In a time where wrestling tournaments are all the rage, the WWE has in its possession one of the most beloved tournaments ever held in professional wrestling – the King of the Ring. It began in 1985, the same year that WrestleMania debuted, from Foxborough, Massachusetts, when Don Muraco defeated The Iron Sheik following a 16-man tournament to be crowned the very first King of the Ring. For it’s first decade, the King of the Ring launched many Superstars into the main event picture, from Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart (the only 2x winner), “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Triple H and Kurt Angle (although others like Tito Santana, Billy Gunn, and Mabel failed to see the same post-KOTR success). But in it’s past several installments, the winners have failed to do much except get straddled with a weak “King” gimmick, as for some reason winning the tournament riddled the victor with royal delusions of grandeur (although to be fair, the second winner, Harley Race, did this as well) – Bad News Barrett, Sheamus, William Regal and Booker T all held their crowns a little longer than they should have. It’s become such an afterthought with WWE management, that since it was dropped from The Big 5 (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, King of the Ring, SummerSlam, Survivor Series) when it was cancelled in 2002, it’s only been held four times in 15 years (2006, 2008, 2010, 2015).
So how could the WWE bring back this once cherished annual tradition within today’s landscape to entice viewers into the fold and maintain it’s nostalgic legacy in the process? Here’s one idea on how everyone could come out a winner in the end.
How To Bring Back (And Save) WWE’s King of the Ring
1. Make It A WWE Network Series
If the rumours are true, this year will indeed see the return of the King of the Ring and most likely it will be like 2015’s failed attempt at a return. But instead of a one day event, make it over a couple months, similar to how NJPW builds up to the New Japan Cup or G-1 Climax. This long term storytelling will give the tournament more narrative than just “Here’s eight random wrestlers with no current angle that we’re going to throw against the wall”. Start with 32 grapplers and have them compete to whittle it down to 16. The final weekend could be a 2-day event, with the the tournament wrapping up on it’s final day. Pepper the last day with showcase dream matches from surprise combatants from throughout the tournament. Making it a “must see” WWE Network exclusive will draw in at least a few thousand new subscribers. But to do that, the next three will at least have to happen in conjunction.
2. Make It A Niche Tournament
Much like how the Cruiserweight Classic was intentionally designed to showcase the high flyers and athleticism of the smaller wrestlers under 205 lbs., the King of the Ring should be a specialty tournament focusing just on the company’s best technical wrestlers, or at least, brawlers with A-level ring psychology. If your only gift to the wrestling world is your charisma, then you need not apply. The internet community – the viewers that made the CWC such a success – flock to events that emphasis ring work and psychology over pomp and circumstance and a tournament of this caliber is right up their alley.
3. Create A Unique Broadcast Team
Just like how the WWE had Mauro Ranallo and Daniel Bryan announce last year’s Cruiserweight Classic, with Corey Graves as the backstage analyst, the King of the Ring tournament needs a properly tuned broadcast team to call the action and give the tournament some prestige. For it’s analysis team – the squad to host the pre-show and analysis in between match-ups – we can stick with Renee Young as the host. Her passion as a fan is infectious and she’ll ask the questions that need to be asked. For her three panelists, start with the experience. Bret Hart is the only 2x King of the Ring winner and his technical breakdown would be an asset to a match catered to his own specialty, both the technical style and the ring psychology. While Bret could provide expert analysis, his own charisma isn’t enough to carry the panel, so he could be joined by another former KOTR winner, Booker T. Sure he’s an unpredictable verbal botch machine, but he’s still a good nostalgia trigger for many. Round it out with WWE’s resident “King”, Jerry Lawler, and you’ll have three very knowledgeable men on the niche established for the tournament. As for the announcers for the event itself, you start with the best storytelling lead announcer of the past 30 years, Jim Ross, who has recently signed a new deal for special events with the WWE. Pair him with Corey Graves and Daniel Bryan and you’ve got three names that will have people craving every word. At the event’s conclusion, you have Jim Ross and Bret Hart present the winner with a trophy, like Japan does.
