The King of the Ring tournament was originally a special house show attraction held annually in New England, before the WWF decided to add it to the PPV schedule in 1993. At the time the WWF calendar only featured the Big Four PPV events, so creating a fifth was a pretty huge deal. The inaugural edition was built around making Bret Hart a top babyface again after WrestleMania IX hurt his stock somewhat. Bret carried the show, working three good-to-excellent matches and winning the tourney before Jerry Lawler abruptly attacked him during the coronation ceremony. It was an uneven show but featured some excellent work from "The Hitman."
The KOTR PPV history contains quite a few highs and lows. The '94 edition only had a few matches worth seeing while 1995's had none. But the '96, '98 and 2001 PPVs were all varying degrees of excellent (2001 is one of my all-time favorite PPVs). King of the Ring would run a full decade before sagging buyrates prompted the company to discontinue the series and replace it with Bad Blood.
The tournament itself would return to free television in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2015, and of course this year, with generally very little impact on star-building. The '06 winner Booker T made the most of the "King" gimmick, adopting an obviously phony English accent which was amusing for a while. William Regal's tourney win in 2008 led to precisely nothing of value, while Sheamus's victory in 2010 actually hurt his career for about eight months as he free-fell down the card. 2015's winner Wade Barrett was maybe the crown's worst victim, as his career went into a tailspin from which he never really recovered.
Truth be told I do miss the KOTR PPV. The tournament itself was rarely presented well; if it was a one-night bracket most of the matches got shortchanged, and if only the semis and finals were included on the PPV the tourney felt less important. But several rising stars were able to use the tourney as a major stepping stone, and when the PPV was good it was great. If they were to bring it back now I'd suggest having the winner of the tournament get a PPV Title match of their choice, have the first two rounds on episodes of RAW and Smackdown the week before the PPV, and have the semis and finals on the PPV itself, with the finals ALWAYS being the main event. Then the King of the Ring would actually mean something again.
But let's go back and look at some of the in-ring classics to come out of this once-important event.
10. Undertaker vs. Mankind - KOTR '96
9. Shawn Michaels vs. Steve Austin - KOTR '97
In June of 1997 my two favorite wrestlers were Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin. I was beyond thrilled when they became unlikely Tag Team Champions, and even more thrilled when it was announced they'd be wrestling each other at King of the Ring. This PPV was pretty weak, but the Austin-Michaels match was the one standout of the show, going to a 22-minute double DQ after too many ref bumps. The two anti-heroes expertly played into the "uneasy allies" story, and my favorite moment is their long walk back to the dressing room, each man keeping one suspicious eye on the other. While this was no five-star classic (and due to Shawn's 1998 back injury they'd never have one), this was a very entertaining match that saved the 1997 PPV from being a total loss.
8. Steve Austin vs. Marc Mero - KOTR '96
The 1996 KOTR tournament was of course the long-awaited arrival of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin as a major force in the WWF. His "Austin 3:16" promo stands as one of the greatest and most impactful in the history of the business, and is a major reminder of how much more effective non-scripted promos are in wrestling. Were Austin active today he would've been handed a poorly-scripted paragraph likely containing no useful catchphrases or spontenaiety. As for his in-ring performance that night, the highlight was this semi-final match against another potential rising star, Marc Mero. This was a superbly worked 17-minute athletic contest, with Mero bouncing around the ring like crazy while Austin played the stalwart bully. What this match is probably most remembered for however is Austin taking a kick to the mouth, splitting his lip wide open. Gushing blood, Austin was taken to the hospital to get stitched up before his appearance in the finals. It all added to the mystique of this tough-as-nails future megastar.
7. Bret Hart vs. Diesel - KOTR '94
1994 was The Year of Bret Hart, his WWF Title win at WrestleMania X cementing him as the "Leader of the New Generation." Waiting in the wings though was the guy Vince really wanted to push as the future of the company, Diesel. Kevin Nash was brought in the year before as Shawn Michaels' heater/bodyguard, and after a shaky start was portrayed as an unstoppable brute who dismantled smaller opponents. After winning the I-C Title from Razor Ramon, Diesel next targeted Bret, resulting in this rare Champion vs. Champion match. As an in-ring performer Nash was still largely unproven, but as always Bret brought out the best in him, and the two combatants assembled the first of a splendid trilogy of matches that spanned 17 months. Bret spent most of this match wrestling from behind and after 23 minutes the returning Jim Neidhart ran interference for a disqualification. It was later revealed that Neidhart was actually working in tandem with Owen Hart to preserve Bret's Title and allow Owen to challenge him. The '94 PPV peaked early with this match going on 5th of 10. The rest of this show is mostly skippable.
