“When The Day Comes When You Don’t Believe In Yourself, There’s The Door, Get The Hell Out” -John Cena
The WWE Championship is the most sought-after and contested championship in the history of professional wrestling. Some of the biggest names of all time have held it, and we could talk about each of them until the cows come home. Today, we’re not conversing about their legacies, but the one surrounding the championship. Created in 1963, it isn’t far off being six decades old. The WWE Championship has had a lifetime as long as our own, with many trials and tribulations, while always staying true to its purpose.
It has shared spotlight with equivalent world titles, yet it remains WWE’s most prized possession. Nothing could ever usurp the title from its crowning achievement, because it symbolizes the past, present, and future. Without it, WWE wouldn’t be what it is. Let’s look at how its hood ornament has grown since the days of ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers.
Back on May 4th 1905, the United States officially recognized the original World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship as crowning the best catch as catch can wrestler. George Hackenschmidt, who had already been recognized as World Champion in London by 1904, defeated American Champion Tom Jenkins to earn this recognition. Upon finding lost records, the title’s history has changed over the past decade, as more facts come to light. Still, it remains uncertain, which means its history may never be complete because wrestling has lost title changes to the sands of time.
From 1905 to 1946, 25 wrestlers have been recognized, while at least two others are debatable. The longest reigning champions from this period include Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, Jim Londos, Joe Stecher and Frank Gotch. After defending the title through World War II, Londos retired as champion in 1946 following a 2,426 day reign. This marked a six-year period where the World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship remained vacated. In 1948, the National Wrestling Alliance formed and crowned Orville Brown as its first champion. From 1949 to 1952, the legendary Lou Thesz set out on a mission to unify the existing titles to become the undisputed champion.
On May 21, 1952, Lou Thesz defeated the LA Olympic Auditorium World Champion Baron Michele Leone, to be recognized as the undisputed World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. After dominating for almost four years, he lost to Whipper Billy Watson in early 1956, only to get it back again eight months later. Everything unraveled in 1957, as booking controversies led territories to believe Lou Thesz was champion, while others did not.
The biggest incident was in a match with Édouard Carpentier, who won by disqualification because Lou Thesz couldn’t continue with a back injury. The NWA did not allow title changes to happen by disqualification, but Omaha, Nebraska and Boston, Massachusetts felt otherwise, while Los Angeles, California followed shortly after. They had a return match on July 24th, 1957, which Lou Thesz won by disqualification. Because of this, the original World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship splintered, and has since never come close to becoming whole again.
In the following years, American wrestling promoters recognized many World Champions. Other than Thesz & Carpentier, these include Killer Kowalski, Freddie Blassie & Verne Gagne. The champions of the early 1960s remain in dispute, as the NWA refuses to acknowledge some reigns while there’s evidence to the contrary. Buddy Rogers was a controversial figure, as there are claims he faked an injury at least once to keep his title. On January 24th 1963, North Eastern promoters broke away from the NWA following the decision to not keep the title on Buddy Rogers after a one-fall defeat to Lou Thesz. It isn’t clear, but either Vincent K. McMahon’s Grandfather Jess, or his Father Vincent J. McMahon, along with Toots Mondt, led these promoters.
Since 1960, wrestling has handed down the World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship in many forms. The AWA World Heavyweight title represented the Carpentier branch from 1960 to 1990. From the NWA title, mostly through disputes and dissolving partnerships, the WWF title was born, along with the WCW, ECW, and TNA (Impact) World titles decades later. Because WWE owns the rights to everything involving the AWA, WCW, and ECW, their title lineages belong to them. Technically, this means that the original championship commissioned in 1905 could still return.
At the very least, a wrestler would need to claim the WWE & NWA titles. As for Impact, when the company introduced their title as a replacement following the end of their NWA partnership, the company never recognized it as continuing the original world title lineage. Pro Wrestling Illustrated has not regarded Impact’s title as a World Championship since 2015, and it has recently been downplayed next to the AEW World title. Impact Wrestling has fallen down the pecking order since AEW’s debut, which further cements the fact their title wouldn’t be necessary for unification.
