The King of the Ring pay-per-view may no longer exist, but during its run, it was home to some outstanding WWE Championship matches. Beginning with Bret Hart vs. Diesel in 1994 and continuing all the way up to the event's demise in 2002, the title matches that have occurred at the annual June event rank as high, if not higher, than the actual tournament bouts themselves.
That was certainly the case with this WWE Classic of the Week when Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Steve Austin battled it out for the top prize in the sport at the 2001 edition of the show.
It was a war of attrition between the established megastar and two respected in-ring workers who were determined to prove their worth in the biggest match of their individual careers to that point. The main event was hotly anticipated, if for no other reason than the rumors that swirled around it.
With Shane McMahon running WCW and vowing to put WWE out of business, the possibility that Jericho or Benoit could jump ship with the most coveted title in the industry sparked intrigue.
What would happen when the three all-time great workers squared off in a Triple Threat match, with the Invasion looming overhead?
Find out now.
But first, here's their story.
Judgment Day 2001 was an event headlined by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin successfully defending the WWE Championship against The Undertaker, but it was the unlikely pairing of former rivals Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit that captured headlines.
After winning the Tag Team Turmoil match, the Canadians earned the right to challenge for the WWE Tag Team Championships. They did just that the following night on Raw.
Their opponents? The Two Man Power Trip duo of Austin and Triple H.
In one of the truly great matches in the history of the Monday night program, the teams battled each other for the right to carry the tag team gold, thus establishing themselves at the top of the division.
With Austin trapped in the Walls of Jericho, Triple H attempted to break it up. As he planted his foot to deliver the blow that would separate Y2J from his partner, The Game tore his quadriceps from the bone in one of the most devastating injuries in WWE history.
Suddenly, what was meant to be two extraordinary main events for the upcoming King of the Ring event had to be reshuffled.
Benoit and Jericho became the top contenders to Austin's title but had to deal with the egomaniacal Vince McMahon at the same time. Shortly after winning the gold, they retained in a historic Table, Ladders & Chairs match on SmackDown, defeating the Hardy Boyz, Edge and Christian, and the Dudley Boyz to retain their titles.
Both Superstars received individual title shots at Austin but were screwed out of victory each time. Benoit, in particular, was moments away from winning the WWE Championship when he was robbed by McMahon, in front of the legendary Stu Hart, father of another infamous screwjob victim.
Eventually, the WWE booked a Triple Threat match for King of the Ring, with Austin's title reign looking likely to end at the hands of one of the driven challengers.
But would it?
The beautiful thing about the Triple Threat match from King of the Ring was the fact that all three performers were as good as they had ever been by the time the bell rang to signal its start—even Austin, who was battling injuries but was still in the midst of a hot streak between the ropes.
The sequencing was outstanding; the offense was hard-hitting and believable. To realize that Benoit worked the match with a damaged neck is simply amazing.
Booker T's debut in WWE was a great surprise, and his suplex to Austin through the table was a nasty, ugly spot that legitimately injured the Texas Rattlesnake's back and broke his hand. Unfortunately, WWE Creative would not follow up on Booker's memorable debut, which made him one of the biggest disappointments of that era.
The neck injury that Benoit suffered would force him out of action for a year, robbing fans of what could have been extraordinary matches between him and some of the invading WCW stars.
Austin would nurse his injuries in the weeks that followed, partaking in some of the most humorous backstage segments of all time involving Kurt Angle and Mr. McMahon. Right in the middle of the paranoid Stone Cold gimmick, he was brilliant as he fought with the Olympic gold medalist for the boss' affection.
Jericho got the most out of the King of the Ring match, becoming one of the integral parts of the Invasion angle. A starch defender of WWE in the war with WCW, he stood side-by-side with the likes of The Rock, Undertaker, Kane and Vince McMahon. His star rose tremendously, and by the end of the year, he would become the first Undisputed champion in WWE history.
By beating Austin.
With help from Booker T.
Poetic justice, huh?