5. CHRIS BENOIT (2-time WCW U.S. Champion; 3-time WWE U.S. Champion)
Wait, are we allowed to mention this guy? Yes, we know how Benoit’s story ended and I’ve got no problem with the WWE never celebrating him again, but it’s hard to leave him off this list. He had reigns in both WCW and WWE, and in both cases, he kind of defined exactly what the U.S. title was: A secondary title for a guy who can bring the goods. While the Intercontinental title history sort of shows guys who were working their way up to the World title, the U.S. title seems more workrate-heavy, and whatever your feelings are on Benoit the person, Benoit the performer brought it. A great secondary champion who would go out, put on good matches and not draw attention away from the top dogs.
4. STEVE AUSTIN (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
I know that for some people, when they think of Steve Austin’s U.S. title reign, they immediately think of him losing quickly to Jim Duggan. And while that certainly wasn’t a great move, it doesn’t take away from the “Stunning” Steve Austin character. A great heel from many different views: Good character, good worker, good on the mic and he had excellent matches. Whether it was against Johnny B. Badd, Dustin Rhodes or Brian Pillman, Austin’s reigns have more than a fair share of quality matches and moments. I might have ranked this higher if I was a bigger WCW fan during the time it happened, but I viewed a lot of it years later via tapes.
3. DIAMOND DALLAS PAGE (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
Confession time: There was a SHORT time in 1997 where Page was my favorite wrestler, but then Chris Jericho turned heel in January of ‘98 and I had a new favorite. Still, I LOVED this guy and was so happy when he got the U.S. title at Starrcade 1997 in what wound up being the one bright spot on a bummer of a show. The great thing about Page was that having titles often seemed to drive him to step up his game. His Savage feud in ‘97 was what “made” him, but his U.S. title run in early ‘98 and feud with Raven and Benoit was what turned him into a consistently good to great wrestler. The Superbrawl and Uncensored matches from that year are both hidden gems that any fan should seek out.
2. LEX LUGER (3-time NWA U.S. Champion; 2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
One of these title reigns was in 1998, but he’s really listed here for his run in the late 80’s into 1990. So many people cite Luger as a failure because he bombed when it came to the World title, and there’s no real argument from me there. What I would argue though, is that they tried to make a great U.S. Champion into a World Champion. Luger was certainly no Ric Flair, and he wasn’t even Sting, but that doesn’t mean he was a failure.
What makes Luger’s reigns so interesting is that in a fairly small time period, he played the role of both heel champion AND face champion, and he played both well. Whether he was the muscle behind the Horsemen taking on the likes of Nikita Koloff, or the powerhouse babyface looking for revenge against his ex-pal Barry Windham, Luger did a great job in his role, and more than held up his end of the work when the bell rang. Did it help that he was often in the ring with solid workers? Sure. But in my early days of being an NWA fan, three faces stood out: The Great Muta, Ric Flair—and Lex Luger.
1. DEAN MALENKO (1-time WCW U.S. Champion)
I know that he won’t be anyone else’s number one. He may not even crack anyone else’s list, period. But Dean Malenko was my absolute favorite guy to watch in the ring in 1997 and 1998.
Think about that statement for a second: Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Undertaker, Mankind, the nWo, Rey Mysterio and the luchadores, Goldberg, Eddie Guerrero, Flair, Jericho, Page; there was PLENTY of talent in 1997 and 1998. But if I could only watch the matches of one guy, I’d take Malenko. I have a hard time even explaining why, I just loved his style. I loved his character, the “Iceman.” He rarely spoke; he just went out and worked. And what was so interesting was he was a small, non-threatening looking guy among a sea of huge, muscle bound monsters, and he was portrayed as the intimidating killer. Loved it and loved him as champion. The belt was what mattered to him. He didn’t get sucked into the nWo distractions much, he didn’t have love interests, he didn’t have gimmicks or anything—he just wrestled. And he did a fantastic job at it.
