WWE’s King Of The Ring tournament used to be a staple of the promotion. Some kings would use the throne to make themselves bigger stars. Others would have been better off abdicating the throne.
Every June during the 90s, WWE would run the King Of The Ring tournament on pay-per-view. But the tradition actually goes back further than its PPV legacy would suggest.
In the twilight of wrestling’s territory days, WWE would run the tournament as a means of boosting attendance for live events. It was an attraction to lure fans to shows that didn’t feature the Hulk Hogan or Andre the Giant-level talents.
The company brought back the tournament this year for the first time since 2015 at a time when special attractions are necessary in the face of rapidly declining ratings. With that, we take a look back at the best and worst to attain the crown as WWE’s King Of The Ring.
And for the sake of brevity, we’ll keep this to the post-1993 era when WWE started the PPV event. So we’ll just say off the bat that King Harley Race and ‘Macho King’ Randy Savage would be at the top of a true “all time” list.
Moving right along.
WORST – 3. King Billy Gunn (1999)
Billy Gunn was a wrestler with great potential (shut up, it was a different era) that was coming up at the worst possible time.
It seems odd to consider any point in the Attitude Era “the worst possible time.” Steve Austin was on top of the world, and the Rock was nipping at his heels. The Undertaker was still a big name, Mankind was churning out comedy gold, and Triple H would soon enter the main event scene. Getting lost in the shuffle wasn’t hard to do.
But WWE was wary of the fact that Austin was injury prone. Indeed, a neck injury would put Austin out of action after that year’s SummerSlam. Triple H wasn’t yet a proven commodity, and Gunn was the company’s target to create a new star. Winning the King Of The Ring tournament was a way to solidify Gunn as a major star.
Unfortunately, Vince Russo was booking this stuff at the time. Also working against Gunn was the fact that Vince Russo was booking this stuff at the time.
WWE rushed Gunn into a semi-main event feud with the Rock heading into SummerSlam, and the convoluted booking of that match (a “kiss my ass match,” no less) did nothing to help the new King. Within months, Gunn was back to teaming with Road Dogg in the New Age Outlaws. His run as King Of The Ring was such a bust that 2001’s winner, Edge, promised not to “Billy Gunn the title.”
BEST – 3. King Booker (2006)
The Invasion debacle of 2001 did no favors for Booker T. After years of floundering in WCW, Booker made his way to the big time.
Sadly, he only stood as a constant reminder of the ex-WCW talent that WWE didn’t have access to. He entered WWE as the WCW Champion, but Booker was not the “face of WCW” fans envisioned when they fantasy-booked a WWE vs. WCW feud.
Things would get worse in 2003 when Booker was the challenger for Triple H’s World Heavyweight Championship heading into WrestleMania XIX. The feud between the two was — how does one say, oh yeah — racist. And the less said of it, the better.
Booker continued to flounder in comedy angles with Goldust and got by on the Spinaroonie for the next few years. For those wondering what a Spinaroonie is, enjoy. Or don’t, I don’t care.
But finally in 2006, WWE brought back the King Of The Ring tournament, and Booker T fought his way to the finals where he defeated Bobby Lashley. And that win finally gave Booker the chance to strut his stuff as one of the most obnoxious heels in the business. His valet (and wife) Queen Sharmell began accompanying him to the ring, heralding the arrival by screeching “All hail King Booker” over and over and over again.
It was awful, but it was great (wrestling’s funny that way). It was the shot in the arm Booker’s career needed, and he used the crown to springboard himself to a run as the World Heavyweight Champion.
WORST – 2. King Barrett (2015)
Oh hell. Poor Wade Barrett.
As with most guys in WWE, Barrett was buried for getting himself over, which is a cardinal sin in the company. Get over with the script they hand you or get buried. But that’s a subject for another sermon.
Barrett was out with an injury for several months heading into 2015, and WWE’s solution to keep him in the mix was to turn him into ‘Bad News’ Barrett. See, the gimmick was, Barrett would come out and announce bad news. And then he would leave. It’s like printing money, folks.
