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It was something of an odd statement to make when, on April's WWF podcast, I made mention of a potential comparison between the NWO and the genesis of what would become known as the Hart Foundation. There were a whole host of reasons why the groups weren't similar at all, yet there were the odd similarities. Both started as a group of three, before swelling with what were deemed to be necessary additions. Both quickly developed the reputation of attacking without warning and without mercy. But perhaps most importantly, both involved the heel turn of the promotions highest paid act.
There's always been a certain amount of romanticism about Bret Hart's run in the WWF, at least until the beginning of 1997 anyway. People categorise the "new generation" era, that between the end of Hogan and the rise of Austin, as the time when the smaller Hart and Shawn Michaels were ushered in as the next rising stars of the company, only to be ended by a combination of Bret's defection to WCW, Shawn's retirement and the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin. But none of that is really true.
Because, there's a list of names that Vince McMahon pushed in the number one spot in the time after Hulk Hogan left and, before 1997, that list never included Bret Hart. Sure, Bret was champion – multiple times in fact, but Bret's job was often just clean-up. He won the title in 1994, only after Vince McMahon abonded an experiment with Lex Luger. He won the title at the end of 1995, only after McMahon abandoned an experiment with Diesel. Even Bret's fourth reign, not until 1997, came about when Shawn Michaels abdicated – a reign that would only last 24 hours before Bret put the title back onto Sid.
Even Bret's status as the best wrestler of that era doesn't really hold up. Bret's wrestling ability was more about being believable and compelling more than it was about raw excitement, but the problem was rarely was he put in spots for that to matter. In 1995 Bret had a pair of showing saving matches with Hakushi and Jean-Pierre Lafitte (to which, you might quite rightly shout "who?") - but neither match mattered. But the truth of the matter is, ask anyone with a broad enough view of wrestling in 1995/1996 who the best wrestler in North America was, and it's not difficult to imagine most wouldn't say Bret's name. For all of his positives, he wasn't Chris Benoit, he wasn't Rey Mysterio and, perhaps hardest of all to take, he wasn't Shawn Michaels.
Bret was a 9/10 guy often in an 8/10 spot – that was all. When it came to his first title defence in 1994, against Diesel at King of the Ring, the match that main evented was Jerry Lawler vs Roddy Piper. When it came to Summerslam, in a match against his brother Owen, the main event was Undertaker vs Undertaker. We can say all we want about the merits (or lack thereof) of those matches headlining those shows, but I can guarantee that Hulk Hogan wouldn't have gone on in the middle of those cards. Neither would Steve Austin at his peak, neither would any "top star" worthy of the name.
Butif in 1994 he was the Champion of the mid-card and if for the bulk of 1995 he was just, well, mid-card. Bret was having good matches when the right opponent came up, and even sometimes when he didn't: his matches with lower card acts Hakushi and Jean-Pierre Lafitte were certainly memorable – as was by his own admission, the worst of his career against Bob Backlund. But much like with Lex Luger 18 months earlier, Bret's time would come again once Vince McMahon busted out on his latest project. Where Diesel was concerned, we've written about that run to death, but suffice to say change was necessary, and Bret was the only viable choice.
Once again though, much like in 1994 where Bret was a transitional champion for Lex Luger to Diesel (in those days a transition could really take 7-8 months), this time he was keeping the seat warm for Shawn Michaels. At least this time he was in the main event, working a highly enjoyable match with The British Bulldog at the tail end of 1995 before working consecutive main events with Undertaker and Diesel that were both just drab. Shawn Michaels, meanwhile, having once again worked himself a period of time off, returned in time to win the Royal Rumble for a second consecutive time and setup a match between WWF's two best in-ring performers.
It was at this time someone suggested the idea for an unusual match – a sixty minute ironman match which was essentially a hybrid of the old two out of three falls matches and the sixty minute "broadways" that would so often take place in a bygone era. Going sixty minutes was an incredibly brave step, one that I've explored in much greater depth here, but one that at least made sense given the strengths of the two guys involved.
