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The Rock and John Cena are only two of the best babyface WWE champions from the past two decades.Credit: WWE.com
From Bruno Sammartino to Bob Backlund to Hulk Hogan, WWE was built on babyface champions, and they continue to be an integral part of the company's success.
All of those aforementioned icons played important roles in helping establish WWE as a powerhouse in the pro wrestling world, largely thanks to their lengthy reigns as WWE champion. Each man was beloved by fans and became a household name.
That trend continued in the years that followed with The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and John Cena. The promotion thrived in different ways during their spells on top, as the three of them defined their eras.
In recent years, it's been difficult for faces to not only hold the gold for an ample amount of time but also maintain momentum and goodwill with the audience. WWE has typically done a better job of booking heel WWE champions to look stronger, but a few fan favorites have proved to be exceptions.
Outstanding babyfaces don't always make for the best WWE champions, however. Eddie Guerrero, Jeff Hardy and Rey Mysterio all captured the prestigious prize at one point or another in the past two decades but didn't have the most memorable reigns.
The following seven Superstars either had multiple runs with the WWE Championship or had one definitive title reign that carried the company through a particular period, all while exuding every quality that exemplifies an ideal babyface champion.
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Interestingly, it was the night that The Rock won the WWE Championship for the first time at Survivor Series 1998 that he cemented himself as a main event player in WWE. He went on to hold the gold a few more times leading up to WrestleMania XV and was in his element as a villain.
Once the new millennium kicked in, every WWE title reign he had from that point forward was as a face, and he excelled in that role as well. He captured the belt on three occasions in 2000, and with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin out injured for the entire year, he was WWE's top babyface by default.
The promotion didn't miss a beat with Rock on top.
Although he went on to win it two more times in 2001 and 2002 before leaving for Hollywood, neither run was particularly lengthy. Rather, people bought him as the champ because he was everything the face of the franchise needed to be and then some.
He exuded charisma and always had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand.
Upon returning to wrestling in 2011, he regained the gold one last time in 2013 for a brief period and did big business for WWE. He has also had a knack for putting people over and passing the torch when necessary, and he did that exceptionally well during all of his reigns.
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During an unprecedented time, Drew McIntyre did the best he could to carry the WWE Championship with pride and had a stellar stint with the title in the process.
The coronavirus pandemic hitting when it did couldn't have been worse timing for McIntyre, who was in the midst of the biggest push of his career. He was fresh off winning the 2020 men's Royal Rumble match and had fans clamoring to see him beat Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 36.
Despite the lack of live audience, The Show of Shows went on regardless, and McIntyre emerged as the new WWE champion. Without any fans to feed off of, it would have been easy for WWE to quickly strip McIntyre of the title and pivot in a different direction, but the promotion gave him every opportunity to succeed, and he took advantage with aplomb.
From exciting feuds with Seth Rollins and Bobby Lashley to a ruthless rivalry with Randy Orton, McIntyre grew more and more into the main event role as time progressed. He was putting on excellent matches on a consistent basis and even came off as more comfortable character-wise as a babyface.
Only recently has he started to feel stale because of WWE overexposing him in the WWE Championship picture, but otherwise, there's no reason to think he won't be a permanent fixture in the main event scene going forward. If and when he regains the gold, it will be tough for him to top those first two terrific title reigns.
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The majority of 14-time champion Triple H's title reigns have happened when he was a heel, but the few he has enjoyed as a face since 2000 have certainly been notable.
After having a career year for himself in 2000, when he won the WWE Championship twice, he won the top title for the first time as a fan favorite in the main event of WrestleMania in 2002. The reign wasn't anything special and was cut short, and in 2007, he had the belt for all of two hours before losing it to Randy Orton.
He made up for those shortcomings with a seven-month run in 2008 that was strong enough to earn him a spot on this list. He had been a babyface for a while at this point, and although he was a natural heel, he received raucous reactions from fans every time he made an entrance.
His reign started with a win in a Fatal 4-Way at Backlash and featured successful title defenses in steel cage, Last Man Standing and even Scramble matches. Randy Orton, John Cena, Edge and Jeff Hardy were among the long list of legendary names he beat while holding the gold.
Triple H had one last babyface WWE Championship run in 2009, highlighted by him retaining the title in the main event of WrestleMania 25. He was a dominant champ through and through.
