The current WWE Championship was established in 2016, however, its history and lineage dates back to the original WWWF Championship in 1963. As such, its history is a rich one, including 133 reigns between 50 titleholders and 11 vacancies. John Cena holds the record for most reigns with 13. Bruno Sammartino holds the records for longest single reign and most combined time as champion at 2,803 days and 4,040 days respectively. The current champion is AJ Styles.
History and Lineage
The inception of the WWE Championship is one mired in controversy and disputes. In 1963, Lou Thesz defeated Buddt Rogers for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. However, WWWF argued that the title could only change hands in a Two-out-of-Three Falls Match. When NWA refused to recognize the stipulation, WWWF left NWA and created the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship and gave it outright to Rogers. Although the promotion eventually mended fences with NWA, they maintained the title, and eventually the companies permanently cut ties in 1983. In the interval, WWWF became the World Wrestling Federation in 1979, thus renaming the title the WWF Championship.
Upon the acquisition of WCW in 2001, a series title matches were held to ultimately unify the WWF Championship and WCW Championship to create the Undisputed Championship, which was first won by Chris Jericho. Following a lawsuit by the World.Wildlife Fund in 2002, WWF became WWE, renaming the Undisputed Championship as a result. That same year, the first brand split was introduced and then-Undisputed Champion Brock Lesnar made a deal with then-Smackdown General Manager Stephanie McMahon to be exclusive to her brand, and thus make the title Smackdown-exclusive as well. With the creation of the World Heavyweight Championship, the WWE Undisputed Championship became simply the WWE Championship.
From that point until the end of the first brand extension in 2011, the WWE Championship would switch back and forth between RAW and Smackdown, depending on title match results and annual draft lottery picks. The next major change for the title came at TLC 2013, where WWE Champion Randy Orton defeated World Heavyweight Champion John Cena to unify the titles. As such the unified titles were called the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
In 2016, the brand split was reintroduced and then-champion and Smackdown Superstar Dean Ambrose defeated RAW Superstars Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns to once again make the title Smackdown -exclusive; the Universal Championship was subsequently created for RAW.
On the November 7, 2017 edition of Smackdown Live, AJ Styles defeated Jinder Mahal to win the WWE Championship for a second time. Since then, Styles has defended the title against numerous Superstars, most notably Shinsuke Nakamura and most recently Samoa Joe. Styles’s last title defense ended in controversy when video showed him submitting to Joe before a full three-count had been administered on his pinfall attempt. As such, Styles’s next defense will happen at Super Showdown in a match against Samoa Joe where “there must be a winner.”