the champion. The title’s design clearly identified the title holder’s status and new customizable side plates allowed the champion to personalize their accomplishment. The initial design featured The Rocks trademark Brahma Bulls, but when he was defeated by John Cena at WrestleMania 29, the plates were immediately changed to represent the Cenation leader.

Watch as the title is customized for John Cena

The newest WWE Championship is still in its infancy, but its association with both The Rock and John Cena quickly added to its desirability.

The WWE World Heavyweight Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

The WWE Title enters a brave, new world on Dec. 15, 2013, when WWE Champion Randy Orton defeats World Heavyweight Champion John Cena in a grueling Tables, Ladders & Chairs Match to capture both titles. 

Photos from the harrowing encounter |  Watch the TLC Match on WWE Network

By winning the historic match, The Viper is declared the first WWE World Heavyweight Champion. The definitive moment only adds to the already brimming legacy of the WWE Title as the World Heavyweight Title reigns of greats like Harley Race, Frank Gotch and Lou Thesz are now tied to WWE's most integral prize.

The new WWE World Heavyweight Championship

The history of the WWE Championship

As WWE ushered in a new company logo, it came time for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship to get a makeover, as well.

Instead of the champion having to carry around two titles, WWE’s top dog now receives a championship similar in design to the title first introduced by The Rock in February 2013. Bearing a bejeweled version of the new WWE logo, the updated design shrunk down the plate under the icon to squeeze in the words “World Heavyweight Champion.

The title was presented by The Authority to Brock Lesnar one night after his devastating win over John Cena at SummerSlam. The customizable side plates were already adorned with the fearsome skull also tattooed on The Beast Incarnate’s back.  If any Superstar hopes to put their own spin on the new title, they’ll have to go through The Conqueror, which is no easy task.

Watch SummerSlam 2014 on WWE Network

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