10 Professional Wrestlers Who Almost Reached the Top of WWE
Over the years, there have been over 50 Superstars who reached the pinnacle of the WWE and captured WWE Championship gold. There have been countless hundreds who never reached those heights, and this article looks to celebrate just 10 of those who got so close but fell just short of attaining the number one accolade in the entire industry.
10. Mr. Kennedy
When Ken Anderson debuted in WWE as Mr. Kennedy in 2005, he made an instant impact. Showing charisma and mic skills that were sorely lacking in that era, fans expected big things from the brash upstart. Apparently so did WWE management, gifting Kennedy the surname that was actually the middle name of WWE chairman Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
Kennedy’s initial run was unfortunately derailed by injury, but on his return to the company he began a high-profile feud with Batista and captured the United States Championship from Finlay—just over one year from his debut match. In 2007 he picked up the Money In The Bank contract, which seemed like the moment that would crown Kennedy as a main event contender in the WWE. However, success was once again forestalled by injury. Kennedy’s briefcase was won from him by Edge, who would successfully cash in for another World Championship run, whilst Kennedy sat on the sidelines.
WWE had plans for Kennedy upon his return in 2007, and the seeds were planted in an “illegitimate son of Mr. McMahon” storyline. It has been rumoured that this storyline initially intended to culminate in Mr. Kennedy being announced as Vince’s illegitimate son (presumably due to that shared surname) but any plans for Kennedy as McMahon’s son were derailed by his suspension for a company Wellness Policy violation. The story was hastily rewritten as a joke that saw Hornswoggle announced as Vince’s child instead.
A further injury followed, but it was backstage politicking that ended Kennedy’s career with WWE. Fellow Superstars John Cena and Randy Orton allegedly spoke out against Kennedy’s recklessness in the ring following a botched move on Orton. Kennedy was released from WWE in 2009, having missed out by poor timing on multiple attempts to position him as a top talent.
9. Owen Hart
Often regarded as the lesser of the two Hart brothers in favour of his brother Bret, Owen Hart was himself an accomplished wrestler. He made his official debut with WWE in 1988 under his Blue Blazer gimmick but would return under his real name in 1991. Initially part of the New Foundation group with Jim Neidhart, Owen would get mainstream attention by feuding with his brother Bret through Wrestlemania X and Summerslam 1994. Owen’s first gold came from Tag Team Championship runs—first with Yokozuna and then with brother-in-law British Bulldog. The latter would join Owen in reuniting with Bret and Jim Neidhart to reform the Hart Foundation in 1997.
Owen won the Intercontinental Championship from Rocky Maivia in 1997 and went on to feud with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin over the belt, ultimately resulting in the loss of his title in a match that also saw Owen accidentally break Austin’s neck. Owen would regain the title in the resulting tournament to crown a new champion and drop it again to Austin later that year. The “Montreal Screwjob” event lead to the rest of Owen’s family leaving the WWE, but Owen remained and began a feud with Shawn Michaels over the WWE Championship that could have lead to main event status for Owen. Instead, this transitioned Hart to a feud with Triple H and a European Championship win. Hart would briefly join the Nation of Domination, before returning to his Blue Blazer character and teaming with Jeff Jarrett. The pair would capture the Tag Team Championships before Owen’s unfortunate death when a zip-wire stunt malfunctioned causing him to fall to his death in the ring at the Over The Edge pay-per-view in 1999.
Owen had a number of high-profile feuds during his time in the WWE, and a number of brushes with the WWE World Championship. He was unable to attain the same heights at his brother despite an arguably more rounded skillset. Should his untimely passing have not occurred in 1999, the potential of Owen Hart could have been unlimited.
8. Muhammad Hassan
Marc Copani made his WWE debut in 2004 as Muhammad Hassan. As the ring-name indicates, Copani’s character was designed to play on real life tensions with the Middle East and the horrific incidents of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite talking out against prejudice in his promos, Hassan was positioned as a top heel and targeted WWE’s babyfaces in his feuds.
Showing the company’s faith in the potential of the controversial Hassan character, he would feud with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Batista and Steve Austin throughout 2005. In June 2005, Hassan would have his first World Championship match against John Cena—he would come up short and move to the WWE Smackdown brand shortly thereafter.
