Another year of the WWE is in the books and…let’s be real, it’s been a tough one for the largest professional wrestling organization in the world. Sure, they’ve welcomed major stars to the promotion, bared their emotional soul by revealing the real life illness of their favored son, and made a cool billion dollars selling its B-show to Fox, but one need only look at the ratings for Raw and SmackDown over the past several weeks to see what kind of rut the company has found itself in. Now you may think that’s a relatively recent thing, but when you look at the state of the company’s two major championships over the past 12 months, you’ll notice that the WWE has been on some sort of lazy autopilot for much of 2018. Indeed, cultivating our annual ranking of the company’s major champions proved frustrating. Between the Universal and WWE Championships, only four men held the belts — with each boasting a performer with a 10+ month reign. As such, to keep this thing interesting, we’ve decided to expand our rankings to include every brand-leading champion in the WWE to the ranking. That’s right, we’ve added 205 Live‘s Cruiserweight Championship, the NXT Championship and WWE United Kingdom Championship to the ranking. Basing this list entirely on match quality, impact, popularity and length of reign, here are the top 10 male champions in the WWE in 2018.
Dishonorable Mention: Enzo Amore
Won the Title: TLC, October 27 2017
Duration of Reign: 93 days
Notable Matches: –
So I debated whether I should bother to count Enzo Amore on this list, but the fact remains that he was recognized as Cruiserweight Champion for a portion of 2018, so here we go. The man’s reign stood out for all the wrong reasons, and his dismissal from the company amid allegations of sexual misconduct cast a pretty heavy shadow on the career of Eric Arndt. His behavior since departing the WWE has done little to engender goodwill for the Real1 (or is it NZO now?), much as his lackluster in-ring performances did nothing for the Cruiserweight division. In the end, his is a reign best forgotten to time, much like his music(?) career.
10). Roman Reigns
Won the Title: SummerSlam, August 19
Duration of Reign: 63 days
Notable Matches: –
The proper list starts with a bit of a sad story, as Roman Reigns’ brief run with the Universal Title never got a chance to get out of the starting gate. After FINALLY beating Brock Lesnar for the strap at SummerSlam, Roman had the legs cut out from him first by the declaration that he couldn’t defend the title until the Blood Money house show, Crown Jewel. Unfortunately, the real life Joe Anoa’i would be forced to relinquish the belt that the company had clearly wanted him to have for years due to a leukemia diagnosis. Despite a rocky relationship with fans, the reveal of his illness allowed the WWE Universe to finally see the performer as the man he really is, earning the one-time pariah the unconditional support and respect of even the smarkiest wrestling fan. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this list, the man’s short reign will relegate him to the bottom of this list, but we at AiPT! wish nothing but the best for Roman and his family and look forward to his return to the ring someday in the future.
9). Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas
Won the Title: NXT TakeOver: WarGames, November 18, 2017
Duration of Reign: 140 days
Notable Matches: vs. Johnny Gargano, vs. Aleister Black, Royal Rumble match
It hurts to put El Idolo this low on the list, but Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas had a somewhat underwhelming run with the NXT Championship. He didn’t have many defenses, never topped a card and has been ill used since being called up to the main roster, but one thing you cannot deny is the man’s skill between the ropes. Nowhere is this clearer than in his instant classic with Johnny Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. The match earned an unprecedented 5-star ranking from Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, a first for NXT and the first for WWE since 2011. Sadly, looking at many of the others on this list, the former La Sombra comes up feeling a bit underwhelming. Currently floundering in SmackDown’s midcard, it’s unlikely that Almas will make the list next year — but given his undeniable talents, maybe the former luchador — and his advocate Zelina Vega — will prove us wrong.
8). Cedric Alexander
Won the Title: WrestleMania 34, April 8
Duration of Reign: 181 Days
Notable Matches: vs. Mustafa Ali, vs. Buddy Murphy, vs. Hideo Itami, vs. Drew Gulak
This is another one that I hate putting this low, but Cedric Alexander’s run as the valiant “Soul of 205 Live” just didn’t really seem to elevate the performer or the brand. Don’t get me wrong, Ced consistently put on great matches with just about everyone in the Cruiserweight division, but how many of them do you remember? He’s got an exciting move set and moves with incredible precision, I just wish his acting or promos were at that level. Admittedly, Alexander never really had much of a storyline to work with, but when you look at the immense growth in quality that 205 Live has experienced over the year, surely there must have been a way to make the man stand out a little more. Fortunately, Cedric is still young and healthy, and shows a ton of promise. Who knows? In a few years we may just see Charlotte, North Carolina’s (second) favorite son holding one of the bigger titles in the WWE.
