The most controversial nights in the WWE Championship's history
The WWE Championship is usually associated with glory and honor when it’s awarded to a Superstar who has reached the pinnacle of his craft. With every Superstar on the roster aiming to claim it for himself, however, it’s quite easy for the title to become mired in controversy.
In the 50-plus year history of the WWE Title, the prestigious championship has found itself at the center of some of the biggest disputes in wrestling history, as well as the most unusual. Whether it’s twin referees, simultaneous champions or WWE’s most infamous screwjob, somehow sports-entertainment’s most coveted prize is often at the center of the rivalry.
Take a look back at some of the most controversial moments involving the WWE Title.
The Montreal Screwjob
The extremely heated, personal rivalry between Bret “Hit Man” Hart and Shawn Michaels went beyond a struggle for the WWE Championship. After HBK defeated Hart in a WWE Iron Man Match at WrestleMania XII for the WWE Title, the WWE Universe begged for a rematch. They wouldn’t get one for another year and a half, though, at Survivor Series 1997 in Hart’s home country of Canada. The world got a memorable bout, but for completely different reasons.
With his WWE contract expiring shortly after Survivor Series, Hart holding onto the WWE Title could have put the championship’s future in question. So when HBK, hoping to add a little insult to his potential victory, locked Hart in his own Sharpshooter late in the contest, no one expected Mr. McMahon to come out to ringside and ring the bell, awarding Michaels the title.
The events of that fateful night led to what seemed to be an irreparably broken relationship between Hart and WWE. The “Hit Man” wouldn’t be seen in a WWE ring again until January 2010.
CM Punk wins the WWE Title hours before his contract expires
The WWE Universe was on edge from the moment they learned CM Punk’s contract would expire a few hours after his WWE Title showdown with champion John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011. Would CM Punk be able to walk away from the company with its top prize? As it turned out, yes. The Second City Saint bolted into the crowd of Chicago’s Allstate Arena, the WWE Title in his hands.
With Punk no longer part of WWE, officials held a tournament for the seemingly vacated title, won on Raw eight days later by Rey Mysterio. Cena unseated The Master of the 619 that same night, only for controversy to break out again when P unk returned with his own WWE Championship still around his waist.
The two Superstars continued claiming WWE’s top spot until they squared off for the undisputed championship at SummerSlam. Punk bested Cena, only to be dethroned immediately afterward by Money in the Bank winner Alberto Del Rio, proving that no champion can ever rest easy.
Twin referees help Andre the Giant win the title before he hands it to The Million Dollar Man
Controversy was in the air as the opening bell rang for 1988’s The Main Event contest, a WrestleMania III rematch between WWE Champion Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. The Million Dollar Man, having previously failed to buy the WWE Championship from Hulk Hogan, procured “The Eighth Wonder of the World’s” services, hoping he’d defeat Hogan and hand the title over to him.
After being suplexed and pinned by Andre, Hogan raised his shoulders after one. Incredibly, referee Dave Hebner continued the three-count and awarded the championship to the giant. The stunned WWE Universe became further confused after an official identical to Hebner ran to the ring and confronted his fellow man in blue. It turned out that the referee for the match was Hebner’s twin brother Earl, hired by The Million Dollar Man to make sure he walked out with the WWE Title.
Thankfully, money can’t buy the WWE Championship. WWE President Jack Tunney nullified the transaction, vacated the title and set up a tournament to crown a new champion at WrestleMania IV.
The Rock gets corporate backing
Mr. McMahon’s desire to have a WWE Champion who represented the company better than the foul-mouthed, beer-swilling “Stone Cold” Steve Austin ran deep. The Texas Rattlesnake, however, managed to find a way to hang onto WWE’s top prize — until he was fired for refusing to declare The Undertaker champion in a match where Austin served as referee.
With the WWE Championship vacant, Mr. McMahon set up a tournament for Survivor Series 1998 to crown a new champion. The Rock and Mankind squared off in the final match of the tournament, which Mr. McMahon and Shane McMahon took great interest in. Mankind had been trying to win The Chairman’s favor, and seemingly had succeeded as he battled The Great One.
To the surprise of Mankind and the WWE Universe, no sooner had The Rock trapped him in the Sharpshooter when Mr. McMahon called for the bell, just as he did with Bret Hart one year earlier. Unlike that night in Montreal, though, there was a great celebration in the ring as the McMahons crowned The Brahma Bull as their corporate champion.
Your loser … and new WWE Champion?
WWE officials have a tough job calling every match right down the middle while dealing with powerful, hard-hitting Superstars trying to beat the daylights out of each other. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they get caught up in the action — including that one moment at Madison Square Garden in October 1981.
WWE Champion Bob Backlund was in the midst of a hard-fought title defense against Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, when the official got a little too close to the combat. As Valentine scooped Backlund up for an airplane spin, the champion’s legs clipped the ref’s head, sending him to the canvas.
Backlund soon wriggled free and took Valentine down to the mat. The referee came to and counted the fall, signaling the champion’s victory … to most. Yet when Valentine, perhaps smartly, got up and began celebrating, the dazed official handed the championship to “The Hammer.” The controversial decision resulted in the WWE Title being held up until a rematch the following month. Backlund won that bout, bringing the WWE Championship back to its rightful owner.
Chris Jericho wins the WWE Title, only to be stripped minutes later
When Chris Jericho burst onto the WWE scene in summer 1999, his loyal Jerichoholics expected him to become WWE Champion soon after his arrival. They almost got their wish on Raw in April 2000, after Jericho hurled a few insults toward Stephanie McMahon and coerced Triple H into defending his WWE Title on the spot. The Game accepted, but Jericho had an additional ace up his sleeve. He hired The APA to keep watch at ringside and make sure no one meddled in his golden opportunity.
A desperate Triple H did everything he could to hang onto his title, including intimidating referee Earl Hebner. Yet as The Game shoved Hebner to the mat, Y2J spin-kicked and caught the champion with a Lionsault. The referee counted to three, sending Stage College, Pa., into pandemonium as Jericho held the WWE Championship high. The euphoria wouldn’t last long, however, as Triple H quickly coerced Hebner into reversing his decision, forcing Jericho to relinquish the title.