A match for the WWE Championship should have a big fight feel. A large contributor to the tension is the challenger — a contender who is legitimately a threat to the champion who has earned their place and proven they are worthy of their positioning at the top of the card. This has not always been the case…
You may remember some contenders for the WWE Championship in recent years, such as Baron Corbin getting a shot at the top title because he was the Constable of Raw. There was also The Great Khali, who got a try because he was, well, rather tall. However, the following contenders to the top belt you might not remember. Jake Roberts, Dusty Rhodes, and Ricky Steamboat are amongst those who never got a sniff at a WWE Championship match opportunity. The following wrestlers have.
These days, he is clowning around the 24/7 Championship scene, but back in 2011, R-Truth became the most serious iteration of his character. Here, a freshly-turned heel Ron Killings would claim that he was part of a "conspiracy," which held him back. He also took time to slander children (which he called Jimmys) at WWE events whilst dunking on John Cena.
The former mid-carder R Truth had reinvented himself as an oblivious, doofus heel since his turn on John Morrison – and it displayed the greatest of Ron Killings. The conspiracy theorist challenged for the WWE Championship in a match at Capitol Punishment 2011, facing off against the leader of the Cenation, John Cena. Except for his TNA run, it was R Truth’s most substantial push to that point. Cena, of course, won at the pay-per-view, dispatching Truth with help from a young fan throwing water in his face before hitting the Attitude Adjustment.
R-Truth’s run at the top was not over, allying with the Miz to invade the Hell in A Cell main event after being fired on-screen. The former K-Krush got one more pay-per-view main event, teaming with the Miz to face John Cena and The Rock at Survivor Series, which Truth lost.
In less than a year, he had comfortably settled back into the mid-card in a dynamic face duo with Kofi Kingston. R Truth has not, to date, received another significant run.
9. “The Patriot” Del Wilkes
The WWF title picture in 1997 was a mess. It seemed as if there were too many cooks in the world title picture as well as a series of incidents such as "injury" vacations, swerve title wins before WrestleMania, Montreal Screwjobs, and so much more.
The biggest issue with this division was the surplus of main eventers, including a reliable but growing annoyed Bret Hart, a hard-to-work-with Shawn Michaels, loyal Undertaker, popular Steve Austin, as well as not-so-great runs for Sycho Sid and Vader. Plus, Ken Shamrock and Faarooq also had WWF title pay-per-view matches.
With all the star power of the time, The Patriot is a lost name in the main event scene. The American hero got a shot at the belt in 1997 after the real-life Del Wilkes scored a pinfall victory over Bret Hart on an episode of Raw, thanks to a Shawn Michaels distraction. Fighting defiantly, The Patriot got a pay-per-view WWF Championship match against Bret at In Your House: Ground Zero, fighting to win the title and defend America’s honor.
After his submission loss, he stayed in a rivalry with Bret. He teamed with Vader to represent the USA against Bret and the British Bulldog at Badd Blood in a flag match. The Patriot was supposed to be a member of the USA team at Survivor Series the same year but got injured and was replaced by Steve Blackman. He never returned and got axed in early 1998.
An article we recommend: Del "The Patriot" Wilkes | His Struggle Outside of Wrestling
8. James Ellsworth
In 2016, Braun Strowman was going through his endless, months-long squash match victories that are so common in the modern-day. Braun’s opponents became popular, such as Johnny "I like big, sweaty men" Knockout and case in point – James Ellsworth.
A lack of chin and catchphrase of "any man with two hands has a fighting chance" made him an online star, leading to him being placed in a SmackDown tag team match alongside the brand’s top stars.
He soon scored a pinfall victory over WWE Champion AJ Styles on SmackDown Live, thanks to aid from Dean Ambrose.
Watch James Ellsworth Defeat WWE Champion AJ Styles:
Ellsworth then won a title rematch by disqualification. After playing a prominent role on the show, he scored a 3rd win over the Phenomenal One, even when injured. After turning on Ambrose, the hopeless and hapless chin-less star was squashed by AJ in another WWE Championship match to terminate that feud, before moving on to a partnership with Carmella.
