This isn’t going to be a particularly long blog, but it’s one that will be no less important. After a conversation with some friends and colleagues in my Club Kayfabe wrestling group on Facebook (home of my podcast!), I decided to count down, what I consider to be, the most important matches in the history of the WWE (and WWF) Championship.
Call it the WWF World Championship, the WWE Undisputed Championship, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, but no matter what you call it, there is no denying that this one title belt and its history boast some of the most significant matches in the history of the sport. Only 43 individuals have held the championship since its inception on April 25, 1963. To be one of those 43 men selected is enough to cement your legacy as a legend in the wrestling business. In fact, just about every single person who held this title is a WWE Hall of Famer, or destined to be one someday. That’s a huge accomplishment for their respective careers.
To figure out which matches made the most impact, I focused solely on the historical significance of the match, and not the actual quality of the match itself. This list is based more on why the match happened, what the match signified, and who the participants were, more than anything else. The title doesn’t even have to change hands for the match to mean something important.
I asked people in the group what matches they’d consider, and while my list didn’t change based on their suggestions, some of their choices are worth an honorable mention near the end of this list.
You may agree with some, and disagree with others, but that’s okay. There’s no right or wrong answer. There are only fond memories of important title matches of days gone by.
So what WWE Championship Matches do I consider to be the most important in history? Let’s begin the countdown!
THE TOP 10 MOST IMPORTANT MATCHES IN THE HISTORY OF THE WWF/E CHAMPIONSHIP
10. “NATURE BOY” BUDDY ROGERS VS. BRUNO SAMMARTINO, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN SHOW, MAY 17, 1963
While the initial tournament to crown the first ever WWF Champion was an important one, as it signified the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s independence of the National Wrestling Alliance, it was what happened on May 17, 1963 that carried the most historical significance for the championship title belt. On this night in Madison Square Garden, the legendary Bruno Sammartino defeated “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers to capture his very first WWF Championship. Bruno would go on to hold the title for eleven years over the course of two reigns, becoming the greatest WWF Champion in history in many fan’s eyes. His first reign would last until January 18, 1971, spanning a total of 2,803 days.
Think about that for a minute – 11 years. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson wasn’t even an active wrestler for that amount of time! Over one tenth of Bruno’s life was spent with him holding the WWF Championship. That’s a huge accomplishment, and one that will never be duplicated. Bruno is also proof positive that a championship reign’s quality is always superior to the quantity of championships held, something a lot of modern fans, workers, and promoters don’t always seem to understand. Bruno’s second and final reign would last a little over 3 years – still longer than any modern champion has managed to hold the belt for. Indeed, this was a historical night, as it truly cemented one of pro wrestling’s greatest legends as one of the greatest.
9. MANKIND VS. THE ROCK, NO DISQUALIFICATION MATCH, RAW IS WAR, JANUARY 4, 1999
For historical purposes, it must be pointed out that this match was taped on December 29th. Why that’s important will become clear very shortly.
Mankind’s victory over the Rock to win his very first WWF World Championship was a huge night for the business in a lot of ways, and ironically, many of those ways didn’t even involve Mankind or the WWF!
Called “the single most destructive Nitro” by many pro wrestling historians, the Nitro that aired head-to-head that Monday night from Atlanta, Georgia, featured one of the biggest blunders the company ever made, the blunder that officially snowballed the company into oblivion. While Nitro was live, Raw from Worcester, MA had been pre-taped. And since WCW was hell-bent on taking the WWF down in the ratings, Eric Bischoff decided to give away the results of Raw on his telecast, thus preventing viewers from switching over to Raw from his program. Tony Schiavone announced to the viewers at home that there was no reason to switch to Raw that night, since “Mick Foley, who had once competed here as Cactus Jack, is going to win their world title. Ha! That’ll put some butts in the seats!” Indeed it would, as HALF A MILLION viewers IMMEDIATELY switched channels to Raw to watch Mankind win the championship.
