The Five Count: Kings of the Ring


Beginning in 1985 and for 25 years following—with a hole or two along the way—18 men earned the official (sorry, Jerry Lawler) right to be called WWF or WWE royalty.

For some, it would be a launching point for their young career; for others, an acknowledgement of years of hard work; and for a few the high point of their tenure. Regardless, to be able to say you became King of the Ring put you in a distinct—if arguably not necessarily elite—class.

Thought the King of the Ring pay-per-view has been gone for over a decade and no crown has been awarded since 2010, nonetheless, we here at Place to Be Nation and the Five Count fondly look back upon our personal favorite Kings of the Ring.

Ben Morse

This one’s tricky, as if you’re going by sheer success, no King of the Ring should top “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, but in so many ways, that accolade has to be considered tangential to everything he achieved. Yes, he cut the infamous “Austin 3:16” after beating Jake Roberts to win the 1996 tournament, but really it could have happened at any show. Still, while I won’t rank him number one, you can’t do this list and not have perhaps the biggest star in WWF history on it somewhere, so there you go.

In its first year as a pay-per-view event, the King of the Ring tournament needed instant legitimacy, and nobody could provide that better than Bret Hart, just a few months removed from his first go-around as WWF Champion.

Bret had to still be smarting a bit from having the big belt taken away and handed to Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania, but you wouldn’t know it from his professionalism and in-ring performances against Razor Ramon, Mr. Perfect in an all-time classic, and Bam Bam Bigelow in the finals. “The Hitman” taking the tourney and then catapulting straight into a feud with Jerry Lawler over who laid claim to being the true King of the WWF started the tradition off right.

When I started watching wrestling for real in 1990, though I knew Randy Savage as “Macho Man” from video games and general pop culture knowledge, he actually wore a crown — or ornate cowboy hat — at the time and went by “Macho King.” Following his loss of the WWF title to Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania V, Savage would defeat Jim Duggan to become King of the Ring and ditch Miss Elizabeth for the freak Queen Sherri.

By the time he became King in 1989, Randy Savage had pretty much done everything one could in the WWF, from being Intercontinental Champion to WWF Champion to main-eventing two WrestleManias and feuding with Hulk Hogan, but he didn’t treat the crown as a consolation prize or lifetime achievement award, he went full bore into the part. Though he could hardly change his iconic promo style and didn’t need to adopt a new move set, Savage would throw in subtle touches like more pompous mannerisms or calling his former peers “peons” to ensure his stewardship went beyond jobbers carrying his throne to the ring.

Savage’s reign as King would last nearly two years, longer than just about anybody kept the gimmick, and only his temporary retirement at the hands of the Ultimate Warrior would curb his royal tendencies. Over the course of that time, the “Macho King” added to his already incredible legacy and proved that a WWF royal could be an A-level star rather than just a gimmick in the middle of the card.

After the biggest win of his career over Bret Hart in the opening match of WrestleMania X, Owen Hart still had to sit back and watch his brother bask in the glory of winning the WWF title later that night in the main event. If “The Rocket” hoped to pose any sort of prolonged challenge to “The Hitman,” he couldn’t rest on the laurels of one victory that could be labeled a fluke, he needed more.

So since Bret had won the inaugural pay-per-view installment of the King of the Ring tournament, Owen elected to follow in his footsteps one more time.

With convincing wins over Tatanka and then an injured 1-2-3 Kid to his credit, Owen looked to upset Razor Ramon — a dominant competitor, former Intercontinental champion and a guy who had beaten him up to mess with Bret about a year and a half earlier — in the tournament finals. He would end up toppling “The Bad Guy,” albeit with the aid of his brother-in-law, Jim Neidhart, but it proved the perfect combination of underhanded heel tactics coupled with Owen’s pure skill.

Few looked as satisfied to take the throne as Owen, who cut a great smarmy promo about being better than Bret before coining the awesome nickname “The King of Harts” for himself. Though the younger Hart would never manage to replicate his WrestleMania moment and triumph and become WWF Champion at his brother’s expense, the two would have a hot feud full of tremendous matches throughout the summer and into the fall.

