By Steven O’Connor
It is probably the most famous feud in wrestling history, one that created controversy from the start and is still creating controversy to this day. Bret and Shawn, despite being good friends once upon a time, both realised that in the WWE in the 90s there was only room for one star. Hulkamania was gone and there was a chance to shine. Both men had a legitimate claim to being the best in the industry. Bret had the experience, the phenomenal wrestling ability and the fan base to justify his place as World Wrestling Federation Champion. However, a ‘New Generation’ was rising in the 90s and the flamboyant, arrogant and extremely talented Shawn Michaels was ready to rise to the top. The two men had climbed their way to the top of the WWE and there was only one way to settle it… where else but on the grandest stage of them all?
Wrestlemania 12 – 60 Minutes of Wrestling Greatness
On March 31st 1996 at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim California, wrestling fans were in for a treat. Wrestlemania 12 saw 60 minutes of arguably the greatest match of all time, a 60 minute Iron Man match to determine just who would be the star of the 90s. The object of the match would be to pick up the most falls in the allotted time. We were treated to roller coaster ride of emotion and an unbelievable ballet of wrestling greatness mixed with incredible athleticism. To go 60 minutes is not something that fans were used to in the modern era so the match was a gamble but Bret Hart’s incredible ability and Michaels’ stamina we saw a classic.
“This match was made for a guy like Shawn” – Bret Hart.
The match would end in controversial fashion as the 60 minute time limit had expired without either man picking up a victory forcing Gorilla Monsoon to enforce a sudden death overtime period, as then WWE acting president Rowdy Roddy Piper stated that there must be a winner. A sudden death period was then the perfect chance for Shawn Michaels to showcase his endurance and stamina to pick up the victory and his first WWE championship. It also created a moment that will forever make me sick of these words –
“The boyhood dream has come true for Shawn Michaels”.
The ‘Heartbreak Kid’ Era
Following the epic Iron Man match, Bret Hart took some time away from the WWE to concentrate on an acting career. This allowed Shawn Michaels to showcase his extraordinary talent as WWE champion with his following of (young) fans. I’ll be honest and say that I’m maybe not the best person to be assessing Shawn’s time as champion as I kind of fell away from WWE at the time. It was not easy for me to see the programming at the time and I honestly did not like Michaels as champ. While I recognized that he had incredible ability and could sell better than anyone, I hated his act. The dancing, the stripping, the showboating, I just couldn’t watch it. It was during this time that the infamous Kliq was born. His time as champ did give us some classics though, such as his matches with Mankind at the ‘Mind Games’ In Your House PP and his ‘No Holds Barred’ match with Diesel at the ‘Good Friends, Better Enemies’ PPV. The match that most people will maybe remember most would be his title defense against Vader at Summerslam 1996. This was a great match against a very tough opponent. Shawn again overcame the odds to win but I think that match maybe helped highlight a little too much of Shawn’s arrogance and ego.
Shawn Lost His Smile
During Bret Hart’s absence he was offered a very lucrative offer from rival promotion World Championship Wrestling, however loyalty to the WWE and a chance at regainin the WWE championship compelled him to stay. During Michaels’ run as champion, WCW had grown very popular and a lot fans (said to be male, over14) were switching over to watch wrestling rather than watch Shawn dancing in the ring with little kids. To be honest though, the entire WWE product at the time was nothing special, ask Aldo Montoya. Behind the scenes the plans were being made for an epic rematch, Bret vs. Shawn 2 at Wrestlemania 13. What happened next though is something that fans did not expect. On a special episode of Thursday Raw Thursday (creative genius in that name) Shawn Michaels vacated the WWE championship to Gorilla Monsoon (this was becoming a habit), claiming that he had ‘lost his smile’. He claims a doctor told him that a knee injury he sustained could be career ending and he would have to take time off to recover. Cynics would bring up the fact that Shawn lost all the three major titles of that era (World, Tag Team, and Intercontinental) by vacating them and not doing the job in the ring. However this is not entirely his fault as he vacated the Intercontinental championship after being involved in a fight with several men in a bar in Syracuse New York. The other was dropped in a storyline involving the split between him and tag team partner Diesel.
