With news that WWE was bringing back King of the Ring, a traditional tournament held for over 20 years in WWE starting in the 1980s, was met with elation from some fans, and reservation from others. After all, WWE seemed to give up on the popular annual tournament after 2002, bringing it back only four times in the next 15 years. But since it’s debut in 1985 (and becoming its own PPV in 1993), King of the Ring was one of the most looked forward to events in the WWE’s calendar year. It was a showcase for some of WWE’s more technical or less showboating performers, and for much of its duration, it helped elevate mid-carders into main eventers or helped propel veterans who were joining the WWE.
1985 – Don Muraco
Competitors: “Jumping” Jim Brunzell, The Spoiler, Les Thornton, Steve Lombardi, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, Cowboy “Ace” Bob Orton Jr., Pedro Morales, “Luscious” Johnny Valiant, Tito Santana, Terry Funk, Don Muraco, Junkyard Dog, Ricky Steamboat, Greg “The Hammer’ Valentine, Iron Shiek, B. Brian Blair
The first-ever King of the Ring tournament was held on July 8, 1985, in front of 23,000 fans at Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The entire 16-man tournament was run in one event, that saw The Magnificent Muraco defeat Iron Sheik in the finals to become the first man to wear the crown of WWE’s King of the Ring.
1986 – Harley Race
Competitors: Don Muraco, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Harley Race, George “The Animal” Steele, Billy Jack Haynes, Iron Shiek, Nikolai Volkoff, Dan Spivey, Junkyard Dog, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Mr. X (Danny Davis), Mike Rotunda, Rudy Diamond
The second KOTR a year later seemed to be built around the WWF introduction of 8x NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion Harley Race into the WWF Universe. Race had just jumped to the WWF from the NWA that May and on July 14, 1986, he beat Pedro Morales at the same Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough to become WWF’s new King. No one made winning that crown feel as important as the World Championship as Harley Race.
1987 – “Macho Man” Randy Savage
Competitors: Haku, Brutus Beefcake, Rick Martel, Danny Spivey, King Kong Bundy, One Man Gang, SD Jones, Wild Samoan Sika, “Dangerous” Danny Davis, Tito Santana, Junkyard Dog, Tama, “Jumping” Jim Brunzell, “Outlaw” Ron Bass, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Nikolai Volkoff
In September of 1987, at the Providence Civic Center in Rhode Island, “Macho Man” Randy Savage was exploding into the WWF’s next main event star. He was just months removed from his WrestleMania III classic against Ricky Steamboat, and on the verge of becoming WWF World Heavyweight Champion for the first time. At the third KOTR, Savage defeated King Kong Bundy in the finals to become the new King, in a match that helped win more fans to the Macho Madness.
1988 – “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase
Competitors: Ken Patera, Nikolai Volkoff, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, Brutus Beefcake, “Outlaw” Ron Bass, Barbarian, Shawn Michaels, “Dangerous” Danny Davis, Bad News Brown, Hercules, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Virgil, Red Rooster (Terry Taylor), Marty Jannetty, Iron Mike Sharpe, Boris Zhukov
WWF returned to Providence the following year for the follow-up KOTR, which saw The Million Dollar Man regain his top heel status in WWF by defeating the reigning WWF World Champion Randy Savage in the finals. It was bittersweet redemption for Ted DiBiase, who lost to Savage earlier that year at WrestleMania IV for the vacant World title, but unfortunately, the only thing on the line was Savage’s crown from the previous year and not his WWF Championship.
1989 – Tito Santana
Competitors: Brutus Beefcake, Akeem, Hercules, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, Bushwhacker Butch, Warlord, Tito Santana, Bad News Brown, Rick Martel, Bill Wood, Bushwhacker Luke, Nikolai Volkoff, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Barbarian, Haku, Red Rooster (Terry Taylor)
Providence Civic Center remained the home of KOTR through 1991, and 1990’s KOTR saw the aftermath of the demise of the tag team Strike Force. The popular former WWF World Tag Team Champions Tito Santana and Rick Martel had split apart at WrestleMania V earlier that spring and had been feuding for the entire year. That October, Tito Santana would face “The Model” Rick Martel in the finals, with Santana gaining the upper edge that night.
