10 tournaments that stood out

With all due respect to Wimbledon, the Masters and March Madness, the richest stories in the history of tournament competition belong to the squared circle. Although somewhat of a rarity in today’s scene, these fierce competitions have long provided the perfect forum for new stars to be born, rivalries to develop and epic drama to unfold.

Tests of endurance, shocking underdog upsets, unprecedented matchups and jaw-dropping prizes — from eye-popping cash purses to championship titles — have all combined to give tourneys a unique place in ring lore. WWE.com explores 10 tournaments that, whether one-offs or annual events, absolutely stand out from the pack.

Photos of prestigious tourney winners | Watch top-notch tourney action

The Wrestling Classic

Contrary to popular belief, the first sports-entertainment pay-per-view was not WrestleMania but rather The Wrestling Classic, a November 1985 event whose centerpiece was a 16-Superstar tournament. The unique event provided a glimpse into rare matchups between black hats (Terry Funk vs. Moondog Spot) and fan favorites ( Ricky Steamboat vs. Davey Boy Smith) that wouldn’t have occurred had it not been for the luck of the draw. Elsewhere, Dynamite Kid, predominantly a tag team competitor, impressed all with a run to the semifinals.

Junkyard Dog eventually took home the honors, defeating Randy Savage, but his victory was not without controversy. Unlike “Macho Man,” who wrestled four separate contests that evening, JYD received a bye in the semifinals, prompting color commentator Jesse Ventura to launch into a vehement protest. After JYD, the night’s biggest winner had to be Michael Hamley, a WWE fan who scored a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III in a related sweepstake.

Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup Tag Team Tournament

From 1986 to 1988, one of the wrestling world’s most widely anticipated events was the annual Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup Tag Team Tournament, a massive 24-team competition. Each year, determined duos from all the NWA-affiliated territories competed for the prize trophy and the $1 million purse that came with it — a kingly sum for one or two nights’ work. (The first cup was held in a single evening, whereas the ’87 and ’88 editions were spread over two days.)

The Crockett Cup was so prestigious that cities as diverse as Tokyo and Atlanta were said to have bid on hosting rights (New Orleans Superdome won out in ’86), and only the NWA tag team cream was granted entrée. The Road Warriors scored the big payday in 1986, the ultra-popular  Nikita Koloff & Dusty Rhodes won in 1987, and in 1988, Sting & Lex Luger became the final Crockett Cup victors.

Pro Wrestling Illustrated/UWF Challenge Cup Tournament

The popular sports-entertainment monthly magazine Pro Wrestling Illustrated, long admired for its propensity for asking the tough questions, had a burning inquiry in 1986: Who was the toughest man in the Universal Wrestling Federation — the Oklahoma-based organization famous for having a roster replete with thick-wristed fighters? To PWI, it was at least a $50,000 question.

UWF management shared PWI’s curiosity and, with the magazine’s sponsorship, agreed to host a 16-man tournament. From Oct. 31 to Dec. 12, 1986, a packed field including the likes of Sting, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and “The Fabulous Freebirds” was winnowed down to two individuals: “Dr. Death” Steve Williams and UWF Heavyweight Champion One Man Gang, whose title reign was barely a month old. In a shocker, Williams upended the territory’s top titleholder in Houston to claim the $50,000 purse. Many PWI subscribers fondly recall a special magazine cover featuring tournament participants wrestling over the trophy.

A young Sting takes on "Dr. Death" | One Man Gang trounces Jeff Gaylord

WrestleMania IV WWE Title Tournament

With the WWE Championship vacant in early 1988, WWE President and resident problem-solver Jack Tunney had an idea: Take 14 of WWE’s best singles competitors and pit them against each other in a one-night, winner-takes-all tournament at WrestleMania IV.

With the stage set for an epic evening, the WWE Universe excitedly looked forward to Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant — who both received first-round byes — rekindling their epic ’Mania clash from one year earlier. (The bout ended in a double-disqualification.) Although both they and the ever-scheming “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase were fingered as heavy favorites, it was “Macho Man” Randy Savage who went the distance, overcoming Butch Reed, Greg Valentine, One Man Gang and, finally, DiBiase himself to win his first WWE Championship. Years later, the tournament still holds up as a who’s who of late ’80s grappling, boasting no fewer than seven eventual WWE Hall of Famers in its lineup.

Type or Tap: Can you name all of the participants? | Superheavyweights collide in round one

Starrcade 1989: “Future Shock” NWA Iron Man Tournaments

NWA tried something completely different at Starrcade 1989 by dedicating the entire show, its pre-eminent annual event, to two round-robin tournaments — one for its four most elite singles wrestlers (Ric Flair, Sting, Lex Luger and TV Champion The Great Muta) and one for its premier teams (Road Warriors, Steiner Bros., Doom and The New Wild Samoans).