Owen didn’t keep the full crown and cape as part of his get-up for too long, but he did retain a semblance of his win with the “King of Harts” moniker and stands as a great example of how being a King of the Ring could give a great wrestler that one last push needed to get to the main event.

While many of the guys on this list used their tenure of King of the Ring to augment their careers, Booker T utilized the crown to save his, and by reinventing himself as King Booker became perhaps the most successful and arguably most entertaining royal to rule WWE.

When Booker defeated Bobby Lashley to become King of the Ring at Judgment Day 2006, the title had been dormant for four years, and winning the tournament carried with it the price of shouldering a brand many fans had been demanding the return of. Half a decade into his life as a WWE Superstar, the former five-time WCW Champion had seen the opportunity to get back into the main event slip through his fingers — or some would say torn from his hands — more than once; he would not let it happen again.

Booker T changed just about everything about his gimmick and how he approached his work upon morphing into King Booker. The street smart attitude got traded in for an aloof arrogance; his simple trunks got augmented by fancy suits, lavish robes and, of course, a crown; perhaps most memorably, he ditched his traditional way of talking, sounding like he’d come straight from a Houston street fight, and adopted a faux-British tone that would in equal parts aggravate and entertain. Another key part of the package: his real life wife Sharmell became his Queen, throwing everything she had into the role, wearing flowing dresses, talking down to all around her and proclaiming “All hail King Booker!” until her voice went hoarse.

A couple months after his coronation, King Booker, with the help of his “court” — Finlay and William Regal — as well as a bit of chicanery from Chavo Guerrero would defeat Rey Mysterio for the World Title at the Great American Bash. His reign as champion would last over four months, as he dominated SmackDown and fended off the likes of Batista, Lashley, and even his own allies. During a period when the blue brand lacked credible heels, Booker more than stepped up to the plate.

King Booker could have easily become a mid-card comedy act, given how over the top its trappings came off, but the future Hall of Famer rode it all the way to the top, his Queen at his side, in large part because both believed in their abilities, worked hard, and by the way, had the time of the lives doing it. Go back and watch any SmackDown from the summer of 2006 through to the winter of 2007 and tell me Booker and Sharmell don’t look to be having the time of their lives; at the time, it made them easy to hate, and in retrospect, you have to appreciate what they put in.

Booker T didn’t just win the King of the Ring and put on a crown for a couple months, he transformed into King Booker for over a year, creating an indelible character and putting the finishing touches of a Hall of Fame career along the way.


Greg Phillips

Though it was one of the company’s most prestigious accomplishments, the King of the Ring throne often went to waste after the event was done and the dust was settled. Edge was the first winner in years to really capitalize on the achievement, parlaying it into a memorable series of promos that elevated him beyond the tag division and began his divide from his longtime partner Christian. True, he wasn’t referred to as “King Edge” for long, but the man who would become the “Rated R Superstar” used the position to hone his razor-sharp wit and begin developing his reputation as a master of the microphone. And indeed, he didn’t Billy Gunn the opportunity.

Booker’s WWE run could only be deemed a disappointment heading into 2006. The man who built a legacy in WCW with good matches, strong promos and unparalleled athleticism found himself hobbled by injuries and stuck beneath the same glass ceiling his fellow WCW imports faced when they made the jump to New York.

All that changed with one tournament and one sweeping character change. Gone was the stale, generic character he’d grown comfortable with during his WWE tenure. In its place, the newly crowned King Booker was born, complete with phony British accent and delusions of grandeur. While his matches certainly weren’t up to those he had in his youth, Booker has never been better on the mic or from a character standpoint. His wife, Sharmell, and his lead henchman, William Regal, deserve a ton of credit, adding a nagging presence that made it a complete heel package. The tournament rejuvenated Booker’s career, but he also rejuvenated the crown’s importance. Nobody who followed him was able to make the gimmick count the way Booker did.

If WrestleMania X was Owen Hart’s coming-out party, King of the Ring 1994 was his coronation as a main event player. Owen was seen for years as a non-factor, Bret Hart’s little brother who was used as cannon fodder for the titans who would challenge the “Hitman.” But after beating his brother on the grandest stage of them all, Owen was knocking at the door of relevance.

