wrestling / Columns

Top 13 First-Time Major Championship Wins at WrestleMania

March 8, 2023 | Posted by Steve Cook
WrestleMania 31 Seth Rollins Image Credit: WWE

There’s a fairly decent chance that this year’s WrestleMania could end with a first-time WWE Champion. With the exception of time missed due to injury, Cody Rhodes has been on fire ever since returning to the company. If there’s one guy that people could see defeating the current undisputed WWE Universal Heavyweight Champion, it’s our man Cody. In storyline (and likely real life as well), Cody’s goal is to hold the one title that his father Dusty never got to hold and always wanted to, that of WWE Champion.

It isn’t going to be easy. This is Roman Reigns we’re talking about here. He’s held the championship for over 900 days and hasn’t been seriously threatened very often during the reign. Betting against Roman Reigns in a championship match here in 2023 is like betting against Max Verstappen in a Formula One race. Sure, there’s a chance he could lose…but it’s not much of a chance.

Should Cody complete the impossible dream, he’ll join a select list of WWE Superstars that have won their first WWE/World/Universal Championship at WrestleMania. Some of WWE’s biggest stars of all time, both in name value & physical size. How did their coronations on top of our so called sport rate in comparison with each other, and who is Cody looking to top if he wins at WrestleMania? Let’s find out!

13. Yokozuna (WrestleMania IX)

The 500 pound sumo wrestling machine had cut through the WWF competition like a hot knife through butter leading up to WrestleMania IX. Bret Hart had the wrestling skill to push Yoko to his limits, but the diabolical Mr. Fuji’s salt led to a new champion being crowned. Had things ended here, it would have been a rather pedestrian start to the reign of a dominant heel champion that got over because he was bigger than everybody else.

It got worse for the big guy. Back in 1993, people still believed that WrestleMania needed to have a happy ending. People also thought that Hulk Hogan, who had just returned to the company after his first retirement, still had a little juice left in him. In fairness, the Hulkster got quite the pop from the folks at Caesar’s Palace. Yoko would eventually get his crowning moment & end Hulkamania, but that wasn’t at WrestleMania.

12. Braun Strowman (WrestleMania 36)

11. Drew McIntyre (WrestleMania 36)

People get nostalgic for all types of old wrestling. Some like the territorial stylings of Mid-South, World Class, Memphis & countless others. Others are all about Jim Crockett Promotions, the AWA or the WWF of the 1980s. ECW & Smoky Mountain still have an appeal to this day. Heck, some of us get excited to see the early days of Ring of Honor again. I can’t fathom a world where people will someday get nostalgic for the days of WWE events taking place in the Performance Center & THUNDERDOME during the Covid-19 pandemic. A sterile environment lacking in emotion or gravitas that WWE had to produce television in for eleven months. Sure, it was nice to have weekly entertainment at a tough time for most of us. I still can’t imagine people twenty years into the future going back and listing their favorite matches & wrestlers from the “Pandemic Era”.

Who am I kidding? It’ll happen.

The point I’m getting to is that both Braun & Drew’s crowning moments suffered from taking place in a small, empty building. They also suffered due to iffy booking partially brought on by the pandemic. Braun was inserted into a match with Goldberg since Roman Reigns was unavailable. Drew beat Brock Lesnar in short order and then “got” to wrestle Big Show shortly after. Both fell flat to television audiences, it’s tough to tell how a live audience would have reacted.

10. Rey Mysterio (WrestleMania 22)

I have nothing but good things to say about Rey Mysterio as a wrestler. One of the finest talents of his era, which seems to keep going & going. People weren’t sure how he’d do in WWE at first, but he’s exceeded all expectations. From a kayfabe perspective, even if Rey’s always promoted as an underdog he overcomes those odds more often than not. Rey’s won nearly 64% of his WWE matches, and I’d assume pretty much all of them were against larger wrestlers. Unless he wrestled Hornswoggle. Rey’s been tremendously popular since entering WWE, and that’s never going to change.

Was Rey a deserving World Champion? Sure he was. The way they got to it didn’t really jibe with me & seemingly most people. Rey won the Royal Rumble & ended up in a Triple Threat match at WrestleMania 21, which was a pretty common trend at the time. One of the main reasons it didn’t click was because it seemed like Rey was only getting the opportunity as a tribute to the late Eddie Guerrero, Rey’s best friend & greatest rival. WWE did all they could to make it seem that way, having Randy Orton comment on how Eddie wasn’t in heaven to insert himself into the title picture. Chavo & Vickie Guerrero came out to celebrate with Rey afterward. While the intent was pure, Rey’s victory was more about Eddie than it was about crowning Rey.