1991 – Bret “Hitman” Hart
Competitors: Jerry Sags, Road Warrior Hawk, Ricky Steamboat, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Brian Knobs, Irwin R. Shyster, Berzerker, Bret “Hitman” Hart, Pete Doherty, Skinner, Virgil, Sid Justice, Warlord, The Undertaker, Road Warrior Animal
The Hart Foundation had been one of the WWF’s most popular (and hated) tag teams of the 1980’s Rock N’ Wrestling Era, but as the 1990s began, it became apparent that Bret “Hitman” Hart was ready to move on to the singles competition. Bret was originally slated to face recent WWF addition “Texas Tornado” Kerry Von Erich in the first round, but sadly, a minor injury forced Von Erich out of the tournament, robbing the world of at least one singles match between the two legendary second-generation wrestlers. In the end, Bret Hart defeated Irwin R. Shyster (Mike Rotunda) in the finals to win King of the Ring and re-enforce his potential, having won his first WWF Intercontinental Championship from Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam, just one month previous. With declining attendance, WWF would put KOTR on hold for 1992.
1993 – Bret “Hitman” Hart
Competitors: Bret “Hitman” Hart, Razor Ramon, Lex Luger, Bob Backlund, Tito Santana, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Papa Shango, Bam Bam Bigelow, Typhoon, Tatanka, Giant Gonzalez, Mr. Perfect, Doink the Clown, Mr. Hughes, Kamala
WWF brought back KOTR in 1993, but this time under a new structure. Instead of having the entire event on one night, it was broken up. The first round matches would all take place on various WWF programs, such as Monday Night Raw, WWF Superstars, and Wrestling Challenge, with the eight victors moving on to the first-ever King of the Ring PPV, held at the Nutter Center in Dayton, Ohio on June 13, 1993. Two years prior at the last KOTR, Bret Hart was just entering the singles division and was coming off his first IC win. But in 1993, Hart was on another level – his global popularity was exploding and he had just come off his first reign as WWF World Heavyweight Champion. On the PPV, he defeated Razor Ramon and Mr. Perfect in quarter and semi-final action, before defeating Bam Bam Bigelow in the finals to win back to back KOTR tournaments. To this day, Bret Hart is the only man to win more than one KOTR.
1994 – Owen Hart
Competitors: Irwin R. Shyster, Scott Steiner, Razor Ramon, Kwang (Savio Vega), Mabel, Quebecer Pierre (PCO), Bam Bam Bigelow, Thurman “Sparky” Plugg (Bob Holly), Lex Luger, Jeff Jarrett, Owen Hart, Doink the Clown, 1-2-3 Kid, Adam Bomb, Crush (Brian Adams), Tatanka
WWF continued it’s new format of having the first round on TV programming, with the quarter, semi-finals and finals appearing on the PPV, and in 1994 at the Baltimore Arena, a new Hart was elevated. Ever since he shocked the world that spring at WrestleMania X when he defeated his brother Bret in the opening match, Owen Hart had become a serious threat in the WWF. Bret would go on to win the WWF World title that night, but from then on, it was Bret vs. Owen until the Fall. With a victory over his World Champion brother, Owen Hart would defeat Tatanka in the quarter-finals and 1-2-3 Kid (X-Pac) in the semi-finals, before beating Razor Ramon in the finals to keep the KOTR crown in the Hart family for its third straight year.
