On November 25, 1992, at the Survivor Series, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels competed in what would become the first of many pay-per-view main events for the future Hall of Fame inductees. They stole the show that night and would each have their own notable show-stealing performances over the course of the next five years.
As great as they were on their own, there may be no two men more synonymous with one another than Hart and Michaels. They defined an era in professional wrestling that would serve as a bridge from the ultra-successful Hogan years to the even more successful Attitude Era.
Their competitive and personal rivalries helped to shape and influence the world of professional wrestling in ways that no one could have ever imagined.
As main-event attractions for a company guilty of putting “entertainment” ahead of “sport,” Hart and Michaels changes the perception of what a top star in the industry could be. They both made names for themselves as tremendous in-ring performers that had held down the midcard as Intercontinental Champion and made their opponents look better than they did prior to the match.
Eventually, fans appreciated their hard work and their talent and reacted accordingly—a reaction which was followed by management, who awarded Hart and Michaels with heavyweight title pushes.
At WrestleMania XII, they met in what is still considered their greatest match together, an Iron Man match for the WWE Championship. Michaels would win the match and the title, but it was a monumental moment for the sport.
For the first time, the main event of the biggest show the sport has to offer featured no outside interference, no Hollywood glitz and glamour, and no muscle-bound freaks or mammoth men. It featured two professional wrestlers having a professional wrestling match and creating an iconic WrestleMania bout.
They set the stage for men like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, and Eddie Guerrero to headline major PPV events for the company as the WWE or World Heavyweight Champion.
As both men neared the height of their main-event careers, their on-screen rivalry poured into their professional and personal lives. They took personal shots at one another in interviews and, even though those shots were originally intended to create a buzz for a potential rematch of their Wrestlemania XII showdown, the insults took their toll.
The heated nature of their on-air barbs and insults brought with them an edginess and personal aspect of WWE television that had been missing. It was an edginess that would be adopted during the Attitude Era and would guide Vince McMahon’s company to the greatest heights it had ever seen.
The attitude that Michaels and Hart brought to their promos against one another—particularly in the fall of 1997—also contributed to Bret speaking out against the new direction the company was taking.
Couple those personal digs at Hart with the fact that the “Hitman” was in furious contract talks with both McMahon and WCW’s Eric Bischoff, and you have all the ingredients for the departure of Hart from the company that made him a star in November of 1997.
Perhaps the most historic moment of the Bret Hart-Shawn Michaels feud came during Hart’s final appearance for World Wrestling Entertainment on November 9, 1997. The infamous “Montreal Screwjob” not only brought to an end one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports-entertainment, it served as the genesis for the Attitude Era.
When Vince McMahon screwed over Bret Hart live on pay-per-view in front of millions watching around the world and thousands in the arena itself, he effectively became the most hated man in the sport.
Over the coming weeks, McMahon would evolve into the evil, crooked, manipulative boss that every man and woman had, at one time, worked under. Fans hated him because of it and he served as the perfect foil for the anti-authority rebel that was Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Mr. McMahon character likely never would have taken off as it did—never reach the heights that it did—if it were not for Montreal match.
The Bret Hart versus Shawn Michaels feud changed wrestling forever.
It resulted in smaller, less physique-oriented Superstars receiving a shot at the main event. The personal nature resulted in one man being driven from the company for 13 years and created an attitude about a product that was in desperate need of it. And it was directly responsible for the Mr. McMahon character that helped fuel the renaissance of WWE in the world of pop culture.
Finally, it was responsible for one of the most real, emotional moments in WWE history when Hart returned to the company on January 4, 2010, and embraced Shawn Michaels.