5. RIC FLAIR (5-time NWA U.S. Champion; 1-time WCW U.S. Champion)
Of course everyone knowing me shouldn’t be surprised by the Nature Boy’s inclusion in my top five. During those early years in his career down in Charlotte, Flair was a burgeoning star who was in a great tag team with Greg Valentine and a legendary feud with former “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. After defeating Mr. Wrestling Tim Woods in April 1978 to begin his first U.S. title reign, it was clear his star was on the rise.
Over the next three years Flair would feud with some of the best in the business over the U.S. title, and it would be here that his legendary collaboration with Ricky Steamboat began. These two traded title reigns in 1978-79, making stars out of each other in the process. Flair also took on future Hall of Famers Bobo Brazil and Jimmy Snuka over the U.S. title. Flair left the U.S. title scene in 1981 when he was elevated to main event status and won his first of many, many, many World Heavyweight Championship reigns.
He would regain his U.S. swagger 15 years later at Bash at the Beach 1996 when he won the U.S. title for a record sixth time, defeating Konnan. That memorable moment was forgotten as that was the infamous night the nWo started. However Flair would not lose the title in his last reign, as injury forced him to forfeit the title in September. Although Flair’s unmatched resume includes World title reigns that number between 16 and 21, it was winning the U.S. title in 1978 that really kick-started his career into high gear and made him the main event legend he would become.
4. MONTEL VONTAVIOUS PORTER (2-time WWE U.S. Champion)
Really? I’m sure everyone is stunned by this, but trust me there’s good reason why I have MVP one notch above Flair on this list. As much as Flair is one of the greatest U.S. Champions, he’s more known for his World title reigns. This is about greatest U.S. Champions, and had MVP not won the title the two times he did he would have been an underachieving tragedy of the mid-2000’s. When he debuted in mid-2006 he was totally irritable and quite talentless. He would start a feud with Kane that ended with being set on fire at Armageddon 2006. When 2007 started he was just a flunky gimmick on Smackdown.
Then he began a feud with then-U.S. Champion Chris Benoit (who just missed making this list). Right there everything changed. He began to fully understand how the match worked from beginning to end, and even though he lost back to back PPV matches to Benoit at WrestleMania XXIII and Backlash 2007 everyone knew he was almost there. Then at Judgment Day that year he upset Benoit and finally won the brass ring. From that point on, almost by accident, MVP became one of the most important guys in the promotion, and certainly the most important guy on SmackDown. With the revolving injury issues that year, from Edge to Batista, SmackDown’s main event situation was very unstable.
In came MVP who carried the shows some weeks with his “VIP Lounge” segments and his possible feud of the year with Matt Hardy. MVP dangled that carrot in front of Hardy (while even being WWE Tag Team Champions at one point) until Hardy finally won the title at Backlash 2008. MVP would win the U.S. title again later in the year, but that less heralded reign would end at the hands of Kofi Kingston in June 2009. Sadly MVP’s character would peter out and he would leave the company. However his importance as U.S. Champion during a time when the “blue brand” was unstable shouldn’t be forgotten.
3. WAHOO MCDANIEL (5-time NWA U.S. Champion)
Continuing with my trend of early NWA stars, Wahoo’s first reign pretty much coincided with the official recognition of the NWA’s U.S. title as the one the entire country would recognize. The San Francisco office closed early in 1981, the last territory that had their own U.S. champ. Wahoo defeated Roddy Piper later that year to win his first U.S. title, and just like Flair he would defend it against the who’s who of NWA (and overall) legends of the ring.
Wahoo had been a multi-time NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Champion when that area of the country was pretty much (with St. Louis) the anchor territories of the NWA. By the late 70’s the U.S. title had actually surpassed the Mid-Atlantic title in prestige, mostly because the U.S. title can be defended outside of regular territory barriers. Besides Piper, Wahoo would battle the likes of Sergeant Slaughter in bloody matches around Greensboro and Charlotte. Wahoo was usually a babyface, but would turn heel in 1984 thanks to young Tully Blanchard when the future Horseman used a steel chair to help McDaniel defeat Ricky Steamboat for the title. Injuries derailed his run that year and in 1985 he’d lose the title for the last time to Magnum T.A.
