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In October 1996, Bret Hart signed the famous 20-year contract with the World Wrestling Federation, one that represented an unprecedented deal for the company that would see Hart retire with the company before working with them elsewhere along with becoming the “Babe Ruth” of the WWF as Vince McMahon once wanted Hulk Hogan to become. But in the rapidly changing wrestling world, what might have happened had Bret Hart signed for WCW instead at that time?
READ MORE: What if Shawn Michaels joined WCW?
WCW themselves had made a big move for Hart in the month following the formation of the NWO while they’d created a barn-burner of an angle they’d also done a pretty lousy job at forming any kind of viable opposition for the group. After WCW had promised a big reveal (funnily enough one that almost ended up being The British Bulldog) but had no big name to deliver, they instead went to The Giant – who really was well on the way to becoming a massive babyface for WCW. It was a massive get, 4-0 to the NWO if you like, but it unbalanced the options at the top.
Still, they had an angle to pull off so in the coming couple of weeks did a turn of Sting also, in this case an angle that turned out to be a fake. But the real Sting was on his own journey, one that would see him turn his back on his team in War Games, before telling those who doubted his loyalties to “Stick it”. The journey would take Sting to heights he’d never remotely hit previously, but in the grand scheme of things, changing the direction of someone who’d been a big babyface for what felt like a decade represented a significant risk. As it was, to pull the angle off, Sting had to disappear for a while. Another one down.
Then, in October, Ric Flair too had to pull out of the running, requiring surgery on an injury. With the NWO swelling in numbers; jumping from three at the very beginning of September to include Ted DiBiase, Syxx, Fake Sting, Vincent (Virgil), The Giant, Nascar driver Kyle Petty and, briefly, The Nasty Boys; WCW needed something to respond with. Never mind the booking that, even less than three months in, already seemed like it was designed to hamper WCW: when The Giant walked out and turned to join the group, he came out to “save” Hogan, Nash and Hall. The only problem was, thanks to Hogan getting his mitts all over the angle, rather than the three members of the group of the from a beatdown from the eight people in the main event Giant came down and “saved” the group from the mauling they’d already given to them.
So, needless to say, the WCW side needed some help. And sure, they’d find it with the emergence of a complete change in direction for the Sting character inspired by a movie called "The Crow" released two years prior. But even so, Sting headed in a direction where he was essentially mute meant that something was still likely missing from the long term prospects for any anti-NWO fightback.
What Bret Hart might have bought to WCW in the height of the NWO angle, rather than 18 months after, is vastly different. There's a case, as there was when the NWO first started that Bret himself could've been the third man (I wrote more about that here) – but it was clear at the time a deal couldn't have been made while Bret still had commitments to the WWF before his contract expired. Coming in a few months later, with Hogan having already turned, would've made for an interesting time. It might have made sense to tease Bret siding with the NWO when he arrived as he was more WWF than everyone apart from Hogan, but given the lay of the land Bret swelling the NWO forces even further would've made little sense.
The more fascinating thing to think about, perhaps, is what might have been had Bret sided with WCW. What would have been the rationale for Bret Hart, an outsider, coming in from the outside and defending WCW from...well, the Outsiders? There's any number of possibilites, although the main one perhaps could've been a story around Bret being a hired gun for WCW (if you can overlook that Hitman pun) to defend WCW's honour. Or, more simply, that Bret has seen Hulk Hogan ruin one company and he couldn't let it happen again.
But Bret's place absolutely would've been amongst the babyface side – one thing the NWO angle struggled with from the outset was the match quality, even the match at Bash At The Beach was only remotely entertaining thanks to the promise of what was coming, the main and co-main of Hog Wild the following month was a warning shock if ever one was needed of what might happen when there wasn't anything on a match.
Bret could've easily carried Hogan, Nash, Hall, Giant and others through a series of main events from the end of 1996 well into 1997. Quite how they'd have been booked would've been another story, but it would've definitely ensured that main events didn't quite fall off a cliff to the levels they were beginning to in the middle of 1996. Bret vs Nash had been done to death, but this felt like a fresh matchup. Bret and Hall didn't happen much beyond 1993, Bret and Hogan felt like a legitimate dream match at this point and if anyone could've had a good match with The Giant it would've been the Hitman.
More intrigue though, perhaps, comes from what might have become of the WWF had Bret have left at the time. Contrary to some revisionist history Steve Austin was not riding the crest of a wave in the months following his King of the Ring promo. Unlike Bret, Owen Hart and even King Mabel previously, Austin was not the man in waiting following his King Of The Ring victory. There’s a very decent case he wasn’t even the best man for the role, with Vader a much more logical recipient of the title given his impending World Title match with Shawn Michaels.
Austin, though, had his backers long before 1996. Paul Heyman, on more than one occasion, attempted to bring Austin into ECW in 1994 – he’d have to wait a year before Austin would come in at the back end of 1995. Others too saw a lot in Austin – fortunately one man that did was Bret Hart. Hart called Austin the “best wrestler in the World Wrestling Federation” on his return promo in October, which says a lot about how much people thought of him given that Austin at the time didn’t have a library of great matches.
READ MORE: Superstar Steve Austin Lights Up ECW
So where does Austin fit into the story of Bret Hart? Well, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that in the months following his King of the Ring victory Austin wasn’t really going anywhere fast. Despite being on a roster of diminishing star power and talented if restricted mid-carders, Austin didn’t shine through. Not that he was often given the chance, in the three pay per views that followed KOTR he went from a forgettable match with Marc Mero, to a dark match at Summerslam against Yokozuna to not wrestling at In Your House in September on a show that featured ten matches and two Savio Vega matches.
But Austin did appear on the show, featuring in a fairly uneventful in-ring promo alongside Owen Hart and Brian Pillman. The gist of the promo was Austin calling him “what comes out of the rear end of a chicken” before saying “if you add an ‘s’ to the front of Hitman, you get my opinion of Bret Hart”. Clearly, even while Bret Hart was negotiating his future, he’d green lit the build for a feud with Austin. Even if it was Bret just attempting to get his name back on television in an attempt to increase his negotiating power with WCW.
What might have become of Austin had Bret signed with WCW maybe isn’t worth considering. Sure, Austin probably still would’ve received a push, but without the pair of greatly received matches with Bret Hart in the six months that followed where would his character have been and perhaps, more pertinently, where would the WWF have been? They were a company sorely lacking star power and had Bret not have returned their outlook going into 1997 would have been very, very different.