During a feud with The Undertaker, Hassan’s most controversial moment came when he prayed to call masked men in ski-masks and camouflage to join him in an attack on The Deadman. Clearly designed to look like terrorists, these men would beat down The Undertaker using clubs and piano wire. Three days later, a real-life terrorist attack took place in London—the footage of Hassan’s attack in WWE, still airing in popular media outlets, was viewed in extremely poor taste. WWE decided to push the envelope despite requests from UPN network to remove the character from its broadcasts, and on WWE.com Muhammad Hassan denounced the real-world media for categorising him as a terrorist. Mounting pressure from UPN to remove the character led to Hassan being written out of the WWE storylines at the Great American Bash in 2005. Copani would leave the wrestling industry altogether by the end of that year. It has been revealed by Bleacher Report that there were big plans in WWE for Muhammad Hassan, including a World Championship victory over Batista in 2005, that were derailed due to real world events and media upset.
7. Wade Barrett
Stu Bennett made his WWE debut as Wade Barrett on the first season of then-reality TV show NXT. Barrett impressed through the tournament, enough to be crowned the winner and granted a guaranteed WWE contract. In June 2010, Barrett’s main roster debut came as the leader of The Nexus, a group of disgruntled NXT participants looking to make an impact. The Nexus would dominate WWE storylines through 2010, eventually feuding with WWE Champion John Cena before disbanding in its original form. Barrett would feud with new Nexus leader CM Punk before forming and leading a Nexus spin-off, The Corre. He continued to compete in World Championship matches in 2010 despite coming up short.
Barrett’s first championship win came in 2011 when he took the Intercontinental Championship from Kofi Kingston. An injury would lead Barrett to be side-lined, re-debuting in late 2012 as an underground fighter. In 2013 he would again repackage, this time as Bad News Barrett, a sarcastic cocky newsreader, complete with podium and gavel. Barrett picked up the Intercontinental title four more times during these runs. Bad News Barrett became hugely popular with the crowds, despite WWE’s reluctance to utilise him in the babyface role.
Arguably the biggest win of Barrett’s career came in 2015 when he won the King of the Ring tournament and again repackaged as King Barrett. Barrett would join the third stable of his career, forming The League of Nations with Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio, and Rusev. The group would feud with The New Day over the Tag Team Championships, until Barrett asked for his WWE release in May 2016. Bennett has cited displeasure with his role within WWE, feeling he was underutilising given his early success and ultimately hating being a part of the company.
6. "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase
Ted DiBiase debuted as the “The Million Dollar Man” in 1987, carrying his own custom championship belt, “The Million Dollar Championship”, and flanked by bodyguard Virgil. DiBiase was quickly pushed to the main event scene when he attempted to buy the WWE Championship from Hulk Hogan. DiBiase was unable to beat Hogan for the title, so instead enlisted Andre The Giant to do it for him. This was immediately revoked by on-screen president Jack Tunney, vacating the WWE Championship and ending DiBiase’s only brush with the top championship in the company. DiBiase was then defeated by Randy Savage in a tournament to declare a new champion. Years later, it was revealed that DiBiase was pegged to win the championship by WWE management, but when Honky Tonk Man refused to drop the Intercontinental title to Savage, Macho Man was instead moved to win the WWE Championship and carry the company forward. Instead, DiBiase would continue his feuds with Hogan and Savage before winning the 1988 King of the Ring tournament.
DiBiase would become again involved in losing efforts for the WWF Championship in a feud with the Ultimate Warrior. In 1991, Virgil finally turned against DiBiase and the two would feud into WrestleMania VII. Through 1992-1993, DiBiase would team with Irwin R. Schyster to form “Money Inc” and the pairing would win the Tag Team Championship on three separate occasions. DiBiase left the WWE in 1993, and upon his return he would take on a management role, leading his Million Dollar Corporation stable. Following time in WCW as part of the nWo, DiBiase would act in backstage roles for WWE.
