15 WWE Champions Who Lost the Title Way Too Soon

Championship runs eventually end, but these WWE title holders dropped their belts in some truly abysmal ways.

Seth Rollins
Photo: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

As is the case with Roman Reigns in modern WWE, sometimes a champion’s reign lasts way too long. But the opposite can also be true. Somebody could get a big title win and only hold onto the belt for a few weeks, possibly even days, before being forced back to square one. For one reason or another, there are a select group of wrestlers in WWE who dropped the title way earlier than they should have.

On this list of wrestlers who needed more time with their championships, we will not be including those who were forced to vacate due to injury (well, with an asterisk, but we’ll get to that later). It seems too easy an answer, so here’s an honorable mention for Finn Balor, Daniel Bryan, Edge, and the rest of the champs who had to vacate the belt for physical reasons.

15. Triple H as Undisputed Champion (2002)

It feels kind of weird including him on this list because the last thing Triple H needs is more time as a champion. Still, the Undisputed Championship in general was fairly cursed up until Brock Lesnar claimed it. Chris Jericho was the first to hold the double belt and came off as a total paper champ due to how much cheating and interference was involved in his wins, how much everyone looked past him, and how secondary he was in his WrestleMania X-8 match with Triple H.

While Triple H attained the Undisputed Championship in the WrestleMania main event, paying off his return from injury, Royal Rumble win, and Jericho’s ability to escape defeat, the real story was Hulk Hogan’s big match with The Rock. People were ravenous for Hogan’s face-turn and it caused Hogan to beat Triple H for the title soon after that. Too bad it was a bust of a title run, ending in a horrendous Undertaker match. Undertaker dropped it to The Rock, who was all but rejected by the audience until Brock usurped him. Maybe Triple H deserved a long run as the Undisputed Champion after all.

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14. The Rockers as WWF Tag Team Champions (1990)

Imagine buying a ticket to a taped wrestling show and getting to see a major title change in person. You tell your school friends about it. You’re so excited to see it talked about on TV. But then…nothing. The match is never on the show. They never even reference it. Officially, it never happened, despite the fact that you yourself saw it with your own eyes. That’s the story of Saturday Night’s Main Event in the fall of 1990.

The Hart Foundation were dropping the tag titles to The Rockers so that Bret Hart could branch out to a solo career. So the Rockers won, but ultimately, the match was never aired and the incident was never officially recognized. Depending on who you ask, Vince thought the match wasn’t up to snuff, something from that episode of Main Event needed to be cut due to timing issues, or it was decided to hold off on splitting up Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart. Regardless, the only title run for the Rockers is a phantom one that doesn’t count.

13. CM Punk as World Heavyweight Champion (2008)

Many of CM Punk’s world title runs are laced with controversy, but his first time as World Heavyweight Champion was a masterclass in screwing the pooch. Punk wasn’t even meant to be champion initially, as he only won the WrestleMania XXIV Money in the Bank match because penciled-in winner Jeff Hardy was suspended for a wellness violation. Despite being a face, Punk cashed in his briefcase after Batista beat the hell out of champion Edge, but it worked because it was Edge getting his just deserts.

But Punk’s opponents during this run did not do him any favors. JBL was over-the-hill and they decided to do a face vs. face match against Batista. Sure, it ended with a double DQ, but the company did little to make Punk appeal to the audience, meaning the crowd was more on Batista’s side by a wide margin. When it came time for Punk to lose, it was handled in the worst way.

At Unforgiven 2008, Punk was supposed to defend his title in a Championship Scramble (wow, remember those?), but he was instead attacked by Randy Orton backstage and written out of the match with an injury, meaning Chris Jericho won the title off a match Punk wasn’t even in! Punk never got any real revenge on Orton or Jericho and luckily had a much more fruitful Money in the Bank cash-in in 2009.

12. Neville as Cruiserweight Champion (2017)

Yes, Neville had a long run as Cruiserweight Champion. He was treated as the final boss of that division, and while he had some frustrations about his spot on the roster (and the payouts that came from doing PPV pre-shows), he made the most of the last leg of his time at WWE. He did at least appear to be moving towards some kind of alliance with Braun Strowman on the main roster, so there was that.

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Then the Cruiserweight division and its show 205 Live went in a very different direction by bringing in Enzo Amore, whose in-ring work was lacking, but he had more than enough charisma to make up for it. Neville not only dropped the title to Enzo at the first opportunity, but Enzo then became the focus and sudden top heel of the cruiserweight corner of WWE. 205 Live immediately revolved around him. Neville was set to lose a rematch, but decided to walk out and sit out the rest of his contract. Due to his real-life issues, Enzo was not long for WWE and was removed from the company while he was still champion. All things considered, they probably should have kept the spotlight on Neville.

11. Eddie Guerrero as WWE Champion (2004)

At No Way Out 2004, Eddie Guerrero became SmackDown’s top guy after defeating Brock Lesnar, with a little assist from Goldberg. Eddie retained against Kurt Angle at WrestleMania XX, giving us the final image of Eddie and fellow world champion Chris Benoit celebrating together. Endearing then, depressing now. At the time, Eddie becoming WWE Champion felt like a long time coming.