4. Make It The First Tri-Brand Crossover Event (With Special Guests)
That’s right. For the first time, open up this tournament to competitors from Raw, Smackdown Live and NXT. These brands could film dark matches for the tournament at their own events and air them on a weekly show leading up to the final 16-man tournament. With their association with Evolve, Progress, and ICW (to name a few), they could even have a few guest spots, where Evolve wrestlers have a qualifying tournament to send one representative (or two) to have a match or two in the tournament. Matthew Riddle and Zack Sabre Jr. are both Evolve stars who could potentially get showcases in the WWE. With Progress’ list of wrestlers being used for the WWE UK material, a Progress qualifier wouldn’t be out of the question either. Pete Dunn, Trent Seven, or WWE United Kingdom Champion Tyler Bate are all solid names who could add to the tournament. As for other potential guest names, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have Conor McGregor make his WWE debut as a guest combatant in the tournament. Both sides have openly said if the offer was right they’d talk, and this could be a potential foot in the door for both sides to return at a later date. Imagine McGregor coming in and the mainstream attention it would bring. Of course, the question would remain of how do they legitimately have McGregor lose this realistically (as WWE would undoubtedly want to use this to push an existing contracted star), but even that could be used for narrative foreshadowing. Sheamus could do a run out during McGregor’s match (or 2nd round match) and cost him the win, thus setting up a potential WrestleMania match next year (the two have a history of feuding over Irish toughness on Twitter).
5. Start With These 32 Superstars
Okay, so who would be the competitors for this newly revamped King of the Ring tournament? Here’s 32 WWE Superstars with the technical ability and psychology to be a part of this tournament – keep in mind, that some of these names may surprise you. But just because guys are booked poorly right now doesn’t mean they lack the technique required to put on a great match if given the green light and the time. A tournament like this would be a great time for the WWE to let some guys loose to see if their full potential can actually prove to be more beneficial than what Kevin Dunn plans for his own twisted amusement. Here’s 32 Superstars we’d like to see in this year’s revamped King of the Ring (assuming, of course, that WWE follows our idea so far)
1. Adam Cole
The least kept secret in the world of pro wrestling is the assumption that Adam Cole is heading to the WWE Universe (at the very least, to NXT) when his current deal with Ring of Honor expires momentarily. What better way to debut his entrance than an impressive run in a tournament against some of the world’s best?
2. Aleister Black
A ferocious and legitimate striker, the Artist Formerly Known As Tommy End’s stock would only rise in a tournament like this.
2. AJ Styles
Pound for pound, he’s the best pure wrestler in the WWE since Shawn Michaels. A no brainer.
3. Akira Tozawa
A hard hitting Japanese star who is on the rise in the 205 Live scene, Tozawa would flourish in even one match up in this tournament.
4. Austin Aries
Austin Aries may be 205 Live restricted in the WWE right now, but he’s shown in both ROH and Impact Wrestling that he can compete against any size. His true assets would be on display in this.
5. Bobby Roode
His participation in this tournament – regardless of result – could be a segway to his jump to the main roster.
6. Brock Lesnar
WWE’s legitimate bad ass, Lesnar is a natural selection for a tournament of this caliber. If the rumours of his impending feud with Braun Strowman are true, his loss in this could be attributed to a run in from Braun, both seeking the competition of Lesnar’s battle and upset at being passed over in the tournament itself.
Everyone knows that Cesaro has been criminally underutilized as a singles wrestler since arriving in the WWE. At least two good matches could do wonders for his stock with management.
8. Chad Gable
A legitimate Olympic wrestler, Gable could be able to showcase more of his technical background that his current role allows.
9. Conor McGregor
As mentioned in the beginning of the article, there’s simply too much to gain from McGregor’s involvement, from promotion to set-up for a bigger payoff at WrestleMania 34.
10. Dolph Ziggler
Ziggler has NCAA pedigree wrestling skills, and getting a chance to show these off could reinvigorate his career.
11. Drew Gulak
Gulak is the new Dean Malenko, in that he’s immensely talented in the ring but his charisma is severely lacking to a large WWE audience. Getting to show off his abilities in a technical tournament could do him many favours.
12. Drew McIntyre
To continue his push in NXT, showing off the skills McIntyre perfected during his last two years as Drew Galloway couldn’t hurt.
13. Finn Balor
The Demon King has had a series of injury set backs, and a strong showing in the KOTR could help remind the WWE Universe why he’s still the future.
14. Hideo Itami
Speaking of injury setbacks, no one has been more hindered that Itami. In something like this, he could show more of why he was signed when he was KENTA than the impression that too many days on the IR have left on the WWE Universe so far.