The match went pretty well - it wasn't the all-time classic that perhaps some would've expected, and it did certainly lose the attention of a portion of the live crowd; which, when you think the other major draw for the show was the Ultimate Warrior, makes total sense. But after sixty fall-less minutes, Shawn finally discharged his superkick in overtime to pickup the win and his first WWF title. After a worked confrontation between the two, Bret left – swore at the camera in an angle shot for Raw and then basically disappeared, working a few remaining overseas house shows before essentially leaving the company after his contract expired.
There was at least the expectation Bret would return, and the thought that Bret's decision to take a leave was a deliberate choice doesn't really hold up: weakening the ensemble cast for Shawn Michaels (that with the depature of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, along with the potential exit of the British Bulldog) meant that Shawn was completely exposed as Champion right at the moment when WCW was starting to get hot. This idea, on its own at least, seems pretty unlikely. Bret was taking time-off at the end of his contract, a break which he hadn't really had to date. Even if you were in "Shawn's camp" Shawn could hardly complain about a guy taking a break when he "managed" it so frequently.
Business with Shawn on top, relatively speaking, didn't do that badly. It was a combination of factors – Shawn himself was unarguably the most popular champion the WWF had had since Hogan, although in the company of Yokozuna, Bret, Backlund and Diesel that was hardly the biggest praise. The Ultimate Warrior's run in the first half of the year also did a lot to help business, as to an extent did the rise of WCW – a rising tide lifts all boats, right? But as with the competition factor that had built in, most of those numbers really didn't matter – people were looking at those Monday night numbers and the WWF (through no real fault of Shawn's) were sagging as WCW took the ball the WWF handed to them in Scott Hall and Kevin Nash and ran far down the field.
By the time Bret was looking to return the landscape had changed somewhat. Michaels was Mr Consistent, working a string of show-saving main events throughout the summer – but with a lack of viable opponents and the overexposure of his character he was beginning to wane of some of the WWF's fans, particularly the males. Michaels working style, and the accepted responsibility of being the number one guy would also start to take its toll, he'd been wearing knee braces for over a year by this point. It meant that if you wanted to find a conspiracy, Bret left right around the time everyone else was leaving, gave Michaels six months to sink on top, then came back right around the time where he (Bret) had all of the negotiating power and Michaels was running on fumes. Again, you're undeniably asking a lot, but thanks to WCW's interest in him – which I've written about here – Bret returned with far more leverage than when he left.
Bret identified Steve Austin as his first opponent back, the two competing in a fine match at Survivor Series match in which Bret did more to get Austin over in 25 minutes than basically everything the WWF had tried up until that point. Austin was at least riding the crest of a wave that saw WWF beginning to push the boundaries of their usually quite stoic programming, most famously in a Raw completely envolped by a show long storyline between him and Brian Pillman that ended when Pillman pulled a gun on Austin.
Everyone around this time seemed to be finding an "attitude" - Austin was no more pissed off than normal, but had a far better platform to showcase it on. Undertaker had gone through a bit of a transformation – more surrounding his look and working style than anything else, and even Shawn Michaels after he dropped the WWF title to Sid had his own pissed off mantra. Bret in some respects was in danger of being left behind – attitude meant edge, one thing that Bret really never had. And unlike both Austin and Michaels, Bret didn't really have their charisma either.
In February 1996, ahead of their ironman match, Bret and Shawn had a promo exchange mid-ring, it was an odd one at the time – both stereotypical babyfaces they both talked each other up, talking about their respective in-ring prowess and conditioning, and how it would be the battle of who was the best man. Fast forward 8/9 months and the words had changed a bit. They were now trading insults, Bret mocking Shawn posing in PlayGirl (later saying "Girls don't read it"), before Michaels shot back by saying that Bret was "no role model" on the road.
The problem with the drifting attitude was that while it came like second nature to both Michaels and Austin (both playing "themselves with the volume turned up") - it's not the kind of charisma that came naturally to Bret. Not to say Bret wasn't charismatic, but the name "Hitman" wasn't just a cool moniker, it was Bret's strength. Bret's gimmick was being (in many minds) the best wrestler on the planet. But with everything changing, it kinda left Bret without really a choice – stick with a dated character/promo style and get left behind, or drown attempting to try and be as cool as two guys who he just wouldn't be able to hang with.
