There has been a fair bit of reminiscing about the now-defunct King of the Ring PPV on this blog recently and if there is one thing we all agree on is that it is sorely missed. There are many reasons why it was great; the tournament format made a for welcome change of pace and style on the over-crowded yearly PPV line-up, and this format meant you often saw opponents matching up who may otherwise might not have feuded. But the main reason it was great for me is that it often severed as a gauge for which stars WWE was interested in pushing from the mid-card to the main events.
So in this article, I’m going to take a look at some of the stars who won the tournament, where their careers went next, and whether they really were winners or losers.
Stone Cold Steve Austin
Probably the most obvious benefactor of the KOTR win, Austin went from floundering as the colourless Ringmaster, to being shot on the road to superstardom. On that fateful night on June 23rd 1996, Stone Cold defeated Marc Mero (in a very respectable match) and then rolled over the well-past-his-prime Jake Roberts in the final to take the win. It was Austin’s post-match promo that was really memorable about the event though; firing on all cylinders, Stone Cold tore verbal strips off The Snake before delivering his infamous line, ‘you talk about your Psalms, you talk about your John 3:16…well Austin 3:16 say I just whopped your ass’. One of the fiercest and most electrifying promos ever in wrestling, there is more to it than just that one line, and for those wrestling fans who have never seen it (if there are any) should do immediately here:
Despite the enthusiastic crowd reaction to him, WWE did not capitalise of Austin’s rapidly rising popularity as quickly as WWE’s version of history might lead you to believe; he was booked to win in a nothing match against Marc Mero at the next IYH PPV and then demoted to the pre-show bout at Summerslam 1996, where he defeated Yokozuna in an abysmal match lasting just 01:52. However, WWE eventually couldn’t ignore the rising noise level that accompanied his appearances, and he was soon on to much bigger things, including feuding with Bret Hart and being involved in the legendary ‘Pilman’s got a gun’ angle. The rest, as they say, is history.
The 2002 KOTR victory for ‘The Pain’ was undoubtedly a major moment in his lightning fast ascension to WWE megastar. Originally debuting the night after WM X8, Lesnar smashed through every superstar he came up against in WWE’s determined attempt to get him over. Booked into the tournament, the winner of which that year would earn a WWE Championship shot at Summerslam, the Next Big Thing easily defeated Test and then RVD in the final in true monster heel fashion. Although neither bout was particularly good (Lesnar will still pretty green at this point), Brocks powerful aura was becoming stronger by the minute, and it was clear from the moment he won he would go on to become champion at the summer spectacular. And he did so in impressive style, pinning The Rock clean with his mighty F5 finisher in a cracking match that bears revisiting.
With his position solidified, Lesnar went on to become a hugely popular star during his initial run, and improved dramatically both in the ring and on the mic. He had compelling fueds, and several brilliant matches, with The Undertaker, Kurt Angle and Eddie Guerrero, before disappointingly leaving the WWE to pursue a career in American Football, and then in MMA (to phenomenal success with UFC) in 2004.
Originally booked to win the KOTR ’96, HHH had his career set back a whole a year due to his part in the infamous ‘Curtain Call’ incident on May 19th 1996, in which he joined his back-stage buddies Michaels, Hall and Nash in an ill-advised farewell group hug (Hall and Nash were on the way out to WCW). After doing his time in the WWE dog-house by dutifully jobbing to the likes of Goldust and Jake Roberts, they set him back on track at KOTR ’97, booking him as the winner by defeating Mankind in a top notch final. This would be the start of long rivalry, packed with fine bouts, including a Falls Count Anywhere match on Raw is War in which the Cactus Jack character made his first WWE appearance (the clip of Cactus piledriving HHH through the table at the finish was used ad nauseam on WWE TV for years after). WWE showed genuine smarts in using KOTR to launch a feud which would do much to elevate both men.
The Game’s star would only rise and rise in the years, and we all know now where he would eventually end up; married to the bosses daughter and heir to entire flippin’ company. Due to his own short-sightedness, HHH was forced to toil for whole year before he would get the break that would send him on the path to the top. But he showed commendable patience, and resoluteness, the rewards of which he has now reaped in spades.
An absolute blessing to the KOTR PPV, Kurt Angle not only won the tournament in 2000, but has probably had more good matches on the PPV’s than anyone else. Making his WWE debut about 7 months earlier at Survivor Series ’99, Kurt had quickly made his way up the mid-card ranks, most watchable when facing off against superlative workers like Chris’ Jericho and Benoit. KOTR 2000 proved to be the spring-board into the top ranks when he put in dominating performances against Y2J and Crash Holly, before squeezing an OK match out of Rikishi. Disappointingly, WWE followed this up with an utter pasting by ‘Taker at Fully Loaded 2000, but at least the bout was promoted as one of three main events (the others being the vastly superior HHH Vs Y2J and The Rock Vs Benoit matches). He finally became a fully fledged main-eventer after Summerslam 2000, when he faced off against HHH and The Rock in a Triple Threat. Although he lost, his rivalry with HHH for the affections of Stephanie McMahon was insanely over, and by far one of the most popular story lines that year.
Amazingly, Kurt outdid himself at KOTR 2001, again wrestling 3 matches on the show, and all 3 were vastly superior to his 2000 outing. He bested Christian in the semi finals, before falling to Edge in the final in very good match, which could have been a classic given another 5-7 mins. The Olympic Hero would have a classic later on the card though, when he faced off against Shane McMahon in a fondly remembered Street Fight. There are undoubtedly some sloppy spots, but for the most part this is a vicious, hard hitting war. The sight of Shane repeatedly throw into a piece of glass that refuses to break became one of the enduring images of the era, and Kurt showed that he could have the best match of the card no matter whom he faced off with.
As if this encounter wasn’t evidence enough, Kurt proved himself yet again at KOTR 2002, when he had a match with Hulk Hogan that was far more entertaining than it had any right being. They don’t call him King Kurt for nothing you know.
Bret Hart – It seems remiss to mention Bret in an article about how KOTR help make (or break) peoples careers, because he was already a well established top-line draw before KOTR ’93, having first won the WWE Championship in November 1992.
But his performance at the 1993 tourney, in which he had three matches (ranging from very decent to classic), with three very different opponents deserves special mention. It was also the place his hugely entertaining rivalry with Jerry Lawler kicked off, which was voted ‘Feud of the Year’ by Powerslam readers that year.
Booker T – Much like Bret, Booker was main-eventing way before his KOTR victory in 2006, but the King Booker character re-vitalised his stale persona and sent him back on the path to more World Titles and general acclaim.
Part 2 to follow – those who won but never lived up to their potential (or never had any in the first place!)