The first King of the Ring was crowned in 1985 when Don Muraco defeated the Iron Sheik in the finals of a sixteen man tournament. Other great names that contested within the brackets that year included Paul Orndorf, Terry Funk, Pedro Morales, and Ricky Steamboat. It was the beginning of an off-and-on tradition in WWE. One that awakens this Monday on Raw.
Early KOTR tournaments had the winners taking on the king gimmick. Harley Race became King Harley Race, and Randy Savage became the Macho King. As time wore on the king gimmick was dropped and the tournament morphed into something else. By the time the tournament hit pay per view in 1993 the focus of professional wrestling had changed to a new set of stars.
Bret Hart has said himself that the 1993 tournament was his way of showing the company that they made a mistake choosing Hulk Hogan over him at Wrestlemania IX as the guy to take down Yokozuna. The first KOTR held on pay per view featured Bret taking on three different opponents in three different matches. He defeated Razor Ramon by reversing a back suplex from the top rope. He scored a pinfall over Mr. Perfect by reversing a small package, and pulled out a win over Bam Bam Bigelow with a victory roll. It was one of the best nights of the Hitman’s career as he turned in three great performances. At the end of the night he suffered assault by Jerry Lawler that would launch a feud between the two that lasted several years. Bret would go on to become the company’s top guy again. Hulk would leave and Lex Luger’s push didn’t pan out. By the time Wrestlemania X rolled around, it was Bret was chosen this time as the man to take Yokozuna out of the title picture once and for all.
The 1994 KOTR was used to launch Owen Hart to a main event status. He scored a pinfall over his brother Bret at Wrestlemania but he needed that extra push to get him over as a true threat to Bret’s title. Owen took out Tatanka, 1-2-3 Kid, and Razor Ramon in one night to become the King of the Ring for 1994. The honor led him to a steel cage match with Bret for the WWE Title at Summerslam.
Owen’s win was the first of a pattern seen with a few KOTR victors. He got a title match at Summerslam. In 1995 WWE was in need of new heels. Diesel had taken out challengers left and right. His biggest foe, Sid, had been soundly defeated by Big Daddy Cool and the two other biggest heels, Bam Bam Bigelow and Shawn Michaels, both turned baby face. That year’s King of the Ring tournament brought out an unlikely winner in Mabel. He defeated The Undertaker of all people in the first round, had a bye in the second, and took out Savio Vega, whom WWE pushed to the moon that night, in the finals. Mabel brought back the moniker of King for KOTR winners and became King Mabel. He was on a collision course with Diesel for Summerslam.
While Mabel got a main event slot at Summerslam, the following year’s winner didn’t even get a match on the pay per view, but a meaningless match on the Free for All show. But it is doubtful anyone believes King of the Ring did more for Mabel than it did for Steve Austin. Austin’s verbal tirade after defeating Jake Roberts in the finals launched Austin 3:16. Austin had always been a very good wrestler, but after drowning in WCW political landscape and floating in WWE’s mid card, he separated himself from the pack that year at King of the Ring. On that night, he began his ascent to the top of the wrestling world.
Austin’s winning spot was supposed to be Triple H’s in 1996, but that was held off for another year and it was for the better. By the time 1997 rolled around Triple H was ready to run with his KOTR win. His win in the finals over Mankind launched a summer trilogy of pay per view matches that culminated in a cage at Summerslam. This would be Hunter’s biggest program to date. He also formed an alliance with Shawn Michaels. In June of 1997 he had just won the tournament. One year later he was the leader of the most popular group in wrestling – DX.
The last two KOTR winners of the decade were Ken Shamrock and Billy Gunn. With The Rock on the rise many expected him to take the win, but it was unnecessary. Shamrock turned in two good matches that night. Unfortunately he would not be with the company much longer and had pretty much gone as far as they were willing to take him. On the other hand Billy Gunn was a rising star. In 1999 WWE brought back the eight man tournament which saw Gunn take out Ken Shamrock, Kane, and X-Pac. That summer was Gunn’s ascent. Too bad for him it rivaled the ascent of another heel in Triple H. Gunn still got a semi main event match at Summerslam with Rock, but that was it. That was as close as Gunn came to the main event. Just a few weeks later he was back in the tag team division. Still, Gunn’s push made sense. He was incredibly charismatic and an incredible athlete. He seemed like the perfect addition to the main event scene but it was not meant to be.
The following year was the return of KOTR’s stepping stone to the main event. Kurt Angle took home the tourney and went on to the main event of Summerslam and had the WWE Title around his waist just a few months later. He tried a repeat performance the next year but came up short in the finals against Edge. That year was a very different KOTR show. The four men in the tournament, Edge, Christian, Angle, and Rhino, had formed an unofficial stable but found themselves battling it out for the trophy. Even though Edge took home the prize, Angle was the one wrestling three matches that night as he still had to face Shane McMahon later in the evening. Edge did not quite get to that main events status for another five years, but has remained a main event lock since.
The argument can be made that Brock Lesnar was the last great King of the Ring. He plowed through Test and Rob Van Dam and went to Summerslam where he defeated The Rock for the gold. It’s not that the following Kings were bad talents; just that the KOTR name didn’t serve as the launching pad it did for stars such as Owen, Mabel, Austin, HHH, and Lesnar. We did however see the return of the King name when Booker T became King Booker in 2006. Two years later William Regal shined in the tournament and took home the win. IT looked as if a big push was in line for Regal until he was suspended.
This Monday the King of the Ring tournament returns when eight men compete for the title of King. Will we see the return of the King gimmick? I for one would love to see King Del Rio or the Dashing King Cody Rhodes. With the talent in this year’s tournament WWE has the opportunity to use it as a launching pad for the next big star. Looking at the participants we may just see this as the beginning of a push for one that could even lead to a Royal Rumble win. Then again, we could see a night of matches that lead to a win for one man and goes nowhere after that. Here’s hoping for the former of those two scenarios.