Why was this such a big deal and a miscalculation? Mick Foley has always had detractors, but what WCW failed to realize was that he’s beloved by a good portion of hardcore fans. Fans who had been watching WCW when he was competing there and always thought he deserved to be the champion. So they switched channels to see their icon win the title he deserved. Among casual fans, Foley was a big babyface hero, so they also wanted to see this championship match. The WWF destroyed WCW in the ratings, with the biggest gap coming right after Schiavone’s announcement. In one of the single loudest crowd reactions in history, Mankind defeated the Rock and celebrated, while WCW did the infamous “finger poke of doom” title change with Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash. This single night turned off a majority of WCW fans once and for all, and brought them to the WWF, a scar WCW was never able to recover from. And that’s why this match was one of the most important matches in WWF Championship history.
This won’t be the last you hear of WCW though.
8. JOHN CENA VS. CM PUNK, MONEY IN THE BANK 2011
It’s one thing to fill your championship title matches with dramatic storylines to compel people to tune in and watch the event. It’s quite another to fill the match with a dramatic affair boiling behind the scenes too. When fans learned of the reality of the situation, they tuned in in record numbers to see just what would unfold.
Already documented well in the CM Punk documentary, this championship title match had plenty of real world implications. With Punk’s contract set to expire, and Punk looking for a way out of the company after years of frustration, WWE did something to simply test the waters. They let Punk have a live microphone and vent his frustrations on the company, saying anything he wanted. Punk’s infamous “pipe bomb” promo was so well done, that Vince and Triple H and other officials were giving him high fives afterwards (even though they cut him off when he started to talk about Vince). Triple H later said in interviews that while he thought the idea was dangerous at first, it made for great television and proved to everyone that re-signing Punk was the right move. Punk literally re-signed his contract that night (though we as fans didn’t know it at the time) and wound up shocking everyone when he pinned John Cena and walked out of the WWE as the world champion – in his hometown of Chicago no less.
What happened next was always controversial. Many felt WWE brought Punk back too fast when they should of really played up his exit more. People weren’t thrilled with Rey Mysterio’s victory and then dethroning that same night. Most people were confused and unsure of what was happened. But, everyone was talking, and everyone was into the storyline, understanding the reality of the situation and understanding how much history they were witnessing. This made for one of the most dramatic title affairs in years, and also one of the greatest matches of both men’s careers. This match is still talked about to this day, and rightfully so.
Ironic though, that Punk would leave the company less than three years later for good, over the EXACT reasons he vented in his shoot promo. Life imitates art.
7. BRET “THE HITMAN” HART VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, 60 MINUTE IRON-MAN MATCH, WRESTLEMANIA XII
I’ve already spoken on why this match was important, as it’s one of my all-time favorite matches, and unquestionably my favorite match at a WrestleMania event. So I’ll keep it brief.
Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were the epitome of the New Generation, an era ushered in my Hart’s title victory over Ric Flair in 1992 (an honorable mention match). These two then signed off for the first 60 minute Iron Man match at a WrestleMania, and for the WWF Championship. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first Iron Man match in the WWF as well. The two masters of their craft gave one of the best performances ever seen in a wrestling match, and created an incredible overtime storyline that led to one of pro wrestling’s iconic moments: “The boyhood dream as come true!”
However, Shawn and Bret would have another epic title match in November of 1997, but it would be historical for negative reasons:
6. BRET “THE HITMAN” HART VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, SURVIVOR SERIES 1997
The infamous Montreal Screwjob is the only match on this list that served a historical purpose in a negative light. Much like the Iron Man match, everything that can be said about this match has already been said, so I won’t go too long here.