1995 – Mabel
Competitors: Mabel, Adam Bomb, Bob Holly, Mantaur, Razor Ramon, Jacob Blu, Shawn Michaels, King Kong Bundy, Kama Mustafa (Godfather), Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, Jeff Jarrett, The Undertaker, Owen Hart, British Bulldog, Yokozuna, Lex Luger, The Roadie (Road Dogg), Doink the Clown, Savio Vega
Widely considered the most shocking finals in King of the Ring history, when one half of the comedic (yet former WWF World Tag Team Champions) squad Men on a Mission, Mabel, ran through the tournament, including beating The Undertaker in the quarter-final and then upsetting Savio Vega to win the crown. While it initially led to main event feuds for King Mabel against WWF World Champion Diesel (Kevin Nash) and The Undertaker, his ascent slowed quickly and by early 1996, he had left the company. He would return years later and find more considerable success as the monster Viscera.
1996 – “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Competitors: Ultimate Warrior, Goldust, Vader, Ahmed Johnson, Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, Henry O. Godwinn, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Bob Holly, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Savio Vega, Marty Jannetty, Marc Mero, Bodydonna Skip (Chris Candido), Owen Hart, Yokozuna
Undeniably the most famous King of the Ring in history. The Ringmaster had just recently changed his tune to become “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and was gaining momentum as a bad-ass that fans were starting to cheer for instead of jeer. At the 1996 KOTR, he knocked down Marc Mero in the semi-finals (WWF held both the first round and quarter-finals on TV this year, with only the semi-finals and finals airing on the PPV) and went on to face WWE Legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the finals. After defeating Roberts, Austin went on to deliver his infamous 3:16 speech, cementing himself as the new big thing in the WWF and ushering in the early foundation of the Attitude Era.
1997 – Hunter Hearst Helmsley
Competitors: Ahmed Johnson, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Crush, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Goldust, Mankind, Savio Vega
1997 was a big year for Hunter Hearst Helmsley (better known today as simply Triple H). He was finally out of detention for taking part in the Curtain Call the previous year when his close friends Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) and Kevin Nash defected to WCW. He had his first reign as WWF Intercontinental Champion, was feuding with another rising star in The Rock and was paired with real-life best friend Shawn Michaels in a cool new stable, D-Generation X. In the KOTR, he would beat Ahmed Johnson in the semi-finals and Mankind in the finals, which would help elevate Triple H to a new level in preparation for him taking over D-Generation X from Shawn Michaels the following spring.
1998 – Ken Shamrock
Competitors: Ken Shamrock, The Rock, Triple H, X-Pac, Owen Hart, 2 Cold Scorpio, D’Lo Brown, Dan “The Beast” Severn, Vader, Kama Mustafa, Mark Henry, Terry Funk, Jeff Jarrett, Faarooq, Marc Mero, Steve Blackman
Easily the second most famous King of the Ring moment behind Austin’s 3:16 match happened on this PPV, although it didn’t have anything to do with the tournament – this was the event where The Undertaker vs Mankind in Hell in a Cell stole the show. But the tournament was another strong showing for former UFC Champion Ken Shamrock, who had debuted in WWF the year before and had feuds with WWF World Champions Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. He would take down Jeff Jarrett in the semi-finals and then defeat The Rock in the finals, springboarding from his KOTR victory to winning the WWF Intercontinental Championship later that October in a tournament to crown the vacant championship.
1999 – Billy Gunn
Competitors: Billy Gunn, Viscera (Mabel), Ken Shamrock, Jeff Jarrett, Droz, Big Show, Test, Kane, “Road Dogg” Jesse James, The Godfather, Chyna, Val Venis, Al Snow, Hardcore Holly, Big Boss Man, X-Pac
In 1999, WWF tried to do something similar with Billy Gunn that they’d attempted with Bret Hart just under a decade earlier. The New Age Outlaws tandem of Gunn and “Road Dogg” Jesse James were 3x WWF World Tag Team Champions, and now it was time to see if Billy could fly on his own. It was a history-making KOTR, as Chyna became the first woman to enter the King of the Ring tournament, but it was Billy Gunn who would defeat Kane, then his fellow D-X member X-Pac in the finals to win the entire tournament. But it didn’t launch Billy Gunn to the same heights it did Bret Hart back in 1991. He would return to win two more tag team titles with Road Dogg, before a brief singles stint in 2000 would see him finally win the WWF Intercontinental Championship.