6. Steve Austin vs. Chris Benoit vs. Chris Jericho - KOTR '01
The 2001 King of the Ring PPV was the denouement to an eighteen-month stretch where the WWF product was absolutely blazing on all cylinders. The influx of new and familiar faces joining the roster, coupled with a renewed focus on the in-ring product, made 2000 and the first half of 2001 just an amazing time to be a WWF fan. Chief among the debuting ring generals were Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho, who had recently formed an alliance to take down the heel WWF Champion Steve Austin. Each man had unsuccessfully challenged Austin on free TV with pretty amazing results, and now they'd be given one last Title shot simultaneously. The main event of the 2001 PPV was an epic Triple Threat, with Austin barely managing to survive the odds, stealing a win at the 28-minute mark. The match was unfortunately hurt by a rather anticlimactic ending, but it's still a helluva 3-way.
5. Bret Hart vs. Bam Bam Bigelow - KOTR '93
As I said earlier, the '93 tourney was all about spotlighting Bret Hart. All three of his matches that night had some charm, but the semis and finals were the two standouts. After two grueling matches, Bret found himself against a well-rested Bam Bam Bigelow who received a bye in the semifinals. The match was a classic big man-little man war, with Bret's grit and atheticism proving an equal match for Bigelow's massive size advantage. After a false ending teasing a Bigelow win, the match was restarted and Bret got the duke with a victory roll. Bret considered Bam Bam the best superheavyweight he ever worked with, and thanks to this match it's easy to see why.
4. Undertaker vs. Mankind (Hell in a Cell) - KOTR '98
There's not much more than can be said about this one. Simply the most infamous match of all time, aside from the Montreal Screwjob. Taker, and especially Mankind, wrote a new chapter in pro wrestling brutality. After two death-defying falls from the top of the Cell (one planned, one frighteningly accidental), Mick Foley delivered a superhuman effort in going another 12 or so minutes and completing the best match these two ever had together (Keep in mind also that Taker was working on a broken foot). Concussed and delirious, Foley famously approached Taker backstage when it was over and asked "Did I use thumbtacks?" to which Taker replied, "Look at your arm Mick." It's an uncomfortable match to view now, but at the time it probably exemplified the WWF Attitude more than any other single bout.
3. Shawn Michaels vs. British Bulldog - KOTR '96
I love most of the work these two did together. The combination of Shawn's agility vs. Davey Boy's power produced numerous classics (one of which I saw at a house show in 1995 and it blew me away), but this was their finest hour together. Shawn was still a fairly new WWF Champion and Davey was only his second PPV challenger. Their first match at In Your House: Beware of Dog failed to live up to expectations, partly due to a power outage that blacked out over half the show and left the crowd lethargic. But Michaels and Smith got a chance to redeem themselves at King of the Ring, and they delivered big. Shawn supplied an almost balletic performance, showcasing innovative offense to keep the larger Bulldog off his feet, while Davey portrayed the well-rounded dominant heel to a tee. After 26 minutes Shawn retained in one of the best matches of 1996.
2. Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect - KOTR '93
The other masterful Bret Hart match from the 1993 PPV (and a rematch of the celebrated SummerSlam '91 bout), this semifinal between two consummate technicians stole the show and blew away every other match of '93. Now a babyface, Mr. Perfect temporarily reverted to his morally ambiguous in-ring approach, playing the de facto heel to....well, perfection. For nearly 19 minutes these two traded holds both in and out of the ring (At one point Perfect knocked Bret from the apron onto a hard water cooler next to the security railing, in a spot that looked positively brutal by 1993 standards), until Bret reversed a small package into one of his own for the three-count. This is probably my favorite Mr. Perfect match, and definitely one of Bret's finest as well.
1. Kurt Angle vs. Shane McMahon - KOTR '01
Simply put, one of the wildest matches I've ever seen. At King of the Ring 2001, Olympic Wrestling Champion and Vince McMahon's Son tore the roof off the Continental Airlines Arena in the most unexpectedly awesome, best garbage match in the history of the business. While the overarching storyline was the beginning of the most disappointing angle of all time, these two delivered an amazing, startlingly violent spectacle that on more than one occasion actually made me fear for Shane's life. Angle dominated early with his wrestling acumen, but Shane's fearless scrappiness kept him in the match. Then the action spilled out of the ring and into the entranceway, where Kurt Angle nearly murdered his boss's kid. Angle attempted an overhead belly-to-belly suplex through the glass staging area, but there was a problem - the glass didn't break. And Shane landed on his head. So Angle did it again, this time successfully, and with sickening results. They continued fighting behind the glass, where Angle attempted the same move and once again the glass didn't cooperate. So Angle simply rammed Shane through headfirst, resulting in the striking image of a bloodied Shane exploding through an opaque plane of glass. And that wasn't even the end! After 26 minutes Angle set a piece of plywood atop the turnbuckles and Olympic Slammed Shane to the mat for the three-count. Thus concluded the superlative King of the Ring PPV match the like of which should never again be attempted. This was the best match on the best KOTR PPV, and in my opinion the best match of 2001.
That'll do it for this King of the Ring-themed Top Ten Things. Let's hope the 2019 KOTR winner actually gets something out of being crowned. Unless it's Baron Corbin. Screw that guy.
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