15. Johnny Gargano
Johnny Wrestling is a bonafide Superstar, and an epic match or two in this tournament could go a long way in establishing him as a singles star (and potentially start a break up angle with Tomasso Ciampa being neglected for this).
16. Kassius Ohno
As Chris Hero he was the indie scene’s most dominant performer the past year or so. Getting to work with some of the best will show the WWE Universe why he’s such a big deal.
17. Kevin Owens
Kevin Owens as a prizefighter would naturally want to prove his superiority in a tournament of this historical magnitude.
18. Kurt Angle
If Kurt Angle is indeed going to have another run in the WWE, starting off in this tournament is a great PR move to drive new subscribers to the WWE Network if this is his official return. The Rocky-esque montages of him training in preparation could be comedy gold.
19. Luke Harper
He showed in his matches against Randy Orton that he’s far more talented than he’s shown so far in the WWE and something like this, away from storyline, could be just what Harper needs to elevate to the next level.
20. Matthew Riddle
The current reigning WWN Champion, Riddle could be one of the special guests who emerges from EVOLVE to enter the tournament.
Neville’s heel turn and recent work on 205 Live has been a career booster. Getting to showcase more of his abilities in something like this will only push him higher.
22. “The Bruiserweight” Pete Dunne
Regardless of Tyler Bates’ claiming of the WWE UK Championship, no star emerged more established and realized from the UK tournament than Progress’ Pete Dunne. A Triple H favourite, he would be an ideal first round candidate or potential 2nd round breakout star.
23. Roderick Strong
No one has ever questioned Roderick Strong’s work rate, from his incredible matches in ROH and NJPW. But his limited time in NXT has shown more personality in the past few months than the decade previous. This would be a huge opportunity for Strong to perform in front of the WWE Universe.
Recent reports indicate that Rusev and Lana may be split on Smackdown Live, and having a good showing in the KOTR would be an ideal way to reinforce Rusev’s brutal tactics and dominance.
25. Sami Zayn
Sami Zayn is a world class performer, as much in defeat as he is in victory. Even if he’s beaten first round, he’ll make that match even better than it should have been.
26. Samoa Joe
A strong KOTR run – and potential victory – would go miles in solidifying Joe’s “Destroyer” gimmick to the WWE Universe fans who still aren’t fully sure who he is.
27. Seth Rollins
A determined Architect returning from near career ending injuries would create good story by pushing himself to prove to the world he’s the true King of the Ring.
Love him or hate him, Sheamus is a solid brawler, who works stiff but plays with great psychology. While never a strong choice in victory, he could be an admirable foe for just about anyone on this list.
29. Shelton Benjamin
Another surprise return, Shelton Benjamin was recently cleared to return to the ring. He had a WWE contract on the table until he failed his physical (which discovered the injury in the first place) and a return to the WWE for a tournament like this would be a great way to re-introduce him to the Universe.
30. Shinsuke Nakamura
With John Cena gone until the Fall, the WWE is putting a lot of high hopes on Shinsuke Nakamura as being Smackdown Live‘s breakout new face. Showing off more of the Strong Style he claims to be King of would be greatly enhanced if it was done in a tournament such as this.
31. Tony Nese
The WWE’s “Premier Athlete”, Tony Nese has the strength and ability to work with men twice his size.
32. Zack Sabre Jr.
He’s already got history with the WWE from last year’s Cruiserweight Classic, so another short contract for another tournament isn’t unbelievable. He’s already regarded as arguably the world’s top technical wrestler and a potential match-up with Kurt Angle could be a highlight of the tournament.
These 32 names were based on contract availability and connections during the time that King of the Ring is traditionally held (June of each year), so if there are some indie or NJPW/Impact Wrestling/ROH favourites missing, keep that in mind. But these 32 performers cover a vast scope of international appeal, and feature many NJPW vs Impact, WWE vs Evolve, and other dream match-up combinations from the past 10 years. There’s a broad enough range of talent that the most casual fan would be interested in – including the WWE in-ring return of Kurt Angle – plus a slew of current WWE Superstars who many feel are being “handcuffed” moves wise, as well as some exciting WWE debuts/returns (like Adam Cole or Shelton Benjamin) and indie darling one-offs (Matthew Riddle and Zack Sabre Jr.).
So what do you think? Could this work? What available grapplers would you insert instead? Let us know in the comments below!
Main Photo: WWE