They say the greatest stories cannot be written, they must be lived.
In the beginning, it was a dream that inspired two boys to dedicate themselves to becoming professional wrestlers. Then, as they grew into young men, they realized they were fully capable of achieving this dream through hours of training and hard work.
Finally, they achieved that dream. They achieved greatness and changed what a WWE Superstar was supposed to be in the process. Their paths would cross each step of the way up the ladder, until finally, a once friendly rivalry became one of bitter hatred both on and off television.
Welcome to Wrestling’s Greatest Rivalries. This is part one of the story of Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart and ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels. Enjoy.
This two-part article is derived from the WWE Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart DVD that was released by the WWE in 2011. All the matches—sans the 1997 Survivor Series match—as well as the quotes, can be found on the DVD.
Climbing The Ranks: Tag Team Division
In 1988, a young tag team called The Rockers—consisting of Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty—debuted in the WWE. Though WWE’s tag team division was stacked at the time, The Rockers were different from those teams. They weren’t big wrestlers who predicated their style off raw power or even a team that prided themselves on technical ability, although that technical ability did exist. No, they were small. They were fast. They were high-flyers.
The Rockers climbed their way through the tag team ranks, even with the system working against them. Everybody told them they were just too small, but they didn’t care. They had grown a backstage reputation of being partiers, but they were so good inside the ring, that they were given a break.
Shawn Michaels on The Rockers Backstage Reputation:
Marty and I were two young guys having the greatest thing in the world happen to us; coming to the WWE and even prior to that. I mean gosh we were two young guys enjoying life and being in this line of work. It was certainly a reputation that was well-earned, but the one thing that was our saving grace was that Marty and I were pretty darn good in the ring.
They wanted to reach the top, and challenge the then-WWE Tag Team Champions, The Hart Foundation; Bret Hart and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart.
Hart was the son of Stu Hart, the founder of Stampede Wrestling and the trainer behind the legendary Hart Dungeon. Hart was a fiery, young technical wrestler—perhaps the best at the time.
Meanwhile, Neidhart was a former Dallas Cowboy who went to train under Stu after his release. Soon, he married Stu’s daughter Ellie and got his first break in the professional wrestling business after the purchase of Stampede Wrestling with the WWE. The Anvil was the powerhouse and talker of the team.
Bret Hart on Shawn and Marty's arrival:
I looked at Shawn and Marty and thought they’re good workers and good wrestlers. And I was interested in them coming in because being a tag team—me and Neidhart were the tag champs when they arrived—we really needed a new, fresh team. And when I saw them, I was really keen on them coming in, and getting a chance to work with us.
Hart Foundation vs. The Rockers
On November 25, 1989, The Rockers and The Hart Foundation finally crossed paths. Inside the legendary Madison Square Garden, these two teams finally met inside the squared circle.
The crowd seemed very split about who they were rooting for between the two face teams, with the veteran Hart Foundation probably with a little bit of an edge.
The Rockers had the advantage throughout the early portion of the match, showcasing some nice technical prowess they hadn’t often shown and also utilized many double-team maneuvers. You could tell they had been working together for quite a while.
As the match wore on however, The Hart Foundation began to roll. Frequent tags would not allow Michaels to get to Jannetty, which he desperately needed to do.
When he finally did, Jannetty would regain momentum for his team. From this point on, the action would go back and forth with near fall after near fall.
Eventually, Anvil got into the face of Jannetty and things began to get ugly. The four would engage in a brawl before the bell sounded and they were broken up.
The official decision from referee Earl Hebner was that the match was a draw.
This was a superb tag team match with nice psychology and pacing. The contrasting styles of The Rockers, Hart and Neidhart really meshed well, which would show itself in their later matches as well.
Though there was no real storyline, this match was the beginning of a pretty solid tag team rivalry and succeeded in its attempt to make the two teams look evenly matched.
Though they wrestled on numerous other occasions, the other most noteworthy match between the two teams took place in 1991 inside the Tokyo Dome.
Given that it was in Japan, the crowd was obviously much different from the normal crowd of a WWE match. These fans were more silent and respectful, with occasional applauses to the particularly impressive stuff. Japanese fans, perhaps more than fans of any other nationality, understand the art of wrestling.
The other thing noticeably different was the commentary; it was in Japanese.
The match very much resembled the one from Madison Square Garden two years earlier. The Rockers had the early control thanks to an impressive arsenal of mat-based and double-team moves. Although this time, The Rockers implemented a more frequent tag strategy to keep each other fresh while keeping their opponents off balance.
Bret Hart gained control for The Hart Foundation with a tough, physical style centered towards Michaels. Then, The Anvil came in to wear down the significantly smaller man.
Continuing with the similarities, Michaels would be isolated from his tag partner by both Hart and Neidhart in the minutes to follow. In a bit of a contrast to the MSG match, the crowd appeared to be firmly behind The Rockers, thanks in part to The Hart Foundation’s more aggressive style.
A missed elbow drop would again allow Michaels the opportunity to tag Jannetty in. Jannetty would pick up some momentum for his team before tagging Michaels back in, which is where this became more fast-paced without either team holding a distinct upper hand over the other for long.
However, Hart would gain a quick and somewhat unexpected pinfall to pick up the victory over The Rockers. Despite the clean finish, this shorter match wasn’t quite as good as the MSG match, but did feel fresh due to it taking place in the Tokyo Dome. The Hart Foundation worked a more gritty style, especially the usually technical Hart. Meanwhile, The Rockers growth as a team was evident. Also evident was the fact that all four of these Superstars were ready to break into singles competition.