By the end of the year Wahoo (after feuding with Ric Flair for the World title) left to help out the Grahams in Florida as well as a stint in the AWA. He’d return to the NWA in 1986 to have a bloody feud for the U.S. title with Nikita Koloff but couldn’t wrest the title away. He’d finish his career in Puerto Rico before retiring from regular competition in the early 1990’s. Wahoo was one of the most recognizable wrestlers in the 1970-80’s and should definitely be considered as one of the greatest U.S. Champions of all time.
2. TULLY BLANCHARD (1-time NWA U.S. Champion)
How could I make a list like this without at least one other Horseman (and there’s one more to come)? Sure guys lower on my list have more title reigns; in fact Tully had more National Heavyweight and TV Title reigns collectively. However this single title reign was the foundation (along with Flair/Dusty) of one of the greatest PPVs in history: Starrcade 1985. This show was built similar to how WrestleMania III would eventually work out; the centerpiece was the much anticipated rematch from the previous year’s Starrcade between Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes for the World Heavyweight Championship. The undercard was shaping up to be pretty good, including a cage match for the Tag Titles between the Rock N Roll Express and the Horsemen (Arn & Ole). However there needed to be a centerpiece undercard match.
In steps the hated Horsemen and the pretty boy. Arn was the grizzled enforcer, Ole the elder statesman, and Flair the shiny jewel. Then you had Tully, who was a mix of all of them. He wore the monogrammed shirts, the Rolex watches and the expensive sunglasses. He also was a cheating bastard with a pretty hot valet to boot (Baby Doll). Magnum T.A. was the poster boy for the NWA’s female fans. Magnum lost the U.S. title to Tully thanks to Baby Doll dressed as ringside security. From that point on Tully (like all good heels) put the face over, to a certain extent. Then he’d dangle the belt on camera and dare Magnum to take it back.
That takes us to November 28 in Greensboro. Not only was it an “I Quit” match, but in a steel cage to boot. I was salivating at the chance to watch this. Now the Horsemen weren’t “officially” formed until early 1986, but those guys took care of each other at this point. What transpired was one of the greatest matches in wrestling history, and probably the greatest U.S. title match in history. Both men punished each other and the crimson masks flowed and hardened. Magnum won his U.S. title back when Tully screamed “YES” to Earl Hebner asking if he quit. Mind you Magnum was jabbing a sharp piece of wooden chair into Tully’s eye.
So the feud ended, Magnum became a beast in 1986, and Tully moved on to a feud with Dusty for the TV title. However it was Tully’s run from July to November of 1985 that paved the way for one of the most memorable matches in NWA history. A match that would be the standard bearer for midcard gems until Savage-Steamboat at the Silverdome a couple years later.
1. LEX LUGER (3-time NWA U.S. Champion; 2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
For all the crap that Lex Luger has gotten in his career (and I for one have shoveled a good portion of it) his record as U.S. Champion can’t be ignored. First when he was a Horseman and then when he wasn’t quite ready for the World title picture, Luger’s grip on the U.S. title from 1987-1990 was pretty tight. The first four reigns were the ones that he is remembered, as the last reign was a day during the Nitro years.
When Luger was recruited as a Horseman to replace the departed Ole Anderson, many were stunned. Who was this jacked up dude that had no experience and where did he get off joining the most elite faction in the business? He won the title from a babyface Nikita Koloff in a steel cage and that was the carrot dangled in front of the great Dusty Rhodes. That was clearly the better feud heading into Starrcade 1987, due to the fact that no one really cared about Ronnie Garvin as World Champion. Hell Ric Flair got babyface chants in that match. It was Dusty/Luger in the cage that was the centerpiece match for the fans that night in Chicago. Dusty won the title that night, but eventually Luger’s role was changed as he was kicked out of the Horsemen and the “Total Package” went after Flair’s World title.
