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The World Heavyweight Championship: A Plunge into History and Politics

Posted by Ben Simon on December 14, 2013

By Ben Simon

Art by Rob Schamberger

Updated 5/4/15

In December 2013, Randy Orton and John Cena met to unify the WWE and “World Heavyweight” championships.  After the match, there was one world heavyweight champion in all (the top level) of pro wrestling.  It got me to thinking, can I trace the best lineage of champions all the way from the beginning?

Thesz by Schambergerfrankgotch01

At any time in history, who was the real Heavyweight Champion of the World?

For this project, I had to decide what my definition of “world champion” is.  To many of my friends on the independent circuit, if a title is defended on different continents, it can be a “world title.”  Instead, this lineage follows the title that a wrestling industry majority considers to be the most prestigious at any given time.

Let me lay out some ground rules and specifications.  First, this is not a lineal championship; one doesn’t necessarily have “to beat the man to be the man,” although that is how it almost always works out.  Second, the man can only be the champion if he is recognized as such by the strongest sanctioning group or promoter; Ric Flair‘s “real world champ” campaign in the WWF wasn’t official.  Finally, only one champion can exist at any time; in the summer of 2011, there were two WWE champs simultaneously but that doesn’t apply here.

Georg Hackenschmidt Tom Jenkins New York City, N.Y. 5/4/1905 4/3/1908
Frank Gotch Georg Hackenschmidt Chicago, Ill. 4/3/1908 4/1/1913
Joe Stecher Charlie Cutler Omaha, Neb. 7/5/1915 4/9/1917
Earl Caddock Joe Stecher Omaha, Neb. 4/9/1917 1/30/1920
Joe Stecher Earl Caddock New York City, N.Y. 1/30/1920 12/13/1920
Ed Lewis Joe Stecher New York City, N.Y. 12/13/1920 5/6/1921
Stanislaus Zbyszko Ed Lewis New York City, N.Y. 5/6/1921 3/3/1922
Ed Lewis Stanislaus Zbyszko Wichita, Kan. 3/3/1922 1/8/1925
Wayne Munn Ed Lewis Wichita, Kan. 1/8/1925 4/15/1925
Stanislaus Zbyszko Wayne Munn Philadelphia, Pa. 4/15/1925 5/30/1925
Joe Stecher Stanislaus Zbyszko Saint Louis, Mo. 5/30/1925 2/21/1928
Ed Lewis Joe Stecher Saint Louis, Mo. 2/21/1928 1/4/1929
Gus Sonnenberg Ed Lewis Boston, Mass. 1/4/1929 7/1/1929
Jim Londos Dick Shikat Philadelphia, Pa. 6/6/1930 6/27/1935
Danno O’Mahony Jim Londos Boston, Mass. 6/27/1935 3/2/1936
Dick Shikat Danno O’Mahony New York City, N.Y. 3/2/1936 4/25/1936
Ali Baba Dick Shikat Detroit, Mich. 4/25/1936 6/26/1936
Everett Marshall Ali Baba Columbus, Ohio 6/26/1936 9/1/1936
John Pesek Awarded N/A 9/13/1937 9/13/1937
Lou Thesz Everett Marshall Saint Louis, Mo. 12/29/1937 2/11/1938
Steve Casey Lou Thesz Boston, Mass. 2/11/1938 9/1/1938
Everett Marshall Awarded N/A 9/14/1938 2/23/1939
Lou Thesz Everett Marshall Saint Louis, Mo. 2/23/1939 6/23/1939