A resounding KOTR win knocked that door down and set the stage for one of the WWF’s greatest cage matches, giving Owen enough momentum that it was conceivable he’d end his brother’s latest title reign. Even after his failure to capture the gold, though, Owen parlayed the “King of Harts” moniker into a long and successful career as an upper mid-card heel. And you have to admit, that’s a pretty great nickname. I think what I enjoyed most about Owen’s kingship was the fun he had during it. Owen, the character, was so delusional that he actually thought he was better than the rest of his family, even after losing to Bret numerous times. And through it all, Owen, the performer, made it as entertaining as possible.

Randy Savage threw himself into every single storyline he was ever handed. No matter how poorly he was booked, nobody could accuse the “Macho Man” of giving anything less than 100 percent in the ring, on the mic and in public appearances. Such was the case with arguably the most iconic of the King of the Ring characters, the “Macho King.” Complete with a crown and scepter, Savage (along with Sensational Queen Sherri) abused his court of jobbers, slapped around announcers and hilariously implored his opponents to bow before him. Though 1990 was arguably the lowest point of Savage’s WWF run, he never stopped bumping around like a madman for the babyfaces. And no matter how many losses he accumulated, the crowds never stopped reacting every time he walked — or was carried — through the curtain,

If anything, the “Macho King” was underutilized during the character’s roughly two-year duration. Still, what we got will live on as the best usage of the “wrestling king” gimmick this side of Jerry Lawler.

“The Excellence of Execution” gets this top spot not because of what he did with the crown, but because of what he did to earn it. Frankly, Bret pretty much never mentioned winning the King of the Ring in the years following the tournament victory. However, the tape doesn’t lie: this was one of the greatest accomplishments of his entire career. He went out and, in one night, worked three excellent matches that were completely different from one another. He worked a quick, physical match with Razor Ramon, then went out and engaged in a technical masterpiece with Mr. Perfect (which I actually prefer to their classic SummerSlam bout), and then finished it by painting a David-vs.-Goliath beauty with the underrated Bam Bam Bigelow.

Bret Hart is the best in-ring storyteller I’ve ever seen, and his King of the Ring performance is the best example to show people who say he only had one style of match. It’s his versatility that made this tournament work, and it’s his in-ring brilliance that makes him the ultimate King of the Ring.


Justin Rozzero

On the surface, this may seem like an odd choice. Lesnar was the final PPV KOTR winner before the PPV disappeared and there was never a coronation, crown or cape, but Lesnar did take home one valuable prize: a WWE Title shot at SummerSlam. He parlayed that prize into gold when he knocked off The Rock to become the youngest WWE Champion is history. It is hard to argue with that type of success and even though his path wasn’t the toughest, you could argue Lesnar made the most immediate impact following his win.

The second PPV KOTR winner was in the midst of a run where he wanted to prove he was better at the sport of wrestling than his older brother. After Owen Hart defeated Bret Hart at WrestleMania, he continued to re-blaze his brother’s trails by also taking home the coveted crown. Owen ran through an impressive field, taking out Tatanka, 1-2-3 Kid and Razor Ramon to officially become the King of Harts, a gimmick that would define him for years to come. The image of Owen smiling proudly on the podium, draped in the purple robe, gaudy crown and scepter in hand is one of the most memorable in wrestling history.

All hail King Bookah! I think it is safe to say that by the spring of 2006, Booker T was lost in the upper mid-card shuffle. He had successfully turned heel alongside his wife Sharmell and was coming off a bizarre WrestleMania feud with The Boogeyman. Just when it seemed like the gas tank was on empty, Booker took home the crown in the first KOTR tournament in nearly four years. That crown would turn around his career as he fully threw himself into the King gimmick, speaking in a regal manor, carrying himself as royalty and building himself a Court to protect him. Reborn, King Bookah would win the World Heavyweight Title that summer and go on to have one of the most memorable runs in company history.

This one is fairly obvious. We all know the story. Steve Austin was second choice to win the 1996 KOTR, thanks to the ill fated Clique Farewell at MSG a month earlier. After introducing his brand new finisher on Raw in the quarterfinals, Austin knocked off a game Marc Mero and eviscerated an injured Jake Roberts in the finals to become the fourth PPV KOTR. And then, in one of the greatest moments in wrestling history, a star was born during the coronation with the utterance of just one phrase: Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass! No KOTR winner went on to greater heights than Stone Cold and it all began that night in Milwaukee.

