2017 was a tough year for a lot of us, and the WWE title scene is a testament to that. Over the past year, eight men have held one of WWE’s major titles — Raw‘s Universal Championship and SmackDown Live‘s WWE Championship — and five of them have been more than a bit of a bust. Questionable booking, poor performances and terrible writing ensured that we had transitional champions for pretty much an entire year’s worth of SmackDown Live. The Universal Championship did fare better, but this will be a bit of a rebuilding year as it pertains to the company’s two big belts. Let’s take a look back and see who the worst and the best WWE world champions were in 2017.
8. Bray Wyatt
Won the Title: Elimination Chamber, February 12
Duration of Title Reign: 49 days
Notable Matches: Vs. Randy Orton at WrestleMania (for the wrong reasons)
I know you were probably expecting Jinder to be here, but let’s be real: Bray Wyatt’s time as the WWE Champion was a joke. At the start of the year, the Wyatt family was looking a little different, with Randy Orton joining the fold in place of an injured-at-the-time Erick Rowan. The thing is, no matter how the announcers sold it, Randy didn’t really add anything to the lineup. Yeah, he’s a better wrestler than Rowan, but aesthetically he was all wrong, and even the times he “sacrificed himself” to help Bray score wins (like at the 2016 Survivor Series) we all knew where this whole thing was headed, so it just felt needless. When the Elimination Chamber match was announced as being for the title, the writing was already on the wall. The winner was going to defend the title at WrestleMania against Randy Orton (who had won the Royal Rumble which…), and the only matchup that made sense was RKO Vs. BRA…Y Wyatt…just go with it. Still, as a testament to Wyatt’s ubiquitously bad booking, a lot of us remained skeptical of whether or not he could win the big one. To the performer’s credit, he won the title in impressive fashion, beating five other men in the Elimination Chamber – and cleanly pinning both John Cena and AJ Styles in the process. Shoot, he would even cleanly win his first title defense in a triple threat with both of those men on the following SmackDown. Things seemed to finally be working out for the Eater of Worlds.
Then came the turn. Randy Orton, who had been “given the keys to the kingdom” by Bray (literally it seems), took it upon himself to burn down Wyatt’s compound and the remains of his dead sister/teacher/nun/spoopy master/whatever, Abigail, in the process. Bray’s revenge? He pushed a red X into Randy’s chest then lost to the Viper in one of the most chided and mocked WrestleMania matches since Butterbean crushed Bart Gunn’s boxing aspirations (and skull) in 30 seconds back at WrestleMania XV. A lot of the build to the match had been about Bray finally obtaining the power of Sister Abigail, the power of the devil. He walked around claiming he was a god and that he would destroy Orton. It turns out, the powers of Sister Abigail are about the same as your high school AV club, as it translated to little more than projected video of maggots and roaches on the ring canvas at various points during the match. Not actual bugs, mind you. Just pictures meant to distract Randy…which it didn’t even do. Bray ate an RKO and then was shuffled off to Raw as part of the Superstar Shakeup where he would get injured, have the year’s worst feud against Finn Balor, have even that nightmare ended by viral meningitis, and end the year having a laugh off with Matt Hardy.
I’d say “how the mighty have fallen” but when was Bray Ever treated as “mighty?” It’s a shame, as I always liked Bray — but even Windham Rotunda, the man behind the character, feels like he’s completely burnt out on Bray Wyatt. I’m not sure what you do to rehab the man, but one thing’s for sure: 2017 was potentially his worst year in the company, championship reign and all.
7. Randy Orton
Won the Title: WrestleMania 33, April 2
Duration of Title Reign: 49 days
Notable Matches: None
From the 2017’s worst champion to the guy who beat him for it. This year, we — the good wrestling folks at AiPT! — are hosting our first ever end of the year wrestling awards, The LARIATs, where we celebrate the best and the worst of the world of professional wrestling for the year. It’s no coincidence that we have named both our Most Improved and Most Unimproved categories after one Randal Keith Orton. The Legend Killer has been around for so long that we’ve already seen him go from exciting up-and-comer to dead-behind-the-eyes veteran years ago. Nowadays, Randy’s the elder statesman of SmackDown and most people kinda don’t care. Both in the ring and on the mic he’s as good as he ever was — and that’s the problem. He’s EXACTLY as good as he ever was. There has been no substantive growth, no change in the Apex Predator over the past like 12 years as a character or an in-ring performer. Even his stay in the Wyatt Family felt more like a random tag team made in WWE 2K18‘s Universe Mode than an actual storyline to watch. We all knew he would turn on Bray at some point but a rushed narrative and weak follow through left viewers feeling less like the Megapowers had exploded and more like their free trial of Spotify had expired. We didn’t want it to happen, and now we’re stuck with a regrettable decision through at least another billing cycle.