2000 – Kurt Angle
Competitors: Rikishi, Bull Buchanan, Shane McMahon, Steve Blackman, Kurt Angle, Bradshaw, Crash Holly, Albert, Chyna, Val Venis, Al Snow, The Godfather, Chris Benoit, Hardcore Holly, “Road Dogg” Jesse James, Ron Simmons, Chris Jericho, Test, Eddie Guerrero, Matt Hardy, Bubba Ray Dudley, Perry Saturn, Big Boss Man, D-Von Dudley, X-Pac, Dean Malenko, Jeff Hardy, Christian, Edge, Grandmaster Sexay, Scotty 2 Hotty, D’Lo Brown
In 2000, WWF had a bonafide star on their hands in former Olympic Gold Medalist Kurt Angle. Angle had debuted with the WWF that previous November in 1999 and was on a fast track to success. For the 2000 edition of KOTR, they had the largest field to date – 32 men fought it out through weeks of television to get down to the quarter finals. Kurt Angle defeated Bradshaw and Bubba Ray Dudley on TV, before Chris Jericho in the quarter-finals, and Crash Holly in the semi-finals. In the end, he would defeat Rikishi in the finals to win the crown. Already a WWF European and Intercontinental Champion, only four months after his KOTR victory, he would win his first WWF World Heavyweight Championship, beating The Rock at No Mercy.
2001 – Edge
Competitors: Jeff Hardy, Rhyno, Matt Hardy, Tazz, Kurt Angle, Hardcore Holly, Edge, Test, Christian, Perry Saturn, Kane, Steve Blackman, Big Show, Raven, Tajiri, Crash Holly
WWF went back to the well once more in splitting up a popular tag team and hoping a KOTR win would elevate one of its members. While they’d found great success with Bret Hart following his first win, Billy Gunn had proven lightning didn’t always strike twice. But in 2001, the process worked again for another Canadian. Edge & Christian were 7x WWF World Tag Team Champions when Edge entered the 2001 KOTR tournament. The bulk of this year’s tournament was held on television, but at the KOTR PPV that June, Edge would defeat Rhyno in the semi-finals and then shockingly defeat Kurt Angle in the finals to win the KOTR trophy. A single star was born and Edge would remain at the top of the mid-card, winning four WWE Intercontinental titles and one US Championship in the next three years, setting up his first World Championship in 2006.
2002 – Brock Lesnar
Competitors: X-Pac, Booker T, Goldust, William Regal, Val Venis, Christian, Chris Jericho, Edge, Rob Van Dam, Eddie Guerrero, Brock Lesnar, Bubba Ray Dudley, Test, Hardcore Holly, Hurricane Helms, Tajiri
“The Beast Incarnate” was just a rookie when he made his debut in the spring of 2002, but he showed all signs of being “The Next Big Thing” very early on. Just months after his debut, Brock Lesnar decimated the competition in the 2002 KOTR – the last official KOTR PPV – defeating Bubba Ray Dudley and Booker T in the first round and quarter-finals on TV, then Test in the semi-finals at the PPV. In the finals, he made quick work of Rob Van Dam – defeating him in just under six minutes – to become the youngest man to win the KOTR at only 25 years old. But that was just the beginning – months after being crowned the King, Lesnar defeated The Rock for his first World Championship and setting a precedent for the Beast who still lurks the WWE arenas.
2006 – Booker T
Competitors: Kurt Angle, Randy Orton, Matt Hardy, Booker T, Chris Benoit, Fit Finlay, Bobby Lashley, Mark Henry
After being cancelled after the 2002 PPV, the KOTR tournment returned four years later in 2006, but it no longer received it’s own event. Instead, the bulk of the tournament was held over television dates, with only the final being on PPV. Booker T had been one of the top stars in the WWE since coming over from WCW – he won two WCW World titles under the WWE regime, as well as three more US Championships, WWE Intercontinental title, and multiple WWE World Tag Team titles. But after defeating Matt Hardy and Kurt Angle, Booker T went on to Judgement Day in 2006 to beat Bobby Lashley in the final to become the newest King of the WWE. Booker took the King gimmick to heart and King Booker was born, complete with a faux British accent and a new King’s Court stable, featuring his wife – Queen Sharmell – along with William Regal and Fit Finlay. It would culiminate in his first and only WWE banner World Heavyweight Championship reign, when he defeated Rey Mysterio a month later.
