The Magnificent Seven: Top 7 Kings of the Ring
Posted by Mike Chin on 08.09.2014
From Randy Savage and Steve Austin to Owen Hart and more, 411's Mike Chin counts down the top seven Kings of the Ring!
Since the early 1990s WWE has, with varying degrees of regularity and success, used the King of the Ring tournament as a vehicle to elevate talents, redefine gimmicks, and tell stories. Yes, the tournament has seen some failures—a goofy and more or less directionless reign for Sheamus, ill-advised major pushes for Mabel and Billy Gunn. Just the same, the tournament has also resulted in some memorable and meaningful stories. This week, I'm counting down the top seven Kings of the Ring.
#7. Brock Lesnar
Now that he's a multi-time former WWE and UFC champ and the man who ended The Undertaker's WrestleMania winning streak, it's difficult to remember a point at which The Beast was an unproven commodity. That's exactly what he was, though, in 2002. Having Lesnar mow over the competition in the King of the Ring tournament may not have been the most creative way to push him, but it was effective—letting him deliver impressive flurries of power offense against a range of opponents (Bubba Ray Dudley, Booker T, Test, and, RVD) to take home the major victory that established him as a main event player, and paved the way to his very first championship win over The Rock at that year's SummerSlam.
#6. William Regal
Make no mistake about it—William Regal should be in the top three of this list, and probably would be were it not for an ill-timed wellness suspension. Regal was in the interesting spot of on-air political power player (he was the GM of Raw) while simultaneously getting an in-ring push, winning three matches in a then-special three-hour episode of Raw to win the King of the Ring tournament, lastly making CM Punk tap clean in the finals. At the age of 40, I don't think it's any exaggeration at all to say that Regal was getting the biggest push of his career. On top of that, the king persona was perfect for Regal, pushing his power-hungry character over the top to a new height of pompous jerkery, wearing the literal crown.
On top of all of this, WWE had a foil for him—Mr. Kennedy. Say what you will about Ken Anderson's tendency to get hurt and his deteriorating consistency and objective skill over the years with TNA—the fact remains that at that point he was newly turned face and it was working. While Kennedy-Regal probably never would have approached Austin-McMahon territory, it was steadily on pace to be one of the very best Austin-McMahon knock offs, and one of the better feuds of its time.
But the wellness suspension did happen. Regal disappeared from TV and the king character never had the chance to thrive again, depriving fans of what probably would have been a pretty spectacular heel run.
#5. Bret Hart
While Bret Hart did next nothing with the king gimmick itself, in winning the tournament of the inaugural King of the Ring pay per view, Hart cemented his place as a major player in WWE and laid the foundation for an eventual return to the main event scene after Hulk Hogan and Lex Luger had briefly usurped that spot.
In addition to re-cementing his push, Hart's tournament win was pure artistry. Never before and never since has WWE featured a one-night tournament in which the eventual winner performed in three such high quality, and distinctive matches—besting Razor Ramon, Mr. Perfect, and Bam Bam Bigelow along the way, and defeating each with a different finish.
On top of all of this, while Hart did little in the role of king, the ceremonial title did kick start his feud with Jerry Lawler. You can argue that feuding with Lawler was a demotion or that the program ran too long, but just the same, it was a storyline with heat and one that kept The Hitman in a focused direction until he got to feuding with his brother and returned to the main event.
#4. Steve Austin
People have different theories about the rise of Stone Cole Steve Austin. If he truly arrived when he refused to submit to the sharpshooter at Wrestlemania 13, or when he first stunned Vince McMahon, or was crowned champion at Wrestlemania 14. Each of these moments was a piece of the puzzle when it came to building a bona fide superstar—equally so was winning the 1996 King of the Ring tournament.
Like Bret Hart, Steve Austin never took on the king persona in a meaningful way. Just the same, it was his King of the Ring victory that facilitated him delivering quite arguably his most iconic promo, proclaiming to Bible-beating Jake Roberts that, "Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass."
Austin was a great mechanic and above average on the stick, but in his King of the Ring victory—a moment originally earmarked for Triple H before had to be punished for The Curtain Call—Austin had his shot at the top of the card. Once he was crowned King of the Ring, he never looked back.
#3. Randy Savage
Before King of the Ring was a pay per view, it had the odd distinction of being an annual house show tournament, scarcely referenced on television aside from a wrestler taking on the king persona. Randy Savage won the crown after his first world title run and after his extended program with Hulk Hogan. The victory and persona change was almost equal parts recognition of a main event caliber talent who wasn't quite main eventing (not so different from recognizing Harley Race as king without referencing his legacy as an NWA champ), and reinventing a major character under a new guise.
Savage ran with the new persona. As the Macho King, he took on Queen Sherri as his second, a scepter as his trademark weapon, and looked totally in his element being carried to the ring on a throne by heel cronies. The persona would carry him all the way to Wrestlemania 7, when his career would take its next major turn in the form of temporary retirement, and re-establishing himself as one of the company's top faces.
#2. Owen Hart
Owen Hart's Wrestlemania 10 victory was a major upset that established he could challenged for a world title. But it was his King of the Ring victory that June that cemented his place a main event heel—beating Tatanka, The 1-2-3 Kid, and Razor Ramon in a string of matches second only to his brother's King of the Ring tournament run a year earlier, and even taking on a heel sidekick along the way as Jim Neidhart subtly turned over the course of the evening and became just the henchmen to put Owen Hart over top as a serious threat.
But on top of a tournament win, Hart took the king persona seriously, and became a wonderful arrogant, borderline comedic heel, waving to the crowd in regal fashion, and generally celebrating himself on a scale few could match (I would argue Daniel Bryan is the only one to really meet him, with the dawn of the yes chant as an annoying heel jerk).
#1. Booker T
Take everything that Owen Hart accomplished as heel who was elevated by the tournament win and reinvented himself as a supremely arrogant bastard, and magnify the absurdity of it all—there you have King Booker. Booker T, for all his athletic gifts and charisma, never really arrived as a superstar in WWE, until he found his footing with this king character. But once had won the crown, beating Bobby Lashley in the tournament final, he struck the perfect balance between uber-talented heel and borderline comedic jackass, affecting a ridiculous accent, labeling his wife Queen Sharnmell, and riding his royal chariot all the way to the World Heavyweight Championship.
Few characters thrive in the main event the way Booker T did in the dying days of WCW, only to go on to success under a such a completely and fundamentally different persona five years later. But that's exactly what King Booker did, a supremely entertaining main event heel, with the awesome "court" of William Regal and Finlay backing him along the way.
Who do you think should have made the list? Kurt Angle? Edge? Triple H? And who was your favorite king? Let us know in the comments section. See you in seven.
Read stories and miscellaneous criticism from Mike Chin at his website and his thoughts on a cappella music at The A Cappella Blog. Follow him on Twitter @miketchin.