For over two decades, WWE’s King of the Ring tournament was of equal value or importance to just about any championship belt. Starting in 1985, some years were bigger than others, especially starting in 1993 when the Kings were crowned on Pay-Per-View. WWE generally ignores the first six tournaments because they weren’t broadcast on television, although this doesn’t make much sense, because they still often played an integral role in company storylines.
Regardless of the era, each wrestler to win King of the Ring attempted to use the victory to catapult themselves into wrestling fame and fortune. Many changed their ring name in some manner to reflect their newfound royalty, while others simply took the chance to shine in the spotlight and never looked back. It didn’t always take long for them to find that spotlight, either, as more than a few winners were given a WWE Championship match at SummerSlam as a bonus prize. Of course, if the King happened to lose that shot, or even worse if WWE gave up on them before they even got a real chance, it was typically an omen things weren’t going to work out too well for their Kingdom.
In addition to the 19 tournament winners, there were another two wrestlers who won the King of the Ring crown through non-traditional means. King Haku was bequeathed the crown from King Harley Race, and King Jim Duggan went on to win it from him in a singles match. Because these Kings were crowned outside of the tournament, it isn’t fair to judge them the same way as the others. Setting the unofficial Kings aside, yet including the pre-PPV era of the tournament, keep reading to see the 19 WWE Kings of the Ring ranked from worst to best.
19. King Mabel
There’s a way to look at things and view King Mabel as getting a bad rap. His promos as King, while not exact game changing, were better than anyone wants to admit. Plus, on a very basic level, his massive frame and penchant for purple created quite the impressive sight when Mabel’s followers raised him on his throne. However, outside of those two superficial qualities, it would be fair to say Mabel was pretty much useless in the ring. The subsequent SummerSlam feud against Diesel was one of the worst in history, with no one believing the slow, obese career midcarder could stand a chance against the WWE Champion. Making matters worse, people didn’t even really like Diesel that much, so it failed on both levels. 1995 WWE was a time when a new star needed to be made, and Mabel simply didn’t have what it took to be that star. The strangest part of it all was Mabel had basically been a tag team wrestler up until that point, and even kept around his former partner after becoming the King.
18. Billy Gunn
Kings of the Ring often call out their forefathers in their victory speeches, promising they’ll be the best and baddest King yet. When Edge won the crown in 2001, he made specific reference to the 1999 winner by assuring the audience he wouldn’t “Billy Gunn” the win. The 1999 tournament wasn’t simply flawed because of who won, though. The tournament was a mess from top to bottom, and for a fairly transparent reason. The King of the Ring that year had little to do with crowning a new King, and everything to do with the slow and tremendously boring initial breakup of D-Generation X. Including Kane as X-Pac’s tag team partner, all four quarterfinal matches featured someone related to the group, making it a foregone conclusion they’d all meet in the semis, with the most degenerate member of all winning the final round. Immediately after Billy won, the DX breakup angle was over, and his reign as King was almost instantly meaningless. To really cement how pointless it all was, DX was back together by the end of the next year. There is a bright side: given the timeframe, Billy Gunn was very nearly The Ass King, so it could have been worse.
17. King Barrett
What has thus far been the final King of the Ring tournament was hosted over two nights on an episode of Raw and then a WWE Network special, won by the already faltering Bad News Barrett. Not that long before this point, Barrett was a top heel as the leader of Nexus, in rapid decline ever since the group broke up. His Bad News gimmick in particular was getting all the wrong kinds of heat, and reviving the KOTR tournament for him to change his gimmick could have saved things. If anything, though, Barrett’s downfall continued faster than ever immediately after he donned the crown, getting stuck in a comedy feud with R-Truth and then waging a losing war against a celebrity. Next came The League of Nations, which might have worked if WWE emphasized the King issue, but it had pretty much been forgotten entirely by that point. To be fair, it probably would have been too little too late to save Barrett’s Kingdom or his career, as he was released from WWE one year and one week after he won the tournament.
16. King Sheamus
A classic example of too much too soon, Sheamus has never quite felt like he’s actually on the level WWE sees him as. Had the King of the Ring been his first honor in the company, it may have worked a lot better for him, but Sheamus was already a former WWE Champion by the time he took the crown, the only King with such an honor. This didn’t necessarily mean being King was a downgrade, it just meant the whole thing was confusing, like pretty much all of Sheamus’s career (unless you happen to be aware he’s buddies with Triple H). Although he came to the crown more heralded than anyone before him, Sheamus didn’t really do much with the role, because he never really does much to begin with, dictating most of his feuds and angles based on his opponents rather than his own highly limited character. Being King should have revitalized Sheamus’s career, and all it did was serve as a reminder he wasn’t going away whether fans accepted him or not.