Despite numerous attempts at the World Championship, and briefly holding it following a storyline purchase of the belt, DiBiase would never truly hold the top spot in WWE. His only singles gold was his Million Dollar Championship, a meagre achievement for such an integral player in WWE in the 80s and early 90s.
5. Montel Vontavious Porter (MVP)
Hassan Assad debuted as Montel Vontavious Porter (MVP for short) in 2005. He was positioned as a coveted free agent, with a flamboyant look, personality, and ring-entrance. Feuding with Kane and Undertaker, MVP moved on to capture his first United States Championship within his first year. He would enter a memorable feud over the title with Matt Hardy, where each man set out to prove they were better than the other—at everything. During this feud, MVP and Matt Hardy would capture the Tag Team Championship together as an odd-couples partnership.
MVP’s first World Championship match was in the Elimination Chamber at No Way Out 2008. MVP would come up short and would go on to instead compete in the Money In The Bank match at Wrestlemania XXIV. Matt Hardy would cost MVP the victory, reigniting their feud and eventually capturing MVP’s United States title—ending a record setting reign of 343 days.
A storyline losing streak would stall MVP’s momentum completely, including another World Title opportunity in a Championship Scramble match at Unforgiven 2008. MVP would break his streak and recapture the United States Championship in March 2009. A run on the Raw brand would bring little success to MVP, despite a number more World Championship attempts, and lead to another losing streak for MVP. Assad would request his release from WWE at the end of 2010, following a backstage altercation with a WWE producer. He has since claimed that he was at one time being groomed to be a World Champion until he ran afoul of these backstage politics. MVP would return to WWE in 2020 to ironically take on a role of WWE producer himself.
4. Cody Rhodes
The son of “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, Cody Rhodes made his debut with WWE in 2007. He feuded immediately with Randy Orton and would go on to team with Bob “Hardcore” Holly in a mentor/apprentice storyline, capturing the Tag Team Championships just months after his debut. Cody would turn on Holly to join Ted DiBiase Jr. and Randy Orton to form “Legacy”. As part of this group, Cody continued to capture Tag Team gold. Rhodes would feud with main event talent through his association with Orton during this time, until Orton split the group up in 2010. Cody would begin a run as the narcissistic “Dashing” Cody Rhodes, and joined Drew McIntyre to capture the Tag Team Championships once again.
Following a broken nose, Cody altered his gimmick to wear a plastic mask and adopted a sadistic streak. He found singles success in 2011, winning the Intercontinental championship from Ezekiel Jackson. Rhodes would debut a new-look white Intercontinental title belt and would hold the title for 233 days. In 2012, Cody teamed with Damien Sandow as the “Rhodes Scholars” to feud with Team Hell No. The team ultimately disbanded during Money In The Bank when Sandow turned on Rhodes to win the briefcase. Rhodes has since claimed that he was scheduled two years in a row to win the Money In The Bank briefcase only to have the decision changed by WWE management at the last minute.
Following his feud with Sandow, in 2013 Cody partnered with his real-life brother Goldust to war against The Authority and The Shield. This run saw the brothers capture the Tag Team Championship twice, making Cody a six-time tag team champion. Cody would change his gimmick to “Stardust”, a spin off the Goldust character, and the biggest decline in his WWE career as he rapidly fell down the card. Wrestling Observer called this the “Worst Gimmick of 2015.” Cody has been outspoken about wanting to get out of this gimmick, and ultimately this was the reason for his departure from WWE in 2016. Whilst the top of WWE had been so close to his grasp on a number of occasions, Cody would instead start his own promotion to rival WWE in 2019 with the formation of All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
3. Ken Shamrock
Coming to WWE from a decorated mixed martial arts background, Ken Shamrock was immediately involved in the main event picture when he debuted in 1997 to referee the match between Bret Hart and Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIII. "The World's Most Dangerous Man" would feud with Vader and Bret Hart through 1997, including a failed championship opportunity against Hart on Raw. He would again contest the WWE Championship at In Your House, defeating Shawn Michaels by disqualification.