Bronko Nagurski Lou Thesz Houston, Texas 6/23/1939 3/7/1940
Ray Steele Bronko Nagurski Saint Louis, Mo. 3/7/1940 3/11/1941
Bronko Nagurski Ray Steele Houston, Texas 3/11/1941 6/5/1941
Sandor Szabo Bronko Nagurski Saint Louis, Mo. 6/5/1941 2/19/1942
Bill Longson Sandor Szabo Saint Louis, Mo. 2/19/1942 10/7/1942
Yvon Robert Bill Longson Montreal, Canada 10/7/1942 11/27/1942
Bobby Managoff Yvon Robert Houston, Texas 11/27/1942 2/19/1943
Bill Longson Bobby Managoff Saint Louis, Mo. 2/19/1943 2/21/1947
Whipper Billy Watson Bill Longson Saint Louis, Mo. 2/21/1947 4/25/1947
Lou Thesz Whipper Billy Watson Saint Louis, Mo. 4/25/1947 11/21/1947
Bill Longson Lou Thesz Houston, Texas 11/21/1947 7/10/1948
Lou Thesz Bill Longson Indianapolis, Ind. 7/10/1948 3/15/1956
Whipper Billy Watson Lou Thesz Toronto, Canada 3/15/1956 11/9/1956
Lou Thesz Whipper Billy Watson Saint Louis, Mo. 11/9/1956 11/14/1957
Dick Hutton Lou Thesz Toronto, Canada 11/14/1957 1/9/1959
Pat O’Connor Dick Hutton Saint Louis, Mo. 1/9/1959 6/30/1961
Buddy Rogers Pat O’Connor Chicago, Ill. 6/30/1961 1/24/1963
Lou Thesz Buddy Rogers Toronto, Canada 1/24/1963 1/7/1966
Gene Kiniski Lou Thesz Saint Louis, Mo. 1/7/1966 2/11/1969
Dory Funk Gene Kiniski Tampa, Fla. 2/11/1969 5/24/1973
Harley Race Dory Funk Kansas City, Mo. 5/24/1973 7/20/1973
Jack Brisco Harley Race Houston, Texas 7/20/1973 12/2/1974
Giant Baba Jack Brisco Kagoshima, Japan 12/2/1974 12/9/1974
Jack Brisco Giant Baba Toyohashi, Japan 12/9/1974 12/10/1975
Terry Funk Jack Brisco Miami, Fla. 12/10/1975 2/6/1977
Harley Race Terry Funk Toronto, Canada 2/6/1977 8/21/1979
Dusty Rhodes Harley Race Tampa, Fla. 8/21/1979 8/26/1979
Harley Race Dusty Rhodes Orlando, Fla. 8/26/1979 10/31/1979
Giant Baba Harley Race Nagoya, Japan 10/31/1979 11/7/1979
Harley Race Giant Baba Amagasaki, Japan 11/7/1979 9/4/1980
Giant Baba Harley Race Saga, Japan 9/4/1980 9/9/1980
Harley Race Giant Baba Otsu, Japan 9/9/1980 4/27/1981
Tommy Rich Harley Race Augusta, Ga. 4/27/1981 5/1/1981
Harley Race Tommy Rich Gainesville, Ga. 5/1/1981 6/21/1981
Dusty Rhodes Harley Race Atlanta, Ga. 6/21/1981 9/17/1981
Ric Flair Dusty Rhodes Kansas City, Mo. 9/17/1981 6/10/1983
Harley Race Ric Flair Saint Louis, Mo. 6/10/1983 11/24/1983
Ric Flair Harley Race Greensboro, N.C. 11/24/1983 5/6/1984
Kerry Von Erich Ric Flair Irving, Texas 5/6/1984 5/24/1984
Ric Flair Kerry Von Erich Yokosuka, Japan 5/24/1984 7/26/1986
Dusty Rhodes Ric Flair Greensboro, N.C. 7/26/1986 8/9/1986
Ric Flair Dusty Rhodes Saint Louis, Mo. 8/9/1986 9/25/1987
Ron Garvin Ric Flair Detroit, Mich. 9/25/1987 11/26/1987
Ric Flair Ron Garvin Chicago, Ill. 11/26/1987 2/20/1989
Ricky Steamboat Ric Flair Chicago, Ill. 2/20/1989 5/7/1989
Ric Flair Ricky Steamboat Nashville, Tenn. 5/7/1989 7/7/1990
Sting Ric Flair Baltimore, Md. 7/7/1990 1/11/1991
Ric Flair Sting East Rutherford, N.J. 1/11/1991 9/8/1991
Ric Flair 29 Men Albany, N.Y. 1/19/1992 4/5/1992
