It was easy to miss between the next chapter in the Seth Rollins chronicles and Sasha Banks’s triumphant return, but Monday night’s episode of RAW featured a blast from the past: WWE is bringing back the King of the Ring tournament. Or, more precisely, WWE is bringing back a tournament with King of the Ring branding and none of the original pay-per-view’s Attitude Era stylings. This will be the fifth time that WWE has attempted the tournament since shutting it down as an annual show in 2002, and the promotion would do well to take a look at what hasn’t worked in the 17 years since Brock Lesnar won the last PPV edition of the King of the Ring. This sort of tournament can and should work, but if that’s going to happen, WWE will have to remember what works about it.
King of the Ring started as a house-show tournament back in 1985, and didn’t become a full-fledged pay-per-view—and therefore, important in the eyes of both WWE and its fans—until 1993. The tournament’s implicit purpose was to catapult stars into a new level of popularity, although that didn’t really come into play for a few years; Bret Hart won the inaugural edition of the King of the Ring just a few months after main-eventing WrestleMania IX. It wasn’t until 1996 that King of the Ring became one of the promotion’s preferred launching pads for its next group of stars.
That famous edition of the tournament saw Stone Cold Steve Austin win the crown and give the promo that would make him the most popular wrestler of the Attitude Era, and maybe ever: “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass.”
Other notable winners of that first iteration of the tournament included Triple H (1997), Kurt Angle (2000), Edge (2001), and Lesnar (2002)—a who’s who of main event stars that used the King of the Ring tournament to leap to stardom. After Lesnar’s win, which led directly to him defeating The Rock in the main event of SummerSlam later that year, WWE decided to shelve the tournament PPV indefinitely, reportedly due to declining ticket sales and Vince McMahon’s personal dislike of the tournament conceit.
This is where King of the Ring’s history gets significantly less glorious. Since 2002, WWE has revived the tournament four times: in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2015. The winners of those: Booker T (perhaps the only good winner of the four, as his King Booker gimmick actually caught on with crowds), William Regal, Sheamus, and Bad News Barrett, respectively. The latter two are less emblematic of any problems with the tournament itself than with how WWE has booked its winners and devalued King of the Ring.
In 2010, Sheamus had already won the WWE Championship, and was generally an upper mid-carder who could jump up a tier if needed. He absolutely did not need to be King Sheamus in order to pose a threat to the main event scene; more exciting choices like Kofi Kingston or Daniel Bryan were also right there, and in greater need of the boost.
Bad News Barrett was an even worse decision. While the former Wade Barrett had an incredible gimmick, fans were pretty much over his in-ring performances by 2015. The man he faced in the final, Neville, would have been a much better choice; he had the in-ring bonafides, the love of the hardcore fans from his time in NXT, and owned one of the best finishing moves in all of wrestling, the Red Arrow. A King Neville run could have propelled him towards the upper echelons of WWE, which is somewhere he proved he belonged in with his excellent match against Seth Rollins later in 2015. In this reality, WWE’s reluctance to pull the trigger on his ascent eventually lead to his “demotion” to 205 Live and eventual exit from the company.
The biggest problem, though, was that King of the Ring no longer felt special. The tournament was relegated to episodes of Raw and SmackDown and, in 2015, a “live special” on the WWE Network. There was no anticipation for the tournament PPV, where a handful of matches would all occur on one night, lending consistency to storylines that could be carried out from round to round.
WWE seems to be aiming for a happy medium this time around. It will be doing the tournament on Raw and SmackDown, but not all in one week. Presumably this will be the case, but the company has not stated anything directly; commentary on Monday hinted that the tournament would be an ongoing thing. Since there won’t be an actual King of the Ring show, the best way WWE could make the 2019 edition a winner would be to book a champion who is currently just on the cusp of bigger things. The pool this year is better than it has been in any of the four post-PPV editions, with luminaries like Samoa Joe, The Miz, and Kevin Owens, rising stars like Chad Gable, Ali, and Buddy Murphy. Also Baron Corbin is in the mix, but please for the love of god let’s not have Baron Corbin win this.
Ideally, someone like Mexican rudo Andrade or human trampoline Ricochet, both of whom have been circling idly in the mid-card since their respective call-ups from NXT, would be elevated by winning the crown. A Kofi Kingston-Andrade match for the WWE Championship could be a show-stealer at whatever PPV WWE decides to plug it into. Or Samoa Joe could win; sure, he’s already challenged for the top titles across both Raw and SmackDown, but he keeps losing those matches. Using King of the Ring to reboot his run and propel him into a heel champion role could do wonders for one of the most talented guys on the roster, both in the ring and on the microphone, where the “King Joe” promos basically write themselves.
The good news is that WWE knows how to do this right, and there has been a recent boon in the company with regards to tournaments. NXT has employed a variety of them in recent years, from number one contender brackets to the initial women’s championship tourney, and the annual Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. The company also put on the Cruiserweight Classic in 2016, the Mae Young Classic in both 2017 and 2018, and tournaments to crown the inaugural NXT United Kingdom champion for the men and the women:
Those tournaments succeeded not just because of the talent in the ring, but because the promotion had both the patience to run the tournament at a pace befitting of their worth and the foresight to book winners that would have long futures with the company as stars. (The only exception here being TJP, who won the Cruiserweight Classic despite no one really liking him all that much, but moving on.) King of the Ring 2019 could be any number of things, because it is not yet anything at all. But, at a time when the promotion’s dedication to doing things from the past has become something like its guiding principle, the tournament should be a possible gold-mine for WWE. In a break with the promotion’s backward-looking recent trend, King of the Ring is an artifact from the past that could be used in service of WWE’s future. For that reason alone, this is one that WWE has to get right.