Real Feuds: Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart
When I came up with the idea for Real Feuds (way back in the days of Wordpress), it was with the intent of one day writing about the most infamous real life professional wrestling feud of all time: Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels. If you’re familiar with my writing for TJR, you know that Hart and Michaels are my two favorite wrestlers, and I’m fascinated with their history. Unfortunately, as I continued to write Real Feud articles, I found my ultimate goal to be a bit daunting. How would I be able to do a feud like Hart vs Michaels justice? There was just so much to it.
Then, between the time I began the Real Feuds series and now, WWE released a fantastic dvd documentary on the very subject: Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart. If you haven’t seen the feature yet, I encourage you to head over to Amazon right now and purchase the set. It’s a shockingly honest look at their rivalry, with Hart and Michaels confronting their past disagreements face to face, all moderated by the incomparable Jim Ross. Nothing I could possibly write about Hart vs Michaels could possibly compare to what’s covered in WWE’s excellent release.
Still, as someone who adored both wrestlers growing up, I think more can be said regarding their lasting legacies. In this edition of Real Feuds, I’m going to skip the “How the Feud Began” portion of the article. Not only because I feel it would be a waste of time, but because there is simply way too much to cover. Again, I’m instead going to refer you to Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart. Besides not covering Michael’s drug abuse in the late 90s, the documentary is pretty comprehensive.
Skipping the story of how the feud began also allows for more space dedicated to these three questions:
1. Who was the better worker?
2. Who was the bigger draw?
3. Who will have the greater legacy?
In the past, when writing about Jericho vs Goldberg, or Warrior vs Hogan, I’ve found the answers to these questions to be fairly obvious. But when it comes to Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels, I don’t foresee simple, cut-and-dry, answers. So, without further adieu, let’s get to it:
Who was the better worker?
Determining who was the better worker between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels is like determining who was the better artist between Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo Buonarroti, sure the Mona Lisa was sweet, but have you seen The Torment of Saint Anthony? (wink and a nod to Italian Renaissance/wrestling fans out there) In other words, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels will undoubtedly be remembered as two of the greatest performers to ever enter the squared circle. They did have different styles worth mentioning.
Bret Hart was the personification of technical wrestling. A combination of shoot and mat-style wrestling, technical wrestling is to appear closely related to what you’d see in amatuer wrestling. It is therefore meant to look legitimate. And that was something Bret Hart prided himself on, everything he performed looked real, which added to the drama in his matches stories. Bret’s punches looked like real punches, his kicks like real kicks, and his holds like real holds. Everything was excellently executed (hence the name “excellence of execution”), and his transitions flowed smoothly. As an in-ring general, nobody was better. Hart could make someone without talent look good, and someone with talent look like a legend.
For as good as he was a technical wrestler, Hart simply couldn’t match Shawn Michael’s versatility. Hart excelled at a technical style, and could pull off a convincing brawler. Michaels excelled as a mat wrestler, a high-flyer, a brawler, and pretty much every other style outside of power wrestler. Because of his versatility, Michaels could match up well with virtually any opponent. Just think about his top opponents of all time: Bret Hart, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, Ric Flair, Razor Ramon... he even made Vince McMahon look great at Wrestlemania 22.
Few could argue that Shawn was the better man to work with in the 90s. While Bret could get in the ring with anyone, and make them look like a talented performer, Michaels had a reputation for being selfish once he attained a certain level in the WWE. But once he cleaned himself up, and returned to the WWE in 2002, Michaels became a different man. He worked to elevate new talent, and consistently worked at the highest level. As great as he was in the 90s, Michaels arguably got better with age.
Who was the bigger draw?
Although they are separated by eight years in age, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were most prominent during the same era: the mid 1990s. It was an era of transition for the WWE, in which the company actively moved away from steroid-fueled cartoon characters like Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior, and focussed on more convincing athletes like Hart and Michaels. Ironically, both Hart and Michaels have both been linked to steroids, but that’s besides the point. Hart was given the ball to run with first, and had a fairly successful run as WWE Champion. He was immensely popular with the international crowd, which solidified him as a go-to champion when the WWE need someone stable to hold the title.
But Bret wasn’t Hulk Hogan, and Vince McMahon knew that. While Bret would argue that both Hogan and McMahon didn’t allow Hart to become the next BIG THING by having Bret go over Hogan, you still have to question how high that win would have elevated Hart’s ceiling. During Hart’s entire title run(s), McMahon was looking for someone to step in and become the new face of the company. For a short while, he believed it would be Diesel (Kevin Nash), but when that fell through, Shawn Michaels became THE guy.