15. Tito Santana
Quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot to judge Tito Santana’s 1989 King of the Ring victory on, undoubtedly being the least heralded reign in tournament history. Somewhat similar to the 1999 version with DX, the ’89 final was more about the breakup of Strike Force, a once extremely popular tag team featuring Santana and Rick Martel, than any long term storylines, character building, or even a push. As far as blow-offs for major feuds go, it wasn’t the best, and the bigger issue was that Santana didn’t do anything with the win. Until he formed Strike Force, Santana’s career was pretty much on the downslide since he lost the Intercontinental Championship four years earlier, and now that the team was over, he once again found himself without anything to do. Instead of finally making his way to the main event, or even so much as becoming a regular Intercontinental contender again, Santana kind of just faded out for a few years before returning as El Matador. For all the negatives, Santana was at least a former top star and decent in ring talent, who further legitimized the tournament shortly before its PPV debut.
14. Don Muraco
The inaugural King of the Ring Don Muraco in many ways set the tone for every future wrestler to hold the crown, both in a positive and negative manner. To the positives, Muraco was a considerable talent in the ring and on the microphone, ready to break through as a main event star after two sterling reigns with the Intercontinental Championship. On the downside, he didn’t really do anything after he became King, although that was far more a sign of the times than anything else. The first King of the Ring was less publicized than any other, really just a glorified house show with a semi-meaningless tournament created to sell enough tickets WWE could fill a huge arena. Muraco didn’t use the crown to his advantage because he couldn’t—the majority of wrestling fans had no idea what it was. Given the timeframe, Muraco’s pit falls can’t be held against him, and that he legitimized the crown as the first winner definitely puts him ahead of those who did absolutely nothing as King.
13. Ted DiBiase
Despite “The Million Dollar King” sounding like it writes itself, we regret to inform DiBiase never took up the moniker. Like with all pre-90s Kings, fans might have trouble remembering DiBiase’s reign, especially considering he’s yet another wrestler who didn’t do a whole lot with the crown. However, it was his first genuine accomplishment in WWE as The Million Dollar Man, opposed to trying to buy the World Championship or having his own made when he couldn’t win. The closest DiBiase had come to proving himself before was the tournament WrestleMania IV, and his King of the Ring victory would reference that with a reverse of the final round. Once again it came down to DiBiase and Randy Savage, who was WWE Champion at the time, and this time DiBiase won by count out. Had this lead to a continued feud with Savage or (impossibly) more opulent spending, DiBiase would likely be remembered in the upper echelon of Kings. His reign came just a little too soon, though, and thus the best one can do is think about what could have been.
12. Ken Shamrock
Entering wrestling as a former UFC Superfight Champion hailed as “The World’s Most Dangerous Man,” no one in or out of the industry would deny Ken Shamrock was believable as King of the Ring. His lack of long term success in WWE notwithstanding, Shamrock always had the look and credentials of a wild and unbeatable competitor, more likely to lose to his own insanity than an opponent besting him. While he never had much in the way of mic skills, he didn’t need them, because fans believed Shamrock was on the warpath through his expressions and screams alone. The thing that made his Kingdom less impressive than it should have been wasn’t that he couldn’t talk the talk while walking the walk, but rather that there were too many better alternatives stealing all the attention away from him. While Shamrock would’ve been a fine winner in the early ‘90s, by the Attitude Era, stars like The Rock and Mankind were severely outshining them through their mic work, causing Shamrock to fade away before his intensity could be utilized. And besides, WWE tried pushing him as a main eventer in late ‘97 and it didn’t work, so we’re not entirely sure why WWE tried again only six months later.
11. King Edge The Awesome
2001 was yet another year when WWE used the King of the Ring tournament to break up a faction, although this time they finally played it the right way. Rather than giving fans a foregone conclusion with all DX members or Strike Force in the finals, Team RECK (Rhyno, Edge, Christian, Kurt Angle) weren’t broken up when the tournament began. Edge becoming the winner by beating his friends was a source of contention amongst them, as it obviously would be, ultimately leading to them going their separate ways. Although this worked much better on a storytelling level than the previous attempts at using the tournament for angles, it still meant Edge’s Kingdom was somewhat hindered. Instead of getting title shots and ascending to the main event, he spent several months feuding Christian and then Kurt Angle, not winning his first World Championship for several full years after he became King, long after it was forgotten. For a long time, it looked like Edge might have been a non-starter, Billy Gunn-ing the title after all. Luckily, his fortunes turned around and he became a legend, albeit not fast enough to have made his Kingdom matter.
