Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels: The Rivalry That Shaped Pro Wrestling
Bret "Hitman" Hart and the "Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels are two of professional wrestling's living legends. They dominated the WWE scene throughout the '90s and are considered by many to be the two greatest wrestlers ever to set foot in the ring. On camera, they were bitter rivals competing for the top spot in WWE (then called WWF). Behind the scenes, it was exactly the same thing.
Hart and Michaels waged war in and out of the ring, publicly bringing backstage tension into the ring and playing out a real-life soap opera complete with a tragic ending in front of millions of viewers. The Hart/Michaels feud is perhaps most famously remembered for the events of the "Montreal Screwjob", but in fact, the roots of the feud go much deeper... into the lives of two of wrestling's most talented stars and the legacy left for those that followed after them. This document will delve into the history of these two men, in their words and the words of those close to the situations, and show how the rivalry of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels changed wrestling forever.
Bret Hart began his WWE career in 1984, with eight years of professional experience behind him already. Hart's father, Stu, was a professional wrestler and the promoter of Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The Hart family was deeply involved in professional wrestling and still is today. All of Bret's six brothers were wrestlers at one point and all of his sisters married wrestlers. His sister Ellie is the mother of current WWE Diva Natalya and his sister Diana is the mother of David Hart Smith, both of the Hart Dynasty stable. The infamous 'Hart Dungeon' in Stu's basement is legendary for being the spot where Stu and his sons trained some of the most prominent names in wrestling history such as the "British Bulldogs" Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid, Chris Benoit, Justin "Thunder" Liger and Brian Pillman. Bret Hart brought a no-nonsense attitude to his work and was known for his peerless technical wrestling ability, which earned him the nickname "the Excellence of Execution".
Hart became a tag team wrestler with his brother-in-law Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart and manager Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart (no relation). The duo excellently blended Hart's ground-based wrestling skill and cocky attitude with Neidhart's pure brute strength and charismatic "wildman" personality. They struggled to break through in the tag team ranks, consistently coming in on the losing side against the more popular teams like the Killer Bees and the British Bulldogs. At Wrestlemania 2, they took part in the NFL vs. WWF battle royal, being the last two men in the ring with Andre the Giant, who eliminated both men using a finish that Hart himself suggested. In 1987, they finally captured the Tag Team Championship from the Bulldogs. Although they were champions and well-known for having good matches with any team, the Harts still found trouble advancing themselves in the eyes of the company.
In 1988, Shawn Michaels and his AWA tag team partner, Marty Jannetty, entered the WWF. They had previously worked for WWF briefly a year earlier, but had been fired due to an altercation at a bar in what would be the first of many such incidents to mar Michaels' early record. When they re-debuted, they were billed as "the Rockers". The Rockers earned their reputation as "tag team specialists" with innovative high-flying moves and double-team attacks. Their matches were the first time many WWF viewers had seen such a use of aerial offense, Michaels relying on his training in Mexico to showcase his abilities. However, the Rockers were considered "too small"; most WWF superstars were 250 lbs or more and heavily muscled while Michaels and Jannetty barely broke 220 lbs. As a result, they often ended up on the losing side of matches against such behemoth teams as the "the Powers of Pain" and "Demolition". However, their pretty-boy personas won them legions of female fans, which would help Michaels throughout his career.
In 1991, the Hart Foundation went their separate ways. It was decided that Bret would do better as a singles wrestler, plus Neidhart was experiencing personal issues stemming from a lawsuit against him and WWE filed by an airline attendant. As a singles wrestler, Hart began using a new submission finisher called "the Sharpshooter". He gained a following that enjoyed his serious, hard-working persona and was able to use his ring psychology to put on good matches against lesser-skilled opponents like Dino Bravo and the Barbarian. During this time, Hart claims Vince McMahon, owner of WWE, told him that he received more fan mail than Hulk Hogan, who had been the company's biggest star since 1984. It was decided that Hart would win the Intercontinental Championship in a match with "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig at SummerSlam 1991 in Madison Square Garden. Hart would remain a prominent figure in the IC Title picture for the next two years, competing in high-profile matches with Davey Boy Smith, "Nature Boy" Ric Flair and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper among others.