The tournament was points-based, awarding up to 20 points for a pinfall or submission victory, and by the end, every competitor had wrestled three matches against the entire field. The unique format placed a premium on endurance and gave way to a first-time matchup between the iconic Road Warriors and up-and-coming Steiner Bros. With 40 points, Sting won the singles tournament (Luger came in second, with 35 points), while Animal & Hawk prevailed in the tag team tournament, their only loss coming to Ric & Scott Steiner. Afterward, the Steiners congratulated LOD on their accomplishment.

Road Warriors and New Wild Samoans go for broke

NWA World Tag Team Title Tournament

WCW was flush with tag team championship gold in 1992, boasting both World and U.S. Titles, but that didn’t stop the organization from hosting the NWA World Tag Team Championship Tournament at that summer’s Clash of the Champions and Great American Bash.

Along with duos like The Fabulous Freebirds and The Steiner Bros., the field of 16 featured super-pairings such as U.S. Champion Rick Rude & TV Champion Steve Austin. There was a distinct international flair to the festivities, as well, giving WCW fans an early glimpse of Japan’s Jushin Liger and Mexico’s Silver King. The eclectic yet world-class lineup created both epic encounters and style clashes, but the end result surely put a smile on then–WCW Executive Vice President Bill Watts’ face: In a hard-knock fight right up The Cowboy’s alley,  Steve Williams & Terry Gordy defeated Dustin Rhodes & Barry Windham to win the whole shebang.

King of the Ring

The longest-running and most prestigious tournament in WWE history, King of the Ring existed in various incarnations starting in 1985, when it was quietly birthed in Foxborough, Mass. At first an untelevised, annual tradition in southern New England, the tourney slowly expanded to the Rust Belt in 1993, debuting on pay-per-view from Ohio. King of the Ring remained an annual event until 2002, only to be revived on Raw and SmackDown in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

With such a rich history, it’s unsurprising many all-time greats had runs with the crown. In some instances — William Regal’s 2008 victory, for example — winning the King of the Ring tournament solidified a Superstar’s status. Other times, like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s win in 1996 — the very night he first uttered the words “ Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your a**” — it launched Superstars into the stratosphere. To date, eight Kings of the Ring have gone on to become Hall of Famers. How many more will be enshrined when all is said and done?

Survivor Series: Deadly Game

Look no further than the lyrics of this tournament’s soundtrack, the eponymous tune “Deadly Game,” to understand the full weight of the 1998 WWE Championship competition: “Two simple rules the devil hands us / Make your mistakes, but no second chances.”

Indeed, a single-elimination tournament orchestrated by the evil Mr. McMahon is what separated the likes of The Undertaker, Kane and Goldust from WWE Championship gold. With plenty of The Chairman’s machinations afoot, this Attitude Era original at first appeared to be the WWE Chairman’s attempt at crowning his chosen one, Mankind, the new WWE Champion. (Mankind’s mystery opponent in the first round, perennial loser Duane Gill, might be generously described as a tomato can.) Yet Mr. McMahon had ulterior motives — primarily those of preventing “Stone Cold” Steve Austin from regaining the title and, as it turned out, anointing The Rock, the tournament’s eventual winner, as “The Corporate Champion.”

Undisputed Championship Tournament

It’s easy to forget that one of the ring’s most remarkable events — the unification of the WWE and WCW Championships at WWE Vengeance 2001 — was actually the culmination of a one-night tournament. This oft-overlooked detail may well be owed to the tourney’s minimalist bracket, which consisted of only four seeds.

Welcome to the “Era of Unification,” the period immediately following WCW’s demise that saw several of the organization’s championships woven into WWE’s fabric. None of the unifications could eclipse the union of WWE and WCW’s top singles titles in December 2001. Despite having so few competitors, the tournament’s caliber of talent was staggering: In the first round, WWE Champion  “Stone Cold” Steve Austin defeated Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho upended WCW Champion The Rock. That paved the way for a pivotal WWE Champion vs. WCW Champion finale and  the crowning of Y2J as the wrestling’s first Undisputed World Champion.

“Gold Rush” No. 1 Contender Tournament

To determine World Heavyweight Champion Batista’s top contender in spring 2005, Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff proposed a simple, if effective solution: give the opportunity to the winner of an eight-Superstar, multi-week “Gold Rush” tournament. Catchy name and title implications aside, the tournament created indelible scenes that live on in the WWE Universe’s memory bank.

WWE fans still rave about the opening round conflict between Shawn Michaels and Shelton Benjamin that climaxed with an awe-inspiring Superkick. Nothing topped the dramatic match between finalists Kane and Edge, however. “The Ultimate Opportunist” had used his Money in the Bank briefcase to clobber his way past Chris Jericho and HBK in rounds one and two, but against The Big Red Monster, Edge appeared at a loss. That is, until Lita, Kane’s wife, slid the briefcase to The Rated-R Superstar, simultaneously  enabling Edge’s win and beginning one of WWE’s most torrid relationships.

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