Sunday at Clash of Champions Monday night on Raw we will learn who will be the next King of the Ring. After a grueling tournament that saw new stars being built (then immediately crushed), established vets reminding the WWE Universe that they can still go (for about eight minutes at a time), and a late-in-the-game Shane McMahon swerve that both killed the credibility of Kevin Owens and may send him back to the better-written shows on NXT, we’re about to name the first new King of the Ring in four years. Now it should be a good matchup on Monday, so who knows who cou….it’s Baron Corbin. Baron Corbin will be your new King of the Ring.
As underwhelming as that may sound, Corby’s been putting on some of the best bouts of his career in this tournament, and this title may be JUST the thing to allow the Lone Wolf to break into the main event. Believably, I mean. Stranger things have happened too, as the King of the Ring title has helped launch the careers of some of WWE’s biggest stars. That being said, it’s far from a sure thing — as WWE’s track record will show, they’ve probably missed more than they’ve hit when it comes to the Party City crown and cape. So here, on the day we crown a new king, why don’t we take a look back into history and rank the King of the Ring winners from worst to best.
19: Billy Gunn
Year Won: 1999
Last Defeated: X-Pac
We start at the bottom with, ironically, “The One” Billy Gunn — the man who is (again, ironically) the butt of all King of the Ring jokes. For a tournament that is meant to launch an up-and-coming Superstar into the stratosphere or help an overlooked mid-carder break into the main event scene, it was pretty clear that the then-WWF had no intention of doing any of that coming out of this tournament. Heading into the event, the only believable stars in the tourney were Big Show and Kane, with the rest being made up of DX cast-offs — two of whom landed in the finals. Once the bell rang on a KotR final match between X-Pac and the weaker half of the New Age Outlaws, it was clear the real loser was we the fans. As King, Gunn went on to feud with The Rock, who only served to expose his limitations as a performer. He was soon shuffled back into the tag division where, barring a brief rebranding as “The One” Billy Gunn, he remained for the rest of his WWE career. Nowadays, Bill’s an agent and occasional performer for AEW.
Year Won: 1995
Last Defeated: Savio Vega
More of an experiment than a shift in booking, Mabel won the 1995 King of the Ring from a field that included future Hall of Famers like Razor Ramon, The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels…as well as regrettable footnotes like Duke “the Dumpster” Droese, Doink the Clown and Mantaur. Surprisingly, it was Mabel, the enormous rapper in Mardi Gras colors who was just breaking out of the tag team scene, and Savio Vega, the Puerto Rican tough guy who was still months away from his most relevant era as the leader of the worst faction in WWF’s Gang Wars, who would vie for the title in the finals, with Mabel coming out on top. The crown would also lead to a heel turn for the big man, who would betray his teammate Mo, lose a (terrible) feud with Diesel (which he lost in one of the most lambasted SummerSlam main events of all time), lose another (terrible) feud with The Undertaker, and lose yet another (terrible) feud with Yokozuna. The King gimmick really didn’t add anything to Mabel’s presentation, and his failure to catch fire at the top of the card quickly dropped him back to the bottom, where a series of re-brandings couldn’t do much to rehabilitate his career. Mabel would finish out his WWF/E career as “the world’s largest love machine.”
17: Bad News Barrett
Year Won: 2015
Last Defeated: Neville
The most recent King of the Ring is also one of the saddest stories of booking without a plan — something that could honestly be said of Wade Barrett’s entire career with the WWE. As Bad News Barrett, Wade had been quickly getting over with his dry wit and incisive humor. The only problem? He was a heel getting face responses, and someone in the back (probably with the initials VKM) was not happy that fans had selected to cheer a bad guy. As such, Barrett lost his podium and gavel, stopped doing promos, stopped saying his awesomely popular catch phrase and became just another guy…until the first King of the Ring tournament in five years came around and WWE saw a chance to rebrand the British brawler as “King Barrett.” With a crown, cape and scepter, Barrett would go on an epic losing streak, be made a fool of by R-Truth (complete with toilet brush scepter), enter into a (sadly) short-lived tag team with Stardust only to lose to The Green and Red Arrows at SummerSlam and get beat up by his own partner. He’d maintain the King moniker as part of the short-lived (and terrible) League of Nations stable before requesting his release back when that was a thing that sometimes worked. Barrett was a performer who could have been more than he was allowed to show, and the complete bungling of his booking — both before and after his KotR win — remains one of the worst missed opportunities in recent WWE history.
