Here’s an interesting trivia fact that you can use to impress your friends: the WWE World Heavyweight Title (and the unified World titles that make it up) has been vacated more times than it has been won by John Cena, who is the the active leader with 15 World title reigns (Ric Flair is the clubhouse leader with 16 recognized reigns, with Cena expected to pass him any day now). Even over the belt’s long history, that’s an astonishing number of breaks in the lineage. In fact, if you count the total number of days that the WWE’s World titles have been vacant, it would actually exceed the total title length of the title reigns of many former Champions. Sometimes, it’s been due to major injuries forcing their hand, but several times, WWE actually scripted the vacancy as part of their story lines. We’ll leave it up to you to decide if that was always a good plan or not, but here’s a list of the most interesting situations where WWE found themselves, for one reason or another, without a World Champion.
11. Two Reigns For The Price Of One (2004)
So, Triple H was deep in the middle of his reign of terror over Raw, which lasted roughly two years and irritated a whole lot of wrestling fans. At this point, we were finishing up the entire “Randy Orton fails horribly as a face” portion of the story, but WWE was still keeping up appearances that he was a credible challenger for Triple H’s World title, while subtly building Batista to take his spot by being stronger, cooler, and smarter than his Evolution team-mates. At any rate, Orton’s team had defeated Triple H’s team at Survivor Series, with the stipulation that each member of the winning team got to run Raw for a week as GM. Orton’s plan for his week in charge was, of course, to book himself in a title match, and if Triple H refused to face him, he would be forced to face the entire Raw roster in a battle royal for the title instead. Somehow, that got modified in the days leading up to the show, and in the end, Triple H refused to face Orton and was instead put into a World title match against the winner of a battle royal, or in this case, winners, as Edge and Chris Benoit eliminated each other at the end and turned the title match into a Triple Threat. And that match also had an inconclusive finish, as Edge tapped out to the Crossface while Benoit’s shoulders were counted down. The title was declared vacant, and was put up for grabs at the New Year’s Revolution Pay Per View inside the Elimination Chamber, where after a hard-fought match Triple H won his title back and everything went back to how it was before, except now Triple H had an additional reign to his name. Why, yes, he was pretty obviously trying to beat Ric Flair’s record at that point, how did you know?
10. The Vacancy That Never Happened
Way back in 1979, the WWWF Champion was Bob Backlund, in the middle of what would become a nearly five-year title reign. But during a tour of Japan late in the year, Backlund would actually lose the title to famed wrestler Antonio Inoki, leading to a rematch where the title was declared vacant due to outside interference by Inoki’s rival, Tiger Jeet Singh. Officially, Backlund won the belt back when he returned to North America, in a match which didn’t even involve Inoki. However, WWE does not recognize Inoki’s title reign in any way, and basically pretends it never happened, with Backlund’s title reign considered to be unbroken until he lost it to the Iron Shiek in 1983. This was actually a common practice by both WWE and the NWA at the time, where their champion would lose the title to the local Japanese star during an overseas tour, but end up with the belt after the trip ended, while pretending that nothing had happened in Japan. That’s part of the reason why it’s possible to claim that Ric Flair has at least 22 World Title reigns, but WWE (and the wrestling world in general) only recognize 16.
9. The Nonsensical Fast Count (2013)
After losing the WWE Title he’d won only minutes earlier by defeating John Cena at SummerSlam, through a combination of Randy Orton cashing in Money in the Bank and referee Triple H screwing him over, Daniel Bryan was out for revenge. And Triple H, in his role as The Authority (remember when that was a new thing?) continued to try and find ways to prevent Bryan from winning the title back. One such ridiculous plot involved referee Scott Armstrong deliberately fast-counting Orton to give Bryan the victory at the Night of Champions Pay Per View, then having Triple H strip him of the title by revealing the fast count. On one hand, at least he didn’t just hand the title back to Orton the same night, but we did get a good long period where nobody was actually WWE Champion, due to the next Pay Per View match between Orton and Bryan ending in a no-decision when Big Show ran in and punched out everyone for vague reasons involving job security. Eventually, Orton would win the title back for good at the Hell in a Cell Pay Per View, when Bryan got screwed over by a referee yet again, this time in the form of Shawn Michaels, for reasons that were also fairly stupid and mostly centered around WWE’s alleged desire to shuffle Bryan out of the main event scene. The good news is, that backfired horribly on them a few months later.