In late 1991, Michaels began to seek a singles career. He showed excellent prowess in singles matches, including a highly rated match with Ric Flair in which Michaels is seen short-changing the veteran Flair to make himself seem like the far batter performer. In early 1992, the Rockers violently exploded. A brutal sneak attack by Michaels firmly established him as a hated villain. He took on a cocky and arrogant persona and began calling himself "the Heartbreak Kid". His new manager, Sensational Sherri, constantly interfered in his matches and gave him instant credibility as the type of wrestler who would cheat to win. Michaels' reputation of having a good match with any opponent began here, as he began to use his opponent's strengths to make himself the underdog. His first solo event as a heel was the 1992 Royal Rumble, in which he learned to keep the cameras glued to him by dramatically teetering on the ropes. Michaels became a textbook study for how a young, talented wrestler could get himself over.
At WrestleMania VIII, Hart defeated Roddy Piper to regain his Intercontinental Championship and Michaels pinned veteran Tito Santana, cementing himself as an IC title contender. The first Hart/Michaels matches for the Intercontintental Championship began. The two had met before in tag team matches, including one in 1990 where the Rockers defeated the Hart Foundation for the tag titles, but the decision was upheld at the last minute and the match never aired. Now, Michaels and Hart captured the attention of fans all over WWE with their exciting mix; Michaels' risky offense and cocky attitude against Hart's practical seriousness and extraordinary counter-wrestling. They clashed in the first-ever WWE Ladder Match, a concept Hart brought with him from Stampede. Hart claims that Michaels swore not to use Hart's ladder match ideas with other opponents, a promise Michaels did not keep. It was Davey Boy Smith who defeated Hart for the title, dropping it to Michaels only weeks later. In Hart's autobiography, he says that this was his idea, giving both Michaels and Smith a push.
On Top of the World
Hart moved on to bigger and better things. In the midst of a government investigation into charges of steroid distribution, Vince McMahon began to shift gears in the company's approach. No longer did he want to promote the heavily muscled bodies of steroid users such as Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. Instead, he opted for the more realistic physiques of "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Ric Flair. He found himself looking at the smaller stars on his roster and chose Bret Hart to be the next face of the company. Hart won the World Championship on October 12, 1993 from Ric Flair in front of his Canadian countrymen in Saskatoon. In his post-match interview, Hart referred to himself as "the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be". Hart was the first man to win the WWF's "triple crown", having worn all three existing championship belts.
Hart took a new approach to the WWF championship, vowing to be the "fighting-est" WWF Champion of all time. Unlike Hogan and Warrior before him, Hart defended the title against mid-card talent such as Virgil and Razor Ramon as well as main eventers like Flair and Savage. A number of champion vs. champion matches came about as well, with Hart defending the title against Michaels at the 1993 Survivor Series. At WrestleMania IX, Hulk Hogan returned to WWF. McMahon immediately put him back at the top, with Hart losing the title to sumo-sized newcomer Yokozuna, who immediately lost the belt to Hogan. Hart was bitter and angry about the loss, believing that he had been robbed of his hard-earned spot. Hogan's return was short-lived and he lost the title to Yokozuna two months later. Hart won the King of the Ring tournament that same night and confronted Hogan backstage, claiming he was "never one of the boys". Hart felt he was used as a pawn in the Hogan/McMahon headgames. Hart feuded with Jerry "the King" Lawler for the rest of 1994. Lawler was a household name after his mid-80's confrontations with comedian Andy Kaufman, but had since fallen into a cartoonish villain role. Hart considered the feud a step down.
Michaels, meanwhile, was taking steps up. He had left the company over charges of steroid abuse (which he disputed) but soon returned and feuded with Razor Ramon over the IC title. This culminated in a Ladder Match at WrestleMania X. In this match, Hart claims Michaels stole many of his ideas, but the result was that the match became an instant classic; setting the bar for the ladder matches that followed. The match also featured the PPV debut of Shawn's new "bodyguard", Kevin 'Diesel' Nash. Though Michaels lost the match, he clearly established himself as the go-to guy for stealing the show at WrestleMania. On that same night, Hart defeated Yokozuna to win back the WWF Championship in the main event. The ring filled with well-wishers such as Savage, Razor, Sean Waltman (aka 1-2-3 Kid) and Vince McMahon himself. Also on that same night, Bret wrestled his first WWF match against his brother Owen Hart, kicking off a championship feud between the two brothers.
