Last night Sheamus became the 19th WWE wrestler to wear the King of the Ring crown. As Michael Cole reminded us time and time again, he joins the likes of such wrestling greats as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Bret “Hitman” Hart, and Triple-H.
And Billy Gunn. And Ken Shamrock. And Mabel.
Indeed, not all past WWE King of the Ring tournament winners have gone on to have great careers. For proof of that, you can look no further than William Regal, who just months after winning the crown in 2008 was relegated to the role of WWE Superstars jobber (Granted, Regal appeared in line for a big push after winning the tournament, but had his career derailed by a Wellness Policy violation.)
And so, the King of the Ring tournament is significant for a different reason than WWE might have you believe. While not every KOTR winner goes on to be a major star, they all were pegged by WWE as having the ability to do so.
Both Mabel and Gunn were groomed as future main-eventers soon after winning the tournament. Mabel challenged for the WWE championship in the main event of one 1995’s biggest pay-per-views, SummerSlam. Gunn got a co-headlining match against WWE megastar The Rock at SummerSlam 1999, and was rumored to be considered for a big run with Steve Austin that year. Ken Shamrock also got a couple of WWE pay-per-view main event paydays.
But, in the end, WWE clearly got it wrong when it came to predicting big things for each of those men, who went on to have respectable but unremarkable careers.
And so, it begs the question: Could WWE be wrong about Sheamus as well?
In some ways, the question doesn’t even really apply. Sheamus is the first wrestler to have won the WWE heavyweight championship before winning the King of the Ring tournament. (You may be thinking Bret Hart did it first, but he won his first KOTR tournament in 1991, a year before winning the WWE title.)
"The Celtic Warrior" has already worn the WWE championship on two occasions, headlined several pay-per-views, and remains in the top tier mix on the Raw brand. And so it's a bit peculiar to forecast big things for the new King of the Ring. Been there, done that.
That’s not to say that Sheamus’ peak years aren’t ahead of him, but still I can’t help but think that WWE missed out on an opportunity by not having an up-and-comer win the crown, and in doing so sending a message to fans that the new King of the Ring is one to watch.
To me, the best fit to win the tournament was Alberto Del Rio, the arrogant Smackdown antagonist who boasts of coming from Mexican royalty. Like past KOTR winners, including Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle, Del Rio has made a big splash in WWE in very little time, and seems likely to get a main-event run some time in the future. What’s more, Smackdown could have really used the boost it would have gotten from claiming the KOTR crown.
Of course, nothing is to say that Del Rio, or any other participant in last night’s tournament, won’t go on to have a big career that even eclipses that of Sheamus, regardless of whether or not they won the King of the Ring tournament. But it’s telling that WWE chose an already-established main eventer, rather than a potential future one, to wear the crown. Perhaps, after the Gunn, Mabel, and Shamrock disappointments, WWE wants out of the handicapping business.
Pro Wrestling Illustrated Senior Writer