10. “King” Harley Race
While most wrestlers who reigned as King of the Ring did so at the start of their careers, a few did so in the middle or even close to the end. Harley Race in particular was fast slowing down in the ring when he became King, and it could be said he earned the crown more as recognition of his legacy than any earnest attempt at WWE in giving him a push. It also didn’t hurt that the company faced a dilemma when they signed Race, and the King of the Ring happened to be a perfect answer. Not wanting to acknowledge the NWA specifically, but wanting to make it clear Harley Race was a huge deal on arrival, WWE crowned him King within months of his debut. Race brought the same aplomb and professionalism he brought to his hardened heel act in WWE, reinventing himself as a top heel in an all new setting, with an all new character. Though it never brought him the same success he found in the NWA and elsewhere, Race’s tenure as King was the first to be truly memorable, setting the tone for future WWE royalty to come.
9. Hunter Hearst Helmsley
In a WWE sanctioned list, company COO and self-proclaimed King of Kings Triple H would probably rank himself a whole lot higher than the middle of the totem pole. Part of it would be bitterness, as the famous story goes he was promised to win the crown in 1996, punished for the Curtain Call incident and not finding his throne until the next year. On top of that, the 1997 tournament itself was one of the weakest in history, with only 8 entrants against the usual 16+, making Triple H’s victory the least impressive in history on a visible and quantifiable level. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t still able to use winning to his advantage, finally taking himself out of midcard hell by forming D-Generation X with Shawn Michaels two months later. Unfortunately, however, in forming DX his Kingdom was also placed on the backburner. Triple H also found himself stuck in HBK’s shadow for years, and by the time HHH was ready to take Shawn’s place in the main event, his Kingdom had been forgotten entirely (at least until some ten years later when his wife and father-in-law decided he was the only King who ever mattered).
8. Brock Lesnar
“Destroyer Of Worlds” is the sort of title that sounds appropriate for Brock Lesnar, which might be why he and Paul Heyman never embraced King Brock or King Lesnar as his nickname. More than anything related to aesthetics, Lesnar’s tenure as King was hurt by the fact he more than anyone else had a blink and you’ll miss it style tenure wearing the crown. Experiencing a meteoric rise like no other, Lesnar won the tournament only three months after his WWE debut, and went on to defeat The Rock for the WWE Championship barely two more months later at SummerSlam. There’s no way to deny steamrolling through the most storied tournament in the WWE Universe was a big part of Lesnar’s success, yet it feels inaccurate to call him one of the all time great Kings considering how tossed aside the accomplishment was in the grand scheme of his career. Especially given Heyman’s gift of gab, it probably wouldn’t have taken much for Brock’s reign to be more memorable, making it all the more confusing WWE was so quick to ignore it when their team grew ever stronger.
7. King Kurt
Almost an identical story to Brock Lesnar with a few key words changed, Kurt Angle was more than worthy of wearing his King of the Ring crown. The real similarity is how quickly WWE forgot about both being King, though, the slight difference being it took Kurt about two months longer to capitalize on the win than it took Brock. Paradoxically, this actually makes Kurt a better King, because it gave him more time to soak in the lure of his throne. Kurt’s rise was more natural than Brock’s, as well, with more than half a year to steadily ascend the ranks opposed to three lightning fast months. Finally, Kurt deserves credit as one of the few Kings to make a serious effort at defending his crown the next year, making it to the finals of the 2001 tournament after winning in 2000. If there’s any downsides, its that Kurt’s entire career was so busy and cluttered that his time in the King of the Ring tournaments was kind of secondary to all the other angles he had going on. The lack of focus prevented his Kingdom from growing any stronger.
6. King Regal
Had the circumstances been slightly different, William Regal may well have become the greatest King of the Ring in WWE history, or at least done much better than he did. The way reality unfolded, King Regal remains one of the worst cases of wasted potential wrestling has ever seen, and there’s no one to blame for its failure but Regal himself. He came into the crown amidst the push of his life, already the General Manager of Raw and using his newfound royalty to become an insane leader in the vein of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Unfortunately, not one month into King Regal’s reign, he was busted with a violation of the WWE Wellness Policy and suspended for 60 days. By the time he returned, all the potential had been lost, and Regal never again found his way to the main event. No wrestler had seemed more tailor-made for the crown than Regal, and it’s a testament to his skill that his reign is so fondly remembered despite how short it was. The brevity can’t be ignored, though, so Regal can’t place any higher than he has.