So yeah, Orton wins the title in one of the worst received title matches in WrestleMania history, which sets up THE worst received match in Payback history (I mean, probably? I admittedly didn’t look at past Paybacks to check) that becomes non-title at the 11th hour when his opponent switched brands in the Superstar Shakeup. He lost that match, by the way, because of interference from jobber-made-good…well, less bad, Jinder Mahal. This lead to Payback, where Rando would be the first big name to fall victim to Jinder’s devious tactics (i.e. Singh Interference into the Khallas), losing his first real title defense to a man who’s taken more Ls than a kleptomaniac Vanna White. Not my best work…he’s bad, is what I’m getting at. Anyway, you could chalk that first loss up to surprise. After all, Orton should have breezed past this schmo — those no good Singhs just got in the way. Surely, he’d take the rematch in his hometown, with his dad and a bunch of legends sitting ringside. Right? This led to Orton’s third attempt to vanquish Mahal, this time in the dreaded Punjabi Prison. How’d that one go for Randal?
Since then, Orton’s been adrift. He’s kind of settled into a tag team with Nakamura (for the love of god, don’t make that a thing), serving as the enforcer for the arbitrary grudges of Shane McMahon and grew his hair out a little in a look he just isn’t entirely pulling off. With Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn looking likely to move past the Shane stuff soon, Orton is left aimless. I’ve been saying it for a while, but dude needs to go away for a while. How excited would we be if Orton was on the Brock Lesnar schedule, appearing only every so often so as to remain fresh and interesting? We don’t know, Randy’s been relatively lucky from an injury standpoint, and has never really missed a significant amount of ring time. Since he’s not doing anything at the moment, maybe let him step away for a bit post Rumble. Bring him back for Mania if you actually have an idea, but if not, let him stay home for like a year before bringing him in. Of course, they could always just have him laze around, unenthusiastically RKOing NXT call ups and boring all but the most casual of fans and stunting the progress of new stars…but surely they wouldn’t do that, right?
6. Jinder Mahal
Won the Title: Backlash, May 21
Duration of Title Reign: 170 days
Notable Matches: Vs. Randy Orton in a Punjabi Prison (for the wrong reasons)
Addressing the elephant in the room (and no, that’s not an Indian joke), this was the year that WWE made Jinder Mahal WWE Champion. A jobber from the day he debuted on the main roster seven years ago, Jinder had never really tasted success before being moved over to SmackDown Live as a part of the Superstar Shakeup. On his first month with the blue brand, however, he won a 6-pack challenge to earn a shot against then-champion Randy Orton at the Backlash PPV. It was in that match that Jinder introduced his new allies hired goons The Singh Brothers (nee Bollywood Boyz), who cheated to help Mahal win his matches, and ate all of the serious bumps the Modern Day Maharrrrrrajah didn’t want to take. The formula worked like gangbusters and my man Jinder hit the Khallas (his shitty looking finisher, though to be fair — he didn’t get a lot of chances to use it before) and became the 50th man to hold the WWE Championship.
It was a bold and unique decision to elevate a lower card guy all the way to the top belt on the brand, but it was something new and exciting so some of us were pretty excited to see what the Canadian–Indian superstar could really do. Unfortunately, years of being squashed by the performers who actually mattered did not prepare Jinder for a run at the top of the card, and his in-ring performances reflect that. His first PPV title defense against earned only ¾ of a star from Dave Meltzer, and subsequent bouts with Shinsuke Nakamura never rose above 2.5 stars. It is that latter feud that really sunk Mahal as a competitor that people can get behind, as not only was he asked to kill the momentum of the (at one point) tremendously popular Nakamura, but he also adopted a more abrasive, arguably racist promo style to boot. Rumors had it that the WWE was trying to build up Jinder’s profile and prestige en route to his headlining appearance during the company’s Indian tour in December…unfortunately, Mahal failed to move the needle, the company got cold feet and moved the belt to a superior performer in AJ Styles. Furthermore, the Indian “tour” was eventually downgraded to a single house show that was indeed headlined by a Mahal match…just one that Jinder lost. Hey, at least he got to do the Kidd and Play dance with Triple H after he ate the pin.
Jinder’s run was littered with bad performances and worse attendance figures, and while that’s not fair to lay entirely at his feet (the writing and booking of SmackDown has been terrible this year) the man failed to rise to his opportunity. Every match he had played the same way, he never really innovated any new elements to his character, and his push actively derailed the momentum of more popular stars. The silver lining, such as it is, is that Jinder does come out of this a bigger name, and his run in the SmackDown midcard should be a more appropriate use of his talents. Look for he and Bobby Roode to face off in the later stages of the recently launched U.S. Title tournament.