Even if a wrestler claimed the WWE & NWA titles, many would argue they wouldn’t be the undisputed champion. WWE’s Universal & AEW’s World titles have no connection to the original, yet many would argue they are important enough to include. Also, there would be New Japan fans wanting the IWGP title to count, ever since it became a World Championship this year. The way wrestling has developed since the olden days, it is nigh impossible to become reality, because promotions wouldn’t dream of collaborating to this degree. We may never see a truly undisputed champion in our lifetime.
World Wide Wrestling Federation World
Now we understand its place in the business, we can talk about the WWE Championship. The original title belt, named the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship, was a previously used American title held by Buddy Rogers. It was shaped like North America and had a circle in the middle to allow a photograph. The caption “World’s Champion” was added under the circle later. During Bruno Sammartino’s reign, the company introduced a new belt with the caption “WWWF World Champion”. Yes, the title had the word “World” twice, but no one seemed to care. This design lasted throughout Bruno’s seven-year reign, and for longer after that, until the reign of Pedro Morales.
Arguably, this was the most important time in the title’s history. The WWWF needed to prove it could stand on its own after seceding from the NWA. With the help of Bruno Sammartino, it regularly sold out Madison Square Garden and ensured the company’s future. You can’t gloss over Sammartino’s reign, because not only does it remain the longest in history, it is unlikely to ever be beaten. Carrying the company on his back for so long, Bruno made the WWWF Championship important. Nobody could defeat him, but when Ivan Koloff finally did the impossible, no one could believe it. The shock of “The Living Legend” not being the champion anymore remains one of the most significant moments in wrestling history.
World Wide Wrestling Federation
In 1971, the company renewed its partnership with the NWA. During Pedro Morales’ reign as WWWF Heavyweight Champion (they dropped the second world), the belt changed a few times, and they introduced the eagle design. It was a tough time for wrestling, because while it drew decent crowds, it wasn’t as popular as it had been. Despite this, Morales proved to be a popular champion, especially among the Puerto Rican and Latino community, so the WWWF expanded its market. His contributions often get overlooked. By 1973, the NWA introduced its “Ten Pounds Of Gold” belt and featured fresh faces like Harley Race, Jack Brisco & Terry Funk. The WWWF went back to what worked with Bruno Sammartino from 1973 to 1977, which was well-received by New Yorkers.
Superstar Billy Graham ended his dominance in 1977 and dropped the title to Bob Backlund the following year. During Harley Race’s prime, Backlund proved to be popular in the North East. The WWF headed in to an uncertain time without Sammartino, and Backlund proved to be a valuable successor. By 1979, they renamed the company the World Wrestling Federation, while keeping the initials WWWF on its belt.
World Wrestling Federation Heavyweight
Ric Flair’s rise in 1981, his rivalries with Dusty Rhodes & Harley Race, combined with audiences becoming tired of Backlund, all lead to the company struggling against the NWA. Because of this, the company felt it had to stay in the spotlight by pitting Backlund against other champions in cross-promotional events. He fought Harley Race four times, Ric Flair once, and the AWA Champion Nick Bockwinkel once. Backlund defeated the NWA Florida Champion Don Muraco. No titles changed hands though, as they were dream matches brought on by major wrestling promoters collaborating for the first time in years.
Near the end of Backlund’s reign, the WWF introduced what many called the “Big Green Belt”, which sported a green strap and eight side plates to represent previous champions. This design would be passed on to the next champion, The Iron Sheik, as well as the early reign of Hulk Hogan. The title change on January 23rd 1984 sent shock waves through the industry, as the WWF once again seceded from the NWA and sought to take over the country’s territories one-by-one. Vince McMahon had taken control of the company from his father in 1982, and was firmly in the driving seat by 1983. Gaining the AWA’s Hulk Hogan and making him the WWF World Heavyweight Champion turned him from being a man with huge potential, in to a worldwide phenomenon.
World Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight
Yes, the second world returned in late 1983. After winning the title, Hulk Hogan began a 1,474 day reign, which no one has since come close to duplicating. The rise of Hulkamania turned the company around from the struggles it had with Backlund, in to a global juggernaut looking to stamp out the competition. There are no words to describe how significant this was for the entire industry. It brought wrestling to the forefront of pop culture. Without this, it’s hard to imagine if wrestling would ever have reached these heights, although I’m sure Vince McMahon would eventually find a way. With Hogan representing the WWF and Flair the NWA, a fierce rivalry began. The NWA defended how the previous generation had done business, while the WWF wanted to tear it all down.