Randy Savage Ric Flair Indianapolis, Ind. 4/5/1992 9/1/1992
Ric Flair Randy Savage Hershey, Pa. 9/1/1992 10/12/1992
Bret Hart Ric Flair Saskatoon, Canada 10/12/1992 4/4/1993
Yokozuna Bret Hart Las Vegas, Nev. 4/4/1993 4/4/1993
Hulk Hogan Yokozuna Las Vegas, Nev. 4/4/1993 6/13/1993
Yokozuna Hulk Hogan Dayton, Ohio 6/13/1993 3/20/1994
Bret Hart Yokozuna New York City, N.Y. 3/20/1994 11/23/1994
Bob Backlund Bret Hart San Antonio, Texas 11/23/1994 11/26/1994
Diesel Bob Backlund New York City, N.Y. 11/26/1994 11/19/1995
Bret Hart Diesel Landover, Md. 11/19/1995 3/31/1996
Shawn Michaels Bret Hart Anaheim, Calif. 3/31/1996 11/17/1996
Sycho Sid Shawn Michaels New York City, N.Y. 11/17/1996 1/19/1997
Shawn Michaels Sycho Sid San Antonio, Texas 1/19/1997 2/13/1997
Bret Hart 3 Men Chattanooga, Tenn. 2/16/1997 2/17/1997
Sycho Sid Bret Hart Nashville, Tenn. 2/17/1997 3/23/1997
The Undertaker Sycho Sid Rosemont, Ill. 3/23/1997 8/3/1997
Bret Hart The Undertaker East Rutherford, N.J. 8/3/1997 11/9/1997
Shawn Michaels Bret Hart Montreal, Canada 11/9/1997 3/29/1998
Steve Austin Shawn Michaels Boston, Mass. 3/29/1998 6/28/1998
Kane Steve Austin Pittsburgh, Pa. 6/28/1998 6/29/1998
Steve Austin Kane Cleveland, Ohio 6/29/1998 9/27/1998
The Rock Mankind Saint Louis, Mo. 11/15/1998 12/29/1998
Mankind The Rock Worcester, Mass. 12/29/1998 1/24/1999
The Rock Mankind Anaheim, Calif. 1/24/1999 1/26/1999
Mankind The Rock Tucson, Ariz. 1/26/1999 2/15/1999
The Rock Mankind Birmingham, Ala. 2/15/1999 3/28/1999
Steve Austin The Rock Philadelphia, Pa. 3/28/1999 5/23/1999
The Undertaker Steve Austin Kansas City, Mo. 5/23/1999 6/28/1999
Steve Austin The Undertaker Charlotte, N.C. 6/28/1999 8/22/1999
Mankind Austin + 1 Man Minneapolis, Minn. 8/22/1999 8/23/1999
Triple H Mankind Ames, Iowa 8/23/1999 9/14/1999
Mr. McMahon Triple H Las Vegas, Nev. 9/14/1999 9/20/1999
Triple H 5 Men Charlotte, N.C. 9/26/1999 11/14/1999
The Big Show Triple H + 1 Man Detroit, Mich. 11/14/1999 1/3/2000
Triple H The Big Show Miami, Fla. 1/3/2000 4/30/2000
The Rock Triple H Washington, D.C. 4/30/2000 5/21/2000
Triple H The Rock Louisville, Ky. 5/21/2000 6/25/2000
The Rock Triple H + 4 Men Boston, Mass. 6/25/2000 10/22/2000
Kurt Angle The Rock Albany, N.Y. 10/22/2000 2/25/2001
The Rock Kurt Angle Las Vegas, Nev. 2/25/2001 4/1/2001
Steve Austin The Rock Houston, Texas 4/1/2001 9/23/2001
Kurt Angle Steve Austin Pittsburgh, Pa. 9/23/2001 10/8/2001
Steve Austin Kurt Angle Indianapolis, Ind. 10/8/2001 12/9/2001
Chris Jericho Steve Austin San Diego, Calif. 12/9/2001 3/17/2002
Triple H Chris Jericho Toronto, Canada 3/17/2002 4/21/2002
Hulk Hogan Triple H Kansas City, Mo. 4/21/2002 5/19/2002
The Undertaker Hulk Hogan Nashville, Tenn. 5/19/2002 7/21/2002
The Rock Undertaker + 1 Man Detroit, Mich. 7/21/2002 8/25/2002
Brock Lesnar The Rock Uniondale, N.Y. 8/25/2002 11/17/2002
