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Game of Thrones: The Top 10 Kings of the Ring
Starting in 1985, the King of the Ring Tournament was a grueling series that featured the very best Superstars in WWE, battling for an opportunity to immortalize themselves in the sports-entertainment record books.
Held originally as an annual event in the New England area, the tournament was later established as the June installment of WWE’s original pay-per-view lineup. After a four-year hiatus, the King of the Ring has returned sporadically, with televised events in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2015.
Some Kings took their crowns to heart, even reinventing their personas to include royal affectations. Others did not interpret victory quite as literally. Almost all, however, saw their careers soar once being coronated on the proverbial – or in several cases literal – throne.
The King of the Ring has been an integral part of WWE's culture for more than 25 years, and the landscape of sports-entertainment might be much different if some Kings had not been crowned. WWE.com looks back at the 10 Kings that defined greatness by winning the once-annual June tradition.
William Regal – 2008
If ever there was a Superstar whose head was fit to wear the King of the Ring crown, it was William Regal, the dastardly British gentleman who won a one-night tournament on Raw on April 21, 2008. The expert villain defeated three opponents on his way to victory, including Finlay, CM Punk and even Hornswoggle, who he dispatched in less than 20 seconds in the first round.
Kurt Angle – 2000
Few can match Kurt Angle’s rookie year. The gold medalist carried an impressive winning streak from November 1999 to January 2000, and simultaneously held the European and Intercontinental Championships. However, Angle added to his many accolades at the 2000 King of the Ring, defeating Chris Jericho, Crash Holly and Rikishi to win the crown.
The following months were rough for Angle, who lost his next three pay-per-view matches, but he recovered in October by adding Stephanie McMahon as his associate. With McMahon in his corner, Angle defeated The Rock to win his first WWE Championship and solidify his permanency in the main event scene. Angle’s reign is best known for his successful defense in the only Six-Man Hell in a Cell Match.
Despite his initial, three-month slump, Angle proved he could compete with the toughest in the company, and that he was worthy of the crown. – JEFF LABOON
Edge – 2001
For The Rated-R Superstar, his King of the Ring victory isn't about the title, but what came afterward. There wasn't a crown or scepter in the cards in 2001. Instead, Edge was presented with a trophy reminiscent of the NHL's Stanley Cup for his tournament victory.
Though Edge's royal conquest led to the estrangement of a lifelong friendship and extremely successful tag team with Christian (due to Captain Charisma's jealousy), it did not derail his burgeoning career. He quickly captured the Intercontinental and United States Championships, while continuing his success in the tag team ranks in the years ahead, forming championship pairs with Rey Mysterio, Hulk Hogan, Randy Orton and others.
However, it was in a match he helped innovate that skyrocketed Edge to the top of WWE. Edge emerged victorious from the first ever Money in The Bank Ladder Match, giving him a World Title opportunity of his choosing whenever he wanted. He earned the moniker of The Ultimate Opportunist when he cashed in that chance on WWE Champion John Cena, who had just endured a brutal Elimination Chamber Match, to capture his first WWE Title. Edge would go on to hold 10 more World Titles, ultimately earning him another coronation in 2012, into the WWE Hall of Fame. – BOBBY MELOK
Brock Lesnar – 2002
Brock Lesnar made the WWE Universe take notice from the moment he stepped inside the squared circle. Yet even as he was already demolishing everyone in his path, the King of the Ring Tournament gave Lesnar the opportunity to potentially steamroll four Superstars and earn a guaranteed WWE Championship Match at that year’s SummerSlam.
"The Next Big Thing" thrived in the pay-per-view tournament, defeating Bubba Ray Dudley and Booker T handily to earn a spot in the semifinals. He’d go on to defeat Test and Rob Van Dam to etch his name into history as King of the Ring, but Lesnar never accepted a crown or cape. He had only one prize on his mind.
