Evaluating The Kings of the Ring


This month will mark the 11th anniversary of the last King of the Ring PPV.  It was the last of the pre-In Your House PPVs to get started, and while never quite on the level of the Big Four PPVs, (which is probably why it was abandoned following the brand split with only the Big Four being the combined PPVs) it was still a unique gimmick PPV with star-making potential.

Prior to pay-perviews, the accomplishment of being the“King of the Ring” was both the product of a one-night house show circuit tournament, and that of an on-screen gimmick that was occasionally fought over. Neither were used as, pardon the pun, King-making vehicles, but they are interesting precursors to what the concept would be during the PPV and post-PPV incarnations of the King of the Ring.

The King of the Ring tournament started in July of 1985 in Foxboro, MA, with Don Muraco being crowned the winner of a 16-man tournament. The tournament was again held in Foxboro in July of 1986, this time Harley Race came out victorious. Race would then use the title as part of his gimmick, more on that in a bit. In 1987 the tournament was moved to September, and in Providence, RI, and on this night, Randy Savage was the winner. In October of 1988, again in Providence, in a reversal of their WrestleMania title tournament final, Ted DiBiase defeated Savage for the crown (Savage’s belt was not on the line). The following year, again in Providence, Tito Santana emerged victorious. And the final pre-PPV tournament, held in September of 1991 and once more in Providence, was won by the future winner of the first PPV tourney winner, Bret Hart.

The King of the Ring title being utilized as part of the gimmick of the wrestler started with Harley Race coming out with a crown, scepter and robe. 1989 would see Haku defeat Race for the gimmick title, then Hacksaw Jim Duggan defeated Haku, and finally Randy Savage won the crown from Duggan. Savage, or Macho King as the gimmick was referred to, would be the last bearer of the gimmick, and this would be retired with his loss at a career threatening match against the Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VII in 1991.

In terms of accomplishments, obviously the title belts and winning the Royal Rumble to start the Road to WrestleMania ™ were always given more weight, but being crowned King of the Ring at the PPV was a gimmick that could have been rich with potential. This is especially true, given the last few winners of the PPV tournaments. So with that in mind, let’s go ahead and evaluate the PPV tournament winners, and the three KORs crowned after the PPV had ceased to be, and see if this gimmick, and its PPV should be brought back into existence:

Bret Hart – 1993 King of the Ring

1993: Bret Hart

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 Lawler has had dating back to the 1970s. 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.

1994: Owen Hart

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.

1995: Mabel

Probably one of the more derisive picks for the King of The Ring winner, even more so than Billy Gunn (though interestingly it had kind of the same push). While still under the 1980s mindset of feeding monster heels to a monster babyface, that pretty much sums up this singles run for Men On A Mission’s Mabel here. This KOTR victory was utilized for Mabel to achieve an accolade in order to prove that he could be a viable opponent for the champion Diesel.

In another age, it probably could have worked, but in front of a Philadelphia crowd that was showing a change in the sensibilities of what the majority of huge wrestling fans wanted to see, the decision to put the crown on Mabel got a huge negative reaction, and not just because Mabel was a heel (plus fan favorite Shawn Michaels bowing out in a first round draw, leaving a Mabel-sized hole in the bracket for Mabel to go through didn’t help matters much).

WWF plowed ahead though with a setup started at the next PPV (In Your House #2), as Mabel challenged champion Diesel at SummerSlam. Diesel retained, and Mabel was shunted back to the mid-card. Mabel did have a brief Casket Match feud with Undertaker, but nothing to write home about, and Nelson Frazier wouldn’t be heard from much again until his run as Viscera/Big Daddy V.

Steve Austin during his King of the Ring acceptance speech

1996: Stone Cold Steve Austin

Of course the back story to the ascension of Austin to the throne goes back to the fact that this was scheduled to be Hunter Hearst Helmsley’s crown to win. But, the future Game was derailed for his part in the MSG incident as he, Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash broke kayfabe and hugged in the Garden ring on Hall and Nash’s final night in the WWF.

This of course was a key moment in the evolution of Austin’s character. While a popular and decorated mid-carder in WCW, Austin was saddled with a rather milquetoast gimmick to start with in the WWF, but as the Stone Cold character was developing, it was clear that Austin would be a star to build the company around. And luckily, a little improvisation based on Jake Roberts interjecting “Born Again” stuff into his gimmick, his coronation speech included the debut of the iconic “Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!” And the rest was history!

As hot of a heel act as Stone Cold was becoming, his post KOTR run did seem a bit like treading water. While he would defeat Marc Mero at the next PPV, International Incident, and defeat Yokozuna in a pre-PPV match at SummerSlam (where the ring rope actually broke), it would not be until the Fall of 1996 when things took off for Austin, as he set his sights on a returning Bret Hart. That feud would be the stuff of legends and would set Austin in line to be the face and top dog of the company for many years to come, but for whatever reason, despite revisionist history wanting the Hart feud to happen as soon as the “Austin 3:16” promo aired, the King of the Ring winner was not given a hot push/program right away this time around.