In the following months, Bret feuded with Owen while Shawn and Diesel feuded with Razor. The combination of Shawn, Razor, Diesel and the Kid along with newcomer Paul "Triple H" Levesque became known in backstage areas as 'The Clique'. The Clique worked very closely together, refusing to 'put over' (aka lose matches to) wrestlers other than each other. They traded the Intercontinental title amongst each other, and eventually Shawn and Diesel won the tag team championships. At Survivor Series 1994, the tag team combusted and Diesel became a babyface, chasing Shawn out of the arena. At that same event, Bret defended his WWF championship against Bob Backlund in a Submission match that could only be lost when the competitor's cornerman threw in the towel. Bret's cornerman, Davey Boy Smith, was knocked out in the match by Backlund's cornerman, Owen Hart. Owen deceived his mother Helen into throwing in the towel and costing Bret the championship. Just a few days later, Diesel pinned Backlund at Madison Square Garden to become the WWF Champion.
Nash would hold the title for just under a year. Now a babyface, he feuded with his former friend Shawn and often teamed with Hart against Shawn and Owen Hart. Bret's "family feud" continued with the return of his brothers-in-law Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart, with Neidhart taking Owen's side and Davey Boy taking Bret's. Michaels found a new bodyguard in "Psycho" Sid, a former WCW wrestler who McMahon had big plans for. Hart challenged Diesel for the title at Royal Rumble 1995, only to have interference from Owen and Michaels end the match in a draw. That night, Michaels became the first man to win the Royal Rumble after drawing number 1. It was also the shortest Rumble match ever with participants entering every 60 seconds instead of the usual two minutes. Nonetheless, Michaels would face Nash at WrestleMania XI for the championship, and would be accompanied to the ring by celebrity guest Pamela Anderson. Hart's WrestleMania XI match against Bob Backlund was a forgettable "I Quit" match helped greatly by the charisma of guest referee Rowdy Roddy Piper. Hart was annoyed with Michaels' performance during the main event, although many consider it to be one of the best "brains vs. brawn" matches in WrestleMania history. The crowd rallied behind Michaels' underdog performance and even though he lost, Shawn came out far more popular than before.
McMahon began Michaels down the road to the WWF championship. Michaels made a babyface turn, feuding with Jeff Jarrett to win the Intercontintental title. He defeated Razor in a ladder rematch at SummerSlam 1995 . Michaels was on a roll when he hit an unexpected speedbump. While out partying at a bar with Davey Boy, Hall and Waltman, Michaels (allegedly under the influence of the downer drug Soma) got into a fight with a group of Marines in Syracuse, NY. Michaels was badly beaten and suffered a severe concussion. At in Your House 4 in October, Shawn forfeited his Intercontinental championship and claimed his injuries would force him to retire from wrestling. The video below, "Tell me a Lie", was played on WWF TV numerous times. Fortunately for Michaels, he would recover and make his return in time for Survivor Series 1995 the next month.
After WrestleMania XI, Bret Hart was locked in his feud with Jerry Lawler. Lawler would make disparaging comments on-air about Hart's family, particularly his mother Helen, and would side with Owen numerous times. Bret found Lawler's comments offensive and did not see the humor in them. He was also frustrated with the cartoonish nature of his feud, which saw him involved in matches with Doink the Clown (Matt Bourne) and Lawler's supposed dentist Isaac Yankem DDS (a young Glen Jacobs, who would later find great success wrestling as 'Kane'). However, by November, Hart was back in the title picture and faced Nash at Survivor Series 1995. Hart ended Nash's 12-month reign in a No-DQ match that saw the first time a WWF competitor was put through a table. Hart had seen the move performed by Extreme Championship Wrestling performer Sabu and incorporated it into the match. Hart claims that after the match he was berated by Nash, who said "Don't forget who did you the ***** favor!" Hart counts this as another example of the Clique's mentality; anger when forced to lose to someone other than Michaels.
Hart would defend the title against the likes of Davey Boy Smith, Owen and Undertaker. While Hart criticized Michaels' Clique, Michaels criticized Hart's constantly feuding with family members and bringing family matters into the ring. In early 1996, Shawn won the Royal Rumble once again and was placed in a championship title match with Bret Hart. Both babyfaces and both at the top of their game, fans were excited at the prospect of such a meeting. McMahon asked Hart if he felt comfortable putting Michaels over for the championship. Hart, who had been hoping for time off to pursue other projects, agreed. The match was set for WrestleMania 12 and would be the first-ever WWE 60-minute Iron Man Match.