At SummerSlam 2002, King of the Ring Lesnar made his most definitive statement to date, and made the most of his Undisputed WWE Title opportunity against The Most Electrifying Man in Entertainment, The Rock. Though The Great One fought valiantly, Lesnar’s unbridled rage was too much to overcome. Brock emerged from the war as the youngest World Champion in history. – B.M.
King Harley Race – 1986
He was one of the most rugged competitors ever to compete in the ring, and when he became King, "Handsome" Harley Race gave new meaning to the three R's: Rugged + Royalty = Race. The coveted crown became his on July 14, 1986, at the second King of the Ring Tournament in Foxboro, Mass. After besting George “The Animal” Steele and Billy Jack Haynes to advance, Race defeated Pedro Morales in the tourney final.
With the additional presence of his manager, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, Race charted a course that as King garnered him victory after victory – and made sure that many of his defeated "subjects" acknowledged as such by forcing them to bow and kneel. Probably the greatest achievement during his reign came when he defeated the Junkyard Dog at WrestleMania III in 1987. Race maintained his royal title throughout his WWE tenure, despite other Kings being crowned in the tournaments following King Harley's 1986 triumph. He finally abdicated the throne in 1988 due to injury and quietly departed WWE in-ring competition. – HOWARD FINKEL
Bret "Hit Man" Hart – 1991 & 1993
Following tremendous success in the tag team division, the "Hit Man" broke out on his own in 1991, winning the Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam ( WATCH), and backing up his first singles title win by becoming 1991's King of the Ring less than two weeks later. These two accolades proved to be significant stepping stones in Bret's WWE Hall of Fame career, and he won the WWE Championship just over one year later. Although Bret lost the title at WrestleMania IX, The Excellence of Execution set out to demonstrate why his reign was no fluke.
The Calgary great did what no other Superstar has done, winning the King of the Ring Tournament for a second time in 1993 – the tournament's pay-per-view debut. The unprecedented victory led to a coronation interrupted by Jerry "The King" Lawler taking exception to the "Hit Man's" place atop the throne. Lawler had never won the tournament, but still insisted himself to be sports-entertainment's only true royal ruler. Their rivalry defined WWE for two years, and ended with Bret defeating Lawler in a humiliating Kiss My Foot Match at 1995's King of the Ring event, where he asserted himself as WWE's symbolic King.
Before leaving WWE mired in sports-entertainment's greatest controversy, Hart won the WWE Championship on four more occasions en route to becoming one of the most beloved Superstars of all time. With two crowns on the WWE Hall of Famer's mantelpiece, it's easy to see why. – ZACH LINDER
Triple H – 1997
WWE’s current COO was a noted rising star from as early as his debut in 1995, and was one of the favorites heading into the 1996 King of the Ring Tournament. But following an incident at a live event at Madison Square Garden where he and Shawn Michaels bid farewell to close friends Diesel and Razor Ramon, Triple H stumbled badly and suffered a first-round loss.
The man who would become The Game struggled to regain his footing, and was unable to find significant success until capturing the Intercontinental Championship in October 1996. The following year, the Greenwich, Conn. snob had another opportunity to show the WWE Universe he was royalty, and defeated Mankind in the tournament final to capture the crown. Mrs. Foley's Baby Boy emerged as one of Triple H's greatest rivals, and their intense battles over the course of three years helped define both Superstars' careers.
The robe and crown seemed to suit the Connecticut blueblood well, but he soon ditched the royal garb to form D-Generation X with Shawn Michaels, and became one of the Attitude Era's centerpieces. The Game's successes since becoming King are well documented. He is one of the most dominant and decorated Superstars of all time, winning 13 World Championships, and adopting the ultimate moniker, The King of Kings. Now running day-to-day operations at WWE's corporate headquarters, it can be argued that no King did as much with their tournament victory as Triple H. – Z.L.
King Booker – 2006
All hail King Booker, who underwent a transformative experience following his King of the Ring Tournament victory at Judgment Day 2006. "To be crowned King of the Ring, I can honestly say was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life," Booker told WWE.com.
