Pro Wrestling's most unlikely World Champions (Part I)
Professional wrestling works in mysterious ways.
It is not officially a sport, but wrestling does showcase athleticism and physicality, while trying to suspend the audience’s disbelief match-to-match and segment-to-segment.
There are wrestlers out there that just look like they could kick your ass--Triple H, Undertaker, Kane, Batista, just to name a few.
Then there are those guys we first see that don’t look like they could fight their way out of a paper bag, but through hard work, perseverance, and a special connection with the crowd, they have ended up world champions.
Some guys however, end up becoming World Champions sooner than expected. Others become World Champions for the wrong reasons.
I have compiled a list of wrestling’s most unlikely World Champions. This list is comprised of men who survived the physical and at times, political limitations that were placed in front of them to earn the honor of calling themselves “world champion.”
Oh, there’s those champions fans would like to forget on this list too.
CM Punk: World Heavyweight Champion (2008)
Many consider CM Punk a WWE main eventer today, despite rumors of unhappiness with his character’s creative direction.
When Punk won the WWE World Heavyweight Title from Edge in the Summer of 2008 after cashing in his first Money in The Bank contract, I wrote the following:
The biggest story coming out of WWE post-2008 draft and Night of Champions is that CM Punk is now the new World Heavyweight Champion. Not the ECW "sort of World" Champion. Not the Mr. Money in the Bank of 2008 champion that got jobbed out more often than not.
No--the WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION.
He cashed in his Money in the Bank opportunity this past Monday night on RAW against Edge (with a huge assist from Batista). That win was extremely significant, as was his victory over John Bradshaw Layfield at the end of the show.
There are a few reasons why CM Punk's World Title win is more significant than most. For starters, he was not exactly made out to be the strongest title contender over the last few weeks, so him winning the belt was definitely a surprise. And Punk is the champion of WWE's flagship show Monday Night RAW.
No, not John Cena, Batista, or Triple H, but the straight-edge superstar from Chicago, Illinois.
This is a guy with nowhere near the muscle mass of most of WWE's main eventers. His look is radically different from others. Rather than a giant badass, Punk looks more like a cool guy you would see at a Megadeth concert.
But that's not a bad thing.
Punk's World title win gives smaller wrestlers that aren't jacked out of their mind hope...Hope that they can rise to the top. Yes, the Eddie Guerreros, HBKs, Chris Jerichos, Rey Mysterios, and (dare I say) Chris Benoits certainly showed fans in the past that you don't have to be the biggest wrestler to hold top gold.
Yet Punk won the title without too much momentum coming into the impromptu match. He also hadn't mixed it up with top stars like Triple H or John Cena in the past, considering most of his WWE career has been spent on the ECW brand.
CM Punk is a great in-ring competitor, but was rumored to rub officials backstage the wrong way. For every cheer he received, he was always criticized for being "too indy" or ripping off the Japanese puroresu style wrestling.
Well for now, CM Punk has silenced his critics and satisfied his fans, along with countless others who wanted to see change.
Justin Credible: ECW World Heavyweight Champion (2000)
Peter Polaco is the wrestler with the most simplistic yet cheesy stage name ever to reach the promise land.
While a good in-ring worker, Credible never exactly wowed crowds until he was hired by Extreme Championship Wrestling owner and booker Paul E. Heyman in 1997. The dude that wore a jockstrap on his head pretending to be Portuguese in the World Wrestling Federation as Aldo Montoya slowly but surely became a star with Heyman’s booking.
ECW commentator Joey Styles and fans would mock his simplistic stage name and past gimmick, but Credible silenced critics by raising his in-ring game and finding unique ways to be unlikeable. The pinnacle of Credible’s career of course was his ECW World Heavyweight Title win over hardcore legend Tommy Dreamer in the promotion’s birthplace Philadelphia, PA.
In a shocking turn of events, Dreamer had just beaten Taz on April 22, 2000 to finally win the ECW Title after seven years of blood, sweat, and tears. In reality, ECW gave Dreamer the title because a majority of the company’s top stars defected to the WWF (now WWE) and World Championship Wrestling for more money.
After Dreamer won the ECW Title, he embraced Taz, who went back to the WWF. Back in the ring, Dreamer made an emotional speech, dedicating his title win to his late father--only to have Credible interrupt the festivities.
Credible challenged Dreamer for the ECW Title. Dreamer foolishly (in a storyline sense) accepted the challenge and in a matter of minutes, the once-perceived lifetime midcarder and tag team specialist became World Heavyweight Champion. The former Impact Player’s reign lasted five months and was one of the bright spots of the original ECW’s final year before bankruptcy.