The problem was that after WrestleMania, the title picture on SmackDown was hurting. The WWE writers just couldn’t seem to find a captivating challenger to keep things interesting, and behind the scenes Eddie felt like a failure, as he was the face of the ailing brand. Bradshaw was eventually repackaged as JBL to give the company a new villain and within a month or so succeeded in dethroning Eddie. JBL proceeded to have a lengthy reign, and Eddie never reached those heights again.

10. Big E as WWE Champion (2022)

There is no reason why the stretch between Big E winning Money in the Bank and losing the title should have been as bad as it was. The muscle of the New Day got his chance at the bigtime and after weeks of hinting that he was going to prey on Universal Champion Roman Reigns, he finally announced on Twitter that he was going to cash in against WWE Champion Bobby Lashley on Raw. And so, he showed up after Lashley retained against Randy Orton, which wasn’t exactly the behavior of a face, but he got the job done. Then Big E proceeded to lose just as often as he won, only in the form of non-title matches.

On the Day 1 event, Brock Lesnar was thrown into a multi-man match for the WWE Championship and, of course, won. A new flavor in the title picture was discarded in favor of a Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar rematch. Big E fell back into the midcard and it didn’t take much longer for him to be hit with a career-threatening neck injury. Big E deserved better.

9. Rey Mysterio as WWE Champion (2011)

One of the most annoying things in wrestling storytelling is when a face does something that paints them as a total asshole and nobody ever calls them out on it. In this case, that asshole was John Cena. In 2011, CM Punk defeated Cena for the WWE Championship at Money in the Bank right as Punk’s contract was running out. On the following night’s Raw, an eight-man tournament was held to decide a new champion for the vacated titled, with Vince McMahon preparing to “fire” Cena for his failure against Punk. Due to time restraints, the finals got moved to the next week. In the final segment, Cena ended up not getting fired.

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The next Monday had Rey Mysterio defeat the Miz in the opening match to win the vacated WWE Championship. Backstage, he was told that he would be defending it against Cena that very night. For Mysterio, this was his fourth match across two Raws, while Cena, having not participated in the tournament at all, was well-rested, which wasn’t exactly a fair matchup. Cena obviously won so the WWE could fast-track Cena vs. a returning Punk at SummerSlam. They absolutely could have saved Mysterio vs. Cena for SummerSlam, giving us a fresh main event instead of the cheap way they resolved the storyline. It’s not like Mysterio had anything else going on, as he ended up wrestling in a six-man tag at the show and was written out for nearly a year the following night.

8. Mickie James as WWE Women’s Champion (2010)

At a time when Michelle McCool was WWF Women’s Champion and her partner Layla was depicted as something of a co-holder, Mickie James challenged them, and it was kind of awful. The mean girl duo started calling Mickie James “Piggy James. The feud had them humiliate Mickie over and over again, with Mickie breaking down in tears several times. The more you know about Vince’s personal habits, the more disgusting the whole thing is in retrospect.

That’s not to say a storyline based on bullying can’t be saved. At Royal Rumble 2010, Mickie gave LayCool their comeuppance by winning the title match in 10 seconds. Great! Mickie got her revenge, the bad guys were punished, and we could all move on! Only instead, they kept the Piggy James thing going and had McCool win the belt back in a rematch a month later on a random SmackDown. Mickie left shortly after but returned years later so the WWE could make fun of her age.

7. Kevin Owens as Universal Champion (2017)

From August 2016 to April 2017, WWE’s top storyline was the friendship between Universal Champion Kevin Owens and fellow heel Chris Jericho. Jericho constantly helped Owens retain his title and the story seemed to be pushing towards a breakup followed by a WrestleMania showdown between the two for said championship. We were also likely to see Jericho win the star-studded 2017 Royal Rumble as part of this storyline.

Instead, the title picture took a detour. Bill Goldberg returned to WWE to squash Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series 2016. Lesnar was able to talk Vince McMahon into turning their WrestleMania rematch into a title match, which meant that at Fastlane 2017, Goldberg would have to take down Owens for the belt. It ended up being a match that lasted mere seconds, leaving Owens and Jericho to wrestle over the United States Championship in the WrestleMania undercard. This situation greatly annoyed Jericho and helped convince him to move away from WWE, leading to his major role in AEW’s genesis.

6. Zack Ryder as United States Champion (2011)

Low on the card and rarely on TV, Zack Ryder worked his way towards popularity with his own self-produced YouTube series and by using Twitter to enhance his brand. Fans really took to Ryder and let the company know it by demanding him at shows. Even at Survivor Series 2011, during the post-show in-ring promo, the Rock was met with Ryder chants and played it up, talking about how insanely tall that son of a bitch was.

