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Bret Hart often found himself in the Ric Flair role within the WWF, playing the guy who we give the title to when our plan A fails. After Luger failed, Bret relieved Yokozuna of the title. After Diesel failed, Bret defeated him for the title. Bret was the safety net until Vince McMahon came up with his next great idea. The difference is, in Shawn Michaels - he'd finally found one.
Shawn had a lot to overcome; despite being (just) over six foot tall, Shawn had that great ability to make himself look smaller – in a promotion run by Vince McMahon that would surely restrict him to a charismatic mid-card role. But in a post-steroid trial world, and one where raw size was beginning to mean less and less. The question was less about who Vince was going to push in his place and more when he was finally going to pull the trigger on him.
The first taste of the big time came for him at the beginning of 1995. If the Royal Rumble victory smelt like an endorsement from the boss it was more the brutal admission that Shawn – while still excellent, was really their only choice. Him, as a heel, against the much taller babyface in Diesel made little sense, even given their existing relationship. With Diesel attempting to find his feet as a main event level babyface, wrestling a smaller, more charismatic performer who was on his last legs as a heel wasn't the best pairing. The feud, and the match, were below where they could have been.
As for Bret he found himself in familiar territory. In fact, you can make a good argument that Bret was never truly pushed as the number on guy until 1997 – the year he would leave the company. Certainly since Hulk Hogan's departure in 1993 the company lunged from trying other ideas to falling back onto Bret. His title run in 1994 was famous for four title defencesthat all were mid-card matches. When he regained the belt at the end of 1995, while he was wrestling in the final match on shows it was clear that once again he was a placeholder – this time keeping the seat warm for Michaels.
It was an odd situation across the board, one that illustrated how sorely lacking the company was that headed into Wrestlemania 12. Their top two matches pitted a babyface Hart against babyface Michaels and a babyface Undertaker against an, at best, tweener Diesel. The arrival of Vader perhaps could've been a better short term fix and, at the very least, we can say with the benefit of hindsight that in Hunter Hearst Helmsley, The Ringmaster and Mankind the company had at least signed the guys that would eventually re-address the balance.
But it made for uncomfortable viewing when, in the final Raw in February 1996 Bret and Shawn went to the ring for a promo segment. Neither man being fully embraced and Bret especially receiving boos loud enough for Interim President Roddy Piper to reference them during the segment. While Shawn, via a ludicrous storyline that had him clearing himself to perform after suffering "post concussion syndrome", was riding the quest of the wave, Bret was back in an all too familiar spot.
His run of three consecutive pay per view events, despite being in the fabled main event spot hardly signaled confidence from Vince McMahon. His battle with Davey Boy Smith in December at In Your House 5 was the exception, although hindsight would show Bret's emphatic clean victory over Bulldog was less to do with how McMahon saw the champ, and more to do with how expandable he saw Davey – who's three months in the main program would swiftly be coming to a conclusion.
January 1996 saw the first of a pair of main events for Bret that would see him firstly face Undertaker – who was long overdue a title shot, before facing Diesel in February in what would be their fourth encounter in under two years. The Taker match was a struggle, clocking in a nearly 30 minutes and relying (whoever's decision it was) on far too much ground game for two guys of such size. Even worse still was the crowd's reaction to both faces – who were booed at different stages during the match. The marathon match ending with an unsatisfying conclusion didn't help either, with Diesel mearly pulling Undertaker off of the pin. Not for the last time, Bret would only retain his championship thanks to someone else's help.
Earlier in the night it was Shawn's time to shine. While this was a WWF roster running on fumes, Shawn entered his second Royal Rumble as really the only viable candidate to win it. He should've been, regardless, but only the debuting Vader offered up any real hope of an alternative and if you looked beyond Diesel, a credible if outside shout, there was very little left to speak of. As it was, in a match that included appearances from Jake Roberts, Dory Funk Jr, two Squat Team members and Doug Gilbert.
A year prior, that would've been that. It would've been set as the Wrestlemania main event – Shawn vs Bret. As it was, in the era of monthly pay per views, we had an In Your House show bridging the gap. Shawn was on top of the word, celebrating with his "Kliq" (in this case, the fans), but he had one more score to settle – since being beaten up by nine marines in October in Syracuse, someone else had been taking responsibility for his demise. That person was Owen Hart – involved in the angle that saw Shawn collapse on Raw in October – it was a strong segment.
Owen and Shawn at In Your House 6 in February had an excellent 15 minute match. You can be critical of two things from Shawn, namely his lack of selling in the closing moments and his histrionics in the opening minutes of the match by playing with the crowd – having earlier said this was the most important match of his career. That being said, the match was excellent, Shawn continuing the long running story of he or Bret being the only two guys worth watching in these In Your House shows.