The lead-up to this match was one of the biggest in WrestleMania history. Strangely, Michaels was taken off the road for several months in order to firm up his conditioning for the 60-minute affair while Hart worked a grueling schedule in matches with heavyweights like Sid, Yokozuna and Vader and also completed a two-week tour in India. Hart claims this was done to make him look beat-up and exhausted by the end of the match. "They wanted Shawn to be scraping me off the mat," he said in his Calgary Sun column, "but I think I was the one scraping him off the mat." He feels that the lead-up intended to make Michaels look good and himself look bad. Michaels was filmed working with his trainer, famous Mexican luchador Jose Lothario, as he did vertical push-ups and rigorous acrobatic exercises. Hart was filmed jogging tentatively (on ice, Hart says) in the cold Calgary weather and then being painfully 'stretched' by his 70-year-old father.
The match, which went into two minutes of Sudden Death overtime due to no pinfalls being made in the allotted hour, was both well-executed and sloppy. Within the first ten minutes, Hart and Michaels began hitting each other 'stiffly', the wrestler's term for painful, hard punches and kicks. Neither Hart nor Michaels will admit to ill-will being at the center of the rough action, but many wrestling observers feel both men took the opportunity to vent their aggression on each other. The match is widely considered to be one of the best in WrestleMania history. After the match ended, Hart left the ring looking angry and refusing to shake hands with the fans. This lead to speculation that Hart was legitimately angry about the match, though Hart claims that he was simply trying to set up for their inevitable WrestleMania 13 rematch. Hart left the WWF to pursue his acting ventures, certain he would come back in a few months. The burden of being the World Champion now fell on Shawn Michaels' shoulders. It is a difficult weight to bear for any man, but HBK was about to be dealt a challenge no other WWF champion before him had faced...
The Monday Night Wars
When Vince McMahon decided to turn his father's wrestling promotion into a nationwide powerhouse, he effectively eliminated all of his competition by buying their stars. He lured wrestlers to his company with the promise of big money and name recognition. As a result, the "territory" system died out and longstanding promotions such as the AWA collapsed.
One group that held on was the National Wrestling Alliance, or NWA. Multimedia mogul Ted Turner bought the NWA, running it on his TBS network. The promotion was renamed World Championship Wrestling, or WCW. Throughout the 80s and early 90s, WCW was a far cry from WWF. They boasted some former WWF stars like Davey Boy Smith and Jake the Snake as well as homegrown stars like Ric Flair, Lex Luger and Sting. WWF did not see WCW as competition, merely as another territory to snag top stars from. All that changed in 1996. Tired of the "good old boys" mentality of the WCW, WCW President Jim Herd promoted announcer Eric Bischoff to the position of Execute Director. Bischoff had a whole new approach for WCW and wrestling in general; using an all-live format with suspenseful, reality-based programming. Bischoff took full advantage of Ted Turner's competitive spirit to gain millions to sign high-profile names like Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Scott "Razor Ramon" Hall and Kevin "Diesel" Nash. Bischoff procured a timeslot on TNT that put WCW in direct competition with WWF's Monday Night Raw show.
In WWF, Michaels was suddenly left without his "Clique" teammates. He had been counting on a successful title reign defending against Hall and Nash, but now was forced to work with new opponents like Vader, Goldust and Mick "Mankind" Foley. The pressure increased as WCW pulled ahead in popularity, owing largely to their "New World Order" storyline in which former WWF superstars attempted to dismantle WCW from within. The stress and tension proved to be tough for Michaels, who was on his own in a locker room filled with people who did not respect him. Adding to this, Michaels made an appearance in "Playgirl" magazine; which was unprecedented for a WWF wrestler and made HBK a bona fide sex symbol, but had a backlash on his popularity with WWF's target demographic; young males.
A revolution was underway as fans became more and more interested in "heel" characters such as the NWO, Psycho Sid and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Traditional good guys, such as Michaels and new star Rocky Maivia, found themselves strongly booed. The renegade Phillie-based promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) added fuel to the fire by showcasing violent "hardcore" matches and the high-risk lucha libre style of young wrestlers like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and Rey Misterio Jr; who were subsequently signed by WCW. WWF floundered as McMahon stuck to his tried-and-true formula that paled when compared to the flash and drama of WCW's programming. As a result, the pressure grew on Michaels until he nearly reached the breaking point.
It was around that time WCW contacted Bret Hart.