In 1998, Shamrock feuded with The Rock and the Nation of Domination, before winning the 1998 King of the Ring tournament. He would compete in a match named after his training group, the “Lion’s Den” match against Owen Hart at Summerslam 98. He turned heel and joined the Corporation group, winning his first Intercontinental Championship in an eight-man tournament. As part of the Corporation, Shamrock would also hold the Tag Team Championship with partner Big Boss Man.
Shamrock would feud with The Undertaker, Mankind, Big Show, and competed in another “Lion’s Den” match against Steve Blackman. His final feud was against Chris Jericho before making the decision to leave WWE to resume mixed martial arts. Despite a hyped debut, singles success both in and out of WWE, and multiple attempts at the WWE Championship, Ken Shamrock would never reach the pinnacle of the WWE—perhaps it was politics, or perhaps it was a result of competing during a time where WWE was flooded with megastar names like The Rock and Steve Austin.
Ryan Reeves debuted on WWE programming in 2010 as Skip Sheffield during the NXT reality television programme. He would later join The Nexus stable of disgruntled NXT performers, before re-debuting in the Ryback gimmick in 2012. Ryback would attain a 38-match winning streak, earning him comparisons to Goldberg’s WCW run. His streak finished in a WWE Championship match loss to CM Punk. He would feud with Punk throughout 2012 and was the victim of attacks at the hands of the debuting Shield group.
Ryback would be the runner-up to John Cena in the 2013 Royal Rumble, before feuding with Mark Henry. Despite positive fan reactions and a popular “Feed Me More” catchphrase, Ryback turned heel on John Cena and feuded with him over the WWE Championship culminating in a Three Stages Of Hell match at Payback 2013. Ryback would then align with Paul Heyman to feud again with CM Punk, before joining up with Curtis Axel in the tag team division. “RybAxel” would fail to capture any success, but Ryback’s first run with WWE gold came in 2014 when he won the Intercontinental Championship in an Elimination Chamber match. Ryback held the title for 112 days.
2016 saw Ryback change his look and engage in uninspired feuds against The Wyatt Family and United States Champion, Kallisto. Ryback repeatedly came up short against the much smaller Kallisto, and announced his departure from WWE in August 2016, citing frustration with the way he was being used. Ryback’s hot debut, positive fan reception and multiple WWE Championship shots had given way to him being lost in the shuffle, and allegedly on the receiving end of political heat due to accusations of unsafe working in the ring.
1. Jake "The Snake" Roberts
Jake “The Snake” Roberts debuted in WWE in 1986, initially feuding with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. Roberts debuted his own talk show segment, “The Snake Pit” as a parody on Roddy Piper’s “Piper’s Pit”. Later that year, Roberts would challenge for the Intercontinental and World Championships but was unsuccessful in both attempts. The WWE positioned Roberts as a heel, but the fan support (especially for his then-innovative DDT finisher) meant that he was getting babyface reactions, even against World Champion Hulk Hogan. The WWE quickly stalled any plans of feuding Roberts with the World Champion when the fans chanted “DDT!” after Roberts hit his finish on Hogan. This unfortunate turn of events would prevent Roberts getting near the top championship during the rest of his WWE tenure.
Instead, a now babyface Roberts feuded with The Honky Tonk Man over the Intercontinental title—injuries would prevent Roberts taking the belt. Through 1988 and 1989, Roberts feuded with big names such as Rick Rude, Andre The Giant and Ted DiBiase. Roberts would once again turn heel in 1991, joining forces with The Undertaker against The Ultimate Warrior. Warrior would leave WWE, forcing Roberts to change direction to a feud with Randy Savage and Sid Justice until Sid became injured. Jake’s final feud in WWE was with The Undertaker, culminating in a match at Wrestlemania VIII.
Roberts would briefly return to the WWE in 1996 as a Bible-preacher character, reaching the finals of the King of the Ring tournament that would see Steve Austin launch his 3:16 catchphrase. Jake would feud with Jerry Lawler and appear in the 1997 Royal Rumble before ending his in-ring career with WWE. Jake will forever hold the dubious honour of being listed as an all-time great and WWE Hall Of Famer who never captured any championships with the WWE. He also never held gold in the WCW or ECW, showing that championship runs are not always a measure of a wrestler’s worth in any given promotion.