Hey kids, do you like tournaments?
WWE got the wrestling world buzzing in August with the announcement that the lauded King of the Ring tournament would be returning after a 4 year absence. As I type this, we’re headed into the semi-finals at Madison Square Garden.
Who will find themselves holding the crown and scepter once it all wraps up? And why does it matter?
That’s an easy one. Historically, the King of the Ring tournament has served as a launching pad for many competitors. No doubt, all 5 of the remaining 2019 KotR competitors are hoping to take their place on that throne, but more importantly, as the next in line for the top tier of WWE talents.
Today, let’s take a look back at the near 35 year history of the King of the Ring tournament – from a house show gimmick to a full blown PPV – and rank every man to ever wear the crown.
Kings were ranked with three factors considered: 1) Strength of competition in the tournament; 2) Success of their reign; and 3) Overall kingliness.
#19 – TITO SANTANA
Tito Santana is a WWE Hall of Famer, and “King of the Ring” winner certainly looks great on his resume. But as far as kings go, he pretty much stunk.
Tito won the 1989 KotR tournament at a house show in Providence, RI, with wins over C-Listers like Akeem and The Model. Santana would ride his King momentum into another tournament, this time for the Intercontinental Title. Unfortunately, Tito went down in the finals to Mr. Perfect.
Tito’s biggest accomplishment during his reign was making Hulk Hogan’s team in the Ultimate Survivors Main Event at Survivor Series 1990, but he was eliminated first by The Warlord. After losing to The Mountie at Wrestlemania VII, Tito would go on hiatus, effectively ending his low-key reign.
#18 – KING BARRETT
If you thought King Barrett would be ranked higher on this list, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.
King Barrett is the most recent King of the Ring, winning an 8-man tournament that culminated in a 2015 WWE Network special. Barrett defeated Dolph Ziggler, R-Truth, and Neville on his way to victory.
While Barrett had gained a lot of momentum using his Bad News gimmick (a genius way to keep him on TV while injured), King Barrett was a royal flush.
Barrett would feud with R-Truth for a while and then notably participate in a Summerslam match that featured Stardust and actor Stephen Amell – you know from Arrow? Barrett split up and feuded with Stardust before forming the ill-conceived League of Nations – sort of an international Losers Club.
After losing a feud with New Day, Barrett was kicked out of both the League and the entire WWE.
#17 – BILLY GUNN
Billy Gunn was the 1999 King of the Ring winner. While he defeated some quality guys on his way to the crown (X-Pac, Kane, Ken Shamrock), Billy seemed lost once he reached the top of the mountain.
Gunn’s early reign was dominated by a feud with his ex-DX partners. Not only did he come out on the losing end of that feud, somehow Billy lost the sweet merch rights to the DX brand.
Billy’s most notable match was a featured Summerslam bout against The Rock. Literally the only thing I remember about that match (other than The Rock won) is The Great One giving Gunn the nickname “Billy Bitchcakes”.
After his Rock feud, Gunn reunited the New Age Outlaws and won a couple of WWF Tag Team Titles. With the NAO feud a success, Billy helped reform all of D-Generation X. At least he got back his merch rights.
Maybe on top of the heap just wasn’t the place for King Billy Bitchcakes.
#16 – KING MABEL
I’m sure there was a good reason to pull a large, slow man out of a mid-card tag team and make him the King of the Ring. But when you saw Mabel take out The Undertaker in the 1995 Quaerterfinals, it was hard to think of what that reason might be.
Give King Mabel credit – he went all in on his king gimmick. Aside from the crown and throne, Mabel knighted his tag partner Mo and hired a bunch of unfortunate dudes to carry him around. Mabel is also the first and only King to get his own “King Belt”, which I guess WWF thought kings have?
Mabel’s KotR win earned him a Summerslam match with WWF Champion Diesel, but the King failed to earn a real championship belt that night. Mabel would next feud with Taker, culminating in a casket match that sent the big guy packing.
#15 – STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN
It may be controversial to rank Stone Cold Steve Austin so low on the King list, especially considering that King of the Ring 1996 is where Austin 3:16 was born. Consider it more of a sign of how strong the other king reigns were and not a knock against ol’ Stone Cold.
First, there’s the strength of competition. Stone Cold faced the likes of Marc Mero and Bob Holly on his way to defeating an aging Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the finals – not exactly a rogues gallery of babyfaces.
Aside from standing in front of the throne for that one epic promo, Stone Cold didn’t work the king gimmick at all. He just kicked ass.
Austin would go on to famously feud with Bret Hart, leading up to their epic Wrestlemania 13 encounter. Austin lost but came out of as an over face. Stone Cold also won the 1997 Royal Rumble and had some good feuds with Brian Pillman (the infamous Pillman 911 angle) and The Undertaker.
