Tournaments are a fan-favourite wrestling stipulation. Able to offer up intriguing storylines, dream matches, and a push for the winner, tournaments have been an integral part of WWE booking. Yet such tournaments can differ in how effectively they are crafted, with the routes to victory taken by some vastly dichotomic to those of other winners. In this, we will look at 5 of the best and 5 of the worst paths taken by 20th-century WWE tournament winners. 

    10. WORST: Harley Race (1986 Tournament Winners)

    (Photo: CNN)

    A highly accomplished wrestler upon entering the WWF full-time in the mid-1980s as an eight-time NWA World Heavyweight champion, the WWF – who did not acknowledge the existence of other promotions – needed a way to legitimise Harley Race to a new fanbase. He was then a natural fit for the King of the Ring in 1986. 

    Although supposed to make Race seem credible, his road was less than stellar.  

    In the first round, Race beat George Steele via disqualification. This was followed by a bye in the quarter-finals and a count-out win over Billy Jack Haynes. For those keeping count, that’s three stages of the bracket without a definitive win. He did pin former WWF champion Pedro Morales in the finals but by that point, he was far from the star he had been in his heyday a decade prior. 

    Although Race carried the kingship to programming, the TV audience never saw how he won the accolade – and just as well. 


    9. BEST: Ahmed Johnson (1996 Tournament Winners)


    The precursor to the many Saudi Arabia tournaments that have taken place in recent years was the Kuwait tournaments which took place in 1996 and 1997.  

    In 1996, Ahmed Johnson won the tournament after running through an impressive field. Although all mid-carders, the quality of names cannot be played down, with the master of the Pearl River Plunge besting Steve Austin in the quarter-finals; although Austin was not the star he would become, he was already a rising star and ex-WCW United States and Television champion in his own right. He then pinned Owen Hart, who himself had eliminated Bret Hart. 

    In the finals, he would beat Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who may not have become the world title-hoovering machine, he was still pushed extremely strongly without many conclusive losses at the time.  

    Considering Johnson’s career was stifled during his prime years, his win over such future megastars and accomplished wrestlers can be seen as a career highlight – an especially notable display of confidence considering his IC title win the next month. 

    8. WORST: Owen Hart (1997 Tournament Winners)

    (Photo: TWM)

    At SummerSlam 1997, Steve Austin pinned Owen Hart to become the new Intercontinental champion. Yet, as we all know, at that event, “Stone Cold” had his neck broken at the hands of Owen after an ill-fated tombstone piledriver, meaning the belt was held up in the aftermath whilst Austin recovered from the potentially career-ending injury. 

    “The King of Harts” would go on to win the tournament albeit it in less than convincing fashion. 

    Owen emerged victorious in the quarter-finals and semi-finals after beating Goldust and Brian Pillman – which sounds impressive until you note he won both by disqualification. Able to get to the finals by DQ, he would beat Faarooq, which he would do at Badd Blood: In Your House. Yet he won after interference by Steve Austin in a match hugely overshadowed by Austin’s presence on commentary. 

    Weirdly, Faarooq himself had already been eliminated in the quarter-finals but advanced, replacing an injured Ken Shamrock. Faarooq then only won in the semis by DQ.  

    Owen did not come out looking better out of this tournament, one which could have been booked far better. 

    7. BEST: British Bulldog (1997 Tournament Winners)

    (Photo: Inside The Ropes)

    In 1997 in Berlin, Germany, the British Bulldog made history by defeating Owen Hart to become the first European champion. An instant classic, the match is commonly ranked as the match of the year for 1997 – still having a rating of 9.04 out of 10 on the website 

    Aside from being a brilliant technical encounter, it was also a piece of intriguing booking, given Bulldog and Owen were tag champions. Throughout the bout, the commentators tried to fuel accusations of tension and dissent between the tag team partners, which added to the tension of the bout; both knew how to counter one another’s moves and the scientific style soon broke down to cheating and brawling.  

    What people might forget about Bulldog’s European title win is the stacked competition he faced in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, in which he scored pinfall victories over Mankind and Vader.  

    His win over “The Rocket” may be memorable in its own right but less remembered is that it was a final flourish on an impressive tournament showing by Bulldog, who had proved himself worth of the win.  

    6. WORST: Junkyard Dog (1985 Tournament Winners)


    1985’s The Wrestling Classic was not only the first-ever WWF Pay-Per-View (WrestleMania I was a closed-circuit event but not technically PPV) but also the first televised tournament in WWF history. 

    Yet despite being the first, it was hardly a blockbuster. All matches were capped at 10 minutes, which naturally hindered the quality of matches; in fact, three of the 14 tournament matches ended in less than one minute whilst five ended with shoddy finishes. 

    The eventual winner Junkyard Dog would only beat Randy Savage in the finals by count-out. Yes, seriously: a count-out to end a tournament and main event a PPV! 

    JYD got to the finals through a bye, a very un-babyface move which allowed JYD to breeze through the semi-finals. Even more ridiculously, Dog beat Moondog Spot in the quarter-finals in just 45 seconds when able to himself count his own pin when no referee was present – a decision so stupid that Dave Meltzer rated the match –5 stars. 

    5. BEST: The Rock (1998 Tournament Winners)

    (Photo: Bleacher Report)

    The Rock’s 1998 Survivor Series tournament journey is not necessarily great for its star power but more so for its booking, which can be considered Vince Russo’s greatest work.  

    All three of The Rock’s opponents on the night seemed to be corporate favourites, with “The Great One” turning back The Big Boss Man, Ken Shamrock, The Undertaker, and Mankind. However, in hindsight, the booking makes total sense in actually indicating how the contest was rigged by The Corporation in The Rock’s favour. 

