In the summer of 1993 the WWF was at a crossroads.
The WWF was under intense scrutiny for drug use, especially steroids. While that case did not come to trial until 1994, its effects were felt in 1993 with an exodus of drug users unwilling to test or found out: Sid Justice, the British Bulldog, Road Warrior Hawk, and the Ultimate Warrior. Most were able to resurface with WCW, itself finding a new stronghold in the national wrestling business backed by Ted Turner. Not surprisingly, this lead to a heavy downtick in popularity for the WWF.
The WWF’s mainstay, Hulk Hogan, had aged out and—always one to know when to exit stage, left under heavy steroid scrutiny—was frankly interested in something else (see Thunder in Paradise). For his part, Vince McMahon knew he needed a plan in place, and, due to popular fan response in America and Europe, Bret Hart looked like the star to push.
It should have been a simple formula then: forget about Hulk Hogan, put the belt on Bret for a long run.
But Vince doubled back on himself, and the result was Wrestlemania IX in Caesar’s Parking Lot, er, Palace.
What had been built as the last Hogan pay-per-view saw Hulk teaming with longtime friend Ed Leslie/Brutus the Barber Beefcake against Money Inc. (Ted DiBiase and Irwin R. Shyster) for the Tag Team Championships. That match, predictably, ended with shenanigans: the ref was knocked out and Hogan used a foreign object (Beefer’s “titanium” mask he wore due to facial surgery) to whack both members of Money Inc. With the ref out, Jimmy Hart made the three count. This was quickly reversed by Dangerous Danny Davis (now just a referee) coming to the ring and ruling it a DQ for Hogan and Beefer. No matter, Hogan and Beefer celebrated in the ring anyway, opening IRS’s briefcase and throwing the money in it to the fans (well Hogan did, Ed Leslie clearly pocketed the cash he got from the case on camera). Typical Hogan celebrating and hotdogging a non-win.
And that was that. Or so we thought.
Later in the evening, Yokozuna beat new champ Bret Hart, who was given the belt at the end of 1992, defeating Ric Flair on a house show, his manager Mr. Fuji offered an open challenge. Hogan responded and within minutes of beating Hart, Yokozuna lost the belt to Hogan in a manner of seconds. Vince second-guessed himself, and put a big swerve at the end of WrestleMania to once again put the belt on Hulk.
Hogan was supposed to graciously lose the belt back to Bret at SummerSlam ’93 to put the new number one over. Then something changed. Hogan, ever the backstage politician, complained that Bret was “too small” to believably beat him and be put over. Hogan had a better idea. He’d lose the belt back to monster Yokozuna.
Vince had a problem. He needed to keep Bret appeased, but he couldn’t afford to not give into Hulk in case Hogan ever wanted to come back to full-time work with the WWF.
So, the King of the Ring pay per view was born. To be clear, 1993 was not the first KOTR tournament. It had been a big house show staple since 1985 on the east coast for WWF for a while. The likes of Don Muraco, an aged Harley Race, Randy Savage, Ted DiBiase, and even Bret Hart had been crowned “King of the Ring” in this format.
The goal of putting the King of the Ring on as a pay per view was two-fold: create another marketable show between the long lull between WrestleMania and SummerSlam and give Bret Hart some top stardom without having to give him the big belt. So, June 13, 1993, King of the Ring was put on pay-per-view.
And, honestly, it worked.
Go back and watch the 1993 King of the Ring and you’ll see one of the best pay per views of the era, no kidding. Bret, as the tournament winner wrestles the most and puts on fantastic matches with Razor Ramon (that year’s Royal Rumble main event rematch), Mr. Perfect (where Perfect and the Hitman put on the show stealer of the night—just watch the way Hart and Perfect turn a regular headlock into intense action), and finally Bam Bam Bigelow to cap the show. A bonus of the KOTR tournament: Hacksaw Jim Duggan loses cleanly on PPV for only the second time! In between we get Shawn Michaels debuting bodyguard Diesel and defeating Crush to retain his Intercontinental Championship, and, gaaaaaasp, Hogan losing the belt to Yokozuna in a really, really solid thirteen-minute match. Of course, Hogan suffers the same disease as Hacksaw and wasn’t going to lose clean, so Harvey Wippleman was enlisted as a “ringside photographer” whose camera “exploded” in Hogan’s eyes, allowing Yokozuna the victory.
Unfortunately, WWF pretty well shat the bed until the next WrestleMania. The aftermath of the KOTR event saw the showcased Hart go into a feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler who wanted to be the only King in the WWF. It was a nauseating feud that lasted nearly two years where we had to endure the hapless and talentless wrestling of Lawler. After his title win, Yokozuna issued an open body slam challenge to be met by newly turned face and all-American Lex Luger as he successfully (half) slammed Yoko on a battleship to earn a title shot at SummerSlam. The Lex Express soon crashed as it was clear that Lex did not have the mic skills or energy that Hogan had and couldn’t fill those shoes. He certainly couldn’t put on the kind of matches Bret Hart could in-ring. Unwilling to outright admit this, Lex, without winning the belt, stayed in the title picture until the three-way dance at Wrestlemania X saw Lex lose to Yoko, then Yoko
Any of this sound familiar? The WWF in a huge downturn, is starting to see real competition from other promotions, somehow pulls off a really awesome event, only to squander it away with bad booking and storylines.
This year has been much the same. Wrestlemania 35 was a hell of an event. No, not all the booking was perfect, but everything came out as it should. Seth Rollins took down the part-time champ, Brock. Kofi became the first African born champion in WWE history. Women’s wrestling was elevated to main event status and the most popular wrestler in the world, Becky Lynch, took two belts home. Plus, the massively popular Demon Finn Balor took the IC title off Lashley. Everything was right with the world.
Somehow, all the WWE has managed to do since is hit two of its lowest Raw ratings ever, lose money for its quarterly investors, put Lynch into feud with a much, much worse wrestler than Charlotte or Rousey, give the Money in the Bank to freaking Brock Lesnar, who absolutely nobody wanted to win and keeping him in the title hunt, and put on a terrible, terrible Saudi Show with its botchmania main event between the aged superstars, Undertaker and Goldberg.
Whether is 26 years ago, or this year, sometimes the WWF/E just cannot get out of its own damned way, even when it pulls off a hell of show.
Here’s to remembering the 1993 King of the Ring.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @GritVanWinkle. Thanks for reading!