That failed as 1988 saw a pair of PPV main events that went the Nature Boy’s way. So Luger started 1989 going after his U.S. title again, now around the waist of current Horseman Barry Windham. Luger won the title for the second time at Chi-Town Rumble in February ’89, but then lost the title in what was considered a big upset to career Freebird Michael Hayes at WrestleWar. Luger won it back 15 days later and that’s when history was made. Luger held the U.S. title for 523 days, and to his credit he defended the belt all over the country at house shows, Clashes and tapings. His epic reign finally ended at Halloween Havoc 1990 when he lost the belt to Stan Hansen. He’d win the title back two months later at Starrcade to being his fourth and final substantive reign as champion. He forfeited the title in July 1991 when he won the WCW World title. That was during the whole Ric Flair/WWF debacle that Jim Herd created. Luger wouldn’t touch the U.S. title again until defeating Bret Hart on a Monday Nitro in August 1998. That reign lasted all of one day as he’d lose the belt back to the Hitman the next night at the Thunder tapings.
So for all the criticisms of Luger during his career, that he was all look and no talent, to the way he treated people backstage, to blown World title shot opportunities one thing was certain. Luger is arguably the greatest U.S. Champion of all time. I stress “arguably”, but he’s #1 on my list.
5. ANTONIO CESARO (1-time WWE U.S. Champion)
Many might question this selection as an unconventional pick, but Cesaro’s run in FCW and his subsequent title reign in the WWE played a large role in my reemerging mainstream wrestling fandom. The former “Most Money Making Man” modified his well-rounded repertoire in developmental, having some unforgettable matches for the FCW 15 title. After four months on the main roster, Cesaro defeated Santino Marella for the U.S. championship on the 2012 SummerSlam pre-show. He went on to hold the title for an impressive 240 days, the sixth longest reign in history, before losing to Kofi Kingston in April.
Like most fans of Cesaro in his independent and international run as Claudio Castagnoli, I worried that the transition to WWE would neuter Cesaro’s European and lucha libre-styled offense. Though he lost some of his more infamous moves, Cesaro adapted successfully, continuing the usage of his European uppercut and adding an impressive Gotch-style piledriver known as the Neutralizer. One of the highlights of his reign included utilizing his hallmark strength and balance to deliver this move to the Great Khali. Cesaro also had impressive defenses against the likes of Justin Gabriel, a great series of matches with Kingston, and perhaps the IWC’s favorite moment of the last year:
4. LANCE STORM (3-time WCW U.S. Champion)
2000-2001 WCW is largely laughed at by today’s fans, but one of my personal favorite United States championship runs occurred during this time period. I always enjoyed Lance Storm’s mix of technical wrestling skills and high-flying ability from his time in ECW and the WAR promotion in Japan. Upon arriving in WCW in June of 2000, I doubted that he would amount to much, fearing that he would be too milquetoast for a roster injected with bizarre characters.
Alas, Storm went on a shocking run, quickly accumulating three titles in rapid succession. He became the U.S. title holder by defeating Buff Bagwell, Shane Douglas and former ECW Champion Mike Awesome in a tournament in July 2000, and he rechristened the belt as the Canadian Heavyweight championship. Despite being known more for his tag-team prowess at the time, Storm simultaneously held this belt with the Cruiserweight and Hardcore titles. Not since Ultimo Dragon showed up in WCW with nine belts had someone held so many championships in a major American promotion. It was certainly a unique visual. Whether due to the unique booking situation, the jingoism of yet another United States/Canada feud or his wrestling talent, Storm became one of the hottest acts in the company. Sadly, Storm got saddled in a feud with the strange group of M.I.A. (Misfits in Action), and lost the U.S. championship for good in November 2000.
3. NIKITA KOLOFF (1-time NWA U.S. Champion)
A countdown of the greatest United States champions would not be complete without at least one pick from the heyday of the NWA. I spent far too much time wavering between the trio of Magnum T.A., Tully Blanchard and Nikita Koloff. Though Tully and Magnum participated in one of, if not the most famous U.S. title matches of all time, there’s something about Koloff that stood out. Perhaps it was his chiseled 6’3” frame that differed from some of the other pasty old men with a paunch that littered early ‘80’s NWA programming. Wrestling fans were used to seeing this type of athlete on WWF television, but generally under the guise of a goofy character. Nikita was a freakish looking athlete, characterized as a heartless Russian during the tail end of the Cold War, basically Ivan Drago in a wrestling ring. Koloff terrorized his opponents, and, to be frank, he terrorized me, more so than his furry “uncle,” the “Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff.