At the end of Austin’s reign, he briefly held the WWF Tag Team Titles with Shawn Michaels. It’s no doubt that King of the Ring set the table for Stone Cold, but his year as King would not be the bottom line on his career.
#14 – EDGE
King Edge the Awesome defeated the likes of former King Kurt Angle on his way to winning the crown. Edge’s first act as
crown trophy holder was to turn face and feud with a jealous Christian.
After winning the tournament, Edge became a fixture on the Intercontinental Title scene, winning the belt twice and ultimately unifying it with the WCW United States Title. King Edge can also lay claim to shaving Kurt Angle’s head.
Edge was a big part of Team WWF in the Invasion storyline, and he had notable feuds with William Regal and Booker T. The Booker feud ended with a Wrestlemania X8 match over a shampoo commercial (don’t ask).
Ultimately, the King of the Ring served as a great way to move Edge from E&C to just E. Still, it would be a few years before Edge’s rating would move up from a B+ to a hard R.
#13 – HUNTER HEARST HELMSLEY
The behind the scenes stories behind Triple H’s King of the Ring victory is even more interesting than what played out on TV. According to H himself, Helmsley was set to win the crown a year earlier, but was punished instead for the “Curtain Call” incident. This led to Stone Cold getting the nod, thus igniting the Austin Era.
When HHH did win in 1997, with a huge finals victory over Mankind, rumor is he hated the king regalia so much that he broke numerous crowns to keep from having to wear them on TV.
At any rate, Hunter was certainly a KotR breakout star. After his win, Helmsley made the trip to the Social Security office to officially change his name to Triple H. With Shawn Michaels, he helped form the DX faction, ushering in the age of Attitude.
DX feuded with the Hart Foundation, leading to a Triple H European Title reign and a victory over Owen Hart at Wrestlemania XIV. HBK bolted and Hunter assumed control of DX after that. His first order of degenrate business was an Intercontinental Title feud with The Rock.
If anything, the King of the Ring set Triple H on a path where he was definitively out from under any shadows.
#12 – “MILLION DOLLAR MAN” TED DiBIASE
The Million Dollar Man defeated none other than former King Randy Savage to win the King of the Ring tournament in 1988. While none will argue that Ted DiBiase isn’t a top tier competitor, his reign as King wasn’t what you’d call money.
After winning the KotR tournament at a Providence house show, DiBiase would go on to feud with Hercules. OK.
Ted created his own Million Dollar Title, which he defended successfully against Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake at Wrestlemania V and Jake The Snake at Summerslam.
The Million Dollar King’s reign culminated in a WWF Title match against Hulk Hogan on Saturday Night’s Main Event, but DiBiase failed to capture the legitimate gold. Sure, he has money, but is he happy?
#11 – DON MURACO
Props to Don Muraco for his historic accomplishment – he was the first man to win the King of the Ring tournament. Muraco put down Hall of Famers the Junkyard Dog, Pedro Morales, and The Iron Sheik at a 1985 house show in Foxborough, MA to capture the crown.
It’s hard to hold the pre-PPV King of the Ring winners to any sort of standard, since few of them even acknowledged the accomplishment as part of their gimmick.
As for Muraco’s 85/86, he feuded with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and, more importantly, starred in the infamous “Fuji Vice” segments on Tuesday Night Titans. Later in his reign, Muraco would gang up with the nefarious Adrian Adonis and Cowboy Bob Orton, Jr.
Did I mention he won the first King of the Ring tournament?
#10 – WILLIAM REGAL
William Regal defeated CM Punk in the 2008 King of the Ring finals, and while his reign had its ups and downs, he looked damn good on that throne.
Regal feuded with Mr. Kennedy after capturing the crown. That feud ended when Regal lost a “Loser Leaves Town” match and found himself off TV (re: suspended).
Regal came back as a free agent and feuded briefly with Jamie Noble over diva Layla El. Regal won the lady, and would go on to win the Intercontinental Title from Punk in a full blown feud with the Straight Edge Superstar.
Regal’s reign ended when he was traded to ECW. I know, it doesn’t seem like a Top 10 reign on paper, but just look at how cool he looks on the throne!
#9 – HARLEY RACE
“Handsome” (?) Harley Race was the first King of the Ring winner to really work the King gimmick. Race was a multi-time NWA Champion when he decided to head up north to the WWF. Since the Fed didn’t recognize their competition back in 1986, they needed a different way to show Race’s championship pedigree. King Harley Race was born.