Following the fall of the original ECW, Credible’s career hasn’t remotely reached the same level of prominence.
Better to look back and say you were once the man than to never be on top at all, right?
Tommy Dreamer: ECW World Heavyweight Champion (2000)
Tommy Dreamer is one of the most lovable losers in wrestling history.
For what the man lacked in athleticism, he made up for in heart. Wrestling most of your career in gym teacher attire (t-shirt, sweats) doesn’t make you a shoe-in to be a World Champion someday--on the surface. Watch any of Dreamer’s matches during his prime and you’ll be amazed by his toughness.
In retrospect, taking big chair shots to the head wasn’t the greatest way to progress a feud, but Dreamer never backed down. Barbed wire? Cool. Falling through tables? OK. Chair shots to the head? I’ll whoop your ass when I wake up. Dreamer was ECW’s lovable loser--picking up big wins but always losing the big one.
Dreamer actually wanted to go his entire ECW career without winning a title, but as previously mentioned, the company was on its last legs in 2000 and needed a hot feud. Justin Credible ending Dreamer’s World Title reign in a matter of minutes is what Dr. Heyman ordered. It instantly made ECW fans hate Credible, while putting Dreamer in his favored “people’s champion,” blue collar role.
"The “Innovator of Violence” would later win WWE’s version of the ECW Title in 2009--a far cry from the prestige of the championship of old. That didn’t matter to Dreamer, who made the most out of his final months in WWE.
John Bradshaw Layfield: WWE Champion (2004)
Who is the longest reigning champion in the Smackdown brand’s history?
If you said John Cena, Triple H, Undertaker, or Batista, you are wrong.
The answer is none other than John Bradshaw Layfield aka JBL aka the tough Texan that was one half of the APA with Ron “Faarooq” Simmons. Before JBL’s career rebirth from a rugged Texan to a city slicking stock broker in 2004, he was known as a “helluva hand.” Bradshaw was always the guy you could count on to have a solid match, but was never seen as a top guy.
That all changed in April 2004, when both Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg unpredictably departed WWE after their WrestleMania XX debacle of a match. All of a sudden, Smackdown needed a new monster heel (bad guy). Undertaker had just come back as a babyface (good guy) and WWE Champion Eddie Guerrero was a beloved fan favorite. WWE knew they had a star in John Cena but he was a year away from “the man.”
Bradshaw raised his game almost from the get-go, dressing the part of a businessman and playing his real life persona only with the volume turned obnoxiously up. His first match with Guerrero was an extremely bloody affair at Judgment Day 2004. JBL won by disqualification.
The next month at WWE’s re-up of The Great American Bash, the bitter rivals rematched for the WWE Title. In an unbelievable twist at the time, JBL just barely defeated Guerrero in a four corners match to become the WWE Champion. In what seemed to be pegged as a transitional reign turned out to be a heck of a run for the former tag team specialist--nearly one year to be exact.
Looking back, JBL could have been booked as a much stronger champion, but his promos and in-ring psychology helped make his last wrestling years WWE Hall of Fame worthy. It’s just a slight shame that the JBL persona wasn’t born prior to injuries getting the best of him, but hey--better later than never.
Sheamus: WWE Champion (2009, 2010)
No, it isn’t unlikely seeing a guy with a great look and good in-ring ability like Sheamus become WWE Champion. It’s just unlikely how fast it happened.
The Celtic Warrior made his WWE debut on the ECW brand in the Fall of 2009. He came over to the RAW brand on Oct. 26, 2009. After destroying Jamie Noble and Jerry “The King” Lawler, Sheamus won a match to become the no. one contender for John Cena’s WWE Title at the Dec. 2010 pay-per-view TLC: Tables, Ladders, and Chairs.
By hook or crook, Sheamus pulled off the upset of the decade, defeating Cena to become the first Irish born WWE Champion.
Here’s the catch though: Cena was never pinned or submitted. The bout was a tables match. Whether you think Cena slipped off the top rope into the table or was pushed off is irrelevant. Sheamus could call himself WWE Champion after the match and that's all that mattered.
Unfortunately for Sheamus, his first and second WWE Title reigns were booked horrendously, as he was portrayed as a joke of a champion--never once getting a clean pinfall victory over his biggest rivals in Cena and Randy Orton.
If Sheamus doesn’t regain the WWE Title in the future and put together a respectable run that’s longer than three months, he will absolutely go down as the worst two-time WWE Champion in history, fella.
Rey Mysterio: World Heavyweight Champion (2006)
Rey Mysterio is one of the most popular wrestling stars of all-time and for good reason.
