There are not, and may never be, two Superstars so readily attached to one another than Bret "Hitman" Hart and Shawn Michaels. Their rivalry off-screen is as storied as their in-ring feud, spanning several documentaries and one of the most infamous and relived moments in sports entertainment history. Whether it was as members of popular tag teams, company-carrying main event stars or backstage politicians, Hart and Michaels always managed to find themselves in competition with one another.
While their clash for the WWE Championship in November of 1997 at the Survivor Series in Montreal may be more talked about, dissected and and relived, their Iron Man match at 1996's WrestleMania XII remains one of the finest-wrestled matches in the history of the Showcase of the Immortals.
The careers of Hart and Michaels very much mirrored one another, a fact that has gone underappreciated in all of the controversy that has followed them over the last 17 years.
Both competitors began their WWE careers as members of very successful tag teams. Hart partnered with brother-in-law Jim "the Anvil" Neidhart in the Hart Foundation while Michaels skyrocketed to fame as part of the Rockers team with Marty Jannetty.
After going their separate ways, Hart struck gold by defeating Mr. Perfect for the Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam 1991. It was his first singles championship and really put the Hitman on the map as one of the stars of WWE's future.
The Intercontinental title also catapulted Michaels into the next tier of competition when he defeated "British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith for the gold on October 27, 1992. Like Hart, the championship was the first singles title of Michaels' career.
Just weeks after defeating Smith, Michaels crossed paths with Hart in a pay-per-view main event for the first time. The 1992 Survivor Series was headlined by WWE champion Hart taking on Intercontinental champion Michaels in a match where only Hart's title was at stake. With nearly a half-hour at their disposal, the competitors turned in a fine match that merely hinted at what they would be capable of producing when they both reached the top of the industry years later.
Hart would guide WWE into the company's "New Generation," which lasted throughout the mid-1990s, as its top star while Michaels gradually moved up the ladder. Behind the scenes, however, the first hints of politicking on Michaels' part began rearing their ugly heads as the Kliq (the group of friends that included Michaels, Diesel, Razor Ramon, the 123 Kid and Hunter Hearst Helmsley) began influencing booking decisions.
Michaels was incredibly talented on his own and really did not need to politic to further his career, but it certainly did not hurt.
In November of 1995, Hart defeated Diesel to capture his third WWE Championship and end the financially disastrous title reign of Michaels' real-life best friend. Around the same time, Michaels returned to the ring after being sidelined with injuries suffered in a very real fight in Syracuse and was finally preparing for that major main event push.
After a memorable angle on Raw in which he passed out in the center of the ring during a match with Bret's brother Owen Hart and having his career called into question, Michaels triumphantly returned at the 1996 Royal Rumble in January and outlasted 29 other Superstars to earn a shot at the WWE Championship.
After both Michaels and Hart made it through February's In Your House VI pay-per-view, it became official: The two most popular stars in the industry would meet in the main event of WrestleMania for the greatest prize in sports entertainment.
Two of the best in-ring workers in the business, a decision was made to add a stipulation to the bout: The WWE Championship would be contested in the first-ever 60-Minute Iron Man match in which the winner would be the man to score the most decisions over the other in the span of an hour.
Intense training sessions involving the competitors would be taped and aired on WWE programming just to really put over how focused champion and challenger were heading into the biggest match of either of their careers.
With the table set, it was up to the performers to deliver the match so many in management, so many fans and critics alike knew they were capable of.
Anaheim Pond in Anaheim, Calif.
March 31, 1996
Vince McMahon and Jerry "the King" Lawler
Full match unavailable.
One hour is a long time for any wrestling match, especially when it takes up one-third of an entire pay-per-view broadcast.
Unless the two Superstars involved are skilled enough to not only carry the action for the entire hour-long period but also keep the audience invested, the results could be disastrous.
Hart and Michaels were two of the very best wrestlers on the planet by the time their match rolled around, and they did an excellent job of keeping the WWE faithful inside the Anaheim Pond interested in the story they were telling. What they produced on that night in California was, and still is, one of the greatest matches in both WWE and WrestleMania history.
With that said, the style they utilized makes the match an acquired taste. For those fans raised in the fast-paced Attitude Era, watching a match like Hart-Michaels may be a chore. It was very long; it poured over into an overtime period and featured a great deal of mat-based action.
Today's fans seem very split over the match, with some enjoying the pure wrestling aspect of the match while others favor the wild and chaotic Iron Man match Triple H and The Rock had four years later at Judgment Day 2000.
Regardless of personal taste, it is extremely difficult to argue against the match's place in history.
Bret Hart took a hiatus from wrestling following his loss to Michaels at WrestleMania XII, opting to focus on a potential television career on the Lonesome Dove series. The plan, dating back to the conclusion of 'Mania, was for Hart and Michaels to do business again and, perhaps, ignite a rivalry that would spark business and help WWE regain control of the wrestling war with Ted Turner's WCW.
Unfortunately, ego on both men's parts led to hostility between the two. Hart recalled experiencing frustration dating back prior to the WrestleMania match in WWE's 2011 Home Video release WWE Greatest Rivalries: Shawn vs. Bret. With that said, the plan was still to go ahead with a rematch at WrestleMania 13 that would see Hart get his win back from Michaels.
A knee injury, which may or may not have been real, prevented Michaels from competing in that match, and Hart had to settle for a match with Austin, which would go on to become one of the best in wrestling history.
The feud between Hart and Michaels continued after WrestleMania 13, and tension between the two only heightened. While they agreed to work shoot comments into their promos, they often took it one step too far and ended up angering one another with their pointed comments.
One comment by Michaels, in which he insinuated that Hart had an affair with female performer Sunny behind the scenes, led to a backstage fight between the two, cancelling any chance there would be match between the two at June 1997's King of the Ring event.
After defeating Undertaker in the first-ever Hell in a Cell match, it was announced that Michaels would challenge Hart for the WWE Championship in the main event of the Survivor Series pay-per-view in Montreal.
A contract dispute with Vince McMahon led to Hart signing with WCW. The match in Montreal would be the last he would wrestle for WWE, and McMahon wanted him to drop the WWE title to Michaels. Having been disrespected by Michaels and told that HBK would not job for him, Hart refused. The two sides would go back and forth until a finish was agreed upon.
In his final match with the company that made him a star, Hart found himself locked in his own finishing hold, the Sharpshooter, and listened as McMahon ordered the bell to be rung. Hart had been screwed over in front of an international audience, in front of his home countrymen, by the man he had referred to as a father figure.
It was one of the most controversial moments in wrestling history and was responsible for a nasty, longtime separation between Hart and WWE.
On January 4, 2010, Hart returned to WWE for the first time in over 12 years and came face-to-face with Michaels. They reconciled in the center of the ring and put the past behind them in one of the most emotional moments in WWE history.
Hart would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, despite his continued differences with McMahon and Michaels at the time.
Michaels would be forced into premature retirement in 1998 following a back injury but returned to the ring in 2002 and went on to have a stellar second half of his career, winning the World Heavyweight Championship once and delivering outstanding matches with the likes of Ric Flair, Chris Jericho, Undertaker and Triple H.
He retired shortly after Hart's return in 2010 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
Like their longtime professional and personal rivalries, Hart and Michaels' WrestleMania XII match was full of ups and downs that kept fans' attention and will forever live in WWE lore.
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