Race defeated Hall of Famers Pedro Morales and George “The Animal” Steele to earn his crown. He’d go on to feud with Junkyard Dog, defeating JYD in a “Loser Must Bow” match at Wrestlemania III.
Feuds with Hulk Hogan and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan would follow, but an injury would put Race on the shelf for several months. Unable to rule from a hospital bed, Race’s manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan abdicated the throne to another member of the Heenan family – Haku.
King Haku would be the first non-tournament winner to hold the crown. He’d also be the first man to lose the crown in a match, to none other than “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan on an episode of WWF Superstars.
While King Harley Race’s reign was a short one, he was the first King to really bring TV attention to the crown and cape.
#8 – “THE KING OF HARTS” OWEN HART
We talked about Triple H stepping out from under shadows during his reign as King of the Ring, but perhaps nobody had a bigger chip on their shoulder when they sat on the throne than Owen Hart.
Owen’s older brother Bret Hart won the 1993 King of the Ring tournament, and Owen desperately wanted to prove that he was as good as or better than Bret.
Owen defeated Hall of Famers 1-2-3 Kid and Razor Ramon in the tourney, with his brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart crowning him The King of Harts at the end of the 1994 PPV.
Owen’s reign would be defined by his obsession over defeating Bret. The two squared off in an epic steel cage match at Summerslam 1994, the night Owen Hart nearly won the WWF Title.
Sadly, Owen was never able to best Bret with the belt on the line. Later in his reign, he’d team with Yokozuna to win the WWF Tag Team Titles at Wrestlemania XI.
#7 – KING SHEAMUS
Sheamus was the first King of the Ring of this decade, winning an 8-man tournament on Raw back in 2010. Sheamus defeated future WWE Champion Kofi Kingston and John Morrison for the right to hold the scepter.
King Sheamus’ reign had its ups and downs. He would end up on the losing end of a feud with Morrison, then find himself absolutely destroyed by Triple H.
Sheamus’ luck began to turn at Wrestlemania XXVII, when he defeated Daniel Bryan for the United States Title on the Kick-Off Show. He’d go on to feud with Kofi and Christian before turning face and feuding with Mark Henry.
Sheamus won the 2012 Royal Rumble match, earning a World Heavyweight Title match against Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania XXVIII. The Celtic Warrior defeated Bryan in just 18 seconds to capture the gold.
#6 – “MACHO KING” RANDY SAVAGE
Randy Savage defeated King Kong Bundy in the finals of the 1987 King of the Ring tournament, held in Providence, RI. It would prove to be a pivotal time in the Macho Man’s career.
Savage would later feud with the Honky Tonk Man before teaming up with Hulk Hogan to form the biggest super team of all time – the Mega Powers. With the power of Hulkamania behind him, Randy would enter a 14-man tournament at Wrestlemania IV, capturing his first WWF Title.
The Mega Powers would spend the summer feuding with the Million Dollar Man and Andre The Giant, which included main eventing the first Summerslam.
That wouldn’t mark the end of Randy Savage and the crown though. In 1989, a heel savage would defeat “King Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and dub himself the “Macho King”. With Queen Sherri at his side and scepter in his hand, the Macho King would cost the Ultimate Warrior his WWF Title at Royal Rumble 1990. The two faced off in a Wrestlemania VII Career Match that saw Randy (temporarily) hang up his boots and retire the crown.
#5 – KEN SHAMROCK
Ken Shamrock may be one of the forgotten Kings of the Ring, but he had a heck of a run. The former MMA fighter defeated The Rock and Hall of Famers Mark Henry, Jeff Jarrett and Kama on his path to the throne in 1998. That’s one of the strongest fields of competition in tournament history.
Shamrock’s early reign would be marked by pretenders to the throne, including former kings Owen Hart and Mabel. Shamrock proved a stronger ruler than both, especially when an octagon was involved.
Shamrock turned heel and joined the evil Corporation stable. I can’t even begin to fathom the ethical ramifications of the monarchy getting in bed with big business. As a Corporate heel, Shamrock won both the Intercontinental Title and the WWF Tag Team Titles with the evil Big Boss Man.
King Shamrock would then spend time defending the honor of his sister Ryan Shamrock, culminating in an IC Title Fatal Fourway Match at Wrestlemania XV with Road Dogg, Goldust, and Val Venis. Shamrock would not walk out with the belt.
Shamrock broke away from The Corporation during their feud and subsequent merger with The Undertaker’s evil Ministry, reverting to a fan favorite in the process. After that, he’d join The Union faction, which attempted to take down the Corporate Ministry.
#4 – BRET “HITMAN” HART
Bret Hart not only holds the distinction of winning the first PPV King of the Ring tournament; he’s also the only man to win the tournament twice.