Year Won: 2010
Last Defeated: John Morrison
It’s hard to put a firm finger on this sort of thing, but I think Sheamus is the King that looked the most ridiculous in his cape and crown. Sure, they gave him a unique driftwood affair that looked a little more “Celtic warrior” than Burger King, but the site of the burly Sheamus in a forest green Muumuu removed all of his menace. They would abandon the look quickly, of course, but woof. Even his win felt weak, as a double count out in the match between Drew McIntyre and Ezekiel Jackson gave Sheamo a bye through the second round, while Morrison had highly competitive matches against Cody Rhodes and Alberto Del Rio en route to a barnburner in the finals. Though he lost in the crown, Morrison would go on to defeat the newly crowned King in a series of singles and tag matches, sweeping the legs out of the gimmick before it was firmly put to bed at the hands of a returning Triple H. Sheamus would recover, of course, and is one of the most decorated performers in recent history — but his time as King of the Ring is a mostly embarrassing footnote in an otherwise storied career.
15: Tito Santana
Year Won: 1989
Last Defeated: “The Model” Rick Martel
The “forgotten king,” Tito Santana won the crown in 1989 with some impressive wins over Bad News Brown, the Warlord, and Akeem “the African Dream” en route to a showdown with his former Strike Force teammate, “The Model” Rick Martel. While the Ariba Man was able to walk away from that conflict with the win and the title of King of the Ring, he would go on to do…absolutely nothing with it. Oh, he kept feuding with Martel, but it’s not like he moved up the card or had memorable showings at PPVs. No, Tito was given the crown as “the best option” in the tournament, but it’s clear the WWF didn’t have any real ideas for what to do with him. This was back when WWF was running one of these tournaments each year, and Tito was, fairly or not, the first sign of fatigue in the format.
14: William Regal
Year Won: 2008
Last Defeated: CM Punk
Like Barrett, William Regal’s failures as King of the Ring were an unfortunate missed opportunity. Unlike Barrett, however, the angle fizzled due to Regal’s activities outside of the ring. The win came in the midst of the Blackpool native’s run as a heel authority figure (hence his first-round match with Hornswoggle), and was set to be a star-making highlight of the man’s career…at least it would have been if the man’s real-life drug problems hadn’t led to a suspension that killed any momentum he may have come with the KotR title. Instead, Regal would lose a “loser leaves the company” match against Mr. Kennedy before being shunted off into comedy feuds against the likes of Jamie Noble and Santino Marella. It would be several months before a feud with CM Punk over the Intercontinental Championship would help restore some of the luster lost in the whole KotR debacle. The run was so bad that it convinced WWE to once again shelve the tournament the following year. Nowadays, Regal is the respected General Manager and elder statesman of NXT, and his time as King is best forgotten, like his time as a misogynist construction worker or that time he dressed as a showgirl.
13: Don Muraco
Year Won: 1985
Last Defeated: Iron Sheik
They say you always remember your first, but when it comes to Don “The Rock” Muraco’s run as the King of the Ring, that seems pretty unlikely. Muraco won the title in the days before the WWF was regularly televised, scoring wins over the Junkyard Dog, Les Thornton, Pedro Morales and the Iron Sheik en route to securing the title. Unfortunately, Muraco’s tenure as king would be better remembered for the Fuji Vice vignettes that aired during his feud with Ricky Steamboat. Muraco would leave the WWF in 1989 before retiring in 1995, leaving a storied legacy that included the distinction as the inaugural King of the Ring. Sadly, this was before the WWF thought to do something with the title that may add prestige to the performer who earned it.
12: Ken Shamrock
Year Won: 1998
Last Defeated: The Rock
Ken Shamrock’s time as King of the Ring is interesting, as he was the right choice to win and was in the midst of a decent push, but for whatever reason, he just couldn’t break through. Maybe it was his limit as a character, maybe there were behind the scenes issues, but for whatever reason, Shamrock was a perennial mid-carder who seemed primed for the spotlight, but never rose above the IC title scene. It’s a shame too, because based on his KotR win, clearly the WWF saw potential in him. The World’s Most Dangerous Man would run through Kama Mustafa, Mark Henry, and Jeff Jarrett before making The Rock submit in the finals to clinch the crown. Unfortunately, his first feud would be with the returning King Mabel, which went over like a wet fart. His next feud with Owen Hart would be better, but frequently left Shamrock looking like an easily tricked idiot. Ken would hang around the mid-card for about another year before leaving the WWF for an ill-fated return to MMA. Still not seemingly retired from combat sports, Shamrock is an interesting footnote in WWE history. A guy with all kinds of potential who, for whatever reason, never rose to meet the expectations levied upon him.
11: “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase
Year Won: 1988
Last Defeated: “Macho Man” Randy Savage
Speaking of wrestlers who never rose to their amazing potential, I bet you didn’t know that Ted DiBiase won the King of the Ring in 1988. It wasn’t great, if we’re honest, as DiBiase bought his way to the semis (which befit his character) and then won the finals by count out, but, barring the prestige of competing for the WWF Championship at the previous year’s WrestleMania, this KotR win may have been the peak of DiBiase’s WWF career. The man is more remembered for his character than his accomplishments, but is justifiably remembered as one of the all time greats — possibly the best wrestler to never hold the WWF Championship. (No, that thing with Andre doesn’t count). Still, as King of the Ring, the Million Dollar Man just fails to stand out.