Bret had been enjoying his downtime, but was itching to get back into the ring. WCW made a multi-million offer to bring him to their show, but Hart wanted to remain where he had built his legacy; in the WWF. Although McMahon could not offer the same money as WCW, he instead offered Hart a 20-year guaranteed contract, ensuring that he would still have a job when his in-ring career ended. The agreement also gave Hart creative control of his character for the last 30 days before he left WWF, a condition that would be very important one year later. On live TV, Hart accepted McMahon's offer, saying "I'll be with the WWF for life." Hart returned at Survivor Series 1996 and began a feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin that would culminate in an epic "I Quit" match at WrestleMania 13, which saw the hotly popular heel Austin turn into an anti-hero and the traditionally nice Hart turning into a ruthless villain.
Originally, the main event was slated to be Hart/Michaels with HBK dropping his championship to Hart. However, Michaels refused and instead surrendered his title, famously stating on RAW "I've lost my smile and I need to go find it." At this point, Hart was disgusted with Michaels' conduct as champion and Michaels was fiercely paranoid of Hart trying to reclaim his top spot. The two men's egos now were in direct opposition to each other. The stage was set for big things to come of their very personal rivalry.
The Attitude Era
Vince McMahon was looking for a way to compete with the WCW juggernaut, and realized that their reality-based, unpredictable programming was the key to their success. He began to channel Hart and Michaels' anger into suspenseful television. Michaels criticized Hart for his old-school attitude and "whining". Hart fired back at Michaels, poking fun at his appearance in "Playgirl" magazine and questioning his sexuality. At the same time, Steve Austin's feud with Hart had turned him into a bonafide superstar and turned Hart into a hated heel. In an unprecedented move, McMahon wanted to use anti-American sentiment around the world into a storyline in which Bret Hart became a heel in America and a babyface to the rest of the world by insulting the "classless and arrogant" American society; personified by the flamboyant Heartbreak Kid. Hart formed a heel faction that included Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart, Davey Boy Smith, "Dungeon" graduate Brian Pillman and (temporarily) Canadians Doug Furnas and Phil Lafon.
Hart criticized Michaels for his juvenile antics and immoral behavior, and so Michaels turned the volume up on both. Partnering with Hunter Hearst Helmsley (now called Triple H) and his so-called bodyguard, female wrestler Joanie "Chyna" Laurer, they formed a faction called DeGeneration X, or DX. The babyface Michaels quickly descended into "cool heel" mode, pulling sophomoric pranks and making lewd jokes. He says " I figured 'why can't we just do the stuff that makes us laugh backstage?' " For his first "crotch-chop", Michaels was fined by McMahon for misconduct. However, DX's disrespectful tone caught on with fans who saw DX as WWF's version of the NWO. McMahon saw the shift in business and basically gave Michaels free reign to do as much of the R-rated material as he wanted. WCW was shackled by Turner Broadcasting's standards, and so WWF was able to get away with far more gross-out humor than the NWO. McMahon capitalized, creating more far-out and controversial characters, such as the pimp-themed Godfather and porn-star themed Val Venis, as well as parading out the scantily clad valet Rena "Sable" Mero, all leading to a spike in business for the WWF.
For his part, Hart detested the new "attitude" and it only fueled his on-screen persona's wrath. Michaels began to take his public criticisms of Hart to another level, accusing Hart of cheating on his wife with female manager Tammy "Sunny" Sytch. After this incident, Hart lost his patience and attacked Michaels backstage. Though McMahon reprimanded both men, he did have them re0stage the event for WWF TV. McMahon had learned the WCW formula, now all he needed was a way to pull ahead. He found that opportunity in the popularity of Stone Cold Steve Austin; who was winning over still more fans with his blue-collar-hero persona. Austin's rebellious character caught on big with fans and allowed WWF to finally start to mount a comeback against WCW's powerhouse ratings.
Another important decision was made by McMahon, this time in the boardroom rather than the ring... the company was going to publicly trade their stock. One of the conditions for this change was that McMahon would need to wipe all long-term deals from the company. This included Hart's 20 year deal. Hart was furious when McMahon suggested he might want to contact WCW. McMahon clearly wanted to let Hart out of his contract, seeming to have no further use for the "Hitman". Hart was hurt by his employer's disinterest and began his negotiations with WCW. A deal was eventually struck and an end date for Hart's time in WWF was set. There was just one dilemma; Hart was still the WWF Champion. In order to fully capitalize on Austin's popularity, McMahon decided an Austin/Michaels match for the WWF Championship would be the perfect WrestleMania main event. This was contingent, however, on Bret Hart's willingness to drop the title to Shawn Michaels at the Survivor Series in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Hart stated to McMahon that he would be happy to lose the belt to any superstar on the roster... except Shawn Michaels. HBK had shown him complete and utter disrespect and had consistently refused to lose the title to him. Hart refused "for the first time in my life" to lose the match, and because Hart had creative control of his exit, he was entitled to say so.