7). Aleister Black
Won the Title: NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, April 7
Duration of Reign: 109 days
Notable Matches: vs. Tommaso Ciampa, vs. Lars Sullivan
If there’s a trend at this point of the list, it’s great performers with underwhelming title runs and, unfortunately, that criteria fits Aleister Black to a T. The Dutch kick-boxer has garnered quite a following based on his strike-heavy in-ring style and intense if taciturn persona, riding that momentum all the way to an NXT Championship win over Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas in a match that was fantastic, but overshadowed by two (2!) 5-star matches. Black would spend much of his run with the belt in the middle of the card against Lars Sullivan before he returned to the limelight by stepping between the feuding Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. After an injury angle made him one of the hottest acts on the brand, Black has done all that he can in NXT, and is widely expected to earn a call up some time after WrestleMania. Provided WWE avoids falling into those large, Bray-Wyatt-shaped pot holes that have sunk many similarly character-heavy performers when they join the main roster, Aleister Black has a chance to make a real impact on the title scene of the WWE.
6). Buddy Murphy
Won the Title: Super Show-Down, October 6
Duration of Reign: Ongoing (80+ days)
Notable Matches: vs. Cedric Alexander, vs. Mustafa Ali
Now I know some may find it controversial that Murphy makes the list higher than Cedric Alexander, but if I’m honest, I find Murphy to be the more dynamic performer — and one could definitely make a case that Murphy has made more of an impact in his young run as champion. Winning the title to an enormous ovation in his native Australia, Murphy has been a revelation since moving on to the purple brand. “The Best Kept Secret” earned that nickname several times over in his amazing series with Mustafa Ali, as well as tilts with the Lucha House Party, and continues to make the purple brand must-see. Murphy’s conditioning and ring presence have made him a star, and we can only hope that he keeps it up heading into the new year.
5). Brock Lesnar
Won the Title: WrestleMania 33, April 2, 2017; Crown Jewel, November 2, 2018
Duration of Reign: Ongoing (50+ days)
Notable Matches: vs. Daniel Bryan
Did I say that last one was controversial? Well here’s the Beast Incarnate; the reigning, defending, Universal Champion, Brrrrock Lesnar…midway through the list because he’s never actually around… and his matches this year haven’t been great overall…and the unbeatable monster gimmick is getting old. Anyway, Brock is this high on the list based on presence alone, because let’s face it: he’s Brock Freaking Lesnar. He may have lost some mass since getting off the gas, and his matches may be little more than a series of German suplexes leading to an F5, but you’re lying if you say you don’t believe he’s still a terrifying presence. What Brock brings to the table is an aura; a domineering, dangerous appeal that only an MMA-trained murder machine like Brock can pull off. Do I want him to be champ? Hell no. Do I think he’s an effective wrestling character when he does show up? Most of the time, yes. Will he be on this list next year? For the love of god, I hope not, but honestly….yeah, probably.
4). AJ Styles
Won the Title: SmackDown Live, November 7, 2017
Duration of Reign: 371 days
Notable Matches: vs. Daniel Bryan, vs. Samoa Joe, vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
The Face that Runs the Place. The Champ that Runs the Camp. The…well coiffed flat earther? Now, AJ Styles has topped this list for the past two years, and though the quality of his matches and promos haven’t really deteriorated much, it’s hard to say Styles was ever exciting this year. Sure he put on a better than good match here and there, but there’s one thing that has defined his tenure as champ over the year — crappy finishes. From his underwhelming series with Shinsuke Nakamura, to the unfortunate series of events that was his feud with Samoa Joe, Styles spent much of the year winning matches via DQ, countout and bad calls. His 371-day run as champ saw the Phenomenal One put in dream match after dream match, only for each encounter to fail to live up to the hype. It has to be said that Styles never put on an outright bad match (honestly, is he even capable of that?), but this is an A student turning in C+ work. Honestly, after this latest run at the top of the card (note: AJ Styles did not headline a single co-branded show this year), I think AJ should steer clear of the title scene, maybe take some time off and refresh…before leaving the company and helping co-found AEW with the Young Bucks? No? Okay, then just let him put over up-and-comers like ‘Cien’ Almas and Rusev.