The only man to be crowned KOTR on two separate occasions, Bret Hart is the man that pops in my head when I think of the King of the Ring tournament. In 1991, Hart won the final house show version of the event and two years later he would become the first King crowned on PPV. 12 men would go on to win the crown after Hart, but no man put on the one night exhibition that the “Hitman” did in Dayton. After a solid opener against Razor Ramon, Hart knocked off Mr. Perfect in an all time classic and then rolled up Bam Bam Bigelow in a really good match to wrap the tournament up. Not only was his run to the crown fantastic, his coronation ceremony kicked off one of the WWF’s most memorable feuds when Jerry Lawler attacked him, proclaiming to be the only King of Wrestling. Bret Hart’s legacy in the WWF’s lean years was that he would often wrestle multiple matches over the course of a night and on June 13, 1993, that legacy was never more clear. All hail the “Hitman!”


Aaron George

So to be different I only included Kings of the Ring who actually proceeded to wear the royal regalia after being crowned. I already fucked up the factions list a while back so why not another one!

Wait! He never won a King of The Ring tournament. Ahh but he did win the title of King of the Ring from Bret Hart at (The) SummerSlam 1993. While his reign might not be the most memorable I will always remember where he was when he was awarded his new crown: lying on a stretcher with his arm in the air. Since that is my absolute favorite thing in wrestling he merits inclusion on my list.

Fat? Check! Mohawk? Check! Purple? Check!!!! Mabel was the perfect choice to lead a new generation of kings in 1995. His reign lit the world on fire culminating in an epic encounter with then-WWF champion Diesel. Mabel was not the first King of the Ring, but he was certainly the roundest.

Let’s start with the music. Nothing says royal like a police siren on top of a heavy rap beat. Of course there’s a police siren, he’s in charge of the police! Of course there’s a rap beat, after all he is purple! Mabel already dressed in purple but the addition of the gold trim really gave him that royal feel and when Sir Mo slapped on that vest well you could have sworn you were in the court of Louis the XIV.

In the end was there really a better choice for king in 1995? Shawn Michaels? Too sexy. Razor Ramon? A bad guy as king???? Come on! Lex Luger? Nope! Mantaur? Too sexy. The Undertaker? Too dead. I could go on but what would be the point? Mabel was the clear choice. Don’t believe me? Look at all the offerings the good people of Philadelphia threw before their new monarch’s feet. I rest my fat purple case. Also Grimace.

We were all in shock when the snobby blue blood defeated Jake Roberts in the finals to the 1996 tournament. Little did we know the young Helmsley would take the crown and have one of the most defining reigns of all time.

Helmsley took on all comers after winning the crown, first defeating Marc Mero at In Your House International incident, in a match one reviewer would describe as “adequate.” He then faced the invading Sycho Sid at SummerSlam and easily disposed of him with the pedigreanus (it was changed when he was crowned, he loved Latin even then). With Sid buried and out of the way he would then goad the returning Bret Hart into a match at Survivor Series. Many classic promos followed, Hunter clearly superior to the uncouth Canadian. The match reached a stunning three stars mainly due to his majesty carrying the “Pitman” (Hunter in an awesome promo).

It’s a shame the WWF had to close its doors in late 1996, a shame to see a fading star shine so bright. At least we can all rest easy that Hunter Hearst Helmsley got his full kingly reign, and we should be eternally thankful he didn’t take his curtain call before we were privileged enough to see it.

For the coronation alone this one ranks this high for me. There was something special about seeing all the heels in the ring celebrating the dawning of a new age in unity. Capped off with Ted DiBiase presenting his one time foe with a stupendous scepter which would later be smashed across many a back and or knee.

In many other hands the kingship ends up being a laughingstock, but Savage made the whole thing work with his usual gusto. His kingly ring attire was great and the way he and Queen Sherri were carried to the ring by a squad of jobbers made us sentimental for days of yore when King Richard the lion heart and Queen Elizabeth the first were carried about London by Iron Mike Sharpe, Barry O, Steve Lombardi and Zack Ryder.

