Until recently, tournaments were used sparingly by WWE. Although the format has been successful for building new stars and providing capitivating programming, the company hasn't always capitalized on all the benefits. When they do, it has given fans intriguing angles and star-making performances.
Tournaments have been on display in some of the biggest stages in WWE history. WrestleMania IV centered around the WWE Championship tournament. In a single night, Macho Man Randy Savage defeated four WWE superstars, including Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase in the finals, to win the WWE Title. Savage not only won the top prize, but he etched his name in the annals of company history.
Whether it be for championship gold or the traditional King of the Ring, there have been historic single elimination tournaments that stand the test of time and create a legacy for the winners. In this article, let's take a look at the five most memorable tournaments in WWE history.
#5 Deadly Games Tournament (WWE Survivor Series 1998)
In the fall of 1998, Vince McMahon screwed Stone Cold Steve Austin out of the WWE Championship, pitting him in a Triple Threat Match against The Undertaker and Kane at Breakdown where the two challengers could only pin the champion. After Austin ended the WWE Championship Match between Taker and Kane in a no contest, Mr. McMahon made a tournament to determine a new champion.
At Survivor Series 1998, the Deadly Games Tournament took place to determine a new WWE Champion. The night didn't feature spectacular matches, but it was a tremendous one-night angle that concluded in a dramatic main event finish. Heading into the pay-per-view, Mr. McMahon started a rivalry with The Rock, while aligning with Mankind and making him his desired Corporate Champion.
McMahon looked to screw The Rock immediately by placing Big Boss Man as his first opponent. The People's Champion pinned Boss Man in record fashion with a small package. Boss Man looked to get revenge in the second round by costing The Rock his match against Ken Shamrock. Rock intercepted the Boss Man's nightstick and used it on Shamrock to get the win.
After beating The Undertaker thanks to help from Kane, Rock faced Mankind in the Finals. Mankind got there by beating Stone Cold thanks to referee Shane McMahon turning on the Texas Rattlesnake and screwing him in the semifinals. Just when it looked like Mr. McMahon was going to screw The Rock, he repeated the Montreal Screwjob.
The Rock locked Mankind in the sharpshooter, while McMahon forced the referee to ring the bell. The Great One became the WWE Champion in controversial fashion, completing a remarkable heel turn that set him up as the Corporate Champion. This is fondly remembered as one of the best booked nights of the Attitude Era.
#4 King of the Ring tournament (WWE King of the Ring 1993)
Sometimes, tournaments in WWE don't have to be a bunch of good-to-great matches. It can be a single superstar putting on exceptional encounters that are all different from one another. That is exactly what Bret "The Hitman" Hart accomplished at the 1993 King of the Ring.
Hart had just lost his WWE Championship at WrestleMania 9 to Yokozuna and needed to cement his spot as the top babyface of the promotion with Hulk Hogan soon to depart. Fans were greeted in the first pay-per-view version of the King of the Ring tournament with a night that showed why Bret was the best wrestler in the business.
The former WWE Champion started off the night in a fun, fast-paced power vs mat wrestling battle against Razor Ramon. Bret barely pulled out the win, reversing a second rope back suplex into a pinning combination. He would then meet his former rival, Mr. Perfect, in the semifinals. Bret once again proved to be the better wrestler in a brilliant technical wrestling bout, winning with an inside cradle.
Bret Hart finally faced Bam Bam Bigelow in the tournament finals. The Hitman completed one of the greatest underdog performances in WWE history, defeating Bigelow, who was an absolute beast in the main event. To further cement the tournament's legacy, Jerry 'The King' Lawler kickstarted his years-long rivalry with Bret Hart by interrupting his coronation and attacking The Hitman.
#3 WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament (2017)
In 2017, WWE attempted to further their expansion into other parts of the world with the introduction of the United Kingdom Championship. To determine the first titleholder, the company recruited some of Great Britain's most accomplished independent wrestlers for a two-night tournament in Blackpool, England.
The tournament will be fondly remembered for years to come for creating brand new stars that the eventual NXT UK brand would be built around and a stellar job by the commentary team.
The latter part came as a huge surprise because the often criticized Michael Cole put on the best effort of his career in establishing the characters of the competitors and allowing Nigel McGuiness to add color was a breath of fresh air.
