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Listening to Vince McMahon's appearance on Steve Austin's podcast, it was interesting to hear him talk about Brock Lesnar as WWE Champion, and how it's the star, not the belt, that's the attraction. I'm not 100% sure what point he was making, given that neither Lesnar nor the WWE Title have been anywhere near TV in months, but it's an interesting look into the mindset of modern day Vince McMahon. The situation was similar a couple of years ago with CM Punk, who despite being champion for the entirity of 2012 often played second fiddle to main events involving John Cena and even one involving John Laurinaitis.
It's not just a modern scenario, however. Bret Hart as champion in 1994 would suffer a similar fate. Of the 5 PPVs, Bret was in the closing scenes of the Royal Rumble (as joint winner) and Wrestlemania (defeating Yokozuna in the second WWF Title match of the evening - the show effectively had no marketable main event) before playing second fiddle to Jerry Lawler vs Roddy Piper at King of the Ring, Undertaker vs Undertaker (yes, really) at Summerslam and The Undertaker vs Yokozuna at Survivor Series.
But unlike in 2012, where Punk's demotion down the card was the expense of John Cena (a man who had been at the top of the WWE for seven years by that stage), Hart was Champion at a time when the WWF was making significant transitions at the top of its roster. Consider this, names like Crush, Randy Savage, Yokozuna and Lex Luger – all involved in major matches at Wrestlemania, would either have departed the company come the end of 1994 (Crush/Savage) or would be of significantly less priority – even if Yokozuna did main event Survivor Series it would be his last major match for the company.
READ MORE: Feud in Review - Bret Hart vs Owen Hart
Hart was at the forefront of the new generation, alongside people like his brother Owen, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel, The 123 Kid and more. Despite billing the King of the Ring 1994 as the start of the “New Generation”, the WWF perplexingly went with Lawler vs Piper in the main event. A decision difficult to understand on any possible angle, it's not like the Lawler/Piper storyline had any legs, or either man was a particularly big draw by this point. Whether you thin Hart vs Diesel was the best match on the card depends on how horrified you were at the psychology defying 123 Kid vs Owen Hart 4 minute spectacular earlier in the night.
WWF's reliance on Hart to produce the good in the ring would continue between the June and August PPVs. Hart wrestling a very good match with the 123 Kid for the WWF title and another good match with Bob Backlund at the end of July – a match that would be a pre-cursor to their feud headed into Survivor Series. At Summerslam, Bret reprised his feud with his brother Owen in a cage match that was about as good as the format was ever going to allow them to be. Undertaker vs Undertaker – a feud that was going to turn the fortunes of the company around (supposedly), went on last, despite the fact that putting Bret vs Owen in the middle of the show meant the WWF had to kill time both before and after the match while the cage was built/disassembled. Undertaker vs Undertaker in the main event was as bad as Bret vs Owen was good... Bret vs Owen was great.
Bret would move onto a feud with Bob Backlund headed into the Autumn. Backlund more than held his own building himself into a credible and highly entertaining challenger for Bret. Certainly one area Bret wasn't likely to win any awards was in the charisma or promo stakes, but that wasn't what he was champion for. His interaction with Backlund was limited, even by 1994 stakes, but the stipulation of a towel vs towel match was certainly an intruiging one, a submission match where the only way that you could win would be to make your opponents cornerman throw in the towel.
Rumours of the decision to take the title of Bret surfaced in the wrestling newsletters a few weeks before the PPV. It's hard to say much more than that as the suspicion was the title change wasn't likely to come so soon, nor was a clear new winner even obvious – both Backlund and Diesel seemed unlikely winners at that stage, even if Diesel was primed for the title at some point in the next twelve months.
Bret's title reign would end in the same way it ran, in the middle of the card in a long title match against Backlund. It was hardly a thriller, their styles seemed to clash and the submission stipulation undercut their ability to tell an easy story. It was saved by a great angle involving Owen Hart and Bret's parents at ringside, even if Bret was locked in the crossface chicken wing for a logic-defying nine minutes.
In answering the question of why Bret never truly got the ball in 1994, the answer is both not clear at all and blindingly obvious. What's obvious is that Bret wasn't seen as a big enough star, he was at best the emergency fallback when things with Lex Luger fell through who lacked the charisma that opitimised what the company looked for in a top star. At the same time, the list of matches and programmes that supplanted Bret's main event spot were hardly ground-breaking. At least by switching the title to Diesel, via Backlund, the WWF took a very definitive turn in direction. Would Diesel fare any better? We will find out!