Bret was in the main event, but much like 1994 he was being treated as an afterthought. The match with Diesel was a big disappointment, the latest in a long line of underwhelming Bret Hart gimmick matches (that started with Bob Backlund at Wrestlemania, and included Lawler at King Of The Ring). The escape the cage only rules nullified the drama before Undertaker came out from under the ring and pulled Diesel under, allowing Bret to escape almost like a coward. The show closed with an angle with Diesel and Taker – Bret had disappeared.
Nevertheless, we had two winners – Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, and we had a match at Wrestlemania. Vince bought both men out on the final Raw of February for a promo. The pair talked of a mutual respect -> Bret admired Shawn, Shawn called Bret the best there was and probably the best there ever will be, even if he questioned whether was the best there is. The pair traded jibes about conditioning, bizarre until temporary WWF president Roddy Piper made the match a sixty minute match where the most falls wins, one quickly christened an “Ironman” match by Vince McMahon on commentary.
It’s not particularly easy to work out why the company wanted a sixty minute match at Wrestlemania. Sure, it would limit the rest of the show, and limit the amount of other matches they would need at a time where their roster lacked star power. But a sixty minute match? This wasn’t NWA WCW, this wasn’t 1985, their audience hadn’t been conditioned to understand the significance of a long match.
The match also logistically provided a risk. Bret Hart had one finishing move – his sharpshooter. The idea of Shawn submitting as the #1 babyface in waiting made little sense, and it exposed Bret’s lack of an impact finisher – most of his main event matches ended in cradles or rolls for clean if unsatisfying victories. Shawn at least had his vicious superkick, and one would hope that after he went to a time limit draw against Kama at the 1995 King Of The Ring (before superkicking him after the bell). We hoped he had learned his lesson.
ECW had done an hour long time limit draw, famously in 1994. But the scenario was very different – that involved three men, rather than two (the match divided almost into thirds, with Sabu being carted off after a quarter of an hour before Terry Funk arrived in the match). It also featured an absolute butt-load of interference, the only real time it was a three way was the last 10-15 minutes. For a test of who was the best man, and the way the company had framed the match, Bret and Shawn needed to be mano-e-mano.
The build throughout March was a bit of a disappointment. While the opening promo exchange probably got a pass, the lack of real beef that developed between the two over the coming weeks was a big disappointment. They went away and filmed training video packages with both of them, but side by side they lacked coherence. Shawn focused on himself, talking about his training and his desire. Bret’s contributions focused almost entirely on Shawn, criticizing his Mexican style wrestling (calling him a tennis ball, amongst other things), and questioning whether he was “tough”.
But otherwise what we got on Raw a was a bit odd. Shawn came out and scouted Bret during a match with Hunter Hearst Helmsley… then just walked off. On the final Raw before Mania the limit of the build was Bret coming to ringside for an jarringly even match between Michaels and Leaf Cassidy (Al Snow), before getting involved with Marty Jannetty (Cassidy’s tag partner at the time). Jannetty seemed to get involved in the finish, Bret went over for some words and Shawn confronted him after the match. That was it.
While that kind of UFC style fight promo wasn’t referenceable at this stage, WWF did have a recent history of building a babyface vs babyface feud. Go back to the Raw before Survivor Series in 1995, building Bret against Diesel, and you’ll see a great exchange between the two faces on a split screen. Both talked of respect but in a way that built a beef – they were both likeable but in a way that made it very easy for fans to pick a side.
But that was all, largely, irrelevant. The only thing people were ever going to remember was the match itself. Afforded such a large portion of the pay per view, it made the entire show lack consequence – not that there was anything earlier on that was in danger of stealing the spotlight. And even if there was, it would’ve been quickly forgotten when Shawn appeared high in the Arrowhead Pond in Anahiem, before zip wiring his way from the rafters into the flat section of the crowd. Bret had to follow that – his standard walk out fit Bret’s serious character, but kind of made him look inferior in comparison.
The pair were gathered in centre-ring, Shawn was flanked by Lothario (a bizarre addition to Shawn’s character who would stick for the rest of the year). Gorilla Monsoon was also on hand, making his first appearance after a great angle on Raw in January where he was laid out by Vader. Earl Hebner, mic’d up, gave a slightly awkward full introduction of the rules, but one that perfectly framed the prize on offer. It’s the kind of thing that’s common place in UFC now that WWE might think of reviving.