10: Brock Lesnar
Year Won: 2002
Last Defeated: Rob Van Dam
Billed as “The Next Big Thing” upon his debut, the King of the Ring was the future final boss of WWE’s first big accolade in an unparalleled wrestling career. Brock would beat Bubba Ray Dudley, Booker T, Test and RVD to take the crown, and would look like a dominant monster throughout the tournament (though his match with Test was more competitive than you may think). The thing is, Brock really didn’t need the title of King to reach the top of the card. The Beast was always going to be one of the biggest and baddest guys on the roster, and though the accolade that was KotR was a nice feather in his cap, the man was Undisputed Champion within two months of the win. Since then, of course, Brock has won the Royal Rumble, been a UFC champion, a multi-time (and longest running) Universal Champion, a Money in the Bank winner, the mayor of Suplex City, and the star of many children’s nightmares. As such, he gets points for being a successful winner, but can’t score much higher given how little the accolade meant to his push.
9: Kurt Angle
Year Won: 2000
Last Defeated: Rikishi
Much like Brock, Kurt Angle’s King of the Ring win, though a cool feather in his cap, was largely unnecessary to the success of the star. Angle was already on his way toward the top of the card, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to do it wearing a cape and crown (he’s more of a cowboy than a king). Kurt’s road to the crown is also a bit of a mixed bag, as alongside wins over the likes of Chris Jericho and Bradshaw, Kurt also tangled with Bubba Ray Dudley and Crash Holly. It was a fun tournament and all, but with a winner that didn’t need the rub and a lineup with hit or miss matchups, the 2000 KotR is little more than an afterthought for many fans.
Year Won: 2001
Last Defeated: Kurt Angle
Now we’re getting into the guys whose careers were helped by winning the King of the Ring tournament. It may be hard for some to remember, but there was a time when Edge was sort of an aimless mid-carder. Sure, he was the standout of The Brood, but for a large swath of the WWE community, Edge was little more than a tag team wrestler striking out on his own. It was the KotR tournament, then, that would be his launching pad into serious singles success. Edge would outlast Test, Perry Saturn and Rhyno before facing off with Kurt Angle (the previous year’s king) in the finals. Yes, he had won an IC title prior to his run as king, but the KotR win was what finally cemented the Rated R Superstar as a singles performer. Now retired, Edge is one of the most celebrated and accomplished performers in all of WWE, and a lot of it stems from his breakout year in 2001.
7: Booker T
Year Won: 2006
Last Defeated: Bobby Lashley
There is a serious argument to be made for having Book at the top of this list. To make the point up front, it can hardly be debated that the former five time (five time, five time…) WCW Champion did the most with the King gimmick often (and unfortunately) bestowed upon the tournament winners. As King Book-ah, Booker reignited what was a waning career and went on to his most successful and popular run with the WWE. Shoot, the gimmick was so successful he actually brought it with him to TNA. Nonetheless, Booker was reborn under the king gimmick, showing his devious heel side as well as his comedic chops in the tail end of SmackDown’s golden era. Whether with Queen Sharmell and his Royal Court at his side, or just thrusting his pinky to the sky in triumph, King Booker’s time with the crown was a triumph for a performer who really hadn’t gotten his proper due in the world’s largest wrestling promotion, and really revitalized his career. He only scores this low because he was already a star by the time 2006 came around.
6: Hunter Hearst Helmsley
Year Won: 1997
Last Defeated: Mankind
Maybe it was a year later than he expected, but the 1997 King of the Ring Tournament would prove to be the launching point for the man who would be King…of Kings. Famously, Hunter was supposed to be crowned King the year before, but just couldn’t help but murder kayfabe by celebrating with his friends in front of a Madison Square Garden crowd, so he instead spent most of his ‘96 slumming it with the Godwin brothers and Marc Mero before a run with the IC title began to rejuvenate his career. Yet it was the 1997 King of the Ring tournament that really kicked H’s position in the company up a notch. With Chyna by his side, Hunter would parlay his King of the Ring win into a role as Shawn Michaels’ sidekick in D-Generation X, one of the defining acts of the ‘90s. Sure, he was second banana for most of that early run, but when Michaels’ back injury sidelined the showstopper for nearly five years, H picked up the ball and ran with it. From leading the new (and more popular, lest we forget) iteration of DX to the McMahon/Helmsley Regime, to Evolution, to NXT Dad, Hunter has had one of the most prolific and influential careers of all time — and all of it, from the 14 world title runs to the seven WrestleMania main events, may have never happened if not for his King of the Ring win.