The Big Show Brock Lesnar New York City, N.Y. 11/17/2002 12/15/2002
Kurt Angle The Big Show Sunrise, Fla. 12/15/2002 3/30/2003
Brock Lesnar Kurt Angle Seattle, Wash. 3/30/2003 7/27/2003
Kurt Angle Lesnar + 1 Man Denver, Colo. 7/27/2003 9/16/2003
Brock Lesnar Kurt Angle Raleigh, N.C. 9/16/2003 2/15/2004
Eddie Guerrero Brock Lesnar Daly City, Calif. 2/15/2004 6/27/2004
John Layfield Eddie Guerrero Norfolk, Va. 6/27/2004 4/3/2005
John Cena John Layfield Los Angeles, Calif. 4/3/2005 1/8/2006
Edge John Cena Albany, N.Y. 1/8/2006 1/29/2006
John Cena Edge Miami, Fla. 1/29/2006 6/11/2006
Rob Van Dam John Cena New York City, N.Y. 6/11/2006 7/3/2006
Edge Van Dam + 1 Man Philadelphia, Pa. 7/3/2006 9/17/2006
John Cena Edge Toronto, Canada 9/17/2006 10/2/2007
Randy Orton Awarded Rosemont, Ill. 10/7/2007 10/7/2007
Triple H Randy Orton Rosemont, Ill. 10/7/2007 10/7/2007
Randy Orton Triple H Rosemont, Ill. 10/7/2007 4/27/2008
Triple H Orton + 2 Men Baltimore, Md. 4/27/2008 11/23/2008
Edge Triple H + 1 Man Boston, Mass. 11/23/2008 12/14/2008
Jeff Hardy Edge + 1 Man Buffalo, N.Y. 12/14/2008 1/25/2009
Edge Jeff Hardy Detroit, Mich. 1/25/2009 2/15/2009
Triple H Edge + 4 Men Seattle, Wash. 2/15/2009 4/26/2009
Randy Orton Triple H + 4 Men Providence, R.I. 4/26/2009 6/7/2009
Batista Randy Orton New Orleans, La. 6/7/2009 6/9/2009
Randy Orton 3 Men Charlotte, N.C. 6/15/2009 9/13/2009
John Cena Randy Orton Montreal, Canada 9/13/2009 10/4/2009
Randy Orton John Cena Newark, N.J. 10/4/2009 10/25/2009
John Cena Randy Orton Pittsburgh, Pa. 10/25/2009 12/13/2009
Sheamus John Cena San Antonio, Texas 12/13/2009 2/21/2010
John Cena Sheamus + 4 Men Saint Louis, Mo. 2/21/2010 2/21/2010
Batista John Cena Saint Louis, Mo. 2/21/2010 3/28/2010
John Cena Batista Glendale, Ariz. 3/28/2010 6/20/2010
Sheamus Cena + 2 Men Uniondale, N.Y. 6/20/2010 9/19/2010
Randy Orton Sheamus + 4 Men Rosemont, Ill. 9/19/2010 11/22/2010
The Miz Randy Orton Orlando, Fla. 11/22/2010 5/1/2011
John Cena Miz + 1 Man Tampa, Fla. 5/1/2011 7/17/2011
CM Punk John Cena Rosemont, Ill. 7/17/2011 8/14/2011
Alberto Del Rio CM Punk Los Angeles, Calif. 8/14/2011 9/18/2011
John Cena Alberto Del Rio Buffalo, N.Y. 9/18/2011 10/2/2011
Alberto Del Rio Cena + 1 Man New Orleans, La. 10/2/2011 11/20/2011
CM Punk Alberto Del Rio New York City, N.Y. 11/20/2011 1/27/2013
The Rock CM Punk Phoenix, Ariz. 1/27/2013 4/7/2013
John Cena The Rock East Rutherford, N.J. 4/7/2013 8/8/2013
Daniel Bryan John Cena Los Angeles, Calif. 8/18/2013 8/18/2013
Randy Orton Daniel Bryan Los Angeles, Calif. 8/18/2013 9/15/2013
Daniel Bryan Randy Orton Detroit, Mich. 9/15/2013 9/16/2013
Randy Orton Daniel Bryan Miami, Fla. 10/27/2013 4/6/2014
Daniel Bryan Orton + 1 Man New Orleans, La. 4/6/2014 6/9/2014
John Cena 7 Men Boston, Mass. 6/29/2014 8/17/2014
Brock Lesnar John Cena Los Angeles, Calif. 8/17/2014 3/29/2015
Seth Rollins Lesnar + 1 Man Santa Clara, Calif. 3/29/2015 present