Which, in one respect, is what made the potential heel turn actually so smooth. Bret's anger started as a babyface with a point but quickly started falling apart. People talk about Bret "turning" at Wrestlemania, the truth is he'd turned long before that. Once a babyface's arguments failing to stand-up to cross-examination then he stops being a face. And that was the beauty of the flip, the reason everyone says that Bret turned at Wrestlemania is because it was the only part of the transition that involved any real change of direction, everything else was the equivalent of a frog being in a pan of water just applied to a flame.
The other massive factor that helped in the transition, equally if not far more important, was the Steve Austin train careering up the WWF promotion. While WWF history has Austin's famous King Of The Ring promo as the night that kicked it all off, the truth is (much like Bret's turn, or lack-thereof) pinning down a single moment where Austin went from a nobody to a somebody is pretty much impossible. Fortunately, the chapters are a little easier to plot. There was, of course, the Pillman gun angle, but one that history remembers less well was the night of a split-screen promo between Austin and Bret that probably proves the point that I was making above.
In the space of just a few minutes, after Bret fumbled around his return to the ring and how he was going to beat Austin, McMahon gave the floor to Austin who proceeded to tear Bret a new one. While he likely would've picked Austin as a feud with the idea of helping to get Austin over, it really is hard to imagine that Bret would've liked to expose himself as much as he did in the exchange. Bret wasn't just left speechless – he was left behind.
And that's why the whole thing worked so well. Bret went from a guy with a point, to a guy still with a point but presented in a way that was starting grate on people. Bret certainly had a point when he bemoaned Shawn Michaels' interference in his title shot in December, he certainly had a point when he won the Royal Rumble only to be eliminated by a man (Austin) who shouldn't have been allowed be in the match. After he won the WWF title for a fourth time in February, he probably had a point about having to defend his title against Sid 24 hours after one of the best WWF matches in about two years.
But nobody likes a whiner.
That's why, when six days before Wrestlemania, when Bret finally snapped, it wasn't really a "turn" - you'd need to be blind to be surprised by it. After getting his rematch against Sid for the WWF title six days before the big show of the year, you had the bizarre dynamic of Bret and Sid's respective Wrestlemania opponents both trying to ensure that their man won: Undertaker attempting to help Sid win, to ensure that his Wrestlemania match would be for the title, and Austin attempting to help Bret win to add the title to their match. After interference blew Bret's shot, Bret finally blew his top. As Vince McMahon pressed him for comment, Bret shoved McMahon to the mat (getting physical with Vince, at this stage, really didn't happen) - before proclaiming that it's "bullshit" and later swearing again, both made the air un-bleeped in a move probably agreed with the USA network.
It set the stage for Bret and Austin at Wrestlemania, but it really is worth pointing out... Wrestlemania 13 was poorly built. A seemingly sudden expansion to two hours of Raw in early February caught the promotion completely on the hop, as they scrambled to fill extra shows with tapings they just didn't have. The loss of Shawn Michaels about six weeks prior was also a massive shock – Austin vs Bret Hart wasn't even meant to be on the card. But still, even with those two big factors it's unarguable that the build to the show was poor – TV limped from week to week, desperate to grab ratings and find some chronology, instead we ended up with a title match six days out that could've had a big impact on the show. Sid vs Undertaker was cold, and Austin against Bret wasn’t capable of saving the build for a show that did 237,000 buys – a pre-Network record low by some distance.
Fortunately though, while Austin and Bret weren't capable of saving the build, they did manage to save the show. While there's an argument about Bret as the best *wrestler* of this generation, there's much less debate when it comes to Bret being the best storyteller. With a fairly split crowd at the start of the match, Bret settled into a familiar tactic when he was required to work a heel (namely: work the legs, use the ring posts and a steel chair). Once again it worked pretty well as the crowd slowly started to rally behind Austin who was taking a pummelling.