A little over a year after their tag team battle inside the Tokyo Dome, the careers of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels had begun to skyrocket. They had broken loose from their respective tag team partners and began to shine as singles wrestlers.
Michaels had kicked Marty Jannetty through Brutus Beefcake’s barbershop window to effectively end The Rockers. He would adopt the "Heartbreak Kid" moniker at the suggestion of Curt Hennig and begin an on-screen relationship with Sensational Sherri. During this time, Michaels debuted his "Sexy Boy" theme song that would last him through the rest of his illustrious career in many different variations.
Meanwhile, Hart would breakaway from The Anvil after their loss to the Nasty Boys at WrestleMania VII. Soon afterwards, he’d capture his first Intercontinental Championship by defeating Mr. Perfect at 1991′s SummerSlam.
Hart would defend that same Intercontinental Championship against Michaels on two occasions.
The first was a chain wrestling and counter-heavy match that showcased the technical skills of both young Superstars that ended in Michaels winning by countout thanks to some assistance by Sensational Sherri. The second was on a show called Wrestling Challenge in the WWE’s first ever ladder match. Could Michaels beat Hart with a decisive finish and finally capture the elusive Intercontinental Championship? Or would Hart regroup since their last bout and retain his gold?
This match saw the WWE exploring the vast possibilities for the ladder match with perhaps its two best in-ring competitors of all-time. It was nothing fancy, really, but it employed a nice, simple strategy and psychology to put on a pretty good match.
Each man attempted to wear the other down before bringing the ladder into the match. After all, to win the match, you had to have the other beaten down substantially enough to allow you time to climb the ladder and grab the title.
Shawn optimistically strolled down the ramp to grab the ladder after he had downed Hart. However, on his way back, Hart would meet him halfway with a punch to the face.
Hart would take advantage then begin to put the ladder in the ring, however, Sensational Sherri pulled it away from him. With his opponent distracted, Shawn would pull the ladder in and set it up. He’d start to climb, but Bret yanked him down to save his championship.
They’d go back-and-forth, with Shawn being the first to use the ladder as a weapon. He’d position Hart in the corner then simply use the steel as a battering ram into the gut of The Hitman. Continuing minutes later, he’d whip Hart shoulder-first into the ladder that was resting on the turnbuckle.
In the end, this absolute struggle for the upper hand would be won by the defending champion, Bret Hart. He’d drop kick the ladder, sending Michaels crashing to the outside, buying himself enough time to climb the ladder and retain his title. Although it was a good match, it’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to see this match after these two had fully developed as performers and after the ladder match had reached its maximum potential.
Reaching the Top: 1992 Survivor Series
By the time Hart and Michaels met again at 1992′s Survivor Series, they had reached the apex of their profession. Hart was the WWE Champion and Michaels was the Intercontinental Champion—making them the top two Superstars in the company.
Bret Hart talked about his relationship with HBK in 1992:
Shawn and I always got along. Right from the start. I can remember having a lot of fun with Shawn and Perfect. I considered Shawn one of my better friends. We were tight back then. I can honestly say I went to bat for Shawn. I always said Shawn was one of the better athletes I ever saw.
The match got off to a feisty start. Bret Hart was an aggressive, fighting champion while Shawn Michaels was a youngster with nothing to lose. His Intercontinental Championship belt wasn’t on the line, yet he could walk away with the WWE Championship around his waist.
Michaels' early strategy of trying to outwrestle the Excellence of Execution wasn’t wise. Hart was in his prime and on top of his technical game while Michaels, though he grew into the greatest in-ring performer ever, wasn’t quite on Hart’s level technically just yet. Hart would school the Intercontinental Champion through the early portion of the match, until Michaels changed his game plan.
Michaels would use more of a physical, brawling style to combat the unmatched technical ability of The Hitman. He used any part of the ring he could as a weapon, including the ropes, turnbuckles and ringposts. Once he grounded him, Michaels would revert to headlocks and other similar moves to zap Hart of his remaining energy.
Despite his best efforts, Michaels just couldn’t quite put Hart away. Just when he thought he had him, Hart would power out of a submission, or reverse a move.
The resilient champion would get in his groove late. He’d overcome one final offensive surge from his aggressive and tenacious young challenger by locking in The Sharpshooter for a submission victory.
A Sizzling Rivalry Boiling Over
The rivalry between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart was beginning to sizzle out of control. Although their friendship outside the squared circle had yet to deteriorate, the bad blood on-screen was boiling. They had reached a point to where the ring couldn’t contain them. No, they needed the confines of a steel cage to settle the score.
Learning his lesson from their previous encounters, Shawn Michaels didn’t allow Bret Hart the time to even step inside the cage. He immediately attacked, using vicious offense in hopes of not allowing him to ever get settled in.
The match would consist of the two taking turns trying to escape both through the door and by climbing the cage, but neither would work. Just when one of them seemed to be out of it, they’d recover and thwart the other’s attempt to win.
In the end, it would come down to a race to climb down the outside of the cage. Hart would slam Michaels’ head into the remorseless steel, causing him to fall back and get his feet caught in the structure. Hart would drop with both of his feet touching the floor, therefore giving him the win.
This match was on the short side for these two, especially given that it was a steel cage match. It felt like more of a race to escape the cage than anything, but nonetheless, Hart and Michaels would go in different directions following the match.
Hart would stay atop the WWE, while Michaels continued to climb his way into the upper echelon of the company to solidify himself as a main eventer. At WrestleMania 12, he would do just that, at the expense of one Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
Thanks for reading part one of Wrestling’s Greatest Rivalries: Hart vs. Michaels, A Hitman vs. A Heartbreak Kid. Part two will be coming to Bleacher Report soon. Thanks.