In 1905, Hackenschmidt established himself as the de facto champ with his win over Jenkins.

In 1915, Joe Stecher was the first real successor to the throne following Gotch’s retirement.  Cutler and Schoenlein were not widely-accepted claimants.

In 1929, Gus Sonnenberg was stripped by all of the athletic commissions that went on to form the National Wrestling Association.  This was the start of Tom Packs’s (St. Louis, NWA) vs. Paul Bowser’s (AWA, Boston) promotional squabbles.  Sonnenberg remained AWA champ, but the commissions of the NWA had more power, territory, and recognition.  July 1st, 1929 is listed as an approximation of the stripping.

In 1930, Jim Londos  beat NYSAC Champion Dick Shikat for Shikat’s title.  From this, the NWA commissions recognized Londos as their champion too.  This made “The Golden Greek” the real world champion.

In 1936, Everett Marshall’s public recognition ceased because the NWA wanted to have a tournament to crown a champion.  September 1st, 1936 is an approximation of the reign’s end.

In 1937, John Pesek was given the NWA Title after being the only wrestler to pay to enter the tournament.  His recognition was withdrawn shortly later.  Pesek was a real badass, but the reign was a joke.  He didn’t win or lose the title in the ring.  September 13th, 1937 is an approximation of the reign’s end (in the public eye).

In 1937, Lou Thesz beat Marshall for the AWA (Boston) Championship.  It is uncertain but probable that the National Wrestling Association sanctioned this as well, retroactively.  It was for the Boston title in St. Louis (a NWA town!).  The NWA perhaps still recognized Pesek’s reign at this time, but Thesz was the man!

In 1938, Steve Casey was stripped of his mainstream recognition due to his affiliation and exclusivity with the AWA.  A bogus reason was given that Casey was “out of the country;” if only the Internet existed then!  Everett Marshall is awarded the NWA Title that had been taken from him two years prior.  Casey’s title end is approximated.

From Marshall in 1938 to Thesz in 1949, my lineage follows the old NWA’s official list.

In 1949 during Thesz’s reign, the National Wrestling Association and the new National Wrestling Alliance were consolidated.  The Association was losing ground to Sam Muchnick’s new Alliance before the merger.

From Thesz in 1949 to Flair in 1991, my lineage follows the new NWA’s official list.