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Finally, the company seemed to relent. Ryder won the United States Championship from Dolph Ziggler and even got to rub elbows with Hugh Jackman in the lead-up. Then he was demoted to John Cena’s suffering sidekick, constantly brutalized and humiliated on a weekly basis in order to build up a match between Cena and Kane. Part of this included Ryder losing the title to Jack Swagger, which was the beginning of the end for the Ryder Revolution. Ryder had a few gasps of air in the years that followed, but never anything nearly as substantial as his initial run.

5. Seth Rollins as Universal Champion (2019)

In wrestling, sometimes huge matches can write you into a corner. But WWE really didn’t practice restraint when it came to Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt’s Fiend persona. Rollins got the most star-making win of his career at SummerSlam 2019 by cleanly defeating Brock Lesnar at a time when doing so was impossible for someone who wasn’t the Undertaker or maybe Roman Reigns. On the same show, the Fiend debuted and annihilated Finn Balor.

Within two months, WWE was already booking Rollins vs. Fiend for Hell in a Cell. Rollins’ momentum as top face crashed into a wall as Fiend’s mystique and invincibility was just too new and powerful to ignore. The WWE was so high on the Fiend as the brand-new big bad that they turned Rollins into a crying, scared child when confronted by him. They very badly wrote a no contest ending to the Hell in a Cell match, which got such a negative reaction from everyone that they did a rematch at the very next PPV and had Fiend win. It took Rollins a while to recover from this storyline.

4. Ricky Steamboat as WWF Intercontinental Champion (1987)

WrestleMania III was the first WrestleMania that felt like a gigantic deal. The Pontiac Silverdome gave it the perfect atmosphere, and it was remembered for two huge matches: the style of Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant and the substance of Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat. The latter was the highest profile match in early WWF remembered for its in-ring workrate. Of course, if you just go by the PPVs, it’s a bit of a mystery why Steamboat’s big IC title win was followed by him falling into obscurity and being gone in a year.

As the story goes, Steamboat’s fall from grace at WWF was allegedly the result of the wrestler requesting to take a bit of time off for the birth of his son after winning the company’s second biggest belt. Acting like that was some kind of major betrayal, the WWF booked Steamboat to lose the championship after a mere two months. Steamboat floated around the midcard in the year that followed, finally leaving after being booked to lose in the first round of WrestleMania IV’s one-night tournament. The WWF really should have just held back on the outrage.

3. Rob Van Dam as WWE Champion and ECW Champion (2006)

Sadly, this one is the champion’s own fault. As the second Money in the Bank winner, Rob Van Dam was the first to tell everyone when and where he wanted his title shot. WWE was building to the return of ECW as a third brand with its own show and the PPV One Night Stand 2006 was the launching point. It was also the perfect place for RVD to challenge John Cena for the WWE Championship, which he won, thanks in part to an assist from Edge.

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RVD was not only WWE Champion, but he was also made the new ECW Champion. He defended both titles as a way to give the new show some shine. Unfortunately, RVD and Sabu were pulled over in real life while under the influence. Though RVD was suspended, he first wrestled at a couple shows so he could lose the WWE Championship to Edge and ECW Championship to Big Show. When he returned, RVD found himself on very thin ice, and his days with the company were numbered.

2. Wendi Richter as WWF Women’s Champion (1985)

The Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection, the collaboration between WWF and MTV, helped the promotion become a major part of pop culture in the ’80s. One of the big players at the time was Wendi Richter, the champion of the women’s division, and on-screen buddy to Cyndi Lauper. But while Richter was popular in the ring, behind the scenes, she was having some arguments with Vince McMahon over her pay. Vince being Vince decided to resolve the issue in the most controversial way possible.

Richter was doing the house show circuit, repeatedly defending against the Spider Lady, a masked wrestler portrayed by Penny Mitchell. At a Madison Square Garden show, Richter was surprised to see former champion Fabulous Moolah backstage, as she rarely showed up at events where she wasn’t booked. Not thinking anything of it, Richter did her match with Spider Lady, only for her opponent to legitimately hold her down at one point as the referee did a fast count. The Spider Lady – revealed to be Moolah under the mask – was deemed the new champion. Richter was so pissed at the last-minute change that she left the promotion, never to return (except for a Hall of Fame spot decades later). Before Shawn Michaels was made to beat Bret Hart in Montreal, this was the original screwjob.

1. Shawn Michaels as WWF Champion (1997)

Many of these entries have been in defense of the champions. How they were great and they were screwed over by the writers. This one is more about how the champion in question needed a longer run for the sake of actually losing the title in a way that helped someone other than himself. Shawn Michaels was infamous for losing titles without actually losing. Instead of being pinned in a meaningful match, he would vacate due to a variety of reasons.

The most disastrous of all was in 1997. Citing a bum knee (which is widely considered to be something he milked to high heaven) and a loss of smile, Michaels gave up the WWF Championship months before WrestleMania 13, where he was set to lose to Bret Hart. This altered lots of plans and furthered the existing rift between the two performers, later causing Bret to refuse to lose to Shawn out of principle. If Michaels wasn’t so selfish, the Montreal Screwjob could have been avoided and wrestling history would have been all the better for it.