Originally relegated to a tag team with his uncle and Krusher Krushev, Koloff eventually moved on to a singles’ feuds with the aforementioned Magnum T.A., along with a couple high-profile bouts with Ric Flair. Nikita took the U.S. title from Magnum after a brutal best-of-seven series that occurred in the summer of 1986. During his near one-year run as champ, Koloff had a shocking face turn, backing up Dusty Rhodes during his feud with the Four Horsemen. After multiple worked neck injuries from Dick Murdoch and the Horsemen, Koloff eventually lost the title to Lex Luger in a cage match in July 1987.
2. RICK RUDE (1-time WCW U.S. Champion)
Much of Rick Rude’s title reign was initially sullied for me due to a lack of cable at the time, though I was later able to watch some of his classic encounters with Steamboat, Sting and Flair via the magic of Blockbuster Video’s VHS tapes. After a fairly successful run in the WWF, Rude took his game to another level within WCW, becoming one of the top all-around wrestlers in the world from 1991 to his career-ending back injury in 1994. His title reign with the U.S. championship is documented thoroughly by Ben and Justin above. His Ironman Challenge with Ricky Steamboat from Beach Blast 1992 was a standout for me, despite being cut to shreds on the WCW home video copy.
1. STEVE AUSTIN (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
As much as I struggled with some of the other choices, this was a no-brainer for me. Despite being fairly dissimilar, Hollywood Blondes/Dangerous Alliance-era Austin is a close second to his early Stone Cold days for me as a fan. Austin’s U.S. title run occurred after joining the Stud Stable under the tutelage of Col. Robert Parker. Earlier, Ben referred to Austin as a “workhorse” during his time in WCW, and I completely concur. Austin didn’t solely defeat Steamboat, Pillman, and Muta on PPV and Clash of the Champions; he was also a regular on the weekend TBS and syndicated shows at the time.
For those who only know Austin from his WWF/E run, his WCW character was that of a wily, do-whatever-it-takes heel who always operated with at least one running buddy. On top of it, he was an outstanding technical wrestler with a finishing move, the Stun Gun (made popular by the late Eddie Gilbert), that he could hit out of nowhere. Austin was one of the rare wrestlers who could work with any style of babyface: the highflyers such as Steamboat and Pillman, the brawlers like Rhodes and Duggan, and the hosses like Vader and Windham. And he’d do it all with a sly smirk at the camera.
5. BILL GOLDBERG (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
Goldberg was arguably the only homegrown superstar WCW would create during the Monday night wars. Goldberg had a professional record of 74-0 when he challenged Raven for the United States championship on the 4/20/1998 edition of WCW Nitro. Goldberg recorded his 75th consecutive victory and won his first professional wrestling title. Goldberg’s reign was short lived, but he recorded 33 consecutive wins (which I believe is the average number of weekly losses for a midcard champion in the WWE today) before vacating the title in June. Goldberg would win the title a second time in 1999.
4. HARLEY RACE (1-time NWA U.S. Champion)
Race is one of the greatest ever, and the first man to hold the U.S. title. Race gave what was at the time just another regional title among dozens instant legitimacy. The U.S. title is better off just for being able to claim him as a former champion. Johnny Valentine defeated Race for the belt on July 3, 1975.