5. John Cena
Won the Title: Royal Rumble, January 29
Duration of Title Reign: 15 days
Notable Matches: Elimination Chamber at…Elimination Chamber
There isn’t a lot to say about Cena’s latest run with the company’s big belt. 2017 was the year that he really leaned into his role as a part timer, but it was also the year that Cena got his revenge on AJ Styles. The Champ that Runs the Camp made his biggest impact in WWE off the back of John Cena, winning a series of matches against the star of Ferdinand throughout 2016. Cena waited almost a full month into 2017 before enacting that revenge at the Royal Rumble in one of the promotion’s best matches of the year. With this win, Cena tied Ric Flair’s (improperly calculated) record of 16 championship reigns, and inched himself that much closer to being the most accomplished pro wrestler in the company’s history. I mean, he already crossed that point several years ago, but still. Why not have him beat Flair’s record?
The thing is, Cena spent only two weeks as champion before it was time to defend the belt in the Elimination Chamber. While he was able to eliminate the Miz (sort of a theme this year), Cena would be put down by eventual winner Bray Wyatt in the latter’s sole highpoint of the year. Big Match John never actually got a one-on-one rematch for the title (though he and AJ did challenge Bray for the Belt on the SmackDown following Chamber, having brief and mostly forgettable feuds with The Miz, Shinsuke Nakamura, Baron Corbin and Roman Reigns — those latter two standing out due to John’s absolute DESTRUCTION of the less-experienced performers on the mic. Other than that, dude’s been on the Today Show more than than the WWE this past year. He edges out the bad champs based on his name and the barn burner that was the match in which he won the title. Otherwise, Cena’s essentially a non-entity.
Won the Title: Fastlane, March 5
Duration of Title Reign: 28 days
Notable Matches: Vs. Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania
Proving that the Raw brand can also book hotshot angles featuring transitional champions (albeit at a much higher level), grumpy grandpa Bill Goldberg returned to the WWE last year to crush Brock Lesnar in a matter of seconds. Bit once again by the wrestling bug, Billy G decided to embark on one last run with the company, participating in this year’s Royal Rumble and calling for a title shot against then-Universal Champion Kevin Owens at WWE Fastlane, the last PPV event before WrestleMania. A distraction from Chris Jericho, followed by a quick spear/jackhammer combination, and the 50-year-old Goldberg was only the third Universal Champion in history. The move was clearly telegraphed, as grandpa Bill had twice embarrassed Brock Lesnar, and the title only made the inevitable WrestleMania rematch seem like a bigger deal. I mean honestly, Goldberg/Brock didn’t need it and the belt would have really helped put the KO/Jericho WrestleMania tilt a little higher on the card, but whatever.
So the path was laid for Goldberg/Lesnar III, and to say that people were nervous is an understatement. You see, these two hosses had met at a WrestleMania before to what can generously be called “disappointing results.” Fortunately, their five minute collision this time around was very entertaining, played to both men’s strengths and looked competitive, even with Brock being the first person to kick out of a jackhammer. The night after the match, Goldberg appeared on Raw to tell the world that he had fun but was going back to whatever the hell it is he does with his free time, re-retiring in the process. Though we may complain about part-timers holding championships in the modern era of the WWE, Goldberg’s brief run at the top was well done and didn’t overstay its welcome. Yeah, he only defended the belt once and yeah, he didn’t leave much of an impact on the WWE roster, but as far as transitional champs go, Dadberg made the most of his opportunity.
3. Kevin Owens
Won the Title: Raw, August 29, 2016
Duration of Title Reign: 188 days
Notable Matches: Vs. Roman Reigns at Royal Rumble
Big Kev came into the year as the reigning Universal Champion, but was also treated as a bit of a joke for most of his reign. Much like CM Punk, Owens’ time as champ saw the prize fighter slumming it in a lot of undercard bouts to make room for “more important” stories and performers. This trend continued in 2017 with Owens’ (actually quite good) no-DQ match with Roman Reigns serving as the second match on the Royal Rumble card, and his only other successful title defense in 2017 being a DQ win over Braun Strowman that wasn’t even the main event of that episode of Raw and served more to launch the (also quite good) Roman/Strowman feud. The following week, Owens’ best friend Chris Jericho accepted a title challenge from Bill Goldberg on Kev’s behalf and the writing was suddenly on the wall. While we knew Billy G was going to steamroll the Quebecois Kodiak (a nickname I wish the WWE would embrace more for KO), worse yet was that the challenge signified the end of the beautiful friendship between Y2J and KO. In addition to breaking the hearts of everyone watching, the Festival of Friendship forever separated Team Kevin and Chris, giving Y2J reason to seek revenge on Owens as he prepared for a match in which he was already outclassed. So how did that turn out?