3). Tommaso Ciampa
Won the Title: NXT, July 18
Duration of Reign: Ongoing (150+ days)
Notable Matches: vs. Velveteen Dream, vs. Aleister Black, vs. Johnny Gargano
Earlier in this countdown I called Buddy Murphy a revelation, but ho-ly s--t, how good was Tommaso Ciampa this year? Formerly looked over as the lesser half of an exceptional tag team, Ciampa decided he was no man’s Marty Jannetty and went on a tear, serving up some of the best matches of the year and crafting one of the most despicable heel characters that professional wrestling has seen in forever. For like half of the year, the man’s theme song was a chorus of boos, and it required no sweetening by producers — the man legitimately had people booing him so loudly the ring announcers couldn’t even get his name out. His matches with his once and future tag partner, Johnny Gargano, set the stage on fire, and his bouts with Aleister Black and Velveteen Dream showcased how crafty and tough the Sicilian Psychopath can be. Ciampa currently rules the yellow brand like an evil king, and long may he reign. That dude is magic.
2). Daniel Bryan
Won the Title: SmackDown Live, November 13
Duration of Reign: Ongoing (40+ days)
Notable Matches: vs. Brock Lesnar, vs. AJ Styles, vs. Mustafa Ali
This was the year that Daniel Bryan returned to wrestling in an amazing, emotional moment for wrestling fans. After years of being told that he’d never return to the squared circle, Bryan was finally cleared to compete and began his year in a rather underwhelming manner. Bryan’s white meat babyface run and lackluster feuds (why was he put with Big Cass again?) left crowds feeling a bit ambivalent about Bryan’s future. Thankfully, a late in the year heel turn (replete with the official move of SmackDown heels, the AJ Styles dick punch) rejuvenated the man’s career even as it murdered the Yes! Movement. Since Survivor Series, the American Dragon is a new man — the New Daniel Bryan to be exact, and it’s glorious. The man has shifted his style to a more deliberate and brutal form that really highlights his technical skill. The heel Daniel Bryan even managed to break Styles’ streak of mediocre “dream matches” with a highly competitive classic at TLC. Bryan has only been the champion for just over a month and he’s already had two of the year’s best bouts (vs. Lesnar at Survivor Series and the aforementioned Styles clash…oh hey!), debuted a new vegan-friendly belt, and gave a rub to a young up-and-comer who has been oft overlooked by the WWE crowd at large. If it weren’t for his thusfar short stint with the title, he would have topped this list.
Instead, there is one man who has put on tons of fantastic matches, has led an emerging division while also headlining an existing one, and has helped bring to bare a number of new performers that a large portion of the American audience have never heard of…
1). Pete Dunne
Won the Title: NXT TakeOver: Chicago, May 20
Duration of Reign: Ongoing (580+ days)
Notable Matches: Like all of the UK, vs. Ricochet, vs. Adam Cole, WarGames
Honestly, they should just rename the UK title “the Pete Dunne” championship, because you’re going to need a crowbar to pry that title from off the waist…well, out of the mouth of the Bruiserweight. Pete Dunne is what happens if Brock Lesnar actually put over his opponents and wrestled more than once a quarter. For more than a year, Dunne has lorded his title over the UK “division,” defending his title all across the United Kingdom, as well as the occasional spell with the stateside version of NXT. Now that NXT UK is actually a thing, WWE can start building some potential challengers. Oh who are we kidding, they’re waiting until WALTER is ready for TV before they pull the trigger. In the meantime, however, Dunne refuses to rest on his laurels, cranking out stellar matches against everyone from Adam Cole (Bay Bay) and Ricochet to Noam Dar and Zack Gibson. Best of all? The floppy haired vegan is only 25 years old. The dude only JUST earned the right to rent a car and he’s already one of the best wrestlers on the planet. Where do you even go from here?
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