Telling Bret that the WWF was in financial peril, Vince McMahon gave his blessing for Bret Hart to consider working for WCW. This was a crucial point in the Monday Night Wars, as WCW was destroying the WWF and many WWF stars were jumping ship to the competition. Bret wasn’t just any old star though, he was their world champion, and Vince wanted him to drop the title to Shawn Michaels. As it’s been well documented – from Bret’s autobiography, to the Wrestling with Shadows documentary, to the Death of WCW book, to WWE’s Greatest Rivalries DVD – Shawn didn’t want to do the job to Bret after a very heated and real rivalry had developed between them. Through a lot of backstabbing, mind changing, and personal vendetta service, the decision was made to ultimately screw Bret out of the gold in his native Canada.
The end result was Vince McMahon claiming that he did the right thing, and the WWF stood by that belief for over a decade before they finally caved in and said they could have handled business better. Bret would wind up in WCW, Mr. McMahon would become one of the WWE’s greatest heels, and many people honestly believe that these events contributed to the death of Owen Hart – as Bret always maintained Owen never would have gone through with the stunt had Bret still been in the WWF to look out for his little brother.
2010’s return of Bret Hart to the WWE saw the hatchet buried once and for all, and the Montreal Screwjob animosity has finally vanished, for the most part. Unfortunately, history cannot be re-written, and nobody will ever truly forget that fateful night in the Great White North.
5. “STONE COLD” STEVE AUSTIN VS. CHRIS JERICHO, VENGEANCE 2001
One of the most historic years in professional wrestling had to be 2001, when WCW went out of business officially, and the WWF snatched up all their acquisitions, including their top championship belt. Following the conclusion of the failed InVasion storyline, it was time to unify these top belts into one Undisputed Championship belt in pro wrestling.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin was the WWF Champion, and The Rock was the WCW Champion. Austin had already defeated Kurt Angle, and Chris Jericho had conquered Rocky for the WCW Championship belt (a belt he had to leave WCW in order to win). In the main event of the evening, Chris Jericho would topple Steve Austin and unify the championship title belts.
December 9, 2001, in San Diego, California, signified the official death of WCW once and for all. Once the WCW Championship was united with the WWF’s, it signaled the end of everything WCW as a whole in professional wrestling. WCW has done so much good in wrestling years earlier, even defeating the WWF in the ratings was for 83 consecutive weeks. But bad booking and business decisions, and the rise of the Attitude Era, led to the WWF dominating WCW into the ground. The WWF purchased everything WCW, and brought the title belt to television, but after the InVasion angle was considered a bust, the WWF decided to simply create one undisputed champion. They gave the duke to Chris Jericho, and he became pro wrestling history’s FIRST Undisputed Champion, an accomplishment that can never be taken away.
Even when the WWE unified their World Heavyweight Championship with the WWE Championship at TLC 2013, it didn’t hold as much significance as this moment, since the WWE’s version of the WHC was essentially their creation, and the history dated back to WCW only when they felt like it. Jericho actually won the WCW Championship belt, which would eventually be abolished altogether for a shiny new title shortly after Jericho’s 3 month reign ended.
And that was the end of WCW.
4. JBL VS. JOHN CENA, WRESTLEMANIA 21
Certain title changes can mean big things for the long-run. They can usher in new eras, new stars, and new generations of talent all in one shot. That’s exactly what happened in Los Angeles on April 3, 2005, when WrestleMania went Hollywood.
John Cena debuted in the summer of 2002, and had a great showing with Kurt Angle on an episode of Smackdown. Later that year, Cena would play Vanilla Ice on a Halloween episode of Smackdown, and launch his Doctor of Thuganomics character. This character netted him instant exposure, and even a forgotten WWE Championship match at Backlash 2003 against Brock Lesnar that really showed the WWE was ready to usher in its next generation of stars. Cena wouldn’t get his first taste of championship gold until WrestleMania XX, but his character would continue to rise and evolve, and gather new fans during a babyface run (although Cena lost me as a fan personally by the time WMXX rolled around, but that’s not important).