In an attempt to bring more eyes to the WWE Network, the company brought the King Of The Ring tournament back as a Network exclusive. Barrett won the tournament and went on to great heights. And by great heights I mean he continued to do the “bad news” thing but with a crown on his head. Um.
This has more to do with the booking and nothing to do with what Barrett did with what he had. But bringing back the crown did him no favors. He would be out of the company by 2016 after he and the rest of his League Of Nations faction was buried by a trio of senior citizens at WrestleMania 32.
BEST – 2. King ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin (1996)
One of the senior citizens who accosted Barrett at WrestleMania 32 was Steve Austin. And he used winning King Of The Ring to become the biggest star in pro wrestling history.
Austin came into the company in late 1995 and made a less-than-stellar debut as the Ringmaster. Gradually, though, Austin got to use his own name and evolved into the ‘Stone Cold’ character. Still, he was never meant to be a megastar, but winning the King Of The Ring was meant to be a step to give him more credibility when he would face the megastars.
At the 1996 King Of The Ring pay-per-view, Austin was injured after his semi-final win and had to leave the event for a while to get treatment. While he was gone, the legendary Jake “The Snake” Roberts advanced to the finals. Upon returning, Austin asked what Roberts said in his post-match promo. Roberts was fond of quoting Bible verses in his promos at the time, and a light bulb went off over Austin’s head.
The Rattlesnake defeated Roberts to claim the crown as the 1996 King Of The Ring. And after the match, he changed pro wrestling forever with this.
By the end of the year, he wrestled a classic with a returning Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1996. At the beginning of the next year, he would win his first of three Royal Rumble matches. And a little over a year after that, he would be the WWE Champion.
But none of it happens without the walk up those steps to claim his throne.
WORST – 1. King Mabel (1995)
Oh my god. Do I have to?
WWE was in the midst of its awkward years to put it kindly. WCW had stolen the biggest star in wrestling history (at the time), Hulk Hogan. Vince was just starting to poke his head out of the sand in the wake of the steroid trial. Business and buyrates were down across the board. To put it mildly, WWE was in trouble.
Vince wanted a literal giant to carry the WWE title, and Diesel (Kevin Nash, or Super Shredder if you prefer) was chosen. And, because he was so desperate to recreate Hulk Hogan, Vince needed giants and monsters for Diesel to vanquish.
Enter Mabel. At the time, he was best known as half of the rapping Men On A Mission (MOM — Vince McMahon is a creative genius) tag team. But he was definitely a monstrous figure. And with Yokozuna’s time having essentially run out, McMahon tapped Mabel to be the giant monster to face Diesel.
Mabel won the 1995 King Of The Ring tournament and went on to face Diesel for the title at SummerSlam 1995. It was not a mat classic.
After that, WWE didn’t use Mabel much until he joined the Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness in 1999 as Viscera. Remember Viscera?
BEST – 1. King Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart (1993)
Shut up, I’m a well-documented Bret Hart mark. Was there ever any doubt?
WWE retired the King Of The Ring “special attraction” gimmick a couple years earlier, oddly enough with Hart as the last King. But the company relaunched the tournament in 1993 as a self-contained PPV event. Until 2002, it was the fifth of WWE’s “big five” events.
Hart was already a former WWE Champion at this point. With Hogan on his way out after this show, it was time to build a new top star. Bret Hart was the chosen one.
The 1993 edition still ranks as the best tournament the company ever put on. And Hart’s one-night performance is up there with Randy Savage’s WrestleMania IV showing when it comes to “iron man” shows. Not only did Hart defeat Razor Ramon, Mr. Perfect, and Bam Bam Bigelow in the same night to claim the King Of The Ring crown, but he did it in three very different matches.
And he didn’t win a single match with his signature Sharpshooter. After he beat Bigelow in the final, Jerry Lawler jumped a battered Hart to start a feud that — as ridiculous as it sounds — was one of the best of Hart’s career.
Bret Hart was already a proven commodity, but his King Of The Ring reign cemented him as WWE’s top guy of the 90s.
And not for nothing, but for a guy who takes himself so seriously, how was Bret okay with that goofy crown and cape?
All images courtesy of WWE.