The Montreal Screwjob
Early on in the Monday Night Wars, Eric Bischoff had resorted to vicious tactics when competing with WWF. Since WCW Monday Nitro was live and RAW was taped, Bischoff would give out results to the WWF show before it aired and criticize their choice of main events. He hired WWF Women's Champion Alundra Blayze and had her bring her title belt in WCW television, famously throwing it in the garbage at the WCW announce team's booth. Because of these practices, McMahon was suspicious of any wrestler dealing with Bischoff. When Hart refused to put Michaels over, McMahon was clearly suspicious that Bischoff's hand was in Hart's decision.
At this time, Bischoff was actually fighting a losing war against his own company. WCW was bought out as part of the AOL/Time Warner merger and found itself under new scrutiny. "There's no way they would've let me put the WWF title belt on Nitro because of the potential lawsuit." he says in his book Controversy Creates Cash. At the time, however, McMahon didn't know this and feared that Bischoff may have given Hart extra money to bring the title belt with him. McMahon was determined that Hart should not leave Montreal with the title.
Hart and McMahon discussed the subject hotly. Hart suggested he drop the title to Steve Austin or Mick Foley, but McMahon was set on having the new champion be Michaels. Hart offered to forfeit the title, but McMahon wanted a new champion crowned. The two sides were at a stalemate and Survivor Series was fast approaching. At last, McMahon conceded that the match would end in a double DQ and Hart would forfeit the title the next night on RAW. The day of the match, Hart spoke to Michaels and set up the match. They had a very civil meeting to plan their match; the last time two of the all-time greats would lock up. They decided to break tradition once more, starting the match outside the ring in a brawl through the audience before the first bell rang. Hart met with McMahon once more to go over the plan. After cautioning from Undertaker and Vader, whose experiences in Japan had taught them to be wary of situations like his, Hart spoke to referee Earl Hebner. Hebner told Hart that if it came down to it, he said "I swear on my kids" he would not help McMahon betray Hart. Satisfied, hart suited up for the event.
The match went as planned until the final moments. As Owen Hart and Davey Boy Smith waited for their entrance cue (they were slated to do a run-in and cause a DQ), they were asked to find Triple H (who was also scheduled to run in). Hart and Smith searched, unaware that Triple H was actually down at ringside. McMahon himself and an increased number of security guards also arrived. As planned, referee Hebner was knocked down during the match and Michaels put Hart's own Sharpshooter finisher on him. Before Hart could reverse the hold as planned, Hebner signalled that Hart had submitted. McMahon shouted "Ring the damn bell!" at the timekeeper. The bell rang and officially, the title changed hands.
Hart looked stunned. Michaels looked furious, cursing at McMahon's officials and picking up the belt with a look of disgust as he exited. The show went off the air immediately, but the drama continued. As Hart realized what had been done to him. He spat in McMahon's face and destroyed several expensive ringside monitors. He was able to collect himself and re-entered the ring, making "I love you" gestures to the audience and spelling out W-C-W in the air. Hart went to the backstage air and confronted Michaels, who insisted he had nothing to do with it. Michaels claimed he would not accept the belt in that fashion. "I'll judge by what you do tomorrow night" said Hart, inferring that Michaels would prove himself by what he did on RAW. McMahon eventually came to speak with Hart, but Hart was in no mood to see him and told McMahon to leave by the time he finished showering or he'd "knock your lights out." McMahon stayed, and Hart followed through on his promise. It would be Hart's last time in a WWF locker room for the next twelve years.
Not only did Hart leave WWF that day, but Jim Nedihart, Davey Boy Smith and Rick Rude all exited soon after, quickly snatched up by WCW. McMahon refused to let Owen Hart out of his contract and threatened Bret with legal action if he tried to help Owen "escape". Mick Foley also gave his notice, but reconsidered given his career options. Bret often sites Foley as an example of someone who stood by him in this time.
The next night on RAW, Shawn Michaels declared "I beat Bret Hart for the WWF Championship in his own hometown with his own move." He then pretended to wrestle with a midget dressed as Hart.