    The Rock beat Boss Man in four seconds, not due to incompetence but to give “The Brahma Bull” an easy route to advance to the quarter-finals. When facing Shamrock, what is thought to be a miscue can be seen as giving The Rock an advantage. Thirdly, Kane, perhaps in the pocket of The Corporation (of which he would later join) caused The Rock to advance to the finals via DQ. Finally, in the finals, the McMahons recreated the previous year’s Montreal Screwjob to ring the bell prematurely to ensure a Rock victory. 

    It was a strong showing for The Rock and a clever piece of booking that makes for a compelling viewing and a satisfactory outcome.

    4. WORST: Bart Gunn (1998 Tournament Winners)

    Bart Gunn (left). (Photo: Sportskeeda)

    Described by Jim Cornette as “probably the worst idea in the professional wrestling business,” the 1998 Brawl For All tournament was Vince Russo’s idea of concocting legitimate, unscripted boxing matches between professional wrestlers. 

    It should not take too long to explain why wrestlers normally choreographed competing in shoot fights is flawed. As the events of the tournament are well known, in brief: wrestlers looked awful, wrestlers got hurt, and some had their careers ruined. 

    Bart Gunn, the former member of cowboy duo The Smoking Guns and lesser-known kayfabe brother of Billy, eventually won after a number of sloppy and dangerous-looking ‘matches’. 

    The cherry on top was the fact that Gunn was punished for his victory. The tournament was apparently designed for “Dr Death” Steve Williams but Gunn instead scuppered those plans by eliminating him – a fate averted by other shooters such as Steve Blackman and Dan Severn who withdrew.  

    Gunn was left seeing stars as his reward when knocked out by Butterbean. So on top of all the terrible boxing matches, Gunn also had his career marred forever. 

    What a trainwreck. 

    3. BEST: Owen Hart (1994 Tournament Winners)

    (Photo: WrestleTalk)

    The 1994 King of the Ring saw Owen Hart rightfully crowned “The King of Harts” in a match to attempt to prove his supremacy over his brother Bret. 

    Hart had an impressive three-match end to the tournament. In the quarter-finals, Owen toppled Tatanka in a clean victory in what was Tatanka’s second-only televised loss. 

    In the semi-finals, Owen beat 1-2-3 Kid in an action-packed bout, generally considered one of the best sub-five-minute matches in WWE history. A competitive and technical bout filled with feats of agility, Hart eventually won by making Kid submit with the Sharpshooter. 

    Finally, Owen would triumph over Razor Ramon. With the help of a heel-turning Jim Neidhart, Owen pinned “The Bad Guy” after a diving elbow from the top to the back. 

    Not only did Owen validate himself with big wins over top workers, the win too was a career-defining moment. Owen would go onto a memorable world title programme in the aftermath and be able to hang his hat on the victory for the rest of his career. 

    2. WORST: Bret Hart (1991 Tournament Winners)

    (Photo: USA Network)

    1991 was the last of the house show era King of the Rings, in which Bret Hart was victorious. By the 1990s, the WWF started testing out Bret Hart as a solo star, slowly pushing Bret alone to see if he could function away from The Hart Foundation. 

    Less than two weeks after becoming IC champion at SummerSlam 1991, submitting Mr Perfect, Bret was crowned king. 

    In the opening round, Bret handily beat substituting journeyman Pete Doherty (no, not that one) in just 30 seconds. From there, he would defeat Skinner, who had only just debuted on WWF TV and would spend the rest of his WWF days as lower-card fodder. A bye would see Bret go to the finals where he beat Irwin R. Schyster. IRS was pushed early on but in no way should he have been in the finals. Plus, Bret only won by fluke after the referee kicked IRS off of holding the rope when cheating, allowing “The Hitman” to get a role-up. 

    The names Bret beat were just not up to scratch, with the wins not incredibly notable. It was a far call from his 1993 route. Speaking of which… 

    1. BEST: Bret Hart (1993 Tournament Winners)

    (Photo: Sports Illustrated)

    1993’s was the first televised King of the Ring tournament, in which “The Hitman” was made His Majesty on PPV. In an astonishing one-night performance, Bret wrestled three different matches against three unique opponents. 

    In the first bout, Bret Hart defeated Razor Ramon in a stonking match. Whilst not quite as good as their Royal Rumble encounter, Hart displayed his scientific wrestling style whilst wowing the crowd with innovative moves such as a small package counter out of a Razor’s Edge. In the end, Bret eked out a win after he landed on top of Ramon to evade a middle rope back suplex. 

    The match of the night however was a match between Bret Hart and Mr Perfect. In a technical clinic, Hart and Perfect went nearly 20 minutes in a face vs face encounter in which Perfect played the de facto heel, playing upon injuries to Bret’s fingers. Both men sold incredibly for each other in a liquid wrestling battle in which Bret proved himself the better man on the night when able to roll-up Perfect. It is a match that cannot be done justice in such a brief manner; it is worth seeking out. 

    In the finals, an exhausted and weary Bret had the tall task of defeating a fresh Bam Bam Bigelow if he wanted to lay his hands upon the royal regalia. In an 18-minute and mostly one-sided encounter, Bigelow took his time to throw “The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be” around the ring. Yet, in the end, Bret established the supremacy of brains over brawn as he managed to outwrestle and outmanoeuvre “The Best From The East”, able to roll through from Bigelow’s shoulders into a victory roll, able to hold on to a count of three. 

    In total, Bret was crowned king after a combined 47 minutes of wrestling, proving his credentials and dedication as a solo star. In the words of Eric Blattberg of TheSportster: “The inaugural King Of The Ring tournament was the first step in showing the WWE brass and the WWE Universe that The Hitman’s run at the top wasn’t done yet. Not only was it his greatest night wrestling-wise but it helped begin to right the ship and steer The Hitman back to the top of the mountain.”