Hulk Hogan got his title designs, too. From late-84 to 88, Hogan had the belt redesigned four times, the last one coming right at the end of his reign. He introduced the “Winged Eagle” belt, which many fans say is the best design the title has ever had. After Hulk Hogan lost the title to André the Giant, it was vacated because he handed it over to Ted DiBiase. Randy Savage won it at WrestleMania IV, and Hogan claimed his second reign a year later from him at WrestleMania V. During this time, they renamed the title the WWF Championship.
World Wrestling Federation
For the next 12 years, the name of the title did not change. However, The Ultimate Warrior changed the color of the strap many times, and the Winged Eagle design was replaced in 1998 by what many call the “Big Eagle” or “Attitude Era” belt. So much happened from 1989 to 2001, it’s too much to say it all here. Let’s just say there was a big rivalry after World Championship Wrestling took over from the NWA, and the WWF pulled through by putting them out of business.
Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, The Undertaker, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Diesel, Yokozuna, Triple H & Kurt Angle held the title through the greatest and worst of times. It’s such an extensive list for the longest running name in the title’s history. The WWF Championship went up and down the tracks like a rollercoaster, yet it came to a stop at the end of the Attitude Era, shining brighter than ever. If you were a young kid lacing up a pair of boots, there’s nothing grander than going to WrestleMania and competing for the WWF Championship. At least, not until the company introduced the WCW Championship.
Undisputed World Wrestling Federation/Entertainment
After acquiring WCW, the company started using its championship. What many refer to as the “Big Gold Belt”, WWE later renamed the World Championship. At Vengeance 2001, in matches to unify the WWF title with it, Chris Jericho pinned The Rock & Stone Cold Steve Austin to become the Undisputed WWF Champion. This marked the end of the WCW title lineage, which had splintered from the NWA title in 1991, but the WWF kept the Big Gold Belt paired with the Big Eagle to represent the unification.
After Chris Jericho lost the undisputed title to Triple H at WrestleMania X8, WWE introduced a new title belt to represent it, and the Big Eagle/Big Gold pairing disappeared. A few weeks later, Hollywood Hulk Hogan defeated Triple H at Backlash. Ironically, this meant he was the last World Wrestling Federation champion. On May 6th 2002, after losing a lawsuit to the World Wildlife Fund, World Wrestling Entertainment replaced the initials he helped build.
World Wrestling Entertainment Undisputed
On May 19th 2002, the company switched the placing of the word undisputed. It originally read as the Undisputed WWE Championship, but it was now called the WWE Undisputed Championship. Why? Nobody knows, but it lines up to when The Undertaker defeated Hogan for the title at Judgment Day. Only two other wrestlers held the WWE Undisputed, which includes The Rock in his 7th reign and Brock Lesnar in his first. WWE wanted to create some artificial competition, partly because it had an over-bloated roster, but also because it felt it would make money pretending there was a rivalry between Raw & SmackDown.
Brock Lesnar unexpectedly signed a deal with SmackDown, leaving Raw without a champion. On September 2nd 2002, Eric Bischoff reintroduced the Big Gold Belt (slightly changed) for Raw, to be used as the World Heavyweight Championship. He handed it over to Triple H, while also stressing the title did not continue the title lineage of the NWA or WCW; despite the design suggesting otherwise. Brock Lesnar’s title lost the word undisputed, because technically it wasn’t anymore.
World Wrestling Entertainment
Signing to SmackDown meant that for the first time since 1963, the title had become exclusive to a specific brand. It was also the first time WWE had purposely made an equal World Championship. I (and perhaps others) felt it devalued the meaning of being WWE Champion. Having the title meant you are the #1 guy, but now there’s another show with a title also claiming it has the #1 guy. By having two equivalent world titles, it essentially halves the value of both.