8. Daniel Bryan Shocks The World (2014)
We just talked about how Bryan lost the WWE Title through a series of screwy finishes, but this is the story of how he got it back in the end. His loss to Orton at Hell in a Cell was actually supposed to be the end of his pursuit, and he was written into a story line where he was eventually forced to join the Wyatt Family and move completely out of the title picture. However, this did not sit well with the WWE fan base, who had grown attached to Bryan for his likable underdog personality and excellent wrestling abilities. The audience revolt became truly nasty at the Royal Rumble, and basically forced WWE to completely change their plans for WrestleMania XXX, giving Bryan the biggest win of his career and the WWE World Heavyweight title. Unfortunately, Bryan would be forced to give up the title when it was discovered that he had a serious neck injury that would keep him out of the ring for the rest of the year (and after an aborted comeback in early 2015, actually forced his retirement from wrestling). Fans were decidedly unhappy with this development, especially when the entire story behind Bryan giving up the title turned into a ridiculous feud between Stephanie McMahon and Brie Bella. Don’t ask, you really don’t want to know.
7. John Cena’s Longest Reign Ends (2007)
In 2007, John Cena had probably the best year of his career. He wrestled some of his best matches against opponents that nobody could have predicted he would have even passable bouts with, including Umaga, The Great Khali, and a very inexperienced Bobby Lashley. He even got to have two classic one-on-one matches with Shawn Michaels, including an incredible hour-long match on Raw after WrestleMania that won several Match of the Year awards. During the whole time, he held the WWE Championship for 380 days, the longest reign in 19 years at the time. Unfortunately, that reign would come to a crashing halt after a meaningless match with Mr. Kennedy on the last Raw before the No Mercy Pay Per View. Somehow, during the match, Cena tore his pectoral tendon so severely that he was expected to be out for months, and was forced to immediately vacate the title. Orton would be awarded the belt at Backlash (then lose it immediately to Triple H, only to win it back later that same night, because Triple H still hadn’t given up on passing Flair at that point), and Cena would make a surprise return at the 2008 Royal Rumble, far ahead of schedule.
6. The Main Event (1988)
If you think John Cena holding the title for a year is impressive, back in the 80’s, Hulk Hogan held the WWF Title for over 4 years! And that isn’t even the longest reign in history, because Bruno Sammartino held it for over eight! In 1988, it was beginning to look like there was nobody on the planet who could conceivably take the title from Hogan. Ultimately, it was trickery which ended Hogan’s first World title reign, as Ted DiBiase paid off a crooked referee to replace the normal ref (played by Dave and Earl Hebner, who were actually twins) in a title match between Hogan and Andre the Giant. The evil referee counted Hogan down, despite video footage clearly showing that his shoulder was up well before the three count, and awarded the belt to Andre. Controversy reared its head, especially after Andre immediately handed the belt to DiBiase, revealing the master plan, and WWF President Jack Tunney was forced to declare the belt vacant. The result was a ten-man tournament at WrestleMania IV (with Hogan and Andre receiving a bye, but forced to face each other in their first match), with the winner being declared WWF Champion. In the end, it was neither Hogan nor Andre who emerged victorious, but “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who defeated Ted DiBiase to win his first World title.
5. Edge Retires (2011)
Coming out of a WrestleMania where he’d successfully defended the World Heavyweight Championship against Alberto Del Rio, a man who had just won the largest Royal Rumble in history and whom everyone figured was going to win the title, Edge was doing pretty well, all things considered. But without warning, he received the worst news possible from his doctors: his neck injuries over the years (including a major surgical procedure done to repair damage in 2003) were adding up, and it was physically unsafe for him to continue wrestling. On the very next episode of Raw, a week after his big win at WrestleMania, Edge stepped into the ring and announced his immediate retirement. It was a shocking moment for wrestling fans everywhere, as there had been no indication at all leading up to the show until WWE themselves advertised his big announcement just before Raw went on the air. Surprisingly, the vacant title was not immediately claimed by Alberto Del Rio, but by Edge’s best friend Christian, who defeated Del Rio in a Ladder Match at the Extreme Rules Pay Per View, giving Christian his first World title reign.
