Tournaments are a simple way to decide who is the best of the best. Recently, we had the Cruiserweight Classic and the Tag Title Tournament for SmackDown, but in the past there were rarely ever tournaments and when they did take place, they were a big deal. The King of the Ring tournament went from being a semi-meaningless tournament to a vehicle to change a wrestler's gimmick and status, then back to being meaningless. There was a period of time where almost everyone who became King of the Ring would go on to major success and would win some kind of championship because of their King of the Ring fame. On the other hand, some people didn't do so well.
Winning the prestigious tournament would either do absolutely nothing for them or hurt them in the long run. There have been wrestlers who won the tournament for no reason and there were winners who truly deserved it and used it to propel their career to new, unimaginable heights. Over the almost 30 years that King of the Ring has been around, there have been almost 20 winners and for some this tournament was a career defining moment, while for others it was the start of a drastic decline. It seems that there are always plans for the winner of the tournament (for the most part), but whether the plans actually go through and take place is the real test of whether you can "make it."
Nelson Lee Frazier Jr. wrestled under multiple names in WWE, most notably as as "The World's Largest Love Machine" Viscera and later on as Big Daddy V. What many younger fans don't remember is that Viscera wrestled in WWE before the Attitude Era, when he was known as Mabel. Mabel along with his partners/managers Mo and Oscar were known as Men on a Mission While he debuted as a face, it wouldn't stay that way for very long. Mabel and Mo would ditch Oscar (who behind the scenes refused to turn heel) and Mabel would become a singles star with Mo by his side. Mabel would go on to successfully squash a number of jobbers before becoming King of the Ring in June of 1995. When you have to rely on a wrestler who has a good bit of trouble moving as your top heel, you know you're in trouble, which was the case for WWE in the mid-90s. He would go on to injure The Undertaker (accidentally), which seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back and he was release shortly thereafter.
18 Billy Gunn
This pick on the list isn't about what he did with after he won King of the Ring, it's about what he didn't do. Now, I know this isn't up to him at all, but you would think that after someone wins one of wrestlings most prestigious tournaments they would do something with them. Apparently Vince McMahon wanted to prove us wrong and Billy Gunn did absolutely nothing with the King of the Ring after he won it. The winner of the tournament would usually get some kind of Title shot or at least a bump up the card because of it. Gunn won it and the next day it was like nothing had happened. They almost never acknowledged it and WWE could easily erase it from their records and almost no one would be the wiser. This was one of the countless examples that showed that neither of The New Age Outlaws could be successfully without a partner at their side. Gunn being in a tag team with Road Dogg also probably hurt his chances of a singles push at the time.
17 Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle is low on this list for the same reason that Billy Gunn is. After he won it, he did absolutely nothing with it and it was just a foot note in WWE history. He won it in 2000 and immediately after he went into his Love Triangle feud with Triple H. They could have easily given the win to Rikishi and had him become a big heel and save him from that awful storyline that he had with Triple H and Steve Austin. Angle simply didn't need the tournament win and it could've gone to someone who needed it much more than the man that was about to go into one of the hottest feuds of 2000. The finals of that year also were a part of a storyline which featured Too Cool vs. Team ECK (Edge, Christian and Kurt), which also adds to unnecessary nature of Angle's win. It didn't do anything for him as he was already a top heel and didn't need to be in a program with five lower card wrestlers to begin with.
16 Ken Shamrock
There seems to be a running theme with these lower picks and it's that they just didn't do anything with the tournament win after they won. Except Shamrock did, kind of. Shamrock was in a mini feud with The Nation of Domination, which culminated with him beating almost every member to get to the finals of the tournament before defeating The Rock to win the King of the Ring tournament. While this feud did make slightly more sense. as it wasn't set up from the beginning and it formed throughout him qualifying through the tournament, the feud ultimately ended when Shamrock beat The Rock in the finals of King of the Ring. This was one of the more memorable King of the Ring finals, even though there was no real follow up to the feud, which was incredibly disappointing. Instead Shamrock launched into a feud with a returning King Mabel, which went poorly.