5: Owen Hart
Year Won: 1994
Last Defeated: Razor Ramon
Oh, what might have been. Often billed as the black sheep of the celebrated Hart wrestling family, Owen Hart had lived in the shadow of his brother Bret for most of his time in the WWF, and needed a signature win of his own. The guy had all the talent in the world, decent character work, and a solid run as both tag and IC champions, but his turn as the King of Harts was truly his time in the sun. If it weren’t for family issues and backstage politics, Owen could easily have found himself in the main event scene in the mid-‘90s. Alas, Owen’s life tragically came to an end during an in-ring accident at 1999’s Over the Edge PPV, leaving a legacy of wasted potential and excellent matches behind him.
4: Harley Race
Year Won: 1986
Last Defeated: Pedro Morales
While Booker may have done the best with the King gimmick, one could easily argue that Harley Race comes in a close second. Earning the crown during his first year with the WWF, the idea was to give fans who may not have been as familiar with Race’s pedigree in the southern territories a way to recognize that Harley was indeed the real deal. Not sure that pretending to be royalty in a cape and crown accurately represented the kind of performer that Race was, but it did give him an accolade to lord over opponents. It also gave him a great character to use in backstage skits alongside Andre the Giant and Bobby Heenan. Unlike other kings on this list, however, Race would actually go on to defend his crown during his tenure with the WWF, eventually losing the gimmick to Haku (who himself would lose the crown to the next person on this list). Though the tournament in which he won it may not be one of the most memorable, it’s undeniable that Harley Race’s name adds a ton of prestige to the title “King of the Ring.”
3: “Macho Man” Randy Savage
Year Won: 1987
Last Defeated: King Kong Bundy
Fun fact, even though Macho Man won the 1987 King of the Ring Tournament, he wouldn’t begin calling himself “The Macho King” until he won Harley Race’s crown from King Haku. Anyway, you likely don’t need me to explain the legacy of the Macho Man, as Randy Savage is one of the most celebrated and successful professional wrestlers of all time, and his time as King (well, his first time as King) was the prelude to Savage’s first world title reign in the WWF, and helped elevate Savage, who was already surging after a fantastic run with the IC title. Still, the Macho Man’s name helps make the King of the Ring a more important and respectable title. Dig it?
2: Bret “Hitman” Hart
Years Won: 1991, 1993
Last Defeated: Irwin R. Schyster, Bam Bam Bigelow
The only man to win the tournament twice, Bret Hart’s star was already on the rise when he won his first KotR title in 1991. Hart had recently won his first Intercontinental Championship from Mr. Perfect, and used the KotR to reaffirm his status as the face of the New Generation. Hart would go on to have bangers with the likes of Shawn Michaels and Roddy Piper en route to 1991’s match of the year tilt with his brother-in-law, the British Bulldog at that year’s SummerSlam. By the time his second run with the crown came back, Hart was already a former WWF Champion — but with a certain hotdog-skinned Hulkster ruling the roost at the time, Hart would have to find other ways to stay at the top of the card. He did so, again, by putting on absolutely stellar matches (including tournament bouts with Razor Ramon and Mr. Perfect) as well as PWI’s Feud of the Year with Jerry Lawler, of all people. This would also lead to his amazing feud with his brother Owen, which was a career high for both men. Indeed the King of the Ring was just one of many accolades Hart would collect during his time with the WWF, but he adds so much prestige to the title and did so much in its wake, that it’s hard not to consider him one of the greatest Kings of all time.
1: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Last Defeated: Jake “The Snake” Roberts
Was there ever any doubt? No man’s career has taken off following a King of the Ring tournament quite like the Texas Rattlesnake. Austin was only two months into his Stone Cold gimmick and cut one of the most iconic promos in wrestling history following his tournament win over Jake Roberts. That promo would yield the inescapable Austin 3:16 shirt that would be the company’s hottest selling piece of merchandise for years. Within two months, Austin had launched into another career high with his feud with the Hart Foundation, which yielded such memorable moments as the Brian Pillman home invasion, Austin’s first of three Royal Rumble wins and the shocking double turn between Hart and Austin at WrestleMania 13.
From then on, Stone Cold was an unstoppable force. Off the back of his rough-and-tumble in-ring style and undeniable strength of character, Stone Cold would go on to have unforgettable feuds with the likes of the Undertaker, Triple H and The Rock — and of course his unending blood feud with company owner Vince McMahon. Barring some time off with a broken neck (during which, Austin would continue to appear on TV), Austin would remain at the top of the card for the rest of his run with the company. To this day, he’s still a guaranteed draw, even being brought in to help move tickets at the recent loop from Madison Square Garden. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is the rare wrestler who emerged as a pop culture phenomenon without a significant film role to give him the push. Indeed, he only needed one shove into the spotlight to find his place and never lose it. That push just happened to be the King of the Ring.
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