Then the title reign commenced, and Rey dropped more matches against larger wrestlers than he ever had in his life. He was generally made to look like a lucky jabroni that had no real business holding a champonship. Which made sense because Rey’s big title-winning moment wasn’t about him.

9. Kofi Kingston (WrestleMania 35)

According to those in the know, the whole KofiMania thing wasn’t supposed to happen. Kingston replaced Mustafa Ali in a WWE Championship Elimination Chamber match due to an injury Ali had suffered. Ali was originally scheduled to have an impressive performance in the match that would lead to an extended push towards a WWE Championship match at WrestleMania for him. Kofi ended up getting that slot, and it probably worked better than an Ali push would have at the time. The fans were ready for Kofi to finally get a chance on top as a singles competitor after eleven years winning secondary titles & tag team championships.

Kofi’s big title win was one of those “You Deserve It” moments, which are good to have every once in awhile. Most successful first-time title wins fall into the “You Deserve It” or the “You’re The Future” category. There’s probably better names for these that some writer came up with years ago, I’m just spitballing here. The follow-up for Kofi wasn’t great, but the WrestleMania Moment itself was fantastic.

8. Chris Benoit (WrestleMania XX)

While we’re on the topic of “You Deserve It” title runs, here’s another one that fell into that category. Benoit had been considered one of the best in-ring wrestlers in the world for at least ten years prior to WrestleMania XX. While his work garnered appreciation from casual WWE fans & WCW fans over the years, his appeal wasn’t as strong with them as it was with the diehards. Those of us with Internet connections that sought out any wrestling we could find no matter where it was were the biggest Benoit supporters. That doesn’t mean Benoit’s ascension up the WWE ranks and into the spot of World Champion was expected. Most tried to talk themselves out of it, especially since the match was a Triple Threat also involving Triple H & Shawn Michaels.

Benoit overcame the odds and made The Game tap out. WWE Champion Eddie Guerrero came out to celebrate with Benoit. Confetti fell, and it was one of the best days in the life of a “smark”. Two of the Internet’s favorites were the top champions in WWE. It wasn’t going to last, and the memory would grow faded due to future happenings. Still, it was fun while it was going on.

7. John Cena (WrestleMania 21)

6. Batista (WrestleMania 21)

Earlier in the countdown we discussed how WrestleMania 36 crowned two first-time champions, but proved to be an unsuccessful launching pad due to circumstances beyond WWE’s control. Fifteen years prior, WWE used WrestleMania 21 to launch two wrestlers they saw a lot of potential in. It worked out pretty well. Cena & Batista had been earmarked for Top Guy Status since their arrival in Ohio Valley Wrestling. There were some early bumps in the road, but both were ready for their big moment by the time April 2005 rolled around.

Cena would prove to be the bigger long-term star of the two, as he was younger & more durable than Batista was. However, it was Batista that had the bigger moment on this night. His feud with Triple H leading into WrestleMania is one of the more fondly remembered events of the era, and H’s loss to the Animal certainly deserved the main event slot. Meanwhile, Cena’s match with John “Bradshaw” Layfield was ok. It served as a fine way to end JBL’s reign of terror, but at the end of the night it paled in comparison to the main event & a Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels classic that some said was the greatest match they’d ever seen. That being said, it was still the crowning of one of WWE’s biggest stars of all time, and its importance would increase as history further developed.

5. Seth Rollins (WrestleMania 31)

Rollins winning the championship the way he did on March 29, 2015 had positive & negative consequences. It established Rollins as a top star, a position which he’s held ever since. It was the largest platform that anybody had used to cash in their Money in the Bank contract. Rollins’ usage of the briefcase here was further proof that anything could happen in the World Wrestling Entertainment. Yes, some people had in fact predicted that Rollins would cash in at WrestleMania days before the show, but those same people had been predicting Rollins would cash in at every PPV for months prior. For most, it came as a surprise and opened the door to all sorts of new possibilities. It was a fun moment, which is why it ranks so highly on the list.

The negatives? The fact that WrestleMania already had several matches listed as a “main event” had already cheapened the term, having somebody run out unadvertised and insert themselves into the match cheapened it even further. More importantly, it set back the development of Roman Reigns as WWE’s unquestioned Big Dog, Island of Relevancy or whatever you want to call him. Had he defeated Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31 to win his first championship, I truly believe we could have avoided several years of a start-stop push of an alleged top babyface. Roman could have become Head of the Table long before he did, had WWE just stuck the landing with the finish to the first Reigns vs. Lesnar match.

4. Ultimate Warrior (WrestleMania VI)

The Ultimate Warrior had run through pretty much every bad guy in the WWF during two years in the Intercontinental Championship picture. There was one man he had to beat in order to be the top man in wrestling. The only problem? That man was Hulk Hogan. Which presented an Ultimate Challenge at WrestleMania VI, and quite the pickle for WWF fans.