This was a great place for Savage since they were clearly not going to run with him on top again as a heel and he had some great and memorable feuds during this period of his career. The feud with Dusty was lots of fun, but his feud with Warrior which led to him being deposed still ranks in my personal favorites. His crown was pretty kickass too.

I don’t think there’s ever been a more glorious king in the history of mankind, let alone the world of wrestling. Usually when someone wins this “prestigious” crown they walk around with it for a few weeks but do very little to act Kingly; Booker totally re-invented his character and what we got were moments that filled me with laughter and pride that I had stuck with wrestling for so long.

I’m not sure what the best part of his transition was, it may have been the one pinky in the air salute to his “plebeians,” it may have been the wonderful faux-British accent, it may have been William Regal screaming “All Hail King Booker” for what felt like a full 75 minutes; whatever it was, it worked, all of it. No, wait, I know what the best part was: it was the look in his eyes. I’ve never seen a wrestler change the look in his eyes before. I’d call it a psychotic benevolence. He would nod and smile in the calmest of ways, shrouded in a delusion, majestic in ways that would make the gods jealous.

This was huge for Booker T and finally gave him a run with the big gold belt. I was completely disappointed when Batista beat him for the championship. I feel fortunate though that I was alive to witness the rise of this great monarch, his crazed queen and their glorious reign all set to a majestic soundtrack and the screams of a man from Blackpool. All hail King Booker indeed.


Steve Rogers

Because I went and evaluated all the King of the Ring PPV winners from 1993 through 2002 back in June of 2013, I thought inserting text from that piece, with some embellishing when warranted, would be appropriate.

Here is a link to the original.

A stunner, no pun intended, since I am a bit of an Austin mark, but despite the creation of an iconic catchphrase, the man who should have won in 1996 wound up doing a little bit more with being a KOR recipient than Austin did. From my KOR article last year:

“After being in the doghouse [Following the MSG Curtain Incident that would cost Triple H the KOR title], Triple H’s fortunes took a turn for the better in late 1996 and through 1997. He would have a pretty decent Intercontinental championship reign, and finally get his KOR coronation. Though like Austin the year before, the title King of the Ring was nothing more than a one night push as Helmsley was still mired in the mid-card for the rest of the summer. HHH feuded with Mankind, whom Helmsley defeated in the finals, marking the first time that was used as a furthering angle, was pretty hot, but it wouldn’t be until D-Generation X was officially formed in the fall that Helmsley was getting a bigger push.”

From my KOR article last year:

“Bret Hart’s resume was already well established, coming off a nearly six month reign as WWF Champion, a multiple time tag and IC title holder and clearly someone that the company was planning on building their future around. It can easily be presumed this title was given to Hart as a consolation prize for dropping the belt at WrestleMania as he was still considered to be main event material.

“At SummerSlam, Hart’s opponent was Jerry Lawler, the feud of course brought upon based on Lawler’s ‘The King’ gimmick which he has had dating back to the 1970’s. The feud would last through Survivor Series (kind of as Lawler’s legal problems caused him to miss the match) which segued into the start of the epic Bret Hart-Owen Hart feud, which will be given more treatment with the next year’s winner. Bret Hart would then be rewarded with being co-winner of the 1994 Royal Rumble, and starting his second heavyweight title reign at WrestleMania.

So with that, the first KOR winner of course was destined to continue executing his excellence while in the midst of his Hall of Fame career.”

I’m going with Owen over Bret, pretty much due to Bret being more established, and this being Owen’s first real taste of the WWF limelight. From my KOR article last year:

“1993 may have been about giving out consolation prizes for doing a job at WrestleMania, but 1994 was all about continuing a hot storyline. Going back to Survivor Series, Owen Hart’s jealously of big brother Bret was simmering, and boiled over as Hart’s heel turn was cemented at the Royal Rumble. Following an awesome curtain jerking victory over his brother and the shot of him seething as Bret Hart was paraded around the Madison Square Garden ring to end WrestleMania, it was clear the two were on a collision course. But first, Owen Hart had to go down a path his big brother had gone down. Owen was still considered a mid-carder and yet to have a WWF title around his waist heading into the King of the Ring PPV, this would be the first major feather in the Rocket’s cap.