End of an Era
WWF rolled on without the Hitman. Sone Cold Steve Austin was taking the WWF by storm and was fast-becoming the hottest star since Hulk Hogan. At the 1998 Royal Rumble, Austin won the Rumble match and would be placed into the main event against the WWF Champion at WrestleMania 14. During that same night, Shawn Michaels defended his title against the Undertaker in a Casket Match. Partway through, a backdrop by Undertaker sent Shawn flying over the top rope and landing back-first on the casket, crushing one disc in his spine and herniating two others. The injury was a career-ending one that would put Michaels out of wrestling for several years. "If I can't perform at 100 percent," he said, "I don't want to do it at all." However, Michaels chose to continue performing through WrestleMania, mainly appearing for non-wrestling segments promoting the match and the occasional tag team match with Triple H.
In the months leading up to WrestleMania, McMahon pulled out all the stops to create buzz around the main event, bringing in controverisal boxer "Iron" Mike Tyson as the guest referee. McMahon showed that he had learned from the success of the HBK/Hart storyline; injecting reality into storylines made them even more compelling and dramatic. Eric Bischoff had made WCW #1 by using his bad reputation with fans to his advantage, and McMahon was about to do the same thing. McMahon did an interview with Jim Ross in which he blamed Hart's selfishness for the Montreal situation. McMahon's face was prominently marred by a blac eye from where Hart had punched him. "Vince McMahon didn't screw Bret Hart, "he said, "Bret screwed Bret." For years after, McMahon's entrance's into WWF arenas (as well the entrance of referee Earl Hebner) would incite chants of "You Screwed Bret" from the audience. McMahon instantly became the hottest heel in the company, and he took advantage of it by placing himself in the Austin/Michaels storyline; casting himself as the evil corporate bully "Mr. McMahon". In this role, he would be the antithesis to the blue-collar, beer-drinking Austin. The question loomed, however, as to whether or not HBK would put Austin over at WrestleMania or simply relinquish yet another title after the match.
In the end, with some convincing from McMahon, Michaels agreed to lose the title cleanly. Michaels believed that it would be the end of his in-ring career, and worked hard to send himself off with style. After the match, Michaels went into semi-retirement; occasionally making television appearances as the on-screen WWF Commissioner. He opened a wrestling school in Texas; the "Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy". He also served as a local sportscaster for his hometown of San Antonio. Michaels would return to the wrestling ring in 2003 with a decidedly different attitude. A born-again Christian, Michaels approached wrestling with a new sense of humility. He no longer proudly refused to lose big matches, and would go on to have some of the best performances of his career in often losing efforts against new stars Kurt Angle, John Cena, Randy Orton and Chris Benoit.
If Shawn Michaels' story was one of redemption, Bret Hart's became one of loss. Hart floundered in WCW, the disappointment of Montreal still lingering in his mind. It certainly did not help that WWF used the "Screwjob" events consistently as a part of storylines involving McMahon. Although he was consistently matched with the top WCW names such as Sting, Lex Luger and Diamond Dallas Page, Hart had entered WCW at a time when the "pecking order" was firmly established and he was not a part of it. Hart did capture the WCVW World Championship twice, but at that point the belt had lost most of it's meaning; changing hands on a constant basis. Hart had no love for the company and blamed Eric Bischoff for having a lack of vision, while Bischoff claimed Hart was impossible to work with because of the emotional scars he felt from 1997.
Bret carried the weight of Montreal with him wherever he went. In a personal conversation he had with brother Owen, he said it felt as if McMahon had killed his character. The WWF "blew his brains out", he said. Owen countered Bret, telling him "There's nothing in this business worth dying for." Later, in May of 1999, the unthinkable happened. During a comedic stunt for WWF pay per view, Owen fell to his death from the catwalk of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri. It was two weeks before he was planning to move into his dream home with his wife and children, two years short of his planned retirement.The effect on Bret was devastating. He stepped away from WCW to handle Owen's family affairs, as well as the proposed wrongful death lawsuit against WWF. Eric Bischoff gave Hart freedom to make his decisions and end his contract if necessary. Shortly afterward, Vince McMahon arranged a meeting with Bret to discuss what had happened. The two men met alone on a park bench in Calgary, the first time they had spoken since Montreal. They attempted to put their problems behind them and focus on the future, parting with a handshake and a promise to keep the Hart legacy alive. This deal was broken when the other members of the Hart family convinced McMahon that Bret was the driving force behind the lawsuit because of his bitterness over Montreal.