JBL had won the Undisputed Championship from Eddie Guerrero at the Great American Bash in 2004, and would hold the title for 280 days, until John Cena dethroned him at WrestleMania 21, officially ushering in the era of the CeNation, and cementing John Cena is THE star of this generation. Cena would go on to become one of the WWE’s biggest stars of all time, and one of the biggest crossover names in pro wrestling, outside of stars like Hulk Hogan and The Rock. Whether you love him or hate him, you simply cannot deny the popularity of John Cena and his impact on the WWE as a whole. And it all started on this night in Los Angeles.
3. HULK HOGAN VS. THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR, WWF CHAMPION VS. INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPION, WRESTLEMANIA VI
There have been many true “passing of the torch” moments in professional wrestling, but none more important than the night of April 1, 1990, which was the 6th annual WrestleMania event emanating out of the SkyDome in Toronto. It was on this night in professional wrestling history, that the WWF’s Intercontinental Champion would clash with the WWF Champion, in an extremely historical match.
Hulk Hogan was the WWF Champion. He won the belt a year earlier at WrestleMania V, against his former tag team partner “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the epic destruction of the Mega Powers. Meanwhile, the Ultimate Warrior had been on quite a tear too, winning back the Intercontinental Championship from “Ravishing” Rick Rude, who had defeated him at WrestleMania V in controversial fashion. Hogan and Warrior met in that year’s Royal Rumble, planting the seeds for the match as Hogan issued “The Ultimate Challenge” to the Warrior. The match was signed, and it would be champion vs. champion for the first time ever, with both titles on the line.
While Hogan had been the dominant player in the WWF for the first five years of WrestleMania, history would be made at the SkyDome when the Ultimate Warrior delivered the Big Splash and successfully pinned the Hulkster to take home the gold. Hogan graciously shook the Ultimate Warrior’s hand, as Warrior celebrated his victory on top of the world as both World and Intercontinental Champion. Although the IC belt would be vacated after the event, for that brief moment, Warrior held both titles, and had won the main event at WrestleMania, defeating Hulk Hogan. The torch was truly passed that night, cementing Warrior’s legacy as a wrestling legend and a WWE Hall of Famer.
While there have been other duel champions and torch-passing moments in wrestling history, this was one of the biggest and most important nights for pro wrestling. Historically, it’s still one of the biggest nights of all time, and deserves the recognition it received.
2. HULK HOGAN VS. THE IRON SHEIK, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN SHOW, JANUARY 23, 1984
As big as a passing the torch moment is, in order for it to have significance, the person passing the torch has to be an icon of the sport. The icon in question for the Warrior-Hogan match was, naturally, Hulk Hogan, who is the biggest star in the history of professional wrestling. No matter how many other stars come along, Hulk Hogan’s will always shine brightest, and will always be a name everybody recognizes, whether or not they’re actually a wrestling fan.
On a cold winter’s night in January of 1984, Hulkamania was born. The Iron Sheik was given the WWF Championship by defeating Bob Backlund the night after Christmas in 1983, so that Vince McMahon could usher in the era of the WWF and capitalize on his national exposure. The chosen one would indeed be Hulk Hogan, who would defeat the Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden for his first run as WWF Champion. This moment began the era of Hulkamania, which skyrocketed the WWF to becoming an national organization, and the single most iconic professional wrestling promotion in the world. It made Vince McMahon the world’s greatest promoter, and it made Hulk Hogan a household name. And it all happened on a chilly night in January in a 5 minute match.
Hulk Hogan would reign as champion for the next four years, until he would be defeated by Andre the Giant in a controversial manner. In that time, Hogan would main event the first three WrestleManias, making history each time, get his own cartoon show, and become an icon in sports and pop culture. While Hogan would hold the belt 6 times in his career, it was his first reign that made him a legend, and that made the WWF the powerhouse that it is today.
There are simply too many important matches in WWF Championship history to list them all, but when I considered this list, here are some of the other matches I looked at. They are all just as important as the matches in my top 10.
-Bret Hart’s victory over Ric Flair, where “the biggest dreams really do come true.” This ushered in the New Generation Era and cemented Bret’s hall of fame legacy.