15 Don Muraco
Don Muraco was the inaugural King of the Ring winner and will go down as the first winner of the tournament. Now you can probably chalk this up to McMahon not knowing what he wanted to do with the tournament when he crowned the first winner, but Muraco didn't do anything with the tournament win to cement himself as someone who bettered the new tournament. The winner of the tournament could have been anyone and it wouldn't have had an impact on the future of the tournament. Not only was this the first tournament, but when two wrestlers (Ricky Steamboat and Jim Brunzell) fought to a draw, they didn't give their opponent a bye or restart the match, they decided who would advance in the tournament via coin toss. This is one of the weirder ways to decide who "wins" a match and it certainly didn't help the tournament in terms of its instant prestige.
14 Wade Barrett
The most recent winner of the tournament on this list, Wade Barrett had almost the opposite problem that the others on this list had. Barrett knew that his time with the company was winding down and that he wasn't as valuable as he was back in 2010-2011 when he was in The Nexus/Corre. He was given one last chance when he was crowned King of the Ring during their WWE Network special in 2015 by beating Neville. The next Monday, Barrett had been completely 'kingified' and came to the ring with a lavish robe, a crown and a scepter. He even changed his name to King Barrett to completely envelop himself in the character. Everything he did had to be kingly and whenever he would insult someone, it was because they were peasants. While this would have worked about 10 years ago (and it did with King Booker), it just seemed silly in 2015 and didn't work. Once Barrett and WWE creative came to their senses and dropped the King gimmick, it was too late and Barrett was already on the road to being released.
13 Brock Lesnar
While Brock Lesnar did like many of the others and chose to not acknowledge the fact that he won King of the Ring, the way he chose to ignore it tied in with what he was doing at the time. 2002 was the year that Brock Lesnar was building up his portfolio of wins and accomplishments which would ultimately start with him winning the King of the Ring tournament. Brock didn't care about the tournament itself and he just saw it as more chances to beat up victims. He tore through the tournament with relative ease and it was nothing more than a gauntlet match to him. He threw the trophy onto his shelf and kept moving until he got to his next big accomplishment two months later, the WWE Championship.
It seems that many of the people on this list suffer from the late 90s and early 2000s syndrome of WWE not doing anything with their King of the Ring winners because Edge is once again an example of it. While they did have him carry the trophy around for a little while and tie it into a storyline, it just didn't mean anything in the long run. Though he didn't become "King Edge" or anything like that, the tournament win did solidify Edge as a future singles star and was a major jump off for his career. This would also be the starting point of the feud between Edge and Christian that would run through most of the Invasion. This pick is lower on the list because unlike the lowers wrestlers on the list, it actually helped Edge's career. If he hadn't won King of the Ring and proven that he could become a credible singes star, who knows where he would be today.
11 Ted DiBiase
Ted DiBiase is one of WWE's best heels and his King of the Ring victory in 1988 was the jumping off point for much of his success. Before the tournament took place, DiBiase was already a relatively successful singles wrestler as he had debuted his Million Dollar Man gimmick the previous June and was almost instantly thrust into the main event scene during the WWE Championship tournament. However, DiBiase didn't win the tournament and would end up feuding with Randy Savage for most of the summer of 1988, not really doing anything of note. DiBiase would be handed a loss by Hulk Hogan at the inaugural SummerSlam and that would be the end of DiBiase's big push for the time. When King of the Ring came around that year, DiBiase was entered into the tournament and would succeed, defeating Brutus Beefcake and Randy Savage to eventually win the tournament. This would start DiBiase push to slightly below the title picture, where he would succeed for years to come.