2008 – William Regal
Competitors: Chris Jericho, MVP, CM Punk, Matt Hardy, Fit Finlay, The Great Khali, William Regal, Hornswoggle
In 2008, the King of the Ring returned again after missing 2007, but this time, the entire eight-man tournament took place on one night in April on Monday Night Raw. William Regal, already a 4x WWE European Champion, 5x WWE Hardcore Champion, 4x WWE Tag Team Champion and former Intercontinental Champion, would prove to be the Man’s Man once and for all, defeating Hornswoggle, Fit Finlay and finally CM Punk in the finals to be crowned the King of the WWE. It was more a feather in Regal’s cap than an ascension, although he would win his second Intercontinental title a year later.
2010 – Sheamus
Competitors: Sheamus, R-Truth, Kofi Kingston, Jack Swagger, Drew McIntyre, MVP, Ezekiel Jackson, Alex Riley, John Morrison, Tyson Kidd, Cody Rhodes, Rey Mysterio, Alberto Del Rio, Big Show, Daniel Bryan, Ted DiBiase Jr.
King of the Ring would skip 2009 and make its return in 2010. Once again, the entire tournament was run on television only, with the finals culminating in a showdown between Sheamus and John Morrison on November 29 on Raw. Sheamus would defeat Morrison in the finals, capping off an impressive first year in the WWE that saw him capture two WWE World Championships in his first calendar year. It would catapult Sheamus to one of the WWE’s top talents for years, constantly entering the main event title picture, adding two US Championships, a third World title reign, and a 5x Tag Team Champion with Cesaro in The Bar.
2015 – Bad News Barrett
Competitors: Bad News Barrett, Dolph Ziggler, R-Truth, Stardust (Cody Rhodes), Sheamus, Dean Ambrose, Neville, Luke Harper
The King of the Ring would go on another hiatus after 2010, returning five years later in 2015. This time it was condensed to just eight competitors once again and only held over two nights, of a Raw and SmackDown. Bad News Barrett defeated Dolph Ziggler in his first match-up, then R-Truth in his second match, before beating fellow Brit Neville in the finals on night two. Like William Regal before him, the Englishman took the Kingly anointment with national pride. Unfortunately for Barrett, his KOTR win would be his last major accomplishment in the WWE. A former 5x Intercontinental Champion, Barrett would go on to join The League of Nations with Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio and Rusev, and then briefly team with Cody Rhodes‘ Stardust character – where Barrett became the Cosmic King – before departing the WWE in the summer of 2016.
2019 – ???
Competitors: Ali, Andrade, Apollo Crews, Baron Corbin, Buddy Murphy, Cedric Alexander, Cesaro, Chad Gable, Drew McIntyre, Elias, The Miz, Kevin Owens, Ricochet, Sami Zayn, Samoa Joe, Shelton Benjamin
This coming Monday, the tournament returns to television for the first time in four years, returning to its 16-man original format. It’s arguably the strongest field that a King of the Ring has had in decades and once again, the final is slated to appear on PPV, the first time since Booker T’s win in 2006. The KOTR final is scheduled to happen at this year’s Clash of the Champions on Sunday, September 15. Will the return of the KOTR help elevate one of the young guns in the tournament, like Ali, Cedric Alexander, or Ricochet? Will it add some life back into the career of someone like Samoa Joe, Cesaro or Shelton Benjamin? Or will we see it as a new ascension for the likes of Drew McIntyre or Kevin Owens to becoming permanent main event fixtures? Only time will tell.
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