3. NIKITA KOLOFF (1-time NWA U.S. Champion)
Wrestling has a long history of heels using real world xenophobia to draw the fans ire. With this in mind it should come as no surprise that the 1980’s were full of “Russians” hoping to capitalize on the fears generated by the Cold War. Nikita Koloff debuted for Jim Crocket Promotions in 1984 with zero wrestling experience. By the summer of 1986, Koloff had established himself as a top heel and rising star in the NWA. The lead up to the 1986 Great American Bash tour had seen U.S. Champion Magnum T.A. striped of his title when he refused to apologize for starting a brawl with the Koloffs. Magnum and Nikita were booked to have a best-of-seven series with the winner being named U.S. Champion. Koloff won out in the end and had one of the most memorable reigns in the U.S. title’s history. It’s said that the initial plan was to revisit the popular Magnum-Nikita feud after T.A. won the world title at Starrcade 1986, but a career ending injury to Magnum lead to radical change of plans. The injury was used as a motivation for Koloff to turn face, mourning the tragedy of his greatest rival. Koloff became one of the Four Horseman’s greatest foils, as well as a perennial challenger to Ric Flair’s World title. On July 11, 1987, one of the most memorable U.S. title reigns came to an end when Lex Luger defeated Nikita in a steel cage match. His reign is the 4th longest in history.
2. LEX LUGER (3-time NWA U.S. Champion; 2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
Lex Luger: a man who was booked as such a choker by the WWE that he is used as the standard against which all wrestlers be measured. Before Luger took to willingly winning championship matches by countout LIVE on pay-per-view (failing to become champion in the progress), he was WCW’s hottest young stud. He won the title four times between 1986 and 1990, with his third reign lasting an epic 523 days, the longest in history. Luger vacated the U.S. title when he became the WCW World Champion in 1990. A one day reign in 1998 made five overall for Lex. Luger’s numbers speak for themselves, and he would be the greatest U.S. champ in history if not for…
1. RIC FLAIR (5-time NWA U.S. Champion; 1-time WCW U.S. Champion)
Wooooooo! The Nature Boy is number one with the second most combined days as champion and a tie for the most title wins with five. Thought by many to be the greatest wrestler in history, Flair would begin the accent to greatness in 1977 when Jim Crockett booked him to beat Bobo Brazil for the United States championship. Crockett viewed Flair as the future of his promotion, but no one could have predicted just how great Flair would become. In 1978 Flair would change the course of his career when he changed his act, calling himself “The Nature Boy” as a way to antagonize the original Nature Boy Buddy Rogers during a feud over the U.S. title. Flair’s new persona was an unparalleled success that would lead him to the World title in 1981. From 1977-1980 the U.S. title picture revolved around Flair and his feuds with legends like Ricky Steamboat and Jimmy Snuka. Wrestling was gifted with one of its greatest characters during Flair’s time with the belt, and that coupled with his impressive statistics is enough to make him the greatest United States Champion of all time.
And now, our overall Five Count…
5. TULLY BLANCHARD (1-time NWA U.S. Champion)
One of the great 1980’s quintessential heels and a charter member of the Four Horsemen, his feud with Magnum T.A. elevated the U.S. title to a new level.
4. NIKITA KOLOFF (1-time NWA U.S. Champion)
Transitioning from a monster heel to a sympathetic babyface as U.S. Champion, “The Russian Nightmare” served as one of the most over performers during the boom days of Jim Crockett Promotions.
3. RICK RUDE (1-time WCW U.S. Champion)
A certified main eventer from the WWF, “The Ravishing One” made an immediately impactful impression on WCW and gave the U.S. title credibility by pursuing it as his first goal in the promotion. Classic matches with Ricky Steamboat, Dustin Rhodes and more helped put champion and championship on the map.
2. STEVE AUSTIN (2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
Before he became one of the biggest stars in wrestling in history, “Stone Cold” had a “Stunning” tenure as U.S. Champion, shoring up the WCW midcard over the course of 1994 and raising the bar on in-ring competition. Austin defended the U.S. title against a range of challengers from Brian Pillman to The Great Muta to Ricky Steamboat as he built his legend.
1. LEX LUGER (3-time NWA U.S. Champion; 2-time WCW U.S. Champion)
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, nobody would be associated with the U.S. title more than “The Total Package,” who dominated the championship, holding it five times and taking on all comers. Equally adept with the fans on his side or against him, Luger achieved his most consistent career success during his U.S. championship runs, using it as a springboard to World title matches and putting on great matches across NWA shows to supplement a string of classic main events. More than any other competitor, Lex Luger will be forever linked with the U.S. title.