Gutteridge's WrestleMania Masters: Bret Hart - The Good, The Bad, and The Weird of his WrestleMania run
Welcome to my WrestleMania blog series, "Mania Masters." Each article will focus on an individual who has competed in ten-plus WrestleMania matches, focusing on the good, the bad, the weird, and the somewhat forgotten.
WrestleMania Debut: WrestleMania 2 (1986)
Total Matches: 14
Wins: 8 (British Bulldogs and Tito Santana (Teamed with Jim Neidhart and Danny Davis) at WM 3; Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine (Teamed with Neidhart) at WM 5; Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov (Teamed with Neidhart) at WM 6; Roddy Piper at WM 8; Yokozuna at WM 10; Bob Backlund at WM 11; Steve Austin at WM 13; Vince McMahon at WM 26)
Losses: 6 (Battle Royal at WM 2; Battle Royal at WM 4; Nasty Boys (Teamed with Neidhart) at WM 7; Yokozuna at WM 9; Owen Hart at WM 10; Shawn Michaels at WM 12)
Wins: 8 // Losses: 6
Battle Royal at WM 2 // (British Bulldogs and Tito Santana (Teamed with Jim Neidhart and Danny Davis) at WM 3 // Battle Royal at WM 4 // Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine (Teamed with Neidhart) at WM 5 // Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov (Teamed with Neidhart) at WM 6 // Nasty Boys (Teamed with Neidhart) at WM 7 // Roddy Piper at WM 8 // Yokozuna at WM 9 // Owen Hart at WM 10 // Yokozuna at WM 10 // Bob Backlund at WM 11 // Shawn Michaels at WM 12 // Steve Austin at WM 13 // Vince McMahon at WM 26
The Big One: Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13
The double turn. One of the trickiest things to do effectively in all of wrestling booking. It requires two superstars meeting at at the same point of two opposite trajectories - a heel who the fans are ready to cheer, and a babyface they are ready to boo. And never has it been done better than at WM 13.
This felt like a fight from the get go. There was no lock-up, as Austin merely flung himself at Hart the second he got in the ring. The brawl through the crowd felt authentic because they couldn't get a good camera angle on them. The hits to ring posts, chairs and bells felt real because both men aren't holding back. At one point, Austin gets launched straight at the camera on his way to crashing through the time keeper area. I'm convinced that had to be organic because everybody is left lying in a heap at the end.
The factor that makes this double turn the textbook example, however, is how natural it felt. Hart had good reason for doing the malicious things he did - Austin had not only taunted him for months, but also cost him several chances to capture the WWF title. But yet the attacks on Austin's leg started to feel over the top. Conversely, Austin is still acting like a heel, but he is so resilient in the face of Hart's unrelenting onslaught that the fans start getting behind him.
In the end, a heavily bleeding Austin passes out in Hart's sharpshooter. That's a mans man right there, perfectly capturing the spirit of the Austin character the fans grew to adore above all overs in the coming years. Hart cements his turn to the dark side by attacking Austin post match, and then ducking out of a challenge from special guest ref Ken Shamrock. Perfect every step of the way. No wonder it is Austin's favorite match.
If King of the Ring 1996 launched Stone Cold, then WM 13 made him. And a big part of that is down to the Excellence of Execution executing excellently.
The Bad One: Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 26
Now, Austin/Bret was brutal, but it was effective. This match, however, is similarly brutal, and it has to be the most comfortable and sad match in WrestleMania history.
The match itself would have been inconceivable just a few years prior. After the Montreal Screwjob, Hart and McMahon had the mother of all falling outs. Even in the "never say never" world of pro wrestling, it seemed like the bridge would remain burnt forever, especially given both men's legendary ability to hold a grudge.
But, as we should have known, "never say never" syndrome took effect, and some fences were mended. Hart was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and four years later, he stepped in the ring to give the fans in Arizona a "dream" match.
But this was a nightmare. It's hard to know who to blame. Both men were not in their physical prime, but a quick match could have been OK. Instead, we see -
- An overbooked start where the Hart family seem to turn on Bret as McMahon had paid them off, only to immediately turn back on McMahon because "family"
- A 65 year old man beaten up by the entire Hart family
- Hart beat up Vince with a tire iron, before nailing him with 18 chair shots on the ground, while Vince is curled up and begging for mercy
Did I mention that Vince doesn't get one punch in? And that it's 11 MINUTES LONG?!? There is no fun to be derived here. We should burn the bridge between it and the rest of humanity.