10 Tito Santana
Tito Santana is one of the marquee faces of WWE's golden era, often seen teaming with tag team partner Rick Martel as a part of the team known as Strike Force. Following an injury. Rick Martel would return during the Royal Rumble in 1989 and reunite with his tag team partner and have a semi successful run until WrestleMania of that year when Martel turned on Santana. Martel would claim that Santana was a loser and that he was sick of carrying him. The two would feud all throughout 1989, with both men on opposing teams during both SummerSlam and Survivor Series of that year. The feud would ultimately come to a close at the 1989 King of the Ring, when Tito Santana overcame his evil former tag team partner to win the tournament and the feud. My only problem with this tournament win is that, you guessed it, they never capitalized on the win! Santana wouldn't receive a push up the card and would only be featured in the Intercontinental Championship Tournament in a losing effort. I am all for feuds ending in big tournament matches, but when you don't capitalize on the success of the win, then the feud ultimately becomes a stalemate. However, the monumental end to the feud gives Santana a spot in the middle of this list.
This was one of four attempts by WWE to reboot the King of the Ring tournament and Sheamus was the lucky sap this time, as Booker T and William Regal were before. Sheamus would beat John Morrison on a special episode of RAW to become King of the Ring in 2010. Sheamus would embrace his new king status and start wearing a green cape, along with a very Loki-esque crown. He would start going by 'King Sheamus' and would continue his feud with John Morrsion into TLC. After 2000, it seemed that people didn't want to fully embrace the king moniker and once it went on, hiatus did people the truly realize just how easily they could get themselves heat by acting like they were the King of the WWE Universe. Especially since WWE is mainly based in America and we aren't used to Kings (yet), fans would boo anyone who would try to say that they were their peasants. The King Sheamus gimmick would end when Triple H returned in February of 2011 to take out Sheamus.
8 Owen Hart
Owen Hart is another example of a wrestler incorporating his King of the Ring win into an actual storyline, namely, the storyline with his brother Bret Hart. The whole feud was about Owen proving that he was better than his brother, who had been getting all the praise and recognition when he felt he was the one who truly deserved it. Owen was basically trying to copy his brother's accomplishments and one up him to prove that he was the better Hart. That's why he entered into the tournament and won the King of the Ring. Following the tournament win, he would start calling himself "The King of Harts" which was a direct jab at his brother (who was doing pretty good for himself at the time). This is how you should tie in a tournament into a feud. Its a classic example of 'Anything you can do, I can do better' and it was used properly in this case. The two would go on to feud for the better part of 1994 and Bret would ultimately win the feud.
7 Bret Hart
The next man on this list is one of the best technicians in wrestling history. Bret Hart has made a legacy out of being one of the most technically sound and proficient wrestlers ever to lace up a pair of boots. If it weren't for Bret, we probably wouldn't have a number of today's top stars. Bret Hart is also the only two-time King of the Ring winner, something that will most likely never happen again (unless they decide to give Sheamus another go at it). He won it in 1991 and 1993 and he probably had a big hand in legitimizing the tournament, making it a goal for wrestlers each year. While Hart's actual wins didn't have much fan fare or pageantry attached to them, it fit his character because he wasn't someone who was going to gloat that they won a tournament, he was just going to let his actions speak for themselves. Hart also was the first person to win the tournament when it was hosted as its own Pay-Per-View, defeating Razor Ramon, Bam Bam Bigelow and Mr. Perfect to win the crown.
6 Triple H
Before Triple H was known as The King of Kings or The Cerebral Assassin, he was Hunter Hearst Helmsley, The Connecticut Blue Blood. He was more or less WWE's version of Lord Steven Regal (and he even teamed with Regal at one point as Jean-Paul Levesque in WCW). Triple H was poised to get a big main event push before the infamous Curtain Call incident, where he was the only one left to take all of the blame. Initially, he was supposed to win King of the Ring 1996, but instead that honor went to Steve Austin.
The 1997 King of the Ring tournament was Helmsley's first chance at redemption after that and he was going to make the most of it. Triple H had recently acquired Chyna as his bodyguard and was picking up steam again when he won the tournament in 1997. This would be the tipping off point for his feud with Mankind, as he refused to stop beating down Mankind with his crown and scepter. The two would go on to have multiple great matches in their feud. Triple H represents one of the last wrestlers to truly act like they were King of the Ring and put on a kingly persona, making the most of the tournament win.