Bret decided to stay with WCW through the end of his contract. He wrestled a match with his former student Chris Benoit at the Kemper Arena in tribute to his brother. Hart entered a feud with WCW new top star, former NFL star Bill Goldberg. At WCW Starrcade 1999, Hart defended his championship against Goldberg. During the course of the match, Hart was caught unawares with a kick to the head from Goldberg, resulting in a severe concussion. Unaware of the severity of his condition, Hart continued wrestling, taking painkillers from the WCW doctor. He speculates he may have suffered more concussions in the coming days due to his condition, worsening his situation. When at last he saw a specialist, Hart was diagnosed with a career-ending injury. Hart was quietly released in 2000, WCW ending his legendary career with a termination letter via Fedex.
Being a stay-at-home father after being gone so long only created more tension in Hart's household, leading to a divorce from his wife Julie. Their rocky and tempestuous relationship had long been a burden on them both, and the divorce would serve as a new beginning for them. However, shortly afterward, Hart suffered a stroke after falling from a bicycle near his home. A passerby found Hart and helped him call his ex-wife for assistance getting to the hospital. He would temporarily lose control of the left side of his body, requiring grueling physical therapy.
Hart states that he had always feared being "another wrestling tragedy". He had seen so many friends and co-workers die at tragically young ages because of the rigors of life as a professional wrestler; Brian Pillman, Davey Boy Smith, Rick Rude, 'Mr. Perfect' Curt Hennig, and far too many more. Hart was determined that he would make peace with the ghosts of his past. In 2006, he accepted the WWE's invitation to join their Hall of Fame; making an appearance shortly before WrestleMania 22 to accept the award. He did not feel comfortable attending the WrestleMania event, partly due to the presence of his old adversary Shawn Michaels. The two men still had not spoken since the moments following the Survivor Series match.
Old School/New School
Both Shawn and Bret contributed a lot to the sports-entertainment world, but perhaps none so significant as representing the final battle of old school versus new school in professional wrestling. Bret always took the wrestling business to heart while Shawn always treated it as show business. Hart grew up with wrestling as it was in the 50s and 60s; dim lighting, blood and "protecting the business" while Shawn personified the flashy pageantry and showmanship that would become WWF's trademark in the years to come. Bret held his ground on matters of principle and reputation; his "Hitman" character would never back down from a fight and always battled for what he believed in. Shawn's in-ring persona changed often throughout the years depending on what was good for business.
Hart says that he was consumed by bitterness for many years following the Montreal Screwjob. His devotion and loyalty to McMahon and the trust he placed in Michaels had been abused, and he felt that his "Hitman" character had been destroyed. These are thoughts that would never occur to Shawn Michaels, who always kept his on-screen character at an arms-length from himself. To him, HBK was a character that he played, like any other TV or film actor, rather than an extension of himself who needed to act as he would. Perhaps this is why it was impossible for these two men to be friends. Hart was, in a sense, the last of a dying breed of wrestler. Men who favored skill over style and toughness over charisma. In Bret Hart, the "old school" tradition of men like Killer Kowalski, Bruno Sammartino, Danny Hodge and Stu Hart himself saw it's last hurrah. The new generation of fans favored wrestlers who could give them larger-than-life characters, intense personalities and highlight reels-worthy manuevers over counter-wrestling and kayfabe. In Shawn Michaels, the "new school" future of stars like John Cena, Jeff Hardy, Chris Jericho and The Rock truly began.
On January 4, 2010, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels met in the ring for the first time in 12 years. It was a symbolic "burying of the hatchet" for Hart. Several years earlier, Hart had accepted WWE's invitation to join the Hall of Fame, but had been unwilling to attend WrestleMania (as is a Hall of Famer tradition) that year and did not feel comfortable sharing the ring with Shawn. In 2010, Hart shook Michaels' hand on RAW in an unscripted conversation that played out before millions of fans. At that moment, neither man served as a generation's standard-bearer, but as two fierce competitors who stood had stood on top of the world. Though Michaels was still an active performer, the fire of his younger days had gone out and his hunger for the main event spotlight had dulled. However, the interest created by their meeting was as hot as ever. Millions of fans tuned in to see these two great performers, partners in the most influential feud in wrestling history, come together again. Perhaps that will be how their story ends, with a handshake. But often, in the unpredictable world Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels helped to create, nothing's for certain.
Further Reading and Sources
"Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling" by Bret Hart
"Heartbreak and Triumph" by Shawn Michaels
"Controversy Creates Cash" by Eric Bischoff
"Mankind: Have A Nice Day" by Mick Foley
"Hitman: Wrestling with Shadows" - documentary chronicling Bret Hart's last days in WWF
"Beyond the Mat" - documentary about wrestling in the late 90s
Questions & Answers
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