-Hogan Vs. Andre at WrestleMania III is one of the most iconic matches in pro wrestling history, where the irresistible force met the immovable object.
-Eddie Guerrero defeating Brock Lesnar in 2004 told an incredible Cinderella story that showed that years of hard work could truly pay off for such a beloved man.
-When Ivan Koloff dethroned Bruno Sammartino’s epic reign as champion, it was said that you could hear a pin drop inside Madison Square Garden.
-When Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel, The Iron Sheik won the championship, despite Bob Backlund never officially submitting.
-The first Money in the Bank cash-in saw Edge defeat a bloody and battered John Cena, setting a precedent for all future MITB contract holders.
-Rob Van Dam defeated John Cena to simultaneously hold the WWE and the ECW Championship titles at the same time. The match was also a powerfully dangerous one, as the rabid ECW fans threatened to riot had Cena walked out as the champion that night.
-CM Punk defeating Alberto Del Rio saw Punk go on a 434 day title run, the longest in the modern era, especially with modern fans now conditioned to expect frequent title changes.
-Brock Lesnar defeated The Rock for another torch passing moment, mere months after Lesnar debuted on the main roster.
-The title unification of the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships at TLC 2013 signified the end of the Brand Extension era, which had already been over, and created one top title in WWE again, instantly making the belt (and all others) most prestigious and important.
-When Buddy Rogers defeated Pat O’Connor, the WWF became its own entity, and was no longer an NWA affiliate.
1. “STONE COLD” STEVE AUSTIN VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, WITH SPECIAL GUEST ENFORCER MIKE TYSON, WRESTLEMANIA XIV
The single most important match for the WWF Championship happened at WrestleMania XIV, on March 29, 1998, in Boston, Massachusetts. On this night, the Austin Era began, and the snowballing effects of this match would create the WWE monopoly and super global entertainment force you know today.
HBK was still pretty hated for the actions in Montreal, and it would take a real anti-hero to shut him up. The WWF got their anti-hero in “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who started an authority-defying character that created an “everyman vs. everyboss” feud between him and chairman Vince McMahon. The feuding up to the event saw Mike Tyson involved as Austin continuously defied authority and challenge Vince on every episode of Raw. WCW meanwhile was presenting lame television and recycled storylines with constant New World Order run-ins. Since the ratings weren’t changing, nobody thought anything was wrong. Too bad that with Austin Vs. McMahon & D-Generation X building, the audience was ready to turn on WCW to see the WWF had in store.
Steve Austin’s rise to the title did exactly that. As soon as Austin was champion, the ratings tide turned. His run as top dog in the company he was rebelling against officially ushered in the Attitude Era, and dethroned WCW’s 83-week ratings win once and for all. Austin Vs. McMahon, and subsequent storylines, destroyed WCW’s product. This caused panic and hotshotting in WCW, speeding up the company’s eventual decline, while the WWF moved forward with the most successful formula for television ratings ever seen in pro wrestling. Eventually, WCW would die off completely, be bought out by Vince McMahon, and he would quite literally own American professional wrestling. Since then, other companies have tried, from TNA to WSX, and nobody has come close to touching Vince McMahon’s empire. In essence, Vince McMahon became American pro wrestling, and it all started when a WCW outcast won the WWF’s top championship belt in March of 1998.
Without that Austin win, there would be no WWE as you know it today, and that’s why that was the most important championship match in WWF history.
With so many matches offering so much historical significance, odds are I missed out on one or two. Sound them off in the comments, and let me know what matches you think were the most historically important when it came to the WWF or WWE Championship. Remember, no WHC or WCW title matches, only the linage of the WWE Championship belt. And the quality of the match doesn’t matter so long as the match itself has historical significance.
Got an idea for a top 10 you’d like to see me tackle? I’m always open for suggestions! Let me know what you want me to talk about, and if it’s a subject I can do justice, I will give it a shot!