1997: Hunter Hearst Helmsley
After being in the doghouse, 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 feud 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.
1998: Ken Shamrock
The first babyface to be named King of The Ring since Bret Hart, the win here helped add some legitimacy to the title with Shamrock’s UFC background. This was also a case where the win was part of a bigger picture as Shamrock defeated The Rock in the finals, continuing a feud between the two that had been brewing since the Royal Rumble.
History might judge the Shamrock win as a failure since he’d be gone from the company in less than a year and a half and would never be in the actual Main Event/title picture scene (his one PPV title shot actually came six months earlier in December of 1997). However, he would go on to have a fun feud with Owen Hart, and win the Intercontinental title in October, and be a constant presence in that title’s mix for the rest of his time in the company. So in all, the World’s Most Dangerous Man was a pretty solid pick for a King of The Ring.
1999 Billy Gunn
And then, there was Billy Gunn. Gunn of course going in was an accomplished tag team wrestler, winning titles with his gimmicked brother Bart as The Smokin’ Gunns and more famously (not to be confused with Gunn’s Fame-Ass-er finishing move), with Road Dogg Jesse James as the New Age Outlaws. He was given a singles push early in 1999 by being in both the Intercontinental and Hardcore title picture, and with a post-DX/Outlaw breakup heel turn, it looked like big things would be in store.
For whatever reason, though mostly because Gunn just never was a great singles worker and wasn’t as over on his own as he was when with others, the push was a failed one. After losing to The Rock at SummerSlam, Gunn turned face and went back to being in The New Age Outlaws. This would not be the last time a Gunn singles push was attempted (though sans the Mr. Ass gimmick that this one had), but the stench of this push led to a nice little mocking of the push that would be used by Edge down the line. In other words, Edge said he would not “Billy Gunn” the crown!
2000 Kurt Angle
Now back to some more quality performers, OH IT’S TRUE! IT’S DAMN TRUE! Ahem, sorry about that…
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 Angler 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.
As the tag scene that was red hot a year before was cooling down, it looked like Edge would be in line to become a breakout star. The future Rated R Superstar’s singles push would begin in earnest here, as he would block Kurt Angle from being the first repeat winner of the PPV era.
After KOTR, Edge was back to teaming with Christian at the July Invasion PPV. He would start his first meaningful singles title reign (his one day IC reign in 1998 notwithstanding) with an Intercontinental championship title victory over Lance Storm at SummerSlam. Nagging injuries would keep him in the IC and tag mix until his first taste of heavyweight title gold in 2006. Even though he didn’t immediately achieve success following his win at KOTR, it is hard to say that Edge “Billy Gunned” the crown.
2002 Brock Lesnar
Kurt Angle being hot-shoted 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.
And that was that, as the PPV would be a victim of the Brand Extension era, where only the Big Four would feature wrestlers from both Raw and Smackdown. This marginalized the sensibility for a gimmick such as King of The Ring to be a brand specific gimmick.
As for the initial idea of the gimmick being used to elevate a superstar from the mid-card to upper-mid or Main Event status? One could point to that being the point of the various Money In the Bank gimmicked matches that started in 2005. The winner of the ladder match won an iron clad title shot whenever and wherever they chose.
In any event, the gimmick was brought back in 2006 as Booker T won a tournament that culminated at Judgment Day. Though much like the title used by Harley Race, Haku, Jim Duggan and Randy Savage back in the late 1980s, this was an excuse for Booker T to go around calling himself “King Booker.” Even to the point when he held the World Heavyweight title midway in 2006, the nameplate on the belt said King Booker, and would also involve a heel stable called King Booker’s Court. The gimmick would last through the end of this run Booker T had with the company in late 2007.
The same can be said about William Regal’s 2008 King of The Ring capture. Regal won a one night tournament, and then began to act with more of a royal air than usual in his then role as Raw General Manager. His time with the gimmick would end though a month later, kayfabe due to losing a Loser Leaves Town match, in reality due to a substance abuse related suspension.
Now, both Booker T and William Regal were long established veterans by the point that they were crowned, and neither seemed more than window dressing on an otherwise well accomplished career in sports entertainment. In 2010, the gimmick returned and went back to being used to prop a wrestler up a bit as he rose through the ranks, Sheamus. The Celtic Warrior had already made an impact with two WWE Heavyweight title reigns, but it seemed the King of The Ring gimmick was again going to crown someone with an eye towards the future.
In any event, he would get the win on a late November of 2010 Raw, and for the most part the gimmick was a largely forgotten part of his overall character.
So in the final analysis, the gimmick as it stood from 1993 to 2002 was pretty solid in terms of character elevating. Even if there were a misstep or two, it seemed the winner of the tournaments were for the most part worthy of the title.
Would it have been better if winning the tournament gave you an automatic title shot at SummerSlam, the way the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania have worked? Maybe. It’s true some of the winners, like Austin, Triple H and Edge probably weren’t quite Main Event level just yet, but for the most part the crown was seen as a stepping stone to bigger things, and would losing to the champion at SummerSlam derail that forward motion? Well, it would depend on the manner of course, and if the storyline that involved them stretched through the upcoming months.
In any event, it was a great concept, and probably deserves to be brought back on some kind of regular basis. My suggestion would be to bring back KOTR not as part of someone’s full on gimmick, but as a crowning achievement to add to a performer’s list of in-ring accomplishments.