The month of June used to be a wonderful time for tournament-loving wrestling fans. Either during one night, or over the course of several weeks, fans would witness between thirty-two to eight men vying for the chance to call themselves the King of the Ring. I could easily make a list of the top ten KoR winners, but that’s been done to death. What about those men who made it to the finals, but couldn’t pull off the big one? Those same men who went on to do something great in their careers even though they couldn’t accomplish a feat legends like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Triple H, Bret Hart, or Randy Savage did. These are the Top Five King of the Ring Runners-up.
Rob Van Dam (2002)
Rob Van Dam has many nicknames. Some say he’s “The Whole F’N’ Show.” Others will call him “Mr. Pay Per View”. In 2002, RVD hoped to add “King of the Ring” to his list of ever-growing nicknames. RVD had already gone through two of the top athletes in WWE by besting Eddie Guerrero and X-Pac in his first and second round matches. When the pay-per-view arrived, RVD would have to take on fellow former Extreme Championship Wrestling Television champion Chris Jericho. RVD survived “Y2J’s” onslaught, making it into the finals after producing the best match of the night.
But RVD had to completely change his game plan for his next opponent, Brock Lesnar. The near-300 pound, collegiate wrestler entered the finals with a ton of hype and momentum. RVD’s belief that he could zip around the ring and hit Lesnar at will proved to be a flawed theory; especially when Lesnar got his hands on him. Brock Lesnar made relative short work out of RVD, dashing his dreams of becoming a king.
But Van Dam would recover and pick up the pieces. After winning gold up and down the WWE ranks, RVD eventually became the first man who simultaneously hold the WWE and ECW championships. For many years, RVD had been considered a man good enough to be the top guy, but never could break through that glass ceiling. Four years after his inability to become King of the Ring, Rob Van Dam was king of the wrestling world as a dual-champion.
Razor Ramon (1994)
The man who could cut through opponents like a hot knife through butter found himself being less of a bad guy in 1994. Razor Ramon, who entered the company as a hated individual, had gotten the fans to accept his hard-hitting attitude in and out of the ring. Ramon had gone through some torturous nights and matches, but he had never gone as far in a tournament as he did that year.
After overcoming the massive power and size of Bam Bam Bigelow, Ramon entered the semi-finals with the idea of going back to his rule-breaking roots. Attacking Irwin R. Schyster before the match (continuing their mini-rivalry in the process), Ramon put himself in the finals following the two longest KoR matches of the evening. Across the ring from Ramon stood Owen Hart – hot off a “Wrestlemania” victory over his brother and current WWF champion Bret Hart. Ramon’s power and tenacity seemed to have Owen on the ropes when Hart’s brother-in-law Jim Niedhart attacked “The Bad Guy”, leaving him as easy Pickens for Hart.
Ramon would spend the next two years dominating the Intercontinental title picture until he left for World Championship Wrestling in 1996. There, going by his real name, Ramon formed an alliance with Hulk Hogan and best friend Kevin Nash to create the mainstream attention grabbing New World Order faction. Though Roman never became a king, he did become a household name.
CM Punk (2008)
“The Straight-Edge Superstar” was riding high during the spring of 2008. Shocking the world by becoming “Mr. Money in the Bank” at “Wrestlemania 24”, Punk looked to add another accolade to his career by becoming the King of the Ring during an eight-man, one night tournament. Punk had nothing short of a rough night; taking on some of the most highly regarded grapplers in the company. The first round saw Punk finish off Matt Hardy with his patented maneuver, the Go to Sleep.
Punk continued the momentum by defeating Chris Jericho for the first time in his career in, quite possibly, the best match of the tournament. The Cinderella story for Punk didn’t end as beautifully as many had hoped thanks to his fellow finalist, William Regal. Regal didn’t have to go through the wars similar to Punk (his first round bout was against midget wrestler Hornswoggle, and only lasted eighteen seconds), and had the opportunity to enter the finals relatively fresh. Regal used this to his advantage and eventually made Punk tap out in the Regal Stretch.
Since that night, CM Punk has gone on to become a three-time WWE World champion, one of the longest reigning WWE champions in history, and recognized by many as, currently, the best wrestler in the world.
One month prior to the annual tournament, Mankind was having a career metamorphosis. The deranged individual who wore a leather mask and usually spoke in varying tones of insanity started to express himself more and more like a normal human being. In truth, the man behind the mask (Mick Foley) was just a diehard wrestling fan who wanted nothing more to achieve his dream of being like his heroes.
The fans started embracing Mankind during this time, though he still hadn’t accomplished much other than get his crazy butt handed to him by his rival The Undertaker on more than one occasion. Mankind looked to change that, making it to the finals of the 1997 KoR. There, Mankind ran into a Connecticut blue blood and his muscle-bound bodyguard – Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Chyna. Mankind tried his best to overcome the numbers game for nearly twenty minutes, and almost did until Chyna broke a metal scepter over his head. The future Triple H capitalized on Chyna’s interference and became the king.
Though Mankind didn’t rule over all following that June night, he did become a hero to thousands. Mick Foley would later unmask, changing his persona at least two times before becoming the first wrestler to write a number one New York Times best-selling book. Not only that, but Foley became immortalized a year and a half after his failure to become king by winning the WWF championship. Interestingly enough, Triple H was there to do the honors and announce to the world that we now had a champion to represent mankind.
The Rock (1998)
“The Most Electrifying Man in the World” was just gaining his bearings as a top tier talent in 1998. During that time, The Rock was enthralled in a feud with mixed martial arts fighter Ken Shamrock over the WWF Intercontinental title. The Rock had squirmed his way out of losing the gold several times, but destiny beckoned that the two square off in a bout where the only title that mattered was the King of the Ring crown.
Neither man had an easy road to the finals, with The Rock actually having to put down another MMA legend turned pro-wrestling great in Dan Severn in the semi-finals. Ken Shamrock entered the finals believing this was his time for vindication. The back and forth battle that ensued between the two rivals surpassed anything they had done in the past. To the shock of many, Shamrock bested his rival, looking to use his King of the Ring victory as a stepping-stone toward those elusive WWF championships.
Though Shamrock won the crown, The Rock still preserved. Actually, The Rock thrived following his KoR loss and subsequent failure to retain the I.C. title months later. While Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a former WWE World champion and “The People’s Champion”, thanks to his failure in 1998, he still can’t call himself the King of the Ring.