5. King Booker
For as common as it has been for wrestlers to change their names, gimmicks, and appearance after getting crowned King of the Ring, it could probably be argued no superstar went through a royal transformation as complete as Booker T’s in 2006. The tournament had been dormant for four years and it needed something special to revitalize the concept, which Booker completely rebranding himself as a literal classic style King more than accomplished. Booker had been one of the top stars in WCW, but he was never viewed on that same level in WWE, getting stuck in embarrassing/offensive feuds and reductive (if at times hilarious) tag teams. When Booker was crowned King, he was finally allowed to start challenging for World Championships again, and more importantly, he even managed to win one. Booker also holds significance as the only King of the Ring to keep the gimmick going longer than a full year, not even abandoning it when he became the champ, using the dual accomplishments to declare himself King of the World.
4. “The King of Harts” Owen Hart
Much like most of Owen Hart’s career, his 1994 King of the Ring victory was largely emboldened by his desire to step out of his older and more successful brother Bret’s shadow. The difference between Owen and other winners stuck in the wake of bigger stars (like Billy Gunn with DX or Triple H with Shawn Michaels) is that he actively tried to destroy Bret and overtake his fame instead of finding himself content to sit in the background. Bret’s star was an especially difficult one to overtake, considering he was in his second reign as WWE Champion when Owen entered the tournament. Owen had already been trying to prove he had surpassed Bret for some time, defeating him at WrestleMania X, the night Bret won his title. Taking the crown was one last non-familial piece of legitimacy before Owen could start challenging Bret for the WWE Championship once again. Though Owen never managed to win the big one, small victories like the King of the Ring tournament would continually define his career.
3. Bret Hart
With all apologies to Owen, big brother Bret simply outclassed him as King in every way. Bret holds a number of important accolades in relation to the King of the Ring title, most notably that he’s the only wrestler to wear the crown twice, in a row at that. Perhaps even more important than that, Bret was the first King of the Ring crowned on Pay-Per-View, thus redefining the tournament on a major scale. Bret’s 1991 victory was on the lower side of the spectrum, forgettable even amongst the other pre-PPV tournaments, so the less said about that one the better. That said, Bret’s second win absolutely set the tone for the next decade of winners, both in terms of the skills required to reign as a proud King and the type of angles WWE should run with their royalty. Although Bret didn’t transition into a World Championship program like some other winners, his feud against Jerry “The King” Lawler was arguably bigger and more iconic than anything to happen in the actual title scene at that point.
2. “Macho King” Randy Savage
The biggest flaw in WWE pretending the King of the Ring tournament began in 1993 is that they’ve retconned one of the all time best wrestlers to wear the crown out of history. With Queen Sherri Martel at his side, the “Macho King” Randy Savage took the King of the Ring title and brought it to all new heights, much like he did with absolutely everything he touched. Savage was one of the all time talents in the ring and on the microphone, there’s nonetheless a confusing fact about the Macho King’s reign as to when exactly it began. He won the tournament in 1987, playing a big role in his face turn, but didn’t start using his new Macho King moniker until 1989. Remember how King Haku and King Duggan were unofficial crown holders? Savage beat Duggan for the crown he won from Haku (in turn given to Haku by Harley Race), despite a number of other Kings being crowned in the interim, Savage included. Confusing timeline and delayed nicknames notwithstanding, Savage did some of his best work while wearing the crown, which given his legendary career means an incredible amount.
1. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Ultimately, the success of a King of the Ring depends on what they accomplish while holding the title and how fast they go about doing it. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin needed all of 90 seconds as King before he turned himself into the biggest star WWE had ever seen, all with one sentence. After defeating the religious Jake Roberts, Austin taunted his enemies could, “talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16…Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass.” On the one hand, that was pretty much it for King Austin’s time on the throne, as the next night he was back to being a ruthless killer who took names and did what his new catchphrase promised, almost never again mentioning that time he won a crown (albeit he was the first PPV winner who refused to wear it). That ad libbed sentence, on the other hand, became arguably the most iconic and important line spoken in WWE history, launching the entire Attitude Era and making Austin the biggest star sports entertainment has ever created. Is that enough to make him the best King of the Ring ever crowned, as well? Oh, hell yeah.