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From 2008 to 2009, CM Punk held the World Heavyweight Championship on three occasions. However, it never felt like WWE viewed him as being among the elite until he cut his famed “pipe bomb” promo in June 2011 on Raw.
That immediately launched him to superstardom. To the company's credit, it did the right thing in giving CM Punk a WWE Championship win in his hometown of Chicago at Money in the Bank 2011.
Of course, the immediate aftermath wasn't the greatest, and he lost the title a month later to Alberto Del Rio. His second reign, which lasted a resounding 434 days, was far more memorable and helped him regain that lost steam.
Punk defended the title multiple times a month for more than a year, both on pay-per-view and on Raw. He racked up wins over high-profile opponents such as John Cena, The Miz, Alberto Del Rio, Daniel Bryan and Chris Jericho, and he stole the show almost every time.
The biggest issue with his reign was that he hardly headlined any pay-per-views and had to take a backseat to Cena. Thankfully, that was resolved when he turned heel in the summer of 2012, extending his reign by another six months.
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Many fans had long given up on the idea of Kofi Kingston ever holding the WWE Championship by 2019, but an unexpected turn of events early that year presented him with the opportunity to finally achieve the seemingly impossible.
Kingston has always been a fan favorite with the WWE Universe, but he experienced a sudden surge of immense popularity around Elimination Chamber 2019. Crowds were reacting to him so well that WWE opted to run with it and give him a world title shot at WrestleMania 35 against Daniel Bryan.
Their match was pure perfection from a storytelling standpoint, and the crowd reaction to his win couldn't have been more special. If it were just a moment in time (similar to when Eddie Guerrero won it in 2004) and he lost it soon after, it likely wouldn't have cracked the list, but the rest of his reign was executed almost as perfectly.
He ran through every opponent put in his path, remained over with the audience and essentially had SmackDown built around him and his storylines. It made for a fun second half of the year, and all of the new blood in the title picture during that period was refreshing.
He suffered few pinfall losses and felt like a true star as WWE champion. His quick loss of the title to Brock Lesnar that October was disappointing, but at least he has another chance to make that magic again come Money in the Bank 2021.
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When AJ Styles arrived in WWE at the Royal Rumble in 2016, there was zero expectation among fans that he would become WWE champion. Viewers were fortunate to see him in the company at all after such a storied and decorated career, but his ascension to WWE champion seemed implausible.
But he caught fire in a feud with John Cena that summer, and those two wins over the face that ran the place were what earned him a WWE title opportunity at Backlash. Shockingly enough, he won and had a phenomenal reign over the four months that followed, but there was still plenty more he could do as champ.
Styles spent a good chunk of 2017 embroiled in the United States Championship picture before re-entering contention for the WWE title, this time as a babyface. The fans were ready to see it happen again, and sure enough, he knocked off Jinder Mahal on an episode of SmackDown in November to become a two-time world champion.
That second run was entirely different from the first, and the fans embraced him from start to finish. He had a variety of opponents to work with, was positioned as the face of SmackDown and had standout storylines with the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe and Daniel Bryan.
The audience never once wavered on Styles during that yearlong period because he was constantly living up to the hype. It's been three years since that second reign ended, and a third is long overdue regardless of whether he would be a face or a heel.
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No one has held more world championships as a babyface?in WWE than John Cena, seeing as how he hasn't turned heel at all since winning his first WWE Championship in 2005.
Cena is, of course, WWE's archetypal main event babyface. His character hasn't evolved much in the past decade and a half as a result, but he has gone through countless wars with virtually every top star who has come through the company in that time.
His first few reigns as WWE champ from 2005 to 2007 lasted months on end and saw him run through almost everyone on the roster. He rose to the occasion every time, proved he belonged and elevated others in the process.
There's no one title win that stands out above the rest because they were all special in their own way, no matter how brief some of the reigns were. He is the last true megastar to transcend the sport into acting and other endeavors, and it's possible none of his success would have happened had he not been such a prominent force while WWE champion.
It can be argued that Cena hogged the spotlight for too long and should have shared it more often, but he's the most reliable WWE performer in history for a reason. He can constantly be counted on to make that title the most coveted prize in wrestling whenever he holds it, and he makes people want to see him dethroned despite being the ultimate babyface.
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Graham Mirmina, aka Graham “GSM” Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website,?WrestleRant, and subscribe to his?YouTube channel?for more wrestling-related content.