For all the talk of conditioning the opening half hour was rather flat. Save an angle where Shawn inadvertently superkicked Tony Chimel at ringside, it was largely full of rest holds and submissions, with Shawn largely arbitrarily working Bret’s arm, and Bret working headlocks. It’s perhaps easy to say in hindsight, but it wasn’t an opening that suggested to anyone watching or anyone inattendance that the first 45 minutes were going to be of much note. The lukewarm reaction and reports of people leaving could hardly have been considered a surprise.
The lack of drama was further driven home by the commentators. What submission work in the early goings that would’ve been effective was largely nullified by both Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler not being able to get over the tactics behind them. Whether the WWF had educated their audience in a way that would’ve seen this tactic work is another story, but it didn’t help.
The drama picked up on the half hour mark. The rest holds became less frequent as the pair went to some bigger spots, including a ref bump and Shawn being thrown around the ring and taking Lothario out on the outside. But even as the action increased it rarely felt like a fall was incoming. Baring a couple of attempts on the half hour mark Shawn had barely shaped for a superkick, Bret in theory was working towards a sharpshooter but given that it was his deadliest weapon it made little sense for that to stay in the locker either.
The rest of the match consisted of a series of spots designed to up the ante. The fans had flattened out a little, even booing a spot after Shawn kicked out of a piledriver as they realized the scoreline would likely remain 0-0 for the rest of the match. Bret teased embracing the heel role in the match, but never really went all the way. Shawn flung himself off the turnbuckle like a dart levelling Bret on the outside, he also took a bump over the turnbuckle that drew a gasp from the crowd as the cameraman on the floor had to duck for cover.
The final minutes of the match perhaps lacked the inherent punch and drama that they should. Shawn dominated the final few minutes but inexplicably left the superkick at the door. He came off the top and Bret caught his legs, turning it over into the Sharpshooter with 30 seconds to go. Shawn clung on with dear life, but the sequence lacked drama, at this stage the idea of Shawn submitting with a few seconds left felt far-fetched. The hour concluded and Bret walked off with his title, rightly concluding that in the event of a draw he retained his title.
That was, of course, until Gorilla Monsoon decided to restart the match in a period of sudden death overtime. Bret, befuddled, walked back to the ring as Michaels recovered and the match restarted. Bret fired Shawn into the turnbuckle, Shawn leapfrogged Bret’s attack and FINALLY hit him with the superkick. Both men were out flat, Shawn got to his feet first and laid in a second superkick for good measure. A three count later and Shawn Michaels had won his first WWE Championship.
Any chance of a “passing of the torch” moment was denied as Shawn almost demanded the ring be cleared for his celebration, Bret b-lined for the back and Shawn soaked in the adulation of the crowd (minus those – and there were quite a number – who left during the match). The match for both of them represented a significant risk, one of a length rarely seen in wrestling, let alone in the WWF, in years. The match had gone off as planned, and by and large avoided disaster that could’ve tarnished Shawn’s defining moment.
But questions, for me, linger over whether the match could and perhaps should have been better. What the pair set out to execute the did very well, but the idea of going 0-0 in normal time was perhaps and attempt at trying to be too clever. The fans weren’t ready for it, and it really left them nowhere to go – as the first half of large rest holds illustrated. The format probably didn’t lend itself to lots of falls, Shawn being pinned or worse, submitted on the night of his coronation would hardly have been a smart idea, and Bret’s lack of finish meant this match being 5-4 would not have gone down well if it had have been an exchange of roll ups and cradles.
An improvement, perhaps, would’ve been to give Shawn the single fall in normal time. Be it at the start of the match, or even right near the end, Shawn picking up the first fall would’ve added a level of intensity to the match that just wasn’t present. Bret being one fall down would’ve put him in chase mode, and (perhaps) would’ve suited him trying more and more heel tactics as the match neared its close. Bret was no stranger for heeling it up where necessary – as his matches with Diesel showed, and with him about to depart the WWF for an extended hiatus to pursue an acting career, would’ve hardly damaged him long term. If Shawn was 1-0 going into the final minute, the spot with him in the sharpshooter would’ve carried much more weight.
It’s hard to be overly critical of the Ironman match, both men worked bloody hard and put on what is undoubtedly a very good effort. But given that they denied what almost certainly would’ve been a great “normal” match, they perhaps would’ve set the bar higher than where they reached. It’s perhaps an illustration as to how the company viewed the match that it would be over four years before they revisited the concept – with The Rock and Triple H going 6-5 in an hour long match. Every sixty minute Ironman match the company has ever put on since has included at least seven falls.