In 1991, WWF held their sixth King of the Ring tournament at a house show in Providence, RI. Bret would defeat Irwin R. Schyster in the finals to become the King of the Ring. Pretty sure this was never mentioned on TV, but it did make the cover of a Coliseum Home Video. (Don’t Google it, because I’m wrong.)
Bret’s first reign between ’91 and ’93 would be a pivotal time for the “Hitman”. He’d feud with The Mountie over the Intercontinental Title before an epic Wrestlemania VIII win over “Rowdy” Roddy Piper ( “I coulda had ya Bret!”).
Hart would headline SummerSlam 1992 at Wembley Stadium and then go on to win his first WWF Championship in a Canadian house show match against Ric Flair. That reign would be squashed at Wrestlemania IX by Yokozuna, but by then, Bret had established himself as a top contender.
In 1993, Hart further cemented his place in KotR history by winning the tournament again at the first King of the Ring PPV. Hart defeated Hall of Famers Mr. Perfect and Razor Ramon on his way to a classic finals match against Bam Bam Bigelow.
During his second reign, Hart would engage in a bitter feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler over who the TRUE king of wrestling is. Bret won those matches, but let’s be honest – who are we still calling king 25 years later?
Hart would put an exclamation point on his second reign by taking the WWF Title back from Yokozuna in the Wrestlemania X main event.
#3 – KING BOOKER
ALL HAIL KING BOOKAAAAH!
Booker T was the first post-PPV era King of the Ring. Booker scored wins over former king Kurt Angle and Randy Orton on Smackdown before defeating Bobby Lashley in the finals at Judgment Day 2006.
Perhaps more than any king before him, King Booker fully embraced his regality. Booker’s monarchy over the “Smackdown Kingdom” included Queen Sharmell and a full Royal Court – Sir William Regal from England and Sir Finlay from Ireland, and Hornswoggle, who was not knighted. Think of it as a less lame League of Nation with a midget.
Booker would feud with Lashley and then defeat Rey Mysterio for his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship. As champion, King Booker vanquished the likes of Batista and managed to win a “Champion Of Champions” match at Cyber Sunday ’06 over WWE Champion John Cena and ECW Champion The Big Show. No small feat indeed.
Feuds with Kane, Jerry Lawler, and Triple H followed. King Booker stepped down from the throne (via WWE release) in October 2007.
#2 – BROCK LESNAR
Brock Lesnar made his WWF debut in March of 2002. Three months later, he was thrust into the King Of The Ring tournament. Lesnar was the odds on favorite to win from the start.
Brock defeated Hall of Famers Bubba Ray Dudley and Booker T on WWE TV before crushing Test and Rob Van Dam at the King of the Ring PPV. The victory earned the Beast a SummerSlam shot at the Undisputed Title, but he’d win a one-sided feud with the legendary Hulk Hogan on his way there.
Lesnar defeated The Rock to become the youngest world champion in WWF history at Summerslam 2004. Brock and his agent Paul Heyman would shock the world when Lesnar signed exclusively with Smackdown the next week, thus removing the Undisputed Tite from the Raw brand.
Lesnar would feud with The Undertaker before losing the title (and Heyman) to The Big Show at Survivor Series 2002. The Beast battled back, winning the ’03 Royal Rumble to score a main event spot at Wrestlemania XIX. There, Lesnar defeated Kurt Angle for the WWE Title. (And nearly broke his neck in the process.)
Lesnar’s later reign was marked by destroying John Cena, swinging Rey Mysterio like a baseball bat into a ring post, and hitting a superplex on The Big Show that collapsed the Smackdown ring.
#1 – KURT ANGLE
Kurt Angle won a rare 32-man King of the Ring tournament in 2000. He defeated future WWE Champion John “Bradshaw” Layfield and Hall of Famer Bubba Ray Dudley in TV matches. Angle would go on to defeat Chris Jericho and Hall of Famer Rikishi in his bid for the crown. That alone may be the strongest tournament showing in KotR history.
Following his win, King Kurt would become the king of drama thanks to a love triangle involving himself, Stephanie McMahon, and Triple H. After that was cleared up, Angle won his first WWF Title by defeating The Rock at No Mercy 2000.
As King and Champion, Angle would defeat The Undertaker at Survivor Series, Triple H at Royal Rumble ’01, and defy the odds to win a 6-Man Hell In A Cell match at the Armageddon PPV.
Angle would lose the title to The Rock at No Way Out, then enter into a classic feud with Chris Benoit, which included a memorable match at Wrestlemania X-Seven.
In short, Kurt Angle beat the best on his way to becoming and during his reign as the King of the Ring. And that’s why King Kurt is the greatest of all time.