A change of plan was required for Wrestlemania. The WWE title was vacated and contested in a Fatal Fourway match at the ‘Final Four’ In Your House PPV which took place on February 16 1997. Bret Hart would regain the title in a fantastic match which also featured The Undertaker, Vader and Stone Cold Steve Austin. The following night on Raw Bret would lose the championship to Psycho Sid, setting up Sid vs. The Undertaker for the title at Wrestlemania. Not exactly what we were hoping for. Despite not seeing the match they were hoping for, wrestling fans witnessed a match that would change the face of WWE forever as Bret Hart faced Stone Cold Steve Austin in an epic submission match. The match was a classic, a brawl, a bloodbath and Bret would find out just how much the WWE had changed since he returned. On a night when Stone Cold would win the respect of the fans, Bret would turn heel as he was tired of not getting the respect from fans who would cheer for the ‘bad guy’.
After returning (from ‘injury’?), Shawn Michaels would engage Bret Hart in a personal war of words with each other in an effort to out-do one another both backstage and on camera. In an era were wrestling was often put to the side to let the superstars do battle with the microphone in their own personal soap opera, things were starting to get real. Week after week both men were trading insults and personal jibes. Bret made several comments questioning Shawn’s sexual preference after ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ had appeared in Playgirl. Shawn then commented on the fact that Bret was having ‘Sunny’ Days. There wasn’t much wrestling going on as this verbal war continued to go back and forth between the Hitman and The Heartbreak Kid. The two men finally came to blows at a house show in Hartford, Connecticut. Bret had allegedly tried several times to clear the air with Michaels backstage to allow both men to be professional and to work together. Bret had informed Shawn that he would have no problem in losing to him if they could work together however allegedly Shawn was unwilling to do the same. This led to several accusations of both men refusing to lose to the other. WWE seemed more than happy to add fuel to the fire though as they knew Survivor Series was just around the corner.
Now we arrive at the most talked about subject in wrestling history. Even after 15 years fans across the world are still debating on every aspect of this angle. Everyone has their own opinions, theories and conclusions as to what happened on the night of November 9, 1997 at the WWEs annual Survivor Series PPV. Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels were finally set to have their rematch for the WWE title. Prior to this match WWE owner Vince McMahon had informed Bret that he was unable to honor the terms of his 20 year contract. McMahon informed Bret that he was free to negotiate with WCW as the WWE at this time was in ‘financial peril’. Bret Hart then signed a $3M deal with WCW, feeling that he had been ’forced’ to leave the WWE. This presented a problem for the WWE. Bret’s WCW contract began on the 5th of December 1997 and he was still the WWE champion and was no closer to working out with Shawn how to conclude their match at Survivor Series. After Shawn’s refusal to lose to Bret and his ‘phony’ injury prior to Wrestlemania, the Hitman point blank refused to drop the belt to Shawn. There is the theory that Bret refused to lose the belt in Canada but I find that one hard to believe. I could write about a number of scenarios where they could have done things differently and avoided this, we all could, and we could be debating forever. So let’s skip ahead and agree that as much as we think we know all the facts, we don’t.
Bret had finally moved on to WCW where his career faded away until a kick to the head in a match with Goldberg put an end to his illustrious career. Shawn was also forced to retire from a recurring back problem but still managed to give us a great feud and a great final match with Stone Cold Steve Austin. For years the debated rolled on. What really happened? Was it a work? Will we ever see Bret in WWE again? Both men would have their illustrious careers cut short unexpectedly. Bret suffered a career ending injury in a match with perhaps the clumsiest ‘wrestler’ I have ever seen, Goldberg. Shawn was forced to retire following a recurring back injury but managed to ‘do the job’ and give us a great match with Stone Cold on his way out.
Several years later, after countless interviews and discussion about back-stabbing, lying and double-crossing, Bret decided that it was time to move on and cement his legacy with the WWE forever. Bret Hart was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. Although he was moving on and was back on good terms with Vince, Bret declined to appear at Wrestlemania 22 the following night as he was still uncomfortable appearing on WWE TV.
Shawn made successful return to the ring in 2002 and continued to thrill and excite audiences until his retirement in 2010, where was also inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
There have been many memorable moments in the history of the WWE but January 4th 2010 will live on as the greatest moment for – The day that ‘Hell Froze Over’. Bret was going to be on Raw. I couldn’t believe it, we were going to see Bret and Shawn in the same ring again. Who knew what would happen? In a promo that was unscripted, they talked about their legacies and their epic Iron Man match before finally shaking hands and putting it all behind them. Shawn positioned himself and it looked as though we would see the superkick but instead we saw both men hug and let the world know that they had finally put the past behind them. Maybe that’s what we should do too.
While there will always be controversy, let’s instead focus on two Hall of Fame athletes who have entertained us for many years and who’s legacies will live on forever.
Want to discuss anything with Steven? Do you like his choices here? Can you think of any more? Follow him on Twitter at @St3ven91 and feel free to talk anytime.