In 1991, Flair’s conflict with NWA President Jim Herd came to a boil.  Flair left the Alliance and the Title for Vince McMahon’s WWF.  Succession is interrupted for the first time in 53 years.

In 1992, Ric Flair wins the WWF’s Royal Rumble match and the WWF Championship.  The WWF had been expanding since 1983 and this event seemed to shift fans’ interest in favor of the WWF Title.  “Real World Champion,” indeed!

From Flair in 1992 to present day, my lineage follows WWE’s official WWE Championship list, with one exception.  CM Punk was deemed to be an official champion in the summer of 2011.  Rey Mysterio’s and John Cena’s opposing reigns weren’t seen as the best; Punk’s is counted for that time.

This canon of world heavyweight champions may change with my philosophy someday.  However, I think pro wrestling is more fun with only one world champ at a time.  The title at the top means more.  Really, this is a list of the men who were the official champions of the top promotional entities of their days.

Even wrestlers in peak shape can have underlying health conditions, such as issues with their feet. Say if they have heel spurs, then they have to get more comfortable by getting one of the best shoes for heel spurs to protect your feet when outside of the ring.

I’m interested in what the MWR readers think of this.  Comment and let me know.


Real World Championship Fun Facts

  • Sheamus is the third Irish champion, behind Danno O’Mahony and Steve Casey.
  • Alberto Del Rio is the only Mexican champion.
  • Giant Baba is the only Japanese champion.
  • Saint Louis has the most title changes at 18.  New York City is in second with 11.  Thanks, Tom and Sam!
  • Lou Thesz has the longest single reign ever at 2,805 days.
  • Semi-related house cleaning: Georg Hackenschmidt’s name misses the “e” on purpose.  It’s pronounced “Gay-Org.”
  • The 30’s were confusing and really difficult to research.
  • Hulk Hogan clocks in at a mere 98 days.  His prime was during the wild 80’s, when Flair still had hold of the big belt.
  • Bruno Sammartino isn’t on this list.  Neither is Verne Gagne.  They were beloved champions but never held #1.
  • 72 Champions, 171 single reigns


All-Time Leaderboard

Lou Thesz 4628
Ric Flair 3236
Joe Stecher 1959
Bill Longson 1925
Jim Londos 1847
Frank Gotch 1824
Harley Race 1799
Dory Funk 1563
Ed Lewis 1504
John Cena 1220
Gene Kiniski 1131
Georg Hackenschmidt 1065
Earl Caddock 1026
Pat O’Connor 903
Jack Brisco 866
Bret Hart 654
Randy Orton 609
Brock Lesnar 579
Buddy Rogers 573
Triple H 539
Steve Austin 529
CM Punk 462
Terry Funk 424
Dick Hutton 421
Shawn Michaels 396
Ray Steele 369
The Rock 367
Diesel 358
Stanislaus Zbyszko 346
Bronko Nagurski 344
Whipper Billy Watson 302
Kurt Angle 297
John Layfield 280
Yokozuna 280
Sandor Szabo 259
Danno O’Mahony 249
The Undertaker 232
Everett Marshall 229
Steve Casey 202
Sting 188
Gus Sonnenberg 178
Sheamus 161
The Miz 160
Randy Savage 149
Edge 139
Eddie Guerrero 133
Dusty Rhodes 107
Chris Jericho 98
Hulk Hogan 98
Wayne Munn 97
Sycho Sid 97
Bobby Managoff 84
Alberto Del Rio 84
The Big Show 78
Ricky Steamboat 76
Daniel Bryan 65
Ali Baba 62
Ron Garvin 62
Dick Shikat 54
Yvon Robert 51
Mankind 47
Jeff Hardy 42
Batista 37
Seth Rollins 36 as of 5/4/15
Rob Van Dam 22
Giant Baba 19
Kerry Von Erich 18
Mr. McMahon 6
Tommy Rich 4
Bob Backlund 3
Kane 1
John Pesek 0

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