Tournaments in Wrestling
Professional wrestling is full of things that fans consider underused, undervalued and under-appreciated. Whether its those little pre-match promo boxes in the corner of the screen, tag team wrestling or Drew McIntyre, there is always something that we feel should be used more or accentuated. To me, the most ignored and the most useful of all these is the tournament. It absolutely baffles me why tournaments are not used more frequently in WWE. It is almost as if WWE has some sort of aversion to the things, a natural dislike for them. Tournaments have traditionally played a huge role in wrestling, and as WWE consciously pushes itself further from the traditional notion of wrestling it seems that tournaments have been one of the victims. For shame I say, for shame. WWE needs tournaments now.
When thinking of WWE and round robin knockouts, King of the Ring is the one that springs to mind. John has touched on it on a few occasions, but WWE really is missing a trick by not having this an an annual PPV. Look at the history of King of the Ring and there isn't an argument against it. Careers have been launched from it, stagnating characters given a new lease of life through it. 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin is the most memorable of all of these, when in 1996 he was launched into the stratosphere with the birth of the Austin 3:16 phenomenon. When Brock Lesnar won in 2002, it was his first big victory in the company, giving him the legitimacy he needed. The 2001 King of the Ring solidified Edge as a singles competitor. After being stuck in comedy roles for years prior, William Regal regained his in ring status by making CM Punk tap to the Regal Stretch in 2008. Sure, there were duds along the way such as Billy Gunn and Mabel, but every single other winner of the tournament is a top range wrestler that benefited from it. The winners list reads as a 'Who's Who' in WWE/WWF history.
The King of the Ring has also given the company so so many memorable moments and memorable stories. The tournament set up is tailor made for story telling. Whilst people remember Austin winning in 1996 and his subsequent coronation, what is often forgotten here is the overarching story with regards to Jake Roberts at that event. This was his path to redemption, after years of battling demons with the help of religion. Hell, without Jake Roberts at that time Austin 3:16 might have never happened. Roberts was decimated in his semi final against Vader, injured ribs giving him an extra battle to face in the final. Gorilla Monsoon would come to the ring during the final and try to convince Jake to stop the match, which he of course refused. Roberts looked to have found his redemption, only to be snuffed out by a bloodthirsty rattlesnake. Austin would mock Roberts' preaching in his subsequent victory promo, and an entire era of professional wrestling was born. That late 1990s Steve Austin is also synonymous with beer is also too perfect with regards to Jake Roberts. The symmetry is so beautiful. This great character and great time was born out of the tournament.
In fact, the tournament is almost too perfectly designed for underdog stories. The most famous tournaments in WWE history pretty much have a guy in the final who is fighting against the odds. When Randy Savage won the World title tournament at WrestleMania IV, he did so after coming through the massive One Man Gang in the semi final. His final opponent, Ted Dibiase, had received a bye in the semi final. Heck, One Man Gang had even received a bye in the quarter final. This same formula was used in 1993 when Bret Hart won the King of the Ring. Hart defeated two guys to get to the final, his opponent Bam Bam Bigelow had received a semi final bye. In the final in 2010, John Morrison fought valiantly against eventual winner Sheamus, who had also received a semi final bye.
It is exactly this sort of story telling that would serve WWE perfectly now. One of the things that is missing at the moment is babyfaces in the midcard. The ones that are there are either horrifically stale (hey Kofi) or have lost way too many matches to be considered a threat to any of their equivalent heels. For instance, when Damien Sandow faces off against say, Justin Gabriel, we know who is winning. By having a tournament, be it a King of the Ring or even a number one contender tournament for a secondary title, a babyface in the middle of the card could receive credibility and provide a fresh face in the mix. They don't even have to win the tournament. Take the aforementioned Justin Gabriel, who is still just about fresh enough for this to work. By having him go through say Sandow and Antonio Cesaro before losing valiantly in the final against say, Cody Rhodes, you give the fans a reason to get behind him and make him a believable competitor. For a wrestler of his style, this is perfect. The same goes for Evan Bourne or Tyson Kidd. The tournament is a great tool for getting a face over.
Many great characters have also been born out of King of the Ring specifically. Who didn't love King Bookah? Booker T was at a time when he was stale as hell, and by winning the tournament and taking on probably the greatest British accent ever he received a new lease of life and another championship run. The Macho King was one of the best heels of the early 90s. Becoming the 'King of Harts' gave Owen Hart another string to his heel repertoire. As I mentioned last week, Steve Austin was floundering until his King of the Ring victory propelled his character to such great heights. Whilst not as memorable as some of the others, King Edge the Awesome was, well, awesome. Sure there has been some duds such as King Sheamus, but overall the King has only benefited from taking on the crown.
There is also so much scope for putting on fresh matches without any need for an overly contrived reason. A tournament is about competition, two wrestlers facing off for the win and nothing else. Fresh matches are another thing WWE seems to be lacking, a tournament allows for this. Cesaro vs. Christian, Sandow vs. Bourne, Bryan vs. Kidd, Regal vs. Cody. All fresh, all would be enjoyable, all can be done within a tournament without prior setting up. The history of tournaments is full of such matches, be it Bret vs. Bam Bam, Angle vs. Rikishi or Lesnar against RVD. I'm tired of seeing the same matches every week, and so is everyone else. Tournaments allow for the focus to move to competition itself, and sometimes some seriously great wrestling. An often overlooked tournament in WWE history was the Gold Rush tournament in 2005, won by Edge. The 8 guys involved were all elite workers, and the matches were consistently good. It also gave us freshness, such as the memorable Shawn Michaels match against Shelton Benjamin. The story is told through wrestling, which is what brought us all to the dance in the first place.
For some reason though, WWE seems a little averse to tournaments. It is alone in the world of professional wrestling in this regard. Pretty much every other promotion uses tournaments as a major part of their calendar. Two of the best shows of the professional wrestling year, if not the best two, are tournament based. These are Chikara's King of Trios and PWG's Battle of Los Angeles. Consistently year after year these shows are fantastic, and they allow for the continuation of stories in a fresh environment. King of Trios in particular is a wonderful wrestling show. I implore you to check it out. Tournaments allow smaller promotions to create stars, push rivalries and play out compelling stories, such as the Spectral Envoy road at Trios 2012.
The things I love most about wrestling, and a lot of others would agree, are compelling stories, characters I can get behind and great wrestling. The tournament structure gives the viewer all of this and more. It doesn't even need to be round robin knockout style. Imagine a mini-league for the tag teams in WWE, a couple of points for a win and the winners get a title shot. It gives the tag team division consistent air time, legitimizes the teams and creates inner stories. I would love to see this or an annual King of the Ring type deal in WWE, but if not I'm sure I can live with Trios and BOLA. What about you?
I'd love to know how you feel about tournaments in wrestling. Fill up that lonely comment space below, or send me an email at email@example.com. You can find me on the twitter with the handle @pingvinorkestra. I'm off to drink more Czech beer. Good day to you all!