4. Vince McMahon Wins The WWF Title (1999)
After decisively losing his war with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin when Austin defeated The Undertaker and forced him off television as a result, Mr. McMahon returned later that year professing to be a changed man. Due to a strange series of events, Vince also ended up in a WWF Title match on Smackdown against the recently-crowned champion, Triple H, in what was actually his first (of many) World title reigns. Due to interference from his old nemesis, Steve Austin, Vince somehow defeated Triple H and was declared the WWF Champion. His reign was short-lived, however, as he voluntarily vacated the title after agreeing to abide by the stipulations which prevented him from appearing on TV at all (Austin would later allow Vince to be re-instated in exchange for a WWF Title shot, which he never actually got due to being sidelined with a neck injury). The vacant title was put up for grabs in a Six Pack Challenge match at the Unforgiven Pay Per View, where Triple H would emerge victorious and reclaim the championship (you may have noticed that this happened a lot).
3. This Tuesday In Texas (1992)
Just a year into his WWE tenure, The Undertaker was already establishing himself as one of the dominant forces in sports entertainment. As a result (and as part of one of several experiments run by WWE over the years to see if audiences would watch Pay Per Views on nights other than Sundays, the answer to which has always ended up being “No”), he was entered in a match against WWF Champion Hulk Hogan at the Survivor Series Pay Per View in 1991, and thanks to interference from Ric Flair, defeated Hogan to win the title. The re-match happened almost immediately, at a special Pay Per View titled “This Tuesday In Texas”, where Hogan regained the title. However, due to copious amounts of outside interference from multiple parties, the result was disputed, leading WWF President Jack Tunney to declare the belt vacant. It was determined that the winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble would be awarded the championship, with Hogan and Undertaker guaranteed entry numbers in the final ten, giving them a slight advantage. And in one of the greatest Rumble matches in history, Ric Flair entered at #3 and survived all the way to the end to win his first WWF Championship.
2. Shawn Michaels Loses His Smile (1997)
This is possibly the most infamous way a title has ever been vacated, and it took place in February of 1997, when Shawn Michaels entered the ring on a special Thursday edition of Raw and declared that he was forfeiting the WWF Title because of a potentially career-ending knee injury, and also because wrestling wasn’t fun anymore. Or something. It’s difficult to expend the effort to remember exactly what he said, because it’s become commonly accepted fact that Michaels was lying about the severity of his knee injury in order to get out of dropping the title in an expected re-match with Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13, and thus everything he said was garbage. At any rate, the title was now vacant, and was subsequently won by Bret Hart in a Fatal Four-Way elimination match at the In Your House: Final Four Pay Per View. Of course, Bret would then lose the title to Sid the next night, which led to Sid vs The Undertaker at WrestleMania (a match we’ve discussed before, for all the wrong reasons), and which also led Hart to become more than a little irritated by the actions of Michaels. That would eventually explode into a full-on real life feud over the rest of the year, and culminate in the Montreal Screwjob.
1. The Deadly Game Tournament (1998)
One of the most well-known times where WWE found itself without a champion also led to one of its biggest surprises, and the revelation of a plan so fiendishly clever it’s considered one of WWE’s proudest creative ideas. As part of his ongoing war with Steve Austin, Vince McMahon put him in a clear no-win situation, where Austin was forced to face the united Brothers of Destruction, Kane and The Undertaker, in a Triple Threat match. However, at the end of the match, both Kane and The Undertaker pinned Austin at the same time, leading to controversy. Vince McMahon ordered a match between the two brothers for the now-vacant title, with Austin as referee, ordered to referee by the book, or be fired. Austin refused, declared himself the victor, and was immediately fired by McMahon. The title remained vacant until Survivor Series, where an fourteen-man tournament was held in a single night (with Kane and Undertaker receiving a first-round bye, but just like Hogan and Andre, forced to face each other), and in a shocking series of events, The Rock was revealed to be the hand-picked Corporate Champion, screwing over Mankind (who had been seen as Vince’s chosen winner in the weeks leading up to the tournament) in the finals to win his first WWF Championship.