So, the Rock beat CM Punk for the WWE Heavyweight Title at the Royal Rumble. That was not unexpected.
What was a surprise was that after 434 days as the title-holder, Punk has firmly established himself as the greatest heel world champion in the history of the WWE. There has never been another bad-guy champ that pulled off such a remarkable reign.
Superstar Billy Graham—Until Punk’s tenure, Graham had long been my No. 1 pick as a heel heavyweight champion. He ended Bruno Sammartino’s second WWWF championship run in 1977 and held it for 10 months. Before Graham, the only other two heel champs had been Ivan Koloff and Stan “The Man” Stasiak, who combined held the WWWF Heavyweight Title for 30 days total. Just holding the belt for as long as Graham did in a territory centered on babyface champions was an accomplishment. But Graham also had a superhuman physique and an unreal amount of charisma; both of those characteristics influenced a generation of up-and-coming wrestlers, such as Hulk Hogan and Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Graham lost the belt in 1978 to Bob Backlund, who had been handpicked a year earlier by Vince McMahon, Sr., as the successor. But in hindsight, Graham should have been given the chance to run with the belt longer just based on his performances. Either way, he was an incredibly gifted and influential heavyweight champion that people still remember 35 years later.
Yokozuna—This immense competitor is generally looked at as the guy who ended Hulk Hogan’s domination of the WWF title scene in 1993. Coming on the heels of the anti-steroid backlash against the federation, Yokozuna was perfect because he was fat and out of shape. But in the ring, what a worker he was, particularly with Bret “Hitman” Hart, his main nemesis during his run. During his two reigns as champ, Yokozuna understood his big-man spots and when to bump for the good guys. He, like Graham, came at a point when most of the recent champs had been babyfaces, so it was a cool change to see a heel in the top spot. He also had a great promo man with Jim Cornette as his manager (I prefer to not remember Mr. Fuji in this line-up, since Fuji was fairly useless).
Ric Flair—I love Flair and totally marked out when he defected to the WWF in 1991. He won the belt twice, both for fairly short runs. I list Flair here out of respect, but the reality is, his WWF reigns weren’t particularly memorable other than just the fact Flair, an NWA mainstay, was holding WWF gold.
Randy “Macho Man” Savage—Savage was an awesome competitor who brought out the best in Hogan. He won the WWF belt in 1988 after winning a tournament at WrestleMania IV as a babyface, and lost it to Hogan in the one of the best-promoted, long-term match-ups a year later at WrestleMania V. What stops me from naming him the best heel champ is simply that he wasn’t a heel for most of his run. There were hints right from the beginning that we would turn on Hogan, but it technically didn’t happen until February 1989.
Compared to these top heel champs of the past, Punk is every much their equal in the ring as a worker. He performs exciting matches, and paired with the right opponent, has all-time classic bouts.
However, Punk pulls ahead from the others for two reasons: promos and making the WWF Heavyweight Title seem important again.
You can easily argue that Punk is the best wrestler on the mic in the world right now. It’s hard to turn the channel when he’s talking. Graham was also a super promo man, as was Flair, but Punk is always realistic rather than bombastic with his promos. He always appears to straddle the line between a “wrestling interview” and a shoot, which brings real emotion to his words. He says things no one else in the WWE is allowed to say.
As for the belt itself, there hasn’t been a world champion with as long of a reign as Punk’s since Hogan had the title in 1989. Punk made the belt the top prize because it was clear that his character wanted to be champ and prove a point. For so long now, the title has been rendered somewhat irrelevant because of ridiculously short reigns and a who’s who of people holding it. The Miz is a former champ, right? How does that look now?
Punk brought stability and credibility to a badly damaged belt, which is something none of the four other champs mentioned above had to deal with. When they held the belt, it was revered. Punk polished it off and returned the title to its pedestal.
And, appropriately, Punk lost the belt in a high-profile match against a legend. Even in relinquishing the title, his reign seemed important.
Scott Wallask has followed wrestling for 30 years and writes about growing up watching the WWF in the 1980s on his blog, the Boston Garden Balcony.