The 2021 King of the Ring tournament began this week on SmackDown, along with the first edition of the women’s version, the Queen’s Crown tournament. These tournaments will continue to take place over the next few weeks on both RAW and SmackDown, with the finals scheduled to take place as part of Crown Jewel on Oct. 21.
Finn Balor and Sami Zayn won the opening matches of this year’s edition on SmackDown. It seems Balor is likely headed for the finals since Zayn hasn’t been welcome in Saudi Arabia in the past due to his Syrian heritage. Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, Jinder Mahal and Ricochet await Balor on the other side of the bracket. Zelina Vega and Carmella advanced in the Queen’s Crown Friday. Doudrop, Natalya, Dana Brooke and Shayna Baszler will have their first-round matches on RAW tonight.
— WWE (@WWE) October 9, 2021
— WWE (@WWE) October 9, 2021
The King of the Ring has a history dating all the way back to 1985. What do past tournaments tell us about this year’s edition? How has winning the tournament affected the careers of those capturing the crown?
KING OF THE RING BEGAN AS A HOUSE SHOW EVENT
The first few King of the Ring tournaments were not televised at all. The early versions were won by major stars, but only one had a lasting impact on the in-ring persona of the winner.
Don Muraco won the first in Sullivan Stadium (later Foxboro Stadium) in front of 23,000 fans. He defeated the Iron Sheik in a heel-versus-heel final, making it a rarity for the era. Muraco was already over as a heel after a pair of Intercontinental title reigns and years of high-card matches for the company, so he was used to give the tournament credibility. The strong ticket sales encouraged the WWF to do another tournament in the same stadium in 1986.
Harley Race won the second King of the Ring, defeating Pedro Morales in the finals, but attendance dropped to 12,000. Race was the first winner to make the crown part of his gimmick, calling himself “King” Harley Race going forward. He was also the first to defend the crown occasionally as if it were a title.
The event moved to the Providence Civic Center for its next four editions over five years (the event was skipped in 1990). The first babyface win came in 1987, as newly-turned good guy Randy Savage defeated King Kong Bundy to win the tournament. They stayed with the formula of putting over top-level stars with Ted DiBiase’s win in 1988. Attendance dropped to 4,500 for 1989, when Tito Santana came out on top of the bracket, and bottomed out at 2,400 for Bret Hart’s first win in 1991. That was the final house show version of the event.
After skipping 1992, the tournament emerged as a steady presence on the company’s pay-per-view calendar in 1993. Hart got his second win in Dayton, OH.
THE CAREER-BOOST ERA
After the first seven tournaments were won by established stars, the company began using the event to move mid-card wrestlers up the ladder. This had mixed results, but when it worked, it elevated some of the top starts of the era.
On the plus side, we had Owen Hart’s win in 1994. After turning on his brother Bret at the Royal Rumble, then beating him at WrestleMania X, he was the clear number one contender going into the summer.
Steve Austin won the tournament in 1996 and then cut his legendary “Austin 3:16” promo after defeating Jake Roberts in the final. While he was a heel going in, the promo planted the seeds for the eventual double-turn with Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13 and a boom period for the industry.
HHH was the 1997 winner. After being released from purgatory for breaking kayfabe in the “Curtain Call” incident with Diesel, Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels in Madison Square Garden, HHH got his win a year after originally expected. By the end of the year, he was a major factor as part of D-Generation X.
On the minus side, we had Mabel’s win in 1995. This was a flop from the beginning, a misguided attempt to find a big man as a rival for Diesel. Mabel had neither the charisma or the in-ring ability to pull it off and his push landed with a thud. Ken Shamrock’s victory in 1998 and Billy Gunn’s win in 1999 failed to make a huge difference in either man’s career.
BACK TO THE BIG STARS
Kurt Angle, Edge and Brock Lesnar were the final three winners during the pay-per-view era (2000-2002) for the tournament. All three were main event-level workers, so the tournament was used to give stars a big win, rather than a signal to fans there was someone new to look out for in main events.
THE POST-PAY-PER-VIEW ERA
The tournament went on hiatus until 2006, when it came back as a TV event with the finals at the Judgement Day pay-per-view. Booker T defeated Bobby Lashley to win that one. The event has been held sporadically since. It’s also lost most of its prestige along the way.
The 2008 and 2010 tournaments had no pay-per-view matches, with William Regal and Sheamus winning, respectively. They brought it back in 2015 as a WWE Network special to put over Wade Barrett, then again in 2019 for Baron Corbin to win it.
THERE ARE MANY CROWNS, CAPES AND SCEPTERS
No fewer than eight winners – including the last five – have made winning the tournament part of their gimmick. Race, Owen Hart, Mabel, Booker T, Regal, Sheamus, Barrett and Corbin all incorporated the “King” moniker in some way. It would surprise no one to see a heel turn the arrogance up a notch with a royal-themed outfit and nickname after winning the 2021 version.
IT HELPS TO BE A HEEL
Of the 21 King of the Ring winners, 15 were heels. The company has mostly used this to give heels a boost. What began as a tournament won by main-event stars became a way to push workers the WWF/WWE saw as having top-level potential.
Since 2000, the impact of winning the tournament has waned. Angle, Edge, Lesnar and Booker were already stars and didn’t need to win it to stay on top. The winners since have not seen a remarkable difference in their careers going forward.
The next few weeks will tell us if recent trends will continue and we are in for another mid-card heel in a crown and cape, or if the WWE braintrust has something new in mind the King of the Ring franchise. If WWE is looking for a new queen character, Carmella seems a natural fit. The men’s side might see a departure. There’s only one heel left, Jinder Mahal, and the bracket teases a Kingston-Woods clash of tag team partners. Mahal has faded from favor since his 2017 WWE title run, so this might be the year WWE goes a different direction than making it part of the heel winner’s gimmick.