The self-anointed "King of the World" ruled "The SmackDown Kingdom" with an iron fist, and formed a powerful Court that included King Booker's wife, Queen Sharmell, and two knights, Sir William Regal and Sir Finlay. In the ultimate affectation, he began speaking in a phony British accent that would disappear whenever Booker lost his temper. "I had seen the Kings that had come before me," Booker explained, "but none of them actually expanded the role, and that's something I wanted to do more than anything."
Despite his previous successes, the five-time WCW Champion's reinvention launched him into uncharted waters as a perennial pay-per-view main event competitor. The ring veteran quickly won the World Heavyweight Championship at The Great American Bash, and achieved a momentous victory at Cyber Sunday in a Triple Threat "Champion of Champions" Match, pinning WWE Champion John Cena in a bout that also included ECW Champion Big Show. King Booker also defeated Jerry "The King" Lawler before succumbing to WWE's King of Kings, Triple H, in a memorable clash at SummerSlam 2007.
Booker informed WWE.com that he "wanted people to remember Booker as the greatest King of all time." The King’s throne might now be positioned behind a SmackDown microphone, but it's hard to argue otherwise. Pinkies up. Long live King Booker! – Z.L.
"Macho King" Randy Savage – 1987
The unparalleled competitive spirit of the "Macho Man" made Randy Savage an instant star upon his WWE arrival in 1985. He won the Intercontinental Championship only a few months after his debut, and held the title for more than a year. Losing it at WrestleMania III didn't slow Macho Madness down for long; he won WWE's third annual King of the Ring Tournament in 1987, defeating King Kong Bundy in the final matchup. Savage's experience in bracketed contests were undoubtedly an asset in his historic WWE Championship Tournament victory at WrestleMania IV. Although his King of the Ring victory was clearly a stepping stone to his distinction as an all-time great, it wasn't until several years later that Savage went from "Macho Man" to "Macho King."
In 1991, Savage defeated "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan for the King title, a lineage that originated with Harley Race’s aforementioned tournament victory in 1986. The brash "Macho King" now demanded the spotlight more than ever, most notably in an extravagant coronation ceremony that gathered WWE’s top villains of the era in the ring. He traded in his bandanas for a golden crown, and appointed WWE Hall of Famer Sensational Sherri as his Queen. Savage's wild interviews now held a royal air about them as he shook his scepter at Gene Okerlund, and forced Sean Mooney to bow by grabbing the broadcaster's head.
After losing to Ultimate Warrior in a Retirement Match at WrestleMania VII, Savage reunited with Miss Elizabeth and dropped the "Macho King" moniker, endearing himself to the fans once again, and solidifying his place as one of the most iconic Superstars of all time. – Z.L.
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin – 1996
Where would WWE be without "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's star-making 1996 tournament victory? The event has been marked by some as the official beginning to the famed Attitude Era, which launched both Austin and WWE into pop culture's consciousness.
After rising star Triple H was defeated by Jake "The Snake" Roberts in the first round, the door was open for Austin, and "Stone Cold" busted through it. Foiling Roberts' potential Cinderella story in the finals, the recently transformed Ringmaster mocked his foe’s biblical preachings by delivering perhaps the most iconic interview in sports-entertainment history:
You sit there and you thump your Bible and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16. Austin 3:16 says 'I just whipped your ass!'
For years afterward, "Austin 3:16" signs peppered the WWE Universe in arenas around the world. "Stone Cold" had crashed through the glass ceiling and arrived, signaled by the beginning of his theme music for years to come. The six-time WWE Champion won a record three Royal Rumble Matches, became perhaps the most popular Superstar of all time and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009. Austin dominated WWE over the course of the next decade and changed the industry. In fact, it can be argued that professional wrestling might look very different had Austin not reigned as King of the Ring. – Z.L.