Then there was the now famous finish, after going over the announcers table Austin bladed, ensuring the sufficient level of colour for when Bret would have Austin in the sharpshooter. Austin's status as the heroic babyface was being cememted, set once Ken Shamrock called an end to the match with Austin passed out. Good guys don't tap out, they pass out in the pain (or so goes the logic, it's not something that's inherently lasted the distance of time as more modern MMA shows, but it worked here). Crucially though, Bret didn't get booed at the conclusion of the match – the crowd popped for the finish. After all, Bret beat the shit out of Austin for 25 minutes then won, decisively. There's nothing heelish about that.
Fortunately, though, they had one extra card up their sleeve that would finish the job. When Shawn Michaels stepped back six weeks before, the WWF upped their interest in then UFC fighter Ken Shamrock. Shamrock, up until that point, was probably the most bankable UFC star, carrying (with a good degree of certainty) the moniker of the baddest man on the planet. But with UFC struggling financially thanks to a series of bans and blackouts that would set them back a number of years, they could barely match the money they guaranteed Shamrock for 1996, making him a free agent. Shamrock talked to all parties, including companies from both sides of the aisle in Japan, and WCW. But after the WWF realised Michaels would be out they made Shamrock and offer he couldn't refuse. In some respects, it was perhaps the one thing about the build to Wrestlemania that had actually gone well.
When Bret wouldn't release the hold, Shamrock hauled him off of Austin. Bret looked pissed off, so Shamrock reset his stance, raising his arms into a grappling position as if to challenge Bret to a fight. This whipped up the crowd once again – while Shamrock's introduction had hardly been that strong, he had some name value coming in and, above all else, he looked stacked. Bret looked around, then just packed his bags and walked off. Bad guys don't beat their foes cleanly and decisively, but bad guys do back down from a one-on-one fight and walk off like a coward. As if to complete the double turn yet further, after Bret had gone Austin stunnered one of the referees attempting to assist him to the back. Now, good guys don't assault officials, but this was the point – Austin wasn't a "good guy", he was a bad ass.
It just left Bret one thing to do – cement the turn. People always talk about Hulk Hogan's promo in the immediate aftermath of the main event of the Bash at the Beach, but in some ways while that one has gone on to become the famous promo, in many ways it was Hogan's first promo on television that would be much more important, seen by many more eyeballs. The key difference between Hogan in WCW and Bret in the WWF was that people actually liked Bret. See, people had been booing Hogan to one degree or another since he arrived in WCW, Bret still was a fan favourite. It left them both with a complex problem and an intricate solution.
Bret cut what, by 1997 times, was a marathon promo – one that combined with an exchange with Shawn Michaels went the better part of twenty minutes. Bret laid out a story of exactly how things unravelld that, while not perfect, was plausible enough to justify his change in attitude. Bret moaning about how things hadn't gone his way in the past year, how the fans cheered people like Steve Austin and booed when he won at Wrestlemania (which, again, isn't true – they booed him for running away from a fight with Shamrock) - but the minutiae has never been the biggest issue. Problem was, it was never going to be enough to get him booed.
So they crowbarred in an anti-America angle. It didn't really make sense, Bret had maintained popularity in the US and beyond in the months leading up to the turn, but they lent on the one thing that always works – the pro or anti USA stuff just works in the US. Bret had to work really hard, talking about how the WWF had turned his brother against him and how the American fans were embracing the new attitudes of the likes of Austin and Michaels. It was crowbarred, and if you anaylsed it enough it stopped making sense fast, but it was enough. Michaels came out and accused Bret of being a cry-baby and pushed the first amendment before Bret viciously attacked Shawn from behind, going after his hurt knee.
In a lot of ways, much like Bret the wrestler, the turn was well thought out. It was believeable, slow and, perhaps most importantly, it made sense. With Michaels and Undertaker both big acts, and Bret being one of the first to identify Austin's potential (and of that group probably the first that was really in a position to do anything about it) Bret trying to out-cool a couple of guys who were far more natural at it than him wouldn't have ended well. Now the new Bret Hart was away, just what would await him?