Beginning with his win over Hart at Wrestlemania 12, Michaels put together a respectable title reign in 1996. But ratings failed to increase, and the WWE experimented with putting the title on Psycho Sid. And after Michaels won the title back, he prematurely retired “due to injury”, rather than drop the belt to Hart at Wrestlemania 13. With the WWE looking to place the belt back on Hart, it was clear that McMahon and company had less confidence in Michaels’ ability to draw then Hart’s, right? It would be easy, then, to claim that Hart was the bigger draw.
Of course, the story doesn’t end in 1996. The following year was really the kickoff to the Attitude Era. Both Hart and Michaels played key roles in fostering the era, which would become the greatest boom in industry history. Unfortunately for Hart, the WWE chose to release him just before the era really took off, and he spent the rest of his active career in the very dysfunctional WCW. Michaels, on the other hand, stuck with the WWE, embraced the Attitude Era, and although he once again faced early retirement due to injury, he eventually returned as a beloved legend.
Who will have the greater legacy?
So who will be remembered as more important to professional wrestling, Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels? If there’s anything you should have picked up by reading this far, it’s that no question or comparison is simple when it involves Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels.
First of all, both men held the WWE torch while the search for the next BIG thing was conducted. Between Hogan and Austin, there was Hart and Michaels. Their importance cannot be understated - they held steady while the WWE faced legitimate competition from the WCW. Hart in particular helped the WWE achieve great business internationally. Both men also set the standard for what a WWE Champion should be. Today, hardcore fans decry the pushes of big-bodies with little talent. In-ring ability is almost always a must, and fans of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, and a myriad of others should thank Hart and Michaels for setting a precedent.
Despite being a relatively short time in both men’s careers, the Attitude Era also plays a big role in their legacies. Bret was a reluctant player in the era, his resistance to change perhaps being a factor in his departure from the WWE. Yet he did some of the best work of his career in 1997. His match with Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 13 (which, remember, was a consolation match, as the original plan was a rematch with Shawn Michaels) stands the test of time as one of the greatest matches of all time. If not THE greatest match, it has to be THE greatest story ever told in ring. It’s largely contributed with kicking off the Attitude Era. And if that isn’t enough evidence of Hart’s role in shaping the Attitude Era, his dual heel/face persona during his remaining time with the company should. Like the pro he was, Bret was given a role, and he ran with it. Just for fun, watch the lead up to Hart vs Austin.
Of course, Shawn Michaels will always be known for being a key player in the Attitude Era, thanks to his role in Degeneration-X. Vince McMahon, perhaps out of desperation, or trust in Michaels, gave Michaels plenty of creative license with DX. What resulted was rude, vulgar, and classless... so much of what made the Attitude Era great. The magic of it all? Shawn simply had to be Shawn. During this period, he was arrogant and selfish, at any other time it might have hurt his standing with the company. But during the Attitude Era, it added to the realistic/amplified atmosphere of the WWE. Millions of viewers tuned in weekly to see what Michaels would do next, it didn’t matter if they loved or hated him, he was must-see tv. Perhaps more so than Hart, he set the stage for Austin, and ultimately the most important era in WWE history.
Unfortunately, further comparison between Hart and Michaels is impossible due to a career ending injury suffered by Hart in the WCW. The concussion, which may have led to a severe stroke in 2002, stemmed from a kick to the head by Bill Goldberg. Hart was forced out of the industry he cared so intensely for.
Michaels, conversely, found religion, got healthy, and had an amazing second (or was it third? Or fourth?) run from 2002-2010. I think it gets lost just how amazing that second run was. As a fan of Michaels in the 90s, I was heartbroken to see him retire. If you were to tell me in 1999 or 2000 that HBK would eventually return for an eight year run, I would’ve called you nuts. But that was Shawn Michaels, he prided himself on exceeding expectations and being the best. During this run, Michaels did everything right, going out of his way to put over young talent deserving of a push.
So who won this real life feud? I’ll be damned if I'm going to choose between my two favorite wrestlers of all time. I think that’s secretly why I’ve put off this article for so long. How about this for a cop out: the fans won. They got to watch two of the greatest ever battle it out in a multi-year intense feud. Yeah, it’s a cheap out, but I’m going to take it. Both men will be remembered as fondly as a wrestler can be, and they both deserve their high standing in the industry.
Because I’m a sucker for sentimental moments, here’s a picture that wraps things up nicely:
Heart warming, isn't it?
- Thomas Briggs
Thoughts and opinions? Share them with me!