John Cena is the most decorated world champion in WWE history, but does that make him the company’s greatest champion? One more title victory will tie Ric Flair‘s record of 16 world championships, which is widely considered the most in professional wrestling history.
The funny thing about Flair’s record is that it’s probably not accurate. If you know anything about title reigns and wrestling, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. While it’s open to interpretation, thanks to muddied waters, overturned decisions and general wrestling hoopla, many historians believe the real number is somewhere between 18 and 20. None of that matters, of course, because the “official” record of 16 has been driven into people’s minds for quite some time.
Whether you believe in the prestige of world championships or not, being awarded the belt 15 times is quite an achievement. Champions assume the responsibility of carrying the company, and if they don’t deliver the goods or put people in seats, they won’t last very long. Cena’s title history tells the story of someone who has been a reliable main-eventer for the last nine years, carrying the WWE through some dark times along the way. Like him or not, his run as a top guy is up there with the best in the history of the sport — and it’s not over yet.
With Flair’s record within his grasp, it’s only a matter of time before Cena matches and breaks the Nature Boy’s mark. The WWE is already pushing Cena as the greatest champion in company history, which is true if you only take title victories into consideration.
In terms of making money, Hulk Hogan was the biggest attraction in wrestling history. Most of his peak drawing years coincided with his first reign as WWE Champion, which lasted from Jan. 1984 to Feb. 1988. If you ask me, a four-year run with a world title is more impressive than winning it 15 times over nine years. Similarly, Bruno Sammartino held the belt for more than 4,000 days and set all kinds of box office records. Unfortunately, he only won it twice, so I guess that’s not as good as Cena.
Furthermore, Hogan and Sammartino wrestled at a time when there was only one top prize to be had. From 2002-13, which covers Cena’s entire run with WWE, the company was using two different world title belts. Cena won the WWE Championship 11 times, the World Heavyweight Championship three times, and just won his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
What about the Rock and Steve Austin? Their peak years weren’t as lengthy as those of Cena, Hogan or Bruno, but Austin’s run from 1998-2001 was the most profitable period in WWE history. As for Rocky, his run in 2000 set an all-time attendance mark that has yet to be broken.
Don’t let the WWE whitewash its history. Wrestling is a business like any other, and the bottom line is what counts. Title reigns are a different animal than gate receipts, and business-wise there have been better champions than John Cena.