Wrestling logic tells you that babyface vs. babyface main events are a bad idea. They split the audience. They force fans to make a choice between their favorite wrestlers. It’s much easier for everybody involved if you have a popular wrestler against a despicable heel, especially if you’re trying to make a new top babyface star. Warrior was set to be the next standard bearer for the WWF. Hogan was theoretically winding down to do other things. The torch needed to be passed, even if it provided the dreaded face vs. face result, and even if neither Warrior or Hogan were workrate marvels.

As it turned out, they had a heck of a match. Hogan did the job, Warrior got the big celebration, and it ended up being one of the all-time WrestleMania Moments that people still talk about today. Did it achieve the goal of making Ultimate Warrior the tippy top guy? Not really. Some diehard Hogan fans never really forgave the man. In any event, Warrior was the only guy to ever defeat the Hulkster in a WrestleMania main event. (Hogan vs. Rock should have been the WrestleMania X8 main event, but it wasn’t.)

3. Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XII)

Like some other Intercontinental Champions before him, Michaels had worked his way up to the point where the WWF Championship was the only conceivable next stop. He’d already proven to be a worthy contender, the fans were behind him, it was just a matter of time. Similar to how the Ultimate Warrior had to defeat a popular babyface to earn his moment in the sun, Michaels had to overcome a peer that had been cheered by the fans for years.

On the bright side, people had more faith in Michaels & Bret Hart to put on a main event worthy match than anybody in the company during 1996. They had so much faith in the Hitman & HBK that a 60-Minute Iron Man match was booked for WrestleMania XII. The tricky thing about Iron Man matches is that fans know how long they’re going, and have a tendency to tune out until the end. With Bret vs. Shawn, you could have tuned out until the end and not seen a pinfall. It took overtime for Michaels to get the duke and his first WWF Championship.

Vince McMahon had one of his best calls of all time for Michaels’ victory. “THE BOYHOOD DREAM…HAS COME TRUE…FOR SHAWN MICHAELS!”. For over an hour, Michaels proved he deserved to be at the top of the WWF and added to his WrestleMania reputation.

2. Randy Savage (WrestleMania IV)

The WWF Championship was decided in a one-night tournament for the first time on March 27, 1988. It was a fourteen-man endeavor where, theoretically, the winner might have to win four times in one evening. Unless you were Andre the Giant or Hulk Hogan, who got byes and would only have to win three times. As it turned out, Ted DiBiase only had to win twice to make it into the finals. Hogan & Andre went to a double-disqualification in their quarterfinal, which meant the Million Dollar Man got a bye in the semis.

Randy Savage had no such luck. After defeating Butch Reed & Greg Valentine, Savage had to face the One Man Gang in the semifinals, who had a bye in the quarterfinals thanks to Jake Roberts & Rick Rude going to a draw. Two straight rounds, the Macho Man had to deal with relatively rested opponents. DiBiase also had Andre at ringside, who was a bit more imposing than Miss Elizabeth. Liz decided that the Hulkster would provide better backup, and after some ringside shenanigans Randy Savage ended up getting his hand raised.

While the execution of the tournament wasn’t necessarily the best, they did all they could do to make Randy Savage on this night. Four victories in one night, and Hulk Hogan as a best friend? How could WWF fans not love the guy?

1. Steve Austin (WrestleMania XIV)

After a couple of years of being behind World Championship Wrestling in the courts of public perception & finances, the WWF was getting things rolling again in early 1998. WrestleMania especially had some hype behind it. Not only was Stone Cold Steve Austin really catching fire with the fans, but the involvement of Mike Tyson at a time when Tyson was one of pro sports’ most talked about figures brought new eyes. Austin’s time was at hand, and the only question was whether or not Shawn Michaels would make it to WrestleMania in order to pass the torch. Michaels had a pretty severe back injury, and wasn’t the easiest person to deal with at the time for multiple reasons he’s talked about before.

Austin himself probably wouldn’t put his first WWF Championship victory on top of this list. He’s gone on record as saying the match sucked. I think he’s a bit harsh on it…maybe it wasn’t the five star classic he might have wanted. Maybe Tyson’s three-count was a bit too quick. Maybe Tyson could have thrown a better working punch. The bottom line is that this presentation did exactly what it needed to do. It crowned Steve Austin as the top guy for what would become known as the Attitude Era. When you saw the end of WrestleMania XIV, you had no doubt who the top guy was going to be for years to come. It was the type of coronation that Cody Rhodes (or anybody that comes along in the future) hopes they can get.

Thanks for reading! Hit me up at [email protected] or on the social media with thoughts, comments or suggestions. Until next time, true believers!