James Ellsworth would later receive an opportunity at the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship in a losing affair to Nick Aldis in 2018.
An article we recommend: Nick Aldis | The Evolution of NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion
Everybody’s favorite broke wrestler, Virgil, came onto the scene in the late ’80s as the controversial servant of the evil Ted DiBiase. Often doing the Million Dollar Man’s dirty work, he was a long-time suffering hooligan of DiBiase before turning face. With training from Roddy Piper, he beat the Million Dollar Man at SummerSlam 1991 for the Million Dollar Championship. He was molten hot at this time but less so by the time of his WWF Championship match.
After his SummerSlam ’91 victory, Virgil became undercard fodder, putting over talents like Tito Santana, Yokozuna, and Nailz. Not long later, however, he faced Bret Hart for the WWF Championship in a November 21st, 1992 episode of Superstars. He put in a good fight but lost to Hart via The Sharpshooter.
Afterward, Virgil was further relegated down the card before leaving the company.
There have been many imposter gimmicks throughout wrestling history, and one of the most memorable ones came during a boom time period for the WWF.
As the Attitude Era was heating up, former long-time enhancement talent Duane Gill returned to the company. A week after his return at Survivor Series ‘98, the goofy Gill won the Light Heavyweight Championship from Christian, thanks to the JOB Squad.
It wasn’t long before the wimpish wrestler was repackaged as Gillberg – a not-so-subtle shot at one of the biggest stars in rival promotion, WCW.
Gillberg commonly boasted about being the longest reigning Light Heavyweight Champion of all time at 15 months. In reality, the title was rarely ever defended. Despite being a clear write-off, he actually got a fair few wins as well as a shot at Shane McMahon’s European title.
On the September 2nd, 1999 episode of SmackDown, Gillberg challenged Triple H for the WWF Championship. Triple H was a few days into his first run with the top title when Shane McMahon said that HHH would face a "baldheaded SOB," implying that it would be Steve Austin before it was revealed to be Gillberg. Gill got a few spears in, but the match lasted less than two minutes, and a decisive victory went to The Game.
Watch Triple H and Gillberg Face-Off for the WWF Championship:
5. “The Genius” Lanny Poffo
For his first few years in the WWF, “Leaping Lanny” was a face enhancement talent, sometimes scoring wins but mostly jobbing to the company’s more prominent names. After four years of the gimmick, it was time for a reinvention.
In 1989, Poffo was rechristened as “The Genius” – reading insulting poetry to the fans, berating the local sports team, and boasting of his own superiority. He would coronate his brother Randy Savage as the Macho King before forging an alliance with Mr. Perfect.
This is around the time where he had a high-profile match on Saturday Night’s Main Event against Hulk Hogan.
Poffo would defeat the world’s champion by count-out after the Immortal One was smashed in the face with his own belt by Hennig.
Although it was only a count-out victory, it was Hogan’s first loss on television in years. This entertaining match-up is also Kenny Omega’s favorite match!
Mr. Perfect and The Genius went on to steal the title and destroyed it with a hammer. This kicked off a series of house show circuit WWF title matches.
Despite his shock win over Hogan, Lanny Poffo did not spend long at the top. He would soon start feuding with Hogan’s friend Brutus Beefcake before slipping further down the card, mostly reduced to house show appearances and managing the Beverly Brothers before being let go from the company in 1992.
Watch “The Genius” Lanny Poffo Defeat Hulk Hogan on Saturday Night’s Main Event:
4. Taka Michinoku
Taka Michinoku was a brilliant pro wrestler in WWE. Emerging during the early days of the Attitude Era, he was a reliable curtain-jerker and consistently put on great cruiserweight encounters, despite the lack of a division. His run as the first officially recognized WWE Light Heavyweight Champion ended after nearly a year, and they had little to do with Taka. Soon, he joined up with fellow Japanese talents to form Kai En Tai.
By 2000, Michinoku and Funaki were lovable enhancement talent known for their badly-dubbed English promos. Just a few days removed from WrestleMania that year, Taka answered a Triple H open challenge for his world title. Despite his clear lack of chance, he did have help in the form of the APA.