5 William Regal
Full disclosure, William Regal is high on this list because he is English. I know that Wade Barrett was also on this list, but he did such a bad job at being King that I couldn't give him the brownie points that I did Regal. William Regal is the personification of a king. Even before he won the tournament in 2008, he was more or less the uncrowned King of the Ring. When he started his last in-ring run with the company and was accompanied by Layla, he was bound to have some kind of success. Regal would win the tournament on a special three hour episode of RAW where he would make Hornswoggle, Finlay and CM Punk tap out. Sadly Regal would go into a less than stellar feud with Mr. Kennedy before losing a 'loser leaves WWE' match in which he was forced to "leave" the company. In reality, Regal had been served his second wellness policy violation and had to be suspended for 60 days. Following the suspension, Regal would continue to be King Regal, but wouldn't have much success with the gimmick.
4 Booker T
Booker T is high on the list because of how hard he threw himself inti the gimmick of being King Booker after winning the tournament in 2006. If there is one thing you can call Booker, it's committed. The man took the ball and ran with it as far as he could, adopting a parody of a classic king. He would speak with an outlandish kingly accent and make his opponents kiss his pinky rings. He would always come to the ring with his Queen, Sharmell, as well as his knights William Regal and Finlay. He even went the extra mile and changed his theme song for the gimmick. He was no longer Booker T and very few parts of his old persona stayed with him. Booker would stay in the gimmick until he left the company and, sadly, he would never revisit the gimmick again.
3 Stone Cold Steve Austin
Stone Cold Steve Austin is possibly the most popular figure in wrestling history. He not only kicked off one of the most successful eras in the history of the sport, but he made it cool to like wrestling again. It all started in 1996 when Stone Cold won the King of the Ring tournament (this was supposedly the tournament that Triple H was going to win before the Curtain Call) and cut THE promo. From then on, he was no longer Steve Austin or The Ringmaster, he was Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Texas Rattlesnake. The reason he's so high on this list is the character transformation that was kickstarted by his King of the Ring win. From then on, he did what he wanted, said what he wanted and kicked everyone's ass! He stomped mudholes, drank beer and didn't give a damn what you sai,! If it wasn't for his King of the Ring win and promo where he said Austin 3:16 for the first time, who knows when Vince would have pulled the trigger on this and if we would have gotten the Attitude Era as we remember it today.
2 Harley Race
Harley Race is one of the greatest wrestlers to ever step foot on Planet Earth. When you think of the old school territorial wrestling days, Harley Race is bound to pop into your head. WWE obviously knew how big Race was when it came to wrestling and since they didn't have the Hall of Fame at the time, they wanted to find a way to honor him. They made him King of the Ring and with that, King Harley Race was born. He is most likely the inspiration for King Booker, as he did most of what Booker did almost 30 years before him. He completely changed his attire, music and wrestling style to fit his new kingly presence. After he beat his opponents, he would force them to bow and kneel by grabbing their hair and forcing them down. After King Harley Race, he would go on to feud with the likes of JYD, Hulk Hogan and Jim Duggan. He wouldn't have any real success in the WWE following his King of the Ring win, but he further solidified himself as a legend with this gimmick.
1 Randy Savage
What can I say about this last pick? Who personifies KING better than The Macho King himself? Randy Savage already had the aura of a king and all he needed was the crown to make it official. He carried himself like he was already the most important man in the building, so why not make it true? If we are counting technicalities, Savage is also a two-time King of the Ring title, once winning the actual tournament in 1987 and once beating Jim Duggan for the 'King of the Ring Title" (which he had gotten from King Haku, who had received it from Harley Race). This 1989 win is when he became "The Macho King," donning a scepter (given to him by Ted DiBiase) and proclaiming that he was King of the WWE. Savage would use the scepter multiple times as a weapon and would even get a title shot against Hulk Hogan, though in a losing effort. Randy Savage could possibly be the greatest character in wrestling history, as not only was he a character in the ring, but he was also like that in real life. Everyone says that often times your gimmick should just be your personality turned up to 11, but in Savage's case it was turned up to 50! He truly held himself like a king at all times regardless of a title and that is why he deserves the number one spot.