Mysterio’s high-flying moves and determination have won him fans all across the globe. "The Biggest Little Man” could have only dreamed of calling himself World Heavyweight Champion after a decade as a mainstay of the WCW/WWE cruiserweight division.
Mysterio’s WWE run from the get-go allowed him to work with bigger superstars in terms of fame and stature. Great matches with the likes of Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar only gave Mysterio more credibility as a serious threat to the WWE Title, but it wasn’t until 2006 when he finally got his due.
The Mexican wrestling legend won the 2006 WWE Royal Rumble match to earn a shot at Angle’s Smackdown World Title at WrestleMania XXII. Sadly for Mysterio fans, he lost his shot the next month to Randy Orton, but was later awarded a spot in the title match anyway by Smackdown GM Teddy Long (Yes, he was GM back then too.).
Mysterio’s first World Heavyweight Title run was a lifetime achievement award. Too bad his title reign was memorable in a bad way. Mysterio was booked in losing non-title efforts against Mark Henry and The Great Khali. Yes, Mark Henry and The Great Khali.
His only clean wins were against Orton at WrestleMania when he won his title and JBL in two title defenses.
His title reign was actually doomed from the start, as the storylines portrayed him as a guy that got his WrestleMania title match back because of the real-life death of his best friend Eddie Guerrero rather than earning it. Fans even turned on Rey-Rey at Mania!
Regardless of the awful booking, Mysterio would go on to regain to World Title in June 2010 at the WWE Fatal 4Way PPV. He would lose the belt a month later to Kane.
No matter how you look at his two title reigns, let it be known a man that was 5’6” and barely 170lbs became a professional wrestling world champion in a land of giants.
Eddie Guerrero: WWE Champion (2004)
Rey Mysterio would have been the first Mexican WWE World Champion--had it not been for his late best friend Eddie Guerrero.
Guerrero’s personal demons were well-documented throughout his career: drugs, drugs, and more drugs. Each time “Latino Heat” looked like he would be back on track, something would happen to derail that.
When he came back from a drug-induced car accident in 1999, friends thought he would finally turn the corner. Though it wasn’t until Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn told WWE’s Jim Ross in 2001 that Guerrero needed serious help that business really started to pick up. Guerrero was released by WWE in 2001 but came back a year later as a new man.
Guerrero had rebuilt his marriage with his Vickie (yes, that Vickie), got clean from drugs, and had a new passion for wrestling. Two years after his comeback, Guerrero who was under six feet tall and barely 220lbs could call himself WWE Champion and WrestleMania XX headliner.
Tragically on Nov. 13, 2005, Guerrero passed away prematurely at age 38 due to acute heart failure. Guerrero should still be with us today, but the past abuse he put his body through seemingly caught up with him.
Rest in Peace, Eddie.
Dolph Ziggler: World Heavyweight Champion (2011)
Nick Nemeth hasn’t had it easy in his six-year WWE career.
He’s gone from playing a caddy to a male cheerleader on the dreaded Spirit Squad to being repackaged as a tan dude with a name more suited for porn than wrestling. Despite all this and a stupid Wellness Policy violation a couple of years back, Nemeth aka Dolph Ziggler, can call himself a former World Champion after hard work, great matches, and a ridiculous match stipulation.
Ziggler has the most dubious title reign of all-time for good reason.
In a nutshell: Earlier this year, Ziggler was feuding with Edge for the World Heavyweight Title on Smackdown. Ziggler’s manager/girl Vickie “Excuse Me I’m a cougar” Guerrero is Edge’s ex-wife. She was also the interim Smackdown GM after Teddy Long got shot or something like that. Vickie made a match between Ziggler and Edge, where if Edge used to spear (his finishing move) at any point in time, he would be lose the World Title.
Well, Edge used the spear after Vickie was out cold from interfering and suffering the consequences. Green Bay Packers defensive juggernaut Clay Matthews made an appearance post-Super Bowl to count the 1-2-3. Why? It’s WWE. Who cares why. Edge technically retained the World Title--or did he?
A week later on Feb. 18, Ziggler and Vickie appeared in the ring with the World Title. Vickie replayed last week’s events and showed Edge using the spear. And poof, just like that, Dolph Ziggler was our new World Champion--for 11 minutes.
Teddy Long came back from the dead or something and made Ziggler immediately defend his new title against Edge.
Now Ziggler looks like Evan Bourne on HGH with a bad haircut and even less heat than he already had. The poor guy has overcome bad gimmicks and adult film star names to be called a former World Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion.
Can he conquer blandness and get an actual run as World Champion?
That remains to be seen.