“The feud would take its next logical step at SummerSlam with Bret Hart retaining against the newly so-called ‘King of Harts’ in a steel cage match. The feud would continue even further with Owen Hart being involved in Bret Hart dropping the title to Bob Backlund at Survivor Series.

“Sadly SummerSlam 1994 would be Owen Hart’s only PPV heavyweight title shot, but he would go on to be quite an entertaining performer for the rest of his career. Especially when being part of stables like Camp Cornette, the Nation and the Hart Foundation, and as well as being in the mix every now and then for the Intercontinental and tag titles, oh and of course two-time Slammy Award winner.”

From my KOR article last year:

“Kurt Angle being hot-shot to glory may have been epic, but what went on with Brock Lesnar in 2002 was equally as impressive. Making his television debut in March, Lesnar would roll through opponents on his way to getting into the King of the Ring tournament. And the tournament would be nothing more than a tiny roadblock for the monster push of ‘The Next Big Thing.’

“He would lose by DQ to then Intercontinental Champion Rob Van Dam at the next PPV, Vengeance, whom he had defeated in the tournament final, marking only the second time that the finals matchup would have a rematch the following month. By SummerSlam Lesnar would have bigger fish to fry, and he would capture the WWE Heavyweight title. Equally as impressive as winning the title was his dismantling of The Rock in the SummerSlam match.

“Lesnar would then be a fixture in the title scene, until his departure from the company for other ventures in early 2004.

“Of course with the King of the Ring a distant memory, Lesnar’s presence still looms large, what with him, according to his advocate, Paul Heyman, is the man who conquered The Undertaker’s Undefeated Streak at WrestleMania, and if scuttlebutt is to be believed, will once again be wearing heavyweight championship gold this coming August.”

From my KOR article last year:

“Kurt Angle’s meteoric rise, and the beefing up of the mid-card in general between the summers of 1999 and 2000, was one of the more entertaining things about the waning days of the Attitude Era. With a hot smarmy heel character, but with the in-ring intensity of a shoot fighter, Angle was one of the freshest things in the upper mid-card. Already an Intercontinental and European Champion, the title was just another accolade in one of the biggest first year pushes a WWF Superstar would ever receive.

“Unfortunately, Angle was part of an infamous Fully Loaded 2000, which saw him, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit, all Internet Wrestling Community darlings at the time, job out to Undertaker, Triple H and The Rock, three top tier guys who were not exactly garnering much IWC respect at the time. Angle’s match in particular looked pretty bad, losing in about seven and a half minutes to a returning Undertaker. Things improved for Angle after that as he was put into the heavyweight title mix as part of a triple threat match with The Rock and Triple H at SummerSlam. This of course would lead to the love triangle angle involving Angle, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley.

“While that feud kind of fizzled out for whatever reason, Angle would be the heavyweight champion by the end of 2000, and would be a main event fixture through the end of his run with the WWF in 2006.”


And now, our overall Five Count…

Two of the biggest draws in WWF/E history, one firmly atop wrestling’s Mount Rushmore, the other a meteoric performer who dominates and leaves at will. Neither wore a crown, but both used the King of the Ring as a catapult.

Probably the best pre-PPV King as he made the most of the gimmick, getting fully into the pageantry and adding another layer to an already classic wrestling character. Did not let being taken out of the WWF title scene deter him from remaining a main event player.

Following in brother Bret’s footsteps, “The Rocket” became “The King of Harts,” embracing his new royal roots and riding the momentum into a hellacious summer. Given a chance to perform on a grand stage, Owen showed he could hang both in the ring and as an entertainer.

The first man to capture the crown on pay-per-view and only two time winner of the honor, “The Hitman” set the pace for all others who followed. Already a former WWF Champion and perhaps the most respected performer in the business at the time, Bret added instant legitimacy to the King of the Ring.

Nobody made being King of the Ring work for them more than Booker. He took his tournament victory and revitalized his career with it, not only building one of the most entertaining acts of the period, but grabbing the World title that had eluded him for over five years. Had he not become King Booker, perhaps this Hall of Famer would have been considered a WWE underachiever, but alongside his Court and Queen, he reigned supreme.