It gave more opportunities to showcase the diverse pool of talent WWE gained post-Attitude Era. The World Heavyweight title gave guys like Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Goldberg, Chris Benoit, Randy Orton and Batista something to fight over. Both titles switched brands several times over the years. The design introduced during its undisputed phase remained, and is best remembered for being held by Brock Lesnar, Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle, and John Bradshaw Layfield.
In 2005, shortly after John Cena won the title at WrestleMania 21, he introduced the “Spinner” belt. While polarizing like the man who introduced it, WWE sold an incredible amount of replicas, and the design remained until 2013. Fans lambasted it as being a toy to sell to kids, rather than a dignified representation of a world champion. The spinning function was eventually dropped, and The Miz customized it by turning the “W” upside down. Some of the biggest names to hold the Spinner belt, other than John Cena & The Miz, include: Edge, Rob Van Dam, Randy Orton, Triple H, Sheamus, Batista, CM Punk, Alberto Del Rio, and The Rock.
In the summer of 2011, there were two WWE Championships because CM Punk left (kayfabe) the company with the title. WWE introduced a new title, which Rey Mysterio won, before losing it to John Cena the same night. CM Punk returned and set up a match at SummerSlam with Cena to crown the Undisputed WWE Champion. The company does not officially recognize the name change. Punk defeated Cena, but Alberto Del Rio cashed in Money In The Bank and became the undisputed champion. Announcers slowly faded out the name change in the coming weeks.
A month after The Rock won the title from Punk at Royal Rumble 2013, he introduced a new title design; while making light of the previous. The design featured the huge “W” scratch logo, used since way back when the company adapted it from the WWF Attitude Era logo. This would be the last design to feature the memorable logo. The title had gone from SmackDown to Raw, briefly to ECW, back to Raw, and to SmackDown again. It finally landed on Raw, before becoming unbranded (along with the World Championship) from 2011 to 2013.
World Wrestling Entertainment World Heavyweight
The curse of the second world returns! The title name is like the one used by Hulk Hogan in the 80s, although it didn’t last as long. By late-2013, WWE management finally figured out that having two unbranded world titles made little sense. At TLC 2013, WWE booked a unification TLC match between the two champions, Randy Orton & John Cena. Orton won the match and would be called undisputed or unified champion, but WWE didn’t make it official.
The design introduced by The Rock and the newer Big Gold Belt represented the WWE World Heavyweight title. Only Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan (which he famously won at WrestleMania XXX), John Cena, and Brock Lesnar for one night, carried both belts around. On the Raw after Lesnar defeated Cena at SummerSlam 2014, WWE introduced the current design. While the title remained the #1 prize for both brands, title holders (except those I mentioned) include: Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Sheamus, Triple H & Dean Ambrose.
World Wrestling Entertainment (World)
History repeated itself when WWE made the title exclusive to SmackDown in the 2016 Brand Draft, while also introducing a new title for Raw (Universal Championship). Dean Ambrose, the new champion of SmackDown, was called the WWE Champion for about a month. In July, the company started calling it the WWE World Championship. A few months after AJ Styles defeated Ambrose at Backlash 2016, the name reverted to WWE Championship. This marks the third time in history, and it remains so to this day. I’m glad they finally settled on something!
With its current name and design, the list of WWE Champions include: AJ Styles, John Cena, Bray Wyatt, Randy Orton, Jinder Mahal, Daniel Bryan, Kofi Kingston, Brock Lesnar, Drew McIntyre, The Miz & Bobby Lashley.
Since Goldberg won the Universal title in 2017, the WWE Championship has often played second fiddle. Even more so when in the hands of Brock Lesnar & Roman Reigns. To further highlight how WWE feels, it booked a champion vs. champion match at Survivor Series 2020. The Universal Champion Roman Reigns defeated the WWE Champion Drew McIntyre by technical submission. I could be wrong, but I believe it’s the only time the WWE Champion lost a title vs. title match.
In the beginning, WWE made the World Heavyweight title a big deal. Over time, it became another secondary title. Management knows the WWE Championship always endures. If it wants to keep on splitting the brands, it needs to emphasize the Universal title. History tells us they can always call upon the value of the WWE Championship. It’s established, and we can’t deny how much it elevates talent. I hope this guide has helped anybody unfamiliar with the history of the WWE Championship. Thank you for reading!