With fast and fiery offense, Taka got multiple near-falls on The Game. A moonsault after interference from JBL and Funaki was almost a cause for a Taka coronation. After more shenanigans from a scuffle at ringside, Triple H hit the pedigree and the pin to hold on to his belt in a surprisingly competitive match.
There was no push or upward trajectory after his efforts, as for that one night exclusively, Taka got to show how good he truly was, without the comedy strings attached.
Watch: Triple H vs. Taka Michinoku WWE Championship Match
3. “Iron” Mike Sharpe
Old school wrestling fans will likely fondly remember “Iron” Mike Sharpe. Originally managed by Captain Lou Albano in the WWF, “Canada’s Greatest Athlete” quickly rose-up the card. Yelling throughout matches in an over-the-top manner and wearing some of the largest wrestling tights pre-Lars Sullivan, he soon got a WWF Championship match against Bob Backlund.
Sharpe fought the polarising champion for the gold on April 30th, 1983, at the Philadelphia Spectrum. Backlund was a comfortable five years into his near six-year run on top when challenged by Sharpe. The match lasted nearly 20 minutes, with almost the whole bout being filled with rest-holds before a faster pace picked up in the final few minutes.
Counting Sharpe’s loaded forearm finishing maneuver, Backlund used his signature bridging O’Connor Roll to win. “Iron” Mike would not reach such heights again.
Sharpe has become legendary since, as WWF’s resident journeyman from then on. Losing to the likes of Koko B. Ware, Ivan Putski, and Mr. Perfect. However, Sharpe did wrestle Backlund again in 1993 after Bob’s return, with Backlund winning decisively in a few minutes. No reference was made to their previous world title match.
2. Brooklyn Brawler
The resident enhancement talent throughout the ’90s — taking that claim from Mike Sharpe — The Brooklyn Brawler actually contended for the WWF Championship.
The ragged Yankee character was managed by Bobby Heenan at first, with the Bronx Brawler going on to play many roles over his career, such as Kim Chee, Abe ‘Knuckleball’ Schwartz, Doink The Clown, and more. Still, none brought him significant success, so why and how did he get a world title shot?
There is a story about the real-life Steve Lombardi that if the company needed him, he could get to the wanted location, no matter the circumstances. However, this time the event took place in his very hometown. It was here where he was rewarded for all his hard work.
The Brooklyn Brawler won a 20-man Battle Royal in New York on September 22nd, 1997, on Shotgun Saturday Night.
That coming November, he received a title shot where he arrived to a hero’s welcome and the theme song “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra.
He went 15 minutes with World Champion Shawn Michaels, but DX members Triple H and Chyna ensured HBK kept hold of the belt.
Whilst he did get some occasional big wins – most notably pinning Triple H in on an episode of SmackDown – The Brooklyn Brawler was fodder to almost everybody. Thus, making it more surprising that he was ever granted a WWE Championship match.
1. Stephanie McMahon
Well, should we be so shocked? Pretty much every McMahon has had a title match – Shane has had a shot, Vince won the ECW strap and the big title, so I guess it should be no surprise that the Billion Dollar Princess had the opportunity to gain even more bling.
Shortly after WrestleMania X8, Triple H was world champion, and the McMahon daughter was with Chris Jericho on-screen. This dynamic would lead to a triple threat match on March 25th, 2002’s Monday Night Raw.
In the match, Jericho and Stephanie’s numbers game caught up with the world champion as the "woman who gave birth to the Women’s Revolution" constantly intercepted her husband’s momentum.
In the end, Steph broke up a pin after the pedigree on Jericho. Triple H reeled his wife into a double-A spinebuster to win the match, pinning the forgotten former Women’s Champion.
Watch the ending of Triple H vs. Stephanie McMahon vs. Chris Jericho for the WWF Undisputed Championship:
As WWE has gone more PG, we haven’t seen an intergender title match like this in a long time. However, it is not entirely out of the picture in the modern-day, and only time will tell if WWE decides to go down this road again.
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