Night 1 of the tournament cemented Pete Dunne as the top heel of the United Kingdom expansion. He was made to look strong but also a rulebreaker who didn't care who he pissed off, including NXT General Manager William Regal. As is the case with many great WWE stories though, Dunne could only be as good as the top babyface hero who would overcome him.
He would find that in Tyler Bate. The youngest competitor in the entire tournament won a competitive first round match against Tucker to end Night 1. He then followed that up on Night 2 beating Jordan Devlin and the larger Wolfgang to advance to the finals.
In a fantastic finale, Tyler Bate defeated Pete Dunne with the Tyler Driver 98 to win the WWE United Kingdom Championship. Not only was Bate the inaugural champion, but he became the youngest champion in WWE history at that time, being just 19 years old. It was an outstanding start for the eventual NXT UK brand and firmly allowed WWE to plant their flag in the territory.
#2 WWE Mae Young Classic Tournament (2018)
2017 was quite a year for tournaments in the WWE. Not only did it mark the first United Kingdom Championship tournament, but it also introduced the Mae Young Classic tournament. WWE recruited some of the best female wrestlers from around the globe and introduced some under-utilized prospects in a showcase of women's wrestling.
Kairi Sane won the tournament, defeating Shayna Baszler in the finals. The tournament also featured and introduced Bianca Belair, Rhea Ripley, Dakota Kai, Lacey Evans and Tay Conti. It could be argued that WWE did one better the following year with the sequel to the Mae Young Classic.
The 2018 Mae Young Classic featured one of the greatest Japanese wrestlers of all time in Meiko Satomura. The legend delivered in a huge way with killer matches in every single round. It also featured and introduced Deonna Purrazzo, Mercedes Martinez and Big Swole.
The tournament finals highlighted two of the best women's wrestlers in the world in Io Shirai and Toni Storm. In the first all-women pay-per-view in WWE history, Evolution, the two women put on a tremendous bout that showcased their versatility and ability in the ring.
Storm defeated Shirai to win the tournament and used the momentum to defeat Rhea Ripley for the NXT UK Women's Championship. The sequel may not have introduced as much new talent to the WWE roster as the first tournament, but the impact of the finals taking place on such a historic night with two stars who have gone on to great success pushes it just ahead.
#1 WWE Cruiserweight Classic Tournament (2016)
In 2016, WWE embarked on bringing the most exceptional wrestlers weighing in at 205 lbs or lower in the world. From the UK to Japan, stars from NJPW, Progress and the independent wrestling scene made their first appearances for the company in the Cruiserweight Classic.
They all looked to display what made them the most sought-after competitors in the wrestling business, and accomplished just that.
There were stars from the past like Tajiri and The Brian Kendrick making their return to WWE. The latter told an astounding story of a veteran looking to show that he still has it. His storytelling was top notch and elevated even more by the great commentary from Mauro Ranallo and Daniel Bryan.
The tournament featured and introduced 205 Live mainstays and future WWE Cruiserweight Champions like Akira Tozawa, Tony Nese and Drew Gulak. It also highlighted future NXT Champions such as Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano. The DIY tag team partners put on the most emotional first round matchup that foreshadowed their all-time classic rivalry.
The Cruiserweight Classic also marked the WWE debuts for Zack Sabre Jr. and Kota Ibushi. The NJPW star put on a Match of the Year candidate against Cedric Alexander that showed why he is one of the best wrestlers in the world regardless of weight and earned his opponent a contract with the company. Mustafa Ali, Noam Dar and Fabian Aichner all impressed, earning WWE contracts as well.
The final four came down to Sabre Jr., Ibushi, Gran Metalik and TJ Perkins. The semifinals were two terrific encounters with Metallik defeating ZSJ and TJP submitting Ibushi. Before the finals, Triple H announced that the winner of the tournament not only won a trophy, but also the WWE Cruiserweight Championship that would be defended on RAW.
In a thrilling final contest, TJ Perkins submitted Gran Metallik to win the WWE Cruiserweight Championship. The scene was dramatic and emotional as Perkins was showered with confetti and raised the gold to the Full Sail crowd. This capped a truly ground-breaking tournament.
There is no shortage of awesome tournaments throughout wrestling history. However, not many could claim to be introducing as many stars and moments that would shape how a company is viewed today. Despite how the company has treated its Cruiserweight division and championship, the Cruiserweight Classic is the most memorable tournament in WWE history.