The Strange One: Bob Backlund at WrestleMania 11
This was a very odd match at a very odd WrestleMania. Not only did it feature random tag teams (British Bulldog/Lex Luger, Owen Hart/Yokozuna), a WWF Title match between Shawn Michaels and Diesel going on second to last, and a main event of NFL player Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow, it also featured Bret, the man tasked with closing the first post-Hogan WM a year prior, facing a 46 year old Bob Backlund.
Backlund had been semi-retired, but had come back to the WWF in 1992 after an 8 year absence. He floundered in obscurity for a while, but ended up in a feud with then-WWF champion Hart, in a kind of "New School vs. Old School" battle. He actually ended up beating Hart for the title, in a "throw in the towel match" where a distracted Hart wound up in Backlund's crossface chicken wing for 8 minutes before a towel was thrown in, but he quickly dropped it to Diesel on a house show (in a record 8 seconds). Though the title was gone, Hart still wanted a piece of Backlund, so the two wound up in the first ever "I Quit" match in WWE history.
And much to the surprise of no one, the match is almost entirely comprised of holds. Baacklund is working towards his crossface chickenwing, while Hart is building towards the Sharpshooter. It really is quite dull, and makes you question how anybody thought it was a good idea to begin with. Not only is Hart being underutilized, but Backlund looks like a man out of time (though that was kind of his gimmick I suppose). Things aren't helped by an overzealous Roddy Piper, acting as the special guest ref, who asks "What do you say Hart/Backlund" every 5 seconds on the house mic.
Hart wins with the crossface chickenwing, though Backlund never says "I Quit". He just shouts "Blurghhh" into the mic, which Piper interprets as "Woe is me, this predicament is inescapable, I must take the valiant path and surrender to the superior technician". Or something to that effect. At WM 12, normal service would be resumed with Hart facing Michaels in the main event. Much like most Backlund appearances since this match, this will just go down as a confusing, awkward blip.
The Hidden Gem: Owen Hart at WrestleMania 10
Speaking of Owen, I fear a lot of Millennials will only know about two things - the night he broke Austin's neck, and his tragic death. Even I didn't know much outside of those two things. But watching him, you do get the sense that, had tragedy not befallen him, he could have climbed just as high as Bret given enough time. With that in mind, I sounded this match out for this spot, and I was not disappointed.
The fundamental difference between the Hart brothers is personality. If you've heard any interview were Owen is brought up, he was known as a practical joker, constantly ribbing people. He's certainly the more personable of the two. That shines through in this match, even if he is the heel. Early on, any slightly advantage he gets over his brother is followed by a big celebration. While Bret is as machine like as ever, Owen is reveling in the "sports entertainment" side of things. He's the wacky, fun loving Joker to Bret's stern faced Batman.
When it comes to wrestling acumen, however, they are damn near equals. The match features everything in their shared arsenal. It starts of mat heavy, then moves to brawling, fast paced hit-and-run, and finally the big finish. I'm struck with the curse of the roll-up finish again (I detail in my Jericho article that I am rarely a fan of the finish on WM cards), but considering this was two technical greats going head-to-head, it's a slightly more acceptable finish than usual. If you, like me, don't know much about Owen Hart, I implore you to seek this match out. You won't regret it.
Here is something to ponder – Bret Hart might be one of the most important people in WrestleMania history. When Hulk Hogan finally left the company, Vince was left without the guy who closed 8 of the first 9 WrestleMania's. McMahon was also in the spotlight for his 1994 steroids trial. He couldn't rely on what he knew best – big jacked up guys. So he turned to his best hand, Bret Hart, as almost a means to an end. Little did he know that the smaller, less showy Hart would take to the lead role so well.
Hart got over in an entirely new way – excellent wrestling. Bizarre concept, I know! Hart wasn't a charismatic powerhouse like Hogan and Savage, but he could put on the best matches. The fact that it worked opened so many doors for other guys. And not just smaller guys too – prior to this, McMahon had slotted in a lot of his big stars at or around the top to begin with. Hart, who was one half of a tag team for a better part of a decade, showed that it's OK to elevate from within. For all of this and more, I can forgive him for his part in that WrestleMania 26 match.
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