Anyway, Kev never got his rematch, instead tumbling down to the midcard where he would remain a solid fixture in the US title scene — even bringing the belt to SmackDown Live as a part of a Superstar Shakeup. The year would see him win his feud with Jericho, renew his rivalry with AJ styles, and start static with SmackDown Commissioner Shane McMahon. That feud led to his reunion with forever frenemy Sami Zayn, and a new place near the top of the card. A recent tiff with current WWE Champion AJ Styles suggests Owens may once again enter championship contention in the coming weeks, possibly as soon as Royal Rumble. Admittedly, most Styles/Owens matches tend to underwhelm on some level, but after nearly a full year of Jinder Mahal matches, I look forward to Kev (and his skanking sidekick) returning to the main event.
2. Brock Lesnar
Won the Title: WrestleMania, April 2
Duration of Title Reign: 270+ (Current Universal Champion)
Notable Matches: Vs. AJ Styles (Survivor Series); Fatal 4-Way (Summerslam); Vs. Goldberg (WrestleMania)
Braun Strowman may be “the Mountain of a Man,” but Brock Lesnar is the biggest mountain to climb in the WWE. Not only is he built like a shaved gorilla, the man’s legacy as both an amateur wrestler and a UFC champion makes him one of the most intimidating presences in the history of televised sport. As such, he’s the monster that the company’s biggest hero is meant to slay on the grandest stage of them all. It’s no surprise, then, that since he won the belt in the aforementioned clash with Goldberg, he has been all but untouchable. Early in the year, rumors swirled that Brock would be holding onto that belt till the forthcoming Wrestlemania 34, where he would drop the title to someone whose name rhymes with Roman Reigns. (Hint: It’s Roman Reigns). In the meantime, however, our man Brock would run through everyone on the Raw roster worth a damn, earning decisive victories all the while. Barring a few name changes in that list of fallen foes, Lesnar has lived up to that expectation.
First up came Samoa Joe, whose feud with Lesnar delivered time and time and time again. When they finally did battle at Great Balls of Fire (yes, that was the actual name of the PPV), however, Joe was…let’s say less successful. His next challenge would be a 4-way match with Joe, Ro and Stro at SummerSlam. How did Brock hold up against one of the most impressive collections of competitors in the game today? Pretty good, actually. That didn’t sit well with the Abominable Strow-man, who challenged the Beast at No Mercy in September. That one…well. At November’s Survivor Series, Brock would face off with the Phenomenal AJ Styles in a champion vs. champion match that ended pretty much exactly the way you’d think. At the forthcoming Royal Rumble, my man Bork Laser will again faceoff with multiple monsters when he steps into the ring with BRAAAAUUUUNNN and Kane. Here’s a quick preview of that match:
Though he’s the quintessential part timer, Brock has not had a bad match all year. This is the most effectively he’s ever been booked, and though most of us aren’t happy that our blessed full timers are jobbing to a single F5 every time, you’re lying to yourself if you say you haven’t enjoyed his matches this year. Once he starts the build toward his inevitable blow off with Roman, we’ll see if he sticks around — but regardless, 2017 was a good year for Brock Lesnar.
1. AJ Styles
Won the Title: SmackDown Live (Manchester), November 7
Duration of Title Reign: 50+ (Current WWE Champion)
Notable Matches: Vs. Brock Lesnar (Survivor Series), Vs. John Cena (Royal Rumble)
For the second year in a row AJ tops this list, and it’s pretty clear why. Dude started this year with the WWE Title and is ending it with the belt as well. Admittedly, there was a bit of a lull in the middle of the year there, but Styles seemingly rules the winters in WWE. You don’t need me to tell you why AJ Styles was the best champion this year. AJ Styles was the best thing about the WWE all year (something WWE has admitted themselves), so of course he tops this list. Barring some standout showings from The Usos and New Day, Styles is always the best thing on the show, winning hearts and minds and bumping his ass off whether he’s facing John Cena, Baron Corbin, Jinder Mahal or Shinsuke Nakamura.
Styles is a real gift to wrestling fans. His moveset and in-ring storytelling is at an elite level, and his promo work and acting have improved exponentially over the past several months. Whether he’s in the midcard or the main event, his are the matches to watch. The man has not had a match below 3.75* this year, and that kind of consistency is unheard of. Honestly, there’s just not a lot to say here. Dude is simply phenomenal.